Consider the latest case in point: a recent gathering of more than one hundred people from all over America-including the head of the National League of Cities, a number of mayors and other elected officials, police chiefs and law enforcement personnel, but mostly 'just ordinary citizens' - who are working together against racism and intolerance in their local communities and standing up to tell the haters "Not in Our Town!"
The Not In Our Town movement originated a decade ago in both community and media action-but only the community aspect seems to have flourished. It all began in Billings, Montana, when local citizens were faced with a series of horrific hate crimes aimed at ethnic and religious minorities there. KKK fliers were distributed, the home of a Native American family was painted with swastikas, the Jewish cemetery was desecrated, and finally a brick was thrown through the window of a six-year old boy who had displayed a menorah for Hanukkah.
The community of Billings decided to stand together against hate. Spurred by local human rights activists and spiritual leaders, and an engaged, experienced police chief who warned, "Silence is acceptance," representatives of businesses, unions, civic and political organizations responded before the violence could escalate. Religious groups of every denomination sponsored marches and vigils, the local painters union pitched in to paint over the racist graffiti, and the Billings Gazette newspaper printed full-page menorahs that were displayed in nearly 10,000 homes and businesses.
Through these and related actions, the people of Billings stood up and made a simple but powerful statement - one that would be echoed in other communities around the country in the years to come: "Not in Our Town!"
Like hundreds of thousands of other people, I first became aware of this powerful anti-hate statement when I saw a television program about it on PBS. The program was the creation of a California-based non-profit production company called The Working Group (Disclosure: I was so moved by what I saw that I subsequently became a member of its Board of Directors.)
The Working Group's coverage of what happened in Billings had a far-reaching effect. Soon, to the producers' surprise, other communities began contacting them to find out how they could emulate Billings and take a stand against intolerance. The first to do so was deep in the heartland of America, in the twin cities of Bloomington and Normal, Illinois. As Bloomington's Deputy City Manager Barbara Adkins put it, "I saw in that video how the community just opened their arms and said we will not tolerate this. I have seen that in Bloomington-Normal. We've always been doing it, we just didn't have a name, and now 'Not in Our Town' is our name."
In the years after Bloomington first embraced the Not in Our Town model, more and more cities and towns all across America joined in. Many of them were represented - from Newark, California to Fort Collins, Colorado, and from Olympia, Washington to Manassas, Virginia-when the Not in Our Town movement held its first-ever National Gathering in Bloomington/Normal in early October. Concerned citizen/activists supported each other's work while sharing stories, strategies, tactics and techniques. But this time the media was nowhere to be found.
It wasn't for lack of trying. In the weeks before the Gathering, I had sent dozens of email alerts to friends and acquaintances in the journalism profession. Beneath a Subject Line that read: "Great Media-Related Story," I exhorted broadcast news executives, anchors at cable news outlets, and writers and editors at major metropolitan newspapers and leading national magazines to consider covering the event. After all, when a trans-gendered teen was assaulted and murdered in Newark, and when "God hates Fags" demonstrators descended on Normal, and when neo-Nazis showed up uninvited to march through Olympia, the media was there to cover the conflict. We all know that conflict sells-but surely someone would come to cover those working together to stand up against the haters? As the head of Washington's statewide Human Relations Committee put it, "The story is not the neo-Nazis. The story is the community response."
Not in our media... With the exception of one pre-Gathering article written by The Working Group's Board Chairman Frank Joyce, which appeared on Alternet.org, the Not in Our Town Gathering was met with a resounding journalistic silence. The problem-at least according to the many journalists I had contacted-was not that it wasn't a good story. Instead, they cited a variety of explanations and excuses as to why their particular outlet hadn't been able to devote any time or space to covering the event. One network producer decried the fact that since there was a football game that weekend, there was only one program and not enough time to get to it; one magazine staffer liked the story but passed it on to others at his shop, since it was a little "too earnest" for the section he worked on-and so on...
In retrospect, and in fairness, the network show runner, who only had one weekend program of only twenty-two minutes duration to cover the entire world's news, may have been right in not devoting any of his preciously few minutes to an uplifting but far from earth-shattering story of fighting hatred. So too the magazine staffer who said it was a good story but too earnest for his section. After all, knowing which topics fit the style of your publication is a big part of the job.
In the end, everyone agreed that Not in Our Town was a good story. But somehow everyone deemed it NFU-"Not for us."
Not in Our Town? Not in Our Media! Let's face it-there's only so much time and space, and there are so many stories, many of them focusing on audience-involving conflict... and this one may seem a little too "earnest." But sometimes isn't it important to be earnest?