The bad news is that stories of bigotry, prejudice, and divisiveness are sweeping the nation, as hate speech, hate crimes and recruitment for and involvement in hate-filled organizations such as the Hutaree "Christian" militia -- recently charged with conspiring to kill police officers as part of an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government are all increasing.
The good news is that there has been an even greater growth in the number of individuals and communities speaking out and acting together to counter the hatred. In the face of a rising wave of intolerance, people are taking action and taking a stand for inclusion and civility. Moreover, they are vastly increasing their reach and effectiveness through the adroit use of powerful new interactive social media and web tools that make it easier and cheaper than ever to communicate, network and respond in real time to the haters.
Case in point: the Not in Our Town movement, which for the last fifteen years has used media, including film, grassroots events, educational outreach, and interactive social networks, to provide more than one hundred different communities with helpful tools to fight bigotry and create inclusive communities and schools.
Not in Our Town is now launching a public web site NIOT.org, which will instantly connect you with people everywhere confronting bigotry and intolerance, and empower you to take action in your own community or school. Set for national launch this week at a gala event in San Francisco, NIOT.org is a powerful new interactive website and a stellar example of how people can use social media for real-world change, quickly and effectively. The site features Web 2.0 functionality, including mapping, video and film and active blogs, and allows people around the globe to connect, share ideas and model best practices for building safe, inclusive communities.
The Not in Our Town initiative began as a project of The Working Group, a not-for-profit media/social change organization based in California's Bay Area. (Disclosure: I am a member of the board.) It takes its name from Not in Our Town, an inspiring 1995 PBS documentary produced by Oakland filmmaker Patrice O'Neill about the residents of Billings, Montana who stood together in the face of hate violence that rocked their small community. With the support of community leaders such as the police chief and mayor but largely owing to the actions of the many "ordinary' citizens upset at an eruption of hatred in their community Billings successfully fought back and reclaimed the community from the haters.
The Billings response to racism and hatred standing up and loudly proclaiming "Not in Our Town! has become a national model. The NIOT group now enjoys an ongoing relationship with PBS, with co-branded content on PBS.org and the next broadcast planned for next spring. It has also given rise to numerous other videos chronicling creative community responses to hatred and bigotry. One recent example is this video from Palo Alto, where students cleverly resisted crazed homophobe Fred Phelps, whose Westboro Community Church and its small, vocal and profoundly loathsome group of gay-and-Jews-baiting haters descended upon Gunn High School.
The video has already garnered tens of thousands of views on YouTube already; clearly this is a story people want to see of young people taking positive action in the face of hate.
As NIOT's visionary founder O'Neill says, "We face an increasingly volatile atmosphere of hate in this country, but there is something each of us can do. NIOT.org provides a way to access and share stories of communities across the country that are taking action."
"Not In Our Town is especially inspiring because the people involved are ordinary people, and the actions they took are the types of things any of us could and should do," adds Paul Sheridan, assistant attorney general for West Virginia.
While NIOT has worked effectively by using its documentary films to generate discussions in hundreds of schools and communities around the country, helping them strategize and organize to avoid such incidents in the future, the new, interactive website permits personal, unmediated access between individuals and communities fighting hate regionally, nationally, and globally. Just as Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking media are utilized to organize about matters of relevance to a core constituency, NIOT.org is the central address for those who wish to build a safe, hatred-free society.
"Not in Our Town allows people and communities who have experienced prejudice or violence to transcend the experience by connecting and learning from each other," says O'Neill. "But it is also proactive, with an emphasis on prevention. The nationwide rollout of our newest phase will enable people to recognize circumstances that are breeding grounds for prejudice"and prevent hatred from taking root."
The launch of NIOT.org is a national story with strong current relevance. There is virtually no city in America that has not been scarred by incidents of prejudice or hate-driven violence and NIOT.org offers one powerful answer. Will the rest of the media pause from reporting the bad news and tell the country about this bit of good news? Who knows? And after all, why wait to find out? The fight against hate is a responsibility and a challenge for all of us, so why not do your part by spreading the word yourself via your own social networks?
You can find graphics and materials for promotion on the preview site at: preview.niot.org/connect