The Not in Our Town National Leadership Gathering marked the 20th anniversary of Billings’ stand against hate and intolerance with the unveiling last weekend of an exhibit at the Western Heritage Center and a panel discussion featuring key players from the events in 1993.
It was the first NIOT gathering since 2006 and was attended by 216 people from 26 states. Keynote speakers, breakout groups, panel discussions and film screenings were featured during the three-day event.
The gathering began on Friday night with the unveiling of the NIOT exhibit created by 22 West High students who weren’t even born when the original events took place.
Student Beau Linnell, who is entering his senior year this fall, said that the experience helped him become more open-minded toward other people’s differences. It also gave him a knowledge of Billings history and more pride in his hometown and nation.
“It was really cool to learn about how all these people came together to help these families.” Linnell said.
Linnell’s primary contribution to the project was a large spray-painted mural inspired by the graffiti that was on a Native American family’s house during 1993. However, Linnell’s mural communicates a message of peace and coexistence rather than one of hate and prejudice. Linnell painted the mural by himself and said that it took approximately 20 hours to complete.
This exhibit marks the fifth time that West High teacher Bruce Wendt’s class has collaborated with the Western Heritage Center. “It provides a good opportunity for the kids to learn something outside of the classroom,” Wendt said. “I’m very proud of them. They did a great job.”
A variety of local politicians attended the opening ceremony at the Western Heritage Center – including Gov. Steve Bullock, Mayor Tom Hanel and City Council members Brent Cromley and Ken Crouch.
Crouch had trouble deciding what his favorite part was.
“It’s all just fantastic,” he said. “These high school kids did a wonderful job.”
For many in attendance, the exhibit provided a reminder of how strong racism was – and still is.
“There were some of the racist fliers in this exhibit that I had no idea existed,” said Nick Palmer from Billings.
For an adoptive mother from Missoula (who asked to remain anonymous), the exhibit provided a reminder of a racist event that happened to her family several years after the NIOT events took place in Billings. After taking part in a Martin Luther King Day celebration, her family’s picture was featured in the local paper. Shortly after this picture was published, she received hate mail saying “horrible racist things about my children.”
Although it was an isolated incident, the memory of it has stayed with her.
“People in my church were just amazed that this kind of thing would even happen,” she said. “The police had never heard of an event like this, but it provided a reminder that racism is not dead.”
Even though some of the history in the exhibit is unpleasant, Vicky Kulicke from Bowling Green, Ohio, was glad that the West High students had taken the time to share this important chapter in Billings history.
“It’s nice to see that the students are keeping the memory of this alive,” she said.
According to California resident Trina Ritter, the Western Heritage Center is the perfect place to experience the history of NIOT.
“I love how you can come to the exhibit and just hang out,” she said. “It’s cool that you can interact with the history in the exhibit because we ourselves are making history in this movement. So this is a great place to celebrate that history – both what happened in the past and what will happen in the future … . It’s my birthday tomorrow, and I can’t imagine starting out my new year doing anything more worthwhile than what we’re doing at this conference.”
“These stories really define us”
A day after the unveiling of the exhibit, conference attendees gathered at the Babcock Theater for a panel discussion featuring key players from the events in 1993.
The seven panelists were Sarah Anthony, Uri Barnea, Janice Little Light-Hudetz, Wayne Inman, Margie MacDonald, Brian Schnitzer and Randy Siemers.
Many of the panelists were featured in the 1995 documentary “Not in Our Town,” which was shown before the panel discussion.
“They haven’t changed that much, have they?” joked moderator Chuck Tooley. “After all, it’s only been 20 years.”
According to Margie MacDonald, who was executive director of the Montana Association of Churches in 1993, it is important to keep telling and retelling the stories of NIOT.
“These stories really define us, and they really help shape our future,” she said. “We as humans are wired in our brains to learn from stories.”
Uri Barnea, the director of the Billings Symphony in 1993, echoed MacDonald’s statements.
“I assume I am not the only one who doesn’t enjoy talking about the bad things that happen to us,” he said. “Commemorations are generally hard for those who are directly or indirectly involved in the events being commemorated because they bring back sad memories and pain. Yet it is necessary to mark these occasions so we can learn from them and teach the next generation the lessons that we’ve learned.”
Brian Schnitzer, whose son’s window was famously smashed by a brick in the winter of 1993, said that the story of Not in Our Town has been inspiring to people around the entire world.
“After mentioning that I live in Billings, Mont., I’ve had the Not in Our Town events retold to me by complete strangers,” he said. “It has happened at a banquet table in Chicago. By fellow travelers while waiting to visit Notre Dame Cathedral. By a Baptist minister while doing mission work with Palestinian Christians … . In all cases, our city’s response to hate meant something significant to the person who was telling the story. People need to feel they can make things better. That is the hope that Not in Our Town provides.”
Sarah Anthony, who volunteered with the Montana Human Rights Coalition in 1993, says that NIOT is all about the responsibility that each of us has to our communities.
“We have corrupted the word ‘responsible,’” she said. “We have given it a heavy, burdensome meaning. We’ve laden it with blame. If you think about it, the word means ‘response able.’ All it means is ‘able to respond’ and that is something we all can do.”
Although the night was a celebration of Billings’ actions against racism, Janice Hudetz, a Native American woman who was a downtown merchant in 1993, pointed out that the battle against intolerance was far from over.
“Yes, Billings, we are glad that you stood up to hate activities in 1993,” she said. “But there is still a ways to go. As recently as 2013, prominent Billings residents made biased and racist statements. For example, a state judge decided that a 14-year old Hispanic girl was mature when she was raped and he sentenced the 48-year old perpetrator to only a few days in prison. And then there was the Yellowstone County treasurer who sent hate-filled, racist messages to The Billings Gazette. The public should be embarrassed and outraged that things like this occur.”
“I hope we continue to be united in our cause against injustice, stereotypes and bias,” she added. “I know that there is still racism and hatred against Native Americans, but I will always be here because my people have always known Montana to be the best place on earth.”
Half full, not half empty
During the question-and-answer session, one audience member pointed out that the theater was only half-full and wondered, “How do we not let this movement die? How do we keep the momentum that you started 20 years ago going?”
“I think you’re concentrating too much on the seats that are empty,” Schnitzer replied. “This place is half full. It has been 20 years, and this movement did not start spontaneously with hundreds of people coming forward. It took a process. When we first got together, we would have never had a group this large. It developed over time. This is one of those things that will go on forever – but in little steps.”
MacDonald suggested that strong leadership would help keep the movement going.
“We really need leaders in the community who are willing to take some heat and stick their necks out and take some risks,” she said.
Uri Barnea suggested that “we need to do both in-reach and outreach” when people are committing racist actions – meaning that we not only reach out to those who have been hurt, but to those who have done the hurting.
“Indeed, my family and many other people were victims of racist actions 20 years ago, but we were not the only victims. I believe that the perpetrators are victims as well … . They are weak, have low self-esteem, and often have been bullied or marginalized in their own early years. So they seek power and glory elsewhere and target the societies that they believe cause their own misery … . I think that our society concentrates too much on punishment and not enough on correction and rehabilitation of the people who have been marginalized. We need to bring back the resources for Head Start and the Boys and Girls Club. Those need to be available so that the number of young people that fall out of society will be decreased as much as possible.”
Randy Siemers, who was a labor union official during 1993, echoed Barnea’s statement when he said, “We need to unleash the power of our youth.”
Sarah Anthony felt that the best way to keep the NIOT movement going for 20 more years was to “keep telling stories of how the hurt is felt.”
“I think we lose folks when this becomes a debate of what’s right and what’s wrong,” she said. “I think that when marginalized people tell the stories of how they have been hurt, it evokes response. I think it’s important to keep inviting that type of sharing.”