Not In Our Town: ‘Public media at its best’ seeks civility

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A movement against hate crimes called Not In Our Town, spawned by a 1995 documentary on PBS, has come to represent many things.

To the executive producer, NIOT is a way to help viewers counter incidents of bigotry and violence. Public broadcasting stations use it to reach into diverse communities in meaningful ways.

Townspeople in Patchogue, Long Island, stand for a community portrait two years after the hate-crime killing of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero, a story told in next month’s NIOT film. (Image: NIOT/Jackson Hill Photography.)

A media scholar sees NIOT as a laboratory to breed and study methods of engagement. Most importantly, to citizens frustrated by community issues that seem impossible to resolve, NIOT suggests a way to make a difference in the lives of their neighbors.

“To me, this is a prime example of public media at its best,” said Michael Isip, v.p. of television at San Francisco’s KQED. The station presented the 2005 entry in the ongoing series, Not In Our Town Northern California: When Hate Happens Here, and the latest installment, Not In Our Town: Light in the Darkness, which PBS has scheduled for Sept. 21.

“This is not just a documentary series, and it’s even bigger than an initiative or a campaign,” Isip said. “It’s a movement to promote tolerance.”

The work has spread nationwide and sparked a related outreach, Not In Our School, to counter bullying and other hate crimes. Concerned citizens as far away as the Ukraine, South Africa and Northern Ireland have watched NIOT films.

During the next Not In Our Town National Week of Action, Sept. 18–24, public media stations in more than 20 markets will use the new documentary as a conversation starter for community events. Their partners include local members of the National League of Cities, the National Council of Churches, the American Libraries Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Nashville Public Television is using the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a starting point for nearly two weeks of daily events leading up to the broadcast of Light in the Darkness. Organizers will use a traditional Middle Eastern conflict-resolution ceremony, or Sulha, to begin the outreach. In addition to screenings and discussions, there will be a candlelight vigil, a gang-awareness event, a soccer tournament and a potluck of international foods.

“People are adding events by the minute,” said Kathy Edson, NPT’s community engagement manager, who keeps updating the schedule. “We just heard the YMCA is doing a big dance — bringing cultures together and dancing for peace.”

A game of chicken pays off

Patrice O’Neill, e.p. of the NIOT films and co-founder of the Oakland, Calif., doc shop The Working Group, recalls how the long-term project began. She heard disturbing news out of Billings, Mont., in 1993: Vandals desecrated a Jewish cemetery. The home of a Native American woman was painted with swastikas. A brick crashed through the window of a house displaying a menorah. The Ku Klux Klan was distributing fliers.

he good news was that local citizens were fighting back instead of hunkering down. That was the story O’Neill wanted to tell. She soon discovered that other filmmakers had the same idea, and several of the principal citizen activists in Billings had signed an agreement with a commercial movie company for a feature film. Those involved wanted to speak on camera for O’Neill, but their attorneys refused. “So we decided to play a game of chicken,” O’Neill said. Crews simply showed up in Billings and began interviewing residents involved in healing the community.

O’Neill interviewed a member of the local painters’ union as he coated over the hateful symbols on the Native American’s home. The painter had always wanted to do something about racism, he told O’Neill, but he didn’t know what it should be.

“I thought, okay, now we’re getting to the real story,” O’Neill said. “It’s about every person like this in the community that wanted some way to make a difference.” Just then, she heard from an attorney who agreed to let her speak with leaders of the Billings movement.

Throughout the production process, O’Neill heard worried residents describe their need for a positive way through hate. She had a feeling that citizens in other communities had similar feelings. But would those concerns voiced in Billings, Mont., resonate elsewhere?

By April 1995, O’Neill was test-screening the film to find out. At a screening in Healdsburg, Calif., sponsored by KRCB in Sonoma County, a woman raised her hand and said, “I get so upset when immigrants walk across the square and people yell at them. What can I do?”

O’Neill began witnessing similar reactions in other venues. People wanted a way to take action.

After the first film debuted, O’Neill worked with the Independent Media Institute and the Benton Foundation to pull together a meeting of civic leaders, national organizations, public media stations and alternative newspapers who in turn began organizing meetings nationwide where citizens could formulate reactions to intolerance and hate in their neighborhoods. More than 100 local events were held in conjunction with the first Not In Our Town Week of Action in 1995. “They just grabbed it and ran with it,” O’Neill said. In 1996, she reported on those activities in Not In Our Town II.

She thinks one key to the movement’s success is that it presents simple but effective actions. “You don’t have to be a Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi or Rosa Parks,” O’Neill said. “You can be just a regular person willing to take significant but not insurmountable steps to make your community safer” by speaking out, marching, or simply holding up colorful umbrellas to cover hate-speech placards, as counterprotesters did in Bloomington, Ill.

“It’s a very powerful moment in a community when people are together and suddenly realize that others who live in their town are vulnerable to hate,” O’Neill said. “It becomes a key moment because people have to make a decision: Who are we, and what are we going to do?”

Though the story of intolerance is ages old, new hatreds and hostilities keep it timely.

“I personally think that one of the great challenges of journalism is following stories,” said O’Neill, who now devotes most of her time to NIOT. “We want new, new, new all the time. Then people want to grab onto it, and we’re onto something else. But we decided this was something we were committed to. Intolerance isn’t going away, and communities are coming up with new ways to deal with it.”

Tools of citizenship

“This is not just about being candid and open and emotional in discussions,” said Isip of KQED. “It goes beyond that meeting night, when people are truly motivated to make changes in schools, in communities, to find out how they can participate and how they can make a better place to live.”

KQED journalists are drawing on that civic-mindedness to cultivate more diverse local Rolodexes by recruiting sources for American Public Media’s Public Insight Network. Before and after showing the new NIOT film at community events, the organizers will show short promos for PIN — a national database of more than 120,000 sources.

The spots ask open-ended questions of the audience. One spot, at a Spanish-subtitled screening, will target the immigrant community; another will run at a gay-straight alliance meeting; and one will reach out to student leaders. Participants will respond to questions such as “How safe and accepted do you feel in your community?” They’ll also be invited to leave a email address to allow organizers to follow up.

The films, screenings and interaction make NIOT an “extraordinary laboratory” for civic engagement techniques, says Barbara Abrash, director of public programs at New York University’s Center for Media, Culture and History.

The first documentary didn’t dwell on hate crimes but rather on how people came together in response, she noted. Through the film, viewers elsewhere could see the specific resources they could use to accomplish the same positive outcomes. And the NIOT staff helps facilitate that work, even helping local newspaper editors who may be struggling with covering, say, neo-Nazi rallies.
“Maybe they feel they don’t want to publicize hate, or don’t know how to do a balanced story, or the issue is just too hot,” Abrash said. “The NIOT team works with them on how stories can be told to simply open the conversation.”

O’Neill goes beyond telling the story, Abrash noted. “She’s providing tools for people to become advocates in their own way. That’s what citizenship is all about — motivating people to act on their own behalf.”

Beyond stronger bonds

The National Center on Media Engagement is also using NIOT to refine an engagement toolkit for stations based on the Next Door Neighbors project led by Nashville Public Television. Thousands of refugees have resettled in Nashville from around the world — Kurds, Sudanese, Egyptians, Somalis, Latin Americans.

The station began offering literacy workshops, which inspired a series of four local Next Door Neighbors documentaries: Little Kurdistan, USA; Bhutanese; Somali; and Hablamos Español. Community forums sprang up around the films. NCME used the lessons learned in Nashville to provide common-sense, effective tips to stations: Hold conversations where people already meet. Consider “nontraditional” partners. Help other groups convene discussions.

Jennifer MacArthur, NCME’s director of TV and digital media engagement, said the Wisconsin-based center is tracking feedback for further development of the toolkit and working closely with NIOT to collect stories of impact.

When stations hear concerns and aspirations directly from their community and incorporate them into their work, “it changes the relationship,” MacArthur said. “It creates stronger bonds that make station work more relevant. People want to be more connected and feel institutions relate to them and care about their needs.”

NIOT does just that, O’Neill said. “We’re opening up the opportunity for people to discuss troubling issues,” she said. “Very few places in the public sphere really find this to be a significant part of their mission. It’s one of the things that public media provide.”

As Edson said, “We are spreading the peace.”


The Not In Our Town website, which documents hate-crime reports and connects community efforts nationwide.

Nashville Public Television’s Next Door Neighbors project helped introduce residents to members of immigrant communities. Three of the films received regional Emmy Awards for historical/cultural programs in 2008 and ’09. The National Center for Media Engagement is using the project as a template for an engagement toolkit for stations.

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