Not In Our Town: Princeton
has been tackling racism since the group was founded in this New Jersey university town more than a decade ago.
Their visible actions appear on the streets, in schools, and in their public library. Three key programs include:
Princeton is a well-heeled town, home to Princeton University, one of the nation’s premier Ivy League institutions. Just five percent of its 16,000 residents are African American and another five percent are Latino. Racial tensions and socio-economic disparities exist, and that's where this NIOT group has chosen to focus.
The group’s mission statement is “to speak truth about ‘everyday racism’ and other forms of prejudice and discrimination,” and to “promote social justice, economic justice and educational equity for all.”
One on-going activity of NIOT Princeton is its outreach campaign to local merchants, urging them to avoid racial profiling of customers. Members try to go to local stores once a year to talk to store owners and staff about equitable customer service, and to hand them Not In Our Town literature to display on their counters. Periodically, NIOT organizes group breakfasts for merchants to sensitize them to such issues. Not In Our Town Princeton has a unique structure: It is an interfaith, inter-racial coalition of religious congregations, and its membership comes from those congregations. At present, ten congregations each pay $150 in annual dues.
NIOT Princeton also explores the underlying causes of racism through a Monday Night discussion series called “Continuing Conversations on Race and White Privilege.” Held at the Princeton Public Library, the series is presented as a “safe space to discuss difficult topics.” They are able to take advantage of the nearby university, inviting professors and visiting scholars to do book readings and lead some of the discussions.
Respecting participants’ privacy encourages the kind of honest discussion that can lead to change. “We heard personal observations that will stay in that room,” wrote member Barbara Figge Fox on the group’s blog.
Another on-going NIOT Princeton activity is its Unity Awards
, handed out every May for the past decade to middle school and high school students who exhibit particular commitment to social action work.
“In Princeton, kids get awards from many groups for academic success,” says NIOT Princeton member Carole Krauthammer, explaining why the group came up with the program. “We’re interested in recognizing kids who are community leaders, who we hope will go on to make important contributions to our community as a whole.”
The 2010 winners were two seventh-graders from John
Witherspoon Middle School (pictured right)
who organized a bake sale to raise money for Haitian earthquake victims, “putting feet and hands on their thoughts and words,” according to the award certificate; and a senior at Princeton High School who regularly stands up for her Arab-American community “to confront misunderstanding and injustice, and become the voice of change.”
Each year’s winners are chosen in consultation with teachers and guidance counselors. Each teenager receives a $100 U.S. Savings Bond, and is feted in public ceremonies at their schools and at a later reception hosted by NIOT Princeton.
The public recognition is intentional, says Krauthammer (above, far right). When NIOT members go to the school assemblies to announce the winners, they take the opportunity to tell students about Not In Our Town. And at the reception, which is attended by local dignitaries, school officials and the public, the young activists are lauded at length by their parents and teachers and receive citations from their Congressional representatives. This two-hour event highlights the importance the entire town places on their contributions.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, each award winner is presented with a certificate from NIOT Princeton honoring them for their specific project, and a NIOT member introduces the Not In Our Town message to the crowd.
“So anyone who doesn’t know about NIOT isn’t allowed to get away without hearing about us,” says Krauthammer.