How Twin Cities in Illinois Adopted Not In Our Town
By Mike Matejka, Bloomington-Normal Not In Our Town
After Billings, Montana, perhaps no other community has the Not In Our Town history that the twin cities of Bloomington and Normal, Illinois have.
Located half-way between Chicago and St. Louis in the fertile corn belt, Bloomington-Normal is a prosperous community, anchored by the national headquarters of State Farm Insurance and two major universities. It enjoys the highest per capita earning of any Illinois community outside the Chicago region and has fared well economically.
What is unique is the way both the City of Bloomington and the Town of Normal embraced Not In Our Town and in many ways, helped institutionalize it within the community’s fabric.
The first activity was in December 1995, when Not In Our Town aired on PBS. As a prelude, both a youth and an adult discussion were held, sponsored by the Coalition for Diversity and Reconciliation, a local interfaith organization. The discussions were held at Carpenters Local 63 hall. That January the City of Bloomington was voting on expanding its anti-discrimination ordinance to include gays, lesbians and transgendered people. In some ways, the Not In Our Town screenings and discussions were a vehicle to open dialogue about discrimination. The ordinance failed 6-1. Follow-up forums were held after the failed vote. The city’s human relations director, Barb Adkins, used the Not In Our Town video with city workers, to heighten their sensitivity to human relations issues.
In the summer of 1996 the first Not In Our Town rally, with a “No Racism” theme, was held, speaking to the church burnings in the South. Marc and Darlene Miller and Rev. Frank McSwain helped organize this effort. Bloomington Mayor Jesse Smart stepped up police patrols to watch churches, a group went South to help rebuild a church, and the “no racism” pledge cards were circulated in the community. The effort used the universal “no,” the circle with a slash through it, over the word racism, with “Not In Our Town” underneath it. Mayor Smart had this made into signs, which were posted at the community’s entrances. Normal followed shortly afterwards.
Through the years, a number of activities were held. Other Not In Our Town marches and rallies were organized; diversity street fairs were enjoyed in both Bloomington and Normal, sponsored by Not In Our Town. Although never formally incorporated, supporters would gather regularly with paid city staff and plan out appropriate events to hold. The cities helped pay expenses, did logistical work and helped supplement the volunteers.
Because of this strong support, “Not In Our Town” was institutionalized in Bloomington-Normal, through the signs are the city’s entrances, through Bloomington having “Not In Our Town” stickers on all vehicles and city staff wearing Not In Our Town buttons.
Within the Not In Our Town group, there was room for growth also. In 2001 both Bloomington and Normal again voted on expanding their anti-discrimination ordinances to include gays, lesbians and transgendered people. There was internal debate about moving beyond the “No Racism” banner to “No Discrimination.” Some felt that more conservative church supporters would no longer join in Not In Our Town if it spoke to more than racism. Eventually the ad hoc committee moved to support the ordinances and both communities passed them in 2001. The pledge cards, which are circulated in area schools, were re-written to move beyond racism and include all forms of discrimination. And when Rev. Fred Phelps came to town with his “God hates gay” show, Not In Our Town helped organize a response.
In 2006, both Bloomington and Normal were honored to host the first national Not In Our Town gathering. Both cities actively helped underwrite and support the conference. Not In Our Town has become part of the vocabulary of this central Illinois community, a yardstick the community can invoke when it is not measuring up to, as one famous central Illinoisan, Abraham Lincoln, put it, “the angels of our better nature.”