Lessons for Engaging Diverse Youth in Hate Crime Prevention
By Willie Halbert, NIOT Bloomington-Normal Member
What I love most about our the Bloomington-Normal Not In Our Town group is that we are a grassroots group of volunteers, in which no one holds an office or title. We came together in December of 1995 after viewing the PBS special about the racist and religious-motivated attacks in Billings, Montana. We could not believe what we saw and instead of waiting for any one incident to happen, we decided to be proactive and form a NIOT group. We held a rally in July 1996 and marched with a NIOT banner from our Old Courthouse to Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church, and it is here where the community first signed the NIOT Pledge Card. It stated, "We believe that through education and awareness, we can inoculate the community against racism. We work to protect every member of our community. Our strategy is simple: when we encounter discriminatory words, speak up, Say: I object to (racist, sexist, offensive, discriminatory) words like that. They have no place in our community." People came from everywhere and each year we hold a rally, forum or some activity that supports the spirit of NIOT.
In the summer of 2007, our local committee met and decided to reach out to local high schools to engage them in this work. I volunteered to coordinate a Youth Forum on Diversity, held Nov. 6, 2007. But first, I sat down with the youth over approximately three meetings. They were primarily in charge of going home to their families, schools, and community, and looking at how our differences were respected or treated. At the first meeting, the youth introduced themselves and we talked about the task. But only two youth came and neither were minority. At the next meeting we still didn't have any minority youth represented. I shared, "If we really want to have a Youth Forum on Diversity, we will and must have a diverse group of youth." It was then that one young man name Ryan spoke up: "Ms. Willie, at our next meeting we will have a diverse group." And guess what? At the next meeting we had a wide, diverse group.
Each student was given an assignment to go back and observe their activities at school, for instance, or to look at our city government and its racial make up. The last meeting before the forum the youth came back in shock. One said, "Ms. Willie, I was so surprised to hear all the different racist or discriminatory comments, such as ‘He’s so gay.’” And another said, "To make matters worse I found myself using inappropriate terms,” or even worse another youth talked about "not saying anything when I heard or saw this disrespectful behavior." One after another, each shared how the experience was eye-opening in their life.
When we came together for the Youth Forum on Diversity, Nov. 6, 2007, the eight youth of diverse backgrounds made up the panel and the room was filled with about 80 of their peers, teachers, principals, and the superintendent. Each youth on the panel shared their experience. The audience was in awe of the their honesty and their ideas for how they planned to make a difference in the future. One youth said, "It is not ‘cool’ anymore to disrespect an individual just because of the color of their skin, culture or sexual orientation.” Two of the youth would later receive the "Dr. Martin Luther King Youth Award," for their commitment to advancing human rights. When I received the call about their winning the award, one of the youth said, "Ms. Willie, thank you for opening up my eyes." I just replied, "No, it was you who was willing to be open and learn.” It is efforts like this, when we do speak out and teach our children and youth about respect, host a panel or a rally, or do one-on-one work, like calling someone out when you hear them say something inappropriate, that we can truly make a difference -- SPEAK UP.