How do we proactively create a network that lets us respond to emerging risks of hate violence and promote inclusion?
In this excerpt from a recent NIOT Virtual Conversation about responding locally to rising hate and conflict, Not In Our Town founder and executive director Patrice O'Neill, talks with Over Zero founder and executive director Rachel Brown, and Over Zero United States regional director Samantha Owen, about building resiliency within a community.
Over Zero is an organization that partners with community leaders, civil society, and researchers to harness the power of communication to prevent, resist and rise above identity-based violence and other forms of group-targeted harm. Before the 2020 election, NIOT partnered with Over Zero to produce this toolkit for communities: Building a Network that Can Prevent Hate and Respond Quickly If It Does. You can also download the original Resiliency Toolkit at the Over Zero website.
Listen or read below. If you would like to watch the original video, visit NIOT.org/conversations.
We begin with Rachel Brown from Over Zero.
Rachel Brown: Really at the core of our work is this idea of resilience. What does it mean to build a society that is not vulnerable to these different attempts to divide it? To things like the type of people and dangerous rhetoric that might do so. And this particular toolkit we really built for this moment of increased risk. We were hearing from a lot of partners that we work with on longer-term initiatives that this moment around the election felt like a flashpoint, a moment that could bring underlying vulnerabilities, conflict, division, the targeting of different communities that we've already seen, the type of speech we've seen grow over the past years, and really take it to a new level.
And so what this toolkit does is it provides an approach to enhancing resiliency (and it really gets to what Pardeep was talking to) — of asking, what can we do now that increases our ability to respond, to be responsive and adaptive in this moment of risk and uncertainty, where we can't predict exactly what and when we'll need to respond to. But we do know that we are in a moment of enhanced risk. And how do we do it in a way that actually fortifies a foundation to build a healthier society, [one] that's less vulnerable to these types of division to hate in the first place? And so what we talk about in this toolkit is how to build a local resiliency network. And I will just tee up since so many people in this call are already doing Not In Our Town work, because so much of what Not In Our Town does (though it uses a different name) is to build these types of resiliency networks of different stakeholders and leaders from different communities.
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One of the things that we know about how we can be responsive and adaptive in times of risk and uncertainty when we look at case studies around the world and throughout history, is that when there are moments of increased risk and vulnerability, strong cross-cutting relationships between leaders who are present and have influence over different parts of a community, different groups within a society or community, those relationships of trust with some amount of shared values and shared commitment to preventing violence, to preventing hate, and some thought, some structure for coordination, are one of the things that best creates resilience in society.
The good news is that's something we can all do. These are the goals of these resiliency networks, and Samantha in a moment will walk us through the different steps that the toolkit provides resources on. But the fundamental goals here are to address existing levels of ongoing violence, right? So not just to say, “we're okay with where we're at,” but to use the structures we're building to address the risks, the vulnerabilities, the violence we already face, to have that relational infrastructure and that communication infrastructure in place to respond to any triggers or escalating events and reduce the potential for violence, in the event of triggers escalation increased tensions. And then finally, if violence does happen, to mitigate and address its impact. To prevent violence from beginning more violence from being used to, to fuel justifications and calls for retaliation and revenge. And so with these three core goals and this broad approach in mind, Sam will take us briefly through the four steps we outline in the toolkit.
Samantha Owens: Thank you, Rachel. So as Rachel has noted, many of you are already operating within these resiliency networks. You have these strong foundations. So I wanted to ground us in that before I go through these steps. Step one, as we outline in the toolkit is to really build or bolster your networks, to make sure you have the necessary relationships in place. So this includes taking stock of your existing network, which leaders and stakeholders you're already connected to, who you aren't connected to yet, and really critical within this step is to ensure that you are connected to groups that are currently facing discrimination, marginalization, and violence, [groups] who have historically faced these things, or who are at risk of facing these things during the election cycle. It's also important to consider who has been doing this work long-term, as well as other influential leaders. So people who have a large platform play a major role in the communication ecosystem.
This is really important. All these players are really important in order to develop a platform with which you're able to both collect information, really keep your finger on the pulse of what's going on on the ground, as well as influence multiple segments of society across your community, and to do these things in a coordinated way. So again, this is really about laying the foundation for collaborative and coordinated action by ensuring that you have the connections necessary. This might mean reaching out to organizations representing different marginalized groups, faith leaders, local elected officials, business leaders, and so on. And with limited time right now, what we are really encouraging groups to do is to at least to a review of their connections and where they have gaps, and then reach out and have those initial conversations with people you don't already have close relationships with. Having those initial conversations before something happens really, really matters.
So moving into step two, preparing your network. Once you have your network, and again, speaking to folks on this call, many of you already do, it's important to really get on the same page. You can work together to analyze sources of risk and resilience, and this can be done really thoroughly. We have, you know, in the toolkit, we some, some really thorough worksheets and exercises, or it can be done through a simple conversation. But having some sort of shared understanding goes a long way. Then you can take stock of your collective capacities for response. This includes considering which audiences different people in your network can reach, and how they can reach them. So who in your network has access to really collect information from different groups of people and who has influence within those groups? Also thinking about the different skills and capacities for response that you either have within your network or can gain access to. So does anyone in your network have mediation training, social media savvy, training on nonviolence, and what are the different types of knowledge and skills that you have access to will allow you again, to mobilize more quickly in the moment.
You can then think about creating a monitoring and response structure, once you've built and bolstered your network and prepared by taking stock of your existing resources, skills, connections. So it's important to think about how you will monitor events and how you coordinate or make decisions when responding to any crises. So again, we include tools in the toolkit for doing some basic scenario planning and building a decision-making process. Again, that saves time, and really allows for faster and more, efficient collaboration and cooperation in the face of a crisis. We also really recommend getting familiar with some of the best practices for rapid response messaging prior to a crisis and especially understanding things to avoid so you don't inadvertently do harm. And I won't go too into detail about this right now because we have limited time, but again, this is included in the toolkit.
Finally, and this shouldn't surprise anyone. You're all people of action, which is why you are, on this webinar. But, taking proactive action is really critical. it builds a foundation for response, and it also gives a network practice working together, meaning that you can build that muscle for coordination and response. It also means that responsive action and communication rests on a really solid foundation of prior coordinated action. And with that, I will wrap up this overview of our different steps. We'll go more into, into more depth about, the different tools that we have available following our conversation with Patrice, but that is an overview of the process and the model and the approach that we are really putting forward in terms of building community.
Rachel: I think we'll go into a Q&A with Patrice now, but I just want to note that as Pardeep said at the beginning, you all really are the experts in your local communities. And we really built this toolkit with that in mind, with a set of worksheets and exercises that can help you identify which steps are relevant to you and that let you really tailor it to your needs and issues and the risk practice that you're facing in your community.
Patrice O’Neill: So thank you so much for walking us through that. I really encourage all of you to download this guide, get it as soon as possible. We are working on a tailored guide for that includes NIOT activities and integrates some of the messaging that we share with our communities. It's so powerful and the advices is incredible. I really appreciate it.
It's the things that we know. We build a stakeholder group and Bob in the chat — a man named Bob Jones — who said, what about the groups that already exist? Like League of Women Voters, like the Rotary, all these things. That's exactly right. Those organizations, many cities, many NIOT groups, but many communities already have communication structures in place between city leaders, school, board members, the active civic groups. I think the important ingredient that Not In Our Town groups bring in and, and some other organizations do as well, is we have to have communities that are targeted by hate be involved in these discussions and be part of this process of change and building resilience.
So that communications and that structure, of course, stakeholder groups becomes really super important. I want to go to some questions that I have — so many things, I could talk to these two women for hours about the guide that they produced and their work in general. Maybe you could talk a little bit about your focus on identity-based violence. We know that white supremacists and anti-gun government extremists are joining forces. I was just looking at something on The Daily Show last night. And I hadn't seen this clip from the Michigan militia where one of the members said, every member of everyone who works for the government is our enemy. It's really quite a frightening thought, but in particular, the spread of racism and hate present a dangerous vulnerability. So can you talk about how you thought about that when you were writing this guidance, some of the things that contributed to your thinking, which is reflected?
Rachel: So as an organization we're really founded with this mission and this vision that are solidly about preventing identity-based violence and of course, racism. The types of group-targeted violence we've seen in the US, both history and recent, absolutely fall into that category. And so, to say a little bit about the approach that we come to this with, I mean, we come out of the world of conflict prevention and genocide and atrocity prevention. And through that lens, there's a few different things we know. We also come with a lens that's focused on communication. So actually for us, this isn't new to this moment. I mean, we've of course seen this throughout US history. But [recently] we've seen increased normalization in our public discourse and public rhetoric of certain patterns of speech that anywhere else, and of course also here, would serve as warning flags that we should be concerned when those types of ideologies of speech get normalized in a society. We know where that leads to left unchecked.
And I think that because we have the benefit of history, because we have now so much knowledge — from groups and people throughout history and around the world who have stood up to this type of violence and this type of hate — we have even more of a responsibility, right? To recognize it when we see it and to understand, and take responsibility for what each of us can do. One thing I really want to draw attention to that I think is at the foundation of this belief that we absolutely can and must do something about this (which I know everyone on this call shares) is that one of the things that we know about how this type of violence, how these types of ideas and this rhetoric gets normalized and becomes a feature not just of extremes in a society but starts to come further into the heart of a society or be left unchallenged there, is that it matters not only what some individuals do or what people who are the most violent or the most extreme do, it also matters what the rest of society does.
Do people fall silent? Do they say this is too hard to get involved with? This seems political. There's nothing I can do. What I do doesn't matter. It matters that there's an absolutely strong setting of norms, activating of cross-cutting identities, movement to show up in solidarity and support when communities are targeted. All of that matters because we're thinking about society as a whole and the overall societal fabric. And so, each of us then has a responsibility and can do something to build in ways that healthier foundation to address issues that emerge and not to leave them unchallenged and as sort of the last word.
And so with toolkit, I think that that's really the focus. The question is how do we proactively create this infrastructure, this relational infrastructure, this communication infrastructure, this capacity for response, that lets us respond to emerging and heightening risks, but that also lets us come together and say, what is it about this that we need to address? And we know that these are problems that need to be solved collectively. They require collaboration. They require listening, understanding, taking action, both within and across different groups. So I would say at a very broad level, that's some of what's behind our approach here.
Patrice: It's so much about building relationships, it's about — and many cities have already done this, but if you haven't, the time is now, now, now — building those relationships that contact, that sense of collaboration in a communications tree, so that, we can work on this idea of shared values, shared values that rejected, that reject racism, that promote inclusion. And when you talk about those social norms, I think that we've all seen this incredible, frightening shift about what our community values are, what are they? They're becoming increasingly divided. And I think it's essential that those — the people are on this call, the people who are leading your towns and cities — those who do reject hate and intolerance, who do want a civic space that is respectful of everyone. And at the same time has this idea that we all need to be safe and included in our towns. So I still appreciate that. And one of the things I wanted to talk to you about is the context setting that you offered in the guide where you, you encourage communities to understand communities to understand what has happened in the past that may make it difficult for them to get through the conflicts in the present. So can you talk about how you've seen that work in the past and why you think that's so important?
Samantha: Yeah. I can jump in on that. I think that looking at the past is, is present. There's just no way to separate it from what's currently going on. So looking even at different white supremacist movements, people like the Proud Boys or the Boogaloo Bois, they are joining a long line of violent white supremacist movements in the US and a lot of the rhetoric they use, a lot of the cases that they cite, are things that have been around for, you know, hundreds of years. So looking at these historical tensions, looking at the stories that get passed on from generation to generation, you have to understand the past to really understand the underlying risks that are going on in a community. The same way that you would maybe, you know, not want to do a band-aid approach for another issue.
You really want to get to the root issue. You want to treat the underlying reasons. To treat those underlying reasons, you have to look at all these broad contextual factors. You have to look at different histories of, you know, of marginalization, violence, oppression, and especially when we're talking about political violence and election violence in this country, you have to look at our own history of political violence and election violence. Specifically, you know, the instances, and at times the widespread practice of voter intimidation by different armed groups, or narratives of intimidation. You know, threats of violence. These things, while they may feel new because the norms have shifted so rapidly, there is a long history of these things happening in our own country that we really have to understand to understand how we've gotten here, how communities have gotten here, what the underlying fault lines are and how we can coordinate around them. Because if we're just playing whack-a-mole, if we're just being responsive to immediate threats and immediate tensions that are bubbling up, it's going to be a lot harder for those things to go away, right? Rather than understanding the really deep underlying causes of what's making those things bubble to the surface in the first place.
Patrice: I think about Ferguson, for example. I didn't grow up in Ferguson. I came from a neighboring town and that was the place that was downtown for us, but I learned later that it was a sundown town. I didn't know that. Understanding that context and that history of racism and segregation that is embedded is so important as a context for what's happening now.There's a film that I did called The Fire Next Time about deep conflict and the domestic terror cell that emerged there. The tension ended up being between environmentalists and people who had lost their jobs in the resource industry and anti-government extremists. And, those were deep underlying tensions that had to be surfaced and understood before you could understand the conflict and tensions. And that's hard. And it's really hard when you're in the middle of rapid response, but having someone in your town who can name these things and service them. You can't solve them. You cannot put a salve on history, but you have to acknowledge, right?
And I think that's such an important part of your guide and of our work moving forward. We have to acknowledge the harm and acknowledge the trauma that exists there. We cannot fix it necessarily immediately as we’re involved in this rapid response, but we have to acknowledge it in order to move forward effectively. There's so much more I want to talk about. I really feel thwarted by the time and how much we have to discuss. Is there anything in particular, if there were two things that you'd want people to pull out — and again, I hope they sign up to get the Not In Our Town guide, as well — but the give us the two core messages for people leaving this event, what would you want people to do like right now, 20 days out from the election? What would you want them to do to help address tensions in their town?
Rachel: Well, maybe we can cheat a little bit and I'll say Sam and I talked before, I'll say a couple, but if Sam wants to add another one. I think for us, one of the biggest things is opening lines of communication and relationships. Having some of those initial calls, knowing who’s on your list of people that you would call taking stock for a moment and saying, who am I missing on this list? Like, who do I need to be connected to that I'm not connected to? Opening up those channels of communication that can let you mobilize or coordinate if you need to, and having at least some level of shared understanding and commitment to a set of values. And then the second thing is if there's anything you can do to take proactive action in your role as a leader or with your network, not to talk about violence or all that, but actually to say, this is who we are.
We know in moments of uncertainty and conflict, people gravitate towards leaders to say, this is who we are. Rather than just, this is who we aren't. And so using that platform to set a norm and say, this is how we're showing up for each other in this contentious moment can be a really powerful thing. And I'll see if Sam has, has any last thing to add.
Samantha: I'll just add to that, which I think you've already spoken to, but I just want to really reiterate, you know, making connections to affected communities and listening to affected communities and creating the infrastructure. so that other people listen to if that affected communities or communities who are more likely to be targeted with violence is key. So that people really listen and, take onboard when, if and when, those communities are flagging for risks.