Founding members of the NIOT-Northport group at their 2021 NIOT in the Park event.
One of Not In Our Town's newest chapters is NIOT-Northport in Long Island, N.Y. The group started during the pandemic in the summer of 2020 with eight members and has grown to become a major force in the Northport community with a very active Facebook page and Instagram following. They've also given out over 500 lawn signs, as well as car magnets, posters, sweatshirts and other gear.
Recently NIOT National zoomed in with some of its founding members — Joanne, Meghan, Molly, and Chrissy — to talk about the amazing work they are doing in their community and their plans for 2022. The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
NIOT: Tell us how you got started. What happened in your town and how did you find out about NIOT?
Molly: There was an incident in one of the elementary schools in our district. Antisemitic, racist graffiti was spray painted on part of the elementary building. This was the summer of 2020. There was a lot happening in the country and we in Northport had already had a Black Lives Matter candlelight vigil that was organized in the community. And you know, all of those things are happening at the same time.
We were in the beginning of lockdown. So everything was very heated and there were, you know, a lot of honest conversations and things coming out. And when this happened, I think some people heard about it and were like, “Oh, that's such a shame.”
But we felt called to action. There was something — like physically, I think, that happened in all of us — that just, it was like a line was drawn or whatever analogy you want to use. But we all had reached out to each other — people that we knew. I knew Meghan and Chrissy before and some of the other women, but we didn't all know each other. And so we all met and we talked. We talked a lot that summer.
Joanne was the one that brought up NIOT, the national organization, and she said, “This is something we could do.” We could do something and we could take real action, not just have a rally or put something on Facebook. It was very inspiring. I'm just really grateful that Not In Our Town exists, because it’s been very, very successful and needed in our town.
Joanne: I think it was just a simple Google search. I got to the homepage and I am so grateful for that Billings video because it just moved all of us. It was something that we could all relate to. We quickly contacted Patrice who has been great from the beginning, very supportive. We looked at the page about starting a group of our own and we went down those steps. We held a screening, we did everything that the website suggested that we do, and it gave us a real nice foundation to start with. It was also great to have the backing of a national organization, and we've gone steadily from there. We always go back to the NIOT website and to Patrice when we have issues or we need some more inspiration. I think it's been a really nice connection and collaboration.
Meghan: We are all very unified in our mission and our goals. We are committed to this, but everybody has their own opinions... That is, except for forming a NIOT chapter — that was immediate. It just was meant to be. Joanne said, “I found this.” And we all said, “Yes, this is what we're going to do.” It was kismet.
NIOT: Would you share an example of something that's happened in Northport since you formed that you had to respond to?
Meghan: This fall we were about one year old. We have an active Facebook page. That's the way that we're reaching a lot of people in this community who are dying for an outlet of likeminded people who are standing up and talking about things that they also believe in. The night before school started, somebody reported on our Facebook page that they were just up at the school where my daughter happens to go. And this person noticed there was a swastika etched into the slide on the playground. I immediately reported it to the buildings and grounds. This is at like 6:00 PM and the next morning the students were slated to come to the playground for a meet and greet. Somebody from our group went up to check and said, "yeah, it’s still there."
So we got on our computers and we drafted a letter to the Board of Ed. We said this graffiti has to be removed before the students come in the morning. And they did. They removed it early the next morning. But I think without us doing that, nothing would've happened.
"When something happens, we put something out there. We say this is not okay and this is what we expect. And then we follow up kind of persistently. I would say we take every incident with a lot of seriousness and a lot of weight."
Molly: So even something that had also happened in our community — homophobic graffiti was spray-painted all over one of the high school bathrooms alongside other hateful language (Heil Hitler, swastikas, the N-word) on National Coming Out Day, a day when some kids are brave enough or comfortable enough to wear rainbow and LGBTQ ribbons and gear, that happens. People kind of look and say, what's the response?
And when there isn't one, whether the event itself is louder or kind of quiet or smaller in scale, it all deserves a very strong response from the community. And so that's something that we do feel like we are setting an example for, and that we are responsible for. We feel like we’ve taken that on — that we [NIOT Northport] are responsible for coming out quickly with a very strong statement.
Meghan: And we also receive a lot of criticism for that, from people on the other side. People have said, these people might not be from Northport or it's just kids or things like that, to kind of downplay the severity of it. Now that we know this is happening inside the walls of our high school and on our playgrounds, we are going to take it seriously, even in the face of people whose mission is not aligned with ours.
NIOT: What were your goals when you started and have they changed?
Joanne: I think one of our immediate goals was just to speak out as soon as any instance of hate occurs, whether it is a swastika on a playground slide (which did get a lot of downplay from some community members), or something that is considered by many to be much bigger, like the graffiti in the high school stall.
"I also think that we've grown and we do so much in the community now that isn't necessarily anti-hate, but it's community building, which I like to think is also anti-hate. If you're promoting kindness and if you're promoting inclusion, then you know, you're doing something that's anti-hate."
- Joanne, NIOT-Northport
We’ve done a lot of book readings online, clothing drives and food drives for the community. We support local businesses. We recently did a kindness initiative where we got neighbors who live in the community to gift each other over the holidays. Anonymously or not, just to remind people that while we are currently undergoing this great state of division, that we're also here for one another. I feel that's what it should come down to. We need to be reminded that we are neighbors in a community that we love. We’ve gotten backlash too, people saying that our goal — that NIOT Northport, by bringing up acts of racism, by bringing up acts of hate that we are calling out — is to divide the community, which is the furthest thing from the truth.
NIOT-Northport's "Gift Thy Neighbor" campaign supported local businesses and promoted neighborly acts of kindness.
Molly: A lot of our initiatives — most of them, I would say — involve young children. We initially introduced ourselves to the community with an event we called "NIOT in the Park," we've had two of those. The first was maybe 30 to 40 people attending and this past year, it was over 150 people throughout the day. At that second event, we had community leaders, school and district leaders — that was huge. We had school board members. We had our superintendent. And that makes a big impact.
We firmly believe that everything we do has to start really young. And so, one of the things that we push for is representation, making sure that the classroom libraries and the read-alouds and the curriculum reflect multiple perspectives, making sure that that's the education we're providing kids at a very young age. We did a Book Drive last February for people in the community to purchase books from a local bookstore that were written by people of color or featured people of color as the main characters to give to their child's classroom teachers.
Northport kids at 2021's NIOT in the Park event.
Meghan: Joanne mentioned the current state of division. It can feel very overwhelming in general, to take on this kind of work, to be a public facing face on these types of things. We are trying to focus on this hyper local work — our food drive was for our high school food pantry that families in our community use, spreading kindness by shopping at our local stores — these things are happening right in our town. It helps to focus on tackling these things here and to hope for, and be, a ripple effect.
NIOT: Can you talk a little bit more specifically about the community members who have pushed back on your efforts?
Meghan: A couple of months ago, Molly spoke at a board meeting at the beginning of the school year. There were parents there speaking out about CRT who — I don't think I'm exaggerating by saying this – chased us out of the auditorium yelling at us.
Joanne: We have actually asked our school board and superintendent to please make a public statement that CRT is not being taught in our schools because first of all, it's just taking up time. There are so many other issues that could be discussed. I feel like it's quieted down now. But for months, people were showing up so angry and I just wanted someone official to say, “CRT is not taught at these levels.”
I get really saddened by it because I know what our true intent is and I know the nature of our group, and to have us so misrepresented at school board meetings and on social media — we’ve gotten a lot of backlash there, too. But I think the good thing is it's a minority voice. It happens to be a loud voice, but it's a minority voice. And I can honestly say that within the past year and a half of work with Not In Our Town-Northport, we've garnered so much respect and support from people who initially wouldn't even acknowledge us.
"I remember something Molly said in the beginning when the School Board really wasn't even communicating with us. She said sometimes you can't get through the front door, but you have to go through the side door. There were so many things that happened where maybe we didn't in an official capacity get support from a teacher or a board of education trustee, but in their personal lives, they supported us."
Around our year anniversary, we got invites from the Board of Education to come speak to them in a meeting. We got invites from the Village of Northport to help them plan an anti-hate event after numerous other incidents between the slide and the graffiti. Because we went through so many side channels and because we made so many relationships with local businesses or a teacher, I feel like eventually we integrated and it was very refreshing when we were asked for our advice on what to do at an event, or how to handle certain situations. That's what keeps me going, because you can get really brought down by the negativity. I don't engage on social media — big lesson learned! — and we just try to stick to the positives. And there are so many positives about forming a group like this, and about just really paying attention to the people who are paying attention.
Molly: I think we really did make that decision that we will follow the bright spots and we will go where there is acceptance. We'll find the people who have posted the yard signs, who are liking things on Facebook, and also just being creative about who we reach out to. Like, why not reach out to the director of STEM for the district? Why not reach out to trustees on the Village board?
I think it's in those ways that we're trying to normalize this. It is not extreme. It is normal to want the best for all children.
Meghan: You have to ask yourself, you know, what is the anti- anti-hate position?
Molly: Right, and say like, that's weird. That’s strange. What we're doing is actually not that strange!
I also want to mention that we've made a real effort to be nonpartisan. We don't approve or post any posts on our Facebook page that are political at all. We were very, very careful about who we reached out to for the NIOT in the Park event, and when the mayor reached out to us, we made sure that if he wanted to reach out to some politicians, that's something he's doing. And I felt like it was fairly balanced actually when it all came out. We’re really careful about that.
"We want everybody in. Everyone should be able to get on board with this. It's separate from politics."
One of the articles that appeared in the Observer about NIOT events.
NIOT: I'd like to talk about your press strategy. Chrissy, you and Joanne both work for one of the local papers, right?
Chrissy: Yes. Joanne and I both work for the Journal. We're reporting on everyday things that happen in Northport, but it happens to be that NIOT-Northport is such a major contributor to things that are happening in Northport. So sometimes we have to report on our own group, which is interesting. And we try to find the balance there of like, how appropriate that is.
There have been many things that have occurred in the last few months that we wrote about and a lot of people do read these articles. A lot of people also read the [other] printed newspaper that we have in Northport, that we are not affiliated with, and that paper covers us a lot. That has been really great. We've been on the front page several times in the last year.
Joanne: One of our first allies was the print publication, the Northport Observer. Molly helped forge a relationship with the editor and reporter there who gave us incredible coverage in the beginning. They just printed a year in review and NIOT-Northport was mentioned three times! As part of the Journal, we do everything Chrissy said, we cover everything as objectively as possible. And I think we do a good job. We report on what happens and we get quotes from, we never obviously quote ourselves (laughs), but we get quotes from other founders. I think it's a nice way to continue to spread our message and news about events.
NIOT: What was the high point for you in the last year and a half?
Joanne: We are lucky that there are eight of us and I feel like the bond that we have formed has been so beautiful and inspiring… seeing my fellow NIOT founders speaking up at events and village meetings. Meghan and Chrissy putting on makeup, getting child care and running to a news camera. Even pushing each other's strollers off camera. I don't want to be on camera, but I'll come down and I'll push your stroller while you're on camera. I mean, sisterhood!
The other high point was seeing NIOT in the Park grow from last year to this year and seeing the community representation. It wasn't just people who believed in our mission on Facebook. It was those people, but it was also their friends and speakers from all over our town. The entire police force came including the chief. We had the village mayor sign our pledge. We had representation from a lot of different places that we didn't have a year prior, which was really, really nice.
Meghan: We had a table of our kids making bracelets, giving people tattoos. We had a pride table. We had a students against homelessness table. We had a storytelling table. We had the NAACP speaking there. We had the Huntington Anti-Bias Task Force. Everybody came together.
"The police force was saying we have your back and putting it out there publicly. That was huge. Obviously that’s good for the community, but personally, it felt like we were accepted by the community and that felt really good."
- Molly, NIOT-Northport
Molly: And I would also say that the other big thing [I'm proud of] is just really using my voice. I'm proud of myself. (laughs) I'm so proud of all of us and the way that we speak up. It's really amazing. It is so incredible. I'm excited to go to the Board of Ed meeting tonight to just listen to Meghan and be there as a support. It’s a lot of cheering each other on, and being comfortable using our voices. We support each other in doing that.
Joanne: And I think too, these events we sponsor, they give outlets for other people in the community to speak as well. At one of our first events, we had a social studies teacher from the high school come speak, and he was just so amazing and powerful. It was nice to have someone who was well known and respected in the community speak so deeply and thoroughly about a shared mission. It was powerful because you had parents of his students listening. It just widened the people who were willing to hear about us and to make our mission a shared mission in the community.
NIOT: What are you focused on in 2022? What are your plans for the next couple months?
Molly: I think our goal is to continue forging new relationships. You know, how do you have more representation in a town that is 95% white? So we are forging relationships. One of the long-term goals is making Northport a safe space for people who are people of color who don't live here. That is feedback that we have gotten and that we take so seriously. You know, what could we do better? We want to be inclusive in a really authentic way and in a meaningful way.
If you are a person of color coming to Northport and you don't feel safe? That's a big problem. One of the ways that we're trying to figure that out is by continuing to have conversations, reaching out and talking to other organizations who can help us, because we are not pretending to be experts and we are not community organizers by trade. We are learning this as we go and putting the tracks down right as the train comes down the line. So we definitely are open to learning and growing from other people who came before us. We're not the first organization to do this in the community. We're the first to do it in this way, for sure. But we need to learn from others, and be open to what we are hearing and try to do the best we can.