This post first appeared in The Pantagraph and was written by Mike Matjka, a very active participant in the Bloomington-Normal Not In Our Town effort.
Twenty five years ago, Dec. 12, 1995, was the first local “Not In Our Town (NIOT)” gathering in Bloomington-Normal, IL. Inspired by the Working Group’s PBS film of that name, community members gathered to view and discuss the half-hour film about anti-discrimination efforts in Billings, Montana. Two days later a youth forum was held.
From this, a local movement was born.
In January 1996, both Bloomington and Normal were voting to include LGBTQ people in their human relations ordinance. The vote failed in both communities. More forums followed, and July 16 was the first “Not In Our Town” anti-racism march, organized by the late Rev. Frank McSwain Sr., plus Marc and Darlene Miller. “Not In Our Town” signs were officially erected at the community’s entrances.
In the intervening 25 years, numerous local marches, vigils, forums, film showings and community gatherings followed. The Working Group in California soon focused its efforts on NIOT, producing more films and acting as a clearing house for communities. The national organization recognizes that although the initial film was about Billings, it was Bloomington-Normal that took the concept and created a sustained effort. Their second film, “Not In Our Town II,” featured this community. From its initial emphasis on racism, NIOT grew to stand against all discrimination, whether by sexual orientation, race, class, gender or religion.
Bloomington-Normal NIOT celebrates 10-year anniversary.
Some have viewed “Not In Our Town” as a ruse, as discrimination certainly still exists here. Never has the claim been made that the work is complete – NIOT is aspirational, trying to live up to its mission to “stop hate, address bullying and build a safe and inclusive community.” The all-volunteer effort will continue as long as there is a need, hoping to serve as a community inoculation and build appreciation for our diversity.
Sadly, looking back at 25 years, certain themes continually emerge. Discrimination against our neighbors and their religion, law enforcement issues, systematic racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ activities are reflected in the past quarter-century of activity and are issues yet today.
Billboards in Bloomington-Normal spreading the word about 'Not In Our Town'
This past summer, after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, these long-standing outrages faced us again. People marched, sang, cried and protested. As Americans, we all need to face the mirror. No nation is perfect; to embrace our long-held creed of equality and justice means we must also face the appalling acts that mocked and besmirched those ideals.
NIOT will hopefully continue to play a role in setting a standard for our community. If anyone doubts it will ever change, please visit the B-N Not In Our Schools effort, operative in every public high, junior and some grade schools in Bloomington-Normal. The awareness and willingness of our youth to stand up and think deeply about these issues is an inspiration.
For a volunteer effort, 25 years is a long time. Thanks go to every volunteer, pledge card signer, marcher, button wearer, speaker and forum participant who stood up for our nation’s highest ideals. Perhaps, someday we will truly reflect and celebrate the amazing and diverse people we are. NIOT hopes to play its small part in moving us toward our better selves.