We met Eran Thompson when he came to the first Not in Our Town National Leadership Gathering in 2006 in Bloomington, IL. Eran was in high school during the time of the original events in Billings in the early 90s, but he became a community organizer and was asked to join in an effort to renew the local Not In Our Town group. After the Gathering, he went back and did just that!
The Not In Our Town Billings group has thrived under his leadership. Not In Our Town National took notice and invited Eran to serve as a member of our board of directors. It is because of Eran that we are all returning to Billings this June to celebrate the 20th anniversary with the second National Leadership Gathering. Oh and when you meet him, ask him to perform your favorite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote—he will nail it.
—Rhian Miller, co-founder of Not In Our Town/The Working Group
Eran Thompson, chair of Not In Our Town Billings
Tell us about your community and the work you do there.
Billings, MT is the birthplace of Not In Our Town. We are the largest community in Montana. We are a community that borders a Native American Reservation, we have a sizeable Hispanic population, including migrant farm workers, a small Jewish community, an African-American Community, among others.
Not In Our Town Billings works to build a safe and inclusive community for everyone. We work within our institutions of faith, business, government, schools and nonprofits to do proactive education, to provide opportunities for the community to gather and learn from and about each other, and to create a lasting social change.
When did you become involved in anti-hate work and why?
I became involved in anti-hate work right out of college as a community organizer for a racial, social, and economic justice nonprofit called Montana People’s Action. Through my organizing, in 2004 I was asked to join a committee in Billings that was working to bring back the Not In Our Town movement—called Now! In Our Town. I fell in love.
We managed to celebrate the 10th anniversary with a two day conference with 150 participants. We all decided that Billings could never again let Not In Our Town go dormant, that we needed to sustain our anti-hate work. We returned to the original Not In Our Town banner and created a 5 year plan to create Not In Our Town Billings, a nonprofit organization.
What work are you most proud of?
My personal favorite is a series of events we did in 2009 in response to white supremacist vandalisms. Four minority-owned restaurants had been vandalized with swastikas and one will a brick saying “scum out” through the window.
Using the guiding principles that we would focus more on supporting the victims than the perpetrators and find significant ways to stand with them, we organized a series of “Eat In’s”—borrowing from the “sit in’s” of the civil rights movement.
The community of Billings showed up. Each Tuesday during the month of June in 2009, we hosted an “eat-in” at one of the vandalized restaurants and hundreds of people came to show their support, newspaper reports and photographers covered the event, and the television stations set up live feeds.
Our very first “eat in” was at Papa Eddie’s Grill. He said a normal Tuesday for him was 15-20 people. The evening of our “eat in” there was a line wrapped around the building for more than 4 hours. Eddie said he served more than 300 people.
What do you see as the challenge to preventing hate in your town?
Apathy. People have busy lives and when it doesn’t affect them directly, it can be hard to get their attention; the attention we need to be able to do proactive work in our community
What inspires you or what gives you hope?
Hope is everywhere. The work that we do makes a difference. When the store clerk tells you she loves the work we do. When the mom with mixed race kids stops me on the street to ask how she can help. When hundreds of people come out in the freezing cold on a January saturday to take an “I AM BILLINGS” community photo. When people stand up instead of standing by.
What advice would you give to other community leaders who want to address hate and intolerance in their town?
Use Not In Our Town, use the videos, use the blogs, use the website. Connect with other communities for ideas and inspiration.
Use the 3 guiding principles. Always.
Work to be proactive rather than reactive.
What does the future of anti-hate work look like in your town? What do you hope/expect to see in the future?
We are very excited to host the second-ever Not In Our Town National Leadership Gathering. We hope to use it to springboard our work with schools, government, and law enforcement.
We want Not In Our School programs all over Billings, we want to see a bigger and clear focus by law enforcement on hate crimes reporting, we want a Not In Our Faith chapter to help teach and preach the importance of tolerance. We want to be a shining example of the power and potential of the Not In Our Town movement and we want to be a Gold Star City!
Join Eran and other anti-hate leaders at the Not In Our Town National Leadership Gathering in Billings, MT from Friday, June 20 to Sunday, June 22. Learn more and register here.