What can we do in the face of hate? Today, the State of Inclusion Podcast welcomes Patrice O'Neill from Not in Our Town. Our discussion with Patrice reminds us that we are the authors of our own stories, and we are the authors of our community's stories. We have the ability to take events, warning signs, hatred that we and others see in our community and reframe our community's narrative. Join us as Patrice shares just how communities across the country are joining together to respond to hate and write a different story for their own community.
Ame Sanders: This is the State of Inclusion podcast, where we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better, and we discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities. My name is Ame Sanders, welcome.
In our episode today, we’re going to learn about an initiative called Not in Our Town. I was particularly inspired by the question that Not in Our Town asks and then also works to help communities answer. What can people do in the face of hate? Today, we’re really happy to welcome Patrice O’Neill. Patrice is an independent filmmaker and she is CEO of the Oakland-based nonprofit strategic media company, The Working Group. She’s the founder of Not in Our Town. Welcome, Patrice. Thanks for joining us.
Patrice O’Neill: I’m so glad to be here, Ame.
Ame Sanders: Tell us just a little bit about the work of Not in Our Town.
Patrice O’Neill: Thanks for asking. I really love to tell the story of how Not in Our Town began. First of all, we work with communities in schools across the country, to support them as they work to stop hate, racism, bullying, and build safe, inclusive, and equitable communities for all. So, we are a resource for communities, schools, activists, parents, who want to make change in their community and want to make sure everybody feels safe who lives there or studies there. I never expected to be running a nonprofit that did this kind of work.
I’m a filmmaker. I helped to make a film back in 1995 about how people stood up when hate came to their town. I’ll tell you a little bit about that story. I think it’s important even in this moment to understand why this story made such a breakthrough. It was the early 90s. And there was a lot of white supremacist organizing happening throughout the United States and these hate groups had declared the northwest to be their homeland and started organizing in Billings, Montana. There happened to be a police chief at the time, who was an early adherent to community policing and there were many active faith groups and local community activists who said we need to do something together to respond to this. And the police chief said, “Yes. We have to do this together. I can’t do this alone. This isn’t just a law enforcement issue. Standing up to these hate groups is something that require a lot of different strategies.”
So, it started with graves being overturned at the Jewish cemetery. Then, skinheads started showing up in a Black church in the local community and other denominations met, other faith groups met, and they sent their congregants there to stand with the Black church and the skinheads went away. When a Native American woman’s house was plastered with racist graffiti, 30 members of the Painter’s Union came in to paint it over and 100 neighbors were there to watch. So, the town started learning what they could do together.
The culminating event took place when a six-year-old Jewish boy placed a menorah in his window for Hanukkah, and a brick was thrown to the window and it landed on his bed. People knew that the stakes were getting higher. This was getting more dangerous. So, they started saying what if we’re all Jewish, and they started making these paper menorahs, printing them, sending them to the dry cleaner and the Quick Way. Then the newspaper, the local newspaper, printed a full-page banner urging people to put it in their windows. And that year 10,000 people put menorahs in their windows, and the white supremacist organizing stopped.
It’s not that hate has gone away in Billings, Montana, but this was a successful strategy. And we told that story in a film that we did about Billings called Not in Our Town, and the name Not in Our Town came from a sporting goods store was on the store during the time when there was so much activity in Billings. It said, “No hate. No fear. No violence. Not in Our Town.” So, we thought that was a pretty good name for a movie, and it was a little half-hour PBS special than and we thought, “We wonder what will happen if we show this in a in a community? What will people talk about?”
We could see very quickly that the conversation that came from this film was not about Billings. It was about local communities. It was people looking at this story and saying, “What about us? What do we do? And what’s happening in our town that we can reflect back on and what can we do to prevent hate and beyond that, build better relationships with each other so this kind of thing won’t happen in our town?” So, it was the year of the Oklahoma City bombing. Many people who are listening to this were not even born then or don’t remember it, but it was a really frightening time in our country when people started understanding what was at stake in the fight against hate. Many people were killed in the bombing and so that year, we thought we'd do 10 townhall meetings — there were over 100. And that’s how the Not in Our Town movement was launched. We followed the next year with Not in Our Town Two, documenting some of the stories that we found in the first Not in Our Town. And here we are 25 years later, following and documenting a movement and learning from people along the way. So everything that happens with Not in Our Town emerges from that innovation and that local learning that we then share out with other communities.
Ame Sanders: So, you’re a filmmaker. You’re a storyteller. What role do you think storytelling, films, art in general plays? What role do you think it plays in helping a community to create a more equitable environment?
Patrice O’Neill: Storytelling is deeply human. It’s how we share our values. It’s how we pass down traditions from one generation to another. It’s how we communicate with each other. "I have a story for you." There’s a story that we tell each other about ourselves, about our families, about our communities. And I think there are so many stories that are so negative now and so scary. Frankly, they’re really scary. What I found is that stories of hope and stories that show what people can do in their daily lives to make it better for their neighbors, to really reach out to each other, and find a story that tells the story of us that is positive, that is inclusive, people are longing for that. And that’s the kind of story that we seek out. We know it’s there. It is there all across this country. It’s being overlooked now, in the face of a lot of scary things that people are dealing with — a lot of stress and anger and fear. And yet, we know that when these stories about what we can do together are put forward they carry forward and they help give us some guidance and hope about a new narrative that we can tell about our community.
Ame Sanders: I loved your story about Billings and how they were able to take the series of negative incidents and the things that were happening in their community, and change that narrative, and change that story for their community to be what they wanted it to be. So, we are in many ways the author of our own stories and communities are authors of their own stories as well. So, I think it’s really encouraging to hear you describe that. You work with a lot of communities across the country. So, let’s zoom in and talk about an individual community, not a very specific one but just at that level, at a community level. What do you think motivates a community to work with you guys to take on a Not in Our Town initiative?
Patrice O’Neill: Quite often communities come to us when they see the warning signs; they aren’t necessarily communities that have experienced really horrific hate crimes. Sometimes that’s the case. But quite often, it’s a place where people in a community see the warning signs, and they say, “What can we do? We want our town story to be about how we can be together.” So, they’re looking for a way to respond to incidents before they become violent or before they redefine the community as a community that is grappling with the deep problems of hate. So, I really appreciate those sort of early intervention, local community leaders who reach out and say, “We can do this together.” I think it’s people who are willing to take off their blinders and release their own — and I say this as a white person — to release their own white blindness or release their own blindness about what others are experiencing of a different religion or identity and say, “What can I learn?” Who are willing to listen and open up to hear what’s happening to their neighbors?
Ame Sanders: Where do you see this work coming from in the community? Is it often the same groups, church groups or community leaders, or do you see a lot of different people?
Patrice O’Neill: You just never know. It’s pretty amazing. It takes someone with some grit. There’s usually a catalyst, someone who says, ”I can’t deal with this. I am nervous about my town.” They start reaching out to others. Sometimes they find our website and there are very specific instructions. This is what’s been successful. Here’s who you need to reach out to. Sometimes it’s city councils. Sometimes it’s health care workers. There was one town in Iowa where a factory worker said, “I saw a swastika on my elementary school and I just couldn’t deal with that. So, I wanted to reach out to other folks in my town.”
So, it could be anyone, right? There’s no, “This needs to be started by the town leadership or a teacher.” Quite often it is teachers, too. But it could be any one of us who starts this initiative and reaches out. One of my favorite stories is a young woman who was a student in a school. She was South Asian. She started experiencing bullying in school. And she found our website when she was researching online and was looking at bullying. She called me up. She kept writing us and saying, “Okay, what do I do? I saw this, what do I do?” I had a phone call with her and said, “Well, is there anybody in your town who would help you?” She goes, “There’s this woman who used to be the mayor.” She reached out to her, and now they have an active chapter in her town and it was started by this high school student. And she is now leading all across her state, she’s doing speaking engagements about her activities, so it could be anybody.
Ame Sanders: So, it can be anybody. They have to care about their community. They have to be attentive to the warning signs that they see out there. And as you said, they have to have some grit and perseverance and tenacity to work through this because it’s not easy. And they have to be willing to reach out to others in the community, and make those connections. Those are the things that take away from what you’ve just said.
Patrice O’Neill: You got it. I think the perseverance is one of the most important messages. People who often start this will get early critiques, like, who are you? And why are you doing this, and we’ve got this, or we don’t need this, because in our town, we’re just fine. All of those things, all of that questioning, I think people who do this work, have to be able to let that roll off their backs and say, “Okay, maybe we do know things. But maybe we can learn from some other people who’ve done this, and I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about the hundreds of communities who have worked in this movement for many years, and the dozens and dozens of communities that meet regularly to talk about the problems that they’re working through.” It is being aware of the obstacles, knowing that they’re there and saying, “I’m going to get through them. And I’m not going to let these naysayers try to stop us.” So that’s hard. That’s really hard.
Ame Sanders: It’s one thing to host an event, or maybe even have a few community conversations, or conduct some training or a film screening even. But what do you see communities doing who are really working towards lasting change? Honestly, do you think it’s even possible to see long term change?
Patrice O’Neill: Absolutely. I’ve seen it. I do think, again, we’re back to perseverance and persistence. I think of this amazing community in Illinois that has been working on Not in Our Town activities for 25 years. And you see those examples of change all the time. Every time something happens. This is a community that’s prepared, so Not in Our Town is known in this community. There are people there, some of them have been around all that time, but then new people have cycled in.
I think one of the most successful things they did was made a commitment to their young people to say, “You are part of this, and we are part of supporting you. We need to learn from you and we want you to know that we’re working on this change and that we want you to be part of it.” The young people of the town have gotten the message loud and clear and they help lead the town.
There are so many examples of how this community works at prevention. When Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson and the city erupted, the people in this town basically said, “Okay. We have relationships in place with the media, with law enforcement, with the city.” Many of them were Black leaders and they had relationships with the other Black organizations in town. They said, ‘Let’s get on the radio with the NAACP, with our Not in Our Town group, with the police chief, and let’s talk about what we can do to address the problems that are clearly emerging and make sure that our town doesn’t need the kind of response or have the kind of response that we saw in Ferguson.”
It’s proactive. It’s having those relationships in place where people are thinking together about how to respond at any given moment, and that they’re talking through and walking through problems that come up in their community. They have a long-term commitment to get through some very difficult challenges. They had a long-term relationship with the police department and still do, and yet, they felt it necessary to work with other groups to do a police Community Review Board. And they did that. There was tension. I mean, there was a lot of tension. There were divisions on the City Council, many of whom had supported the Not in Our Town group, and some in the police department, but they kept on and they were persistent. They were persistent in their commitment to those relationships long-term, but to say, “We need to do this. We want you with us. If you’re not at this moment, we will be together again but right now, this is what we need to do.” It takes that long-term commitment, sort of knowing that there are times when we will disagree, but there are certain basic things that we will agree on. And we will come back together as we know that we want our town to be safe and inclusive. So, it’s very inspiring to see that long-term.
Ame Sanders: What I’ve heard you say is (1) making a commitment; (2) making that commitment known and visible, so that the community embraces that and is aware of it; (3) staying with it over a long period of time, through ups and downs, and questioning and doubt and struggles that people will have relationships; (4) cultivating the relationships across the community, that makes you better able to respond when issues do arise in your community or in other communities; and (5) as you talked about with Ferguson, being proactive, not waiting until it happens at your town, but being proactive in recognizing what is happening around you, in other communities and across the country. Then I also listened to you talk about building community resilience. Those are some of the things that I heard you talk about as factors that has made this community in Illinois successful. I would like to extend that and ask you, are those characteristics that you think are relevant for other communities? Are there other factors for success that you think are important?
Patrice O’Neill: We started to work with communities on what’s called Goldstar Cities to try to give them the criteria and the steps that we saw as being effective long-term. There needs to be some kind of structure and the structure needs to include key civic institutions and be in partnership with communities who are most targeted by hate and who are feeling the harm of hate most acutely. You can’t have this be a sort of civic thing.
Your city may be led by a diverse group of people, but it can’t just be the institutions. It has to be with community — with community volunteers, with civic groups, and most especially with the groups and leaders of a community that face the most harm, because we could be flying blind. Otherwise, we are not listening to those who are feeling this on a day to day basis and not providing that consistent communication and opportunity to see signs of harm and problems as they come up and to share in decision making about what to do.
Ame Sanders: That’s a good reminder that groups and individuals who are at the greatest risk need to be at the table for all of the process and all of the decision making. So we’ve been talking about working at a community level, but let’s zoom out to the national level. You’ve been at this a while. Why do you feel like this is important now? Do you see it as relevant as you saw it in 1995? How do you feel about it in terms of time that has elapsed and also the things that are going on around us right now?
Patrice O’Neill: I think this is a very scary moment and we’re seeing the rise in hate crimes all across the United States. Every day there is not a single Asian person that I know that has not told me a story of incredible harm, for just going to the grocery store and hearing horrible things happen to them in the United States. The reality of the hate crime statistics is that Black people are the number one target of hate crimes. That remains. The antisemitism that we’re seeing in this country, the rising antisemitism is shocking and horrible. We’re working on a new film now, which I’ll talk about later called Repairing the World about Pittsburgh and the murder of 11 people in that synagogue. When it happened, it was so horrible but we have been seeing the signs of antisemitism, it’s all over the country. Look to our children. Talk to them about the kinds of jokes they’re telling about Anne Frank, and really nasty things. We’re seeing so many people being targeted and harmed in our country.
It’s almost like the suppression of that kind of bigotry that was there has been blown off. We’re seeing much more blatant examples of it and it really is a frightening time. For us, the hope that we see is in our local communities, where people know each other, see each other and can say to each other, “We don’t want that to happen. We don’t want our neighbors to be harmed. We are willing to listen to each other. We want to listen to each other and keep our town safe. Everybody safe.” There’s so much to learn now and so much to do at the local level if we want to avoid even more violence.
Ame Sanders: This is a big and intractable problem of hate and violence and racism and misogyny. Those are big and intractable problems and it is long-term work. It’s very hard work. So how do you remain hopeful and motivated for the work that you do over such a long period of time?
Patrice O’Neill: Well, this conversation is a perfect example of it. I’m talking to you in Greenville County, and I talk to community members all over the United States who share this view and this vision about a more inclusive country, a more inclusive community where everyone belongs, where everyone feels they belong. People are out there. The partisan divide has become really challenging to deal with, but this really isn’t a partisan issue. It’s a human issue. We have to draw on each other as humans. For Not in Our Town, we’ve never been political. We don’t think that this issue should be politicized and yet, here we are. But, I think the average person living in their town does not feel that way.
I think we have to draw on that basic core goodness in people and remind people of it and draw that out because it’s there. I think people have sort of, because of all the fear and what’s happened with us in the pandemic, and in the hyper-nasty political rhetoric and differences, we’ve just sort of suppressed that. That needs to come out now. That goodness needs to come out. There’s this minister who speaks in the original Billing story and he talks about an Iroquois term that means there is great goodness in the world and if that goodness doesn’t come out, we get sick. So you have to let that goodness come out. Giving people the opportunity for their best selves to come out is the way that we overcome hate – to draw on and remind people of their goodness.
Ame Sanders: Sounds like at least part of your advice would be to give people permission and ways to tap into that basic and fundamental goodness that exists in their community with themselves and with the people that they live around and work with and see every day? What other advice would you give for a community who is either struggling with issues within their community or thinking about moving forward on making their place more inclusive and safer for those who live there?
Patrice O’Neill: An answer to your last question and this one, I will also say find joy. There is time to be together, which hopefully will be easier to do now. I think part of what has allowed for this rapid dehumanization is our distance from each other. We haven’t been able to see each other and really interact on a human level in our communities in the way that I think would help us overcome this. Hopefully, we’re getting through that, and we’ll be able to do that again. Find ways to express community through art, through gathering, through food, and think of ways to find what brings us together and our common humanity. Neighborhoods sing alongs, things like that. Music, it is something that draws us together. Finding those pockets that can draw us together.
Ame Sanders: So you already alluded to this, but what’s next for Not in Our Town and for you and for the work that you guys are doing?
Patrice O’Neill: We are nearly finished with a film that we’ve been working on for three years called Repairing the World: Stories from the Tree of Life. It’s about Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the aftermath of the horrific attack on the synagogue where 11 people were killed. It was an attack on the synagogue. According to the social media posts of the man who was arrested for the killing, he chose the synagogue, not just because it was a synagogue – he did express his hatred for Jewish people – but also because they had shown support for immigrants and refugees. So, it was this combination of things, a hatred of immigrants and a hatred of Jewish people that was the spark for this crime.
We followed the community of Pittsburgh, learned from the families who had experienced so much loss for the people who survived, but from the whole community and saw them come together in such a significant way. A great American city rises to the occasion when their neighbors are lost. That’s what the story is about and really trying to understand how to work through incredible grief, how to build trust, how to build relationships that can help the community become resilient and resist hate in the long run. There are so many signs a bit in Pittsburgh. It’s hard, but I think in the story you can see what’s needed to be on the road to change and what can help a community stop hate. I look forward to sharing more about the film as we move along, because we want there to be community screenings all across the country where people look at this film, learn from it, and think about their new narrative.
So here we are, you know, over two decades after the original Billings story, and we’re telling another story about American city standing up to hate together. Standing up to hate and rising antisemitism – what can we do? Standing up to hate targeting immigrants and Black people – standing up to racism? So what can we do together? So we look forward to sharing it with the communities who are listening to this podcast now and learning about what they will do next.
Ame Sanders: Patrice, I want to thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been very inspiring and exciting to hear about the work that you’re doing with Not in Our Town, about the film that you’re working on and the films that you have worked on. So I just want to thank you for being willing to share your wisdom and experience with our audience. Thank you so much.
Patrice O’Neill: Thank you.
Ame Sanders: At the beginning of this episode, there was a question: What can we do in the face of hate? Talking with Patrice O’Neill today from Not in Our Town reminds us that we are the authors of our own stories. We are the authors of our community’s stories. And we have the ability to take events, warning signs, hatred that we and others see in our community and reframe that narrative and retell that story. As Patrice explained, this isn’t something that the mayor has to do, or the city council or the county council. This is something we can do in our own communities we can be the ones to say Not in Our Town.
This has been the State of Inclusion podcast. Join us again next time. And if you enjoyed this episode, the best compliment for our work is your willingness to share these ideas with others leave us a review. We’d love your comments. Thanks so much for listening.