Here we are, gathered together in Billings, MT on June 20, the first day of the National Leadership Gathering. As we stood in front of the Western Heritage Center after the photo was taken, one of our featured guests told me, “I’ve never seen so many positive people together.”
For nearly four years, I have worked behind the scenes for the Not In Our Town project. My team and I have profiled community leaders on NIOT.org, helped spread Not In Our School’s videos and lesson plans to educators online, and overseen new additions to our web presence, including tools and resources for law enforcement. But the National Leadership Gathering was an opportunity for me to finally meet these incredible people who populate our movement in person.
En route to Billings, I traveled alongside San Diego Deputy District Attorney Oscar Garcia, retired San Diego hate crime Detective Ellen Vest, and Fremont, CA elementary teacher Livia Thomas. We rode from the airport to the hotel with the student change-makers at Bowling Green State University, and rode back with Kansas City Public Television’s Lindsay Foat and Palo Alto educators who are using Not In Our School campaigns in their schools.
And that was just getting there and away. For me, the magic of the National Leadership Gathering was convening some of the most groundbreaking, influential and inspirational leaders in the same room. From mayors and police chiefs to community activists and educators, the room was full of over 200 people committed to making our towns and schools safe for our children and our neighbors.
As retired Long Beach, CA Police Commander Josef Levy said on Saturday morning, “I’m honored to be in the room with people who have been fighting the fight.”
This photo was snapped by producer Charene Zalis as we packed up on Sunday. At right is Oak Creek, WI resident Kanwardeep Kaleka, featured in our film Waking in Oak Creek, standing with Roanoke, VA resident Richard Henegar, who was featured in the short film, Repairing Hearts. Kanwardeep was pivotal in the response efforts after the mass shootings at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. Richard came to the aid of a college student who’d been targeted with anti-gay hate speech.
Kanwardeep and Richard’s connection was just one of many made over the three-day gathering. Whether it was Rochester, NY School Resource Officer Moses Robinson speaking with Marshalltown, IA high school principal Aiddy Phomvisay or San Jose, CA immigrant rights activist Jesse Castaneda speaking with Patchogue, NY Mayor Paul Pontieri, the Gathering provided a rare opportunity to meet and exchange ideas.
In the coming months, we’ll see the fruit of these connections. But today, I want to emphasize how important it was to be there, together. So many of our leaders work without recognition, and sometimes without peers. Standing up for the safety and inclusion of all people is not without its naysayers, and they still do this work with courage and commitment.
In total, the Gathering brought together leaders from 46 communities in 21 states. From Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s welcome speech on Friday to Bowling Green State University student leader Adriana Darris’ close on Sunday, there were numerous moments to be captured and remembered. I hope some of you will share your favorite moments and connections from the gathering.
That was my favorite thing about the gathering. Now, what’s yours?
—Alicia Upano, NIOT.org Editor