What was your favorite moment at the National Leadership Gathering? | Not in Our Town

What was your favorite moment at the National Leadership Gathering?

National Leadership Gathering group photo

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.”

Hear, hear.

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.”

Kanwardeep Kaleka and Richard Henegar National Leadership Gathering

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



When I tell my friends and family how incredible it was to be in the company of several hundred community leaders committed to stopping hate, they nod their heads. But it’s hard to explain what it feels like to be surrounded by such a powerful force for good.

The Gathering was not kumbaya meet up designed for choir tuning. It was more like spending the weekend with a diverse group of  tacticians, artists and builders in an anti hate idea factory.

As one of the filmmakers, I’ve been lucky enough to meet many of the attendees, but there were dozens of other activists and leaders who became legendary around the office, and who proved to be even more amazing in person.

I was able to land for about 20 minutes during one of the law enforcement sessions on supporting victims of hate. When I looked around I was blown away by the think -action tank assembled in the room. How do we harness this collective knowledge and experience? That’s what we’re working on now, and that is why we are building the NIOT/COPS Law Enforcement Cadre.  I’ll write more about this, and ideas from the Solutions Forum in a future blog.The best part of the weekend was being surrounded by each other. At the after party organized by NIOT Billings. I remember bouncing from the dance floor to group conversations, so excited to see all of you meeting and talking to each other. I’ll carry the joy I felt that evening, and over the weekend for the rest of my life. I hope others felt it too. We need to remember the strength that joint action and experience can bring. As many of us know, we will need it when hate strikes again. 

I expected Not In Our Town’s National Gathering to be powerful, but what I found was not only powerful, but inspiring and uniting.

To be matched with such powerful leaders from across the nation is an experience I won’t soon forget.

The National Gathering provided an unparalleled sense of camaraderie that we each took with us as we went back to our separate communities. To know hundreds of like minded people share your passion renews your sense of purpose.

For me, the greatest moment that captured what Not In Our Town is about happened outside of the conference room. It was seeing Kanwardeep Kaleka, of Oak Creek, Wis., on the dance floor following a movie premiere. In the brief time that I observed him dancing I knew I was watching tragedy transformed into triumph. As he danced — fearlessly and happily — I saw him embracing the human experience. Kanwar, and the Oak Creek community will not be remembered for the tragedy in their community, but for how they responded to it. 

—Abigail Pelzer
Managing Editor, Times-Republican

The National gathering was an outstanding opportunity to meet, greet and share ideas with groups of people from all over the country that are united with the same goal in mind -- to stop hate.

I was inspired by so many people at the event that is difficult to single out any one thing or one person as "my favorite."

But I must say the delegation from Billings was inspiring and deserves to be applauded and held up as a shining example of how to run a NIOT committee.

Billings, after all, is where Not In Our Town started and after 20 years they continue to be a strong, vibrant, active group that remains engaged. This is truly uplifting for groups like ours that have only been organized for one tenth of that time.

The ideas I picked up at the National Gathering and the friendships and contacts I made with people from all over the country will help our NIOT group continue to work hard and succeed at stomping out hate and bullying in our schools, our homes and our community.

Thank you so much Patrice and your entire staff for organizing such an amazing and worthwhile event.

Mike Schlesinger, Publisher -- Marshalltown, Iowa Times-Republican



For me, the magic of the NIOT National Gathering was not in one moment, but meeting all the people and hearing the many voices. Voices were heard, stories were shared, and people found their voice. The inspiration equally came from the uniqueness of each voice and the harmony of the many voices: a range of ages and generations, many cultures, religions, and ethnicities, from over 40 towns in 22 states. We also came from many walks of life, some elected officials, others life-long educators, police officers, artists, journalists, business owners, neighborhood leaders, and the amazing youth contingent: high school and college students from the south, midwest, west, and east. So many people shared their stories, and I got to share mine. We were a wonderful assembly of people who had gathered to celebrate, with the human courage to stand up together to acts and attitudes of hate and bigotry and recommit to this joint effort.

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