None of them was born yet when it happened, but a group of students are creating a multimedia project on combating hate crimes.
In Billings Montana, the students will play an important role in the celebration of a historic hate crimes in Billings 20 years ago. The students in Bruce Wendt’s combined English and American history class will create videos and other displays as part of the Community Storytelling Partnership. The project will tell stories about Not In Our Town — Billings’ successful efforts to stand up to hate crimes and white supremacist activities. The students will also explore modern-day parallels from the view of today’s youth.
Their work will be featured in a centerpiece exhibit at the Western Heritage Center, including during the Not In Our Town National Leadership Gathering, which is expected to bring more than 300 people to Billings on June 20-22.
The project is a collaboration among the heritage center, Billings Public Schools, Montana PBS and the Billings Public Library.
“The important thing is that you do something,” Julie Dial, the heritage center’s executive director, told the class. “Even if it’s not perfect, you can adjust. What we’re going to do, as a group, is look at the past, present and future of hate speech. This is going to be much bigger than any of us in the room.”
In late 1993 and 1994, a wave of hate crimes and white supremacist activities spurred the Billings community to stand up against intolerance. The citywide movement drew involvement from people across the community, law enforcement and the local government. One of the incidents involved a cinder block being thrown through a young boy’s bedroom window, which had a menorah in it. That gained national attention that included marches. As many as 10,000 Billings residents put paper menorahs in their windows as a show of support.
The incidents and Billings’ response spurred the Not In Our Town movement, which is now a California-based national nonprofit that focuses on combating hate and intolerance at a grass-roots level.
Helping educate people
The students began meeting twice a week in late January to learn about the assignment and the Not In Our Town events from those who experienced them. They also got a crash course in journalism practices to apply to their projects.
“Twenty years ago might be ancient history for these folks,” Wendt said, pointing to his class. “Your task is to pick their brains about issues and people you want to talk to. Are there other issues that are influencing how you perceive each other? This is going to be your springboard.”
Many of the students had only vague knowledge of the Not In Our Town events.
“You said that this is something that went national, that it turned into a big deal,” 17-year-old Brendon Blain asked at an early meeting at the Western Heritage Center. “Why is this the first time a lot of us are hearing about this?”
Those are exactly the kinds of questions organizers want the students to ask.
“That’s a good question,” Dial responded. “And that’s something we want you to explore. Why is this important? It’s about how this stuff translates to you.”
With the help of media professionals from print, television and radio, the 30 or so students zeroed in on more than a dozen projects and topics, including thoughts from the Jewish community, modern hate speech and how the media has covered such events then and now.
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