Intolerance may be one of the oldest and ugliest stories on Earth. But when it comes to speaking up against hate speech, bullying, and bigotry, students and their communities are finding creative ways to craft an uplifting response. Increasingly, new media tools are playing an important role in these efforts.
"The story of resistance to intolerance is ever new," says Patrice O'Neill, documentary filmmaker and executive producer of a grassroots organization called Not in Our Town (NIOT). An outgrowth of this anti-hate initiative started a parallel effort called Not in Our School. With resources to guide classroom discussions and compelling examples from across the country, Not in Our School challenges students to tell their own stories about building respectful learning environments.
O'Neill has seen those stories emerge from one community after another since 1995. That was the year she produced a PBS documentary about how the citizens of Billings, Montana, rallied to resist white supremacists. The first Not in Own Town documentary led to a series of town halls meetings all over the country, with citizens speaking out against bigotry.
Many communities went even further and organized local events. "People were ready to take the Not in Our Town story and make it their own," O'Neill says. She and her colleagues from The Working Group, a nonprofit media company, hit the road again to document stories from America's heartland. They've been telling those stories ever since.
Resources for the Classroom
Eventually, classroom resources to accompany the growing media collection were developed by Facing History and Ourselves. Online resources include a discussion guide developed by teachers, along with sample materials that schools have developed. Increasingly, schools are in the forefront of community efforts to speak out against hate and bullying.
If you're a teacher or school leader looking to create a healthy climate for learning, these compelling examples and free resources are worth exploring. You'll notice that there's no cookie-cutter approach for confronting hate or prejudice. Each school charts its own course and creates its own story. As O'Neill has seen again and again, campaigns work best "when teachers say to kids, 'What will you do?' That gives students the agency to innovate, to invent their own method of talking about these issues peer to peer."
In East Cleveland, Ohio, for example, teens from Shaw High School decided to take the anti-bullying conversation to younger students. They developed a presentation for elementary students that includes role-playing and testimonials about how to stand up to a bully. Watching the video, you can almost see teens grow a little taller as they take on the leadership role, teaching younger kids to be "upstanders" instead of bystanders.
In Palo Alto, California, the Not in Our School campaign has become an annual tradition. It began at two local high schools. During a month-long effort, students organize special events, create artwork, and invite speakers whose presentations lead to deep conversations about the theme of tolerance. Before long, middle schools were also engaged. Now, programs also reach elementary schools. "Each school has to make it their own," explains Becki Cohn Vargas from Palo Alto, who shares her reflections about the district wide effort on the NIOT site.
What happens when a community builds a strong tradition of speaking up to bullies, of saying no to hate? Earlier this year, Palo Alto's Gunn High School was targeted for picketing by an anti-gay hate group from Kansas. Students decided they could not stand by quietly. When they stood up with songs and peaceful counter-demonstrations, the whole community rallied around them.
Old Message, New Media
Opportunities for schools to build on Not in Our Town resources have grown with the advent of social media tools. In April, NIOT launched a new Web site that takes advantage of Web 2.0 tools to engage the community in telling their own stories. If your school is making a stand against bullying and hate, you can literally add your community to an interactive map. If your students are creating digital stories about being upstanders, they can publish their videos on the site. Or if you just want to be inspired by others' examples, you can browse the growing collection of stories here.
Even after documenting these stories for more than 15 years, O'Neill says the work never gets old. "Communities are creatively finding ways to make people feel safe in their towns. I get to talk to them every day," she says. "It's most incredible gift you could imagine."