Patrice O’Neill has been using storytelling to inspire people to stand up to hate and injustice way before storytelling became the next big thing. It was her documentary about the efforts of the people of Billings, Montana to push back against white supremacists that made “Not In Our Town” a rallying cry for inclusion. Her film inspired a nation-wide movement that went from communities into classrooms around the country. Woven into the impressive collection of films that Patrice has produced and directed are several outstanding films that explore anti-immigrant biases and the way that communities can work to build connections across difference.
Below is Re-Imagining Migration director Adam Strom’s recent interview with Ms. O’Neill.
Adam S: Patrice, we’ve known each other a long time but I don’t think I ever asked you how you first got started using films as a way to respond to hate. How did that work begin?
Patrice: Sometimes I feel like one of the luckiest filmmakers in the world because for the past two decades, I have been honored to share a series of stories and films that have inspired people to stand up to hate and intolerance. Our 1995 PBS film Not In Our Town showed us what’s possible when a story inspires people to see themselves as change agents and then given the tools that help them take the next steps to make that change real in their own communities.
This five-minute clip from Not In Our Town provides an overview of the story of people in Billings, Montana as they find ways to support their neighbors when hate crimes escalate in their town. Skinheads intimidate congregants at an African American church, a Native American family’s home is plastered with racist graffiti and a brick is thrown through the window of a six-year-old Jewish boy who displayed a menorah there for Hanukkah. But each of these acts of hate and intimidation are met with a response by local residents that grows in strength.
My favorite line in the film is from a member of the painters union who is scraping away racist graffiti from a Native American woman’s home as he says, “I always wanted to do something about racism, but I never really knew how. This gave us a way to send a message to people that the community will not stand for this.” This line was a great unlocking for so many people who share this view.
The film carries a straightforward but powerful message about what each of us can do to stand up to hate and the tremendous impact we can have when we take action together on a community-wide scale.
Not In Our Town’s impact emerged from these initial screenings, but the movement began when communities decided to own the message and the model themselves. Not In Our Town was formed in 1996 because a group of faith and civic leaders in the area wanted to make sure that a rash of church burnings in the South did not happen in their community. Chanting “Not In Our Town” hundreds of Bloomington-Normal residents marched from the old courthouse where Lincoln once debated to one of the Black churches in the city to proclaim their commitment to stop racism. Twenty years later, it’s now one of the hundreds of communities in the U.S. (and around the world) that have been engaged with Not In Our Town actions to prevent hate and bullying and find solutions on the local level.
Adam S: Your film Light in the Darkness, about the 2008 murder of Ecuadorian-immigrant Marcelo Lucero, feels so prescient in the way that it exposes the way that unchecked anti-immigrant attitudes can lead to violence. Can you tell us a little bit about the film? What about the story caught your attention and what are you hoping people will take away from the story?
Patrice: Our films are informed and driven by what’s happening on the ground. In 2006 at a gathering of NIOT leaders from around the country, we heard about the dangers they perceived in the rising tide of anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the violence these communities were experiencing because of it. Not In Our Town films are about what people can do to stand up to hate, so simply documenting the problem wasn’t going to enable us to present a story that would shed light on how communities can address this rising tide of bigotry against immigrants. We searched for a story for a while, sending cameras to places that were experiencing rising tensions, but it wasn’t until Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant was killed in Patchogue, NY that we knew we had to commit to filming on Long Island for our next PBS film.
It was shocking and horrifying that this hate crime killing was committed by seven local high school students who had been roaming the streets of this town for months and months, looking for people they perceived to be Mexican to beat up. What convinced us that we had to follow this story was the 500 people who gathered in the pouring rain near the train station where Marcelo was killed to pay tribute to him and commit to action; it was Joselo Lucero, the victim’s brother, who said he found the courage to speak in front of a crowd because he knew he had to stand up for not just his brother, but for immigrants like him; and the Mayor of Patchogue, Paul Pontieri who said “This happened on my watch, and I have to be the one who will help make this a safe place to be.” These were the actions and voices that led us to make Light in the Darkness.
Adam S: I had the honor of editing the short guide that Facing History and Ourselves wrote for classrooms using the film. How have educators been using the film inside and outside of the classroom?
Patrice: Thank you for your tremendous work on the guide and the Not In Our School resources for the film. Lessons from Facing History and NIOS are needed more than ever.
This story has particular resonance today as anti-immigrant bigotry has been sanctioned from the top levels of the power structure in our country. Young people often bear the brunt of this intolerance. I’ve been to so many screenings of Light in the Darkness recently where students report the taunting they receive because they are immigrants and the toll the harassment is taking on them and their families.
Young people see themselves in this story in such a palpable way. The story begs the question: “What happens if I remain silent? “ Quite a number of young people in the community knew that these racist attacks were taking place, and didn’t speak up. Of course, the point of the film is not to blame the young people who didn’t speak up. Perhaps there were some who did, and were not heard. The point is to understand the atmosphere in the school, community and in the country that led to the killing of Marcelo Lucero, and to find a way to give agency and responsibility to everyone to change the climate so that acts of hate are less likely to occur.
Adam S: Your most recent film, Waking in Oak Creek, also explores a community’s response to a shocking hate crime. This one explores the aftermath of a horrifying attack on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. As a filmmaker how do you find the right balance between showing the impact of hate while trying to educate about the ways that ordinary members of the community can respond?
Patrice: The killing of six worshippers at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin was then the deadliest hate-based attack in over 50 years in our country. (It was 2012, before the Charleston church killings and before 49 people were killed in the Orlando nightclub.) The devastating impact on families of the victims, the Sikh community across the country, and the shock and sadness that spread across Wisconsin, the country and the world demanded that the story about Oak Creek had to in some way convey the horror of the attack. Not In Our Town stories are never about the crime, but we always try to convey the harm that is caused by hate for the people who have to endure it. Showing the scene of the attack was integral to the story, but we tried not to let these dramatic moments dominate the film. The interviews with the families were heart-wrenching. At the same time, the courage and positive action of those who had been harmed made the story of Oak Creek so powerful.
I feel honored to know and continue to work with so many of the people in this film. Pardeep Kaleka and his family; Lt. Brian Murphy who was shot 15 times; Kamal and Harpreet Saini who lost their mother, Arno Michaelis; a former white supremacist who now works with Pardeep; Kanwardeep Kaleka; and others are all part of the NIOT community now, and are treasured friends, as is Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi who is now on the Board of Not In Our Town.
Creating and presenting Waking In Oak Creek has been one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. The overwhelming response of love inspired action and forgiveness from the Sikh community and Oak Creek residents enabled us to make a film that could provide a roadmap for people who want to get to know each other in their communities before ignorance turns to hate. Over 3,500 screenings have taken place across the U.S. in over 800 cities, and more people are finding ways to use the film every day.
Adam S. Last question, I promise, I’d love it if you could tell people about the Not In Our School project. What are you hearing from schools that you find inspiring?
Patrice: Here is the central message of Not In Our School: If we give our young people the tools, guidance, and support to stand up for themselves and others, they can make real change in their schools and communities. Like Facing History, NIOS works with educators to build a community of student “upstanders” who will stand up to bullying and intolerance. The actions of young people across the country in the aftermath of the Parkland, FL shooting are amazingly hopeful and show us what can happen when young people take the lead for change.
In every community I go to, I ask for a group of high school students to speak with me after a screening of one of our films. They are the most potent truth-tellers to the larger community about how hate and intolerance are being manifested in schools and in daily life. At the same time, when we ask them to come up with solutions, they inevitably make suggestions that galvanize residents to do something. Not In Our School works best when it is intertwined with a long-term community commitment to NIOT, as we find in cities like Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. There have been active NIOS clubs in the high schools and middle schools there for many years. The local newspaper asks School Board candidates where they stand on Not In Our School issues including support for gender-neutral restrooms. After Srinivas Kotchibohtla was killed in a hate crime attack in Olathe, KS, the high school leaders in the NIOS Club in Bloomington-Normal organized a vigil and community event to address the anti-immigrant and South Asian racism that fueled the attack. It was attended by the mayor, city leaders and over 100 residents. The NIOS club members are on the NIOT steering committee for the town, providing guidance and motivation to everyone to be the change.