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Oxford holds 'Not in Our Town' interest meeting

On Sunday afternoon, three students from Ms. Pearson's third-grade class in Kramer Elementary -- Noel, Oliver and Paul -- stood in front of a group of mostly strangers.

The boys shuffled back and forth in front of the crowded community room of the LCNB National Bank but spoke with passion and wisdom beyond their years.

Noel waved his hands together with enthusiasm, sporting a "Black is Beautiful" t-shirt, and spoke in front of a group of Oxford and Miami University leaders including Mayor Kate Rousmaniere, Renate Crawford and city council member Chantel Raghu.

"I first heard about white nationalism on the radio and thought that was something I didn't want to happen to anyone else," Noel said. "You know, my dad immigrated from Cuba and married my mom, and then they had me, but I don't want white nationalism to stop anyone else from being able to do that."

The boys explained that, throughout the past several months, they created a series of videos and surveys and a website dedicated to educating their fellow classmates about the perils of hate speech, racism and prejudice against people who are different from themselves.

Rousmaniere, alongside Miami's director of the Office of Community Engagement Services (OCES), Christie Zwahlen, and Oxford residents Sabrina Jewell and Ellen Weisman organized for the boys to speak Uptown on Feb. 11 during a "Not In Our Town" (NIOT) interest meeting.

NIOT is a national movement that originated in 1995 when citizens in Billings, Montana stood in solidarity with their neighbors who were victims of hate crimes.

The movement spread throughout the country, and now the city of Oxford is looking to implement the initiative in a big way after the town and university were "impacted by acts of racism...including targeted graffiti and property damage" during 2016 and 2017, according to the NIOT pamphlet created by the city.

These pamphlets were distributed at the initial Oxford Community Picnic last Aug. 31, 2017 when Rousmaniere and Miami president Greg Crawford came together to condemn discrimination and announce Oxford's intentions to join NIOT.

"This is a movement and an initiative that can be housed in several places both in the community and the university," Jewell said. "But who are the main players going to be?"

The meeting was centered around whether or not Oxford will implement the NIOT initiative. Several Oxford community members attended a presentation at the Ohio Town & Gown Summit by Bowling Green State University and the City of Bowling Green, who have successfully established the initiative in their community.

Student activist and sophomore Clara Guerra spoke as a member of The Collective, a Miami-based initiative aimed at advancing black liberation and advancing civil rights.

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"We are also working on how to educate incoming freshmen who may come in [to Miami] with ignorant notions," Guerra said.

Several members of Oxford's religious groups, including Bernadette Unger, an active member of Hillel, were present at the meeting and raised questions regarding whether or not faith communities should endorse a movement that is normally considered political or leftist.

"It's not that it's not political," OCES director Zwahlen said. "But NIOT can't be partisan. Hate speech is not partisan."

Oxford's NAACP president Fran Jackson asked how all of the progressive groups already established in Oxford -- the NAACP, Oxford Citizens for Peace and Justice (OCPJ), League of Women Voters and various faith communities -- who are all pursuing their own individual efforts, can come together to support the NIOT initiative collectively.

"College students can also play a huge role," Jackson said. "We need to see how we can incorporate all of these different groups into our purpose, which needs to be clear."

Rousmaniere urged everyone present at the meeting to write their names and emails on a sign-up sheet to attend further NIOT meetings.

"If we all left this room, and said we want to stop racism, that's not actually going to do anything," she said. "We need action."

Zwahlen and Jewell reiterated this point and encouraged university affiliates and community members alike to start seriously considering how much they would be willing to take on responsibilities, coordinate events and establish a response team.

Before the meeting disbanded, Jewell took a moment to read from the Oxford and Miami University NIOT Pledge, which emphasizes providing "a safe and inclusive environment for our friends, colleagues, students, youth and neighbors."

She paused briefly before finishing: "I pledge to lead a live through example and commit to end hate and intolerance in our town, Oxford, Ohio."