By K.L. Huntley
Icy roads and a chill blowing down the snow-covered mountains didn’t deter close to 60 souls gathered at Sandpoint’s First Presbyterian Church on the evening of Nov. 9. They came bundled up to hear Travis McAdam, the project director for the Montana Human Rights Network.
The Bonner County Human Rights Task Force invited McAdam to speak about how Montana deals with its hate groups and explained how we can build and strengthen the unity of people in our own community. It was a free, nonpartisan event aimed at encouraging constructive dialogue between opposing viewpoints without threats and intimidation rearing their ugly heads. Specifically, McAdam’s presentation focused on how to foster compassion and understanding in building an all-inclusive, respectful and kind community.
McAdam explained how hate groups enter, immerse and become influential forces in towns and cities across the globe. As we are all keenly aware, in the past decade there has been more and more social discord resulting in social polarization, which separates families, close friends and whole communities. This process of dislocation spreads to become the psychology of “them” and “us,” somewhat like primitive tribal teams squaring off for a fight.
Clearly the “them” and “us” attitude was not the dream of our forebears, who saw the United States as a melting pot — the concept that a variety of cultures and peoples would blend together and we, like a metal alloy, would become a stronger nation. This debate opens a whole other can of worms. As far back as 1795, legislation excluded non-white people from the eligibility to naturalize, forgetting about or oblivious to the fact the land they were standing on was that of the Indigenous people and it was the white men who were the usurpers.
McAdam explained how contemporary hate groups actually thrive and recruit on fear. Good people fearing for their livelihood, their children’s education, their health or their social position are easy targets, and then the flames are fanned. Good people are convinced by charismatic speakers that they should be motivated one way or another to the point that their new beliefs may even be against their previous personal ethics and sense of right and wrong.
The other, often widely used tool by various hate groups, is to encourage their members to infiltrate the local systems: the library, school and hospital boards. They embolden their membership to loudly disrupt meetings and fund candidates in a variety of positions in order to reverse policies and overturn laws that they oppose. One suggestion proposed by McAdams to push back against these efforts is to host enticing counter-activities in locations far from any hate rally, thus denying them an audience.
Hate is not the family value that the majority of quiet Americans want nor desire. It is definitely not a desired attribute for Bonner County. McAdam encouraged the quiet majority to speak up and take more active roles in their communities. This levels the playing field, rather than letting a vocal minority control and influence their local institutions.
Additionally, it was encouraging and heart warming to hear representatives from Sandpoint High School. They spoke about the activities of their human rights group and how they are supporting marginalized students by creating a safe space for them — a place where they can be their authentic selves without fear.
It was also rather surprising to me to hear that representatives of the U.S. Attorney’s Office are coming to our area to meet with a variety of officials — including the BCHRTF — to present their United Against Hate campaign. North Idaho is considered a target area by groups promoting violence. The intention of this program is to unite all involved in opposing violent political extremism, from local officials, FBI and local law enforcement, and community rights organizations. The objective of the campaign is to build the necessary trust in our community to identify, counter and prosecute hate crimes.
The Bonner County Human Rights Task Force is actively taking a role, in partnership with our the county library, in expanding our knowledge of how fellow citizens, different from ourselves, experience discrimination.
Last January, there was a participatory reading and discussion of the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. Beginning in January 2023, residents can participate in person or via Zoom in reading the book I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times, by Mónica Guzmán, and Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us by Mark Yaconelli.
Participants will have to sign up for the book study, with more information on the program available in the coming months from both the library and BCHRTF. In the meantime, set aside those snowy Thursday evenings in January for stimulating and thought-provoking discussions.
The evening with McAdam, fortified with plenty of hot coffee and snacks, was encouraging on multiple levels. So many enthusiastic individuals from all over Sandpoint and the surrounding area came together with the common goal of assisting in the formation of a respectful community where both individuals and businesses thrive; a community in which we acknowledge our differences and minimize hateful dissension; an area where individuals of all backgrounds can walk without fear and intimidation.
We, too, can challenge bigotry, discrimination and support our marginalized people. We can be advocates for legislation that honors everyone’s basic rights and all be stronger for it. It is important to remember that we all smile in the same language.
Thank you to the First Presbyterian Church for their hospitality and support for this event, and to the many members of BCHRTF who made it possible.
To get involved and support the task force, visit bchrtf.org. A lifetime membership costs $1, is confidential and entitles you to receive email updates on events, meetings and plans.
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