Community groups hold tolerance forum

Citing an upsurge in hate-group activity nationwide, local activists are planning to recruit and train people who can teach tolerance in areas of race, religion and sexual orientation in schools, churches and among civic groups.

An orientation for prospective presenters and discussion leaders is planned from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday in the Carpenter Room of the Medford Branch Library, 205 S. Central Ave. The orientation will feature organizers from Community Response Team, Ashland Peace House, Oregon Action, the Multicultural Association of Southern Oregon, Lotus Rising Project and Medford Pyrate Punx.

The "Not In Our Town" and "Not In Our School" orientation hopes to attract volunteers with experience in education, public speaking and group facilitation or who have personal experience with hate crimes and hate groups, said Pam Vavra, executive director of Peace House.

Jim Willeford of Medford, one of six national spokesmen for NIOT, said he's conferring with Community Response Teams about developing "something more in-your-face, not hostile, but visible" to help promote tolerance, such as peaceful marches.

"Underneath (the hate crimes) is fear and the need to feel better than someone else. It's scary," said Willeford.

Presenters will use the NIOT video documentaries, which have been shown on Public Broadcasting System and were produced to combat hate activity in Billings, Mont.

"It's an uplifting video that brings emotions to the surface, then it's followed by 30 to 45 minutes of discussion," said Willeford. "Kids will hear it better from peers, so we're recruiting progressive young people."

"We hope to develop teams to lead discussion groups, teaching tolerance for ethnic, racial, religious and sexual identities," said Vavra, —¦so that when they're exposed to it, they know they are supported and can take a stand against it."

The trainings are a response to the formation of a neo-Nazi group in Phoenix and the burning of "KKK" in the lawn of a Medford biracial couple in 2008, incidents that have been met with vigorous response from the community and law enforcement.

"Seemingly minor local crimes like that can escalate and become lethal," said Vavra.

Talent Police Chief Mike Moran said the Rogue Valley "is a very tolerant area but you have to constantly watch it, even if there seems to be no activity. If you relax, they come back. You have to monitor for signs. If you let things slide, it's not long till you have a problem."

Medford Deputy Police Chief Tim George said he hasn't seen an upsurge in hate crimes beyond the two local incidents. MPD gets about four reports on hate crimes annually out of 85,000 calls for service, he said, making that category "small, small, small — but one hate crime is one too many."

Said Rich Rohde, executive director of Oregon Action in Medford, "We want to be able to respond quickly when there's an incident — and we want to be proactive and reduce incidents of hate.

"We've heard from parents and schools that message (of the KKK and neo-Nazi incidents) is still operating in our community. We felt we couldn't just sit back and wait for the next thing to happen. Now is the time for our community to come forward and tell them we won't tolerate it."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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