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BIPOC members to Missoula: A little less conversation and a little more action

Missoula Refugees
Posted at 10:13 AM, Nov 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-30 12:13:54-05

MISSOULA — Missoula formed a new ad hoc City Council committee on June 15 with the intention of addressing issues of public safety and systemic racism.

The group held two virtual meetings over the summer to discuss details surrounding a research project that will collect information and narratives from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) community members on their experiences of marginalization and oppression in Missoula.

The information gathered from this research is intended to be used to suggest an action plan.

However, many BIPOC community members view the research proposal as an easy way out – merely kicking the can of actual action and progress down the road.

“We absolutely do not need another research project to prove that racism is real or put Black folks or POC trauma on the line for y’all to learn about racism,” said Meshayla Cox of the Montana Racial Equity Project during the committee’s second virtual meeting.

“The evidence is as clear as day and has been stated in various ways from BIPOC folks in the Missoula community for decades.”

Despite articulated concerns from community members, the Ad Hoc Committee for Public Safety and Systemic Racism has pushed ahead with their research proposal and original plan.

Among the committee’s first tasks was to connect with local communications firm, Six Pony Hitch, for help in assembling a team to conduct the research project.

The owner and creative director of Six Pony Hitch, Spider McKnight, in turn, reached out to several BIPOC community members in Missoula with experience in research and community engagement.

These researchers came together to form a group known as LEARN Missoula, which hopes to better represent BIPOC voices and fight for a more equitable Missoula.

In the ad hoc committee’s first virtual meeting on June 24th, McKnight gave a tentative timeline of 12 weeks for the research involved with the proposal to be collected. More than 12 weeks have elapsed. However, no research has yet been made available or documented.

On LEARN Missoula’s website, the group states: “LEARN Missoula is a new project and we are just beginning our work. We will add reports here as they are completed.”

Regardless of this lengthy delay, this week the Missoula City Council agreed to provide $75,000 in funding for LEARN’s research project.

Initially created in response to the racial reckoning in the United States that was ignited after the death of George Floyd, the ad hoc committee has continued to focus more on conversation and research than concrete action to address issues of public safety and systemic racism in Missoula.

“The original intent of the ad hoc committee was to create a venue for dialogue to find ways to better understand what issues are in our community and what we needed to do to move forward,” said Mirtha Becerra, the chair of the committee.

Bryan Von Lossberg, Missoula’s City Council president, further stressed the importance of taking a deep breath and processing the input the City Council has received through the ad hoc sessions.

“I don’t think my colleagues have a sense of what is exactly known and, more importantly, what the right actions are to take,” he said. “I think there’s still a bit of a gulf between the sense of you just need to act and what those actions are.”

However, this postponement of actual action has continued to dismay BIPOC community members who feel research is not needed to prove that systemic racism exists in Missoula.

Many have even suggested concrete steps that the city can take to address issues of inequity and racism, such as allocating funds to community and social services.

For Cox, who lived in Missoula for over six years before moving to Bozeman to work with the Montana Racial Equity Project, the whole proposal feels surface level.

“It feels like a feel-good thing. Missoula loves feel-good things,” she said.

Frustrated with continually sharing her experiences of being Black in Missoula, Cox, instead, insisted change needs to happen from the inside-out.

For her, the only path towards substantial change is through an internal investigation of how white supremacy plays a part in the city of Missoula’s government and city council.

“Anti-racism is a lived value. And so, we expect – BIPOC folks expect to see those values apparent throughout your institution and within your lives before you embark on this project. How do you live anti-racist values in your day-to-day life?” she asked city council members.

Iko’tsimiskimaki “Ekoo” Beck, a lifelong Missoula resident and Blackfeet Nation member, works as a community organizer for Montana Women Vote.

Like Cox, Beck agreed that investing more time and money in research is not an effective strategy.

“I also think that doing research is the wrong step at this point. I’ve lived here my entire life. Our experiences, as previously stated, have been shared a ton of times,” she said.

Instead of more research, Beck directed council members to specific action and issues they could work on addressing.

“There is a large houselessness Indigenous population in Missoula. That’s ridiculous. We’re Indigenous to this land. We should not be houseless. We should not be homeless on our own lands, right? That’s a basic level racial justice issue that you guys should be solving,” she said.

For Chloe Behan, an Indigenous community member and student at the University of Montana, the steps that City Council has taken so far to address these social justice issues feel inconsequential.

“They’re trying to use this very outward-facing solution. It is a very surface-level solution that focuses only on the appearance of the city,” she said.

“It won’t be effective for anybody’s actual life other than for city council members and the mayor to be like ‘Alright, we did that. We can stop feeling bad. We can feel better about what we’ve done for BIPOC people.’ When in reality, they haven’t done anything.”