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Missoula County approves JEDI board, task force in pursuit of equity

Immigration Naturalization
Posted at 12:19 PM, Jan 06, 2023

MISSOULA - Saying oppressive rhetoric and legislation in Montana has left some feeling more vulnerable, Missoula County on Thursday approved the creation of an advisory board to pursue issues around justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI), and offer recommendations to commissioners.

It also approved the creation of a task force to draft the bylaws that will govern the board. The task force was given one year and unidentified resources to achieve its goals, which will include bylaws and rules around selecting advisory board members.

The Missoula City Council will consider doing the same on Monday night.

The city and county adopted a resolution back in 2021 stating their commitment to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, or JEDI. The resolution called for a collaboration between the two governments in creating the JEDI advisory board.

“Over the course of 16 months, a lot of hard work from a number of community members who are dedicated, thoughtful and inquisitive have put together this resolution,” said Erika Grinde, the county's risk management officer. “It asks that an advisory board be created as a means to provide input to county commissioners.”

The resolution adopted by the county on Thursday suggests that “oppressive rhetoric and legislation in the state and around the country have left many community members across Missoula County feeling more vulnerable.”

It adds that those community members reflect diverse identities including race, religion, non-binary status, refugee status, transgender and the homeless. Such marginalized groups, the resolution suggests, face systemic inequities and barriers ranging from a lack of internet access to credit.

“Missoula County continues to pursue a more inclusive vision of justice to ensure that all people, especially those individuals and communities more adversely impacted by structural and systemic inequities, can enjoy their inviolable dignity,” the resolution states. “Missoula County recognizes that to deconstruct these inequities successfully, it must include the individuals and groups most impacted by them in our effort.”

Jamier Seabrook
Jamier Seabrook was one of three appointed by Missoula County to a JEDI task force that will create the bylaws for the JEDI advisory board.

If the Missoula City Council follows suit on Monday, the city and county would together work to create a single board that would work on JEDI issues and advise both governments on future decisions.

But first, Grinde said, a task force must be created to draft the board's eventual bylaws. On Thursday, the county named three individuals to the task force including Wilena Old Person, Dexter Royce and Rajiem Seabrook.

“When I hear the word guide, it indicates someone is lost,” Seabrook said. “In this day and age where people are really starting to work together, it's more of a community collaborative effort instead of being guided by and guided for. Part of that construct is what got us here to begin with.”

Rights guaranteed in the Montana Constitution

The county based its resolution calling for the creation of the JEDI advisory board on language gleaned from the Montana Constitution, which guarantees the right of all individuals to “a clean and healthful environment and the rights of pursuing life's basic necessities.”

The clause goes on to include the right to defend one's life and liberty, to acquire, possess and protect property, and to seek “their safety, health and happiness in all lawful ways.” The resolution also suggests that the Montana legislature has tendered “oppressive rhetoric and legislation” that contradicts those rights and thus requires action at the local level.

The three individuals assigned to the task force will begin working to establish the JEDI board's rules and recruitment efforts this month and were given one year to complete the task. Commissioners praised their selection, as did other supporters.

“I worked alongside them over the last four months. They've been supportive, optimistic, and they're strong leaders in the community,” said Rozlyn Haley. “I want to share my confidence in this group in being able to move these efforts forward. I consider them superheroes in this work.”

Not all in favor of JEDI efforts

In adopting the 2021 resolution that set up this week's vote, the county received opposition from some who suggested the JEDI principles were rooted in fear. Some also said the document was inherently racist in its language by naming certain groups and placing them above others.

One opponent has suggested that “taxpayers already pay for a variety of programs that help a variety of people without regard to their background, race, or economic status.”

Former City Council candidate Alan Ault said, "I firmly believe this is not necessary. It's covered in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights. This is just a waste of taxpayer money.”

Commissioners and city officials at the time disagreed and supporters in the past have offered data backing their work, saying that roughly 32% of Montana's Native American population lives in poverty, as does 18% of the state's Hispanic population.

A past resolution suggests that Native Americans are disproportionately affected by health disparities like substance abuse and depression. They also suffer from other social issues that play a role in health, such as poverty and a lack of health insurance.

“We have not in the past had any intentional efforts toward justice, equity, diversity and inclusion,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick in face of opposition last year. “We're going to commit ourselves to work with our partners. We're going to commit ourselves to create a roadmap toward equity.”