WORD returns to its feminist roots on 30th anniversary

Hundreds of women gathered in downtown Missoula on Wednesday to celebrate International Women’s Day and the 30th anniversary of Women’s Opportunity & Resource Development, Inc. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

More than a decade has passed since Christy Millburn and her children were living on the streets of downtown Missoula. Having fled an abusive relationship – and haunted by a drug addiction – she had no money, no shoes on her feet and no place to go.

It was late summer in 2005 when police saw the family on the downtown streets and suggested taking Millburn down to the station, citing concern for her children. She told them it wasn’t a crime to be homeless, though she had considered giving up her kids in hopes they might find a better life.

Christy Millburn

“It was such a difficult time in my life, with so many changes going on,” Millburn said. “I really went through some dark times of disparity and hopelessness where I didn’t know if I could go on any longer.”

Millburn recounted her story Wednesday before several hundred people who gathered to celebrate International Women’s Day and the 30th anniversary of Women’s Opportunity and Resource Development, Inc. – the Missoula organization that helped Millburn change the direction of her life.

While women rallied around the world to call for social justice and women’s rights, the members of WORD and its supporters also issued a challenge, saying that while the times have changed since WORD was founded, the fight has not.

And there was no mistaking the newest threat, according to Rebecca Weston.

“This (Trump) administration will still be snatching immigrants from hospital beds, will still be cutting vehicle emission regulations, will still be imposing draconian abortion laws, and will still be building oil pipelines to feed their oil-profit addiction,” she said. “Our movement will depend on huge numbers of people who have never done this before.”

Rebecca Weston

Weston, a clinical social worker at First Step Resource Center, likened the modern women’s movement to WORD’s roots as a feminist organization. Those elements remain deeply seated in the organization’s mission to support women’s development, leadership and opportunities that benefit the larger community.

Over the last couple of weeks, Weston said, she has been asked many times if Missoula would honor International Women’s Day with a strike. She urged those who asked to organize it, but time and again, she said, most backed off.

Weston said that must change if the modern women’s movement is going to gain strength.

“This fight needs all of us – the flame needs to grow,” she said. “WORD has been fighting this fight on radical footing for over 30 years. If you follow that lead, I can make a promise – you will be welcomed, you will get support, you won’t be alone, and the movement will grow.”

Wednesday’s celebration marking WORD’s 30th anniversary was planned to coincide with International Women’s Day. That came as a global call to action to raise awareness and grow support for the women’s rights movement. Events played out from Iceland to Russia, from Egypt to Brazil.

The fire that swept international cities large and small wasn’t unlike the spark that prompted the late Judy Smith to launch the Missoula organization that would eventually evolve into WORD three decades ago.

Smith, who found her activist roots in the civil rights and anti-war protests of the 1960s, helped bring the women’s rights movement to Missoula by opening the Women’s Resource Center at the University of Montana.

Anya Jabour

“Those who were involved in the Women’s Resource Center sometimes describe WORD’s creation as the WRC moving off campus,” said Anya Jabour. “Smith’s role in creating WORD exemplifies the close ties between the campus and the community that has defined Missoula’s town and gown feminism from the 1960s to the present.”

Jabour, a regents professor of history at UM and past director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program, said Smith wrote a grant for WORD in 1986 that used welfare funding to provide higher education and vocational training to low-income women.

Quoting Smith, Jabour said it wasn’t enough just to provide the services. One must also challenge the status quo and look to affect change on a broader scale.

“Smith brought feminist theory with her to work, ensuring the organization would be committed to women’s activism, as well as community service,” Jabour said. “Smith’s influence helped make WORD an innovative and feminist organization. She had the ability to see what the next wave of the movement would be. WORD became the incubator.”

That incubator has nurtured a number of successful programs that have grown out of WORD to stand on their own. They include the Missoula organization HomeWord, which provides affordable housing opportunities to area families, and Montana Women Vote.

It also gave rise to the Montana-Idaho CDC, which now deals in the tends of millions of dollars to advance the state’s economic standing through business loans and other partnerships.

“All these organizations began by addressing the needs of women in our community,” said Suzin Kratina, executive director of WORD. “All three have flown WORD’s nest to become successful organizations that continue to address the needs of women and low-income families across the state.”

Suzin Kratina

Programs with WORD have also found success, including the Families in Transition program, which provided 1,055 referrals to community resources last year. That was in addition to providing rental assistance and case management to 108 clients and families, Kratina said.

WORD is also planning its summer arts and leadership camp for children who are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. The program, Kratina said, provides lasting memories for children who wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to ride a horse or float the Clark Fork River.

With its feminist routes, the success of WORD in Missoula, coupled with the recent women’s march in Helena and other statewide efforts, have caught the nation’s attention, Weston said.

“While we aren’t in a major urban center, national eyes are on us,” she said. “Rachel Maddow has covered our movement. The Huffington Post has covered our steps. We’re among a handful of small states that people are watching as we wonder how and if this early resistance can translate into a shift in power.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com