It was back in March when the senior vice president of public affairs for Starbucks traveled to Missoula to vet Soft Landing and the city’s early efforts to help international refugees start a new life.
At the time, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who produces short films for Starbucks, was simply here on a fact-finding mission to consider Soft Landing for inclusion in this year’s “Upstanders” film series on “ordinary Americans who are bringing about extraordinary change.”
Not only did Starbucks select Soft Landing for the series, the company also has chosen Missoula as one of four cities to screen the new Upstanders films – the other three being New York City, Seattle and San Diego.
“They are highlighting individuals, but the amazing thing about this film and the effort here is that it’s really about Missoula and what Missoula has been able to do, and the enormous welcome our community has given to refugee families,” said Mary Poole.
Poole, who bills herself as the “accidental director” of Soft Landing, has become the face and voice of the local organization that tackled the once-controversial issue of resettling refugees to Missoula.
The effort traces its roots to the height of the Syrian refugee crisis and the death of a small child. It led to a national groundswell that found its way to Missoula, prompting marches down Higgins Avenue and, early on, heated debates with opponents looking to close the nation’s borders.
“It’s one of those things where it feels like it’s been the blink of an eye and a lifetime,” said Poole. “It’s incredible what can happen when a community comes together. It’s incredible what can happen when so many amazing people are at the table wanting to make this happen.”
Nearly two years later, Missoula is now home to roughly 120 refugees in 30 families from five nations, including Iraq, Syria, Congo, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Since arriving in Montana, most have become vested in the community, putting on plays, making films and diversifying the Farmers Market with ethnic food.
Their children have made friends and learned English at Missoula County Public Schools. Their lives have been transformed through community support – their lives now far removed from the strife that forced them to flee their homelands.
“I’m constantly inspired by the new families I’m meeting, just by the hard work they’ve done to set up life here,” Poole said. “What’s really exciting about now, a year later from when the first family came, a lot of them are wanting to give back.”
The success of the local effort and the fact that it sprung up in Montana – considered by some to be an unlikely place for a burgeoning resettlement program – has attracted its share of national attention.
The week that Chandrasekaran first came to Missoula, the Los Angeles Times also called for an interview. Months earlier, a film crew with the BBC came to town, producing their own short news segment.
While the early conflict helped drive the narrative and attracted the attention of the national media, Poole believes there was a second, more significant issue at play.
“Our ability to reach out to people across the divide and make that part of what we do, and act in civility and kindness, I think that’s a story that people are interested in telling,” Poole said. “Being active, despite the current national climate, can still move us forward with creating a program to welcome refugees.”
Starbucks announced its second season of Upstanders earlier this month. The series of short, uplifting films features 11 stories about Americans showing acts of courage and humanity. The first series reached 60 million people, though that’s expected to grow this year as it streams on Amazon Prime Video and Facebook’s new Watch video platform.
Starbucks’ former CEO Howard Schultz, who now serves as the company’s executive chairman, expects the series to reach 100 million viewers.
“Every one of these stories, as in Season 1, is threaded into a level of compassion, empathy, kindness, and also sorting through one’s level of unconscious bias,” Schultz told Mashable in a recent interview. “There’s a lot to be learned from the actions of these people – the behavior – at a time in America when we’re witnessing a level of a lack of civility and respect and so much vitriol.”
The international attention has been challenging for Poole, who had no experience in social justice or public relations before jumping into one of the most controversial issues in recent years. She believes Missoula stepped up to the cause and helped shape the national narrative.
Not only have the city’s new residents made Missoula a more diverse community, the larger effort has likely set the community on a new trajectory and opened up new opportunities.
“I see it and I feel it when I think about the society my kids are going to grow up in,” said Poole. “I chose to live here and I love it as it is, but it’s exciting for me to know that my son and now my daughter will have the opportunity to interact with and sit next to kids in school that had a different experience in life and have come from different places.
“It’s a mind-opening opportunity for our kids.”
The Upstanders screening opens at 6 p.m. on Monday, October, 23 at the Wilma Theater.