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In wake of national unrest, Missoula leaders look to build bridges, open dialogue

City Council member Mirtha Becerra addresses a forum alongside former city council candidate Amber Shaffer. Becerra is one of several elected officials looking to establish wider community dialogue aimed at equity and meaningful change. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

With national unrest on the rise and division running deep, Missoula city and county officials are looking for a new path forward and ways to end the status quo to achieve meaningful change.

Most members of the Missoula City Council delivered a message of hope and unity during Monday night’s meeting, though the message was partially lost to technical difficulties. But several city and county leaders are looking to go further by building bridges and reaching out with inclusion in mind.

“We need to open ourselves – our ears, our minds and our hearts to everyone in this community and see things from their perspective,” council member Mirtha Becerra told the Missoula Current. “How can we intentionally include people as opposed to ensuring we’re not excluding? I think there’s a difference there.”

As civil unrest erupted in some of the nation’s largest cities on Monday, Becerra cited a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King. “Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions,” she read in part.

She reflected on that quote later in the week.

“I think our society, the framework over which we’ve built everything, has an undertone of segregation,” she said. “I think it’s been orchestrated this way for centuries. We’re just going by the status quo. The status quo isn’t working for us, so we need to do more.”

Antwon Henson leads a protest in downtown Missoula on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. “They don’t understand what we’re fighting for, and that kind of makes me angry,” he said of those who don’t understand the racial divide. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Missoula’s elected officials aren’t the only ones seeking to unravel the status quo. Demonstrators in downtown Missoula have gathered every day this week demanding change. Local law enforcement leaders also said they “have an important role to play as advocates for justice and equity.”

The pandemic has laid bare scars of inequity, coupled with another case of police brutality. Local officials are sensitive to the frustrations and are looking to turn words into action. Several have taken steps to do so, including City Council president Bryan von Lossburg.

In recent days, he has reached out to the Black Student Union at the University of Montana to thank them for organizing a peaceful rally last Friday. He’s also looking to build a new relationship with an eye toward the future.

“I have been very focused on what resonated with me,” von Lossburg said this week. “There is a collective sense of anguish and pain. There is a unified collective sense that we have deeply troubling problems we need to work on. It doesn’t come as a brand new surprise.”

It may not be so much that those relationships never existed, but they were rarely fostered with intentionality. But that could change as several old realizations have become more clear, including the composition of Montana’s elected officials, who are predominately white men.

Most of Missoula’s elected officials are also Caucasian, though more are women than men. Missoula voters have seen only two Native Americans serve on the City Council. The lack of racial diversity among the city’s elected positions is an issue needing attention.

“The reason we don’t have more diversity on our elected official positions is because maybe people of color don’t feel there’s an opportunity for them to participate,” said Becerra. “Opening that dialogue, bringing them in and making them part of these conversations might motivate them to run for office later.”

Becerra and Von Lossburg, along with others, are looking to establish a diverse panel that could inform elected leaders on a range of issues. Among them, the committee could review the city’s standing ordinances under a “broader lens,” looking for discriminatory wording that may be hidden deep in city code.

“We need to involve a broader group to make sure we’re including those eyes and ears and voices in that kind of review,” von Lossburg said. “We don’t have the collective living experience to have a full enough lens. The first step is realizing we don’t and being deliberate and intentional to make sure we’re building a forum and getting all the voices to that forum.”

Becerra believes that approach could go beyond reviewing city policies and ordinances. She and other council members are eager to hear from the city’s new chief of police, who brings ideas on how to conduct effective police work with more sensitivity.

Given the current national dialogue, Becerra believes it’s an important step.

“I’d like to see us, as a community, form a committee where we invite minority groups and start a dialogue on what things we’re doing well and where we need to improve,” she said. “I think we need to go beyond making sure that our policies and regulations and ordinances aren’t discriminatory, but be intentionally inclusive to see how we can incorporate the views and perspectives of those who could be effected.”

While Montana isn’t always known for progressive causes, Missoula has emerged in the past as a rare exception. In 2010, the city adopted the first equality ordinance in the state, protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Dave Strohmaier cast one of the votes in favor of the ordinance that April night. Now a Missoula County commissioner, he’s still pushing for social justice and equity, including the acknowledgment of the region’s minority groups.

As a commissioner, Strohmaier has spearheaded a number of efforts that have seen the county add the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe’s flag to its courthouse hearing room and renaming the room itself after Salish cultural leader Sophie Moise.

This week, he joined fellow commissioners in delivering a unified message, calling recent events unprecedented. The pandemic has disproportionately hit certain groups, he noted, including minorities and the socially disadvantaged.

But while the problems are easy to identify, they aren’t as easy to solve.

“It’s a tough one to figure out how we move forward, but we are moving forward as a community,” Strohmaier said. “We are, as we speak, recognizing that the impacts aren’t just related to this (COVID-19) disease, but related to justice. It makes one feel a bit speechless at this point in time, knowing what to do and how to find direction.”

Commissioner Juanita Vero offered similar sentiments, saying the pandemic, coupled with recent events, have laid bare a flawed system that lacks justice for all.

“The outrage and injustice that’s been demonstrated and people are feeling is connected,” she said. “It’s important for the dominate culture to recognize its role in creating a system that does not serve all of us but only serves some of us.”