Giving marginalized individuals a seat at the table and decentering whiteness as the majority culture in Missoula could help peck away at systemic racism, community advocates told city and county leaders on Wednesday.
Held over social media, elected officials from a newly formed committee joined members of the Community Research Project in exploring everything from police funding to racism and reforming the criminal justice system.
“I do understand the voices of marginalized individuals and how they’re moved away from the center,” said Laurelle Warner. “Right now there’s this hierarchy that always leverages the voices of those whose currency is white. If we’re going to truly begin to dismantle systematic racism, we need to understand that it comes as a direct byproduct of centering whiteness.”
The committee and the upstart research project stems from recent demonstrations calling for systemic change across a range of issues, including the criminal justice system and ensuring underrepresented community groups have a voice.
But it also looks to target deeper economic and social issues, including the city’s lack of affordable housing and doing away with what most described as the systemic racism that exists, intentionally or not, in certain sectors of society.
Warner, a social worker who is African American, said that if city leaders hope to have authentic relationships with minority constituents, then the historical experience of whiteness as the supreme currency must change.
“The focus needs to be decentering whiteness as the norm, decentering whiteness as the majority culture in Missoula,” she said. “How do we get to a place in our city where we have a sense of equity across the board, and not have one particular group that’s centered or put in a superior or higher position than all the others?”
Several City Council members expressed a desire to make sincere connections with Missoula’s Native American community, as well as other minority groups. They noted the lack of racial diversity on the City Council and asked several community leaders if they felt represented by officials who are predominately white.
“We don’t see ourselves reflected in this council,” said Jamar Galbreath. “That’s exactly what we’re talking about – the lack of representation of people of color who are in our governing bodies across the nation, and Missoula isn’t an exception to that. We’re also calling for a position to be implemented at the city and county level that will work to translate these stories and experiences. That connection can’t happen if we’re not present.”
The newly formed Community Research Project will also explore issues around police funding and proposed reforms, though they said it was too soon to offer opinions on the subject. They suggested a “bottom up approach” will uncover opinions and proposals that could inform policy and funding reforms down the road.
The city also is exploring the creation of a mobile crisis unit modeled off a similar approach in Oregon. The effort aims to remove law enforcement from 911 calls that involve mental health issues and keep those who end up in jail from landing there in the first place.
Both the city and Missoula County have each committed around $75,000 to the proposal, qualifying them to apply for a matching federal grant for a total of around $300,000. The revenue would fund the mobile crisis unit on a pilot basis for about 10 months.
“One of the things we hope comes from our mobile crisis unit is better understanding,” Engen said. “Police have capacity issues as it is, and embedding police in is likely not the protocol we’re interested in following. The notion of that separation makes a bunch of sense.”
Engen said the grant would enable local officials to analyze the program once it starts and work on additional reforms.
“We hope that through this mobile crisis grant, we can start to determine what structure and infrastructure and what those relationships look like,” he said. “In the event we don’t get this grant, I think it’s important enough that we figure out a way to do it without the grant.”