On June 15th, Missoula formed a new ad hoc City Council committee with the intention of addressing issues of public safety and systemic racism.
The group held two virtual meetings over the summer to discuss details surrounding a research project that will collect information and narratives from BIPOC community members on their experiences of marginalization and oppression in Missoula.
The information gathered from the research is intended to be used to suggest a more concrete action plan.
But some BIPOC community members view the research proposal as an easy way out – merely kicking the can of actual action and progress down the road.
“We absolutely do not need another research project to prove that racism is real or put Black folks or POC trauma on the line for y’all to learn about racism,” said Meshayla Cox of the Montana Racial Equity Project during the committee’s second virtual meeting on July 1.
“The evidence is as clear as day and has been stated in various ways from BIPOC folks in the Missoula community for decades.”
For Cox, who lived in Missoula for over six years before moving to Bozeman to work with the Montana Racial Equity Project, the whole proposal feels surface level.
“It feels like a feel-good thing. Missoula loves feel-good things,” she said.
Frustrated with continually sharing her experiences of being Black in Missoula, Cox instead insisted that change needs to happen from the inside-out.
For her, the only path toward substantial change is through an internal investigation of how white supremacy plays a part in the city of Missoula’s government and City Council.
“Anti-racism is a lived value. And so we expect – BIPOC folks expect – to see those values apparent throughout your institution and within your lives before you embark on this project. How do you live anti-racist values in your day-to-day life?” she asked City Council members.
Iko’tsimiskimaki “Ekoo” Beck, a lifelong Missoula resident and Blackfeet Nation member, works as a community organizer for Montana Women Vote.
Like Cox, Beck agreed that investing more time and money into research is not an effective strategy.
“I also think that doing research is the wrong step at this point. I’ve lived here my entire life. Our experiences, as previously stated, have been shared a ton of times,” they said.
Instead of more research, Beck directed council members to specific action and issues they could work on addressing.
“There is a large houselessness Indigenous population in Missoula. That’s ridiculous. We’re Indigenous to this land. We should not be houseless. We should not be homeless on our own lands, right? That’s a basic level racial justice issue that you guys should be solving,” she said.
Despite such concerns, project leaders say meaningful change won’t happen overnight and that research gathered for the project will be useful down the road in creating strategies.
The Ad Hoc Committee for Public Safety and Systemic Racism has pushed ahead with its research proposal and original plan. Among the committee’s first tasks was to connect with local communications firm Six Pony Hitch for help in assembling a team to conduct the research project.
The owner and creative director of Six Pony Hitch, Spider McKnight, has reached out to several BIPOC community members in Missoula with experience in research and community engagement.
The researchers came together to form a group known as LEARN Missoula, which hopes to better represent BIPOC voices and fight for a more equitable Missoula.
In a LEARN Missoula press response, the organization noted that they “are not a project of the City Council but appreciate their willingness to help support this project.”
In the ad hoc committee’s first virtual meeting on June 24, McKnight gave a tentative timeline noting that, as soon as the project is funded, 12 weeks will be taken to conduct the research involved with the LEARN proposal.
However, an updated timeline was given during a City Council Committee of the Whole meeting on Nov. 18 to address the changing scope of the project.
“The timeline for this work, should City Council approve this contract and we proceed, will be a one-year, recursive model,” said Eran Pehan, director of the Office of Community Planning, Development and Innovation.
“And the recursive model allows for the dissemination of information throughout because the research will be building upon itself as they move through the process.”
During the Nov. 18 meeting, the City Council agreed to provide $75,000 in seed funding to LEARN’s research project.
Although the postponement of more concrete action has dismayed many BIPOC individuals in Missoula, members of the City Council and the LEARN team said they’re committed to creating systemic and sustainable change.
Mirtha Becerra, who chairs the ad hoc committee, acknowledged some of these community members concerns.
“I think for those who have experienced any racism or any discrimination, I know it feels like we don’t need to do any more research to find out what’s blatantly obvious sometimes,” she said.
However, for Becerra, creating meaningful and systemic change in Missoula simply cannot happen as soon as some want due to how complex of an issue it is.
“I think that it’s important for us to have change that is sustainable change. That is meaningful. And all of that cannot happen so quickly, unfortunately,” she said. “In order to make that possible, we need to take it a little bit more slowly, more cautiously but with the full intent of it being a meaningful change.”
Dr. Laurellé C. Warner serves as the project lead and head researcher for LEARN Missoula. For Warner, data collection is a necessary step before committing to more specific action steps.
“Our focus is on gaining data-informed, BIPOC-generated knowledge. It’s very important to us that anything that we present is data-driven and that it is driven data directly from the viewpoints and voices of the BIPOC community,” she said during the Committee of the Whole meeting.
Warner went on to explain that data is not being collected just for the sake of collecting data.
“Data isn’t intended to just be collected and then sit. Data is intended to then inform how do we then go about making changes,” she said.