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BIPOC members working with Missoula leaders to explore issues of race, inequity

Demonstrators gather for the BLM movement in downtown Missoula over the summer. A new BIPOC committee created by the City Council will explore issues of race and inequity. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

In June, LEARN Missoula emerged as a predominantly BIPOC group created by the Missoula City Council after concerns were issued on matters of race, inequity and oppression. Members of LEARN have now updated their proposal and will present it to the City Council this month.

LEARN stands for Listening, Engaging, Action, Reflection Network, which spells out the core of what the plan to do. The perpetual research project will establish evidence through a mixture of methods. Then, it will look to make meaningful, long-lasting solutions on matters of equity and race within the city of Missoula, said LEARN member Brad Hall.

“What has happened after the evidence is what matters. Are you going to have a land acknowledgement that’s hollow? Or, are you going to use that to elevate BIPOC voices and elevate things in our community that are really needed?” Hall said.

The research will be conducted in two ways, through a city-wide audit and through interviews in Missoula. Their primary method is qualitative research through the interviews they plan to conduct. LEARN will engage in interviews with BIPOC community members and key informants.

According to a statement by LEARN member Laurellé C. Warner, people interviewed will describe their lived experiences and focus on their experiences of systemic racism, bias and inequality in Missoula in measurable ways.

“A crucial aspect of these conversations is encouraging BIPOC residents to envision and design a just, safe, inclusive and equitable Missoula where they have an ongoing sense of safety, place, belonging and well-being,” the document stated.

Hall said the interviews will enable BIPOC Missoulians to speak up where they might otherwise have been uncomfortable.

“What we’re finding is that outside of the university, there’s a lot of things that have happened in our community that despite where someone works or what connections they have, BIPOC people are still very vulnerable in the sense that there’s this trust that has to be culled,” Hall said.

Using interviews as their primary method of research is preferable, they said, because it is “difficult to argue against personal experience.” They can also elevate the experiences of BIPOC in credible ways.

“People may debate viewpoints on a range of topics or issues, but when an individual tells a deeply personal lived experience, even skeptics are impacted by the power of the narrative,” Warner’s document stated.

LEARN Missoula member Kaʻaumoana Ahina emphasized the value in hearing BIPOC voices and seeking out potential differences and similarities.

“It is not only the quantitative amount in the search, but really the stories and experiences of these people that help contribute to this data that we will be collecting. That’s really important,” Ahina said. “We don’t want to retrigger experiences. We want to let these people know that their experiences are being elevated to recommend to our city how to be better.”

From the conversations, LEARN will create an action plan for local leaders in city and Missoula County government that will privilege BIPOC-generated solutions and strategies.

The other part of the research audit is focused on examining municipal departments and archived data through a racial justice lens. It will also look at how the departments collect data, what is collected and how the data is used.

This data, in tandem with interviews from various municipal representatives, will help the group identify gaps and whether the data implicitly reinforces biases and inequity, according to Warner’s document.

It will also provide greater support to the project’s recommendations.

“It’s contextual support that makes them more able to identify certain nuances with BIPOC experience in this community, and ultimately allow this to become a replicable model for how other cities in Montana and middle America address similar issues on race and equity,” Hall said.

Hall described the LEARN proposal as perpetual. While the needs of the community might shift over time, they are “what the community needs us to be.”

What that currently means is research and having their proposal solidified, according to Hall.

However, their main aim is not to just explain inequity in Missoula, but to “serve as a call to justice” through action. That means the practical and applied knowledge they will obtain through their research will be applied to their BIPOC-generated action plans, Warner’s statement said.

After collecting and conducting their research, they hope to engage with other people interested in issues of inequity, injustice and oppression. It’s their unique collaboration with the City Council that makes them stand out, said Hall.

“The city has put this space for us and we are definitely filling that space,” Hall said.