With some dissension, the Missoula City Council this week agreed to provide $75,000 in seed funding to a research project aimed at collecting minority voices, followed by recommendations on ways to correct issues of equity in local government.
LEARN Missoula, sponsored by the All Nations Health Center, emerged in June as a community group comprised largely of BIPOC members, or Black, Indigenous and People of Color.
The group was initially formed by the City Council in hopes of designing solutions to “transform Missoula into a place and a space of equality, equity and inclusion, where whiteness is decentered at a structuralized level, particularly in local government.”
Eran Pehan, director of the newly created Office of Community Planning, Development and Innovation, said updates will be provided throughout the study as the group begins to gather data.
“The outcomes generated from this work will provide the city of Missoula the foundational information that we need – that’s essential to us in moving ahead with our equity work,” said Pehan. “It’s important we recognize this is only one piece of the puzzle, but it’s an essential piece of the puzzle.”
Since coming together during the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, the startup group has honed its focus and netted seed funding to begin its work. It will include gathering BIPOC experiences and concerns to better understand their social realities and to identify ways they may be marginalized, even if it’s unintentional.
Project leader Laurelle Warner said the data-driven work will help identify the scope of structural inequality and offer recommendations on ways to improve the system.
“We’re coming from the premise that we’re living in a society where whiteness is centered. It’s nothing about whether or not people are bad. It’s a systemic issue,” Warner said.
“Our research isn’t intended to prove that that exists. But knowing that it exists, we’ll gather what BIPOC members are experiencing and take that anecdotal information to create solutions so we can all live in a place where there is equity and justice.”
All but two council members supported funding the study. Still, even supporters said they’ve heard from constituents who are questioning the use of taxpayer funds to conduct a government study on equity and social justice.
“It’s a criticism I’m hearing,” said council member Julie Merritt, who supports the effort. “Some critics say we already know systemic racism exists in our community and we don’t need to study it. We should just act. They feel it’s a waste of time to do the study.”
Council member Saundra Vasecka and John Contos voted against the funding on those very concerns. The measure passed on a 9-2 vote.
“I’m going to side with those community members who brought up those concerns,” said Vasecka. “I’ll be respectfully voting no on this.”
Those behind the study, including associate researcher Brad Hall, understood the concerns of some in the community, but said it was important to make all Missoula residents feel they’re a part of the process.
He described the city’s commitment to the program as unprecedented. Because of it, he said the program was bound to prompt some “initial squabbling.”
“By supporting this project, you’re investing in understanding,” said Hall. “The action has to be precipitated by the ability of the city to plan and develop new strategies.”
The recommended strategies could be wide ranging, from the city’s hiring practices to the language used in city ordinance. It could also include the city’s housing policies, how departments operate and various procedures, among many other topics.
Dale Bickell, the city’s chief administrative officer, said the project was a priority for Mayor John Engen and pledged the support of all city departments.
“We are expecting full participation from all our departments,” said Bickell. “We’re hoping that as a city, we look at these changes and embrace them. We’ll be a model for all organizations and businesses in the entire community.”