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Missoula County: Floyd verdict demands pursuit of more equitable, just communities

The recent guilty verdict in the murder of George Floyd demands all communities, including ours, embrace necessary changes in the socio/political landscape, revisit how we got here, and chart a new path forward.

For nearly half a millennium on this continent, we have lived within a caste system designed by European colonists to stratify people and keep those layers in place. The very concept of race itself functions as a tool to maintain these social gradations – that is indeed its purpose. This deeply internalized caste structure rationalized the creation of a country built on stolen land with stolen labor. The effects of these constructions and the immeasurable personal and generational trauma they wrought live with us to this day.

Almost all the artifacts of modern culture we take for granted – from wage scales and access to credit to urban planning and the professionalization of policing – emerged from within this system. Often we cannot see how this system constrains our choices. As public officials and as human beings, we find ourselves in this situation continually.

Some days, it feels like being a fish trying to actually see the water you’ve swam in all your life. Even if we don’t actively carry hate in our hearts, we all perpetuate this caste system when we make choices from within that same system. This historical moment, when a jury called the sanctioned killing of Black man murder, marks a step outside that system. A wall came down, and this moment demands we keep after it.

Missoula County desires to lead by example in tearing down that wall, and while we are making strides in our efforts to infuse justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) into everything we do, we still have much work ahead. Missoula County recently adopted a resolution granting a 5% bid reduction to businesses certified with the Montana Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program.

The state DBE identifies “disadvantaged” groups as racial and ethnic minorities and women and creates space for “persons who are not members of [the aforementioned groups… if they establish their ‘social’ and ‘economic’ disadvantage.” We created this policy to recognize the historical disadvantages the caste system has engendered and to level the playing field for those most impacted.

We recognize this as a small step toward a better sense of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. We also acknowledge that we can still do and be better. While we must take down barriers and address inequities, we must also customize our policies to adapt to the specific needs of our Missoula County communities. This is why we included in the resolution a commitment to undertake a study of county procurement policies to identify barriers based not only on race, ethnicity and gender, but also on gender identity or expression, ability status, sexual orientation, socio-economics and age.

To effectively pursue justice, equity, diversity and inclusion into the future, we must fully recognize and learn from the past. Following consultation with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee, the area west of Missoula formerly referred to as Mullan is now known as Sx͏ʷtpqyen, (pronounced “S-wh-tip-KAYN”), which means “Place Where Something is Cut Off and Comes to a Point.” And, just recently, at the request of Missoula County and the City of Missoula and in consultation with CSKT, the Montana Transportation Commission officially named the bridge on Higgins Avenue as Beartracks Bridge, in recognition of the highly respected Beartracks family. This name acknowledges the agonizing journey the Bitterroot Salish experienced as they crossed the Clark Fork River when the U.S government forced their migration from their homeland to the Flathead Reservation.

The names of these public places are in fact acts of public education. These efforts do not merely recognize the injustices of the past, they bring them front and center for all our reflection. We have grown accustomed to a caste system that centers historical narratives on the deeds of white people. We will not allow the uncomfortable truths of the past, like the forced removal of the Salish from the land that is now Missoula County, to be forgotten, no matter the discomfort this truth may cause.

Centuries of intention and unquestioned following brought us to this point. Creating a new way of being will also take time and intention, and as we have never truly attempted to undo the caste parameters of life in the United States we will get it wrong at times. Even so, we must roll up our sleeves and get busy, fully accepting that we will make mistakes. We need to be thoughtful and deliberate, as without such forethought creating new patterns of mind and action will feel impossible. Even so, we must dive in hard in every realm.

Our goal is to bring along the entire community with us in our internal efforts to promote JEDI and our external efforts to the community at large. But we will not cater to the lowest common denominator and only move forward when we have 100% consensus from everyone, as that typically results in no movement at all. It may have taken a century and a half to get us to where we are in western Montana; we are not of the mind that it needs to take a century and a half to get us on a better trajectory. The trick is doing so in a spirit of humility and openness rather than arrogance or indifference to opposing viewpoints.

No matter your profession, your world just like ours demands re-examination with the goal of equity. Someday the virtue of a person’s birth will not reliably predict their eventual prosperity. When that happens, we’ll know we’ve made it. There’s the finish line now we must start walking toward it.