Political strategies

Missoula struggles with equity strategies

The City of Missoula grapples with the nebulous nature of implementing justice, equity, diversity and inclusion solutions for the community.

Spurred by the political climate in 2020, the city has taken initiatives to improve JEDI work across the city, including a study of city operations from a JEDI lens. City staff and city councilors analyzed the study results last week, but ran into challenges outlining precisely what tools to put into practice.

“We need to have very clear intentions,” said James Whitfield, keynote speaker at the city’s inaugural JEDI Summit in October. Whitfield founded Be Culture, an organization that helps boards, executives, and civic leaders develop their corporate culture.

The concept of fairness “tends to be squishy for people,” Whitfield said. To solve this problem, the solutions must be practical “so that people can both understand it and do it”.

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“Equity means that people share ownership of what happens,” he explained.

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Ward 3 Councilor Gwen Jones pointed to the long history of inequity as another obstacle the city faces in trying to implement fair practices.

“The bottom line for me is that over the past 150 to 180 years, non-native people have resided in this valley, many actions have been taken and many of them have had a huge impact on others” , she said. “But I also think if we just look at the fact, if we look at the statistics in terms of people incarcerated in Missoula, poverty rates, education levels, all kinds of data points, there’s clearly a huge room for improvement for us to make this place a better place for everyone.

“We don’t have a clear path to follow because it’s a tough thing,” Jones added.

Last week, city councilors exemplified the challenge as they grappled with the vagueness of JEDI’s work. Advisors were repeatedly frustrated by the lack of concrete tools they could take from Warner’s report to implement in their day-to-day work.

Instead of offering tangible solutions, the conversation focused on ironing out definitions such as “everyone” and “everyone,” based on the idea that some uses of these terms leave out marginalized communities. .

The discussion also touched on land acknowledgments, and while scholars cautioned against performative land acknowledgments, city councilors seized on actionable alternatives to superficial statements.

“I recognize that how we measure success and how we understand what the real, tangible goals are is something that a lot of people struggle with,” Ward 4 representative Mike Nugent said. “And that’s something that, as we kind of develop our communications plan, I think that’s something that maybe we can improve on in how we share that strategic goal with the community.”

Councilors Heidi West and Sandra Vasecka, representing Wards 1 and 6 respectively, were particularly outspoken in expressing their disappointment with the study.

Vasecka, who originally opposed the study, reiterated his dissatisfaction with the use of $75,000 in city funds to support the research. She said she thinks the money would have been better spent on improving access to local government, rather than racialized experiences.

“We cannot fight racism with racism,” she said.

But in her presentation on her team’s equity study regarding the experiences of Black, Indigenous and people of color in Missoula, researcher Laurelle Warner pointed to ongoing work that the city has yet to undertake. to improve equity at the local level.

In his work interviewing BIPOC residents and reviewing city operations, Warner said he found an alarming trend.

“A large percentage of white residents in Missoula have a self-evident perception of themselves as forward-thinking, open-minded, and accepting, especially compared to other parts of Montana,” Warner noted.

This perception glosses over the lived experiences of racism and exclusion experienced by BIPOC individuals in and around Missoula, she said.

Respondents to the study, for example, identified the assumption that a lack of diversity in Missoula means the city is free to deal with racism at the local level.

Many think “the problem doesn’t exist here,” Warner said.

Warner countered that the problem exists, according to his research, and manifests itself in everyday interactions and institutionalized systems. People of color said they were uncomfortable, for example, with frequent questions about their origin, rooted in the assumption that they weren’t born in Missoula.

“Missoula is really a mostly white space,” Warner acknowledged. But she added, “… there (is) a very diverse group (of people of color in Missoula). Yeah, it might not be that big, but we’re here.

When it comes to enacting shared ownership, a few important principles should be followed, according to Whitfield.

Equity work should include people on the margins, and facilitators, he said, should be aware of where they set the metaphorical table so that everyone has a seat and a common definition of success. Equity work should also identify barriers to achieving this success and encourage genuine collaboration among all parties to achieve this common goal. Equity work, Whitfield added, should be iterative and ongoing.

“It’s not a one-off conversation,” he said.

The City of Missoula is working to achieve these goals through a myriad of programs, and the report discussed last week presented additional findings and tools to improve these efforts.

The city’s JEDI Strategic Implementation Task Team was formed in the spring, and JEDI training for all employees was launched this fall. City staff also highlighted the JEDI benefits of efforts such as the Affordable Housing Resident Oversight Committee, Mobile Support Team and Operation Shelter’s umbrella for homelessness initiatives.

Warner credited the city for engaging in difficult conversations about fairness and injustice, but stressed the remaining need for the city to implement solutions to these issues.

“On a grassroots level, the city is doing very well,” Warner said. “He welcomes topics that could be challenging and challenging.”

But the city is struggling, she said, to update strategies to address these topics.

West, meanwhile, took issue with the report’s tendency to raise questions rather than offer answers. She said she cried after reading the report because she was so disappointed with her prescriptions.

“I was really hoping, what I thought we were going to do further with this report LEARN (Listening, Engaging, Action and Reflection Network) was really trying to identify where we could fix our systems to address this if there are things in our system that creates inequities that we could identify and restructure or create policies to correct them,” West told Missoulian.

She noted that the report focused heavily on the methodology and process of gathering information, but she said, “When it comes to deliverables, there weren’t as many concrete things that I can go away and say. “Okay, that’s how we’re going to fix things and improve them.

“I was just hoping for more tools to be able to identify and solve the problems that we need to solve,” she added. “I didn’t feel like it really provided that.”

“But I’m sure we can take what’s there and try to move forward,” West said. She highlighted suggestions such as improving pay equity as a workable solution she could take from the report.

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