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AARP announced its 10 2023 Purpose Prize fellows, all nonprofit founders, who will receive $10,000 for their organization which includes Montana-based Founder and Executive Director of The Montana Racial Equity Project, Judith Heilman.

The one-of-a-kind national award honors people age 50-plus who have proven that they are using their knowledge and life experience to make a difference.

BOZEMAN, MT – The Board of Directors of The Montana Racial Equity Project (MTREP) has announced the retirement of its Founding Executive Director, Judith Heilman, effective June 30, 2022.

It is, and always has been, hazardous to be a Black person in America. Our lives are at risk while grocery shopping, while walking, while driving, while jogging, while bird watching, while studying, while praying, while sleeping, while working, and countless other manners of existing.

The white supremacist gunman in Buffalo engaged in racially motivated violent extremism, murdered ten Black people, and injured three others while they were grocery shopping and working. He plotted and carried out this massacre because he was convinced that a cabal was plotting the overtaking of white people by racial and religious minorities in America.

There’s simply no reasonable argument one can make for keeping Davis on our maps. That argument would have to be in defense of a man who so firmly believed in slavery that he started a war that took the lives of approximately 750,000 Americans and, a few decades later, wrote this: “It has been said that I should apply to the United States for a pardon. But repentance must precede the right of pardon, and I have not repented. If it were all to do over again, I would again do just as I did in 1861.”

Where do we, as Montanans stand now? Have we slacked off? Has finally coming out of pandemic-induced isolation and the guilty verdict in the murder of George Floyd caused Bozemanites and Montanans to become slack about ever-present injustice and inequities towards BIPOC? To some degree — yes. To this, we say do not let the verdict on the murder of George Floyd let you drop into complacency

The Montana Racial Equity Project and American Civil Liberties Union of Montana announced in an open letter to Helena City Manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk that they are withdrawing from future meetings of the city's recently formed school resource officer working group unless certain changes are made.

“I think it’s a good first step. We’re acknowledging that inequities do exist. Right?" asked Cox. "Because we’re looking to measure them. We’re going to recognize exactly what those are, so we can at least diagnose the problem, and then we can move on to solving it.”

Chris Young-Greer is the education initiative lead for the nonprofit Montana Racial Equity Project. She says educators would benefit from the federal program and that Arntzen’s attempt to block teachers from participating is wrong.

“It seems to me that she’s actively seeking to thwart the education process. And while this may not have any teeth, it sets a very dangerous precedent.”

The Montana Racial Equity Project has joined the Montana Human Rights Network, the Forward Montana Foundation, the Mai Wah Society, the Montana Wilderness Association, and The Wilderness Society in Renaming Jeff Davis Peak and Jeff Davis Creek, located in the southern stretch of the Bitterroot Range in Beaverhead County, as well as Jeff Davis Gulch, just south of Helena's city limits in Lewis and Clark County.

Last summer was a moment of reckoning for the city of Bozeman and the surrounding area. Thousands of people showed up in support of Black lives and to protest the killing of yet another black man at the hands of police. Just because Chauvin was convicted does not mean that this fight is over.

A word from our Executive Director and Founder about the legacy of the Montana Racial Equity Project.

A guest column, by our director, Judith Heilman, regarding the challenges diversity faces in Bozeman.

"A group focused on racial equity in Bozeman is urging schools to close for in-person learning, as COVID-19 cases rise and heavily impact Indigenous and Black families."

A Statement From The Montana Racial Equity Project's Health, Wellness, and Special Projects Coordinator, Rae BirdHat Howe, MS, on the rising COVID cases in Montana.

"More concerning, said Heilman, a former police officer, is the use of the 8 Can’t Wait campaign to guide part of the city’s review...the concept has since been found to be misleading and detracting from real progress, Heilman said. The founders of the campaign have apologized for it. Many big cities, like San Francisco and Chicago, already have all 8 steps in place and police brutality is still a problem in those places.

“You can adopt these things and still be a very problematic police department,”

Heilman said she’s surprised the Montana Racial Equity Project wasn’t asked to help with the review. She said that her team may compile their concerns in a letter to send to the city and will attend during Monday’s commission meeting."

Heilman said it’s impossible to even begin looking at how the city can become a more inclusive place when not a single person from the black, indigenous and people of the color community were consulted in the analysis of how the city is performing so far. Heilman says she appreciates the city of Bozeman recognizing there’s lots of work to be done but says the process must include people from the BIPOC community, from start to finish.

The recents protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis are far from the first time the United States has had a national reckoning with racism and police violence.

The reckoning has come to Montana, too.

"A rally in Missoula Sunday drew hundreds to decry the presence of armed vigilantes at racial justice demonstrations. The gathering was spurred after one person was allegedly harassed and attacked by a group of armed individuals during a protest held at the county courthouse over a week ago."

"May 31, 2020. A rally for black lives led by the Bozeman BIPOC community. 2,000 people peacefully took to the streets to demand justice, to say their names, to honor George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless other black brothers and sisters murdered because of the color of their skin. Montana is not free until black lives matter. No justice, no peace. Sponsored by the MSU Black Student Union and the Montana Racial Equity Project."

Friday, June 5, 2020. 5,000 people in the small town of Bozeman, Montana took to Main Street to call for a more racially just, free and welcoming home to all.

Please follow the Montana Racial Equity Project and the Black Student Union at MSU, for this work would not happen without their leadership and heart.

Words by Jessica Brito, Shane Doyle, Meshayla Cox and Cora Neumann.

"Friday, June 5, 2020. 5,000 people in the small town of Bozeman, Montana took to Main Street to call for a more racially just, free and welcoming home to all. Please follow the Montana Racial Equity Project and the Black Student Union at MSU, for this work would not happen without their leadership and heart."

"A Gallatin County judge reduced bail Wednesday from $500,000 to $25,000 for a Florida man (Joshua David Blair) arrested in connection to a string of thefts last month believed to be part of an organized crime ring. The decision came as protesters and attorneys inside and out of the courtroom argued the high bail was excessive, oppressive and based on “his race and not the criminal history and the facts of this case.”"

"Organizers for Bozeman’s Black Lives Matter rallies didn’t know what to expect when they started planning the first one, two days in advance.

Jessica Brito, the treasurer for the Black Student Union at Montana State University, said they thought they’d be lucky if a few hundred people showed up. She graduated from Bozeman High School. She remembers being called names when walking the hallways."

"To protesters, the justification for bringing weapons can sound like a thin cover for racist steretopying. Because no matter how peaceful the Black Lives Matter rallies are, armed groups are still there — the Flathead Patriot Guard, the Yellowstone Militia of Billings, and the III%, to name a few. They upped their presence in early June, after rumors started spreading on social media about antifa protesters getting bussed in from out of state. Now, police say those accounts were unfounded. But armed, white civilians keep showing up."

A two-part story about Black Lives Matter organizing in Montana.

MSU released a report Thursday outlining what happened when Officer Angela Roundtree got involved in a Jan. 8 traffic stop and had a verbal altercation with Krystle Saatjian, who was pulled over for speeding. During the altercation, Roundtree told Saatjian “this isn’t where you came from.” Saatjian is black.

An organizer of local rallies for racial justice said Friday the group plans to request that the Bozeman City Commission redistribute police funding for its next budget.

The city’s proposed budget is under review, and the city commission plans to vote on a final budget June 22. Around 30% of the city’s general fund, which is about 8% of the city’s total budget, would go toward police funding

After moving to Bozeman in 2005, Judith Heilman was sure she knew every other Black person who lived here.

“But I gave that up a long time ago,” she said, laughing.

As Black, brown and Indigenous folks here at The Montana Racial Equity Project, we have been working on trying to get our necks free from knees, nooses and lashings for centuries. We’ve had very little actual help from white folks. The white passivity for actual, meaningful change has been a hindrance, not a help. No one residing in the U.S. and Montana can be passive. Now is the time to take action and advance as an ally.

Universal background checks. Banning high capacity magazines and semi-automatic weapons. Increasing access to mental health services. Those were the rallying cries for more than a dozen people gathered in front of the Gallatin County Courthouse on Friday afternoon.

Join us in celebrating this new version of Big Sky Pride.

In a scene that likely won't leave the minds of many in Bozeman for years to come - as many as 5,000 people lined along Main Street in a show of peaceful solidarity with the black and indigenous members of the community before taking nearly ten minutes of silence to recognize the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being held under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer in May.

"To raise money for causes highlighted by Bozeman’s recent Black Lives Matter marches, a local group will hold on July 25 the Godfrey Saunders Run for Social Justice."

Here we are over 100 years later and we are participating in a sick sort of voyeurism, posting videos and photos of dead and dying black people in the name of activism and awareness. This is my plea for non-black folks to stop glorifying black trauma.

Dateline Dec. 19, 2018, KBZK News
by Emma Hamilton

(see video at title hyperlink)

BELGRADE, Mont. – Curry Express is a well-known authentic Indian restaurant in Belgrade.

The owners took to Facebook recently and shared offensive messages that were exchanged between them and one Belgrade man.

Owner Raj Singh posted a video of their lunch buffet and Richard Suttles made the decision to comment on it.

Suttles said he was “going to puke.”

The owners responded, saying to “not be disrespectful and have some manners.”

Suttles commented back, “Your race is a insult [sic] to the Earth. You come here and get a hand out and don’t do manual labor here but make a killing off our tax dollars,” concluding his post with profanity.

Over 100 shares and over 300 comments later, the community in the Gallatin Valley is expressing their disapproval of Suttles’ comment.

The Singhs say they are not only heartbroken by the comment but have also become nervous for their safety.

“It scares us because he might also have other people with him. Like I said, birds of a feather flock together. They might not be outside wearing a tee shirt, ‘Hey, I’m racist’ but the thoughts are there,” Raj Singh said.

This isn’t something the couple has ever experienced directly.

Judith Heilman, founder and executive director of the Montana Racial Equity Project, says it may not be immediately apparent, but there is racism in the community.

“People love to think about Bozeman as a very welcoming community, as very down to earth, and people are helping one another — and there is a lot of that. Bozeman is also like any other city, suburb, small-town rural area in Montana and in any other state. Racism does exist. Discrimination is here,” said Heilman.

The Singhs also have concerns for other minorities in the community.

“It’s not just scary for us, it’s just the thought that prevails that might be scary for other ethnic groups and other ethnic communities. This happens to us, it can happen to anyone. There’s Chinese, there’s Japanese, there’s a few African Americans here, there’s very few Indians here, there’s Mexicans here,” said Raj.

One Curry Express customer and Belgrade resident was shocked and angry to see this happening right before her eyes but wasn’t happy with how some responded publicly to Suttles.

“There were a couple people that made some hateful comments back to him, and I just write back saying hey, hate is not the way to answer this,” Amanda Stewart said.

Raj said, “I’m proud to be an American, I’m proud to be in this country, I’m proud to be a citizen.”

We reached out to Richard Suttle and he has not responded.

The Singhs add that they are grateful for the love and support they have received from the community.

Heilman said there is a workshop in January that speaks to what happened to the Singhs. You can find more information on it here.

Dateline - Belgrade, MT, 12/19/2018
by Abby Lynes Chronicle Staff Writer, Bozeman Daily Chronicle

A Belgrade business owned by an Indian family received racist comments on its Facebook page Tuesday.

A man using an account with the name Richard Suttles commented on a promotional video Curry Express posted on its Facebook page Dec. 14, saying he was going to puke.

Raj Singh, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Priyanka Singh, and manages the Facebook page, replied to the comment and asked the man to be respectful. What came next was something the Singhs did not expect.

“Your race is an insult to the earth,” Suttles wrote. “You come here get a handout but make a killing off our tax dollars. So to that. Go [expletive] yourself.”

The Singhs said their initial reaction was shock, then sadness. And then came fear.

“It’s something you wouldn’t expect from a town like Belgrade, a community that is close-knit,” Raj Singh said.

Neither he nor Priyanka had ever met the man before, whose Facebook profile said he lives in Belgrade. Everything in his post was wrong, they said. Raj Singh has lived in the U.S. for 25 years, he said, and he and his wife have worked hard.

“Did this restaurant, this table, just come and fall in my lap?” he said.

The Singhs also said this is the first time they’ve experienced this kind of racism in Belgrade, but that it shows that racism is prevalent everywhere.

“We have to grow, we have to educate, we have to inform others,” Raj Singh said.

The Chronicle could not confirm much about Suttles’ identity, though someone by the name of Richard Suttles did file for a business license in 2013.

When the Chronicle tried calling the number listed for the business on various websites, the person who answered hung up after this reporter explained the nature of the call.

Hundreds of comments have appeared on Suttles’ profile since Tuesday night, calling him a racist and referring to his post on Curry Express’ page. Hundreds also commented on the restaurant’s page to voice their support for the owners and call out Suttles for his actions.

When Raj Singh shared a screenshot of Suttles’ comment on his restaurant’s Facebook page, he said he didn’t expect the post to go viral. He was just sharing his sadness, he said. The post had been shared more than 140 times and had more than 180 comments as of press time Wednesday.

“The response of the community was past expectation,” Priyanka Singh said.

Despite that outpouring of support, the Singhs said they’re both still scared. Raj Singh said the comment heightens his fears for when Priyanka Singh goes out to run an errand, or when his two kids, ages 5 and 7, go to the park with their friends.

“Racial confrontation in the U.S. is not a small thing,” he said. “It’s huge.”

There are a few different things people can do to support the Singhs, said Judith Heilman, Montana Racial Equity Project founder and executive director.

Calling Suttles out on social media is not a productive use of people’s time, she said.

“Instead, communicate with people you might actually have a productive conversation with,” she said.

Another way people can help is by patronizing Curry Express, she said. They can also donate their time, talent and money to organizations working to combat racism and different forms of prejudice. Montana Racial Equity Project also regularly holds workshops to help people learn how to deal with racism.

The name of the class used to be called “Dismantling Hatred,” she said. Now, it’s called “Ending Bias, Bigotry and Racism: Skills and Strategies You Can Use.”

The organization changed the name because racism isn’t always as blatant as Suttles’ comment, Heilman said. It happens every day, and it can be subtle.

“So many people think you have to have hate in your heart to act in this matter,” she said. “So much of it is unconscious.”

Abby Lynes can be reached at or 406-582-2651. Follow her on Twitter @Abby_Lynes.