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Our Community First: Montana Racial Equity Project

By Missy O'Malley - MTN News

For this month’s COMMUNITY FIRST recipient, we recognize the Montana Racial Equity Project. In the past two years, they have been advocating social and racial justice issues through education, information, workshops, rallies and much more.  Here's a look how they are making a difference in the valley and state. 

Flyers promoting anti- Semitic messages pop up again

May 21, 2017, KBZK-TV


Saturday, anti-Semitic pamphlets were dropped in one of Bozeman's neighborhoods, this is the second time this has happened to those residents in 10 days.

Sunday, anyone that opposes these types of ideals was asked to march to the Bozeman Library. 

The Montana Racial Equity project and the Montana Human Rights Network organized the walk and rally to spread the word of unity among Bozeman residents.

To raise awareness to the community as a whole not only that this terrible thing has happened but that we will always resist it and oppose it and stand together as a community." Said Dan Lourie, a victim of the anti-Semitic literature.

Around 30 people marched down Main Street holding signs expressing love and equality.


May 18, 2017

As organizations who work tirelessly to combat racial discrimination in Montana, we share the concerns of the Indigenous community regarding the racially inflammatory costumes and behavior displayed during the Helena Vigilante Day Parade. The perpetuation of Native American stereotypes exemplified by the Buffalo Jump float in the parade is unacceptable. We are calling on the Helena Public Schools administration to review and update their approval policy for floats in order to provide for adequate vetting.

While student participation in a tradition that is meant to honor Montana’s history is laudable, it is the responsibility of the school district to ensure that the parade does not marginalize or misrepresent Native communities, heritage, or contributions to this state. Most importantly, the controversy that has erupted illustrates the need for a dedicated community conversation about race, discrimination, and what honoring the history of our Indigenous friends and neighbors actually means. We encourage Helena Public Schools to begin facilitating these conversations with the community and to join us in taking responsibility for providing and seeking further education regarding racial equity, Indigenous history, and the appropriate way to honor both.


Montana Human Rights Network

ACLU of Montana

Extreme History Project

Sweetgrass Society

Montana Women Vote

Montana Racial Equity Project

Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence

Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance

Montana Hate Free Zone

Montana Racial Equity Project objects to Vigilante Parade floats

May 17, 2017, Helena Independent Record

By Judith Heilman

The Montana Racial Equity Project objects to the racially insensitive floats in the Vigilante Parade that took place in Helena, Montana on Friday, May 12, 2017.

Last Friday, the City of Helena experienced its annual Vigilante Parade. The public Parade has been fielded by its two high schools for years. Though misrepresentation of Native Americans has been complained about for years to varying degrees, this year, one particular Facebook post objecting to particular Native American themed floats went viral.

It was correctly pointed out that students on the float were wearing scantily-clad stereotypical “squaw” clothing. Faces were painted red. Teepees bore gibberish symbols. And even stereotypical “whoops” were heard from the float itself and/or engendered by the floats from the crowd. That was not careful nor accurate representation; it was neocolonialist, culturally-appropriative and racist. MTREP believes that breakdowns in education and communication led to these inappropriate floats. Most of the pushback on the original post is reflective of a lack of understanding of how prejudice, bigotry, and racism reveal themselves in our society. It is very mistaken to insist that those objectionable portrayals of Native Americans were just fine.

The mission of the Montana Racial Equity Project is to advocate racial equity and justice. We know that educating and promoting awareness of the many factors that can produce insensitive actions that are very damaging to our whole society, is essential before we can even begin to change that within ourselves and our society that promotes them. Sadly, the original poster has received multiple online threats and attacks that are only reductive and harmful to any positive action. We encourage Helena Public Schools to carefully examine its Indian Education policies and institute strong changes in order to prevent such future offensive parade floats.

Judith Heilman is the executive director of The Montana Racial Equity Project in Bozeman. 

Message of love, respect highlight Bozeman anti-hate rally

May 5, 2017 | Bozeman Daily Chronicle

By Whitney Bermes Chronicle Staff Writer

Photos by Rachel Leathe, Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Bozeman’s religious leaders, community activists and law enforcement wanted to make one thing absolutely clear.

Bozeman is a hate-free zone.

That was the message of an event Thursday evening at Soroptimist Park in downtown Bozeman, where more than 100 people gathered in response to anti-Semitic fliers that were dropped at homes in Bozeman neighborhoods over the weekend.

“We are a welcoming city and an accepting city,” said Bozeman Mayor Carson Taylor at the event, which was hosted by the Montana Human Rights Network and the Montana Racial Equity Project. “The only thing we are intolerant of is intolerance itself.”

Taylor commended the outrage of the folks who received the fliers, saying the city would use any means it could to protect citizens from hate crimes.

“The city of Bozeman supports, celebrates, encourages and benefits from its diversity,” Taylor said.

Bozeman Police Chief Steve Crawford said the fliers sent an alarming message, one that hits to the core of citizens’ sense of safety.

“This is a community that doesn’t stand for that,” Crawford said.

And the police department “is committed to keeping all members of our community safe,” Crawford said.

Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said regardless of religious or political beliefs, hate messages are not what this community is about.

“Just because it’s not illegal doesn’t make it right,” he said.

Religious leaders encouraged a response of love, of acceptance, of respect.

“We need to treat each other with dignity,” implored Rabbi Chaim Bruk of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana.

Dr. Ahmed Al-Kaisy said that the Muslim community of Bozeman stood in solidarity with its Jewish neighbors, condemning the “trash literature.”

“We all together will return hatred with love,” Al-Kaisy said.

Jody McDevitt, co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church and moderator of the Gallatin Valley Interfaith Association, said “it feels like a stink bomb was set off in our community this weekend.”

But McDevitt said that “goodness is stronger than evil” and if the community sticks together, the air will clear.

Rabbi Ed Stafman of Bozeman’s Congregation Beth Shalom wondered why the person or people who left these fliers behind did it in the anonymous darkness of night.

“He knows his message of hate would be flatly rejected here in Bozeman,” Stafman said. “Bozeman is a hate-free zone.”

Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network told the crowd that events like Thursday’s were the perfect response to hate.

“We come together and stand together as often as we need to,” he said.

In addition to speakers, organizers passed out posters proclaiming, “This is a hate free Bo-Zone.”


Organizers: Women’s march in Helena draws 10,000

January 22, 2017

by Cole Grant, UM Community News Service

HELENA — Organizers of the Women’s March on Montana estimate there were 10,000 people gathered at the Capitol in Helena on Saturday.

“I just want to put that in perspective, because when we first started thinking about this, we were wondering if we could get 500 people,” said Rebecca Weston, one of the organizers of the march.

People travelled from all over the state to show their support, from Florence to Billings.

By noon, the streets were filled with supporters. Men, women, and children marched around the Capitol building holding colorful handmade signs of all shapes and sizes -- signs with the sign for female power or “fight like a girl” or “respect” or “all people are equal” or “no hate.”

After a few blocks of marching, supporters gathered on the Capitol steps to hear a slew of speakers and performers, including Montana’s First Lady Lisa Bullock, Judith Heilman, the director of the Montana Racial Equity Project and Sen. Jon Tester, who joined via phone.

“We walk and stand together today to recognize that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us,” Bullock said.

Co-organizer Deb O’Neil, who shared MC duties with Weston, talked about rape culture.

“We need to shut it down. Dismissing this as locker room talk is demeaning, insulting, and does not belong in a caring, compassionate society,” O’Neil said.

A number of Native Americans also took to the steps of the Capitol, like Lauren Small Rodriguez, who sits on the board for Native American students at the University of Montana, and was the first Northern Cheyenne woman to join the Coast Guard.

“We are no longer here to just be happy to sit in the room. No we’re not. We’re going to sit on this table and we’re going to have a chance to say something and speak out. That is what we’re here to do,” Small Rodriguez said.

Weston said although there is no organization affiliated with the march, she’s planning to organize meetings in communities around the state, “so that people can use a lot of this energy, use a lot of this sense of solidarity, to then start doing things locally in their communities, then all the way up in the state.”

According to, the Montana march was one of more than 650 marches organized across the globe in response to the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

The Helena Police Department reported no counter protests.

Montana Women's March draws an estimated 10,000

January 21, 2017

by Marga Lincoln, Helena Independent Record

The spirit was jubilant, as thousands of marchers gathered in the streets near the Capitol Saturday as part of the Women’s March on Montana: Human Rights for All in Helena.

Initial estimates put the size of the crowd at 10,000 people. 

When the crowd stepped off at noon, it was to the lively beat of the Bozeman marching band, Chicks with Sticks, whose drums were flamboyantly colored plastic buckets.

There were yells and whoops and also chants -- “My body, my vote!” and “This is what -- democracy looks like!” and “Women’s rights are human rights!”

A line of marchers was already wrapped around the Capitol, and more and more marchers kept pouring up Washington Street.

The crowd far exceeded the expectations of organizers, who had hoped that 4,000 would show, based on Facebook responses.

They danced, they chanted, they sang and they cheered.

Some came wearing their brilliant pink, hand-knitted, cat-eared 

“pussyhats” to call out President Donald Trump on one of his more infamous comments about grabbing women's genitals. 

But this particular march was never billed as an anti-Trump rally, said one of the organizers, Deb O’Neill.

“We said this is nonpartisan from the get-go. Anyone is welcome despite who you voted for, so long as you support human rights for all.”

And speak out, they did -- for women, for the planet, for Native Americans, for refugees, for diversity and for the LBGTQ community.

Judith Heilman, director of Montana Racial Equality Project, reminded the group “racism is real” and yes, it does occur in Montana.
Her organization trains people in how “to interrupt racism whenever it is encountered.”
Calling your legislator is another way to interrupt racism, she said.

It was a call for action in the coming years, not just one day.

“The march is just day one of this group,” said O’Neill. “This is not the end, it is just the beginning.”

Similar marches were held in more than 600 other cities and towns around the world, including 30 other countries.

In Chicago, New York and Washington, the marches drew hundreds of thousands of people -- once again, far exceeding planners’ expectations.


A reason for every marcher

Volunteer Yvonne Field of Helena, who was sporting a bright pink "pussyhat," said she got involved with the march because she works with children with special needs who have cognitive disabilities and others who are English learners. “I’m also the mother of a multi-racial kid. I want this to be a safe place for us. Some people told me that after Trump was elected they could tell me how they really feel.”

Noah Jacobs of Great Falls was carrying a sign, “We all come from immigrants.

“I just want to support all the women and immigrants in the country because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Everyone has the same rights as all our neighbors. We just have to support women -- their rights are my rights as well. What affects them affects me.”

Walt Luebeck of Missoula showed up carrying a U.S. flag and a diversity flag.

He decided to march because “there’s so much partisanship. There’s starting to be discrimination against everybody -- against blacks, Hispanics, just everybody.”

Laura Barta of Polson, wearing her hand-crocheted "pussyhat,” was dancing to music with her partner Dylan Gomes of Missoula.

“We all have to stand together,” she said, “and hope together. Revolutions start with hope.”

“I’m here to support Laura,” said Gomes, adding that the most important issue to him is climate change. “I’m a biologist and the evidence is clear,” that human-caused climate change is happening.

For every marcher, there was a reason.

Twenty-three buses came in from across the state, said O’Neill.

And according to some of those on the bus, like Paula and Eric Nielsen of Bozeman, the traffic headed to Helena stretched for miles behind them.

As they waited for the rally to start, they were talking to friends via cellphone who were inching along in a traffic queue that stretched to Townsend.

Riding on their bus were a number of people from their Universal Unitarian Church in Bozeman, who broke into singing a hymn from their church.

“I think it’s our duty to speak out about rights. ... We have to use our voices,” said Paula.

“As a man, I saw it as a people issue, not just a women’s issue," Eric said. 


A call to action

That was also the spirit of the speeches given on the Capitol steps.

“This is amazing!” said O’Neill as she greeted the crowd, telling them there were so many people marching that they needed to delay the beginning of the rally to allow all the marchers to arrive and hear the speeches.

It took an hour for the huge crowd to pour up through adjoining streets and circle the Capitol.

Among the speakers was First Lady Lisa Bullock, who told the crowd "we stand together in solidarity with our partners and our children."

She noted that it was civil disobedience by strong women that resulted in women finally getting the right to vote.

She also recognized the strength of her mother, who was her role model. “She accepted everyone into our home.” There was no exclusion, no hatred.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., spoke to the crowd via phone from Washington, D.C. "Keep marching," he said. "Our country's counting on you."

SK Rossi, director of advocacy and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, asked for a shout-out for all who were showing up at a rally for the first time -- drawing a loud response.

Rossi admitted it had taken a long time, “as a queer person,” to find courage to speak out.

“Your elected officials work for you,” Rossi told them. “If you don’t ask -- you’ll never get a yes.”

“This is the first step for many of you to find your voice. You can’t go home and turn on Netflix” and forget about what’s happening around you.

Rossi urged them to visit the ACLU website,, because the group “is going to be working our ... butts off for you.”

Montana Women’s Chorus gave a joyous musical break, singing “A Women’s Voice,” about the power of women’s voices raised and also a tribute song in honor of suffragist trailblazer Jeannette Rankin, a congresswoman from Montana. 

Towering above the chorus on the Capitol steps was the rainbow-colored street puppet, Synnovai, a modern Scandinavian goddess.

Rachel Carroll Rivas, director of the Montana Human Rights Network, told the crowd “I fight white supremacy for a living.”

Her life is one of privilege, of having a bed to sleep in and feeling safe and loved, she said. “I know this is not the case for all people.”

“You are the schemers and the dreamers that will make tomorrow a better day and human rights a reality for all.”

She urged the crowd to draw inspiration from the people of Whitefish, where people have stood up against the threats and harassment of white supremacists.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the local group Love Lives Here," she said.

She quoted a Whitefish friend who said “we might not have much say nationally. But we can make Whitefish a better town. And if we do that all around the country, I think the national narrative can change.”

O’Neill spoke of being raped and how the victim gets blamed.

“Rape culture needs to end,” she said. “We can change culture and victim blaming.” She urged the crowd to reach out to elected representatives so that the Violence Against Women’s Act continues to be funded.

Michelle Mitchell, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and an Academic Achievement Coach for American Indians at Great Falls High School, spoke of the importance of education and also of how prevalent racism is on the Flathead Reservation.

“Education is about making tomorrow better,” she said. She also praised former Montana Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Denise Juneau’s championing of the Graduation Matters program and the importance of the Indian Education For All program that teaches all Montana schoolchildren about the unique culture and heritage of American Indians.

Lauren Small Rodriquez Tsitsistas, who is the first Northern Cheyenne woman in the U.S. Coast Guard, spoke of the importance of protecting clean water and to support the protesters at Standing Rock. “Do not be afraid to stand up now,” she said. “We must unite to protect the future of our world.”

Bree Sutherland, a trans and queer advocate and activist, talked of the pain and struggles of being transgender. “I got angry and I got active. I became an activist because I do not want to be a statistic,” Sutherland said, adding that the suicide rate of transgender people can be over 45 percent.

“Hello, nasty women!” said Laura Terrill of Planned Parenthood of Montana, referencing a comment Trump made about former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Terrill spoke on behalf of the thousands of women who come through the doors of their clinics. “Patients don’t come to make political statements, they come for health care.”

One in five women will come to Planned Parenthood sometime in their life for health care, she said. “We are going to fight like hell to keep our doors open.”

Mary Poole, director of Soft Landing Missoula, which works to find homes in Montana for refugee families, spoke of looking out for each other.

She recalled her experience as a rafting guide, where each guide not only looked out for their own boat, but pointed a safe way for the raft behind it. Rafters call it “point positive.”

The river ahead may be rough. “You will point me positive. I will point you positive and we will make it through stronger on the other side.”

Judith Heilman, director of Montana Racial Equality Project, reminded the group “racism is real” and yes, it does occur in Montana.

Her organization trains people in how “to interrupt racism whenever it is encountered.”

Calling your legislator is another way to interrupt racism, she said.

The rally concluded with a call to action by Kellie Goodwin McBride, director of the YWCA Helena.

She asked people to listen to each other, for them to find their voices and call their representatives, and to take action one hour a week on an issue that’s important to them.

O’Neill told the crowd that the Women’s March website,, will be posting announcements of meetings, gatherings and calls to action.

“The march went very, very well,” she said in a follow-up interview. Not only did it draw a huge, enthusiastic crowd, but it was peaceful.

There were a few counter protesters, she said, but they saw the huge crowd and left.


Advocate talks about the need for racial equity

By Alex Ross, Havre Daily News

January 16, 2017

A Montana civil rights advocate spoke during an event Friday at Montana State University-Northern celebrating the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. about the progress, setbacks and continued struggle for racial equality.

The event, which also included a meal for the community, was organized by Northern's Office of Diversity Awareness and Multicultural Programs and assorted community volunteers.

Judith Heilman, a former police detective who is now executive director of the Montana Racial Equity Project, a Bozeman-based group that seeks to promote racial equity and social justice, gave the presentation  with the assistance of a PowerPoint.

Heilman's 32-minute long presentation was titled "Racial Equity and Justice: Then, Now and Future."

"We've made progress, and lots of progress in some ways, but some of those successes have been rolled back and are being taken away," she said.

At the start of her presentation, she told the audience that some of what she had to say would cause discomfort, but that none of it should be interpreted as personal insults.

"The cause of any discomfort is being confronted by something you may have had no idea about or have had a misunderstanding about," she said.

It is widely believed that the civil rights movement ended with desegregation and the signing of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, Heilman said, but added that is not true. The issues of race and racism have remained in society, but just recently returned to the political forefront, she said.

Heilman said that rather than marking the birth of a post-racial society, the campaign, election and presidency of Barack Obama as the nation's first black president "set what had been a smoldering fire of bigotry, racism and prejudice to flame."

The notion of colorblindness, where people claim they don't see race has been something people say has been something in American society to be proud of, she said. However, she said, it should not be, and the idea of colorblindness is racist because in America white culture is the default, the dominant, culture. She said that to subscribe to the belief that black, brown, Native and other people are treated equally and have had the same experience as those who are white is not true.

"Black folk have had a life experience and a cultural heritage that is very different than America's current majority do not have," she said. "Living in a black body, living in a brown body, living in a Native body is a completely different existence in many, many ways than living in a pale body."

She said that the Black Lives Matter movement, formed in the wake of several police shootings of blacks, was meant to highlight racial tension.

However, many who are not black have tried to spin the phrase from Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter, something she said is meant to quiet and invalidate the concerns and views of the movement.

Though all lives do matter, she said, the Black Lives Matter movement is about the recognition of the rights of black people and their battle for full social, civil, political, economic and legal equality with others.

"Do people who change Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter run to a cancer fundraiser  and say 'There are other diseases too?'" she asked.

Much of that pushback against the addressing of concerns brought up by the Black Lives Matter movement stems from white privilege, she said.

Heilman said that when a group has been in the majority and accustomed to privilege for so long, demands for equality can sound like calls for oppression against the privileged.

She quoted Martin Luther King Jr., who said that "Since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system."

Heilman said that notion is critical to working to end racism and gain racial equity and access.

She said that up through 1968, lynchings of black men were fairly commonplace in the U.S. with as many as 84 taking place between 1882 and 1968.

Though the practice is widely condemned today, she compared it with cases such as the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott. Scott, a black South Carolina motorist was shot by a police officer five times, three times in the back as he was running away from the officer after being stopped for a broken tail light.

Heilman calls the incident "a modern-day lynching"

Though the shooting was captured on video, a mistrial was declared last month in the case due to a hung jury. The officer will be tried again.

Heilman, a retired police detective. said that someone should not get the death penalty for having a broken tail light and fleeing police,

"How is that justified? And I am saying that as a retired detective sergeant," she said.

She said that in 1963, four white men bombed a black church in Alabama which resulted in the death of four young girls who were attending Sunday school classes and wounded 17 others.

Back then, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a foe of the civil rights movement, hampered the investigation into the bombing, Heilman said. The case was not resolved until the early 2000s.

She contrasted that case to a recent act of racial violence against a black church. Dylan Roof, a white man, opened fire on a group of African-Americans at the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people. He was tried and later sentenced to death by a federal grand jury. Heilman said the state charges are still pending.

The bodies and wounded victims of the 1963 bombing were not transported from the scene to the hospital or morgue until segregated ambulances could arrive, Heilman said. She compared that to the 2014 death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager who was shot to death by a police officer, which sparked protests in the city of Ferguson, Missouri.

Heilman said the body of Brown was left on the street for four hours before the corner took it away.

"The disregard and disrespect of black bodies continues even in death," she said.

Heilman talked about how in 1965, 50 people were hospitalized in March after protesters were beaten by police during a demonstration for voting rights in Birmingham, Alabama.

One of those injured protesters was then-young civil rights leader and future Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga,, whose skull was fractured in the incident by a blow from a police baton.

Two years ago, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of that incident, known as Bloody Sunday, Lewis, joined by President Obama, former President George W. Bush and many others walked across the bridge made famous in the 1965 march in a show of unity, Heilman said.

However, she said, this unity is a distortion of reality. Despite the removal of Confederate flags from some state capitals as well as the statues of men once celebrated as Confederate heros, systemic racism still exists.

"Systemic racism must end or ... the racism of daily life will continue to thrive," she said.

There are several areas where gains in equity for African-Americans and desegregation seem to be being rolled back, she said.

Though Brown vs. the Board of Education, the landmark case that ruled that legal segregation in schools was unconstitutional, the growing popularity of charter schools could increase segregation, Heilman said.

She said charter schools in diverse cities tend to be more racially segregated than public schools and could lead for public schools to be more segregated than they otherwise would be.

And despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years has struck down key provisions that protected the right to vote, she said.

Heilman said state legislatures around the country have tried to pass stricter voting laws, such as the Montana Legislature's attempt to do away with early voting, all of which would adversely affect a range of groups including racial minorities.

Negative depictions of African-Americans continue in the media, Heilman said.

In her PowerPoint presentation, she juxtaposed a 1952 ad for dress shirts with an ad from what she described as the gun lobby.

The ad from 1952 showed drawings of four white men dressed in the shirts and an African dressed in stereotypical tribal garb. She said the ad portrays African Americans as "uncivilized savages."

The gun lobby ad shows the hand of an African American holding a gun in the foreground with a frightened white person in casual wear in the background.

Heilman said that the gun lobby ad is a subtle scare tactic known as "dog whistle politics" that seeks to promote an us vs. them mentality.

She said that the movement for racial equity has and needs support from whites who make up the current majority in America.

To advance racial equity, she said, whites can do so by dropping their own frame of view and putting themselves in the shoes of another marginalized group.

"Listen to what marginalized and disenfranchised people have to say. Listen to their experiences from their point of view living in a black or brown body 24/7, 365." Heilman said.




MSU works toward creating diversity and inclusion plan following Diversity Summit

by Julie Donagan

The Montana State Exponent, Monday, November 14, 2016

The MSU Diversity Summit on Thursday, Nov. 3 began with the question: “What do we mean by diversity at MSU?” The floor opened to responses from 25 tables, seating a total of 400 people, who provided a variety of responses, illustrating the complexity of the question.

University Efforts

The President’s Office had been planning the Diversity Summit since early September as a way to gather input from the campus community regarding a diversity and inclusion plan. President Waded Cruzado enlisted Nancy ‘Rusty’ Barceló, a national expert on diversity and former Vice President and Vice Provost for Equity at the University of Minnesota, to help MSU create the plan over the course of this academic year. “Once Dr. Barceló was here maybe two times, she realized we really need to get larger campus input before we start constructing a plan,” Ariel Donahue, director of the Office of Diversity Awareness, said.

MSU has also been working with Eric Lopez, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. Lopez came to MSU for the year through an American Council on Education Fellowship, and his project is to assist with the development of a diversity and inclusion plan. He explained that MSU is reaching the end of their current strategic plan and will be implementing a new one within the next year and a half, and that the president wants to incorporate diversity into the new strategic plan.

“The President’s Office organized the summit in an effort to obtain campus-wide involvement in the development of the diversity and inclusion plan. This was the foundation or the springboard for the development of a university-wide diversity and inclusion plan,” Lopez said.

With Lopez and Barceló having spent a significant amount of time at MSU before the summit, the university decided to bring in an outside expert to facilitate the summit. Kim Bobby, who has her doctorate in educational administration and policy studies and is the former chief diversity officer at the University of Puget Sound, came to MSU and facilitated the Summit as an objective expert.

Long-term Diversity Goals

The summit was open to students, faculty and staff and aimed to gather feedback from a variety of constituents. “The idea was really to broaden these efforts to a campus-wide level … make sure we were hearing campus’ views on how we should define diversity. Which is the first question, we can’t create a plan if we don’t know what we’re talking about,” Donahue said. Participants were assigned to tables, each with eight people, including students, faculty and a facilitator.

Individual organizations on campus, including the Office of Diversity Awareness and the Council of American Indian Programs are making ongoing efforts to address diversity, and the Diversity Summit was an attempt to bring different groups together. “Several units on campus were already working on diversity plans and we didn’t want to stop that process,” Lopez said.

Donahue concurred, “We’re becoming more collaborative as an institution and looking for more strategic solutions. I think that we definitely brought diversity and inclusion to more people on campus and got them engaged in the conversation, which is a really important first step.”

Donahue recognized challenges facing MSU regarding diversity, including reaching a consensus about what diversity means and working toward effective communication around conflict without it becoming a fight. “Unifying people around common purpose and goals will be a great challenge, and if we can achieve that we’re going to see some real progress,” she said. “Diversity is so broad, and so honing in on some goals that we as a campus community can all agree on and move towards is a bigger challenge than it sounds like.” She explained that some people want to focus on gender diversity or racial diversity, and MSU needs to bridge all groups and create goals that will address the needs of each group.

Lopez recognized the challenge of “wanting to be as inclusive as we can, wanting to make sure that we get as much input from the community in this process because we want it to become MSU’s plan, not somebody else’s and trying to make it fit … One of the things that we wanted to avoid was it being a template — trying to follow someone else’s plan … We wanted one that reflected MSU, that MSU would be able to follow and take ownership of,” he said.

Community Input

Judith Heilman attended the Diversity Summit as a community member. She is the founder and executive director of The Montana Racial Equity Project. “Our mission is advocating racial equity and justice issues, and we do that by educating and informing people about the various facets and manifestations of racism, bigotry and prejudice — giving people the tools to peacefully interrupt whenever they see or hear it,” she explained.

Heilman specified that she is a Black American. “It goes well with Asian American, Native American, White American. Especially White American. Persons of European heritage in this country should not merely be called white while the rest of us are hyphenated,” Heilman said.

Heilman acknowledged that MSU is not a diverse university as far as black students go, but pointed out that there is a large population of Native students and that there are students, faculty and staff who have had unique experiences related to being a minority. “I think the biggest thing was that [the summit] got people to think, to really think about diversity,” she said.

“I don’t think Montana State University, as a number of colleges and universities across the United States, has ever put this much effort into making diversity, equity and inclusion a priority … It has to do with every single aspect of the campus,” Heilman said. “It’s a paradigm shift for the university, and I think it’s an excellent one.”

Heilman expects that the university is prepared to deal with inevitable resistance as they develop a diversity plan. “Everyone is coming from a different place of how forward they are in this topic of diversity. There are some people who are definitely stuck in their ways and don’t want to think about it or they’ll get defensive,” she said.

Heilman was disappointed that the summit failed to address efforts to retain minority faculty members. “It’s one thing to bring people on, it’s another to be able to keep them, to make sure that it’s a welcoming environment and a safe environment,” she said. “There are things that do happen on the university campus and in the community to minorities that shouldn’t.” Heilman shared anecdotes of minority faculty and students who experienced racism in the community that discouraged them from staying. She believes that as the largest employer in Bozeman, MSU has the power and the responsibility to back up people in these situations.

Having lived in Bozeman for the past 11 years, Heilman has observed changing attitudes of Montanans regarding race. “It was pretty static until probably the last two or three years. Not just in Bozeman, but across the state,” she said, pointing out the response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which “has some people completely alienated because they think that it excludes them.” She said that while people who respond with “white lives matter” are generally extreme, white nationalists, “the more common response is ‘all lives matter.’ Well of course all lives matter. But the fact of the matter is that black lives, brown lives, and Native lives have not mattered as much for centuries in this country. It’s just a statement that our lives matter as much as any other lives matter, as opposed to how it’s been in our country.”

With more press coverage generated from the movement, and with videos being released that demonstrate the harsh treatment of minorities in the U.S., “It’s polarized some people. The smoldering racism that has always been around started to flame up, and right now it’s pretty much an inferno, given the current political climate and the political race that’s going on right now,” Heilman said. She added that because of the current political climate, the timing of the Diversity Summit was perfect. “There are a lot of people who tell me that there is no racism in Montana, there is no racism in Bozeman … They’re just not paying attention. They also say, ‘We just don’t have any minorities here.’ They’re just not paying attention. There are lots of minorities in this state and in Bozeman. We seem to be invisible to so many people.”

Donahue also said that with identity issues being more prominently discussed on a national and international level, people recognize, “this is something we need to be proactive about rather than wait for issues to impact our campus and then react to it.”

Creating a Conversation

Both the Diversity Summit and the Montana Racial Equity Project aim to create open conversation around diversity. “So much of what we do is education. You can’t fight what you don’t know about. If you can’t recognize that someone is doing something really racist right in front of you … then how can you interrupt it?” Heilman said, adding that, “If you want to be able to reduce racism in this country, it has to be done by white people because white people are the ones who are in charge. It’s the minorities who have been fighting against it for centuries: Natives and black people in particular.”

Efforts to create MSU’s diversity plan will continue after the summit. “I think there’s going to be a lot more working groups, conversations and brainstorming sessions before we actually get to planning, but I think in general, this process is moving very fast for such a big plan,” Donahue said.

Lopez said that the President’s Office has received positive verbal and anecdotal feedback about the event, and they are in the process of sending out an evaluation. They are also analyzing the responses, which will be posted at, where indidviduals can review the results and send additional feed back to

“At this point it’s been very participatory. Folks have been very forthcoming with information and participating. I’m expecting that we’ll continue that process as we go through,” Lopez said. “We plan to have at least another summit in the spring to report on where things are at so the plan would be vetted university-wide then recommended to the president.” He added that the plan will hopefully reach this stage by spring or early summer.