In the depths of a budgetary meeting at the Missoula City Council last week, the debate over funding, policies and community needs came and went like the numbers that comprise this year’s municipal budget.
It happens like this every year and few discussions get recorded in my long-term memory, which these days holds as much data as a vinyl record. In other words, I’m not the hard drive I once fancied, capable of storing vast amounts of information.
This brain here is no beautiful mind.
But every once in a while somebody says something that sticks and makes me think, and last week it came from the lips of Ruth Ann Swaney, the first Native American woman to serve on the City Council.
Midway through the morning session (yes, there was an afternoon session too), representatives of Destination Missoula approached the podium to present their latest marketing plan. As promotional efforts go, Destination Missoula does fine work, striving to boost the city’s economy by telling the world what we do well, and why Missoula is such a great place to live and visit.
I’ve seen their marketing efforts play out and I’ve come to rather like their slogan, “There’s this place…” It leaves something to the imagination, like a good horror movie that suggests the monster rather than showing it.
Given the work they do, I rarely thought about the brochures they send out into the world showing all the happy people of Missoula living joyously amid our rivers, lakes and mountains. Or sipping a micro-brew on a downtown patio. Or browsing a gallery on First Friday.
I was in bliss until Swaney spoke, and now her words are ingrained in my thoughts.
“As a person of color – as a Native person – when looking at those materials, there aren’t many people of color in any of the images,” Swaney said. “Thinking about Missoula, maybe we aren’t as diverse as some places in the U.S., or even in Montana, but our diversity, I feel, isn’t well represented, or represented at all in the materials.”
Swaney spoke on the subject for a good four minutes, a long time to have the floor when the budget is at hand. Destination Missoula agreed with Swaney’s take on the material and pledged to present a more diverse image of Missoula when it releases its new marketing literature this October.
Later in the day, I checked out the latest U.S. Census data for Missoula, which now claims a population of roughly 73,000 people. Of that population, according to the Census, nearly 6,000 residents are non-white, with Hispanics, Native Americans and Asians making up the three largest minority groups, in that order.
Needless to say, I’ve been thinking about Swaney’s words quite a bit over the past week, not because I had a hand in putting together the city’s marketing plan, but because of what those words mean to me and how I want the world to see Missoula.
While not everyone is a fan of progressive social politics, I have long been proud of the city’s efforts to take the lead on issues that most other Montana cities have shied away from.
Back in 2010, the City Council adopted Montana’s first equality ordinance, protecting our neighbors and friends from discrimination based on sexual orientation. More recently, and amid fierce national debate, it made Missoula a “welcoming city,” joining a coalition of other noteworthy metros in accepting refugees displaced by war, starvation and a host of other human tragedies too numerous to name.
I could go on talking about efforts to end homelessness, end cruelty to circus animals, reduce jail overcrowding, or tackle the ugly issue of sexual assault. This community has taken all those issues head on. You might also look beyond the council chambers, where efforts to make Missoula a forward-thinking community most often start.
Soft Landing Missoula, for instance, stood against fierce – and at times – vitriolic opposition to establish the city as a relocation center for refugees. Because of their work, more than 100 families have found a better life here, and we are now more diverse because of it and closer to the global community.
That’s an achievement Missoula should strive to showcase to the outside world when it looks to market its profile. We are bigger than the boundaries that define us.
So too should Missoula honor its predecessors, whose history here runs deeper than the handful of European merchants who laid down roots alongside the Clark Fork River in the 1800s. The rich history of our Native neighbors is certainly worth more than a sentence in a glossy travel brochure.
While it’s easy for me to say this now, I was naively content with the image we were sending out into the world, at least until Swaney brought the issue to bear last week. In four short minutes, she reminded me of why it’s important to have a diverse governing body – a body that should resemble the community it represents.
Without her input, we’d still be showing Missoula as a white community while overlooking its true diversity. We wouldn’t have stopped to question what we were showing the world, or the kind of image we were portraying.
If “There’s this place,” then the faces that give Missoula its color is the kind of place I’d like to see us share with the outside world. Our acceptance of diversity and difference is what makes Missoula a stronger and more vibrant city, and that’s worth noting.
So thanks, Ruth Ann Swaney, for making me think twice about something that I’d overlooked for too long. I’ll be viewing the city’s promotional materials with a different eye in the future.
Martin Kidston is a former Marine, University of Montana graduate and long-time journalist who founded the Missoula Current in 2015.