Organizers in Bozeman are calling for more support for Black students at Montana’s largest university and for businesses to commit to anti-racist policies. One organization is gearing up to offer workshops on understanding race.
Jessica Brito with the Montana State University Black Student Union said at a press conference June 12 her organization is advocating for three main changes on campus.
After many emails to administration and a meeting with MSU President Waded Cruzado last year, Brito said she’s excited that the Liberal Studies Program will offer Introduction to Africana Studies for the first time this fall with Dr. Jelani Mahiri. Africana studies includes the histories, politics and cultures of peoples in Africa and the African diaspora.
The Anthropology Department offers Old World History, which covers the origins and development of human culture in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia over the past three million years, and another class on ancient foragers of Sub-Saharan Africa.
But Brito said the Black Student Union wants to see more classes specifically about Africa and African American history and culture.
“LatinX students, Native students, Asian students, LGBTQ students and women, also, all have programs and classes, which is incredible and we’re very glad for those folks who we partner with, but unfortunately, we seem to be lacking,” Brito said.
Brito said the second change the Black Student Union wants to see is a designated, go-to person to report experiences of harassment or find support.
“A year ago, there was a black student that was walking into the MSU library and was harassed by a strange white man who was not a student. He called her the n-word, and she was racially assaulted for no apparent reason, just trying to study,” she said.
Brito said there are a lot of places on campus where black students don’t feel safe. That’s why the Black Student Union’s third request is having a designated space for black students.
“Like any other student, we’re trying to study, we’re trying to learn, we’re trying to get to our clases, print out our papers, and we don’t want to be called slurs in the process or anything like that. So we would love to have a more permanent space to come together to have a safe study space," Brito said.
She said it would be a space where black students in a predominantly white university could come together to share their experiences and feel supported, and offer a safe place for the Black Student Union to host its weekly meetings and public events.
MSU Spokesperson Tracy Ellig told YPR the university will look at what space is available for all student clubs on campus and the possibility of adding more courses. Ellig said the university already has mechanisms to report harassment but added the administration would have more conversations with students regarding specific support.
Ellig said a new director was recently hired for the Diversity and Inclusion Student Commons and will start the position June 15.
Ariel Donohue, the university’s senior diversity and inclusion officer, announced June 8 other steps the university will be taking including:
Growing mentoring opportunities for students.
Finalizing and rolling out our IChange plan to recruit and retain diverse and inclusive faculty.
Identifying an academic diversity partner in each MSU college to lead and engage in university-wide efforts.
Developing an ever-growing and supportive community for faculty and staff of color, called GATHER.
Facilitating reading groups for MSU employees and students to engage with social justice materials.
Also at the press conference Friday, Terry Bradley with Bozeman United for Racial Justice, an organization led by young Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) community members, said their main priority right now is getting businesses in Bozeman to sign Freedom Pledges, which are commitments to adopting anti-racist policies, including hiring practices and customer-community relationships.
“Accepting feedback from BIPOC community members, establish ongoing institutionalized transformation so institutionalizing staff trainings, conflict mediation, bystander intervention, things like that, and then support ongoing work for racial justice in Bozeman," he said.
Bradley, a member of the A'aninin Nation from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, said support could be financial or offering space for events.
He said 57 businesses have signed the pledges so far, and several organizers in other communities, both in and out of state, reached out to learn more about the initiative.
Judith Heilman, the executive director and founder of the Montana Racial Equity Project, said her organization will be starting up more workshops and trainings when they have capacity and can figure out how to offer them safely during COVID-19.
“We have workshops ending bias, bigotry and racism, skills and strategies you can use, which is an eight-hour workshop. It’s very popular. It’s going to be really popular when we restart it, and also how to talk with kids about race, not to kids about race," Heilman said.
She said they’re working on several projects with partners, including talking with LGBTQIA youth of color about what they need to be safe and to thrive and are looking at the effects of racism on the health of people of color. Heilman said they are also partnering with the Extreme History Project in Bozeman to document racial terror lynchings of black, brown and indigenous people in the state, adding that the focus will be on education and reconciliation.