City/ County- Drone

An aerial view of Bozeman from Peets Hill on Wednesday afternoon. Activists are calling on local government to respond to the demonstrations protesting racial inequality and police brutality. (Rachel Leathe/Chronicle)

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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.

Heilman, executive director of the Montana Racial Equity Project, started visiting the Gallatin Valley in 2001 before permanently moving four years later. She’s seen the rapid growth of both the city and Montana State University.

And with that growth comes a more diverse population.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2010, the number of Black residents in Bozeman increased from 92 to 174. The number of Indigenous residents grew from 348 to 414. The number of Asian residents increased from 448 to 715. The number of Hispanic residents went from 447 to 1,096.

That was 2010, when Bozeman’s population was 37,280 and 94% white. After the 2020 census, Bozeman is expected to top 50,000 and be around 92% white.

As Bozeman becomes more diverse, activists have called on local government to reflect that and to do more to combat racial discrimination. Recent protests against racism and police violence sparked by the killing of George Floyd have reinforced the idea.

Bozeman United for Racial Justice called on MSU and local businesses to adopt anti-racist practices, increase diversity in hiring and provide anti-bias and bystander intervention training for staff in the wake of nationwide protests. Activists have also asked the city of Bozeman to redistribute some of the police department’s budget to social services.

A new local task force focused on advancing the status of women and girls in Bozeman called on local officials in May to add more women and people of color to decision-making boards.

Heilman, whose organization advocates for racial equity and justice statewide, said that having people with diverse backgrounds and experiences involved in local government is important everywhere.

“Because even if your county doesn’t have very many brown, Black and Indigenous people in it, you’ve got people passing through who are,” Heilman said.

Bozeman city commissioners responded to the national movement by directing city manager Jeff Mihelich to conduct a review of city and police practices in regards to how they treat minority populations.

The city does not keep data to show how many non-white staff it employs, but spokesperson Melody Mileur said those numbers would likely be compiled as part of Mihelich’s review.

Mihelich said findings from the report and recommendations for improvement will be presented to the city commission on July 27. The review will focus broadly on how well the city combats discrimination, Mihelich said, which will be guided by three questions: What are the existing policies? What is the city doing well? What areas can be improved?

Assistant city manager Anna Rosenberry and Kristin Donald, city finance director, will work on the review with Mihelich.

Mihelich said they would review “best practices” to see where Bozeman can improve, but did not give specifics on where those best practices would come from or what they would be.

Mihelich said he believes the review will show the city has made a number of efforts to combat discrimination and be more inclusive and that its policies are in good shape.

“I think this analysis is going to give people great comfort,” Mihelich said.

Mihelich said the city won’t hesitate to make necessary changes.

When asked what she would like to see in a review of city practices, Heilman said she hopes officials take off rose-colored glasses and report real discrepancies. Heilman said officials should listen to Black, Indigenous and other people of color.

“We as racial minorities in this state and this city have had so many experiences that prove it is not working for us,” Heilman said.

City commissioner Terry Cunningham brought the request for a review with support for the measure from Mayor Chris Mehl and other commissioners. The city commission had already sent a statement to condemn the killing of George Floyd and to promise a review of its own policies.

Cunningham said he wanted to make sure the commission followed through.

“When I saw the video of George Floyd being murdered, it brought tears to my eyes, it brought anger to my heart and it brought resolve to my mind,” Cunningham said.

Gallatin County commissioners said they don’t plan to alter staff training or hiring practices in response to the requests for reform. For the several boards to which they appoint members, they said they will continue to review applicants based on candidates’ credentials and, as they always have done, they will encourage everyone to apply.

“I have not seen the problem here,” said commissioner Joe Skinner. “I have never heard, before all this came up nationally, that we have a problem in the county with that.”

Cunningham, on the other hand, said no place is completely immune from racial bias or discrimination.

“I can’t think of a single organization that is so enlightened that they could not benefit from a review and additional training,” Cunningham said.

Deputy Mayor Cyndy Andrus said in a recent interview that the city commission itself could use more resources to be anti-racist. Andrus has taken implicit bias training through other organizations and said it takes a lot of work.

“All of it is pretty personal when we think of implicit bias — why do I feel this way or that way — and digging deeper into where these feelings or actions come from,” Andrus said.

Andrus has said the city’s review needs to be the first step in a long-term commitment to fight discrimination. She said she’s sensitive to the fact that the majority of the commission is white and that white people can’t understand what it’s like to be a person of color.

Commissioner I-Ho Pomeroy, who immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea, is the board’s only non-white member. She said that she feels overwhelmed by the amount of support she’s received in Bozeman as both a commissioner and a restaurant owner. Pomeroy first ran for office seven years ago, and said she was surprised when she won, especially given that English is her second language.

But although Pomeroy has felt support, there have been times when she’s been the only person of color in a room and has felt intimidated.

Pomeroy said she was encouraged to see thousands of Bozemanites take to the streets to protest racism and inequity. She said there’s work to be done.

“When you look at (the city’s) strategic plan, we welcome everybody. But you have to remember, wherever you go, you will see injustice,” Pomeroy said.

The Montana Racial Equity Project has been recognized as an authority on racial injustice and will continue to work on related issues in Bozeman and statewide. The nonprofit has received a $75,000 grant from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation to expand its anti-racism workshops and $25,000 from the Montana Healthcare Foundation to help reduce the rates of racial health disparities in Montana.

But, Heilman said, the work can’t fall on people of color, as they’re the ones who’ve been discriminated against and historically oppressed. The work relies on white people, she said, and those in positions of power to engage and combat racism.

“It’s white people that got us into this mess, it’s white people that have to do the very hard work to get us out of it,” Heilman said.

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Shaylee Ragar can be reached at or at 582-2607.

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