In 2004, a group of University of Montana students formed Forward Montana in response to then-Gov. Judy Martz’s nomination of Montana State University student Kala French to the state Board of Regents.
Headed by a small cadre of college progressives, Forward Montana loudly challenged French’s appointment to a three-year term and gathered more than 500 student signatures in protest.
Since then, however, the all-volunteer group went into hibernation as founding members graduated and went off to forge careers in the public and private sectors.
But now, armed with a $250,000 grant from Redwood City, Calif.-based Skyline Public Works—a nonprofit venture capital firm dedicated to funding upstart progressive causes—Forward Montana has re-launched and plans to grow the organization.
“Young Montanans are hungry for a voice and Forward Montana is excited to bring together some of the most able and experienced young leaders in this state to deliver,” state Rep. Dan Villa, D-Anaconda, said in a press release announcing the group’s expansion.
The average age of Forward Montana’s 10-member board of directors is 25, and that board includes Montana’s two youngest legislators: Villa, and Missoula Rep. Kevin Furey, both 23. Liberal blogger and progressive activist Matt Singer, also 23, is the group’s treasurer. Neal Ullman, 28, a former field director for the Montana Democratic Party who once served as an aid to Rep. Dave Wanzenried, is Forward Montana’s president. The oldest member of the board is 32-year-old Jed Fitch, a Marine Corps captain who recently served in Iraq.
The group will have to come up with another $250,000 through memberships and donations over three years to receive the full grant amount. Assuming that happens, Forward Montana will have half a million dollars to organize its grassroots efforts on behalf of Montana youth.
Ullman says progressive issues such as the development of alternative energy, improvements to K-12 education, and the cost of health care and housing are rising to the fore in Montana.
“Young people have a lot to say about that,” Ullman says. “If we can get them involved and train them to talk to their peers…they are going to become more and more relevant.”