On Monday evening, Nov. 21, approximately 50 people gathered inside the Missoula Senior Citizens Center to talk about cultural appropriation and Missoula's Festival of the Dead celebration. Facilitators Heidi Wallace and Jesse Jaeger, who both work for the nonprofit Empower Montana, projected a PowerPoint against a backdrop of bright quilts, a dance floor, and a large bingo board.
"We are all at different places in our learning about oppression and privilege," Wallace told the small crowd. "We will be meeting each other where we are at. But we do want you to lean into discomfort and also know that listening respectfully does not mean you're agreeing."
The event, titled A Community Conversation: Building Bridges Across Group Lines, sprung out of recent controversy about whether the local festival was appropriating Latin American culture. The Zootown Arts Community Center, which organizes the festival and parade, invited Empower Montana to lead the discussion. The nonprofit works with schools and businesses to resolve conflict around oppression and prejudice.
"It's something that's important to us to keep talking about," said ZACC executive director Kia Liszak.
Over the course of two hours, participants split into small groups to talk about ways in which oppression manifests, and how organizations and communities can "interrupt" cycles of oppression. At one point, the facilitators asked the mostly Anglo audience to stand if they fit into a certain category—Native American, female, low-income, high-income, European descent—and everyone was asked to clap and cheer for each group.
The discussion about the Festival of the Dead started online, simmering in the realm of long, sometimes angry Facebook threads. At the Senior Citizens Center the tone was more civil, though not much got done in terms of deciding what the Festival of the Dead means to Missoula. But it was a start—which is, Liszak says, maybe what we needed.
"One of the things I realized is that we all had to take a step back and say 'How do we even start to look at these issues?' Liszak says. "And I think it's helpful for a lot of other things that are facing our country now."