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Marchers In 9 Montana Cities Urged To Continue Work Toward Social Change

Thousands of people gathered at events across Montana Saturday to participate in this year’s Women’s March. Each event had its own organizers and theme.  

In Billings, the organizers issued this call to action, run for something. State Senator Jen Gross, one of the organizers, says that could be a run for elected office, run to the polls, or to run to a community organization and volunteer.

In Missoula, pink hats, red sashes, and sassy signs peppered downtown Saturday morning, as an estimated 3,000 people gathered for the second Women’s March. Last year, a centralized march held at the state capitol drew an estimated 10,000 people. But this year, 9 cities hosted coordinated rallies.

Disability rights activist and local business owner Jenny Montgomery was one of a number of diverse keynote speakers in Missoula.

“Intersectionality. Equality. Refusal to be silenced. Responsibility to future generations. Responsibility to the vulnerable. Responsibility to the planet that sustains us. It is these values which bind our movement together and which we will not rest from defending," Montgomery says.

This event this year was framed not as a protest, but as a “celebration of a year of activism, and Montgomery ticked off a list of local accomplishments.

“An overwhelmingly female body of volunteers welcomed over 30 refugee families to our city. We elected a female majority city council. Women-run health clinics are evolving affordable care models that bypass insurance," she says.

....we're not a moment, we're a movement that's happening.

Erin Erickson is the founder and director of Missoula Rises, the group that organized the local march and coordinates activist efforts on a range of social issues. She says this year, "especially in Missoula and the state, we’ve really unified, which we haven’t seen before. Where we have all these progressive groups that are able to come together under the same tent. That's really what shows me that we’re not a moment, we’re a movement that’s happening.”

Joby McCarthy, who’s been dancing on the streets since before noon, says she feels and sees that shift too.

“This year, we’re taking our anger and we’re doing activities with it," McCarthy says. "We’re gathering together, we’re writing letters, we’re protesting, we’re sitting in Senator Daines' office until we get better healthcare. There’s so many things I’ve seen women do.”

Credit Josh Burnham

Across the country, Women’s March organizers are trumpeting how last year’s march spurred women to run for elected positions, and that level of change has been happening here.

Julie Merritt is adjusting to her new role as a Missoula city council member. She says she never thought about running for public office until last year, as she watched other women in the community get more politically active after the 2016 election.

“That really inspired me to say yes, I need to step up,” Merritt says.

But while the women’s march is meant to symbolize an awakening of empowerment for women and minorities, that change isn’t happening fast enough for many women in Montana.

In Billings, the organizers wanted to spotlighted the often overlooked fate of missing and murdered Native American women.

Native American women, men and children led the one mile march through downtown Billings. Blackfeet Tribal member Marci McLean says that act sends a message.

"That’s powerful," McLean says. "That speaks volumes for what Billings is ready to do together. I don’t know when the last time was in Billings or in Montana when indigenous people were at the front of the line. We led the way and we will lead the way as indigenous women into the future."

Credit Jackie Yamanaka
Marci McLean, left, Ta'jin Perez, center, and Carla Lott, right, staff Western Native Voice. The non-partisan, social justice organization works to help Montana's tribal communities. Not pictured Alissa Snow and Leah Berry.

The women and girls wore traditional skirts, some were decorated with ribbons. It was to call attention to the disproportionate number of missing and murdered Native American women and men in the U.S. and Canada.

McLean says it’s not an issue many people know exists. She wants investigators and elected officials to be held accountable so the families with missing or murdered family members can have justice.

"I think we have to be silent no more," McLean says. "We have to speak up and we have to speak loudly. A lot of Native Americans, it’s not in our personality to speak loudly and to be on the streets yelling things. But I think this is such an issue that is so important that we do have to be on the street corners yelling loudly."

She says Native people also have to start talking to each other to address all of the issues they face, including conversations about drugs and alcohol. She says she lost a sister to drugs and her son to drinking and driving.

"I’ve lost over 13 family members; and probably 90 percent of them had something to do with drugs or alcohol, to some degree," McLean says. "And that’s just since 2007. So it’s hard. It’s a hard issue, but we can do it, you know. We’re resilient people. Look at what our ancestors have been through to get us here today."

McLean is the executive director of Western Native Voice, a non-partisan, social justice organization based in Billings that works for Montana’s tribes. She wants the energy and enthusiasm to continue beyond this year’s Women’s March.

Credit Jackie Yamanaka
Kassie Runsabove poses with her daughters Abbilee, in white coat, and Ivy before the start of the 2018 Women's March through downtown Billings.

Last year’s event largely was a protest against President Donald Trump’s inauguration.  The president wasn’t mentioned by any of the speakers at this year’s event in Billings. And that was by choice. 

State Senator Jen Gross of Billings, one of the organizers, wants to channel the energy and enthusiasm created at this year’s march into on-going action.

"The most difficult thing about building a movement is keeping the momentum going," Gross says. "Making change, real change, is hard work."

Gross challenges the gathering of women, children and men to step outside of their a comfort zone and run for an elected office, no matter what political party. 

"It requires perseverance and courage in the face of adversity and uncertainty. And there are heartbreaking setbacks. But onward we march or we can run," she says.

Gross says that’s how change will happen. The alternative, she says is to volunteer for someone else’s political campaign or for a service organization and to vote.

Nora Saks is a freelance radio and print journalist investigating themes of environmental justice in the Crown of the Continent and beyond.