Walking around Bozeman during Pride Foundation’s board and staff retreat last spring, I saw only one other person of color who was not on our team the entire time. The lack of representation I experienced led to a constant feeling of otherness for me, where it felt challenging to be a person of color and LGBTQ.
When I don’t see people who look like me, it makes me wonder—do I belong? Am I welcome? Will I be safe here?
Earlier this month, when I spoke with Judith Heilman, the Executive Director of The Montana Racial Equity Project (MTREP) based in Bozeman, she explained that even though I may not have seen many people who look like me, there is a community of folks who have been marginalized who are living in Bozeman.
Judith acknowledges that Montana is not perfect when it comes to issues of racial justice or LGBTQ inclusion—she has personally witnessed many occasions where mistakes have been made by those around her.
“Working toward social justice is like learning how to ski. When you fall down, you get back up, and you think about why you fell. You keep making mistakes, you learn from them, and then you move forward,” explains Judith.
And many people in Montana are doing just that—working hard to learn, finding ways to be better, and moving toward a more inclusive state.
MTREP’s latest project, supported through Pride Foundation’s Rapid Response Fund, focuses on empowering the business community in Bozeman to contribute to this forward movement.
The Open to All Business Initiative was originally started in Helena in early 2016 by Kim Leighton, Pride Foundation’s Regional Philanthropy Officer in Montana, and has since expanded throughout the state. The goal of this project was to build acceptance and visibility for the LGBTQ community by engaging Montana businesses in making their spaces safer and affirming.
Especially in a state where it has not yet been possible to pass statewide legal protections for LGBTQ people, it is often up to local businesses to help create safer spaces, increase visibility, and drive community support for marginalized communities. Recent attempts to pass anti-trans legislation in Montana further demonstrate the need to build supportive communities at the local level.
When Kim visited Bozeman last year, Judith met with her about this initiative. Judith immediately thought that this explicit demonstration of openness and acceptance for marginalized communities was much needed in Bozeman, and would be embraced by the business community there.
Open to All is fundamentally grounded in the belief that the fight for LGBTQ justice and racial justice are intrinsically linked—and that all of our liberation is interconnected. By partnering together and working across our movements for justice through this effort, we can help create more spaces that are safer for everyone by ensuring that businesses really are open to all.
Judith was excited by this project because she knows through her work and lived experience that our identities are inseparable. There are other LGBTQ people of color in Montana who need safer spaces and broader community acceptance, and that means that those spaces need to embrace all parts of their identity.
So far, The Montana Racial Equity Project has sought collaboration with another Pride Foundation grant recipient, Bridgercare, and empowered more than 60 businesses in Bozeman including law firms, restaurants, and cafes to openly show their support for LGBTQ patrons and employees, as well as for queer people of color.
It is Judith’s hope that, in the midst of the divisiveness that is so pervasive, Open to All will continue to be a tool business leaders can use to show support for their communities, especially those who have been marginalized like LGBTQ people of color.
For me, this initiative is powerful because Montana businesses are standing up for their values—even if it means potentially losing customers—so that our community will feel safe, in all of our identities.
Walking into a business that proudly shows that it is Open to All indicates to me that I can be my whole, authentic self—and that being inclusive is truly important to them.
Jonathan Adams is Community Engagement Manager at Pride Foundation. Email Jonathan.
To read more about other Rapid Response Fund projects, apply for RRF grant funds, or make a gift to the fund, click here. To support the critical ongoing work of the Montana Racial Equity Project, click here.