Last summer, after violent confrontations broke out in Charlottesville, Va., where white supremacists gathered to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, Kari Kaiser was talking to a friend who also belonged to the Billings Rises group.
Billings Rises was part of Big Sky Rising, which Kaiser described as a “volunteer army of concerned citizens” who came together after the 2016 election to encourage civic engagement and activism.
In talking to her friend about the “fiery back-and-forth commenting on Facebook” about Charlottesville, Kaiser said, they realized that even among people with similar worldviews, different perceptions of the current racial climate “had the power to divide us.”
They talked about having a public forum on the issue of racism, somewhere outside the realm of Facebook.
That idea led, ultimately to “A Community Dialogue on Race,” a free event scheduled for Tuesday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the Royal Johnson Community Room at the Billings Public Library, 510 N. Broadway.
The forum will feature a culturally diverse panel of Billings residents who will talk about their personal experiences with racial bias, as well as ideas regarding how individuals and and institutions can create a more racially equitable society. Here’s a look at the panelists:
♦ Ana K. Diaz is an assistant professor of philosophy at Montana State University Billings, where she teaches courses in medical ethics, ethics, introduction to philosophy and political theory. She is a public member of the Board of Medical Examiners and the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on Hispanics. She was born in Lima, Peru. Ethnically she is a Latina/criolla and racially mestiza.
♦ Michael Gray is a co-owner of G&G Advertising, a full-service advertising and public relations agency that specializes in populations that are hard to reach, like American Indians. Gray’s father is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe.
♦ Sonia Gomez Davis was born and raised in Billings. Although she is a first-generation American as the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, she and her ancestors are also indigenous to America. She co-founded a local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice and has worked on several community-organizing projects. She holds a B.A. in communication from MSU Billings and is a speech and debate coach at Senior High.
♦ Danny Choriki was born in Bozeman and left Montana in the 1980s partly because he was tired of being “different.” He was two Japanese grandparents, one Portuguese and one Filipino. He has served on the boards of corporations and foundations and as an activist in a number of political parties, including the Left Green Network of the U.S. Green Party. Since returning to Montana, he has been active in local politics, startup culture, information and garden technology.
♦ Fitzgerald “Jerry” Clark was born in the Caribbean and grew up on the island of Barbados. He has lived in the United States since he was 15. He works at RiverStone Health and serves on the board of Not In Our Town Billings. He also serves on the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Billings and the Regional Baha’i Council of the Northern Plains states.
The moderator will be Russell Rowland, co-founder of the Native American Race Relations and Healing lecture series.
Kaiser said the goal of the forum is to increase awareness of the racial climate in Billings and to learn tools to respond when racism is witnessed or experienced. Attendees will be invited to submit questions for Rowland, which will be addressed after the panelists have made their opening comments.
Kaiser said she was motivated by “a genuine curiosity about life experiences different from my own.” As a middle-age white woman who grew up in Hobson, with a population of 300 people of similar backgrounds, she said, she has to acknowledge “that I didn’t know a lot about what it means to be a minority in Montana.”
She said she also emailed social studies teachers at all four Billings high schools, hoping to encourage a good turnout of teenagers. And this forum is by no means the end of anything, she said.
“We’re viewing this as a starting point,” Kaiser said.