This is where Montana separates from the city after about two and a half years as a program of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
The organization facilitates outdoor recreation opportunities for the local BIPOC community – Black/Indigenous/People of Color. The group’s leaders met Thursday with the Missoula Department of Parks and Recreation to explore a partnership between the new independent organization and the city.
“I think it’s in a better place now,” said Alex Kim, who founded Here Montana in 2019.
He and others in the Here Montana community made the decision earlier this month to transform into a social enterprise. Under the terms of the new agreement, the City of Missoula will be a partner in Here Montana, its own limited liability company.
“It’s an exciting move,” said Parks and Recreation Director Donna Gaukler, noting that this isn’t the first time a city program has become an independent organization.
“I’m super excited for Alex,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to the Here Montana participants and the BIPOC community.”
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Despite the mutual enthusiasm, Kim said there had been a series of frustrating “communications breakdowns” that led to Here Montana’s separation from the city.
“The city doesn’t have the infrastructure to support something like this,” he said, “so realistically, the best place for this program is to be its own independent entity, with freedom in funding, in programming, in freedom to run.” Design can have its own decisions.”
Kim said he had to take four more jobs while running the program part-time as part of Parks and Recreation, but there were no opportunities for him to do the job full-time.
“I’ve been hit time and time again by a persistent ‘no’ and a persistent lack of understanding of why this program is important at a fundamental level,” he said.
Kim decided to find another position in the city, working in a newly created position in Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. But he said the city prevented him from remaining involved with Here Montana while he works full-time in another role at the city. Kim said he feels excluded from participating in the program he founded.
“It was at that moment that I decided that this program couldn’t happen in the city,” he said.
It was here that Montana held a community meeting in mid-May, and the 65 attendees — split virtually and in person — overwhelmingly supported a proposal to break away from the city and start a new social enterprise.
“I’m excited about the partnership and really excited about all the opportunities we have to work with the city,” said Kim.
He resigned from his position in the city to head the newly independent organization.
“My heart beats for this program,” he said.
Kim hopes the city of Here will support Montana by providing funding, equipment, transportation, and occasional staff.
“It’s important to build community together with the city, but I don’t think the city necessarily needs to have responsibility or power in these situations,” he said. “I think their role as a partner is more effective than somehow directing this.”
Gaukler said the city is still ironing out the details of its partnership with Here Montana, and Parks and Recreation wants to take cues from Kim as he navigates the organization’s newfound independence.
“I think the relationship with Here Montana has yet to be determined,” she said. She listed program services and assistance with permits and reservations as some potential areas for partnership opportunities.
“There could be a whole range of things we can do to work with him,” Gaukler added.
As an independent entity, Here Montana’s program will be very similar to the program it offers under Parks and Recreation, Kim promised.
Here, Montana will continue to provide outdoor recreation opportunities for BIPOC individuals with a focus on hiking, fishing, snow sports, rafting and biking. This is where Montana plans to launch its summer program in mid-June.
Access and education are important components of Here Montana. For example, participants can not only go cross-country skiing, but also learn how to buy skis and where to find trails.
Kim also makes a point of introducing attendees to political issues surrounding outdoor recreation. Those who join his rafting trips learn about public lands, and he hopes Here Montana can partner with organizations like Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and the US Forest Service.
“We want people to get involved politically,” Kim said. “…We combine fun with politics.”
Kim also combines different intersectional identities in his outreach work and he hopes Here Montana will continue to be a platform for diverse members of the community.
Going forward, Kim hopes to strengthen Here Montana’s partnerships, both with the city and with others in the greater Missoula area.
“They (Parks and Recreation) help us fulfill our mission and vision while we help them fulfill their vision and mission,” Kim said. “We can achieve our common goals.”
Indeed, Gaukler said inclusion is a goal the city plans to pursue in partnership with Here Montana and through its own programming.
“It is absolutely vital that people of all walks of life experience the incredible benefits of recreation in nature and the built environment,” she said.
Because people of color make up only 8% of Missoula’s population, Gaukler noted, “not all residents feel welcome.”
But by and large, that trend appears to be changing, thanks in part to efforts like Kim’s.
For example, an annual report by Kampgrounds of America found that the variety of outdoor recreation spaces is increasing, especially when it comes to camping. In 2021, KOA reported, 54% of new campers who had at least one camping experience were from non-white groups.
The overall rate of diversity among new campers has increased since 2020, the report also found, and camping in general experienced a year of record participation.
To connect with Here Montana, follow them on Instagram @here_montana.
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