“Agitation is what America’s all about,” said populist author and radio talk show host Jim Hightower at the Missoula New Party’s Third Annual Progressive Awards Ceremony last Friday night. “Nothing wrong with being an agitator. That’s the center post in the washing machine that gets the dirt out.”
Invoking the names of such famous agitators as Thomas Paine, Sojourner Truth, the Wobblies, the Suffragists, Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez, Hightower paid tribute to some of Missoula’s most outstanding progressive activists and agitators, whose accomplishments span the years and the spectrum of progressive causes: from the drafting of the Montana Constitution in 1972 to the establishment two years ago of Missoula’s neighborhood councils, from the preservation of the Missoula Valley’s native plant and grass species to the organization of labor unions in Montana lumber mills.
Hightower spoke before a packed house at the Orchard Homes Country Life Club for about 40 minutes, and while he was billed as the main attraction at the $25-a-plate fundraiser dinner, it was the local award winners who drew the most enthusiastic applause.
The first honorees of the evening were Mae Nan Ellingson and Daphne Jones, who shared the “This Land is Your Land” award for their work in representing Missoula during the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention. Both Ellingson and Jones were instrumental in drafting the Montana Constitution, widely considered one of the most progressive political documents in the world.
“[The Convention] happened at a time when people believed in government, when people believed in the ability of the citizens of Montana to govern themselves,” said Ellingson, who, at age 24, was the youngest of all state delegates. “We were not afraid of ourselves or what we could do when we came together collectively.”
“We were very lucky,” said Jones, a longtime Missoula activist. “Labor was with us and the environmentalists were with us, and we all worked together. And I don’t think the state even knew what happened.”
The “Going Beyond Pious Entreaties” award recognized Steve Garnaas-Holmes, pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Missoula. Garnaas-Holmes, perhaps better known for his performances on the Montana Logging and Ballet Company, has been an outspoken proponent of the living wage in Missoula, one of only a handful of local clergymen to do so. As a fighter for social and economic justice, Garnaas-Holmes has worked to give a voice to the voiceless, and his program, “Welcoming Everybody,” which encourages gay and lesbian members to join his congregation, has created a more open and welcoming environment in the faith community .
The New Party also recognized the local foreign language school, Spanish Time, with the “Not Business As Usual” Award. Spanish Time, founded in 1987 by Bettina Escudero and now run by Melissa Bangs and her uncle Dennis Bangs, not only allows children and adults to experience a foreign language first hand, but introduces them to the richness and variety of Latin American politics and culture.
This year’s dual recipients of the “Empowering the Citizens” award, long-time Missoula activists Lin and Judy Smith, could hardly be more deserving of public recognition. Just about every progressive cause that has engaged the Missoula community has engaged these two sisters: the peace movement, the environment, affordable housing, equal rights, alternative transportation, growth management and neighborhood schools, to name but a few. Their tireless efforts to launch the neighborhood councils on a shoestring budget, at times with little or begrudging political support, is a testament to their faith in grassroots participatory democracy and neighborhood empowerment.
Missoula native and labor activist Jason Miller received the “Justice on the Job” award for his work at organizing mill workers in Eureka. Miller took a four-month leave of absence from his job at the Bonner mill to accomplish the task, and now serves as president of Local 3038 in Missoula, having also helped win a union election at Clawson Manufacturing in Missoula.
“I know that thanks to emerging labor leaders like Jason Miller, the labor movement in Montana will offer something the right wing cannot and will not: economic justice for all,” said local union activist Jacquie Helt.
The “Hold Them Accountable” award was given to Native American activist Janet Robideau for her tireless efforts as project director of Indian People’s Action, for raising awareness of Native American issues and shining the harsh light of scrutiny on the harassment and inattention that Indians suffer under antiquated and biased public policies.
“Montana People’s Action was brave enough to take a chance and work to build a voice that has gone unheard for far too long,” said Robideau, in a written statement. “As members of the invisible minority, IPA is not only being heard, but we are now accomplishing and changing things that are long overdue.”
Finally, the “Native Grass Roots” award went to Missoula botanist John Pierce, who is probably best known for his work on the Clark Fork Native Prairie Project and John Toole Park. Under Pierce’s leadership, the project has not only allowed native species to reestablish themselves, but he has created a living legacy and a seed source for future restoration projects in the Missoula Valley. His parting words to the audience were an entreaty that similar efforts, of whatever stripe, continue in this community.
“If some of you also have things that you feel would make this community a better place to live,” said Pierce, “well, set aside your golf clubs, put down your book, turn off the Internet and go out there and make it happen.”
Hightower himself couldn’t have said it better.