Havre Daily News
A federal mediator recently made a short trip to Havre as part of an assessment of racial tension after a newspaper article about racism in Havre caused a stir in the community.
The U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service's regional office in Denver sent a mediator here June 21, and she met with about 25 concerned community members, the agency's deputy director, Stephen Thom, said Monday in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. The mediator will return to Havre in August.
According to Thom, the mediator had been sent a copy of the story before coming to Havre. She spent about five hours in town before she continued a five-city tour in Montana.
Thom said there are "several situations" she will be looking into while in Montana, but that the story on Havre and the situation it highlighted was the main point of her visit to the state.
"That was the impetus of why our facilitator was sent," he said.
The story, "Bordering on Racism," was part of a special report on race in Montana by the University of Montana School of Journalism's Native News Project titled "Perceptions." The project included articles about each of the state's seven Indian reservations, and ran as an insert in the May 28 edition of the Great Falls Tribune.
The story about Havre reported instances of racism that included store employees admitting to watching Native American customers more closely than whites and accounts by Indians about being treated unfairly in local businesses.
"Whenever there are allegations of any kind of racism, we look into it," Thom said. "We just want to know if there's tension in the community."
The agency was created in 1964 by the Civil Rights Act to help act as a peacekeeper and conciliator in the racially divided South. Since then the organization has shrunk in size but grown in scope, offering its services to local governments and community groups nationwide to resolve racial tension. The agency has 10 regional offices and 50 agents.
Thom said that once the agent is finished with her visit, no findings will be published. The agency's job, Thom said, is to assess whether there is racial tension in a community, and, if so, to try to help community members work through their problems.
"We are only going to assess what (level of racial tension there) is and whether there is a desire on the part of the community to resolve these issues," he said.
Thom said he doesn't think the article by itself would have been enough to warrant the assessment, but the fact that a community member called the agency provided "some confirmation." He said he didn't know how many people called the agency.
Havre resident Charlie Grant said he called the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and was put in contact with the Denver-based mediator. He said he spoke with the agent two days before her visit and asked her to come and make an assessment. While she was here, Grant said, the mediator spoke with people of different races and from different parts of the community. He also said he gave her a copy of the story as well as other opinion pieces and stories that have run in the Havre Daily News since the students' story appeared.
The agent is planning to make a longer visit to Havre in August. She will speak with any community groups that have concerns about racism and also with community leaders, whom she didn't have time to meet during the first visit, Thom said.
"We will talk to as many parties as we need to to get a true picture of the situation," he said. "All of the stakeholders need to be involved in some way."
The agency has many different ways to help communities work through their problems. Thom said town hall meetings and smaller group settings, such as church congregations and school classes, are commonly used when townspeople have broad issues they want to work on. More formal training and mediation are typically used for more specific situations, like police profiling or school situations.
Mayor Bob Rice said he was surprised to hear of the mediator's visit. He said he would like to meet with her in August.
Carol Van Valkenburg, one of the two University of Montana professors who oversaw this year's Native News Project, said that in her 15 years of teaching the class, she and students have received "lots of feedback, both good and bad." A federal assessment being brought about by the class is a first, she said, and definitely falls into the "good" category.
"If townspeople have determined there is a problem and some measures are being taken to correct it, that's a good thing," she said.