Brian Hoffman is our amazing Flathead Field Manager. For the past year, Brian has fostered a community in this new area and has allowed our work in civic engagement and leadership development to flourish. Read more from Brian below.
Please give an overview of your work and experience working in your community over the last year. How has it changed over time?
Forward Montana has had limited contact with the Flathead Valley in the past with staff from other areas driving through to do VR or GOTV only occasionally through Forward Montana Foundation. Being the first staff member to be stationed in the area full time has meant doing a lot of work introducing the org to the community, which has been made quite challenging during a pandemic. A lot of my work has focused on program building and coalition building. One of my first events as an organizer was a nonprofit “open house,” event that brought members and supporters of local nonprofits together to find things they wanted to collaborate on and ways we could work together. And we’re currently developing a civic literacy program to launch in the Flathead, focusing on civics, how to interpret media, and more.
What types of programming are you implementing in the Flathead and why do you think that programming is important?
Before we can find common ground on issues, we have to agree what system we’re working within. In the Flathead, there is a strong need for civic literacy and civic education. Culturally and geographically, the Flathead Valley leans towards isolationism and nativism and during this time of huge societal changes, state and local politicians and officials have leaned into these traits, feeding fears of “outsiders changing our way of life,” and fanning the flames of extremism by using anti-government rhetoric to get elected. “America is not a democracy” is not an uncommon phrase to hear in the area; misconceptions, misinformation, and conspiracy theories cloud nearly every community discussion from online message boards to local government meetings to local elections.
One of the best anecdotes to counter extremism is education and discussion. This is why Forward Montana Foundation, a leader in civic education and programming, is launching a Civic Literacy Program in the Flathead Valley. This program will feature a series of workshops that will discuss various points of civic engagement, community life, and the processes of local governments. The goal of this is to better establish a democratic foundation in an area where local leaders are comfortable using anti-democratic language to gain support, create spaces where community members can meet and discuss issues together, and overall bridge gaps between people and strengthen the community.
What does it mean for you to be doing this kind of work in your community?
I grew up in the Flathead Valley and have lived here off and on for 17 years. Coming back to the area as a community organizer has me seeing the community through a different lens, relearning the cultures, individuals, and political landscape. Though there is a lot of work to be done in the Flathead, it means so much to have the opportunity to try and give back to the community that raised me.
Knowing how important this work is to your community and to the rest of the state, what do you see as the challenges moving forward?
The Flathead is seeing massive demographic and cultural change right now. People that are new to the area are moving here in large numbers, we just went through a tumultuous general election, and we are still dealing with the ongoing pandemic. Since my childhood, the Flathead has always had a bit of an isolationist streak but with the large changes happening around the country, public trust has dwindled and resentment towards people and organizations trying to make change has grown. Gaining community trust as an organization committed to community progress has been difficult due to the limitations brought on by the pandemic and I think it will continue to be difficult in a community where the community is incredibly wary of change.
What does it mean for your community to onboard, educate, and empower interns for the first time this year?
The internship program is an incredibly exciting opportunity for us as an organization in the Flathead. We went from a team of one to a team of five overnight. Not only is that symbolic of our growth as a program, but bringing on new team members, new personalities and ideas, will allow us to make our work more intentional, more targeted, more helpful to more people, and hopefully take our programming to the next level. I grew up in the Flathead and left and came back during a time when we weren’t leaving our homes. Most of our first interns have lived in the Flathead area for years now. They’re younger than me and they know it’s present better than I do. Forward Montana’s goal is to empower young people to be community leaders and now we’re really doing that in the Flathead.