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Gwen Nicholson's radical run for Missoula City Council
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In April, the journalist, musician and activist Gwen Nicholson announced that she is running to represent Ward 1 on Missoula City Council this November.
Although Nicholson’s political outlook overlaps with other young progressives in Missoula like Paul Kim, Izzy Milch and Daniel Carlino, she also brings a unique set of experiences and identities to her campaign: a self-described socialist, Nicholson believes she would be the first Indigenous person elected to, and the first openly transgender person to serve, on city council. Nicholson views the city council as homogenous, and she intends to use her new position to bring both her own perspective, as well as other diverse voices in the community, to the conversations taking place in the council chamber.
Read on as Nicholson highlights differences between her and her opponent, Eric Melson, makes the case for diversifying city council, considers Missoula’s mayoral candidates and much more.
Catch Gwen Nicholson at a candidates’ forum sponsored by Missoula County Democrats (for candidates running in Wards 1 and 2) on August 29 at the Missoula Public Library. More details here.
Max: Your campaign Twitter bio says that you’re ”running to make Missoula weird again.” What’s an example of the weirdness?
Gwen Nicholson: That's a thing that we came up with initially, but we decided not to run with it, because it's a little cheesy to twist Trump quotes into something progressive and positive.
I just think of the house show network that used to exist: the Sixth Street House, Hockey House, Flavortown. I would see a bunch of people coming together and doing stuff that was funky and experimental.
I think that's a good canary in the coal mine for the relative health of a town. It requires a bunch of things, right? It requires low enough rents so people can just come into a space and take on that burden of planning a house show. It requires young people to be active and engaged in their community, and to be invested in creating a scene. You have to have a network of jobs that sustain people and will keep them rooted in that place for a period of time. It means that you have cultural organs that are distributing news; we used to have the Independent.
It might seem like a small thing—who cares about like a bunch of punks doing a show in somebody's basement?—but I think it is interconnected with these things that we talk about on a day-to-day basis, like affordability, keeping people rooted here and what's happening with the labor market in town.
There's not as many of those independent venues in the same way; there's not as many small businesses around that cater to a local market or are more low-key. Things have become a lot more homogenized.
I think the same economic forces that drove the consolidation of the music scene are driving a lot of the changes that are happening across the board in Missoula: it’s the same thing that's happening with larger venture capital firms buying up properties and with Airbnbs encouraging these zombie properties, turning the things that used to function as institutions within a city into investment opportunities. It's really frustrating, especially as somebody who's invested in the culture and character of a town.
Talking a bit more directly about the goals of your campaign—what do you consider the limitations of the role, if any?
I'm not under any illusions that all of a sudden we'd be able to completely reverse the trends that have happened in Missoula for the last twenty to thirty years. I’m one person, it's one candidacy.
I'm sure there are going to be a lot of losses; there's going to be a lot of taking things on the chin. In a broader sense, there's a lot of things that are hamstrung at the state level, like with landlord-tenant [policy] or [barring] rent control. [But] that doesn't mean that I'm going to stop advocating for those things.
[In Missoula City Council] I do see a lot of voices being excluded from these conversations. I see a lot of groups of people being pushed out of the room when these big things are happening.
There’s a sentiment that you hear a lot in that city council chamber, that they want to be having big conversations and having these dialogues. But fundamentally, a dialogue can't happen with just one group of people. That's a monologue. I think that’s been a huge problem.
We saw that a little bit with the debate over [de-funding the Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion program (JEDI)] that just happened. [Council member] Mirtha Becerra mentioned that it's a little absurd to be having this conversation when there's only one non-white person in the room.
It’s kind of wild for a group of mostly white people to say, let's throw this out because it doesn't seem to be working. But not working from whose perspective? It's just the perspective of the people who have always had power and who have always made the decisions and called the shots. I think there are a lot of things that are treated as common sense that aren't necessarily that sensible.
I think that's emblematic of a lot of the difficulties of trying to tackle these bigger conversations. It's a room that's mostly full of people who own property. It's a room that's mostly full of people of a certain age. It's mostly a certain demographic, whether that's racial, sexual, gender, what have you. It’s going to be a big thing to get those voices in the room and get people who can bring other voices into the room, which is what I think I really bring to the table more than anything else.
Not to hammer home the identity part of it, but I do think it is a part of the equation. I would be the first Indigenous person elected to this board, which is kind of wild. I'm fairly certain that I would be the first out transgender person on the city council.
I'm a renter, I'm a tenant. I've never owned property in my life. I'm not likely to own property in the near future. I work a little bit more closely with homeless populations in town; I do stuff with Food Not Bombs. I’m not saying that I speak for these groups or anything like that, but I want to bring them into the room.
They should be a part of the conversation when we're talking about affordability, when we're talking about this group of people that we treat like a problem and that we treat like more like a pest infestation than people who have their own thoughts and concerns and who should be advocating for themselves.
Why do you think you’re a better fit for city council than your opponent, Eric Melson?
I want to say, first of all, that I've sat down and talked with my opponent, and I think he's a very nice guy. He has excellent taste in music; he's very into Japanese noise metal. I'm also very into Japanese noise metal.
I don't want to attack him. But I don't hear a lot of policy out of him. I think we need to rise to this moment and we need to be honest about the crises that we're facing. We need to be upfront and honest about the urgency of the situation. And we need to go into things with vision and with a certain amount of boldness. I think when you're backed by people like [current council member] Heidi West, whose main policy priority seems to be defunding initiatives to increase the amount of equity and diversity and inclusion in city government and city programs, I think that sends a certain message. It's definitely a message that I would say I'm diametrically opposed to.
On Euphoria, the main character is like, “I was born on 9/11, and things got worse after that.” It's true. [My generation] was born into multiple wars, forever wars that had no end, climate change, economic crisis, labor crisis; all of these crises that were caused by previous generations and were mostly left unaddressed or exacerbated by previous generations. There’s a ticking clock on things.
Things aren't getting better anytime soon. For us to even think about getting back to zero and starting to improve things, let alone building the world that we dream of, really radical action needs to be taken quickly.
Do you think that progressive energy in Missoula is growing right now?
We saw it bubble over into the mainstream in a very, very visible way with the Pride and Determination rally. The censuring of Zooey Zephyr provided a catalyst for a large expression of progressive values and a big demonstration of what I think Missoula's progressive core is able to accomplish on short notice.
Not to toot my own horn, but I was fairly involved in putting that together. I was involved in planning the march and getting people together, along with dozens of other people. And I saw the organizational capacity that exists in this town; that was all done in the course of like, 48 hours. It was a huge logistical feat, and it wound up turning out thousands of people to support a very progressive transgender politician who, if you look at her track record in the state legislature, never once compromised on her progressive values.
That's the most visible expression of it, but it represents a lot of work that's been bubbling under the surface. I feel like the left in Missoula following the rally has been so much more energized and mobilized. And I think you see that borne out in things like this campaign and the work that's being done on trying to make inroads towards organizing within the unhoused community.
How does that organizing work; is there a non-profit involved in the effort?
It’s organizing outside of that non-profit framework, which is a little bit alien to a lot of people in progressive spheres in Montana. I see a lot more horizontal organization. A lot of stuff happens less within the confines of an institution or a structure and more on the ground.
I don't know if you attended this meeting [at the library] where a lot of homeless advocates came together that was organized by Montana Women Vote? It was the first time that I've seen a lot of leaders from within the homeless community coming to speak from their own perspective. I saw a lot of people [saying], Hey, you don't know about the conditions inside the Pov. You don't know about the conditions on the street. Let me educate you about this directly from my own experience without intermediaries or things like that.
I think you're gonna see more of that over the course of the next year. I think a lot of that work has been done over the summer, and I think it's going to boil over into a lot more things happening this winter, this fall, this next new year.
We love to have these big outbursts of anger and joy and expression and solidarity, like Pride and Determination. But for every one of those, you have to have a lot of long weeks of wrangling people together, managing schedules, managing people. It’s like the Oscar Wilde quote: “Everybody would be a socialist if it weren't for all the meetings.”
Of the five candidates running for Missoula mayor this November, which one best represents your values?
I have never been really that represented by elected officials in Montana. The most represented I've ever felt has been by people like Zooey and [State Rep. SJ] Howell, and that's even still not quite exactly where I'm at in terms of the urgency and the radical nature of things. What I want is a candidate who will at least say that what we need is a fundamental change to the system.
But between [Mayor Jordan] Hess, [Council member Mike] Nugent and Andrea [Davis], I could work well with any of them. I genuinely have a lot of respect for them, and I respect that it's a difficult position to be in.
I really like Mike Nugent. I like working with him. I've sat down and talked with him multiple times. There are certain aspects of his platform that give me pause, especially with regards to the realtor money; it’s hard for that kind of thing to not give you pause.
I really appreciate the work that Andrea's done at Homeword. I'm loathe to give anybody my personal endorsement, because I don't think any of the candidates promise foundational change. I don't think any of the candidates are fully interested in that.
I was thinking about what you said earlier about the limitations inherent in the role of a city council member. Playing devil's advocate a bit, do you see the mayoral candidates as being resistant to that transformative change, or just clear-eyed about what they can deliver?
What it comes down to is a different way of viewing the world. I think there is a difference between being, like you say, clear-eyed and pragmatic about what realistically can be accomplished by one person in one office at any one time, versus subscribing to a worldview that fundamentally is limited in terms of what you think can be achieved.
I have a different perspective from a lot of those candidates [because of] my own experiences as an Indigenous person. Sometimes I feel like my memory is longer than a lot of other people because I have a cultural memory of a time before the United States, of a time before colonization, where there was a different economic model in place.
It's good to be pragmatic. It's good to be clear-eyed. It's good to be strategic in a lot of ways, because the work of transformative change is really slow, and it plays out over generations. It doesn't play out within an individual lifespan. It's the work of moving the ball forward inches as opposed to making a big long pass directly into the end zone, you know?
The danger that you run into as a progressive is overpromising. I'm trying not to overpromise. I'm trying to be realistic about what can be accomplished. I feel like what I can accomplish is hopefully taking the pressure off of people so that more organizational work can be done in the future and a groundwork can be further laid in order to get us to a place where eventually we can radically, fundamentally change the way that society is ordered so that we can live in a world that's free of exploitation and that's free of all of this awful pain and strife and fear and these systems that are killing the entire world. I believe in transformative change. I believe that we can live in a world without things like imperialism and capitalism.
I'm not sure if it can be achieved in my lifetime, but I'm willing to do everything within my limited power to make that happen and to see that borne out as much as I can and to dream and hope for it, versus what I see a lot of from liberal politicians, which is a foreclosure on the future, an acceptance that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that we need to accept this framework as eternal and unchanging, that we can't fundamentally eliminate things like poverty or racism or oppression or things like that.
I see that as a failure of the imagination. It's demoralizing. Luckily, that's not the attitude that I see among young people these days. The attitude that I see is like, this world is coming to an end and there's gonna be another world coming after it, and we need to think about what that world is gonna look like.
I believe there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way that society is ordered, because the alternative is just death. The more that we can shift the conversation towards that, and build space for that within public discourse and within the discourse of the institutions that govern us, I think the better off we're all going to be ultimately.
I don't make any bones about being a leftist, you know? I don't want to hide that part of myself. I am a socialist; that's how I feel. Whether or not that hurts me or aids me in the long run is something that I'm uninterested in. I feel like I owe it to people who believe in me and support me to be upfront about that. And I owe it to the movement to be upfront about that.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Editor’s note: this interview originally stated that Gwen Nicholson would be the first Indigenous person to serve on Missoula City Council. That recognition is in fact held by Patrick Weasel Head. Nicholson would, however, be the first Indigenous person elected to Missoula City Council, as Weasel Head was appointed. This post has been edited to reflect this information.
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