One Woman’s Belief in Bozeman’s Ability to Change
Ruby Zitzer | Sunday Nov. 1st, 2020
There are countless reasons to live in Bozeman. For me, getting to live here has been a privilege. I have trails right out my front door, a community that supports me, and the opportunity to pick and choose what activity to do for the day. Many of us go through our daily lives unaware of the things people are experiencing outside of the bubbles that we create for ourselves. I recently sat down with a woman who is connected to many of the diverse communities that make up Bozeman. She strives in her work to create support for the diverse and historically underrepresented communities of Bozeman. Her name is Aja (“Asia”) Desmond.
Aja grew up in Connecticut, but always had an unexplained desire to live in Montana. Even in high school, she had an email that was firstname.lastname@example.org. She has always felt that she was meant to be here. Aja was told from a young age to hide her identity. Growing up, she was told to not tell people that she is Puerto Rican because “people don’t like Puerto Ricans.” This created a belief that part of her was bad or wrong. As she has unpacked her own relationship to white supremacy and racism, she realized that she had been enacting racism on the Latina part of her. She made a conscious decision to allow everything about her to be true and open. Once she came to terms with that understanding, she felt that the anti-oppression work she does was no longer optional.
As we sat at the park together, wearing masks, Aja reflected on the wisdom of James Baldwin saying, “people who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” I experienced Aja’s personality and work to reflect much of Baldwin’s words. She strives to keep this at the center of the work she does in her many roles in the community.
Aja comes from a fine arts background, but quickly found her way back to a community-focused career after graduation. Working and supporting her community has always been Aja’s “heart work.” She feels it’s important for her to leverage her light-skinned privilege to increase the chances that people will hear what she has to say, specifically in predominantly white spaces. All of her work is aimed to benefit the communities she belongs to and cares deeply for.
Although she knew little about Montana, she was intrigued by it and felt a consistent pull to it. Aja got the opportunity to move to Montana in 2008, through acceptance into a master’s program at University of Montana in Missoula. There she gained a master’s degree in Intercultural Youth and Family Development. After graduation, Aja moved to Livingston and worked as the executive director of Shift Youth Empowerment Programs. In 2017, she started working in Bozeman and in the last year, Aja made the short move over the hill.
Aja is currently the programs director at HAVEN, working and supporting survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Aja started Level Equity Consultants, which focuses on creating space for people to learn and change how they think about race and inequity in their personal lives as well as in their workplaces. Aja also volunteers as the Vice President on the Board of Directors of Earthtone OutsideMT. Aja is just one person in Bozeman who is taking part in an age-old fight for equity and justice. She hopes to be able to help elevate long-silenced voices in any way she can by listening to other BIPOC leaders in the community and ultimately increase the right to belong for all historically marginalized communities in Bozeman. She believes this will create a safer, more open, and honest community.
Earthtone Outside is a non-profit organization that is providing a safe and welcoming space and connection for people of color to get outside. Earthtone Outside is a group of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) aspiring to build a supportive and inclusive community to encourage Montanans of all sizes, abilities and backgrounds to get outside and enjoy all that Montana has to offer. Creating a strong community and safe space is the driving force behind the work of Earthtone Outside, serving approximately 140 current members. For Aja, she doesn’t only work for them, but she has also found a home with Earthtone. Earthtone does a variety of programming throughout the year. They do ‘affinity hikes’ on Wednesdays that are open to their members and host other community events that are open to the public. They hope that these public opportunities allow space for a shared experience and love for outdoor spaces. Membership events are opportunities to share stories, support one another and enjoy the outdoors. They have picnics with food and live music, hikes on local trails, camping in Yellowstone and other events focused on enjoying the renewing opportunities that Bozeman offers.
Earthtone Outside came into being because of a scary situation that one of the board members experienced. In 2017, one of Earthtone Outside’s founders posted on the Secret Bozeman Facebook page asking if there were any hiking groups for People of Color in town. There was a lot of backlash from the page followers, responding with negative, racist rhetoric. After that experience, it became clear that there needed to be a space for People of Color to feel safe while taking part in the bounty of local outdoor opportunities. Much of what Earthtone Outside tries to do is participate in the spaces that are typically ableist, white-centered spaces. They work on integrating more ethnicities into those spaces. Many organizations and businesses in town have rallied together to make Earthtone feel welcome and supported, including The Montana Racial Equity Project, Crosscut Mountain Sports Center and The Wilderness Society.
Aja loves Montana and cares deeply for what Montana offers her and her communities. When asked what she wanted Bozeman to know from reading this article, Aja said, “I want Bozeman to know I believe in its ability for equitable change.” She believes in the Bozeman communities’ ability to develop into a place that is more open to all people in all spaces. Aja thinks that it is important for Earthtone Outside to take up space in the places that many of us reflexively assume are white.
In regard to this Aja said, “I think that the outdoor community in Bozeman, by design and primarily because of genocide, is white. I think that’s true for most outdoor spaces but especially in the west. If we can encourage folks to challenge their thought structures around the spaces that they are in, to have them start noticing when they are surrounded by only white people or other white-passing people and have them pause and understand that this is true by design. This isn’t just because it’s Montana, but because this is how Montana was built and designed to be. Noticing is a good start for creating a cultural shift that, at a minimum, leads to anyone who wants to be outside feeling welcome to do so. Earthtone Outside’s primary goal is to practice taking up space outside, together.”
Aja believes that many of our actions stem from the deep wounds in our history. She strives to look at people’s resistance to equitable change through the lens of our country’s history with slavery and genocide. Aja wants Bozeman to know that grappling with the long-lasting effects of systems of oppression, such as white supremacy and colonialism, is deep, hard work. We cannot ever assume that we know someone’s identity, and we can’t make blanket assumptions because of the color of someone’s skin. Aja believes that to have a successful change in our community “we have to orient ourselves towards creating conditions of success for our most vulnerable. Then we all win.”
I know I have become more aware and tuned into the shifting tides of this town. I often find myself at a loss in the midst of the heated political climate, a global pandemic and the current events of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. I have the desire to get involved but often feel unsure of how to help. So, I asked Aja what simple ways people might get involved. Aja summed it up simply by saying, “Look inside. Get Honest. Get real. Listen to BIPOC voices and experiences with humility and curiosity and know the limitations of whiteness. Support and donate to local BIPOC-owned businesses.”
The community of Bozeman continues to flourish, shift, and adapt to more people, therefore needing to listen to more voices. It’s important that we welcome and change with those shifts. The community of Bozeman benefits from having Aja and people like her doing the heavy lifting for essential change. Bozeman is an amazing place to live and it’s important that we share its many pleasures with all the people who call it home.