Population Health

March 29, 2022

Spotlight: Michelle Montgomery works to redefine what justice demands

Image of Michelle MontgomeryWhat does justice demand? This question is at the center of Dr. Michelle Montgomery’s professional, educational and personal journeys, as she seeks to decolonize the narrative around climate justice and uplift marginalized voices while fostering grace and humility in her work and conversations.

Montgomery is an associate professor and chair of the Division of Social and Historical studies at the University of Washington Tacoma campus. She teaches several courses in the Ethnic, Gender and Labor studies vein, primarily dedicated to indigenous studies, where she aims to impart the importance of emotional learning and understanding the humility and responsibility that must come with calling others into conversations.

“The education systems that we’re in have taught us that being emotional is considered an inferior reaction. When did being emotional get removed from the learning process? How do we bring our whole selves back to our work? Learning is emotional,” explained Montgomery. “I hope my students learn how to embrace that we’re organic beings. Acknowledge that you have emotions and acknowledge that you want to practice and work on bringing your whole self. That’s a beautiful goal to work on every day.”

In addition to her teaching, Montgomery is also the assistant director for the Office of Undergraduate Education at UW Tacoma and the interim director for the Undergraduate Studies Program for the School of Medicine’s Department of Bioethics and Humanities. In addition, she works closely with the first indigenous doctoral cohort in the UW Tacoma School of Education, a seminal group that is the first indigenous cohort across the UW campuses.

Montgomery is dedicated to sharing her knowledge via involvement at several tribal colleges and universities across the country. She is the external indigenous advisor for the Sustainability Leadership program at the University of Minnesota, Morris, where over 27% of the student population is indigenous. She also works closely with Rising Voices in Boulder, CO, where she collaboratively gathers and shares indigenous knowledge in the climate science sphere.

Another pillar of Montgomery’s work at the UW is her involvement in the Indigenous Speaker Series. The Indigenous Speaker Series features dialogues about Indigenous people’s cultural and traditional lived experiences. In partnership, Ms. Greene (Sapóoq’is Wíit’as Consulting) and Montgomery collaborated to expand Montgomery’s existing initiative that began in 2015 as the “Indigenous Knowledge and Community Conversations.” These initiatives foster a long-term goal to continue building collaborative partnerships with Indigenous communities, academic institutions, and agencies that serve these entities. The Series has drawn more than 1,800 participants from across the world to engage in discussions about climate, traditional food sovereignty, cultural and traditional practices and human health, all with foundations in sustainability, resilience and dedication to future generations.

In 2021, the Series expanded its partnership to include the Salish Sea Research Center Executive Director, Dr. Misty Peacock, to continue to develop an increased awareness of Indigenous people’s cultures, experiences, and histories. In the midst of the isolation brought on by the pandemic, Montgomery emphasized the sense of hope this series brought in its ability to connect and amplify knowledge in virtual spaces.

“The speaker series was medicine for so many of us during that time,” said Montgomery. “We’re in a position to find some positives about what’s been happening in the world. We had a virus make us sit still. We had climate change make us sit still. How do we practice learning how to sit with ourselves? That was the best gift out of everything we’ve been going through.”

She is currently writing a book titled Voices of Ingenuity that draws from this series by calling on past speakers to contribute their knowledges and further amplifying indigenous voices by reaching a broader audience through the book.

Montgomery is concurrently working on a second book called Re-Indigenizing Ecological Consciousness, which connects to her eco-wellness and climate justice pursuits. The book will call on conversations and relationships she has built over the past several years to further uplift indigenous voices and decolonize the climate justice narrative. Sustainability and eco-wellness buzzwords, such as citizen science and traditional ecological knowledge, are important to the climate justice conversation, but historical trauma is often attached to these words for indigenous people. Shifting the conversations from citizen science to community science and emphasizing the importance of taking care in the way in which people share knowledge is the aim of this book and Montgomery’s work in general around decolonizing the climate narrative.

More recently, Montgomery has been active in addressing population health challenges through service on the Population Health Initiative’s executive council with the goal of providing knowledge through the lens of what justice demands from an indigenous perspective.

“Population health from a climate justice perspective is emotional, spiritual wellness, healing trauma – that’s an everyday thing for us as indigenous people,” explained Montgomery. “How do we include indigenous knowledge so it isn’t an add on or viewed as a cultural context to add to a project. A lot of times in our communities, we’re a second thought to be a part of a project, versus being at the table. Acknowledging what justice demands is acknowledging tribal sovereignty and really asking what the needs of this community are.”

Montgomery brings her multidisciplinary background to every project and conversation with the ultimate goal of honoring and uplifting the knowledge of others and examining climate justice through the lens of eco-critical race theory and what justice demands.

“It’s my ultimate goal to always be a forever student, to not allow the acronyms behind my name to define me, and to always know that someone else’s privilege is always someone else’s oppression,” Montgomery emphasized.