NewsLocal News


Table Talk: Billings' Black leaders come together to talk respect and connection

race roundtable.png
Posted at 4:39 PM, Feb 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-01 10:28:37-05

BILLINGS – MTN News is honoring Black History Month with an honest and open conversation with four influential Black leaders in Billings, where no question or topic was off the table.

Nestled around a sturdy round wood table in the studios of KTVQ sat four of the brightest minds Billings has to offer: William and Yolawnda Henry, Clark Sturgis and Theo Johnson.

Each came to the table to discuss openly the realities and struggles of living black in Montana’s largest community, where only 1 percent of the population is African American.

The Henrys moved to Billings over a dozen years ago. William serves as the president of Be Better World while Yolawnda is the senior vice president of human resources at KOA.

“My career brought us here,” said William Henry.

While Sturgis tells a comical story of how when applying for his current position as senior director of justice and equity diversity at RiverStone Health, he thought he was coming to Maryland instead of Montana, getting the state ID mistaken.

“It was divine intervention,” he said. “I felt like this was the place I needed to be.”

And Johnson speaks passionately about sports in Montana serving as the founder of Big Sky Sports Academy in Billings.

The group is ready to talk, tackling the meaning of inclusion first.

“I like to sum it up in one phrase: When we talk about inclusion, it means being asked to dance, once you get to the dance,” said William Henry. “And a lot of time we use that phrase, and we use it and I think a lot of time, communities have a social responsibility to ask people to dance.”

Watch the full roundtable here:

Roundtable on Race: Black community members on living in a majority-white Montana town

It's an answer Henry hopes will open minds in a community that’s predominantly white. Blacks aren't even Billings' largest minority population: that would be Native Americans.

“I think understanding an individual’s lens is important,” William Henry said. “When you have never had to deal with something, then it’s not our expectation that you would know how to deal with it.

William Henry keeps his message clear, putting the subject of awareness at the forefront of the conversation.

And for Yolawnda Henry, inclusion begins with awareness. She speaks joyfully about the subject of her hair, worn in braids.

“I will say, every time I am in the store, someone will ask me about my hair, and it goes back to when you talk about culture and how you look at things and giving people grace,” she said.

Often, it’s a conversation starter that she doesn’t mind having with her Caucasian counterparts, but she says that’s not always the case.

“For you, you can probably walk into Super Cuts and get your hair cut and colored and all that stuff. Well, that is not always an option because my hair is different,” she said. “So, if I am in the South and I am with my girlfriends and somebody wanted to walk up to us and touch our hair and see what it was like, that would be a, 'back up and don’t even think about it.' But for me, I accept the fact that people are just curious.”

table talk.jpg

Differences run much deeper than hair, and so do life experiences.

“I think systemic oppression is intentional, and I think it’s something that we have to consistently work at to make sure that prejudices and biases begin to be broken down,” said Sturgis. “Race is a thing because somebody made it a thing.”

And perhaps one of the most defining moments of the conversation was reflecting on the next generation.

“When I look at how my daughter navigates the system right now where there is literally have very minimal conversation about the conversation we are having right now, they just live,” said William Henry.

Sturgis says the next generation has been given the opportunity because it’s been afforded to them, by the work done before them.

“It’s not something they have to think about it. It’s just normal culture. it's who we are its what we do,” he said.

The conversation comes down to respect and connection and placing an emphasis on culture instead of race.