From African Refugee to Helena Mayor – the Wilmot Collins Story
As part of the Montana World Affairs Council ‘World Quest’ competition going on through Tuesday at the University of Montana, Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins is one of the featured speakers.
Collins, recently elected as the first African American mayor in Montana, was a refugee from Africa.
“Originally, I’m from Liberia, West Africa,” Wilmot began. “Liberia is a small country on the coast of West Africa, and so we fled one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars, and how we ended up in Helena…well, my wife actually graduated from Helena High. She was an exchange student and she lived with a host family, and when she returned to Liberia and we met at university, all she could talk about was Montana, and I had no idea where that was.
Eventually, Collins’ wife’s host family was able to contact Carroll College and she got a scholarship to study nursing. But, at that point, the couple had to separate die to immigration issues, but there was a complication.
“I had to register with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, and it took me over two years to join her, but we found out just before she left that she was pregnant with our daughter, so I had to wait over two years to see her in person.”
After arriving in Helena, Collins became involved in a host of organizations and activities, and became a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve. It was his son that got Collins interested in running for mayor of Helena.
“He said, ‘Dad, I think it’s time you threw your hat in the ring for mayor’, and so they got together on a platform for his candidacy. “We got together with some voters and came up with three issues. They were teenage and veteran’s homelessness, affordable housing, and providing funding for essential services like fire and police. Those seemed to resonate with the voters, because on Election Day, I was chosen as mayor.”
One of the innovative tools that Collins uses to keep tabs on community issues is meeting regularly with the citizens of Helena, face to face.
“I have what we call ‘Wednesdays with Wilmot’, and we do that at a local Mexican grill where I come in after my administrative meeting and hang out so they get to know me, and I get to know them and learn the pressing issues.”
Wilmot said he was excited to speak with the students at the World Quest competition to share his background, and his success.
“Montana is such a closed state, so anytime that we can get some world events we should all be jumping at that,” he said. “I will be telling them that our students have all the tools to make a difference, and they should use those tools to get involved and excel.”
Former Montana Senator and Ambassador to China Max Baucus will address the students at 6:00 p.m. in the University Center Ballroom.
The event is not open to the public.