Billings Embraces Global Voices: World Languages Dinner

April 2024

by renata haidle

This month, 400 members of Billings’ multilingual community will get together for the World Languages Dinner, now in its third year. Hosted by Mayor Bill Cole, this evening of networking and fellowship brings together people from all corners of the planet who share one common denominator: they all call Billings home. 

“When I became Mayor,” Mayor Cole says, “I met a lot of people, and I was struck by how many came from foreign countries. I started thinking how it would be fun to get some of them together for an informal dinner. Little did I know that this idea would open the cork of a champagne bottle. The enthusiasm was overwhelming, and the event has taken on a life of its own. Billings must compete on a worldwide stage for skilled workers, capital, and culture. Ethnic and linguistic diversity is a trait that strengthens our economy and makes us better.”  

In the last three years, Mayor Cole was aided in this initiative by a committee of volunteers that is as diverse as the dinner guests themselves. One is India-born Mita Das, a medical researcher with a PhD in biochemistry. “Our family is diverse,” she shares. “My husband, Dr. Michael Zawada, immigrated from Poland. We adopted our daughter, Katherine, from Guatemala. We moved to Billings in 2022 when Mike joined the Montana College of Osteopathic Medicine as a faculty member. With our international background, it was exciting to learn about the Mayor’s World Languages Dinner. It didn’t take me long to become involved in organizing this amazing event in 2023. For 2024, the event is growing, and I am even more delighted to make new friends and revisit those met last year. Indeed, honoring cultural diversity, harmony, and peace is so important in this exceedingly complex and divided world. Mayor’s World Languages Dinner takes an important step toward a humanity that is more considerate.” 

Also on the committee is Xiaoyi Wang. Born in Eastern China, she made Billings her home in 2007. As for her involvement in the event, she shares that “Connecting with fellow global citizens who share the same love for Billings has been the absolute best thing through my participation in the Mayor’s World Languages Dinner. From swapping non-touristy travel tips to exchanging authentic mouth-watering recipes, there’s no one better to turn to than my world languages friends. Of course, I’m happy to share Chinese culture and food as well. This event opened my eyes to the incredible diversity in our community.” 

Akvilina Rieger, the founder of a growing group she playfully calls the United Nations of Billings, is a well-known connecting agent in the multilingual community. “I was always quite passionate about our international community in Billings,“ she says. “When I first moved here, I was a bit worried about being a ‘foreigner,’ about my accent. Billings people proved to be the best hosts. I felt welcomed right away. Mayor Bill Cole's idea to celebrate the language diversity in our community appealed to me immediately and I couldn't wait to include everyone I knew that spoke a different language. Increasing attendance each year shows that the community craved this type of event, and I can't wait for the next one.”  

The event is also an excellent opportunity for Native Americans to celebrate Native languages. “This year, we look forward to expanding tribal participation,” says Mayor Cole, “to incorporate speakers from Blackfeet, Northern Cheyenne, Apsaalooke (Crow), Little Shell, and Sioux/Assiniboine tribes.” Ada Bends is a member of the Crow tribe and a volunteer on the organizing committee. She speaks Apsaalooke (Crow) and actively participates in the tribe’s thriving culture. A seasoned traveler, Ms. Bends brings a unique perspective to the event. “My international travel,” she says, “has only expanded my hopes of bringing all peoples of the world together in the celebration of their unique living languages, music, and cultures. Mayor Bill Cole has brought the international unity of languages like no other Mayor has done in our state or any other state in America that I am aware of. I am honored and humbled to support this ongoing and extraordinary annual event.” 

Mayor Cole also credits his wife, Anne, for a significant part of the work involved in this project. “Each year,” Mrs. Cole says, “my greatest desire is for people to build friendships and, as a result, feel at home in Billings. The beauty of expanding the event is that there will be more room at the table for newcomers to make connections and to be welcomed into our community. I love hearing happy stories from attendees that they were able to meet people who speak the same language, make friends, and to be personally welcomed by the Mayor.” 

World Languages Dinner 2024 will occur on April 12 at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center. If you wish to attend, you can contact  

Originally printed in the April 2024 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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