UPDATE: Governor Mills said today she did not watch the press conference on June 25 and did not know what organizations participated in it. She said she has not received a specific proposal from communities of color relating to the CARES Fund Act. She appeared to be unaware of what was discussed during the press conference, and did not mention the demands that were made.
“Urgent and bold action needed to address the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism” – Representative Rachel Talbot Ross
“We are essential but we are not expendable. Our. Lives. Matter” – Representative Craig Hickman
Members of Maine’s communities of color held a virtual press conference June 25 to demand that Governor Janet Mills take immediate action to address the high rate of infection from COVID-19 in communities of color in Maine. 125 people were in attendance on the Zoom call and thousands more have viewed at least part of the press conference via Facebook on the Maine ACLU website since noon on Thursday.
Those addressing Governor Mills included Representative Craig Hickman, Representative Rachel Talbot Ross, Westbrook City Councilor Claude Rwaganje, Lewiston City Councilor Safiya Khalid, Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Dana Maulian, leaders from immigrant-led organizations and coalitions all around the state; and others with first-hand experience with the virus.
The presenters issued clear demands:
- formation of the state-level task force, with full representation from communities of color, that has been a repeated ask since mid-March;
- immediate allocation of federal CARES ACT funding to organizations working on the ground within communities of color;
- a declaration by the Governor of racism as a public health emergency.
Statement Read by Representative Craig Hickman
You see our faces, you have heard our stories, you have been introduced to our grief and our pain, you have read about the staggering statistics and the deadly disparities. Now it’s time for you to listen to our voices once and for all. We stand together in solidarity. So, please listen.
We call upon you, Janet Trafton Mills, Governor of the State of Maine, to value Black lives, to value Brown lives and Tribal lives and immigrant lives and declare racism a public health emergency throughout this great state. Our communities are sick, our people are suffering and dying in the shadows. Invisible. In isolation. In fear. This is a Code Blue.
Listen. We drive the busses, we mop the hospital floors, we empty bedpans, we take out the public’s trash, we build houses and fix the roads, we grow and prepare and process and deliver our communities’ food, and we help heal our bodies and our spirits.
We are essential but we are not expendable. Our. Lives. Matter.
So, listen. We implore you, Governor Mills, to protect our bodies, our lives and our livelihoods. We implore you to expend funds from the CARES Act directly on improving the health and economic outcomes for people of color in this pandemic within a pandemic, this public health crisis that must come to an end.
For we are essential but we are not expendable. And we must end these disparities now.
And so, as you declare racism a public health emergency throughout this great state, we implore you, Governor Mills, to meet with us directly so we may work with you to end this crisis in our communities. It’s time we join together, to roll up our sleeves, to get down on our hands and knees and uproot the rhizomes of racism, at last. The rhizomes of racism are deep, the rhizomes of racism are resilient, the rhizomes of racism are everywhere.
Listen. We implore you, Governor Mills, to do the right thing. It’s time for a new beginning. It’s time to get down on our hands and knees, together, to uproot the rhizomes of racism and plant the seeds of justice and peace and security and equity and healing in our community. For our people.
Thank you, Governor Mills. Take care of your blessings.
Statement Read by Representative Rachel Talbot Ross
Governor Mills, we’ve come together this morning out of deep concern and an urgent need to address the horrific disparities for Black and African American Mainers impacted by COVID-19. Each day more and more people in the racially diverse communities are experiencing greater numbers of positive cases of this deadly and harmful virus.
While this disease is a new pandemic, these disparities are not new. For centuries, indigenous populations have lived throughout the Americas and on these lands, which we now call Maine; facing illness, trauma, and genocide. We survived, but to this day continue to live in oppressive and unjust systems with no more resources or power to interrupt the harm.
We come together today with a united voice to call for immediate interruption of the legacy of racism that has produced these outcomes. We stand in solidarity to demand action to change this historical trajectory; and, call upon this administration to directly work with us to stop the spread of this virus among our people and address the long-term systemic issues that allow for these disparities to grow.
Last week the Permanent Commission shared a letter naming steps that can be taken to begin the process of shifting the way we address deep-rooted inequities in our state. We hope that was the beginning of much needed, meaningful change. Today members of the Black and African American communities – both those who have come to Maine as immigrants and those whose roots in this land go back generations – as well as our allies in the Latinx and other communities of color have come together to call for urgent and bold action to address the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism. These are challenges requiring a multi-faceted approach across all Maine government. We need that response to be driven by the people who are most impacted and to begin immediately.
I’m joined today by people who are courageously here to share their own experiences with this virus as well leaders from immigrant communities, the indigenous African American Community, the Latinx community, and Maine’s Tribal communities.
Statement Read by Crystal Cron
My name is Crystal Cron. I am a descendant of the indigenous people of the Andes and a Latina. There are 25,000 Latinx people in Maine, but to most we are invisible, so I’m here to share about the experience of our community during COVID-19.
As soon as the first case of coronavirus hit Maine, I knew this would mean death to our communities.
On March 15th I sent out a video to my community members urging them to stay home from work.
Most of the Latinx community in Southern Maine works in the lobster processing industry. During the best of times, our companeros work 12-hour shifts, with no breaks, inside of a windowless refrigerator with at least three dozen other people. They get paid 40 cents a pound for lobster meat that is sold to consumers at $60 a pound. They have no paid time off. They often get fired if they have to go to a medical appointment or attend to an urgent family matter.
Knowing how predatory these companies are and how little they value the lives of our people, I was afraid what would happen as the virus began to spread in our communities. I told my companeros that the most important thing was their health and safety and that we would do everything we could to support them and meet their families’ needs during this time.
Since then myself and all my colleagues here today, have been developing and executing community interventions to support our people, while at the same time watching our government fail to act.
We have had numerous meetings where we have shared our concerns, and very little has been done to address these concerns or to work with us. In one such meeting we were told that testing was not widely available to our communities, because they do not live in congregate settings. I shared then, and have many times since, the realities of the living conditions in our community.
Even working for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week does not allow our families the ability to live in safe housing. Our families live in old tenement buildings that have not been updated in decades. A typical living arrangement looks like four families of four living in a three bedroom apartment with the living room turned into an extra bedroom. In eight unit buildings. There is no way to quarantine or isolate. High touch points are every surface in the building. If 128 people live in an eight-unit building, many of whom do not ever have access to healthcare and have unmanaged chronic conditions, and who also all work in the same place and come into contact with nearly everyone else in the community who experiences the same type of living situation, does this not constitute a high-risk environment?
Now it’s more than three months later. COVID is devastating our communities. We need resources. We need action. We need a commitment from you.
Governor Mills, it is shameful that our families can survive two week long trips on foot through the Mexican desert, can survive civil war and torture, can survive displacement and refugee camps, only to come to Maine, where we are seeking safety, and be ignored during a public health crisis.
My phone has not stopped ringing since March, but I keep thinking about one message from a young mom that I got about a month ago. She asked me if I knew of any other places she could get financial help since she, like most of our families, did not qualify for GA, unemployment, the federal stimulus or TANF, and her landlord was threatening eviction. She said, “Me he dado cuenta que uno aquí no vale nada. No sabe cuanta tristeza siento.” I have realized that one is worth nothing here. You have no idea the sadness I feel.
I really hope that’s not true. Governor Mills, I hope you will hear us today.
Statement Read by Fatuma Hussein
My name is Fatuma Hussein. As our country takes a hard look at its racist origins and its legacy in the wake of recent protests, Maine must take that step as well. It’s not only important because of Maine’s rising number of residents of color who make a home here, but because the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed Maine’s racial disparities tangibly.
Maine has one the largest racial disparities in the nation, as Black Africans/African Americans make up over 27% of COVID-19 cases in the state, while only making up 1.6% of Maine’s overall population. The high rate of infection could have been prevented through an earlier coordinated response by the state of referrals, testing, mass education, information sharing, and social service help. But our needs and voices remained unheard.Well, it’s time that state officials walk the walk as much as they talk the talk of responsiveness and caring.
Therefore, Governor Mills, my governor for this great state, I want you to listen to our plea for help. First, you must hear our voices and allow us to meet with you within a week. At this meeting, we will discuss a number of asks specifically related to the Covid-19 pandemic, including allocating resources from the CARES ACT funding our communities so desperately need to meaningfully meet the unique needs of people of color in our state.
Maine has given me and my family a voice. This is where I learned to speak up. This is where I found my voice. This is my home, and it must be home equally for ALL Mainers regardless of their race or skin color. We do not want to have to beg for help all the time, or justify why we exist, in order to be heard. I strongly believe in you, and I know you will do the right and just thing. Thank you Governor and God Bless you and the people of Maine.
Statement Read by Bright Lukusa
Good morning Governor Mills, my name is Bright Lukusa and I live in Lewiston. I’m a college student living with my mother and brother. I work for the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine as an advocate and educator and I also work as a home healthcare professional. I was sad to learn that Maine has the nation’s largest racial disparity in coronavirus cases. Black communities are contracting COVID-19 at a rate more than 20 times that of white residents. I am that disparity. I am that statistic. So is my brother, my mother, and many others in our communities.
Working as a home healthcare professional, I have now been exposed to COVID-19 twice. The first time was back in April. I had gone in for my normal shift and the next day I found out that I had been potentially exposed and would be quarantined at the job site for two straight weeks without seeing my family in order to not expose them to the virus. For two weeks, I did the work of two people, had terrible headaches, and by the time I got out I was beyond exhausted. The time came to go get tested and it was a huge obstacle that I had to overcome as they were refusing to test me because I wasn’t showing any symptoms. I didn’t understand this because obviously this was my first time going through a situation like this and I didn’t understand why if I had been exposed to the virus, I couldn’t just get tested to know whether I was positive or not.
I eventually almost had to lie my way into getting tested so I could find out my results. I found myself feeling very uncomfortable with the situation, almost as if I was putting my integrity on the line. At the time, I was asking myself why I needed to jump through so many hoops to get myself tested for something that is affecting my community at higher rates than any other community. It was a very sad moment for me as I came to the realization that racism is still such a major issue is our communities, well before the recent light that has been shed on racism by the Black Lives Matter movement. It was sobering for me, and I can’t believe I had to go through all of that.
Flash forward to two months later, and I have once again been exposed to the virus. I am currently waiting for test results and again, I almost got turned away because I’m not showing any symptoms. I am thankful to have a voice brave enough to be able to advocate for myself, but what about my many other fellow community members who are not able to advocate for themselves?
Working on the frontlines as a home healthcare professional, I feel that I ought to be a priority. The concern of my health, and my family’s health, ought to be a priority. I live with my mother, who has underlying health conditions that would make it even more difficult if I were to bring the virus home and expose her to it. I am an essential worker and I feel overlooked. I feel that I am not a priority to anybody. I am not a priority to the healthcare system, I am not a priority to elected officials, and I am not a priority to the state of Maine.
I love my job and I love everything that I do, and I love the fact that I can help my community. It just saddens me that I do not have the assurance that if I am exposed to COVID-19, I can go get tested without being asked to jump through hoops and without being unnecessarily questioned about my exposure to the virus. I am sure that I am not the only one to experience this and that there are many others with a story similar to mine. This is a problem. I know that something needs to be done and we are demanding change. We have to do better! Especially because something that affects a part of our community, affects the whole community.
We know that Black people are the ones who are mostly working as home healthcare professionals, and that they are living in condensed neighborhoods, mainly in downtown areas. We are forced to work through this pandemic in order to make a living. We are so closely knit together – and it’s very easy to transmit the virus to one another – and so I feel that the state of Maine and elected officials have to do much more targeted outreach, and go into our communities to work with us because I don’t see that happening at all. And we are the ones being affected so greatly by this as the reports show.
I have no words because this should be more than a wake-up call. This should be the number one priority. If you hear that Black people are being affected more than other races in this state, the first thing to be done is find out what to do to help those people. We are tired of being the statistics and we need a change. We are a priority.
Thank you all for listening to my story. I am grateful for the chance to shed some light on the effects of racial disparity in respect to COVID-19 in Maine.
Statement Read by Ines Mugisha
My name is INES MUGISHA and I live in Lewiston. I am a mom of 2 beautiful children, a 6 year-old girl and an 18 month old energetic boy. We love being Mainers. We are proud to be Mainers. And I am glad to be standing here as a Black immigrant Burundian woman to represent many others like me. I am an advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Two weeks ago, my lovely husband was diagnosed with Coronavirus. I vividly remember when he called me and where I was in my house. I was nursing my baby boy, and I was terrified. A chill sensation went through my body. I was scared – scared for his life, worried about my baby’ safety and our health.
I quickly called my care provider,and my kids and I were scheduled to get tested later in the afternoon. I am very thankful for the multiple healthcare workers who are at the front lines of this pandemic and putting their lives in danger to save many like ours. The next day, my little boy tested positive and my heart literally sank. I was so worried and angry that despite observing all the public health measures advised by the State Health commission, this virus did not even spare my 18 month old baby. I got my results and my daughter’s 5 days after testing. The anxiety waiting for the results was unbearable. I didn’t know what to do beyond preventive measures. I found myself crying at odd times but had to be strong for my family’s sake.
My husband is an essential worker. He got exposed trying to provide for his family. He risked his life every day for his kids and the greater Lewiston community. Sadly, this is a story of multiple immigrant families who have to risk their lives every day because they can’t afford to stay home. They are providing basic services to the Maine community, usually with little pay and little to no medical care provided.
Since the diagnosis, I have had to be quarantined and take care of my sick family. The first few days after the diagnosis, my husband had to be isolated in a room. It was too painful to see my little ones want to go hug their dad and play with him but not be able to in order to stay safe. I could read the sadness and the anxiety in his eyes. I wanted to hug him and remind him we are in this together, but I had to be strong for my family.
Luckily, we are healing well. However, this experience has scared me and my little ones. My daughter still cannot understand why we can’t let her go play outside and why her cousins cannot come home to play with her.
Governor Mills, this feeling of uncertainty regarding when life will be back to normal in Maine is something my family and many immigrants are asking themselves. Sick families are not always able to get financial help to get through this hard time. I hope that the information regarding social support programs can be made more accessible to immigrant communities.
Additionally, we still have to face the weight of racism and white supremacy that burdens us everyday. I am glad to be sharing my story. My story is not unique. Thank you Governor for giving us space to deal with this and hopefully create a safer and more inclusive Maine. I hope that In the future, there can be more forums to understand how COVID-10 disproportionally affects the Black community, immigrants, and people of color in Maine. THANK YOU.