by Stephanie Harp

This concludes our initial series regarding municipal efforts to address systemic inequities in Maine’s largest cities. Previous articles featured South Portland (January), Lewiston (February), and Portland (March). Future pieces will examine diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts by public school systems, higher education institutions, and the private sector.

Bangor’s newly convened Advisory Committee on Racial Equity, Inclusion, and Human Rights had only met twice by press time, but they have an ambitious agenda and are ready to get to work. “I believe in being wise and doing things step by step,” said Committee Chair Dina Yacoubagha, who wants to take a deliberate approach. “We can achieve our goals through collaboration and teamwork.” City residents applied and then city council chose the 11 volunteer, at-large committee members to represent a wide variety of perspectives from diverse sectors of the community, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Penobscot Nation or Wabanaki interests, LGBTQ interests, local educational institutions or medical service providers, Maine Multicultural Center, business interests, religious or spiritual interests, and labor or worker interests. The city manager and school superintendent serve as ex-officio members, along with a Bangor High student and a student at a local higher education institution.

Bangor City Councilor Angela Okafor pushed for the committee’s creation during the summer and fall of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and after recent Bangor High School graduates revealed racism at the school. Okafor worked with other city councilors, the city manager, the school superintendent, school committee members, and students to devise a way for city council and the school committee to work together on such issues. “I’ve always felt that there is a need for that and what happened with the girls and the George Floyd situation helped showcase the need for it,” she said. “I feel that everything that happens in the schools has some extended impact on the city as a whole because, of course, the kids are part of the community.” (Bangor School Department convened its own diversity, equity, and inclusion committee and the two bodies are exploring how best to work together. The Bangor High School student serves on both.)

The formal mission of the city committee includes four points: “Develop ideas and information to educate individuals, within the organization as well as in the community, focusing on topics of (but not limited to) awareness, sensitivity, equity, inclusion, and diversity; Review and advise City staff regarding policies and practices to recruit, hire, on-board, promote, and retain a diverse and inclusive workforce….; Review applicable ordinances, policies, and programs to ensure that they promote the goal of accepting, respecting, and valuing differences including attributes such as age, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender expression, sexual identity, ability, language, family circumstances and cultural backgrounds; and Create greater awareness about opportunities to advance issues of age, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender expression, sexual identity, ability, language, family circumstances and cultural backgrounds, to ensure concerns are heard and considered when creating city policy and ordinances.”

The committee will focus on policies and procedures, and more on the bigger picture rather than single incidents. “There’s a lot of focus on specific outcomes and actions of individuals, in the police department and others,” said City Manager Cathy Conlow. “But how, as a community, can we make sure we are addressing these issues of racism and justice up front?” She quoted a police chief she once knew who had told her he always supported planning efforts because if public services are done right, the job of police is easier.

One of the first issues the committee will examine is the standard operating procedure for body cameras. “It’s already voted on and approved,” Yacoubagha said of the devices approved by Bangor City Council in October 2020. The police chief made a presentation to the committee on March 26 about implementation of the new policy – which takes effect July 1, 2021 – answered questions, and listened to concerns. After body cameras have been in place for six months, the chief will return to the committee for a discussion. In the meantime, the police department will examine language in policies related to the most common types of police encounters, modify that language as needed, and send it to the advisory committee for feedback. The many existing policies can’t cover every situation, but do address the most frequent ones. In police departments and elsewhere, if individuals act within policy, then the question becomes whether a policy governing those actions needs to be changed, the city manager said.

Another committee focus is the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). The city creates a plan for CDBG funds each year and updates the full plan every five years. The committee will look into how to allocate these funds to ensure that they benefit disadvantaged groups in such areas as infrastructure in low-income areas, housing rehabilitation, and services for people experiencing homelessness. “We want these funds to be allocated from the lenses of underrepresented people in the community,” said Yacoubagha, the committee’s chair. She emphasized accessibility of the grant and loan program, and publicizing that it’s available. “Sometimes the language is so complicated that people don’t realize they can benefit from the program.”

At the city manager’s office, Conlow looks at things through “my lens, one way. Do we capture everybody with that lens? I’d like to think that we do, but I’m sure we’re not,” she said. The committee’s analysis will give the city the opportunity to amend allocations using other lenses, for equity and justice. Conlow said the question is how to make the policies, procedures, programs, and other systems equitable across all groups, with an eye toward closing the gaps in the upcoming, comprehensive planning update. “There’s a history and tradition of how racism and inequities are created, often through the planning process, such as redlining. Sometimes the policies and procedures may have come out of the desire to maintain a class structure, but sometimes it was inadvertent,” she said. She wants the committee to determine where they should look at things differently to be sure that people of color or people of different economic status are not left behind. The goal is to undo and eliminate some of the unintentional consequences. “I look at us taking these things policy by policy, ordinance by ordinance. Are we hitting the right marks to try to eliminate these unconscious biases?”

Yacoubagha is heartened by the city’s support. “Even though the committee is functioning from an advisory perspective, I feel there is a genuine commitment to consider the recommendations suggested by the committee.” She knows there will be discussion and more communication, and probably some negotiation. And that this will be a long process. “These issues are not going to be solved in a day or two, or in a year or two. There will always be issues to be addressed.”

The committee is a permanent one, with members’ initial terms staggered to expire over the next three years. The meetings are open to the public, on the last Friday of each month, and accessible via the city’s website. and to maintain communication in between.