This is an updated version of an earlier article
Gov. Janet Mills held a meeting at the Blaine House on July 16 with a small group of African immigrants, one member of Maine’s Latinx community, and Representatives Craig Hickman and Rachel Talbot Ross, both of whom are African American Mainers and state lawmakers.
The Governor scheduled the July 16 meeting in response to a June 25 virtual press conference by Maine’s communities of color, during which numerous speakers described their experience with COVID-19: “Communities of color demand Governor Mills name race a public health emergency alongside COVID-19”
Those in attendance on July 16 were Mufalo Chitam, Executive Director of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition; State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland; Fatuma Hussein, Executive Director of Immigrant Resource Center of Maine; Abdulkerim Said, Executive Director of New Mainers Public Health Initiative; State Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop; Crystal Cron, President of President of Presente!Maine; and Claude Rwaganje, Executive Director of ProsperityME, and Westbrook City Councilor.
The group requested a strong, proactive response from the Governor to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color in Maine, and the proposed agenda allotted 30 minutes for the Governor to respond to a list of “priority asks” that were forwarded to her on July 12, ahead of the meeting. That list built on three demands initially shared at the press conference. The Governor’s Chief of Staff Jeremy Kennedy accepted the proposed agenda on the Governor’s behalf. The meeting ended without clear outcomes, however the Governor responded to the list of “priority asks” by saying she would get back those in attendance.
Claude Rwaganje, Executive Director of ProsperityME, and Westbrook City Councilor, said, “I hope what she meant was she would suggest next steps to the issues we brought to her. What we wanted above all was to take the message to the Governor that the existing disparities that fall along racial lines are a crisis; have her declare the pandemic a racist issue; and provide resources to deal with it. We wanted to take our message to the one person who can be the decision maker.”
Abdulkerim Said, Executive Director of New Mainers Public Health Initiative, said he felt the group was welcomed well by the Governor, and noted that she had the list of “priority asks” in hand for the meeting. He is cautiously optimistic that the Governor will return to the group with solid plans to address the crisis. “We spoke with one strong voice,” he said.
Chitam was underwhelmed by the meeting. “We wanted to talk about the shocking disparities, and the Governor’s lack so far of a clear plan to address those. She did not commit to anything at the meeting, however, and I fear that in the same way that Trump does not want to address COVID-19, the Governor will not prioritize addressing the disparities. We have to continue knocking on these doors or they won’t open.”
Participants at the June 25 press conference had asked the Governor to schedule a follow-up meeting within one week. The July 16 meeting took place three weeks later, after much negotiation about the format of the follow-up meeting – if the original press conference speakers would attend and who else would be there, whether the meeting would be open to the public as listeners via Zoom, and if it would be held virtually or in person. In the end, the in-person meeting was limited to only a small group, rather than all the press conference participants, with no press release or other coverage. The Governor’s office did not respond by press time to Amjambo Africa’s inquiries about the meeting.
The “priority asks” that were presented to the Governor ahead of the meeting were:
- Declare racism a public health emergency and work with Mainers of color to design an adequate response across all state agencies.
- Direct funds that Maine received through the federal CARES Act to local, community-based organizations that are led by and serve people of color.
- Direct funds that Maine received through the federal CARES Act to support community-based organizations in diverse communities of color so they can create solutions to the pandemic’s ravages, without barriers.
- Provide additional emergency support to Tribal nations in a way that honors sovereignty and is on a government-to-government basis.
- Strengthen the response of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to this crisis, since the actions taken so far have not been made in partnership with communities of color and have not been sufficient.
- Develop a comprehensive plan to reduce disparities and proactively help prevent Mainers of color from getting the virus. The existing plans focus on supporting people after they get exposed or test positive.
*Please note that the list of Priority Asks has been edited for length.