By Stephanie Harp
The City of Lewiston’s first-ever Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, T. Melissa Hue, arrived last August to a position created by the work of the Mayoral Ad Hoc Equity and Diversity Committee. She praised Lewiston’s municipal staff – especially City Administrator Heather Hunter and Deputy City Administrator Brian O’Malley – for what she found. “It’s as if they were prepared for this sort of work. They definitely champion it and believe in it,” she said. “There’s a learning curve, working in a municipality, trying to bring about diversity, equity, and inclusion. I just can’t say enough about how overall welcoming the city has been.”
Former City Councilor Safiya Khalid called the new position one of the committee’s most important accomplishments. “I want the city employees to look like the community,” she told Amjambo Africa in 2021, to signal that city employees understand their perspectives, speak their languages, know important cultural ideas, and have had similar lived experiences.
Lived experiences underpin Hue’s passion for equity. Born in Ivory Coast, she came to the U.S. at age 2 and grew up in North Carolina with her mother and siblings. At age 8, she translated while her mother sought treatment for Type 2 diabetes. “I was…understanding that it’s not that they were not understanding her English; it was because they didn’t believe her,” she said. This fueled Hue’s interest in how the healthcare industry treats Black women immigrants. After a bachelor’s degree in medical biology and a master’s in public health from the University of New England, she asked, “What if we don’t treat solely the individual, but focus on the population? Maybe that would coincide with how we treat the individual.” Before coming to Lewiston, she worked on accessibility and equity issues at MaineHealth’s Access to Care.
Hue sees a strong connection between public health and her work in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). “This is definitely about population health. I feel like, as a society, we’re definitely transitioning to treating the whole person. What do they need? Housing, food, transportation, the ability to economically develop or be mobile. This correlates directly with how we govern people, how we strengthen our community.” If people don’t have what they need, she said, they can’t be the best versions of themselves.
She created a far-reaching DEI mission and vision statement based on the Ad Hoc Committee’s work, the city’s longstanding commitment to being a “community of excellence,” and her own professional experience. “We need to give ourselves the ability to think in the bigger picture, not just the present day,” she said. “Giving people the overall end goal helps create accountability, and makes people feel like this can be achieved, whether in five years or 10 years.”
Tangible goals include closing racial and gender gaps in wages, housing, education, and other measures; prioritizing recruitment of people from marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds; equitably allocating resources to invest in underserved communities and individuals; and providing equal access to resources for children. “The city has already hired people of color in positions that have never been occupied by a person of color,” she said.
Harder to measure but equally important are principles like creating a welcoming, nurturing, inclusive environment; ensuring that programs and policies do not perpetuate systemic barriers; collaborating with historically underrepresented communities who have been subjected to discrimination; collaborating with school committees to provide a great education; and promoting Title VI prohibiting discrimination based on racial or national origin. Hue worked with the Maine State Police to create a policy that removed a barrier many minorities saw as a problem. “It was an amazing collaboration that hopefully results in more representation in law enforcement,” she said.
Another initiative is the Pathway Program, which creates internships for immigrants who might not yet be allowed to work. “People can create projects through their own lens of what’s happening in the community: this is what I’ve acquired, the data I’ve seen, and this is what I’m asking of you. It’s a beautiful way to get their voices heard,” she said. They might uncover a need for public speaking skills or more English classes. Ideally, after an internship, someone has built confidence and gained additional skill sets, and has a letter of recommendation from city staff. “And that is how you get out of poverty,” said Hue.
She seeks partnerships with organizations throughout Lewiston. “To make this work, you have to collaborate with everyone, all organizations, all hands on deck.” Many different groups are doing similar work, providing specific roles that one organization wouldn’t be able to cover, whether that’s healthcare, finance, youth development, employment, or other services. Hue’s goal is a broad, collaborative network because each has a different, though related, focus. “If I’m here to bring equity – not equality – I’m here to bring accessibility. I’m here to make everything accessible to you. If it takes more in a certain community, that’s what it is and what they need. People progress at different rates and for different reasons.” Addressing generational poverty is key. “If they’ve been under-resourced for years and years, we need to focus resources in these communities because it’s going to take a lot of them.” She touts the ability of small cities to make big changes in the U.S. system by leading the way, even if they don’t command large amounts of power.
In all her work, from training, to hiring, to connecting community resources, Hue wants to provide new perspectives. “I’m hoping for a lens that people weren’t used to seeing through, that could represent them,” she said. One way is through stories. “I can listen to people tell their stories all day. That’s literally how you learn.” She educates people about history more than she expected, but firmly advocates education, both formal and informal, as key to personal growth.
“As much as DEI is all about training groups of people, I strongly believe it’s the individual’s journey to rethinking what humanity looks like – checking implicit bias and projecting that out into the community,” Hue said. “We know we want to hire more diverse employees, but we also have to create a support system that allows them to thrive… . And if you do that and you structure it correctly, I think it just builds upon itself.” She is looking at support structures already in place and adding ideas for more. “Being new to the area [of DEI] gives us the flexibility to create and test out initiatives. It’s great to have a government that lets you pilot things, because that usually doesn’t happen.”
Hue knows about social justice advocacy. “I do like to create frameworks that would be hard to resist… .the population has to feel comfortable… It’s publicly showing we welcome every human, and that creates safety.”
Currently only City of Lewiston employee solely focused on DEI, Hue hopes that will change. One focus, a community stability project, will need a team. “If there was a team, you could delegate… . I bounce ideas in my office to myself,” she said, laughing. “I’m literally having conversations with myself, or calling outside sources and having deep, philosophical conversations about societal structure. If there was a team created, we definitely could get more done… . I’m passionate but I’m still very much human.”