By Stephanie Harp
Three years ago, when Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross proposed legislation to create the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous, and Tribal Populations in Maine, she knew the state needed both qualitative and quantitative information in order to see the whole picture of how disparities impact everyone. “Now what we say we value [as a state] absolutely shows up somewhere,” she said. In November 2022, Talbot Ross was elected Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, the first Black woman ever to hold a legislative leadership position in the state.
One of the first appointed commissioners, Bruce King watched as lawmakers began to understand the potential of such a commission, especially in light of the disproportionate early impact of COVID-19 on Maine’s people of color. In 2019, Gov. Janet Mills allotted discretionary funds to establish the commission, then came the police murder of George Floyd and the expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement. The commission became permanent and received funding in 2021 for staff and expenses, via a bill sponsored by Talbot Ross, LD 1034, “An Act To Provide Funding To Support the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations.”
The Permanent Commission’s mission is to work toward ending structural racism so all communities can thrive. “Its primary role is to identify and eliminate systemic injustices embedded in the state’s infrastructure, policies, and practices,” according to the commission’s January 2023 Report to the Standing Committee on Judiciary. The commissioners and staff advise and consult all three branches of Maine government – executive, judicial, and legislative – though the bulk of their work so far has been with the legislature, where the commission has the power to introduce legislation.
Including some seats that currently are unfilled, the commission has 15 appointed commissioners, “reflective of varying lived experiences and areas of expertise relevant to advancing the Commission’s statutorily outlined mission,” according to the group’s 2022 Annual Report to the legislature. These representatives include those with civil rights, economics, community development, legal, labor, and history expertise, and advocacy or lived experience in homelessness, criminal justice, racial justice, and immigration, along with members of faith-based, youth, and Latino, migrant, and LGBTQIA+ communities. The commission includes representatives from each of the four Tribal nations in Maine – the Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe, Mi’kmaq Nation, and Houlton Band of Maliseets. Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana co-chairs the commission with Talbot Ross, who came to the commission after decades in civil rights and equal opportunity work in Maine.
Among the body’s most significant accomplishments thus far is the 2022 passage of LD 2, “An Act to Require the Inclusion of Racial Impact Statements in the Legislative Process,” also sponsored by Talbot Ross, who noted the Permanent Commission’s laser-focus on policy and legislative work and its impacts. According to its September 2020 Recommendations to the Legislature, 55 members of the Maine Senate and House volunteered during the summer of 2020 to review then-proposed legislation, using a filtering tool to determine what impacts – positive or negative – passage of the bills could have on existing disparities. The filter included 10 categories that inform all of the commission’s work: basic rights, basic needs, criminal justice, education, employment and workers’ rights, health care, housing and houselessness, juvenile justice, Tribal sovereignty, and wealth and income.
The commission’s work is driven by seven guiding principles: “building awareness of racial disparities takes resources; awareness alone is not enough; financial and human resources must be allocated to eliminate the disparities caused by structural racism; policies that are ‘race-neutral’ will ultimately maintain existing disparities; an adequate response requires a structural analysis; developing solutions should be led by impacted communities; and policies that affect tribal nations in Maine must be enacted in a government-to-government relationship,” per the report.
Policy and Communications Director Morgan Pottle Urquhart said the commission testified on approximately 35 bills in the last legislative session. One of these was LD 598, “An Act To Prohibit Discrimination in Employment and School Based on Hair Texture or Hairstyle,” nicknamed the Crown Act, sponsored by Sen. Mattie Daughtry, (D-Dist. 23). The commission’s Director of Community Engagement Angela Okafor recruited community members who had experienced hair discrimination to come and testify, including one young woman who recalled a first-grade teacher cutting her braids. The commission gathers data and research, but “we need to bring community members to help add flesh to the information,” said Okafor, an immigration attorney, small business owner, and former member of Bangor City Council.
Commissioner Bruce King is Co-Executive Director of Maine Inside Out, the Lewiston nonprofit “founded with the intention of building a movement for transformative justice, in which communities acknowledge and attend to the social, structural and systemic roots of crime and harm,” according to its mission statement. King has worked as an addiction counselor and workforce specialist addressing barriers to employment, and prison issues, which include his own lived experience as a formerly incarcerated person and as a Mexican American in Maine.
“Day to day, I see lots of people of color who are struggling, impoverished individuals. I’ve been able to take what I’m hearing, based on those touchpoints, and elevate these concerns … in our bigger [commission] meetings. ‘This is what I’m hearing from the streets,’ ” he said. This includes the concerns of formerly incarcerated individuals, workforce issues not addressing the needs of certain populations, difficulty in finding housing. “All issues under [the commission’s purview. I have a lot of contact with people experiencing them.” Through the commission, he can bring these concerns into a light where they can be heard and, he hopes, addressed.
Hearing from impacted individuals is crucial to the commission’s work at all levels. One of the Permanent Commission’s most important functions is community engagement “to center and amplify the voices of historically disadvantaged populations. More than informants or consultants, we consider members of these communities to be essential partners helping to define the Permanent Commission’s direction and approach,” said the March 2022 Annual Report.
The establishing legislation mandates at least one community engagement event per year; the first was held late in 2021 via Zoom, which made the meeting accessible to those who may not have been able to travel. “We can bring ourselves to those spaces,” said King, a member of the commission’s Community Outreach Committee who said they intend to replicate that session in communities around the state. “We do need to hear from more people.”
The first in-person community listening session was held in Bangor in December 2022. “Our work is supposed to be informed by the community,” said Okafor. “So that is why community engagement is very crucial, very important to the work that we do. Right now, we sit in an advisory role to the three branches of government. We have no way to advise them effectively without engaging the community.”
Listening sessions are intended to be just that, she said. “What do you think about this? What are your thoughts? What do you want from this?” At press time, she was writing a report from the Bangor session to include what tasks the commission should prioritize in 2023 in government advising and to help craft racial impact statements on bills. “We cannot do those things without effectively engaging the community,” said Okafor.
A commission’s goal is to have one listening session per quarter, around the state to increase accessibility, according to Policy and Communications Director Urquhart, who was pleased with the small but engaged turnout for the first session. “The atmosphere was very community-based, with people comfortable sharing in a small group, in a way that we might not have seen if we’d had 100 or 200 people.”
Multiple focus areas
The commission has produced reports and statements on other past and current issues of import, including Racial Disparities in Prenatal Access, Land Access for Indigenous and African American Farmers, and One Nation Under Fraud: A Remonstrance, which documents “the historical truth of our state’s relationship with the Wabanaki Confederacy and the generational impact of this history on all Mainers,” according to the document. All of these reports are available on the commission’s website, www.pcritp.me.The commission also formed an advisory committee to identify offensive place names in Maine and recommend local and legislative changes.
Okafor and Urquhart work with groups seeking to pass a bill to remove roadblocks to foreign-trained physicians transferring their credentials to practice in Maine and another to expand doula services, as well as an initiative that brings together into one place the different organizations that work on public health, to create a sort of hub. “These are public health issues and outcomes, so of course we are part of it,” Okafor said. “With all this information being gathered, we don’t want to just collect it, just for collecting. We use it to pursue our policy work.”
Spreading the word
Out in the community, Okafor has found that many people still don’t know about the commission. “So when I talk to them about it, they’re like, ‘Oh, really?’ I think we’re still at the edge of publicizing ourselves because so many people don’t even know that we exist and the work that we do.”
Talbot Ross emphasized the comprehensive nature of the commission’s research. “One of the things that’s really important is for us as a state to literally get out of this understanding about race as just a proxy for people of color. The [Permanent Commission’s] analysis is supposed to include white people. It’s not just about me or Black people,” she said. “When we do a full analysis of quality-of-life outcomes by race, that includes experiences that white people have.” The work of the Permanent Commission is designed to include the full range of information, and to be able to act on it to benefit everyone in Maine.
As Talbot Ross and co-chair Maulian Dana said in their letter attached to the 2022 Annual Report, “No matter what we look like or where we come from, most Maine people believe everyone deserves the same chance to live life the way it should be.”