By Rebecca Scarborough
On December 9, the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous, and Tribal Populations hosted their first community forum via Zoom. The forum was led by co-chairs Maulian Dana (Penobscot Nation Ambassador) and State Representative Rachel Talbot Ross. Other commissioners who attended were Dr. Marcelle Medford, Rev. Kenneth Lewis, James Myall, Amanda Comeau, Joby Thoyalil, Keith Bisson, Bruce King, and Richard Silliboy, Vice Chief of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. The commission plans to hold more forums statewide, including at homeless shelters, in order to hear from as many people as possible. Comments and feedback from attendees at forums will be part of the commission’s report to the legislature.
The Permanent Commission was established by the Maine State Legislature in 2019. Its mission is “to examine racial disparities across all systems and to specifically work at improving the status and outcomes for the historically disadvantaged racial, Indigenous, and tribal populations in the State.” The commission advises all three branches of Maine government and has the authority to submit legislation, research and develop public policy, and educate and engage the public. The commission structure includes five standing committees, one for each branch of state government (legislative, executive, and judicial), plus community engagement, and finance operations.
Since the commission was created, the commissioners and co-chairs have collaborated with 55 Maine state legislators and examined 455 bills to look at impacts on racial disparities in the state, and found 46 bills that they felt would have a meaningful positive impact on racial disparities.
In the upcoming year, the commission plans to work with Wabanaki tribes to create a “Truth Commission” and to increase community engagement. They also want future legislation to include racial impact statements that will note how any piece of legislation will impact racial inequities.
This legislative session, the commission is prioritizing focus on LD 1626, a bill that would restore sovereignty to Maine’s tribes that are federally recognized but do not receive equitable benefits. A 1980s Maine law states that federal laws regarding tribal rights do not apply to tribes unless they are specifically named.
At the December 9 meeting, attendees asked how the commission would follow up on their recommendations and would be sure those recommendations are implemented. Joby Thoyalil said the commission’s ability to follow up varied, depending on the language of individual bills. Kenneth Lewis added that working with both the legislative and executive branches – rather than just the legislative – increases the commission’s power to ensure their recommendations are implemented.
A few attendees mentioned the current national backlash against critical race theory (CRT), with one noting that organizing efforts against CRT underway in rural areas of Maine. Rachel Talbot Ross said the commission is looking to work with the Maine Department of Education, and noted that legislation has passed to support the study of African history and the history of genocide.
Another attendee said that despite a requirement that Maine schools teach Wabanaki studies, many do not. Maulian Dana explained that the legislation requiring students to learn about Wabanaki tribes was not a mandate, and therefore was unfunded, but many tribal communities have resources available to teachers.
Attendees also were concerned with the lack of affordable housing. One asked if housing might be better addressed regionally than by local communities, since many communities had a “not in my backyard” attitude toward low-income and affordable housing.
For more on the work of the Permanent Commission: https://www.maine.gov/labor/pcrit/reports/2020_LegReport.pdf