By Stephanie Harp

Last summer, Portland residents joined many others across the U.S. and around Maine in protesting the Minneapolis murder of George Floyd. In January and February, Amjambo Africa profiled the racial and human rights equity work that South Portland and Lewiston initiated in response. This month’s spotlight is on Portland. The April issue will feature Bangor.

After the city of Portland received a flurry of resident phone calls about police response to the protests, city council held a series of meetings to decide what to do. The result was that Mayor Kate Snyder, in consultation with the city council, created the Racial Equity Steering Committee (RESC) and invited residents to apply. The 13 members were carefully chosen to reflect a wide variety of perspectives and expertise. The committee is co-chaired by Lelia DeAndrade and Pious Ali. DeAndrade is vice president of community impact at Maine Community Foundation, and Ali is the director of Portland Empowered and is also a Portland city councilor. The committee has been meeting weekly since October 2020 and originally were scheduled to conclude in January.

“Early on, the committee recognized that the scope of the work is enormous and it would take longer to complete it,” DeAndrade said, but they delayed asking city council for an extension until they had a better idea of timing; they made the official request in December. “The committee was very conflicted about it. We know there’s a sense of urgency in addressing this, and community members really want to see the work done. The scope is so big and we want to be sure we get it right. We wanted to strike a balance between being fast and being thorough and being smart.” City council granted the extension and requested an interim report, which RESC presented on February 22; they now are scheduled to wrap up their work by April.

To facilitate the meetings, the committee tapped Portland-based Samaa Abdurraqib, whose experience includes considerable work in diversity and equity. They hired Bates College Assistant Professor of Sociology Marcelle Medford as researcher.

In broadly looking at public safety, one of the committee’s three charges has been to examine “the ever expanding role we, as a City, have asked the police to play in our community – ranging from responding to noise complaints, traffic violations, and violent crime to conducting wellness checks and responding to behavioral health calls and drug overdoses – and whether we have provided them with the appropriate resources to accomplish this work,” according to the founding document.

“I think our approach is, basically, that it’s clear that the role of police has expanded,” DeAndrade said. “There are other strategies that we can consider so that police can do the work that they have expertise in. They don’t become police officers because they want to help someone find shelter. That’s not their job and their expertise.” At the same time, the committee recognizes that contact with police can be traumatic, and the committee wants to see Portland offer a therapeutic response to public safety incidents, such as a mental health crisis, that are not law enforcement-related. “We can do better. Police do not have to be overextended. And we can create an atmosphere that is therapeutic and in response to people who are in distress. So it’s a win-win.”

They’ve examined crisis response models being used in Denver, San Francisco, and Eugene and Portland, Oregon, such as a social services crisis response team for situations that don’t require law enforcement. “We ask our police to do everything,” Ali said. “So we want to determine what is solely police work and what is not.” As an example of needing different responses to different situations, he pointed out that in the medical field, practitioners refer patients to specialists for specific needs.

In addition to the crisis response model, the committee is recommending that all city departments and staff, at all levels, undergo a racial equity audit and engage in racial equity or anti-bias trainings on an ongoing basis, led by an outside firm. They would like the city to dissolve and recreate the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee into a body with increased transparency, accountability, and access.

The committee’s second charge is to look at “the way in which the City interacts with area agencies, organizations, and non-profits in the name of public safety and how these partnerships can best work to enhance public safety in the City,” from the same original document.

RESC is especially interested in ensuring that the city tracks racial demographics in provision of city services and works to address racial disparities in the way people access those services, DeAndrade said. “We are focusing more on what the city can do, rather than repairing the relationship with those organizations. There are dozens and dozens of nonprofits, and dozens of city offices.” The committee is looking at strategies to address the broader picture. “We’re looking for systemic solutions. We’re not trying to come up with specific Band-Aids for a particular issue.” This has involved considerable research by Medford and committee members, such as gathering and analyzing data to locate disparities, and finding models for how to address them. “One of the things we looked at is research on equity-based responses to COVID and people who are experiencing homelessness,” DeAndrade said.

The third part of the committee’s work is looking at city policies and practices, identifying ways that racial disparities are created, and looking at ways to mitigate those disparities and address transparency in order to rebuild trust within different communities. “These things are all linked,” DeAndrade said.

One of the reasons Ali wanted to serve on the committee was the prominent role he already had been playing in conversations about this topic, he said. “I have been advocating to broaden racial equity in our system.” In issues about how the protests were handled, Ali saw an opportunity, “not just to end it with a statement and meeting with protesters and attending rallies, but to do a deeper dive into what does it mean to look at our laws, our practices, policies, and everything else, and how it disproportionately impacts Black people and other people of color who live in the city.” He sees the issue as much bigger than police and protests. “I support [the police] because they have a job to do,” he said. “I also believe that the police and, for that matter, the establishment that we are working in, is embedded with systemic racism. Not just the police but every aspect of our government, at every level, to see what we can work on and make it equitable for everybody who lives here.”

The two biggest recommendations are that the city establish a permanent racial equity board within city government to continue this work, and to form an office with at least two staff members to collect data and analyze demographics about how people are accessing and engaging with the city. “Regardless of all of our other recommendations, those are the ones that I think are really key because they will make sure that the other recommendations happen,” DeAndrade said. “That’s not what one committee can do in six months. Racial disparities go back hundreds of years, and are deeply entrenched and institutional. The idea that it needs ongoing, committed work is not a stretch.”

The permanent racial equity board would be akin to the park committee or art committee, Ali said. It would recommend actions that the city should take and hold departments accountable for them. “Systematic racism in America – or for that matter, anywhere in the world – did not start yesterday. There is no way that in a city like Portland, 13 people will sit down for six or seven months and solve everything. I wish we had a magic wand to change that.”

Examining racial equity in the school system was not within the committee’s charge, DeAndrade said, and acknowledged that Portland Public Schools have been deeply examining racial equity for quite some time.

The committee’s meetings are public and they’ve held several forums in which they invited public comment. People have attended, but haven’t offered much feedback. Ali and DeAndrades cited the accessibility of a 5 p.m. meeting on a weeknight, a hesitancy to speak in public, and “Zoom fatigue” at the end of a workday. Attendance at city meetings usually is not large, Ali said, even in pre-virus days, unless an issue is controversial. To solicit more feedback, the committee’s page on the Portland city website offers an online form for comments. They value public feedback and hope to receive more of it via the form. Comment deadline is March 15.

The committee was heartened by the positive response from city council to their interim report, especially from Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilwoman April Fournier. In the next month, the committee will spend its remaining time to fine tune what are now broad brush recommendations. They will examine other ideas, such as reserving 10% of all city contracts for socially and economically disadvantaged minority-owned businesses, reviewing current criminal trespass orders for disproportionate impact on historically marginalized communities, and establishing a permanent, broader human rights commission, a resource hub, and ongoing partnerships with private organizations to work toward racial equity, and renaming selected city streets to better reflect Portland’s population.

“I think it’s a great first step and I think it was really brave of the city council to take it on,” DeAndrade said. “I’m happily surprised that this is going on in so many cities across Maine. Many people say racism isn’t an issue in Maine. The fact is that communities are recognizing this and putting resources behind it.” As a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, cities are now paying attention to these issues, she said. “To me, that’s a great social movement outcome. Of course there could always be more. But it’s a great start.”

One benefit of the city council’s request for an interim report, DeAndrade said, was the opportunity for the committee to step back and reflect on what they’ve done. “We’ve been so focused on the things we need to do, and next steps, and next proposals. So it was really nice to step back and say, ‘Oh, here they all are, and this is how they fit together.’ I’m really excited about how much we’ve done.”