by Ulya Aligulova

Maine Initiatives is wrapping up a series of virtual community events this winter aimed at engaging grassroots leaders in discussions about racial justice in Maine. The series’ goal has been to promote conversations challenging racist policies, practices, and culture in Maine. Topics in the series have included decarceration, housing justice, health equity, the arts, economic justice, youth leadership, and policy and advocacy. All of the events were hosted by Samaa Abdurraqib, a writer and community organizer, and co-founder of The For Us, By Us Fund. Maine Initiatives, a fund for change, cultivates social, economic, and environmental justice by engaging and connecting people, and leveraging resources to support grassroots organizations in Maine communities. Panelists in the series were all grantees of Maine Initiatives. Recordings of all the events are available on the Maine Initiatives website.

On March 23, Marcia Minter, co-founder and executive director of Indigo Alliance; Bruce King, co-executive director of Maine Inside Out; and Dawn Neptune Adams, journalist with the Sunlight Media Collective, joined Samaa Abdurraqib for Racial Justice and Art, a panel discussion aimed at bringing awareness to the work their organizations are doing at the intersection of racial justice and art.

Clockwise from left: Samaa Abdurraqib, Claude Rwaganje, Marcia Minter, Dawn Neptune Adams, Bruce King, Rose Barboz, Ian Yaffe

The panelists talked about the connection between artistic expression, resilience, and liberation. “What we do at Indigo is primarily act as an incubator space for BIPOC artists,” said Marcia Minter. “We amplify creative voices and visions of artists by facilitating cross-cultural collaboration …a lot of social activism comes to life through a variety of partnerships and other programs. Art is more than a connector, it’s the binding force of BIPOC people, the glue that holds us together…Art is a medium through which people exercise their humanity.” The mission of Indigo Arts is “… to connect Black and Brown artists from around the world with Maine’s artists of African descent through a multidisciplinary, artists-in-residency program that embodies a Black-led approach to creativity, community building, and mentoring.”

Bruce King, co-executive director of Maine Inside Out, said, “Art by nature is a dialogue. It isn’t truly complete until it’s been seen and discussed – the audience is a necessary part of art.” Maine Inside Out started as an organization doing work with incarcerated youth in Maine’s juvenile correctional facility, Long Creek Youth Development Center, in 2008. Using the “theater of the oppressed” technique, the program’s aim is to help youth to process generational and personal trauma, and try to work it through the body by providing outlets for it. King reflected on his personal experiences from the time he was incarcerated. “At all hours of the day, you could hear people in their cells. They’d sing out into the vent. You could feel their desperation to be heard…there’s something so necessary and important about the desire to be heard, to be recognized. Sometimes just being heard, alone, is already political.”

Penobscot Nation member Dawn Neptune Adams shared Sunlight Media’s focus on environmental issues, and their intersection with sovereignty, stewardship, and kinship of Indigenous people. She described the genesis of a documentary from Sunlight Media. “In 2012, the then-attorney general sent a letter to the chief and council of the Penobscot Nation stating that the Penobscot River water that flows around the 200 islands that make up the reservation wasn’t part of our territory, and that if we disagreed, we’d have to take them to court. Industrial interest polluters were framing the narrative in op-eds in the papers, using scare tactics, saying we would try to keep Mainers away from the river, which is the farthest thing from the truth. The co-founders of Sunlight Media came up with the idea to make an informational documentary to galvanize support for the Penobscot Nation.” The Penobscot Nation and the state of Maine are still involved in a court battle over the Penobscot River.

Racial Justice and Economic Justice was the fifth event in Maine Initiatives’ racial justice series. Panelists included Ian Yaffe, executive director of Mano en Mano; Rose Barboza, founder and co-director of Black Owned Maine and Black Owned Maine Media; and Claude Rwaganje, founder and executive director of ProsperityME. The panelists shared the work their organizations are doing to promote economic justice in traditionally underrepresented communities.

Barboza said that Black Owned Maine originally started as a simple online directory of Maine businesses owned by Black people. “I started Black Owned Maine last June, after the murder of George Floyd, because I wanted to provide people a way to protest with their dollar,” she said. Black Owned Maine has since grown to become a community of entrepreneurs and a comprehensive resource, and also now offers a number of different programs focused on the empowerment of Black communities in Maine. Black Owned Maine has programs to provide direct cash assistance to Black folks, like their Family Relief Fund that specifically provides money to Black families who have been impacted by the pandemic. “We’re really about making sure Black people get paid,” she explained. “And that they are getting paid for the things that sometimes aren’t considered ‘work.’

Mano en Mano works with farmworkers and immigrants, helping them thrive in Maine. “We envision a stronger, more inclusive Downeast Maine, where the contributions of diverse communities are welcomed; access to essential services, education, and housing are ensured; and social justice and equity are embraced,” said Ian Yaffe. “You can’t talk about any of this work without talking about racial justice and economic justice and how those two things are connected,” including Mano en Mano’s long-term projects of supporting economic stability and equity for immigrants in Washington County, and the creation of a housing fund that will soon provide down payment assistance to 40 families.

Launched in 2008, ProsperityME is an immigrant-led nonprofit with a mission to empower immigrants by helping them build financial stability. “When I moved to America 25 years ago, it was a struggle to understand how to navigate the American financial system,” Claude Rwaganje recalled. “Many immigrants come from cash-based societies and are unfamiliar with how money and credit work in America. Many BIPOC community members miss opportunities due to their lack of financial literacy.” ProsperityME provides many programs, including career and business development, housing assistance, and funding for education.

During the pandemic, Maine has had some of the worst health disparities in the nation, with Black people making up about 30% of all COVID-19 cases in the state. The accessibility of COVID-19 financial relief is, in many cases, dependent on language, immigration status, and previous employment, all of which are racialized factors, and this results in racialized outcomes. Recognizing systemic economic inequalities and supporting organizations like ProsperityME, Black Owned Maine, and Mano en Mano gets aid to these marginalized communities, and are first steps towards a more economically and racially just future.
For more information, contact Maine Initiatives at (207) 607-4070.