by Edward Kato

Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC) believes in the power of New Mainers to make Maine a better place for all who live here. We envision policies that will not exacerbate inequities for people of color, including divisions based on country of origin, socioeconomic status, geography, language, or immigration status. We actively prioritize the voices, perspectives, and decision-making of New Mainer communities as we acknowledge the status quo of systems that consistently disadvantage them.

We accomplish our mission through advocacy, information sharing, and collaboration both through and among our member organizations. At this time, one of MIRC’s top priorities is ensuring equity in vaccination access, through genuine vaccination partnerships between our ethnic organizations and their communities of color, and state health providers.

As a committee member of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services Diversity, Equity, Inclusion COVID-19 Vaccination Working Group, MIRC continues to ask that the state of Maine exponentially increase resources in the COVID-19 vaccination program towards supporting impacted minority communities, ensuring an equitable and transparent vaccination process, and trusting the leadership of impacted communities.
We believe the government needs to commit to regularly engaging with communities of color, including organizing productive “listen-and-plan” sessions on vaccination, and intentionally developing a two-way communication mechanism with trusted ethnic leaders and their organizations.

There is a need for continued state investment in communities that have historically been economically challenged. While the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has to work within the constraints of often-unpredictable federal regulations, MIRC urges DHHS to ensure a continuum of service delivery without any funding lapse, by maintaining the mechanisms they have designed to support organizations with the resources that are needed right now. At issue is current funding, and concern on the part of Maine’s Ethnic Community Based Organizations (ECBOs) that they will have to fight to keep current funding levels in place moving forward.
The collective referral model and service delivery approach that has been developed in partnership with the state government has been highly impactful in providing vaccine access. This partnership with the state includes smaller ECBOs that are benefiting from monthly funding to help address immediate vaccination needs. People in immigrant communities are now more open to receiving services because these services are being delivered by trusted members of their community and are culturally and linguistically appropriate.

Looking forward, post-pandemic
MIRC acknowledges the enormous racial disparities evident in the COVID-19 data, and its lasting effects in communities of color in our state. These communities are in unfathomable pain, distress, and devastation due to the disproportionate impact on their overall well-being, as well as limited access to services in the midst of the pandemic. These disproportionate outcomes are a result of limited access to health care and the constant barrage of racial abuse and ongoing violence our communities face on a daily basis, due to systems built to sustain the status quo of white supremacy. Structural and individual racism is a public health emergency.

What does success look like?
• More employment across all sectors for multicultural populations.
• Improved test scores, graduation, internship, and apprenticeship rates equal to mainstream populations.
• Increased business startups for multicultural populations.
• Mechanisms that ensure and sustain social service delivery for communities of color in Maine, including adequate housing and food.

What does safe look like?
• All populations have access to basic supportive services, regardless of immigration status.
• Decrease in racial profiling and hate crimes against people of color.
• Increase in access to permanent housing for people of color.
• Investment in equitable public health and relief efforts, prioritizing the voices and perspectives of communities of color across the state because they have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

What does being seen look like?
• Increase in number of people of color in decision-making roles in private and public sectors.
• The state of Maine recruits people of color to relocate to Maine.
• The state of Maine creates a partnership with diverse communities across the U.S. for COVID response work, the empowerment of communities of color, and commerce, workforce, and tourism sectors.

Edward Kato came to the U.S. in 2020 through the diversity visa program and currently works for Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition as advocacy and operations manager. He has held public and private sector positions for the Rwandan Ministry of Trade and Industry and for civil society organizations. He lives in Portland.