I have a little news for advice-givers who attended last week's Advice for America conference hosted by the Center for Preventing Hate. They may believe the Somali integration post-2006 here has been a success worthy of national model, but that view is not wholly shared in the Twin Cities.
Near the end of the day-long conference, the Center's executive director, Steve Wessler, asked the predominantly white, social-working audience how many had heard a negative comment about Somalis in the past week. Less than a dozen of the 90 seated there raised their hands.
I hear negative comments every day. Every. Day. It's distressing, but it's real.
I can only guess that these social workers, educators and others working in the public sector do not always hear what I hear on the street because they can be insulated in their programs, focused on their mission, and too many do not — themselves — integrate with the community at-large.
One woman made a point to inform others that although she works with the Somali community, she lives "in another world in Lewiston where the people don't interact with the newcomers." She doesn't socialize with Somalis and doesn't know anyone who does. Just comes to work in the downtown and goes home.
How better to insulate oneself from the more general community of Lewiston? Or never hear what others who do not agree with you may have to share about their experiences?
I was surprised to hear, repeatedly, that this group overwhelmingly believes local businesses have not done enough to help the immigrants, and need to do more. Not a little more. A lot more.
They suggested repeatedly, and with conviction, that local businesses need to consider providing transportation, child care, on-site translation services, and hire immigrants for the fast track to advancement if new Mainers are to be truly welcomed.
Doing all this would require an enormous amount of resources that would be downright impossible for most businesses here, even with massive public support.
Lewiston's two largest businesses, the only ones employing more than 1,000 people, are the nonprofit hospitals. The five next-largest businesses are Bates College, Tambrands, TD Bank, Wal-Mart Distribution Center and Wal-Mart. These businesses, especially the hospitals, are doing much, if not all, of what conference-goers advise.
The rest of the businesses in Lewiston and Auburn employ fewer than 500 employees, most far fewer than that, and it would be a tremendous burden to comply with this advice. Suggesting otherwise is not routed in reality.
Provide transportation? To whom? For anyone without a car, or just an immigrant?
A better recommendation might have been for businesses to make a point to acquaint all those without cars with the cities' public buses and services provided by Western Maine Transportation. Or, maybe simple carpooling.
In one of the morning sessions I attended, I listened to nearly three hours of advice about how Americans can learn to build safe and inclusive communities, without stereotypes, rumor and innuendo. During that conversation the media was attacked for negative coverage, the facts of how the Sun Journal reported the recent car accident at Lewiston High School were incorrectly repeated, and then I was asked to leave because my presence was making at least one member of the group uncomfortable.
See the interesting irony here? While listening to what this group advises for others to develop safe and inclusive communities, I was verbally attacked and asked to leave. That's neither safe nor inclusive.
Outspoken members of this group were uniformly angry that the Sun Journal identified Bilow Farah, the driver charged with driving to endanger and driving without a valid driver's license after striking a 16-year-old student at the school with her car, as a Somali woman in the headline. The Sun Journal did not do that. Any suggestion otherwise is fiction.
Farah was identified, at the end of the story, as having participated in a series by Colby College in Waterville about Somali Bantus who immigrated to Maine from Africa, demonstrating her civic commitment. That's a good thing, right?
Members of the group went on to criticize the report for including the year, make and model of Farah's car, saying it wasn't relevant to the story. These details are included, when we know them, in every accident story of any significance, and this was one was significant. I don't recall ever getting a call of complaint from anyone in that room for publishing the year, make or model of vehicles involved in other accidents in Lewiston or elsewhere, so it was this singular accident seen as a problem.
The Sun Journal was further criticized for publishing Farah's photo, taken when she was booked at the Androscoggin County Jail. Once again, publishing photos of people facing criminal charges is routinely part of reports as a matter of basic information.
In the Farah photo, she was not wearing her traditional headscarf, which had been removed as a matter of jail policy before the photo was taken. A police officer sitting in on this discussion explained that the scarf was removed as a safety measure during the booking process, per jail policy, because of fear of suicide. Not fear of Farah's suicide specifically, but standard operating procedure to prevent such an action in any cell by any inmate at the jail. There was no purposeful effort here to embarrass or target her because of her faith, despite innuendo otherwise.
It was maddening to sit in that room and hear direct and pointed criticism that the media distorts the facts, after hearing how far this group had distorted the facts of the Sun Journal's coverage of the Farah accident.
Hypocritical or just uninformed? I don't know, but it was definitely biased. The very measures being discussed as essential to protect New Mainers were not afforded the hard-working and intensely talented, caring staff here at the Sun Journal.
I saw with great clarity a gap in how this group perceives the climate of acceptance in Lewiston and what that climate actually is in multiple corners of this city, and a real chasm in this group's view of the media and the truth.
There is no question that the Center for Preventing Hate has done and continues to do important, productive and progressive work, and the effort to share Lewiston's experience is admirable and imaginative. But any advice coming out of Lewiston should be viewed as through a kaleidoscope of distorted views.