Justice Department-led community dialogue set to begin

LEWISTON – In Brattleboro, Vt., it was the shooting of a homeless person in a church that brought the Department of Justice’s Community Relations department to town.

In Portsmouth, N.H., it was generally poor relations between the community and the local police. In Lewiston, it was the uproar around Mayor Larry Raymond’s letter to the Somali community last October.

Now, a group organized by the city of Lewiston and the Justice Department is hoping to find ways to heal the Lewiston community through dialogue, just like they did in Brattleboro and Portsmouth.

“We usually get involved in communities after some big event,” said Marty Walsh, regional director of community relations for the Justice Department. “It’s not that the one event is an issue of concern, but it exposes some deeper types of distrust that have been brewing for awhile. That is at the heart of these dialogues.”

Walsh will be on hand as the city kicks off a series of community building discussions at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 30, at the Multi-Purpose Center. Organizers are hoping to attract people that live or work in Lewiston to talk about making the community open to everyone.

“The framework is more democratic than just something the city could come up with,” Walsh said. “The point is to get as many people involved, as broad a constituency as we can. Then, they break into groups and try and come up with ways to build a healthier community.”

Wednesday’s meeting is designed to get as many volunteers as possible. They’ll break into groups of about 15. Those smaller groups will meet May 5, May 12 and May 19 to discuss themselves, pressures in the community and ways to alleviate those pressures. All the volunteers will meet again on June 4 to present their solutions.

“This process has worked well in other communities as just a broad way of improving ethnic relations in communities,” Walsh said.

Walsh said he’s been involved in similar community dialogues throughout New England. The Brattleboro dialogues began after police shot a homeless man in a church in 2001. Although state and Justice Department investigations showed that police acted properly, it divided the community.

“There was a lot of tension between the police and some segments of the community and this event really exposed it,” Walsh said. “We helped them create a similar process to meet and come up with solutions.”

Those included regular meetings between police and the community and more training.

Walsh helped start a similar process in Portsmouth last year after allegations of poor community relations by local police.

Walsh said the city contacted his office last October, after the uproar over Mayor Raymond’s letter had settled down. Raymond had asked Somalis to stop coming to Lewiston, and local Somalis reacted angrily, saying the mayor’s letter was bigoted. The event made national headlines for about a week before Raymond and Somali elders talked.

“After that, you had the World Church of the Creator and the counter rally,” Walsh said. “This is a community that is going through some drastic changes at the moment. We recognize that the changes are taking place and are looking for some new ways we can make those changes more healthy.”

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