Lewiston and Auburn have many strengths: superb educational opportunities in two school systems and four colleges, a growing economy, two highly-regarded hospitals, vibrant religious institutions, and most important, their people. The residents of the Twin Cities share a work ethic, a deep commitment to family and a belief in the growth of their communities envied by other cities.

The cities also share something else: a population changing demographically. Like many small cities throughout the United States, Lewiston-Auburn have become racially, religiously and ethnically diverse as immigrants and refugees have come here to live and work. And like cities elsewhere, these demographic shifts have created strain and tension as American-born residents and new residents cope with this change.

The Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence (CPHV) is a nonprofit which works in schools, colleges and communities to help people prevent bias, harassment and violence. CPHV has worked in the Lewiston schools for the past six years, and the Auburn schools for three years.

We see a common problem in communities in Maine and across the nation where the racial and religious composition of the community is changing: some portion of American-born residents react to this change with fear, uncertainty, suspicion and bias. We have seen this phenomenon in Lewiston-Auburn. At the same time we have seen countless residents of the cities reach out with generosity and warmth to the new residents. The school systems have shown powerful leadership in creating classrooms and hallways in which every child feels safe and respected.

This summer, we began meeting individually and in small groups with American-born and Somali adults and teens in Lewiston-Auburn to learn their views on cities’ racial and religious climate. We met with over 80 individuals. Unsurprisingly, we heard examples of friendship and cooperation across racial, national and religious lines. But we also heard much that is disturbing. The opinion of many is that over the past year, bias against Somalis has increased.

Somali adults and teens described several dozen incidents occurring this summer and fall in which they were confronted with angry and degrading language while walking on the sidewalk, driving or shopping. Unfortunately, hearing American-born residents yell comments including the “N” word, “take that rag off your head,” “terrorist” or “go back to your country” in broad daylight is not an unusual experience for some Somalis.

Interviewees told us the use by American-born residents of inaccurate stereotypes about the government assistance received by Somalis has increased. Among the most frequent stereotypes are that Somalis receive free cars, $10,000 in cash and free housing. These are not true. In discussions with city government and Catholic Charities of Maine, we learned Somalis receive the same income-based aid as any other resident – and no more.

Some Somalis do receive general assistance, food stamps, and housing subsidies, but under the same rules as American-born residents. Somalis are required to meet the same eligibility requirements as any other resident of Lewiston-Auburn. Many Somalis are employed and receive no government assistance.

American born teenagers and adults told us that after the incident in July, when a man threw a frozen pig’s head into the Mosque in Lewiston during evening prayer, they heard adults laugh or joke about the incident.

Many teens were confused in interpreting these reactions. Others heard people downplay the significance of the incident. One white woman in Lewiston heard her neighbors say things like, “Where can we get some more pigs’ heads?” Some time after the incident, two white men stood outside the Mosque and yelled slurs and degrading comments at Somali men and teens, including “leave our country” and “terrorists.”

It is important to recognize this conduct reflects the views and actions of only a minority of American-born residents. Many people from this community have taken stands against bias, and have reached out with kindness and respect to those who have immigrated here.

We are concerned for several reasons about the confrontational bias expressed by some American-born members of the community. First, the confrontational use of degrading language and slurs deeply impacts Somalis, particularly women and children, causing some to feel unwelcome in L-A and others to feel scared to walk, drive or shop.

Second, some American born children are learning from adults the disturbing lesson that the expression of bias – even when expressed directly to the targets of that bias – is acceptable.

Finally, public and confrontational displays of bias toward Somalis increases the risk of serious violence. In our work in schools and communities in Maine and elsewhere, we have learned that degrading language and slurs are not static. Rather, they are part of a process of escalation, in which the routine and unchallenged use of slurs and degrading language creates the impression these words are acceptable.

Inevitably, someone takes the conduct to the next level. This process can lead from slurs, to threats, to property damage to physical violence. Our deepest fear is that such violence could cause serious injury or death.

What we learned this summer and fall in interviews and focus groups is disturbing. But our work in the Lewiston-Auburn schools has provided us with good news as well. Actually, extremely good news.

Students at both Lewiston High School and Edward Little High School, say the racial climate in their schools is healthier than the racial climate in the community. This is no accident. Both schools have participated for several years in CPHV’s Unity Project. Students have worked in day-long leadership workshops, dialogue programs and other efforts to increase understanding between American-born and Somali students.

CPHV’s dialogue program has been particularly successful. The program brings together a diverse group of students over five weeks to talk honestly about their views on race and religion. This work is difficult, and it yields something important: a shared understanding of people who come from different backgrounds.

Lewiston-Auburn students have spoken eloquently about these issues:

“I think it is important to speak about harassment because people need a greater knowledge of other people and their cultures and beliefs. We can’t just be so stuck in our ways. This world is filled with a lot of different people. In order to have peace we need to understand other people.”

“I admit I succumbed to ideas against Somalians because of the stereotypes my parents and adults around me had. I just didn’t know any different. In the Unity Project I got to know Somalian girls for who they are and what they had to go through in coming to this country. Now I’m on the track team, and I know these girls. It’s nice to individualize a group of people and see them for who they are, not what they are.”

So where does the community go from here? How do we reduce stereotypes, suspicion and bias? The answer to these questions is not simple, and there is no single answer. CPHV is starting with what we know works: honest dialogue. Starting January and continuing through late spring, CPHV will facilitate a number of community dialogue groups. A number of people representing institutions in L-A have offered their support for this effort.

Participating in these dialogues requires commitment, honesty and the courage to reach across the racial, religious and national lines which appear to divide us. We know two things about this process: that the residents of the two cities, both Somali and American-born, share commitment, honesty and courage; and that the power of dialogue can do for adults what it has done for students.

As one area student said after participating in a dialogue group:

“What’s different now? I have a better understanding, I’m not as ignorant. I’m more open, I want to learn about people. School is a family now. Sure there are lots of different kinds of people here, but I can’t exclude my family members. I try to join people together and help them realize one common goal as a high school.”

Steve Wessler is executive director of the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence in Portland.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.