LEWISTON — In the coming weeks, the volunteer effort to ease tensions in Kennedy Park — which organizers and police say has made a positive impact — will wind down for the winter. 

Known as Peace in the Park, the program was started by Steve Wessler, a human rights advocate and educator, and Fatuma Hussein, founder of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, when unease plagued the park this past summer following the death of Donald Giusti and threats of more violence. 

Since then, a team of trained community safety volunteers that has grown to nearly 50 people has patrolled the park wearing bright yellow T-shirts, simply chatting with whomever they encounter and, if necessary, de-escalating conflicts. 

Among the trainees were Giusti’s father and uncle. 

A day before Wessler is set to speak at Bates College in Lewiston about the initiative and reducing anti-immigrant bias in Maine, he spoke to the Sun Journal about the program’s impact. 

He said Peace in the Park is just one piece of a broader attempt to de-escalate cultural tensions and anti-Muslim bias. He’s also facilitated dialogues between the immigrant community and longtime Americans, and among refugee and immigrant youth and police officers, with plans for more dialogues. 

Wessler said when the program first began, the consensus from longtime park-goers was that Kennedy Park had grown too dangerous, even prior to the Giusti tragedy. 

“The fear level was really high,” he said, adding that anxiety was consistent among the immigrant population and longtime Americans. 

But as the summer progressed, he said “people started coming back into the park.” During those same months, police stepped up patrols and the city instituted an earlier park curfew.  

Last month, Wessler spent a morning talking to people in the park, and heard from multiple people that they felt safer a few months into the effort. 

“I talked to Somali people, I talked to white people, I talked to African-Americans, and every single person I talked to, in their own way, told me ‘Don’t stop, keep doing this,'” he said. 

One of Giusti’s friends told Wessler that yellow — the color of the volunteer T-shirts — was Giusti’s favorite color. 

“He told me, ‘Every time people see one of (the volunteers), they think of Donny,'” he said. 

But as cold weather sets in, Wessler said, it’s appropriate to wind down the program for the winter, given that the daily population in the park is dwindling. The plan is to pick back up in the spring. 

During the summer, Wessler held four four-hour training sessions and came out with 49 safety volunteers. He’s hoping most of them return in the spring. 

Lewiston police, while not directly involved in the park initiative, acknowledged this week that Peace in the Park has worked.  

“I would say in our opinion that the initiative was worthwhile, helpful and a success,” police spokesman Lt. Dave St. Pierre said. “It was a good example of one of the many programs we are involved in regarding the community coming together.”

Statistics from the department reflect the increased police presence near the park this summer, but the impact on crime was not immediately clear. 

St. Pierre said a sample of calls for service from one month to the next might not be “all-telling,” anyway. 

“It is important to realize that there tends to be more calls for service during the spring and summer months, (when) people tend to gather in common outdoor areas such as Kennedy Park,” he said. “Call volumes citywide generally tend to go up during the warmer months.” 

Sometimes reports of fights aren’t actually fights at all. “Sometimes it’s just kids playing,” he said. 

Wessler said Tuesday that from an observational standpoint, none of the safety volunteers had seen a fight since the program began. 

“It’s pretty hard to quantify,” he said of the new optimism surrounding the park. “I think when people see a large number of people from Lewiston and Auburn volunteering to keep things safe, it starts making people feel safer.” 

Following Giusti’s death, which is still under investigation by state authorities, members of his family and the immigrant community held peace rallies in an attempt to stifle lingering racial tensions.

The altercation, which was reported to be the result of an ongoing clash between two groups of people, caused more fear in and around the park as talk of retaliation and further violence spread across social media.

Wessler said Lewiston is often portrayed as being an “outlier” for its presence of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bias, but he said he’s seen it everywhere he’s worked — in the United States and across other countries. The difference in Lewiston-Auburn, he said, “is how resilient the cities have been.”

“There’s been a long list of incidents, but after every one of them that I’m aware of, there was a response,” he said. “That often doesn’t happen at all.” 

He said he doesn’t know of another city of its size that has as many nonprofit groups dedicated to addressing related issues, from poverty and hunger to health and community relations.  

Wessler said those details would make it into his discussion Wednesday.

“I’m going to tell them there’s reasons for optimism,” he said.  

Wessler will speak during a United Nations Day observance at Bates College at 7 p.m. in Room G52, Pettengill Hall.

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From left, Fatuma Hussein, Bright Lukusa, Steve Wessler and John Lenga are community safety volunteers with the Peace in the Park project. Wessler, a human rights advocate and educator, will speak at Bates College on Wednesday about reducing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bias in Maine. (Sun Journal file photo)


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