Jason Hanken of Lewiston Parks and Recreation holds a list of issues facing Lewiston and Auburn that his breakout group came up with during a brainstorming session at the City SPIRIT conference at Bates College in Lewiston on Tuesday. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

LEWISTON — It took all morning, but the group of about 70 people gathered at Bates College on Tuesday finally arrived at what it agreed is the top issue facing the community: “unspoken tension.”

Auburn Assistant City Manager Phil Crowell, standing at left, and others listen to Auburn City Manager Peter Crichton discuss issues facing Lewiston and Auburn during a brainstorming session at the City SPIRIT conference at Bates College in Lewiston on Tuesday. Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett is at right. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

That term, as described by organizer Fatuma Hussein, describes the lack of communication and understanding and the level of fear between native Mainers and the immigrant communities in Lewiston-Auburn.

“The unspoken tension is the perception that the host community has about new Mainers,” she said, adding that she’s hopeful the community can “stick with each other, and educate each other.”

Civic and community leaders spent most of the day Tuesday determining how to reduce conflict and improve communication in the cities, and will establish a committee to work toward a set of goals crafted by the group.

The all-day conference was facilitated by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service, which facilitates mediation, training and dialogue to resolve conflicts.

The city SPIRIT program is the latest effort from a group of regional stakeholders led by Hussein since last summer, when the death of Donald Giusti and other violence ratcheted up tension in the downtown. The issue of racism was also highlighted again last month, when former Mayor Shane Bouchard resigned after a racist text message was revealed.

Hussein, executive director of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, was also behind the “Peace in the Park” initiative, a conflict de-escalation program centered on Kennedy Park that received wide community support last summer.

Fatuma Hussein of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine was the organizer of Tuesday’s City SPIRIT conference. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

The group gathered Tuesday — representing members of city government, elected officials, law enforcement, the faith community, and nonprofit and youth organizations from Lewiston and Auburn — chose “unspoken tension” from a long list of other issues that they said have resulted in conflict in the Twin Cities.

Members of the new Mainer community said there’s a lack of willingness to get past or understand cultural differences, which comes down to an issue of trust, but that the community must find ways to come together.

Hussein recalled past instances of bias during community dialogues: She and other new Mainers were once asked if they knew members of ISIS or if they were hiding anything under their clothing.

“Those are the things we’re talking about,” she said. “If we as adults have that perception, imagine our children. It infiltrates into the various systems and cripples the future of our communities.”

Dion Lyons, a conciliation specialist for the U.S. Department of Justice, led the program Tuesday.

During various points of the conversation, he said he was impressed with the level of openness, cooperation and effort between the community groups. He admitted it was a lot for a group of people to get done in one day.

Beckie Conrad of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce facilitates a breakout group as they list issues facing Lewiston and Auburn during the City SPIRIT conference at Bates College in Lewiston on Tuesday. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

The SPIRIT program, which stands for Site Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together, as well as other Community Relations Service programs, have been used across the country to address conflicts. Lyons said the program is known as “the nation’s peacekeepers,” established during the civil rights movement to address conflicts that arise from race or religion.

It has since expanded, and CRS now helps communities prevent and respond to hate crimes based on “actual or perceived race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or disability.”

Lyons said he was in North Carolina recently to resolve a conflict related to LGBTQ rights.

“I’m not here to tell you what the issues are here in Lewiston. I don’t know them. You do,” he told the group.

Lewiston Mayor Kristen Cloutier called Tuesday’s effort “a wonderful opportunity to develop action steps toward sustaining peace in our community.”

She said the cities have been talking about how to foster peace since last summer. “It gives me great hope to look around the room and see each of you,” she said Tuesday.

Julia Sleeper of Tree Street Youth lists issues that her brainstorming group are concerned with during the City SPIRIT conference at Bates College in Lewiston on Tuesday. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

During the morning session, people in similar fields were grouped together to come up with the top issues facing the cities. Recurring themes were poverty, substance use, discrimination and barriers to entering the workforce.

School officials named “social and emotional trauma” as their No. 1. Law enforcement wrote down poverty. Another group, made up mostly of members of nonprofit groups, said bias, fear of police and an “us versus them” mentality were the big issues.

Lyons said he will produce a report for the U.S. Department of Justice that can be used by the new local committee as a document to drive implementation.

After spending the entire morning identifying the issues facing Lewiston, Lyons told the group, “This was the easy part.”

Up next is finding solutions.

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Jodi Hayashida of the First Universalist Church in Auburn facilitates a breakout group as they brainstorm issues facing Lewiston and Auburn during the City SPIRIT conference at Bates College in Lewiston on Tuesday. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover


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