REGION — 21 year old University of Maine at Farmington student Isaiah Reid has started his work with the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations following his appointment by Governor Janet Mills on June 30.

The commission, established June of last year, aims to eliminate disparities that historically disadvantaged racial, indigenous and tribal populations in Maine face. Reid represents the Maine youth population on the commission.

“Someone represents the labor workforce; there’s a position for each of the indigenous peoples in Maine,” Reid said in a phone interview. “It’s a diverse group of people and we’re all working to come up with some ideas and work towards ridding disparities between races in Maine.”

21 year old Isaiah Reid will continue working on the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations as he completes his last year at the University of Maine at Farmington. Photo Courtesy of Isaiah Reid

Over the summer, Reid has been overcoming his shy tendencies and speaking out against the social inequality and economic inequity that minority groups face. Reid wrote an opinion piece in early June for the Bangor Daily News about his experience growing up as a person of color in rural Maine. He was also one of the primary speakers for Farmington’s Black Lives Matter protest on June 9. 

This drew the attention of Gov. Mills who was actively seeking more members to join the commission.

“She offered me a position to represent the youth portion of the commission,” Reid said. “And I did ask the ‘why me kind of thing,’ and she’s interested in getting someone who is from a rural area of Maine.”

Reid grew up in Kingfield and has lived in the same house his whole life. He attended public school at Kingfield elementary and graduated from Mt. Blue high school in 2017. 

Eventually, Reid will have the opportunity to create his own agenda to work towards while serving on the commission. He plans on focusing on ways to improve the public education system. 

“There’s a big failure to understand the struggles that come with the oppression of many people who aren’t white,” Reid said. “That’s still definitely a main goal, is to try to find ways to make our public education system better and more accurate to history.”

Reid said that although he had an inherent understanding of the effects of racism in the legal system while growing up, it wasn’t until college that he started to educate himself. 

“It’s more of a recent thing for me. I am learning a lot currently and I am really interested in it currently,” Reid said. “My dad is black and he’s always laid out certain things. I knew about incarceration rates which are higher for black men than white men. But it wasn’t on my mind in high school.”

After attending UMF’s month-long programming surrounding James Baldwin as part of the university’s New Commons Project last year, Reid was inspired to research how racism impacts society.

“That’s what got me really amped up about everything and got me started seriously searching on my own,” Reid said.

As Reid was educating himself, he was also looking for outlets that would allow him to impart impactful change within his community. The BLM protests provided that platform, but due to COVID-19, Reid has had to scale back on his presence at public gatherings. 

“My family is a little more high risk when it comes to the pandemic and so I was starting to get a little worried,” Reid said.

Now, Reid volunteers about six hours a week to the commission where he continues to learn about racial inequalities.

“I’m beginning to learn quite a bit I’d say just about the status of different peoples, especially indigenous and just how much more work we need to do as far as creating a more just system and connection between tribes and Maine’s government,” Reid said.

The commission is currently reviewing more than 400 proposed bills in the state legislature and endorsing ones that will promote racial equality. Reid described the commission’s work as a filter that adds another layer to identify systematic racism in the lawmaking process. 

One of the bills Reid read through most recently was on the requirements for teaching black history in Maine’s public schools. For Reid, an accurate and thorough education about diverse groups of people is crucial to change in a state where the population is more than 94% white according to census data.

“It’s fairly easy in rural Maine to go long periods of time without encountering BIPOC people (Black, indigenous and people of color) and so I think it’s an issue of exposure,” Reid said. 

Once the commission finishes reviewing the state legislator’s bills, the group will apply the $50,000 that Gov. Mills dedicated to the commission to hire a data and legal analyst. The goal is to gather qualitative and quantitative data through statistics, research and by holding town hall-style meetings for BIPOC people throughout Maine’s counties. 

“Letting people inform us on what they’re thinking and about their experiences and us just listening to and recording what they say,” Reid said about the town hall meetings. “And, being able to use that when we take that into account decisions and also, it’s just more data we can draw from to support ideas for the future.”

Reid said his involvement with the commission has been encouraging as he’s seen the state legislature receptive to the group’s suggestions. As Reid prepares for an unconventional last year of college due to the pandemic, he still intends to prioritize his work with the commission. 

“I feel like I could easily make this a large time commitment,” Reid said. “I just didn’t realize how much people like, and this is not me in any way comparing myself, but people like John Lewis, Martin Luther King and Malcom X and other civil rights leaders past and present,  just how much of their lives they put into this issue. It’s truly selfless and I didn’t truly have the appreciation of taking on this burden; to improve a system that isn’t your fault is just an amazing thing.”

As a biology major, Reid has future plans to go into environmental policy where he hopes to apply the skills of law making and reform that he is currently learning through his work with the commission.

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