MLK Day webinar photo

Dustin Ward, owner of It Is Time…LLC, and Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore discuss their efforts to address racial equity issues during a webinar Monday that was part of Portland’s 40th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance. Kelley Bouchard/Staff Writer

Nathan Poore thought he was aware of the challenges facing people of color in Maine.

As town manager of Falmouth, an affluent, mostly rural suburb of Portland, Poore was mindful of diversity issues.

Then protesters took to the streets here and across the nation last spring, calling for an end to systemic racism after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis last May.

The events of the last year showed Poore just how much he and others in Falmouth had to learn.

“I’m sorry it took so long for me to really, really listen,” Poore said Monday during a webinar, hosted by the Greater Portland Council of Governments, that was part of Portland’s 40th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance.

The webinar, “Local Leadership and Racial Equity,” featured a panel of municipal and civic leaders from Falmouth, Portland and South Portland who have mounted efforts to address systemic racism in their communities.

It was one of more than 25 webinars and other online events that, because of COVID-19, were scheduled throughout the day in place of the annual MLK dinner that typically attracts more than 700 people to the ballroom at Holiday Inn by the Bay.

The daylong webinar series included presenters from across southern Maine and was organized by Maine Initiatives and local NAACP members. The program was free, but donations were sought when people registered to participate.

By late morning, the webinar series had “sold out,” with 1,600 people participating, according to the organizers. Many of the webinars would be recorded and shared later, they said.

Several of Maine’s political leaders also issued written statements Monday recognizing King’s contributions to the civil rights movement during the last century and his legacy to the Black Lives Matter movement that continues today.

“While Dr. King’s dream remains unfinished, our role in his movement has only just begun,” said House Majority Leader Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town, and Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland.

“As we work to remove racism from our laws, many in our country struggle to remove it from their hearts,” the Democratic leaders said. “We ask you to strengthen your efforts to achieve Dr. King’s vision of an equitable, prosperous and just society; the vision of a society worthy of our children.”

During the local leadership webinar Monday morning, Poore shared the Zoom screen with Dustin Ward, a Cumberland resident who has started a consulting company to help municipalities and other groups understand the roots of racism in Black history and address it head on.

With Ward’s help, Poore said, the town will conduct a “genuine” review of municipal policies based on a “genuine” understanding of diversity issues related to hiring, housing, business development and other areas.

“We don’t have diversity in our employment right now,” Poore said as an example.

Ward said he experienced racism as a person of color growing up in Presque Isle. He credited Poore with acknowledging a lack of awareness of systemic racism in Falmouth and a need to take action.

“Racism is a humanitarian issue,” Ward said. “It is not a political issue.”

Ward called on other Mainers to learn more about Black history and how it influences systems in place today, and then take steps to bring about policy changes to improve the lives of people of color.

Margaret Brownlee, a founder and member of the newly formed Human Rights Commission in South Portland, also was a panelist on the local leadership webinar. The commission is the first of its kind in Maine.

Brownlee called on Mainers to join the fight for equity in their communities.

“There are so many ways you can get involved,” Brownlee said.

Portland, Maine’s largest city, is also reviewing municipal policies in an effort to root out systemic racism.

Pious Ali, a Portland city councilor, encouraged employers to hire people of color and build support around them to ensure they succeed.

Ali acknowledged that people who have the most to learn about racism often aren’t willing or interested. He called on Mainers to find a way to have a “humane” conversation with those who don’t want to talk about it.

“We’re not going to change things overnight,” Ali said. “We need to be kind to each other.”

Other webinar topics featured during the MLK Day observance included supporting Black-owned businesses, Black literature, workplace equity, the protest movement and creating equitable pathways for academic and lifelong success.

Gov. Janet Mills issued a statement Monday calling on Mainers to renew their commitment to King’s ideals to overcome continued inequity and injustice, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We know that progress in turning the tide on these issues is not inevitable,” Mills said. “Instead, it is won on school steps and street corners, on bridges and buses, in legislatures and courts. It is advanced by those, like Martin Luther King Jr., whose courage and conviction remind us that equality and opportunity for all is the moral heartbeat – the imperative – of our nation.”

U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, pointed out some of the ways that Martin Luther King’s work remains unfinished. He noted continued inequities in the criminal justice system that harm Black Americans and widespread disparities that make Black Americans far more likely to suffer health and economic impacts of COVID-19.

“It is clear that the dream Dr. King shared nearly 60 years ago has not been fulfilled,” the senator said in a statement. “Dr. King famously said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. He’s right, of course – but that only happens if good people stand up, and fight to extend the American birthright of equal justice under the law to all of our people.”

Maine Sen. President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, noted that King knew all too well the ways in which our country fell short and the people it left behind. He also noted the heavier impact of the pandemic on people of color.

“Yet, he believed our country could someday live up to the ideals we supposedly hold dear,” Jackson said in a statement. “He believed in the ability of all people, especially those who face injustice and oppression, to lead our country closer to the ideals we celebrate.”

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