A new, independent commission on race equity has sent a letter to Gov. Janet Mills advising her on initial steps to address systemic racism in Maine. Among other things, commission members want to direct state agencies to collect data that illustrate the scope of social, economic and health disparities by race, ethnicity and tribal status. They also support a "Truth and Reconciliation" process to hear personal stories about racial harm and privilege.
Established by the Maine Legislature last year, the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations is a diverse group that includes black people and people of color, a tribal representative, advocates for low-income people, youth and the elderly, and others who have experience dealing with racial and ethnic populations.
Their charge is to "promote, carry out and coordinate programs designed to improve opportunities" across boundaries. And after just a few meetings, the Commission has come up with some recommendations for the Mills administration, including support of LD 2094, a tribal sovereignty bill backed by a state task force to give Maine's federally recognized Tribes exclusive jurisdiction over hunting and fishing and over certain crimes, as well as the ability to operate casinos and to regulate natural resources.
"I was very happy that that was included in the letter, and that's close to my heart," says Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador who is also a member of the Commission. "But I think right now, the focus needs to be on the emergency and the crisis, and that is the violence against and murder of black people...because I really do see all of our struggles being very interconnected, and when we lift up the most vulnerable among us, we're all going to rise together."
Other recommendations include providing CARES Act funding and technical assistance to Black, Indigenous and people of color in response to the pandemic. The letter to Mills notes that 23 percent of Mainers who have tested positive for COVID-19 are Black and African Americans, despite making up less than two percent of the state's population.
The group also wants to direct state agencies to collect, examine and report data that shed light on social, economic and health inequities. Commissioner Joby Thoyalil, a policy analyst with the Maine Equal Justice Partners, says good data will be crucial to getting an accurate picture of outcomes for disadvantaged communities.
"There's collecting it. There's publishing it, so that, you know, accountability can be held but then there's also tracking it. And, you know, if the state is going to address these disparities long term...they need to be able to measure whether their strategies are having an impact. Awareness is not enough. Awareness is literally the very first step."
The Commission also asks for support of a "Truth and Reconciliation" process it intends to use in holding joint public hearings in every county of the state to hear from communities of color and white Mainers about their experiences of racial harm and privilege. And, finally, there is a request for funding to carry out the work.
Currently, there is some administrative support from the Department of Labor and a small appropriation of $500, but that's all.
In a written statement, Gov. Mills said "the Commission’s letter is a welcome beginning" and she looks forward to reviewing the recommendations, engaging with the Commission, and working with the Legislature..."to examine what can be done to ensure that Maine truly is an inclusive and welcoming state that provides a fair shot and opportunity for all."
Originally posted 5:55 p.m. June 19, 2020.