South Portland To Create Its Own Municipal Human Rights Commission

Sep 18, 2020

It's been a turbulent year of protests and outrage over persistent issues surrounding racism. The city of South Portland this week took an uncommon step and voted to create a municipal Human Rights Commission that is thought to be the first in the state. Margaret Brownlee is diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Maine College of Art who helped shape the commission in South Portland. Brownlee talked about the initiative with Maine Public's Jennifer Mitchell.

Margaret Brownlee, diversity, equity and inclusion officer at the Maine College of Art, is helping spearhead the city of South Portland's Human Rights Commission.
Credit Courtesy Maine College of Art

Mitchell: Welcome.

Brownlee: Hi, thank you for having me.

We hear a lot about towns passing non-binding resolutions and making declarations and so on. This seems like a slightly different tack for a town to take. So what's the idea behind it?

A few members of the city of South Portland City Council, as well as members of the South Portland community, came together to write content for the first South Portland Human Rights Commission, because we believe deeply that we need to do something, and just really come together as a city.

So our understanding is that the panel is going to be charged with evaluating city policies, recommending changes to address things like implicit bias and racism. Is that correct? And if so, how will it tackle those issues, especially issues like implicit bias? How are you actually going to make an impact?

We really want to make sure that we're promoting inclusion, empowering this community, providing community training and workshops. Those community workshops are key, because we really want to bring people together to have real conversations about race. Our intent is to have roughly three to four events per year, maybe more depending on the timing of things and COVID restrictions. I think we want to move beyond topics like implicit bias and really have conversations about systemic racism, conversations about how we can be more inclusive and welcoming, and focus on community and a vision for moving forward.

So the group will also be charged with promoting inclusion of often marginalized groups - people of color, members of the LGBTQIA community, I imagine, and also low-income families. Can you talk a little bit more about the actions the commission plans to take rather than just raising awareness?

Sure. So we put together three "pillars of excellence" that we felt would help to really make this commission tangible. So these three pillars include responding, educating and community building. We really want to help to respond and support marginalized communities. We really want to educate by doing those workshops, paying trainers, and also having celebratory events, providing food and child care so that people can attend. Our goal is to try to get at least I believe it was 10% of the South Portland community to be able to attend and be engaged in this work.

How do you expect the group's work to intersect with the recently approved Police Services Review task force?

It's being spearheaded by Pedro Vazquez and Chief [Tim] Sheehan in the city of South Portland, with community members, to make policing more grassroots and to be more connected to the community. It makes our work easier because they're already on board, and willing to work with us. I feel like we're in this together. And we'll see how that goes.

What do you empower to actually do? And why aren't state and federal actions, protections, groups, etc, not enough, along with all the non-profits out there? What is this going to bring to the table that's new?

There's a lot of nonprofit organizations in the city of Portland proper that may not be in the city of South Portland. And so, oftentimes, those resources are not necessarily available for this community. And so we really wanted to be able to provide additional support to the city of South Portland. Our goal is not to compete, but to really complement what already exists, and for people to know that we're here to help the communities and the families of the city of South Portland.

All right. Margaret Brownlee is diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Maine College of Art. She helped shape the new Human Rights Commission in South Portland. Thank you.

Thank you for having me.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.