The Center for Preventing Hate, a Portland-based group that has been a leader in responding to and preventing bigoted speech and violence, will phase out its operations over the coming months and hopes to find new groups to carry on its mission.

The center’s board of directors determined last week that the center would not be able to replace its founder, Steve Wessler, who is retiring next year after 12 years. He plans to write, teach and continue working on civil rights issues, although he has no specific plans.

“I think everybody on the board, and certainly myself, would have far preferred the center would have gone on and on and on, because the work is so important,” Wessler said Monday after the announcement was made. “One of the things the board is very focused on and I am very focused on personally is to make sure to the best of our ability to get others to continue the major projects of the center.”

Wessler started the center in 1999 after working in the civil rights division of the Maine Attorney General’s Office. The entity was initially called the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence and was part of the University of Southern Maine. A few years later, it became an independent nonprofit agency with its own board of directors.

Funding has been a challenge for the group lately, as it has for many nonprofits. Wessler has been able to raise money outside Maine to support the group’s work, but schools that supported the center have found it increasingly hard to do so.

That would have been a big challenge for a new executive.

“The truth of the matter is we wouldn’t find anyone who is quite the same as he was,” said Pat Peard, co-president of the board of directors. “We decided it is better not to muddle through and hope we did a good job but to work very hard to make sure the mission got carried on in another way.”

“This was a very difficult decision,” said Peard, who also served as board president when the center was founded.

The group is often called upon to respond to high-profile incidents of ethnic bias, such as when a pig’s head was rolled into a mosque in Lewiston in 2006, or periodically when swastikas have been painted on Jewish gravestones. But most of the group’s work occurs behind the scenes, coaching students to converse with people who are different, and to learn to confront harmful language that can precede hateful actions, Wessler said.

The center’s 11-member staff has led workshops and training sessions in more than 80 schools and many cities and towns in Maine, four school districts in New Hampshire and communities in 25 other states and as far away as Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

“If you want to do prevention work, prosecution is at the wrong end of that timeline,” Wessler said. “You need to bring people together to try to understand each other and develop skills for how you speak up on behalf of each other.”

The group’s signature effort lately has been its Unity Project, bringing together American-born and immigrant young people so they can become familiar with, understand and respect one another, erasing stereotypes that contribute to discrimination and violence, he said.

In 2005, the group was brought in to work with Deering High School students after changing demographics in the Portland school led to harassment and bullying, said former principal Ken Kunin. The group helped students create an inclusive environment.

“When neo-Nazi groups put hate flyers up in the neighborhood, I didn’t have to encourage students, they responded on their own,” organizing meetings and speaking out against the hateful messages, Kunin said. The school has continued to cultivate faculty and student leadership, so the center’s involvement has changed, he said, but its role continues to be important.

“I really do hope there are outside organizations to take on and support the Unity Project, to continue to foster a community of like-minded teachers and students who want to create positive communities in Maine schools,” Kunin said.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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