SOUTH PORTLAND — Margaret Brownlee was 7 years old the first time someone called her the N-word.

“It stood out to me, because my mom had to explain it to me,” she said.

Margaret Brownlee is spearheading efforts to create a human rights commission in South Portland. Margaret Brownlee

A Portland native, Brownlee, 39, has been living in South Portland for the past four years, and while she struggles to come up with similar ugly anecdotes about her life in the city now, she was moved along with the rest of the country by events triggered by the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

“I wanted to get involved,” she said.

Brownlee, working with Councilor Deqa Dhalac, has spearheaded efforts that are expected to lead to the creation of South Portland’s first human rights commission. Officials first discussed the issue during a lengthy City Council meeting on June 16. The commission will receive $25,000 from the police department’s budget and $5,000 from the executive department budget to cover expenses, if needed.

Police Chief Timothy Sheehan said he wholeheartedly supported the funding reallocation.

“I was involved in the process,” he said. “I’m actually excited by it.”

The creation of such a commission, he said, “is only going to improve the overall position the city is in.”

South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli said the unofficial purpose of the new commission is to “look at diversity, equity and inclusion in the areas of housing, employment, education, city services, banking, healthcare, and policing.” Most of the commission’s details, he said, including membership and the commission’s official function, have not been defined yet, but will be addressed at a workshop during the council’s July 28 meeting.

“We’ll need to hammer out more specifics in the upcoming workshop, but this is a good framework for that discussion,” he said.

Dhalac, who emigrated to the U.S. from her native Somalia in 1992, said she, too, has drawn inspiration from the national movement to help create the new commission.

“We wanted to say we are doing something here in South Portland,” she said.

Dhalac said she wants the commission to work with the police department on how its policies impact people of color. She also wants the commission to work with the city’s human resources department to ensure that Black and indigenous people of color (BIPOC) are given equal opportunities for employment. She also hopes to see the commission help attract minority-owned businesses to the city. The ultimate goal, she said, would be to someday have a position created by the city to run the commission.

Deqa Dhalac

Deqa Dhalac Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

For now, however, the city is still working out most of those details. Still, Brownlee said she is taking the funding allocation as a positive sign.

“I think they are definitely committed,” she said.

Brownlee said her involvement in the project started when she reached out to Dhalac in the wake of calls nationwide for action to protect minorities. She asked Dhalac what could be done locally, and wondered if there were other communities roughly the same size as South Portland that had similar commissions. Brownlee said she discovered a number of communities in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the country have created similar commissions. In fact, Brownlee said, she got a lot of support and suggestions from officials there.

Brownlee, who works full time as director of career services at Southern Maine Community College, has taken the commission on as a personal side project, and has committed herself to the commission’s creation. She is doing this, she said, partly for her 4-year-old daughter.

“I don’t want her to experience what I had to experience,” she said.

Sean Murphy 780-9094

Email: [email protected]

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.