In response to both national and local protests over the death of George Floyd and demands for reform of institutions that reinforce and perpetuate racism, the Greater Portland Council of Governments on Wednesday launched a series of web-based forums aimed at promoting racial equity on a municipal level.

“This is not going to be the most comfortable of conversations,” Victoria Pelletier, the office manager of the council, said during the webinar’s introduction. “There will be times when the incorrect thing is said. There will be times when you’re going to have to choose between being comfortable and making real substantial change – because those two things are not always the same.”

The council of governments hosted three presenters: Dwayne Marsh, former deputy director of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity; Bill Webster, the former Lewiston school superintendent; and Claude Rwaganje, a Westbrook city councilor.

Marsh has worked nationwide facilitating such conversations. He discussed a number of tactics that municipal leaders can use and methods of thinking about the roots of racial inequities.

“In essence, it is looking at the desired results you want to achieve from a racial equity perspective, understanding what the data tells you about that instance or situation, what data you’re missing, real authentic communication and engagement with community,” Marsh told the leaders. “Then only after you do those things do you start to talk about what strategies could advance racial equity, and think about how you mitigate for unforeseen circumstances and bring in partners.”

Webster reflected on the two-year training program he facilitated in the Lewiston School District, and explained the ways in which his own thinking had changed on issues of race and equity.

“One of my beliefs, growing up and well into my adulthood, was the belief that Maine was exemplary in its history,” Webster said. “Now, I know and I believe that Maine is a great state. But it has its own share of racism.”

Rwaganje was the last to present. He focused primarily on the racial disparity in the effects of the COVID-19 health crisis, which have disproportionately hit Maine’s Black population, and brought a personal touch to the matter – his niece gave birth to a baby, and within two weeks both she and the baby had contracted COVID-19 from her husband.

“That was devastating,” Rwaganje said. “I have never heard of a two-week-old baby with COVID-19. This disparity is rooted in systemic racism.”

The participants stressed that this was only the beginning of the conversation. Kristina Egan, GPCOG’s executive director, said they would hold three or four more conversations to discuss issues such as systemic racism in schools and policing. The date and details of the next webinar were not yet available Wednesday.

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