Organizers of a protest march on June 4 in South Portland lead the crowd in 2 minutes of silence for George Floyd, a black man killed in a confrontation with white police officers in Minneapolis. Sean Murphy / For The Forecaster

SOUTH PORTLAND —Carlton Parsons, 29, a member of the Black community in South Portland, said he welcomes the creation of a new human rights commission in the city to help promote education and diversity, and he’s not alone.

“There’s definitely a hunger for it,” he said.

Parsons grew up in New York City, but has lived in Portland and South Portland for the past 10 years. He acknowledged that in Maine he has not seen violence against Black people at the hands of the police, like what the nation witnessed in Minneapolis in May with the death of George Floyd, but he said creating a commission to give marginalized people a voice is still very necessary, even here in South Portland.

“This is a way of preventing our community from becoming another Minneapolis,” he said.

Organizers behind South Portland’s first human rights commission have unveiled a detailed vision of what the commission will look like and how it will function, including diversity workshops, public events and audits of city policies.

“Very excited by it,” said Margaret Brownlee, a South Portland resident who has spearheaded efforts to create the commission in the wake of deaths of Black people nationwide. In particular, the death of Floyd at the hands of white police officers in May has continued to spark outrage across the country.

Brownlee, who has been working on the commission’s concept with guidance from City Councilor Deqa Dhalac, gave a presentation to the council July 28, based in part on research she did on similar commissions in other cities across the country. The commission, according to the presentation, will help “historically marginalized groups who have suffered systemic racism and oppression in the areas of housing, employment, education, banking, healthcare and policing.”

Parsons said he has not personally experienced overt racism in South Portland, but encountered what he called “microaggressions.” He defined them as more ambiguous incidents that made him wonder about racial motivation, such as a woman clutching her purse more closely as he walked by, or a person declining to get into an elevator with him. He said he hopes that a commission will promote education citywide, and help put an end to such situations.

“This commission is absolutely necessary,” he said, calling this week’s presentation “a step in the right direction.”

Among other tasks, the commission will host free quarterly diversity workshops for the public hosted by trained experts, along with quarterly events centered around national observations such as Martin Luther King Day and Pride Week. The commission will also conduct “equity audits,” or a review of all municipal department policies regarding impacts on marginalized groups, followed by recommendations to the city council. Brownlee said there are no plans right now to conduct workshops specifically for any municipal department, but municipal staff would be free to attend the public workshops.

South Portland Police Chief Timothy Sheehan told The Forecaster he wasn’t concerned at all about the commission reviewing his department’s policies, even if the commission finds changes need to be made.

“I’m actually welcoming any recommendations the commission makes,” he said.

Fire Chief James Wilson also said he had no objections to the commission reviewing his department’s policies.

“We’re certainly willing to let them look at our policies and make recommendations,” he said.

The 11-member commission will meet monthly. The city council will appoint seven members, one from each of the city’s districts and two at-large positions. The group of seven would be responsible for choosing the four remaining members, who will serve three-year terms with no more than two consecutive terms.

Brownlee told The Forecaster that while it’s implied that the commission should be made up of members from a mixture of backgrounds, that hasn’t been spelled out on paper yet. She added that those details will be included by the time the council acts on a formal proposal, which will take the form of a city ordinance.

“As the ordinance is drafted, we’re going to have to be pretty specific about the membership,” she said.

Along with the regular membership, the commission will also include non-voting members from local institutions such as the police and school departments. Sheehan, who attended the July 28 workshop and called Brownlee’s presentation “outstanding,” said he wants members of his department to act as liaisons with the commission.

“We’re absolutely looking forward to participating,” he said.

The councilors all supported the proposal (Councilor Claude Morgan was absent due to technical difficulties), with the only major critique being a concern that the commission will try to do too much at once.

“It is a big task, with a huge scope, and that’s OK, but I would be in favor of a huge pacing,” said Mayor Katherine Lewis.

Councilor Katelyn Bruzgo also suggested making sure that police education remains a focus.

“So much of this had begun with a conversation about the police budget,” she said, referencing the June 16 meeting where councilors began discussions that would lead to $30,000 – most of it from the police department’s budget – being set aside for the creation and management of the commission.

Brownlee said she will work with City Manager Scott Morelli and the city’s corporate counsel to fine-tune a draft ordinance to officially create the commission. The council will vote on the proposal at a later date.

On Wednesday, Brownlee told The Forecaster that all the council’s feedback made sense, and she expected several details would change before the commission is officially established.

“This was just a preliminary plan of goals to put together,” she said.

Pedro Vazquez, another organizer working with Brownlee on the project, said he also appreciated the council’s support, and particularly looks forward to the equity audits.

“I am feeling encouraged by the council’s actions and resolve to review policies and processes, which in many cases have been in place for decades, and their impact on the marginalized and the vulnerable in our community,” he said.

Sean Murphy 780-9094

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