Gimbala Sankare of Freeport, an executive at Wex, is a leader in the new Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce initiative, Standing for Solidarity, intended to get businesses to address issues of racial disparity and social injustice in the state. He said businesses need to see embracing diversity as a year-round goal, not just something to be stressed in a daylong training session.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Paula Mahony remembers a gentle upbraid from her son a few years ago that served as a push toward becoming more aware of implicit biases in herself and in society.

Mahony, who owns Words@Work, a Portland marketing and public relations agency, had just picked up a coffee and told her son she couldn’t tell whether the person who served her was a young man or a young woman.

“Mom,” her son said, “what does it matter?”

“I said, ‘You know, you’re right,'” Mahony recalled, adding that the incident caused her to examine her own beliefs about diversity and inclusion in society and in business.

So, when the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce launched Standing in Solidarity, a program designed to help businesses become catalysts for change in society, Mahony was among the first to sign up.

Since then, she has been joined by more than 300 other companies and organizations, ranging from Bank of America and the Portland Sea Dogs to Hannaford Supermarkets and the Portland Press Herald.


After a summer of demonstrations led by groups such as Black Lives Matter, Mahony said, it’s clear that the country needs to confront its racial and societal divisions.

“You could argue that there isn’t a single more important topic to tackle,” she said. “It just feels like it’s time.”

Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said George Floyd’s killing and the resulting demonstrations led her to believe the business community had to get involved. “There’s a feeling that the time is now,” she said. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

That sense led to the chamber’s development of Standing in Solidarity, said Quincy Hentzel, its chief executive. Specifics for the initiative are still being developed, Hentzel said, but it will focus on businesses educating their employees about biases and examining hiring practices, at least initially. In the long run, the goal is to tackle some deep societal divisions.

Hentzel said George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis and resulting demonstrations around the country – including protests in Maine – led her to decide that the local business community had to get involved.

“There have been a lot of conversations on this. Everyone’s talking about this,” she said. “There’s a feeling that the time is now.”

The coronavirus pandemic, in a way, has made the process of putting together the effort easier, Hentzel said. Many businesses have “paused” after setting up work-from-home programs, she said, and company leaders have used that time to broaden their thinking.


“The demonstrations did what they were intended to do; they made people pay attention,” Hentzel said. “Now, we’re going to ask people to take action.”

Hentzel said many large businesses already conduct regular sessions to help employees identify and counteract biases that they didn’t realize were there. She said that approach could be used in smaller businesses, as well, and employers also could encourage people to identify biases and divisions outside the workplace.

That’s an effort that Claude Rwaganje is eager to see launched and one which he hopes to help lead.

Claude Rwaganje will co-chair the committee that will launch the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Standing in Solidarity initiative. Rwaganje said discrimination is evident in seemingly small things, including the tendency of Mainers to classify anyone who wasn’t born and raised in the state as someone “from away.”  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Rwaganje founded and leads ProsperityME, a Portland-based nonprofit that provides financial education, housing assistance, scholarships and workforce development programs for immigrants and asylum-seekers in Maine. He will co-chair a committee Hentzel put together to help launch Standing in Solidarity.

“I’m a person of color, I’m Black, I have kids who are Black, so I know how it feels to be discriminated against,” Rwaganje said. “That has to end.”

Discrimination is evident in seemingly small things, he said, including the tendency of Mainers to classify anyone who wasn’t born and raised in the state as someone “from away.” Rwaganje said he’s often referred to as someone “from away,” despite nearly a quarter of a century living in the state. He said the term is an implicit effort to separate people based on their backgrounds.


Rwaganje noted that many companies, in Maine and elsewhere, issued statements of condemnation after Floyd’s death, but he said merely decrying one act and voicing support for efforts to end racism and discrimination are insufficient.

“Is that enough? No. We need action plans,” Rwaganje said, adding that he hopes the chamber’s effort can help.

Unum Group, one of the first companies to sign onto Standing in Solidarity, is putting money behind its effort.

The company has set up a social justice fund with initial funding of $500,000 to support such efforts, said Cary Olson, Unum’s assistant vice president of corporate social responsibility.

Unum started the fund July 1 and is currently gathering grant applications from organizations hoping to launch programs to address institutional racism, Olson said.

She said Unum conducts regular employee training around issues such as implicit biases, and in recent years it has established an office of inclusion and diversity to make sure the company is trying to be inclusive and end internal discrimination.


Unum is eager to share its methods with other companies in Maine, Olson said, as well as find out what other businesses do to address such issues so it can adjust its own efforts, if needed.

“This has certainly brought forth an opportunity for all of us to do more learning on this issue,” she said.

That openness to learning and sharing is embraced by Wex Inc., another one of southern Maine’s largest companies.

Diversity and inclusion are “part of the brand of who we are,” said Gimbala Sankare, head of global talent acquisition and diversity and inclusion at Wex, which does business on five continents.

He concedes, however, “we’re still not fully there yet, because it’s a journey.”

Sankare said businesses need to see embracing diversity as a year-round goal, not just something to be stressed in a daylong training session. It’s important for a business in Maine to recognize society’s problems, he said, because those issues can affect a company’s success or failure.


“We’re invested in the communities we are in,” Sankare said, and if that means Wex can help other companies address societal issues, that ultimately can mean greater success for the company. “We’re more than happy to help with that.”

Sankare hopes the chamber’s program continues the discussion of what diversity means in Maine.

Hentzel said the Standing in Solidarity effort, which will be unveiled with a full-page ad in the Maine Sunday Telegram on Sunday, will evolve, guided by the committee she has set up.

What’s yet to come remains fluid, she said, and will likely focus on companies sharing best practices and perhaps training provided by the chamber on how best to raise and address the issues with employees.

“We’re trying to figure out our role,” Hentzel said.

The chamber will likely partner with the Racial Equity Institute, a Greensboro, North Carolina-based group that offers trainers and organizers focusing on creating racially conscious companies and organizations.

Hentzel said the chamber is committed to more than just helping members address racial and social issues.

“We have made this a priority in our own organization,” she said. “This isn’t going to change overnight, (but) it’s a perfect time to take action, to stop (merely) talking about it.”

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