Special projects coordinator for the Greater Portland Council of Governments Tori Pelletier, center, moderated a discussion with, clockwise from upper left: Dustin Ward, Nathan Poore, Margaret Brownlee, Deqa Dhalac, Pious Ali and Lelia DeAndrade on racial equity work that is taking place in Portland, South Portland and Falmouth. Screenshot / Zoom video

PORTLAND — When thousands of people marched for racial justice in Portland and surrounding communities last summer, community leaders were spurred into action.

Dustin Ward of Cumberland and Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore were moved to design a specialized racial awareness curriculum for municipal employees. South Portland residents Deqa Dhalac and Margaret Brownlee said the marches inspired them to start the South Portland Human Rights Commission. And Lelia DeAndrande and Pious Ali sought appointments on Portland’s Racial Equity Steering Committee.

Dhalac, Brownlee, Ward, Poore, DeAndrande, Ali and Ward took part in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day panel discussion Monday focusing on racial equity efforts in greater Portland. Greater Portland Council of Governments sponsored the virtual event.

Ward, a former pastor at First Baptist Church in Yarmouth, said that after the demonstrations last summer, he couldn’t sit on the sidelines any longer. He started It is Time with the goal of assisting Maine communities with “racial reconciliation” and to foster growth and unity. He’s now working with the Falmouth to offer town employees classes on the history of slavery and racism, the civil rights movement and the impacts of racism on criminal justice and policing.

“If you want to understand where things are going, you have to understand where you have been,” Ward said.

Ward said he sees the work as a continuance of King’s message.

“That was Martin Luther King’s legacy, to improve the lives of his brothers and sisters,” Ward said. “We are hoping we can do a small piece of that in Falmouth.”

Poore said local Black Lives Matter events last summer opened his eyes to racial inequality, even in a small town like Falmouth. Aside from Ward’s classes, town officials are looking to find ways to get a more diverse workforce and incorporate equity discussions in topics like the comprehensive plan update.

In South Portland, Brownlee and Dhalac, a city councilor, led the charge for a local Human Rights Commission. According to the September ordinance that established it, the commission will “work to prevent hate and discrimination” in South Portland by supporting marginalized groups, providing education and training, celebrating diversity and reviewing city policies to make recommendations to the City Council and city manager.

Brownlee, the diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Maine College of Art, said South Portland’s Human Rights Commission, which began meeting in November, is working on several initiatives and is aiming to be “mindful that we aren’t just reacting but being proactive in what we are working on.”

The group is similar to the one set up by the Portland City Council, which Ali and DeAndrade are serving on.

DeAndrade, vice president of community impact at Maine Community Foundation, said the committee, which is examining the racial inequities in the city’s approach to law enforcement and social services, was a chance for her to get involved in the city.

“This could be a once in a lifetime opportunity and could be something that never happens again,” she said.

Ali, a Portland city councilor and director of Portland Empowered, said he hopes the work he and his colleagues in Portland, South Portland and Falmouth are doing can serve as a model for other communities.

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