The Gateway Community Services Maine’s Youth Coalition helped get out the vote last November and will this year begin trying to tackle some weighty issues, including racial equity in schools, access to education and criminal justice. Contributed / The Gateway Community Services Maine

After spending the first few months of the pandemic helping members of the community get access to hand sanitizer, masks and other personal protection and then working to encourage voters to cast ballots in November, a youth group is taking on new challenges this year.

Gateway Community Services Maine’s Youth Coalition is now working on how it can best address racial equity in schools, access to healthcare and criminal justice issues, said Safiya Khalid, Gateway’s community resource coordinator. A nonprofit, Gateway Community Services supports immigrants and refugees in the Greater Portland and Lewiston areas.

Portland High School senior Lydia Stein, one of the 20 teens and young adults that make up the coalition, said racial equity is one of her top priorities.

“Maine is a very white state, but Portland and Lewiston are much more diverse,” Stein said “The question is, how do we bring racial justice into our schools and make immigrants and their families feel welcome in making Maine their home?”

Idey Abdi, a senior at Lewiston High School, said she would like to see her school start a racial equity group for students to talk about racial issues and other issues on campus.

The coalition also is looking to break down barriers to higher education, especially for students who may be the first in their families to graduate from high school and seek a higher degree, Khalid said. As part of that initiative, the coalition would like to work with schools in the Portland and Lewiston areas to start a mentorship program to help juniors and seniors with college and post-high school planning.

Close to two-thirds of students entering Maine community colleges in fall 2018 were students whose parents did not have a bachelor’s degree, nearly double the national average, according to a 2018 report from the Maine Community College system.

The mentorship program could also include helping students of color find internships, scholarships and “other opportunities they may not know about,” Abdi said.

In general, Abdi said,  she hopes her involvement with the Youth Coalition can make her community a better place.

“I wanted to get more involved in my community to help people who live here and make it better,” she said of her reason for joining the coalition. “There are a lot of issues in Lewiston and I want to make sure those who need resources get the resources they need to help themselves and their families.”

Stein said she feels empowered by working with so many youth who share her passion for helping their peers. Often, youth don’t get listened to, she said, but that’s not the case with the coalition.

“This has helped me find my voice and make change in the community,” she said.

The youth coalition started in March 2020 as a way for the students to address needs they were seeing in their communities, Khalid said.

“There was just not good communication channels for the vulnerable members of our community, especially new Mainers. We had meetings with other young organizations to bring together youth across the state to help,” she said.

Among their work, the coalition members placed 8,000 phone calls to community members in advance of the Nov. 3, 2020, election.

Now, six  months later, the group is ready for new challenges.

The pandemic “threw a lot at us,” Khalid said. “In the new year we have been focusing on strategic planning.”

 

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