New Gloucester residents Dustin and Lauren Ward and their two children. Contributed / Photo by Fred J. Field

Dustin Ward wants to smooth the way for tough conversations about race, racism and equity in New Gloucester. As the town’s first and only Black man elected to the town’s Board of Selectmen, he also hopes to set an example on how to use his platform for that difficult conversation.

“I’m elated, I’m delighted, and now I can use that as a way to encourage other people of color to make their own history in their own towns and their own spaces,” Ward said.

Ward runs a consulting business to assist clients with racism education and best practices for racial equity in their businesses, schools, churches and municipal governments. The Falmouth town manager, a client, calls him a mentor.

Ward grew up in Presque Isle as the adopted child of two white parents in a state that is 94.4% white, according to 2019 census data. It was in Presque Isle, the commercial center of the famously rural Aroostook County, that he dreamed of being the first Black president. His path to politics was an uneasy and sometimes winding road, informed, in part, by his earlier experiences of being Black in an overwhelmingly white community.

“In fifth grade was the first time I’d ever been called a slur,” Ward said. “It was the first realization where I felt like my color could be used as a weapon against me to sort of degrade or doubt or downgrade me as a person.”

After graduating from the University of Southern Maine in 2010 with a political science degree, he worked two years at USM’s admissions office while studying for the Maine Law School admission test.

Then, he decided to become a pastor and enrolled at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts.

In 2015, he and his wife, Lauren, who he met at USM, returned to Maine and settled in New Gloucester. In August 2019, Ward got his first senior pastor position at First Baptist Church in Yarmouth and “figured I was going to retire there,” he said.

‘It’s time’

But in 2020, George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, and things for Ward changed.

“Lo and behold, with the events of George Floyd and having grown up with racism my whole life, it was evident that with what transpired during that time, I did not feel that (the church) was a safe environment to have conversations about race. I felt I needed to step away,” Ward said.

He released a statement following Floyd’s death that began with the words “It’s Time.”

“In that statement, I wanted my church to gather around so that we could begin that conversation,” Ward said. “I got such blowback from that, that was what ultimately made me realize this was a toxic place, this was not going to work in the position I was in.”

In the fall of 2020, he started his consulting business, It is Time.

“I said, ‘I still want that statement to be public, and I will put it under my own personal social media, and I’ll put it under my own personal name, not the church’s name,'” Ward said.

He was looking to create change with his company, specifically helping to end police brutality, the economic wealth gap and racism experienced daily by people of color.

One of Ward’s first clients was Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore, who connected with Ward in 2020 when Poore was researching racial equity and reconciliation. The two developed an education curriculum for Falmouth employees.

“He was interesting, he kept the people engaged, he was able to handle the tough questions as an instructor, but even tougher as a member of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) community,” Poore  said, regarding his work with Ward. “He engaged in the conversation in such a way that just allowed for trusting, open conversation,” he said.

I feel extremely lucky to have found him, and he has been a mentor in some respects,” Poore said. “He’s trying to understand why people are thinking the way they are, and then what it take to have those conversations. People are willing to talk about (equity) more because they don’t feel ignorant about it anymore, and I put myself in that same category. I needed to learn more.”

Entry into local politics

Things for Ward changed again during the winter of 2020-2021. New Gloucester Selectman George Colby came under fire when, during a board meeting, he ended the Pledge of Allegiance with “liberty and justice for all, for everyone. Even us white folks!”

Then an email between Colby and now-former Selectman Josh McHenry resurfaced from 2010, in which Colby wrote: “I went to Walmart and saw they had Obama Christmas tree ornaments. Now ain’t that a (expletive)???? Suddenly it’s OK to hang a (expletive) from a tree again.”

By January 2020, Colby was facing a recall petition, and he abruptly resigned in February.

Around that time, Ward began working closely with New Gloucester United Against Racism, and later decided to run for Colby’s one-year position on the board.

“I met Dustin through the recall effort, and just going through that process and working with him and seeing how he handled difficult topics, he has this charisma about him and is a really kind and outgoing person,” said Tom Jordan, a New Gloucester resident and member of New Gloucester United Against Racism.

Ward was elected in June with 309 votes, beating three other opponents. He said he plans to run for election in January for a three-year seat.

‘The town is changing.’

New Gloucester, a town of just under 6,000 people, is 96% white, according to 2019 census data. The Black population stands at 0.1%. As the first person of color to sit on New Gloucester’s Board of Selectmen, Ward says he takes the role seriously.

Tom Blake, a curator at the New Gloucester Historical Society, confirmed that there is no record of a person of color being elected to the position before.

“Like many Maine towns, New Gloucester residents have been predominantly white throughout its history, but hopefully people of all races will be encouraged by Dustin’s election,” Blake said.

In order to increase transparency and promote involvement in local government, Ward plans to continue operating his campaign website and Facebook and Instagram pages to encourage as much constituent engagement as possible. He also hopes to have a regularly standing appointment where people in town can come and talk with him one-on-one. He also hopes to connect with younger people and get them excited about government.

Ward and his supporters do not see his status as a relative newcomer as a hinderance.

“The town is changing,” Jordan said. “The people of the town are getting involved, and being able to elect somebody like Dustin really goes to speak that the town is ready to move forward and embrace more progressive ideas. I’m excited to see the town move forward and become a more vibrant and accepting place.”

“It makes me smile every time I think about the record books showing, as of right now, I was the first person of color to hold this position,” Ward said. “That’s huge. As a young kid from Aroostook County, who had experienced racism his whole life, to finally look back and say look what I accomplished at this point, after I was told so many years, ‘Black people don’t live here, you can’t act like that, you can’t do that,’ it’s almost this silent victory of telling the haters I did it, and you didn’t hold me back. There’s a little bit of justice in that.”

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