The South Portland City Council moved a step closer to declaring racism as a public health emergency on Tuesday, a declaration that commits the council to taking action to ensure racial equity in the city.

The required actions include reviewing existing policies and ordinances, continued research on racial disparities in the community, and including more diverse voices on its boards and committees.

“Ultimately, this is our intent tonight: to move on all three of these actions,” said Becca Boulos, chairperson of the city’s Board of Health, which with the city’s Human Rights Commission drafted the proposal. “By naming racism, identifying some ways in which systems and structures in South Portland are impacting racial disparities, and then strategizing and identifying opportunities for action.”

South Portland’s declaration, which the council unanimously agreed to vote on at a future meeting “as soon as possible,” would be the second in Maine. The city of Portland took a similar stance in 2020. There have been 240 declarations of racism as a public emergency or crisis across the United States since 2018, according to the American Public Health Association. The declarations have been made by governors and mayors, city and town councils, public health and educational entities, county boards and state legislatures.

South Portland’s declaration explicitly credits the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19 for shining a spotlight on racial disparities in recent years. It also says that “the systems that perpetuate racism are customized and reapplied” to other populations, including the unhoused, LGBTQ+ community, and people with mental and behavioral health conditions and disabilities.

In their presentation, the Board of Health and Human Rights Commission pointed to racial disparities in the state and nation throughout criminal justice, health and educational institutions.


According to their data, Maine’s population in 2018 was 1% Black but Black people accounted for 5% of arrests. In 2020, 10% of Mainers living below the federal poverty level were white, while 28% were American Indian or Alaskan Native, 31.3% were Black or African American and 33.7% were Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders.

“When you see those relationships, you’re seeing a system,” Boulos said. “Ultimately, what these data show are that from across different sectors … there are systemic and structural inequities to underline racial disparities.”

The declaration defines racism as “a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks (which is what we call ‘race’) that unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities, unfairly advantages other individuals and communities, and saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.”

Systemic racism is defined as “a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity … It has come about as a result of the way that historically accumulated white privilege, national values and contemporary culture have interacted so as to preserve the gaps between white Americans and Americans of color.”

“As a Black woman, I experience that,” said Mayor Deqa Dhalac, who is the first Somali-American mayor in the United States. “In my emails that come to me, the phone calls that come to me and when I’m in the community as well; and I know that many of my colleagues and friends who are people of color do experience that as well.

“It’s been here before I came to this country,” she later said. “It’s still here and will be here if we do not really be brave and strong and courageous and say ‘no’ to it.”


The council’s five other members, including Councilor Jocelyn Leighton, also spoke of their support for the declaration, as did community members at the meeting.

“This country has been built on less-than-awesome ideals and we need to just acknowledge it,” Leighton said. “We need to move through it together as a community.”

Resident Bri Bowman said she valued the work from the Board of Health and Human Rights Commission.

“I appreciate the focus on the systemic instructional analysis and the acknowledgement that many of the harms of racism operate within our institutions, regardless of our explicit intent,” Bowman said.

Community members and councilors said they were pleased that the declaration poses more than just a statement but promises action.

“We always say, in this community and in the business community, that we care about diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Orion Breen, who was named Business Leader of the Year by the city’s Economic Development Committee. “But words are not enough to just say, and this offers clear kind of next steps and actions that we as a community can take to move forward.”

The declaration also requires the city to strengthen “existing research relationships” with local colleges and the police department, support organizations such as the historical society and school district in providing educational resources, and include more Indigenous voices on city boards, commissions and committees, “especially those reviewing land use and historic and archaeological sites.”

The City Council’s next meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 3.

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