South Portland City Hall

South Portland City Hall Kelley Bouchard photo/Press Herald

SOUTH PORTLAND — Racism has been considered a public health emergency in South Portland.  

On Tuesday, April 26, the South Portland Town Council met to hear a proposal to declare racism as a public health crisis. The Board of Health and Human Rights Commission drafted and presented a three-page document that calls for a full review of municipal laws, policies, and practices to root out systemic racism wherever it might exist.

“This is a really beautiful document,” said councilor Susan Henderson in a previous statement. “This is really big. This affects our entire society.”

Additionally, the resolution calls for the city to inform residents about the city’s history related to slavery and tribal communities, include indigenous voices on municipal boards and direct municipal boards to address systemic racism.    

The declaration is fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement and confirmed by the racial disparities that were exposed during the pandemic. The declaration also includes the LGBTQ+ community, the unhoused, and people with mental and behavioral health conditions and disabilities.

The Board of Health and Human Rights Commission 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.”  


The commission defines systemic racism (also referred to as institutional or structural racism) 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 to preserve the gaps between White Americans and Americans of color.”   

The city’s Board of Health and Human Rights Commission is asking for South Portland officials to hire outside consultants to come and review the city’s character, local laws, and policies and to address systemic racism. Hiring an outside consultant to review and recommend action on city laws, policies and practices would cost at least $50,000 according to a memo sent to the council by City Manager Scott Morelli.

According to the commission, “The systems that perpetuate racism are customized and reapplied to create and sustain social and economic disparities in other populations, including but not limited to older adults, persons with low-income, unhoused populations, LGBTQ+ community, people with mental and behavioral health conditions, and people with disabilities, putting everyone’s health at risk; and these historic and contemporary racist actions intentionally and unintentionally design systems that implicitly and explicitly impact the physical, psycho-social, and economic wellbeing of Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color; these historic and contemporary racist systems impact education, housing, economic opportunity, health care, criminal justice, and other determinants of health.”

During the recent school board meeting on April 26, two new board members were elected. Courtney Pladsen to the District 2 seat, replacing Mike Faulkingham, and Molly Schen replaces Andrea Levinsky in the District 4 seat. The new officials said during the meeting that they want all children to have equal opportunities. Pladsen said that she wants every child in her district to have the opportunity to reach their highest educational potential.  

Schen, a former educator at South Portland and Freeport High Schools, stated that she has seen the change in demographic since moving back to Maine and is happy that the community is much more diverse.  

“I do worry about the cost of housing, and I am hearing so much about the problem with homelessness,” Schen said. “It does seem to me that this is an opportunity for the school board to work closely with the city to try to figure out some innovative solutions that would serve kids and parents.” 

The South Portland Board of Education approved a resolution in 2020 condemning racism and aiming to protect students. The vote for the resolution came days after the board joined South Portland students at a Black Lives Matter Protest. The board also commended the South Portland Police Department for supporting the students’ protests and response.  

The council will address the amendments before sending the resolution for adoption at its May 13 meeting.

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