2017-06-08 / News

Civil rights teams across state nearly lose funding

By Grant McPherson:
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The Biddeford High School Civil Rights Team, along with all civil rights teams in Maine schools, avoided losing their funding as the Appropriations Committee of the Maine State Legislature rejected Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget by a vote of 9-3 Friday, June 2.

The LePage administration proposals included, among other things, the elimination of $556,000 for the civil rights program in the Attorney General’s office, arguing it would be better housed under the department of education. The loss of funding would have affected elementary, middle and high school civil rights team projects as well as eliminated two paid staffers that coordinate 188 volunteers across the state.

The Civil Rights Team Project launched in 1996 as part of the Maine Civil Rights Act and focused on education and improved communication between schools and law enforcement. According to the state website there are more than 150 schools in the Civil Rights Team Project.

Washima Fairoz, a junior at Biddeford High School, said she joined the civil rights team because she saw discrimination in her school. Fairoz said she was called the “n-word” during her first year in high school. She said she was unable to speak out initially but has become more comfortable after joining the team.

“When you are more than one person, you are heard,” said Fairoz, who moved to the U.S. from Bangladesh four years ago.

Fairoz said her favorite experience on the team was when the artist known as Pigeon visited Biddeford High School in March. Orson Horchler, operating under the pseudonym Pigeon, is a French born Maine-based artist interested in nurturing feelings of community through the power of narrative. She said drawing other students gave her an opportunity to make new connections and discuss race, religion and equality openly.

Veronica Foster, an English teacher at Biddeford High School, said theirs was one of eight schools selected for Pigeon to visit after a long and involved application process. Foster is in her second year working with the team and said the state also funds an annual training conference in Augusta for students. Foster said the loss of state funding would have made the work of civil rights teams in Maine more difficult going forward.

“We would proceed as normal,” she said. “But kids would be missing an opportunity to meet their peers from around the state who are working on the same issues. Advisors wouldn’t be able to do their best work.”

Foster said she agreed to work with the team in Biddeford based on her own experience on a team when she attended Thornton Academy. She said the team’s goal this year has been to help the English language learning population at Biddeford High School feel more welcome. Foster said the team meets bimonthly to share food from their own cultures and interact with people they might not meet on a daily basis.

“It has been really important, this year especially, for kids to have a place to talk about things on the news with adults and other people they know are safe,” Foster said.

Fairoz said she has struggled to feel accepted at school and making friends had been a challenge that used to affect her on a daily basis.

“I used to care, I used to cry,” she said. “But then I stopped because they are not worth it.”

Fairoz said after Pigeon visited she started wearing her hijab to school and noticed people beginning to treat her differently. Not long after the 2016 presidential election she said she was called Mexican and told to go back to where she came from. Fairoz said she feels a personal connection with civil rights.

“People think we come here for fun,” Fairoz said. “We don’t. Every refugee and other immigrant has a back story full of pain and struggle.”

Fairoz said she and her family moved to the U.S. for safety and education reasons. She said her mom used to have to accompany her to school and she was not allowed outside her home alone. Fairoz said she is grateful for the opportunity women have in America, but was still surprised to find instances of women protesting and marching in her new country’s history.

“It doesn’t matter where you are, women have to struggle,” she said. “They have to prove themselves in every single moment like I have to in work, school and my country.”

Fairoz said she was prepared to march if funding for civil rights teams was cut. She has a message for those who supported the cuts.

“Stop making things difficult,” she said. “If you can’t help, then don’t do any harm.”

The latter is a saying in her native Bangladesh. English is Fairoz’ fifth language, after Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi. Her favorite subject is math, which she hopes to study in college. Her goal is to attend Colby, Bates or Bowdoin but she said she isn’t confident at the moment she’ll be able to attend college at all. Unlike Bangladesh, however, she said she believes a higher education is possible for her in America.

“It was difficult in my old country, here I feel like I could have hope,” Fairoz said. “Here they give opportunity to women as well. I can do something; I can be someone if I want to, if I work hard enough.”

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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