2017-11-09 / News

Listen up, Biddeford

Conversation about race is Thursday, Nov. 16 at Engine
By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

Shay Stewart-Bouley Shay Stewart-Bouley BIDDEFORD – Locals have an opportunity to join a discussion about race in their community and hopefully be spurred into action.

Engine, in partnership with Maine Humanities Council, will host its second Think & Drink event at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 16. The panel is expected to consist of professors from the University of Southern Maine and Biddeford High School’s Civil Rights Team. Panelists will discuss issues of race in Biddeford for the first half-hour before audience members break into smaller groups to dissect one question in-depth.

The event will be facilitated by Shay Stewart-Bouley, who also hosted the 2016 Think & Drink at Engine. Stewart- Bouley is executive director of Community Change Inc., a Boston-based nonprofit founded in 1968 dedicated to dismantling systemic racism. She also started a blog in 2008 called “Black Girl In Maine,” which now has six contributing authors.

Stewart-Bouley, a Portland resident, said that while Biddeford has been seen as a Franco-American community throughout its history, that image is beginning to change.

“That shift started probably around 2012,” she said. “I used to be the executive director of Joyful Harvest, a neighborhood center on Main Street in Biddeford. I stepped down in 2013. There was a racial shift in terms of not all the kids in the after-school program were white. There’s definitely some growing diversity. I’m looking forward to people opening up and making them talk about race in their own community. I have no idea how it will go.”

Veronica Foster, coordinator for the Biddeford Civil Rights Team, said this is the first time individual students will participate in a community event as opposed to the whole team. She said the Maine Humanities Council contacted the school during the summer to see if students were interested. Washima Fairoz and Patience Ottaviano plan to be panelists for the event.

“I am glad, though, that the Biddeford High School Civil Rights Team is seen as a hub for student engagement with issues related to race and ethnicity in the community,” Foster wrote. “Our students are incredible humans, and I’m always glad when they get the recognition they deserve.”

Tammy Ackerman, executive director of Engine, said it’s important for her to provide a space for conversations that are culturally and socially relevant. Engine is a nonprofit founded in 2010 dedicated to community-based arts programming.

“Our space is meant to have conversations like these,” Ackerman said. “It’s not always comfortable tackling these topics but they are at the forefront of our mind collectively these days.”

The conversation about race is uncomfortable Stewart-Bouley said, especially for people of color who are put in vulnerable positions. She said for white people, the conversation has to begin with friends and family.

“If you can’t do it in the safety of your home, it’s hard to make the leap to doing it outside,” she said. “Until recently in Maine there was the belief that since it’s mostly white we don’t have to talk about race; that the absence of people of color meant there were no racial issues, which is not true at all. The dialogue doesn’t need to include people of color. White people can start their own work. The conversation is not going to change things, but it is a vital piece of getting to the point of changing things.”

Showing Up for Racial Justice is a national movement that organizes white people in conjunction with communities of color to combat racism and white Portland SURJ lists information on their upcoming events and how to get involved.

Community Change Inc. is also focused on motivating white people toward change and was founded on information gathered in the Kerner Commission Report, released in 1968. President Lyndon Johnson formed the commission after riots in major U.S. cities left many residents worried and afraid. Commission members tried to learn what had happened, why it happened and what could be done to prevent it from happening again. Among many things, the report stated that in the cities where riots took place people of color were at a significant social and economic disadvantage because of discrimination and segregation by white people in the fields of education, employment, housing and more.

“It’s mind-boggling (the report) is from 1968,” Stewart-Bouley said. “It’s depressing a lot of the (changes) never happened. I believe strongly that if we’d followed recommendations from the report we’d have seen systemic change. The only thing that’s changed for most people is day-to-day racial segregation. People elected Obama two times. That was their moment to say we’d broken the barrier and that everything’s fair. It’s not, actually. We’ve never changed the system. We’ve been doing surface work but we never go deeper into the system. It’s a lot harder to do.”

Stewart-Bouley hopes to continue her work and eventually incorporate a podcast into her blog. She pays all of her writers and accepts donations through a Patreon account, but has found difficulty funding the website on her own.

“I’m struggling with how to make this a true money making venture,” she said. “That struggle is one felt by any media outlet. The major guys are cutting publications. That struggle is not just mine. It belongs to everyone in this digital age. People like the idea of content. They don’t like the idea of paying for content. That’s fine, except it’s not sustainable.”

In preparation for the event at Engine, Stewart-Bouley will meet with the panelists beforehand but she won’t inform them what questions she will ask.

“I want it to be an honest conversation,” she said. “Typically when I’ve done this in the past I tell people what I’m thinking but not the exact questions. It makes for a more authentic experience as a participant, for us and for the audience.”

Stewart-Bouley had a concise piece of advice for people planning to attend.

“Come with an open mind,” she said.

For more information on Stewart-Bouley and to read her blog visit www.blackgirlinmaine.com.

Contact staff writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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