Last week, the local activist and Maine law graduate Marpheen Chann announced his grassroots effort to run for Portland's City Council, representing District 5 (Deering Center, North Deering, Riverton), a seat currently occupied by David Brenerman. He's running against Kim Cook, who runs a government relations firm, and Craig Dorais, a patent attorney. As a first generation Asian-American and member of the LGBTQ community with real-world experience, Chann says he's uniquely poised to tackle some to the social issues the city faces. A big goal for him is to be a different kind of public servant, one that engages in difficult conversations, and actually listens to the plight of voters across the political spectrum.
The Phoenix spoke with Chann last week to get a better understanding of his progressive vision for the city, and what it will take for him to achieve it. The following interview has been edited for grammar and clarity.
Hello Marpheen, great to talk to you again. You've recently returned from living in Washington, D.C. What were you working on and what would you say you learned from your time there?
I went down to D.C. to join the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) as a Legal Intern and Program Assistant in the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion. My job was to support the office with its statutory mandates to promote diversity in the bureau in terms of its workforce and its suppliers, as well as moving forward with assessing diversity management policies and procedures of the entities it regulates.
In the spring of 2017, I was an exchange student at Howard Law, a historically black university. I studied Immigration Law, Refugee Law, and International Economic Law from the perspective of a diverse group of professors and engaged with students from all over the world — including the Caribbean and the Middle East.
What was your work like in the wake of Trump's election?
When Trump was elected, I walked into the office that day and it was largely empty and quiet. People feared for their jobs, but also for the future of the nation. It was palpable.
While I was at Howard, I couldn't have picked a better time to study Immigration, Refugee, and International Economic Law. With the Muslim Ban, the aftermath of Brexit, and Trump wanting to negotiate via bilateral agreements (as opposed to multilateral agreements), it was all sobering and timely. My favorite class was Refugee Law, since we studied and had practical exercises on how to proceed with an asylum application.
It was a great time. I'll miss D.C., but Maine was tugging on my heartstrings. This was the place that made me and I see D.C. style politics rippling out all across the nation — part of the reason why I came back was because I felt, despite being tempted to stay where a lot of opportunities were, I wanted to be a part of the solution to Maine's problem of young people leaving the state.
For me, it was not enough to complain about how Maine needs to do more. I needed to come back to help pave a way for other young people to stay and return and move to live and work in Portland and Maine.
Welcome back. What experience do you have with Portland politics and social justice issues?
I have been involved with several Portland campaigns helping them with messaging, social media, and web presence. But a lot of my involvement on social justice issues started in spring 2011 when I was elected as the President of USM's Queer Straight Alliance — despite only being an out gay college student for six or so months. That then transitioned into my involvement in USM's student government. I served as an at-large student senator on the finance committee before being tapped to serve as USM's first Student Vice-President.
In that role, I advocated for more funding for public education and public universities and colleges. It's an important issue for me because education is a big reason why I am where I am today. Education helped me break free from the doctrine that said I couldn't be gay or that it was a choice. Education helped me explore new ideas and perspectives and cultures and gain an understanding of those who I might not agree with.
You're running on a platform that wants to promises a Portland For Everyone. How is Portland not already for everyone?
I went door-to-door with a friend of mine in North Deering and every single person brought up the issue of property taxes. A handful of residents explicitly stated that they were moving out in one, or two, or three months to Westbrook or Yarmouth where property taxes were cheaper. In addition, the median gross rent of $946 here in Portland exceeds the national median gross rent of $926. This is largely due to a shortage of affordable housing.
We have a lot of growth. And it's exciting. But too much growth, on a macroeconomic level, leads to inflation. On the local level, too much growth leads to gentrification, higher property taxes, and higher rent. It is also worth noting that Portland isn't that big from a land perspective. Our stock of open land is dwindling and more high-end condos and hotels are being built.
This is pushing people out of their homes and out of the city.
Portland has done a good job when it comes to embracing LGBT residents, immigrants, and refugees. But we have to remain vigilant as a city with the recent election and the rise in hate that accompanied it. Just this past weekend, during Pride festivities, many LGBT friends of mine have reported hearing derogatory slurs thrown at them from passersby. Our immigrant and refugees neighbors and people of color have also experienced much of the same. Portland has led on this issue, but it needs to remain vigilant and continue as a leader on this front.
What are other big issues you'd focus on as a city councilor?
Affordable housing and property taxes are a big one for me. They hit close to home. As someone who lived in low-income housing as a kid and went from foster home to foster home until I was adopted, having a place to call home and a roof over your head is crucial when raising a family or working to make ends meet.
Education is another important issue and, for me, it ties into property taxes because the State has broken its promise to fully fund 55 percent of the total cost of education. This forces towns and cities like Portland to raise property taxes in order to give our kids, teachers, and schools the resources they need to succeed. Successful schools are important to Portland because it builds stronger communities by bringing people together. But it is also important because it exposes our kids to new ideas, perspectives, and cultures and helps prepare them for the real world and to be good citizens of an increasingly diverse democracy.
Another issue is how can Portland lead when it comes to embracing diversity. With Trump's election, there has been a wave of hate and vitriol targeted toward the LGBT, Muslim, immigrant and refugee communities. The past few years have also placed our communities of color in fear with multiple police shootings of black citizens.
We have won a lot of progress over the past few decades, but that progress is being threatened by those who don't realize that the enemy is wealth inequality and those who twist the ideals of an otherwise peaceful religion to advance their own, extremist agenda.
We need to lead as a city in embracing diversity by working with police and communities of color and fostering mutual understanding and respect. Police need the resources and education and training to engage in community policing and understand the fear that black and brown people have. Black and brown people also need assurances and concrete initiatives on the part of the city that shows that their lives matter, whether it is done through community outreach or creating channels and building bridges between them and the Police Department.
The city has taken steps in its hiring and the creation of an Office of Economic Opportunity. But, as my high school principal always said, "There is good, but there is always better."
On the topic of diversity, specifically when it comes to hiring and paying more marginalized folks, do you think there's a line between genuine diversity and tokenizing to enhance the perception of diversity?
Only thinking of diversity as hiring and paying people of color or of different sexualities and gender diversity more is a bit limiting. Diversity, from a city policy standpoint, is broader and encapsulates more than just hiring and pay. It touches on how valued our communities and residents of color feel in our city and whether we allow them to contribute to our local economy and communities without fear.
Framing diversity as merely hiring and paying people of color frames the issue as merely an economic one — when really what diversity is aspiring towards is full inclusion and integration of people of color, LGBT people, immigrants, and refugees at all levels of society and city life.
To do that, we need to explore and identify where barriers to inclusion may exist. Some of this will take hard work because, as I have experienced during my internship with the CFPB Office of Minority and Women Inclusion, many barriers are often buried deep in policy or not readily noticeable until the hard work is put in to find them. I think a good start is for the city to do a full review of its policies and procedures and, from there, strengthen those policies and procedures that foster full inclusion with integration and updates, repeals, and reforms for those that don't.
For more information visit: https://www.marpheenchann.com/.
Last modified onTuesday, 20 June 2017 16:36
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