Portland racial equity panel hires facilitator

Discussion continues on how to best meet the committee's deadline for recommendations

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The public was unable to watch last week’s remote meeting of Portland’s Racial Equity Steering Committee because a link was not provided on the panel’s agenda.

The weekly meeting of the 13-member committee did go on as scheduled on Thursday, Oct. 15, and was posted the next morning on the committee’s web page. Jessica Grondin, the city’s spokesperson, said it was “a mistake” that the Zoom link was not available to the public.

The meeting, which ran just under two hours, was the first with the group’s new facilitator, Samaa Abdurraqib.

Abdurraqib said she works with the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, but also does facilitating and consulting work with various nonprofits in southern Maine.

Samaa Abdurraqib (Courtesy Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence)

Abdurraqib moved to Maine in 2010 and taught Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College before moving into the nonprofit sector. She has a Ph.D. in English and Gender and Women’s Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She spent several years doing direct shelter work in Ohio in the 2000s and joined the MCEDV in 2016. 

City Councilor Pious Ali, who co-chairs the committee with Lelia DeAndrade, said Abdurraqib was “the right person for the job.” DeAndrade said she and Ali spoke with Abdurraqib for a few hours before making the decision, and praised Abdurraqib’s ability to facilitate a group and manage difficult conversations.

“She speaks directly and simply,” DeAndrade said “She’s the perfect teacher in that you always understand where she’s coming from.”

Ali also announced the committee hired Marcel Medford, a sociology professor at Bates College, to help provide research for the group.

The panel received a budget of approximately $17,500 to hire Abdurraqib and Medford.

Like the committee’s previous meeting, there were concerns from members about the panel’s schedule going forward.

The committee is expected to make recommendations to the City Council by Jan. 22, 2021, and DeAndrade and others said they want a draft ready by Jan. 7. Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck said the “nightmare scenario” would be to find out they need to make edits or changes to the document right before they send it to the council.

DeAndrade and Abdurraqib told the group there are nine meetings left to refine their scope of work, complete it, and then write the report for the council. It is possible they can ask for an extension, and one group member suggested the group could become something of a more permanent force following the conclusion of its more immediate work.

Several committee members noted the scope of work they are looking at and acknowledged they wouldn’t be able to find solutions for every societal problem. Committee member Jerome Bennett called it a “boat with a thousand holes” that couldn’t all be repaired at once.

Committee member Lado Lodoka suggested the committee could separate into even smaller groups to begin taking up several items at one time. “I think that will move us along faster than if we talk topic by topic within the larger group,” he said.

Another committee member, Louis Pickens, said he liked that idea, but along with Ali believed that splitting the group into additional subcommittees would make it challenging to ensure all the meetings would be available to the public.

“To achieve the things we’re tasked with, there will have to be more cohesiveness,” Pickens said. “And it seems like the hour-and-a-half, I’m a little suspect that will be enough time to hash out these issues.”

Committee members did agree there is a growing sense of urgency to take up the issues they are tasked with: addressing issues of systemic racism and inequality in the city, and reviewing the city’s approach to policing and public safety.

The group will also investigate what happened at the June protest in Portland that followed the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was in the custody of the police.

The committee members agreed they still need to refine certain aspects of what they are trying to achieve. Kate Knox asked her colleagues to focus specifically on the intersection of criminal justice and public safety, and then potentially look to extend their charge beyond January on other issues.