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Diversity times ten

Maine's changing mainstream
By SHAY STEWART-BOULEY  |  September 16, 2009

Long-time readers may recall I have an ex, and I'll tell you we have a shared-custody deal. I say this because my son's two-home situation meant he spent most of his kindergarten year in Maine, some 12 years ago, and many other school years thereafter. I've been here about seven-and-a-half. The Portland Phoenix has been here 10. Between all of us, we've seen a lot of change in terms of diversity. 

More from the PortlandPhoenix's 10th Anniversary: 

We told you so: Ten years of being right

Portland theater’s losses and gains since 1999

The 10 most influential bands of our first 10 years

A decade gone by

Portland: From a handful of restaurants to a restaurant town

Talking politics: The song remains the same

Marc Shepard: I remember when...

Portland’s art scene has changed quite a lot

Moreover, my son has lived a lot of this change. He established a beachhead before the big wave of Somali immigrants did, and did so in far northern Maine, where he was sometimes the only black face in town, usually the only one in school, and aside from the owners of the town's lone Chinese restaurant, maybe the only non-white at all.

Shortly after my son hit the scene, though, the Somalis did too, first settling in Portland and then in 2002 relocating to the Lewiston area.

In less than two years, Lewiston went from about 300 people identifying as Black to suddenly having more than 1000 new residents of African ancestry, some unfamiliar with the local language and culture.

The initial settling-in phase was rough and at times fraught with tension. The stress level hit a peak when then-mayor Laurier Raymond wrote a letter addressed to Somali leaders asking them to stop coming to Lewiston as they were draining the city's resources. Later, a huge tipping point was reached when white supremacists in 2003 decided they wanted to have a rally in Lewiston.

With my Black ass having arrived in March 2002, let me tell you my parents wondered aloud several times after hearing about this racial trouble in the news, why the hell was I here? I wondered the same thing myself at times, but I didn't run for the hills, and I'm glad for that. Why? Because this state often shows that it's more than skin deep.

You see, when the hate got hot, my fellow Mainers came out in force for the Somalis with the Many and One Coalition. While there have been instances of tensions flaring more recently, most notably between African immigrants and police, overall things seemed to have calmed down as native Mainers and Somalis have learned to coexist.

And that wasn't all. Although the first Black mayor in Maine was back in 1988 (William Burney in Augusta), and the first Black state rep was Gerry Talbot in 1972, the past decade has seen our largest city led by a Black mayor twice — Jill Duson's first term was in 2004-05, and she's doing her second right now. John Jenkins, currently the mayor in Auburn and a former two-term Lewiston mayor, who won by write-in without even campaigning because he was so respected (he also did a stint as state senator in the 1990s). And this year Portland gained a Black police chief, too.

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