Despite contemporary controversies over what it means to be part of an LGBTQ community, justice for all is still a priority for activists here in Portland and beyond. EqualityMaine, known largely for helping to pass “An Act to Allow Marriage Licenses for Same-Sex Couples and Protect Religious Freedom” in 2012, elected a new executive director in 2013, at what must have been an exciting time for the organization—Elise Johansen filled the shoes of Betsy Smith, who led the non-profit for fourteen years before stepping down last fall. While Smith spearheaded the effort at legalizing same-sex marriage in Maine, marriage equality is only one component of EQME’s plans for the next four years—which, in Johansen’s words, equates to “full, real equality.”
So, I read the strategic plan for the next four years you have listed on your website, but before we go into those, I was wondering if you could give a brief summary of what EqualityMaine is doing nowadays?
After the marriage campaign, people were like “oh, this is awesome,” and some people thought there’s no work left to do…yes we have marriage, yes we have an anti-discrimination law, yes we have an anti-bullying law, but we still don’t have full, live equality for Mainers.
There’s an anti-bullying law where schools must report and intervene on bullying incidents—but that doesn’t mean that bullying’s not happening—that doesn’t mean that (LGTBQ youth) feel safe going to school, or that LGBTQ youth don’t have to choose between getting an education and being safe. There isn’t enough work being done in that area—what we’ve done is developed professional development program for school leaders and for social workers throughout the state, to help people learn about LGBTQ youth and how to be an ally in schools and in communities, and how to help put an end to bullying and discrimination against young people who self identify as LGBTQ.
Another part of that work—EqualityMaine has a rich history in helping people become community organizers—is our New Leaders Program, which is a leadership development program for young LGBTQ people and allies to learn community organizing skills and other leadership skills…messaging, facilitating meetings, and all sorts of different things that help them become leaders in communities. During the school year, (the program) is a semester long, and it’s a six-week program in the summer. Young people come together, and stay in same cohort that they’ve had since the beginning, and they work on a solo or a group project. It’s really fun—we take them to youth lobbying day, shadow a legislator day, and they speak with the education committee about what they see in their schools in regards to bullying.
We’re also focused on capacity building with other LGBTQ serving organizations in the state—we convene meetings, we support different groups. One thing that’s meaningful to me is that I personally love to write grants that include more than one organization or agency, to figure out a way that all of us can work together across the state in broader ways. We’re really focused on youth work, but of course we’re doing a lot of things the rest of the time—(our work) comes from a high level place, but it still looks tangible.