Bringing my ‘day job’ work to Northern New England: Join us!

In the five-plus years, since I became executive director of Community Change Inc. (CCI), I have had readers ask if I would consider bringing some of our programming north of Boston. Because, while our training and development work is nationally relevant, most of our programming ends up local to the Boston area as our staff and most of our constituents are Boston-based. 

However, in the last five years, the racial climate has changed and I have seen an increase in people in Maine and Northern New England looking to organize locally within their own communities—but often being unsure of how to move beyond reading and engaging online.

At the same time, in the Boston area, we were seeing an increase in suburban white people looking to engage in anti-racism movement work but wanting to do the work within their own communities. As a result, CCI partnered with the Winchester Multicultural Network in Winchester, Mass., and thus the Anti- Racism Organizing in the Suburbs (AROS) project was born. 

In the spring of 2018, over a hundred people from predominantly white suburban communities north of Boston participated in the first convening of AROS at Melrose First United Methodist Church. The goals of the gathering were to create greater capacity for movement building, improve alignment for joint campaigns, and strengthen shared resources for effecting systemic change in suburban communities.

Since that first convening, AROS has grown. Last fall, we offered a second symposium at Regis College in Weston, Mass., and have been inundated with requests to bring AROS to other communities. We are also in talks to develop an AROS training institute for white suburban organizers and others interested in anti-racism work in predominantly white spaces. 

After much thought, we decided to bring AROS to Northern New England this fall (Sept. 14). We have partnered with the Granite State Organizing Project and anti-racism activists from Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont to create an event designed to connect those interested in anti-racism organizing to others in the region. While the goals of AROS remains unchanged, AROS Northern New England (AROS-NNE) is also committed to lifting up the voices of people of color in the region and will feature a panel of Black people and other People of Color for a moderated discussion on the challenges that are unique to the region.

Join the AROS-NNE Planning Team for a convening of organizers, activists, leaders, and educators committed to the movement for racial justice in Northern New England. This is a unique opportunity to get to know each other, share strategies, learn about policy issues, and strengthen our efforts.

Keynote : Shay Stewart-Bouley; executive director of CCI and creator/writer of Black Girl in Maine Media

Featured Panelists Include:

  • Eva Castillo, program director of the New Hampshire Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees
  • Jerrianne Boggis, executive director at Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire
  • James McKim Jr., chair of the Episcopal Church Executive Council Committee on Anti-Racism & Reconciliation (ECCAR)
  • Asma Elhuni, representing the Vermont Coalition for Ethnic & Social Equity in Schools Coalition
  • Pious Ali, a city council member in Portland, Maine

The moderator will be Samuel James, a Maine-based blues man, storyteller, writer, and anti-racist (and one of the contributors to the BGIM Media website here).

There will also be workshop sessions representing an array of anti-racism topics.

* The $75 fee covers the costs associated with putting on the symposium, including meals, snacks, and a small honorarium to all workshop leaders and panelists. We are also asking those with the means to engage in class solidarity by making an additional donation, above the ticket price to ensure that this symposium is available to all. No one will be turned away due to a lack of funds or be asked to volunteer. Contact Fran Smith at maryfransmith@gmail.com for details on obtaining a comp ticket for the day.

If you cannot join us on September 14 and would like to stay connected to the work of AROS-Northern New England, click here for more details.

You can purchase tickets here. Ticket sales will close September 9 .

I hope that you will consider joining us for what looks to be a lively and informative day. 


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Being made “not to belong”

A couple of years ago, one Saturday night I was called—as I often was—by the security company that monitors my former school. As an administrator, specifically an administrator that lives less than five minutes away, I was the one they called when the alarm went off. It was never anything serious but I responded every time.

  • 6:15 a.m.
  • “Hello sir, we are responding to an alarm and possible intrusion at your school; we have dispatched officers. Can you meet them there?”
  • “Yes, of course.”
  • “O.K., what will you be driving?”
  • “Silver Yaris, ‘08”

I jumped out of bed. I got dressed. I got in the car. I cursed my life. It’s probably one of my teachers, one who has insomnia and often shows up at 4 a.m. to work and forgets to turn off the alarm. Still, I have to take all of these calls serious; it’s part of my job. But I’m pissed.

I get to the school; I see his car. Before I unlock the back door I remind myself this guy is just here working? Why take my anger out on him? I will just remind him again about the alarm. I walk in and greet him; ask him if he’s O.K. I tell him I am going upstairs just to make sure “there really isn’t an intruder.”

The cops are probably upstairs at the front door waiting for me anyway. As I left his workspace and start to head up the stairs I stopped. Dead in my tracks. I looked down at what I was wearing, I reflect on how I look. I get scared. I try to discern—am I worried because I look like shit because I just woke up or because I look (am) black? I mean, its 6:30 in the morning and I jumped out of bed in a flash—my hair is all knotted, my beard is tamped down on one side, I’m pretty sure I still have some dried up drool lingering on the corners of my mouth. I don’t want to walk up the dark stairs into a dark room to meet the police who have no idea what I look like. I decide to turn around go out the back door and get back in my car and wait for the police out front. They know what my car looks like.

I was reminded of this episode as I was recently leaving a late school meeting in a predominantly white school district that I work with. At the end of the meeting it was just me and the superintendent. Everyone else on the floor had gone home. I needed to use the bathroom. I left him in his office, grabbed my bag, and walked across the hall to another office I knew had a bathroom. And then that old memory hit me. I walked downstairs, into my car, and drove to a gas station.

I remembered sitting In my car waiting for the police. I was angry again. But I was also relieved.

The feeling of not being welcomed is a terrible one. The sense that you do not belong is haunting. It sticks with you and you’re reminded of it on a consistent basis. The worst part about it is that most of the time you can little to remedy it—there is little you can say to someone who thinks you do not belong here. Especially not in the heat of the moment.

Make no mistake. The thought that you are where you do not belong is a threat to some.

While I understand that Trump is in fact threatened by the very existence of four women of color (“The Squad”) in what he perceives to be his world, I’m worried about the safety of these four congressional representatives recently attacked by our president—their president. Will they get killed just by showing up to work?

I worry that those who do not see anything wrong with what the president said also see nothing wrong with profiling, with stereotyping, with dehumanizing. But as much as I worry about them, I worry more about the people who are unaware they are being hurtful and violent—the ones who say they are acting out of “pride” and “love” and “safety.” I fear the outcome of weaponizing patriotism.

Ask yourself if you would have, even for one second, wondered about getting killed at your workplace because of how you look. And it’s not just at work that I worry. Being in predominantly white spaces I worry.

I worry when I get stopped by police. I’m one of the “good guys,” I contribute to my community, but does this cop give a shit or even consider those possibilities?

And it’s not just with the police. I worry when I am walking alone in Portland. I am a good husband, I do my best to stay positive, most people know me as a cheerful, shirt-off-my-back type of guy—but does that next white person whom I pass on the empty street give a shit really? I look out of place. I can feel it. I am not paranoid. I can be hurt at any moment because of the way I look. What’s crazy is that I know that in some bizarre twist of irony my presence also hurts those who feel I do not belong.

Telling someone to go back where they came from (whether they come from somewhere else or not) is not about patriotism, and it is not just racist. It’s also violent. It is meant to shock and meant to demean you. It is meant to take from you. Its aim is to amplify that painful sense that you are wrong for just existing. It’s also meant to deter you. It is a reminder that in the mind of those who believe they belong here, they have the right to oppress you.

Let us remember that it is the oppressed who will liberate the not just their fellow oppressed folk but also the oppressors themselves. We must continue to work on educating our communities, our neighbors, and if the chance presents itself even your fellow stranger. We must continue to correct the record and make space for each other. We must strive to create a sense that all who are here belong here. If we do this then we can ensure that our next generation of folks will walk with more confidence and less fear. Perhaps even that they or a generation soon after them will not have to worry when they show up to work. They will feel like they belong, they will contribute, and they will continue to make America free.


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Raising kids of color in very white places

For the last several years of my marriage, while we never doubted  that there was love between us, we were uncomfortably aware that there was something deeply amiss in our relationship. We spent our last few years together doing everything in our power to keep the relationship going until it became painfully obvious that love was not enough and that, on many levels, we were deeply mismatched as a romantic unit. That revelation, while painful, allowed us to end our romantic coupling and transition into our coparenting relationship with little of the anger and animosity that is often present when couples split up. Despite our differences, my former life partner and coparent remains one of my favorite people.

I find myself thinking about the end of that relationship and the clarity and strength it took for us to make that decision as I ponder the realities of raising a Black girl—now 13 years old—in a very white state. I must admit that I am wondering if raising Black children in such spaces is not borderline abusive. Is living in these spaces, even as an adult, a form of self-harm?

By the time I was 13, I had already had Black teachers; it’s almost 40 years later and I still remember my second grade teacher—the first teacher I knew who shared my race. By the time I was 13, several of my best friends were, like me, also Black girls with Southern roots and  working-class backgrounds. While I attended racially integrated schools, our home and family spaces were Black. I never had to struggle to see myself represented in my immediate life.

My weekends were rich experiences that involved shopping, living and loving with people who looked like me. I did not have to explain my family’s ways of being and have my friends inquire about why my parents were so strict.  While I had to code switch, and most certainly had awkward moments especially in my teen years, my existence and reality was so much more than being Black because I did not have to fight to exist. I simply existed.

In my 17 years here in Maine, I have seen Black folks and other people of color come and go. In many cases, the realities of always having to think about race and the energy of living that reality takes its toll.

My daughter will be wrapping up her middle school career in one of Maine’s most diverse schools, never having had Black friends or any non-white teachers. Despite me being her mother and my work around race, her external experiences are shaped by whiteness. We live in a state where our numbers are so few that we are reduced to simply being People of Color. No, we are not just people of color, we are  Black people and specifically, we are the descendants of enslaved Africans.

My Facebook feed is filled with the painful struggles that so many  twenty-something Black Mainers endure in their day-to-day lives, from racial slurs at work to the realities of dating while Black in a white state. I fear that our entire lives in this space are shaped by race.

In a country built on white supremacy, race will always matter but true wellness requires a more expansive view of ourselves beyond our race. Yet if leaving the house becomes an act of war that requires donning our mental shields and armor, what are the long-term implications? It’s not healthy to be in battle mode every time we leave the house and yet it is the reality for many.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of being a keynote panelist at the New England Grassroots Environment Fund Root Skill conference which was held in Brattleboro, Vermont. The panel was racially diverse, so I was not the only non-white panelist. We were asked what we love about our communities—we all shared that we loved the natural beauty of New England and the overall feeling but for the panelists of color, the realities of being non-white  in these white spaces is never far away.

The thing is, after 17 years, I can say that there are some real changes happening. When I started writing about race in 2003 for the now defunct Portland Phoenix, I had to tread lightly and often my pieces were watered down and yet, I still received death threats for daring to name race.

In recent weeks, Maine has done away with Columbus Day and become one of fewer than 10 states in the nation to do so and replace it with Indigenous People Day. Maine’s governor just signed a bill banning Indigenous mascots within public schools. Conversations on diversity, equity and inclusion are becoming more commonplace across sectors and with individuals. And yet the day-to-day realities of living here as a non-white person, for all the progress, remains fraught, tense and downright uncomfortable at times.

It’s a place where microaggressions are as common as the morning coffee even with allies, and where I fear that for too many allies, anti-racism work is an academic activity that resides in the head and not the heart. A place where few white people are interested in giving up any privilege but are happy to show up at the rally and be a fierce online advocate. But in real life? Disrupt the status quo? Less so.

So for each step forward, it is still a half step back, meaning that the process of change will take a very long time. In the meantime, what becomes of the Black people and other people of color living here? Do we pack up and leave because it’s too much or do we stay? Do we raise our children here or do we take them away from the beauty of the state and all the joys of Maine because whiteness is toxic and—while we can never escape the toxicity of whiteness in this culture—at least being in spaces where we exist in greater numbers can provide some protection from the more virulent forms of white toxicity?

If only I had the answer…


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

Photo by Meghan Schiereck from Unsplash