Maine students have returned to school this fall and while classes range from virtual, to in-person, to some combination of the two, it’s clear that there’s no magic solution to the challenges that COVID-19 presents. Existing inequities within the education system will be exacerbated without the support that community-based organizations provide to ensure that students’ race, class, ability, primary language, or gender identity do not interfere with their ability to learn and feel safe in the face of this pandemic.
Education Programs Support Equity for Maine’s Youth
Indigo Arts Alliance
Indigo Arts Alliance, in partnership with I’m Your Neighbor Books and Diverse Book Finder, hosted their inaugural Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival throughout the summer! The festival was named in honor of Ashley Bryan, a Black Maine author and illustrator who wrote the book Beautiful Blackbird. Bryan’s inspiring work has been explicit in its efforts to fill the void of Black representation in children’s literature by creating books about African and African American experiences.
While the festival was originally designed as a block party on Cove Street in Portland, they were able to quickly pivot to offer a summer-long calendar of virtual and socially distanced events for children and families to enjoy fantastic books featuring Black characters and stories by Black creators. Indigo Arts Alliance celebrated the festival’s success and shared on their Facebook page, “We are so thrilled that we were able to give away 1,800 books and fun activities directly to children and their families across Portland and Lewiston and Auburn.”
PHOTO: Ashley Bryan reading his book “Beautiful Blackbird”
Photo credit: Indigo Arts Alliance
This summer, Portland Empowered teamed up with the Young People’s Caucus (both of which are initiatives of The Culter Institutes’ Youth and Community Engagement Team at USM) to create “ReImagine Education.” Pious Ali, Portland Empowered’s Youth and Community Engagement Specialist and Portland City Councillor, shares: “ReImagine Education engaged over 20 youth and 15 adults who worked collaboratively to reimagine school with an anti-racism lens. Building on the energy of Black Lives Matter, this group crafted anti-racist recommendations for schools addressing issues from discipline to daily interactions between students and teachers. The wisdom, expertise, and commitment to the collaboration of both the youth and adults was invaluable. This work is just at the beginning but is a lesson of inspiration for how we can begin the school year despite the challenges COVID and racism present.”
Mano en Mano
Every August, Mano en Mano runs the “Blueberry Harvest School” (BHS) for children of migrant workers to provide them with the opportunity to attend school while they are in Maine. Since they may be missing school days and credits in their home communities, the goal of BHS is to “respond to the unique needs of each student through culturally responsive, project-based learning while preventing summer learning loss and compensating for school disruptions among students.”
PHOTO: Children at Blueberry Harvest School
Photo credit: Mano en Mano
Operation Breaking Stereotypes
Operation Breaking Stereotypes has also had to adapt their programming, as they primarily work with schools in Maine, Boston, and New York City to facilitate exchanges among diverse groups of students. While their work typically relies on face-to-face interactions among students to foster new perspectives and celebrate new friendships, they’ve still been able to move forward with their programming despite having to shift their timing and method of delivery.
Founder and Director Connie Carter shared some updates with us about what students have been up to the past 6 months: “OBS students spent the spring exploring identity and the impact it has on how we are able to interact with the world. Students from Orono Middle School, Leonard Middle School (Old Town), and Indian Island School created a message of hope to help sustain us in this hard and long-overdue work. They believe that we need to see our common humanity, but we also need to stop, listen, and be aware of who each person really is – not the labels and expectations the world puts on us, but the raw, open, beautiful qualities each of us carries close to our hearts. This fall, although our work will be remote, cohorts of students from schools within Maine and New York City will focus on understanding the systems that foster racial inequity and what they can do to promote change.”
Tree Street Youth
Tree Street Youth has worked hard to be able to safely offer their programs for youth in Lewiston throughout the summer and into the fall. Throughout these last few challenging and uncertain months, they’ve shared a weekly video from their “Samara Stories.” This warm and inspiring series features individuals from their community telling “tales of resilience, leadership, unity, and growth.” They do this series because “Tree Street believes we are at our best in the world when everyone’s unique wisdom and stories are honored and shared because no one ever knows the impact their story might have on others!” They’ve also launched their annual fund, Seeing 20/20, in order to continue to support the youth of Lewiston-Auburn, through academics, the arts, and athletics.
Cutting Ties with School Resource Officers
At the beginning of the summer, BLM Portland was strongly advocating for the removal of all police from Portland Public Schools. After listening to testimonies from community members overwhelmingly in support of removing police from schools, the Portland Public School Board of Education voted to terminate relationships with School Resource Officers (SROs). While these organizing and advocacy efforts were led by and supported by various community groups, BLM Portland was specifically noted for their work as their name and demands were cited and quoted in the resolution to end the SRO program. To mark this victory they shared on social media, “Now, Portland schools will be safe for Black and Brown students, trans students, queer students, students with disabilities, and noncitizen youth. These are the groups of people that research tells us school police endanger. That ended in Portland.”
Photo credit: BLM Portland
Maine Youth Justice
After playing an active organizing role around the removal of police from the Portland Public Schools, Maine Youth Justice shifted their focus to similar efforts in Lewiston. While not as successful as the Portland campaign, in late August the Lewiston School Board did vote to remove one of four School Resource Officers and to fill this newly open position with a restorative justice coordinator. MYJ’s community organizing in Lewiston around the issue of SROs has led to the formation of a strong coalition of parents, students, educators, and other community youth who are engaging in a community-led assessment of what the wellness and of students and educators looks like at Lewiston High School.