Inclusion confusion: Is South Portland serious about diversity, or just paying lip-service?

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SOUTH PORTLAND — When Deqa Dhalac moved to South Portland eight years ago, she wanted to be involved in her community, including city government.

That changed earlier this spring, after Dhalac was recommended by Councilor Brad Fox – who had been trying to recruit her for a city board for several years – to serve on the Civil Service Commission, and Dhalac’s nomination was rejected by the council.

Instead, councilors reappointed Phil LaRou. Most councilors said LaRou, who is white, was more qualified. Dhalac – a social worker and member of the Avesta Housing board in Portland, who holds a master’s degree in development policy from the University of New Hampshire – was offered a seat on the Library Advisory Committee or the Community Development Block Grant Committee.

She declined both appointments.

Now, six months later, with two diversity training sessions under the City Council’s belt, Dhalac’s story illustrates a larger divide in the city, one that some believe can only be solved by a deliberate effort to diversify.

The council’s decision not to appoint Dhalac was not made to prevent the diversification of city boards and committees, Councilor Claude Morgan said at a March 7 meeting, but “there are options other than yanking someone off a board just for the sake of creating diversity.”

In general, when filling vacant seats, Mayor Tom Blake said, the council should seek out the most qualified person, regardless of the color of their skin. Blake called the decision to value race over qualifications “reverse racism” – to “tweak that process in an effort to enhance minorities, I’m not sure we need to do that,” he said.

The humiliation Dhalac said she felt – along with the fact that LaRou is a white man and Dhalac is a Muslim Somali woman – stung an already irritated wound that some say South Portland ignores.

Dhalac eventually filed a discrimination complaint against the council with the Maine Human Rights Commission, which is investigating her claim.

She said she still feels disenfranchised, not just because of the public display of humiliation, but because the city, in general, must make a more concerted effort to include the opinions and involvement of minorities.

Dhalac’s experience has brought attention to just how white-washed South Portland’s municipal government is, and begs the question: how does a municipality become more culturally diverse?

Building trust

According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2010, nearly 10 percent of South Portland’s approximately 25,000 residents are non-white.

But of the city’s nearly 300 paid, full-time employees, all but four – or about 99 percent – are white, according to figures compiled in the spring by Human Resources Director Don Brewer.

And the city’s three most influential volunteer and elected boards are 100 percent white: four white men and three white women on the City Council, three white women and four white men on the Planning Board, and, before Tappan Fitzgerald resigned Sept. 12, three white men and four white women on the Board of Education.

One of the council’s stated goals for 2015 was to diversify representation on boards and committees. But no formal steps have been taken.

This summer, at Fox’s request, the city hired Maine Intercultural Communication Consultants for $1,300 to lead a two-part diversity training for councilors and department heads.

Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said he felt the city needs “less to learn how better to interact with or manage people from outside our culture, and more about how to enable such people to be more engaged in the life of the community.”

Assistant City Manager Josh Reny said he doesn’t perceive any bias in the city. “As a matter of practice,” he said, “the city welcomes diversity.”

Reny said he hopes the conversation can shift away from a negative to a positive approach, and focus on how to engage and build relationships with minority groups.

But engaging with and seeking input from more of the city’s minority population, without a formal or guided plan, can look different to different people.

School Board Chairman Dick Matthews said in August, for example, that he doesn’t think the School Department or the city need to tailor their appointment process for the sake of including minorities.

When Matthews was elected to the School Board nearly 10 years ago, it was because he inquired and asked questions, he said.

“It’s not our job to make sure there’s a minority (group member)” on every board or committee, he said. “It’s your responsibility, as a citizen of South Portland, to step up and do what you think is best for the community.”

“Just because one time a minority stepped up and didn’t get the position, all the sudden we’re not being fair,” he continued. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”

But many in the immigrant community don’t feel like their status as city residents means the same thing to native or long-time Mainers or South Portlanders, Dhalac said.

No one’s asking to be tailored to, she said, but it takes more than simply proclaiming one is open to diversity.

“Show me that you’re reaching out,” she said.

‘Cultural competency’

Reza Jalali, coordinator of multicultural student affairs at the University of Southern Maine and one of the facilitators at the city’s second round of diversity training Sept. 12, said in his experience, if a municipality is serious about diversifying, adopting a formal plan or hiring a liaison are the only things that really make it happen.

For the sake of avoiding tokenism, he said – hiring someone of color just because their skin isn’t white – formal outreach steps are sometimes necessary.

“Cultural competency is really the first important step” toward inclusion, Jalali, an Iranian immigrant, said Tuesday.

To become more culturally competent, Jalali recommended that the City Council and staff take an inventory of who actually lives in the city and who owns businesses.

Of the 1.3 million residents in Maine, approximately 50,000 are foreign-born, and about half of those not born in Maine live in or within 40 miles of South Portland, Jalali told councilors and department heads Monday night.

If the goal is inclusion, and this constituency is “not represented at the table, then there’s something wrong with that picture, (and) you’re not being responsive to the needs of your community,” Jalali said Wednesday.

“No one’s asking us to give up our ‘Mainer-ness,'” Liz Greason, of Maine Intercultural Communication Consultants, told councilors and department heads during Monday night’s diversity training.

Jalali and Greason urged councilors and department heads that if there’s an opening on a board or committee, “go to the people you hope to engage.”

Don’t presume that just because an application process is open to the general public, it means a non-white or non-native resident will feel comfortable applying, Greason said.

“Ask, instead, why are they not here? Go to them and ask them,” she said.

Changing the structure

Right now, Dhalac said, “the trust is not there,” for either her or her community.

But her hope, she said, is for “the city to change and open its arms to other people.”

“Show me that you’re reaching out, that you’re doing your part,” Dhalac said. “All we’re asking is to include us, talk to us, hear what we think.”

Councilor Eben Rose agreed.

Equal representation needs to be more than just claiming it’s a fair game because the city isn’t denying anyone’s application, he said Wednesday.

Chiding the claim that reaching out to minorities to foment their involvement is somehow giving them an advantage is also inaccurate, he said.

Much of what the council does tends to focus on residents of Knightville, Meetinghouse Hill, Ferry Village and Willard Beach, “sometimes to the exclusion of everyone else,” Rose said.

Because local government is “here for all the inhabitants,” if some groups aren’t being represented or don’t feel welcome, that falls on the local government to remediate, Rose said.

“If they’re not represented in city government, we’re not doing a very good job,” he said. “We need to change the structure, somehow.”

Dhalac, who is in her last year at the University of New England Master of Social Work program, still hopes to be involved in city government someday, but that likely won’t happen until the city refines its approach.

She wants to give back to her community and contribute at the municipal level, but, Dhalac said, “I have to see that inclusion first.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

Deqa Dhalac, who unsuccessfully sought appointment to the South Portland Civil Service Commission this year, wants the city to improve its outreach to minorities.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.