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.

  • beachmom H

    This is ridiculous! The Civil Service Commission approved the person with ACTUAL experience in what the Civil Service Commission deals with.
    That was what they judged on.

    It is absolutely wrong to appoint or give positions or jobs based on diversity or color or ethnicity. Experience. Job performance. Etc.

    This woman was offered positions on other boards and declined in favor of bringing a law suit and trying to cause trouble and trying to force this politically correct, damaging agenda down the throats of all of us.

    • truther

      I have to agree. The article never explains why this event was “humiliating,” or why Ms. Dhalac rightfully believes she was treated unfairly. As I read it, she didn’t get the position she evidently believed she was entitled to, but was offered her choice of two others instead. She refused them on the apparent belief they were somehow beneath her. Were white candidates then asked to fill those vacant spots that Ms. Dhalac turned down? Should those people feel humiliated at being the runners-up?

      Sometimes we don’t get what we want.

      • McKinleyME

        “She refused them on the belief they were beneath her” is an assumption on your part and there is no evidence that she ever said that or felt that way. If you wanted to be on the Harbor Commission and they told you no and said you could apply for the Youth Involvement Committee instead, would that be OK with you?

        • truther

          Except I wrote “on the apparent belief they were somehow beneath her,” which is not the quote you attribute to me and doesn’t mean the same thing. Now why did you misquote me like that?

          Plus ordinary reading comprehension would suggest I’m right unless there’s something left out of this story. She sought one position but was offered a seat on her choice of two others instead. That’s not humiliating, and certainly doesn’t justify filing a formal discrimination complaint, unless she thinks what they offered her was somehow insulting or otherwise inappropriate.

          • McKinleyME

            As I wrote in a previous comment, she was not offered a seat, she was told she could apply for them. And you’re right, there’s a lot missing from this article.

          • MobileMarine

            Having read the article several times I do not see where she was not offered a seat of her choice of two others. Maybe you have a reading comprehension problem. If she is really sincere about wanting to “She wants to give back to her community and contribute at the municipal
            level” she should have accepted one of the offered appointments and go from there.

          • McKinleyME

            There is more to this situation than what is written in this short article. Go online and watch the video of the meeting if you want to know what actually happened.

    • McKinleyME

      I find it hard to fault her for declining the other positions (and she wasn’t offered them; she was told she could apply for them, which is stating the obvious because any resident can apply for any committee). If you wanted to be on the Energy & Recycling Committee because it’s something you care about and you feel like you have something valuable to bring to the table, and they tell you no and that you should apply for Library Advisory Board instead and you have no interest in being on that board, should people fault you for saying “Thanks but I’m not going to apply for that one”?

      • beachmom H

        Applying is many times as simple as telling your council rep that you will take the position.
        Her lawsuit is frivolous and is only meant to push political correctness and to force positions to be filled according to race and gender.
        Political correctness is not a good thing.

  • Mike Kennedy

    Why didn’t you list the white man’s qualification? It seem you built up the non white person’s qualification. Maybe he was more qualified–how long has he been in office? I don’t think being a minority should guarantee you a position. Why didn’t she take one of the other positions offered? If she has been here only eight years I would think she would consider it a privilege to serve in one of the two other jobs offered.

    • beachmom2

      LaRou is a fireman, which is one of the CSC areas of responsibility.

  • Catherine S

    What a brave woman and a model citizen!
    Hoping we can move away from the word minority. It might be accurate in literal terms, but has a negative feel to it. People of Color is more inclusive and descriptive.

    • beachmom2

      What is so brave about throwing a hissy fit over someone with experience in the area the Commission deals with being chosen instead of the person with no experience? She was offered positions on two other committees and turned them down.
      The candidate who was chosen was not chosen because of color or gender.

      • McKinleyME

        I don’t have a dog in this fight but if LaRou should have been chosen over Dhalac because he’s a firefighter, why was it OK for several other people who are not firefighters or police officers to be appointed to the committee?

        There’s nothing in the charter or the ordinance that requires civil service commissioners to be active or retired firefighters or police officers. The only requirements are as follows:

        * Must be a resident of South Portland

        That’s it. That’s the one and only requirement. It doesn’t say anything about work experience or education or areas of knowledge. Maybe those things should be added as requirements if that’s what the citizens want but you can’t just make up the rules in the middle of the game.

        • beachmom H

          No. But it is helpful to have someone who is experienced and has been already serving on the Committee to not be replaced.

        • Chew H Bird

          Seems to me, regardless of the entry level qualification of being a resident, the Councilors have an obligation to the taxpayers to select the most qualified person for the job above and beyond the requirement of being a resident. In my opinion there should be no preference based on personal traits. Being appointed or selected for a position should be based upon a common sense matrix of experience, credentials, and skills. Whether a person is “from away” or not, is a person of color or not, should have absolutely nothing to do with any part of this process. All residents should be equally welcome to apply.

          • Katherine Collins

            I agree that there should be more to considering who is appointed to a committee than whether or not someone is a resident, though obviously that’s necessary to consider.

            In considering who is “best for the job” I think it’s also important to consider how the entire community can be represented. As far as job requirements go, I think it is helpful to consider “what exactly are we looking for” and then if there are multiple individuals who meet those qualifications equally well, and then additionally have diverse “experiences” on top of those necessary qualifications, then there is an opportunity to consider whether or not particular perspectives and voices can be better represented for the community as a whole.

            In this instance, it seems as though both LaRue and Dhalac are well qualified for the position. And they both have experiences which could be beneficial to the committee. It seems however that LaRue’s experience is more customarily recognized as valuable. It is of course valuable that he has served as a firefighter: an important and incredibly respectable role in the community. But, aside from her additional qualifications, Dhalac also as experiences that are valuable which are not as commonly recognized, namely her experience as a woman, immigrant and person of color, which are undeniably underrepresented perspectives.

            I feel as though it can be helpful to consider an appointment of a person of color or woman or immigrant, etc. not as “reverse racism” or “hiring someone just because they are a minority” but thinking about the value of the experience of being a person of color in a largely white community or a woman on a largely male-dominated committee. The experience of being male or female are both valuable since they both represent members of the community, and so looking at the committee, who’s voice is being well represented and where is there room to improve the equality of opportunity for everyone’s voice to be heard?

          • Chew H Bird

            Seems to me the most valuable skill for this particular commission would be familiarity with HR and employer-employee legalities based on the description on the website… 4 of the current 7 members are women. People who immigrate come with a diversity of skills, different life experiences, and different physical appearances and cultural backgrounds. While I applaud diversity and think experience and familiarity with different ways of life might open the eyes of some of out more local folks (myself included). I’m not certain those attributes provide (or not) the critical thinking skills necessary to streamline this particular committee.

          • McKinleyME

            “familiarity with HR and employer-employee legalities” — it turns out that Mrs. Dhalac has experience in those areas. It’s too bad the article doesn’t mention that. I was curious about this whole thing so I went on the city web site and watched the video of the council meeting and there was a lot of information that came out, and the way the whole thing went down just stinks.

  • Deepcove

    Brad Fox, Community Agitator.

    • MobileMarine

      That is apparently a correct assessment.