Wessler, founder of Portland's Center for Preventing Hate, turns the page in civil rights fight

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PORTLAND — Stephen Wessler remembers sitting in the living room of his parent’s Cambridge, Mass., home as a young boy watching Walter Cronkite report on the civil rights movement.

Later, in 1968, Wessler recalled Cronkite reporting on the assassination of civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

They were events that put Wessler on a path to becoming a leading voice against discrimination, harassment and hate.

“Those are among the most indelible memories as a kid,” Wessler said. “It just struck me as such an injustice. It stayed with me.”

Wessler in 1999 established the Portland-based nonprofit Center for Preventing Hate, which over the last 12 years has been a public voice against hate crimes and a proactive voice against discrimination in schools.

But the Forest Avenue center is gradually winding down its operations, now that Wessler has decided to step down as executive director to tackle other pursuits.

Wessler has been the center’s dominant voice and fundraiser, and its trustees decided last month that it would be too difficult to replace him.

Wessler, a Harvard College and Boston University School of Law graduate, came to Maine about 20 years ago and worked in the state attorney general’s office from 1992 to 1999.

He established a civil rights unit in the AG’s office, designed to enforce the Maine Civil Rights Act of 1989, which allows state prosecutors to seek restraining orders against people who threaten or commit violence out of bias.

But before even starting his state job, hate landed at his front door. He said someone painted “F— you, Jews” on the white picket fence surrounding his Litchfield home.

“My oldest son came in looking kind of pale,” he said. “The impact of hate crimes is extraordinarily strong and leads to a real deep-seeded fear. … Behind the message is a treat of violence.”

But rather than cower and hope it was an isolated incident, Wessler called local news outlets, because he felt the “shame factor” from a public response and repudiation of the hate crime would be the best deterrent against future acts.

It’s that organized community response to hate speech that has been the center’s hallmark. The group often organizes demonstrations and candlelight vigils to show support for hate crime victims and denounce perpetrators.

During his work in the AG’s office, Wessler discovered that hate-based violence was the result of an escalation of hate speech.

“It starts with the routine use of degrading language that goes interrupted,” he said. “What they’re getting from the silence is that everyone thinks it’s OK.”

As an attorney, Wessler was frustrated with dealing with the aftermath of hate crimes, whether it was a cross-burning in Hallowell, an ex-boyfriend shooting into a second-floor apartment window in Brunswick where he thought his ex and a black boyfriend were staying, or a biracial woman getting a brick thrown at her in Portland. 

“Prosecution is at the wrong end of the spectrum,” he said.

Wessler said he started the center to take a more proactive stand against discrimination and harassment, trying to nip hate speech in the bud before it flowers into violence.

And Wessler said he has noticed a shift in the state’s culture since the center, which once employed 13 people, began its work.

“The great thing about Maine is that when there is a hate crime, people expect something to happen,” he said.

Wessler said he expects the center will be shuttered this fall. But he is confident that two of the center’s signature programs will continue: The Unity Project, which works to discourage bullying in schools, and the New Migration Project, which fights bias and discrimination against immigrants.

Those programs, especially the Unity Project, have not only been successful in Maine, but in 26 other states and eastern Europe. Wessler said the Unity Project has at one time  or another been implemented in 80 to 90 schools, including 12 schools in Northern Ireland.

Although he is stepping down from the center, Wessler, who will turn 60, this summer, said he does not pine for a tranquil retirement.

He plans to write at least one more book (Wessler previously authored “The Respectful School: How Educators and Students Can Conquer Hate and Harassment”) and continue teaching courses at the University of Southern Maine and Bates College.

He also plans to continue lecturing at conferences and training human rights workers, which has taken him to Israel, Palestine, Cairo, Jordan, and Morocco, among other places.

Wessler said he is disappointed the center will close and a group of hardworking people will lose their jobs.

“That’s been among the hardest part,” he said. “My overwhelming emotion is feeling sad – for the employees and for the loss  of the work.”

But he takes pride in knowing that the aim of the center’s work will continue in one form or another, whether by other nonprofit groups or through his writing and speaking events.

“It’s really gratifying,” he said. “We have a model we know can travel.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.

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Stephen Wessler, the founder and executive director of the Center for Preventing Hate, is stepping down to devote more time to writing books, teaching and leading seminars.