May 7, 2019

Action Letters, Community

031 Lewiston

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Zilia Sánchez, Soy Isla Show, Phillips Museum
Zilia Sánchez, Soy Isla Show, Phillips Museum

“Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough. Not only have I found that when I talk to the little flower or the little peanut they will give up their secrets, but I have found when I silently commune with people they give up their secrets also – if you love them enough.”

– George Washington Carver

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about neighbors lately.

No, not my literal neighbors, although I am quite blessed with some great ones. I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a neighbor in the greater Lewiston/Auburn area of Maine, my heart’s home.

As many of you know, my husband Ben ran for Mayor in 2015 and 2017, while I was pregnant with both of our kids. Though close, he did not become mayor. In March, racist and sexist actions of our current Mayor, Shane Bouchard, came to light, resulting in an investigation by our state’s AG, his resignation, and a statement on behalf of a majority of the City Council. Since then, I’ve been puzzling over what it means to be a good neighbor in the context of our work for social justice. I realized I often don’t talk about this part of my life in my work – and there isn’t really a place for this type of reflection to live in my resume or bio. So, I thought I’d bring it to you, here.

My chat with Devon Hall Executive Director of Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help this month put this topic into stark relief for me. Devon is living on the frontlines of a battle with Corporate Agriculture that is the leading edge of our climate fights. He is putting his life on the line to fight for his community, and ultimately for mine. He can’t leave the fight or go home – the fight is his home. Though Devon and I are quite different, we share a struggle at the crossroads of racial justice and community building. Both of us wrestle with the silos we put between “work” and “community” that maintain the injustices that harm us. So I want to try out busting my own silo today.

We must consistently ask ourselves: “What kind of neighbor do I want to be?”

I am starting to think I want to be the kind of neighbor that says and does the hard thing, for the good of community and our deeper social justice goals. The kind of neighbor who sees all of the parts of my community and loves them all – the light and the dark. And can use that love to work for justice. This is a tall order for someone who has spent many years seeking the approval of others. People pleasing. I am not always proud of the neighbor those motivations have led me to be.

Now is a time to say a hard thing. Heather Berube, the campaign volunteer with Ben’s 2017 campaign who leaked documents to his opponent Shane, which Shane’s team then used to smear Ben publicly before the election, did a hard thing when she told the truth about former Mayor Shane at the City Council meeting about a month ago. To own her actions in 2017, share his racist and sexist text messages with our community, and to take the criticism and blame that might come from bringing this to the public could not have been easy. Since the Mayor’s resignation, I’ve had well-intentioned folks coming up to me saying “Oh, it’s Heather’s fault Ben lost”. “If it weren’t for Heather, Ben would be mayor”. Each time I was speechless. How could I possibly unpack why that’s not the full story in a brief chat? Heather’s actions played their part, but really when we talk about this story, we are talking about systemic racism.

And, blaming Heather alone is just another pathway of systemic sexism, intentional or not. Systemic sexism often has us find the woman, and her poor character, at fault. Systemic sexism has us look at issues of gender while obfuscating the deep racial issues at play. Systemic racism and systemic sexism function in a way that builds the power of the other.

When we look at systemic racism, we look at the policies and institutions that maintain it and the leaders who have a stake in nurturing it, or avoiding dismantling it.  We can’t simply look at the actions of one person. Rather, we must look at the systems that give those actions power and influence. And we must look at the people who are invested in making those systems run.

If that mayor’s resignation feels like it “fixes the problem”, then my community has already lost because we haven’t actually addressed any of our systemic issues.

Many people who consider themselves community leaders in Lewiston knew exactly how racist and sexist our former Mayor Shane was – it was no secret. Many, not all, chose to opt-out, stay quiet, and stand by during the run-off between Shane and Ben. Opening the door for Shane through their inaction. These are the same leaders who say they are fighting for “downtown revitalization” and espouse “progressive values” seemingly contrary to former Mayor Shane. What these folks won’t acknowledge is the inherent vitality and power of Lewiston that is being undermined and oppressed, on a daily basis, through the systemic racism that impacts every single person in our community. But that’s not a story our local paper, the Sun Journal, would write. If we don’t have people helping make sense of the stories of our community, we don’t actually know what is happening. We don’t understand ourselves and we can’t move forward to change.

Back in 2015 when the public and direct attacks first started, Ben said something that has always stuck with me. I can’t remember what he actually said, but the way my spirit remembers it is something like: The impacts of racism on us (Ben and I) through signs, or emails or some social media posts is literally nothing in comparison to what people of color and poor folks in our community are living every day. The point is that these attacks, and the silence/broader inaction surrounding them, maintain systemic racism – a racist set of institutions and policies that are literally hurting our neighbors and our community’s children in real physical ways every day.

And naming this is what I think it means to be a good neighbor.

I’ve spent the last 18 months working up the courage to talk about this, and address the ways I’ve held back. At first the confusing hormones of pregnancy made it hard to make sense of everything. Then my fear of blowback, and loss of relationship with certain leaders had me withhold my anger and my words. There were many times I used a leadership strategy that was not based in an analysis of systemic racism. I can say it isn’t safe for a woman of color to express that anger in Maine, that is true. And I have the wherewithal to withstand what they can and already have thrown at me. I want to choose love as courage and kindness, not love as being nice and agreeable.

So, I must now do the hard liberation work of reassessing my part in our path to freedom. The equations I used didn’t yield the results I expected, and now it’s time for some new math. Folks often say to me, “Nicola, I agree that what you are talking about is systemic racism and that is just TOO OVERWHELMING – I don’t know where to start.” I think that’s true if we assume that calling something systemic racism then means it’s our responsibility to solve the whole thing on our own and we should already know how to do so. But, that’s not what being a good neighbor means.

Understanding systemic racism and being a good neighbor means starting from the place of seeking more understanding. Asking questions, and having the courage to look the answers in the eye. Moving towards new and radically different relationship with our neighbors to collectively learn new tools and strategies of change. Understanding our piece, our gift to the larger overall struggle.

Have your own equations to share? Send them my way. Stories of what it means for you to be a good neighbor? I’d love to hear them!

Thanks to Robert Gass for the George Washington Carver quote, and teaching me to commune.

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