Changing Maine and the necessity of PoC spaces

To be a person of color in Maine is to eat sleep and breathe Whiteness. Despite the melanin of our skin, we still live, move, and operate within a reality which centers Whiteness above all things.

Because PoC Mainers operate within the long-endured rule of Whiteness, we have little to no opportunities to gather together outside of Whiteness, to address things which are also very much part of our reality. Issues which are so complex, deep, and intergenerational, while simultaneously heartbreakingly basic. Love of ourselves, for example. Love of our people. A deep understanding of our history and our worth. Learning to dream, to achieve, to accomplish in a space which does not reflect nor value us.

Unresolved we push these issues to the core of our being, allowing them to fester and run, infecting, sickening and killing us.

The good news is, self-love is on the rise. PoC in Portland and around the state are coming together to create and demand spaces which can be claimed for our own. We are beginning to foster an environment where spaces for us are not only expected, but encouraged.

Portland’s Q/PoC creatives and organizers are carving out spaces and events dedicated to, made for and in support of PoC.  Theater Ensemble of Color, which uses performance, art, community inclusion and social activism to explore and celebrate diversity; Kesho Wazo, a youth-led organization dedicated to impacting youth and expanding their minds; Black Artists Forum, which has recently found new life and is committed to sustaining the growth of Black creatives in Portland; and my baby, Bloodletting, a recurring poetry night committed to lifting up and empowering the voices of queer and femme PoC, to name a few.

When PoC come together, healing happens. This is a truth which for me can be traced most palpably to “A Distant Holla,” a month-long celebration which was held in May at the Abyssinian Meeting House (the third oldest African American meeting house in the country) and helmed by Daniel Minter, a celebrated local artist.

Only one word can describe what happened at the Abyssinian: Magic. The Meeting House swelled happily with Black and brown people from Portland and Southern Maine. There was art, music, food, wine, and people. Youth, elders, and everyone in between came together to be in community with one another. “A Distant Holla” was a necessary reminder of our power and our ability.

For too long, PoC in Maine have been pressed into misshapen versions of ourselves, attempting to contort our bodies and spirits into a version which is easily digestible to white people. Afraid to take up space, believing the lie that we are not owed any. More and more we are refusing to be reduced to stereotypes, reactions and tragedies.

To sustain our efforts, we must heal. We must have space free from the harm that Whiteness brings. I believe this is what led Samaa Abdurraqib, co-founder of For Us By Us (FUBU), to reach out to Resources for Organizing Social Change, and organize this year’s Changing Maine.

On Saturday Sept. 9,Changing Maine for Racial Justice: Centering Anti-Racism in our Movements” was held at the Lewiston YWCA. The all-day conference came just as advertised. With two blocks of workshops, each featuring a session for Black/PoC, Native American/indigenous, and white attendees (with the exception of the afternoon session, where Native/indigenous attendees merged with the Black/PoC group, due to lack of a facilitator).

Changing Maine this year embraced the power that PoC spaces hold, and in doing so, created an experience which left many people changed. Changing Maine moved me. I felt nourished, fulfilled, and achy with new thought patterns and possibilities for healing. How did such a powerful experience find its way to white-occupied, previously white-organized, Changing Maine?  I reached out to Samaa Abdurraqib to ask:

LD: I understand that you attended Changing Maine in 2016; what was it about that experience which led you and For Us By Us to partner with CM this year?

SA: It actually wasn’t the previous experience I had at CM that led me to partner with ROSC. I’d heard that ROSC wanted to focus this year’s summit on racial justice, and I was concerned that ROSC–a white-led, white-staffed organization with limited resources–wouldn’t be able to create an event that felt like it was addressing racial justice in a way that would help White organizers and organizations make the shifts necessary to introduce more racial equity into their work. I was also concerned that the summit wouldn’t address the needs of Black, brown, and indigenous people in Maine.

LD: Maine is a predominately white state, and by extension, most of its organizers are white as well. You were the driving force in bringing PoC/Native-only spaces to the conference. How did you approach bringing those spaces to CM?

SA: Well…I just asked. I stressed the importance of having a separate space because of a couple of different reasons. 1) The work Black/brown/indigenous people need to do when it comes to racial justice is different from the work that white people need to do. 2) When Black and brown people are in majority white spaces talking about racial justice, they’re inevitably looked to (by white people) to help lead them through their own processes of navigating and negotiating white privilege and white supremacy. Sometimes that means that Black/brown/indigenous folks are asked to speak for “their people.” Sometimes that means that PoCs/indigenous people are asked to manage white people’s emotions as they process the guilt, anger, fear of recognizing how they might be implicated in furthering white supremacy.

LD: This year, Changing Maine had two workshop sessions. The morning session (for PoC) was Love and Dismantling Internalized Oppression, facilitated by Durryle Brooks, and the afternoon session (for PoC/Native) was Oppression & Privilege in Multi-Racial Movements, facilitated by Yamila Hussein. 

Explain briefly why these two workshops are important to the overarching theme of centering anti-racism in our movements.

SA: Durryle’s session on love was HUGELY important to the anti-racist work Black and brown people need. Being immersed in the Whiteness of Maine can make self-love difficult. Being immersed in Whiteness also makes it difficult for us to articulate our love for each other. Durryle’s session was important grounding work. We told stories to each other about how we define love and where those definitions come from (family, society, culture). We talked about what love for ourselves (as Black/brown people) and each other (as Black/brown people) actually looks like. We talked about how we can put love into action in our social justice work. Durryle gave us much needed space to talk and dream about what we needed for ourselves and each other. It was beautiful.

Yamila talked with us about how PoC work with each other when white people are not in the room. She began with the premise that, even when white people aren’t in the room, Whiteness remains in the room. She’s totally right. This session was important because it gave us an opportunity to speak frankly about how Whiteness and proximity to Whiteness continues to divide us when we try to work together across ethnic and racial differences. Her session also allowed us to speak frankly with each other about the divides that occur that aren’t connected to Whiteness (ageism, for example).

LD: With these themes in mind, how do you feel [attendees] benefitted from experiencing PoC/Native only spaces?

SA: I think attendees felt heard, held, and supported in these spaces. I purposefully asked the facilitators to keep their agendas loose; I wanted us to have space and time to be together without spending all of the time thinking about the to-do list that we might generate. One of the attendees  (a HIGHLY experienced organizer who’s lived in Maine ALL of her life) said that she’d never been in a PoC-only space before. She said that she felt nourished and supported. Hearing her say this helped me feel like I met one of my goals.

LD: After attending CM last year, and again this year, how did your experiences differ?

SA: Well…this year felt good. It felt nourishing. It felt enabling and empowering. Last year felt perfunctory. Last year, I attended CM because I thought I might learn something that would enhance my work as an organizer. This year, I was given tools to help me internally. I was given tools to help me make stronger connections with other Black and brown people. A little over a year ago, I’d made the decision that I was going to (as best I could) shift my priorities so that I gave more of my energy to supporting, loving, and prioritizing Black and brown people in Maine. This year’s CM is a step in that process.

LD: Do you have anything else that you would like to add?

SA: I am filled with gratitude for all of the Black and brown people who showed up, despite the fact that CM (and events like CM) traditionally feel marginalizing and othering. I am grateful that Black, brown, and indigenous people trusted what I and the other organizers envisioned, took a chance, and showed up. I was moved by what happened in that PoC/indigenous space, and I’m excited to see Black and brown people continue to grow, building on all of the work, knowledge, and love that has come before us and laid foundations for us to be beautiful and dope.

Bottom line: When PoC come together, healing happens. When we stretch that power into white spaces? Well, to quote Tracy Chapman, we’re “talkin’ ‘bout a revolution.”


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