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This week’s edition!

Only Steps Forward Meaningful discussions about diversity needed in Auburn

By Jonathan P. LaBonté

Mayor of Auburn

Twenty-five years ago as a young New Auburn
kid, I can remember walking around the local mall
with Moses, our family’s Fresh Air Fund visitor most summers when I was growing up. I remember being in a store with him and being followed by a store clerk.

We were just two young kids checking out sneakers and ball caps. And it wasn’t until years later that it became clear to me why that happened and how I was naïve to it before. In a predominantly white community, I was with someone who was most likely the only African-American kid in the mall.

So why am I recalling this story? Well, it seems that bias can still raise its ugly head in Auburn, and I think it’s best to push these conversations public so we can chart a productive way forward.

Over the last few weeks, many of you may have heard through the press, television news or social media about comments made by a school committee member to a young woman from Texas. While not giving the exchange further airplay, there was insinuation that because of the woman’s skin color she was probably on food stamps and could not afford a handbag from Macy’s.

There are no rational reasons for such a comment to be made, as there wasn’t when Moses and I were followed around a store. Coming from anyone it would be offensive, but having it come from an elected official who represents our community warranted some level of response.

Thanks to City Councilor Adam Lee, I was able to find a means to reach out to the woman to offer an apology on behalf of
the community and to discuss with her what I believe to be the pulse of our city and its citizens. It was somewhat comforting to hear her share that the response she had seen from the community was overwhelmingly positive, and that the social media comment was more of an isolated incident and not one representative of our community.

Those who follow Auburn’s economic standing, you know that our population has been flat for some time.  And while our population gets older, we have fewer people in the workforce, which creates deeper challenges in expanding existing businesses and attracting others.

As we seek to grow our community, I suggest that Auburn’s future will be set by those willing to call our community home,
both long-time residents and also those choosing us and moving here, something we desperately need.
Hallmarks of growing communities are those that grow in their diversity and their open, constructive engagement on important issues.

Since this situation first broke, I have been able to convene a meeting with some department heads in the city to discuss broader community dialogue. An example of that effort was a recent discussion with Police Chief Phil Crowell and leadership of the Maine American Civil Liberties Union. One set of measures often used to look at issues of race and class in a community are the crime records and data around the types of crimes and those arrested for them.

Chief Crowell, as he always does, provided excellent context around his department’s engagement in some of our struggling neighborhoods and
efforts to engage Auburn residents, in particular our immigrant and minority residents.

Those of you who have called Auburn home for more than a generation recognize the economic changes happening in our community. Many of you have raised concerns and frustrations directly to me about the high rates of poverty in many neighborhoods. And that poverty has a direct impact on families and on young people in schools, all the way up to impacts on real estate values as folks struggle to pay rents sufficient enough to support regular re-investment in the rental properties.

Just as we engage on issues of diversity, we need to have more meaningful discussions about class in Auburn; we must address how those who may be struggling in poverty can be supported and provided a hand up.

We aren’t alone in this. Challenges of race and class have been with communities for a long time and
likely aren’t going away just yet. I’m confident
Auburn will carve out space to have honest conversations about it, and
I hope those of you reading this will find time to
join us.

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