A Municipal Dialogue on Racial Equity – My Experience
This summer was filled with a lot of firsts: My first time experiencing “unprecedented times”, my first time owning my own pair of roller skates, and my first time publicly sharing my experiences of racism as a black woman in Maine.
It happened during a racial equity webinar I organized at the Greater Portland Council of Governments, where I work.
I had never planned to speak in the first place. The woman who was originally supposed to share her personal story, decided to respectfully back out because she did not want to share her trauma associated with racism. So, I decided I would do it instead. And I was terrified.
In the office, I had always chatted with my coworkers about neutral topics, like the weather, movies, or new restaurants in town. Standard office small talk. Nobody had ever asked about my experience as a black woman in a primarily white state, nor did I expect that they should.
I was concerned about how they would perceive me once my big speech was over. Would they pity me? Would they care? Would the entire thing have zero impact on how they view racism in Maine? Would our casual greetings over Zoom be awkward once they knew my truth?
The nerves really began to set in as I started to write (and re-write) my speech. I’d get halfway through and scrap it. I wanted to be honest but not overly descriptive. I didn’t want to dive too deep into the disgusting comments I’ve heard, but I also didn’t want to gloss over them. I also didn’t want to paint an unrealistic picture of my very real experiences.
To be honest, I worried that reliving some of these experiences would put my mental health at stake.
I practiced countless times, but on the day of the webinar I was so worried that I’d blank out on Zoom, so I positioned my computer desktop so that I could see the speech on one side, and the Zoom webinar screen on the other. I spoke slowly and deliberately while praying my voice wouldn’t shake. I tried my best not to look at the “attendee” screen as the number of attendees climbed higher and higher, topping out at around 150 people. Right after my presentation was over, the emails started coming in from coworkers and municipal officials. They were all positive. They heard what I had to say and valued it. I was absolutely exhausted, and relieved.
If you had asked me a year ago if I would have shared my experiences with racism on a public platform, the answer would have been “absolutely not.” For me personally, it felt like the longest 10 minutes of my life.
My goal was to briefly share my reality. I achieved that. But I also achieved something I didn’t expect, which is the confidence to speak more regularly about my lived experiences, no matter how difficult it may be. These conversations are necessary in order for many people to understand that racism does exist, even in states with very few minorities. Though it can be uncomfortable, understanding these realities is the first step towards change, and I am grateful I was able to help be part of that first step here in Maine.
There was a great deal of momentum after our webinar, specifically from member communities. GPCOG hosted a second webinar in August focused on racial disparities and COVID-19. Following the webinars, GPCOG has had several meetings with member communities, some of whom are looking to partner with us on continued anti-racism work, both internally and externally.
We’re also viewing all of our GPCOG programs with a racial equity lens, and have amended our job descriptions to ensure we’re being as equitable and inclusive as possible. Furthermore, we’ve received a lot of emails from the public, ready to get involved within their own communities and do their part to ensure they’re being allies to the BIPOC community in whatever way they can. We have a lot planned for the future--visit the GPCOG webpage on Racial Equity for the latest information.
Tori is a Special Projects Coordinator with the Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG) where she works with staff members on a variety of different programs and initiatives, including the planning and execution of all public and in-person events. She also serves as the Racial Equity project manager, working with GPCOG staff and members to address and highlight topics of racial equity within our region.