It’s pretty likely there are some white people in Maine who have never been in the same room with a black or brown person. Assuming that #BlackLivesMatter is about black people’s lives, what does it have to do with white Mainers, especially those living in our vast rural spaces?
Maybe the fact that we are seeing a “ browning of America,” where the majority will become the minority in the next few decades, isn’t going to make the #BlackLivesMatter movement seem any more relevant in rural Maine. That seems reasonable. Change happens, but the “browning” of rural Maine, even with Native American people living there, doesn’t seem likely in the foreseeable future.
In that same vein, maybe spending time and energy authentically exploring that we are all fully human — as the Smithsonian’s four-minute film, “ One Species, Living Worldwide,” points out, “the DNA of all human beings alive today is 99.9 percent alike” — seems a waste of time when daily life is all-white Mainers almost all the time. Why think about how we value external appearances or cultural differences when all of the faces we see are white?
While I would never advocate for a “color blind” approach to improving our world, there are some race-neutral changes in policy and in our institutions that would improve poor rural Mainers’ lives and also support the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Here are some examples:
Job schedules should be stable and predictable. For example, employers shouldn’t be able to send a worker home early without pay for the full shift. People pay for child care and transportation to get to their jobs. Sometimes the paycheck won’t be much more than those expenses; people need to know ahead of time how much money they will make.
Legal assistance should be available to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. Navigating the civil court system can be very complicated, but our constitutional right to an attorney only applies for criminal cases and a narrow range of civil cases. Nonprofit groups like Pine Tree Legal do their best to fill in some gaps in civil cases, but with their limited resources they can only help about 20 percent of the 50,000 people who contact them for help each year.
Basic safety in our homes should be the norm. The Kennebec Valley Community Action Program notes that “Maine has one of the oldest housing stocks in the nation … these homes suffer many adverse conditions, such as outdated heating systems, inadequate plumbing and electrical systems, structural decay and lack of appropriate health and safety systems.” According to KVCAP, 50 percent of housing units in both Kennebec and Somerset Counties are estimated to have lead paint hazards. Programs like the MaineHousing’s Home Repair Program provide help to low-income homeowners who cannot afford necessary home repairs, but more help is needed.
And finally, rather than responding to drug addiction as a crime, we should recognize it as a physical and mental health issue and treat it as such. Treatment of the disease costs much less than incarceration and is a longer term and better investment in our communities.
These are just a few areas where improving the current system for poor rural Mainers is directly in line with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
So if you live in rural Maine and you see black people on TV holding #BlackLivesMatter signs, or you see FOX News, MSNBC or CNN covering a story about the movement that makes it seem like none of it relates to you and your life, keep an open mind. Fixing what’s broken in our country surely does depend on dismantling our racist systems. That said, those same fixes will almost invariably also help white rural Mainers in some very practical and meaningful ways.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.
Correction: This post has been updated to note that the constitutional right to an attorney applies to select civil cases.