May 27, 2020
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How Portland plans to help immigrants find jobs

Jake Bleiberg | BDN
Jake Bleiberg | BDN
Julia Trujillo Luengo, the director of Portland's new Office of Economic Opportunity, stands in front of a whiteboard in her office where she'd attempting to map the city's socio-economic fabric.

PORTLAND, Maine — Since starting work, Julia Trujillo Luengo has covered most of one wall in her downstairs City Hall office with a sprawling flowchart titled “Socio-Ec. Fabric.”

With scribbled notes crowding a tangle of hard and dashed lines reaching between boxes and triangles with labels like “Civic Engagement,” “Workforce Dev.,” and “Language Access,” the large whiteboard is how the director of the city’s new Office of Economic Opportunity is thinking through her job.

“This is the second or third iteration of the board,” she said.

Trujillo’s first day at the head of the new office was May 1. Created by a unanimous vote of the City Council last December, it is the first of its kind in Maine and has the goal of helping immigrants and disadvantaged Mainers find work in the state’s economic hub.

As the head of the office, Trujillo serves as something of a matchmaker. She, and the two other staffers the city hopes to eventually hire, is charged with helping people connect with opportunities to work, get career training and improve their language skills, among other things.

From publicly funded classes at Portland Adult Education to the philanthropic services of Catholic Charities and education offered by immigrant community organizations like Community Financial Literacy, there are already many supports offered to new Mainers in Portland. And following a Bangor Daily News report that highlighted immigration as a potential solution to Maine’s looming labor crisis — and showed how other American cities have spurred economic growth by connecting immigrants with jobs — the City Council named establishing an office to help coordinate among them a top priority last year.

Her first goals at the head of the office are to understand what resources are already out there and the needs of the populations she’s meant to serve, Trujillo said in a recent interview.

“There is a need and a desire to align efforts throughout the city,” she said.

Beyond mapping the available services on the wall of her office, Trujillo is preparing to begin a planning and outreach process that she forecasts running through the spring of 2018.

This fall, around the time Portland participates in the national “Welcoming Week” program, Trujillo said she intends to begin holding open office hours so people can learn more about the Office of Economic Opportunity and offer input.

Following the first year of planning, Trujillo said she expects to have a better idea of how her office can help coordinate and bolster service. At that point she also hopes to have a better sense of how to attract grant money to pay for the office’s two program manager positions, which the City Council established but did not fund.

A native of the Spanish Canary Islands, Trujillo came to work for the city after nearly a decade of working with immigrants for the state of Maine, first helping the Department of Education support migrant farmworkers in northern parts of the state and more recently with the Department of Health and Human Services in Portland.

While with the Department of Education, Trujillo said she introduced a program that gave immigrant farmhands MP3 players so they could listen to English lessons as they cut broccoli. Although there are not yet any concrete plans, she also hopes to help Portland establish innovative programs to help people learn English faster.

At the Department of Health and Human Services Trujillo headed the office that coordinated state support for refugees. She left that job a few months after Gov. Paul LePage ended the state government’s participation in the federal refugee resettlement program.

In her new position, Trujillo said she sees a big part of her role as helping Portland attract and retain people even as much of Maine struggles with a shrinking population and aging workforce.

“We need every soul we can get here,” she said.

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