KITTERY, Maine — It’s estimated the state of Maine is the second whitest in the country at just over 95 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But look to the southernmost town of the Pine Street State, and there’s a unique pocket of diversity, brought mostly by the military families stationed at and around Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. They come and go through the years, as military families do; waves of multiculturalism, life experiences and varying economic statuses.
India Wardell and her young children moved to Kittery in 2016 when her husband, in the Air Force, was relocated. She was greeted by a truck that drove around her neighborhood flying a Confederate flag.
Wardell, a black woman, said in Indiana, where she’s from, that sends a message. One that would typically result in a fear for her family’s safety.
Fast forward two years later, and Wardell said Kittery as a town has surprised her, in a good way. Moving north from Tampa, Florida, during the 2016 presidential election, she had no idea what to expect.
Wardell is one of the people behind a group called Kittery Advocates For All, working to make the community a place for people of every race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, economic status, physical and mental ability to feel welcome, safe and respected. They’re about open dialogue, education-based learning, highlighting humanity, and shared activities with other organizations and partners.
KAFA formed last year after players on the Traip Academy girls soccer team knelt during the national anthem and received backlash for their actions. A school forum was held to address the issues, and from there, the community group formed as a mirror to the student civil rights teams forming in the schools at the same time.
“We basically came to the conclusion that what we essentially want is to make the area inclusive, for the military families and their diversity, for the immigrants who work here during different seasons, for people with different economic backgrounds,” Wardell said. “We want to shorten those gaps and bring the community together, no matter their sexual orientation, their age, their race, their abilities.”
The activities began as small but mighty, like a lesson on skin tone at Mitchell Primary School where students used different spices, like paprika, white salt, flour, chocolate and coffee, to create their own skin tone. Then, all of the shades were celebrated together.
Since then, the activities have grown to larger community discussions, podcast listening sessions, and later this month, a potluck dinner where all are welcome.
“We also want to bring people together so they can feel more of a community in a way,” Wardell said. “That’s what the potluck is. We want some common ground where we can just eat, break bread together and talk. ‘You live down the street from me, our kids go to school together, I shop at your establishment.’” The “bread and banter” potluck will be held Thursday, Oct. 25 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Kittery Community Center.
Wardell said while Kittery has been relatively accepting of her and her family, there’s still work to be done, and a status quo to be challenged.
“Immigrants are behind the scenes, I don’t see them mingling in the community,” she said. “I would like to see Kittery make it a point like, ‘Look, though it looks like we’re all white on the outside, we do have neighbors of color.’”
Wardell said KAFA hopes to eventually converse with local police about their level of cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the importance of diversity training for their departments.
“What I’ve noticed is people are just comfortable with living their lives and they just disconnect,” Wardell said. “I’m more empathetic. Whenever I see something happening in the news, it could be me at any time, my husband, my children or brothers. I can’t just close my eyes and say, ‘That’s them over there, it’s not going to happen to me.’”
Danielle Hoffman, who serves on the Kittery School Committee, said joining KAFA was not only a chance to address issues she’d been interested in talking about for a while, but also a way to bring such education back into the school culture.
“I think it’s more important for communities like Kittery who are 95 percent white because it’s so easy for whiteness to become the default point of view,” Hoffman said. “It’s like we have to more consciously take steps to discuss and realize that whiteness is not the only perspective and if we want to have our diverse residents feel more welcome and comfortable in our community, then we need to start looking at ways to do that. I’ve heard stories that people still don’t feel comfortable in our community, and I think that would come as a surprise to a lot of residents.”
Hoffman said personally, as a white woman, she grew up in a culture of color blindness, where people preached acceptance of all, but hesitated to talk about differences.
“We have the shipyard and people come here from all over, and suddenly they’re here in this all white community in Maine,” she said. “I want to talk about how we can make people feel valued as part of our community, rather than celebrated or tokenized.”
The School Committee has made commitments to creating an education culture free of bias and harassment, Hoffman said, so the conversations being had at the KAFA level are especially helpful in trying to achieve that goal.
KAFA recently held an “Everyone’s Story Hour” event for ages 4 to 8, an opportunity for children both to see themselves in stories, and also the experiences of others; the concept of windows and mirrors, Hoffman said.
“We’re intentionally trying to highlight books for kids that are both windows and mirrors,” she said.
Perhaps its largest event yet, KAFA will host the free Seacoast premiere of the new documentary film “Dawnland” Nov. 3 at the Community Center. The film follows the first government-sanctioned truth and reconciliation commission in the United States, right in Maine, to contemporary Wabanaki communities to witness intimate, sacred moments of truth-telling and healing. The film is said to reveal the untold narrative of Indigenous child removal in the United States.
Wardell said she fully expects her family will have to relocate once again, eventually moving from Kittery. In the meantime, her involvement in KAFA is a way to leave the community a little bit better for the diverse families who’ve yet to move to town.
KAFA meets on the last Tuesday of each month at 6 p.m. at the Kittery Community Center. All are welcome.
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