Gov. Janet Mills should strive for more diversity on the Maine Human Rights Commission, writes Meghan Gardner. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

We need a more representative, diverse Maine Human Rights Commission. Gov. Janet Mills has an opportunity to begin to address this issue with her next appointment. The question is: Will she take it?

Last month, when announcing the decision to dedicate $50,000 in funding to support the work of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations, the governor observed that Maine has a “[p]ainful history of racism dating back generations and our state is not immune to discrimination, injustice or inequality. We must acknowledge our past and take steps to understand both the inequities that exist in Maine today and how we might begin to remedy them in the future.”

In addition to funding the Permanent Commission, other steps that Mills has taken to address Maine’s painful history of racism, such as allocating coronavirus relief funds to investigate racial disparities in the disease’s spread, are encouraging.

So it was disappointing that Mills was recently prepared to appoint an individual from Bangor to the Maine Human Rights Commission who did not appear to have any lived experience or professional qualifications related to discrimination, injustice, or inequity. To the governor’s credit, she listened to the many lawmakers, community leaders and Maine residents who lobbied her to reconsider. Mills pulled the nomination before last week’s Judiciary Committee hearing, and will select another nominee to replace the commissioner whose term expires in August.

Still, it is troubling that the state agency charged with the responsibility of enforcing Maine’s anti-discrimination laws does not, in its current makeup, reflect the diversity of Maine’s population by any metrics other than political party and congressional district. It would appear that the entirety of the current Maine Human Rights Commission identifies as cisgender, heterosexual and white. The governor’s previous two appointees to the commission have reflected this makeup. That our governor has had three opportunities to appoint qualified individuals from protected classes to this commission, but has failed to do so, seems antithetical to her stated goal of taking steps to understand the inequities that exist in Maine today.

Bangor has recently been coming to terms with racism in its school system and the ineffective response from school officials and staff that left students no other recourse but to make their experiences public. One mandate of the Human Rights Commission is to investigate discrimination in education, so any local dismay at the governor’s missed opportunity to appoint a Black or Indigenous person or person of color from our region is understandable.

As we are all learning from Bangor’s very public struggles with systemic racism, it is vital to have authority figures and decision makers who are people of color serving in highly visible roles. A petition generated by the students who faced racism at Bangor High School, which has now been signed by over 5,500 people, expresses the need for more staff and elected officials “who can truly understand the issues [people of color] are facing because of their shared, lived experiences.” The same urgent need exists across all institutions, and the Maine Human Rights Commission should be no exception.

In that funding announcement about the permanent commission, the governor stated: “I do not have all the answers to what is a longstanding, systemic problem, but I am committed to learning and to improving our state in the months and years to come.” This is a refreshingly honest admission, and exactly the kind of openness and accountability in leadership that will help move us toward equity.

One concrete step to address a longstanding, systemic problem in the State of Maine would be to ensure that the Maine Human Rights Commission reflects the lived experiences of the very people the commission seeks to protect from discrimination. Mills has an opportunity to lead by example; we should all urge her to take it.

Meghan Gardner is an educator, small business owner and Orono town councilor.