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In a state that is predominantly white, it can be hard to ensure that a diversity of perspectives is heard and respected. The recent creation of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations, is one recognition of that shortcoming — and the will to improve.
The state, under the leadership of Gov. Janet Mills, is moving to be more welcoming and inclusive. Including a more diverse mix of people in state government and on the numerous state boards and commissions would be a visible outcome of that work.
The Maine Human Rights Commission is a good place to focus.
Last week, the governor withdrew the nomination of former state Sen. Nichi Farnham of Bangor to serve on the commission. Farnham had been nominated to replace Arnold Clark, a lawyer from Calais, who was appointed by former Gov. Paul LePage. Clark, whose term was set to end next year, resigned from the commission for personal reasons.
The term of another LePage appointee, Ted Helberg of Fairfield, ended on Aug. 1, although he can stay on the commission until a replacement is confirmed. Helberg is the vice president of human resources for Eastern Maine Health Systems southern region.
This leaves Mills two seats to fill. The governor plans to renominate Farnham and another person at the same time, her office has said. There is no timeline for these nominations.
By law, the five-member commission can only have three members of the same political party. There are three Democrats currently on the commission, so new members must be Republicans, Greens or independent. Farnham is a Republican.
We mean no disrespect to Farnham or the other white, heterosexual, white collar members of the commission. But a board that is tasked with investigating whether Maine’s nondiscrimination laws are being followed could use a diversity of membership with varied life experiences. And all commission members should believe that Maine’s non-discrimination laws are needed and should be enforced.
“The Maine Human Rights Commission stands independently to perform its ‘duty of investigating all conditions and practices within the State which allegedly detract from the enjoyment, by each inhabitant of the State, of full human rights and personal dignity.’ Our mandate remains to investigate ‘all forms of invidious discrimination, whether carried out legally or illegally, and whether by public agencies or private persons … [and] to recommend measures calculated to promote the full enjoyment of human rights and personal dignity by all the inhabitants of this State,’” the commission says on its website.
“The Commissioners and staff of the Maine Human Rights Commission are here to stand with all Mainers seeking the right to life with dignity. We are here to investigate invidious discrimination, whether carried out legally or illegally and whether by public agencies or private persons,” it adds.
Although there is no formal record of the racial and gender identities of members of the commission, which has existed for nearly 50 years, its membership has been largely white and cisgender. And members mostly have jobs or careers, often as lawyers or human resources professionals, in supervisory roles that earn far more than the average Mainer. That’s not a knock on being white, or heterosexual, or having particular professional experience; it’s a recognition that this commission should reflect a broader scope of backgrounds, identities and economic realities.
This isn’t to suggest that only people of color or LGBTQ or working-class Mainers recognize and understand discrimination. However, including a diversity of perspectives and experiences enhances insight and discussions, leading to better decisions and policies.
That should be the standard for all state government positions. But it’s especially true for boards and commissions made up of Maine’s citizens, particularly the group tasked with investigating discrimination.