At its quarterly meeting last week, the board of directors for the Maine Medical Association discussed putting out a statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and denouncing systemic racism. Like many around the world, the physicians were outraged by the death of George Floyd.

Many organizations in Maine that don’t have obvious connections to race relations, diversity or social justice are making public statements – some for the first time – that support protesters and decry racism. From a major company such as L.L. Bean to a popular road race in Cape Elizabeth and a small cheese shop in Portland, organizations are using their platforms to amplify the message that black lives matter.

Samuela Manages

Among the 28 physicians on the MMA board, different ideas floated back and forth over the Zoom call until it became clear that the lone African-American representative had not weighed in. Dr. Samuela Manages, who practices family medicine in Van Buren, was asked to speak.

Manages related her encounters with blatant racism during her 12 years in northern Maine, of hearing racial slurs and of patients asking for a different doctor because of the color of her skin.

“Half the people on the call had tears listening to her stories,” said Dr. Karen Saylor, a Falmouth geriatrician and incoming MMA president. “My heart broke for her.”

Manages had another message to the predominantly white group representing 4,300 physicians, residents and medical students in one of the whitest states in the country.

“We need to stop just putting out statements,” she told her colleagues. “We decry this, we decry that. You can’t just say stuff and not have actions to back it up.”

Manages offered ideas about courses on diversity and racial sensitivity for medical school students and residents, about mandatory rotations either in urban areas or in settings with different ethnic backgrounds, about increasing opportunities for minorities in medicine through scholarships and recruitment.

Her colleagues listened. They came out with a statement last week that notes the effects of systemic racism on public health, that black people become infected and die with COVID-19 in disproportionate numbers and that black men have the lowest life expectancy of any demographic group in the country.

The MMA statement acknowledges Maine’s limited ethnic and racial diversity as well as a nationwide underrepresentation of black medical students and black teaching physicians. The association vows to improve the situation by working with partners in the medical education community and by the end of 2020 to come up with specific actions to address health disparities in Maine.

Whether such public statements will result in lasting change remains to be seen. Remaining silent, many organizations and companies say, is no longer an option. Most statements contain pledges to try and make their communities more diverse, more equitable, more inclusive. Others include pledges of monetary support.

“We felt that with the strength of the voices that are rising locally and around the world, that it was important to join that chorus,” said David Backer, president of the TD Beach to Beacon 10K road race. “The most celebrated athletes in our sport are people of color. The winners of our race, male and female, have almost exclusively been black runners from East Africa. We have a very strong incentive to make it very clear that there is no place for racism anywhere, and certainly not in our sport or any sport.”

The Beach to Beacon statement noted the killings of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor “and the countless others who have lost their lives to racism” and said that words are not enough to ensure change. Backer said the race is making $5,000 donations to both the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the ACLU of Maine Foundation.

Mary Chapman Sissle and her husband, Will, are owners of The Cheese Shop in Portland. They have pledged $2,000 to the National Black Food and Justice Alliance. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Mary Chapman Sissle, co-owner of The Cheese Shop with her husband, Will, said they have been hesitant to wade into anything political in nature.

“But to us, this wasn’t about politics,” she said. “This wasn’t about left or right, it was about who we are as human beings. We can’t be quiet about this.

“Yeah, we’re a cheese shop, but we’ve always seen ourselves as a space where community comes together in a little way. We get close to our customers. They feel comfortable talking with us about what’s going on in the word. It was important to us that they knew how we felt.”

Sissle’s statement notes how racism permeates the food and agricultural industry, from exploited farm labor to the loss of land ownership and rights by black farmers and settlers to food deserts in black and brown neighborhoods. She pledged the shop’s profits last Saturday, along with customer contributions and tips donated by staff, to the National Black Food and Justice Alliance.

“We’re going to be writing a $2,000 check to that institution,” she said. “Hopefully we’re going to do this one more time for an organization that fights for voting access for people of color.”

Sissle also plans to stock more products made by people of color, including a line of teas and another of jams.

Although some statements are peppered with platitudes, most acknowledge the need for definitive action. Protesters at a rally in Augusta a week ago Sunday showed how they feel about pleasant but empty sentiments by chanting Mayor David Rollins off the stage with “black lives matter!” as he attempted to read a proclamation passed by the City Council.

“People want to support now,” said Briana Lamour, the black owner of an online T-shirt business based in Portland called IRN Apparel, “but will they continue when the dust settles?”

Dajuan Eubanks

Dajuan Eubanks, president of the Maine Red Claws since 2014 and a former Harlem Globetrotters basketball player, said he welcomes public statements of support.

“I think it’s a very positive thing,” he said. “It’s something we haven’t seen in the years before when we talked about racism.”

“It’s nice to see corporate entities taking a stand, but the most important part is the action behind it,” he continued. “I’m hopeful that it will amount to more than words. I think it will because it’s something that’s a humanity issue as well. It’s about what’s right and what’s wrong.”

On June 3, Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, spoke at a protest rally in Portland and took issue with proclamations long on ideals and short on substance.

“Use your voice to speak what you are going to do to stop voter suppression, to stop gentrification, to stop racial health disparity, and to stop mass incarceration,” she said. “Use your statement for that.”

Coming up with substantial measures proved challenging for those new to the fight.

“We struggled with the statement as a board because we wanted some concrete, actionable items,” said the MMA’s Saylor. “Obviously, racism is wrong. But what can we do about it? What do we have control of?”

Until last week, L.L. Bean had never publicly commented on social issues outside of topics specific to the outdoor industry. Stephen Smith, company president and CEO, said the Message to the L.L. Bean community was necessary in light of recent tragedies in the black community that “brought to the forefront our history as a country of racial injustice.”

On Wednesday the company held its first all-employee town hall meeting dedicated to the topic of racism.

“We are starting inside – re-evaluating all of our policies, procedures, recruiting efforts and charitable giving programs,” Smith said in an emailed response to a reporter’s questions. “We are listening to, learning from and working with our employees, partners, community leaders and external experts to ensure that our efforts around racial diversity, inclusion and equity are a priority across the highest levels of our organization. … We know we have a lot to learn, but we are putting strategies in place to ensure we take meaningful action.”

Lisa Pohlmann, CEO of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, first posted a statement on her blog June 1 saying, among other things, that “clean air and water must not be matters of privilege. Safely running in your neighborhood, birding in a local park, or simply living and breathing must not be matters of privilege.”

Two days later, she joined with 24 other members of an environmental priorities coalition in signing a joint declaration.

She said stepping out from her organization’s traditional focus on the environment to address systemic racism is something that needed to be done, and that the issues are more connected than they may appear.

“People of different races and ethnicities are routinely disadvantaged and threatened in terms of their health and safety by environmental justice issues around the country,” Pohlman said. “We can’t ignore this forever. We have a lot of work to do.”

As for Manages, the African-American physician who decided to put down roots in Aroostook County, she said she loves working in a rural area. The staff where she works at Cary Medical Center and at Pines Health Service is more diverse than the local population and her colleagues throughout the state have been supportive.

They listened. She hopes all will learn, and not only those who wear doctor smocks.

“I feel sad that Floyd had to lose his life over this,” said Manages, 47, who is originally from Sierra Leone, grew up mostly in Maryland, went to medical school in Dominica and was chief resident at what is now Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “On the positive side, at least we have restarted the conversation again and hopefully this time there’s actions behind statements.”

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