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South Portland declares racism a public health crisis

City councilors voted Tuesday on the declaration, which sets the stage for a series of reviews of city laws and practices to root out systemic racism.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — South Portland officially declared racism a public health crisis after city councilors voted through a proposal Tuesday that will launch a set of reviews over city laws to root out systemic racism, uplift indigenous voices, and promote education on slavery in school settings.

Championed by the South Portland Commission on Human Rights, this declaration is designed make South Portland one of the only cities in Maine to elevate systemic racism to this level, opening the door for city counselors to make decisions with a lens of awareness surrounding racism.

"It's hard for a lot of people but it is an uncomfortable situation that we need to be having and I think this declaration forces people to take a look at these things," Jade SanGiovanni, youth representative for the South Portland Commission on Human Rights and youth organizer with Maine Youth Justice Coalition, said.

The declaration included 10 items under consideration. One of them would establish an emphasis on teaching Maine's past of slavery and indigenous relationships in classrooms.

But with racism education in classroom settings being a sensitive topic among Maine politicians statewide and in certain cities, the mayor of South Portland want to clear the air.

"When we say it's about education, we don't mean we are taking over and telling people 'you are racist.'... We are just trying to explain to people this is bigger than all of us as a society," Mayor Deqa Dhalac said.

Dhalac, who is Black, said given the recent mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, she fears for her safety, and it ties into the meaning behind calling racism a matter of public health.

"I went shopping Sunday and Monday, and I was looking over my shoulder, looking if someone was trying to kill me, and that really put my heart rate higher," Dhalac said. "It gave me a headache. It's also emotional as it is mental. That is what we're talking about when we say it's a health crisis."

Other items of the declaration would make it so the city of South Portland prioritizes indigenous voices in city boards and planning committees.

It would also work to root out inequities in health care and even housing.

"A house is where you raise your children is where you teach them values it's where you keep your children safe to have housing instability, that really hinders how you can raise a family. … There’s more prejudice, there’s more historic poverty. And I think once you own property, it gives you an up that non-property owners have," councilor-at-large Susan Henderson said.

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