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Cape Elizabeth’s new diversity committee draws mixed welcome – Portland Press Herald

Cape Elizabeth will begin accepting applications in October for appointments to its new seven-member Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, but not everyone in town is eager for the committee to get to work.

The Town Council voted unanimously last month to establish the standing DEI Committee, acting on the recommendation of the ad hoc Civil Rights Committee.  The temporary civil rights panel, formed last year in the wake of social justice movements and protests in Maine and around the country, worked for a year and has now been disbanded. It said a permanent committee was needed to continue to tackle DEI issues in town. 

“The DEI Committee will review department policy and recommend changes, advise in the areas the council may be focused on and ideally be available to other town committees for input,” Councilor Penny Jordan said.

Some community members, however, have pushed back against the committee and its mission. 

“We feel very strongly that we oppose this,”  Tom Dunham, a longtime Cape Elizabeth resident, told the council last month. “In our view, there is a segment of our public discourse that for political reasons are doing their best to capitalize on promoting racism and bigotry for their perceived political gain. It’s ugly, and it’s wrong.”

Dunham said demographics in the state have “evolved,” and that over the past decade, communities have “experienced remarkable inclusion of a more diverse population.” 

According to data from the 2020 U.S. Census, Maine’s white population decreased from 95.2% to 90.8% over the past 10 years.

Other community members at the meeting also said the committee was unnecessary, especially because the ad hoc committee had already worked for a year.

Others residents, on the other hand, voiced their support.

“It is vital that ours and all communities begin to examine their programs, services and policies to root out inequities and to build more inclusive environments,” resident Maureen Clancy said.

“This is time for bold action, not wait and see. We’ve been waiting and seeing,” said Clancy, who said she has lived in town since 1998. 

The approval of the DEI committee comes as a proposed affordable housing project in the town center has caused a rift in town. Cape officials have said for years that the town needs more affordable housing, but some residents say the town is moving too fast to change ordinances, which would be required for the town center project, and there are better ways to address housing affordability in town.   

Cape Elizabeth is the second wealthiest town in Maine by median income, with an average median household income of $111,884, according to data from 2019.

An affordable housing complex could broaden the socioeconomic range of residents in town and is something that the newly formed DEI committee would be able to weigh in on. The Town Council would find those opinions to be useful, Town Council Chairperson Jamie Garvin said. 

“When you’re talking about affordable housing specifically, and trying to attract greater diversity, in this case socioeconomic diversity in particular, because of the nature of the income base as a determinant for eligibility for the housing, that’s something that there might be people on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee once it’s formed that have a particular opinion on,” Garvin said. “That would be useful in helping the council understand which way to shape the policy around those things.

The scope of work for the DEI Committee would extend beyond racial and ethnic diversity, something that Garvin said town residents may not realize. 

“There are things like addressing equity and inclusion for people that are aging. There are things like addressing equity and inclusion for people that have visible and nonvisible physical and intellectual disabilities,” he said.

“I think a lot of the initial focus, deservedly so, had been some of the more headline-grabbing kinds of things related to racial and ethnic diversity, but I think the work of a group like this actually has the opportunity to benefit the community by being much, much broader than just that. Not that the (racial and ethnic diversity work is) not important, but there are many things that encompass DEI,” Garvin said.

 The committee will have openings for one-, two- and three-year terms to create the rolling three-year term pattern that other town committees follow. Serving on the committee is not an elected position. Applicants will be reviewed by the Appointments Committee of the Town Council, which will then make recommendations to and be voted on by the Town Council.

“I think the DEI Committee will bring a perspective that many of us might not consider as we make decisions for the town,” Jordan said. “I have only lived my life as a white woman. I see the world through this lens and have experienced it as such. I think it is time to truly understand and incorporate the perspectives of people that experience the world differently than I do.”

Jordan said she wants to understand how council decisions impact all people.

“I believe this committee will help us do that and that our town will be an even better place,” she said. 

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