Sparking discussion about race

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Shay Stewart-Bouley: Writer, blackgirlinmaine.com & executive director of Community Change Inc.

Racism is an uncomfortable topic of conversation for many people. It falls in line with the golden etiquette rule—never talk about religion or politics.

“Race [in New England] has historically been something people are not comfortable touching,” Shay Stewart-Bouley says, “but I don’t think people should have fear.”

Stewart-Bouley encourages people to become more educated about the roots of racism and the layers of systematic and structural integrity. She does this every day through her work as the executive director of Community Change Inc., and through her widely read blog, Black Girl In Maine.

When Stewart-Bouley launched the blog in 2008, it was during the height of “mom blogging.” The blog’s initial intent was an opportunity for Stewart-Bouley to write more without the constraints her columns for The Portland Phoenix, The Portland Press Herald and Journal Tribune imposed.

“I didn’t set out to write a blog focused on race, but more about how unique my life is in Maine,” says Stewart-Bouley, who moved to one of the nation’s whitest states in 2002. She wrote about her daily life, but her work for nonprofits focused on social change provided an interesting perspective. Her focus slowly shifted to writing more about race, and today it comprises 90 percent of the blog’s content.

In the past eight years, the readership of Black Girl In Maine skyrocketed. Some blog posts receive upwards of 50,000 hits, and the corresponding Twitter account (@blackgirlinmain) has 10,500 followers. While Stewart-Bouley spends 20 to 25 hours a week managing the blog’s platform, developing original content and curating share-worthy content from other sources, it is not her primary job.

In January 2014, Stewart-Bouley became the first person of color to head up Community Change Inc. The Boston-based anti-racist organization was founded by a white minister shortly after the Kerner Commission released a report that stated, “what white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” Over the past five decades, the organization has worked to address the driving force behind racism, which the Kerner Commission termed “the white problem.”

“Our work is not diversity. Diversity is very much a Band-Aid. We are interested in creating a framework. We did create a country with a hierarchy. How do we change that?” says Stewart-Bouley, who challenges people to educate themselves through books, local events and various programming such as offered by Community Change.

“For years, [Shay] has pushed those who know her to be better people by shining her bright light,” says Jessica Esch, a Portland writer and illustrator. Esch first discovered Stewart-Bouley and her blog through Twitter. As a member of the white majority in Maine, Esch admits how easy it is to think everyone shares the same experience. However, Stewart-Bouley’s “courage to speak the truth” has forced Esch to see “an ugly side” of her home state, which in turn, helps her understand how much work needs to be done to achieve an equitable and just society.  

“She’s helped me figure out what to say when words fail most. Her unvarnished truth-telling draws praise and ire. And she never stops, gives in or gives up on people like me who thought they understood but really didn’t. I see the world more clearly because of Shay. She reminds that I can do more, that I must do more and she shows me how.”

Delilah Poupore first met Stewart-Bouley when she headed up a downtown Biddeford nonprofit organization that offered free afterschool and summer activities for low-income, at-risk area youth. Early on, Poupore recognized Stewart-Bouley as an excellent role model as a nonprofit professional.

“[Shay] is so good at what she does,” says Poupore, the director of Heart of Biddeford. “To be one of very few well-known black women leaders in the state, talking about racism’s impact, takes a ton of bravery.”

“Sometimes I read something Shay has written and I feel nervous about sharing it. Will I make my friends uncomfortable? What if they disagree with me, or think I’m too political? Then, I think if Shay can take this risk every day, the least I can do is share it on social media,” adds Poupore. “Shay pulls back the veil on things a lot of white people wish we didn’t have to pay attention to, and you might feel discomfort when you read what Shay’s writing. I’d just invite people to notice that discomfort and ask yourself what that is about.”  

Stewart-Bouley sees it not as much as bravery, but as an opportunity to spark discussion. As an executive director who works partly from home, she misses the opportunity to discuss daily happenings around the water cooler.

“There’s a real hesitancy for people who want to tackle race because there’s an absence of people of color [here in Maine],” she says, but added, “social media has become a really great way to just have conversations.”

And for those who follow Black Girl In Maine, those conversations inspire a pursuit of further education and often spur readers into action.

Emma Bouthillette is a Biddeford native whose first book “Biddeford: A Brief History” will be released this spring through Arcadia Publishing. When she is not working or writing, she’s either enjoying a good book or walking Miss Savvy, her Pembroke Welsh Corgi. For more information about Emma, visit www.emmabouthillette.com.

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