bringing a Maine mill town back together

(Washington, DC) Jesse Ellison has a good story in Newsweek about how Somali immigrants are helping to revive the decayed mill town of Lewiston, Maine. At first, there was severe conflict between the older residents and the newly arrived Somalis, who represented the first substantial black population in the state. The mayor, famously, tried to stop more Somalis from coming. But now the conflict has subsided, jobs are returning, income is up, and crime rates have declined–all thanks in part to immigration.

I visited Lewiston last fall to meet with folks at the Harward Center for Community Partnerships at Bates College. I also know some people at the National Civic League, which awarded Lewiston its All-America Award in 2007. So I can add a few background points to the article.

First, it turns out that Somalis chose to settle in Lewiston, a traditionally French Canadian Catholic town, because they believed its culturally conservative values would be comfortable for their families. That means that the powerful cultural clash that ensued was ironic. But I think one reason the French Canadians were resistant was that they needed people to acknowledge their own history of discrimination in New England. Once that was recognized, they could proceed to a dialogue about what to do next.

Second, I’m told that young people wrote the whole application for the All-American City Award. In general, students from Bates and the other area colleges are making a big difference through research, service, writing, and activism projects that help connect the city’s communities. (For instance, this photo essay.)