The Maine Center for Economic Policy found in 2014 that blacks and African Americans in Maine have some of the highest rates of poverty in the country.
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The Maine Black News Network” aired its first shows this summer on Biddeford’s Public Access Channel 3. From left, Dawud Ummah and Dequhn Lobutua plan to highlight issues of race in Maine. The Maine Center for Economic Policy found in 2014 that blacks and African Americans in Maine have some of the highest rates of poverty in the country.
BIDDEFORD – A conversation about race has found a new home at Biddeford Public Access.
Dawud Ummah, president of Portland’s Center for African Heritage, and Dequhn Lobutua, a founding member of Portland-based reggae band Mystic Vibes, had discussed the idea of creating a television show for many years but mutual scheduling conflicts continued to prevent them from starting the project. They were finally able to begin this summer after meeting Biddeford Public Access Director Steve Pulos, who has since provided technical assistance for “The Maine Black News Network.” Ummah and Lobutua have filmed six shows so far, two of which are available on Pulos’ personal YouTube account, “Steve Pulos.”
Ummah, a resident of Portland, met Pulos several years ago through a mutual friend. Pulos was introduced to Lobutua about a year ago. Ummah has tried to start similar projects in Portland with limited success.
“Portland is so political,” Ummah said. “You have to be careful with everything you say. There are so many people to get approval from around having honest discussions.”
Pulos’ goal for public access is to give people an avenue to speak to the public and produce good shows. Biddeford Public Access has an annual budget of $265,000, which comes from a 5 percent charge on Biddeford cable subscribers’ monthly bill. As such, the city of Biddeford does not provide a budget for public access, instead using the entire cable franchise fee to fund it. Pulos has had producers in the past from Lewiston, York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
“The more important piece is what’s on TV, the message,” Pulos said. “We want to produce educational programs.”
A veteran of the Gulf War, Ummah has little experience in television producing. He relies on Pulos’ experience when it comes to editing the show.
“(Pulos) is able to review and say, ‘Hey wait a minute. Here’s the original and this is what I think might serve you better,’” Ummah said.
When producing the show, historical context is key for Ummah. His emphasis is on tracing the roots of racism from today back to European colonization. Ummah said many people say they want to hear a discussion about race, but very few are actually willing. He hopes to add up to date information on racism to people’s common knowledge.
“Now we have to deal with the truth, knowing we’ve been lied to,” Ummah said, in reference to the history of the country that has traditionally been accepted.
Lobutua, who has played keyboard, sang and written lyrics with Mystic Vibes and toured the country for the past 20 years, lives in Gorham on a small organic vegetable farm with his family. He also grows marijuana and was part of the most recent referendum process to change state law that legalized it. Whether through music or farming, Lobutua said he tries to put positivity back into the world.
“I am asking to the world, ‘What do we do to make our lives better,’” he said. “How can we rectify our demons as individuals, as a society, as a nation and as whole world.”
Ummah is also concerned with the way veterans are treated in Maine and the country. He’s had to drive an hour from Portland to the Veterans Affairs office in Chelsea to receive treatment. Ummah said on one occasion he was refused service because workers at the clinic suggested he was “having an episode.”
“Veterans need a place to get through the process of readjusting our heads to a peaceful society,” he said. “We need it badly.”
Gentrification is another issue Ummah wants to address and sees it as a major problem in Portland. As developers purchase land in the city, Ummah said poor people are being displaced and nobody within city hall will address it. Much of that economic burden falls disproportionately on black communities. According to a 2014 report from the Maine Center for Economic Policy, the official poverty rate for blacks and African Americans in Maine was 50.7 percent.
“We are being politically wiped out, economically wiped out and educationally wiped out. That’s genocide in Portland, Maine. Malaga Island did the same thing,” Ummah said.
In 1912 the state of Maine removed residents of Malaga Island, a mixed race community off the coast of Phippsburg, and placed several of them in the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded. In July a new monument was placed at Pineland Farms in Gray, the former site of the school, to commemorate the ordeal.
Ummah said he and Lobutua have remained close because the issue of race remains prevalent. Ummah plans to keep raising awareness until the conversation around race can move forward. Now that he is in control of his own media platform, Ummah plans to do just that.
“The issue is still clear in front of us,” he said.
The Maine Black News Network does not yet have a specific airtime on Channel 3, and runs at various times throughout the week.
Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at email@example.com