Downtown Bangor. Credit: Micky Bedell / AP

From putting more people in the Bangor area into jobs with a livable wage, to addressing the root causes of poverty in the Maine Highlands and in Washington County, six teams of Mainers in regions across the state will now have the funds to figure out solutions to those challenges.

The six teams will receive a total of more than $2.2 million from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston as part of the Working Communities Challenge. The Boston Fed will award $375,000 each to the Greater Bangor, Katahdin, Maine Highlands, Sagadahoc County, Lewiston-Auburn, and Washington County and Passamaquoddy tribe regions.

The grants were announced on Thursday, in a press conference held by the Boston Fed and Gov. Janet Mills and Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

Mills praised the six winning teams, and noted that her administration funded a number of different statewide efforts to address many of the same challenges each team is focused on, through American Rescue Plan funds and other federal and state funds.

“You’re addressing the challenges that have always held Maine back, in both the long term and the short term,” Mills said. “That’s what working communities are all about — uniting committees around a common vision for change.”

In March 2021, eight Maine teams were chosen from 22 applicants from all over the state, who were tasked with identifying a major challenge in their communities. Those teams each received $25,000 to develop a program to address that challenge. In September, those teams submitted proposals to receive the $375,000 grants, and six were chosen.

The Greater Bangor team, led by Bangor economic and community development director Tanya Emery, will launch a program to help move marginalized community members, including those with criminal histories or substance use issues, into the workforce, with an emphasis on jobs in the food industry and trades. They also hope to encourage individual entrepreneurship among members of those communities.

“There is a strong demand for labor, and a relatively easy access point in these areas,” Emery said. “As we move forward, we want to encourage more individuals and organizations to partner with us on this. This is an incredible opportunity for the community.”

In the Katahdin region, the team will work on strengthening the region’s outdoor economy and help move its young people into related jobs, and in the process revitalize the community as a whole.

“We see an opportunity to change this narrative and retain and invest in our youth, connecting youth to nature to create a sense of place, a sense of community, and a sense of belonging,” said Lucy Van Hook, team chair and community development director for Our Katahdin.

Sue Mackey Andrews, leader of the Maine Highlands team, which represents 34 towns in Piscataquis, northern Penobscot and eastern Somerset counties, said her team would focus on identifying the root causes of poverty in those towns, and develop solutions and partnerships to address them.

“One larger, more long-term goal is to promote greater cohesion across our communities,” she said. “We also hope to dispel some of the myths about poverty that can be so divisive and destructive.”

The team in Washington County collaborated with the Passamaquoddy tribe to develop a program to improve health and economic outcomes for marginalized community members, in an effort to reduce child poverty in the region by 50 percent over the next 10 years.

In Lewiston-Auburn, the team will work to address wealth gaps and create opportunities for youth, especially people of color, immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. And in Sagadahoc County, the team will create a web of educational, mentoring, training and employment programs that build connections among youth and combat drug addiction, depression and suicide.

The Working Communities Challenge, part of the Boston Fed’s Working Places program, has its precursor in the Working Cities Challenge, a similar program targeted to mid-sized cities in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

That challenge resulted in some success stories in cities like Lawrence, Massachusetts, a once-booming textile mill town that became one of the poorest cities in the state by 2010. The Lawrence Working Families Initiative, a grant recipient, has placed more than 160 parents of students in Lawrence Public Schools into better-paying jobs, according to its website.

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.