Gov. Janet Mills and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston announced on March 3 that the Maine Highlands Working Communities Challenge team would be one of six statewide to each receive a three-year, $375,000 grant. The funds will help the six Maine Working Communities Challenge teams begin implementing proposals that address local economic problems, including poverty and lack of work opportunity. The Working Communities Challenge is a three-year grant initiative supported by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the state of Maine, national and local philanthropy, and private sector employers that aims to strengthen Maine’s rural towns.
The state of Maine joined the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Communities Challenge initiative in 2020. The Maine Working Communities Challenge is under the umbrella of the Working Places initiative at the Boston Fed, focusing on improving life for residents in New England towns, regions and smaller post-industrial cities.
All 16 Maine counties were represented in the 22 applications the challenge received from teams hoping to enter its design phase. A jury made up of a subset of the Maine Working Communities Challenge’s local steering committee selected eight teams to enter the design phase, and the six teams announced are the final implementation grant awardees.
During the official award announcement event, held over Zoom, Sue Mackey Andrews, spokesperson for the Maine Highlands WCC team, said that the group’s compelling cause is to understand how persistent and growing poverty impact the region and to develop collaborative and inclusive strategies for everyone in the region’s communities to thrive.
Mackey Andrews, facilitator for Helping Hands with Heart and the Maine Highlands Investment Partnership, has been spearheading the WCC effort in the Maine Highlands region, which includes communities in the Milo, Dover-Foxcroft, Dexter, Guilford and Greenville area school districts.
“The Maine Highlands has, for years, been identified in various community health assessments as one of the oldest, sickest and least educated of all Maine counties. We, however, know that our region’s greatest asset is its people – who are caring and generous – and deeply committed to this region,” Mackey Andrews said. “This shared compelling cause was developed by members of our Leadership Team, composed of a variety of diverse community representatives including municipalities, social service agencies, public schools and post-secondary education, clergy, business, workforce and economic development, and most importantly – persons with lived experience. This initiative is being championed by Helping Hands with Heart and the Central Hall Commons.”
Mackey Andrews said one priority over the next six months will be to grow the membership of the MHWCC team even more. The group hopes to attract more youth, more area businesses and more persons with lived experiences.
The Maine Highlands includes 34 towns and five unorganized territories in Piscataquis County and some portions of Penobscot and Somerset counties. The combined population is about 27,400 people, of which about 20 percent are under the age of 18, and more than 27 percent are over age 65.
“While we know that all residents will be positively impacted by our efforts at some point in time, our initial focus is on youth and young adults, the potential contributions of older residents, and greater involvement in the workforce by persons with disabilities,” she said.
“Even before the pandemic, we heard routinely from employers that they are unable to fill available jobs,” said Mackey Andrews. “Too often we hear the belief that ‘people just don’t want to work.’ This is not, however, what we hear from residents. We need to figure out – together – what the real barriers are, and identify solutions to remove these barriers.
“We have much more to learn. Through interviews and listening sessions, we will learn more about how poverty impacts our people, our region and our economy. We are confident that meaningful solutions will come from this investigation,” she said.
The pandemic revealed significant gaps in access and utilization of essential services, for a variety of reasons, she said.
“Our first action will be to advocate for the restoration of state services within our region. We propose a state office to house a variety of state agencies on an itinerant basis to better serve our residents,” said Mackey Andrews. “This would, for example, include the Maine Department of Labor in the re-establishment of a career center, as well as public health services, motor vehicle services, and benefits programs through the Office of Family Independence.”
A long-term goal of the Maine Highlands WCC will be to promote greater cohesion across communities. “We envision a more tightly woven region where we have a more positive, collective identity,” she said.
“Through conversations and listening sessions, we hope to dispel some of the myths about poverty that can be so divisive and destructive,” said Mackey Andrews. “We know this is a ‘big lift.’ Changing hearts and minds is difficult. This is a challenge that we feel comfortable undertaking with the support of the Boston Fed and the learning and collaboration opportunities with the other Maine WCC sites.”
The other five Maine Working Communities Challenge grant recipients entering the implementation phase are:
Greater Bangor: To improve economic equality by engaging diverse voices and changing systems around workforce, education, entrepreneurial development, and community support. The team is particularly focused on the trades, food businesses, and individual entrepreneurship.
Katahdin Region: To build a thriving outdoor economy that delivers lasting prosperity for residents and creates career paths that help attract and retain younger workers.
Lewiston and Auburn: To build, support, enhance and sustain a culture of opportunity, equity and inclusion. This work will address wealth gaps, catalyze economic growth, and increase opportunity among the marginalized communities of Lewiston Auburn, especially Black, Indigenous, People of Color youth, immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and U.S.-born African Americans.
Washington County and the Passamaquoddy Tribe: To improve outcomes for marginalized community members, including but not limited to BIPOC individuals, immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, low-income community members and those with disabilities.
Sagadahoc County: To create and strengthen interconnection between institutions and systems that serve local youth.
“Like many people across our state, rural Maine is my home. It is where my heart is,” said Mills during the announcement event. “Our rural communities are valuable beyond measure, which is why we are so invested in the Working Communities Challenge.”
“The [Working Communities] Challenge is bringing together the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Maine state government, private sector businesses, and community-based organizations to tackle the toughest issues our rural communities face and to strengthen them for years to come,” Mills said. “I am proud to support this initiative through my Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan, thank everyone for their collaborative work, and look forward to seeing the excellent work accomplished as a result of these grants.”
In addition to $1 million in federal funding provided by Mills under the Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan, the Maine Working Communities Challenge is supported by more than $2.7 million from private sector funds, contributions from local and national philanthropies, and other federal grants.
“A willingness to take on big, persistent challenges to improve community resilience is at the heart of the Working Communities Challenge,” said Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development. “I thank the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston for their support in bringing this program to Maine, and congratulate the six communities engaged in this important work – we look forward to supporting you as you work toward your goals.”
Prabal Chakrabarti, a Boston Fed executive vice president and its community affairs officer, said the Boston Fed was impressed by the work of all the teams and the scope of what they’re taking on.
“Their efforts not only take advantage of real opportunities in their economically challenged regions but address issues in some of the state’s most at-risk populations that cannot be ignored,” Chakrabarti said.
The Maine Highlands Working Community Challenge team is seeking new members. For more information, follow the group on Facebook or contact Mackey Andrews at 207-564-7835 or firstname.lastname@example.org.