Karen Wyman and Chris Hastedt from the Maine Equal Justice Partners (MEJP) joined us to host a listening session with us and learn what legislative priorities exist for the people of western Maine. Chris first provided some background about MEJP, which serves the needs of people with low income in Maine. MEJP emerged in the late 90s when Congress passed legislation outlawing groups like Pine Tree Legal from representing people with low-income in the legislature, in class action lawsuits, and before administrative agencies. MEJP formed so that advocacy and litigation services for Mainers with low income could continue. They focus mostly on Housing, Food, Health Care, and Income Support.
Karen and Chris led us though a brainstorm session to imagine the sort of future we wanted for Maine. Keeping close to our Collaborative values, we focused on possibilities instead of problems. You can see the inspiring vision for that future in the first photo below.
We then broke up into small groups around several topics: Basic Needs, Housing, Adult Education & Training, Food, and Health Care. The groups named some of the things that would need to happen to move us towards the future we described together. Those ideas can be seen in photos 2-6 below.
Lastly, we were each given 6 sticky dots. We were free to use these to vote for the ideas in any way we wanted—by placing all six dots on one idea, or voting for six different ideas with one dot apiece, or any combination in-between. This was a way to rough out the priorities of the people in the room. The following ideas rose to the top with each topic:
Food: more access and availability for pantries that have healthy foods (especially fresh fruits and vegetables)
Housing: incentivizing investment in low-income housing
Adult Education & Training: add skills/vocational training to adult education
Food: subsidies for local farmers to increase the affordability of local products (tied for votes with “drastically improve the quality and nutrition of food in schools—more whole foods, less sugar and processed foods”)
Health Care: public health departments in every county
MEJP stressed that amazing things can come out of listening sessions like this. For instance, last year rural listening sessions identified transportation as a persistent challenge for much of Maine. This resulted in plans to bring to Maine a program called “Working Cars for Working Families.” The program should be launched early next year to provide help for working families by assisting them with purchasing vehicles.
Maine Equal Justice will take the results of this and other listening sessions to inform their legislative agenda. They will look for the areas where the community priorities we identified, their mission, and legislative opportunity intersect and build a legislative approach around that. While many suggestions clearly align, there are some suggestions beyond the scope of Maine Equal Justice. In those cases, Maine Equal Justice is happy to help us think about what other partners are available to advance that work.