Feb. 19—LEWISTON — In the middle of Andrea Breau's research on Lewiston teens, the Lewiston High School soccer team was thrust into the national spotlight because of its championship team made up mostly of refugee students.
During a Great Falls Forum discussion Thursday, Breau, a youth studies scholar, said the team's success became a story of unity through sport, but that it was also an example of how the broader conversation on race in the community can be skewed.
Breau said that in a community that has seen rapid demographic changes, Lewiston youth are increasingly seen as able to bridge the multicultural divide, but that it often comes at the expense of discussing the underlying issues of racism.
"The feel-good story encourages us not to talk about racism," she said.
For her research in 2015 and 2016, Breau interviewed 43 teens at the Lewiston Public Library, which also hosted Thursday's virtual forum. Most were between ages 15 and 17, and 29 identified as Black.
According to Breau, the interviews examined "the ways that youth themselves draw on place to make meaning of their past, present and future selves," and the research "challenges the harmful yet commonplace belief that youth are either those who need to 'be saved' or those who will 'save us all.'"
Breau shared a response from one former student reflecting on the soccer team's success, who said "it brought people together," but also revealed that many "only want to claim the Somalis or immigrants when it's something beneficial or when there's an incentive."
The student went on to say: "It's kind of a way to avoid the root problem, like, 'Yay! We're such a great community.' But, once that 90 minutes is over, it is right back to having Somalis, and it's back to reality."
Breau said reality is youth's everyday experience with racism and segregation in the community, and "the story of the championship is an incentive to avoid its root cause."
Another teen responded that when the soccer team won, it kind of gave a "face" to the Somali community, but that it overlooked their struggle.
Breau said a member of the team told her that before the championship, a white friend's parents would not allow him to hang out with the friend, but after they recognized the soccer player's name from media coverage, it was deemed OK.
In response to a later question about whether events like the soccer championships should still be seen in the same regard, Breau said: "The happiness and pleasure that you feel watching (a soccer game), those are very real feelings. It's more what we do with those feelings. It causes harm if they largely allow us to deny entrenched racism in our communities, saying, "No, no, we're good, see?"
Breau said it is not about feeling guilty, but more about asking ourselves about the effects of those stories.
During the talk, Breau scrutinized media coverage from the past decade surrounding Lewiston's demographic shift, saying even stories that feature youth accomplishments do not feature youth voices.
She pointed to a 2016 feature on the "CBS Evening News" titled, "After bumpy start, Maine town embraces African immigrants."
The segment features mostly the then-high school principal and discussion of the soccer team. She said both examples used to describe a community coming together stem from youth, but "we don't really hear from youth."
Asked later if the answers she heard from teens might be different today, especially following the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, Breau said she expected they would, especially from white students. She said the past year "has sort of shocked some white folks awake," and that they are now talking about issues that include racial justice.
Breau also mentioned Lewiston's recent equity and diversity committee discussions.
Breau, who lives in Lewiston, received her doctorate in women's, gender and sexuality studies from The Ohio State University, where she taught for nearly a decade.
She graduated from Colby College in Waterville, and has worked for Lewiston Public Schools and the Lewiston Public Library.
Most recently, she has coordinated the Diverse BookFinder at Bates College in Lewiston, launching an online tool to help public librarians across the United States diversify their children's book collections.
Breau also sits on the Androscoggin County Committee of the Maine Community Foundation.