Can efforts to increase belonging help Maine communities attract and retain young people? Can efforts to increase belonging help Maine communities attract and retain young people?

One Working Communities Challenge team in Maine is hoping to find out One Working Communities Challenge team in Maine is hoping to find out

June 15, 2023

Residents in Bath, Maine – an aging state facing a shortfall of younger workers – are increasing efforts to support young people and help them feel connected to their communities, so they’re more likely to stay.

As part of those efforts, the Sagadahoc Working Communities Challenge team is co-hosting the city's first-ever Pride event, which aims to bring together younger community members to celebrate June’s Pride month.

The celebration at Waterfront Park is being put on with local parents and several organizations, including the Bath Art Hop and Mid Coast Hospital. The family-friendly event is part of a larger effort, according to the challenge’s team leader, Liz Kovarsky. She said towns across Maine, especially in rural areas, are watching too many people move away after high school, and that’s leaving businesses and other organizations short on employees.

“(Young people) are telling us, ‘There aren't enough well-paying jobs, my community doesn’t value me, and I don’t feel accepted here … so I’d rather leave if I have the means to,’” Kovarsky said. “This event is a chance to promote belonging and connectedness, and to say, ‘You are valued.’”

Working Communities team member Claire Berkowitz, president and CEO of Midcoast Maine Community Action, said the state simply can’t keep losing its young people.

“As more people retire and there aren’t enough young people to follow them, it’s going to be a real issue,” she said. “It’s sobering (to think about) what the future will hold in 10 years if we can’t educate our youth and have them ready to take on these jobs, which are the backbone of our community.”

Local leaders: Engaging youth in community is critical to Maine’s economic future

The Working Communities Challenge is part of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Places initiative, which supports local collaboration to strengthen the economies of northern New England’s rural towns, regions, and smaller cities.

In Maine, LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to experience violence and less likely to have support from adults than their peers, according to the state’s Integrated Youth Health Survey. They also report higher rates of substance use and face significantly worse mental health outcomes.

Peter Nalli, a senior community analyst in the Boston Fed’s Regional & Community Outreach department, said helping those youth doesn’t just serve a significant community interest. It also supports the Federal Reserve’s Congressional mandate to promote maximum employment.

“If we want to promote healthy economies in which nearly everyone who wants to work has a job, then we have to make a conscious effort to support opportunities for all young people,” he said. “If young people feel more welcome and excited to be in their hometowns, it makes sense that they would be more likely to stay, strengthening the local economy.”

Kovarsky said many local businesses around town donated goods and services to be raffled off, and about 20 groups will have tables set up. There will also be live performances, art, music, food, and facepainting.

Bath Art Hop committee member Shannon Els, who works for the art therapy nonprofit ArtVan, said efforts to promote a sense of belonging for youth need to be expansive and continuous.

“It’s important that we carry the energy from Pride forward in order to create a safer, more supportive community,” she said.

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