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Office of the Secretary of State

February 28, 2021

Shenna Bellows

Many people believe that we shouldn’t dedicate one day or one month to something as important as Black History. That may be true but I also note that there are a lot of educators and organizations that take the time to recognize, learn and celebrate the history of black people during February each year. The month sheds light on the importance of what black people have done throughout history. The events of the past year have moved us to a different place and hopefully we are making progress in learning, understanding, and truth and will continue to do so every month. I’m not in the position to measure and nor is it our jobs as educators to do so but it is our responsibility to recognize where we are and incorporate an understanding into our curricula.

Painting of Frederick Douglass by Rob Shetterly, Americans Who Tell the Truth

Shenna Bellows was elected in December by the Maine Legislature to be the 50th Secretary of State. Shenna is the first woman to hold the position and she brings to it a wealth of experience and understanding. Earlier in February Shenna was the guest on a webinar sponsored by Midcoast Women. They provide opportunities for women in the midcoast to find and strengthen their individual and collective voices. Shenna said that when she was a young girl she started carrying a copy of the US Constitution in her pocket, she was so enthralled with it.

Shenna contacted Maine painter Rob Shetterly and invited him to display some of his Amercans Who Tell the Truth AWTT paintings in her Augusta office in recognition of Black History Month. If you’re not familiar with Rob’s paintings he has created over 250 paintings of Americans who are “Truth Tellers”. The portraits and narratives highlight citizens who courageously address issues of social, environmental, and economic fairness. AWTT offers resources to inspire a new generation of engaged Americans who will act for the common good, our communities, and the Earth.

Painting of John Lewis by Rob Shetterly, Americans to Tell the Truth

Message from Rob

The exhibit in the Office of the Secretary of State is about the people and the art and the history of the United States. The intent of the portraits is several fold: by painting historical figures as vividly as I would a contemporary person, I’m trying to convey that each one is in a sense as alive right now as they were in their era. The issues of racism and  Constitutional values are still urgent, what they had to say is as relevant now as it was then. And the importance of a good portrait is that it can honor the person as  words sometimes fail to do. Partly that’s because of the time necessary, the commitment, to create a living person. That is, if I say the name Frederick Douglass to you it elicits a different response than if I show you a portrait which conveys his character and courage. I think this year because of Black Live Matter and Covid, we are realizing how deeply entwined racism is in our history and culture. The portraits are of people who need now as much as ever to be our teachers. It’s important to choose teachers who tell us the most truth. The office of the Secretary of State are where laws are meant to be enforced equitably. The portraits acknowledge the struggle of the past and the present to rout out racist law.

Painting of Frances Perkins by Rob Shetterly, Americans Who Tell the Truth

Shenna has the portraits of Frederick Douglass, John Lewis, Frances Perkins and Sojourner Truth in her office. You might be wondering why Shenna wanted these paintings in her office. Shenna was kind enough to share her reasons along with answering several questions that provide the Maine Arts Education blog readers Shenna’s thoughts on ‘truth tellers’ and the messages that the paintings portray.

What inspired you to want to hang AWTT portraits in your  office?

When I served in the Maine Senate, I sat at a desk with a portrait of President Lincoln behind  me. That portrait inspired my work in the Maine Senate, but I was also mindful that in the Legislature, we were surrounded by portraits of white men, and I thought that sent the wrong message about who can lead, especially to children who came to tour the State House. When  it came time to decorate the office of Secretary of State, I wanted portraits of those great heroes who have shaped social justice and especially voting rights. As the first female Secretary of State, I wanted to be sure women were included.

What message do you want to communicate with the AWTT paintings in your office?

The Office of Secretary of State is committed to racial and social justice, and we’re taking the lessons learned from some of the great heroes of civil rights to carry their work forward. I also want to send a message that some of the greatest heroes in advancing justice in our country have been women and African Americans.

Painting of Sojourner Truth by Rob Shetterly, Americans Who Tell the Truth

Why did you choose the ones she did? Are there any personal stories that connect you specifically to these portraits?

The portraits I chose are my some of my own heroes. When I was a kid growing up in Hancock, I had a copy of the Bill of Rights on my bedroom wall. I was committed to the ideals laid out in that document, but it’s taken me a lifetime to continue to learn some of our country’s hard history. In 2003, I went to work for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Washington, DC, and I was assigned to work on building a national campaign to engage activists in calling for reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.  That was the beginning of my professional work to advance voting rights, and it also marked the beginning of my deeper learning and inquiry into the work of heroes like Hon. John Lewis, Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth. In 2009, when I was at the ACLU of Maine where I was Executive Director, the Frances Perkins Center gave me an award as a future woman leader. I received a glass hat modeled in the shape of the one Frances Perkins wore and a copy of her biography. Her work inspired me when I went on to chair the Labor and Housing Committee in the Legislature.

What inspires you to take action?

My parents inspired me first. We were poor. I grew up without electricity or running water until the fifth grade. But my mom ran for the planning board to save a bald eagle’s nest and won. My dad protested the nuclear arms race and helped create our town’s recycling center. My parents demonstrated the importance of acting upon one’s values to make a difference. People who choose justice and truth sometimes at great personal cost inspire me to act.

What gives you  courage?

Love and friendship give me courage. When I’m embarking on something that is very difficult, I look to the people I love and respect and the hard choices they have sometimes made to advance justice, and that gives me courage.

If you were to choose a “truth-teller” for an AWTT portrait, who would it be?

Chief Clarissa Sabattis, Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. I met her through the Holocaust and Human Rights Center where we collaborated on a project to lift up Maine’s black and brown heroes. I then watched her present to the Maine State Legislature on amendments to the Indian Land Claims Settlement Act. She is an amazing leader.

How does being Maine’s Secretary of State enable you to advance the cause of justice?

The Maine Secretary of State oversees Maine State Archives, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the Bureau of Corporations, Elections and Commissions. With Maine State Archives, we can lift up the history of traditionally marginalized communities and restore access to archival documents to Maine’s Wabanaki tribes. With the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, we can reform the laws surrounding license suspension to ensure we’re not criminalizing poverty. We can also advance credentialing and licensing at the BMV to ensure equal access, especially for immigrant and refugee communities, people experiencing homelessness and other vulnerable communities. At the Division of Elections, we can work to reform our voting laws to make voting as convenient, accessible and secure as possible for all Mainers. At every level of the Department, as Secretary of State, I can promote representation in hiring and appointments and inclusion and equity in our policies and service to the public.

This is one of two blog posts about the AWTT paintings on display at this time in the Capitol Complex.

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