There are two Somali Americans running for seats in the Maine Legislature this year, and a growing number of Mainers from immigrant backgrounds are seeking, and winning, positions in municipal government. Still, some say much more representation is needed in the state.
That's one point that came up during a virtual roundtable discussion hosted by Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald to hear what's on the minds of four younger voters from immigrant backgrounds ahead of the midterms.
The discussion was facilitated by Maine Public reporter Ari Snider, and Portland Press Herald photojournalist Sofia Aldinio traveled across southern Maine to photograph the participants.
- Sulwan Ahmed, 22, of Portland is Muslim life adviser at Bowdoin College and a youth advisory board member of the Community Organizing Alliance. Born in Sudan, Ahmed grew up in Portland.
- Amran Osman, 24, of Lewiston is community resource coordinator at Gateway Community Services and founder of Generational Noor. A Somali born in Kenya, Osman grew up in Lewiston.
- Sosanya Pok, 32, of Biddeford is financial management specialist with Attendant Services Maine and board secretary of Khmer Maine. Born in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand, Pok grew up in Scarborough.
- Mohamed Awil, 27, of Lewiston is founder of Community Staffing Partners and board member of Trinity Jubilee Center. A Somali, Awil grew up in Kenya and Lewiston.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Snider: So the first question that I wanted to start off with here is a general one. What issues are most important to you? And you can think as broadly or as as locally as you want with this.
Osman: To me, the issues that are important is just making sure that the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) voice is heard. Specifically, as someone who's been working within the field of substance use disorders, that's one of the issues that I've been adamant about making sure that I know who's running and what they're thinking regarding that. And hoping that they're more so into mental health and getting people the help that they need and deserve instead of getting people more incarcerated. So making sure that they're pro getting people help. I hope that those people running make sure that the BIPOC voice is heard, people of color specifically, because I realize that when people are running, they're very quick to come to our communities and ask for help. But once they get their positions, we're not in the forefront anymore.
Pok: So in general, the huge issue in this nation is the wealth disparity, you know, the rich keep getting richer, the poor keep getting poor. The rich, and the corporations, are not really paying their taxes, doing their part. So that's something I'd like to see more of, that equity, and justice, and that fairness. And then for this upcoming election, I really want to make sure — I'm crossing my fingers — that our very good abortion laws are not changed or taken away.
Awil: Maine is in trouble when it comes to workforce, we're the oldest state in America. There's less people being born. Young people leaving the state for better, bigger cities. There's a lot of research, a lot of data, that actually shows we're going to be in trouble. So that is definitely one thing I'd like to see addressed by the administration. The second thing is representation. You don't see a lot of folks that come from the communities that they serve being held in leadership roles. And I think more young people need to be at the table, more folks from the communities that are being addressed need to be at the table when the decisions are being made.
Ahmed: I think what's mostly important for me is environmental change, and how that plays into housing disparities of BIPOC communities. I feel like a lot of the conversations around environmental change in Maine are very centered around white people and their positioning to the environment. And we don't realize that housing disparity is also environmental change, especially when you're tackling the immigrant and refugee communities, who are being double, if not triple displaced, due to environmental change, and then gentrification.
What would you like Maine's elected leaders to understand about you, about your life, and about your concerns?
Ahmed: That we're not just there for them to reach their quota and get that vote. We are active members in this community. And we are this community, we sustain this community, we make sure this community thrives. So ensuring that they are continuously having us at the table and finding ways to ensure that we are at the table is really important to me. I would love for politicians to actually learn some languages, because language is such a barrier in these communities. I myself, I grew up here, and I tried to teach myself Portuguese for the students I work with. Just like small things that actually show us, 'Oh, we care about you. And we're trying our best to extend the conversation beyond that of English.'
Pok: One thing I have noticed throughout my life is that, when it comes to immigrants and BIPOC, they just work so hard. And a lot of times, they can't get involved in learning. I know a lot of the Cambodian community, they're so tired. And understandably so, they're just working all the time. And not reaping a lot of the rewards. So I feel that is why BIPOC and immigrants don't get their voices heard as much, because they're just so busy, just trying to survive. So I'd like to see a world where people are not working themselves to the bone as much so that they can enjoy life.
Awil: So one thing I would love to tell our Maine politicians is that one individual does not represent a whole community. Tokenizing folks to really get to a community is not going to work, it's 2022. That tokenism game needs to be over. We need more representation at the table, more young people, more people of color, just along the process of decision making. And that is one thing those elected officials need to know, in order for them to actually connect with the communities.
Osman: I think one thing I want them to understand is that we are a part of the community. We're not important just when it comes to voting, we're important throughout their whole term, and they need to start listening to us. And like Mohamed said, making sure that we're a part of their administration, when they're making changes and choices that affect us, we should be there and at the table. But it seems that people only listen to us when they're running. But once that ends, we're not there anymore. So our voices should be heard.
How do you feel about the political climate in Maine right now?
Pok: I'm seeing more diversity, that's what I'm more hopeful for. But as far as gentrification in this state, especially the Greater Portland area, that's quite a concern there. And it's almost like counterproductive.
Awil: Do I think Maine is politically in great shape? Absolutely not. It's still a work in progress. But are we headed in the right direction with the current administration? Absolutely. Yes.
What are your hopes for the future, both in terms of your own life and where you'd like to see the state go?
Awil: For me, it goes back to diversity and inclusion. It has been our strength. We have seen it during the pandemic. A lot of the workforce are people who are BIPOC, immigrants, doing some of the work that usually native Mainers are not willing to do. And some businesses have figured out the code to hire a bilingual, diverse workforce. And the workforce shortage is real, it needs to be addressed. And it can be addressed by welcoming more new Mainers and making Maine a welcoming place to live, learn and work.
Ahmed: I would like to see more coordination between different BIPOC and other marginalized communities. Just to hear about what is happening in these other communities and how we can support one another, and be there for one another when others can't. I also would love more conversations around Indigenous communities in Maine, and what they want out of Maine, and how we can support them. And also, if I could get rid of the two-party system, I really would.
Pok: I hope to see more diversity. I saw a statistic recently about how Maine is now not the whitest state. It's Vermont, but it's only like point .2%. So I'd like to see more people of diverse backgrounds wanting to move to Maine, and benefiting from moving to Maine.
This project is a collaboration between Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald. You can find the Press Herald's story here.