By Raymond P. Diamond
November 7 was election day, and candidate Usira Ali, age 23, won Portland’s vacant At-Large School Board seat. A recent graduate of Bowdoin College, Ali wants to help Portland’s school system, which she said gave her a myriad of opportunities growing up. Ali believes her membership on the school board will align perfectly with her goal of helping to improve the educational experience of the next generation, making it more accessible and successful for students than it is now.
Born in Somalia, but a Mainer for much of her life, Ali said she will bring to the school board an alternative set of experiences from those of most members. As a young child, Ali moved to Massachusetts from South Africa, and then her family moved to Maine when she was 12. She grew up attending schools in Portland and graduated from Bowdoin College in 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, and a minor in gender and women’s studies. She is convinced that her youth and background provide important lenses through which to view Portland’s increasingly diverse schools.
Ali lives with her mother, father, and three siblings. She had no choice but to grow up more quickly than her counterparts because she had to take on the task of helping her family members navigate difficult language and cultural barriers in their new country.
“When you come here and your parents don’t speak English and they might not have gone to school … as immigrant kids, you come here and you have other responsibilities that are not the same as your peers in your school,” she said.
Ali attributes some of her academic success to opportunities she was given through mentorships during her high school and college years, and strongly believes that improving the quality of mentorships – both peer-to-peer mentorships, and those between adults and children – is a priority when looking at the needs of children. She found mentors through her advocacy and outreach work for healthcare for women from immigrant communities in Maine. One such relationship was through Greater Portland Health. A mentor also helped her through the college application process.
Ali feels very lucky to have had good working relationships with all her mentors. The one who helped her understand the college application process emphasized the importance of the college essay, and helped her with it. “The way we worked together … extracted the most beautiful way to write my story,” she said, because her mentor helped her understand what the college essay should accomplish. Without his help, she would not have understood the stakes of the essay. One of her goals is to make the turbulent, difficult transition to college more culturally accessible for the next generation.
Vying for a position on Portland’s school board was not her attempt at breaking into the political sphere of Maine. On the contrary, she said, she wants to help the youth of tomorrow and give back to Portland’s school system as well as to her own immigrant community.