By Ulya Aligulova
Amran Osman and Sunday Maker are two of the 12 ambitious members of the second Civic and Community Engagement Fellowship originally launched by Portland City Councilor Pious Ali in 2020. Housed within Portland Empowered, an education nonprofit, the fellowship aims to fill a void that high school graduates from racial or ethnic minority groups in Maine, including immigrants, have repeatedly told Ali they have experienced in Maine. That void includes hands-on exposure to professional skills, and development of a network of people from similar backgrounds who could support one another. The current cohort met as a group for the first time on June 11. Because of the pandemic, there was no cohort in 2021.
Osman and Maker, both college students in their 20s, have big dreams. Osman is the Community Resource Coordinator at Gateway Community Services, a nonprofit organization that supports the immigrant communities in Portland and Lewiston. She is also starting her own nonprofit organization, Generational Noor, with a mission of tackling the opioid epidemic, particularly among immigrant populations. “I thought that this fellowship would help me build leadership skills, and get more connections with my community, which would be very helpful with what I’m doing,” she said.
Maker is a political science major at the University of Southern Maine. “One of my passions in life is to go to law school, and I’d love to see a person of color come and talk to us about their experience with law school, and with being a lawyer.” Maker said she applied to the fellowship because of its goal of creating a new generation of young leaders in Maine.
“We’ve only had our first meeting, and so far, I’ve already gotten to meet other youth in their 20s, from Maine, who are also trying to navigate through life. Learning about their journeys – and how they got where they are in life – has been eye opening and inspiring,” she said.
The fellowship’s two-day sessions will be held every three weeks for the next six months. Ali, Portland City Councilor At-Large and founding director of Portland Empowered, an education nonprofit that aims to build bridges and create reform in Portland schools and beyond, said he first got the idea for this fellowship when he was a Gather Fellow of Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit focused on personal transformation and societal change.
“I’ve worked with youth ever since I moved to Portland,” said Ali. “When they’re in high school, there’s a lot of support available to them. But once they get to college and beyond, those support systems no longer exist. And if a young person comes from a family that has never been to college, or a family that’s not from this country, there’s no one who has an understanding of the university or the workplace environment, that can help them.”
Things did not go as expected for the first cohort. Ali had just launched it in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But Ali and the fellows rallied, and the whole fellowship was moved online. “The first cohort was kind of like a pilot for that reason,” he explained.
Ali strives to make the fellowship experience responsive to the needs of the participants. “Because I work with a lot of young people who are coming of age, many of them reach out to me with their struggles. I had this idea of a seminary, or collegiate training, that’s more experience-based than curriculum-based. It’s not a mentorship, but a fellowship, meaning that instead of just telling students how to do certain things, we bring together people from a similar background as them – who have faced the challenges that they’re facing, and who have succeeded – to tell their stories.”
And when people apply to be part of the fellowship, they state in the application what they’d like to learn about. Then Ali seeks out people who have those skills, both locally and nationally, to come and speak. “For example, one session we had people who wanted to learn about housing – how to find housing, how to buy housing. So, we invited people from the big housing coalitions to come and speak.” What’s unique about this fellowship is that it brings in speakers who are from similar backgrounds as the participants.
“A lot of young people have said to me that they’ve never had this opportunity before to be in a space where there are professional people that come from a similar lived experience as them.”— Pious Ali
Osman reflected on her new organization, Generational Noor, and her hopes for the fellowship. “With Generational Noor, we’re aiming to help destigmatize conversations around addiction, advocate for counseling, get people the help they deserve, as well as help parents to learn how to speak to their children and teach youth to reach out for help. We haven’t received our 501(c)3 status yet but we’ve already had two roundtables. Additionally, as someone who wants to go into politics, I would like to meet more Black politicians and policy makers because there aren’t a lot of them in Maine, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to do that during this fellowship,” Osman said.
In addition to networking and the development of leadership skills that she knows are invaluable, Sunday Maker has her eye on what is immediately practical. “We’ll be focusing on building our professional selves, and learning how to write a resume, and improve our LinkedIn in accounts, which will be very helpful because I’ll be looking for a job once I graduate,” she said.
For more information about the Civic and Community Engagement Fellowship, contact [email protected].