By Magdaline Mbong

Founded as a social justice and civic engagement nonprofit by Safiya Khalid and Mohamed Khalid of Lewiston, the Community Organizing Alliance (COA) seeks to elevate voices that have been historically under-represented. The goal is assisting people in shaping their own communities, and helping to create a more inclusive democracy.

Scott Turcotte, COA’s program manager, explained the organization’s focus on young people. “Ten years, 20 years, 30 years from now, these young people are going to be the people in positions of power, making decisions. So we want to make sure that boys and girls, and BIPOC folks and [people with] immigrant backgrounds in Lewiston and around the state are all part of the political conversation.”

Safiya Kalid and Nairus Abdullahi

At the moment, according to Turcotte, many young BIPOC people in Lewiston feel marginalized. “They feel like their voice doesn’t count as much because they come from a different background – one that maybe the people they see in politics don’t come from,” he said. And they see that the legislative body in Augusta is largely homogeneous, with very few people of color. But COA’s goal is “to make sure that they know that their voices count just as much as everybody else,” Turcotte said.

All of COA’s programming is educational, including events, workshops, discussions, and outings. Programming is mostly guided by the interests and needs of the young people themselves. As such, they do a number of events where they just talk with young people to learn what issues are most important to them.

Sometimes COA partners with other organizations, such as on February 8 at the Lewiston Public Library when COA, the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, and Maine Youth Power co-sponsored an event that attracted a large and diverse crowd of young people. The goal was to encourage youth to engage with the political process, and speakers included Scott Harriman, Lewiston City Council president from Ward 3, and organizer and former legislator Safiya Khalid.

Fatima, a high school student who attended the February 9 event, said that she learned a lot from the speakers and felt inspired to take action. She said, “I think it’s important for us to have a voice and to make a difference in our community. I want to be a leader and help others who are facing the same challenges as me.”

A few days later, on February 13, COA led a group to the State House in Augusta to put all the talk about political engagement into practice. The young people attended a hearing in support of LD 1215, “An Act to End the Sale of Flavored Tobacco Products.” They carried placards and placed themselves right in the front row, eager to learn from the proceedings.

Turcotte emphasized the importance of such gatherings. “It’s all about the future. And young folks – you know, high school age, college age – these are the years when young people decide whether they’re going to be a part of the process or say, ‘Hey, that’s not for me.’ ”