By Stephanie Harp
Samaa Abdurraqib likes to say she grew up in the Land of Buckeyes, moved to the Land of Dairy, and lives in the Land of Lobsters. But she’s modest about her string of accomplishments along the way from Ohio to Wisconsin to Maine. These include acquiring an English literature Ph.D., teaching at Bowdoin College, working at the ACLU of Maine and the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, and facilitating and training for a variety of organizations, before landing in her newest position as assistant director of Maine Humanities Council. She also founded and directs community aid fund For Us, By Us; is a leader for Outdoor Afro – Portland, a board member of Mabel Wadsworth Center and Survivor Speak, and a member of the Indigo Arts Alliance advisor circle; and is concentrating on writing and publishing her poetry.
While she was sad to leave the domestic violence field, Abdurraqib was excited to join Maine Humanities Council (MHC), where she is involved in programing, outreach, and grantmaking. As a contracted facilitator for MHC since 2014, she knew about their diversity, equity, and inclusion work, and now concentrates on those priorities from the inside. Next year’s Readers Retreat will focus on Black science fiction. “This job is like a return to books and literature,” she said. “It’s so exciting to be able to spend time at work on texts that I love.”
Since joining MHC in March, she’s had more time to focus on her writing. “I started writing poetry again in 2017, and I just am really determined to write and share it.” She calls poetry her “vulnerability project,” saying the work pushes her. “Even when it feels awkward, I’m reading publicly as much as I can, trying to get published as much as I can.” This includes Each Day Is Like an Anchor, a chapbook published in 2020.
After the 2016 election, she and a friend established For Us, By Us. “We were hearing from Black and Brown people looking for safe places to gather and ways to get connected to each other. We knew people needed funds to do things. We started it not knowing what it was going to be.” Donors are folks in the community who are able to make small, monthly contributions. “People put in fairly simple requests for funds. If we have capacity, we fund that,” Abdurraqib said. Early requests came from organizers and artists; recently more requests have been for mutual aid, demonstrating the great need. “To be honest, the need for mutual aid came faster than I was ready for. I tend to work with a couple of organizers, and say, ‘Hey, let’s work on this thing together.’ Most of the management of it is honestly just me.” Pre-COVID-19, news about the fund spread by word of mouth. Now with a revamped website, the process is more formalized but still is very low-barrier.
She was born and raised Muslim to parents who converted. “My faith is really important to me. I was raised in a Muslim family, but not in a Muslim country. The culture outside of my home was not a Muslim culture. Staying connected to my faith is an important choice that is very meaningful to me.” Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, and during college, she was part of strong Muslim communities; such connections have taken her longer to establish in Maine, especially as a Muslim without an immigrant story in her background.
Among Abdurraqib’s favorite activities is leading a chapter of Outdoor Afro, a national organization working to make the outdoors more accessible to Black and Brown folks. For three years, she has led monthly kayaking, hiking, cross-country skiing, and other events for eight to 30 people, including children. “I feel like I’ve done many things in my life, but I will say that being connected to Outdoor Afro brings me some of the deepest joy I’ve felt.” She loves the in-person, national leadership trainings, though they’ve been canceled for two years. “We convene in a beautiful place – like NatureBridge Center in California’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area – and I’m surrounded by anywhere from 80-90 other Black folks who like to be outdoors in a bunch of different ways.” She especially likes meeting other birdwatchers. “I don’t get to know other Black birders. But when I go there, I meet all these other people who love birding. And I’ve gotten other Black folks in Maine excited about birding.”
Abdurraqib is very, very busy. But she made a point of mentioning another source of joy – her 10-year-old cat, Stashiell Hammett, “like the writer Dashiell Hammett,” she said, calling him “the most charming and attractive cat in the world.” Somehow, she finds time for him, too.