As a mental health case manager at Gateway Community Services, Yusuf Yusuf works with Portland Public School students and families, giving him insight into what holds people back from achieving their goals. “I decided to run for office and see if I can participate in changing policies because I know that policies are what matters,” Yusuf said. He is seeking the Portland School Board’s At-Large seat.
Yusuf fled from civil war in his home in Somalia, lived in Damascus, Syria, for six years, before arriving in the U.S. in 2007 and settling in Seattle, Washington. He worked, became a citizen, and earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Western Washington University. In 2016, he moved to Maine. “I was trying to explore the East Coast and see different areas, different people, and different environments. So that’s what brought me here,” he said. He likes Portland, its visitors, lobster, “and all the beautiful things.”
After becoming a citizen, Yusuf became involved as a community organizer. He remains passionate about serving and giving back. “When I came here, I just followed a dream of helping others,” he said. At Gateway Community Services, he works with children, students, and adults. “I have passion about doing that because when I first arrived, I had the same process. I had a case manager and an interpreter, and that gives me motivation every day. I’m doing the same services that I had – for new people, as well as for the students and the school system.”
Yusuf’s top priorities for School Board are ensuring that schools meet the needs of students with learning disabilities and their families; closing the opportunity gap for minorities, immigrants, or those living in poverty; and making pre-kindergarten available to every family. Universal pre-K, he said, will help families go to work if they are financially struggling, and equalize starting points so no student is left behind. This helps close the opportunity gap, as do mentorships. One task at Gateway is helping youth find mentorship opportunities. He’s seen how effective a strong program can be. The most important thing, he said, is giving students a welcoming environment where they see themselves included. Currently, 47% of Portland Public School students are not white. Yusuf will prioritize including achievements by people of color in the curriculum and hiring more administrators and teachers who are people of color. Having local education students intern in the schools and find ways to encourage them to remain after graduation can help increase representation.
Yusuf’s close relationship with community leaders, organizations, and families would help the School Board build bridges and include parent voices in decision-making, he said. His biggest motivation is helping youth. “One thing I learned working with youth. They look up to you, up to someone who can be a role model.” He wants to tell them, “Yes, you have a place here. Whatever you put in your mind, you can achieve, no matter what difficulty is put in your way.”
Dina Yacoubagha knows exactly why she is running for Bangor City Council. “I want to continue to give back to the city that I love tremendously, and that has given me and my family so much.” She and her husband moved to the U.S. from their native Syria 25 years ago, spent a few years in Canada, then settled in Bangor. After considering another move to give their two sons more opportunities, Yacoubagha began volunteering at Literacy Volunteers of Bangor, then at her kids’ schools. She met more people and started liking the city.
In graduate school for teaching English Language Learners, she attended a Food AND Medicine annual meeting. “That was the turning point, honestly, about my whole life,” she said. “It was a calling I felt for social and economic justice.” Food AND Medicine works toward economic and social justice by addressing root causes of poverty. “I felt that was exactly where my passion is. I ‘found myself’ in that meeting.” She earned a University of Maine master’s degree in social work, building on her natural love of people. “I wanted to understand these issues: social justice, economic, mental health, diversity, inclusion.” Her education opened her eyes. “Not everyone is capable of making choices,” she said. “Sometimes you’re so depressed that your situation is controlling you.”
Yacoubagha said, “I feel so proud of Bangor’s economic growth and resilience in the face of COVID-19, and I want to build on our strength. I think we can do so much because we are strong together.” Her City Council priorities are racial equity, economic development, and public services. She wants to have constructive conversations among all stakeholders about racism, equity, and inclusion, and to “create more diversity in city employment, including among firefighters, the police department, and our school system.” She will seek community input about the challenges for small, local businesses due to COVID-19 and find ways to address them, including job training for people reentering the workforce after being laid off, during recovery, or after incarceration. “We must address the needs of the disadvantaged in our community. Homelessness, substance abuse, mental health – they are all intertwined. We can’t address one without addressing the others,” she said. Infrastructure is a broad priority, too, including expanding the bus system, ensuring that city employees have protective equipment, making the city friendlier and safer for seniors, and creating programs that generate safe, affordable, code-compliant housing. “The prices are ridiculous, even for professionals,” she said.
In addition to Food AND Medicine, Yacoubagha has ties to a number of area organizations: Partners for Peace, where she did an internship and stayed to volunteer; mentoring high school girls through the Olympia Snowe Institute; and Faith Linking in Action, where area faith groups jointly address community issues like poverty, social injustice, economic injustice, and racial diversity. Now Yacoubagha knows she is home: “Wherever I go,” she said, “I feel like this is my family.”
Excerpted by Amjambo Africa from a personal essay provided by the candidate, who was not available for an interview before press time
Nyalat Biliew is running for Portland School Board’s At-Large seat because she wants to make sure that Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) “have a safe space where they can learn effectively and comfortably, and have their voices heard.” A first-generation immigrant, Biliew grew up attending Portland schools and graduated from the University of Southern Maine in May 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a minor in race and ethnic studies.
“My personal experiences as a former student have helped me recognize where improvements can be made, and I will seek to use such firsthand experiences to advocate for effective change,” Biliew said. “I will fight for the inclusion and diversity that this school system greatly needs. I will stand, represent, and advocate for BIPOC students, their parents, and staff. I will work to close the gap in the involvement of parents of color in the school system. Most importantly, in order to create a better accepting and diverse school system, I will work to create a school environment where students of color and students with marginalized identities (i.e. folks from the LGBTQI+ community) can enjoy the same opportunities, privileges, comfort, and confidence as all their peers.”
Troubled by a discussion at a recent school board meeting about School Resource Officers (SROs) at Deering and Portland high schools, Biliew had looked forward to the meeting. “Knowing the experience I and other people of color have faced at Portland Public Schools, I understood the need to represent the voices of Black students [at the meeting] and speak my truth about SROs and the normalized racism that students of color experience.” According to Biliew, when she began to speak about what she had witnessed, and expressed what many others with similar experiences had voiced to her, she was told it was against policy to speak about specific officers, which she had done. Biliew said she felt the need to talk about a particular officer in order to make her point, and perceived that she was shut down because the view she was expressing “did not affect the larger majority.” She felt silenced.
“As a Black woman, I was silenced for attempting to shed light and create an honest and open dialogue, as this did not affect the larger majority. I was thoroughly disappointed by the fact that the voices of BIPOC are being silenced in the Portland Public Schools. Such attitudes reinforced the racism and anti-Blackness that I and many others experienced when at Riverton Elementary School, Lincoln Middle School, and Deering High School.”
Biliew said, “I am a first-generation immigrant, who is proud to represent and serve the community that raised me!”
South Portland City Councilor Deqa Dhalac was elected to represent District 5 in 2018, and decided to run for a second term this year because, “Representation matters. With what’s going on in the country, with the division we are seeing, with the changes happening locally and nationally, my work is not done yet.” Dhalac is proud of what she helped South Portland accomplish during her first term in office, is pleased about the direction South Portland has taken in recent years, and looks forward to the work ahead. “South Portland has been doing amazing work,” she said. She is running unopposed.
During her first term, Dhalac successfully encouraged South Portland to join Cities for Citizenship, a national initiative to encourage citizenship and civic engagement. She helped pass a 2019 resolution supporting accelerated climate action. More recently, after the city passed a resolution condemning racism in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, she proposed the creation of the South Portland Human Rights Commission. “I didn’t want us to make a statement and think that work was done. We have to look at human beings in general – not just a small privileged group, but also the elderly, disabled, LGBTQ – we formed the commission because we wanted all people to be helped. People are angry, and energized around issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity. I wanted to create a commission that would be long-term, and not easy to get rid of, unlike many such commissions and steering committees, which are set up for the short term.”
Dhalac expressed concern that institutions do not always work for everyone. “We need to figure out why local police stop more people of color than their white peers. And when we look to fill positions, and advertise, we need to be sure we are reaching people of color.” She noted that when new marijuana stores are approved, “all the new shops are always approved for District 5. Why not for other districts?” Other major issues concerning those living in her district are generally the same as those impacting residents of the other four districts: the environment, jobs, education, short-term rentals, and affordable housing.
Originally from a politically active family in Somalia, Deqa Dhalac has lived in South Portland for 12 years, and the United States for 28 years. Before fleeing war-torn Somalia, she studied English, Italian, and Arabic, and earned a degree in accounting. Since moving to Maine, she has earned two master’s degrees – one in social work and the other in development policy and practice. She works as the Family Engagement and Cultural Responsiveness specialist at the Maine Department of Education, has served as a leader of the Somali Community Center of Maine since 2011, and is on the boards of I’m Your Neighbor Books and Emerge Maine. She is co-founder of Cross-Cultural Community Services.