Nyalat Biliew is running for the at-large seat on the Portland school board because she believes she has important personal experience and perspectives to share. Originally from the South Sudanese Nuer tribe, Biliew moved to Portland with her family in 2004. “I’m running for the school board because I want to create a safe space for BIPOC students to learn and to be heard. I want to use my experiences to identify where change is needed and address it,” she said. “I want to encourage the creation of a system that centers equity, diversity, and inclusion and one that’s dedicated to anti-racism work. It’s important that it’s not a one-off thing; it needs to be an ongoing process.”
As soon as she enrolled in school in South Portland in 2004, she felt tension between white students and BIPOC students. She also felt discrimination from teachers. “It was a very isolating experience. People would use the fact that I was in the English Language Learner program to insinuate that I wasn’t smart, that I didn’t have the capacity to be a regular student. I was constantly being shown and told that I wasn’t good enough because of my immigrant status. Some teachers would single me out. They would be very nitpicky about the rules with me, but not with other students. It often felt like they were exerting their dominance, rather than educating me.”
After earning a degree in political science from the University of Southern Maine, Biliew became a community organizer who is very passionate about social, environmental, and economic justice. Until recently, she worked as a community health promotion specialist at the Portland Public Health Division. Currently, she’s the advocacy and community organizing manager at Good Shepherd Food Bank.
If elected, Biliew wants to focus on both adult education and PreK-12 education. She said, “A lot of BIPOC students’ parents are immigrants who don’t understand the new culture, and often don’t have a high school diploma or a lot of education or opportunities. So adult education can fill that gap and allow them to learn about the culture, get an education, and have more opportunities. This way they can be more present in their children’s school life. My mother was unable to be as present in my education as I needed her to be because of cultural, language, and educational barriers. But when she started taking adult education classes, she was more able to understand what I was going through.”
Biliew believes anti-racist training and facilitation is essential for school staff and board members so they can better understand and support students of all ages. “Children’s education and their experiences during school shape their whole life. It’s important for policy makers to understand institutional racism and how it disenfranchises some of the students. White teachers simply don’t understand the experiences of BIPOC students, and what’s lacking is their capacity to be fully present in the learning of those kids.”