By Kathreen Harrison
When Amjambo Africa first covered Safiya Khalid in 2019, she was 23 years old and had just announced her candidacy for Lewiston City Council’s Ward 1 seat. She ran on a platform that included a number of goals, one of which was increasing diverse representation in elected office in Maine. Khalid won her council race handily, with almost 70% of the vote, and she went on to serve one term in office as Lewiston’s first Muslim, female, person of color on the Council.
“I ran on bringing the community together, bridging gaps”
But near the end of her first term, to the surprise of some, she announced she would not be running for a second term. She said she would be helping to elect more anti-racist candidates to office instead. In addition, she had earned a full scholarship to study public policy at Northeastern University, and would be enrolling in a master’s degree in public administration – a logical next step for someone of Khalid’s intellect and focus on social justice. She is thrilled at the prospect of graduate study. “Can I take all the classes at once please?” she joked.
If anyone should know why we need more anti-racist candidates, it is Khalid. Her experience of running for office was sobering, to say the least. Her 2019 campaign “went viral,” as she put it. Local right-wing Facebook groups posted anti-Muslim insults and threats. Online trolls got hold of her social media accounts and mounted a smear campaign that was based on race, religion, gender, and her status as a refugee from Somalia. The local police even had to mount guard outside her victory celebration in Lewiston. Despite overwhelming support from the electorate, and “a lot of support in the form of donations and encouragement to get me across the finish line,” she said, the vitriol of the latter part of Khalid’s campaign showed Maine that racist policies and attitudes are still very entrenched in society.
At the same time that Khalid found herself targeted by hate, so did other candidates with similar backgrounds in other parts of the U.S. They formed a sort of informal support system that was comforting to her. “I am not alone,” she realized. In fact, she learned some others were facing even more explicit racist attacks than she was. “I realized the system was built to oppress people like me, but I felt a connection with others across the country, that helped.”
Things settled down somewhat once the campaign was over, and Khalid began her term. But she felt lonely as the only person of color on the Council. And she said it was sometimes hard to find common ground with the other councilors. “Those at the table make decisions based on their lived experiences. What I thought was that we needed to allocate more money to start new programs to help people – but it was hard for other councilors to understand what I was asking for when I spoke about a policy, or an agenda item, because my experience wasn’t their lived experience. It wasn’t their fault. But that’s why having diverse voices is so important. I often felt like I was fighting alone.”
And Khalid found that as the campaign receded, much of her local support system got busy with their own lives, and couldn’t always attend Council meetings, “waiting for one agenda item far down the list late in the meeting.” That was when she realized that candidates need help not only to get elected – they also need help after they are elected. And she began to think about creating a support system for people of color when they are running for office, and also after they are elected. “Because fighting racism is extremely hard – it is exhausting – especially without allies,” Khalid said.
None of this means Khalid regrets her experience on the Council. “I am so grateful for what I have seen and learned. And I did accomplish some of my goals and vision, even though it doesn’t always feel like it.”
But she is looking more to the future now than to the past. She said she wants to remain involved in government, possibly by serving in public office – but not necessarily. The nonprofit sector also attracts her, for example. But whatever she ends up doing when she graduates, she knows it will be centered on equity work. “Change comes from the laws we pass at all levels of government, and policy is at the center of everything …Policy is deeply rooted in creating a society that is just, fair, and equitable, and I want to be involved in that.”
Khalid is gracious about her experience as a candidate and elected official, despite what she suffered. “It was an honor being at the table and representing my ward. It was the privilege of a lifetime to represent my community. And young people in the city have more of a sense of hope and belonging because I was on the Council. ‘Are you in the White House?’ little kids ask me.”
She urges Mainers to get involved this election year. “I strongly believe Mainers can bring in those who feel left out. This year is a chance for us to do better. So donate to a candidate, volunteer, come together.”