An interview with Jean D. Hakuzimana
Maine House of Representatives Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Dist. 118) sat with Jean Hakuzimana of Amjambo Africa on February 6 in Portland for an hour-long video interview. What follows are excerpts. The complete interview is available on the Amjambo Africa YouTube channel.
Jean Hakuzimana: Welcome to Amjambo Africa.
Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross: Thank you for having me. It’s wonderful to be with you today. My name is Rachel Talbot Ross. I live in Portland.
JH: That’s a special name here in Maine. So welcome, Madam Speaker. Congratulations on your historic nomination as Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. Could you share with us how you felt when you were elected speaker?
RTR: It was quite overwhelming, actually. … I have always understood that getting to that particular place was not due to my own achievements, but that there were so many people … who sacrificed their whole lives to work for that moment … I didn’t arrive at it by myself. It was a combination of many lives that have been lived that reached that point altogether. And I was very cognizant that I was the vehicle for that achievement; it was not mine alone.
JH: Is systemic racism a concern in Maine?
RTR: Yes! Maine prides itself as being established in 1820 as a free state. But the truth of the matter is that Maine was still participating and benefiting from the global slave trade in 1820. And it was also not realizing its treaty obligations to the Indigenous Wabanaki tribes here in Maine. And so Maine has a very long history with perpetuating systemic racism. Part of my job as a lawmaker is to reveal the truth, to identify and name the problem, and then to work towards a solution. Since I’ve been in the state legislature, I’ve been trying to … educate legislators and the public on the disparities within all of [Maine’s] systems, and then work collaboratively to try to eradicate those disparities.
JH: Can you tell us about some early influences on you as a child growing up in Maine?
RTR: I was born and raised here in Portland, and I come from a family that is a multi-generational Black family here in Maine. I’m the ninth generation. And while I was growing up as a child, I was exposed to a community of women .. .who were fighting each and every day … they just never gave up. And so I know that I can’t give up because we still have so much work to do. I’ve had the benefit of my father’s, my mother’s, my sisters’ work … an extended family of strong, resilient, committed, compassionate Black leaders.
JH: Let’s talk about the housing crisis.
RTR: Housing here in the state of Maine has reached the level of a humanitarian crisis. We have a record number of people who are out in the cold. We do not have enough of an integrated support system to take care of folks. I mean, there’s one shelter in all of Aroostook County. And people have been living for months in hotels … without real privacy, without kitchens and things, without transportation. It’s risen to a level of real palpable crisis. … Senator [Troy] Jackson [D-Dist. 1] – the president of the Senate – and I have established a Joint Select Committee on housing. … It’s not just one population of people. This is a crisis that impacts every part of this state. It impacts every demographic of the state, from our children all the way to our elders. Every population demographic is impacted. So we felt the need to focus exclusively on housing and all of the ways that housing then impacts the rest of life. If you do not have housing first, then you’re not able to connect the other dots in your life. … There are probably a record number of bills being introduced to address housing. I’m starting my seventh year in the legislature … we’re [finally] now naming homelessness, and identifying those who are unhoused as a critical voice in thinking about what to do around housing. So, it’s everything from developing more affordable housing units all the way to homeownership. But also it is –how are we taking care of the least among us? How are we taking care of those who have been chronically unhoused? The good news for the people of Maine is that … the attention to housing is being done regardless of political party. This is not seen as a partisan issue. It’s not Republicans versus Democrats. Both chambers are coming together. The Senate chamber. The House chamber. Republicans. Democrats, independents. The people of Maine can feel good about the fact that we are trying to tackle this crisis together.
JH: What work is being done specifically to help immigrants thrive in Maine?
RTR: Well, I think we’ve made a whole lot of progress at the state level by having voices that represent the lived experience of our immigrant and refugee populations. This year Rep. Deqa Dhalac from South Portland was sworn in, and Rep. Mana Abdi was sworn in from the City of Lewiston. Having the lived experience and the voice of that lived experience right at the heart of policy development is a huge change. I mean, just astronomical … it is the progress that we need to see. We need to continue to diversify the state legislature [and get] more people elected to office. This is actually one of the really critical pieces of work that we need to do. … One thing several legislators are working on is to try to get a state office that would help coordinate – not dictate, but coordinate – the integration process. … What we [need] is for the state to develop an office in which those who are seeking asylum would be able to access services and navigators and case management, particularly around housing.
JH: I’d like to talk relations between African Americans and immigrants from Africa. I have heard a lot of people say there is a chasm between the two groups in the U.S. Could joining forces benefit both communities?
RTR: Oh, my goodness, yes. … Not only do we need to come together … we need to keep coming together. Because the only way for our communities to be successful is for us to work together. In this country race has been used as the biological marker that [determines which] people are privileged and which are not … that privilege and that sense of supremacy has been upheld to ensure that our communities never come together. It’s a tactic, it’s a strategy, and it’s worked for hundreds of years. We have an obligation to dismantle that … it’s been a painful reality for those of us who trace our lineage to this soil multi-generationally. It’s been really painful to see the way in which systemic racism has worked to keep us apart. It has long been a strategy of white supremacy to make sure that we don’t come together.
JH: Do you think it is important for African Americans and African immigrants to get to know each other better?
RTR: It is our responsibility [to get to know each other’s histories]. If you do not know the history of African Americans here in Maine and I don’t know the history of the continent of Africa … particularly [what led to] leaving the home country and relocating to Maine…. If we don’t understand each other’s stories, then how is the system supposed to respond to that? In many ways, we’re doing the work of the system by not having an appreciation for each of those lived experiences and trying to figure out what the common ground is – in order to move us both forward.
JH: Let’s return to systemic racism. What can be done?
RTR: I believe it’s fear that keeps so much of systemic racism in place. … It’s fear of the other. It’s fear that somehow we’re giving you something that you don’t deserve … that somehow somebody’s going to lose and somebody’s going to gain … and the people who are going to gain do not deserve to do so. And the people who lose now, you know, deserve to lose. It’s this [idea] that says somebody is better than someone else based on false characteristics. And that you deserve the position that you have now and that our systems are built on. We need … to understand that there are inherent, absolute rights of being a human being.