Black Excellence 2022 Award winners

By Lillian Lema |  Photos John Ochira

When Adilah S. Muhammad moved to Maine in 2001, she recognized gaps in Maine’s Black cultural and economical infrastructure. So after some years working as a real estate investor, developing an interest in public policy, and earning a master’s degree from the Muskie School of Public Services, she founded The Third Place in 2017.  

An organizational collaborative and co-working space in Portland that serves Black entrepreneurs, emerging leaders, and creatives, The Third Place’s goal is to help BIPOC people come together to share their knowledge, skills, and resources. Initially the collaborative included BIPOC people who were either leading small nonprofit organizations or were sole proprietors. Most needed office space to conduct everyday business, but were having trouble affording space in Portland due to gentrification. So The Third Place started as a small co-working space for them. 

While the greater Portland area had many co-working spaces, many Black individuals wanted a space where they felt safe and where community was a priority. Now, five years later, the co-working space is well established, and so is the organization’s network, which includes a statewide community of BIPOC people who share the common goal of ensuring that Maine’s slogan, “The Way Life Should Be,” applies to all people, including underrepresented communities.     

The lack of a network and support for Black professionals had been so acute that Maine was losing valuable professionals to other states. “There have been several moments over the years where I’ve had friends move to the state and soon enough they would leave, primarily because there was no social and professional infrastructure that would cater to their needs…one of the reasons why I initially started doing work around professional networking is to connect folks in the BIPOC community,” said Muhammad, president of The Third Place.   

On July 24, The Third Place presented their Black Excellence Awards at the Caswell Farm and Wedding Barn in Gray. The Third Place launched the awards to celebrate the achievements of Black professionals and leaders who are doing significant work in Maine. 

“There were a number of people who have been working on projects for years and some would get recognition from individual organizations, but there was very little acknowledgement from within the Black community about what individuals have been working on on their behalf,” Mohammad explained. “I thought it was important that the community develop a way to recognize those who work on their behalf because it’s different when the recognition is coming from your own community.” 

And indeed the award recipients and attendees alike shared feelings of joy and pride.  

Well-known Mainers like Pious Ali and Rachel Talbot Ross have told Muhammad that, even after receiving considerable recognition and awards, this one means the most because it’s coming from within the community.  “People don’t necessarily need acknowledgment from the outside, but what people do crave and need is acknowledgement from your community…it’s like your family,” she said. 

The Third Place wants to keep up with the demand from individuals looking for ever more social and professional connections. The organization’s members actively study Maine’s professional scene to strategize how to best help the BIPOC community at large. By highlighting representation of BIPOC professionals within Maine’s economic sectors, The Third Place organizes members to provide mentorship for each other. Each sector’s members evaluate their own industry and what they see from their perspectives as BIPOC employees. 

And the organization is looking toward the future. “We have the ability to add staffing, the ability to increase funding, but we are trying to grow at a pace that is sustainable,” Muhammad said

Adilah S. Muhammad and Jordia Benjamin
Samaa Abdurraqib and Mufalo Chitam
Pious Ali receives his award
Rachel Talbot Ross and Craig Hickman