By Stephanie Harp
Mana Abdi can name three things that Lewiston needs – better housing, more education funding, and stronger pathways to economic mobility – and she’s running for the Maine House District 95 seat to pursue those goals.
Abdi was a college student when she first realized that she, as an individual, had the power to work toward change. At the University of Maine-Farmington, she created the Diversity and Inclusion Action Team task force and other initiatives, and her advocacy continued after graduation through roles at Disability Rights Maine and Maine Youth Network. She is now the Program Coordinator in the Bates College Office of Intercultural Education.
I saw that I can make a tangible difference to folks who need someone who represents some of their values and looks like them. It feels like I have the potential to create tangible, positive change that the residents of District 95 deserve.
The legislative seat appeals to Abdi, who calls herself “results-oriented.” She said, “You can vote for bills, can put a bill forward that can make residents of a district – or of Maine as a whole – make their lives that much better. The city of Lewiston deserves everything good in the world because it’s given me everything that I have.”
Born in Kenya, the 26-year-old is ethnically Somali and came to the U.S. with her family when she was 11. They moved to Lewiston when she was 13, where she attended middle school and became a cross country athlete at Lewiston High School. “Truthfully, the story started here. I’ve spent more of my time in this country than anywhere else in the world. …I’m here and I’m grateful for it,” she said.
The first two years of her life in the U.S. were about survival and learning the language; she’d never been in school before, and found herself spending eight hours a day, including afterschool programs, trying not to look at the clock. Her high school English Language Learning classes kept her – along with many fellow New Mainer students – from attending other classes, something she opposes. “The fact that I speak another language should not be a deficiency. That’s not OK. …English is not a measure of intelligence.”
Although she was on the verge of transferring from the university at Farmington to the Orono campus, Abdi decided to stay where she was and become involved, and to work toward creating an on-campus community for herself and students who would come after her. She majored in political science and international global studies. “Politics is personal,” she said. “I’ve always believed that. I’ll believe that until my last days.” Embracing her various identities as a Black, immigrant, Muslim woman, she said she has long been “doing the best that I can to advocate for those who don’t have the tools to advocate for themselves.” These experiences have motivated her toward doing something more tangible. “I can perhaps be part of that world, and have that advocacy on a much larger scale” in Augusta, she said.
Her primary legislative goal is to advocate for more safe, affordable housing. “Just because someone cannot advocate for themselves and they need a place to sleep, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t live in a decent apartment,” she said. “When I was knocking and getting signatures, some of these apartments were scary to even go up the stairs. How are we allowing anyone to live in this? They need to be clean, to meet basic standards, especially for folks with young kids.” The state could open channels of communication with landlords to learn what the issues are and why the apartments are in the conditions they are. “All of us play a role in life. Your constituents expect you to do something. What can I do to support [landlords] to support [tenants]? That’s how systems work. If I can tangibly impact residents of District 95, I want to be in touch with all parties.”
Another priority is education funding. “If the pandemic taught us one thing, it’s that our teachers are valuable, and without them we’d be going crazy.” She’d helped her niece and nephew set up their remote classes. “This world is nothing without our teachers, without our educators, these individuals who – day in, day out – show up for our students at their best and at their worst, and bring up the next generation.” They need more than praise and Teacher Appreciation Day, said Abdi.
Economic mobility and retaining the younger generations is her third plank. Growing up, she saw young people who wanted to continue to live locally and to start their own businesses. “That is essential to Maine. …Plenty of my friends want to stay, but we have to be able to offer them the resources and support to start that business – a bakery, a decor business, whatever it may be – so that they stay.”
Her arrival in the U.S. marked the first time she had to be aware of race. “I didn’t have to worry about being Black in Kenya because it’s a homogenous country.” But here, when her actions were questioned and she was under heavy expectations, she struggled. “All I wanted was to be a good student, graduate on time, and be a good athlete. Society sometimes privileges straight-up racist behavior, and that makes it difficult to have a good life.”
She would be the first Somali American in the Maine Legislature, following in the political footsteps of former Lewiston City Councilor Safiya Khalid, South Portland Mayor Deqa Dhalac, and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Some of these elected officials have faced considerable opposition. Asked if she is concerned about that, Abdi said, “I’m Black, I’m Muslim – I’m visibly Muslim, I’m hijabi – I’m a woman, all the identities you can pick. I’m pretty thick skinned. If there’s a time I have to address it, I will. But any day, at any time, if somebody wants to have a conversation, I’m open to it. I stand for what I stand for, and that’s pretty much it, honestly.”
Energized and excited, Abdi looks forward to what’s ahead. “I’m excited to make District 95 as proud as they possibly can be, and be that voice that they send to Augusta when the time comes. And I hope they find that they can trust my advocacy, and that I will relentlessly show up for them.”