“Sure, I feel like a Mainer,” Ifrah Hassan tells me. “My family came here more than twenty years ago. I was born here. I’m such a Mainer!”
Ifrah, a Deering High School student who hopes to someday study political science at Georgetown or American University, loves Portland. “Portland is such a liberal city,” she tells me. “I feel safe.”
Today, many African families like Ifrah’s have become well established in our community, but no matter how long they’ve been here or where they come from, newcomers to Portland always face the same timeless questions:
Do people here accept me? Does my family belong here? Will Maine ever feel like home?
Laurene Isimbi, one of Ifrah’s friends, was born in Rwanda and moved to Portland a few years ago, after living in three other countries in East Africa and initially immigrating to Virginia.
“After all those moves,” she says, “it hasn’t been tough to make new friends, but moving and adapting is still kind of hard.”
One thing that’s helped both girls feel settled here has been joining the King Fellows, a local nonprofit program that unites forty immigrant high school kids of color from across Portland.
Laurene first became a part of the group a year ago and says that connecting with other immigrant kids in Portland has gone a long way toward helping her feel comfortable. “It’s really fun,” she says. “We share the same experiences, and we face vaguely the same struggles.”
In particular, Laurene says, Rachel Talbot Ross, the group’s executive director, has made a big difference in her new life here. “Rachel’s a really sweet person,” she says. “She’s always caring. Always willing to help.”
Frequently, Laurene doesn’t have a ride home from King Fellows meetings, so Rachel ends up giving her a lift. “She always offers me a ride,” says Laurene. “Always.”
Rachel, who is currently running to represent Parkside, Bayside and Oakdale in the Maine State House of Representatives, co-founded the program several years ago in collaboration with Portland School Board member Pious Ali.
In the last few months, I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer with Rachel’s campaign a few times, and it’s been inspiring to see how dedicated she is to the work she does.
Rachel’s been a social justice advocate for much of her life, organizing on a wide range of issues including reforming Maine’s prisons, ending racial profiling and responding to poverty. The work she does with the King Fellows offers a good illustration of the kind of powerful, holistic leadership style that she’d take to Augusta.
The students in the program mean the world to her. “I love them dearly,” she says. “I just don’t want to see another generation of young girls and boys of color not knowing their full potential.”
Rachel, who is African American, was born in Portland in 1960 and grew up in the Woodford’s Corner neighborhood, ice skating on the pond in Deering Oakes Park every winter.
The daughter of Maine’s first Black state legislator, Jerry Talbot, her family had been in Maine for nine generations. But she says that she still felt lonely being a young Black girl in the Portland public schools.
“My mother went through school here in Portland, and I went through school here in Portland, and now my girls in the King Fellows are going through,” she says. “As young girls of color, we all experience similar feelings of isolation.”
“I want to do something so that they never doubt who they are,” she says. “Their beauty. Their intelligence. Their skills. Their potential. I needed something like this when I was in school, and it wasn’t there. If I can do anything to be part of that, I’m going to do it.”
Sometimes the things she does with the kids are serious undertakings, like the annual Martin Luther King Day community breakfast and symposium. Other times, it’s the little things like giving Laurene rides that end up making the biggest difference.
Laurene hasn’t decided yet where she wants to go to college and, while she’s leaning heavily toward engineering, isn’t positive yet what she wants to study. One thing she knows for sure is that she’ll come back to Portland.
“Of course I will come back here,” she says. “That’s the whole point of going to school. To support my family.” And, today, because of the work that people like Rachel and the King Fellows are doing, Portland is really starting to feel like home to Laurene and her family.
At a time when kids from rural Maine continue to empty out of our state’s small towns, programs like this that help kids like Laurene feel at home in Maine are badly needed, now more than ever.
Jenny O’Connell, a creative writing student in the Stonecoast MFA Program at USM, worked with the King Fellows this year and helped them to write and publish a book of original poetry.
“It was all student-led,” says Jenny. “They would teach each other with me as their mentor. I had the best job in the world!”
Jenny moved to Maine last September when she began her graduate studies, and she needed a teaching position to round out her MFA work. Rachel’s sister Robin Talbot, the Associate Director for Stonecoast, connected the two, and Jenny came on board, helping the King Fellows for two hours every week.
“They are some of the most brilliant, passionate students,” she says. The students don’t have to be there, and they aren’t receiving course credit or getting paid. “They’re there,” says Jenny, “because they want to be there.”
Compiling the anthology at the end of the year was an emotional challenge for her. “I had chills,” she says. “I was crying in my living room. There’s some really incredible stuff in here.”
Jenny loves working with Rachel. “Rachel gives her whole self to the work,” says Jenny, “and she would do that in the state legislature as well. Portland needs somebody like her.”
“I think the students need someone that they can relate to,” says Pious Ali, the co-founder of the program. “And they need a space where they can feel comfortable.”
“I have worked with Rachel for so many years and on so many projects,” he says, and on every project, “I’ve seen her in the front and in the middle, standing up for what she believes in and being a voice for people who do not have a voice.”
As I see it, if “community” is going to be more than a vacuous buzz word, we need political leaders who understand that our community is exponentially larger than the people already involved. Community can’t just mean the folks who tweet politically.
Community means keeping kids safe and looking after elders. It means setting the table and making sure everybody has enough to eat. It means poetry. Dancing. Solidarity. Justice. Belonging. Community means home.
These days, the typical politician doesn’t seem to think that way. He’s an individual. Eloquent enough to get a few votes, and then diligent enough to glance through a couple PDFs before the day’s session starts. In there on his own, trying to puzzle the whole thing out for himself, taking direction from his party. He’s a politician. Not a community leader.
Maine needs actual leaders, leaders with longstanding, honest, caring relationships with the people they represent. Leaders who know lots of immigrants in a personal, neighbor-to-neighbor way. Who have some sense of what life is like for folks with disabilities. People of color. Prisoners getting out on parole. Kids. Senior citizens. True change grows organically out of the conversations that the people on the ground are already having.
I think Rachel is a smart, capable, worldly person, and I love witnessing her smile transform how newcomers to our community think about where they live. I’m confident she’d be a great representative.
I’m going to vote for her.
If you live in Bayside, Parkside or Oakdale, I hope you will too.