That was the second time he made history. The first was in 2013, when he won a seat on the city’s Board of Education (School Board).
On December 5th as friends and homeschoolers my 10 year-old son and I attended his auspicious inaugural with a front row seat to history. I also had the opportunity to interview Pious about his role as an American at a critical juncture in the United States.
How does it feel to make history?
Humbling, and grateful to the people of Portland for this opportunity.
At your swearing in ceremony an opening prayer was offered by Imam Muse Ali followed by The Pledge of Allegiance. What went through your mind?
The reflections of our beautiful city, how this can only happened in this country, in this community and how symbolic the event was to the values of our community and city. Portland’s inaugural event has always been an event where we showcase the values and diversity in our community. Last year during Mayor Strimling’s inauguration, I offered the invocation, I said a Muslim prayer, and the event was closed by a Rabbi. Mayor Strimling is Jewish.
What does it mean for immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants, that you won in November? What are you hearing?
Most people are excited about having someone…who is an active member of the community, an advocate. They are also happy because my participation in the political system serves as a counter-narrative that immigrants are not integrating. It’s also a motivation to the young ones to see someone who they can identify with in a leadership city position, it debunks what the media is saying they belong here and are part of the American society fabric, it also teaches them that they can do whatever they want with the necessary support in place.
You won in a landslide victory with 61 percent of the vote in a three-way race. You are supported by a diverse constituency in Maine. What do you attribute that to?
I call myself ‘Public Servant At-Large’ because I have served in many capacities across the city and state. I have built a wide network of people through my work with many vulnerable members of our community, my work crosses and merges many different lines. I…did…ground work and knocked on doors irrespective of the individual’s political ideology because I am running to serve every resident of Portland, not just those whose political ideology and philosophy aligns with mine. Also I had lots of people who volunteered for me.
You have great influence in Maine through existing organizations or those created by you. What sparked your advocacy work?
Like many immigrants, I moved to the United States with a mindset of… [I’m] going to make a lot of money and help the people I left back home. As I started working in the non-profit sector with young people and families, people from diverse backgrounds and learned about how much people are marginalized or left behind due to a system set up in a way to keep them where they are and make it difficult for their children to break away from that circle, I decided to learn more about poverty and race and all the other things that divide us. I realized I have the ability and the gift to connect with people from across all the spectrums that divide us as a country and my involvement in the community prove that there is the need for that skills and that it can be used to advocate and create opportunities for the families, especially the youth that I am serving.
Your service is inclusive and interfaith based. What have you learned from your alliances? What are the struggles and the rewards?
I have learned that beneath the many visible identities we all have as people the only one thing we have in common is being human. The rewards are immeasurable. And the challenge is how do we put the many differences we have aside and find a common ground to engage each other respectfully?
Maine is a microcosm of what the U.S. as a whole is facing in many respects. Our governor, Paul LePage, is a divisive figure who is hostile to immigrants, among so many others. In this environment you became a political change agent. What advice do you have for other Americans right now who are feeling fearful or hopeless?
It is a challenging time and it will serve us better to not react emotionally all the time, let’s gather the courage to reach out to people who ascribe to a different political ideology or philosophy. I see it as an opportunity for us to engage each other starting from our local communities.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked a spike in incidents that are anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-LGBT, swastika vandalism, anti-Muslim, and anti-woman since the election. These incidents include individuals who also intersect these communities. What advice do you have for your constituents in Maine?
Maine is the whitest state in the Union. Portland though is an oasis of intersectionality– of all the many identities, in comparison to the rest of the state. We are all here, all here, none of the subgroups are going anywhere. It’s time for us to look beyond our individual selves, to be connected to those in our subgroups, reach out to the ‘others’ who are allies, strategize on how we can support each other and work together towards building an all inclusive community we all strive to live in. It will take a while for this to happen but it’s possible.
Your grandparents raised you. What were their aspirations for you? What did they give to you that sustains you today?
Be open-minded, don’t be judgmental of anyone before you get to know them. You are an extension of your family and an integral part of the community you live in, you inherit this world from people before you, leave it in a better shape for others, be humble stand for what you believe in. Most of this is from my grandmother who is the anchor of the family.
You have said you are a believer in engaging with adversaries. Tell me about that process.
We all want the same things for ourselves and our communities, when you disengaged your adversaries the result produces a win-lose situation, which fosters anger and dislike of the winner by the loser. However when we realize that our adversaries are partners with different point of view or a set of philosophical beliefs…and [we] go on to engage each other, concede some of our demands and they also concede some of theirs…we may all not get everything we want but we may walk away with something to build on.
How has your faith helped you move forward in this work to engage with people who may not agree or even value your ideals or vision?
Service (charity) is an essential part of Islam…the third pillar of Islam is Zakat (charity) and serving people and seeing a smile on their faces whenever I interact with them in any of the many roles I play, is the fuel that keeps me going. Showing young immigrants and other marginalized members of our society (Muslims or not) that they are part of this community and they deserved to be here like anyone else, makes it worthwhile for me to keep engaging the proverbial ‘other.’
What do you see as most necessary to being a parent? What have you learned from your children?
Being a parent for me is one of the most beautiful gift and biggest life challenge any individual will ever have in their lives. Here you are with the task of raising, guiding another human to be the best and productive members of our society. I have learn that my role as a parent is to help my kids shape their own personalities and views about life and others things. I have struggled with the challenge of not imposing my view on them.
What fears do you have for your children? What dreams do you have for them?
My fear for my kids is that they are inheriting a world which is becoming more divisive and more challenging to live in, they are lucky to live in a part that is full of opportunities and I hope they will find their rightful place in it. I don’t have any dreams for them, my dream is mine and I hope they find theirs and whatever that is I will guide and support it so far as its not hurting anyone and it’s within societies acceptable norms.
I can’t help but think there is some powerful meaning in the fact your homeland Ghana was a shipping point for Africans who were imprisoned and forced to America as slaves. You came here willingly to become an American. You have contributed to everything we hope and many pray our country stands for. Are you completing the circle?
That circle is a never ending work, nationally I am grateful for the struggles and sacrifices of many Americans before me especially African-Americans like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. …and locally I can pinpoint someone like Gerald Talbot [the first African American member of the Maine House of Representatives] whom I have had the privilege of meeting, credited with having paved the way for people like me to run for public office. I hope the generation after me will continue from wherever I will stop.
How can we continue to close the circle?
America is an ongoing experiment, one of its kind in the history of our world, we just have to keep working on the many divides and re-birthing ourselves…we may never get to that perfect land but we can keep improving who we are.
What do you see as the essentials to be a good politician?
Listening, honesty, authentic engagement and selflessness.
What political office is next?
As a public servant, I have dedicated my life to the service of others and will serve in any capacity I am lucky to have.
Pious Ali is a Youth and Community Engagement Specialist at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. He is also the founder and Executive Director of the Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance and the co-founded the King Fellows, a youth group dedicated to creating meaningful opportunities for youth through leadership and civic engagement based on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo of Pious Ali: Dovid Muijderman
Photo: David Muijerman