Pious Ali is the founder of the Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance, and the first African Muslim to have ever been elected to public office in the city of Portland, Maine. Here, he describes his own journey as a leader and offers some of the lessons he has learned working with young people in a thriving multicultural community.
Immigrating from Ghana to the United States was very exciting; I had an opportunity to travel so I took it and I came to the U.S. It was also very symbolic because here in Portland I am living with people who are coming from different backgrounds, immigrants like me who have left their home countries under different circumstances. However, what is similar to all of us is that we walked away from everything that we were born into, and into a world unknown.
I first came to New York in 2000 and then I came up to Maine a couple of times to visit a friend before moving here. The community in Portland is very diverse, in terms of the immigrant community. There are not many Ghanaians here, but I live amongst other immigrants from Somalia, Burundi, Congo, Southern Sudan, Sudan, Iraq, Djibouti Angola, China, Jamaicans, Latin Americans, Haitians Cambodians and Vietnamese and many many others. Children in our schools speak close to 60 languages!
When I came to Maine, one of the first actual jobs that I had was working or an after-school program based in neighborhoods run by Portland Housing Authority. The young people that I worked with at that time were mostly immigrants and other young people coming from economically marginalized backgrounds who were generally ethnic minorities or poor white kids.
Once in a while conflict would arise and I would step in and figure out how to have a conversation between two kids who were fighting with each other. That was my first step in organizing spaces where people can talk to each other to solve the conflict.
Later on, I started my own not-for-profit called Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance, where I bring together young people from different faith backgrounds. I grew up Muslim, and in my house faith has always been a tool that is used to engage everyone. In the place where I grew up in Ghana, Muslims lived together with Christians (we did not have many Jews in that area) and we talked to each other. Whenever one would have a religious celebration, we would celebrate each other, and participate in each other’s events. So, I decided to use what I have, which is my faith, to reach out to other people in the community. There was an interfaith group for adults that I participated but then I realized, there are no young people in this group.
So, I started a group for high schoolers called the Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance, and through that got connected with the communities that I live in and started working with families and young people.
I realized that working with young people is holistic, that inspired me to connect with their families and the broader communities. When I work with kids, especially kids from immigrant communities, I want to know who their families are, I want to know what their challenges are. Because what you see, whether it is a behavior issue or something else, it is a by-product of everything that surrounds that young person. When I was working in the neighborhoods, every evening I will go around (or sometimes I go early before I start my program) and go from house to house, knock on the door and talk to the parents and ask how they are doing and how their child is doing. So, I became like an extended uncle to a lot of these kids, and I still have that relationship with a lot of them. Whether they are looking for someone to use as a reference for a job, or they are looking for an adult to sit down with and flash out life’s major issues.
Right now, I work as a (policy analyst) or Youth and Community Engagement Specialist at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, where I create opportunities for unengaged members of our community to be heard through their own voice and empowering young people to speak up for themselves. I have spent most of my work focusing on community engagement. I am committed to this work because it levels the playing field for students who have been left behind, and creates equity in a system that prepares young citizens from all backgrounds for participatory in American democratic and public life
I’m also very close to launching a fellowship that will transfer some of the skills that I’ve learned from working with communities and families and civic engagement to emerging young leaders who have a shared identity and experience. The fellowship will target mostly immigrants and other ethnic-minority students and graduates who are at the beginning of their careers. So, looking five years down the road, I’m hoping this will come into fruition and I will have young professionals, and young adults in the community who are fully engaged in the political and civic life of the city, state, and country that they live in.
Portland is an amazing place: not only are we given the opportunity to have our voices hear and validated as immigrants and Muslims, but we also have a lot of people supporting us.
In 2013, one of my colleagues called me and said, “Hey, there’s an opportunity to run for school board; there are two open seats and we have about six or seven people running.” She believed that there needed to be a voice like mine at the table. And I said to her, “I’m not interested in politics, I don’t want to run for school board.” So, at first, she asked me to find someone who would run, so I went out and asked some people that I knew (both immigrants and non-immigrants) and everyone I asked was like, “What!? Are you out of your mind? No, I’m not interested.” , I went back to my colleague and she insisted, and said, “No I really think you need to do this.” I said, “why don’t you give me a day or two,” and I went to talk to a few people, and everyone I talked to said, “oh yeah, you would do great!” So, I went in and filed the paperwork, and I was elected, and I became the first African-born Muslim to be elected to any elected office in Portland and Maine. In 2016 I was elected to an At-Large City Council seat to become the first African born Muslim to be elected into that office ( the hiest office by any immigrant /Muslim in the state )
Islam is as old as America. Islam landed on this land before it was incorporated and called The United States. I try to tell this to Muslim students to reassure them that they belong. To other students who represent ethnic minorities, I try to offer support and remind them as they all belong here. This country is a place that welcomes all; it is not a tribal-based country, it’s a country based on ideas, but we haven’t reached our full potential yet. I mean, it’s easy for me to say this because I didn’t grow up here. I came as an adult with my personality fully shaped, however for those who are growing up here and are struggling with their identity at school or work, what I do IS offer them that reassurance that they belong, and that myself and other leaders are here to support them if they need it.
My son is twenty-three years old, and my daughter is fourteen. My son and I have different conversations when it comes to politics and we joke with each other, but my daughter is the one who is still growing. With her, it’s interesting because she often finds herself in the same position as some of the young people that I work with. She is my daughter, she is my all—it’s not like she’s someone’s child in the community that I’m trying to create a relationship with. Being a father to these two wonderful souls is amazing. My daughter, the younger one, is very strong-willed and very competitive. Whatever she does, she has to be the best! So, it’s amazing to watch this beautiful creature grow up; she is a ninth-grader in high school and I cannot wait to see the direction she will choose.
Our country is at a very difficult time where identity is at the forefront of politics, and unfortunately, young people who are either born here or grow up here have to deal with all the consequences that come with that. I try to seek out young people that I know who are facing those challenges, and I will reach out to them and have a conversation. I tell them that no matter where you are coming from, do not let anyone tell you that you are not part of the American experience, your experience is helping shape America, its part of the American experience and you are helping create the America you want and deserve.
Photo credit: Portland Press Herald