After historic council tenure, Khalid plans grassroots effort to diversify Lewiston politics / by Nathan Bernard

Photo: Safiya Khalid campaigning for her 2019 race for Lewiston City Council. | Safiya Khalid, Facebook

In 2019 Safiya Khalid made history, becoming the first Somali-American woman ever elected to Lewiston’s City Council. Her groundbreaking accomplishment garnered national attention from CNN, Washington Post and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar— all of whom celebrated Khalid’s perseverance through a campaign that was marred by relentless Islamophobic attacks. 

Days before Khalid’s 2019 election, local Facebook groups erupted with calls to “kill as many Muslims as possible” and stop Khalid by any means necessary. Some of that racial animus was carried over into Khalid’s two-year term on the council.

“Past racism and xenophobic attacks can never prepare you for more in the future, although throughout my years in politics, I’ve grown what you call a thick skin for such comments,” Khalid said. “There will be people who don’t support you and will be very vocal about it, but I’ve also learned there are more people who will support you and that’s what is keeping me going and fighting for my community.”

Despite Khalid’s strong grassroots support in Lewiston, she recently announced she will not run for re-election in 2021. Instead, Khalid plans on leveraging her political experience to help elect anti-racist candidates to local and state offices. 

The former councilor hopes this effort will begin a generations-long process of unraveling systemic racism in Lewiston by building a local political infrastructure that reflects the demographics of an increasingly diverse city.

“Systemic racism exists within Lewiston and within all communities across our nation’s institutions, both public and private,” Khalid said. “For example, an Auburn city councilor recently made racist comments about ‘dark-colored people’ breaking laws in the South when speaking about an African American who served in a local Lewiston office.”

“Looking at hiring practices, there is a lack of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] employees, especially at the administrative level,” Khalid continued. “And I’ve repeatedly seen those in power and leadership positions tokenize BIPOC individuals. Getting rid of systemic racism in Lewiston will take generations, and it starts with policies that center racial equity and social justice.”

To reach that vision, Khalid needs candidates. And while she says her new political project will be publicly “brought to light soon,” criteria for those looking to run for local office are already being defined by Khalid and her team. 

“Being anti-racist means being open-minded to changes,” Khalid said. “It means being committed to social, racial and justice equity while dismantling white supremacy and its role in our institutions.” 

Khalid’s efforts to re-imagine Lewiston’s political institutions have already been met with scorn by some members of her own party. In July, she withdrew her candidacy to lead Lewiston’s chapter of the Democratic Party, which she has been vice-chair of for four years, due to what she described as “disrespectful, xenophobic, and racist” comments made by several Lewiston Democratic Party committee members.

“How Safiya was treated was appalling and disgraceful,” Kiernan Majerus-Collins, the outgoing Lewiston Democratic Party chair, told the Sun Journal. “The Democratic Party has a choice to make, whether it’s going to represent all voters in Lewiston, or only older, white people. As former chair, I’m completely convinced that it’s strategically correct and morally correct for the Lewiston party to embrace the full spectrum of voters in Lewiston, and that includes young, diverse leadership.”

Tom Reynolds, the Lewiston Democratic Party’s new chair, insists no racist comments were made towards Khalid during the July meeting. From his perspective, people suggesting so online were “spinning the truth.”

Reynolds acknowledged that there were “a couple of people” who made a reference to Hitler in response to statements made by Majerus-Collins. However, he said “nothing was directed at Safiya.” 

“It was a very tense and uncomfortable thing. It was one of the most difficult meetings I’ve been a part of and witness to,” he said.

Khalid, however, said she has not been dissuaded from her mission. Rather, she said that pushback has further committed her to support like-minded activists in building a more inclusive, diverse and just local government.

“Our population in Lewiston will continue to diversify and we must adapt to changes in all sectors of our city,” Khalid said. “The administrative and leadership levels of our institutions must be representative and reflective of our community, meaning they are at least 30-40% BIPOC.”

“Public infrastructure facilities in recreation, afterschool programs and affordable housing must be supported, and invested in, so that the needs of all those living in our city are met,” Khalid concluded. “Our public officials must truly and honestly accept, and embrace, our diversity whether in age, income, and background. And they must reflect that understanding through the policies they support.”

Author: Nathan Bernard is a freelance writer and reporter living in Maine. His local stories have been featured in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, The Intercept, Business Insider, AV Club, Salon and CBS News.

Source: Maine Beacon, September 20, 2021, https://mainebeacon.com/after-historic-council-tenure-khalid-plans-grassroots-effort-to-diversify-lewiston-politics/