When Angela Okafor went knocking on doors in Bangor this campaign season, she had a routine. She would ring the doorbell, take a few steps back and put her political palm card — which had her campaign information and photo on it — next to her face. She would be careful to keep both her hands where people could see them when they opened the door.
“It was an instinct that, I’m a person of color, I need to keep my hands visible,” she said.
As a black immigrant woman from Nigeria campaigning for a seat on the City Council in a city that’s 90 percent white, Okafor had to be aware that some people would treat her with suspicion when they saw her walking around their neighborhoods or knocking on doors.
One time, a resident sent a message to the neighborhood Facebook group explaining to her neighbors that Okafor was not a threat and that she was just campaigning door to door.
On Tuesday, voters elected Okafor to the City Council, marking the first time a person of color has held public office in Bangor, according to historians and longtime Bangor residents.
Okafor was one of four candidates of color running for local office in the Bangor area this year.
All four were elected, marking a historic shift toward diversity in town and city governments.
“I’ve lived here 67 years, and to my knowledge there hasn’t been a person of color on the City Council,” said Richard Shaw, Bangor’s unofficial historian. “I think it’s a very refreshing and positive change. I think Bangor is more multicultural than people think.”
Bangor voters on Tuesday also elected Marwa Hassanien, a Muslim and the daughter of Egyptian immigrants, to the Bangor School Committee. In Hampden, Tania Jean-Jacques, who is originally from Haiti and moved to Hampden two years ago, ran an uncontested race for a seat on the Regional School Unit 22 school board. Soubanh Phanthay, a photographer who moved to Maine from Thailand when he was a child, was elected to the Brewer City Council.
“I had faith in Bangor and its people,” Hassanien said. “From what we heard, a lot of people were ready for change.”
For all of these candidates, representing the minorities who live in the Bangor area but who have not been represented in local government was a key motivator in running for office.
Hassanien, Okafor and Jean-Jacques were at lunch together a few months ago when the idea of running for office together came up.
Okafor had been a self-starter all her life. She struggled to get a job in Maine that matched her qualifications, so she started her own law firm. When she realized that immigrants in the area didn’t have access to their native food, she started an international market called Tropical Tastes and Styles on Harlow Street.
Then she realized black women in the area had to spend a lot of money traveling to Boston or New York to get their hair done, so she started a hair braiding business.
She never thought of herself as a politician but realized that if she wanted things to change, she would have to get involved. Then she convinced her two friends to do the same.
“We can really join forces and affect change that way,” Hassanien said Okafor told the women. “And that was what got the ball rolling.”
When Okafor said she faced harassment less than a month before the election, she called the two other women for help.
Jean-Jacques said their group phone calls helped all of them get through the struggles of campaigning as women of color in the Bangor area.
“I’m not going to lie, there were times when I was not sure I was ready for this,” Okafor said. “Having run together with Marwa and Tania, we were a huge support system for each other. Sometimes when we doubted ourselves, we reached out. It helped us ease our tension.”
Throughout the campaign, it was important to all three candidates that they not be known exclusively for their racial and cultural backgrounds.
“It was a huge concern to me,” Okafor said. “My color is not the only thing I’m bringing to the table.”
However, even though the women have mostly experienced support living in the Bangor area, they have all faced some kind of discrimination as well both before and during their campaigns.
In Jean-Jacques’ case, it was an incident at school with her son that prompted her to speak to the school board to advocate for him.
In response, she said, “They changed policy and really went above and beyond to make sure I knew my voice was heard.
“I thought, I want to do that. I want to be part of the change and make a difference,” she said.
When Hassanien campaigned, the question voters asked her most often was, “Where are you from?”
The Oklahoma native is a first-generation American citizen, but she’s aware that as a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, she stands out in Maine.
“I know what they’re referring to,” she said.
One time when Hassanien was going door to door, she remembers a woman looking out the window and refusing to open the door. She was with Orono City Councilor and friend Laurie Osher, who had to convince the woman to talk to them.
“There’s a woman in a hijab, so there’s a red flag,” Hassanien said, explaining how she perceived the woman’s reaction. “I don’t want to talk to you, I don’t want to vote for you.”
But support from the community, their families and each other kept the women going.
On Tuesday night after the polls closed, Jean-Jacques — who knew she had won because she was running uncontested — went to the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor to support Okafor and Hassanien as they awaited results.
They had been at the entrance for almost 12 hours, greeting voters, Hassanien said.
When they found out they had all won, the three women held each other and wept.
In their first terms, all three look forward to bringing unique perspectives to serve their communities. They want to play a part in improving life in their communities and schools and making them more welcoming.
“Maine is changing. Even the Hampden area is changing. It’s becoming really diverse,” Jean-Jacques said. “I think elected officials should represent the area.”