On Nov. 5, Angela Okafor, Marwa Hassanien and Tania Jean-Jacques became the first women of color elected to public office in the Bangor area.
On Tuesday, the three women met with Gov. Janet Mills, who earlier this year became Maine’s first female governor after a career in public office, for an informal lunch at Bagel Central in downtown Bangor.
Bangor City Councilor Okafor, Bangor School Committee member Hassanien and Jean-Jacques, who represents Hampden on the Regional School Unit 22 board, discussed local workforce shortages with the governor and the challenges of running for local office as women of color and working mothers. They also asked Mills for advice on navigating their new roles as elected public officials.
They invited a reporter to listen in.
“Politics isn’t all about a particular issue or piece of legislation or bill or budget,” Mills said. “It’s about the relationships you’re building. Keep finding common ground with people. That’s what is important.”
Okafor brought a unique perspective to the discussion about a local shortage of workers.
She studied to become a lawyer in Nigeria, but when she moved to the U.S. with her husband for his job as a pharmacist, she was unable to practice law in Maine. She remembers her struggle finding work in Maine as a qualified immigrant, and the struggles of many others like her.
“How can we make this easier for immigrants?” Okafor asked Mills. “People should have the opportunity to explore their passion.”
“I’d love to do that. We have workforce needs. We need new Mainers all over the state,” Mills replied.
She cited some of the biggest employers in the state that are actively hiring, such as Bangor Savings Bank and Bath Iron Works. The state needs more teachers, nurses and women in law enforcement.
“We need to expand our workforce by welcoming new Mainers from all over the world and all over the country,” Mills said.
The conversation shifted to things the women had in common, including Emerge Maine, an organization that identifies and trains Democratic women to run for local office.
For a decade, Mills has taught at Emerge Maine. Hassanien is a graduate of the program, and Okafor spoke to the 2019 class as a guest speaker about her experience running for office as a woman of color.
Over lunch, the four women discussed the challenges of running campaigns as women.
“The challenges women face, men don’t always face,” Mills said.
“We talk about that a lot, and about how to navigate it,” Hassanien said.
Since she was elected to the Bangor City Council, Okafor said the support she has received sometimes comes with the expectation that she will be a transformative voice. She has had people reach out and ask her to address Bangor’s housing challenges and workforce shortage. Some have even sent cards suggesting she think about running for the state Senate.
“I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on me,” Okafor said. “I’m not a miracle worker.”
“We’re not going to cure everything in a day,” Mills responded.