Empowering Maine Women through Community Leadership
An interview with the authors of a 2018 MPR article entitled, “Our Path: Empower Maine Women Network and Leadership.”
[00:00:00] Eric Miller: Welcome to Maine Policy Matters, a podcast from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine. I’m Eric Miller, research Associate at the Center.
Today, we’ll be following up on a 2018 Maine Policy Review article titled, “Our Path: Empower Maine Women Network and Leadership”, by interviewing the authors Parivash Rohani, Oyinloluwa Fasehun, Ghomri Rostampour, Bethany Smart, and Laura de Does along with a conversation with Cathy Lee, co-founder of the Empower Network. Their article was published in Volume 27, article 1 of Maine Policy Review, a peer-reviewed academic journal published by the Policy Center. The article can be accessed in the description of the episode.
In 2016, Mufalo Chitam, (now the executive director of the Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition) and Catherine Lee, (founder of Justice for Women), created the Empower Maine Women Network, referred to as the Empower Network. Their goal was to address the isolation new Mainer women felt, and to give women who have long called Maine their home the chance to interact with new members of their community.
Mufalo was unavailable for an interview, so we’ll be doing a reading of her section of the article:
On March 12th, 2018, I stood in a room at the Maine State House in Augusta on behalf of my organization, the Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition, to testify against a bill, LD 1833, “An Act to Facilitate Compliance with Federal Immigration Law by State and Local Government Entities.” My daughter Grace was home on spring break, and while it was a privilege to have her there in the room to witness the work I’ve been so passionate about for much of her young life, it was also heartbreaking.
Eighteen years ago (now 23 years ago), I met a young man in my African country of Zambia. He was on vacation, and we met just a couple of months before my husband, my then two-year-old daughter, and I were about to emigrate to America. His words to me were simple: “Please come to Portland, Maine. It is a safe place to raise your family and even though there are few immigrants, Mainers are very nice and welcoming.” If LD 1833 had passed, it would’ve changed not only his narrative, but also how my daughter feels about Maine, the only place she is called home.
That day I was upholding our humanity, a value my late father taught me at an early age so that this bill would not make immigrants feel less welcome in Maine. I’ve spent my whole life constantly looking for small opportunities and for connections to improve someone else’s tomorrow. My role as executive director of Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition grew from working with immigrant women from diverse countries, ethnicities and religions. Leadership is seen in suffrage, shown in courage, tolerance and kindness, and is driven by strength. End of passage.
The Empower Network met regularly in Portland to connect New Mainers with non-immigrant women, so they could talk about the challenges they face and how to help each other overcome these challenges, as well as to highlight opportunities for engagement in the community. The meetings offered a special presentation featuring women speakers making a significant contribution to the Maine community.
On March 24th, 2018, the women that penned the original piece sat down with us this week to discuss the concept of leadership and their definition of what makes a leader. They were asked to reflect on the idea of empowerment and specifically tie empowerment to kindness, suffrage, and tolerance. Now, we will catch up with the authors and hear their perspectives on the importance of community building and interpersonal relationships. Then we had an opportunity to talk to Cathy Lee, one of the co-founders of the Empower Network, to speak about her journey and the experience of working and community engagement in Maine.
Hello everyone. Thank you all so much for joining us on the podcast today. To get us started could each of you give an overview of your experience of moving to Maine and how you all met each other? Parivash, let’s start with you.
[00:04:17] Parivash Rohani: Okay. Before I just tell you how I got to Maine, I have to give you a little background.
I’m originally from Iran, so in 1979 when revolution happened, my house was burned down because I belong to Baháʼí community and I had to leave the country. So really I became homeless overnight, and then I escaped Iran to India with two of my cousins for safety. We chose India because the proximity to Iran, and also because most people were Buddhist and Hindu, we felt that we were safer among that kind of population.
And then after few years being in India, the embassy of Iran did not actually renew our passport again because of our religious belief. So we had to convert and we refused to convert. So we became, from being homeless in Iran, stateless in India, and the only option we had to become a refugee. So we became a refugee and came to United States in 1986.
As you can imagine, coming to Maine, I felt I’m a kid in a candy shop. For the first time I had identity, I have respect, I have freedom. Things that really, even today, people are living their country and giving their life to come to America for freedom. So I really found out my identity in Maine, as a human being and being respected.
And because of the climate, actually I felt at home, because I came from northeast of Iran, the climate is identical to Maine, so I immediately felt at home. I know many people are surprised when they hear I’m from Iran and I live in a climate like this. But in the north we do have a similar really climate.
I just wanted to mention, really it wasn’t the event that it brought me to come to know Bethany, Laura, Ghomri, and Oyi. It wasn’t one event. It was really the desire to serve our community and our intentionality that we wanted to group with people who were doing things in the community. And that’s how I feel, I came, I crossed path with all of these lovely, lovely women that I have really learned a lot from them. And I have so much respect and love a admiration for them.
And I think that’s the key. The love that we have for each other have made this connection so meaningful. It wasn’t the event because you can meet people at event. And then you go your separate way. So that doesn’t mean anything but our desire to be together and advance our community for better.
[00:07:34] Eric Miller: That’s a very special connection, and I am glad that you experienced some of the Maine style climate prior to getting there. Let’s go with Ghomri next.
[00:07:44] Ghomri Rostampour: Hi. Yes. I came from, I grew up in Iran, obviously as Parivash mentioned, just they had the, they executing them for different reason because of the religion, and they executed us because of our ethnicity, because of our language, because of our, just practicing even.
We are not allowed to practice our culture. And so I became a refugee and stayed in Turkey for, I think I stayed in Turkey for, yeah, so many months. And then I, I came to USA and the reason that I ended up to Maine, one of my cousin was here. And at the same time we have similar climate, and we have a lot of snow and we have a lot of, just rain and obviously it’s a little different, we have ocean here. We don’t have any ocean over there. And I miss mountains a lot because we have mountain here. I miss it anyway. And yeah, and feel very connected to Maine and I feel like that I am home, especially with the friendly environment and welcoming people here. And so yeah, unfortunately the thing that is it’s just too much for us here.
It’s just when any kind of crisis, any kind of political turmoil or war is happened in in Iran or in a region, in general, it’s too much for us, and I know we have great friends and which is very thankful and always we have them here that they they’re out there for us always. They’re out there for us. Yeah. And otherwise, yeah. And being free here and practicing my language, my cultural, my culture, my ethnicity, my identity. And imagine in country that even they are not giving birth certificate. They didn’t give birth certificate to our, to our great parents. And yeah, it’s feel like that you are you’ll find yourself, and then you feel that you are at least belong to humans. You are a human and belongs to a community that you are getting support from. And then it was back in 2018 that we start to have empowered the immigrant women.
And I, I just became friends and not only as Parivash mentioned to, it’s just not like a group that we are meeting. We meet with each other and just everyone go back home and, just being on their own business now, we’re still friends. We are doing hiking together. We are going to restaurant with each other. We are spending time with each other. We’re eating, we’re trying with each other. We’re celebrating with each other, and sometimes in the middle of night when I get so tired, especially Laura, I pick up the phone and give us give her a call, and long conversation and not, Parivash and the other friends as well.
Yeah. Yeah. But at the same time, we’re in general that, the role of a leader is to coach, guide, and inspire others and the motivate team through you. If you motivate the team through challenges, the challenging time that you, they have and guide them. I was very active on so many areas, I should say, but mostly with women and especially Afghan woman, I was able to establish the Maine Afghan woman community and which is running right now.
They have little by little at the beginning it was really, it was not easy for them to come along with each other, but I, we were able, to make this unity happen. And so at least, to share their beliefs with each other, to be honest with each other and their integrity. And, just the influence that we had, kind of like building, especially building the skills, acting women that they, when, when you’re in, when you grow in a country that is male-dominant country and they are not letting you to be out there, it’s not easy to bring them, to the field, it’s not easy, to inspire them.
But anyway, so it was amazing and it’s running right now and I’m a member of I’m a member of housing Authority Board member, sorry, the board member of Housing Authority and Opportunity Alliance and World Commission. And at the same time, I’m the civic activist and happy, and excited and at the same time have my education and raising my two beautiful kids here in university, very safe environment.
And they finished their education and they have their own career. If you wanna be out there as a role model, just, it’s very important that someone who ensure s their team has supported and tools to achieve their goals. You have to start it from your, yourself. You have to start, just the commitment, the passion, the confidence that you have, and how much you are able to give this to your community. It’s very important, either directly or indirectly or what kind of work vision that you have, that the vision, that it’s also managed, for the managing them deliver, deliver this vision and inspired them to achieve their goals.
[00:13:50] Eric Miller: That’s great, Ghomri. Laura, how about you give me an overview of your experience and with this community?
[00:13:56] Laura De Does: Sure. I decided to attend the rather small meeting. It wasn’t a huge meeting of the Empower the Immigrant Women, and I hadn’t been a part of the organization at all, and went with Bethany and really didn’t know what I as a white Mainer, I was born and raised in Maine, had to contribute. And I was amazed how all of us just really supported each other and we were there and talked around the room and we were each able to state our needs, something that we needed help with.
I had taken in a young man from another African nation who was really struggling and I was trying to find ways to help him, assist him. And so I brought that to the attention of the group and we just really all supported each other with whatever it was that we needed. And I’ll never forget at the end of the meeting, walking out to the sidewalk and just realized that we were all gathered together, a bunch of us, and just realizing that we had just made these incredible friends.
Now, some of the people I knew, but not, other than Bethany, not on that level. And it’s amazing that more than 50% of the people there, I consider my very dear friends today. There was a conference that was put on and pardon me, I mean network conference that Ghomri and I not really meaning to ended up co-hosting it.
So I was involved in it, in that way too. And again, like as a couple of the women have said already, just the incredible friendships and the support that came out of that first meeting was just amazing.
[00:15:37] Oyinloluwa Fasehun: Yeah, I think what everyone has said so far, especially Parivash, is actually true. I came into the country as a student, so my story is a little bit different, but and when I came into the country, I came into New York. And I met my husband in New York, and then he got his first full-time job with the university in Maine, and that’s how I found myself in Maine. Now, Maine was like definitely very cold compared to New York, but I can’t remember exactly how I found myself in the Empower Women Network, but I know Mufalo was the first person I met, and then I started attending the meetings. So while I was in Maine, even though I was, I came in as a student, I came in to do my master’s, but after my master’s was over, I needed to still find something to do to keep myself in status, immigration wise. That’s one of the things we have to deal with as immigrants. You have to, to stay legally, I had to do something like go to schools or something. So I went back to community college. I was actually attending Maine Community College at that time.
But going to these meetings with these women, I’m like, I’m the youngest, so everybody on this group is like my big Auntie, I, going to these meetings, meeting these people was like, it was really it was a great opportunity to just meet people and I found out that everyone was very supportive of where I was at that point in time, even though it wasn’t like I was working, but having good conversations with these great ladies and them supporting me. Even at that time I was even trying to like, get a job, get a job. Who could, that could file for me, that could give me like a work visa. And even though I didn’t get to that point, eventually, everyone was supportive of me trying to get that including, especially like Mufalo. She tried to connect me with some law firms, ’cause I studied law. I have a legal background. So Mufalo was trying to connect me with people who could employ me, and file a work Visa for me. And for me that’s like really part of what Empower Women Network is about, trying to ensure that immigrants find their voice, they find something, that they can.
They can get to do in Maine and Maine is very welcoming in that regard. And that’s just like the most welcoming place I’ve ever lived in so far. Yeah, they’re very welcoming of immigrants, which was what I appreciated about them. And the Empower Network, and like Parivash said, everybody was intentional about building that bond, building that relationship.
I remember when I had to have my first child, Bethany was there. I had complications, Bethany went through it with me, she cried with me. Parivash was also with me. Laura came to the hospital. Parivash came to the hospital. Parivash was like telling me, cause my baby was in ICU for a period of time.
Parivash. I remember Parivash telling me to speak with her, even though of course she’s a baby. She couldn’t, but Parivash made me understand that, okay, she’s a baby, but she can hear your voice. You’ve carried her for a long time. And, eventually my child ended up doing great. She’s still a miracle to everybody today.
But yeah, we have that sisterhood, that bond. And even though I’m miles away, we don’t call each other every day. When we get to connect with each other, we share pictures. We connect with each other on Facebook. When I post something, Bethany, Laura, gory, comments, and even though I haven’t been to Maine in a long time, I still plan to visit the place with my daughter and see everyone, I think it’s more of the fact that everybody was intentional about building this relationship, building this sisterhood, and I really really appreciate. I really appreciate that network and I really appreciate everyone on this call for them.
Yeah. And since then we moved to Missouri. From Missouri. We’re now in Tennessee. Yeah. And like I said, it’s like the last move. And I’ve had another child, I’ve had another child in August, and so right now I am. Eventually my husband actually filed for me while I was in Maine to get a green card, but it wasn’t coming through on time, which was why I said I had to go to community college.
Eventually it came through in 2020 and I was able to pursue what I really wanted to do. Right now I’m working for a consulting firm working in the financial services space. I work in like the financial crime investigation side of it, and I work a hundred percent from home, which, gives me the flexibility of being a mom, being a present mom, and, working at the same time.
Yeah. So that’s really a summary of, what has been happening to me.
[00:20:36] Eric Miller: That’s a wonderful story. So many beautiful memories and congratulations on, on acquiring your Green Card, finishing school, getting the job, moving around all over the place, successfully raising children. What an amazing experience.
And since you named dropped Bethany let’s round out getting to know everyone here.
[00:20:54] Bethany Smart: Hi, I am Bethany Smart. I live in North Yarmouth, I in 2018, but prior to the Pandemic was as a volunteer work volunteering through Hope Acts, and Hope House as a mentor coordinator. So I would talk to people about Hey, would you like to connect with a new Mainer and help them sort of navigate some systems, be their friend, show them around Portland, connect and just listen over coffee, like to what their needs are, and see if you can help or, if Hope House can help or, getting the, we can get the word out to the community and see what folks need.
I actually attended, like Laura said with Laura this first meeting I mean my first meeting, of the Empower Women Network with, along with, a young woman that I was mentoring from Rwanda. And I think my initial thought going was that like she would have a place to connect and that she would know this group existed. So it’s interesting how it turned out that really for me, here we are, like all of us connected so, so strongly. And she was even younger than Oyi. So maybe it was just an age factor, but but still I hope that she knows that, she has proceeded with her life here.
She has, sorry. She has I’m sure like, linked up with other friends and organizations in Portland and has the support that she needs. But as it turned out, as you’ve heard from everyone, we had a very strong connection. I mean, I do look at things from through my faith and a spiritual lens, so for me, I just feel like it was just all of us coming with really open hearts to connect with one another. And we follow asking, like just saying, introduce yourselves and say who you are and say a need that you have. So all of us have multiple needs, right? But I think as coming from, Oh, I’m from Nebraska. I didn’t say that. I moved to Maine in 1996, but coming, whether, from any place in the US as a white woman, like in that group, it can be really intimidating to express, like what can my need possibly be when I’m seeing people whose lives I’ve had to, be torn apart and start over.
But as Oyi said, we all rallied around each other’s needs. I remember Laura I think did some editing for somebody who said they needed some editing work done for work. Maybe that wasn’t you, but I think it was. Yeah, and then the aunties, that’s what we called us, planned a baby shower that was at Parivash’s house that she hosted.
And just, we started, connecting. Laura and I had always for a long time prior to this, been connected and trying to meet needs where we saw them. But this was just clearly just a deeper level of friendship and connection that kind of allowed us all to, I think, extend our leadership into our own spheres even more with the strength of knowing one another.
So I just saw Parivash last week at the State House, and I realized later I think I said at the beginning to my husband I’m so glad I went to that meeting. I can’t imagine not having met those women like we were, like Laura said, there’s something about, I think it was supposed to be a one hour meeting and it ended up being three hours.
And then we were doing like selfies in the elevator on the way downstairs, who does that when you’ve just met a group of people. But it felt like there was like a reunion and we’d known each other forever. So I realized later, had I not met Parivash that day, I would’ve met her eventually ’cause she’s everywhere all the time. Activating. But yeah, this has been a really amazing group and amazing friendship and amazing leaders.
[00:24:31] Eric Miller: Wow, that, I am blown away by the the strength of connection that just going to one place and all, having a collective goal, and then letting your guard down and being okay to be intimate and how that builds this community is just such a wonderful thing.
And Oyi you answered this question a little bit already, but that article was published in Maine Policy Review about five years ago, a lot has transpired since then. So I’d love to hear about where people are at now and if Bethany, you mentioned you and Parivash spend time at the State House, if you like to mention other advocacy group or other organizations you’re part of, be happy to share that or just general life updates. Oyi’s been very busy.
[00:25:16] Parivash Rohani: Yeah, so I mean, everybody who is really here in this podcast, we are all involved and we feel, women in general, it is in our DNA to try to make our community a better place from the unit of home to, local community, national and international.
It’s just that, I don’t know how to say it. We don’t think that , are alive if you are not doing something for somebody or making changes in our community. Yeah, there are things that, need support at the policy level, look, a s Bethany mentioned, it was a day of advocacy in the state house. So we all rallied around Wabanaki people, because we believe in, justice. So the justice cannot be discriminated. If you feel everybody have to have a equal right, then you have to be in forefront of that fight for those people who are really fighting it.
And beside that, I do a lot of advocacy around the homelessness, and also there recently we had 55 family move to South Portland. So the interfaith group decided that, there were item that they needed. So we wrote a email, like I forwarded the email to the Maine Baháʼí list, and I was overwhelmed with the response of items that had to be delivered to South Portland for the asylum seeker.
And I’m not the only one. Every one of these women who you see here, they are involved in many level with that because we all think that it is important. And I’m among few of the board in Portland Family Promise Board and Portland Park Conservancy, that, just doing different thing. It is not maybe so much geared towards the immigrant and asylum, but it is geared towards environment and conserving parks in Portland.
[00:27:36] Eric Miller: That’s wonderful. Yeah, you are certainly busy. As Bethany said. Let’s go with Ghomri. It’s, it is five years later.
[00:27:44] Ghomri Rostampour: Five years later, yes. As I was, my official position was refugee and immigrant resettlement through Jewish Community Alliance. And when, as that how they fragile when they come into this country and we house them when we provide them with food, with clothes and reach out to so many organizations, other nonprofit organizations and even, just volunteers that they come out and regardless of color, ethnicity, identity, you know, they house and we were able to house 100 in total. I think in total we had 150, but 50 of them were Afghan community, Afghan families.
And in addition of this one, as I said, I was very involved, to establish empower, I mean empower the Afghan woman and, just establish their community. They had community, but it was not very active community.
It was not like they didn’t have structure and they, especially the women were not involved at all. Not at all. I remember at the first meeting that they had only males and they were there and I said, where are the women? And said, no, we don’t have any woman here. And I said, I’m gonna cancel it out.
So then for the next one, we had only two women, and for the third one we had just three women. And the, for the fourth one that we had it here in housing authority, we had 25 women, Afghan woman. So luckily right now, and they are very happy and they’re running their organization. We choose the name for them. Maine Afghan Women and and, at the same time, civic activist as well, and working on my degree to finish it and hopefully another, just the 40 units left to get my master’s degree from Harvard University International Relations.
And the job that I recently, they offered to me, which is, I did not announce that because I have one more exam that I have to take, became a foreign service general. So I know that it’s not an easy job. But anyway, I’m very excited and hopefully to be in the office officially by the August, at the end of the August.
And at the same time, I’m a very active member of Worldly Woman. Worldly Woman is under the World Affair Councils here in Maine. The same thing that Empower Immigrant Women did it. We are going out and Laura actually participate in one of our meeting because we are very new and we are still reaching out, just kinda like international women from different group, from different, background and to participate and share their memories and, just supporting each other.
And we have empathy for each other. So yeah, that is five years later and hopefully in another five years, be a president of Iran. We need a woman, yeah.
[00:31:30] Bethany Smart: Oh, we’ll need a new podcast then.
[00:31:34] Eric Miller: Congratulations on making it to this point. Good luck on your final exam there. I have little doubt in how that’ll go for you. I’m sure you will pass it without a question. Let’s go to Laura next.
[00:31:53] Laura De Does: Trying to think from five years ago how things have changed and I’m not involved in too many direct organizations yet, I kind of dabble in a few different ones. And I had a friend, an African friend, tell me not too long ago that, ’cause I was trying to find my place in helping in certain situations and he said to me, you’re a connector. That’s what you do. You connect people. So I’ve kinda taken that and run with it, and felt well that, that is a purpose to connect people that whether it be, to services or that they are trying to better their career or better, in this particular case, my friend’s an artist and he just needed to connect with people to lead to jobs that he has picked up since then. So whether it be people, just needing clothes, I have a couple families right now that are two women are having babies and just even finding some of the basics for some people when they’re new here and they don’t know the language, they don’t have transportation is a struggle. So anything that we can do, all of us to help make their, make their settlement here a little bit easier is what we can do.
So I also am on the board of directors of Amjambo Africa Newspaper, which is an African newspaper here in Maine started in 2018. And the main goal of the newspaper is to really connect Africans here with Mainers here, and also provides news back in Africa for folks settling here so they don’t lose the connection with their homeland. And it also teaches us why a lot of new Mainers are here from African nations, mostly asylum seekers and what might have made them flee and why they’re here and what things are like in their country.
So that’s been really near and dear to my heart. I have an African son, so when I first heard about this newspaper, I thought this is something I really wanna be involved in. So that has helped me connect to other people and just become more and more part of the immigrant community. And, but we’re all Mainers now, so we have to support each other.
[00:34:08] Eric Miller: Yeah, that’s absolutely fantastic. Bethany, how about you?
[00:34:13] Bethany Smart: So I would say I’m also not, like directly involved, like on boards and things like that. But I think just, again, I think my description of leadership in the article like five years ago was just like more pushing myself to do new things. Pushing myself to step outta my comfort zone. To make, always be making new connections, to always be trying to build awareness of what’s happening in Maine, but what’s happening in people’s lives that is important to them. And I think for me it’s allowed me to have conversations on a more informed level than just here’s a general idea of justice.
Everybody should have these basic rights or everybody should be able to do X when they come to the United States and not have all these hoops to jump through kind of thing, but even with family members, with other friends, having like just a greater understanding of the struggles and to say, my friend’s going through this like this, we, we all need to be supporting one another.
So I think, I’d say like Laura’s a major connector. I’ll take minor connector. I’m a connector as well. And I just going back to the spirituality and faith piece, I just look at leadership not so much as being out front and center as standing my integrity and like doing small things and trusting the ripples that we don’t see.
And yeah, just gaining awareness and it’s it’s like more of a scaling in than scaling up kind of perspective.
[00:35:48] Eric Miller: Absolutely. That’s great. So a lot of these points that you all have made actually feeds really nicely into the next question because Parivash, in the article in 2018, you mentioned often grassroots leaders making seemingly small decisions have a huge impact on the lives of ordinary people.
Would you mind providing some examples of some of these small decisions? It seems Laura and Bethany have captured these small decisions in small actions and there’s large ones serving on boards. Would you like to elaborate on that a little bit?
[00:36:22] Parivash Rohani: Yeah. So really in general, I don’t feel that this, we have this conception of leadership that we think leadership is some alien or coming out of a space and making things work better, or we have this complex, I don’t know, idea, and to me, leadership is not complex because leadership is about others. It is not about the leader, it is not about us, it is about other people. And I always feel there are so many unsung heroes that they, doing a small thing, but do a small thing or organically changing your community. Sometimes when we talk about complex thing, it’s very disappointing because when you want to take a big, have a big goal, sometimes it is not possible to fulfill it, but if you make a small changes, it is encouraging because you see the result. Look what all the stories that Laura, Bethany and Ghomri shared, these are little changes that they are all making and making our community a better place.
So I have an example that I mentioned earlier, or just sending the email, it wasn’t a big deal, but the response that I got was so overwhelming to me. And it wasn’t the leadership because it was about others, but people were generous. They stood up and, really contributed. But I have, few years ago I went visiting this family in Lewiston from Congo, and I was visiting them with one of my friend who was from Paris, she was from France. So she was able to translate, all of our conversation. And I casually ask the woman why she’s at home and she’s not taking English classes because everybody in her household was gone for, the class. Except her. And she said, because she cannot see. And I was very surprised because I didn’t see any disability with her sight.
And I mentioned to her, I said you can’t see, what do you mean? She said, I cannot read. I cannot see, to read. And I had over counter glasses that I bought from Dollar Store, so I thought, okay, I’ll just try to give her this reading, over counter reading glasses. And she had a paper in front of her and she started reading and she started crying because she was overwhelmed that her problem was just, was solved with reading over counter reading glasses.
It wasn’t a big deal that I offered to her, but just being intentional to make sure what is her problem, and if there was anything that I could do to make a difference, which I wasn’t sure that it would make a difference, but just being intentional. So when I left there, I was thinking really many of the problem that people are dealing with is not a big problem. They are a small problem. It is just that we are people who are connecting with other people, whether they are immigrant, asylum, seek care. If you are intentional, in our day-to-day work, we would be able, with a small decision, make a change in people’s life. So this intentionality is very important and doing something about the problem that we are facing and not saying, oh, okay, so what, they are dealing with this for a long time and nothing has changed, so just let it be. I think that’s the important, really lesson for all of us, that the small changes can be perceived big from the point of view of the person who receive that small change. It can impact their life.
[00:40:47] Eric Miller: Yeah. Thank you. For expanding on that point in intentionality is a very special and powerful thing and can be channeled into, I like how you framed as it can be channeled into as small or as large as an act as what is in front of you in that moment.
And so as leaders and yourselves, and as immigrants sort of worked intimately with new Mainers yourselves, can you all speak to how leadership and community networks can help individuals and families that call Maine their new home?
[00:41:16] Parivash Rohani: Yeah, I would like to say because I’m immigrant, what am I offering is not some vague, something in a vacuum because I live the immigrant life and I know what was important to me was learning the language was one of the really the most important thing that you need to learn the language of the country that you reside in because that could also improve your own life, if you are fluent in the language.
The second thing is, I think the attitude or attitude towards getting job because most immigrants who come here, they are highly educated. So if we want to wait for that perfect job that pays $150 an hour, it’s very hard. So we have to have a different attitude towards job. And I share a little story after I say this, that’s very important.
The another point is that as immigrants, we should not take everything and anything that people say and put it in a category of discrimination that, oh, these people tell me this because I’m from another country, so you can’t take everything as discrimination because that would make our life very hard.
Another point that I really want to make sure that as immigrant, the immigrant are paying attention to that, is just that we need to take the first step. If we want to become friends with other people, we need to take the first step. I remember when we moved actually to Maine, it was winter and people hibernate in Maine, so you can’t connect with anybody.
And I remember, my neighbor heard that we are from Iran and they thought this terrorist family moved next door to them. They were worried about their children and all of that. And I was alone. I left everything that I was familiar with in Iran. I didn’t have family when I came to Maine, it was only me, my husband, and my daughter.
So I needed connection. But my neighbor didn’t need connection because she already had relative, friend, well established community. But I didn’t. So I couldn’t sit at home and say, oh, I’m waiting for my neighbor to come say, hi, Parivash. How are you? I’m glad to meet you. If I would have that attitude after 30 some years, I still would not have any connection with anyone.
So I say that we really, as immigrant, we have to take that step. I want to tell you the story. My husband was doing his PhD in India. So when we came, he was working two jobs as a stock clerk in 7-Eleven, and he was also as the stock clerk in L.L. Bean. So the first job, the first week we were in Maine, he got a job in L.L. Bean.
I remember when he would go to job, I would sit and cry because I was thinking, oh my God, he’s so intelligent. He has done all of this PhD work and now he’s stocking, somewhere in 7-Eleven and I don’t know, in L.L. Bean, and I would not let him know that I was worried about that. So I remember one day he came home and I was crying. I would make sure he doesn’t know that I cried because I thought he is working hard for me and my daughter. There is no reason that I should show him that I’m distressed. So I remember he came home sick and he saw me crying and he thought something happened to my parents. So he said, something happened to your parents?
I said, no. He said, please tell me why you are crying. I said, I’m crying because you are an intelligent man. You have, did your pre PhD and all of this work while you are now folding clothes at night in L.L. Bean. My husband got mad at me. He said, what is the use of PhD? If I cannot put food in front of you and my daughter, he said, still whatever I’m making is better than $0.
And because I’m working in L.L. Bean, actually I’m aware of other opportunities because if I am not working in L.L. Bean, most of a job are posted within the company. So the fact that I’m there as a stock clerk makes me aware of the posting. So I have the ability to apply for better job. So really did all the advice that I’m offering humbly, is because we went through that as an immigrant.
It’s not some abstract something out there that I have no clue or I didn’t go through that hardship. So I feel these are something that we need to remember. Our attitude need to be very positive and not, because I have PhD, I’m not going to work here, I’m not going to work there. But those are all opportunities for better future.
[00:46:51] Bethany Smart: Can I just also say that Parivash cut the story short, but she took her neighbor that, a meal, to meet her, right? In the first story.
[00:47:00] Parivash Rohani: Oh yeah.
[00:47:01] Bethany Smart: When you were feeling like your neighbor didn’t wanna meet you and you said you needed, people need to take the first step, you cooked her a meal and it should have been the, it should have been the reverse, but it wasn’t.
[00:47:11] Parivash Rohani: Yes, I make food. I, with any excuse, I go and knock at their door and you know I have to tell you, it had a happy ending because when we became friend, she gave my name as somebody in the school because her kids had allergy, very bad allergy. So if something happened to them, they would call me because she was working full time. So it had a really happy ending, but it had a happy ending because I try to make sure we connect, so she doesn’t have this misconception that I’m terrorist because I’m from Iran. If I would have really, that would have been something that I would say, oh, okay, she thinks I’m terrorist. I’m not going to reach out. She would have never found out that our similarities is more than our differences. Thank you for reminding me Bethany.
[00:48:10] Eric Miller: Ghomri, do you have something that you’d like to add for how as an immigrant yourself, you can speak to leadership community networks in, in Maine and how that can help individuals and families?
[00:48:22] Ghomri Rostampour: Yeah, a lot, just if you share your stories with them and journey that you had, and any time when we have, when I have home visit with them, because we have a lot of home with them, we’re talking about our stories. How as Parivash mentioned to it, I was a principal back in Iran and I had my master’s degree, but I never prayed to go to (()) food, and pack food, just work very hard and I’m telling them the same, just they are really frustrated and they are sometimes, they get so emotion, they are crying and obviously, that is ’cause of the barrier language, culture shock. Not, they’re not able to navigate with the system. But when you out there and telling them, that is my story, when I came here, I went back to work, I went back to education, and you will get there. You will be there. So yeah, that is very important. And then at the same time, just, It’s, the difference is it’s here. Some people with a strong, but strong educational background.
And then the other one is with zero educational background. That makes her job much difficult. When you know the language and when you just, at least a little bit familiar with technology world, it is the technology world. And the thing that they suffered a lot and some of them they’re dealing with very little, email address and they do not know how to send an email address. And, just with providing with computer classes for them. Just teaching them and even sometimes you are going to their home and we’re there, just to help them. But they give the cell phone to you and they don’t know how to use the app. They don’t know how to do the online banking. They don’t know how to, just send the documentation to their, and their, the organization that they’re supporting to their attorneys. ‘Cause mostly working with asylum seekers and the attorney is asking for a lot of documentation, pictures and this and that, technology world, it’s not easy for them, but still, just, if your action inspires others, to dream more, learn more, do more. So then became more. It means that you can, you have a good message for your community and you can inspire them in so many ways. I know that they’re frustrated sometimes. And as an example, the immigration system, when they when they are coming here, some of them even, they do not have their own name and they change their name and then they get frustrated and they, their name is not match with their age and their name. Their age is not much with their name. And then social security, and, dealing with social security, dealing with the department of Health and Human Services, and dealing with the medical system, they became sick, just so tired and anxious, nervous, and exhausted.
And but we’re there and we’re trying to help them in so many ways. Not only emotionally, not on, how to navigate with the system that is the most difficult part for them. But just, I hope this world, be just like how the birds are migrating, and, if people, to get to this point, if they get to this point, the migration is not hurting anyone and migration is not hurting any system, anything just for make a world to a better place to live. If they come to this concept, the world will be much better. Look at the birds they’re migrating. When it’s winter, they’re flying. When it’s getting warmer, they’re coming back for the contribution, right?
And the same as Parivash said, if they do not think that you are coming here, just. You are not a terrorist, you are not a danger person. You’re a human kind. Just like every, everybody else in this area. We have all of us, regardless of the color, religious, ethnicity, background, we have just one type of blood and it’s red.
[00:53:05] Eric Miller: Yeah. Thank you so much Ghomri. I can’t imagine something more isolating or intimidating than trying to navigate a foreign bureaucracy. So having those resources are invaluable for people new to an area.
Oyi, it sounds like you were quite the beneficiary of this cultivated community. Would you like to share you shared a little bit about how you benefited and had support. Would you like to share some of your experience with leadership and community networks with folks who are new to Maine or anywhere?
[00:53:39] Oyinloluwa Fasehun: Like I said, when I introduced myself, I I was trying to find a job as a new immigrant, but of course I didn’t have a green card. So I was looking for an employer who could file for me. And like I said, even though I didn’t get that eventually I got support from Empowerment Network. As to connecting with people who were in my field.
And I feel like every immigrant has a story. They have a story of how they started and how they got to where they are now. And I always tell people who just move into the country who have had the opportunity to know maybe back from Nigeria, that, you have to be patient with the process because it’s a process, it doesn’t happen overnight and you have to just be patient with it.
And if you stick through the process, you eventually find it rewarding. And that is what I have realized in my own journey as an immigrant. It was tough at the beginning because I had a master’s degree. I sat for the New York BAR exam, but I couldn’t work with it because I didn’t have a green card, and it was really frustrating. I had to go back to community college, the degree, yeah. There’s no, you can’t, knowledge, no knowledge is wasted, so I won’t say that I didn’t gain from that, but eventually that was like an associate degree. I already had a master’s degree.
So at the end of the day, it was just like, let me just do something to be in status. But so at that point it was frustrating us. And if you’re not careful, you may feel like, oh, you’re not good enough. You may begin to doubt, your worth. You may begin to say, oh, my friends they pass the by exam. They’re working with a law firm. Now what am I doing?
But at the end of the day, everybody’s story is different. Everybody’s story is unique and you just have to believe in yourself and know that it’s a process. And, being an immigrant, everybody has to go through it. Everybody has to go through it. As an immigrant, whether you come in as a refugee, whether you come in as a student, everybody has to go through that process, that was what I was able to benefit from the, this network of amazing women. I was able to meet people, I was able to meet people that were like me, that I could share my story with, that I could hear their own stories, which, eventually encouraged me to keep pushing.
And I think that is what is important for, moving forward for people to be able to come together as immigrants, as Americans, to support each other, to keep each other going that, okay, you’ve got this, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, at the end of everything you’re going to be better for it, so I feel that was one very important. Thing that I gained from the network, and I feel it should continue. And I feel every immigrant grant should be encouraged and should know that at the end of the day you’re going to, you’re gonna get to where you want to go to eventually.
[00:56:41] Eric Miller: That’s great.
And to bounce back from that adversity after passing the BAR exam and being, hitting that administrative wall that you forced you to adapt is very impressive, and the, yeah, the message is very powerful.
Laura and Bethany, you each had quite a bit of experience working with new Mainers. I would love to get your perspective on leadership and community networks. Laura, would you like to start?
[00:57:09] Laura De Does: It always resonates to me when somebody says to me, particularly new Mainers will say, oh, you’ve done so much for me. You’re so amazing. Look at all the things you’ve done. How could I do this without you?
And I just, it, it’s always makes me uncomfortable to hear that because I know what I have gained from the richness I have gained from having such a diverse group of friends and learning people’s culture and just seeing things through their eyes when they come here. Moving anywhere new is so difficult, but then you add the lack of the language and just how to navigate anywhere in this country, particularly Maine, of course we’re talking about, and I, I just feel like I want to tell people how much they have to gain by reaching out. Just like how Parivash’s neighbor, thought that she was a terrorist. And we have, people have these bias and these stereotypes, and once they actually get to know someone, it’s hard to have that same feeling about them when you become friends with them.
And I feel like when we take the time to truly connect with others and learn about them, there’s no longer an us and them. It’s just us. And that’s really what this world needs right now. I just feel so grateful to have the ability to connect with people from other nations. When I grew up here in Maine, there, there was nobody from other nations in the Portland area, really very few.
I went to a pretty big high school and it was a very white high school. So our world looks very different now. Again, have an African son. It’s just made things so much better and our family to have so many other people from other nations be his big brother, his auntie, his, really connecting with others.
So I just wish everyone could feel how wonderful it is to truly make our world a little bit smaller and to connect with people that we really don’t think we have anything in common with. ‘Cause we, we do.
[00:58:58] Eric Miller: Absolutely. Bethany, you have anything to add?
[00:59:00] Bethany Smart: I feel like I’ll probably reiterate like that connection is just where it’s at.
People have to build relationships. Relationships I would say like the distressing, situations like Ghomri’s describing and just the challenges people have and just getting to the point where you’re like, is this even worth it? What am I doing here? Having. Being there, being able to be there for people is a gift.
It’s a gift to us. I know it means a lot, like people will say like we’re their American family and that benefits everyone in involved. But I can also say, so that sounds beautiful. I can also say it like breaks my heart and I know Laura will say the same thing, you just get to a point sometime, you’re like why are these things the way that they are?
And it’s hard to have this conversation without naming that our immigration system is broken and it’s created by a system of white supremacy and it, I can’t be a white person in this conversation without saying that. It’s painful to see where we’re at and I don’t know the way out unless people choose to connect. What I can say is that many of the cultures that share our community now in Portland have such strong cultural concepts of community that I think we can learn from. And people are already, if there weren’t all these barriers, if there weren’t all the barriers to working, barriers to language barriers, if life wasn’t so difficult I, and we didn’t make it so difficult, our system didn’t make it so difficult for people.
Even they’re, just ready to get in there and be community and give back and work even sooner. So we’re talking about yes, it’s beautiful when it happens. And then there’s also this like unsaid piece that I feel like we haven’t addressed it. Like it can happen sooner. We need to, be advocating for changes to make this not so complicated and not so charged politically and stuff like that.
That might be a bit off topic. I feel like that has to be said that we have to work for a change.
[01:01:04] Eric Miller: It’s all relevant. Thank you. Thank you both so much for your perspectives on this issue as well. As we close out in our final question here, I do you have any quick thoughts for budding young leaders in this space?
And any advice or short stories that would you think that they would find beneficial Parivash? We’ll start with you again.
[01:01:26] Parivash Rohani: I think few things I would like to stress. One is of course, to listen and to learn. Have new leaders, that’s very important to listen because sometimes we think we are leaders.
Everybody else has to listen to us, and we don’t have anything to learn from others if we feel that we are leaders. But really, as a good leader, you have to be listening and also being open to learning. Another thing is really I feel that the leadership, as I mentioned before, is about others. It is not about us.
So if you are good leaders, we are not creating followers, but we are creating leaders who would be leading. Because, I mean, the global community is full of leaders who have followers, but we don’t see changes happening in our community. Because people blindly following these leaders without knowing where they are going.
And also to give vision and inspiration to people who are with collaborating as supposedly leaders with people who we cross path, it is important to do, be intentional that they become leaders and we are actually empowering other people and creating resources in the community because if you are just thinking about us and our own leadership, nobody is there to step, up for taking the role of leadership in the future.
I think really those are among the things that I think it is important. And one last thing doesn’t have anything to do with leadership, but I always say if I die and they dissect me, They never going to find a gene that say Parivash Rohani was Iranian. No. Gene would indicate that we are all human. So what they find is just indicating that I’m another human like anybody else.
So I think it is important to remember that we are all more interconnected, more interdependent than we think we are. We have, and that’s why really connecting with people no matter where they come from. I’m connecting and forming relationship. Doesn’t happen. Going to the lecture, listening to podcast. It happens at each other’s kitchen, sharing food and being together there and celebrating important things.
Recently I dropped my phone in somewhere that it was not very nice, but Laura supported me and she stayed with me till my husband go and get something to fetch the cell phone. So those are the things that, make our friendship and connection is stronger, and I don’t think Laura is going to let me forget it because she texting me and she said, take care of your cell phone Parivash.
[01:04:50] Laura De Does: I’ll never let you forget that.
[01:04:53] Parivash Rohani: No.
I want to say that I have a lot of trust in this younger generation, really wherever I go, if I don’t see young generation among people, I say something is wrong with this picture because this younger generation is the generation that is going to lead global community.
They have it right. We just have to support them and accompany them and let them know that they are doing great thing, really. I mean, I mentioned few things, but I really, I think this younger generation know it all. They know how to lead. They have proved it in many areas that they know. They know the priority.
[01:05:43] Eric Miller: That’s great. Thank you for the story. This is great. Ghomri, do you have anything you would like to say about young leaders.
[01:05:49] Ghomri Rostampour: Yeah, for young leaders? Yeah, absolutely. So always your action is louder than your talk or your speak. When you inspire others, as I said, as I mentioned before, when you inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, became more and this one has to be done by your action.
So it means you are good leader. And at the same time to me, just because after Covid, that 4 in 10 household have lost their job, their business, and they reduced wages and hours, and the rate of the death. And then the young generation, unfortunately, they’re home right now and they’re always on technology. Technology is good. It’s so many ways, it’s very beneficial, but at the same time, the communication, it’s getting, it, the skills, communication skills get lost. And we have to, and then the the empathy, the compassion we have to take them out and, just pull they commitment, and confidence, commitment, communication. To me, those are really important and we have to work on this one, in this area.
[01:07:17] Eric Miller: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much. Laura, quick if you have any thoughts about young leaders in the community?
[01:07:22] Laura De Does: My only thought really is to just not get overwhelmed with the idea of how can I be a leader? How can I, what can I do? What difference can I make? And, as Parivash said it’s not, leaders aren’t necessarily the ones in charge. They’re the ones maybe just being there for others who want to make a difference. And I think if I had concentrated too much on being a leader, I wouldn’t be doing anything because the idea of having to lead and might be overwhelming to me and thinking, what do I have to offer? But as we’ve talked about, it’s the little things that can make a difference.
If we all make a little difference, what a huge difference it becomes for everyone. So I think it just do something, whether it be learning more about everything from race to different cultures to policies that aren’t helping anyone besides the white man. I think that everyone can make a difference. So whatever it is, whatever your passion is, even if it’s the environment that affects all of us, whatever your passion is, try and find your way to make a difference.
[01:08:29] Eric Miller: Very inspiring. That’s great. Oyi do you have anything you’d like to mention as we close out?
[01:08:35] Oyinloluwa Fasehun: Yeah, I, the only thing I want to add is at the end of the day, everybody is a leader in their own space. And at the end of the day the work of a leader is itself, and it’s not just, having the title of being a leader.
Everyone should be able to have some form of influence in the space that they find themself. And once you realize that you have that kind of influence, you want to make sure that you are, you are being the person that you, you are, you’re treating people the way you want to be treated.
That’s like the summary. At the end of the day, everybody is, we are all human beings. Whether you are white, whether you’re black, whether you are from Iran, whether you are from Nigeria, at the end of the day, we are all human beings and we should be able to treat each other with respect, with dignity. And, the world will be a better place if everybody has that understanding. And you, if you wanna be treated right, you want to be able to treat people right as well. And yeah that’s all I have to say.
[01:09:38] Eric Miller: Fantastic. It’s hard to close out everything after all those amazing perspectives and insights Bethany, but do you have any thoughts you’d like to share for young leaders or your community involvement as we end here?
[01:09:53] Bethany Smart: I would just really echo all of that, Ghomri’s saying, inspiring people to do more, to act more, to dream big. Laura’s points about everyone has something to offer and Oyi’s that people are standing in their integrity and treating others as they would want to be treated. I just think that our definition of leadership has been so skewed. And especially these past few years, like what young people have grown up with and seen as labeled as leadership is horrifying. That we need to like rebrand. What does it mean to be a leader? And I think it is totally like just back to these basics of treating each other well and focusing in our immediate environments as Oyi said.
We can always branch out from there, but we always have a immediate sphere of influence and our community around us will uplift us to more if they see gifts that, like that we can inspire in others. But otherwise, our job, I feel, is to be uplifting those around us.
[01:10:55] Eric Miller: That was great parting thoughts. Thank you all so much for joining us today. It was a great conversation. And I thank you all listeners for tuning in, and I hope our panelists enjoy themselves and have a wonderful rest of their day and we’ll be in touch sometime soon.
That was our discussion with the co-authors of the article. And now to our discussion with Cathy Lee. Hello, Cathy, welcome to the podcast. It’s a pleasure to have you.
[01:11:26] Cathy Lee: Thank you, Eric. It’s wonderful to be here.
[01:11:29] Eric Miller: So you helped start the Empower Network in Maine, and could you touch a little bit on your personal professional history?
[01:11:38] Cathy Lee: Sure. I grew up in Lewiston and in those days, the ethnic community, that was the target of a lot of hostility, were French Canadians. I was surrounded by that whole dynamic. I eventually moved to Brazil for a year in high school through a program that Maine has, or Maine, and the most northeastern state in Brazil, our sister states. And the program still exists. And that was my first real international experience that is being in another culture ’cause I went to a place where no one spoke English at that time.
So I, after two weeks of not saying anything to anyone, decided I better try to learn this language. And I did. And it just, the experience of living in another culture as part of that culture just opened up the world to me. So that was a really important event in my life.
I came back, went to college, left college, went back to Brazil, went to law school in Brazil for a while. Came back finished college in New York City, went to law school and then became a sex crimes prosecutor. And I think in addition to the language and opening up the world, the experience in Brazil also strengthened my sense of being a very committed feminist, watching the way women and girls were, and living the way they were treated there, made me very clear about what I believe.
So I worked as a sex crimes prosecutor in New York City for three years and then moved back to Maine. Got married, actually got married, commuted for four years, and then moved to Maine with some reluctance because I had experienced Maine as boring, as not diverse as, just limiting. That’s how it felt to me for many years growing up.
But we moved to Portland and I’ve made a really exciting and interesting life for myself. I spent 13 years at Bernstein Shore, one of the big law firms in Portland, and then worked for a few more years managing the main office for a New Hampshire law firm, and then decided I wanna do something else, more international, more entrepreneurial, more where I feel every day what I’m doing is making a difference.
And I started to focus on climate change and that’s still the work I do as a lawyer. But I also in 2010, felt it’s time to stop traveling because a lot of my work was in Southern Africa, the climate work. And spend a little more time in Maine. That was the year my father died, and I felt like he did so much for the community. I need to do more and I need, but I needed to do something from me that was based on what I had to offer. And one of the first things I did was start a program called Justice for Women. And it’s a program that brings some dynamic leader from the developing world, from the global south, to Maine every year for a week. And the woman gives a big public lecture that’s free. In fact, this year, it’s April 26th at Hannaford Hall and spends the rest of the week meeting with different communities.
And what inspired me was watching the demographic change in Maine, and realize there were women in African dress walking up and down the Franklin arterial. And traditional Mainers look at these women and they have no idea who they are. They make assumptions that they’re victims or that they’re ignorant or uneducated. And I knew just from all the travel I’d done, that there are so many amazing leaders out there around the world, particularly in Africa, in Southeast Asia, and parts of the world that people in Maine don’t get to experience for the most part. And I ought to bring some of those women that no one’s ever heard of here and put them up on a stage, have them meet with members of different communities as a way of trying to show, that, first of all, there are incredible women leaders from some of the very places that we have asylum seekers and refugees, so don’t make assumptions.
Second, they’re all activists. They’re all courageous, strong, active. And I thought by bringing them here, it can help to send the message that everybody can be an activist in their own backyard. You just need to find your inner courage.
So I think it was through that, that I met Mufalo and just thought she was one of those incredible women who has yet to grow into her own. This was years ago here in Maine, has yet to be recognized for the strength and the courage and just, her ability to lift others up. And the same the, so we got together and decided we need to find ways to bring Maine women, white women together with the immigrant women in the communities and get to know each other, and get to help each other. And it really is helping each other, that those of us who have a lot of, let’s say social capital, can open doors for some of the women immigrants, but they can show us other ways of looking at the world also and how to be courageous and so on. So that’s how we met and decided we would start this thing to get women, to give women an opportunity to know each other.
[01:17:54] Eric Miller: What a beautiful life story. Thank you so much for the work that you’ve done. And if you’ve made this far, the podcast you have heard the discussion we had with panelists earlier, and you can see the dividends that were paid and the relationships they formed based on your work and truly incredible. And to this day are regularly in contact with each other and building those community ties. And we touched a bit on community and leadership in their discussion, and I’d really like to hear your perspective on the qualities in the leader or when you first met Mufalo. What were some of the things that spoke to you as this individual is, has the potential to be a leader, and what are some tools of engagement? If people are looking to get more involved themselves, what can they do as well?
[01:18:45] Cathy Lee: I think the first thing is don’t make assumptions. Don’t think, you know who this woman is. And that’s one. Number two, whether it’s in employment or in friendship or in any other context, give these women a chance to show who they are, because so often they’re limited in what their opportunities are and they just don’t get a chance.
And when they do, like Mufalo, Ghomri, like Parivash, like so many other women, they flourish. But part of the issue is often give them an opportunity to show you who they are. So that’s one piece of advice I think, in one of the early years when I brought, i, when the speaker was from Zimbabwe, I remember years ago, and she led an organization, this is the Justice for Women’s Speaker.
She led an organization in Africa in 17 countries that worked on food security. So we use that opportunity to raise the issue of child hunger in Maine. So try to always connect the speaker with an issue of importance in Maine. And the Empower Network, which was still very much active in those days, gave a dinner at somebody’s apartment, and they were maybe 25 women who were all crowded into somebody’s living room. Everybody bought, brought food that they had made from their own country. And we went around the room and these women, there was a dental surgeon. I mean, they were just incredible and they were stuck in these, dead end jobs for many, they hadn’t yet learned enough English, which is almost always number one challenge to integrating into the workforce, into society.
But they were just something I saw in Mufalo and I see in all of these women strong, courageous, have the ability to persevere in the face of the most incredible challenges. And, but people don’t know that about them. Each one has her own story of difficulty in just getting here and trying to make it here, and they just don’t give up.
And another year we had a justice women speaker from India, who is one of the worldwide leaders in the movement against sex trafficking. And at one point she made a state, made a comment saying, courage is contagious. And I thought, oh, I love that. That’s great. It turns out it was actually Gloria Steinem who said it, who’s a good friend of Ruchira Gupta, but the dean, oh, I didn’t say before that, when I created the program Justice for Women, I took it to the law school and said, would you like the law school to be the home for this program? I’ll raise money for it and I’ll put the community piece together every year. But the public lecture, it will all be identified with the law school. So it’s been at the law school.
So every year the dean of the law school gives a Courage is Contagious Award, and this year it’s going to two immigrant women who were part of those who I met through those that, that early networking that the Claudette, and Micky, who are co-founders of In Her Presence, which is a fantastic program in the greater Portland area that helps immigrant women with all sorts of things from English, to employment and so on.
So they’re going to get the award this year very much deserved, and they just capture leadership as Mufalo does, just being able to show by example, lift other people up and get, help people just have the courage to keep going.
[01:22:50] Eric Miller: That’s wonderful. And so many insights and your just casually dropping so many groups and events as well.
And I would love to hear, so April 26th is there’s an event going on there if you’d like to remind us what that is. So if people like to attend, they can. And I’d also love to hear about any ideas you have or for the future of your own work or any other type of initiative or advocacy that you’d like to highlight before we, we close out here.
[01:23:22] Cathy Lee: Okay. The Justice for Women Week is April 24th to the 28th. The lecture, which is Wednesday evening, Hannaford Hall 7:00 PM and it’s open free, but you have to register. So I sent you the link, Eric, just so you could see what the program is. I dunno if there’s a place for you to post it, but if people just want to Google Justice for Women Maine Law, they’ll go right to the link.
And our speaker this year is a very courageous journalist from Brazil. Who was targeted by the former president on social media. And she just embodies all of those qualities. And the rest of the week we’ll be going to high schools, during high school, where she’ll be meeting with a group of 30 plus recently arrived Angolan minors who are asylum seekers who speak Portuguese like she does.
And we’re going to Brunswick High School, so we have a whole week of events. But the public lecture we’d love to have people come and join us. April 26th, Wednesday, 7:00 PM Hannaford Hall, just Google Justice for Women Maine Law, and you can sign up.
One of the things I haven’t mentioned, well, two things I wanted to mention that the, in addition to just becoming friends with so many immigrant women, in addition to the ones I’ve mentioned, Safiya Khalid, who in Lewiston and Betty and Vicky and some of the other women from the South Sudanese community, Angela and Dina from Bangor, Deqa Dhalac who we supported going to emerge and she then ran for office and was mayor of South Portland now is in the legislature. So many amazing women who’ve come into their own. But I’m also on the board. I’m actually currently serving as vice president of the board of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center. And we just got an earmark thanks to Representative Pingree substantial amount of money to develop a program called Women Lead.
And we’re going to be working on this very question of women and leadership under the direction of Raza Jali, who’s the executive director there. But I’m very excited about the work that the Great Appointment Immigrant Welcome Center is doing, and the opportunity gives me to try to continue to offer something. So watch for those programs. It’s, there’s an English lab, small business hub, but the Women Lead program is going to be something I hope will be a national model.
[01:25:58] Eric Miller: Oh, that sounds amazing. And we’ll definitely keep tabs on that going forward. And I’ll put link in the description of this episode for the event as well. Great. And so we are very grateful for the work that you’ve done. Very impressive. And look forward to yeah, like I said, keeping tabs on this new women lead group that’s going to be established. And we really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today.
[01:26:22] Cathy Lee: Well, thank you for the work that you do. I think it’s great that you take the time and make the effort to give an opportunity for these women to speak.
[01:26:31] Eric Miller: It is our pleasure. You can also live stream the Justice for Women Lecture if you are interested and cannot attend or prefer to watch it online.
What you just heard was our panel discussion with Parivash Rohani, Laura de Does, Ghomri Rostampour, Oyinloluwa Fasehun, Bethany Smart, and Cathy Lee, about community engagement with new Mainers and leadership. Maine Policy Review is a peer reviewed academic journal published by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center.
The editorial team for Maine Policy Review is made up of Joyce Rumery, Linda Silka, and Barbara Harrity. Jonathan Rubin directs the policy center. A thank you to Jayson Heim and Kathryn Swacha, script writers for Maine Policy Matters, and to Daniel Soucier, our production consultant.
In two weeks, we’ll be covering Richard Barringer, Lee Schepps, Tomas Urquhart and Martin Wilk’s story of Maine’s public reserved lands.
We’d like to thank you for listening to Maine Policy Matters from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine. You can find us online by searching Maine Policy Matters on your web browser. If you enjoyed this episode, please follow us on your preferred social media platform to stay updated on new episode releases.
I’m Eric Miller. Thanks for listening and please join us next time on Maine Policy Matters.