Inside her small shop in downtown Bangor, Maine, Angela Okafor chats with a local mom as she braids the mom's hair. A few feet from the styling chair, Okafor's young daughter glides on a scooter through shelves of international foods and spices. Racks of African clothing — sewn by Okafor — line the wall. It's a busy place, she says, and one that the city's small immigrant population seeks out for food and connection.
"I have bikes here," Okafor says. "I have jumping ropes. I have Play-Doh. People come here to shop with their kids. Kids are riding bikes. I mean, it's a community, so why not?
Last month, Okafor made history in the larger community: The attorney and small-business owner became the first immigrant and first person of color elected as a councilor in the small, overwhelmingly white city. Okafor's election is part of a growing wave of women of color who are running for political office, and winning.
Taking things into her own hands
A shop like Okafor's didn't exist when she and her husband moved to Maine from Nigeria about a dozen years ago on a work visa. Like most of the state, Bangor is overwhelmingly white. And Okafor says the adjustment was hard, as people couldn't understand her and would often stop and stare.
Despite holding a law degree from her home country and passing the New York bar exam, Okafor says it was nearly impossible to get any job in the legal field. Employers told her she was either overqualified or said she needed "Maine experience."
"Being frustrated is beyond the description," Okafor recalls. "I feel free to talk about this now because I am my own employer. But [I] imagine a lot of other people who go through that but cannot speak up."
So three years ago, Okafor took things into her own hands and launched an immigration law practice, which she could operate with her out-of-state license because of its basis in federal law. She then opened her international food store and hair salon to provide needed services to Bangor's immigrant community.
But she wasn't done. This year, after seeing other immigrants bring their concerns to local leaders who were all white, Okafor realized that they needed representation.
"And, you know, who better to do that?" Okafor says. "I'm like, 'Someone needs to do that.' And at some point, I'm like, 'Why not me?' "
Okafor entered the race for City Council. And last month she won handily, becoming the first immigrant and first person of color elected in Bangor's history.
Bangor City Council Chair Clare Davitt says that Okafor will bring a needed perspective to city leadership.
"To have her knowledge of law, and as a small-business owner, that representation matters so much, especially as we are losing workforce and trying to rebuild that," Davitt says.
"What else can I do?"
Okafor is one of dozens of women of color nationwide who have jumped into politics in recent years. Kimberly Peeler-Allen, a visiting practitioner at Rutgers University who co-founded Higher Heights, a national nonprofit to elect black women to office, says her organization identified about 90 black women running for federal and statewide executive office in the 2018 election cycle. Already, they've identified more than 90 who are running in the 2020 cycle, and with months left to go until the filing deadlines in several states, Peeler-Allen says those numbers could easily keep climbing.
Peeler-Allen partially attributes the shift to the national prominence of candidates such as Kamala Harris, as well as dissatisfaction with current leaders, particularly at the federal level.
"So it is really propelling more women to say, 'What else can I do? And how can I engage at a deeper level? And I'm not happy with my current elected leadership. So I think I could do a better job.' And they're throwing their hat in the ring," she says.
Okafor says she feels grateful for the newfound prominence in her city after years of overcoming barriers.
"For me, I grew up struggling. I struggled a lot growing up," she says. "So right now I feel privileged. I'm very religious. I feel blessed."
And while Okafor is still learning the ins and outs of her new role on the Bangor City Council, she wants to focus on improving public transportation, which she says has long affected families and small businesses. Now, Okafor says, she's in a position where she can make a difference.
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