SOUTH PORTLAND – A little over a month into her new position as District 5 city councilor in South Portland, Deqa Dhalac addressed women and men assembled for the 2019 Portland Women’s March Saturday, Jan. 19 in front of Portland City Hall.

“We need to tell our mothers, sisters and daughters that they are strong, they are powerful and they have the right and ability to take charge and make change in their community,” Dhalac cheered.

Dhalac won her council seat on Dec. 11 during a special election following the resignation of former councilor Adrian Dowling on Sept. 15, 10 months into what was supposed to be a three-year term. With her victory against Rolando’s Redemption proprietor Donald Cook with a vote of 1,418 to 700, Dhalac became both the first African American and first Muslim person to be elected to the South Portland City Council.

“The organizers (of the march) reached out to me shortly after the election to ask if I would speak,” Dhalac said during a Jan. 22 interview. “It was my first time participating in the Women’s March, and it was really something.”

At the start of her speech, Dhalac gathered her notes.

“Let’s make this official,” and reached into her pocket to pull out a bright pink “pussyhat,” which became symbol of the original Women’s March in 2017. Dhalac placed it ceremoniously on her head over her hijab. The gesture was met with one of the loudest cheers of the day.

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About 1,000 people attended the Women’s March in Portland, walking from Congress Square Park to Portland City Hall where speeches took place. Attendees were bundled against the cold, holding signs high as they listened to speakers. The first to speak was attorney and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Betsy Sweet, who opened the event citing the achievements of women over the last year, referencing the #MeToo movement and the election of the first female governor in Maine’s history.

Dhalac’s speech focused on the importance of women being involved in their communities and using their voices to bring about change.

“We are the compassion, we are the hope, we are the change that our country needs desperately,” Dhalac said to the cheering crowd.

Originally from Somalia, Dhalac came to the United States in 1992 and became a citizen in 1998. She and her three children, two sons, aged 26 and 19, and a daughter age 18, moved to South Portland in 2008. Dhalac is a longtime social worker, and now serves as the intercultural program manager at the Center for Grieving Children in Portland.

Dhalac has long been involved in politics, working with immigrants to help them register to vote. In 2018, Dhalac completed the Emerge Maine program, a program that supports women who want to run for elected office and gives them the tools to win.

“As women we sometimes think that there is a place for us, and I know I thought that it wasn’t a place for me,” Dhalac said. “Emerge showed me there is a need for your voice.”

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Alumnae of the Emerge Maine program include Gov. Janet Mills (D) and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME).

“I completed the program, but at the time, all the seats were filled so I wasn’t able to run,” Dhalac said. “But when the District 5 seat opened up, I knew it was my time.”

Prior to the campaign, she consulted with her three children on their opinion of her running for office. Her oldest son said he didn’t believe it was the right time, worried that there were too many barriers for her to be able to succeed. Her two younger children, however, were enthusiastic from the beginning, with the eldest coming around to the idea shortly after.

“My children are very supportive of me. Of course they worried, would someone be rude to me while I was campaigning?” Dhalac asjed. “But as I went to talk to people, everyone in South Portland was very welcoming, kind and respectful.”

Now that she is a member of the council, Dhalac hopes that it will approve more affordable housing for residents.

“In order to grow, we need people to stay in town,” Dhalac said. “If they can’t afford to live here, they will leave.”

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Dhalac is optimistic about the direction Maine and local government is taking to become more accepting and inclusive. She cited her experience at the NAACP Martin Luther King Day event at the Holiday Inn By The Bay in Portland on Jan. 20, where Mills renewed the tradition of the governor’s attendance at the dinner, one that had been abandoned by Gov. Paul LePage.

“For the last eight years, we’ve had a governor who didn’t come to this dinner, and last night Janet Mills was there to speak,” Dhalac said. “We’re all a part of this, and it’s something to be proud of.”

During her speech, Dhalac encouraged attendees to move forward with a message of positivity.
“We need to keep going and work together,” Dhalac said.

Dhalac went on to pledge that in 2019 she would found a group for young women of color to learn about leadership and politics, further proving to them that there is a place for them at the table.

“We need to tell our young people that you can make a huge difference,” Dhalac said on Jan. 22. “We are all one human family. Together, we can move mountains.”

Contact Staff Writer Abigail Worthing at [email protected]

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