Deqa Dhalac

Deqa Dhalac was a panelist with other local leaders on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year. She discussed the formation of South Portland Human Rights Commission as well as other ways she has supported Black, Indigenous, People of Color in the community.   Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo


Margaret Brownlee, vice-chair for the South Portland Human Rights Commission, talked about what led her to the work she’s done to form the committee during a panel on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (Staff Photo by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer) Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Councilor Deqa Dhalac and Human Rights Commission Vice-Chair Margaret Brownlee joined local leaders on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for a discussion about the equity work within their cities.

As part of the Maine NAACP’s 40th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Observance, hosted by the Greater Portland Council of Governments, local leaders in South Portland, Portland and Falmouth discussed their experiences with forming racial equity committees and what they plan to accomplish in the future.

In September of 2020, South Portland City Council enacted the Human Rights Commission, which was formed in part as a response to the racial equity movement in June of that year, Dhalac said.

The creation of the commission arose from a desire from BIPOC residents to create a better community, Dhalac said, adding that the death of George Floyd in June affected her as she thought of her own children.

Brownlee, one of the founding members, collaborated with others in the process of forming the commission, she said. She had run for city council and lost, but that was the catalyst for the creation of the commission.

“I was able to really (turn) lemons into lemonade and work towards justice in our community and received so much support from Councilor Dhalac and (Portland) Councilor Pious Ali and so many others who lifted me up and said, you can do this,” she said.

The commission is charged with providing support for marginalized groups in the community, which may do so through initiating other policies, said the Human Rights Commission Ordinance.

“We are working on some current projects in the city,” Brownlee said. “I’m working with Councilor Dhalac and we’re making sure we’re taking a comprehensive approach, that we’re being mindful, that we’re not just reacting, but we’re being proactive to the things we’re working on.”

When discussing what led her to politics, Dhalc said running for office was something she had never considered.

“So I’m a woman first and I’m a black woman, and I’m an immigrant who has an accent,” she said. “And also on top of that I’m a Muslim, so it never occurred to me to run for office, period, at all. I thought there was no space for me to do that, but I did work behind the scenes to make sure people are registered to vote, to make sure people are really voting, and use the rights they have.”

With continued push from peers to run for political office, Dhalac eventually did in 2016 and was elected to South Portland City Council, she said.

“The reason I ran for office was to make sure there was a voice for BIPOC communities in the city of South Portland because we did not have that before,” she said. “And I did not get there by myself. I had a large community of white, Black and indigenous people who were behind me and really supported me to run for office.”

Other racial justice work Dhalac has done through the city council includes introducing the city council to Cities for Citizenship, bringing the celebration of Indigenous People’s Day to South Portland and presenting the key to the city to two prominent Black activists, one of whom was the founder of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The first initiative Dhalac brought to the South Portland City Council was the Cities for Citizenship program, she said.

“Cities for Citizenship is a major national initiative that aimed to increase the citizenship among eligible United States permanent residents and encourage cities to tell community members that, ‘If you are eligible to become a United States citizen, please do so, and we can give you those resources you need,'” she said.

Other speakers at the panel included Pious Ali, Lelia DeAndrade, Nathan Poore and Dustin Ward, who discussed racial justice work within Portland, Falmouth and Maine as a whole.

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