Umaru Balde, Portland’s new director of justice, diversity, equity and inclusion, stands outside City Hall on April 19. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The whiteboard in Umaru Balde’s office lists his priorities for his first weeks on the job as Portland’s new director of equity and diversity: find data on the community; ride along with the police and fire departments; get to know the City Council; reach out to LGBTQ, immigrant and disability rights advocates.

Balde is just settling into his job as the city’s first director of justice, diversity, equity and inclusion. He has plans for what he wants to accomplish in the new role, but he’s still working with the city to determine what the day-to-day job will require, and he wants to hear from the community first.

“I don’t claim to know it all,” said Balde, 43, in a recent interview at City Hall. “I do depend on the public to help because this is a new position. I would like to have some level of dependency on public input.

“Whoever wants to have a dialogue or wants to talk, I want to have that conversation about how we can make things better, not just for those we agree with, but for everyone.”

Balde arrives at a critical time, on the heels of a neo-Nazi march through downtown that prompted residents to call on the city for a tougher response. But the position has been in the works for almost two years, following a recommendation from the city’s Racial Equity Steering Committee.



Balde began work on April 3 and earns a salary of $113,168.

He will be a big part of the City Council’s goal to prioritize racial and social justice and will report to, and advise, the city manager.

Interim City Manager Danielle West said she wants Balde to get to know the city, its staff and community partners in his first weeks. He will then be tasked with diving into the 65-page report from the Racial Equity Steering Committee, which, in addition to creating his job, also calls for policy changes around policing, criminal justice, housing and hiring practices.

West said the city is already working on some of the recommendations from the report, which was completed in 2021, but that Balde will provide a more informed approach.

“He’ll take all of that information and really be able to point us in the right direction rather than us haphazardly referring things to committees to get looked at,” West said.

The report calls for a department of racial equity with at least two staff members to support the director, and West said she has included funds in her upcoming budget for an associate to work under Balde. Together, she said they will build out the structure of the department. “I think he’s a wonderful addition, and I’m really excited to work with him,” West said.


City Councilor Pious Ali, who co-chaired the Racial Equity Steering Committee, said creating the new position is a welcome development but is just one step toward addressing systemic racism.

And he said the job will require the support of not only elected and appointed leaders in Portland, but also the community.

“I am confident Mr. Balde will be able to make a real difference in Portland,” Ali said in an email. “I am looking forward to working with (his office) to build a more just and equitable city for all.”

Umaru Balde, Portland’s new director of justice, diversity, equity and inclusion, at City Hall on April 19. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


Balde comes to Portland from Iowa, where he was the director of the Multicultural Family Center for the city of Dubuque and is still working remotely on a doctoral degree in postsecondary education and student affairs from the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

He grew up in Guinea-Bissau, where his parents sent him to live with a religious scholar at age 6. Balde said that’s typical in the Muslim, west African culture he was born into, but the experience involved hard physical labor, like construction and farming, and was more akin to child slavery than education.


He ran away at age 12 and was taken in by an uncle who sent him to a traditional school – it was the first time he had ever been in a classroom.

At 17, Balde left Guinea-Bissau to study in Egypt, where he first became involved in advocating for civil rights and the rights of immigrants. He said there was a large public park in Cairo where many immigrants and refugees lived, and he got involved working as an interpreter.

Balde earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature and a master’s degree in comparative religions from Al-Azhar University, when he said the government told him to leave the country due to his activism for student and immigrant rights.

He escaped to Israel, where he befriended an investigative journalist who helped him escape detention after crossing into the country undocumented, and eventually landed in Iowa to further his education.

Balde first came to Portland years ago when he was visiting cousins in Boston and they were talking about where they could go to get good seafood. Someone suggested Portland was only two hours away, and they should make the trip.

“We had a good time, and I was like, ‘We’re doing this again,’ ” Balde said.


He was thinking of moving to Boston when he saw the job posting in Portland. “This is even better,” he said.


For now, Balde said he is still getting to know the city and will be working with West on an action plan.

He sees his job as focusing at least in part on the city’s response to the continued flow of asylum seekers into the area by working with law enforcement and health and human services. That could include collaborating on training or making sure the proper translation services and cultural brokering are in place.

Balde speaks more than a dozen languages – English, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish, French and Hebrew, as well as several Arabic and African dialects – and he has experience working with asylum seekers in Iowa, where he co-founded Cedar Valley Advocates for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

He also has ideas for how the city can respond to the neo-Nazi march early this month, such as a listening tour or town hall event to better understand what happened. He would invite everyone: the people impacted, and those who were involved or invited the group.


He said talking with the group is not the same as promoting or accepting its beliefs.

“A lot of these things come out of fear,” Balde said. “The only way to eliminate that, I think, is to have a dialogue and talk about it. Once you get to know me, I think it will be hard for you to hate me, and vice versa.”

West said the council is planning to hold a workshop on the city’s response to the march and the idea will likely be discussed then.

A date for that workshop has not yet been scheduled.

West said she and the council recognize Balde is just one person and that he can’t solve all the city’s problems. But the response to the march is one example of how he can help officials respond.

“He does have a lot of experience, so I’m really hopeful his experience and guidance will be helpful,” West said.

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