In the spring of 2020, Gov. Janet Mills faced angry protests from people who blamed her policies for ravaging Maine’s economy and shutting down daily life.

She also got a letter that May from a woman named Ashirah Knapp, who wanted to let Mills know she had supporters, too. Knapp vowed to write the governor a letter a week “until we get through this time, to keep reminding you of the many people who agree with the path you are choosing for this state.”

Knapp, a mother of two who runs a sustainable living school in Temple, sent Mills more than 40 handwritten letters over the next 12 months. She shared with Mills glimpses of how her family was dealing with the fear of COVID, the loss of income, isolation, and remote learning.

“I began to look forward to them, hearing about her goat giving birth, about homeschooling her kids, what she saw when she went into town. I got to hear about the daily life of a young mother and wife on a farm in rural Maine,” said Mills, 75, sitting in the sunroom of the Blaine House in Augusta. “It was like in school, as a kid, you had pen pals in different countries or different states and you’d feel like you know them. I feel like Ashirah and I know each other.”

Mills and Knapp will meet in person for the first time on Tuesday in Farmington, during an event promoting the new book “In Other Words, Leadership: How a Young Mother’s Weekly Letters to Her Governor Helped Both Women Brave the First Pandemic Year,” by Shannon A. Mullen.

Mullen, a veteran radio journalist from New Hampshire, thought the story of Knapp’s letters and Mills’ reaction to them could be part of a powerful story, about empathy and resolve. The book also goes into detail about each woman’s life and background and includes excerpts from the letters as well as some entries from Mills’ journal.


Ashirah Knapp, a mother of two from Temple, begin writing weekly letters to Maine Gov. Janet Mills at the beginning of the pandemic. The letters and women’s experiences during that time are the focus of a new book. Photo courtesy of Steerforth Press

Mills and Knapp both say they agreed to have their letters and their relationship detailed in a book on the chance that it might help or inspire others. Knapp says writing the letters to the state’s chief executive was one of the ways she dealt with the “fear, pain, and anger” so many felt during the pandemic. For this story, Knapp agreed to answer questions only via email.

“I felt that if there was any chance that these letters could continue to do good in the world, it was worth opening myself up and agreeing to have them published,” Knapp wrote. “During the pandemic, I felt very small. I recognized that no matter what I did – even if I gave away everything I had – I would not be able to alleviate the overwhelming fear, pain, and anger of that time. All I could do was reach out in whatever small ways I could think of. ”

In her last weekly letter to Mills, Knapp thanked the governor for her actions, which she said “saved lives.” She also wrote that, while some people want to put the pandemic behind them, “there are also those of us who will let the emotions and lessons stay with us.” A part of the letter is reprinted in the book.

“There is a lot there for individuals and societies to continue working through. As part of that, for my family, we will always remember – and retell the story of – a time (when) government and a leader did what they were meant to do: take care of us,” Knapp wrote in the letter.

Gov. Janet Mills holds a copy of the book “In Other Words, Leadership” about weekly letters she got from a constituent during the pandemic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The book, published by Steerforth Press in Lebanon, New Hampshire, goes on sale June 20. Both Mills and Knapp are scheduled to appear with Mullen at promotional events for the book this week, including Tuesday at Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Thursday at Blue Raven Gallery in Rockland, and Saturday at Mechanics’ Hall in Portland. The Portland event will be moderated by U.S. Sen. Angus King.

Mullen spent more than a decade reporting for public radio stations and programs, including “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” and is also a screenwriter and playwright. Though she lives primarily in the White Mountains and Lakes Region of New Hampshire, she also spends time on the Maine coast, in Cushing. She met Mills a couple of years ago through a mutual friend, Maine artist Jamie Wyeth. She heard Mills talk about the letters from Knapp at a dinner party in 2021 and became instantly and intently interested.


“She had been asked a question about whether she got hate mail during the pandemic and she suddenly got emotional and said that one woman had been writing to her every week and this woman’s final letter had just arrived,” said Mullen. “In the letter (Knapp) said everyone seemed to be in such a hurry to put the pandemic behind them but there were so many important lessons for humanity, and she didn’t want us to forget those. I went ‘Wow, I’ve got to see those letters.’ ”

Knapp, originally from Cleveland, Ohio, came to Maine in her early teens to apprentice with a Maine Guide and his wife. She lives in Temple, a rural town in the western part of the state that borders Farmington, where Mills grew up. She and her husband, Chris, grow, raise or gather a large percentage of their food and use solar power for electricity. The Knapps run a working homestead and educational center called Maine Local Living School that teaches “skills for living simply and creatively with the earth” to children and adults.

The book begins with a chapter on Mills, including the criticism she received early in the pandemic for mandates that stopped in-person commerce at many businesses. After the owners of gun stores, pawn shops, and auto dealers all protested her orders, Mills wrote in her journal, “Sheesh, who knew all these folks were so essential. In Italy, meanwhile, 10,000 people have died. Surreal.”

New Hampshire-based radio journalist Shannon A. Mullen has written a book about the weekly letters Maine Gov. Janet Mills got from a woman in Temple during the first year of the pandemic. Photo by Thomas Petzwinkler

When Knapp first wrote to Mills, in May of 2020, she explained that she and her husband were in their early 40s, with two adolescent children. Besides running their outdoor education business, she also had a part-time job at a medical office. But because of pandemic closures and restrictions, the family’s income was “at a 100 percent standstill for as far ahead as we can see.”

They had no debt but were living on savings. In some later letters, she wrote of her dismay at seeing people not wearing masks or ignoring other health and safety mandates. She said in that first letter she and her family were grateful for Mills’ leadership during the pandemic and wanted to voice their support. Knapp wrote that no matter what decisions the governor makes “people will get sick, people will lose money and people will get angry.”

Mills said she was struck by the fact that Knapp was taking the time to handwrite weekly letters that included such heartfelt sentiment and intricate details of what the Knapps were going through. She said she didn’t have time to respond to every one of them, but did send Knapp a few letters of her own.


“Ashirah, I hope you and your family are doing well,” Mills wrote in the late summer of 2020, adding that the warm weather had “lifted spirits across the state.” Mills wrote she hoped the Knapp children were “getting outside a lot” and “reading some good books.” Mills said that, like their mother, they were “destined to be good and thoughtful writers.”

As the 2022 election neared, Knapp decide to write to Mills one more time, about a year and a half after her last weekly letter. Knapp said she and her family were hoping Mills, a Democrat, would beat Republican challenger and former governor Paul LePage, “but we recognize that a lot of our fellow Mainers feel differently.”

Knapp wrote that her teenage son said that Mills had “kept people from getting together and drinking booze and now they’re pissed.”

Three days before the election, which she would win, Mills wrote back to Knapp and thanked her for her latest letter of support.

“Your ups and downs are different from mine, but yours are a reminder of why I am running again, and your letters have grounded me in a way no Hallmark cards of cheer could ever do,” Mills wrote.

Mills says she’s looking forward to meeting Knapp this week. She said feels like she got to know Knapp and her family through her letters, so meeting in person will be “just one more aspect of our lives.”

Knapp said when she meets Mills she’ll thank her, again and in person, for all she’s done for the state. She also feels gratified to know Mills and her staff appreciated her letters.

“What I wanted was to help support a person who had an extremely tough job, so that she could continue doing that job well,” Knapp said of her weekly letters to Mills. “Looking back, I believe that is what happened, so what I got out of this is knowing that I helped make the governor and her staff’s days better during that difficult time.”

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