Deqa Dhalac Awtt Portrait

Deqa Dhalac

Community activist and organizer : 1966 -

“As a black, immigrant, Muslim woman, I want to be a force for positive change in my community, to use my voice to advocate for the changes my community wishes to see – an end to racism, better housing and jobs, better schools, cleaner environment, where everyone feels welcomed and included, where we embrace and celebrate diverse cultures.”


Master’s Degree in Development Policy and Practice, University of New Hampshire

Master’s Degree in Social Work, University of New England

Past Program Manager for The Center for Grieving Children

Former South Portland Schools Community Builder for the Opportunity Alliance

Somali Community Center of Maine

Board president of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition

Board member of the Maine Women’s Fund

Family Engagement and Cultural Responsiveness Specialist with the Maine Department of Education

South Portland City Council, District 5 Representative

Maine House Member, representing House District 120

Activist and community organizer Deqa Dhalac teaches us to lead from the collective wisdom of the community. This leadership style is rooted in her native Somali culture and the deep, rich soil of her life experiences.  A positive, tireless worker, she gets things done.

Perhaps Dhalac was always destined to become the dynamic community leader that she is today. From a young age, she was influenced by her pro-democracy activist father who participated in a coup before she was born and later was jailed many times for speaking out against a corrupt, dictatorial government.  “Father was always telling us about democracy. Are we going to see that someday in our country where we can go and vote for who we want? Not in my lifetime but maybe of yours.”  He was knowledgeable about world politics and was a champion of women leaders around the world.  Among many female role models, Dhalac singles out her mother, who could not read or write in her own language and had never been to school but was multi-talented in many areas, including child rearing, politics, cooking traditional foods (as an art form), and sewing clothes. Growing up in Mogadishu, the country’s capital, amid a lively extended family, Dhalac benefitted from her parents’ prioritization of education. She received private language instruction (English, Italian and Arabic) and later earned an accounting degree.  As an immigrant to the United States, she appreciates her advantage, avoiding the “language barriers many of my community members struggle with.”

Dhalac’s path to American citizenship was a circuitous one. Like many politically active Somalis, her parents focused on getting their children out of the war-torn country to safety. When Dhalac left Somalia, she first traveled to Italy, then to England and Canada, before settling in Atlanta in 1992, where her three children were born. While working for hotels in Atlanta, Dhalac met other Somali immigrants and began community organizing around voting rights.

After living in Atlanta for seven years, Dhalac decided to relocate her family to Lewiston, Maine, where her uncle lived. Lewiston was a much smaller and friendlier place, with a relatively large number of Somali immigrants who were already business owners and community leaders. In Southern Maine “you are in the middle of the whole community. Once people get to know you as a resource, people are in touch.” Before she knew it, Deqa was acting as an interpreter for Catholic Charities, then began working part-time for the city of Portland helping people who were arriving from refugee camps – teaching them the basic skills of living in an industrialized country.

After moving her family to nearby South Portland, Dhalac became involved on every front. In addition to working for the city of Portland, she served as Intercultural Program Manager for The Center for Grieving Children and as South Portland Schools Community Builder for the Opportunity Alliance. Having found her niche in community building, counseling, and education, she returned to school to hone her skills, earning a master’s degree in Development Policy and Practice at University of New Hampshire and then a second master’s degree in Social Work from the University of New England. She currently serves on the Somali Community Center of Maine, is board president of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, and board member of the Maine Women’s Fund. All of this while raising three children who are now in high school and pursuing post-secondary education.

Dhalac is passionate about her current work as Maine Department of Education’s Family Engagement and Cultural Responsiveness Specialist, a position created by the current DOE Commissioner. Her priority projects include introducing schools to a new social-emotional learning curriculum, offering cultural responsiveness training for teachers, and bringing restorative justice into the educational setting.

In 2018 members of her community drafted Dhalac to run in a special election for South Portland’s District 5 City Council seat. Before deciding to jump into the race, she consulted her children. The oldest had concerns about a Muslim immigrant woman of color putting herself in such a public position, but the two younger ones encouraged her to run. She was also inspired by her youngest daughter who had served on the student council in 5th grade, was named NAACP King fellow in 8th grade, and was an active visionary in her school community. Dhalac ran on a platform of representing all people, prioritizing affordable housing, environmental protection, and public education. She landed the council seat with a comfortable margin, based on an unprecedented voter turnout for a special election – a testament to her experience as a voting organizer. She also made local history as the first African-American and first Muslim to be elected to the South Portland City Council.

Dhalac brings a unique perspective to all of her professional and political work. “I’m an extremely positive person; that’s how I was raised. If I see an issue, I try to find the answer. If I look into that issue in a way that is negative, in my mind I’m not going to solve it. I have to center myself first. Can I do this?” Dhalac contrasts her approach with the typical Western perspective of power and authority. “In my culture, if I don’t have the answer, I won’t pretend that I do. You ask your brothers and sisters to help you solve problems.” For Dhalac, sound leadership requires listening and empathy and taking her lead from the collective community wisdom.

One of South Portland’s most high-profile environmental issues centers around a large oil storage facility. Again, her cultural perspective is a guiding force. “In the Muslim religion, [we] do not walk on the ground hard; it will feel [the heavy step]. Walk gently. Fight the tank fields, even if one person is smelling them, it’s a problem.” Although Dhalac juggles a wide array of challenges in both her professional and political roles, her approach is consistent and simple: “I believe we can [solve our issues] if we put our minds and hearts in the right place.”


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