Interview: Pious Ali, “Public Servant at Large,” on activism, immigration, and empowering young people

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Pious Ali tells people he is a “public servant at large.” Over the past decade, he has worked at PROP, organized a youth interfaith alliance, and won a seat on the Portland School Board. 

Ali came to Portland from New York in 2002. Looking for work outside of restaurants, he got a job with PROP, which is now part of Opportunity Alliance. He later worked at Preble Street Resource Center. He began to notice similarities between some of the lower income kids he had been working with and the kids he met who were without reliable housing. Realizing many of the issues they face overlap, he started Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance to help young people learn from each other.

We talked recently about activism, the importance of dialogue, and his observations of the evolution of Portland’s immigrant community.

STEED: I pose this as a rhetorical question in order to get us started, but why should people care about what is going on with marginalized youth?

ALI: Let’s put aside humanity, put aside compassion, and put aside our general responsibility to create an atmosphere for the common good. Let’s look at it from an economic point of view. If half the kids in Portland are marginalized and don’t get the education that they need—not because we don’t have the education to give them but because they don’t know how to explore what there is available—they are going to grow up into adults who may not have what it takes to be productive members of society. Eventually everyone else is going to have to take care of them. Taking care in that way isn’t a bad thing, but what would be better would be the scenario where they are able to take care of themselves. It turns out that altruism, compassion benefits the common good of all.

STEED: Conversations spawned by the events in Ferguson went viral, so to speak, and seemed to capture public attention. What has that meant for addressing issues faced by marginalized communities?

ALI: I am not the only one doing work like this in Portland, there are people doing this kind of work all over the city. Often we do it in silos. I have been happy to see young people become energized and to see support come together to push it forward. I just hope that it doesn’t fizzle out. I hope the energy and enthusiasm continues. It brings into light the issues we have been working on all along. It has been pushed to the forefront of public discussion, which is good. I am not expecting everything to change totally, but I am expecting this year will be the year that will spark a conversation and I hope that will continue. As a community, we might figure out—at least locally—how to work around other issues.

STEED: Do you ever find that you get burned out by your proximity to these issues?

ALI: Sometimes I do. Some of the kids I work with are overachievers and some of the other kids I work with should have been overachievers but made some choices that landed them in the juvenile justice system. I work with others who have no idea what is going on in their lives. In between all of them, you have mental health issues, drug abuse and on and on. I used to do a lot of volunteering at Long Creek Youth Development Center and would sometimes see kids I had hope for—kids I had seen since middle school and felt they would do extremely well—and it would be heartbreaking. I’d sit in my car and ask myself how it happened. In situations like that, I do have these moments where I think, “Okay, I think I am done.” [Laughs] And then… I come back.

STEED: How do you suggest people more constructively connect with young people? Alongside the elderly, I feel like young people—folks 25 and under—is of the the only groups where prejudice against age is nearly entirely socially acceptable. With the elderly, we theoretically respect them, while that is largely not the case in practice. With young people, though, it feels as though it is just okay to disregard how they feel or what they go through.

ALI: A lot of contributions young people offer to the dialogue are helpful. Not only do we have to get them a seat at the table, we also have to listen. Adults tend not to listen. We may disagree with them, but we need to respect that they have opinions. When I was operating Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance, I was the person they looked to to lead, but I would give them the reigns to do so. I would ask, “How do you want to do this or that?” Young people know what they want, and they know how to engage their peers better than any adult.

We talk about how teenagers are all angry, but of course they are angry. We don’t listen to them. They feel like they need to be respected and listened to and we don’t. We feel like we should decide what’s best for them and that’s that. They are under tremendous pressure—they have a lot of things thrown at them. The type of pressure young people face today is entirely different from the pressure faced by our parents and the pressure we faced. You have the social media, high expectations of performance, and participation in sports and activities because of how competitive college entry has become. We need to listen to them and respect them. If we disagree, we need to do so respectfully. We don’t have to shut them down; we don’t have to silence them. They have a lot to say.

STEED: Overall, “more listening” strikes me as a great antidote to nearly every problem, but it remains a difficult endeavor for most.

ALI: Especially if you are listening to something you don’t agree with or something that you perceive as an attack on you. Either you shut down or you talk back.

STEED: Or some people ultimately legislate so conditions are such that they don’t really ever have to listen to diverse experiences or points of view.

ALI: Yes. Absolutely. But if there is going to be change of any sort, two adversaries have to talk. Accusations don’t get things done. Sometimes, yes, a little force leads to change, but the most important approach is engagement of adversaries.

STEED: How has this approach of radical engagement worked for you?

There is a gentlemen who emails people in the media and legislators in Portland. Most of the emails are not pleasant. I spoke on MPBN about being a Muslim in Maine and he wrote to me. It wasn’t hate mail, but… This was three or four years ago, and since then I have been engaging him. My conversation with him is interesting. He helps me build my patience with others I engage with. He will attack Obama, or because I am a Muslim he will compare my perspective with what other Muslims are doing elsewhere, and sometimes I will walk away and not want to respond. But I always go back and explain that we all have different experiences. Does he listen? No. But he keeps sending emails to me and I keep engaging him. We engage each other, we talk to each other, and while I am sure he may not admit it, he may have learned one or two things and I have learned how to engage from our exchange. I have learned how to be patient.

STEED: You have done a great deal of work in Portland’s diverse immigrant communities. How have you seen that community at large change in the past 10 years?

ALI: I used to say that if you show me a picture of 10 African immigrants, not only could I name everybody in the picture, I could give you their phone numbers. [Laughs] Now I would struggle giving you three names. That is how much it has changed. It is not because I am less involved in the community, but the number of people coming in has grown.

STEED: Considering there is often friction when immigrants enter and integrate into a new place, how have relations between the larger immigrant community and the city changed in the past decade?

ALI: There is a struggle whenever anyone goes to a different place where they don’t speak the language and where they struggle with the system. There is a perception that that community is grabbing whatever is available for resources. There is poverty everywhere, and when you have someone who has been here forever and they have been struggling, there is going to be a tension over who gets what. There is a misconception that immigrants get free rent, free cars, and everything the natives don’t get. That, by the way, is not true. We can’t afford to give away cars. Individuals do sometimes, where they donate their cars to others who need help, but I don’t think the government has the money to buy cars for immigrants. But when you have that misconception, and your family has been here for generations, you’re going to get angry. We need a way for us to communicate.

That burden is not just on the natives, but also on the immigrants to reach out and explain who we are, and what we’re bringing to the table. Some of the most recent immigrants that we have come from many different professional backgrounds. We have doctors. I just met with an electrical engineer from Iraq. A lot of the immigrants are frustrated because they bring these professional skills, but they have difficulties with language and administrative skills.

On top of that, the natives—not all, but some—will say, “Go back to where you came from.” That is out there. Having said that, there are a lot of friendly, welcoming people and embrace immigration and diversity. There is a lot of help out there.

STEED: I admire the patience of anyone who is willing to have the conversations you’re describing. The ignorance packed into “native” whites saying things like “Go back to where you came from” in a way that doesn’t look further beyond the past 100 years of American history is crushing to the point where I becoming physically uncomfortable thinking about it.

ALI: Yeah. When people say things like that—“Go back to where you came from—it is scary. You don’t know where that is coming from, or if they’re struggling with mental health issues. Is it ignorance, mental health, meanness, clear hatred? Are they going to physically hurt you? How do you explain yourself to these people when you don’t yet know the language?

STEED: I think some people have difficulty understanding or visualizing that, but it is exactly the thing Mark Wahlberg is trying to get pardoned for. The story, somehow, has become about his legal status and not the fact that he walked around and brutally beat immigrants. I grew up with a great deal of white people—I am back living in the area I grew up with—who harbor some of the resentments and misconceptions you outlined above. What is unfortunate is that in actuality, there are so many more similarities between lower income whites and immigrant communities than there are between those communities and the ruling class that is ultimately screwing everyone over.

That is what I found, and it is what realized when I noticed similarities between the kids at the shelter and the kids I was working with in lower income communities. What they all have in common is poverty and coming back from extremely marginalized communities and groups in our society and system. If we can look at that and see that in each other, it will serve us better than fighting with each other.

IMAGE CREDIT: Mary-Alice Mercier

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.