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A conversation with the country's 1st Somali-American mayor

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When Deqa Dhalac was writing her first speech as the mayor of South Portland, Maine, she went looking for an inspirational quote from Desmond Tutu or Mother Teresa. And then her mom called her from Mogadishu.

DEQA DHALAC: She reminded me - a poem, a prayer, that she recited for me when I started high school.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

DHALAC: It says, my dear daughter, may God give you the gift to remain in this world longer. I beg God for you to be the leader of many ethnicities.

SHAPIRO: Deqa Dhalac fled Somalia 30 years ago as it approached civil war. This month, she was unanimously elected mayor by her fellow city councilors in South Portland, and now she leads a city that is about 90% white as the country's first Somali American mayor. I asked her how she thinks about that.

DHALAC: It's all about the relationship-building and community-building. I have been doing that for the past decade. And so to, you know, volunteer in soup kitchens, sit on different boards, you know, getting to know people in all walks of life, from, you know, folks who are homeless to folks who are in the Legislature - so people know me as - she's not a mayor for me; she's my friend - which really makes me humble by that.

SHAPIRO: So now that you are mayor, what's at the top of your agenda?

DHALAC: My agenda is the same as the city council agenda. I don't have anything different than what we already set for ourselves. And one of them is to bring diversity, equity and inclusion in our city, to hire more people of color, you know, to make sure that we have women in our leadership positions, right? Another goal of ours is to increase, you know, affordable housing. We have young people who cannot afford in the city - that is ridiculous. That doesn't make no sense. Another goal that we have is to mitigate climate crisis, right? We are a coastal city, and 10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now, we don't know whether we are going to be underwater or not.

SHAPIRO: Is there a specific experience you can tell us about from all of that volunteer work and paid work that you did that you take with you into your new role as mayor that informs the way you're approaching this new job?

DHALAC: Yeah, I think one positive thing is that - always, always connect with people. In 2016, we had a really - Islamophobia that happened in our state and in our city. And for that, we created a Muslim - a non-Muslim women conversation, if you will. And I opened up, and I said, anything you say will not be held against you. Please say what you have in your heart, and we will learn from each other, right? So one woman stand up - a white woman said that, I think all Muslims are terrorists. And instead of, you know, calling her out, we called her in - said, come on, let's talk about it. What do you think? How did you hear this? So what happened is that woman end up inviting us in her church (laughter). Next one.

SHAPIRO: When you look back now at your journey to the U.S. 30 years ago, how do you feel about the distance you've traveled?

DHALAC: Long.

(LAUGHTER)

DHALAC: And, you know, I never thought of running for office ever. I did not even dream about it. But by getting involved in politics, by getting involved in community work, by getting involved in volunteering, I found out that if I don't do this, who's going to do it? If I do start doing it, maybe others will follow.

SHAPIRO: That is Deqa Dhalac, new mayor of the city of South Portland, Maine, the first Somali American mayor in the United States. Thank you so much for talking with us.

DHALAC: Thank you so, so very much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK MIDI SONG, "WESTERN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.