NOEL KING, HOST:
A woman named Angela Okafor has made history in the small city of Bangor, Maine. Okafor is an attorney and a small-business owner, and now she's something else, too. She's the first immigrant and the first person of color elected as a city councilor in Bangor. Maine Public Radio's Robbie Feinberg sent us this.
ANGELA OKAFOR: (Non-English language spoken).
ROBBIE FEINBERG, BYLINE: Inside her small shop in downtown Bangor, Angela Okafor is chatting with a local mom as she braids her hair. A few feet from the styling chair, Okafor's young daughter glides on a scooter through shelves of international foods and spices. Racks of African clothing sewn by Okafor line the wall. It's a busy place, she says, and one that the city's small immigrant population seeks out for food and connection.
OKAFOR: I have bikes here. I have jumping ropes. I have Play-Doh, you know? People come here to shop with their kids. Kids are riding bikes. I mean, it's a community, so why not?
FEINBERG: A shop like this didn't exist when Okafor and her husband moved to Maine from Nigeria about a dozen years ago on a work visa. Like most of the state, Bangor is overwhelmingly white, and Okafor says the adjustment was hard. People couldn't understand her and would often stop and stare. And despite holding a law degree from her home country and passing the New York bar exam, Okafor says it was nearly impossible to get any job in the legal field. Employers told her she was either overqualified or said she needed, quote, "Maine experience."
OKAFOR: Being frustrated is beyond the description. I feel free to talk this now because I am my own employer, but imagine a lot of other people who go through that but cannot speak up.
FEINBERG: So Okafor took things into her own hands. Three years ago, she launched an immigration law practice, which she could operate with her out-of-state license because of its basis in federal law. She then opened her international food store and hair salon to provide needed services to Bangor's immigrant community. But she wasn't done. Earlier this year, after seeing other immigrants bring their concerns to local leaders who were all white, Okafor realized they needed representation.
OKAFOR: And, you know, who better to do that? I'm like, someone needs to do that. And at some point, I'm like, why not me?
FEINBERG: So Okafor got into the race for city council. And last month, she won handily, becoming the first immigrant and person of color elected in Bangor's history. City Council chair Clare Davitt says that Okafor will bring a needed perspective to city leadership.
CLARE DAVITT: And then to have her knowledge of law and as a small-business owner, that representation matters so much, especially as we are losing workforce and trying to rebuild that.
FEINBERG: Okafor is one of dozens of women of color nationwide who have jumped into politics in recent years. Kimberly Peeler-Allen is a visiting practitioner at Rutgers University who founded Higher Heights, a national nonprofit to elect black women to office. She says her organization identified about 90 black women running for federal and statewide executive office in the 2018 cycle. Already, they know there are more than that in 2020. And with months left to go until the filing deadlines in several states, she says those numbers could easily keep climbing.
Peeler-Allen partially attributes the shift to the national prominence of candidates like Kamala Harris as well as dissatisfaction with current leaders, particularly at the federal level.
KIMBERLY PEELER-ALLEN: So it is really propelling more women to say, what else can I do, and how can I engage at a deeper level? And, I'm not happy with my current elected leadership, so I think I could do a better job. And they're throwing their hat in the ring.
OKAFOR: Toss. Careful.
FEINBERG: Between customers in her small shop in Bangor, Angela Okafor says she feels grateful for the newfound prominence in her city after years of overcoming barriers.
OKAFOR: For me, this is - you know, I grew up struggling. I struggled a lot growing up. So right now, I feel privileged. I feel - I'm very religious. I feel blessed.
FEINBERG: And while she's still learning the ins and outs of her new role on the Bangor City Council, Okafor says she wants to focus on improving public transportation, which she says has long affected families and small businesses. Now Okafor says she's in a position where she can make a difference.
For NPR News, I'm Robbie Feinberg in Bangor, Maine.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.