By: Cullen McIntyre, Editor-in-Chief
Representation matters, for everyone. This simple yet profound idea of representation and inclusion is exactly what sophomore Hussein Maow is passionate about. As the current Student Body Vice-President, political science and finance double-major and former Director of Racial Equity and Inclusion, Maow’s efforts on campus have been incredibly important. “I am able to advocate exactly what students are trying to do, things that students need,” he said. “How is the environment at USM and how can we change that because coming into it as someone who has lived in Portland, that idea of inclusion and the environment didn’t really exist and still doesn’t exist at USM.”
Maow has spent a lot of his time at USM working on inclusivity and representing students. He feels it is imperative that when it comes to issues of diversity and inclusion, students are included in the important discussions with staff, which has been predominantly white. “Few students of color have been in spaces that USM is discussing race, equity, inclusion; all these conversations USM is having a lot of the time is majority staff,” said Maow. Stepping into the role of Student Body Vice-President this year has allowed him to be involved in these conversations more than before, but he still believes there is much work to be done.
“The room does not represent the conversation that is being had,” he said. “When discussing their environment they should be in that room to really say what that means and how that is to them, and seeing it from a different lens.” Maow spoke passionately about students being able to advocate for themselves, and he has found an immense importance of using his role to be able to represent the student body in these important discussions.
His efforts in activism began early in his time attending South Portland High School. Maow’s experience in high school discovered many people saying that “they don’t see color,” a term that diminishes the culture and race that he wants to be seen. “If you don’t see that someone else is a different race then you don’t see them. That’s where I really started to get involved because I wanted people to really understand how important that is.”
Embracing color and culture is a small part of the stepping stones Maow is building. His plans at USM are to begin conversations of equity and inclusion that need to happen. USM’s stance on racism has been quite public, standing with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and promoting the university common read, How to be Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi. But when it comes to situations on campus, there is a lot of work to be done.
“If we’re going to say no to racism, then we must say no to racism at all costs. We shouldn’t be nitpicking or deciding which issue or situation is too sensitive for the time period,” said Maow. “We’re in 2021, racism shouldn’t be a sensitive topic for people. It’s something that is so deeply rooted in every system that we are in everyday and I think that’s something that should openly be talked about. It’s not, but we’re starting that conversation.”
Maow added that a large step that can be taken is making every space feel safe for everyone. He noted that many students of color will create their own groups and spaces on campus to feel safe, whereas there shouldn’t have to be specific places for them to feel comfortable on campus. Maow hopes to bring this to light with the new construction of the campus center in Portland, expanding the diversity out of just one room but to an entire space in itself.
“It should really feel like a home, and the students should really go from studying to getting to know someone else’s culture– to cooking with them, if that means playing different games with them,” he said. “Yes, they [new spaces] do cost money but increase the amount of students that interact with each other and to really share who they are and their identities.”
With the potential for a larger space for the diversity center, Maow discussed the additional significance of cultural competence. He has had many discussions with students that don’t understand other cultures, and they may find it difficult to see other cultures as normal. He spoke to his own experience being Muslim, “ if I am praying in a room and somebody else walks in they should understand what that is, they shouldn’t think that’s weird. They should think that this is a norm in the United States.” The teaching of cultural competence is something that Maow hopes to bring to the discussions being had at USM.
In bringing along these vast ideas of race, equity and inclusion, Maow has not had the easiest path. He has found frustration in the lack of quick action not only taken in the current political climate, but on campus as well. He recalled a panel held in November by the office of the Student Body President, where there was a lot of discussion of these topics. The Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Council (IDEC) and administration are working on the issue that came up in the discussion, but now in February he and many students are still waiting for change.
“All we hear is ‘oh, we’re gonna have that conversation’ and I think it’s great to have conversations but I think we need to make tangible things that students could see when they ask for change,” said Maow. “Whether that’s in the environment, a conversation with an individual that made sensitive comments, that should happen and it shouldn’t take months or years. Some things don’t need to be included in our 10-year plan, some things need to happen right away.”
Maow doesn’t keep his work strictly to the campus, he is currently working with Gateway Community Services to help bridge the large language barrier with the diverse culture in Portland. Being bilingual, he helped translate important documents during the COVID-19 pandemic like unemployment benefits, food resources, rent relief and more into Somali. He added that he has noticed there are a lot of resources going out into the community in the greater Portland area, but aren’t being used to their full potential because the communities may not fully understand the resources.
Further off campus he recognizes the work being done in the diverse Portland community. This work was really shown during the BLM movements in Portland, a movement Maow feels strongly about. The movement showcases the fact that they are all people and deserved to be treated the same as everyone else. Maow highlighted his frustration of seeing the criminal records being used as an “excuse” for the death of Black men.
As important as the BLM protests in Portland were, he also added that the conversations need to be continued outside of them. “What I’ve seen in Portland is that we are seeing so many people who are saying ‘yes, Black Lives Matter’ but at the same time once everybody goes home from the protest it stops right there. Everybody goes back to their lives,” he said. “What’s more effective is that you should be having that conversation with your family and close ones, on why they have a problem with that statement why they are stung by it.” These conversations in one’s home and community are important for spreading awareness to the movement itself.
His work on and off campus is not over, as Maow will be running for Student Body President for the upcoming 2021-22 school year. With that position he hopes to continue the much needed conversations on campus to promote inclusivity of all students.
Upon his graduation, Maow is unsure exactly his plan but has big goals. One being a non-profit organization he hopes to start that would provide college students of color with mentors, connections and other opportunities to network in their major. The next to attend law school, focusing on criminal law and advocating for updated policies across the board in the American government. “We shouldn’t be using policies and documentation that was created in the 1800’s to say what is and what isn’t right in this time period. I think each thing should change with time, and they should change with society,” Maow said.
In continuing his efforts, Maow’s main goal is to create building blocks in his next two years on campus for a more inclusive USM. While there is a lot of work to be done, his optimism and passion for these topics remain. At just 19 years old, he has brought about change that could impact generations of students to come.