This week on Maine Rising we speak with Ahmed Sheikh, a suspension diversion coordinator at Lewiston High School and a 2017 candidate for school board in Lewiston. He talks about his story and the importance of local politics.
What is your story?
If it wasn’t for the different local organizations that have supported me throughout the years, I wouldn’t be doing the work of social activism in Lewiston today.
I went to Lewiston High School and then to Bates College. I got into doing individualized projects with local community partners through Bates’ Harward Center for Civic Partnerships. One of the first community engaged projects that I worked on was in a class dedicated to human suffering as it relates to the justice system. At the time, there was a lot of heavy criticism between the justice system at large–including police and the court system–and the general public. Darren Wilson, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland…these were the heavy-hitting topics in the news.
A local community organization reached out to form a project that deals with juvenile recidivism in Lewiston and the correlation with school suspensions. That was a tough project to undertake because it dealt specifically with getting data from the school department on kids who get suspended, the frequency of their suspension, and how that relates to the ‘school to prison pipeline’ and subsequently recidivism for juveniles. The end goal was to get a program going for a local organization called MIRS (Maine Immigrant Refugee Services) to start a juvenile justice program educating youth and community members at-large about the justice system and forming a partnership with the local police departments.
When it comes to getting data from the school departments, it’s really, really, really hard. A lot of that information is severely protected and secured–rightly so–for confidentiality purposes. Unfortunately, the project was not able to yield great results, but it was able to start a dialogue. We had enough information to present a research project saying there are correlations between frequent suspensions, juvenile recidivism, and race.
We had never got to the part where we provide tangible solutions. I was disappointed because I wanted to help kids right away instead of just relying on theoretical anecdotal data.
I worked on another short-term project with another local organization that wanted to do something similar but focused only on suspensions. We started to put together an outline for some sort of suspension diversion program. Local politics came into play, and that fell through. A year after, I was approached by someone saying that he started the program and wanted me to work with him.
I do that now, working as a suspension diversion program. Most of the students who go through the program have been through Long Creek Youth Development Center, chronic suspensions, and a catalog of court dates for various things.
All the work leading up to this point was not wasted.
What is the importance of local politics in your work?
When dealing with schools, students, and school departments, there is a lot at stake with protected information as well as lot of money that they have to oversee. When they make deliberations over new programs, it’s really hard to get into that conversation. Once you get a seat, much of the money has already been spoken for. There’s not much that you can do about it.
What influence do school board members have?
School boards are critical to developing different programs for students, youth, and schools because they approve where the money goes, especially in budget deliberations. There is a weird bottom line with school boards that the more money that you save, the better you’ve done your job. It’s not about doing good but saving money for the state. We need people from the community and school to support programs for schools and students.
What do you do now?
I am the suspension diversion coordinator at Lewiston High School. I work as a go-between for students and services. When a student gets suspended, my position has no control over that. It’s the principals’ decision. What I can do is see why they got suspended and ways we can help. Most of the time, kids have issues outside of school–family, friend, legal–that are a major distraction from their schooling.
I talk to them like they are friends, earning their trust so that they can come to me if something happens so I can help them with whatever they need. If there’s nothing that I can do, I refer them to others who have more professional experience to try and help them with that. In the afternoons, I run a homework help program.
Why did you run for school board in Lewiston?
I never expected to run for office. I was approached by Mohamed [from Maine People’s Alliance] because I was working a lot with youth, I go to local meetings, and I advocate for some of the youth that I work with. I was thinking this would be really different. It was a lot harder than I was expecting it to be. I remember doing doors and coming back and having to send out emails. Still, I got closer than I was expecting. I am proud of what I have been able to accomplish given how little experience I have in campaigning.
Will you run again?
I think I would like to. I’m not so sure if it’s going to happen this next election year or in 2019. I would like to build more of a base with what I’m doing now and try to make positive change through the connections that I have now. We’ll see where that leads.
What is your vision for the future of Lewiston and Maine?
I think Lewiston and Maine are going to keep growing. I’ve been here for over thirteen years. I’ve noticed tremendous growth in the amount of people living in the city and businesses opening up. The more investment people make, starting businesses, starting different programs for kids and for parents, and opening doors to immigrants–it completely turns the city around. I see that happening and causing a ripple effect through the entire state. The future of Maine is bright. Lewiston and Maine should be places for young people to live.
Photo courtesy of Mahad Mohamed