Walking your streets, seeing your sights, eating at your tables and talking to you - to the people who make you who you are - reminds me again and again why I love you.
But it's taken me up to this point to feel like I have the words to express that deep and moving feeling of "place" and "home" that I feel when I muse about you - both the good and the bad.
I remember when I first moved here in the 90's, you were different. A little dusty. A little grungy. You had an edge with a funky underground art scene. You had your gruff men with their beards who stood out in front of smoke shops. You had your tiny, corner mom-and-pop and candy stores. Your brick faces were chipped with that sort of old New England charm. Even where I went to school, Reiche, had a little funk to it with its big concrete ramps and open-concept rooms.
But that was when I lived in your downtown on Chestnut St. across from Portland High.
Riverton Park was an entirely different world it seemed, for a kid, far from downtown and nestled in its own little world behind a thick wall of pine trees. To go beyond that wall of trees was like entering into a world that was exciting but not quite the world we belonged in.
We knew Riverton Park was different. We didn't know how or why, we just knew it. We never saw certain kinds of people there. We saw a lot of police and I used to be scared of them then. When they rolled into the circles, we all felt like something bad had happened or someone did something. So we hid. In some ways it was a game as we ran to the woods or hid in the small culverts.
The only times we ventured out was to walk along Forest Ave. to Riverton Elementary. Eventually, we mustered up the courage to detour and weave in and out of the neighborhoods. They were nicer than ours. We could tell. Other times, we ran over to the old gravel pit that is now filled in by Riverside Hannaford's long driveway. We'd play cops and robbers there or swing sticks at each other. Sometimes, we saw foxes and bunnies.
In many ways, my time outside with friends was how I escaped from my home life. Alcoholism and domestic violence was a common thing for me and my three younger brothers and sisters. Our mom struggled with war trauma and the trauma the bad men in her life brought with them.
At some point, I figured out that the Boys & Girls club van that picked us up in Riverton was my way of escaping to my grandma's house. I would go to the Boys and Girls club on Cumberland Ave. and jump onto the van that went to East Deering, where my grandma owned an apartment house on Front Street.
I knew I would eat well there. I also liked to spend time with my aunt and uncles, especially Salut and Saly (who are younger than me). But this caused trouble for my mom because the DHHS caseworkers didn't know where I was and she didn't know where I was. That wasn't the only reason why they decided to split me and my sibling up and put us into foster care, but I'm sure it caused anxiety for everyone.
My two youngest siblings were put in a foster home first. We used to have an RTP driver come pick us up and drive us to go visit them. I always have this one memory of this one commercial on those rides: "Whenever you need us, call 1-800-East-West".
Eventually, I had to leave you, too. Although, it wasn't my choice. A caseworker showed up when I got home from school and said to me and my sister that we were going somewhere for a while. My mom was crying and the caseworker had some of our clothes and belongings in two black garbage bags.
She drove us all the way down to Acton, Maine, where we showed up on the porch of a nice home. That was our first foster family, and we loved them and they loved us. We moved through the foster care system for three years until the Berry family, who fostered my two youngest siblings, reunited us in 2003 and then adopted all of us in 2005.
It was a good life living in Naples, Maine. A little too quiet, but there was nature all around. I went fishing and swimming and hiking. When I graduated college, I left Maine to go to a bible college. When I came home the summer of 2010, I started coming out and telling my friends and family that I was gay.
That's when I transferred to the University of Southern Maine. Life felt fresh then. I felt free to be who I was and who I am. I met new friends who were like me and who felt just as free. We went to a rally where Lady Gaga came to rally to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. That was my first exposure to the spirit of activism that you, Portland, have always had.
And it lit a fire in my heart.
I went back to campus and me and my friends worked to start the USM Queer Straight Alliance. I was only six months being out of the closet, but for some reason they believed in me and elected me as their first president. I worked hard that semester and was introduced to EqualityMaine and the important work they do. I wrote a song for the #ItGetsBetter project (not sure where it went).
The University of Southern Maine became my home away from home. And it brought me full-circle back to you, Portland.
It also gave me an education beyond the classroom. I got involved in community service, I helped start a community service-oriented fraternity, I joined the USM College Democrats, and served as a student senator and student vice-president. I fought for students and faculty on campus and in Augusta and wrote letters and op-eds opposing budget and program cuts that would undermine the quality of our university.
I fought for a USM that had become a part of me and a USM that I saw was a vital part of you, Portland.
That advocacy and activism led some to encourage me to go to Maine Law, where I studied property, real estate, and state and local government and chaired the LGBT+ Law and Policy group. It was during this time that I got involved with immigrant and refugee rights and you, Portland, stood strong and sent a message to all that we stand for and welcome everyone - including immigrants and refugees.
I left you, Portland, when I went to Washington, D.C., to do an internship and study abroad at Howard Law. I worked for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on how to be more inclusive in government. At Howard, I studied immigration law and refugee law and policy the spring after Trump's election.
I thought about staying in D.C. It was an exciting city and I had another big internship lined up for the summer. But when I came home to graduate from Maine Law, my friends and mentors told me that Maine needs me.
And as I walked your streets in the early summer, my heart was locked in a tug-of-war. Amidst the charm of your New England flair, the smell of sea salt in the air, and the way the setting sun made you radiate in that golden hour glow, you won, Portland.
You won my heart, but you have also changed. That same night, I felt I was lost as I walked further. All around me were new buildings and I could no longer tell where I was after being away for a year. In some ways, you changed for the better. But I don't want you to lose your charm. That thing that makes you special. The way the people treat each other. Know each other. That sense of community. That small town but still a city feel.
Especially when it comes to politics. I'm worried about you and where some people are trying to take you - on both sides. I see the same D.C.-style of politics that I saw during my time in Washington has swept into this city.
You're angry, I get it. The election didn't go our way. But don't let people with an agenda take advantage of you and change you in all the wrong ways. Don't let people bully you with out-of-state money and Washingtonian style politics. Don't let people pressure you into trying to be like other cities with cookie-cutter condos and gentrification.
There's room to grow and room to change. But do it in the way that we Mainers and Portlanders have always prided ourselves in: with respect, candor, and civil dialogue.
I love you, Portland, and I want the best for you. That's why I'm running for Portland City Council District 5.
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