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Portland student group creates leaders for change

Portland Empowered encourages high school students to speak up about policy changes and become thoughtful leaders.

PORTLAND, Maine — Balqies Mohamed spent a rainy Monday doing some light studying.

“AP Bio, as of right now,” she said. The student smiled as she opened her textbook in the living room of her family’s Portland home.

A senior at Deering High School across town, Mohamed’s journey involved a lot more than her knowledge of cells.

“I was a really opinionated freshman, and I was like, ‘Everyone needs to hear me,’” she said. 

That year, she brought her opinions, as well as an open mind, to Portland Empowered, a nonprofit embedded in the city’s three public high schools that welcome students to voice policy concerns and grow into leaders.

“I definitely was not a leader when I was a freshman joining Portland Empowered,” Mohamed said. “But it made me into the leader that I am now.”

Now Mohamed leads discussions among her peers from each of the three schools who meet regularly in a relaxed setting. 

Elisabeth Redwood, director of youth programs at Portland Empowered, explained how the organization plays music and brings snacks to meetings. At least, they used to. 

Redwood’s mood sank as she described an energetic room full of teens reduced to Zoom chat windows on each other’s screens as COVID continued to threaten society.

Though Redwood is still waiting for the group’s first meeting of 2022, she said Portland Empowered will try to carry on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“He was very adamant about education reform,” she said. “... so a lot of that is us working with students to amplify what they already know and, sort of, bring out a little bit of activism. But it’s really on a small scale, just to organize them on the policymaking that’s been happening in the school district and the city council.”

Mohamed said she’ll be studying the makeup of governments instead of organisms in the future.

“I’m hopefully going into studying constitutional law,” she said. “And continuing to reform systems that have not been working.”

Students from Portland Empowered plan to join the Young People’s Caucus to meet with state legislators on Jan. 27.

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