Local women presented Maine Women’s Fund awards

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LEWISTON — When Barbara Rankins speaks, people listen. And when people listen, the voice of the entire community is heard.

That was one sentiment expressed Wednesday as Rankins was named this year’s recipient of the Sarah Orne Jewett Award.

Rankins, founding member of the Visible Community in Lewiston, was given the award Wednesday by the Maine Women’s Fund, which lauded her for leading an effort to shape the future of local neighborhoods.

“Ms. Rankins is a woman who understands the power and eloquence of her own voice,” the Maine Women’s Fund stated in a press release, “in conveying the ideas and aspirations of residents who have long felt shut out and left behind.”

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Rankins was the second winner from the Twin Cities to receive an award from the Maine Women’s Fund on Wednesday.

Alia Abdulahi, an Auburn high school student, was named the recipient of the Samantha Smith Award, which was created to recognize a young Maine woman who works to promote social change in her school or community.

Abdulahi is president of the sophomore class at Edward Little High School. 

She was born in Atlanta and moved to Lewiston when she was 6 years old. Since then, she has found it difficult to hold onto her Somali heritage while trying to fit into the America mainstream, she said in a recent interview.

“Who am I?” is the question that Somali youth often ask themselves, Abdulahi said. “I believe that before you can adapt to American culture, you must be aware of who you are first,” she said.

To help youths adapt, she is in the early stages of starting a Somali youth organization. She keeps up to date on what is happening in Somalia through the Internet. She is on the ELHS mock trial team, the speech and debate team, a leader for the school’s Unity Project and is the student representative for the Auburn School Committee.

The Samantha Smith Award is named for the Maine girl who gained international attention in 1982 when she wrote to world leaders in an attempt to gain an understanding of Cold War tensions between the U.S. and what was then the Soviet Union.

“Alia Abdulahi,” the Women’s Fund stated in a press release, “wholeheartedly embodies the spirit of this award.”

Across the Androscoggin, in Lewiston, Rankins formed the Visible Community seven years ago. It consists largely of downtown residents with low incomes. Throughout its history, the group has worked to ensure that downtown residents’ voices are represented and heard in local and state-level decision-making forums.

“Through Barbara’s thinking,” it states in the press release, “the community has moved away from thinking of neighborhood development as an investment in physical infrastructure to one built upon developing its human assets. Her leadership has helped to change the way things get done and helped the community realize that every person can make a difference.”

The Sarah Orne Jewett Award is named for the fiction author whose characters tended to display grit, courage, independence, humor and discipline. The award is given each year to a Maine woman who exhibits those characteristics.

Rankins said the fact that a pair of women from the Twin Cities were recognized this year says a lot.

“I was thrilled to learn both Lewiston and Auburn were represented in this year’s awards,” Rankins said. “I think it’s fantastic to see L-A receive recognition for the inspiring work that goes on within our communities.

Also given an award Wednesday was Brenda Garrand, president and strategic director of Garrand Marketing in Portland and the 2011 Tribute to Women in Industry Award recipient.

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