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Updated: August 10, 2020 Women to Watch

Women to Watch: Angela Okafor came a long way to find a ‘gold mine’ in Maine

PHOTo / Jason Paige Smith Angela Okafor is a New Mainer and new member of Bangor City Council. She’s also an attorney and entrepreneur.

Angela Okafor traveled 5,000 miles to emigrate from Nigeria, where she was born, grew up and attended law school, to settle in Bangor 12 years ago with her husband and family.

But these days, Okafor isn’t traveling such vast distances. In fact, she runs her law practice and her two other businesses from a modest, one-story building, hidden behind a music store on Harlow Street in downtown Bangor.

Her legal practice serves primarily local clients who need help with federal immigration law. Her side businesses also serve local customers with needs related to places far from Bangor. Tropical Tastes & Styles International Market carries food and other products from around the world. Okafor also operates a small salon that provides women’s hair braiding and fashion accessories inspired by African cultures.

“I learned to braid hair on my own head because I couldn’t find that service around here,” she says.

“And I’m not a fashion designer, but I bought a machine and learned to sew. I love to be busy.”

Her family contributes to the whirlwind of activity. Okafor and her husband, Ben Okafor, are raising their three children, all under age 11. Ben is a pharmacist who owns and operates two small, independent pharmacies, in Eastport and Machias.

At Angela’s office/shop/salon, the kids’ toys and jump ropes are constantly underfoot. They’re an apt symbol of the way Okafor weaves together the disparate personal and professional elements of her life, and of lives around her.

Okafor’s storefront has now become a center of Bangor’s small but growing immigrant community. “There’s always something going on here,” she says.

And since last November, there’s been something else going on. That’s when Okafor was elected to the Bangor City Council. She’s the first person of color and the first immigrant elected to the nine-person governing body.

Okafor was one of four councilors chosen from a field of 11 candidates, and received the second-highest number of votes in the November election, after incumbent Councilor Dan Tremble. Among the votes was her own — the first she cast in the United States, after becoming a citizen earlier in the year.

Easy commute

Given her roles as a small business owner, an attorney and a busy mom, you might wonder how Okafor can take on another one. When she considered running for the council, “my friends told me I was crazy,” she says.

But in fact, she applies the same vigor of her Harlow Street workplace to the council chambers of Bangor City Hall, a five-minute walk.

Less than a year into her three-year term, the new councilor says she has peppered her colleagues and city staff with “questions, questions, questions” as she learns her duties. And she hasn’t been afraid to speak her mind, especially when it comes to issues related to racial equality and justice.

“I see Bangor as a welcoming place,” Okafor says, “but still, there are walls. Rules have been made sometimes without a lot of consideration for all those who are affected. There’s always room for improvement.”

As a Black resident of Maine and an immigrant, Okafor has personally experienced some effects of racial prejudice.

“It sometimes really ticks me off. I can relate to wanting to fight for what is right, but not being able to,” she says. “And that’s not just in the short term, or because this is an ‘in’ thing right now.”

Her goal as a city councilor is to help broaden Bangor’s outlook, she feels. Ultimately, she hopes the city and the state will be more inclusive of people of color and be able “to consider our perspectives, our experiences and our struggles, in making policies and rules and laws.”

As she’s learned her way around City Hall, councilors have been supportive and encouraging, Okafor feels.

“We don’t always agree, and sometimes we’ve argued,” she says. “But we are always very respectful of each other. That has been paramount. We try to learn about each other, to find a balance. I’m glad they’ve been so open-minded.

“I can’t say I’ve done anything on the council by myself. It really does take a village.”

Sometimes, she adds, she’s had to change her communication style. “When I’m speaking, I’m not trying to yell. It’s just my culture,” Okafor says. “But now I’m beginning to see myself from the eyes of other people. I’ve even learned to speak slower.”

PHOTo / Jason Paige Smith
Angela Okafor praises her fellow Bangor city councilors for being "open minded."

Although Bangor is a predominantly white city in the country’s least racially diverse state, the community is also rife with opportunities for New Mainers, according to Okafor. And the benefits are mutual. Immigrants can provide lifeblood for the state’s dwindling workforce, she says, just as she and her husband are doing.

To reap those benefits, she hopes the state can be more welcoming to new businesses, whatever their origins.

“Maine,” she says, “is really a gold mine that hasn’t been tapped.”

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