First black woman in the Legislature
“Fair housing, access to education and health care were always part of the dining room table conversations growing up,” says Rachel Talbot Ross, who, at 58, is starting her second term in the Maine House of Representatives. “Now I know where those laws come from, who makes those laws and how they get made. But, the conversations I have now as a legislator, I had at the dinner table as a little girl. It feels like this is, authentically, what I’m supposed to be doing with my life.”
Her father, Gerald Talbot, was the first person of color in the Maine Legislature, serving two terms beginning in 1972. He also helped reconstitute the Portland branch of the NAACP of Maine. And, in 1977, he sponsored a bill to remove the word “nigger” from 12 place names in Maine.
“I cannot remember a time when my mother and my father and my close family were not involved in some aspect of public service or civic action,” says Talbot Ross. “My three sisters and I benefited from our parents’ commitment to serving the public good and we’ve each devoted our lives in different ways to realizing that. We knew that what our father was doing meant that people’s lives were going to improve, and there was enormous pride in that.”
Talbot Ross not only succeeded in filling her father’s shoes, she managed to lay claim to the same chair he used to have in the Maine State House, seat 32, during her first term.
“Exactly 45 years after my father, I was elected as the first African American woman,” she says, adding that the only other black legislator today in Maine is Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop.
Talbot Ross says that being the first woman of color in the Legislature is an honor but, at the same time, it’s a testament to how much more work is needed to have the body politic reflect the diversity of the population.
“In the state of Maine, we don’t want to leave anyone out,” she says. “We ask the question of ourselves, ‘Who is not being included?’ and we do not pit populations of people against one another as if there is some hierarchy of oppression or privilege. I want my work to reflect that I was true to the needs of the people of my district.”
“The conversations I have now as a legislator, I had at the dinner table as a little girl. It feels like this is, authentically, what I’m supposed to be doing with my life.”
District 40 encompasses large swaths of Portland: the neighborhoods of Bayside, East Bayside, Parkside, Oakdale and the University of Southern Maine campus. It’s the most racially and ethnically diverse district in the state. It’s also one the most densely populated, yet the constituents of District 40 face many of the same struggles as rural Mainers: affording food, housing, health care and education.
“We’ve got to make sure that we address the roots of poverty in this state,” Talbot Ross says. “Health care, education, job training, livable wages—it takes all these pieces.”
There’s a lot of overlap between the work Talbot Ross does as a legislator—with a $21,000 stipend for two years of work that inches toward full-time three-quarters of the year—and her volunteer efforts, including serving as president of the NAACP Portland Branch. For example, in her first term in the Legislature, she served on the criminal justice committee.
“That kind of mirrors my work within correctional facilities for about the past 13 years,” she says. “The NAACP represents all prisoners, looking at the civil and human rights of incarcerated people, making sure that our laws, policies and practices are aligned.”
As a legislator, her role flips from advocacy to policy reform.
“We’re trying to make sure that our justice system doesn’t favor a particular socioeconomic class of person, a particular ethnicity or a particular gender—making sure that the justice is equitable,” Talbot Ross says.
She also brought together policy directors from the state’s organizations involved in civil rights and social justice—everything from the Maine Center for Economic Policy to Planned Parenthood of Northern New England—to form a Coalition on Racial Equity. She’s working on a leadership development program to get more adult women of color involved in politics. And, to prime the pump for a future pipeline of politically engaged Mainers of color, she teamed up with Portland City Councilor Pious Ali to establish the King Fellows, a leadership program for high school students of color in the Greater Portland area.
“We are trying to create more opportunities for young people of color,” Talbot Ross says. “I’ve created a Day at the State House, and I’m hoping to create opportunities to serve as pages or take advantage of job shadowing or internship opportunities. We want to make sure that they see political service as an opportunity they can explore in their lives.”
Amy Paradysz lives in Scarborough and writes about women, organizations and community happenings that empower.