To understand Dr. Sonja Birthisel and Rob Laraway, you first have to understand the Wilson Center. Nestled just off-campus, the gorgeous A-frame is one of the most important cultural centers in the area. Inside, light filters through large windows, illuminating a cozy space that plays host to a range of interfaith, cultural and social justice themed events. The place hums happily with the love and conversation of the community. This community is what Birthisel and Laraway are running to represent on the Orono Town Council. Like the Wilson Center, Birthisel and Laraway strive for the inclusivity that UMaine students deserve.
The positive vibes around these campaigns are as unique as Birthisel and Laraway themselves. The brightly colored pamphlets, cheerful volunteers and the hand bedazzled campaign signs make it impossible not to be drawn in. Behind the quirky color schemes and trendy hair styles, the two candidates have built strong, genuine platforms. Both have prioritized issues particularly important to students: government accessibility, equity, environmental stewardship and affordable housing.
This emphasis on progressive issues that benefit the least privileged in the community is a product of the two candidate’s backgrounds. Both are recent UMaine alumni and intrinsically understand the issues facing students. During Orono’s Candidate Night event, Laraway, who currently works as a community organizer with the Maine People’s Alliance, spoke to his early experiences as a student and worker in town.
“I actually worked as a line cook at OHOP, so I know the experience of the wage workers and lower income people,” Laraway shared. “I was actually unhoused for a few years early on when I came to Orono.”
Laraway does not simply just understand the perspective of the under-privileged, he uses his platform to fight for the rights of those groups. When he speaks, it is only a matter of time until you are nodding along in agreement with his genuine, compassionate ideals. Laraway made a point to use the limited time he had to introduce himself during Candidate Night to acknowledge the Indigenous land upon which Orono sits. This was just the first of many thoughtful moments from the accomplished organizer who explained that if he were to win the election for the two-year council seat, he would continue to work toward ensuring affordable housing, tribal sovereignty and affordable healthcare access.
Birthisel is an absolute dynamo for inclusivity, whose work as the director of the Wilson Center is one of several part-time jobs she masterfully juggles. If part-time work was not relatable enough to college students, as a renter, Birthisel faces the same struggles as many off-campus students. Behind her always-smiling eyes is a versatile and talented mind ideally suited for community leadership.
“I come with both kind of a wonky environmental science background and real skill as someone who loves to reach and get buy-in from diverse groups of people,” Birthisel said.
Her background as a youth and faith leader, climate change scientist and proud activist coalesces into her being the perfect candidate for one of the two available three-year council seats. The Orono Town Council needs the electric passion and progressive views of Birthisel if it is to properly represent the thousands of students who call this town home. Birthisel shares many of the same goals as Laraway and puts a special emphasis on the need for government transparency and accessibility for those who might not always be included in these processes, but must be if we are to truly achieve justice.
As is a recurrent theme with the two, these are not just empty platitudes but promises of action. The two have kindly set up the opportunity for rides to the polls for those without access to a vehicle. For those looking for such a ride, simply message Birthisel on her Instagram or Facebook page.
For those with access to a vehicle, polls will be open on March 8 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Orono Town Office at 59 Main Street. Further information can be found on the town website. If you live on campus or in town, you can register to vote at the polls with an ID (such as your Mainecard) and proof of residence (such as any piece of mail addressed to your dorm or apartment) before placing your ballot.
In the brutal winter landscape that is politics, Birthisel and Laraway are the refreshing hope of a warm spring. It is so rare to have not one but two candidates so in tune with the needs of those attending this university. Students cannot be encouraged enough to vote for Birthisel and Laraway, to vote for compassion and thoughtfulness and to vote for those who champion the student and the oppressed.
This Tuesday, take 20 minutes of your time to get out and vote.