“Just one milestone” – Ali Sekou becomes the first person of color elected to Concord City Council 

Ali Sekou outside the Ward 8 polling place on Tuesday.

Ali Sekou outside the Ward 8 polling place on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Ali Sekou will be the first New American on Concord City Council, having immigrated to the state from Niger in 2012.

Ali Sekou will be the first New American on Concord City Council, having immigrated to the state from Niger in 2012. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 11-11-2023 1:00 PM

Ali Sekou knows that his two kids won’t remember the day their mom brought them to the polls to cast her first vote in an election in the United States. She bubbled in the spot next to her husband’s name on the ballot in Concord’s city election.

His son and daughter are both under the age of three, but he knows that when they’re older, Concord will have diversity among its leaders which started with his election to the City Council on Tuesday.

Many firsts can be named with Sekou’s victory. He’s the first New American, having immigrated to New Hampshire from Niger in 2012; he’s the first Muslim representative; and he’s the first Black member of the council in the city’s 289-year history.

“I hope that I’m the first Black or first immigrant or first Muslim to be elected, but I’m not the last one,” he said. “We are trying to make it better for our children. So they get it better than us.”

He will also be the youngest member of the newly elected council at 40-years-old. 

Ten years ago, Sekou sat in classes at Laconia’s Adult Education, trying to reestablish a life for himself in a country so far from his own. After working as a security guard at the United States Embassy in Niger, he immigrated to the United States speaking little to no English. He paused, thinking how far he has come. Tears filled his eyes and he took a deep breath.

“People care about who you are, they don’t care about where you are from,” he said. “Only in America, a foreign-born in a small village can achieve such honors.”

Sekou’s path to city council started at NHTI, he said. When he was earning his Associate’s degree in hospitality and tourism management, he joined the Honors Program. On a school trip to Nashua, where the honors students joined the Boys and Girls Club for Halloween, a teacher mentioned he could be a leader within the group. It’s a message that stuck with him. He took it and ran with it.

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He then became the vice president of Phi Theta Kappa at NHTI.

“That’s where the involvement started,” he said. “So every day becomes now an inspiration. What can you do to support your community?”

The list of boards and committees Sekou has thrown himself into in Concord has grown too long to ramble off the top of his mind. But he has a new expansive and important list – the team of people, from Gilles and Reagan Bissonnette who guided his campaign, to the Muslim community in Concord, to donors, volunteers, his family and friends. It took a village, he said.

The support is reminiscent of his own community in Niger. In the small village in West Africa, Sekou didn’t know that his daily tasks with other friends could be considered community engagement. It was just part of the day-to-day. As a young person, you helped.

Now having studied community engagement in a master’s program at the University of New Hampshire, Sekou has found formal words to describe that culture. And having found a new home in Concord, he’s carried that same sense of purpose to give back to the community.

“That’s what I love in education and in leadership because we all understand that those responsibilities are important. And we all have the responsibility to make our communities a better place for everyone,” he said.

When Gail Maston decided she’d vacate her seat on the council in Ward 8 after a decade, she approached Sekou about running to fill it.

During the last year, conversations about bringing greater diversity to appointed positions and to the ranks of city employees took place around a semicircle table, where everyone looked like one another.

Come January, Sekou will change that.

“When it comes to diversity it’s personal to me. I’m raising two Black children here. Myself, I’m an immigrant, I’m Muslim and I’m Black, of course. I wear all those hats,” he said. “So I am going to be looking forward to partnering and working with everybody from the mayor to the city council to make the city reflect our community. Because I think it’s time.”

In a city with growing diversity, where 14% of the population is non-white, department heads and city leaders do not reflect this. 

Sekou doesn’t plan to be the token voice of diversity either. With his involvement comes a community of voices behind him – voices that often have been left out of city council conversations. He knows he’ll bring new people forward.

“I think every single human or every member of our community has something to offer and they should be given the same opportunity and be invited to the table to share their expertise, their knowledge, their experiences,” he said. “We, as a city, have to adapt to the change that is happening that makes us all richer.”

And that’ll happen because he has the trust to do so. Just look at the polls, he said. In Ward 8, which entails most of The Heights – turnout in 2021 and 2019 was just over 500 if you combined both elections. On Tuesday, 498 residents cast ballots, which has been the highest turnout in the last decade.

When words like gratitude, honor, excitement and disbelief don’t quite sum up what this all means to Sekou, he repeated the number 298 to himself. It’s the number of people who voted for him as a first-time candidate, who now will help him bring a lot of “firsts” to his city council seat.

“The community spoke. And that’s a strong message that shows Concord is a healthy place. When I say healthy here, I mean, an inclusive place for anyone that is qualified to be an elected official,” he said. “They proved it. They made history and  I’m grateful for it.”