In celebration of Maine’s Bicentennial and 200 years of leadership that paved the way to make Maine “the way life should be,” members from MDF’s Leadership Maine Baskahegan Class interviewed leaders from around the state. With diverse backgrounds, industries and geographies, they each share deep interest and commitment to the state of Maine and its people. This is the story of Claude Rwaganje, Executive Director of ProsperityME, and his leadership journey. Claude was interviewed by Mark C. Wiesendanger.
How he got here from there.
When Claude Rwaganje emigrated to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996, he was astonished at how easily he could help his friends get loans, just by signing his name. Of course, he learned quickly that things were not as simple as they seemed. “I struggled myself to understand all the pieces of finance – college, housing, savings…” He realized that a lot of Mainers, especially new immigrants, could use some help navigating through how personal finance works. Financial stability was a key step in realizing the American Dream.
While Claude worked at manufacturing jobs, he earned his B.S. in Business from the University of Southern Maine, graduating in 2005. At that time, he asked his employer what types of positions they were looking to fill. They replied that they were looking for an accountant. After a few more courses, Claude was working as an accountant trainee. In 2008 the economic crisis struck, and Claude founded the nonprofit ProsperityME with the goal of educating and empowering refugees and immigrants to “invest in themselves” by building careers and personal wealth.
Claude lived in Westbrook for 6 years before moving to Portland for the following 14 years. In 2016, he purchased a home in Westbrook. In 2019 he was part of a historic election in Maine, with an unprecedented number of immigrants elected to local offices, winning the at-large seat on the Westbrook City Council –which is his newest passion.
Traits of a leader.
“A vision with a clear outcome.” Claude believes that leaders are not necessarily born; they must learn how to lead. Anyone can tell others what to do but, without a clear and shared vision, one cannot inspire. Inspiration is the key to motivating others and leads to successful outcomes. He says, “new ideas are questioned – how will we do it? do we have the capacity? You need first to understand and tell the impact.” Through this knowledge one can delegate work and motivate others to help achieve their common goals. Clearly Claude speaks from experience. He came to this country as a refugee like many of the people he helps through his work at ProsperityME. He also has lived in Westbrook for many years where he now helps his neighbors.
Claude is a member of the Maine Development Foundation’s Institute for Civic Leadership (ICL), Omega Class. There he witnessed the power of networking and learning how to listen well. Claude befriended a classmate who works at a large Maine company and who fell in love with ProsperityME’s mission. That company has since become one the biggest sponsor of ProsperityME’s events, largely due to the bond forged thorough ICL.
Maine’s future leaders.
Claude has a message to the future leaders of Maine: “Welcome Home”. He admits he may be echoing the Governor’s sentiments but, this is a particularly important message when looking towards our immigrant communities. While Claude is well-aware that he is still “from away” after 24 years of living in Maine, he also knows that our future is being shaped increasingly by folks like himself. What are we doing to attract and retain these new workers? Maine is the oldest state in the nation by median age. The folks who are from here are not having as many children. There are fewer and fewer young people taking over jobs as the boomers retire. However, the larger immigrant families, mostly coming into cities like Portland and Lewiston, are starting to fill the void left by aging or emigrating Mainers. Among Portland’s nearly 7,000 students, 67 different languages are spoken, and almost half are non-white. Maine is quickly diversifying but this is not the first time Maine has relied on new immigrants to build a workforce. In the past people came from places such as England, Canada, Italy, Ireland, Germany, China, Armenia, Albania and other nations. Now they may hail from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, or Somalia. Although the clothing, religions, and languages have changed over time, the one thing that hasn’t is change itself. Our immigrant history is a history of people mostly looking for better lives. It is what makes us who we are today. These new Mainers have always faced resistance, and we need to learn to embrace them with a welcoming message. They are our future. As Claude says, “let’s share the future”.