Miss Maine Carolyn Brady shopped at primarily black-owned businesses in Maine as a way to safely celebrate Black History Month, including the Monument Square restaurant Yardie Ting. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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If you asked Carolyn Brady a year ago where she would be right now, she would have said Madagascar.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Brady, 23, is not only the first African American Miss Maine but the first woman to hold the title for two years.

She planned to leave last fall for Madagascar, where she would teach children English as a member of the Peace Corps for two years. When the pandemic indefinitely delayed those plans, she decided to continue in her Miss Maine role.

Her second year with the title, she said last week, has allowed her to focus on serving her community in ways that are most important to her. In February, that service included shopping at mostly black-owned businesses throughout Maine in honor of Black History Month.

Carolyn Brady, 23, is the first African American Miss Maine and, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the first woman to hold the title for two years. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

She also serves as Maine’s COVID-19 Recovery Americorps Volunteer In Service to America, a role that involves helping educational institutions solve pandemic-related problems that affect students.

The Miss Maine Scholarship Program is the official state preliminary to the Miss America pageant, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary this fall. Brady won Maine’s state title in 2019.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. last year, titleholders nationwide were asked if they wanted to continue serving in their position for an additional year. 

Approximately 40 of the other state titleholders decided to stay on, she said.

The “four points” of the Miss America crown, or the four areas where contestants and winners are expected to be proficient, are scholarship, success, style, and service.

Brady said because the pandemic moved almost all of her duties to a virtual format, events related to style and scholarship took a back seat to service, which she appreciated. Serving others is what drew her to the role in the first place.

“I have a lot of flexibility to do it in ways I’m really passionate about and I sort of teeter between things that I want to help with and things that need help,” she said. “Obviously in a pandemic it works out really well, because everyone needs help. We are all struggling in some form.”

Brady said being able to serve as Miss Maine for a second consecutive winter was helpful in planning for this year’s Black History Month. 

The last Miss America pageant was held in December 2019, and the lack of lead time meant Brady found it difficult to plan a celebration of the month that had the impact she desired last year.

She had more time to plan her 2021 observance during quarantine, and also in the context of what she called the “civil unrest” that occurred last summer surrounding racial injustice nationwide. 

In light of COVID-19, she said it made sense to plan an observance of Black History Month that did not require her “physical presence to line up with other people’s.” 

She decided to shop solely at Black-owned businesses for the month in an effort to highlight the state’s diversity, and took inspiration from Black Owned Maine, an organization launched last June as a directory of businesses owned by black Mainers.

“Obviously there are some exceptions because we live in Maine (where we have) 2 percent black people,” she said. Brady needed a new coat in February, for instance, which she did not buy from a Black-owned business.

She began the month visiting Burundi Star Coffee on St. John Street in Portland, and said she enjoyed talking with the owners about their lives and their move to Maine as asylum seekers. Brady also visited Asmara Restaurant on Oak Street in Portland, and Yardie Ting in Monument Square, among others. 

With each visit to a new business, Brady had a conversation with the owners, and left an autographed Miss Maine card thanking them for “their commitment to supporting not only black commerce in the state of Maine but also the black community.”

“There’s so much strength in seeing representation in jobs that we would all like to have,” she said.

She tried to branch out from the Portland area as much as possible but did not want to sacrifice her safety. She said the further north one goes in Maine, “the more relaxed” COVID-19 restrictions tend to become. 

One place outside of Portland she visited was Caribbean Life Grocery & Gift Shop in Lewiston, which she found to be fun. Cooking Caribbean food was an aspect of her childhood she said she did not really pay attention to.

“I was like great, at least I know that if I buy foods that are culturally appropriate but are from a culture I’m from, I can call my mom, she can teach me,” Brady said. 

All four of Brady’s grandparents and her mother were born in the Caribbean. Her paternal grandfather worked as a priest and a professor at the University of the West Indies and was later asked to become a professor at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C., which is how that side of her family came to America. 

Brady, who lives in Boothbay, grew up in the greater Philadelphia area and came to Maine to attend Bowdoin College, which is also her father’s alma mater.

She said getting involved with the Miss Maine Scholarship Program was an “easy transition” for her, as she was also very passionate about volunteerism in college.

In her role as a COVID-19 Recovery Americorps VISTA, she focuses on issues tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, ensuring students eligible for free and reduced lunch receive enough food on remote learning days.

“Questions surrounding hunger, homelessness, tech support, academic support, and social-emotional learning are where I spend the bulk of my 9-5,” Brady said.

Prior to working as the COVID-19 VISTA, her Americorps role last year involved mentoring and tutoring students at Reiche Community School on Brackett Street. It was a role she loved but felt posed too much risk during the pandemic. 

Despite her Peace Corps mission to Madagascar being delayed indefinitely, Brady said taking on a second year as Miss Maine has ultimately worked out “really, really well,” because it has helped advance the service she is passionate about.

“This is a greater platform to change the lives that I already work to change,” Brady said.

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