Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship Hosts “A Conversation with NJ Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver”

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver engages with the Rowan community from the comfort of her own home, discussing politics, protests and advice for women of color. - Staff Writer / Santino D'Agostino

On March 23, the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship (RIPPAC) hosted a virtual conversation with New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver.

Oliver discussed criticisms surrounding the Murphy administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, her experience with racial discrimination, her thoughts on protests in the streets and also offered advice to young women of color.

The event garnered over 50 attendees including students, faculty and the public.

Oliver is a trailblazer for women of color in New Jersey politics, serving as the state’s first Black female speaker of the assembly from 2010 to 2014 and currently serving as the state’s first Black female lieutenant governor.

Oliver addressed criticisms that the Murphy administration continues to face regarding its COVID-19 response.

“I do not believe that the administration has failed,” Oliver said. “I believe that our state government and local governments were confronted with something they never ever could have portended.”

She then criticized the federal response under former President Donald Trump, stating, “I think that our federal government needed to intercede earlier.”

Oliver noted that the state has “learned a great deal” regarding the handling of long-term care patients and residents, especially in terms of staffing in those facilities.

One audience member questioned how the state plans to approach helping populations disproportionately affected by COVID-19, specifically the Black and Brown communities.

“I believe grassroots mobilization is the best way to intervene with the population,” Oliver said.

The state’s digital-heavy approach in assisting citizens was not an intervention strategy that served these specific populations well, according to Oliver.

As a result, the state has turned to faith communities, partnered with nonprofits and established vaccination sites, at a more grassroots level, to better aid these populations.

She is worried about citizens becoming “too lax,” as evidenced by the state currently holding the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in the country.

Senior biomedical engineering major Danny Tepper, 21, expressed criticism over the administration’s COVID-19 response.

“I was slightly disappointed that I couldn’t ask the lieutenant governor why New Jersey has the highest COVID-19 death rate per capita in the country,” Tepper said. “The administration’s approach seems illogical to me, and is based on statistics that don’t exist and assumptions that aren’t accurate.”

Oliver went on to offer her thoughts on public protests and demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death, which sparked thousands of protests across the nation, receiving international attention.

“Everyone thought the era of MLK was over…last summer demonstrated to us that it is not,” Oliver said. “Many of us always lamented that young people were tone deaf. We got a rude awakening this summer, showing us that young people absolutely are paying attention; they absolutely understand the things that are affecting not just them but other people.”

Oliver detailed a personal encounter with racial discrimination, in which she and a friend were walking to the skating rink, only to be met by a young white girl riding her bike, screaming a racial slur at the pair.

“I never thought of myself as victimized,” Oliver emphatically added. “I know it sounds strange, but that is my reality; that is my truth.”

Young women of color received a word of advice from Oliver, centered around the principles of “unbought and unbossed” Shirley Chisholm, another Black, female trailblazer on the national political stage.

The advice hit home for senior sociology major LaDaysha White, 24, who introduced Oliver to the audience at the start of the event.

“The advice provided to young women, like myself, from Ms. Oliver affected me greatly as she spoke about the great Shirley Chisholm and how she lives by the advice of Ms. Chisholm daily,” White said. “Then, ending our event with telling her audience ‘dare to be yourself.’ That quote in itself was revitalizing to me as, personally, I am a healthcare worker, and I definitely feel I’ve lost myself many times within this last year.”

Dr. Benjamin Dworkin, founding director of RIPPAC, hopes to elevate students’ understanding of politics and government.

“All of these kinds of events help raise the level of political discourse on campus and in the region,” Dworkin said. “That is a big part of what we’re trying to achieve.”

A global pandemic hasn’t stopped RIPPAC from holding valuable events with high-caliber speakers, like the lieutenant governor.

“Throughout the pandemic, RIPPAC has been bringing speakers to our virtual campus and providing the best experience we can, given the limitations COVID-19 presents,” Dworkin said.

This semester, RIPPAC has hosted the Republican gubernatorial nominee for 2021, Jack Ciattarelli, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, NBC political correspondent Steve Kornacki and a number of others.

Oliver touched on a variety of other topics, including navigating the unemployment crisis as commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, providing rental assistance, affordable housing expansion and improving the quality of local institutions of government.

When asked if the $10.2 billion provided to New Jersey for state and local assistance, under the American Rescue Plan, would provide any sort of property tax relief for state residents, Oliver noted that the state is waiting to see if federal guidelines will allow for that kind of flexibility.

But even if it does, the relief would not be sustainable, according to Oliver.

“The way to lower property taxes is for local governments to stop resisting shared services in our state,” she said.

Oliver closed the event with a word of empowerment for the women of America, stating, “Women have demonstrated in this last election cycle that they have the ability, as an electorate, to totally change the public policy direction of this country.”

Shirley Chisholm’s words were shared from the mouth of Oliver and passed down to another generation of aspiring female leaders, like LaDaysha White.

“Dare to be yourself.”

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