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Sheila Oliver has always been inspired by the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress. She was particularly motivated by a simple but memorable remark that Congresswoman Chisholm made in one of her speeches: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, then bring a folding chair.” Sheila Oliver has brought several folding chairs during her long and successful career in public service.

She started her career as the director of a private nonprofit in Newark, became the president of her local board of education and then was elected a county commissioner. Later, she was the first woman to launch a competitive campaign for mayor of East Orange, N.J., but ended up losing by just 51 votes.

“I began to connect the dots about how important it was to encourage people to vote because many people in my town said, ‘Oh, I just knew that was a slam dunk for you. I didn't even vote yesterday,’” Oliver said.

She went on to successfully serve in the state Legislature for 16 years. When Oliver was unanimously elected to be the 169th speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly in 2009, she was the first Black woman to hold the position in the state's history. Her election also made her the second Black woman in the nation to lead a state legislative house. Several years later when she served as the lieutenant governor for New Jersey, she became the fourth Black woman in the nation to do so, the first as a Democrat.

But her time in public service has not always been easy, especially during the coronavirus pandemic as New Jersey ranked No. 2 among states with COVID-19 cases for many months. Even as the numbers appear to be decreasing, the state still must be cautious about its reopening guidelines for the health and safety of its residents.

“We're still on guard,” explained Oliver. “We don't feel quite comfortable that we're beyond it yet. And all of the epidemiologists that we consult with tell us that we are probably going to experience a surge in November.”

Listen to the “In The Arena” episode with Sheila Oliver to hear more about her inspirations and achievements, her aspiration to laugh every day and New Jersey’s response to the death of George Floyd.

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