CSSW connection: Sheila Oliver earned an MSW in Community Organization, Planning and Administration from our School in 1976.
Path to political involvement: New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver cut her teeth in state-level politics first as a county freeholder (or commissioner) and then as a member of the New Jersey General Assembly, from 2004 until 2017. In 2009 she was elected unanimously to serve as Speaker of the Assembly, a move that gave her control over which bills came to the floor and how billions of dollars were spent. She was the first Black woman to serve in that role in the state and only the second Black woman to lead a state house in all of the United States. In addition to serving as Speaker, Oliver chaired the Human Services Committee, overseeing bills that impacted New Jersey’s low-income individuals and families, as well as those with mental illnesses, disabilities, and addictions.
In July 2017, New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy announced that he had selected Oliver as his running mate. With their win in November of that year, she became the first woman of color ever elected to statewide office in New Jersey, and the first Black woman Democrat to become a lieutenant governor in the United States.
Murphy went on to appoint Oliver as Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, in charge of providing local governments, organizations, and businesses with support and financial aid to help improve the quality of life for New Jersey residents while also addressing issues of public concern. He said his choice of Oliver for this cabinet position was due to her reputation as a trail blazer in community leadership and the mark she had already made on the state in the area of social welfare.
In a keynote address to Columbia alumni in fall 2019, Oliver said:
If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.
Also in that address she said:
Leadership is the only ship that doesn’t return to port in a storm.
In her commencement address to the CSSW Class of 2019, Oliver said:
But what I want you to know about myself as a social worker: I never set out to get involved in politics, but I knew that politics could transform lives.… A friend [who] was running for state senate needed to round out his ticket, and he asked me to run on his ticket with him. Now I was just, you know, window dressing to help with the campaign. The night of the election, he lost and I won. And that began my career as a state legislator. When I came to the legislature in ‘04, the speaker at the time asked me what I wanted to specialize in. He said everyone tends to take up an area of specialization. I responded to the speaker, “I don’t want to specialize in one thing. I want to be involved in everything in the state legislature.” And lo and behold, six years later I became the speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly.
Also in that address, Oliver said:
[My social work] background has equipped me to be in the room when major policy decisions are being made, and I learned as speaker if your voice isn’t the room, you’re going to have a problem, because as we say in politics, “If you’re not at the table, then you are on the menu.”