This Camden native is a policy adviser to Sen. Kamala Harris, who may be the next vice president
Sculptor Carl LeVotch is creating a bronze statue of boxing champion Arnold Cream that will stand on Camden's Waterfront. Cherry Hill Courier-Post
Yasmin Rigney Nelson grew up in Camden, and while she's taken her talents to Washington, D.C. to work for U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris as a senior policy adviser, she still feels a strong connection to her hometown.
The daughter of a Camden County Police officer, Rigney Nelson grew up in housing projects in East Camden and Centerville, attending Sumner Elementary School, Forest Hill Elementary, LEAP Academy and Brimm Medical Arts High School. She attended Rutgers University, Loyola University and the University of Maryland before going to work for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.
"I had the privilege of working closely with Yasmin," said Assemblyman Bill Moen of Camden, who worked with Rigney Nelson in Booker's office. "It gives me great comfort to know that someone who served Camden City and the State of New Jersey with such honor and integrity could possibly serve in the Biden/Harris administration — and helping to get our country back on the right track."
The Courier-Post sent Rigney Nelson emailed questions about growing up in Camden, her work with Sen. Harris (she is part of Harris' Senate staff and not part of the California Democrat's vice presidential campaign alongside former Vice President Joe Biden).
Some answers may have been edited for clarity and length:
Courier-Post: Please tell us about growing up in Camden. Where did you grow up and did you plan on a career in politics?
Yasmin Rigney Nelson: I was born at Cooper Hospital and for the first few years of my life lived in East Camden’s housing projects. The buildings are no longer there but I have so many memories of walking to the corner stores with my cousins on Morse Street. We lived in a two bedroom apartment with my mother, grandmother, two aunts [Dianna and Golda], and my cousin [Catrina].
My mother, Pam Rigney, was the first person in my family to have a career, so rightfully so, I decided I wanted to be a police officer. When I told my mother this, she asked me what did I think I was good at and I replied,”Winning arguments.” She said, “Well then, what do you think about law and being a lawyer?” My mother inspired me to think bigger than what was directly in front of me. From there, I decided to study the law and look into how to change them. She has always been my inspiration and greatest supporter; she sacrificed a lot to get me where I am today.
C-P: You're a product of the city's schools; how did that impact your goals and your ability to pursue them?
YRN: The six of us moved to Centerville housing projects when I was about six years old so I attended Sumner Elementary School. After Sumner, I attended Forest Hill’s CHIPS program, LEAP Academy, and Dr. Brimm Medical Arts High School, in which I participated in advanced academic programs.
These programs were distinctly designed to support residents academically and ensure preparation for standardized testing and eventually college. My mother was the reason I made education a primary focus; she searched for programs to keep me engaged. I had very dedicated teachers who did a lot with what they had. They formed genuine relationships with their students and invested in our futures. I try to visit as often as possible and thank Mr. and Mrs. Gill, Mrs. Matthews, Ms. Reed, Mr. Quinones, Mrs. Borrelli, Mrs. Cooper and many others for the lessons and inspiration they instilled in me. They taught me more than just reading, writing and arithmetic; they taught me to be kind, take care of one another, and to think beyond the classroom.
C-P: How did growing up in Camden impact your life and career? You've been away for a long time, but do you still feel a connection to your hometown?
YRN: I absolutely feel a connection to my hometown — my maternal family still lives there and I take my 8-month-old son to visit. Camden will always be my home. When [President Barack] Obama visited the Kroc Center in 2015, I was there as a staffer for Senator Booker and could not have been prouder. The energy was phenomenal. It was great to witness the impact the Obama Administration had on the city.
C-P: Tell us about how you got started in politics. Was it something you planned on doing or something you fell into? What was it like working with Senator Booker?
YRN: I definitely fell into it. I was studying to be an attorney when I stumbled upon a fundraiser for then-Mayor Booker [Booker was mayor of Newark, from 2006 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2013] while I was a fellow at a consulting firm. At that fundraiser, I learned more about him and his team. A few months later, I would help him open his Senate office.
Booker is a wonderful boss. He was engaging, kind and thoughtful. He knew my mother was a police officer in Camden and asked about her every chance he could. She was on the police force for almost 20 years at that point. He made working for him fun and entertaining, often taking staff to the movies and on staff retreats. I will forever be grateful for Booker and his team for taking a chance on this little girl from Camden with an opportunity that would then springboard my career forever.
C-P: How did you come to work for Senator Harris? What is your role with her?
YRN: After two years, I left the Booker family to work for the Senate Finance Committee developing my expertise in finance issues. From there, I was asked to join the Harris team as the lead staffer on finance, banking, urban affairs and small business issues. After some time, I ultimately added diversity and inclusion issues, which included Senator Harris’ engagement with the Congressional Black Caucus [CBC].
C-P: Are you involved at all with the campaign, or are you strictly working on the Senate/policy side of things?
YRN: I work in Senator Harris’ Senate office, so I can’t speak for her campaign. As a Black woman, seeing someone who looks like me rise to the highest levels of politics feels absolutely incredible. I feel seen. She continues to shatter glass ceilings and show us how things can be done. She is showing all the little Black girls who did not know what they wanted to be when they grew up that they can dream big and make a change in the world. As a Black woman working in politics, this feels like the ultimate validation. It feels like the ultimate green light to truly believe in yourself and get what you deserve.
C-P: How does being a woman of color affect your work, and how does working for another woman of color feel at this particular moment in time?
YRN: For generations, the voices of Black women and women of color have been left out of policy proposals. As a Black woman, it is both important and rewarding to support Sen. Harris on her economic policy agenda, and ensure the perspectives and needs of our communities are included in her legislative work.
For example, I assisted Senator Harris in introducing the Saving Our Street Act [SOS], which would help micro businesses [defined as businesses with fewer than 10 employees] receive up to $250,000, if the neighborhood business was negatively impacted by COVID-19. Black small businesses were disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus and tend to have fewer than 10 employees, so under this proposed bill, Black neighbored businesses would benefit. The SOS Act provides over 75 percent of funding to historically underrepresented businesses, minority-owned businesses. It’s an amazing feeling to know that the SOS Act is centered in the disparities Black neighborhood businesses face in trying to survive the impacts of the coronavirus. Legislation like this and countless others prove how valuable minority perspectives are in shaping policy.
C-P: Finally, can you talk about what you might say to a young person in Camden about finding success and meaning in a career and how their background might help them later in life?
YRN: Success is growing up poor and still believing in yourself and achieving everything you want in life. I know it's hard to see it now but trust your inner voice — you can do it. Walk by faith and not by sight. If folks try to tear you down or tell you you can’t — trust yourself, work hard, know your stuff, and understand that it says more about them than it does about you. Always do the right thing — don’t cut corners — and things will fall into place. Be genuine and kind to everyone you meet and lift as you climb. There is room for everyone to eat.
Phaedra Trethan has been a reporter and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered Camden since 2015. She’s called South Jersey home since 1971. Contact her with feedback, news tips or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @CP_Phaedra, or by phone at 856-486-2417.
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