Rutgers-Newark Center for Politics and Race in America named in honor of Sheila Oliver

Program and scholarship, funded through J&J charitable donation, honors Oliver’s legacy, supports next generation of N.J. public service leaders

In an honor befitting the influential and inspiring life that Sheila Oliver lived, the Center for Politics and Race in America at Rutgers University – Newark was named in her honor Friday, as the Sheila Y. Oliver Center for Politics and Race in America.

Oliver, who died last summer, was the first Black woman in New Jersey to be both the lieutenant governor and the Assembly speaker.

Her legacy, however, is far greater than any office title.

Oliver was — and remains — an inspiration to so many women, and women of color, including Lt. Gov. Tahesha Way, who succeeded Oliver.

“It is my privilege to join Rutgers University officials to honor my dear friend and mentor, the late Lt. Gov. Sheila Y. Oliver,” Way said. “Sheila was and remains the epitome of what a true public servant should be: dedicated, compassionate and filled with integrity. As we gather to launch Rutgers University – Newark’s Center for Politics and Race in America in her honor, I know she is sure to touch the many young people who will continue to build on the legacy of her passionate work.”

The center, established last year with state funding, is a “fact tank” for research on the nation’s political life and a resource for underrepresented students seeking careers in government and public service.

Co-Director James Jones called Oliver a trailblazer who fought tirelessly for justice and equality.

“Lt. Gov. Oliver’s legacy will continue to inspire our center as we expand access to public service as a profession and promote research and public policy that confronts systemic inequalities,” he said.

That legacy will only grow.

The event drew hundreds, including members of Oliver’s family, members of the Sheila Y. Oliver Civic Association and leaders from Johnson & Johnson, which announced it has made a charitable donation to fund the Lt. Gov. Sheila Y. Oliver Leadership Scholarship, part of the center’s Public Service Leadership Program at Rutgers School of Arts & Sciences – Newark.

The scholarship will provide four Rutgers-Newark students with stipends to participate in public service internships over the next five years.  The initial application process will be established and opened in the first half of 2024, with the first scholars awarded this summer.

Johnson & Johnson has a long legacy of civil engagement within its home state throughout its 138-year history. The initiative highlights the company’s values of diversity, equity & inclusion, which fuel its pursuit to create a healthier, more equitable world.

Vanessa Broadhurst speaks at the event.

Vanessa Broadhurst, Johnson & Johnson’s executive vice president of global corporate affairs, said the company was honored to champion Oliver’s legacy.

“Lt. Gov. Oliver dedicated her life to public service and improving the lives of all New Jerseyans, especially those in underserved and marginalized communities,” she said. “She was a trailblazer and continues to be an inspiration for so many.

“Johnson & Johnson is proud to honor Lt. Gov. Oliver’s legacy of public service through the scholarship in her name to cultivate the next generation ‘Sheila Olivers’— well-rounded, passionate and driven public servants who represent the very best of New Jersey and the state’s rich diversity and culture.”

A Newark native, Oliver was the first African American woman in New Jersey history to hold statewide office when she was elected as the state’s second lieutenant governor in 2017 and reelected in 2021. In addition to her role as lieutenant governor, she also served as commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, leading state efforts to strengthen and expand initiatives for fair and affordable housing, community revitalization, homelessness prevention and local government services that support New Jersey’s
564 municipalities.

In 2010, Oliver became the first African American woman to serve as speaker of the General Assembly and only the second in U.S. history to lead a state legislative house.

Oliver died on Aug. 1, 2023.

Renee Oliver, her niece and the president of the Sheila Y. Oliver Civic Association, said her group is working to ensure her legacy is celebrated.

“While our family still mourns the loss of a beloved daughter, sister, aunt, cousin and friend, it brings us an immense amount of pride to see Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver’s legacy live on for centuries to come with the renaming of Rutgers University – Newark’s Center for Politics and Race in America, along with the Johnson & Johnson charitable donation to the Lt. Gov. Sheila Y. Oliver Leadership Scholarship,” she said.

“Aunt Sheila dedicated her heart and soul to her craft and serving those in need from all walks of life. On behalf of the entire Oliver family, we truly believe that this fitting tribute will have a lasting impact on the next generation of public servants to come and that they will be inspired to invoke positive change in Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver’s honor.”

A leading mission of the Center for Race and Politics in America, in addition to advancing research and political data analysis, is to diversify the field of young people who have access to opportunities in public service and politics, including internships on Capitol Hill, which often serve as stepping stones to elected office and successful careers in the private sector.

According to 2021 research from Jones, Black and Latino students comprise 15% and 20% of undergraduates, but just 7% and 8% of paid Hill interns.

The center will prepare others to follow in Oliver’s footsteps.

In a tribute video that was shown at the ceremony, an emotional Oliver, speaking after she was elected, declared: “This may not be the first glass ceiling I have broken, but it is certainly the highest. I hope that, somewhere in this great state of New Jersey, a young girl of color is watching tonight and realizing that she does not have a limit to how high she can go.’’

Rutgers-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor praised Oliver as a “shero.’’

“Her vision and courage as a boundary-breaking leader were surpassed only by her compassion and her example as someone who fervently sought for our nation to live up to its promise,” she said. “She embodied the principle of lifting as one climbs, which we saw time and again throughout her career as she engaged with our students, faculty and staff to urge us forward in making educational opportunity a reality for all.

“I can think of no better enduring tribute to her at Rutgers-Newark than to name CPRA in her honor, and we couldn’t be more grateful to Johnson & Johnson for its investment in new generations of changemakers to emulate her.”