By Barbara S. Rothschild
May 17, 2011
Somerdale native Sophia Nelson is not the same woman she was when she ran for Camden County freeholder at age 28 and won the GOP primary to run against Democrat incumbent Rob Andrews in the 1st Congressional District when she was 29.
Nelson, now 44 and a political, social and pop culture commentator for MSNBC and other national news outlets, has evolved from the idealistic Gen Xer she was in the ’90s.
Already spreading her message through a blog and her own foundation, iask, to empower professional black women, she is about to kick off a campaign promoting her first book, a “love letter” titled “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama.”
“It’s very important to me that the new generation of young black women has some hope. It shouldn’t be branded by negative stereotypes,” Nelson said.
While she is among the many successful black women of her generation who have not settled down and had children, she considers Michelle Obama proof that it can be done.
That feeling was validated when Nelson got to meet the Obamas at a White House Christmas party.
“I was awestruck,” Nelson said. She sees many parallels between her and the first lady, including their career paths. They both had slave ancestors impregnated by white masters, giving them what Nelson called “mulatto blood.”
“When I met her, she put her arm around me and I thought, “This house was built by slaves and here I am standing with the first African-American first lady. It was overwhelming.”
Unlike Michelle Obama, Nelson hasn’t found her Mr. Right yet. While a third of professional white women are single, 70 percent of black women are not married, Nelson said.
Nor is she a mother, although she is a doting aunt to her younger brother’s two daughters, visiting them often at their Princeton home.
“When you get to be 44, you look at life differently. So many events intervene, whether it’s illness, divorce, bankruptcy — it’s called the journey,” Nelson said.
“So we played by all the rules, and we didn’t get the picket fence. We can redefine what it means. There are things we can do.”
“Black Woman Redefined” includes chapters on relationships, religion, forgiveness and healing, motherhood and networking, all drawing on Nelson’s experiences and those of other women — and men, too.
Survey results make up another section of the book, and there is a section of essays written by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, U.S. Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., and Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., actress Taraji P. Henson, “The View” co-host Sherri Shepherd, actress Rae Dawn Chong and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
Nelson’s contributors are part of a vast network cultivated throughout her multi-faceted career.
The Sterling High School graduate worked as an attorney for a U.S. House of Representatives committee during the Clinton administration, later becoming a defense industry lobbyist before leaving the highly charged political scene to focus on helping other black women make the most of their lives.
“She’s always been a trailblazer who doesn’t follow the crowd,” said Lori Stephens Hilton of Deptford, who attended elementary and high school with Nelson.
“She was class president at Sterling for four years. They kept electing her, and it gave Sophia her first taste of leadership,” Hilton said.
Nelson, who was a young attorney in a large South Jersey law firm when she ran for county and national office, relocated to a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., after pulling out of the 1996 congressional race because of health issues.
When she was growing up, her family was friendly with Wayne Bryant, the former Camden County freeholder and state legislator now serving a prison sentence for corruption.
“You’d think I would have ended up a Democrat,” she mused.
A graduate of San Diego State University, where she majored in political science and minored in Africana studies, Nelson was inspired to enter public service when she met U.S. Congressman Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., who had captained the San Diego Chargers early in his football career and often returned to the area.
During Nelson’s college years, Kemp became the U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President George H.W. Bush.
“I loved his (Kemp’s) focus on self-empowerment, and his urban renewal agenda, and what it could mean for blacks,” she said.
Returning to South Jersey after her 1990 graduation, Nelson was energized by the story of Christine Todd Whitman, a New Jersey Republican who ran against Democrat incumbent Sen. Bill Bradley that year and nearly defeated him. Whitman was elected the state’s first female governor three years later.
After earning her law degree at American University-Washington College of Law, Nelson grew active in grassroots politics and became an intriguing candidate for Camden County Republicans.
“Looking back now, I have to laugh. At 29, going up against Rob Andrews in a heavily Democratic district, I was idealistic and naive,” she said.
Nelson, who gave up practicing law in 2008, has become less partisan.
“I don’t know that I’m anything,” Nelson said about her current party affiliation. She became an independent in 2008.
“The Republican Party changed a lot. I am a Christie Whitman Republican, a Jack Kemp Republican. There aren’t many of them left.”
Nelson’s book has been planned since 2007, when talk-show host Don Imus referred to women on the Rutgers-New Brunswick basketball team as “nappy-headed hos,” sparking a national controversy. Nelson was also concerned about rap lyrics that debase black women.
Then came 2008 and Barack Obama — with his intelligent and attractive helpmate, Michelle, whose outspokenness raised some hackles. When Nelson defended the future first lady in a column for the Washington Post, the piece went viral.
Nelson started her research in 2009, calling on Atco native Kellyanne Conway, owner of a successful Washington, D.C. polling firm, to gather information through focus groups and surveying not only black professional women, but other women and black and white men, as well.
“I appreciated that Sophia kept an open mind. She allowed the research to broaden or dispel her beliefs, or turn them on their head,” said Conway, who co-authored “What Women Really Want” in 2005.
“In an age when women need not pick A, B or C but can do an option D — all of the above — Sophia is an option-D girl. She doesn’t put her gender or her race at the forefront of her identity,” Conway said.
Nelson said her book is for all women — and all men, too, as they avoid stereotype pitfalls and interact with black women on profession and personal levels.
Dr. Fred Steinberg of Cherry Hill, an obstetrician who delivered Nelson’s brother and became a family friend, said Nelson learned a lot from her mother. Sandria Nelson divorced, returning to school to earn a nursing degree.
“Sophia was aware of a lot of what was going on. She was able to digest that and integrate it into her being,” said Steinberg, who contributed to Nelson’s book.
“When she ran for Congress against Rob Andrews, that was overwhelmingly impressive to me. Sophia was always there, ready to roll — a dynamo with intelligence and great looks.”
Now dating someone steadily but not ready to call him “a significant other,” Nelson stresses that love should be a priority.
Although black males — and whites, too — are now a disproportionately low percentage of the college pool, black women improve their chances to meet a compatible mate by redefining their definition of a successful man.
“It could be someone who went to technical school and runs four businesses making $500,000 a year, as opposed to a medical resident earning $40,000,” Nelson said.