Public service

How Marcelia Nicholson’s life experiences are shaping her public service

“Journeys” is a new feature from the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service that examines the career paths taken by our community entrepreneurs. Do you know someone we should introduce? Please send your suggestions to [email protected]

Marcelia Nicholson never planned to go into politics.

As a girl, she wanted to study education and become a teacher. Growing up, the love and care of her teachers raised her. And she wanted to offer the same to the next generation of students.

But this plan has encountered challenges.

Nicholson started at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee but ended up dropping out because she couldn’t afford both rent and education.

None of that time was wasted. It shaped how Nicholson, 33, now a Milwaukee County Supervisor who represents District 5, would do her job. She was first elected to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors in 2016, was re-elected in 2018, and in 2020 made history by being elected by her fellow board presidents. She is the first Afro-Latina to have this role.

Nicholson was raised by her African American father and Puerto Rican mother in the Amani neighborhood. She said the journey inspired her.

“My parents were extremely hardworking people,” Nicholson said. “But through no fault of their own, they couldn’t quite advance.”

However, his parents laid the foundations for his success.

“We tried to use everything that was happening around her as an experience,” said Nicholson’s father, Maurice Nicholson. “And we tried to expose it as much as possible outside of our neighborhood.”

When she dropped out of UW-Milwaukee, she worked odd jobs before finally landing a job as a paraprofessional in Milwaukee Public Schools in 2012. She did this for two years before getting certified as a teacher and become a fourth-grade teacher at Pierce Elementary School (now Riverwest Elementary).

She said her experience there led her to seek public office.

“I was in a class with 36 students and no support,” Nicholson said. “I used my paychecks to buy supplies for my students.”

She said that in addition to providing resources to students, she has noticed that many of her students experience trauma, such as unstable housing, food insecurity, and violence outside of the classroom.

“That’s when I got involved in politics,” she said. “I had questions about why things were going the way they were, and I wanted to speak up for people.”

Nicholson represents several neighborhoods, including the area around Washington Park, portions of the Marquette University campus, and the east side of Milwaukee.

She does her job with people like her parents in mind.

“When I look at things and when I introduce policy, I’m working with people on the ground,” Nicholson said.

She eventually earned her bachelor’s degree in communications at UW-Milwaukee. She is currently attending UW-Milwaukee for a Masters in Public Administration.

“I didn’t go into this knowing what I was doing, so now that I’m here I want to do it the best I can,” Nicholson said. “I believe that first-hand experience, professional development, the ability to decipher between theory and practice, finding relevant solutions and solving problems, as well as skills and capacity building through research tools and knowledge are important to being an effective and well-rounded leader.

Nicholson said her new role came with challenges.

“At the start of my career, I was very insecure about my lack of political experience,” she said. “I have turned down many leadership opportunities on the grounds that I was not ready and stayed in situations out of comfort or familiarity. I wish I had been more open to challenges and believed in myself earlier.

She added, “To make sure I never felt that way again, I upped my skills and built mentorship relationships, and challenged myself to trust my abilities. It has given me confidence in my management skills, in my role as a public speaker and has given me a group of trusted and respected advisors I can consult to support my work in the community.

Sequanna Taylor, first vice-chairman of the county council, said of Nicholson’s leadership, “She really creates a cohesive, open and professional work environment.”

Others said she is driven by her community.

Stephanie Morales, a close friend of Nicholson’s, said, “She is the definition of a servant leader.”

“She presents a policy that fights for the people she represents, but she’s also so transparent,” Morales said.