As many children of immigrants can appreciate, my parents pushed me to work hard – get good grades, graduate from a top university, go to graduate school and obtain a good job and career. Whenever I complained about something being too hard, or a result being unfair, my Jamaican father’s response was that I was not working hard enough or that I was not motivated enough. There was no time for complaints. This was the land of opportunity, and if I was whining, then I was squandering that opportunity. So I learned to bear down and work hard – and it has generally done me well.
I got involved in politics for the same reason many did post-2016 election – frustration. Frustration that my voice was not being heard. Frustration that someone who had no idea who I was – and did not care to know who I was – would be making decisions that impacted me, my family and my friends. So, I took the baton and I ran for judge in Philadelphia. I thought I was running on a platform that the city needed more women on the bench. Being bi-racial and a first generation American (my father is from Kingston, Jamaica and mother is from Glasgow, Scotland) was an additional factor I used in my stump, an interesting tidbit, but initially it was not my selling point.
I had not contemplated my race and ethnicity very much and did not consider it relevant to the campaign. The lesson I learned growing up was that you rest on your accomplishments – in my mind, my race and culture was a product of happenstance. However, when I spoke to people about who I was, why I was running, and my background, they all were very interested in my heritage. The more and more I thought about it, and spoke to people, I noticed it was the fact that I am Jamaican/Scottish and bi-racial that the voters appreciated most.
This was a tough realization for me and placed me at a personal impasse in my campaign. I had made the decision to run because I felt people in power did not care to know who I was, but how could I run a campaign true to myself if I was not willing to share and explore every facet of who I am?
Growing up I felt my race and heritage had little place in me becoming a successful person in America. I admired and was motivated by my parents’ quest for opportunities and a better life than the one they had. To them, and me, grit and determination was all that was necessary – and they were right to a certain extent.
What I came to realize, particularly with my father, was that the best approach for him was a “head down, work hard” approach. I started to explore my parents’ journey and I realized part of the reason my father started his own business is because he was not being taken seriously by the white men in power where he worked. I learned that mall security pulled him away from his young crying children, because they thought he was kidnapping them. While he is able to reap the benefits of being a successful business men, he is unable to freely drive around as a black man in a Mercedes.
He is a proud and stoic man. His advice to me, to keep my head down and work hard, was the advice that got him where he is today. And once I started paying attention I saw that my black father is treated very different; I “pass” as white and, thus, benefit from privilege I would not receive if I was darker skinned. To my father, bringing up race in any way only generates problems and discussing it was unnecessary fluff. However, in my campaign, and particularly in speaking to many people of color I started to realize I bring a unique perspective and insight. I was finally able to comfortably speak about my background – not as grievances – but as a clarification of why I would be a good judge. I still discuss my desire to do the hard work and my accomplishments. But I also share more of my personal story, recognizing that while I walk around with privilege, I have seen firsthand what it is to live in this country without it. The latter part opens the door to more conversations and chances to connect me to people and their personal stories – and ultimately created the campaign that reflected all of me.
Nicola F. Serianni, Esquire is an attorney at Levin Sedran & Berman, representing consumer plaintiffs in class action matters and union railroad workers who have been injured on the job. Nicola ran for judge in Philadelphia in 2019, she did not win the race, but she won a lot more.
Sign-up here for updates from The BGG so you don’t miss the latest posts! You can keep up to date with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram too. Don't forget to listen to our podcasts here. You can donate to support The BGG's production and distribution here.