SOMERVILLE – A Generation X leader with a military background, Somerset County Commission Director Shanel Robinson says we have spent too much time engaging in foreign wars at the expense of our own people, even as she advocates for national service to improve the esprit de corps and sense of service among young Americans.
The daughter of a Vietnam War veteran and granddaughter of a WWII and Korean war veteran, Robinson served two tours as an Air Force mechanic, working for the most part on the A-10 Warthog. She has lived through the United States going into Iraq (twice) and now watches as the world teeters on the brink amid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.
“We have missed opportunities to build from within,” the Somerset County Commision Director told InsiderNJ.
First elected commissioner in 2018 and reelected in 2021, Robinson experienced the ground zero impact of Hurricane Ida, which, on the heels of COVID-19, devastated Somerset County and again revealed system unreadiness and inadequacy.
Most glaringly, the storm demonstrated a dearth of housing for working people. Turned out of their houses by flooding, many residents found nowhere to go.
“People can’t afford the housing that exists; even with vouchers they received, people can’t really find a place to land and a place to live, to call home,” Robinson said.
It has become the commission director’s most pressing issue.
She applauds President Joe Biden – with whom she worked on Ida recovery – for his work on many initiatives, among them student loan forgiveness, and AARP and Gateway funding. But she wants to see more federal work on housing opportunities, a crisis, especially in the context of rising mental illness in the COVID era.
“After Ida, we weren’t able to pivot to meet the [housing] needs of people,” said Robinson, who insists that government undertake a better accounting of existing problems and delivery of programs.
“Our young people are looking at us,” she said. “We take care of everyone – except for us. We are in the midst of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and [US] money sent overseas. The reality is we have some of the same issues here, and money is not being put into the needs of the home front.”
Robinson said her generation occupies a unique position at this moment.
“We are in that middle way stage, where we have to draw from the wisdom of those older than us, while being nimble enough to welcome the energy and movement of the next generations coming up behind us,” she said. “We have to teach those younger than us that we don’t own this power. We have to raise them up to take over, and to marry the wisdom and energy.”
While recognizing the lack of opportunities in certain key areas and the need of people at the zenith of power to do better, she wants to make sure the youth of America recognize our connectedness.
“We don’t see people going really hard for the country and putting others ahead of ourselves,” said the mother and grandmother, whose eight years in the Air Force helped give her a sense of purpose and service. “I don’t think the generation two removed from us is ready mentally. They don’t have the capacity to deal with crisis, as technology has robbed them of critical thinking skills. They don’t do face-to-face. They don’t do heart-to-heart. They haven’t been raised to give of themselves. If we don’t teach them properly, they will be merely the selfish generation. We must bring them along. I do think a national service project is in order to help our youth feel the foundations of the country.”
Robinson said she is proud of Somerset County’s three-point preservation proud, and eager to highlight the county’s unique role in the formation of the country as America prepares to celebrate its 250th birthday celebration.
As African American History Month comes to a close, she sees a time to reflect.
“I’m very grateful for the sacrifices of African Americans who came before me,” said the Somerset County Commission Director. “We’re still struggling. If you look at society as a whole, societal norms haven’t changed and it’s heartbreaking and frustrating. We must see and commend the contributions Black Americans made and are making – and we are human beings first – and Americans.”