Sophia A. Nelson. Photo by Andrew Sample.
“Move your community and country in a positive direction.”
Sophia A. Nelson, Esq. remembers the day she stepped onto the 40,000-person campus of San Diego State University and saw a melting pot of cultures. She was a small-town girl from South Jersey (Camden County off exit 3) whose high school classmates were the same as her kindergarten class. “I only knew Black and white people growing up,” Sophia says. “I had never met anybody who was Latino. I had never met anybody Asian. And that was pretty much my view of the world.”
Sophia’s mother, a nurse with an associate degree, was adamant about her eldest child and only daughter going to college. She wanted her to make the most of her time here on Earth. Neither of her parents attended a four-year college, but both had two-year Associate’s degrees. Sophia was a military baby, born in Munich, Germany in 1967. Her father was stationed at Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous Berlin Wall crosspoint during the Cold War, and then re-settled in South Jersey in 1968. Sophia’s childhood household was turbulent. Her father was a heavy drinker and at times verbally, emotionally, and sometimes violently abusive towards his family. Sophia’s mother wanted better for her. Her mother gave Sophia two options: be a doctor or be a lawyer. Sophia wanted to become a journalist, but that wasn’t something her mother felt was a true profession with stability. So, she chose the law instead.
Sophia with Oprah and former First Lady Michelle Obama at the Maya Angelou Forever Stamp unveiling in April 2015. Photo courtesy of Sophia A. Nelson
In many ways, Sophia is her mother’s dreams manifested. “I think she was really clear that there was something better beyond the life we had growing up,” Sophia says. “I think she was very clear that she wanted better for us and she never wanted me as her daughter to be stuck in a situation where I had to endure what she did as a wife and a mother. She wanted me to be in a position where I could make my own choices. I guess she succeeded in that.”
Sophia’s high school Latin teacher, Ms. Joan E. Daniels, a white woman, was a Freedom Rider in the 1960’s. She was an important person in Sophia’s life. After Sophia’s guidance counselor discouraged her from pursuing law because there weren’t many Black female lawyers in the 1980s, Ms. Daniels told Sophia, “You know she’s a jerk. Don’t listen to her. You got the goods and you can go as far as you want to go.” Ms. Daniels made it clear to Sophia that breaking out of her social class would be tough and the system was designed for that to be so. “She was very inspirational in sending a lot of us working-class kids to college who might have not otherwise gone,” Sophia says.
As a Black woman now in her 50s, seeing Black women in the positions of Vice President and Supreme Court Justice is a dream come true. “These are my age cohorts,” she says. As a little girl, Sophia said she wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice and while this is not something that happened, she feels good about what she has accomplished. “The day I felt most proud was the day I got sworn into the bar of the United States Supreme Court,” she says. “Being sworn into that bar in those hallowed halls was just like when my first book got published.”
Sophia’s memoir Be the One You Need: 21 Life Lessons Learned While Taking Care of Everyone But Me (Simon & Shuster/HCI Books) releases on June 28, 2022.
As a young woman in her twenties, Sophia would sit in Barnes and Noble and the now-defunct B. Dalton and dream about the day she would see her name on the front cover of a book. Her first book, Black Women Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama, went on to win a 2011 Best Non-Fiction Book Award and was Pulitzer nominated in Letters. “Getting my books published by major publishers and being paid to do what I love—that’s something most people only dream about,” she says. “Very few people get to have the success of walking into a bookstore and seeing their book on the bestseller list or being interviewed by major outlets and having their book literally change people’s lives.”
But when is one’s success enough? This is something Sophia thinks about when looking at our current culture. “I think that you begin to feel like you have made it when you can take the trips you want, buy the home you want, buy the cars you want and not have to worry about money or, that you have to keep climbing and striving,” she says. “I think that in our current culture having enough is very difficult because the usual trappings of success are rarely enough, and that is a problem. Because there needs to be a point when one has enough things and when you realize you’ve turned out to be a good human being. That should be the truest measure of our success.”
This month, Sophia is releasing her fourth nonfiction book, a summer memoir Be the One You Need: 21 Life Lessons Learned While Taking Care of Everyone But Me (Simon & Shuster/HCI Books). After reading Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry’s 2021 bestseller, What Happened to You?, which talks about how to deal with our past traumas in a more compassionate way, Sophia seized on the key themes in the book, which is to shift from asking “what is wrong with me” to instead asking “what happened to me?” A shift that changed Sophia’s perspective on how to address her own life traumas.
Sophia poses with Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority (AKA) undergraduates in Hampton, Virginia. Sophia is proud to call herself an AKA. Mentoring is a huge part of Sophia’s service to her community. Photo courtesy of Sophia A. Nelson.
Sophia began to ask herself this question during the pandemic when she contracted COVID twice. “The first time I got COVID was February 2020 and I almost died from it,” she says. “When you face your mortality, it makes you ask some hard questions.” Sophia had a parent who was home sick with a disability at the time. She was the sole caregiver for her mom for two years. In her memoir, Sophia tells the reader to ask themselves three questions she asked herself: What do I want? What do I need? And how do I feel? “Self-care is something that I really had to get a hold of because I was taking care of everybody else my whole life but me and that is something as Black women, we are particularly conditioned to do,” Sophia says. “That dates back to slavery and how much we had to endure and just push it down and keep going no matter the trauma or abuse we endured.” Sophia cites the fact that nearly 3 million women dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic. “It was huge because women had to make a choice between do I stay home with my kids or work or do I try to do both? Something’s got to give. I am only human. I can only do so much,” she says.
As a Generation X Black woman, Sophia admires younger millennials and Generation Z’s openness towards mental health and self-care. “We can look at them and say they are spoiled and coddled because they are always talking about mental health or what they want. Or, we can see that we didn’t express our feelings or deal with our issues. Which was also unhealthy,” she says. “We had a lot of things that we should have talked about and worked through and we did not.” Her generation, like the Baby Boomers before them, often let these issues fester into conflicts in marriages and in relationships, inadvertently hurting their children and loved ones along the way. “We have to find ways to talk about these issues by taking care of ourselves first and not having that be a bad thing or a negative thing. Because if I don’t put my mask on first, then I can’t save you.” Sophia continues, “I can’t be a good sibling, a good daughter or a good mother because if I die or if I’m not ok or have a breakdown then what happens to everyone else? That is a discussion we need to have.”
Sophia is an opinion columnist who writes for major outlets such as The Washington Post, USA Today, NBC and is a contributing editor at theGrio. When it comes to being a columnist and on-air pundit for CNN and MSNBC who speaks on the political issues of our time, she consistently asks herself how she contributes to the public square. “I think that one of the challenges of our times is that opinion has become fact and has been deemed journalism,” Sophia says. “And it is not. Journalism is when I am doing a story and I am looking at facts, timelines, and the players involved. I try to write objectively (as any of us can be) as human beings. We all have biases, but as a journalist, you have a code of ethics.” As an opinion columnist, she must fight for her voice and firmly stand by what she has written. “I have to battle daily with my editors because sometimes my editor is very liberal and won’t allow me to talk about certain issues,” Sophia says. “And sometimes my editors are very conservative and don’t want me to talk about other issues.” Sophia pushes the envelope and doesn’t hold back punches for anyone. “I don’t just pick on one side or the other,” Sophia says. “If it is wrong and I think it is wrong then I am going to say it. If I think it is right then I am going to say it.” With each piece she writes, Sophia aims to inform and side with the opinions of the people. “I do my best to watch public opinion to see where the country is so that I can be someone who sheds light on unifying people and not dividing them.”
Sophia with her mother and youngest niece, who is on active duty in the United States Army. Photo courtesy of Sophia A. Nelson
To contribute to the political discourse effectively, Sophia created the One America Podcast based on the founding motto of America, E Pluribus Unum or “Out of Many, One”. Sophia designed the One America Podcast as a platform where different viewpoints about American life—culture, sports, politics, and entertainment—can be shared freely. Sophia wants the actual discussion to be a staple of American life again. “I think the big failing of our country this time is that we do not want to have courageous conversations and we don’t want to talk through things,” she says. “We want to be offended at everything, to yell, we want to blame, we want to fight, and we want to be done and go to our respective corners. And that is breaking our country. If we don’t watch ourselves, we are going to lose it.”
Sophia is a woman who has built a global brand in the digital age. For Sophia, it isn’t just about using the tools of our time. Building a brand is about your sensibility as a human being. “What kind of human being are you and how do you treat people? Do you have good manners? Do you say thank you? Are you a person of grace or are you out here saying all types of things that divide and hurt people?,” she questions. She advises young people to be careful about the images they put out into the world. “Unfortunately, companies now look at your social media footprint. I don’t know how I feel about that. I don’t know if that is fair,” she says thoughtfully. As a proud member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Sophia mentors young women who have ambitious dreams. She advises them to value community over self in that other people matter just as you do. “If you want to be a professional and have some kind of professional success, you should be a light in the world, be inspirational,” Sophia says. “Spotlight that you are somebody making a difference. Be somebody that is doing something that is moving the world. Move your community and country in a positive direction. Be an inspiration. That is what is going to build your brand and get you noticed and get you to where you want to go and be in life.”
For someone like Sophia who is paid to talk and share her opinions on the topic of the day, it is important that she has time to turn off the switch. “The people who truly know and love me and who are in my ecosystem, know that I am actually not at all like the public persona,” she says. “I cook up a storm. I love to garden. I am kind of quiet and don’t necessarily say a whole lot when I am with those I love and trust. I like to chill out.” To get away from it all, Sophia heads down to her house in Charleston on the beach. She plans to settle down south later in life where her paternal family roots began in the 1700s.
To ease her mind from the rush of the news cycle, Sophia plays her acoustic guitar and drinks wine with her friends and family. But socializing with friends and wine isn’t just a relaxing pastime for Sophia, it’s also a serious pursuit for Sophia. She is a serious wine connoisseur, maker, and seller. She partnered with Breaux Vineyards to create Wine for the Woman’s Soul.
For Sophia, no amount of success can compare to being an aunt to two now grown women. “They are like my children. I just adore them beyond words,” Sophia says. “The greatest of all my accomplishments is being an aunt to those two once little girls and having the privilege to see them grow up, have spent time with them and have poured into their lives– to watch them turn into two beautiful, smart, successful young women.”
Photo by Andrew Sample
Writing is the thread that connects Sophia’s life. It relaxes her. She is proud to call herself a writer and will write two more nonfiction books before getting into fiction writing. Her first two books, Black Woman Redefined and The Woman Code, have been optioned for television, and E Pluribus ONE is being looked at as a spin-off series about the founding fathers. But one of her biggest revelations is that she plans to run for office in the Commonwealth of Virginia. “I am not going to say what yet or when, but I will do it before I am 60. That gives me about six years and if I don’t do it by then, then I won’t,” she says.
Sophia wants to run for office in the Commonwealth because she is worried about the state of our democracy. She is worried about the state of our discourse. She is also tired of how, at the statewide level, mostly white men are in charge. “Nothing against white men,” she says. “I like white men. They can lead, sure, but I would like to see some people of color and some different people generationally. I would like to see more younger folks get involved in the political process. And I would like to be a spark and a light for these changes. I think I would be good at it and I think I have been preparing for this my whole life since high school when I came to Washington as a congressional intern, then as a US Senate intern in college, and ultimately as the first black female Republican Committee Counsel staff in the House of Representatives in the late 1990s.”
Sophia reiterates her bid for public office, this time with a more declarative statement. “Within the next few years, I will make a decision that either I will do it or I won’t, but I’m leaning heavily in the direction of doing it.”