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Pushing for More Representation in Local Government
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NAZARETH, Pa. (WLVT) - If you ask Laureen Pellegrino about sidewalks, she'll tell you it's one reason why she brought her family to Nazareth Borough.

"I wanted a place where my kids can walk to where I don’t have to worry," she said. "Just a quick text [that] you got home, and I don't have to worry about them being out and about if I'm not around."

After her husband died, Pellegrino and her kids Jocelyn, 17, and Oliver, 9, moved to the borough three years ago from the Poconos. Pellegrino, a career mechanical engineer, didn’t take long to get plugged into the community, joining the borough’s planning commission, as well as the board of directors at the Nazareth Center for the Arts.

Earlier this summer, she wrapped up her term as the first black president of the Junior League of the Lehigh Valley.

She recently added the title of "councilwoman," after she was appointed by borough council last month.

"Everybody is thinking with the same heart. Everybody is thinking, 'How do we make Nazareth stay the Nazareth that we know? How do we make people feel at home?'" she said.

Pellegrino is the borough’s first Black councilmember. She said her appointment to the council is less about making history and more about accurate representation.

"The government needs to reflect what the population is -- whether it's the 1 percent, the 5 percent, what have you -- you need to reflect that," she said, "and governments have kind of gotten away from that."

After David Mattei retired and resigned from council in July, his seat opened up for someone to finish serving his term. Pellegrino, who previously canvassed for Mattei, said she did her research and saw an opportunity to do more for her community.

"You can complain until the cows come home, but if you're not willing to put yourself out there and actually help make the change, then you can't really say anything," she said. "You can sit on the sidelines, but that's not going to do anything."

She beat out two others who applied for the position and was sworn in on August 27.

"It shouldn't even be optics. It should just be, 'I got the position because I was the best qualified for the position,'" she said. "It just so happens that I happen to be a woman and happen to be black."

Pellegrino joins a council with a mix of long-time members and newer ones. The borough now has three women on the council and its first person of color.

"Every organization is trying to become more diverse -- from industry, from politics, from nonprofits, because they understand that it brings something to the table," she said. "It makes the organization a much stronger organization, because you no longer have blind spots."

Pellegrino credits her children as the driving force behind her desire to serve. Now that she’s on the council, she said she's bringing the concerns of a parent, specifically as a single mother.

"I'm all about safety, keeping things safe," she said. "How do we keep things safe -- whether it's our elderly population, whether it's our youth or whether it's just me? All ages should be able to feel safe to walk to a store, to go anywhere you want to go where you live."

Nazareth is home to passionate residents -- both conservative and liberal. Earlier this month, supporters of President Trump lined sidewalks in the borough. In June, people marched to support "Black Lives Matter." Pellegrino said while she empathizes with the movement as an African-American, she chose not to participate in person.

"I will lend my support, but I don't think it's necessary for me to be marching, especially as a single parent," she said. "I tell people all the time I'm not from here. If something should happen by chance -- my kids, I'm their sole provider and everything else. I don't take chances like that."

She said her presence on the borough council adds a perspective that may help move conversations about social justice forward, understanding that some residents may have entirely different views.

"You're getting on a council. You're representing constituents, and not everybody is going to have the same point of opinion and not everybody is going to agree," Pellegrino said. "How do you have those discussions that don't turn into battlegrounds but that just are discussions?”

She said what’s most important is respecting everyone’s opinion, but not being afraid to speak up either.

"I may not agree with your point of view, but at least, now I understand where you're coming from," she said, "versus just 'I'm here, and you're there.'"

Pellegrino will serve until December 31, 2021. She said she wants to address the high rental rates and vacant storefronts in the borough, as well as the needs of the fire department, as the council chair of the fire committee.

The next borough council meeting is Monday, October 5 at 6 p.m. at Borough Hall. Pellegrino said she encourages residents to attend.