In a year that’s been an anomaly in more ways than one with a pandemic sweeping the globe, masks becoming a household commodity and a tumultuous election setting the nation on edge, Gwinnett has been busy penning its own firsts into the books. The first Black person. The first woman. The democratic contender who singlehandedly, with her charisma, intelligence and million-dollar smile, turned Gwinnett blue, snagging the title of commission chairwoman and breaking the county into an uproar of celebrations: Nicole Love Hendrickson.
In a race that’s been like no other, not only did Hendrickson earn her title, but she’s also the youngest ever to hold it.
For her, the moment of opportunity struck when Chairwoman of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, Charlotte J. Nash, declined re-election. “I was approached by several community and civic leaders who thought I should throw my name in that hat,” she says. “It certainly wasn’t a decision I made lightly. After talking to my family, doing the research and thinking about my career and where I wanted to be five, ten, fifteen years from now, I realized that this opportunity was just the next step on my career path.”
The bid for commission chairwoman meant competing in a five-way race, where Hendrickson claimed a staggering lead by winning 49% of votes and forcing her into a runoff with Lee Thompson, her Democratic opponent.
And when, less than 48 hours after his own runoff, Thompson called to tell her he was suspending his campaign to place his support behind her, Hendrickson was bowled over by his decision. “I am and will remain deeply humbled by his gesture to side with the voters and coalesce behind my campaign,” she says. “It really spoke volumes and Lee lived up to his mission and his campaign promise which was to promote unity, diversity and inclusion. What he did was the perfect example of that. This rarely happens in elections so I felt even more empowered.”
On the surface it may seem Hendrickson has it all: luck, a beautiful family, a good head on her shoulders, and an abundance of support in her position as the Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman.
But what isn’t immediately apparent from her confident stride, her friendly gaze or her warm handshake are the layers of heartache, adversity and resolve beneath it all, fortifying and molding her into the woman she is today. For Hendrickson, holding that dazzling smile in place and exuding a positive attitude is a choice—not a byproduct of
an enchanting childhood or privileged life.
In fact, for the first Black person and woman to run for and win commission chair, nothing in life has come easy.
A trail of sunshine and thorns
Everyone has that something special that reminds them of their younger, more carefree years. For Hendrickson it’s beaches, seafood and hot dogs, thoughts that carry her back in time to Providence, Rhode Island—her childhood hometown. But her fondest memories aren’t rooted in any particular home, because there were many. Before she was a teen, Hendrickson had mastered the art of adaptability, learning to quickly adjust each time her family was forced to pack up, moving from one neighborhood to the next.
Regardless of where circumstances took them, Hendrickson found happiness and security in some of her favorite pastimes: playing hide-and-seek, jumping rope, tumbling in the snow during the bitter months of winter and frolicking through fire hydrants during the sweltering summer heat.
“Because I had my sister and brothers,” she says, “we always had playmates. We always had each other.”
A twin sister herself plus an elder sibling to twin brothers (two sets of twins!), Hendrickson hails from a unique family dynamic. But the childhood challenges she and
her siblings experienced, unfortunately, are not so unique to the Black community.
When Hendrickson’s mother was 18, she married Hendrickson’s father, who was in the military and spent much of his time overseas. Shortly after the second set of twins made their appearance, her parents split, leaving her mom to raise four children on her own.
In their case, Hendrickson and her siblings were fortunate enough to have the proverbial village to care for them, materializing in the form of aunts and a maternal grandmother, who played an integral role in supporting and shaping them into strong individuals grounded in faith.
“My grandmother taught me a lot of life lessons that I still hold dear to me today,” says Hendrickson. “She would always say, ‘you have to have faith and believe that God has a plan for you. You will go far in life.’ She also never let me forget the value of family: we may not get to choose our family, but we should always stick together no matter what.”
Discovering a solid support system in her extended family, Hendrickson blossomed into an outgoing, compassionate young girl with acute interpersonal skills. Among friends, she stood out as a beacon anytime someone needed a listening ear, a competent problem-solver, or a voice of reason. But Hendrickson never reserved her assistance for only those who sought it.
“In many circles,” she says, “I always advocated for the voiceless and came to the defense and aid of people who would not fight for themselves.”
The innate instinct to tear down walls between people and join everyone together in harmony seems to have manifested in Hendrickson at this ripe age. Over time, this inclination would burgeon within her.
Although interpersonally and emotionally Hendrickson was thriving as a young girl, no amount of love or support could shield her or her siblings from the hardships, limitations and financial stress her family—similar to many in the Black community—would endure.
Hendrickson grew up poverty-stricken. Her family never owned a home, often seeking refuge in apartments or with other family members. At one point, they lived in a shelter.
Alongside displacement, Hendrickson and her siblings had also endured the effects of belonging to a single-parent household as well as suffering food insecurity, substance abuse, neglect, and abandonment.
Social workers, counselors and case managers were a normal part of the domestic backdrop, almost a second extended family to them. “If it weren’t for them,” says Hendrickson, “I don’t believe I would have seen a way out.”
With her mother making just enough to make ends meet, sometimes less, Hendrickson took up her first job at fourteen, when most peers were focused on getting through high school. By then, she’d already learned that anything she wanted from life, she’d have to earn for herself.
However steep the challenges, Hendrickson knew they weren’t exclusive to just her family.
“By far and large, many Black households where the mother is the head of the household face the same vulnerabilities I did growing up,” says Hendrickson.
She believes many of the problems rampant in the community are largely attributed to systemic issues that perpetuate a cycle of poverty.
In her case, particularly, less than adequate education in a low-income community, lack of access to affordable housing, and difficulty attaining a high-paying career were problems that bared talons at each of them at some point, repeatedly placing the family at the mercy of public assistance.
“I had to end that cycle by going to college,” says Hendrickson—a statement that’s a perfect exemplification of the fiery determination she’s always held. But even that opportunity was one that would have been cast to the wayside had she taken the advice of her guidance counselor, who insisted she wasn’t fit for further studies. Despite good grades, she couldn’t make the SAT scores, nor could she afford tuition.
“He told me that I should consider going to a two-year college or beauty school,” says Hendrickson, evidencing an example of systemic racism in which Black children are discouraged from further studies.
However, her persistence and iron-clad will wouldn’t let her accept these as options—which ultimately did help her break the cycle.
Signs of division
Against the advice of her guidance counselor, Hendrickson enrolled in the University of Rhode Island, becoming the first in her family to attempt a higher education. There, a project for political science class claimed accountability for her first blatant brush with prejudice.
“I was the only Black student in my group—the others were white women,” says Hendrickson. “We all had our project assignments but unbeknownst to me, the group was meeting without me to work on the project. They ended up submitting the project without my input but just put my name on it. I later found out that because the meetings were held off campus at one of the team members’ home, she did not feel comfortable having me at her place – she’d never had black people in her home before. And rather than hurt my feelings, they just completely shut me out of the project. What was even worse was that none of the other group members stood up for me or suggested an alternative.”
It was the first time Hendrickson had been completely disempowered by a group of trusted peers, and she promised herself it would be the last.
However, she holds no remorse, bitterness or resentment toward anyone. “I know what it is like to feel invisible and disempowered in circles of influence where people look past you,” says Hendrickson. “I have also faced ageism and been undervalued because of the perception of inexperience. I don’t ever take those things personal. It’s human nature for people to put walls up. But when you show you care by showing up, making authentic connections and listening, you start to build deeper relationships. That then, leads to trust. Trust leads to understanding and so on and so forth. Harmony should be the end goal.”
Hendrickson admits that her experiences played a critical role in shaping who she is and fueled her desire to help others, bringing greater lucidity to her future ambitions.
A voice for the voiceless
After graduating with a Bachelor’s in Psychology, Hendrickson was hired as a guidance counselor at an elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland, working with at-risk youth.
“I quickly learned that no amount of education and training could prepare me for what I embarked on in my career in a school system that was plagued with underfunding, a lack of resources to adequately support children living in poverty, and a culture of apathy on the part of teachers, parents and the surrounding community. It was like
everyone lacked hope—including the children.”
Hendrickson’s counseling job quickly transformed into that of a social worker’s as she helped families with issues that extended beyond just school, such as accessing jobs, obtaining meals, and finding mentors for students who experienced severe emotional trauma. What brought heaviness to her heart was that these issues were all too familiar to an age group most vulnerable and innocent: elementary school kids.
Instead of becoming crestfallen by the pain and vulnerability she saw, Hendrickson’s resolve strengthened. She wanted more than ever to make a difference and create a lasting impact. “The three years I spent there provided me with so much drive to want to change the systems that created these conditions in the first place,” says Hendrickson.
Love in the air and destiny at play
In late 2003, Hendrickson took a breather from work and traveled to Atlanta to visit friends for a New Year’s Eve party. That’s where she crossed paths with Keverne—an intriguing gentleman who immediately captivated her—for what she mistakenly thought was the very first time. Although she left for Baltimore shortly after, a part of her remained in Atlanta while the pair stayed in touch.
In the meantime, Hendrickson continued to contemplate career moves that would propel her toward creating a more profound impact on communities, her determination burning brighter than ever. In 2005, when it was clear her relationship with Keverne was growing serious, Hendrickson took the plunge and moved to Georgia, never relinquishing her desire to bridge gaps, repair fissures and help communities heal.
Immediately, she enrolled in the University of Georgia (UGA), earning a Master’s in Social Work, gaining skills that would, unbeknownst to her, prime her for the position of Commission Chairwoman.
In 2011, Keverne and Hendrickson got married. By some stroke of luck, when Keverne was tidying up a drawer years later, he stumbled upon something that stunned him: there from 2000, before they’d ever even known of each other, was a picture of him and Hendrickson standing shoulder to shoulder at a parade in Buckhead.
“We still have the picture as a good memory of our paths crossing and as a reminder that we were destined to be together,” says Hendrickson. “It’s our love story.”
Today, Hendrickson and her husband are proud parents to a precious boy, Kaden. But neither motherhood nor marriage have dimmed her spark for making a difference.
Finding the way to the future
In the second year of her graduate studies at UGA, before she’d tied the knot, Hendrickson had secured an internship at the Gwinnett Coalition for Health & Human Services, conducting research on the homelessness issue in Gwinnett County, leading community-wide programs promoting volunteerism, and lending direct support to a number of community initiatives to uplift Gwinnett.
“I instantly fell in love with Gwinnett County, the collaborative spirit, and opportunities to directly impact change. I was doing a job that I absolutely loved,” she says. And it was apparent that her love was visible—shortly after the completion of her internship, Hendrickson was hired, gradually scaling the ranks to Associate Director.
After serving for seven years at the Gwinnett Coalition for Health & Human Services, she was chosen to grow and lead an initiative at the government level to increase access and opportunities for underrepresented communities, so they could have greater influence in local government affairs.
As the founding director, Hendrickson created the first-ever comprehensive outreach program for Gwinnett County, empowering citizens to engage directly with government leaders and gain access to decision-making arenas.
Her accomplishments have been endless, including her founding of the Gwinnett 101 Citizens Academy, the Gwinnett Youth Commission, and the Dinner & Dialogue initiative. But Hendrickson’s earnest intent to join citizens and leaders hand-in-hand is what gained her the nickname of “bridge builder”—a title she doesn’t take lightly.
Looking past firsts
Bold, intelligent, kind, and accomplished are just some of the words that aptly describe Hendrickson. However, many can’t help but pin her as the woman of firsts: the first Black person, and woman, to win commission chair; and now in November, she is the first woman of color ever to hold this seat.
“I feel a great deal of pride to have made it this far and it is an honor to be the first African American and youngest person to hold this position,” says Hendrickson. “Of course, I bring so much more to the table with my experience, education and background, but this is a reminder of how much work we still need to do to recognize that marginalized communities deserve to have a seat at the table. I long for the days when we are not celebrating firsts, but looking at these milestones as part of the norm and not the exception. I hope to be a role model and encourage other young black women to dare to dream beyond their circumstances.
Hopes for a greater Gwinnett
Ever the optimist, Hendrickson believes in the promise of Gwinnett and the innumerable ways it proves exceptional: top-notch education, a strong economy, and safe neighborhoods and communities—all of which coalesce to offer a superb quality of life
But she knows it isn’t smooth sailing for everyone. “There are communities that feel deprived, unsafe, and unwelcome,” says Hendrickson. “Many don’t feel that their needs are being served. I would like to take a deep dive into these issues. However, I don’t believe that we need to start from scratch. It’s about building upon our successes while making some incremental changes to areas that need to be improved or modernized.”
Advocating for harmony amid civil unrest
With the civil unrest spreading nationwide and a pandemic underway, Hendrickson has undoubtedly made an entrance during turbulent times. However, with her knack for building bridges, Hendrickson has a few ideas up her sleeve to promote peace and harmony for our citizens and communities.
“You can preempt a great deal of unrest when you boldly address the needs of communities who feel disenfranchised,” says Hendrickson. Her belief is that civil unrest roots from a combination of causes, born from political grievances, economic disparities, social discord, but also historically the result of long-standing oppression by a group of people toward another.
“And because it has happened over time, we will have to commit to a long-term solution to addressing the instances that have created the unrest to begin with,” she says.
Some of the most effective ways to address the furor, Hendrickson believes, are by opening the lines of communication, making wise investments that address systemic inequalities and involving the community in the planning and process. Lastly, she says, elected leaders need to remove the “us vs. them” mentality, demonstrating to the community that leaders are also neighbors and equally impacted by decisions made.
Bridging the gap as Commission Chairwoman
Hendrickson has clear plans on the type of leader she strives to be. “I want to be the leader who represents everyone in our community,” she says. “Diversity is our greatest strength but I am committed to making sure everyone feels welcome in this community, to include our native-born Gwinnettians.”
With a slew of close friends, confidantes, family and—her greatest source of strength, her husband—behind her, Hendrickson has ample support, for which she feels fortunate and blessed. And as someone who has a strong platform, she wishes to pay those blessings forward, extending her support and service to be a voice for everyone, irrespective of color, creed, race, gender or any other term the perpetuates divisions and erects walls between people and communities.
“I envision a future where individuals, families, communities and businesses are thriving,” she says. “That we can make the American Dream attainable for everyone. I want to have contributed to the significant restoration of our community and our values, our resiliency as a community and a nation and our strides towards racial reconciliation. I know that by involving the community in the vision for the future, we can work together to create a community we all feel proud to call our home.”