Laureen Pellegrino is Nazareth’s first African American councilwoman, and was the first African American President of the Junior League of the Lehigh Valley. (Courtesy of Laureen Pellegrino)

‘It’s OK to not be the same’: Laureen Pellegrino, Nazareth’s first African American councilwoman, advocates for representation

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While applying for Nazareth’s Council Planning Commission, Laureen Pellegrino thinks about her early Saturday morning walks to the local farmer’s market. Each week, she walks the six blocks with her children, passing by her neighbors along the sidewalk as the cars on the street move by her.

Arts and crafts displays line the sidewalks, where Pellegrino stops by to muse over what the town festivals have to offer. Strolling down the pavement, she feels as if she could wander for hours and never feel far from home, for the sidewalks keeps her rooted. 

Pellegrino feels grounded within the surrounding community. As Nazareth’s first African American councilwoman, she plans to keep the sidewalks intact for current and future generations to enjoy, with safety and accessibility remaining of the utmost importance.

Pellegrino has dedicated herself and her voice toward the betterment of the communities around her. Through volunteerism, Pellegrino has made strides for people of color and society as a whole. Her voice has been paramount in stressing the importance of understanding and accepting diversity. 

“It’s OK to not be the same,” Pellegrino said, emphasizing that America is a melting pot where your neighbor is still your neighbor no matter the color of their skin.

“The world is a very diverse place, and having all these different individuals living in the same area, you need to have the different experiences on the council to talk about it,” Pellegrino said.

In order to facilitate change, whether that be through local government or by volunteering, one must be a part of the change. There’s a risk that is taken when speaking up, and Pellegrino preaches that one must be active, project their voice, and educate without alienating one another.

“Just because you have me here, if you aren’t willing to listen to what I have to say, I’m just a body sitting in a seat,” Pellegrino said.

That risk to express one’s voice, to Pellegrino, is worth taking.

Because she is a minority herself, Pellegrino uses her platforms to influence community issues regarding women, children and people of color.

“I had the luxury of addressing things as a minority because I am one,” Pellegrino said. “A Caucasian person cannot speak from that same perspective. I had to express in my own words the importance of those movements.”

Before Nazareth, Pellegrino had been the first African American president of the Junior League of the Lehigh Valley, and she hopes to not have been the last.

Becoming president of the League was something Pellegrino believed needed to be done. She had a vision for her community and yearned to make a measurable impact through the strength and unity of philanthropic work. 

Alli Longenhagen, the current president of the Junior League of the Lehigh Valley who served alongside Pellegrino, believes Pellegrino’s League presidency prepared her to be a councilwoman.

“She was a driving force behind what we needed to do to continue to meet and exceed our goals,” Longenhagen said, attesting to Pellegrino’s character. “It was my privilege to serve under her and her legacy will be a part of Junior League history.”

The League presents an opportunity for people that don’t have a voice, and Pellegrino uses hers to stand up against and disrupt the preconceived notions that women, children, and people of color face to combat the underrepresentation they receive within their communities.

“Laureen rises over and over again; she will not be kept down,” Longenhagen said.

In fact, Pellegrino is fueled by the notions she faces as a Black woman and leads with the inspiration she draws from her own children. She pledges what she does to be for them and for other generations that follow.

Yet, Pellegrino’s voice has reached those of current and older generations as well. Hasanna Birdsong, a previous sustainer and current member of the New Member Development Committee for the League, attributes Pellegrino’s ambitions to be an inspiration for not only herself, but for the current Black community as a whole.

“When I first joined, there weren’t very many African American women in the League,” Birdsong said. “It was nice to see somebody representing the League and the community as an African American woman.”

Not only is Pellegrino an advocate for minorities, but she is a devoted spokesperson for the community as a whole. 

“I look at diversity as a way of taking the blinders off,” Pellegrino said. “You need different points of view through different experiences. I may not agree, but I can understand your perspective because at the end of the day, we all put our pants on one leg at a time; we all want the same things.”

Through her spirit, perseverance, and acts of service, Pellegrino serves as a focal figure for those who wish to make a change in their community in the face of adversity. Her words carry weight, and her voice provides for those who go unheard, or like the sidewalks, that can’t speak.

“I strive to have as much energy toward everything as she does,” said Kathleen Gallagher, the vice president of community for the Junior League who served on the board with Pellegrino for two years as a secretary. “She goes after whatever she is interested in with passion and hard work. She has done so much, I don’t even know if she sleeps!”

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