During her meteoric career in government service, Rutgers alumna Medinah Muhammad often finds herself the youngest person in the room. Or the only woman. Or the only person of color.
And sometimes all three at once.
But the East Orange native, who recently was named director of intergovernmental affairs for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA), says she’s not intimidated by the distinction. Quite the opposite.
“It makes being at the table even more important, because I have to speak up for the people who are not in the room and make seats at the table for them to speak as well,” says Muhammad.
After graduating from Montclair State University in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, government and African-American studies, Muhammad went on to receive her master’s degree in political science and government from Rutgers Graduate School-Newark in 2018.
Soon she was shaking things up as the youngest chief of staff to a New Jersey Assembly member, and then as a senior legislative aide to Gov. Phil Murphy. Stints as chair of the East Orange Parking Authority and the Essex County Redistricting Commission followed, as well as a term as treasurer of the New Jersey State Democratic Committee.
Muhammad, who is still two years shy of 30, credits an ethos instilled by her parents, paired with a serendipitous call to an Essex County lawmaker, with launching her career in government service.
“My parents, both social workers, made sure I knew that our rent for living on this planet was service, that giving back is an essential part of your time here on earth,” says the graduate of Christ the King Preparatory School, a Jesuit high school in Newark.
Muhammad started college believing she was going to be a lawyer, but an undergraduate class assignment to find out who her local politicians were set her on a different path. She reached out to Brittnee Timberlake, then president of the Essex County Board of Freeholders (now known as the County Commission), who went on to become her mentor and employer.
“I wrote to her asking, ‘What does a freeholder even DO?,’ and much to my surprise, she wrote back to me and said, 'come in and find out,'” Muhammad recalls.
Fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes in the political world, Muhammad began attending regular board meetings and volunteering for small jobs. Immediately after collecting her bachelor’s degree, she landed a job as a public information officer for the five-member county commission.
While she was still getting adjusted to that role, gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy chose Sheila Oliver, then an assemblywoman from Muhammad’s 34th District, for his running mate. When the two Democrats won office, Timberlake was appointed to take Oliver’s seat in the Assembly.
The newly minted legislator turned to Muhammad to fill the vital role of chief of staff.
“I was young, about 23,” the Rutgers alumna recalls, “and I had to build up an entire district office by myself, including hiring and training a team. I was learning about policymaking and networking as I went along.”
She also was mastering a skill that has stood her in good stead in the frenetic years to come: asking the right questions.
“I would never be afraid to ask a question. I knew that I would only grow by asking questions. And as I grew, I helped the assemblywoman grow.”
Meanwhile, higher-ups in Trenton were paying attention.
Soon Muhammad was lured away to become a senior legislative aide in the Governor’s Office of Legislative Affairs, where she spent the next 18 months helping hammer out high-visibility policies on police licensing, gun safety and affordable housing, among other issues.
All the while, she was working closely with the NJEDA, the government agency charged with fostering the state’s economic growth, by partnering with the business community to promote diversity and opportunities.
Since she was tapped in November to be the NJEDA’s director of government affairs, Muhammad has been crisscrossing New Jersey, interacting with municipal leaders, listening to testimony in the State House and establishing rapport with owners of small businesses.
She revels in the fact that no day is the same as the day before and welcomes the opportunity to give back to the state that nurtured her.
Her family’s commitment to public service runs deep. Muhammad’s father, Gary Taylor, works in an elementary school in Newark after graduating from Rutgers’ School of Social Work; her mother, Kenya Couch, works on behalf of seniors and the disabled as a coordinator for the Essex County Office for the Disabled.
Her grandmother, Anissa Baytops, began her career cleaning beds at Newark’s University Hospital, and ultimately became an administrative assistant at UMDNJ, Rutgers-Newark. “She taught us that no matter how far we go in life, it’s important to treat the janitor and the CEO with the same level of respect.”
Muhammad is committed to working within the system to bring about positive change.
“Politics governs every aspect of our lives,” Muhammad said, citing the adage that “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” She urges her fellow millennials to find a seat at the table: “Otherwise, our lives and futures will be decided for us by people who know little about us.”