“you find what you enjoy and what puts a light in your spirit and you go for it. You find what you love to do and when you are doing what you love to do, you can’t do anything but go higher. You can’t be anything but beneficial.”
And Hazelton is leading by example as the first African-American judge elected in Pitt County. The thirteenth of fifteen siblings born to parents who didn’t have the opportunities that she had, Hazelton said, “My parents never swayed me from following my dreams, but they weren’t in a position to tell me how to go about doing something. I always had to find a way. I always thought, ‘Hey if that’s what you want to do, you go about and do it..’”
That “way” started with attending North Carolina Central University in Durham for her undergraduate degree, then working in Washington, D.C. and Miami, Florida before returning to NCCU for law school.
It was not her plan to come to Pitt County to live. She was in Durham and got a job in Granville, but she met her husband. Pitt County was his home and it became hers too. She became an assistant public defender.
As a lawyer, she was able to help people, but only with their current problem. As a judge, she’d be able to give people another chance or opportunity: “People come through court system and are representing themselves. I can’t give legal advice, but can point them in the right direction. I can send people to different programs that may help them become job ready. Of course, I can only set them up for it if they feel it will be beneficial.”
The election process took Hazelton outside of her comfort zone. She describes herself as “low key.” She likes to shop, travel, and cook. She can make “a mean lasagna, good spare ribs, collard greens, mac and cheese. You name it.” If it’s the winter, you can expect to find her in the house. During the campaign though, she “had to step out and engage people. Had to talk to people. Be at different functions and let people get to know [her].”
Despite the work, the times she had to miss her 13-year-old stepson’s school events (which “hurt her heart”), the times she had to “go out there and request money,” the times she had to answer questions about her background, her career, and her goals as a judge, she kept the right mindset.
And that mindset was to focus on her goals for Pitt County: “If you can reduce your repeat offenders, you have people who are law abiding citizens with paying jobs. Crime goes down, people take care of themselves and family. This gives them a sense of ownership, in general, and they give back to the community. If people can take care of themselves without doing something outside of the system, it’s a benefit for the community in general.”
Time on the campaign trail showed Hazelton that many people were disengaged with the political process and “didn’t know much about” the people they were electing.
Hazelton is aware that there is a “special responsibility” that comes with being the first African-American judge. “Since I’m the first, all eyes will be on me. It puts a type of pressure on you, because everyone is watching you to see what you are going to do.”
She’s up for the challenge: “I’m here for a reason. I believe that. I’m not here to mess up.”
Hazelton is also hopeful that more women of color will “step out in these positions and take leadership roles. If women of color are in these positions, minorities don’t know about them so they think it’s out of their league.”
She wants to remind people, especially the younger generation that they “shouldn’t limit themselves.” “You put the limitation on yourself. There is nothing that you can’t do.”
The same is true for her. Hazelton says she’s “really enjoying what [she’s] doing and [is] hoping [she] can make an impact in Pitt County.” She’s going to “do the best [she] can and keep moving.” She has no set plans for anything else right now, but she is sure there is “no limitation on what [she] can do.”
Jennifer Brick is a freelance writer and former teacher in Durham, North Carolina. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. Follow her on Twitter @jenbrickwrites.