Updated: Aug 18
"There are really two ways to create change—either you make the laws, or you challenge them. And now I'm leaning more towards the challenging role."
Domonique Jones is a Legislative Director in the California State Assembly and law student at University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law. She double majored in political science and economics at UC Merced and was awarded an internship to work in the district office of Congressman Jim Costa through the Kenneth L. Maddy Legislative Intern Scholar Program. In her senior year, she was elected as the university’s first female student body president, paving the way for future female presidents. After graduating, she was awarded a Senate fellowship position in the office of California State Senator Robert M. Hertzberg. She then worked as a legislative aide in the office of California State Assemblymember Tony Thurmond—now California State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
We sat down with Domonique to find out about her experiences growing up, the importance of diversity, and what it's like to be a leader in the California State Legislature.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I am from the Bay Area—Hercules, California. It's a small city that most people have not heard of, which is interesting. I grew up with a single mother. My parents divorced when I was very young, around the age of two or three. And then from that point on, it was just me, my mother, and my sister. My mother works in the nonprofit space with at-risk youth and the homeless. My dad currently lives in Alabama, and he has worked for FedEx for a number of years.
What was it like growing up in Hercules, California?
It's not very exciting. There isn’t a whole lot there. It’s one of those cities that's right off the freeway. People don't stop to visit or anything. I will say the one thing that stood out as far as my upbringing there is it was diverse, which I do appreciate. I think that helped shape my worldview very early, because I feel like early on when you are exposed to a diversity of people, a diversity of opinion, a diversity of experiences, your own personal beliefs and thoughts tend to be challenge in ways that would not necessarily occur unless you were actively seeking those things out if you live in a very uniform community.
Can you describe any influential home values that your mom taught you?
Faith 100%. Learning to trust God even when the worldly circumstances don't necessarily look the most favorable. I am very firm, and I tell anyone that was probably one of the most important things that was instilled in me growing up. My faith has definitely carried me throughout every different stage and season of my life.
Did you have the opportunity to see your mom at work in the nonprofit sector?
I did. She would do a lot of special coordinating and soliciting donations to put together care packages for the homeless. So, both my sister and I got involved in that a lot. And it’s something that in our present church she works on. Every fourth Sunday of the month, we would go out. If the weather was cold, we'd put together [hot] meals. If the weather was hot, we’d do something like sandwiches or hot dogs and chips. And then around the holidays, especially Christmas and Thanksgiving, we would put together care packages.
I will say, along with my faith, that's probably something else she also taught me: The importance of giving and the importance of being selfless.
“If there is any resource that you have—whether it be monetary, clothes, or anything—make sure you pass it on to someone else.”
After graduating high school, what happened next?
After high school, I was a firm believer that I was going to go to UC Berkeley. Unfortunately, I ended up not getting accepted, which was devastating, especially when you have high hopes for yourself, and you start to think about what sort of future you want. But it goes back to my faith understanding that while that is what I wanted, that wasn't necessarily the path that I needed to do the work that needs to be done.
So, after graduation, I went to UC Merced… packed up and went to the Central Valley. It was 100% completely a culture shock. I remember getting there, moving things into my dorm and was like, “Oh my goodness I can look out at my dorm window, and I see farms and cows for miles.” I didn’t think I was going to stay there. My first year, I thought about it a lot. Maybe I will just do two years here and then transfer somewhere else. But it actually ended up being one of the best experiences that I ever had. I recommend the school to any and everyone and still speak highly of my time there.
Did that challenge or have a formative impact on you?
Growing up with a single mother, there were times we experienced homelessness and definitely poverty. But looking back after going to school in the Central Valley, I realized even though I experienced those things in the Bay Area, I was still in a place of privilege. But going to the Central Valley seeing high rates of poverty in the area, low educational attainment, and honestly seeing areas that are really left behind, was a culture shock to me. Not to talk down on the area, but I call it a forgotten area, and the Central Valley just generally is (even in policy making)—it really isn't getting an opportunity to grow.
I think it was good for me because I experienced all these things and had still a wealth of opportunity. But coming into another area and understanding, actually everybody doesn't have that even if they grew up with similar life circumstances. I think it was good also to challenge me politically. I have always grown up in a family of Democrats. Always very civically engaged and really instilling the importance of voting for me. But then going into an area that was more conservative challenged the way I thought about things like that. My experience in the Central Valley and at UC Merced really solidified my wanting to go into public service.
Where do you currently work?
I currently work as a Legislative Director for California Assemblymember Tim Grayson. I am essentially responsible for the entire legislative package—setting up proposals, making sure all of his bills are moving in a positive way, if there are any issues, ironing those out. I'm also responsible for the budget in the office, so I manage his budgetary priorities, track budget [proposals], and submit district-specific requests for funding to the budget committee. I like to view my overall role in the larger context of things, “Okay what is the Assemblymember’s priority both legislative and budgetary,” and then “How do I use the legislative process, bill requests, and budget requests to help him get to that goal?”
Outside of that, I also manage a team of legislative aides and think about, “How do I give these folks who are here the most experience? How do I make sure we're using their talents in a meaningful way?” And then, “How do I make sure I'm also mentoring them and making sure they’re getting whatever experience they want and whatever their end goal is; making sure that we're setting them up to be able to get there?”
What skills do you recommend acquiring if someone is interested in working at the Capitol?
If anyone's interested in a career in the Capitol, I think there are a couple of things that are important. It may seem like common sense, but being able to read and write. The type of writing you learn in school is very different. Learn how to read complex topics in legal language, because that's how they talk at the Capitol. [Develop the ability to] read critically and then [paraphrase] in layman's terms. I always like to think about it as if I were communicating something to my grandma who has no political background, no political experience. Could I take this and explain it in a way that she would understand?
Also, relationships are very important in the type of work that is done in the Capitol. It's a people-oriented business. There's a saying that some people that you could work with on one issue could be opposed on another issue. You have to still be able to work with people across the aisle on different perspectives. Also, how do you communicate with people in general? How do you communicate with people with different views? In an office when conflicts arise with one of your coworkers—are you communicating in a meaningful way? Are you going to be level-headed or reactionary?
Something that probably would set a good staffer apart from a great staffer is that nothing in that place happens in a bubble. A lot of times things that we see happen outside the Capitol—whether they be in headlines or whether they be political—that really determines the trajectory of the legislative year and where we go. So, making sure you're also tuned into those things and thinking about how this all interacts in the larger game, in the larger scheme of things.
If anyone works in a Capitol office, get to know your member. Get to know their stances. Get to a point where if your member is not sure where they should be on an issue—tapping back into those critical reading and those critical communication skills—you say, “On the pro-side we have these things, on the con-side we have these things. Based on you and what I know about you, I think that this is the position that you should take on this bill.”
Would you recommend reading legislation and getting into a habit of trying to decipher that?
Yes! I think that would be a good exercise. I had never read the actual text of a bill until I came into the fellowship. I didn't know how to read one because they're written by a lawyer. So, if you don't have a legal background, it's confusing. But I will say you can look at the text of a bill, and then you can look at an analysis which tends to be written in more layman's terms. Read through the text of the bill, and then try to see for yourself what you can decipher that this is actually trying to do––what the intent is. Those questions can be answered in the analysis section which breaks it down more clearly.
What's next on horizon for you?
I would like to go to law school... I think it was very important for me to actually take the time off from school and be involved directly in policy. Being involved directly in the public policymaking process, I say that I had the high of achievement alongside the low of this work still not being enough. So yes, while I've gotten to be involved in some great legislative fights and work on some great policies, I will say it's still not enough.
“Nothing happens by happenstance, and we're not here by accident. We are all given a voice, and we have to use it.”
Thinking about my personal experience, I always say that there is a life-saving power in education. And I think that the work that I do now is great, but it's really only a modest subset of the larger work that actually is going to be required to reform the public education system in California. I feel like there are really two ways to create change—either you make the laws, or you challenge them. And now I'm leaning more towards the challenging role, because I would be able to solely focus on my passion of education. But I am a firm believer in God's timing and not in mine. So when the opportunity does come, that will be the next step for me.
What would you like to do as a lawyer?
I want to work in a civil rights capacity, specifically with educational equity. Far too many of our Black students and students of color across the board unfortunately represent a disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions, tend to be the “lowest performing pupil,” and tend to be at the bottom. If you see it in one place, you might think this is an issue at one school. But when you start to see across the board, whether a student’s zip code is in Beverly Hills or if it is in Oakland, then I think there needs to be large systemic change in the way we handle disciplinary actions for students, and also how we are educating our students in a meaningful way.
“I think there needs to be large systemic change in the way we handle disciplinary actions for students, and also how we are educating our students in a meaningful way.”
What is some advice that you could give people who aspire to leadership positions like those you have acquired?
I think the most important thing is you have to be in tune with yourself. You have to be firm in what you believe, why you believe that, what you're doing, and why you are doing it. If you’re firm in that, then you are going to be unshakable. Nothing happens by happenstance, and we're not here by accident. We are all given a voice, and we have to use it. When you are firm in yourself, you will get comfortable speaking up in uncomfortable situations. You will be comfortable making decisions that people you trust or look to for advice.
What solidified and helped you be firm in your identity?
My faith. There are going to be a lot of things that are thrown at you in your personal life and in your professional life. Sometimes they decide to hit you simultaneously. There are a lot of labels that are going to be thrown on you. People look at me, and they see I’m Black, and they also see that I'm a woman, and they’re probably going to think a million things about me without ever having had a previous conversation with me.
When you feel low or you feel like your burdens are too heavy to carry, make sure that you are tapping into your faith to carry you. I say that by our own flesh, we are just terribly weak and can never do anything. But it's tapping into God who gives us the source and gives us power and restoration when we need it to keep fighting.