"People say go to school and get a degree. What really helped me even though I wasn’t a good student in general is that I knew what I wanted in life. I said, 'My kids will never have to struggle,' and that’s what motivates me to do what I do."
Reggie Johnson is a Legislative Analyst in the California State Assembly. He's had a life full of ups and downs, but he maintains a positivity and drive that emanate in his daily conversations. He grew up in Pasadena, California, and after graduating with a BA in Political Science from University of California, Merced, Reggie served in AmeriCorps; then he was awarded a Capitol Fellowship in the California State Assembly, where he was hired as a full-time Assembly staffer upon completing his fellowship. He recently accepted a new position on the legislative team for Cal Recycle.
We sat down with Reggie to get a sense of where he's been and where he's headed.
Describe your upbringing:
My mom was a single parent. Dad was locked up. My dad was in my life through letters and some visitations. I have one older brother, three sisters on my mom's side, and one sister on my dad's side. I am last... my mom would say the baby, but I hate when she says that.
My mom was a stay at home parent. We were on government assistance which is the reason why I wanted to get into policy. It sucked. Most people think that people want to be on government assistance. No, they want to be on government assistance because they need the help. I think the beautiful part about us being a country is that we get to help each other. We are upon completing his fellowship supposed to be united, so that is the point of government assistance; you need to help those who cannot help themselves at that moment.
Who was very instrumental in your life growing up? Who gave you guidance?
I had a lot of people help me along the way: family, friends, people whom I cannot repay and don’t even know how to repay them. The two male figures in my life helped shape who I am today; one was my big brother Barry, from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. My older brother was locked up when I was under the age of 10. I did not have any male role models in my life, so Barry came into my life through the program. I still keep in contact with him.
David, another male who [helped me along the way], was a counselor at my school. David was a great mentor; he would help my family out, he was very understanding. He would give me rides to theater practice. When my bike got stolen, he and another alumni pitched in and got me a bike. Knowing my family’s financial situation, he would sometimes buy me meals. He was just a great person and was like that to everyone. He also asked me if I wanted to go to church and so I was going to church at that time.
Are you religious?
I am. It’s a struggle right now. I’m still trying to find my way. But I believe that God is our father, and that Jesus is our savior. Other than that, it's nothing much to it. If you believe in the Lord then you believe that he is going to help you. We went to Sunday school as a kid. My personal philosophy is, yeah you can be taught it, but you are not a true believer until you personally dedicate yourself.
How did you get into politics?
People say go to school and get a degree. What really helped me even though I wasn’t a good student in general is that I knew what I wanted in life. I said, “My kids will never have to struggle,” and that’s what motivates me to do what I do.
I want to get in government because I want to help people. I remember they said pick something that you want to do in life, and I was like, “Government is going to be here forever, unless there is a Zombie apocalypse, so…” So that’s why I chose government because 1.) I knew I wanted to help people, and [public service] is what I wanted to do since I knew government assistance helped me, and 2.) I knew that unless government went away it was always going to be there.
Where did you go to school at? What did you get your degree in?
Political Science. Shout out to my Bobcats at UC Merced, the up-and-coming baby UC. I transferred from Citrus Community College in Azusa and was accepted to three UC’s.
I applied to the UCDC program my first semester I transferred to Merced. I didn’t get in. I reapplied during the spring semester of my junior year when the applications were opened again. I got an interview and got in.
Can you describe the UCDC program?
It was a cool experience. It allows you to experience [Washington] DC and politics. So you can work for a non-profit, a think-tank, or you could work on the Hill. I had two internships, so I split my week in half between the two: working on a local campaign and working the US Treasury Department in the office of the Curator. So every day I would walk into the Treasury Department and see the White House. This was during the Barak Obama era.
After the UCDC program ended, Reggie was getting ready to graduate. He applied for several jobs, a fellowship, and Teach for America but didn't get in to any of them. It was discouraging, but Reggie maintains a positive view: "I say this not to discourage people, even with all of your success stories you [might] not get the thing you want. But don’t let that discourage you. Let that continue to push you, like, 'I’m still going to go for it'; because if you are religious, God has a plan for you, so even though you want Teach for America, or you want the White House Internship, or the Fellowship your first year—that’s not right for you at the moment. That’s why you didn’t get in. I continued to want to be in those programs, and I applied again, and I got it."
After not getting in to his first round of applications, Reggie started driving for Uber and was offered a position with AmeriCorps in Baltimore. "I said I wanted to help people, and I wanted to live by those words. Sometimes its harder to do things later in life. If you can pick a moment in your life that you can dedicate time to helping people, I’m not saying that you have to dedicate your whole life, but just a moment, that is what is important. That’s why I love AmeriCorps and why everyone should do something like it."
Describe what AmeriCorps service was like:
A lot of people don’t know about AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps is the domestic version of the Peace Corps. So basically you go to a neighborhood that is poor and in need of service... I worked for a non-profit called the Village Learning Place (VLP) in Baltimore. The Village Learning Place is responsible for upkeeping a local library and does so many services. Once or twice a month they provide services for senior citizens. They do different cultural events at night so you can learn more about Baltimore. They offer an afterschool program for pre-K to 6th grade, which is what I was doing.
I was only going to do AmeriCorps for one year. I thought I would apply again to the White House. I did not know if I was going to move back to California. I applied to the Capitol Fellowship again but did not get in. So, I said, “I guess I’ll do AmeriCorps a second year.” But this time I did another program. I chose a program in DC. This one was with a non-profit called Teens Run DC.
“I think you have to give it a few tries. You have to fail. You look at Abraham Lincoln who lost so many elections. What would have happened if he said, “you know what, I not running for President?”
When you find yourself in these pivotal situations when you have given it all that you have, and you keep coming up short, when do you know when you should fold?
I ask myself that all the time. I don’t think that I am a quitter. As I said for the UCDC program, I am just going to keep applying until you accept me. There is persistence and there’s knowing when to give up. And not in the sense of quitting but knowing that this isn’t right. I don’t know when I am quitting versus when I’m just moving on. I think you have to give it a few tries. You have to fail. You look at Abraham Lincoln who lost so many elections. What would have happened if he said, “you know what, I am not running for President”? At what point does it go from failure to a success story that you never gave up, you persevered, and actually got what you wanted? You have to know that for yourself.
When you applied a third time, you got into the fellowship program. How did you feel?
Just like with the UCDC application I said to myself, “You can deny me as many times you want, I’m still going to apply.” I worked very hard on my policy statement. All my eggs were in the fellowship. All of the other programs said no, no, no. Finally, the Assembly said that I had an interview. I flew from Baltimore to LA. I had to choose my fellowship over my rent. They only gave me two weeks’ notice [to schedule an interview], but it all worked. So, I get in there and I am meeting the [other] interviewees. Everyone else was like, “I have two-three interviews, one for the Senate, one for the Judicial.” I was like, “I have one for the Assembly. Like, that is all I have; this is all I have.” So, my odds of getting in were slim. Meeting everyone else, I was like, “I am not qualified. I am not getting in.” Close to 500 [people] apply each year. They select 60 for an interview. 18 slots are for the fellows. How the heck I got an interview, I don’t know. Honestly, it was the grace of God. I kept saying, “thank you God.” So, I got the interview and met the program director. I went in there and tried to answer the questions to the best of my abilities.
What was it like working in the Capitol, working for a member?
Each office is definitely different. The Capitol is interesting. It is like a cookie-cutter neighborhood but the houses are made differently, if that make sense. The process is the same, everything looks the same, but each house may have something different from another house. My experience in my office was different from other people’s experiences. My tasks were, like everybody else, to be as if you are staff. That means staffing legislation, going to events with the Member, attending committees, hosting meetings; sometimes you are the only person in that meeting, and you have to take that information, give the Member’s position without committing them to supporting or opposing a bill. The fellowship program is roughly a year. After fellowship program, I prayed and cried until I got hired on because I was on extension. Extension means that you are still a fellow but not hired. You are paid by the Member’s budget because you are no longer with the fellowship, but are not staff until you get hired on.
What is next on the horizon?
I see myself doing public service, so right now that means working in the Government. [It could be] working in the legislature, going to a State Department, or working for a non-profit. One of the dreams/goals I have is own a business and use that business to help the community. Mainly Black and Latino communities.
What is something that someone who wants to pursue a career in public service should know?
Learn how to read, write, and analyze perfectly. It is ok to make some mistakes, but what we do here is read and write. Practice grammar. There is a difference from speaking improperly in [a casual setting] and having written grammar mistakes. In a job interview, you better speak the best English you can. Code switch is the term. Speak how you speak with your friends, but when comes to other people and a professional setting, know how to speak properly, with proper grammar, and know how to write with proper grammar.
Is there any mistake you made that you regret?
I did not do my homework in school. Definitely do your homework. It will help you. As much as you want to play Halo, your books are more important. Invest in some tech industries, like Google or Facebook.
What does winning look like to you?
I have four of the proudest moments of my life: when I got my high school diploma, when I got my AA at Citrus Community College, when I got my Bachelor’s at UC Merced, and when I got into the Assembly Fellowship. For me, I might not have been the best student, but I did work hard to get those degrees. I did work hard to graduate, and I am continually working hard to not struggle or to not have my future kids struggle.
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