The Institute - Session #5 - Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Talks on Her Career and Six Things She Learned in Her 20s

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By Hilary Morefield

When Lorena Gon­za­lez stepped into the room for our fifth ses­sion, her pres­ence imme­di­ately com­manded atten­tion. The assemblywoman’s con­fi­dent, hilar­i­ous and can­did approach had the full room from her first line. Gon­za­lez has been a long-​time ally of SDLA and has spo­ken to past fel­lows on numer­ous occa­sions regard­ing her work as the secretary-​treasurer and CEO of the San Diego-​Imperial Coun­ties Labor Coun­cil, AFL-​CIO but this was her first time speak­ing at the insti­tute as an elected offi­cial. For this ses­sion, she approached the con­ver­sa­tion on a more per­sonal level, dis­cussing her expe­ri­ences as a young pro­gres­sive in her 20s, her career and the some of the lessons she learned along the way.

Here are six of these essen­tial lessons:

1. Work hard

Gon­za­lez faced a great deal of ani­mos­ity going through the steps of her early career– as a minor­ity woman grow­ing up in Vista, she had a num­ber of peo­ple try­ing to take her down. “[The expe­ri­ence] made me tough,” Gon­za­lez said. “You have to sac­ri­fice cer­tain things.” Gon­za­lez remained tough, worked hard, and went on to attend school at Stan­ford, George­town and UCLA. She refused to com­pro­mise, how­ever, on what mat­tered the most to her– her fam­ily. She com­pleted law school as a sin­gle mother and made sure her fam­ily was with her every step of the way along her early career path.

2. Take risks

With lim­ited expe­ri­ence and an even more lim­ited bud­get, Gon­za­lez packed up every­thing and moved to Sacra­mento for the oppor­tu­nity to work for for­mer Cal­i­for­nia Lieu­tenant Cruz Bus­ta­mante as his senior advi­sor. Early on, she was asked to advise him on envi­ron­men­tal leg­is­la­tion, an area in which she had very lit­tle exper­tise and expe­ri­ence. Gon­za­lez took it on nev­er­the­less and through a great deal of research and self-​teaching became an expert in the area. As Gon­za­lez pointed out, “risk worked,” and the posi­tion served as an excel­lent expe­ri­ence and a launch­ing pad for the rest of her career.

3. Find a passion

Gon­za­lez took some time to dis­cover what drove her pas­sion for pur­su­ing pol­i­tics. She knew she was very peo­ple dri­ven and had a strong inter­est in help­ing work­ing fam­i­lies. She says her even­tual involve­ment in labor finally gave her a solid­i­fied sense of pur­pose, the feel­ing that “Yes– this is why she was put on this earth.” She worked heav­ily on labor issues for many years and con­tin­ues to help work­ers through her leg­isla­tive work and decision-​making as an assemblywoman.

4. Be kind to everyone

Gon­za­lez says her men­tor in her early career, Cruz Bus­ta­mante, taught her this essen­tial les­son. She noted in her expe­ri­ence a ten­dency for more pow­er­ful politi­cians to “feel like [they] are above a cer­tain class of peo­ple” once they obtain a cer­tain stature. Gon­za­lez tries to face every per­son she inter­acts with, from staffers and interns to high level offi­cials, with respect and kind­ness. “Who knows-​your cus­to­dian could be the leader of one of the biggest labor unions in the state,” she said.

5. Be honest

“Hon­esty serves a pur­pose.” Gon­za­lez shared her dis­taste for behind-​the-​back polit­i­cal smack-​talking and lying to employ­ers. She encour­aged the fel­lows to avoid neg­a­tive com­men­tary on oth­ers they wouldn’t them­selves feel com­fort­able fac­ing, as word gets around eas­ily in social cir­cles. “It’s always bet­ter to say it to their face than to have some­one else tell them the same thing.”

6. Remain loyal

“It’s okay to sup­port some­one who isn’t with you 100 per­cent on every­thing,” said Gon­za­lez. She said in her expe­ri­ence it’s essen­tial “to develop the abil­ity to under­stand peo­ple at dif­fer­ent places– dif­fer­ent argu­ments, dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing– and be able to work with them.” As long as you share the same fun­da­men­tal val­ues, you do not have to be point-​for-​point on every value, and you can ben­e­fit from the dif­fer­ence of per­spec­tive. Gon­za­lez believe this mat­ters more than any indi­vid­ual qual­ity in politics.

Gonzalez’s advice res­onated with a num­ber of the fel­lows, who felt sim­i­lar chal­lenges in their own paths and careers. We were delighted to have her back on board for the ses­sion and look for­ward to hear­ing from her again in the future.

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Immigration Attorney, Prins Asylum Attorney, Jewish Family Service of San Diego

Tammy Lin is the immigration attorney for Jewish Family Service of San Diego’s Prins Asylum Program providing pro bono representation to scientists, musicians, artists, scholars, and professionals seeking...