Graduate student turned activist named senate fellow, legislative aide

Derek Adelman

Derek Adelman

Amanda Pollard

Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio in the 1970s taught current member of the California State Fellowship Program Richard Engelhardt that he couldn’t go anywhere without an education.

When the steel mills shut down in the ’70s, industry took a turn for the worse. Engelhardt saw the results of the devastation in the very town he grew up in.

“I used to look around, and every time I saw injustice I wanted to fix it,” he said.

Engelhardt applied for and entered the Capitol Fellows Program under the Assembly Fellowship in order to accomplish his desire to help those in need.

Engelhardt’s sister Terri Winiaraski said he has always been a creative and ambitious person.

“Our mom once bought him one of those strips of suckers, it was 20 for $1,” she said. “Later that day he came home with $5.25 and my mom asked where he got it. He told her he sold his suckers for 25 cents. She asked how he got 25 cents extra and he told her some lady gave him a tip.”

Engelhardt said the poverty-stricken area of his upbringing was one of the driving factors in his decision to enter into public policy.

“The largest export of my hometown used to be steel, now it’s 18 and 19-year-olds. They learn you can’t get out without an education. My brothers and sisters and I all made our way through that,” Engelhardt said.

The ambition Engelhardt had did not come from a particularly driven upbringing. His sister attributes his initiative from within.

“His most challenging obstacle was that he never had anyone telling him what to do, he never had much guidance. He has always been one to take charge,” Winiaraski said.

Engelhardt, however, feels the most challenging thing for him to overcome was realizing that, as a gay man, he didn’t have to fit into any particular identity.

“I came out my junior year of high school,” he said. “I had to get to the point where it wasn’t an issue and I was comfortable. But it takes time to see it’s only a part of who you are. It was not a matter of getting over it, but processing it and coming to terms. I had to figure out how it fit in with my life and professional goals.”

The fellowship became something that would later form the path he took with activism in areas such as HIV/AIDS and Animal Activism. “When you’ve put yourself out there for everyone to judge and comment, once you start talking about political issues you have a steely resolve,” Engelhardt said. “I’ve gone through the trial by fire with me as I am. I can go through about anything else.”

Before Engelhardt could make his way to Sacramento, however, he attended various schools as he made his trek across the country.

Engelhardt arrived in New York at the age of 17 and attended Fairleigh Dickinson, a small liberal arts college. He stayed for two years, originally wanting to focus on communication studies until one class changed the course of his career.

“I had a political science class my first semester with this woman who grew up in India,” he said. “She came to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. and had this passion for justice. She was as tough as nails though, and we only had seven people by the end of the semester after starting off with 20. As tough as she was, she was very engaging. I decided right then I wanted to be involved in public policy. I discovered I had the same fire and passion she did.”

After leaving New York, he studied briefly at the University of Georgia before accepting a job offer in Stockton.

“I got involved with this company that promotes better air quality in the Central Valley. From there, I got involved with the California Air Resources Board,” Engelhardt said.

Engelhardt then made the decision to return to school and in only two semesters he finished the last 39 units of his undergraduate degree.

“I did an 18-unit semester followed by a 21-unit semester. I also worked graveyard shift for a security company. I went from school to work, had a bit of sleep, then back around. I was so busy I never had time to stop and think ‘wow I’m really busy.’ Now, looking back, I think of how insane it was but I really just wanted to finish,” Engelhardt said.

Engelhardt received a job offer as an independent system operator for a company in Sacramento, which manages the state’s electric grid. After the ISO job, Engelhardt began the master’s program at Sacramento State in the spring of 2006.

“I was sitting in one of my first grad classes and there were some former fellows in it. They thought I would be good in the program and had a lot to offer, so I applied,” Engelhardt said.

During the application process, Engelhardt said he was very nervous and unsure he’d receive the position.

“The interview was one of the most nerve-racking moments of my life. You’re walking up to this building that’s so ornate and in the true sense of the word, awesome. And you walk in saying ‘wow, I’m in the Capitol and they want to talk to me.’ It’s a nine-person panel and they want to know who you are and if you’re good for them,” Engelhardt said. Engelhardt did obtain the fellowship and it has opened as many doors as promised.

“It has opened doors and will continue to, whether I go on to get a Ph.D. in political science or go to law school. This gives you the experience and leverage to enter into other programs,” Engelhardt said.

Legislative Consultant Melissa Kludjian said even students with not as much experience as Engelhardt should not be discouraged from applying for the internship.

“He’s smart and fun to work with and that’s an important thing,” Kludjian said.

Engelhardt, like so many other college students, did not know where he wanted to go after schooling, but simply knew that he had a great interest in public policy.

“If you have an interest in public policy and want to be part of that public dialogue, it’s only 11 months. You’ll find some niche in that time that’s instructive. It’s absolutely the place to find out what you want to do,” Engelhardt said.

Deputy Chief of Staff Margaret Pena said she believes the fellowship gives Engelhardt the opportunity to enhance his abilities.

“One of the first things he worked on was the health care reform plan that was being presented by the speaker of the assembly. With his background, he was available to hit the ground running determining how the healthcare proposal would work,” Pena said.

Pena also said Engelhardt is an asset to the workplace with his team approach and willingness to help.

“Regardless of the task or challenge, (Engelhardt) is always prepared to jump in; and in this fast-paced environment, that’s one of the biggest assets someone can bring,” Pena said.

The most compelling thing about the fellowship is the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of Californians.

“The biggest question here is, how can we make the lives of 37 million Californians better and more manageable and make sure they are prospering economically and enjoy everything California has to offer? Jobs in this building offer the opportunity for change. At the state you make a lot more money in the private sectors, but you don’t get to leave everyday thinking, ‘Wow I may have just done something to change someone’s life,'” Engelhardt said.

Amanda Pollard can be reached at [email protected]