Christina Henderson MPA ’12 is a graduate alumnus of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. She was born in New York City and moved around the country with her military family. As an undergraduate student, she attended Furman University where she studied political science. She then came to Princeton develop her domestic policy skillset.
Henderson is a legislative assistant for Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and former staffer for outgoing At-Large D.C. Councilmember David Grosso. She’s currently running for Grosso’s seat on the Council of the District of Columbia and has been endorsed by The Washington Post and by DC Women in Politics.
Below she shares her thoughts on today’s pressing policy issues, how to be an effective decisionmaker, and how the School shaped her career.
Q. What is/are the most important policy issue(s) facing us today?
Henderson: It’s hard to pick just one, especially with everything going on in our country. But for me, I’ve spent much of my career working on issues related to childcare and education. How we educate and care for children, especially in the early years, lays the groundwork for so many things, including life expectancy and future earnings. We’ve seen with COVID-19 just how important access to childcare and schools are in order for our economy to work. And yet, in tough economic times, these are the areas that are usually cut first. Think about it: On the federal side, we’ve given more money to Delta Airlines — one airline — than we did to stabilize the childcare market in the country. If we are to be society committed to equity and racial justice, then we have to get education right.
Q. What are your passions? What current project or initiative are you most excited about?
Henderson: I’ve been working on policy to provide paid parental leave for all federal employees, which goes into effect on October 1. When I think about the last four years, and the inability to get anything done in Congress, it’s remarkable this passed. It’s going to change the lives of federal employees, who will now have 12 weeks paid leave to bond with a child. That is something I’m super passionate about — advancing policies to help working families.
Q. Over the course of your career, what are the most important skills/strategies you’ve learned?
Henderson: You can have the best policy in the world, but if you can’t communicate it, it’s not going to move forward. This is especially true if you’re communicating policy to people who have no background in the issue. A lot of us policy-minded people use data and jargon, much of which average Americans might not understand. I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to communicate, and this was especially driven home for me at Princeton.
The other important skill, which I also learned at Princeton, was the use of data and evaluation. Often, we just want to make it better for everyone. As we push toward equity, we have to be targeted and intentional our policies and be ok with saying we are trying to reach this level of income, this type of person, so we are going to tailor our policies in that manner.
Q. When it comes to decision-making, what are the most effective strategies? How do you make critical decisions and forge a consensus?
Henderson: Do the research. Read about an issue. If it’s a place-based policy, dig into the historical context. In my case, my work is on D.C. issues, but I’m not a D.C. native. If I’m going to be an effective policymaker, I need to become a student of the history here so I understand where the community frustrations lie, or why there is push back. This also helps ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes twice.
On the federal side, we have a lot of people in Congress who have never personally implemented a program. They are Capitol Hill staffers who’ve never worked outside the Hill. It’s important to talk to people on the ground and envision how the policy will impact the most vulnerable voices in the audience or stakeholder group. That can be hard to do, especially if you’re privileged.
Finally, trust your gut. Sometimes there may be decisions that need to be made that are not the most politically viable ones. But still, trust your instincts.
Q. In what ways did the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs prepare you for your career?
Henderson: The School provided me with the quantitative skills to understand data, evaluation, and statistics. I also benefited from Princeton’s approach on training students as generalists. Other schools are very specific, but what I appreciate about Princeton is that it’s multidisciplinary. So, you may care about education, but that’s also tied to housing, healthcare, climate change, and more. At Princeton, I had exposure to those other fields and could see how they are intertwined and related. That’s super important to keep in mind. You may be passionate about one thing but you have to care about all of these others, too.
Q. How do you think the School trains students to be policy leaders? What were the tactical skills you gained while at the School that you still employ today?
Henderson: I think the School is trying hard to develop leaders who are going to push beyond the status quo. They train students to learn about an issue, interrogate the problem, and come up with a solution that is just not putting a Band-aid on the problem. Princeton broadens your view.
Princeton’s network also puts you in rooms with other people who are going to be policy leaders in their professions. The Princeton network in general is vast and super valuable. You find yourself in rooms and conversations that really help push things forward, or you draw on the network to advance things.
Q. How can young people entering the workforce be successful?
Henderson: Go into every job with a set of goals on what you want to learn. It may not be your dream job. It probably is a job just for a season in your life. So, go into it knowing I want to accomplish this is set of things to advance my professional development and have an impact. Once you check those things off, you may decide this season is completed or that there’s still more you good you can do. In order to be successful in the market, you have to be able to see every moment and experience as an opportunity to leverage to something bigger.
Another thing I’ve learned about being successful working in politics: Your word is the strongest thing you have, especially when talking to constituents and those in government. The policy world is small. If you want to be successful, you need others to believe you’re trustworthy, and that when you follow through on your promises. And honestly, that’s not just a political thing; that’s a life thing. Keep your word.
Changemakers: Alumni Making a Difference is a Q&A series featuring alumni of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.