“Adelante.” As Brenda Gonzalez walked through the halls of the iconic Rayburn Building in Washington, D.C, the word echoed in her memory. “Move forward,” she could hear her parents and grandmother telling her. She smiled. Gonzalez knew she belonged.
During that 2012 internship for Congresswoman Judy Chu, Gonzalez introduced herself to Chu’s communications director and expressed her desire to learn and to help. She contacted news outlets, drafted press releases and media advisories for him, and realized this was the career direction she wanted to pursue.
Born in the United States to parents who emigrated from Nicaragua, Gonzalez was raised in Pasadena, surrounded by a huge extended family. Music was also a significant part of her life growing up: Gonzalez was in choirs and a cappella groups through her college years.
Her parents, Roger and Brenda, peppered her childhood with aphorisms in Spanish: “Tienes que tener ganas” — “You have to want it.” “No te des por vencida” — “Don’t give up.” These exhortations helped encourage the first-generation college student to not only earn her undergraduate degree in political science from Whittier College, but later a master’s degree in strategic public relations from USC Annenberg in 2017.
“Being a child of immigrants, I understand the privilege and honor of living in this country,” Gonzalez said.
This was one of the reasons she felt called to public service. Gonzalez’s first big break came from a flier advertising a position with Rep. Chu that her father peeled off a bulletin board. He urged her to apply for the internship in Chu’s El Monte office, but Gonzalez surprised him by ticking the second option to work in D.C. as well.
Her father and brother helped get her settled in the nation’s capital, and when the internship ended, Gonzalez remained and transitioned to working for the American Telemedicine Association and then to the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a news information assistant.
However, Gonzalez recognized that to make further progress in the field of political communication, she needed a graduate degree.
“I knew if I wanted to continue to advise a public figure and make an impact in the government, if I wanted to be an effective communicator, I needed the proper training,” she said. “USC Annenberg provided courses that enabled me to become this skilled strategist who can analyze problems, come to certain conclusions and advise.”
She said the tactics and knowledge she acquired in adjunct instructor Brenda Lynch’s crisis communication course, as well as Professor of Professional Practice Burghardt Tenderich’s business and economics of public relations course, have helped shape her work to this day.
While a graduate student, Gonzalez also worked for Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge as his communications director. When the councilman termed out, a colleague suggested she apply to work with then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris. In 2015, Gonzalez was hired on to Harris’ U.S. Senate campaign as press secretary, also supporting Harris in her role as attorney general. In early 2017, after Harris was elected senator, Gonzalez became her state press secretary and later was promoted and added the second title of senior director of public engagement.
“I am so proud to have worked for Vice President Harris while she was senator and attorney general,” Gonzalez said. “One of the highlights is meeting the incredible people along the way.” While she doesn’t yet know what the future holds, Gonzalez, who also serves on the board of advisors for the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations, plans to stay in public service.
“I hope that I can inspire young women to know they can make a difference,” she said. “Representation matters, and while it may be challenging at times, you can make change happen.