Meet Jesse Salinas, a Chief Elections official for Yolo County as assessor, clerk-recorder and registrar of voters. He also helps lead the Yolo County Youth Civic Initiative (YCYCI) which, partnering with the County Office of Education, is aimed at building youth awareness and understanding in civic engagement. This is his StoryEngine*.
“We need leaders who have a vision that can help build bridges between communities, working together to improve what we have. We have to support those who are willing to take that courageous stand and provide a support system to give them that opportunity to be successful.”
Shaping of Purpose
My story begins in the early seventies, back in Oakland. We were a family of five that lived in a small two-bedroom home. There were a lot of things happening in Oakland during that time. There was the Black Panther movement and the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst in 1974. As a young person growing up in that environment, it was a bit surreal to know that these things were happening in our community. It was a very intense experience not just for me, but for my family. Those violent episodes were taking place just outside my house and I recall one specific incident that came right to our front door when I was nine years old.
My dad came home late one night and I woke up to a loud scream nine or 10 feet away from my bed. I looked over as the door flung open to see my mom being assaulted and my dad also being assaulted by four young men on the front porch. They were pummeling him and had a gun to his head. As a nine-year-old, you see these things happening on TV, but it’s not real until it happens to you and your family.
That was a rude awakening to violence on our front doorstep. I was lucky that both my parents lived through that. The emotional impact of seeing your mom, who you love and adore, being pummeled, and your dad being brutalized and having a gun pointed to his head as he’s being mugged, is a pretty powerful image to wake up to in the middle of the night.
Because of that incident, my dad decided that the family needed to leave Oakland. We moved to Fremont. I went from living in a very multi-ethnic environment in Oakland to just the opposite in Fremont.
In Fremont, there were women who would grab their purses and hold them tight thinking I was going to steal from them just because of the color of my skin and the strut that I walked with. This contrast to living in Oakland taught me that I was facing a different kind of struggle.
Education as a Vehicle
I came from a school in Oakland where I was a straight A student and class president. When I transferred to Fremont, they put me in all college prep courses except for English. They looked at the color of my skin and determined that I must not be good at English because they didn’t have any kids like me in the school. I wanted to be able to go to a UC [University of California]. I told my counselor to give me one quarter to prove myself and he reluctantly said, “yes.” [One day in class], I looked over at this student from Switzerland who was getting A’s. I asked him to show me how he did it. He spent four hours teaching me. I went from a C minus to an A minus in a matter of a month, and transformed from a struggling American Literature student to one who could hold his own, and was one of the better students in that class.
To go to a UC, I would also have to go to a community college while still in high school. The principal denied me this opportunity. My counselor told me to go to the superintendent instead, and my brother drove me to his office. When the superintendent was busy, I found the assistant superintendent, a very distinguished Black gentleman. He said, “How dare he take away your future,” and gave me his approval.
That was my experience early on in life. By age 18, I understood the importance of education, informing people about the truth, and giving them the opportunity to be successful because I was living it.
I went off to UC Santa Cruz to study computer science because my dad said computers were the future. I was one of the few people of color going through the computer science program there.
While in college, I worked for the EOPSAA, the Equal Opportunity Program Student Affirmative Action. They allowed me to go out into the community and develop relationships. I had this crazy idea to bridge the gap between all the multicultural communities – the Black Student Union, the Asian American Student Alliance organization, and MEChA. I wanted to have a gathering and a celebration. We had a multicultural dance and it was an amazing event. I asked them to unify on something at the next level that we could all agree on – an ethnic studies requirement. Getting these groups working together to advocate for a common cause is something I am proud to have played a small role in.
After graduating and getting experience in education policy in the [state] Capitol, I transitioned to the nonprofit world for eight years and then transitioned back to local government. This is how I ended up working in Yolo County, where I have lived for over 25 years.
My journey started way back when I understood at an early age how violence can impact your life, why it exists, and how detrimental and disruptive it can be. The best way to help folks struggling with daily survival issues is to bridge that gap through listening and providing opportunities that will break down barriers so that they can be successful.
I find myself in this job where I’m looking for ways to inform people, break down barriers and help them to be engaged in our society in a positive way.
As a Chief Elections official overseeing elections, I deal with misinformation on a regular basis. It’s actually disinformation which is more malicious in its intent. It’s upsetting because when we go back to what took place on January 6th, it is a major awakening for our society to think that there are people who can lay siege to our nation’s Capital. We as a society need to reflect about the level of anger that exists out there, how such a siege could ever be considered acceptable and not seen as incredibly damaging to our society and to our democracy.
It’s important for us to help educate and teach people how to be well-informed and not just hear one side. We should instead challenge ourselves to hear another view that may make us a little uncomfortable.
I think about those young people who attacked my parents and realize they chose a different path that was not the right path.
What can we do to provide information that empowers people and helps them understand there’s a better way to evolve our society that’s more empathetic and caring? I don’t care if you’re far left or far right. Everybody’s got struggles that they’re dealing with. How do we come together in bridging those gaps?
Grounded in Faith and Family
I was raised by my mom to be a man of faith. It’s an important part of who I am, and it gives me that moral compass to keep me focused on what’s important and to try and make sure that I do something to make a difference where I can.
I love being with family and being around my kids. The people you love are always special. Going back to my roots and family is what makes me joyous and brings fond memories. Sometimes where I find the most peace is that quiet time when I’m in prayer and just listening to God.
I’ve been very blessed with an amazing professional career and amazing opportunities, but it hasn’t always been easy. People don’t understand the struggles I’ve gone through personally that have taken place behind the scenes. There have been many times I’ve been the last one to lock up at night. I didn’t get into this position until I was in my fifties and that was a long journey to get here.
When I was appointed into office, it was a little surreal. When I got elected into office with 70% of the vote – it felt great because it validated the work that I have been doing. I’m grateful that people appreciated all the hard work and good changes that have been made.
I told [the Board of Supervisors] that if they appointed me, they would get excellence with integrity. I believe I am fulfilling that commitment with nearly five years in this position. I’m both proud and humbled by the amazing staff and organization I am privileged to lead. I take great joy in having a very diverse and talented staff, and it’s wonderful to see them perform at such a high level every single day.
If you had told me that I would be elected, I would never have imagined it. To have my kids call and congratulate me and be so excited on election night, and to have my wife of 35 years there supporting me – that was truly a highlight in my life. That moment was the culmination of a lot of things that have happened throughout my life and on my career path.
Optimism and the Future of the Central Valley
Central Valley for me runs from the greater Sacramento region all the way past Fresno. We have rural and suburban communities, and a little bit of the urban flare too. Sacramento County is one of the most diverse counties in the entire United States. There’s an incredibly multicultural reflection in Sacramento County and Sacramento City in particular. I put down roots in the greater Sacramento area. My first job out of graduate school was with the California School Boards Association in West Sacramento, and then working in the Capitol.
I see [Central Valley] as an open frontier. There are so many things that are still possible. The new awakening is the power of community involvement. You can go back to the days of Cesar Chavez when he gathered people together and had a movement in a peaceful way or the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There are leaders who have gone before us whose shoulders we stand on. They’ve laid the foundation and we have to figure out how not to forget that, and to build upon what they’ve started.
We can really mold the Central Valley into something pretty special, but we need leaders to do that who have a vision that can help build bridges between communities, working together to improve what we have currently. We have to support those who are willing to take that courageous stand and provide a support system to give them that opportunity to be successful. We have to find those touchstones that we agree on to do that. And we have to be open to having those difficult but important conversations if we are ever going to build those important bridges in our communities that will bring people together.
The Yolo County Youth Civic Initiative (YCYCI) is developing a curriculum to help educate young people on the importance of voting and participating in the election process, and how to get civically engaged. I see it becoming a statewide and possibly national model for civic and media literacy for young people.
I think about a friend of mine who grew up in the Central Valley in Hanford. He helped kickstart UC Merced, then went on to do his PhD at Stanford and became Fresno State’s chancellor. He is now the first ever Latino Chancellor of the CSU system, and he grew up in Hanford, which was his hometown.
It doesn’t matter what your race or ethnicity is, it’s about the quality of the work and your commitment to integrity and excellence. It is a value statement that I try to share whenever I can. If we can create effective support mechanisms for people, we can help them to have a better life and make an impact, not just in their own life, but in the community.
This story was produced as part of the Lifting Local Leaders pilot grantmaking initiative developed by James B. McClatchy Foundation. It was developed using the StoryEngine methodology, an open-sourced, narrative based, data collection tool developed by Loup Design.