Joseline Peña-Melnyk is a true fighter for working families. Her strong passion for public service is a pure example of her essence as a person. Peña-Melnykis a State Delegate for the State of Maryland. As a child, Joseline emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the U.S along with her single mother and sister. Her mother worked the New York’s garment industry, oftentimes struggling to make ends meet.
In these difficult moments, her family was on welfare because her father did not pay child support. However, Joseline, with her fighting spirit, excelled in school and learned how to speak English. Joseline is also the first in her family to attend college. The hardships Joseline witnessed and experienced growing up led her to feel an obligation to fight for people in marginalized communities, usually the people who oftentimes are neglected.
One summer while studying law, she worked in Alabama to represent prisoners sentenced to death. Another summer, she visited farms in Ohio where she educated migrant workers about their rights to a safe work environment and fair wages. Later, Del. Peña-Melnyk obtained her law degree, accepted court appointments to represent abused and neglected children, and provided criminal defense for the underserved.
Eventually, she joined Eric Holder’s Federal Prosecutor’s Office and prosecuted criminals, building cases with police officers, witnesses and victims in the community. Along the way, she took the time to be a mother. She had a son in 1998 and twin daughters in 2000. But the need to stay involved in the community did not go away. Del. Peña-Melnyk has been a member of the board of Casa of Maryland, a community social service organization focused on immigrant issues, and ran for and won a seat on the College Park City Council.
As a State Legislator, she has focused on protecting consumers; reforming the criminal justice system; helping working families and advocating to expand Medicaid to Maryland residents. As part of her commitment to diversity and inclusion, she co-sponsored a bill to prohibit gender-based discrimination. She also co-sponsored legislation to raise minimum pay, expand opportunities for minority companies, the Consumer Protection Law of Maryland, crack down on mortgage fraud and create state programs for workforce development in high schools, community colleges, public employment, and housing.
From her own experience, Del. Peña-Melnyk understands that many working families, despite their best efforts, still need help to make ends meet. Del. Peña-Melnyk is also committed to making Maryland a more inclusive, substantial, and equitable place.
Thankfully, Del. Peña-Melnyk was able to speak to Latina Republic about her story, advice and insights in her career. Below is Latina Republic’s exclusive interview with Top 100’s Most Influential Women in Maryland, Joseline Peña-Melnyk:
What is one thing you wish people knew about women in a workplace?
I would say that we have many good ideas and we need to be included, because we bring a different perspective from men. So when you’re creating policies or whether you’re at work, it’s great to have different points of views, right? Different perspectives so that the job is done better; so that you’re more inclusive, and so that the policy is fair and equitable. We have a lot to offer.
When you began your career many years ago, did you imagine that you would successfully be a leader in a male dominated profession?
No, actually when I was a young girl I thought I would go into fashion. So when I arrived from the Dominican Republic, we lived in Washington Heights which is where a lot of the Dominicans live in New York. I was 8 years old, I remember going to the Welfare office. My mom was a single mom with my sister and I, and she struggled making ends meet, so we needed help. I remember going to the Welfare office where my mom would volunteer me to translate for everyone that was waiting there. It was mostly a lot of women.
Unfortunately, they were seeking help; their partners were not involved, and they needed help. So I would translate and I would learn about these stories….They were so sad. But what really disturbed me the most was the way that the case worker, who was usually a woman, would treat them. The questions she would ask her were so horrible. You know, they would treat them so poorly. Like, “How dare you come and ask for help, why are you a single parent and where is the father?” It made me angry as an 8 year old. It made me upset because I was thinking, you know they don’t have a voice, they don’t know the language to be able to defend themselves.
And I thought at that young age, you never know where life would take you. So to be so judgmental, really disturbed me. And my mom started to call me “La abogadita,” the little lawyer. And you have to be careful about the power of your words, truly, especially with children. Because I decided, I wanted to be a voice for my community. I wanted to go to college, I wanted to become a lawyer.
My mom didn’t even study. I don’t think she studied the third grade or elementary school. But she would always say, “ When I die, I am not going to leave you with anything, you have to get an education.” And my sister and I saw how hard she worked and she had a lot of different jobs and in different factories as well where she hardly made any money, and she was given 15 minutes to eat her lunch. That kind of experience shapes you, right? It really does.
Have you ever felt the need to censor your leadership around men?
No, I mean I have a reputation of always speaking my mind, and sometimes it gets me in trouble. But it’s okay, they say, John Lewis, Congressman Lewis would say “good trouble” right? Si! I have always spoken my mind. I remember the former President of the Senate here in Maryland, he passed away recently, and he was so accomplished, so respected. He would see me and he would say, “here comes trouble,” because I wasn’t afraid to challenge him, and to speak my mind, and to speak for the people that are marginalized.
People that do not have a voice, that have challenges. Educational challenges, financial challenges, environmental challenges, you know those social determinants of health that, especially now during Covid have affected so many of our people, right? Especially the Black and Brown people. You know we need to speak up because Covid has really illustrated the inequities that we have in our society.
You are the first in your family to reach your current position. What does your success mean to your family?
You know what, I think we cannot underestimate the power of setting an example. Because I was the first to go to college, and then my nephew and my niece lived with my husband and I for a while, and my nephew graduated from Fordham University, my niece graduated from college and has a Master’s in Higher Ed. Her sister graduated as well from college, so the example that you set, especially for my children, I have three children, and my son just graduated college this past May and he is an AeroSpace Engineer. My daughters, (I have twin daughters), are graduating this upcoming May.
So for the past 5 years, my husband and I have been paying three college tuition fees. But it’s worth it because I want my kids to have an education; it’s so important. To think that this Dominican girl came to this country, and in a very humble way, has been able to help her family get educated. And it’s not just getting an education to be able to afford material things. It’s to get an education to be able to be impactful in life and to make a difference, and to help others. To leave your family on this earth in a better shape than you found it right? To have some meaning is so important. Setting an example is so important.
What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders and those entering a male dominated profession?
I would first say to work hard, be disciplined which is so important, and to not forget where you come from. You know those values, those principles that guide you. And to speak your mind, always, don’t compromise on that. That is so important.
How has being a woman of the Dominican Diaspora shaped your experiences? What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
As I said, I was the first in my family to go to college. I remember living in the Dominican Republic with my grandparents, and my grandparents had 11 kids. We lived in a little house that was a three bedroom wooden house, with a latrine in the back. But, you know I shared the bedroom with my grandparents and with my sister. There were 17 of us, a total of 17 of us in that three bedroom house at one point.
My uncles, my aunts, my grandparents, and my uncles two kids. And my sister and I, while my mom was in the United States, like many immigrants, sent money to help us. I remember that there were times when we did not have any food….At noon, (you know in the islands everybody eats at noon), you have a schedule. You have breakfast, you have your lunch, and then dinner. And I remember honestly hitting the plates at noon so our neighbors thought we were eating.
Because you could hear everything; we all lived so close. And I remember sometimes not having 25 cents. I remember going to bed hungry ..I used to love when we would make lemonade with evaporated milk with sugar with the white bread, and you would dip it. And you know sometimes we would have that and it was such a great meal. So when you come from that background, it shapes you, right? It shapes you because you have a very strong sense of family, which is so important. And I think that we are very close to our family, Latinos.
You know everyone is, but we in particular are very family-oriented and religious. I have a very strong tie to my family, a lot of respect for my family. All those things that you go through, all those experiences shape you to be disciplined, to work hard, to want to do better, to want and help your family. The fact that you’re proud and that everything you do represents them. That everything you do reflects them. It shapes the woman that I am and in every decision that I make. It’s the only way I can describe it.
How have you retained your Dominican identity in the U.S?
I think by being close to my family, when I go and I visit, their music, merengue, bachata, they have arroz, habichuelas, carne, ensalada, dominos, you know we play dominos. I think that language is important to me. To speak Spanish and for my kids to speak the language as well. So I think that that keeps me close to them. Because we have that in common and we can communicate. Every Monday I go to Radio America, and Alejandro Carrasco the owner, who has a show called Calentando La Manana, I get to connect with the community. I have done it for over 10 years and I get to the community in the DMV area. The Washington DC , Virginia and Maryland area. And that keeps me grounded.
What components shape a woman’s ability to lead others?
I believe that a woman has the ability to communicate clearly, has empathy, understanding, is a consensus builder, is flexible, can multi-task. We are very strong and have amazing qualities.
What has been the most significant barrier in your career?
When I was in law school, English was my second language, so it was a struggle. But when I finished law school, you had to take the bar exam to be able to practice in whatever state you live in. And I took the bar and did not pass. And I had a job, I was working as a public defender in Philadelphia and I loved the job, and I was good at it. So good at it, and I mean that in a humble way because I work hard and I know where I come from, and I will always go the extra mile for everyone. Whether you were Black, Brown, White, woman, male, whichever gender. I worked really hard and gave it my absolute best. Because I could see how easily you could end up in trouble, especially when you don’t have the support and the love like most people and us have had.
And I loved my job. So when I took it, I did not pass. And the Public defender, my boss said, “you could take it one more time, but you must pass it.” So I actually took it and didn’t pass. And I failed by about 7 points the second time or something like that. And the third time it was the same thing, it wasn’t a lot of points. And then the fourth time, they only gave it back then twice a year. I took it, I wasn’t going to take it, and my boyfriend at the time, who is my husband today, (We’ve been married 29 years. We met in law school), he said, “oh come on, don’t give up. You should take it again. This test does not define you.”
So I learned about my strength, to be resilient, to not give up, but also that in life, as a woman and as a man, you must choose your partner wisely. Whoever you choose, that person has to be supportive of your dreams, and encourage you. Because if you don’t choose well, they can make you or break you. He believed in me, I believed in myself, but it’s nice to have to give you that push. And I took it, but the third time, I failed by one point. I remember dropping on the floor and crying, because I was looking up and was “god, what are you teaching me here? What is it? Am I supposed to be more humble? What is it that you are trying to teach me here?
Because if I’m going to fail, let me fail by a lot of points.” So I took it the fourth time and I passed, you know with enough points to get licensed. But that was really a test, a test of my determination, a test of my discipline, a test of just re-evaluating. Do I want this? and who am I? And can I do this? So many questions, and I learned from that experience that you don’t give up, ever. And you cannot take a no from someone who cannot give you a yes. If you want it, you go for it. If you have to take it 100 times, you go for it. You could do it if you work hard and if you give it your best, and if you have faith. Believe in yourself, and in what you’re doing and your purpose. And that was a very hard lesson okay? It was two years of my life and I lost a job.
As a state delegate what is your unique approach to fighting for working families?
Everyday does not go according to a master plan. So, sometimes I come into the office and I have to help someone whose home is being foreclosed. Sometimes I come into the office to help someone who is in a hospital and he needs me to call the President of that hospital to advocate for them. Sometimes you come to the office and you get a call from a parent whose child in school is being bullied.
So I come into the office with a sense that I want to make a difference that day. I keep myself flexible and I go in, and whatever is on my desk I work on. I try to find a solution that in the end would benefit that family, and will make them happier, more comfortable, and help find a solution to their problem. Everyone wants to meet their basic needs, they want to be able to make a living, to provide food for their families, to put food on the table, to pay for their rent, for their kids to get educated, they want to have health insurance, they want to live in a safe place where a bullet is not going to kill them. They want to breathe clean air, everyone, no matter who you are, wants the same thing.
What unique values do Latinas bring in the political sphere?
We bring a different perspective of the immigrant experience. Where we come from, we bring the language as well. We bring the discipline as well, we have this fire in our belly to not give up and to work so hard right? Because we want this American dream. So we are people that can be relied upon, people that work hard, people that love their families. And not everyone’s the same, but we usually have by and large a great disposition. So I think Latinas are an asset in every environment.
What advice would you give a college student with a passion for families and immigration who would like to get into politics? What are some paths that could take a college student from passionate advocacy to the House, Senate and State leadership?
I would say, and I try to do this at my office, where I give young people an opportunity to volunteer. Because you can’t be what you can’t see. And it’s important to see people like us, other people, so we can learn from them. And I would say volunteer, find a non-profit, find a company and volunteer or work so that you can get experience. Take time and go watch a hearing, think outside the box. What you don’t know, teach yourself and learn it. You have to be curious and have a broad knowledge of this world. So I would say, go out there and get it.
Find what moves you and volunteer, a lot of times you volunteer, you find a job. If you can find one right? It’s great to be compensated but there are so many opportunities out there. There are internships that pay in the General Assembly, the House and the Senate. We have internships, we have fellowships that pay. And many times you end up getting work and working for one of the members. And you get to network, it’s an amazing experience to expand your network and meet people who may be able to give you a hand when you need it.
What is a day in the life of a State Delegate, “Top 100 women” like?
I am very blessed and very humbled for that recognition. You know, I don’t take it for granted. I think that my days are very busy. I get up in the morning and when I leave my house, after I get dressed, say bye to my family, sometimes I don’t have breakfast which is very bad. I go to the office and I have a lot of meetings with different constituents, different advocacy groups. People that want a certain law passed, and they come and want to give me their perspective, why this is needed, what the bill is going to fix. And you have lobbyists as well, and you have people with their personal stories as well.You have emails that come, hundreds and hundreds of emails every week on different subjects.
For example, from people who have not been able to get their unemployment, and they want me to get in touch with the unemployment office. People whose child needs a notebook for school. People who can’t find a doctor and need help in finding a doctor. Someone who is losing their home as well. Someone who’s having mental health issues and they need a psychiatrist or a psychologist, and they need a program. Someone who needs help in getting their electricity, their electricity is going to be turned off at 5 o’clock and they call you at 4 o’clock. And they can’t pay the bills and you try to call the company and try to see if we can get them some financial assistance or get them on a payment plan. That’s the constituent stuff that I work on, but I am also working on policy. I am currently working with experts on drafting a bill that would provide access to health care.
A bill that will provide training for all health care providers. So what does that entail? It entails having many many meetings with all the stakeholders, because I bring everyone to the table whether you are for it or against it. Trying to explain why I am putting in a bill, getting facts and the science, and the evidence, and then listening to their perspective. You have two ears and one mouth for a reason. So you have to listen and then you can talk. And you try to compromise, and by the time I file that bill, that bill is ready to go, and I am not going to get a lot of opposition. Because the committee won’t have time to do the work.
So a day in my life is very busy, I have a lot of zoom meetings as well, a lot of community meetings, and civic association meetings where I go to the different communities and I explain what laws we just passed, I explain what I do. A lot of phone calls, many many many phone calls as well, replying to constituent needs. Working with my colleagues and helping them with their bills as well. You know, developing relationships to build a coalition and consensus. Helping people that are running for office, recruiting more women and people of color to run as well. Being involved in different boards and commissions where I attend, and where I have to listen and give my perspective, and I try to help. So it’s quite involved.
As you’ve reached high levels of influence, how have you maintained a connection with those you represent?
I stay very active in my community, not just when I’m running for office, we run every 4 years. This is my 15th year as a State Delegate. I am the Vice Chair of the Health Committee and the chair of the Public Health Committee. I am a member of both the Black Caucus, and the Latino Caucus, and the Women Caucus. So I stay very active. For example, during the CoronaVirus pandemic, I spent time distributing food to local seniors in my community.
Then I also went door knocking, and gave out flyers to more than twelve-hundred homes where I organized a vaccine drive at a church. Make it comfortable for people to come because it is near their home, a place they trust. So I did a lot of coordination with the church, a lot of coordination with the non-profits. It’s important to stay connected, because if you’re connected and you’re in the community, you can hear, and you can know what the issues are. And what is needed so you can respond appropriately.
Many Americans have lost faith in the power of government to enact bills that will make a difference in immigrant lives. Some say that politics are so divided in Congress that nothing happens. What has been your process for co authoring bills with others who agree and disagree with you?
I think that this job is about relationships, so not taking anything personally. Knowing that today you may agree on something, and tomorrow you may disagree. You can still sit down and break bread. I try to say, “look, let’s agree to disagree respectfully,” is one of my favorite sayings, and let’s work on the things that we can agree on. Right? because at the end of the day, as I told you,, people want the simple things in life. To be able to provide for their family, everyone wants it. It’s how we get there that we disagree on. You know, but we have to find, if you’re really motivated by improving people’s lives, then you have to put your differences aside. And try to find a way to pass a policy that does that. I might not get everything I want, I never do. But do I get something?
So you can’t be an all or nothing type of person. And I think that it’s important to remember those values and the people you represent. They have trusted me with their vote, with their confidence. And I must not take it for granted. That is really important, and I don’t agree with everything that my constituents want me to do. But I will say, with most of it I’ll do. But when I don’t agree, I let them know.
I am honest, I am transparent, and I let them know why I don’t support something. And I say, I am not a one issue person, so please give me an opportunity. And I think that as long as you give people respect, people are ok with that. And that’s something that we are missing today. Especially with social media. People hide behind social media and their posts. They tell you off and they are disrespectful. They can be quite rude, frankly. And I think that if you saw me in person, you wouldn’t treat me that way. You would have more consideration. I think we need to go back to basics, to respect when we disagree.
What is the most important quality a State Delegate should have?
You know, when I’m working in legislation I have to be able to trust people. And people have to be able to trust me right? So keeping your word is the most important. Seriously, the most important attribute you can have. Because if you can’t keep your word, you can’t build support for your legislation. And that is important. Your word is your bond, it’s all you have at the end of the day. And if you die, you want people to remember that you were someone trustworthy, and that you had values, and that’s important. I never vote for something that I don’t believe in. It’s important for my value system.
What advice would you give your children for their professional lives?
Don’t do something for the money. The money will come if you’re good at something. I would say, be curious, push yourself out of your comfort zone. Find that passion that makes you wake up in the morning and you’re like, “I love this, I’m making a difference, it’s meaningful.” Of course it’s not going to be all roses, because life has ups and downs. But by and large, you’re ok with it. I would say, work hard, because hard work pays off. And you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, but you must out-work everyone else. And have that discipline, and know when to go ask someone else when you don’t know the answer. How and when to build coalition and support. Things change really fast in this world, and you have to be flexible and have a broad knowledge to be able to move forward. That is really important.
Vanessa Campa is a Senior student at Florida International University majoring in English and minoring in Psychology. Vanessa grew up with a huge Latinx community in Miami, Fl where the majority of the population is Hispanic, and was raised by two amazing immigrant parents. She has a passion for art, photography, humanitarian issues, human rights issues, and telling stories that have an impact on shifting perspectives and educating audiences. She hopes to get into the journalism field to continue her love of storytelling. In her time with the Latina Republic, Vanessa wants to contribute to change the stereotypical narrative of her people and tell inspiring unrecognized stories that need to be brought to light.