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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Military Brat Committed to Empowering Young Girls and People of Color

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Photo: Christina Henderson)

(Photo: Christina Henderson)

On November 03, 2004, George W. Bush won his second term as president. John Kerry conceded, and Christina Henderson, then an 18-year-old freshman at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, wore black.

After a long day, she returned to her freshman dormitory to find her fellow co-eds discussing politics. One said, “I could never vote for a woman for president because America would look weak in the eyes of the international community.” To Henderson’s surprise, the others agreed. They asked what she thought. “Rarely am I at a loss for words,” she recalls, “but in that awkward moment I could only respond, ‘I’m going to prove you wrong!’”

The next day, she changed her major from English to political science. Today she has a Master’s in public affairs from Princeton University and directs the Council of the District of Columbia’s Committee on Education.

As the deputy chief of staff for D.C. councilmember David Grosse, she writes and helps pass laws about education, criminal justice, and regulatory affairs. She oversees the budget for all matters related to D.C.’s public schools and libraries. The plan for the not-too-distant future is to hold public office herself.

"That was the best lesson in public service, mission-driven work, and sacrifice. I wasn’t called to wear the uniform myself but I certainly inherited a passion for making a difference by serving causes greater than oneself."

Henderson, one of six siblings, grew up in Brooklyn, a city she has always loved for its vibrant diversity. “But what really influenced my path,” she says, “was becoming a military brat.” When she was in third grade, her mother joined the U.S. Army.

“That was the best lesson in public service, mission-driven work, and sacrifice,” Henderson says. “I wasn’t called to wear the uniform myself but I certainly inherited a passion for making a difference by serving causes greater than oneself.”

She’s especially focused on empowering girls and people of color to get into her line of work. “Even in 2015, in an urban city like Washington, D.C.,” she says, “I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been the only woman or the only person of color sitting in a meeting.”

Recently, many of those meetings have been related to D.C.’s legalization of marijuana. The problem is that, though it’s not a crime anymore to have and sell small amounts, people who had marijuana-related charges are still stigmatized by what’s no longer illegal.

In response, Henderson wrote a law to seal the records of people with a non-violent marijuana-related conviction. “If we were going to decriminalize or legalize marijuana under the guise of social justice,” she says, “we have to allow people who were disproportionately impacted by the old law to go back to living their lives without consequence.”

For perspective, she points out that almost half of D.C.’s population is black, but in 2010, 91 percent of marijuana arrests were of black people. Most of those convicted for possession weren’t charged with any other crime, meaning that those arrests are no longer tied to anything illegal.

Henderson’s record-sealing bill, expected to become law this year, will impact more than 20,000 people who will no longer have to “check the box” on employment applications and will no longer be barred from access to certain housing. “The mark that could’ve effectively been holding them back economically is lifted,” Henderson says.

Henderson hopes her legislation will be replicated in Colorado and in Washington state, places where marijuana has been legal for more than a year. “I’m proud the District is a model,” she says.

Through some of her other work, Henderson says, “I get to meet the coolest young people. They’re raw and unfiltered with their observations about their world, and their dreams and imaginations are uninhibited. If, through policy, I can help ensure that their light never dims—and that their ZIP code doesn’t create an insurmountable barrier to achieving their dreams—I want to make it happen.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).