From the streets of Oak Park, Dominique Donette is now trying to start and complete a Master's program at Harvard University. But she needs some serious financial assistance. (Photo by Antonio R. Harvey)
From the streets of Oak Park, Dominique Donette is now trying to start and complete a Master’s program at Harvard University. But she needs some serious financial assistance.
(Photo by Antonio R. Harvey)

OAK PARK — Dominique “Dom” Donette has lived a unique life: she was born in a federal penitentiary, raised on the streets of Oak Park, attended 26 different schools, socially advocated for victims of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast states, and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley.

And she is just getting started.

The 28-year-old, from a family of 13 siblings, is on to the next chapter in her life, but seriously needs some financial assistance from the community she so dearly loves. Ms. Donette needs to raise $75,000 to complete a one-year masters program at Harvard University.

“I’ve never really been in a place where I felt comfortable asking for help,” Ms. Donette told The OBSERVER while working as a fellow in Los Angeles. “But at the urging from one of my closest friends (Natasia Malaihollo), she was like, ‘Dom, now is the time to ask and lean on your support system.’”

Since she won’t be able to work the entire time she spends in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ms. Donette put together a financial agenda that should keep her on track while she pursues a Master’s degree in Education Policy and Management.

The Harvard graduate program will allow Ms. Donette to learn how to shape policy and lead organizations that will create more equitable and excellent schools while creating 21st century systems of education that work for all students. Her friend started a GoFundMe campaign to help her reach her goals.

“Ideally, it would nice to raise the entire $75,000, but I am asking people to help me out by sponsoring specific things,” She said. “A month of rent, a week of food, and my health insurance fees. That comes out to about $37,000. I can take out the remaining in student loans. I am open to any help, prayers, thoughts, positive energy or whatever,” she added.

Ms. Donette will have access to the university’s extraordinary faculty and expansive resources and a flexible curriculum that balances policy, management, and research. She will take classes at all Harvard schools, including the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard Business School.

The former Sac High graduate will explore issues such as the racial and economic achievement gap, the role of charter schools in education reform, leadership in social-change organizations, entrepreneurship in education, and the use of data to improve teaching and learning.

“It’s really important for me to not just do the work for one year, but to also figure out systems and strategies,” Ms. Donette said of the course work.

“If something is really interesting in one community I want to be able to go in, look, and assess it. Ultimately, I want to say, ‘This community over here is having a problem and we can solve it based on some of the things that this community is doing.’ That’s what I want to be — an effective problem solver,” she added.

Anyone or organizations that make an investment in Ms. Donette’s passion for children and unbiased education must also consider her background. From the day she was born, Ms. Donette has endured a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. Yet, through the adversity, her meteoric rise and journey continue.

Ms. Donette’s mother was forced into sex trafficking at 13 years old. Years later, she was in a Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif., for a non-violent, drug-related offense, she gave birth to Dominique in 1986.

Her dad, who is 11 years older than her mother,, arranged it for young Dominique to be taken into foster care by an Oak Park woman he knew personally by the name of Odee L. Burr. Ms. Burr is referred to as “Grandma.”

“Grandma was a foster mom to many kids,” Ms. Donette said. “She is still living in Oak Park and I am still close to her. I attribute my ability to love to her because she was warm and generous. She didn’t have any rules. So I did run wild along with the other foster kids. But she loved me, I knew that, and I felt it,” she added.

Ms. Burr, who lives at the corner of 22nd Avenue and 42nd Street, told The OBSERVER that baby “Dom Dom” was on the verge of being adopted. It would not be her permenant home, though Ms. Burr took Donette in, raised the child as her own. Ms. Burr was a foster mother 37 years.

“It wasn’t hard on me or her. I was just like a mother to Dom and I gave her everything,” Ms. Burr said of raising Ms. Donette. “She turned out to be a doll. I’m excited over her.”

Ms. Donette said she developed a “hustle mentality” living in foster care, though that instinct probably came from her mother and dad who were hardly around during her formative years. Despite her actual parents lifestyle, Ms. Donette insists that she comes from DNA gene of survivors.

“I have to be proud of the fact that I come from survivors and hustlers,” she said. “That’s why I am so scrappy. If you ask me two words that describe me I’d say scrappy and compassionate. I do whatever it takes to get things done. It may not be in a precise way. But I literally make magic happen for me. That’s the attitude that I take.”

As a youngster, Ms. Donette, who is bi-racially Persian and African American, did move around a lot, which saw her in and out of 26 schools. She also spent time with her grandmother in Oak Park.

After graduating from Sac High in 2004, Ms. Donette went to New York to attend the Alvin Ailey School in New York to brush up on her performing arts skills in dancing. When she returned to Sacramento, Ms. Donette began to volunteer for Neighborhood Corps for the entire year.

The experience increased her passion for community advocacy.
Five years later, Ms. Donette received her double Bachelor of Arts degrees from UC Berkeley in Dance and American Studies. While at UC Berkeley, which then had a 2.8 percent Black student population, Ms. Donette fought for increased representation of minority students.

She also worked for inclusion in the residence halls on campus as a Residential Assistant for just over three years. During spring and summer breaks, Ms. Donette did not indulge in the traditional vacation for college students.

She worked on a variety of campaigns in New Orleans during post Hurricane Katrina, including organizing communities for change in the Magnolia Project and Habitat for Humanity to build homes in Gautier, Mississippi, in the wake of Hurricane Rita and Katrina.

In 2009, Ms. Donette travelled to Ghana in Africa to participate in an education abroad program where she taught students in the first, second and third grades in Achimota Primary School.
She has been around the globe to seven different countries in less than three decades.

“Sacramento is a great town, but I knew that I wanted to be a student of the world,” Ms. Donette said. “When I was a little girl I used to read these books, imagine these places, and see myself there.”

Ms. Donette spent nearly two years working on Marshall Tuck’s campaign for California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Currently, Ms. Donette is a fellow for the non-profit New Leadership Council in Los Angeles (NLC).

NLC works to recruit, train and promote the progressive political entrepreneurs of tomorrow and furnish them with the skills necessary to be civic leaders in their communities and workplaces.

She had applied to Stanford University and Harvard, the latter on the whim of not taking it seriously, she said. But now it is serious and she is ready for the challenge. Her first round of bills are due on Aug. 13 when she will need airfare to Massachusetts and deposit for her living arrangement.

“I see it as kismet,” she said. “Like it’s meant for me to go to Harvard and it’s meant for me to have this new life experience,” Ms. Donette said. “But at the moment, I just need people’s help. The sense of urgency is definitely high. These things are happening now.”

To help Dominique Donette reach her goal, visit Gofundme.com/domtoharvard.

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By Antonio R. Harvey
OBSERVER Staff Writer