Why I Serve: Nicole Isaac

President Obama’s special assistant for Legislative Affairs discusses the importance of being an agent of change.

Posted: 09/12/2013 05:00 AM EDT

Nicole Isaac listens in as President Obama talks with Rep. Mel Watt aboard Air Force One. (Photo:  Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)

Nicole Isaac, special assistant to the president for Legislative Affairs and former deputy director of legislative affairs for Vice President Joe Biden, literally grew up in two worlds. Weekdays were spent at New York's prestigious Fieldston School, where she studied alongside some of the city's most affluent children. It was a huge contrast to the gritty Bronx housing project that her family called home.

Living in one world and going to school in another, Isaac told BET.com, brought her to the realization that everyone should have access to opportunity and resources, regardless of their ZIP code. It also was a stark reminder that in too many African-American communities the opposite was true.

Still, as a civic-minded teenager, who volunteered at a local community center, she encouraged younger children to be optimistic about their futures.

"When I was 16, I met a [12-year-old boy] and tried to convince him that with education and hard work he could end up in a different place, maybe get a scholarship and have more opportunities," she said.

His response shocked her.

"He said, 'I just want to be alive when I'm 18, 21 and 25'," she recalled.

Isaac tried to convince him that he was wrong and even offered to work with him seek the access she spoke of. But six months later, the boy was dead – stabbed six stories below her kitchen window.

"I will always remember that as a pivotal moment when I knew that more had to be done and I had to be part of making that change," she said.

Isaac said that a high school summer internship with the New York City Commission on Human Rights gave her an opportunity to see how government can impact the lives of average Americans.

After earning an undergraduate degree at Brown University, a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and master's degrees at Columbia University and Oxford, and a series of internships, Isaac went to work on Capitol Hill as as legislative counsel for the nonpartisan House Office of Legislative Counsel and later as Senate floor counsel for Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin.

Working with lawmakers and seeing the legislative process in action was informative and satisfying, but she didn't fully experience its full impact until she took a leave of absence from the House to work for the deputy chief justice of South Africa at the Constitutional Court.

"Seeing the impact of laws in a society that was still relatively nascent, a new democracy post-apartheid, was for me the first time I actually felt that I was doing more, not only in [the U.S.], but abroad," Isaac said.

That's why it is critical for African-Americans and other minorities to work in government and other areas of public service, she added. When they do, it ensures that their background, perspective and experience and that of people like them are reflected in the decision-making process.

"It ensures that people who look like you or come from underrepresented backgrounds have a seat at the table and that issues that are prevalent in the African-American community, such as employment, poverty, gun control and immigration, remain at the forefront of our moral compass," Isaac said.

Now an adult, Isaac also continues to give back in other, more personal ways, using her experience to encourage other young people on their path to success. But more important, she urges them to dream big and use whatever support systems are available, like her "amazing mother," a Jamaican immigrant who single-handedly raised Isaac and her four brothers, "and know that you can achieve more than what people tell you is possible."

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