Women’s History Month: Donis Coronel

The San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) is a family affair for Donis Coronel, a 38-year veteran of the system. Her mother, aunt and other family members were employed there. Now, four of her six children work there. And she herself was a student at SDUSD from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade.

Today, in a bit of a departure, Donis serves as full-time executive director of the Administrators Association San Diego City Schools (AASD), AFSA, Local 134, the organization that represents the school leaders that work in the SDUSD

Donis credits outstanding female mentorship and supportive female figures for guiding her along the way to a career full of achievement in both education and labor relations. Soon after her mother  passed away, she met an extraordinary woman named Ruth, who was the director of labor relations at the school district. 

“Ruth to this day has continued to be a mentor and friend to me,” Donis says. “I learned everything I know about labor relations from her. She took me under her wing and called me grasshopper, because I would hop between projects and move my way up.”

Ruth taught Donis the three Fsto be fair, firm and friendly. 

“I try to remember that at work because that is how I would want to be treated by someone,” she says.

In addition to working in labor relations, she served as the director of human resources for SDUSD. That’s when she ran across a Maya Angelou quote, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

“That’s exactly how I want to operate,” she thought. 

She put the quotation on her office wall and now it is part of her email signature. She always wants to make sure people leave her office feeling respected.

After experiencing what she refers to as her first "work trauma" late in her career, she developed a deeper understanding of the value of supporting those experiencing professional difficulties. From 2014 to 2017, Donis ran AASD as the president and executive director. She had learned “how it feels to be in that position where something happens at work where you don’t feel valued, and I have been in their shoes, so I have a lot of empathy and will do anything to support our members.” 

Donis’s proudest accomplishment was founding a women’s group called Empower Hour six years ago. It is a San Diego County grassroots organization that began as “a countywide effort of a few women going to a women’s conference and wondering if we could somehow keep the momentum going.”

“Before COVID-19, we had ended the year with 35 events, almost an event every week, ranging from workshops to speakers,” she recalls. “It was a completely amazing journey. We had no money, but we formed partnerships.” Empower Hour brought in speakers such as financial experts on saving for retirement, an expert on self-defense, a domestic violence survivor who is now an attorney, and female authors who had written books about women. 

“It just took off when we saw how much women wanted to be a part of this and that kept us moving forward,” she says.

Within Empower Hour, Donis also spearheaded a mentorship program, with women highly experienced in education who volunteered to work with others from the group who signed up as mentees. The program had 60 women and lasted three years, and most of the women have maintained their relationships . The women were hand-matched and “we didn’t have any pairings that didn’t work out.”

Donis is proud to note that Empower Hour received awards from the State Association of California Administrations (ACSA) and Phi Delta Kappa. 

“It touched so many women in San Diego County and we never turned anyone away,” Donis notes.  “This was meant for any and all educators. We had at least 900 women attend different events.”

As part of Empower Hour, classes were taught on how to balance home and work life. Donis, who has been a working mother since age 22, is proud of how she’s been able to balance her career and be a family person, admitting “it’s hard to do.”

“It’s a see-saw, and sometimes you give more on one side than another and you need to balance it out,” she says. “Being organized is crucial, and there are times you have to choose one over the other, but it will all work out.”

A huge conference for Empower Hour had been planned before COVID that focused on self-care and pampering with focused vendors in diverse industries ranging from a female attorney to a cosmetics company to real estate. 

“This was my baby, and I was really proud of it,” she says. Donis looks forward to bringing back programming when people feel comfortable gathering again. “It was all about the relationships that were formed there.”  

After the pandemic year that everyone has lived through, these relationships are more important than ever before.