Alumni in Action: Cecilia Espinola (MSW '83)

Alumni Cecilia EspinolaCecilia Espinola (MSW '83) on challenging social Injustice through advocacy and community coalitions

Cecilia Espinola (MSW '83) understands the importance of connecting with community, both personally and professionally.

After completing her undergraduate degree and MSW —  with a dual specialization in Administration, Organization and Planning and Gerontology — at UC Berkeley, she had the opportunity to return to her childhood home on the Central Coast, working first in Monterey County before moving to Santa Cruz, where she grew up.  Now, in her role as director of the Human Services Department of Santa Cruz County, a position she has held for the past 13 years, she says that "being an active member of the community” and “working with community agencies and community clinics" are vital to her office’s outreach efforts and ability to serve target populations.

In addition to overseeing the various programs that fall under the county department umbrella – including social services, child welfare and workforce development -- Espinola’s many years of experience in different positions have given her insight into the increasing needs of the individuals and families seeking governmental assistance in her region. “The caseloads in MediCal, food stamps and in-home support are growing phenomenally,” she says.

Espinola also observes that the programs themselves evolve and refocus to ensure that the clients are provided the tools needed not only to survive, but to prepare for the future. “Approximately half of our workforce development force budget goes to training vouchers, and two areas of particular emphasis are the growth fields of healthcare and green construction/industries,” she says. Additionally, Espinola and her department have integrated newer technologies into their service models, including “modernizing efforts so people can apply online” and being one of the first counties “to have a call center to manage MediCal and food stamps applications as well as ongoing case loads,” which she says has helped better meet the needs of the community.

At the same time, Espinola believes that when it comes to social-service program delivery, “there’s only so much you can do with technology.” She explains that in Santa Cruz, there are “social workers in our CalWorks program, and we’re really pleased because not all counties have them. Unfortunately, we don’t have as many in our program as we once did because of budget cuts – but having social workers available is like gold; the strength of the social work profession is really the ability to understand and help people navigate through complex barriers and access multiple systems of care.”

Similar to the challenges being faced by agencies state and nationwide, Espinola’s county has been grappling with reduced funding while demand for most of the public-assistance programs has increased. Currently dealing with the third consecutive year of budget cuts, she reiterates what she learned as an MSW student at the School of Social Welfare under Dean Harry Specht, who Espinola remembers as a “strong reminder of our responsibility to advocate.” “Advocacy is key,” she says. “It is essential to be part of whatever professional organization, whether through your place of employment and/or the National Association of Social Workers. People need to be members, they need to participate, and they need to be a strong voice.

“It is important to try to influence to the degree you can,” she continues. “There are always certain roles you have to play given your professional status. It’s important to communicate regularly with policy-makers to assure their support and continued funding of services for the most vulnerable members of our community. “

Espinola’s advocacy efforts are evident in her numerous professional memberships and roles. She is active in the California Welfare Directors Association (CWDA), for which she is currently serving as the co-chair of the Adult Services Committee; the California Social Work Education Center (CalSWEC) Board; the Advisory Council for the Center of Advanced Study of Aging Services (CASAS); and the Bay Area Social Services Consortium (BASSC).  

In regards to the job outlook for the next generation of social work professionals, including Berkeley Social Welfare graduates just now entering the challenging market, Espinola offers some well-grounded, practical advice, particularly to those who may be seeking positions at the city-, county- or state-level. “There has to be a willingness and flexibility,” she says.  “There are some opportunities in government across the state. You have to be willing, maybe temporarily, to move and gain some experience, but I think that’s no different than what’s going on in the private sector.”

In sharing her professional wisdom, Espinola also once again returns to the idea of community – and underscores the lessons she took away from Berkeley Social Welfare. “There is an important need for students to get involved politically, especially at the local level, as a means to challenge social injustice,” she says.