A Day of Reflection with Corinna Espino, MSW

Given the nature of our physical space amid COVID, I was approached by Corinna and Sascha to spend a "virtual day" with the two, rummaging around their mental space. Like many of you, I was curious where all of this startedthe root of it all. I have known the two for the past six years and have spent quite a bit of time with them. There have been trials, tribulations, and successes. I have had the privilege to be present for a lot of it! It was incredibly beneficial to take a step out of our busy days to sit, talk, and reflect. The following is what ensued.


I met you in 2016, while you were working at a restaurant. Certain things quickly stood out, such as your passion and desire to help others, including myself. Within a few meetings, I was alerted to what I know now was your passion: social work. I'd love to explore that. Out of all the possible fields you could have worked in, what drew you to social work?


The running joke is that I’ve been a social worker since birth. I was probably in the nursery with the other babies talking to them about their emotions and affirming it was okay to cry. For as long as people have known me, I’ve always been involved in supporting others somehow. In kindergarten, I would try to eat snacks next to the kid who was sitting alone through high school where I was a trained peer helper who would mediate conflicts and provide emotional support for my peers. The irony is in my lack of awareness for this calling. I always thought I wanted to be a teacher. I applied to volunteer with some international programs during my youth, for their education positions, and was instead placed in the social work placements due to the results of my application. This happened three times (ages 16-20). My high school counselor would joke that I would one day take his job (when he was ready to retire). I entered my first sociology class in 2010 and immediately was in awe that a science was created about things I’ve thought of often I didn’t know all these things had names (i.e. self-fulfilling prophecy, norms/mores/taboo, conflict theory). As I dug deeper into my understanding of people and how we relate to others, I became increasingly interested in finding complex, creative solutions. The dean of the social science department, for whom I had been a teaching assistant (T.A). 3 times, explicitly suggested I apply to MSW programs after graduation. I took my first social work class that semester (Fall semester of my senior year, 2013) at which point the things aligned and the future seemed clearer. My heart has always been routed in equityhow can we bring all types of people to the table, together? To solve problems, to experience joy, and to support one another throughout hardship. This is a very basic desire that has a very complicated application, and I have always been interested in learning how to support healing and community in REAL LIFE!


Once I became more familiar with social work, I was immediately drawn to the code of ethics by which we practice. This code includes valuing the inherent dignity and worth of each individual, and requires us to advocate on all levels for unique, vulnerable and/or marginalized populations. The code of ethics asks us to value the agency of each individual, and their unique perspective and paths. I thought, "this is something I can get behind."


Additionally, I think my personal experience influenced my interest in social work too. As a differently abled, bi-racial woman, I’ve seen the power of empathy, belonging, and justice first hand. This fueled a lifelong fire that is still aflame to this day.


What propelled you to work in youth development, specifically?


There are so many things about working with young people that I love. My favorite part of working with young people is getting out of the way so they can shine. We all are inherently gifted, in so many ways. And the opportunities to cultivate and express those talents vary for all sorts of ecological reasons. I love providing space for young people to explore, develop and lean into all parts of themselves (the beautiful, the shadow self, the funny parts), to grow in confidence of their natural abilities. I love finding spaces and opportunities for the young people to do this, and more so, ASKING what opportunities they would like and helping those things come to fruition. There is something so unfiltered about youth their “naïve” dreams are actually dreams without limits. It's living with imagination and possibility. Young people are also growing rapidly. They go through 3 major physiological changes, and a handful of development changes, all while trying to perform in our western, production-driven culture. There are a lot of questions, changes, and challenges that appear during our youth, and I believe in the power of adult allies to support them through this journey.


I've often met with you in L.A. and elsewhere, shortly after you've had a trying or difficult time with a peer, coworker, or customer. Although I was never given the juicy details (I know, I know, confidentiality), I was often left semi speechless with the tasks you undertook and the positions you found yourself in. Many were ethically complex and, honestly, difficult! What about it attracts you and keeps you going?


Oftentimes when people find out I am a social worker, they say something along the lines of “How do you do that? Isn’t it so sad/tough?” I am on the side of positivity for surewhen I am involved with a student, organization, or community, that normally means that support was solicited and we are working towards progress or change. Healing and liberation is full of beautiful things. Yes there is pain! And growth is uncomfortable. But it is also humorous, enlightening, connecting, and allows us to have a deeper appreciation for our life. I feel very honored when people invite me into their life & journey, when they are willing to share vulnerable stories and moments. I do not take that responsibility lightly. I am grateful that I can offer space for them to let down some of the burdens, but also engage in experiencing the joy. Having been in the field for over ten years, you begin to see the success of clients after a decade. Some are now social workers themselves! Additionally, time and time again I am reminded of the strength of the human spirit, and our natural inclination of connection and love.


You touch on a good point regarding preconceived notions of "the social worker" and what that really means. To be honest, I had never met a social worker and thought it was something more akin to a human resources position. What are some aspects of this work that many people aren't aware of?


I think a lot of people have a misconception of what a social worker is or can be. Most people think of county social workers or social workers who work for the children and family services. This is a very small niche of social worker, and social workers actually hold all types of positions. They lead nonprofits and community based organizations, they work with lawyers inside and outside the courtroom, they are politicians, work as financial advisors, in hospitals, schools, you name it! We are professionally trained in 9 main areas;


ETHICS & professional behavior

DIVERSITY & difference in practice

HUMAN RIGHTS & SOCIAL JUSTICE

INFORMED RESEARCH & RESEARCH INFORMED PRACTICE POLICY informed practice

ENGAGE individuals, families, groups, organizations, communities

ASSESS individuals, families, groups, organizations,, communities

INTERVENE with individuals, families, groups, organizations,, communities

EVALUATE practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations, communities


We are able to do these 9 skills across a diverse array of settings and populations. However, we have a commitment to supporting the most vulnerable populations! We also go through really intensive training, that includes thousands of hours of internship, and very rigorous learning objectives. Many social workers will then become an expert in their focus area. My area of expertise is in non-traditional social work, and infusing these social work skills, ethics, and principles into non-traditional spaces.


Wow! I had gotten glimpses of these areas during your time in the L.A. Unified School District. However, I must admit that I didn't know your training was so expansive and varied. Now I know why and how you worked alongside federal and local organizations, such as the FBI and local policy-makers. Are there innate challenges that aren't encountered in other types of social work?


A specific part of our focus at Empathy in Action is connecting these focus areas and skills (normally utilized by mental health professionals and those in the wellness business) to situations and places that are unfamiliar or don’t traditionally prioritize those focuses. Our argument and belief is that these places can especially benefit from our services. The challenge is to connect the terminology, concepts, and theories to unfamiliar and sometimes reluctant populations. Why should we care about trauma? How does that apply to our business? Those are questions we are prepared to answer. Once we are able to educate and draw the connections of these skills to the unique environments, the individuals groups or businesses see the difference in practice.


However, this challenge is our favorite part. We love working with lawyers, financial advisors, business owners, entrepreneurs and tech companies, to learn and grow together. To collaborate and share wisdom, for that vision of a world with more empathy.


Just so our readers are clear, I am NOT a social worker by any means. As such, I won't claim to know the trajectory of the field. What does this field need that it is currently lacking?


Social workers are terribly undervalued. Not only do we have high emotional intelligence, we are crisis responders, consultants, balance tight budgets, manage programs, build capacity, all while doing individualized counseling sessions and policy advocacy on the side. The range of skills are seriously unmatched in the professional world. We do not get paid our value, and oftentimes find ourselves at the mercy and politics of the non-profit industrial complex (another facet of colonialism, with the ultimate aim of oppression).


The field has been dominated by a very narrow, western perspective for a while but that is changing! The world of academia has shifted a little, allowing more diversity in research and education. However, we need more. We need more people who are differently abled (shout out to all my peeps), more women, more people of color, more queer folks, gender non-conforming or fluid folks, all of them! Lived-experience is just as valuable as any course in a graduate program, and I get excited about all of the creative sustainable solutions to come from these brilliant minds and experiences.


Finally, social work is too siloed. Social workers and social work principles are thought to be bound to particular areas; the medical field, supporting youth & families, veterans, mental health, and a few others. Social work principles are helpful for ALL spaces and ALL people, and I would love to see a social worker hired as frequently as front desk assistance.


Where do you see yourself in 10 years?


I have big plans for Empathy in Action. Sascha and I talk often about how sweet the memories of “fitting this into our day job” will be. We want Empathy in Action to be one of the major educational and consulting firms in the world. We believe our focus on empathy and application of these skills is endless. We want to support others in their vision of empathy for non-traditional spaces and really look forward to fostering the growth of our future team.


Empathy in Action will offer consulting services, training, workshops and more to the fields of health, finance, science & technology, the arts, business, government, sports and more. We hope to have a retreat center, a business complex in Richmond and a team that vibes and runs off of empathy. I am looking forward to being a compassionate leader, offering equitable access to creating generational wealth for my employees (and myself), and seeing what the dream of empathy really becomes. We also want swag, online training modules, care subscriptions boxes... just to name a few of the projects in the works. We are currently finalizing the draft of our first book, and in 10 years, I am sure to have authored at least a few more.


One thing that drives this vision is the ability to give back. I want to see people feel more comfortable to come to the table, to be their full and authentic selves to enjoy the most joy and liberation they can. And through that, I want to shift the narrative of value by honoring social workers, and our skills. Through this high valuing, we will have the means to give back generously to our communities and supporters. Aka mom gets a house :)


 

Corinna, thank you for your time. It's been a pleasure to reconnect. It's definitely given me a more complete view of what you do and where it all started. I know that you wouldn't mind so I went ahead and included a few pictures. I've included a little bit about each photo, starting from the top left and going down and over in a clockward direction.


1. Roseland University Prep, Roseland, Santa Rosa CA. The start of your Cheerleading days!

2. One of your first "professional" headshots.

3. LAUSD CSEC (Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children)Task Force after a board meeting, celebrating the unanimous passing of the Preventing the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Resolution in 2016.

4. 2018 Gala at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, in Richmond, CA.

5. Receiving the USC School of Social Work 'Lillian Hawthorne Award of Excellence in Field Education' for her landmark policy work supporting youth vulnerable to child sex trafficking in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2016.




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