Get to know Jeanette Lopez-Urbina - Core Faculty, Counseling Psychology Program

Jeanette Lopez-Urbina, LCSW, recently became a core faculty member with the Wright Institute Counseling Psychology Program. Lopez-Urbina teaches Community Mental Health, Family Therapy II, Family Violence & Protection, and Professional Development Seminar, and serves on the program's diversity committee. She sat down with the Wright Institute's Dalton Green to discuss her career, what she enjoys about teaching, the importance of diverse representation in psychology, and her plans for the future.

Dalton Green (DG): How did you first become a part of the Wright Institute community?
Jeanette Lopez-Urbina (JLU):
Last year, I heard through a connection that the Wright Institute was looking for a new Community Mental Health instructor for the Counseling Program. I didn't know much about the Wright Institute at that point, but I did know Taquelia Washington and Katherine Tarnoff, with whom I'd been working on a different project. I came in for an interview with Washington and Dr. Esherick, and I taught Community Mental Health for the first time last summer.

DG: What do you enjoy about teaching?
Teaching a class like Family Therapy II allows me to explore a deeper level of theoretical work, which can be a lot of fun. I also really enjoy teaching in the weekend format, because it leaves a lot of room for experiential work.

I've been in community mental health for 19 years, and I have a lot of passion for the topics that are covered in the Community Mental Health course. It's based in social justice, racial justice, and serving marginalized populations through a culturally sensitive, trauma-informed lens, which is what I perform trainings on outside of the Wright Institute.

One of the things that I appreciate about working with the Wright Institute is the small classes, which gives me the opportunity to build personal relationships with the students. I'm thrilled to be able to mentor, role model, teach, and share knowledge with a new generation of therapists and counselors who are entering our field with such strong advocate voices.

DG: How did you first get interested in psychology?
I am a first-generation Salvadoran-American. When I was a teenager, I was trying to make sense of why my parents left their home country. I'd wonder, "Why is my life the way it is?" I was trying to make sense of the people around me and trying to make sense of the world, and naturally gravitated to the field of psychology. I began working in group homes at 19, which fueled my passion to pursue social work. My desire for a career in psychology was borne out of a curiosity of how people understand trauma and the choices they make when recovering from trauma. That central idea helped me grapple with how I understand my family history.

DG: How did you wind up in the Bay Area?
I grew up in Southern California, and studied psychology at UC Santa Cruz. I knew throughout undergrad that I would be pursuing a graduate degree, and I completed my Master's in Social Work at USC, which is about 20 miles from where I grew up in North Long Beach. Even though my parents still live in southern California, I've always had a much greater affinity for the Bay Area. I feel that there is a stronger progressive culture here, and there is also much greater access to nature - both of which are very important to me.

DG: What are you doing when you're not teaching at the Wright Institute?
I train community-based organizations and nonprofits that focus on serving children and youth. Right now, I'm working with agencies mostly in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, like A Better Way and Fred Finch, but have also started to get more involved with agencies in San Francisco and San Mateo counties. I train on topics related to Latinx populations and culturally responsive services. For example, recently I've been providing a training on immigration trauma with a special focus on Central American populations.

As a woman of color, working in this field can feel overwhelming. I'm often the only clinician in the room who speaks Spanish, or is a part of the population I serve. There's also not a lot of Latina leadership in the therapy field. When I can give a training about a topic that connects with me, it's empowering to be able to try to give voice to my community and the unique perspective that involves, especially for Central Americans.

DG: Are you beginning to see more Spanish-speaking therapists in the Bay Area?
With the exception of Mexican immigrants, who have a very long history with the United States, a lot of Latinx immigrants arrived more recently. Central Americans, in particular, came in the late 1970s, 80s, and 90s. It takes a long time for people like my parents to settle here, their kids to go to graduate school, and eventually choose our field. We're only now at that time where Central American therapists are starting to enter the field in California. I didn't meet another Salvadoran therapist until three years ago, and that's because I was mentoring her.

It's new and exciting to see more Central American therapists, but change is slow. There still aren't nearly enough bilingual therapists to meet the increasing demand, and there isn't enough quality assurance around providers who identify as bilingual. Using your therapy brain is extremely difficult when you're having trouble keeping up with the language. There can also be a lack of cultural understanding as well as linguistic understanding, which is another topic I provide trainings on.

DG: What are some cultural aspects that clinicians can overlook?
Some providers try really hard to convey concepts like "positive reinforcement" to their Central American clients. But many of us didn't grow up with positive reinforcement - it's just not part of our culture. We just learned to simply respect our elders, so why would we get parenting with positive reinforcement?

That level of cultural competency is not widely discussed among clinicians working with unfamiliar populations. A lot of clinicians want to recreate the North American way of delivering services and just adjust the language to Spanish, but would you implement North American ways somewhere else in the world? It's important to realize that methods of treatment should be based around the client and their cultural identity as much as possible, and not around where they happen to live.

DG: What are some ways that agencies can improve?
A couple ways that some agencies are improving is having group supervision in Spanish - that's a way to ensure that the clinician is both linguistically and culturally proficient. Clinicians can also seek out other resources that are available, like books or other readings. There's not a whole lot of options readily available right now, which I'm struggling with as I'm preparing to teach at UC Berkeley's Social Work with Latinos Program. There are people on a national level writing about these topics, but they're not getting enough attention.

For example, I have some clients in my private practice who come from indigenous Mexican populations. That's a culture I've become more familiar with, but it's not a culture I grew up with and can personally connect with, so I'm working on educating myself to effectively work through the cultural differences that are present. I rely on what similarities I do have to be able to join in that cultural conversation, and I make sure to ask what other resources help the client. I think reading about that culture also helps, as well as remaining open. I feel that there's a certain siblinghood across Latin America, so I think we feel that comradery even though we're from different countries. Having that connection enables us to talk about our cultural similarities and differences.

I believe that we have to let individual communities empower themselves and teach in their own ways. In other words, a training that is Latinx-directed is best handled by a Latinx trainer. Clinicians and organizations may be credible and well-meaning, but it's important to give room for a community to tell its own story. I feel that there are similarities with Latinx communities and Asian communities - we're both relatively recent immigrant groups, and we have diverse cultures within us. However, I'm not going to try and lead a training about working with the Asian community because I'm simply not as qualified as someone within that community. The clinician who leads that training deserves to give voice to issues that involve their own life story and those of their community.

DG: What are some goals that you have for the future?
The path my career has taken so far has been a little unexpected. I didn't plan to fall in love with teaching in the way that I have. I'd very much like to continue teaching, and to continue to improve at teaching. I want to read more, do more research, and grow my private practice, where I serve clients of color. I want to increase representation of clinicians of color in private practice. And I want to create a balance so that I have time for my family. My daughter is seven years old, going into second grade, and she's all of a sudden a big kid. My family has been so patient in the past three years as my career has taken off, and I miss them.

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