Student/Activist/Social Worker, Austin, Texas

I was introduced to Claudia by a mutual friend, with this article. Claudia worked at GENaustin, an organization focused on working with middle school-aged girls, organization whose mission is to “support and guide girls to make wise decisions as they navigate the unique pressures of girlhood.” To do this, their core curriculum focuses on healthy relationships, healthy communication, and body image. I was thrilled to meet Claudia and we had a wonderful interview, all while walking around Barton Spring (one of my favourite places in US). Little did I know, Claudia has moved on to other grander plans. Below is her Q/A. Enjoy.

1. Name
Claudia Gárate Miguelez

2. Where is your hometown?
How to answer this? I was born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Lived most of my life in Central Texas. I woke up to myself and the world when I was a teenager at Brockwood Park School in the English countryside. Now I’m in Austin, Texas- the first city where I very quickly felt I could plant my roots after a lifetime of moving around. I’ve been here 9 years with no plans to leave!

3. Profession/Career/Title/Self-Label
I thought about what combination I would create to describe the many hats that I wear and realized that just the title Social Worker covers plenty on its own. Social Workers are mental health practitioners, anthropologists, sociologists, advocates, activists, philosophers, educators- a little bit of everything. I’m very proud to be in this field and wear the title happily (when I finish my MSSW in a month!).
As a clinical social worker, I am specializing in trauma-informed therapy working from a cultural-relational/social justice/feminist framework. I’m also very interested in neurobiology and how that plays into mental health, particularly positive psychology and the way we can rewire our brain to take in more of the good and build more compassion. Though I focus on direct service, I am passionate about folding in intersectionality into my work and believe that social justice plays a part of everything that we do. More than anything I believe in the transformative power of safe spaces and the healing power of mindfulness and unconditional ruthless compassion.

4. What was the journey like to get where you are (career wise)?

The journey is ongoing and this one didn’t have a clear-cut beginning. I can remember different moments throughout my life which led me to where I am now. When I was 7 years old, I moved from Mexico to Texas and just the move into a new culture taught me so many things about what we are taught socially and provided a new lens through which I could see the world. The clearest, earliest lesson for me was: there is no such thing as “normal”. As I grew older, especially visiting Mexico, economic/social inequality was blatant. These experiences planted questions into my mind that only grew more complex with time and helped me begin the ongoing journey. I always wanted to make things better for everyone.

The true journey kicked off when I was 16 years old and had the privilege to attend Brockwood Park School, an international boarding school founded by philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. There were about 60 students from around 30 different countries living in the school, which completely transformed my perspective and the way I saw myself and other people. Daily we had conversations around finding meaning- love, freedom, learning. I learned to live with and love people very different from myself. I felt the freedom in the space to explore who I really was outside of the ideas of “shoulds”- after all, each student was taught different things. Together we realized we could shift that and find our own meanings. We focused on global issues and social justice and my last year, I took my first psychology class and fell in love. Here, I learned to deeply value the power of safe spaces.

When I returned to the U.S., I took time off to volunteer at my childhood elementary school as an ESL assistant teacher since there were no resources to support the many Spanish-speaking students in town. I was once like my second graders in a new country with a new language and wanted to connect and give back. Volunteering my time felt very second nature. I soon started University in San Antonio- studying psychology and sociology. I still felt restless and decided to take some time and study in Italy. I focused on social psychology courses and the “Sociology of Peace” and nonviolent theories of change and resistance (and cooking… eating…. drinking… crushing on every other Italian I met). I was slowly finding my footing and figuring out how to bring everything I cared about together. Italy didn’t feel sustainable career-wise and I made a move to Austin!

In Austin, I was in community college for a year before enrolling in the University of Texas at Austin where most of my studies focused on clinical psychology, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, multicultural psychotherapy. I always felt in my gut that there had to be a way to pull it all together! I knew I needed to go to graduate school in order to actually work in what I wanted to do (still nebulous at the time, but I knew I wanted to work in mental health- whatever that looked like). I volunteered as a Research Assistant in a Culture, Cognition and Development Children’s Research lab and learned an incredible amount. I knew I needed the experience for graduate school and I also learned that I did not want to be a researcher. I wanted to apply the research to help those in greatest need. At this time I was also taking different workshops (many encouraged by my Dad)- Vipassana meditation, Spiral Dynamics w/Dr. Don Beck and learning about quantum psychology with Dr. Stephen Wolinsky. It was Dr. Wolinsky who first suggested that I move away from conventional psychology and practice Social Work. I didn’t know what it was and very soon came to find it was the field I had essentially been creating on my own for years. I’m thankful for that exchange.

After finishing college, I wanted to find ways to build skills, work at a non-profit and give back to my community. I applied to AmeriCorps as a VISTA (volunteer in service to America) at the Girls Empowerment Network. I was a Program Outreach Specialist and connected with the community, created a needs assessment for the Spanish-speaking community and presented it to the agency to improve our services and increase our accessibility. I also started working directly with girls and from there went on to work as a Program Coordinator for 3 more years- after-school empowerment groups, camps, workshops for girls/parents/educators, school assemblies, groups for high-risk youth. I wrote curriculum about Diversity, Social Justice and Compassion, Stress Management and working mindfulness into all of our groups. I was also volunteering at different local agencies whenever I could at the time- sometimes just once a month sorting books to people who are incarcerated, or doing advocacy work and making phone calls to support reproductive health. I also started working at another agency that placed me in a school to work with more complex cases and applied to graduate school starting in 2015.

Since I have been working towards my Master’s Science of Social Work, I have interned at a Family Resource Center doing case management for spanish-speakers and advocating particularly for people who are undocumented. I have also worked as a Behavioral Health Intern at a clinic at El Buen Samaritano, an agency that works with Latinxs and uninsured folks in the community. I provided counseling and support groups for spanish-speaking folks struggling with depression. Now in my last year (month!), I am a student therapist at the Austin Child Guidance Center. I work with children/adolescents ages 2-17 (and their families) on a large range of issues- trauma, depression, anxiety, ADHD, grief/loss, etc. I am currently looking for places to volunteer in the summer as things slow down and the job-search begins! The beginning of another journey! I’m hoping to do clinical work in school settings because they are more accessible to the spanish-speaking community. This is particularly important in the current political climate. Due to immigration raids happening in town, many communities have stopped accessing services (including hospitals/police/schools) and my work will have to look different and come from a place of trust within their community. Austin is unfortunately highly segregated and many agencies are not accessible. Working within the school system will allow me to provide resources to more families in a safer way.

5. When was the mental shift to start the journey?

My second year after graduating with my Bachelor’s and my second year working for nonprofits, now working for the Girls Empowerment Network and part-time as an AmeriCorps mentor at an elementary school for Communities in Schools. I was facilitating at least five girls groups after school and working with nine students at the elementary school every week. I was the only spanish-speaker at the elementary school with 98% Latinx population and had very complex cases beyond my role. Resources were scarce and I had to step up out of my comfort zone to provide services to children highly in need. I was very overwhelmed and though I was doing my best, recognized that I wasn’t as competent and effective as I needed to be. In this moment I knew that though I was struggling, I was meant to do this type of work AND I needed to go to grad school and commit to becoming the best social worker I could be so that I could provide quality services that the people in my community needed and deserved. I didn’t have time or money to take GRE classes, but I bought a book online and in the evenings started taking practice tests for a few months before following through the process of applying to graduate school. I was accepted into the Master’s Social Work program at the University of Texas at Austin and am now in my final month 2.5 years later!

6. Biggest Accomplishment since making the journey?

I have learned so much about myself the last 5 years since I’ve been working/volunteering regularly in this field and especially the last few years in graduate school. This type of work, by default, pushes you out of your comfort zone daily and on many levels. It has pushed me to conquer my fear of speaking in public (I even did a live interview on TV about girls empowerment a year ago- miracle!), pushed me to sit with people in their most vulnerable moments and allowing myself to be vulnerable with them, and it has all led me to learn to trust myself, my skills and my instinct.
I have been able to advocate for myself for the first time in my life, particularly in situations where I found I was being taken advantage of. When you work in a field that is low in resources and you’re in a position where you can wear many hats, it is easy for others to take advantage of your ability and willingness to do anything to get things done. This isn’t self-sustainable. I had to learn to establish and enforce boundaries and practice integrity.
Now I am able to say “no” without feeling overwhelming guilt, feel comfortable asking for help when I need it and can live from a place that says I ALSO DESERVE. “YES” is very important in life AND sometimes saying “NO” is more important. ESPECIALLY as women who are taught to be complacent and “nice”.

7. What was biggest disappointment and plan to overcome it?

One clear disappointment I have encountered is the lack of resources and the accessibility of services for the Spanish-speaking community, especially in a city/state where that is a huge part of the population. It’s also been very disappointing as a bilingual/bicultural worker to be given more work with little appreciation and support. My plan to overcome this is to advocate, educate and become a resource for my community. In order for there to be a culture shift, our leadership has to be more diverse and difficult conversations need to be had. Right now I am connecting with wonderful bilingual/bicultural people in my field and moving forward want to collaborate to create something to give our community what it needs and deserves.

It’s difficult to work with underserved communities under an administration/government that doesn’t support the work and won’t help to provide the resources. People are afraid, feeling disconnected. This is where our voices become important and where as a practitioner, my creativity must come into play. How can I provide what people need/deserve with very little? I believe just connection can provide some relief.

8. Advice for other women
Here are some things I have learned along the way (and practice daily):

(1) Don’t let perfect get in the way of good. Having a growth mindset is life-changing. Embracing failure and the vulnerability of risk will allow you to expand your creativity and allow you to build and grow with everything you do.
(2) You are enough, you do enough- you don’t have to hustle for worthiness. (3) Unlearn all of the toxic things you've been taught to feel about yourself, unwind those knots of oppression. Then, notice ways in which your privilege is affecting others and how you may be oppressing them, unlearn those too. Speak up when you must. Sit and listen when it’s not your turn to speak. Work daily and build connection, empathy and compassion. To quote Ms. Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” (4) Practice self-compassion. This changed my life, particularly in moments when I was struggling with depression. One easy way to practice this is in difficult moments, think “What would my best friend say to me?” “What would I say to my best friend/someone I cared about?” Take the kindness of those words and apply them to yourself. Learn to be your own best friend. (5) Loving yourself takes daily practice. You are worth it. (6) YES, every single person is beautiful. AND- this is something I always made clear for my girls groups- IT IS NOT YOUR JOB TO BE BEAUTIFUL. Be courageous. Be compassionate. Be a creator. Be strong. Be vulnerable. Be funny. Be whoever you are- and that is constantly changing. (7) DO NOT BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP. This is tough for me and sometimes I ask my friends to help me remember that it’s okay to ask for help. (8) Do things that you’re bad at. Learn to love that process too. If you can laugh and love yourself in these situations, it’s easier to take risks doing things that you love and things you are great at. It also keeps us compassionate when working with others who have different skill levels than ourselves. (9) “No” is a complete sentence. You don’t have to justify your boundaries. (Say YES to yourself). (10) Practice daily gratitude. No matter how small you have to go to find something good- it’s there. Sometimes my gratitude is just a beautiful song I heard in the car. The taste of coffee. The cute dog I saw on my way to work. (11) PLAY! I don’t know why adults stop playing. There’s cool research now even supporting the importance of play. I blend it with things I’m bad at (terrible at many games and they are so fun). (12) Rediscover the joy and freedom of movement that is so natural to children. At some point movement/exercise is taught as punishment through guilt and toxic ideas about bodies. In my (long, daily) journey to love myself and my body, I’m working to unlearn that and tap into that sheer joy and energy that I had as a child and move in ways that make me feel good.

I’m not just saying this because I am one, but THERAPY IS GREAT AND IMPORTANT FOR EVERYONE. My therapist told me that awesome part about movement above six years ago and I still think about it! You’re worth receiving help for whatever heavy things you’re holding.

Lastly if you’re thankful for someone, tell them. I started practicing this a couple of years ago and I think some people are weirded out by it and most of the time it is appreciated. It feels good to hear “I appreciate you”. Chances are you’ll hear lovely things back. It’s a wonderful way to connect.

During a time of heartbreak, I had a lovely friend and mentor call me from across the world. I will never forget sitting in my car, crying on the phone and hearing her say “If you are struggling to find positive things in your life, help others. Sometimes helping others is the best way to help ourselves.” That was 9 years ago. She was right. Volunteer in any way you can. You will feel better. Others will feel better. The world will be a little better.

9. Where in the world do you feel “tallest”?

I love this question and take it in two ways. One, feeling tall as feeling confident and proud. And the other, which was automatic, are times I feel whole/connected and content.

Being with my family helps me feel like things are settled and okay.

My paradise on earth is a small island called Holbox off of the Mexican Yucatan. When I am there (or the beaches in the area), I love waking up before the sun rises, going into the calm ocean and empty beach and just breathing, letting the waves roll over and watching the sun rise over the ocean. These are the moments where I feel connected to everything- I feel tall and small all at once.
Seeing my favorite bands live and letting everything go, singing along at the top of my lungs with my friends and other enthusiastic strangers. Enthusiasm is a form of social courage and this is one of my favorite places to practice that.

10. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?

It’s hard to find time for extracurricular activities in grad school, but I’ve been making more of an effort every day to make time for things that recharge me and refill my joy and hope- you can’t pour from an empty cup.
- One of the most unique hobbies I think I have is writing letters. I write letters to people and I never send them. I give myself the space to say every single thing that I wish I could say on some level and just let everything out. Then I discard the letters (or keep my favorite ones in a box). It’s a way to process grief, loss, love, anger, etc.
- Live music always brings me back to life and I can feel my spirit soaring. I go to a few festivals every year and try to go to at least one show a month. Musicians embody so much of what it means to be courageous and vulnerable and music is such a powerful language that taps into so many life experiences. Music, on a cognitive level, is almost a miracle and it’s part of what makes me feel so glad to be human.
- I like going to record stores and finding used LPs. I always feel like when I find a good deal it was placed there for me. Same goes for used books.
- I’ve recently started making silly t-shirts of funny things I say at happy hour. The most popular one says “Joe Biden would treat me better”.
- I love cooking. I watch cooking shows. I love trying new recipes. Throw on a record while I cook? Perfection.
- Reading! More about this later.

11. What is the future goal/challenge (career and/or life goals in 5-10 years)?

I don’t have a very specific goal in mind yet since I am heading towards a transition in my life and finding my next career “home”. However, in general I would like to develop best practices for addressing biculturalism in a mental health setting in a way that is effective in bringing families together and functions from a trauma-informed perspective.
I hope to be able to create more resources for my community. Maybe way down the line I can create better programs for spanish speakers and connect with other bilingual practitioners to create something new and accessible. And who knows, in 10 years? Maybe I will open up a part time private practice with a sliding scale, maybe for adolescents who feel the pull of two worlds of a bi-cultural family.

I would also like to create workshops to teach other clinicians about truly culturally competent practice for Spanish-speaking communities.

12. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?
“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen” - Brene Brown

I am still quite afraid of rejection on many levels- professionally and personally. It takes work and courage to be able to put yourself out there and not have things work out the way you want them to. It is hard to not internalize that and think “It must be me.” It’s not. It’s life. I’m still learning how to hear “No” and practice acceptance and gratitude and continue down with openness to the next opportunity.

I am still afraid of not doing things perfectly, especially when I am so passionate about my work. I want to do it well. I want to make a difference. I am also human and I am growing and learning and mistakes are part of the process. I’m learning to ride that wave.

The root of ‘courage’ is “with your whole heart”. I strive daily to live wholeheartedly and that means facing many fears. I once facilitated a group where I asked young girls to describe what it meant to be brave. I will never forget the little one saying “Brave doesn’t mean that you’re not scared. It means that you’re scared and you do it anyway.” Children are so wise.

I’m also pretty afraid of deep sea creatures, but I don’t anticipate having to overcome that any time soon.

13. Anything you'd do differently (if you had another go at life)?

I practice acceptance and am happy with who I am and where I am now, but to say that I don’t have regrets would be to say that I don’t believe there were any teaching moments in my life and there have been MANY. I think more than anything I wish that as a teenager I would have reached out for help whenever I needed it, particularly whenever I was struggling mentally and emotionally. I wish I would have been more open to life’s possibilities whenever I was younger and had started to learn to love myself at that difficult time. It’s never too late to start and I’m grateful to be where I am now.

14. What inspires you?

I’m inspired by the courage of people who share their stories with me, who share their stories with the world. The resilience of all of the people that I have had the opportunity to work with. I’m so grateful for everyone who lets me into their world.

By the many activists and communities that resist and work daily for change- advocating for themselves and others.

My friends and their incredible work, the way they've taught me to love myself. Their strength and courage into creating new paths to bring their skills to vulnerable communities. The way they bring forth their best selves into the world. My friends are every single thing to me.

Music. (as stated above). Many musicians have changed my life, either directly or indirectly and they inspire me deeply.

My family and their endless support. My Mom’s strength and fearless approach to using her voice. My Dad’s generosity and compassion and love of learning. My sister’s incredible ability to connect with ANYONE at ANY TIME and treat them with compassion and bring a smile to their face. My brother’s dedication, discipline and passion towards everything that he does. My dog because he’s incredibly cute and snuggly.

15. What are you hopeful about?
I have difficult work. I often meet with people after the worst thing in their life has happened. Their courage and resilience inspires me and makes me incredibly hopeful. People are incredible. We are even better when we can connect and help each other move forward.

Neuroplasticity. Basically, the brain can change. Trauma changes the brain, but the brain heals. Through daily practices, we can create new connections in the brain to increase compassion, empathy, joy. This makes me incredibly hopeful.

Children. Adolescents. They are so brilliant! So honest, so creative, so brave, so insightful. They have made me a better person and help me see the world in a hopeful way. They will bring about the changes. One time in group we were talking about whether people could truly change and how to deal with those changes. One of my wonderful students (12) turned to me and said, “I don’t know, Ms. Claudia. I don’t think it is that we change. I just think that every day we are becoming more truly who we are.” Yeah, I cried. Whitney Houston nailed it when she sang “I believe the children are our future- teach them well and let them lead the way. SHOW THEM ALL THE BEAUTY THEY POSSESS INSIIIIIDE….” (I LOVE that song. It also makes me hopeful).

Another thing that helps me feel hopeful is an incredible community of activists that fight tirelessly and use their voice to advocate for themselves and others. Create safe spaces for others to speak up when oppression doesn’t allow for that to happen. Even when things may feel dire and hopeless, which feels common these days, they are out there no matter how many times they get knocked down. To quote Star Wars, “Resistance is built on hope”.

Healing is also built on hope. Find it wherever you can.

16. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favourite reads?)
This is something I could write about forever. I adore reading. In the links below I will add an account that chronicles most of the books I have read/want to read for those interested.

Books I gift regularly:
- Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson
- EVERY BOOK by Brene Brown (That’s not the title, just literally everything she does I love)
- Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
- Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff

Favorite books/authors I recommend/re-read:
- This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz (currently reading Drown) ; The Diaries of Anais Nin (I have only made it through 3, I believe there are 9); Difficult Women and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay; Sandra Cisneros; Zadie Smith; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (can’t help it! Mr. Darcy!); Redefining Realness by Janet Mock; The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk; The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac; All About Love by bell hooks (all bell hooks); Audre Lorde

17. Who is a “WOW Woman” in your life who inspires you (and why)?
This is a tough question because I love women. My life is held up and I am held together by incredible women. We carry and express so many different kinds of strength. Women are amazing and magic- each woman and girl is unique in what she brings to the world.

I can’t speak enough about the wonderful friends in my life. Friends who are women and friends who identify more with the feminine than with the masculine. They are WOW people. I could write a book about them and what they mean to me and the world. Maybe someday I will. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without their support and our collaboration.

My Mom is a WOW woman. I was paid to teach girls how to be assertive and speak up for themselves and what they believe in. I always thought of my Mom and how she has never held back. I try to model that in my life every day. (She will probably cry/laugh reading this).

My mentors and supervisors have changed my life. Early on in my career, I was weighed down by self-doubt. My supervisor took me aside and said “Claudia, you are here for a reason. Use your voice. Your ideas are important.” I still use those words to move myself forward and pass them on to those in my life. I hope I can learn how to balance working passionately and tirelessly with loving myself and leading a good life the way they do.

Every girl I have gotten to work with. They have made my heart expand exponentially and have kept me hopeful about the state of the world. Almost everything that I do is because of and for them.

Have I talked about Brene Brown enough? Her work has changed my life. Whenever I start doubting myself or feeling hopeless, I listen to her audiobooks/podcasts/TEDtalks everything.

18. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites blogs etc)?
Places where I’ve worked/volunteered in some way:

I’m not the best at updating this, but I try to update it every couple of months to keep track of books I’d like to read/have read and it’s a fun way to connect and get recommendations:

Here is a blog I started a couple of years ago that I had to let stall once graduate school picked up, but now that I’m graduating soon I am hoping to write much more about what I’m learning, funny stories from the journey and my processing around different topics- inspired by Brene Brown’s work!

Links to books/research mentioned above: (positive neuroscience) (Self-compassion by Dr. Kristin Neff, incredible resources!) (Vipassana courses worldwide. Changed my life.) (My school in the UK, my heart, my home). Brene is my Social Work role model, dream fairy godmother, life changer. Everything she does is gold.

If anyone is interested in connecting in other ways, feel free to email me and I can link you to other personal accounts.