Q&A With Luisa Lopez, MSW ’18

Luisa Lopez headshotLuisa Lopez, MSW ’18, is the Director of Digital Media for Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, where she is responsible for keeping the 1.7 million residents of the Borough informed about local developments. She previously served as a Community Liaison for Borough President Brewer and as the Chief of Staff for a New York City Councilmember. She is also President of the Board of Directors of the Latino Social Work Coalition and Scholarship Fund ‒  where Luisa did her Field placement in her final year at Silver. Among her many other volunteer endeavors, Luisa is on the Associate Board of the East Harlem-based Union Settlement; on the Advisory Board of Dare to Run; an active member of Uptown Wagon; and a co-founder of the Silver Alumni Network.

Luisa was equally busy in her years as a student in Silver’s 32-month MSW pathway, during which time she held a full-time job, was on the Student Leadership Council, and served as President of both the Graduate Student Association and Latinx Social Work Student Organization, among many other activities.

On March 11, 2021, Luisa was the keynote speaker at the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP) annual Student Advocacy Day. Luisa recently spoke to NYU Silver about her social work journey and her message for future social workers.

What led you to pursue your MSW?

About eight years after I earned my BA in political science, I started my social work career as a family support worker at a social service agency in Washington Heights, the community that I was born and raised in. I was working with women who were pregnant or had babies less than three months old, providing information and support, connecting them with community resources and services, making sure that they were doing their wellness checks, and assessing their babies for developmental delays. I had no idea that was social work! 

What I learned in those early years was that a lot of the hardships my clients were facing had less to do with the fact that they had babies when they were young and didn't have a high school degree and more to do with poverty, racism, and other structural challenges. So, finally, I decided to learn more about what I could do to address some of those challenges, and my research led me to seek my master's in social work.

Although you were doing direct practice when you started at Silver, it sounds like you came in with a macro lens. Did your career go in the direction you expected?

When I was working with families, they liked to tell me things. I was personable, and I was close to them in age, so I was able to build a very good rapport with them, and I thought, “well you know, I can be a therapist and help people in that way.” I thought that I would go to school and I would become a clinician.

But I then took my first Human Behavior class at NYU and I said to myself “oh no, this is not for me.” It’s not to denigrate clinical practice, but I realized early on that I really wanted to solve problems at a larger level. That’s where my heart is and where I feel my strengths are.

My classes were all clinical in my first year and then I learned that there was the study away course on Social Work and Legislative Advocacy in Washington, DC. That class really opened my eyes and widened my lens in terms of legislative advocacy, which I’m very passionate about. It opened the doors for me to do the kind of work that I ended up doing here in New York and in DC, where I was a Congressional Fellow in the office of then-Congressman Jose Serrano right after I graduated from Silver.

The work I’m doing is definitely not what I expected when I started at Silver. I imagined working in an agency or in a clinic somewhere, not in the halls of government influencing policy development. But NYU really did open my mind to that being a possibility, for which I will be forever grateful.

How did your NYU Silver education prepare you for the work that you do now?

As Borough President Brewer’s Director of Digital Media I am responsible for her digital media footprint, from her social media presence to her newsletter output, in collaboration with her Director of Communications and the rest of the communications team. Borough President Brewer is very passionate about sharing accurate and timely information with her constituents so it’s a big job, and I draw on my Silver education every day by bringing a social work lens to spaces where it normally wouldn’t exist. 

I came on board in the beginning of the pandemic and, if you remember, there was very little information coming out of Washington as to what the numbers were and what people could do to keep themselves safe. So we really had to dig for information and we had to get creative with how we share that information. 

I remember being in a room when the schools first shut down, and one of the first questions that I asked was “How does this affect students’ social emotional learning? How are the social workers going to work with students when everything is virtual? Do students even have computers at home? What if there’s no Internet?” And everybody around the room just looked at me like “Oh, we didn't think of that.” So I often find myself in rooms with very intelligent people with a lot of decision making power who haven’t thought about these things because they are not social workers. So I really draw on those skills that I learned at Silver to apply a macro lens to how policies enacted affect everyday people. 

My education always prepared me to take into account the different stakeholders I’m working with and to really listen to them to identify what their priorities are. Understanding what people hold to be important is a key part of advocacy that sometimes gets left out of the conversation.

What was experience with the Latino Social Work Coalition as a student and what is it today?

I was a LSWC scholarship recipient and doing my Field placement there in my final year of the program was a formative experience for me. I had an incredible mentor in my Field Instructor, Dr. Ivan Quervalu, who was the Coalition’s executive director at the time. Under his guidance, I learned fundraising and put together our annual gala; I learned more about legislative advocacy and I went up to Albany and to the City Council to advocate in support of scholarship funding for Latinx social work students; I put together networking events; and I was able to advocate for myself to have more responsibility to connect the dots between the city and the state and to create programming for social workers at the local level.

It was as an intern at the Coalition that I came to understand how macro practice really IS direct social work practice. It is integral to working with individuals, families, and with groups, and it is critically important to the life chances and the well being of all people, especially people that are in vulnerable populations. I came to see how the everyday struggles that frame human behavior are really policy choices that can be remedied at the advocacy and legislative levels, and my internship allowed me the opportunity to be in the space where I could flex those muscles.

After I graduated, I stayed involved with LSWC, first as a member of the Junior Board, and then as a member of the Board of Directors. In November 2020, I was appointed Board President and I am thrilled to be leading the Coalition into the future. It’s one of those organizations that recognizes the unique relationship between Latinx social workers and the communities that we serve. It’s explicit that we service communities that need the help and because of that, our social work students and professionals need concrete support. They need monetary support and they also need support in building networking infrastructure, in programming, and in creating a space where they can debrief, have access to continuing education resources to stay sharp, and to connect with others to expand their networks. So it’s an honor and thrill to have this opportunity and I’m very excited for all the great work that the Board and I will do together! 

How did your student leadership roles enrich your experience at Silver and help position you for post-graduate success?

I took leadership opportunities pretty early on in my time at Silver. I started as the Graduate Student Association’s (GSA) First Year Student Rep and went on to be elected Vice President and then President. In addition, I was co-leader of the Latinx Social Work Student Organization for two years and a Student Leadership Council Fellow. I was in my early 30s and I was working full-time too. I honestly don't know how I found the energy, but I just loved it and I loved my time at Silver. My experiences there were amazing and the people I met there were so supportive and invested in helping me grow academically, professionally, and personally, so I just kept signing up for everything!

And those leadership roles were vital in helping me understand what issues I cared about and and what I was passionate enough about to advocate for and what I wanted responsibility for. They helped me build up my confidence because I'm naturally pretty shy. Being part of all of those groups and having people believe that I knew what I was doing gave me confidence in my ability to negotiate on behalf of the student body, and to network on behalf of myself, and to problem solve on behalf of the people that I was working with and for. I’ve taken those skills with me into the workforce, and I have used them in every single role that I've had since graduating.

You give so much back to the School, organizing alumnx events, speaking to and mentoring current students, and much more. What fuels your commitment to Silver?

I love Silver! I learned who I was and what I was meant to be while I was there. When I arrived, I was a little bit older than most of the other students. I had already experienced the recession of 2008 and I already knew what it was to have uncertainty about what I could contribute to the world. At Silver, I was finally able to find a niche where I could develop skills that spoke to my interest in systems level interventions to fix large-scale problems. I’ve taken the skills I honed at Silver into spaces where I am having large-scale impact. The professors that I've had, the friends that I've made, the classes that I've taken, and all of the activities that I engaged in when I was there were all part of that. They have made me the best advocate that I can be for myself and for the communities that I've always wanted to serve, and for that I will always be profoundly grateful.

Among your many accomplishments, is there something about which you are most proud?

One thing that I'm very proud of is that I am helping younger social workers see a path from the practice of social work to the practice of policy development and policy leadership. Many young social workers that I speak to are surprised to learn that I am a social worker and yet I have been a chief of staff, I have been a community liaison, I have been in policy spaces, I have helped to write a bill, I’ve been part of the appropriations and mark up process, I have lobbied for policies and funding for programs that are important to me. They see that I know how to do those things and that I am not afraid to advocate in City Hall, or Albany, or in DC, and they want to know more, and they want to learn how to do those things themselves. 

I am incredibly proud of having given the keynote address at CRISP’s annual Student Advocacy Day. My message was “You can do this. You can go out there and advocate for people at that systems level and change lives, because you already have those skills. You’re learning how to do it right now in your social work training!”