Today, we welcome Allison Rodriguez to the podcast. In addition to being a John E. Martin Fellow, which Allison received in 2017, she’s a senior training specialist at West Coast Children’s Clinic in California, a psychotherapist, and an advocate for children’s welfare.
She has a wide breadth of experience working across the US as a teacher, researcher, trauma specialist, and advocate for veteran, maternal, adolescent, and Latinx communities.
On the nature of her work
[5:14] The kids that we see are almost all traumatized in some way. Most of them meet the criteria for complex trauma, which means they’ve been exposed to multiple traumas, often from an early age. That impacts the way they learn and grow in various ways.
We also see them not only in the office but in various locations like their homes, schools, sometimes juvenile halls, and other places, where we coordinate care with a lot of other providers.
[8:11] I think one thing that research has taught me is the power of numbers. There are a lot of things that are really difficult to measure, and these things will surprise you in what the numbers show. They can be a huge lesson in things that you had no idea were more of a system-wide phenomena.
So, for example, there’s some really lovely research that discusses how patients define things like trust. It shows that there are cultural differences between how that word is assessed and what it means. And that’s just an example of how research can illustrate things that you didn’t know that you didn’t know in practice.
And it can really improve the work that you’re doing.
On where good research comes from
[9:08] I think it comes down to the researcher’s goals and ideas about what will make for interesting results. It’s really simply what the person is interested in, and what they think will produce a result that is important in the work.
This is a really important part of research, because it’s very much a field that’s based on what folks who do a lot of this work think will be useful. That means that the topics you read about are well-defined in the sense that they come mostly from researchers’ own minds, but it also adds a limitation in that researchers only know what they know.
Advice for people pursuing a career in this field
[21:37] First and foremost, be curious. Consider things from various perspectives and ask questions, even if they seem like a no-brainer, because you’ll often find things are not as simple as they seem.
Secondly, I would say reach out to people and ask to talk to them. I can’t tell you how beneficial it’s been for me to get to know some of the folks in the field just from reaching out and asking them some questions.
And then third, I would really advocate for people considering their careers in terms of their lives overall.
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:00] Michael: I’m thrilled today to welcome Allison Rodriguez to the podcast. It’s our first interview with a John E. Martin fellowship recipient. In addition to being a John E. Martin fellow, which Allison received in 2017, she’s a senior training specialist at WestCoast Children’s Clinic in California, a psychotherapist, and an advocate for children’s welfare. She has a wide breadth of experiences working across the U.S. as a teacher, researcher, trauma specialist, and advocate for veteran, maternal, adolescent, and Latinx communities. Allison is a consummate professional, innovator, and communicator. We’re lucky to have her joining us today. And I can’t wait to hear what she has to share.
[00:41] Britt: Allison, welcome to the podcast. We have so much to learn from you.
[00:45] Allison: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here.
[00:48] Britt: Awesome. And before we jump into the many questions that we have, I was wondering if you could share something that you’re grateful for today, something that helped provide you a little grounding, some perspective, or maybe even a smile.
[01:01] Allison: Yeah, sure. I’m really grateful for my kids and my in-laws today. We have family visiting this week, and it’s been really lovely to see them interact with my kids. It’s just such a wonderful and surreal thing to have, to see your parents parenting. It’s a strange thing. But you notice the ways that they slow down and really interact with your kids. And if you’re lucky and take a second to notice, you can sometimes see the fruits of those same earlier labors that they took with you and who you’ve grown up to be. So, watching them instill these values in my kids is just one of the greatest joys that I can explain. It’s been really fun.
[01:43] Michael: That’s wonderful. I am of a similar mindset, as it relates to my little girl. One of those things that I’ve heard is parenting gives you the chance to go and live life all over again for the first time. And seeing those wonders of a kid, and probably, those wonders of a grandparent as well, are pretty awesome.
[02:02] Allison: Yeah, that’s right. It’s a very fun experience.
[02:05] Michael: So, speaking of kids, Allison, I wanted to go and focus on child welfare, initially. I think this is a deep passion of yours, as I go and I review your LinkedIn profile, which is quite impressive. And I was wondering, it always seems like you’ve been focusing on the welfare of others and, in particular, the welfare of children. Can you share the origins of this passion with us? And could you tell us how this relates to your own lived experience and those of loved ones?
[02:35] Allison: It’s interesting because I feel like I fell into the work of child welfare. As a child, it was my sister who always wanted to be the teacher and the mom, and I was always the one who happily played her rebellious kid or student. It surprised me. But I was really fascinated with psychology from an early age, which I think is really a product of my parents. We talked around the dinner table a lot about our feelings and our thoughts and our dreams. And I had what I look back on as a lovely and somewhat idyllic childhood. And even with all of that, there was significant trauma and much of an intergenerational that impacted who I am quite a bit as well.
But then, in college, I was pursuing psychology studies. And I worked with a few nonprofit organizations. And I started to really learn about other kids who don’t grow up with the same protections that were in place for me, oftentimes, though, no fault of their parents or their families. And that injustice fundamentally changed me.
I remember thinking about the ways my childhood and the opportunities that have granted me felt so starkly different. And that just sat with me in a way that’s hard to describe. But it really instilled in me a desire to do what I could. And in time, I learned that kids are these really incredible resilient creatures who experience just deep joy as well as deep pain. They’re often able to make something really incredible out of their experiences, if they’re given the opportunity and the support that they need. That’s what keeps me in the work now.
[04:14] Michael: I’m interested to go and understand if you can go and give us a better sense of the population of children your organization works with and you more, specifically.
[04:22] Allison: So, at WestCoast, we work with kids who are part of the Medi-Cal system. And that means they’re disproportionately disadvantaged in terms of money and access, and it also means that we see a lot of folks who come into the system through removal from their homes due to abuse or neglect. So, many of the kids that we see are part of the foster care system, whether they’re currently staying apart from their families of origin or have been reunited or adopted or some other kind of situation.
And so, that is, primarily, the population that we see. It’s also true that decisions about removal from homes are made by humans and are subject to issues like racism and heteronormativity, which is to say that the folks that we work with are those that are oftentimes coming to us from a variety of systems and policies that are not built with them in mind, sort of.
So, what this comes down to is that the kids that we see are almost all traumatized in some way. Most of them meet the criteria for complex trauma, which means that they’ve been exposed to multiple traumas often from an early age, that impacts the way they learn and grow in various ways. And we also see them not only in the office, but in various locations, like their homes, their schools, sometimes juvenile halls and other places, where we coordinate care with a lot of other providers. So, their teachers, child welfare workers, foster parents, psychiatrists, doctors, all kinds of folks are on the treatment team. And I think the aspects that stick out to me are the needs of the kids we see and the ways in which the system is really intertwined with our work.
[05:57] Britt: That sounds really interesting. I would say I would love it if we could take a step back, and could you tell us a little bit more about what WestCoast is and the role that you hold there, just a slightly deeper intro to that work, before we jump into talking a little bit more about your past.
[06:13] Allison: Yeah. So, I started at WestCoast as a clinician. I started after graduate school. I went into WestCoast to work as a psychotherapist. And then, I fell into the training position. So, now, at WestCoast, I help with new incoming staff members and get them oriented to the work of WestCoast, the mission of WestCoast, and help them get their feet wet before going off and doing the amazing work that they’ll do.
[06:48] Britt: You’ve held a number of roles and undertaken a great deal of research. Could you tell us about these experiences and how you found ways to make an impact in different ways, different types of roles, different organizations, and what you’ve learned as you’ve moved across a lot of different positions in the care space?
[07:06] Allison: It’s interesting that you mentioned research. I really have fallen in love with research and the incredible work that it sets out to do. I think it took me some time to learn that research and practice look really different. And that’s not necessarily because of anyone refusing to do the work that research lays out, and it’s not necessarily because of anyone in research refusing to get out the studies that practice wants. It’s really a product of extreme differences, both in terms of a controlled setting where you have a lot of say over how treatment looks in research, in terms of the population and clinic in which you’re working. And even the difficulties of working in a system that’s funded really differently and stretched really differently than things in the for-profit world. It’s an interesting conundrum, but when research and practice can come together and really validate and improve one another, I think that’s a really beautiful thing. And it’s one of the primary goals of the work that I do.
I think one thing that research has taught me about is the power of numbers. And there are a lot of things that are really difficult to measure. And these things will surprise you in what the numbers show. They can be a huge lesson in things that you had no idea were more of a system-wide phenomena than they are. So, for example, there’s some really lovely research that discusses how patients define things like trust. And it shows that there are cultural differences between how that word is assessed and what it means. And that’s just an example of how research can illustrate things that you didn’t know in practice. And it can really improve the work that you’re doing.
[08:51] Britt: What are the factors that go into determining where one’s efforts should be focused in the research space? Because it feels like the world is an oyster. There are just so many different options for how you would approach research.
[09:03] Allison: That’s right. So, there are a few different lanes that research comes from. First, I think it comes down to the researcher’s goals and ideas about what will make for interesting results. It’s just really simply what the person is interested in and what they think will produce a result that is important in the work. So, this is a really important part of research because it’s very much a field that’s based on what folks who do a lot of this work think will be useful. And that means that the topics you read about are well-defined in the sense that they come mostly from researchers’ own minds, but it also adds a limitation in that researchers only know what they know. So, that’s one primary area that a lot of research comes from.
Another line that folks follow is that research that’s needed programmatically, where there’s a really lovely intersection of research and practice that sometimes happens. So, doing research that is needed for getting a program started or for figuring out some of the last steps before getting something going.
The limitation of this is that a lot of this research tends to be very high-level questions for a few reasons, chief among them, because it takes a lot of time for research to answer specific questions. And so, that means that that type of research, which is really lovely, is hard to come by.
And then another line of research is that which is pursued to get things approved quickly. And it’s mostly sponsored by bigger companies. And there are, of course, a lot of reasons why certain research topics get picked up more quickly than others. But I’d say that is a line of research that is pretty starkly different from a lot of the research that happens on a smaller level, because it tends to be these bigger companies that are sponsoring those kinds of studies.
I think that one factor that I find really interesting and fascinating is the lifetime work of a researcher. Because, oftentimes, researchers set out to answer questions that will benefit their line of thinking. So, for example, if someone comes up with a new treatment modality, it needs to be evidence-based for it to hold teeth in specific circles. And that means that the types of treatments that get evidence behind them are partly a product of researchers who have skin in the game. And the treatment modalities that don’t have an evidence base are those that typically don’t have the benefit of researchers behind the scenes who are trying to prove that it works.
And what that means is that you have to be thoughtful about who is behind the scenes when you’re considering which treatment modalities tend to work, because there are some treatment modalities that have a lot of support and have a lot of research behind them, but part of the reason for that is because they were developed by people who know how to work on both sides of the aisle. And I think that that’s a lovely thing for treatments to have that research behind them. But it doesn’t mean that other treatments that don’t have the same type of research behind them don’t work. It just means that there are a lot of other systems, a lot of other factors in place that are motivating what gets the evidence.
[12:40] Britt: That’s a really interesting insight. It almost reminds me of ballot measures and elections with the election coming up, how some of them have a lot of money behind them. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that the money is coming from the wrong place, but it just seems like whoever has the money can put it towards that, whoever has the research capacity can put it towards those treatment modalities. So, making sure you’re not disregarding treatment modalities that don’t have a lot of evidence behind them, yet, because it might not be that there’s no evidence to be had. It just means they’re not the right people working on it yet.
[13:11] Allison: Yeah, that’s right.
[13:11] Britt: Interesting.
[13:13] Michael: Allison, I’m fascinated by that, because one of the things that you hear so often in the vernacular today is evidence-based treatments.
[13:20] Allison: Yeah.
[13:21] Michael: So, when you hear that, what does that do to your spidey senses?
[13:25] Allison: It’s a really interesting question because I started out my career being very, I’ll say, very one-sided in my perspective about wanting practitioners to practice in ways that were based on evidence. And I think that’s a logical thing to want. But working on the practice side of things, you see that there are a lot of reasons why that doesn’t always happen. And so, hearing the term, “evidence-based practice,” for me now, it just feels like a term that means so much that it doesn’t really mean anything anymore because it’s so much more complicated. It’s just so much more complicated than it first appeared to be to me, and then it appears to be for many researchers and for many practitioners as well.
[14:35] Michael: That’s fascinating. And one of the things that I’m very interested in is you shared that there are certain people that have an idea in their mind. Everyone has ideas in their mind. And that informs the type of research that is being pursued. But I’d imagine that the makeup of clinicians for a period of time, researchers for a period of time, and perhaps still today, in many sense, is over-indexes amongst some demographics versus others. This costs me to go and think about some research gaps unintentionally caused by that over-indexation. How do you think that those gaps get remedied so that we have a more holistic research pursuit?
[15:34] Allison: I think that’s a very good point. I think that there is, both in terms of the research side and in terms of the practice side, the folks who tend to get into this work are oftentimes white. They’re oftentimes coming from higher socioeconomic classes. And they, overwhelmingly, I would say, are not representative of the clients that we see, especially, in the space that I work in. But I would say, overall, they’re not representative even of the United States.
So, I think that’s a big problem. And there are things that are happening to try to remedy that problem across the board. But it’s certainly something that I think we need as a field to listen to and center the voices of folks who are coming from these underrepresented areas and recognize the ways in which psychology as a field is really built on white supremacy. I think one of the main reasons that I pursued to the degree that I did is because of the issue of researchers and practitioners not talking to each other. It’s important to know the public health side of things, the population level, health of folks, and the way that research aims to fill this gap. But it’s also important to know the social work side of things, which is the health of individual people. And the thing that would make the machine run so much more efficiently is the integration of researchers and practice and the centralization of folks who have been marginalized historically, and folks who are more representative of the communities that we are trying to serve in whatever location that that service is being delivered.
So, we need a method for bringing those groups together and getting them to hear one another. I’ll say I think there are certain systems in which this is beginning to happen. Working at the VA, for example, was a really great experience because there are significantly more linkages happening there between researchers and practitioners. And part of the reason for that is because it’s a closed system. But I’d say that that’s not the norm, and it really should be.
[18:13] Britt: We’ve been talking about collaboration between the clinical side and the research side throughout this, but I’m wondering how you think all these entities can better collaborate. How do you think universities, clinics, corporations, non-profits, and other entities can better collaborate to solve this really pressing issue?
[18:29] Allison: First of all, like I said, there’s room for more collaboration between research and practice, but there’s also a big need for more investment in those conversations, too. The work that we’re doing on the field is great. And the work that a lot of startups are doing is also great. But there’s not a ton of space now in which those folks are talking to one another. So, we’ve seen many mental health startups that have infrastructure and support that would really benefit the communities in which we work, for example, at WestCoast. But it’s really difficult to build the necessary bridges to get those folks into the conversation.
So, I’d love to see more consulting between the people who are eager to solve problems using technology and the people who are really steeped in the work of seeing clients. And maybe don’t have the same advantages available to them as the typical consumers of mental health startups.
So, it would be great to see more investment in local community services as well, more interest in becoming board members at publicly funded non-profit organizations who do the work on the ground would be really lovely too. And just more discussion in general about, where are the concerns on both sides of the aisle? Because there’s so much. Each of these groups can learn from one another.
[19:49] Michael: When you say these groups can go and learn from one another, what do you think are the strengths of each other’s groups?
[19:56] Allison: I think, on the side of startups, there’s a lot of knowledge of the funding streams and the business side of how things can get going. There’s also an understanding of the space for the growth of these ideas and whoever is willing to be part of the team is welcomed. I think agencies like this do a really excellent, excellent job of leveraging their resources to tackle problems really quickly and efficiently.
And that is not something that nonprofit organizations are great at. It’s a really unique space that a lot of startups hold that they’re able to really get things moving a lot more quickly.
But then, on the side of nonprofit organizations, I think there’s a lot of folks with years of experience under their belts in terms of the real-time effect of products that are being developed and an awareness of how to make things run in a way that makes it accessible and usable for a much wider audience. I think that’s what both sides of that bring to the table. And then, in research, there’s also a lot of expertise in how to ask questions and test efficacy in a really thoughtful way that can impact funding streams and keep things moving.
[21:14] Britt: I’m sure there are a lot of students and a lot of non-students as well who are listening to this and probably really inspired by your journey and excited about this collaboration between the research side and the clinical side that’s so important. I’m curious, do you have any advice for people who are looking to break into the field, either as students or as people who are later on in their career who see this as a problem that they really want to engage with?
[21:37] Allison: First and foremost, be curious. Consider things from various perspectives, and ask questions, even if they seem like a no-brainer, because you’ll often find things that you think that you know are not as simple as they seem. And secondly, I would say, reach out to people and ask to talk to them. I can’t tell you how beneficial it’s been for me to get to know some of the folks in the field just from reaching out and asking them some questions. So, that’s another thing I would say. And then, third, I would really advocate for people considering their careers in terms of their lives overall. I think it’s important to think about things like where you want to live and what sort of hours you want to keep and what type of work-life balance you’re looking for and what type of salary is adequate for the type of lifestyle that you want to lead. And I think those are things that are really… they’re not often talked about, but I think that they’re really important questions to consider. And I think that they are things that should be given a little bit more voice. I often train in a type of imagery activity in which you’re encouraged to consider your life in the future. And I think it can be really helpful to do. So, I’ll do a snippet of it here, if you would like.
[22:59] Britt: That sounds amazing.
[23:01] Michael: That’d be great.
[23:02] Britt: We were not expecting that and would love to have an exercise like that.
[23:05] Allison: All right, cool. So, now, I’ll encourage you to close your eyes or rest your gaze and sit in a comfortable position. Start by taking a few breaths in and a few breaths out. Notice what it feels like to breathe in your body, the expansion of your belly or your chest, the touch of air on your nostrils. And use your breath to bring your mind into the present moment, simply breathing in and breathing out.
Now, I want to invite you to think about yourself 10 years into the future. I want you to think about what sort of future you feel deeply moved towards at this moment. Imagine yourself as content and happy. And notice the images that come to mind. What are you doing? Who’s around you? Where are you waking up every morning? What type of job do you have? Do you have a family? And if so, how many are there? Ask yourself what happiness looks like for you, and invite yourself to experience contentment there for a few moments. Now, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. And again, in through your nose and out through your mouth. And when you feel comfortable, you can slowly open your eyes and come back to the present moment.
[25:10] Britt: Thank you so much, Allison. That was really wonderful and I appreciate the thoughts that go beyond the career, too, and thinking about all the other things that bring you balance in life.
[25:19] Allison: Yeah, of course.
[25:21] Michael: Britt, any closing thoughts?
[25:23] Britt: Well, do we want to ask Allison what’s next for her? She’s obviously had such an amazing career, so far, and we would love to hear what you’re thinking is next.
[25:34] Allison: I expect to open a private practice soon to offer therapy for folks. So, I’ll mostly be dealing with aspects of religious trauma as a topic of interest. That’s a topic of interest for me. So, that is on the horizon. And I expect to keep offering trainings on issues like trauma and mental healthcare and supporting folks who are newer to the field. So, those are things that are coming up. And I’m just excited to watch my kids grow up and to grow as a parent with them as well, on a more personal note. And it’s very fun to see them grow and to learn, as I go, about how to be a better mother. It’s a constant trial and error, but it’s a lot of fun.
[26:27] Michael: Tantrums and all.
[26:29] Allison: Yeah, that’s right.
[26:32] Britt: Thank you so much, Allison. This has been really wonderful.
[26:35] Allison: Yeah, of course. It was a lot of fun. Thanks so much for having me.