The Associate Director of the Field of Education at Columbia University School of Social Work and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Cindy Bautista-Thomas has opened up to KwaK about her life experiences.
Being an Afro-Latina of Dominican decent born and raised in the Bronx, NY challenges are pretty much a given. Being a survivor of childhood sexual molestation, a child of an alcoholic parent and a divorcee, simply added to the madness. To top it off, 12 years ago, Cindy lost her father in the 2001 tragedy of Flight 587. Despite being raised with poverty and all the obstacles, Cindy managed to persevere with the guidance of a strong mother, close knit family and a strong spiritual foundation.
Here’s what Cindy had to say about how she became who she is today.
What motivated you to speak out about your abuse?
- After I had my daughter I realized that I did not want her to experience what happened to me. I was molested by a family member when I was 11 years old. As a result, I was depressed when I was younger and attempted suicide. I am motivated to talk about sexual abuse because it is something that happens very often in all cultures and is too often swept under the rug. I was an elementary school social worker for 8 years and heard many stories. I was involved in situations where family members were the perpetrators of sexual abuse and at times the abuse became generational by the same person. Because families were afraid to talk about it, the perpetrator continued the abuse. I want families to be comfortable talking to their children about sexual abuse and be present for their children should it occur. When it happened to me I did not feel that there was an adult that I could tell and I kept the incident inside me until I was an adult. I have since spoken out to my family. One of my goals is to eventually write a book for families to use with their children and talk to families about strategies to address the topic. I forgave him and wrote him a 4 page letter (back to back) where I let him know how his actions impacted me and told him that I forgive him for what I experienced.
How did your family react to your direct approach to such a sensitive subject?
- My siblings were very supportive as I struggled through my revelations. I then learned that I was not the only one in my family who had suffered similar abuse.
What is the most satisfying part of doing the work that you do?
- I love being a social worker and all that it entails. In my role currently I work with social work graduate students who are in a Master’s program in Social Work. I specifically concentrate on placing students in internships in school based programs and aging programs. I am passionate about helping students find their passion and find their niche in being social workers. I also enjoy working with social workers in striving for what is really important for them and in being effective supervisors to social work students. I am particularly interested in the role of social workers in schools. Therefore, I am presently a PhD student in the Urban Education program in the CUNY Graduate Center.
Where did you find motivation and inspiration during the building of your career?
- As a school social worker, I was inspired by the families and children. The injustices in the schools made me more vigilant and committed to the children and their families. I became interested in making sure the families I worked with knew their rights in schools. I also enjoyed helping teachers understand children’s needs and family dynamics. As I began teaching interns to do the same, my interest was piqued into going into higher education. Now, I find motivation in connecting with people and learning about their career
trajectories. Ultimately what drives me is helping the social work students become their best selves in helping others. Making great education accessible to all children is one of my life’s purpose.
Growing up in a neighborhood often compared to quicksand, how did you stay focused on studies and the need for ‘more’?
- In my household, failure was not an option. My parents were very determined, despite their 2nd grade education, that their children would succeed. I am the youngest of 7 and my siblings created a great path for me in my pursuits. Although my father struggled with alcoholism, my mother’s perseverance and spiritual foundation became the impetus for each of our trajectories. While I was very aware of my surroundings, living in a New York City Housing development which included gang activity, drug use and abuse and poverty; I knew that my destiny would be greater. I was a part of youth groups and Church groups that added to the leadership qualities I was receiving at home by observing my mother.
Surely there are some cases (if not all), in your social work, that tug on your heart strings. What helps you cope with other people’s tragedy? What keeps you going?
- In my present role the kinds of issues that tug at my heart strings are when I work with social work students that realize that this is not the career that they want and they have made significant financial investments to study. I have also worked with students who experience life tragedies while in the program that force them to halt their academic goals. During these times I am able to offer them words of support and refer them to long term assistance on campus. When I was a school social worker it was surely the sexual and physical abuse cases that tore at my heart. The way I cope is that I use prayer and meditation as a means of grounding myself in my work and in my purpose. What keeps me going is that I do the best that I can with what I can and I always walk away knowing that. In social work it is important to keep that at the heart of it all as it is impossible to save everyone and in fact that is not what you are supposed to do. The role in social work is to help others find the strength within them to take their lives one step closer to where they would like it to be, while they are living their best lives.
What would you say separates you from others in similar situations?
- Finish this sentence “I couldn’t have done it if it weren’t for…”I couldn’t have done it if it were not for the examples set by my parents and siblings and for my faith in God.
Were you always interested in social work, or was your decision to go into that field due to what you have been through?
- When I was in elementary school I used to say that I wanted to be a child psychologist. Then I reached undergraduate school and realized that social work was a career that was directly aligned with my values and the education process for it would not take me as long. I realized that social work embodied the skill to look at a person in their environment and to enhance people’s lives while advocating for societal changes. When pursued Social Work as a career I knew that I fell in love with a career and a purpose.
If you could give advice to young girls in a similar situation as the one you grew up in, what would it be?
- My advice would be to find at least one adult who you could confide in to tell what has happened to you. There is always someone who you can reach out to and it may be someone who is not in your family. I would also tell them that they are beautiful, smart and use your tragedies and things that have happened to you for ways to inspire, encourage and inspire others.
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