Alicia Nájera, MSW, LCSW, was a driven and compassionate Latina role model who championed equity, diversity and innovation to ensure all residents could reach their fullest potential. She entered the social work profession to transform nonprofit and public services in Santa Cruz County, California. Nájera’s passion, knowledge and tenacity brought about policy change, funding and services that closed equity and health outcome gaps.
Nájera was the founding mental health lead provider with the farmworker clinic Salud Para La Gente in Watsonville, California. She helped to integrate mental health services into primary care services at this federally-qualified health center that addressed the health needs of farm workers and their families. She planned and secured support for the building of a new County Behavioral Health facility in Watsonville that opened in 2019, which provides a safe and welcoming environment for behavioral health services on a shared campus with primary care and public health services.
As one of the first Latina women in county behavioral health leadership, Nájera advocated to develop a quality, culturally competent, and linguistically responsive workforce. She was a steadfast ally of the LGBTQ community. To that end, she provided direct mentorship to many young social workers, not only in the agencies she worked for but also in schools and health centers in the community.
Developing a new facility plan for South County Services, Nájera used her political skills to gain support from officials and county administrators to provide a quality work environment for her staff and the clients they served. As a result, the community had access to essential health and safety net services, regardless of address, income, race or ethnicity.
Training the licensed clinician workforce was an important part of Nájera’s mission. Her goal was a quality workforce capable of providing client and family-driven services that promoted wellness, recovery, and resiliency, that would lead to measurable, values-driven outcomes. She wanted to remedy the severe shortage of Spanish speaking staff in all publicly-funded mental health agencies. She was responsible for implementing and managing the Cultural & Linguistically Appropriate Services Plan, writing policies, reviewing all proposed training and workforce development programs and activities. She also oversaw the process to ensure county staff received their CEU (continuing education units) for trainings and courses relevant to all licensed mental health professionals including: therapists, social workers, psychiatric techs, psychiatrists, case managers, line staff in hospital or residential care, vocation counselors, and nurses.
Nájera dedicated 35 years of service to the field of social work during which she provided social services to the most vulnerable populations in Santa Cruz County, California. Nájera was a bilingual, Latina trailblazer social worker in largely Latinx South County communities. From the beginning of her career, she worked hard to reduce barriers and advocate for changes in policy in way that impacted immigrant children and families. Her commitment and compassion led her to serve diverse populations representing outpatient primary care, child protective services, social services, mental health clinics, residential treatment programs, and school-based programs. She worked as a therapist with children, teens, adults, families, and couples, providing individual and group counseling. She supervised interns and professional clinicians.
In 1999 Nájera worked for the Santa Cruz County Behavioral Health and became one of the first women of color in leadership. In this role she developed a new facility plan for South County services. She created and managed a new community outreach and engagement program and partnered with the city of Watsonville and other community-based organizations to successfully implement it. As the cultural competence coordinator, she wrote policies and developed practices for the agency and staff.
As the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) coordinator, she facilitated the community stakeholder processes (in both English and Spanish) through town hall meetings and focus groups with parents, consumers, veterans, LGBTQ youth and adults. Nájera oversaw the county’s first MHSA plan and its implementation. A key component of the MHSA Plan identified the shortage of mental health workers. Nájera developed the Workforce Education and Training component with stakeholders and public participation. As a result, public mental health psychiatrists and nurse practitioners receive trainings on consumer and family driven services, community collaboration, recovery/resiliency strength-based services, integrated services, and cultural competency.
Nájera was a bilingual (Spanish/English) and bicultural (Latina) clinical social worker licensed by the state of California. She was born on January 14, 1961 in Santa Cruz, California and raised in Davenport, a small coastal agricultural community located in the dusty shadow of the Pacific Cement Plant. Nájera was the sixth child born to her immigrant parents who came from Mexico. Her father was employed in the cement plant. When he died of cancer in 1964, her mother was left to fend for herself and her six children. Nájera’s mother, who did not speak English, worked the fields and her children joined her each weekend and throughout the summers to help make ends meet.
Nájera’s mother turned the family struggles into teaching moments of the value of education and hard work as the key ingredients to get out of poverty. During this era, Spanish-speaking was not only discouraged but was actively punished by the teachers at the local school. The school and community routinely Americanized Mexican names as a way to further indoctrinate all children into a specific way of life. Nonetheless, the values of family, history and culture were equally important in the Nájera household; and despite the local practices, Nájera grew up proud of her Mexican heritage and fluent in Spanish. From an early age Nájera rejected the efforts by the elementary school and her community to turn her into “Alice.”
She received a full scholarship to Stanford University where she earned her BA in Psychology. During this time, Nájera began working with youth in crisis at various clinics and group homes and decided to pursue a career in social work dedicating herself to the needs of minority families in crisis. Nájera then attended San Jose State University where she received her MSW with a concentration in child welfare. She subsequently became a Licensed Clinical Social Worker certified by the State of California.
Nájera retired in 2017 and lost a three-year struggle with cancer on February 25, 2021. Her contributions will have a lasting impact on generations of Santa Cruz County families.
Significant Recognition and Awards
As an LCSW with over thirty years of direct and administrative experience, Nájera was a staunch ally to the LGBTQ community, supporting clients in their therapy and making institutional policy changes. She instituted LGBTQ policies and educational opportunities and solicited queer youth input on needed services. She developed policies requiring “cultural competency” training for all County Mental Health staff and included the LGBTQ as a focus of these trainings. She served on the Diversity Partnership Advisory Committee, participating in the QYLA in a variety of roles, including facilitating the judging process.
Jon E. Nadherny/Calciano Memorial Youth Symposium Nájera served on the advisory board of the Jon E. Nadherny/Calciano Memorial Youth Symposium. The Symposium was founded in 1997 by the Nadherny/Calciano family as a way of dealing with the tragic loss of their son Jon to suicide. Every year, the Symposium provides high quality, in-dept review of adolescent and young adult topics of clinical relevance. These annual symposia enable local families, educators, and mental and medical health professionals to hear and interact with renowned specialists in a wide range of timely topics. Areas of focus have ranged from suicide to bullying, ADHD, substance abuse, and gender identity. Nájera ’s commitment to the Symposium reflected her desire to improve the lives of children and young adults, and her interest in providing educational forums for helping professionals.