Monica De La Cruz is pursuing a doctorate in UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare with the goal of crafting policies that actively improve peoples’ economic health in the Bay Area.
However, this wasn’t always De La Cruz’s goal. Describing herself as a “non-traditional grad student,” De La Cruz has a life full of stories and insights to share.
“I’m going on 38 this year, and I have a full family. I have an 18-year-old,” says De La Cruz. “I had my daughter when I was 18, and being a young mom shaped a lot of what I think and what I know. It made me hyper focused on achieving goals!”
For a long time, her aspirations lay in the field of medicine. Starting in 2002, she worked her way through community college systems, and got her “first taste of research” through the Bridges to Baccalaureate Research Training— a program centered on getting underrepresented students into four-year colleges. In 2005, she transferred to San Francisco State, graduating with a degree in Cell and Molecular Biology.
“It took me a while to finish my undergrad degree because I was, you know—raising a child!” she laughed.
Immediately post graduation, De La Cruz started working at the Gladstone Institutes on a research project focused on neurological genetic mutations in drosophila (flies).
“For internships they make you do things like […] getting food ready for the flies.” she chuckled. “At that point, I was like— I don’t like research! And because I had a young child at the time, I thought, ‘I need a full time job.’” Following this line of reasoning, De La Cruz dropped the research position and secured a full-time administrative position at Gladstone Institutes, where she worked until she was 32.
During her professional career, De La Cruz was studying for the MCAT and striving to realize her goal of being a doctor. She obtained a Master’s in Public Health from the University of San Francisco while working full time. For her capstone project, she secured field work at the Pediatric Advocacy Program at the Stanford School of Medicine and for the first time in her academic career got to try “qualitative research.”
The project was called, “Lunch at the Library.” As a researcher, her task was to assess the health impact of a lunch program being run through San Mateo and San Jose public libraries over the summer aimed at reducing child food insecurity.
“Libraries see a lot of community needs,” explained De La Cruz. “Kids who rely on free and reduced lunches from their schools, lose access to that food during the summer. A lot of library staff were saying the same thing—some kids get dropped off when the library opens with nothing to eat, and get picked up by their parents when the library closes. Kids were asking the librarians, ‘Do you have change so I can get some food from the vending machine?’ The librarians were basically like, ‘This is not OK and we need to do something about it!’ San Mateo County was able to get a little money to fund ‘Lunch at the Library’ that summer.”
In this project, De La Cruz’s role consisted of conducting semi-structured qualitative interviews with the parents of kids in this program, essentially asking them if the lunch program was helpful, and how it might be improved.
“I had gone through my undergrad at CCSF, my bachelors at SF State, and almost finished with my master’s and not heard of qualitative research!” De La Cruz said, laughing. “I wondered, where has this been all my life? I want to do this, be out in the community, working on interventions that are making real impacts on people’s lives. So, I begged my supervisor for a job!”
De La Cruz stayed with the Pediatric Advocacy Program until 2020, working with an interdisciplinary team of researchers, public health professionals and medical social workers to increase the economic health of the people and the families in the community, the majority of whom were Spanish speakers.
The team found out what initiatives needed to be improved and/or introduced through community-based participatory research projects. De La Cruz identifies one such initiative—distributing free diapers to families—as being especially close to her heart.
“Back when Obama was president, the White House actually partnered with Jet.com to sell diapers at a really reduced price to non-profits that were serving communities” De La Cruz says.
“As we were giving away the diapers though, we found, through surveying the families, that if people didn’t have enough diapers, they would borrow from other families or return gifts that they had received to pay for diapers.”
In her’s experience, programs like “Lunch at the Library” are important because they offset some of the costs of living on the Bay Area peninsula; any money saved on food or diapers can go towards rent. However, after several years of work, De La Cruz began to feel more and more frustrated with not addressing the systemic root of the issue.
“At some point it became clear to me, it’s nice to be able to serve the families in this way, but we’re not changing their life circumstances, and it’s not OK that they have to do this,” she reflected. “It’s not OK that they have to return gifts they’ve received from other people so they can buy diapers. I wanted to think bigger, on a policy level.”
In 2019, De La Cruz started a doctoral program in Social Welfare at UC Berkeley while simultaneously succeeding in obtaining a fellowship that allows her to translate her studies into policy.
As part of her program, De La Cruz is writing a research paper on the idea of “deservingness” within welfare policy—and says in summary: “You either help people or you don’t. You don’t label them.”
“You either help people or you don’t. You don’t label them.”
De la Cruz is also currently involved in studying health impacts of the Abundant Birth Project— a program led by Expecting Justice which provides an unconditional income supplement of $1,000 to Black and Pacific Islander mothers—the first of its kind in the United States.
Ultimately, De La Cruz says it is a privilege to do the work she does.
If she could say one thing to those who have power and resources in the Bay Area it would be: “Stop making it so hard for families to live here. It’s so hard to make ends meet, and the odds are already stacked against Black and Brown families. It’s a ridiculous notion that someone deserves to have food or doesn’t deserve to have food.”
“Stop making it so hard for families to live here. It’s so hard to make ends meet, and the odds are already stacked against Black and Brown families. It’s a ridiculous notion that someone deserves to have food or doesn’t deserve to have food.”