Celebrating Latino Leaders: Tara Sanabria Davila, MSW, LCSW
“I believe that this is a time when true leaders emerge and when ‘sparks’ - voting, mentoring, educating, leading policy changes – can ‘light a hundred fuses’ and ignite the fires of change for our city, state and country."
Tara Sanabria Davila, MSW, LCSW
Clinical Coordinator, Outpatient Psychiatric Clinic for Children,Yale School of Medicine
Hometown: New York City, NY
It was only recently that Tara Davila truly recognized her leadership, and that being who she is – and where she is – can be an inspiration for up and coming Latinos.
“I remember recently sitting in an interview with a Latina clinician who was just beginning her career. She spoke about how she aspires to be an administrator one day and that seeing another Latina as part of the leadership of the clinic that she was applying to work in made it feel possible.”
As faculty at the Yale School of Medicine, Tara’s primary role is as clinical coordinator at Yale Child Study Center Outpatient Psychiatric Clinic for Children. As part of the clinic’s administrative team, Tara has spent the last several years providing clinical supervision and training to a multidisciplinary group of clinicians that include social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. She also serves as site coordinator for the Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy team at the Outpatient Clinic. She has worked with students about to begin their careers as well, ensuring that they will provide the highest quality of service to children and families encountering challenges that impact their emotional and mental health.
“I have always been aware of what I bring to the table in terms of considerations for our clients. I realized that, by virtue of my role, I have an additional responsibility as a leader and a mentor for clinicians of color. That interview really helped bring that to the forefront for me.”
But for anyone who knows Tara’s history, it would be no exaggeration to say that she has always embodied a leadership mentality.
It began in her teenage years, as a camper at the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in New York City, when she was selected to participate in a leadership program. For the program’s required service project, Tara’s group chose to raise money to support other campers whose families wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford camp. The seemingly small effort was a formative and bonding experience for the emerging group of leaders.
“It was my introduction to teamwork and leadership. I’m actually still friends with a lot of the people that I did the leadership project with.”
It made an impression on the Y’s leadership as well; they recognized Tara’s unpolished talent and she soon became one of the youngest camp counselors there, supervising children and teenagers for five years, throughout part of high school and college.
Work Ethic and Education
One of three children, Tara’s parents were her most influential mentors. Her father, born and raised in Puerto Rico, came to NYC at 12; her mother was born and raised in New York to Puerto Rican immigrants.
Her father worked for Con Edison for 42 years, skipping his own high school graduation because it coincided with his first day on the job. Her mother worked as a dental assistant before deciding to start her own daycare out of their home, so she could be close to her children.
“It was a great way for my Mom to be present and also contribute to the household income, ensuring we could still do fun things. And more importantly, it allowed us certain privileges such as Catholic school education and a parent who was always accessible to us throughout the work week.”
Tara’s parents agreed that education was important from the beginning, insisting that she and her siblings attend college. Tara was the first in her family to attend a four-year institution and obtain a degree, receiving her Bachelor’s in psychology from UMass Amherst, where she also minored in Spanish and African American studies. She would go on to earn her MSW from Boston College.
“My parents helped me learn that you earn your stripes, you work hard and you let your work speak for itself. I’ve really embraced that in all aspects of my life. They also made me aware that some people find more obstacles along their way than others. I had many people help me overcome the obstacles in my path, and when I found myself in the position to help others navigate and remove barriers, I did what I could to help them.”
Tara says that, like many first generation immigrants of her generation, she did not grow up speaking Spanish in her home. She always thoughts that this was a deliberate choice of her parents, but has come to learn that this was all just part of cultural assimilation.
“Being Puerto Rican, it was always around us through culture, music, food – the culture and the values were always there when we were growing up. My grandmother always spoke to us in Spanish, and we would answer her in English! So it was important for me in high school and in college to learn Spanish.”
While at UMass Amherst, Tara took on another leadership role as one of a small group of students to organize an annual weekend-long conference for Latino students, hosting different leaders from the community to speak and conduct workshops. This group included Tara’s future husband, Malwin, and future brothers and sister in law, as well as others she would come to call friends, many of whom have now gone on to become school principals and town leaders in their communities. Tara and her fellow student leaders also took action as part of a group of students that organized and participated in a week-long sit in and takeover of the school administrative offices to protest budget cuts at the school that would have disproportionately affected students of color.
“That experience made me realize how creating a network is very important for the collective success of individuals, brave and innovative individuals with the audacity to dream. Having that space to support one another and get excited about each other’s’ dreams – and making them a reality – using all of our different talents together to help us all be successful in which ever paths we choose.”
It’s what drew Tara to the Progreso Latino Fund (PLF) when she and Malwin moved to Greater New Haven.
“I attended a couple of forums, and it just made sense. It felt like that group at college. And it was important for me to be able to contribute to the Latino community in New Haven, which has become my home.”
Making the Move
Originally, Tara considered various service career paths but she ultimately decided to pursue a Master’s degree in clinical social work. To her, if felt like a natural fit for her view of the world and her perception of her place in it.
“I realized what I really enjoy doing is helping people; and I was always the type of person that people felt comfortable coming and talking to. Social work provided me training to engage in meaningful work that supports a whole person and the totality of their experience in the world.”
After completing the graduate program, she and Malwin relocated to Connecticut, which she describes as a “cultural and geographical middle ground,” between his family in Massachusetts and her family in New York. Tara accepted a position working for crisis intervention and stabilization services through the Child Guidance Clinic for Greater Waterbury, helping Spanish-speaking families in acute psychiatric crisis living in that community.
“It was really quite gratifying to help families who might not otherwise have access to those services. At the time, I was the only Spanish- speaking clinician in that program and the community had many bilingual and monolingual residents.”
Though she loved working in that community, Tara found she missed the pace of Boston. Her husband had taken a job in New Haven, and encouraged her to come visit the city.
“I fell in love with its city vibe combined with small town charm. We moved that summer in 2003 and have been here ever since!”
She worked in Waterbury for a few more years, then took a position at Clifford Beers Guidance Clinic, working part time while raising her two young children. When they were both of school age, she took a full time position at the Child Study Center. By that time, she had already found other ways to contribute to her community, through PLF.
“I saw in PLF this core value of supporting the communities that we felt a part of, where we live and where we are raising our children. And I think people appreciate having those opportunities and places to get together and share resources. I’m excited to be a part of cultivating that in Greater New Haven.”
She also sees its potential to lead the New Haven Latino community through this current period of national anger and frustration over racial injustices and violence.
“As a clinical social worker who serves New Haven, I hear about the individual and local impact of national stories of injustice, police violence against black and brown people as well as reciprocal violence against police, which evokes anger, fear and worry. These events, and the coinciding emotions, run deep for all of the communities that I am a part of.”
But anyone who knows Tara knows that she also has eternal hope.
“I believe that this is a time when true leaders emerge and when ‘sparks’ - voting, mentoring, educating, leading policy changes – can ‘light a hundred fuses’ and ignite the fires of change for our city, state and country.”