A child of farm worker parents who labored in the fields surrounding the small Solano County town of Dixon, Marina Castillo-Augusto witnessed first-hand the many injustices her family encountered. Those experiences fueled a strong interest in social justice that she has had since she was a girl.
That tendency was nurtured in part by the inequalities she saw growing up, and also by the way her parents helped neighbors in need.
“I saw the discrimination my parents confronted because we were poor, and the opportunities we didn’t have because my parents worked in a certain industry. It made me want to fight for those who couldn’t,” said Marina, who today is working to reduce mental health inequities in the state as the Chief of the Community Development and Engagement Unit in the Office of Health Equity at the California Department of Public Health.
Marina did not set out to work in the mental health arena. The need for counseling and other mental health support was a consistent theme, however, during the decades that Marina worked as an advocate for women crime victims.
A seed was planted soon after Marina got her B.S. in criminal justice from California State University, Sacramento when she became a court appointed advocate for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in Sacramento and Yolo counties and sought to connect women and children with services to help them recover.
Marina was deeply impacted by the long wait times her clients faced to see doctors and therapists for serious conditions like major depression and suicidal ideation. “It was heart wrenching,” she said.
An opportunity then opened at the Governor’s Office of Criminal Justice Planning, now the Office of Emergency Services, where Marina worked for the next decade overseeing Violence Against Women Act grants. It was there that Marina realized she was naturally suited to policy and oversight roles.
Wanting to know more about how to support children, and through them their families, Marina went back to California State University, Sacramento and received an M.S. in school counseling. She spent more than 700 hours working with children in the San Juan and Dixon Unified School Districts in connection with her studies, and was deeply impressed with the challenges so many children faced, like taking care of drug addicted parents or not having enough food.
From there, Marina got a job with the CA Department of Justice, state Attorney General’s Office as a Crime and Violence Prevention Specialist in the human trafficking program, where she was part of an early task force reporting on the subject.
In all of her jobs, Marina has found mental health to be central to her efforts to help her clients, so it felt like a natural progression to her when she next became Acting Chief of the Office of Multicultural Services at the former California Department of Mental Health, where she led policy and systems change efforts focused on vulnerable populations.
“There I learned the importance of engaging client/stakeholder groups,” she said.
Now, in her current position, Marina is leading a $60 million dollar statewide initiative called the California Reducing Disparities Project, a program aimed at reducing mental health inequities for five priority populations: African Americans; Asians and Pacific Islanders; Latinos; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning communities; and Native Americans. The project is supporting 42 contractors using proceeds from the Mental Health Services Act, the 1 percent tax on incomes above $1 million, which was co-written by our founder, Darrell Steinberg, and approved by voters in 2004.
“This is the largest investment of its kind in underserved populations in the nation,” said Marina.
“It’s very exciting work. It’s new space.”
One of the funded programs that Marina loves is the Sweet Potato Project, run by the West Fresno Family Resource Center, that showed students how to plant and sell sweet potatoes, and in the process learn about agriculture, business, and healthy eating.
Another part of Marina’s job that she finds satisfying is running an emerging leaders program for a half-dozen or more students, some like herself the first in their families to go to college.
“It’s been a struggle, being a woman of color in leadership where people have PhD’s,” said Marina, a mother of three children, the youngest now a senior in high school. That makes her current ability to help others advance all the more poignant.
“That’s a very honorable position to be in,” she said.