Children Now Insider: Meet our Team – A Conversation with Eileen Espejo

Meet our Team

A Conversation with Eileen Espejo, Senior Managing Director, Health Policy and The Children’s Movement

Children Now® Insider: Stories, News, And Insights On Children’s Advocacy

For more information on our blog, contact Adrienne Bell at [email protected]

March 23, 2021

On starting out in media and transitioning to health

I joined Children Now as an intern in the Children in the Media program, a national program that looked at how entertainment media influences children’s identity development and well-being.

The project I worked on was a three-day national conference – attended by writers, producers, and other entertainment industry executives – where we presented original research, commissioned by Children Now, about children’s attitudes about racial diversity [in the late 1990’s] based on TV shows that aired during the primetime family hour. The results of the research, which was informed by focus groups of children, were pretty heartbreaking.

It was around this time that I fell in love with Children Now. And for the next few years I would come back to work when I was home or between projects – getting involved in other similar events about the depictions of boys and men in entertainment, for example. In 2001, there was a full-time opening on the team, and I was given the opportunity to join Children Now as a permanent employee. I worked in the media program for several years, but as funding decreased for that portfolio, I moved into health, and have been focused on health, with an emphasis on oral health, for the past 10 years.


On 20 years at Children Now

This year marks my 20th anniversary at Children Now!A lot has changed, but our commitment to kids has not. We’ve become much more proactive as an organization, leading the charge on establishing and building power for kids, rather than merely reacting to what’s happening across the state.

We know that kids need to be prioritized among policymakers. And we’re focused on pushing for policymakers to reset the state’s priorities and understand that kids are our most important resource, and we need to collectively advance and support policies that improve children’s well-being.

Children Now is very intentional about the work that we do, and the issues we push forward – all of which are centered in ensuring that all kids have the equitable services and supports they need to grow up healthy, happy, and ready to reach their full potential. There’s really no other organization looking at children’s issues the way we are and trying to advance them.


On adaptability

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about Children Now is that working here has made me more adaptable. I started out in media, then transitioned into health, and now divide my time between oral health, the Children’s Movement, and our internal race equity workgroup.

And as an organization, we’ve flexed that muscle too – adapting to the changing political and policy landscape within California – while maintaining our focus on doing right by kids.


On the importance of working in community

I’d love to be out of a job, but the fact that we’re doing this work with the community is key. I see a lot of potential for all the great things we can do together.

A critical part of our local work is listening to communities and understanding their challenges, without trying to solve their problems. As a statewide organization, we have experience that many of our local partners do not, but we learn so much from them by understanding how things work (or in some cases, don’t work) on the ground. This comes into play a lot in the Central Valley and in our county-based oral health work. By listening to the voices in local communities, we can elevate bright spots and struggles with stakeholders at the state-level, and work in partnership to develop and implement policies that will serve the needs of all Californians.


On why oral health is often overlooked

In some ways, oral health care is something that people take for granted, and you only notice it when you don’t have it. From the systems change work I’ve done over the past decade, I also know that a system will continue producing the same outcomes until we intentionally change it. The current system works for some, but does not work for too many others. And I think there’s also some fear around it, which can be grounded in both personal experience, and a general lack of education. This fear could apply to consumers, but also to providers and insurance companies as we are trying to innovate the ways in which oral health relates to overall health. For example, incentivizing plans to keep members healthy and promoting preventive services.

There’s also such a separation between oral and physical health care, and this is part of the problem. Historically, training for dentists was excluded from medical schools, and as a result, dental care became more of a cottage industry rather than a vital part of the integrated health care system.

One of our priorities is to establish stronger medical-dental integration as it relates to children’s health care. We led a pilot program in Los Angeles County to show the impact of physicians providing family oral health education and referring their child patients to dental care. Children Now built on that experience to implement a medical-dental integration pilot in Sacramento County that identified and trained pediatric clinics on the importance of oral health, how to apply fluoride varnish and administer a caries risk assessment. Through this pilot, an innovative online referral and navigation system now allows medical and dental providers to ensure that a child identified as needing a dental visit receives the supports needed to make sure that child is seen.


On alternate careers

If I wasn’t working at Children Now, I’d probably be a television producer for a Food Network or HGTV show.

Think about how great it would be to be the research person for Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives! [Laughs]

The pre-work sounds good, the glam sounds good, but the 4 am call times and the rest of it, not so much. I’m into the R&D though.


On hobbies, and post-pandemic life

Well, I remain a short-order cook for my kids between meetings, and I’ve definitely honed my skills on quesadilla-stuffing and meal prepping in the past year.

I’ve found time and motivation for some hobbies that I didn’t before, so that’s been nice. For example, I recently returned to swimming, now that the pool is open again, and it’s just so relaxing.

I can’t wait to see my family and my friends in person! And I’m looking forward to being physically close rather than socially distant, and just hugging people.

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