Appreciating value: Recognizing alumni for Social Work Month 2023
Social workers are foundational to our communities, serving in a variety of fields, workplaces and roles – and often overlooked when they carry a title other than “social worker.”
We value them every day of the year for their varied skill sets, their leadership and mentorship. For their adherence to the profession’s values and principles and for their compassion. For their service to the most vulnerable among us and their advocacy for equity and justice for all. For the long hours and thankless administrative responsibilities that keep the engines of progress running.
For Social Work Month 2023, we celebrate and recognize a selection of these changemakers who proudly call the VCU School of Social Work their alma mater. They aspire to make the world a better place, and they inspire us all in the process.
Related: Alumni in the news
–Anthony Estreet (M.S.W.’07/SW) is the new chief executive officer of the National Association of Social Workers.
–Viola Vaughan-Eden (Ph.D.’03) has received the Outstanding Individual in Academia award from the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy.
Jeff Beck (M.S.W.’11/SW), LCSW
Jeff was drawn to social work because of its broad application in a number of incredibly important fields. He loved the breadth of his days as he would go from a class on play therapy techniques to research and then to criminal justice. This wide view helped him hone in on what he wanted to pursue while appreciating the broader societal impact. [AnswersNow, a virtual therapy company, has raised $11 million in capital equity to fund an expansion.]
Marc Cheatham (B.S.W.’05/SW)
Director of constituent services and casework for the Office of Sen. Tim Kaine
Marc often reflects on the privilege of being a B.S.W. graduate from the VCU School of Social Work. He considers himself somewhat atypical in that he never held a professional job with the title of social worker. Yet, Marc has applied the lessons he’s learned from the school every day of his career. He credits the School of Social Work for helping him find his moral compass, fortifying his values and, above all else, allowing him to mature into the person he is today. Working in politics, Marc frequently wrestles with compromise versus progress. There is rarely a situation where everyone agrees when presented with a challenging issue. When this occurs, he revisits many of his social work values, particularly the dignity and worth of the person. When forging macro policy, the individual often gets lost. The VCU School of Social Work centers the dignity and worth of the person, and by doing so, it centers compassion along with progress.
Allison Gilbreath (B.S.’11/GPA; M.S.W.’16/SW)
Policy and programs director, Voices for Virginia’s Children
For Allison, social work isn’t a field of study, but a way of life. Experiencing the system firsthand ignited a passion to bring lasting change. Allison works to dismantle broken systems and build new ones that center the well-being of those interacting with them. Her work has gone far beyond the local and state systems and has landed her in the White House, twice! She is not only working to bring change to the many young people who find themselves in similar situations to what she did, but she is doing it alongside them and helping shape the next generation of changemakers. Change is often incremental and takes time, dedication and perseverance, but seeing others catch the vision (whether students in her class or advocates in her coalitions) motivates her to keep pressing forward.
Angela Giles (M.S.W.’98/SW), D.B.H.
Behavioral health consultant, Hampton VA Medical Center
The social work core values guide Angela’s social work practice. She addresses inclusion, diversity, equity and access on the macro, mezzo and micro levels. She is an appointed member of the Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Subcommittee of the National Research Advisory Council; serves on the National VHA Sexually Transmitted Infection Health Equity Subcommittee; and is a work group member of the ENCORE Multi-Stakeholder Partnership, which co-authored a journal article focusing on veteran reintegration. In October 2020, she was selected as a national project coordinator for a 24-month special assignment at the National Social Work Program Office. In her role, she was lead of the National Social Work Action Plan to Address Racism, which transitioned to Social Workers Advocating for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity & Access (I-DEA).
Melanie Gray (B.F.A.’87/A; M.S.W.’95/SW)
Director of outreach and mission, Christ Church Episcopal
Melanie has been a social worker for 28 years and still wakes up, more days than not, looking forward to her day. She considers social work her vocation – it doesn’t feel like a “job” or something she has to do, it is something she really wants to do. Melanie attributes that in many ways to the training and support she received from VCU’s Master of Social Work Program. In particular, she remembers the emphasis that the school placed on cultural competency, healthy helping relationships, and the power of community building. As a convener of community partners and a participant in many proactive circles, what Melanie loves about this field is the positive impact social workers make in a community when they work together. Things that seem impossible become possible through commitment and collaboration. Melanie learned those principles at VCU.
Patricia Green Rodgers (M.S.W.’74/SW), M.S.P.R.
Founder and chief strategist, Patricia Green Group
Raised in a segregated Richmond, Patricia was a curious child who questioned inequities. So when Black people marched against segregated seating in downtown restaurants, their civil disobedience fueled her desire to be the change. Securing a master’s degree in social work, specializing in community organization and social planning, began her servant leadership path. Integrating two different disciplines of study – social work and public relations – drew media attention to stories about the dispossessed that would otherwise go untold. Real learning for real life. The VCU School of Social Work was the foundation for who Patricia became: a public relations business owner who attracts socially responsible clients.
Ashley Harrell (B.S.W.’97/SW; M.S.W.’99/SW), LCSW
Senior program advisor, Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services
Ashley has worked tirelessly to move the needle to support the transformation of the Virginia behavioral health system, making services more accessible and evidence-based, and constantly advocating for the needs of the most vulnerable individuals in the commonwealth. Ashley has amazing dedication to her job and the individuals served by Medicaid. She has worked for Virginia Medicaid for many years and was the lead for implementing its evidence-based substance use treatment benefit across Virginia in 2017. She has been nationally recognized for this implementation, and many other states use Virginia’s addiction and recovery treatment services (ARTS) program as a national model of substance use disorder (SUD) care. She is kind, collaborative, trustworthy and works tirelessly to combat stigma in the behavioral health system. She never gives up and has saved countless lives by making SUD treatment more accessible across the commonwealth.
Kyleigh Hynes (M.S.W.’21/SW)
Safe schools coordinator, Equality Virginia
Kyleigh is a staunch advocate for trans youth/rights. She privately informs others of ways they can engage with their community and contact their local congressmen and delegates. She was also a speaker at Equality Virginia’s 19th annual Commonwealth Dinner. She commits herself professionally and privately to the activism displayed at Equality Virginia. She is an outspoken advocate for human rights and is willing to teach others how to do the work to uplift trans communities.
Cristina Kincaid (B.A.’07/H&S; M.S.W.’20/SW)
Director of health outreach, Health Brigade
Cristina has been working as the director of health outreach and advocacy at Health Brigade since 2014 (and 2009 overall). She leads the largest department at the agency (including trans health services, comprehensive harm reduction, Ryan White and HIV/STI testing and the CHARLII program) with a staff of 14 responding to over 10,000 client contacts a year. Every day she goes above and beyond in her role – providing supervision to staff across multiple departments, managing the Health Outreach Department, performing outreach and communicating with the public, advocating for funding and comprehensive services, overseeing budgets, writing grants, and coordinating with the Virginia Department of Health. Her passion for social justice and combating white supremacy in the social work field is apparent in the work she does at Health Brigade, the supervision she provides to social work student interns and her advocacy work in the Richmond community.
Sheena Lyle (M.S.W.’96/SW), LCSW, CCTP
Founder and CEO, Coastal Impact
To Sheena, social work means “compassion for the vulnerable.” It’s been her vocation and passion for 25-plus years now. Believe it or not, what led her into social work was taking a social work class in her senior year, while pursuing her business degree at James Madison University. She was also doing volunteer work. She followed her “gut” to pursue a master’s in social work at VCU and has never looked back, nor does she have any regrets. She loves this field of work to this day.
Debra Mulé (M.S.W.’88/SW)
Nassau County (N.Y.) legislator
Debra is in her third term for a county with approximately 1.5 million people. She views her job as another way to do social work, helping constituents on both the micro (assisting people with whatever needs they may have) and macro (passing laws, policy) levels. She is particularly interested in affordable housing and individuals experiencing homelessness, and environmental issues. Her social work training at VCU prepared her well to look beyond her own world view and to empathize with people who are often dealing with extremely stressful situations. She thinks all elected officials should be social workers. In 2018, she was honored as the Nassau Division New York State Chapter Social Worker of the Year, specifically because of her work as an elected official.
Abbey Philips (B.A.’09/H&S; M.S.W.’12/SW; Cert.’12/GPA)
Director of policy, Legal Aid Justice Center
Abbey inspires her fellow alumni, sharing knowledge about policy, social work values and how to supervise and inspire students as a community-embedded faculty member. Through her role as policy director at the Legal Aid Justice Center, she helps the organization and impacted communities fight for racial, social and economic justice by working to dismantle systems that create and perpetuate poverty through policy advocacy. Abbey also takes time to continue working with social work students, helping plan visits to the General Assembly and often working 12-hour days during the Virginia General Assembly Session. She is committed to empowering and uplifting the voices of impacted communities, organizers and nonprofits to be heard in government spaces and the policy arena. One of her many passions is criminal justice reform. Outside of her job, she volunteers with a number of organizations that advance the cause of social work.
Lashawnda Singleton (B.S.W.’14/SW), M.P.A., PRS-T, FPSS
Community outreach coordinator, Virginia Department of Corrections; VCU School of Social Work community-embedded faculty
Lashawnda found herself while completing her studies at VCU School of Social Work. VCU helped her to understand the role of an effective change agent and how the ability to tap into her own strengths was important, just as social workers assist their populations with tapping into theirs. This helped her to develop into a mezzo social worker, working with individuals, families, communities and policies within the criminal justice, reentry and restorative justice field. “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” – Ida B. Wells
Sarah Snead (M.S.W.’83/SW)
Retired deputy county administrator of human services, Chesterfield (Va.) County
Upon graduation from VCU School of Social Work 40 years ago, Sarah never dreamed of the exciting path ahead. She chose the field of social work out of a desire to help others reach their full potential. She quickly realized her passion for leadership and advocacy. Having served as a director of social work in both public and private settings, a deputy county administrator of human services and now as a volunteer on nonprofit boards, she has experienced the diverse roles available for social workers. Throughout these adventures, Sarah was amazed how often social work principles and skills were critical to success no matter the setting. Furthermore, she was and is reminded how she admires and values persons doing this challenging, vital work. With courage, determination and genuine respect for all humanity, social workers truly do make a difference.
Tagged Abbey Philips, Allison Gilbreath, Ashley Harrell, Cristina Kincaid, Jeff Beck, Kyleigh Hynes, Lashawnda Singleton, Marc Cheatham, Melanie Gray, Patricia Green Rodgers, Sarah Snead, Sheena Lyle, Social Work Month, Social Work Month 2023