Style Weekly’s Top 40 Under 40 awards is not only an annual cover-story edition for the Richmond magazine, it has also served as a kind of reunion for VCU School of Social Work alumni.
From the origins of the award in 2004 to the most recent honors last fall, VCU social work graduates have been named 21 times in 17 years, and in six consecutive years and 13 of the past 14. In total, 18 M.S.W. graduates, one B.S.W. graduate and two with both their B.S.W. and M.S.W. degrees have been recognized.
In 2020 alone, six VCU social work alumni – 15 percent of the 40 – were selected, following three in 2019.
“I’m not at all surprised,” says Nicole O-Pries (M.S.W.’04/SW), LCSW, an associate professor in teaching at the School of Social Work and herself an alumni winner in 2010. “Social work is designed to create impact in our communities and systems, and that’s exactly what Style Weekly’s Top 40 Under 40 aims to highlight.”
Brent Baldwin, Style Weekly’s editor in chief, echoes that assessment.
“No, I’m not surprised there are 21 VCU (social work) alumni named to the list, because it’s a role that does fit the theme of that signature issue so well,” he says. “We’re always looking for people who are making a difference, having an impact, specifically in the city – and social workers often are doing that in ways that are unsung or behind the scenes.
“I find that social workers are very passionate and committed people, who often are not paid that well, so they really have to believe in what they’re doing and that one can make a difference. For us, it’s important to recognize them individually and tell their stories, because they deserve recognition for a very difficult but much-needed job.”
Baldwin says that the nomination-based awards can have a self-fulfilling prophecy year to year once readers and community members make an association with the kinds of people and professions they have seen awarded in previous 40 Under 40 issues.
“Once they start to see a certain field represented in that issue, more people are likely to nominate someone they know, a kind of snowball effect,” he says. “And when we look through the nominations, we are looking for concrete examples of where someone has really brought about change over the past year, or someone who has had an outsized positive effect in the city.”
Two social workers who didn’t graduate from VCU have also been selected over the years, and, interestingly, one of those, Peter Shrock, is intimately familiar with the School of Social Work.
“I was raised by a social worker, and as a young kid, I was there with my mom for extended night courses at VCU social work,” says Shrock, whose mother, Conni Shrock (B.S.’89/H&S; M.S.W.’94/SW), is a two-time VCU alum.
“My mom was a big reason why I became a social worker, and I was very much shaped by VCU social work,” says Shrock, who was on Style Weekly’s 2017 list and is co-founder and chief people officer at Wayforth, a workforce firm that supports seniors in their homes or who are transitioning to assisted living. “I used to take notes in the class with my mom and compare notes on the drive home. It’s what we did every night after basketball my sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade years.
“I think social work is fundamental. What’s differentiated me is not my ability to read a spreadsheet or code in Python, it’s my ability to empathize, to understand where someone is coming from, to read the room, to succinctly communicate a need. What we used to call ‘soft skills’ is what’s most needed in business and by change managers. I actively recruit social workers for non-social work roles.”
The School of Social Work attempted to contact alumni from the 2019 list and earlier for an update and a reflection on the impact of the award, but was unable to connect with everyone.
Robyn Dillon (M.S.W.’97/SW)
Then: Clinical social worker, VCU Medical Center
Now: LCSW, Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, Children’s Hospital of Richmond, VCU Health
Reflection: “Social work is about advocacy and education, outreach and service. While social workers are shaped by the environment in which we work, we are also change agents responsible for defining, educating and creating an effective, efficient and empathetic role within our job descriptions.”
Aimee Perron Seibert (M.S.W.’02/SW)
Then: Legislative director, ACLU of Virginia
Now: Partner, Commonwealth Strategy Group
Helen O’Beirne (M.S.W.’06/SW)
Then: Director, Housing Opportunities Made Equal, Center for Housing Leadership
Now: Helen Hardiman, assistant attorney general and policy advisor, Virginia Office of Civil Rights, Office of the Attorney General
Reflection: “VCU put social work in my blood. Since, I’ve learned to speak law. But I always remember where I come from. Social justice is my animating force.”
Jason Young (M.S.W./’01/SW)
Then: Executive director, Community Futures Foundation
Now: Executive director, Community Brain Injury Services, the rebranded version of CFF.
Reflection: “The award was fantastic recognition personally for a job I love to do. Our organization has grown considerably since 2008. We are the designated brain injury safety net provider for an 18-locality service area encompassing the Metro Richmond and Virginia Peninsula area, providing two clubhouses programs and long-term case management services in both service areas. Collectively, we are serving over 300 persons and families per year now.”
Marc Cheatham (B.S.W.’05/SW)
Then: Senior assistant for policy office, Governor of Virginia
Now: Director of casework and constituent services for U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine; founder, the Cheats Movement
Reflection: “I really enjoyed my time working in the governor’s office. State government is a team effort and often a thankless job. Everyone is overworked and underpaid, but the work is gratifying and, I believe we did a lot of good things during the Kaine administration. During that time, we were going through the very beginning of the housing and foreclosure crisis. I was able to work with a great group of people to address the problem directly. We implemented policies that are still being used, in some form, today.”
Nicole Pries (M.S.W.’04/SW)
Then: Trauma response program manager, ChildSavers
Now: Nicole O-Pries, associate professor in teaching, VCU School of Social Work
Reflection: “I was humbled, of course (by the award). I saw it important in its ability to uplift the critical need for childhood trauma programs at a time before many people in the greater Richmond area were talking about childhood trauma or trauma-informed care. I see it as one of many small steps that led to widespread integration of trauma-informed care in our area and state.”
Mira Signer (M.S.W.’04/SW)
Then: Executive director, National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia
Now: Chief deputy commissioner, Division of Community Services, Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services
Reflection: “In my role I have the opportunity to work with social workers who are involved in policy development and implementation, program management and executive leadership. I think social workers are equipped to advance a vision that centers social and racial justice, and while there are still significant barriers to achieving equity in health care access, the emphasis I’ve seen in recent years is encouraging. I would encourage social workers to continue playing leadership roles whether in the nonprofit, private, or public sector.”
Michael Gasper (M.S.W.’03/SW)
Then: Executive director, Extra Special Parents
Fran Bolin (M.S.W.’00/SW)
Then: Executive director at Assisting Families of Inmates
Reflection: “What a great stat for the School of Social Work (when informed about the number of 40 Under 40 honorees). Awesome program, awesome results! … I celebrated my 20th anniversary with Assisting Families of Inmates in January 2021.”
Paul Eaton (M.S.W.’18/SW)
Then: Social worker, Virginia Supportive Housing
Afton Bradley (M.S.W.’13/SW)
Then: Transgender health care services manager, Virginia League for Planned Parenthood
Now: Care coordination manager and RN, VLPP; consultant for Folx Health
Reflection: “This award has been meaningful, as it has given recognition to the work being done by not just myself, but Richmond and Planned Parenthood to better serve the LGBTQ+ community. Having myself and other trans people recognized for our work in this way helps bring greater attention to the work we are doing and it has allowed me to continue to provide trainings, advocacy and direct care to our community.”
Chelsea Higgs Wise (M.S.W.’12/SW)
Then: Founder, Wise Innovation
Reflection: “The quality of healthcare for individuals are not just determined by the provider, but by the social determinants of health. Social workers’ focus is to align these determinants with the available resources to yield the best chance of meeting health goals. Social workers are also equipped with working with the most disenfranchised populations and understand that public health to many is merely survival. Social workers are taught that no one is disposable, and show up when many in the city turn away from the devastation. When a Richmonder can be expected to die 20 years earlier than another resident by identifying where they live, social workers are in urgent need to support health care. … The public is unaware of the many roles social workers play without the social work title. This has appeared to de-value the social worker title, particularly in more macro occupations where we should be leading in the connection to policy and community. I would love to hear us talk more about how we practice social worker values, the way we show up in the moment, rather than social work as a role.”
Felicia Bowman (M.S.W.’17/SW)
Then: Medical social worker, Heath Brigade
Now: Felicia Bowman Chandler, behavioral health case manager, Humana; founder of nonprofit Speak GlamHer; private practice owner, Soul Guided Healing & Wellness, LLC
Reflection: “The award was a way to spotlight the efforts and work I provide in communities across Virginia and online. My purpose is to continue creating spaces where Black women and girls receive culturally sensitive health information (mental, sexual/reproductive health).”
Allison Gilbreath (M.S.W.’16/SW)
Then: Policy analyst, Voices for Virginia’s Children
Now: Policy and programs director, Voices
Reflection: “The award helped solidify the importance of Black social workers involvement in policy advocacy and social work in general.”
Caroline Townsend-Neal (M.S.W.’06/SW)
Then: Founder and executive director, Worthdays
Now: Same position
Reflection: “We serve kids in foster care on important days in their life while also meeting unmet needs of those impacted by the local foster care system. We currently serve Richmond, Henrico, Chesterfield, Alexandria, James City County and Petersburg. … I was clinical, but now wish I had chosen macro.”
McKayla Burnett (B.S.W.’16/SW; M.S.W.’17/SW)
Director of human trafficking services, Safe Harbor
Cindy Capriles (B.S.W.’12/SW; M.S.W.’14/SW)
Director of counseling, Safe Harbor
Rebecca Keel (B.S.’12/H&S; M.S.W.’16/SW)
Virginia statewide organizer, Southerners on New Ground
Lauren Schmitt (M.S.W.’11/SW)
Partner, Commonwealth Strategy Group
Fatima M. Smith (M.S.W.’12/SW)
Founder of FMS Speaks; co-founder of Collective 365 and Color & Culture