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For Jason Peace, social work is an opportunity to represent Black men and youth

This month, we catch up with Jason Peace, who graduated from our MSW program in 2011. Peace is the executive director of Meals on Wheels in Durham, a leadership role he assumed on April 1, 2020, at the start of the pandemic. A double Tar Heel and former wide receiver with the Carolina football team, Peace previously worked for 17 years at BrightSpring Health Services in Raleigh, where he served as a clinical supervisor who connected Wake County residents with intellectual disabilities to home- and community-based healthcare services. In 2014, he was appointed executive director of BrightSpring and for the next six years, he provided strategic leadership to more than 250 employees at 21 facilities and oversaw the human service provider’s budget, including more than $10 million in annual revenue. At Meals on Wheels, Peace leads a program that currently serves nearly 550 homebound clients weekly in Durham.

Q: Tell us a bit about why you decided to pursue social work as a career.

It was two things. First, it was an opportunity to give back. I’ve always been in different positions to help folks. I always saw how my grandparents were and how my mom was with helping folks in the community with things they needed. I also didn’t feel like there were a whole lot of Black men in social work. We have been really underrepresented and given some of the things that are going on in our community, I think it’s important that our Black men and Black boys see that they have someone they can relate to that may represent them a bit better than someone else.

Q: What kind of expertise do social workers bring to the table of a nonprofit organization and why are they well-suited for macro practice?

I think social workers from a macro level are able to see the bigger picture and see how different entities and different organizations can work together for mutual benefit as well as for the community benefit. Macro social workers are trained to look for potential partnerships and potential opportunities for working with others. They know who to bring to the table at a specific time and what everyone’s worth is and how they can contribute.

Q: The ongoing pandemic has challenged individuals, businesses and nonprofits in so many ways. What has been the impact on Meals on Wheels in Durham and how has the organization managed this impact to ensure clients’ needs are met?

Our program primarily serves two focus points: making sure that our older folks who are homebound have access to at least eight meals of nutritional value every day and ensuring that our clients have human interaction every day. So, one of the ways the pandemic really impacted us was we had to figure out how we could continue to deliver meals but more important, how we could continue to have this touch point and this human interaction that is so necessary for our clients. Ultimately, we ended up switching our service model from a daily hot meal delivery program to one that provided a week’s worth of frozen boxed meals. As a result of this change, the program served nearly 1,000 people throughout 2020, and we doubled the amount of meals normally served to more than 200,000.

To bridge the gap with the social interaction piece, we established wellness calls, with volunteers reaching out to our clients regularly by phone to check in with them and to make sure that they were all OK. We recently conducted a survey about these wellness calls, and more than 90 percent of our clients said they want us to continue them, regardless of whether we go back to daily deliveries.

Q: As you know, UNC School of Social Work has been celebrating its centennial over the past year. How do you see the role of social workers changing over the next 100 years?

One thing I’m really happy about is we’re starting to see folks talking more openly and freely about mental health, particularly in the worlds of entertainment and sports. As a former athlete at Carolina, I can understand some of the struggles that athletes go through. So, I think we’re going to see more opportunities for social workers to assimilate into those different worlds. We’re already starting to see more athletic programs bringing in behavioral support and mental health professionals as part of their programs and not just as auxiliary services, which is really encouraging.

I also think we have a lot of opportunity to expand our roles into business. We’re trained to be in tune with people, and you need people to be at their best to push your company forward. So, when businesses advertise the soft skills that are needed in management, I think a lot of social workers would qualify for these positions. Finally, more and more businesses are focusing on how they treat people and how their employees are getting along and how they are working through their own internal problems, all behavioral areas where social workers have training. So, I do think there are plenty of opportunities still out there for social workers to enter into the upper executive management positions that maybe we haven’t really talked much about before.

Q: What advice would you offer graduating social work students who are interested in working with nonprofits?

In general, I would tell any social work student, don’t put yourself in a box. Don’t let anyone else define for you what you can and cannot be or what areas you can or cannot work in. In terms of the nonprofit world, go in with both eyes open. I know that you want to do good and you want to do it for the right reasons, but you also have to keep the lights on. On the backside, it’s still a business, and you have to run it efficiently and effectively to continue to operate. And finally, I would encourage you to continue to learn and to surround yourself with people who can help you push yourself forward and to remain innovative.