Ronald Mangum, developer of peer support specialist program, has few peers

Mangum is one of six University employees selected this year by Chancellor Carol L. Folt for the prestigious C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

Sometimes the best teacher is a bad example.

Ronald Mangum will never forget what he learned years ago from two doctors. The first never looked up from her dinner when telling him and his wife that one of their newborn twins was going to die. The second one shrugged his shoulders when Mangum told him that the emergency procedure about to be used on the surviving twin had previously caused him to stop breathing. “That’s just a chance you’ll have to take,” the doctor told him before walking away.

“It was horrendous,” Mangum recalled. “My goal is to never, ever, ever do that to anyone intentionally. That set me on a path to really be present with people and be attentive—even when I could not do anything but listen—because sometimes that’s all that is required.”

Eventually, that path led him to the School of Social Work, where he worked 20 years as a clinical assistant professor before retiring in April. Mangum is one of six University employees selected this year by Chancellor Carol L. Folt for the prestigious C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

The honor left the normally talkative Mangum speechless.

“I’ve never worked to receive recognition or reward,” Mangum said. “My motive is to treat people right and do my best.”

In search of justice

At first, Mangum wanted to be a lawyer but grew disenchanted with the idea by the time he graduated from N.C. A&T State University. He did go back to school, though, for a master’s degree in counseling at N.C. Central University.

He spent many years as a substance abuse counselor, then tried counseling in the corporate world. When his corporate job relocated, he decided to stay put, close to his extended family in Durham. “That’s when I really started engaging in what one would call on-the-ground, true social work,” he said.

“On the ground” was right. Mangum traveled to 17 states in his new job with the federally funded National Youth Gang Center, providing information and training to prevent young people from joining gangs.

Coming to Carolina

Mangum had on occasion also worked with Carolina’s Jordan Institute for Families on juvenile justice issues. His name came up in 1998 when there was an opening in the institute’s Family and Children’s Resource Program in the School of Social Work. All Mangum’s valuable on-the-ground experience proved to be a good match for the program, which brings the latest social work research from academia to practice.

“I wish I had known what I was training to social workers at the beginning of my career,” he said, “because the information we were giving social workers I knew would be valuable once they got into the field.”

Mangum added a personal touch to his lectures by linking his experience as a black man coming of age during segregation and the Civil Rights Movement to his counseling work. As he talked to the class, he stood in front of a screen displaying a series of photos from that era.

“You see a short African-American male walk into the room. But this is what you don’t see,” he told his students. The lecture reminded students that social workers carry a certain amount of emotional and historical baggage into their interactions with others and so do their clients. It is important to have some self-awareness to avoid projecting your history on those coming to us to receive unbiased assistance.

In a nomination letter, one of Mangum’s students wrote, “I appreciate your candidness and generosity. It is an inspiration.”

Value of lived experience

Perhaps it was this sharing of his own lived experience that made people in the school think of him again when the state established a certification for peer support specialists. When told about the opportunity to develop and lead the certification program at the school, he said he’d think about it. Then he Googled “peer support specialist” to find out what it meant.

When he found out that peer support specialists are people living in recovery with mental illness and/or substance use disorder who support others going through those experiences, Mangum instantly saw their value in social work.

“I don’t know what it’s like to live under a bridge. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a mental institution,” he said. “These men and women who are certified do, and they can show them that there is a different way.”

Mangum had no model to guide him, but he did have an advisory team of men and women with lived experience as well as the resources of the school’s Behavioral Health Springboard program and the state Division of Mental Health Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services. The program the team developed has produced 3,007 certificate holders to date, 400 of them veterans or military personnel. Each peer support specialist completes 40 hours of approved training in peer support plus 20 hours of training related to mental health or substance use.

“More than 3,000 [North Carolinians] are engaged in meaningful volunteer or paid employment—rather than being ‘disabled’—due in part to the opportunities Ron has helped to create,” wrote one of Mangum’s nominators.

Mangum always said he’d retire when the program “leveled off,” but it just kept growing. It’s not likely that Mangum will “level off” in his community involvement either. On his second day of retirement, instead of leisure he chatted excitedly about volunteering at a transitional living center.

“You don’t lay down helping people. You don’t stop,” he said. “I don’t think I can turn it off.”