By Adeney Zo
Marvin J. Southard DSW ’83 has received the UCLA Luskin Joseph A. Nunn Social Welfare Alumnus of the Year Award in recognition of his contributions and tireless dedication to the field of mental health. The former director of the L.A. County Department of Mental Health retired last year, leaving behind a 17-year legacy that has been recognized on the state and national level.
“I’ve been honored with quite a few awards, but this award is special because of my feelings toward Luskin and UCLA and because I actually know the person the award is named after,” Southard said. “So it’s really a triple honor for me. As a person moves through life, they never really know those parts that are going to be really influential. But, for me, my time at UCLA was one of those times. It was truly pivotal in making my life more meaningful than it otherwise would’ve been.”
After receiving his UCLA degree in 1983, Southard spent his first years working as a forensics specialist, before moving to Bakersfield to serve as director of mental services in Kern County. His focus, which continued throughout his career, was on developing community-based partnerships to address mental health and substance abuse. He also initiated children’s mental health programs, a severely underserved area in mental health services at the time.
“It was a remarkable place, and it included some programs at the time that would shadow the full service-based work that’s being done now,” Southard said.
In 1998, Southard was asked by a friend to put in his resumé for the position of director of the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.
“I was reluctant to do it because I was happy and well-established. I didn’t worry or plan for the interviews — so I guess when you’re not worried you do well in interviews,” Southard said. “Taking the job was a sacrifice because initially I would work in L.A. and go home to Bakersfield on the weekends. I would also meet with my wife in Santa Clarita on Wednesday nights for dinner. So it was a lot of being apart, especially the first few months.”
Though Southard was initially uncertain about the move, this position allowed him to restructure and improve L.A. County’s mental health services. As director, he dramatically expanded children’s services, particularly for young children and transition-age youth, and built a community partnership system out of the department’s budget crisis. After incorporating community agencies and family members into the decision-making process for budget cuts, Southard explained that it was only natural to continue when the 2004 Mental Health Services Act provided funding with the caveat that departments had to incorporate a community process.
“We used the same process to add that we had been planning to use to subtract. We developed mutual trust,” Southard said. “As a result, we had one of the first plans approved in the state. Our expenditures have been a model for the state.”
Southard worked to improve the city’s emergency response system by creating partnerships with law enforcement that allowed clinicians to ride with officers in mental health-related cases. He also expanded the city’s psychiatric urgent care facilities, allowing for those with mental health emergencies to receive the right kind of medical attention.
The Alumnus of the Year award honors Southard’s remarkable contributions to the field of mental health. However, there is more to the story behind this year’s award recipient and the award’s namesake, Joseph A. Nunn BS ’65, MSW ’70 and Ph.D. ’90. Both Nunn and Southard attended Luskin at the same time and continued to collaborate as friends and fellow social workers through the years.
“I am well aware of the good work Marvin has done,” Nunn said. “His work speaks for itself, and his contributions are well-known in the state and even nationwide.”
Nunn was the recipient of the 1990 Alumnus of the Year Award from the UCLA School of Social Welfare. He was instrumental in the formation of the Social Welfare alumni organization that would revive this award and name it in his honor.
“There hadn’t been an award in many years,” Nunn said. “I and some other alumni were instrumental in starting the alumni organization and fundraising for it. When the alumni award picked up again, it didn’t have a name. I humbly accepted for them to name the award after me following my retirement in 2006.”
Nunn is three times a Bruin, having studied at UCLA for his undergraduate and graduate degrees before returning to serve as the director of field education in Social Welfare and as vice chair of the department. Throughout his career, Nunn has focused on encouraging students to understand the issue of juvenile justice and correction through firsthand field education.
“What was most important to me was the connection between university and community,” Nunn said. “Not only should research inform practice, but practice should also inform academic research. Field education allowed me to have one foot in the community and one foot in the university.”
Nunn also received the Award for Outstanding Service and Dedication from the Black Social Workers of Greater Los Angeles in 1995 and the NASW, Social Worker of the Year, for both Region H and the California Chapter in 2000. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the California Chapter of the National Association of Social workers and the Stovall Education Uplift Foundation Award in 2006.
Nunn currently provides training for child welfare workers on how to work effectively with gang-identified youth. He is chair of the Community Advisory Board for the CSU Fullerton MSW program and also serves on the Advisory Board for CSU Dominguez Hills. In addition, he serves on the Board of Directors of Aspiranet, the second largest non-profit foster family agency in California.
The Joseph A. Nunn Alumnus of the Year award was presented at the annual UCLA Luskin Social Welfare Alumni Gathering on May 14, 2016. More than 100 alumni, faculty and friends attended. Many of those who attended the event are MSWs from the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (LACDMH).