Helping People Help Themselves
From briefing generals and admirals during the Vietnam War, to overhauling his county’s social service system, alumnus Richard “Jake” Jacobsen has helped to improve thousands of lives.By Lizzie Hedrick
June 24, 2014
As director of the Department of Social Services (DSS) in Charlotte, North Carolina, Richard “Jake” Jacobsen recalled a customer whose drug and alcohol addiction prevented her from holding down a job and caring for her children.
“We got her sober and clean and helped her get a job at a tie shop in the Charlotte Airport,” said Jacobsen, who earned his bachelor’s in social studies at USC Dornsife in 1965 and resides in North Carolina.
“Every day on her way to work, her kids would give her a big ‘thumbs up’ as she left through the front door. One of the most gratifying things was seeing how proud the kids felt about their parents when they finally got it together.”
Jacobsen recalled countless such scenarios resulting from the Work First program he implemented for Mecklenburg County — a program that helped a reported 24,025 people secure employment.
During Jacobsen’s tenure as director from 1994 to 2007, the department became recognized as among the nation’s most effective urban social service agencies.
Jacobsen’s reputation drew the attention of Charles T. Goodsell, professor emeritus at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, who devoted a chapter to Jacobsen’s work in his 2011 book Mission Mystique: Belief Systems in Public Agencies.
The chapter highlights Jacobsen’s Work First program, which in part required customers to sign a “mutual responsibility agreement” promising they would stay off drugs, participate in activities preparing them for work, and immunize and enroll their children in school. The chapter also details how Jacobsen hired the chamber of commerce to implement Work First and cross-trained social workers and police officers to help them work more collaboratively.
“If you interviewed police officers, they didn’t have a clue what social workers did in child welfare,” Jacobsen said. “They didn’t understand what legally constituted child abuse and neglect. After the training, if we got a call from what we considered a suspicious address, we could call a police officer and make it a priority for them to accompany the social worker to the site for a ‘knock and chat’ visit to make sure it was safe to enter.”
Jacobsen also implemented new technology and obtained grants to help propel his initiatives.
“We created a computer system that allowed for the untethering of the social workers,” Jacobsen said, explaining the aircards that allowed social workers connection to the Web from any location.
Jacobsen devised rules for department employees — including a code of conduct that prohibited staff from laughing loudly or eating overtly in front of customers who might be hungry or poor. His goal was to revitalize the department and build a model based on respect at all levels.
When a senior manager told Jacobsen her hero was Walt Disney because he “makes dreams happen,” Jacobsen sent 20 staff members to the Disney Institute — The Walt Disney Company’s professional development firm — in Florida for specialized training. The course was then implemented for the department’s 1,200 employees — empowering workers to make decisions without having to jump through too many bureaucratic hoops.
“If you have a child you think may be being abused, you want to be able to take action and not drag it out,” Jacobsen said.
Jacobsen’s pragmatic leadership style was shaped through a long career in the military and other government agencies.
After graduation, Jacobsen earned an MBA from UCLA. During the Vietnam War, he enlisted in the United States Navy, attending Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. He was assigned the job of communications officer of a destroyer based in Long Beach, California. He was stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin, on a destroyer and provided gunfire support down the South Coast of Vietnam.
Jacobsen was later chosen to work at the Navy headquarters in Saigon as command briefer for Adm. Elmo R. “Bud” Zumwalt, Jr., commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam.
“My job was to brief all the incoming visitors and new officers about what the Navy was doing in Vietnam,” Jacobsen said. He delivered weekly briefings to Gen. Creighton Abrams, Jr., who commanded U.S. military forces in Vietnam, and the U.S. ambassador.
When Jacobsen returned to the U.S., he was asked to extend his Navy tour, joining a project in the Bureau of Naval Personnel at the Pentagon that addressed race and intercultural relations, alcohol and drug abuse as well as human resource management. After he was discharged from the Navy, Jacobsen acted as director of an initiative in the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention, a unit in the Executive Office of the President and later in the U.S. Department of Justice.
In 1974, Jacobsen returned to California, where he held positions in the San Diego County government, including director of social services and deputy chief administrative officer.
During his time at USC, he felt a strong connection to the Trojan community as member of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity and USC rugby team. He also considers his undergraduate education as among the factors that developed his worldly perspective.
“The courses that I enjoyed the most at USC were what they called colloquia,” said Jacobsen, who spent his junior year at the University of Vienna in Austria. “You had subjects in three or four different areas, and I enjoyed learning the inter-relationships. You took a country and learned the math, history, religion, arts, culture — everything about it in one course.”
The lessons taught him to see the “big picture,” an approach he has carried throughout his life.
In Mecklenburg County, Jacobsen always tried to see the big picture.
As part of his Work First program, for example, Jacobsen noticed that some banks would not hire anyone who had ever passed a bad check.
“I knew that every checking-account holder had passed a bad check at one time or another. So I got the banks to drop that requirement,” Jacobsen said. “That’s what I mean about looking at the big picture — looking outside the box and dealing with all the factors involved.”