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MDC Board Member Profile: Stephen Black

MDC Board Member Profile: Stephen Black

Stephen Black has been on the MDC Board of Directors since 2015. He is the grandson of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black and grew up in New Mexico after most of his family left Alabama in the 1950s and ’60’s following his grandfather’s role in controversial Civil Rights decisions, including Brown v. Board of Education. As he says below, despite growing up over 1,000 miles away, he was fascinated from a very young age by Alabama and the legacy of his family’s commitment to public service in their home state.

Mr. Black received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated magna cum laude, and his Juris Doctorate from Yale Law School in 1997. Following his graduation from law school, he returned to Alabama to join the Birmingham law firm, Maynard, Cooper & Gale, PC.

After three years with the firm, he felt the call to public service — serving for a brief time as an assistant to the governor focusing on policy and economic development projects. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of thousands of students he encountered when speaking across the state, he turned his focus to founding and leading the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility at The University of Alabama, where he has served as director since 2004.

In 2004, Mr. Black also founded Impact Alabama: A Student Service Initiative and currently serves as its president and chairman of the board. In October 2014, Impact Alabama became Impact America and currently operates fully staffed programs in Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Florida. Partly housed at the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility, Impact America is an award-winning nonprofit with a staff of 63 full-time college graduates who have provided more than 8,000 college students the opportunity to participate in structured service projects designed to promote learning and leadership development.

Among the innovative programs initiated by Impact America are:

  • Focus First, in which students visit rural and urban areas with high-tech screening cameras that can detect a wide range of vision problems in pre-schoolers when the results are reviewed by vision professionals. Over 3,300 college students have screened more than 345,000 children in Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Florida since 2004, with approximately 11% of the children failing the screenings and receiving free follow-up care as necessary.
  • SaveFirst, in which over 4,600 college students have prepared tax returns for more than 51,000 low-income, working families since 2007, helping them to claim $94.4 million in refunds and save more than $16.1 million in commercial preparation fees.
  • Others including CollegeFirst, in which college students lead three-week intensive lessons to prepare high school students for Advanced Placement courses; SpeakFirst, which teaches academic debate; and Every Move Counts, which teaches chess and critical thinking skills to second through 12th graders.

In 2008, Black received the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award for his work with FocusFirst, a national award given annually to individuals who demonstrate creativity and commitment in addressing society’s most pressing health issues. Ten recipients were chosen from over 800 nominations.

Why did you move back to Alabama after graduating from law school in 1997?

It’s as simple as this: I knew when I as a kid that I was attracted to the idea of working in Alabama. There’s not a really strong correlation between people who work in banks and accounting and their children who work in banks or places like that. You know where there’s a really high correlation? Firefighters. There’s a huge correlation in police officers. There’s a huge correlation in doctors. If you’re growing up, and your father’s a surgeon or a policeman, that’s the story of your childhood. So if you grow up in a house where your grandfather was Hugo Black, and there are books all over, it just felt like this is what’s best about my family. I just wanted to be part of what felt to me like a very honorable family legacy. You don’t just take it off when you come in the door. It’s part of your conversation, it’s part of your being.

What inspired you to start the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility and Impact Alabama?

What I had in my mind continues to be one of the biggest challenges facing the country. For any of the issues that we’re interested in, how do you move forward in a country of 320 million people? People are having less and less personal interaction with anyone other than people like themselves. It transcends ideology and partisan policy, and at a fundamental level, it just makes us less innovative, creative, and able to solve problems when fewer and fewer of us have any knowledge of any kind of experience other than what we’re living on our own. One of the ways in which that growing civic disconnect manifests itself most poignantly is in class disparity, between the lived experience of the majority of Americans for whom college success is still not part of their story, and the minority of Americans who went to college, are building wealth and doing well—and living in isolation from people who are not on that path.

About 18 years ago, a series of university presidents and higher education people started calling out higher education for the abdication of what their inherent role to build citizenship should be, like a Jeffersonian ideal. There’s nothing wrong with saying they’re equipping students to make a living, but that doesn’t negate their responsibility to continue to grow the pipeline for the majority who are not on the path for college success. The culture of higher education has a specific obligation to care deeply about growing the pipeline, and that has consequences for every area of policy—for children being healthy, for parents having time to help their children learn, for allowing them to live in neighborhoods where they can be proud of our schools. That touches every area of policy. Every university wants to be good at civic engagement and service learning, and brags about how students are volunteering in a million different ways. That can be done in a different, more methodical way, a more significant way.

The idea behind Impact Alabama and the center was to be much more methodical about designing outreach initiatives that would run for many years, have quantifiable results, and allow students to reflect on their service and learn at a deeper level about the communities they’re serving.

Can you tell me about the genesis of those programs? Whose ideas were they, and how did you implement them?

We wanted something related to health disparities, something that college students and recent college grads could do in relation to the lack of health care provided to low-income families. I wanted to find something they could actually solve, not just give out materials. We looked at dental care, but couldn’t figure out a way for college students to work on that. But vision care is completely different, because the technology has developed so rapidly over the last 15 years. That now gives us the ability to democratize the delivery of the care, because there are now portable, digital cameras that can accurately diagnose the vision of a child in five seconds. That completely changes the story. Then it becomes a moral call on this generation of college students to end the problems of all the children in their areas, to get to every child possible.

What is the best story to tell to actively engage the empathy of a generation? The answer is to intersect the elite college students of America with families who are working every hour they can find, playing by the rules, raising children to the best of their ability. There are plenty of needs outside of that, but in terms of growing empathy, I think that’s the best step. Our vision care initiative provides vision care to low-income daycare centers. The mother is filling her responsibility, she’s working, and you go to her child and realize that very few of those children are seeing pediatricians regularly. For some of those children, you’re the difference between them not going blind.

Getting all kinds of students—in the humanities, in accounting—to do tax preparation has to do with a hugely important effort for two months of the year—connecting families with the Earned Income Tax Credit. That connects to vision care because it’s the same families. A child’s in day care because the mother’s working, and they are eligible for the EITC. By its very nature, it provides, in a bipartisan way, income relief for hardworking parents, rather than letting those families be taken advantage of by a commercial tax preparer.

What changes do you see in students who have participated in the programs?

To have a 19-year-old at the table for 45 minutes with a parent who’s making $19,000 a year, working every hour available to her, and to learn every financial detail of that mother’s life—how much she makes, how much she’s paying in child care, medical costs, gives to the church—plays a powerful role in changing people’s minds about stereotypes relating to low-income families. The first insight every college student has, even ones who describe themselves as liberal, is that for families who are making $18,000 a year, laziness is not part of the equation. The reality is, for the vast majority of people making $18,000 a year, laziness isn’t anywhere in the room.

In healthy campuses—and most campuses are this way now—that sort of world-view change not only changes people’s minds, but once that realization is in place, it’s far more likely that the person will play a role in creating a more just society.

What role do you see MDC playing in the South?

This civic disconnect has consequences for the caliber and creativity of our public policy solutions. The current level of conversation and information is not good enough for our nation. And what attracted me to MDC is that in an explicitly non-ideological way—being focused on results-driven, collaborative, public-private solutions to move communities forward—that’s the cultural reality we want to grow in all of our states. We have a growing percentage of the country that dismisses the possibility of the efficacy of public action. And that, factually, is just not accurate. But you can’t just scream in soundbites—spend/don’t spend, make government bigger/make it smaller—you have to leave the land of soundbites and talk about real, measurable solutions. The key components of every effective, productive decision are that they are nonpartisan, have a public-private aspect to them, are almost always cross-sector collaborations, and the progress is rarely led by a politician at the top. I think MDC is engaged in the hard, methodical work of actual coalition-building and problem-solving at the community and state levels, where it matters the most.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I love to read and work out. I think Parting the Waters is the greatest nonfiction book written. Edmund Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt—I connect with him. I just think Teddy Roosevelt was on the right side of history and had a carnal sense of justice. He was a relatively weak and sickly kid and had a beautiful relationship with a very loving and supportive father; I really loved that. And every book about Robert Kennedy.