Media-still-FF-8by John Fleming, The Anniston Star
December 14, 2008

When you listen to the language of Stephen Black, when you see how he presents himself, when you feel the confidence he exudes, you are quite sure you’re in the presence of a prince of high finance or a master trial lawyer. Not so. Instead, that image is only a facade of opulence or the pursuit of it, as thin as his newly purchased suit. What sets this man on fire is not the money he could make for himself, but the possibility of generating a different kind of currency for the common good-Alabama’s human capital. It is through his work as the director of the Center of Ethics and Social Responsibility at the University of Alabama and as president and founder of Impact Alabama, a student-service initiative, that he has intercepted the rock stars of Alabama’s youth. Many have been on their way to points west and north, but Black’s kept them in the state, making use of their talents. These platforms enable him to exercise his talent for organizing, implementing and wielding the tools of his brainy workers for the greater good. That good stretches from one end of this state to the other in everything from anti-poverty initiatives to capacity-building programs. The Center and Impact Alabama, he says, “Represent higher education’s role in the ethical development of our younger generation. It takes seriously the idea that there are moral obligations that go along with the privilege of receiving a higher education.” Some of the best resume-holders in this state, as well as Ivy Leaguers who call Alabama home, have chosen to give Black at least a year of their time. They promptly set out on such missions as screening kids for eye diseases and assisting lower-income workers with tax preparation, for $10,000 a year. You might call it VISTA Alabama, for it is designed to make a difference in the lives of the people the programs touch. But what Black is aiming for is to make a wholesale difference by impacting the young people who work with him. The effective charity he generates abounds and was most recently manifested in a $125,000 award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation he received for a program called FocusFirst. Through it, he and his staff have managed to screen thousands of Alabama children for eye diseases before they enter into school. The numbers, Black says, tell the story. Some half-a-million children go blind in one eye every year, although more than 90 percent can be cured if only the ailment is caught early enough. The trouble, he says, is that it is not cost-effective for any state to screen kids before they enter school. That is where Black’s team comes into the picture. Again, what he does and what his volunteers do is bigger than that rewarding work in vision care.

Behind the man

In his small, non-descript office in a Birmingham high-rise is Tuscaloosa native Sarah Louise Smith, a graduate of Williams College in Massachusetts. When she finished her degree in political economy, she was interested in non-profit work and doing something that would give back to the community. “I was looking to work in Massachusetts or in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “I had thought about Alabama, but hadn’t seriously considered it until I met Stephen.” Black convinced her to return to her home state and put her considerable skills to use here. Today she is the administrative director of Impact Alabama. Black, 38, keeps an office at the Birmingham law firm of Maynard, Cooper and Gale and is on faculty at the University of Alabama, but he spends most of his time at neither place. “I drive over 50,000 miles a year and I work about 100 hours a week,” he said with detectable embarrassment over coffee at a Birmingham food court. (Not the kind of hours, he readily admits, that leads to an exciting life for a bachelor.) But the travel and the hours are necessary, he explains, since “I have to travel to meet people, to explain what we are trying to do, and I work all the time.” During a recent week, he was in Birmingham on Monday, Tuscaloosa on Tuesday, Mobile on Wednesday, Montgomery on Thursday and back in Birmingham on Friday. He met with state legislators and power brokers, church leaders, university presidents and community leaders. He makes a point of saying that most of this is possible because of the encouragement from University of Alabama President Robert Witt and his philosophy of sharing all resources as long as it is good for the state. “I am lucky,” Black says, “to have a boss who can see the big picture.” The big picture seems two-fold: To build networks where he can plant his workers and volunteers who can help the state improve, and convince the powers that be to make the needed changes. For example, he is pushing hard for Montgomery lawmakers to consider a bill that would bring about more regulation of the accounting industry. “My volunteers have to get certified by the IRS to prepare a tax return,” he said. “Accountants have to be certified. But anyone can just open up a shop and prepare a tax return and not be required to get certified. That has to change.”

Drive to help others

That’s one of his major projects, an effort to educate the roughly 490,000 families in Alabama that file for the Earned Income Tax Credit each year. That’s easily the largest anti-poverty program in the state, he argues. The EITC is a tax credit for low-income working families that was put in place by Congress to offset Social Security taxes. The IRS explains that “when the EITC exceeds the amount of taxes owed, it results in a tax refund to those who claim and qualify for the credit.” Black has not always been of Alabama, though his roots are about as deep and significant as anyone’s. Though you rarely hear it from him, Black is the grandson of former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and the nephew of Montgomery civil rights activist Virginia Durr. He grew up in Albuquerque, attended the University of Pennsylvania for undergraduate school and later Columbiaand Yale law schools before striking out for Alabama. He explains his travels this way: “Having grown up in a family in which I heard countless stories of my grandfather’s involvement in public life in Alabama, and having visited my aunt and learning of her courageous fight for a more just society, I always wanted to return home to my family’s state and try to make a difference.” Former Anniston Star reporter and Mobile native Letitia Campbell, now a Ph.D. student in religion at Emory University, knows Black from a seminar on morality in 2006. “I’m not at all surprised that Stephen came back to Alabama,”Campbell said. “And it isn’t surprising to me that he has found himself in a position to shape the broader society. What he’s doing at the Center reflects the republican vision of a university of building for the common good. He is preparing citizens to be part of democratic life. I really feel that this is the kind of thing that drives him.” Different way of thinking But changing the state and the landscape for Alabama’s working families is not an easy task, especially considering the entrenched special-interest groups that work to keep things the way they are. Black, though, is not one to think small or shirk from a challenge. Part of that is because he is no stranger to the rough arena of state politics. He narrowly lost a race for state Treasurer in 2002 and served in the administration of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. He knows the bad of state government, but also the good that is possible. In that big-think kind of way, he lays out the strategy of societal rescue exercised by Mayor Cory Booker of Newark,N.J., a classmate of his at Yale. In something that might be called a public/philanthropic partnership, Booker has convinced some of the nation’s biggest foundations to back his effort to turn that state’s largest city from a place of hopelessness into a place of success. “In a way, the mayor has become the charity,” Black said. “The foundations are putting their money on him because they truly believe he can turn it around.” Referring to the former corruption-ridden mayor of Newark, Black said, “There is no way anyone would have ever gotten behind Sharpe James. But they know Cory Booker can make things happen and is willing to make things happen.” What he’s getting at is that a pubic-philanthropic partnership operated from the stage of public office under the right circumstances, with the right kind of progressive leadership can impact individuals and a society in a huge way. Does that mean another go for public office is in Black’s future? He’s not saying. But one thing seems certain: If he ever does go into public office, he would be a textbook example of a servant of the state.