By Sarah Kuper
Stephen Black’s passion for Alabama’s youth may seem out of place. He didn’t grow up here, he didn’t go to school here and he doesn’t have a Southern accent.
But a quick check into Black’s family tree shows that a penchant for social justice for Alabamians is in his genes. Stephen Black is the grandson of the late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black – an Alabama native famous for his decisions in civil rights cases such as Brown vs. Board of Education.
Now, Black is forging his own path, ever mindful of his grandfather’s legacy. He has established himself in Vestavia Hills, but his mission’s reach is statewide.
Black moved to Alabama in 1997 after graduating from Yale Law School. He worked as a lawyer in Birmingham when he first arrived but he never planned to make law his life’s work. Rather, Black founded the service-learning, non-profit Impact Alabama in 2004.
According to the non-profit’s website, Impact Alabama’s mission is to engage students and recent college graduates to address community needs, empowering a generation through collaborative efforts to promote change.
One initiative at Impact Alabama is FocusFirst. Volunteers go to day care centers and schools to conduct vision screenings on small children. With special cameras, college students with no optometry training can identify children who have vision problems. A child’s trying to learn letters and shapes without adequate vision can lead to lifelong struggles in school.
Thanks to FocusFirst, nearly 300,000 area children have been screened, with more than 30,000 of those children found to have vision problems.
Another important service volunteers at Impact Alabama provide is assistance with tax returns. Many Alabama families depend on tax refunds for necessities but fall prey to negligent or fraudulent tax preparation companies. Since 2006, SaveFirst has prepared almost 50,000 free tax returns, saving families $11.9 million in fees and claiming $73.9 million in tax refunds.
By conducting child vision screenings and preparing free tax returns, college students who volunteer with Impact Alabama are exposed to people and communities they may not encounter otherwise.
Issues such as lack of pediatric care and living paycheck to paycheck become more real when students deal with them firsthand. Black says when students get involved and provide a service for the community they become more invested in that community.
“Millennials are passionate about making a difference. They crave meaning in their life,” he said.
Black said students fortunate enough to attend college should graduate with a sense of compassion, not just a diploma.
Impact Alabama’s mission is incorporated into the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at the University of Alabama – a center Black was chosen to direct by former university President Bob Witt. Witt now serves as chancellor of the UA System.
Black credits Witt for some of the center’s success because Witt supported and encouraged Black’s use of the model in other Alabama colleges. University of Alabama at Birmingham and Birmingham-Southern College also encourage students to volunteer through Impact Alabama.
“Professors weave service-learning into their courses. This way it isn’t just the nursing students that sign up. We want business and accounting majors to visit day cares too.” Black said.
To volunteer, students can take a course offering or requiring service-learning or they can get directly involved with Impact Alabama by filling out an application online.
A large part of Impact Alabama’s staff is made up of young people supported by the AmeriCorps program. Through AmeriCorps, the non-profit offers full-time, year-long paid positions. Spots in the program are competitive and applications can be found online. The deadline to apply is Feb. 15.
Black said that pushing young people to broaden their horizons through service propels the state of Alabama forward. But his mission wouldn’t be possible without supportive adults from the Over the Mountain community.
In fact, Black credits Over the Mountain neighborhoods for supplying generous funds and civic support for Impact Alabama. Parents and school officials from Mountain Brook were instrumental in supporting the “SpeakFirst” debate team initiative for low-income high school students.
Over the Mountain communities are leading by example. More than ever, Black said the city of Birmingham is seeing activism from its suburban neighbors.
“We all suffer if kids 10 minutes away from us can’t see and aren’t taken care of,” he said.
The success of Impact Alabama has led the non-profit to expand its mission to other states, thus creating Impact America. By taking this model nationwide, Black hopes the public will take notice and follow the lead of young people who are driven to make a concrete difference in the lives of others.
“Service is really a natural impulse but it will be up to the country to harness it,” he said.
For more information about involvement with Impact Alabama, visit ImpactAmerica.com.