Dwight Hall at Yale

Center for Public Service and Social Justice

Lessons from 2017 Curran Distinguished Mentor Stephen Black

Written By Onyeka Obiocha, Director of Innovation
Stephen Black held office hours with student leaders as part of his visit as Curran Distinguished Mentor.

“Close your eyes and imagine a poor person in the America. Whose face are you looking at and where are they?” This was the first of many questions Curran Distinguished Mentor Stephen Black (YL ’97) posed to a room of Yale faculty, students, staff, and New Haven community members during his talk entitled “Crafting a Culture of Ethical Obligation: Social Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century”. As the director of the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility at the University of Alabama and founder, president, and chairman of Impact America, Steven works at the intersection of student engagement and community development. At Impact America Steven has 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. In his work Steven stresses the need to learn directly from low-income communities in order to get a firsthand look on the realities of poverty while allowing students the opportunity to build lasting relationships through volunteerism. One of ImpactAmerica’s longest running programs is Focus First, an eye care initiative that visits low-income daycares to test kids for degenerative eye conditions and provides follow-up access to resources if an issue is identified. Since 2004 Impact America has worked with 3,557 student volunteers to screen over 432,000 children. Ask Steven about why he chose to focus on eye care and you’ll be surprised to hear his answer. “People assume there’s some personal, compelling story of blindness. It really was a personal, long-term research project to determine what work has the highest likelihood of growing connections.” For Stephen providing an opportunity for students to tackle a health disparity (in this case vision) is only one aspect of a larger mission, building empathy. By forcing students to literally look these children directly in the eyes, diagnosing them and providing them the opportunity to proper medical attention college, students begin to understand the human side of social justice work.

In order to build out these types of programs, especially in the south, Stephen realizes the need to engage individuals across party lines for the benefit of a society. When doing this work he stresses the need for building an argument on facts, rather than soundbites gathered from a 24/7 news cycle that no longer incentivizes research driven reporting. When misinformation begins to spread specifically when it comes to the face of poverty one begins to build a culture predicated on the “complete racialization of poverty”. In Steven’s aforementioned question many individuals imagined a young black male living in an urban area as the face of poverty. In actuality, African Americans in urban areas make up 11% of impoverished individuals, while white people in rural areas account for a vast majority of poor people in this country. As Stephen explains this lack of understanding leads to policymakers and social entrepreneurs launching initiatives designed for the people who they think are poor, not actually the poorest among us.  As we continue our work at Dwight Hall, Stephen’s visit was a timely reminder on the importance for higher education institutions to empower our students to build empathy and understanding through service learning and diligent research in order to build a world that serves us all.

Dwight Hall at Yale is pleased to announce the founder, president, and chairman of Impact America Stephen Black (LAW ‘97) has been named the 2017-18 Jane & William E. Curran ’49 Distinguished Mentor.

Stephen Black (LAW ’97) is director of the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility at the University of Alabama and is founder, president, and chairman of Impact America: A Student Service Initiative.  Black worked at Maynard Cooper & Gale law firm in Birmingham after graduating from Yale Law School. Three years later he was called to public service in policy and economic development work with the state of Alabama. After speaking to thousands of students, he was encouraged by their enthusiasm and turned his focus to founding the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility at the University of Alabama. In 2004, he founded Impact Alabama, which he later changed to Impact America, where he serves as president and chairman. 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. In 2008, Black received the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award for his work with FocusFirst, an initiative out of Impact America 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.

Dwight Hall Co-Coordinator Matthew Coffin ‘19 and Executive Director Peter Crumlish present Stephen Black with the Curran Distinguished Mentor Award.

About the Curran Distinguished Mentor Program

The Jane & William E. Curran ’49 Distinguished Mentor Program recognizes leaders who have made remarkable contributions in public service and toward social justice and invites them to serve as mentors to Yale University students by sharing their expertise, experience, and insights. The mission of Dwight Hall is to nurture and inspire students as leaders of social change and to advance justice and service in New Haven and around the world. The Jane & William E. Curran ’49 Distinguished Mentor Program supports this mission by providing students with access to role models who have demonstrated life-long commitments to promoting the public good.

Past Curran Distinguished Mentors include former Mayor of Baltimore and Dean of Howard University School of Law Kurt Schmoke ‘71, former President of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Frances Beinecke ‘71 FES ‘74, former CEO of Proctor & Gamble and co-chair of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center John E. Pepper, Jr. ‘60, author Kevin Salwen, the Honorable Shirley Sagawa, Founder of College Summit J.B. Schramm ‘86, CEO of Citizens University Eric Liu ‘90, Baroness Catherine Margaret Ashton, and Jerusalem Peacebuilders founders Dorothy Porter ‘86 and Rev. Canon Nicholas ‘86 DIV ‘94.

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, November 28, 2017

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