Center for Ethics champions social issues in state

William Evans


To Stephen Black, compassion is a moral obligation.

Black, the director of the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at the University, came to Alabama armed with a Yale law degree and a vision: to incite students to build a meaningful relationship with the low-income communities that define the lives of many of Alabama’s citizens.

“I started to become fascinated with civic engagement and the way people define civic obligation,” he said. “There’s been basically a 40 year decline in civic engagement across the country, across class and across gender. So it’s not like I chose a law path and decided I screwed up my choice.”

Black said he did not go to law school because he wanted to practice for 30 years. Instead, he has spearheaded a number of service-learning initiatives that fall under the umbrella of Impact Alabama. The statewide initiative spans several college campuses and challenges students to see the inherent meaning in social responsibility.

“I could speak until I’m blue in the face to college students that 20 percent of the adult population in Alabama is functionally illiterate,” Black said. “I could talk as much as I want about the fact that there are 11 million children in the country still without proper health insurance and healthcare. But if that’s all you know about those problems — the statistics on the chalkboard — you’re not likely going to be a participant in improving the problem.”

SaveFirst, one initiative of Impact Alabama, trains students to prepare tax returns for low-income families free-of-charge. Last year, SaveFirst helped 4,300 families save a total of 1.5 million dollars in out-of-pocket costs that would have otherwise been paid to tax preparers in the private sector, some of which have no credentials but charge an average of $300 for their services.

“The educational side of that is that it’s very valuable to put 150 UA students in a situation where they’re providing a professional service to mostly low-income working mothers, and they’re sitting at a table going through their personal financial details for the better part of an hour,” he said. “That’s an eye-opening experience for students to get a sense of what it’s like to live near the poverty line, which is where the majority of Alabama lives.”

The modern trend toward suburbanization, which distances families from the problems of the urban and rural poor, has created a comfortable bubble for some students to live their lives in without coming into contact with people who have problems unlike their own.

But social responsibility means more than breaking out of one’s comfort zone. It also requires a willingness to learn about the conditions in which other people live.

“Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, it’s very hard for people to be good at public decision making — to be good voters, to be good participants in improving communities — if you don’t have any sense of what others unlike yourself are going through,” Black said. “It’s hard to be compassionate if you’re not personally connected to problems unlike your own.”

Following the destruction of the April 27 tornado that uprooted families of all classes, Black had students document the tornado relief effort to tell the story of students healing the storm-inflicted wounds of Tuscaloosa.

Moral Forum, a fall semester class organized by Black that has students debate a politically or morally charged topic for the semester, was also converted to a multidisciplinary lecture series that focuses on the different aspects of rebuilding a city after a natural disaster.

“They’re learning what is really a very complicated story of what it means for a community to rebuild,” he said. “There’s a lot of tension, a lot of issues that come up with what a community should look like in terms of zoning, where the money should go for rebuilding first, where it should go second, what it should look like and who we are serving in the rebuilding.”

Black said he feels a sense of pride in seating the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at the Capstone.

“We’re not every other University,” he said. “This is the flagship university at one of the poorest, most rural states in the country, and there’s not room to be worried about whether South Alabama is going to get some attention from helping us out with something.”