90.3 WBHM Birmingham-- Today we conclude our series, "Corruption in Alabama: What's the Deal", with a look at what it means to be ethical. As director of The Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at the University of Alabama, Stephen Black occasionally gets calls from companies asking if he'd come give a lecture on ethics. He says he has to explain to them that when he says "ethics" he usually means something different than what they're thinking.

"I don't mean a thou shall not list of things that you need to not do if you want to stay out of prison. I think that's a pretty low bar for what it means to be ethical."

So, what does ethical mean to Stephen Black? WBHM's Tanya Ott reports.

As an attorney, Stephen Black knows all about what's legally right and wrong.

"I passed the ethics portion of the state bar, but all that means was I memorized some rules that will keep me out of a federal penitentiary."

But, he says, ethics should mean more.

"What ethical obligation do you have to other human beings while you're alive to fulfill what it means to be a good person, to fulfill what it is to be a citizen of this country?"

To that end, five years ago Black launched Impact Alabama, a non-profit that hires college students and new graduates to work on service-learning projects. Some of the Impact Alabama workers mentor inner-city high school kids. Others provide tax preparation services for low-income, working families. Recent college grad Kristin McDonald works on a project called Focus First. She visits urban and rural preschools and daycares, taking pictures of the kids' eyes.

On this day, she's at a home daycare center in Ensley, with dozen 3 and 4 year old scrabbling for attention. In a pitch black room, McDonald and her co-worker use a NASA designed camera to photograph the children's eyes, looking for vision problems. Impact Alabama has discovered kids with eye tumors and rare eye diseases. Kids who have a problem get subsidized medical treatment.

"And that's just awesome to me that these children's lives are complete changed. They most likely would not have been able to see and now they can go their whole lives being able to see."

The kids aren't the only ones whose lives are changed. Kristin McDonald has only been with Impact Alabama for a few months - she deferred a law school admittance to take the $10,000 a year job. But she says it's already changed her life.

"Being from Birmingham and growing up in Vestavia, I was extremely sheltered to what life was like outside of that. I was completely naïve as to what the real problems were and what the real needs were."

That, says Impact Alabama founder Stephen Black, is what he means by ethics: connecting young people to the social issues and problems facing society. Helping them feel empowered to make a positive difference. Last year, his troops uncovered rampant tax fraud at commercial preparer's offices. They helped craft legislation to change the rules on tax prep.

Black says this kind of attention to ethics is important, especially now in Alabama, with all its recent high-profile corruption cases, and especially with young people.

"They're incredibly fed up with politicians and the way they see them. They're incredibly fed up with the scandals. And what it does is make them very cynical about politics as usual. I think it's very important for us as educators to not let them disengage because of that cynicism."

"When my generation is just getting frustrated and angry and becoming really nonchalant about politics and government, that's only contributing to the problem."

Again, Kristin McDonald.

"You can change your facebook status and your twitter status to whatever you want about our government leaders. But if you're not voicing your opinion to them and you're not suggesting ways for things to be changed and you're not joining a group that is trying to contribute to that change - then you're not helping anything."

There is encouraging news. The Pew Charitable Trusts surveyed the so-called Generation Next - or GenNexters - those between the ages of 18 and 25. They found that GenNexters are less cynical about government and political leaders than are other Americans or previous generations of young people. Voter turnout among young people has increased significantly in recent years, interrupting a decades-long decline in turnout. But the survey results are mixed. It also found that fame and fortune are among the top goals of GenNexters.


~ Tanya Ott, September 25, 2009.