Bridging Divides: Scott Douglas III has spent more than 40 years building relationships for positive change
Birmingham Magazine, Mar. 2014
It is difficult to contain within a single theme or idea the ongoing commitment to service and advocacy of Scott Douglas III. Since first coming to Birmingham in 1976, Douglas has advocated for the rural poor alongside Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and battled environmental injustice with the Sierra Club. After becoming executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries (GBM) in 1993, he has raised the banner of immigrant rights, advocated to reform the Alabama state constitution, and pushed for the overhaul of public transportation. For Douglas the most consistent element of his work is relational. “It’s about connecting people together,” he says.
Douglas started bridging gaps at a young age — not that forging those relationships came easy. He attributes his earliest lessons is social justice to his mother, who insisted that he give his favorite toy to a poor neighbor boy. “She impressed on us a sense of fairness for everybody,” he says of his mother.
The events of the civil rights movement helped turn a commitment to fairness into a passion for change. Following a visit by Martin Luther King, Jr. to his hometown of Nashville, Douglas remembers overhearing the anxieties among adults around him, who feared that, “Dr. King is going to make the good white people mad at us.”
A teenager at the time, Douglas says he felt indignant, not realizing the security and family welfare they risked. “That ignited something in me,” he says. “It made me angry at fear.”
Moving to Birmingham in the midst of integration brought a number of opportunities to confront fear. When he so that his wife could attend UAB, he says his friends thought they were crazy. “Nashville wasn’t heaven,” he says, “but Birmingham was hell.”
After settling into the Magic City, however, Douglas began connecting to others promoting positive change. He started working with the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice (SOC), where he joined Shuttlesworth and other civil rights leaders. In the 12 years he spent at SOC, he helped provide regional support to smaller, rural communities that had little public attention.
“Too much harm happens in the dark,” he says, and they looked to “shine light on it.”
Douglas later joined the Sierra Club, where he describes his work as, “building a table of equity.” Douglas began putting the resources of the century-old organization into the hands of lower income people, ensuring that their interests and talents were represented in the Sierra Club’s efforts.
Some of the most expansive connections Douglas has formed have come through his work with GBM, a diverse, multi-faith organization that started in 1969. Today GBM is sponsored by more than 20 different faith communities and has provided support for a number of other non-profits, working to combat poverty, reform government policy, promote affordable housing, and provide direct services to lower income families and inviduals.
Of Birmingham, Douglas says, “it’s hard to find another place where you can find such a depth of courage, and caring, and compassion.” He remains focused on the need to break out of either apathy or anger, neither of which he says can affect change in an organized way. “We need to speak truth to powerlessness,” he says.