Mary M. Black (1950-2020), a tireless advocate and pioneer for improving the lives of underserved children and families in the Phoenix area, founded and served as chief executive of Black Family and Child Services of Arizona (BFCS), one of Arizona’s most respected nonprofit social service agencies, for 35 years.
She described her role as "a drum major leading the marching band."
Her achievements were many – but her uppermost talent may have been the ability to inspire people to march with her in the cause to which she dedicated her life through BFCS.
The first person she had to convince to step up to the challenge was herself.
Working for the state’s Department of Economic Services and Child Protective Services in the 1970s and 80s, Mary became acutely aware of the hardships faced in trying to place black children in foster care and adoptive families.
There was – and remains – a large disparity between the number of foster and adoptive homes available for black children, and those open to most other children.
Through her state job, she established Homes for Black Children to find foster care and adoptive homes for black children, prompting the state to provide more care for all children of color.
Mary also founded the Arizona Minority Child Network, which gathered social workers from across the cultural spectrum to develop education and policies to improve child social services.
She believed more was needed, but her other job duties made it difficult. Her first marriage had ended, and she was raising two young sons, so she was hesitant to step out on her own and forego a steady paycheck.
The turning point came when a national company offered her a top administrative position.
"I had a chance to step into corporate America, but I turned it down," she said. "When I was faced with that decision I realized it was not the place I was supposed to be."
Instead, she "went on faith" and embarked on starting what would become Black Family and Child Services of Arizona.
Since 1984, the agency has grown from a small office with three staff members to a multifaceted social services network managed from a 27,000-square-foot center in south Phoenix.
State-licensed to provide child welfare placement and behavioral health services, the agency has placed thousands of children in foster homes and hundreds with adoptive families, while also offering therapeutic foster care, adult substance abuse counseling, child and family therapy, after school programs, and services to help at-risk youths prevent gang violence, pregnancy and substance abuse.
Mary always emphasized that her programs focus on helping keep parents and children together, and the agency continues to serve a racially and ethnically diverse population.
Today, BFCS gives hundreds of needy children new clothes each year through its Miss Mary’s Closet program. And with St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix, and Fry’s grocery stores, BFCS distributes food to about 1,000 families each month. The agency coordinates the work of hundreds of volunteers who donate thousands of hours every year to help provide needed services.
For more than three decades, Mary succeeded by earning the trust and support of government, corporate and community leaders, churches, local businesses and private donors to assist in realizing her vision. She was an alumnus of Valley Leadership Class 10.
She motivated builders, architects, attorneys, financial planners and others to provide the agency professional services at no cost. Most people found it hard, if not impossible, to refuse to help when she made a passionate appeal for assistance.
Mary was a "drum major" throughout her career, because maintaining adequate resources was always a challenge. She discovered a key to inspiring others, and lived by her own words: "If you have integrity, people will follow," she always said. "You have to communicate your passion, but also show you can be pragmatic".
Her mix of passion and practicality comes from an upbringing with six siblings and supportive parents in rural Louisiana.
"My parents gave us strong self-esteem," she confided. "My father always said, ‘Make sure you get your education,’ because education is what opens doors to opportunity."
Going to college in the 1970s, in the wake of the civil rights era, also shaped her. "Those times gave me a strong sense of responsibility," she said, "because so many people had sacrificed to gain rights and opportunities. I felt I had to do my part."
That sense of obligation led her to earn a degree in social work at Grambling State University – and later use her education to start Black Family and Child Services.
Mary served on numerous state committees and community organizations focusing on childcare and family support.
Among dozens of honors, she was named one of 48 Arizona Women -- Arizona’s Most Intriguing Women, in honor of the first 100 years of state history by the Arizona Historical Advisory Commission.
Mary was presented with the Phoenix Suns/Martin Luther King Community Leadership and Service Award; Extraordinary Women of Color Award – ABC 15 Sonoran Living; an Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation Award; the Martin Luther King Living the Dream Award; the NAACP Image Award for Youth Services; and the prestigious Clara M. Hale Humanitarian Award presented by the national Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
Mary and BFCS were profiled in a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal for innovation in delivering nonprofit family services. She was also named one of the Top 50 Most Powerful Activists in Phoenix by PHOENIX magazine and one of The Phoenix Area’s Most Influential Women in Business by Today’s Arizona Woman magazine.
Despite her numerous achievements, Mary always attributed her success to the strength she gathered from her own family. She frequently said her proudest accomplishment was that "I raised some great children."
Sons Joffery and Christopher served in the military and earned college degrees. Joffery is an accomplished artist. Christopher is successful in finance for a securities firm. Both are "amazing fathers," she says. There are five grandchildren.
"I believe I was blessed with wonderful children," Mary said, "so I would be able to help other children have better lives."