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Steve Kornell '95 Balances Social Work and City Council

posted on 12/12/2012

Eckerd grad Steve Kornell '95

By Mary Ellen Collins

The kid who grew up wanting to be a journalist, a marine scientist, a musician or an actor didn't envision a life that involved balancing the responsibilities of a school social worker with serving on the St. Petersburg City Council.

Steve Kornell '95 was involved in theater while a student at St. Petersburg Junior College, and worked at the Showboat Dinner Theater, Country Dinner Playhouse and St. Pete Little Theater before realizing that, "Actors aren't very powerful as far as controlling their own destiny. They're at the mercy other people, and that didn't appeal to me." It was in a college acting class that fellow student Bob Valenti made a suggestion that set the ultimate course for Kornell's career.

"He told me about jobs where you could teach drama at summer play camps in the parks. I did that and it was just a lot of fun, so I started working with kids in after school programs." That led to several jobs in the City's recreation department, and enrolling in Eckerd's Program for Experienced Learners to complete his bachelor's degree in human development. After graduating, he took a position as recreation leader at the Enoch Davis Center, and began to consider social work as a logical complement to his interest in advocacy for kids. When asked if anyone inspired that decision, he is quick to answer, "It was Jesus. When I was young and attending the Baptist Church in Mississippi, I learned that Jesus was out there challenging authority and working with the poor and the people no one else would want to touch, and that was inspiring to me. … I learned at Eckerd that recreation was started by social workers in settlement houses; and there's no better way to reach a kid than to get them involved with recreation programs and have them make social gains."

Now Kornell works half-time as a social worker at Dixie Hollins High School, where he counsels students on issues ranging from homelessness to grief to mental illness. As difficult as the job can be, he says the everyday contact with students and their families keeps him grounded. That grounding likely comes in handy when dealing with the other half of his life, during which he works through the political system on behalf of his constituents in District 5.

He was interested in politics as a teenager and young adult, but says his consciousness was raised when he came out as a gay man and began doing advocacy work for gay and lesbian kids. "It infuriated me to see leaders scapegoating this group, or any group, so I started standing up."

While serving on the Juvenile Welfare Board's Sexual Minority Youth Committee, he attended a public meeting in which he defended the committee's work in response to JWB board members who criticized the committee for not offering a balanced approach because they didn't promote reparative therapy for gay teens. The moment when he stood up and explained the committee's belief in dignity and respect for all students gelled his determination to always speak out on the issues he cared about. 

He says the decision to run for city council was not a long time in the making. "There was an open seat, and I'd been working on a campaign with people who thought I could do it, and said they would help me." He was elected in 2009 and re-elected in 2011, and now focuses on his three main areas of interest: children's issues, neighborhoods, and bringing the music industry to St. Petersburg.

Although Kornell didn't find a home on the theater stage, he has nonetheless made a life out of making his voice heard on behalf of children, families and neighbors who don't have the power or the forum to fight for themselves.

This feature is the third in a series of profiles of Eckerd alumni, faculty and staff who embody Eckerd's longstanding culture of service through their livelihoods and/or their volunteer activities.Through speaker presentations, campus initiatives and these profiles, Eckerd College's 2012-2013 Presidential Events Series: Cultivating Service: People, Politics, Planet demonstrates that service for the greater good can be achieved through scientific research, civil and public servant leadership, environmental protection, social justice action and commentary, foreign diplomacy, time in the armed forces, pro bono legal counsel and hands-on projects.

Read Previous Service Profiles:
Francine Haig-Jones '00
Darden Rice '00

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