'Woman of Steele': St. Joseph County Bar Association set to elect first black female president

’Woman of Steele’: St. Joseph County Bar Association set to elect first black female president

SOUTH BEND, Ind. —- On Friday, the St. Joseph County Bar Association could make history during it’s officer election.

If approved, SJCBA President-Elect Stephanie Steele will be the group’s first African American female president. 

“I’m incredibly honored and humbled and I feel very blessed,” said Steele.

Steele is currently the corporation counsel for the City of South Bend. She manages and supervises all legal matters of the City. 

But as the next president of SJCBA, Steele will be charged with determining the future of nearly 600 bar members in the county. SJCBA offers the following: 

  • Continuing legal education programming for lawyers, paralegals and judges,
  • Networking events for local legal professionals,
  • The SJCBA Bar Referral Program, 
  • And practice area committees. 

Since 1873, the county bar association has served judges, paralegals and attorneys like Steele. However, the SJCBA has only had one other black president, Chester Allen (1969-1970). 

While researching through known membership archives, SJCBA Executive Director Amy McGuire discovered Steele would be the first black woman to serve in this position. Along with ABC 57 News, McGuire counted the amount of women and black members from the known membership archives. 

In 1922, SJCBA had one female member. It had 1 female member and two black male members in 1969. 

In 1978, SJCBA had 15 female members and 5 black male members. In its most recent membership composite, there were less than five black female members pictured. 

McGuire said there could be more members because they joined after the composite was made. But she did confirm up until 2019, no black women has held the presidential title. 

“Of course I’m sad it took brim 2019 for this to happen,” she said. “But I’m really excited that we’re here.”

The SJCBA is set to have its annual meeting on May 31 at 11 a.m. Steele said this presidential title will not be official until it is voted on. 

“But to have your colleagues and members of the community say we choose you that’s flattering and humbling in and of itself,” Steele said. “But then to also find out that you’re the first one it kind of makes everything feel small.”

However, out in the community, some pretty important people see Steele as anything but small. Her former boss, South Bend Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski, calls her the ‘woman of Steele.’

“Not a play on words there, but seriously,” he said. 

Steele served four years as a St. Joseph County Deputy Prosecutor. She served more than two years as an attorney for the South Bend Police Department. 

Ruszkowski said even in the beginning of her new role the ‘woman of Steele’ will still answer a distress call. 

“She’s able to be that personable and knowledgeable to be able to kind of even keel a cop that’s been around here for 31 years,” he said. 

While her current boss, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said the work Steele is doing in her office and out in the community is leaving future generations in good hands. 

“When you have somebody who’s leading in this leadership position really representing the entire legal community of this area that sends a very strong message that anyone with the right level of drive talent belongs at that table,” Mayor Buttigieg said. 

According to the county bar association, the legal field needs more black women. An initiative McGuire said Steele will focus on is gaining diversity in the bar association by hosting job fairs at local and state colleges. 

McGuire said she would like to see women, especially women of color, stay in the area after graduating law school. 

A national report from 2018 shows that black women make up only 1.6 percent of all lawyers. The bar association, under Steele, is hoping to change this statistic. 

Steele sent a message to the generation coming after her. 

“It’s not always easy and definitely when you’re overcoming large challenges or historical challenges,” she said. “It isn’t easy but things changes and we build momentum and you can do it.”

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