The board is the policy-making and oversight body of AIIJ. Current members are Charles Ball, Brett Blackledge, Ann Florie, Brant Houston, Emily Jones Rushing, Val Walton Cornner and Odessa Woolfolk. Officers are Emily Jones Rushing, president; Odessa Woolfolk, vice president; Brant Houston, treasurer; and Ann Florie, secretary.
Charles Ball is executive director of the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, coordinating regional and community-level planning and economic development activities for the six counties and more than 1 million residents who make up Alabama’s largest metropolitan area.
A graduate of Leadership Birmingham and Leadership Alabama, he has served on a number of local boards, including as chair of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education and Main Street Alabama and president of The Dance Foundation and Focus on Recovery boards. He is a member of Rising Star Baptist Church, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and Greater Alabama Council-BSA/Birmingham District.
He was born and grew up in Birmingham, gaining his undergraduate degree at Birmingham-Southern College and his masters in community planning at Auburn University.
Brett Blackledge is an award-winning journalist who has served as editor of The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette, Louisiana, and as regional investigations editor for USA Today Network’s Florida news operations. He won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting while working with The Birmingham News in 2007, detailing nepotism and cronyism in Alabama’s two-year college system. The series also earned Blackledge a national public service award from Associated Press Media Editors.
Blackledge began his career as a journalist in 1986 with The Associated Press and later joined the Washington bureau of AP as a national writer focusing on investigative and enterprise projects. At the Washington bureau, he worked with an AP team that received a Scripps Howard Foundation award for coverage of a shooting at Fort Hood, Texas.
Prior to moving to Naples in 2014, Blackledge was Public Service and Investigations Editor at The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware.
Ann D. Florie
Ann Florie was the founding executive director of Region 2020, which promoted cooperation and citizen involvement in a 12-county area in affordable housing, education, arts and culture, transportation and land use. The organization later was merged into the Birmingham Business Alliance, where she serves on the executive committee.
She served as executive director of Leadership Birmingham, retiring in 2018. She continues to serve as a member of the Jefferson County Personnel Board and on the board of directors for the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. She was a member of the Mountain Brook Board of Education for 10 years.
A native of Weldon, Ark., she received a B.A. in political science from Newcomb College of Tulane University.
Brant Houston is John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting in the department of journalism at the University of Illinois. Prior to becoming the Knight Chair in 2007, he served for more than a decade as the executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors and a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Before joining IRE, he was an award-winning investigative reporter at daily newspapers. Houston was part of the newsroom staff of The Kansas City Star that won a Pulitzer Prize for its work on the 1981 walkway collapse at the city’s Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Houston is Board Chair Emeritus of Institute for Nonprofit News, a coalition of nonprofit journalism centers he helped found. He is author of “Computer-Assisted Reporting: A Practical Guide” and “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook.”
Houston’s grandparents lived in Birmingham’s College Hills neighborhood, and he was a visitor to the city during his growing-up years.
Emily Jones Rushing
Emily Jones Rushing combines a background in journalism with experience in nonprofit work, retiring from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham as Director of Communications and Marketing in 2013.
Her work at the Community Foundation included leadership in developing national guidelines for disaster recovery and in creating national standards for community foundation marketing materials and communications. During her time at The Birmingham News, she was deeply involved in developing neighborhood coverage and served as the first Metro Editor in 1978. She was part of a team of reporters recognized by Associated Press for coverage of the effects of an extreme heat wave in 1981. In the late 1980s, she edited 100-year anniversary books for The Birmingham News and her alma mater, Converse College.
A long-time Birmingham resident, she is currently a member of the board of trustees of Converse College, the advisory board of the Alys Robinson Stephens Performing Arts Center at UAB, and the Forest Park-South Avondale Neighborhood Advisory Board.
Val Walton Cornner
Val Walton Cornner is a 1988 graduate of the University of Alabama and worked as a newspaper reporter in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Indiana before returning to her home state of Alabama in 1994, at which point she had been working at the Indianapolis Star.
Throughout her career, she covered beats such as police, courts, higher education, municipal government, environment, business and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, but her favorite stories were those where she covered public corruption prosecutions and chronicled social justice, homeless and aging issues.
Cornner was part of a team of reporters recognized by the Associated Press Media Editors for coverage of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing trials, the prosecution of HealthSouth founder Richard Scrushy and the indictment of former Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford arising from a Jefferson County sewer corruption probe.
Following her 24-year award-winning career as a journalist, Cornner became communications director for the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama. Today she serves as a licensed master social worker focusing on geriatrics.
Cornner is a member of the board of directors for the Jimmie Hale Mission and Wild South. She is an advocate for the least of these and organizes local mission projects for her church. She is a transporter for foster care youth through the Jefferson County Department of Human Resources and also helps with social media for her church’s media ministry and My Father’s House Foundation, a non-profit that teaches independent living skills to teens in foster care.
Odessa Woolfok is known for her work as an educator, public administrator and civic activist. During her extensive career with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, she directed the Center for Urban Affairs, taught urban history, was staff associate in the UAB center for International Programs and was Assistant to the President for Community Relations. At her retirement from UAB in 1993, the university established the Odessa Woolfolk Presidential Community Service Award given annually to a member of the faculty.
Her professional experience also includes: Birmingham high school teacher, senior administrative positions with the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity and with community development organizations in Utica and Albany, New York; New York City, and Washington, D.C.
Woolfolk is recognized as one of Birmingham’s and the region’s most influential citizens because of her professional and volunteer service in the fields of housing, education, civil and human rights, community development and public welfare. She is known as one who crossed racial, ethnic, geographic and socio-economic boundaries to promote civic engagement, community leadership and race relations.
She was State Chair of the National Conference of Christian and Jews, first African American President of Operation New Birmingham’s Board of Directors and a founding member of Leadership Birmingham and Leadership Alabama.
She was the driving force behind establishment of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and was its opening administrator. She is its Emerita President and Board Chair. The Institute named a gallery in her honor.
A Birmingham native, she graduated from the A.H. Parker High School; earned a B.A. Degree from Talladega College in Alabama; a Master’s from Occidental College in California, and has pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago and Yale University. She was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor and the Birmingham Gallery of Distinguished Citizens and has received honorary doctorates from Talladega College and Occidental College, of which she is a graduate, as well as others.
Her personal credo is: “Only enlightened, intelligent, personal concern for the world in which we live can solve the problems of our day.”