It was a moment Rob Black will never forget.
While in Liberia with The Carter Center in 1997 working to foster democratic reforms, Black and several colleagues had to tell strongman President Charles Taylor that they were recommending planned elections be postponed. There was no way voting could be fair, they said, because Taylor had taken over radio stations, election apparatus and just about everything else.
Taylor, who would later be convicted of war crimes, was not pleased.
He responded, according to Black, in this way: “I understand. My boys, though? They won’t understand. I’m sorry.”
Soon after, vehicles belonging to the nonprofit center were attacked with rocks, echoing another incident in which a Taylor mob jumped on the vehicles and smashed the hoods.
“There were a couple of those sort of incidents that just: ‘Man, I’m ready to be home for awhile,'” says Black, president and CEO of the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce.
Home has been several different places through the years, but now it’s New Mexico again for the Lovington native who grew up in a family of athletes. Black’s father played basketball and ran track for the University of New Mexico, and his three brothers all won college basketball or golf scholarships.
Rob Black, though, was the exception. Black was short in high school and he knew if he was going to make his mark, it would have to be through academic excellence. He ended up going to law school to learn more about constitutional and legal matters.
By 2018, he was happy to leave his job at a California utility to become president and CEO of the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce.
“I feel very blessed to be back home in a place where I feel like I am able to contribute and try to be helpful,” Black says.
What are you hoping to contribute to New Mexico?
“We are five to 10 years from peak demand (of oil and gas) in this state – not peak supply – because of the climate crisis, because of change in policy. We’ve got a very limited window to change how we structure our economy. So for me the change is really about how will we create … jobs and provide opportunities to both rural and urban kids in a way that allows them to stay in their community and provide for their families.”
What prompted you to return to New Mexico?
“My dad had passed away, and my mom was getting much older, and so my wife and I started looking. We had actually looked at coming back for several years. Pacific Gas and Electric was not where I needed to be. We have a lot of family here, a lot of friends.”
When you were a kid, what did you want to be?
“Roger Staubach, but that was not in the cards. When I first came to the University of New Mexico, I studied economics and thought, ‘Gosh, math’s hard.’ So I started doing business. Still hard. Then I had a professor who was an expert in Russian studies and just loved it. I kind of fell in love with political science, so I shifted my major to political science, political theory. And my dad was like, ‘How are you going to get a job doing that? ‘Pre-law, dad, pre-law.’ It was like I just needed a rationale for taking classes that I really enjoyed, but lo and behold I actually figured out how to make a living out of doing politics and political science, and that’s what I’ve done my entire career.”
What do you do in your free time?
“I don’t have as much as I would like. We do a lot of hiking and camping with our girls, whether up to the petroglyphs or Sandia foothills or the Gila. We’ve also been teaching the girls to ski and swim. I love music and am better at listening to it than playing it, but I do play a little guitar. I can also play the didgeridoo, which is a traditional Australian aboriginal instrument. Back in 1993, I was a tour manager for Midnight Oil’s U.S. tour that included The Hothouse Flowers and Ziggy Marley. Both the Oil’s and the Flowers played a didgeridoo on stage, so I ended up buying one and they taught me how to circular breathe. The trick is you have to be able to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth at the same time without passing out.”
What was a difficult life lesson you had to learn?
“In growing up, I defined myself through success in school and trying to do well in work. It was part of how I identified myself. My first year in law school, I studied like I always did, which apparently wasn’t the way you’re supposed to study at law school. After my first year, I was in the top 75% of the class, not the top 25%. It was an emotionally difficult thing for me to adjust to, because I was a straight A student and that forced me to reconsider how I saw myself. I did subsequently end up in the top 25%, but I had to rethink how I studied, how I wrote.”
What makes you laugh?
“My 6-year-old. She’s hilarious. Just time with family and friends. I love folks with a good sense of humor. It’s something I gravitate to. I have a core group of guys that I grew up with who I’ve known since we were 2- or 3-year-olds. And they’re one of the main reasons we did move back. Prior to the pandemic, we’d get together once or twice a month as families. The thing that has somehow survived for 50 years is that I’m the one they like to tease. So I get to be the butt of jokes, and that’s fun. I don’t know anybody who has that sort of a network of people they’ve known all their lives. It’s really special.”
Did any of your experiences overseas shape the work you’re doing now?
“Yes, very much so. When I was running programs in Zambia, we were trying to create a coalition to do domestic election monitoring. We built this coalition … of women’s organizations, religious organizations, labor, chambers of commerce, etc. That coalition building is something we have to do today to be effective. One of the warlords who lost miserably – me and one other delegate went to visit him the day after the election to convince him not to go back to the bush and to have a conversation (with him) about this is a moment where you have to pick country over party. You need to focus on what is right for your people, for your tribe, for your nation, not what’s best for your party. And I think we’re in that space in America and New Mexico. So I think there are those lessons that I had a chance to experience firsthand in different ways that I’ve been able to learn from and that hopefully are helpful in conversations here today.”