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Congresswoman Yvette Clarke - Yes, she can

Published:Friday | April 10, 2015 | 12:00 AMNashauna Lalah
Clarke says that walking out of Air Force One with President Obama ‘The sense of pride that swelled up in my chest was enormous.’
Yvette Clarke
United States (US) President Barack Obama (left) exits Air Force One accompanied by a beaming Yvette Clarke. Behind them is US Secretary of Energy Dr Ernest Moniz.

United States Congresswoman Yvette Clarke was beaming with pride as she exited Air Force One behind United States President Barack Obama, when it touched down at the Norman Manley International Airport in Jamaica last Wednesday night.

"It was an eagerly anticipated trip, and all of that anxiety to come and just let all that stress out was wonderful," she told Flair in an exclusive interview at The Gleaner's North Street Offices on Thursday.

"The sense of pride that swelled up in my chest was enormous. I always feel like I'm coming home when I travel to Jamaica anyway, but to be coming in the company of the leader of the free world was breathtaking."

Clarke is the daughter of Jamaican-American Councilwoman Dr Una Clarke, who had emigrated from St Elizabeth to New York. "Words can't capture how I feel about this. I've been in the United States thinking about what I've been able to experience since I became a congresswoman ... and to be able to accompany my president to be here with a woman that I hold in very high regard (Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller)is the icing on the cake. I can only imagine if my grandparents were alive today how they would feel; they'd probably feel very similar to the way that I feel."

Getting the chance to make the trip with Obama required a lot of perseverance on Clarke's part. She admitted: "I reached out to the White House when I got word that the president was coming to Jamaica prior to going to Panama, and used as much leverage as I could."


renew commitments to the region


Clarke intended to make the most of the opportunity, and had some work to do on this trip. "What I'll be doing quite frankly is leveraging the president's visit. It will help to elevate the profile of the type of work that I've been discussing. This particular visit has opened up a dialogue with the executive branch, and then I can again leverage that with my colleagues in the House of Representatives to begin looking at ways we can renew our commitment to the region; renew our commitment to Jamaica, get rid of some of the old 20th Century thinking and bring the relationship into the 21st Century. We can start with looking at the Caribbean basin initiative and how relevant that is to the current climate."

Clarke's passion for her work and for Jamaica is contagious. She still has family in Jamaica. "As a matter of fact, I'm trying to connect with one of my cousins, Daniel Clarke, who works for Digicel, who is going to be connecting with me and, hopefully, attending the town hall with me," she said.




Clarke has a great relationship with her mother - her spirit seems to come alive when she speaks of her. Her laugh was hearty as she related to Flair that on the morning of our interview, her mother was being interviewed on the radio about her daughter's trip. "My grandmother lived to be 103, and so my mother is just taking strides right now as far as I'm concerned. She's a wonderful part of my life, I'm so fortunate to have her as a mentor, mother, friend. When I think about all the blessings that have flown my way through her, it's amazing. When you think about the fact that she came from the sugarcane fields of St Elizabeth, made her way to the United States with my father, and was able to blaze a trail so that my brother and I would grow up knowing who we were, as well as navigate the system of the United States as the first generation Jamaica immigrant family, it's an extraordinary tale," she said.

She told Flair that when she was going into politics her mother told her: "Make sure you have it in your belly, always remember your people and your community. Stay focused on the issues before you, because there will be many distractions along the way."

Clarke continued: "I think she knew that I would be passionate about this because she raised me and a lot of what I've become is because of that relationship that we had. "My mom took me to every meeting with her, every dinner dance, every function. In her times you didn't just leave your child out with a sitter. She had promised my grandparents that she would raise my brother and I and not ship us down here to Jamaica and just leave us. So she really engineered a lot of who I've become."

Prior to being elected to Congress, Clarke succeeded her mother representing the 11th congressional district in New York City Council. She did not ape her mother, but was uniquely Yvette. Not that she had much of a choice, she told Flair, "God made each individual unique and when he made Una Clarke they broke the mould. She is ruled under the sign of Sagittarius - she keeps the arrow flowing. I was born under the sign of Scorpio, I'm quiet - I sneak up on you and then I sting."

But Clarke loves what she does: "I tell people what I do is a labour of love - being able to make a difference. It seems so cliché but being able to impact people's lives, being able to help the nation to reinvent itself, there are so many things that are part of the promise of being an American that can be shaped by policymakers that come together in common cause on behalf of the people. I find that fascinating."


Getting involved


But Clarke is passionate that everyone can and should become involved in the political process. "I want to make sure that people who look like me, who come from experiences like me, have this access to shape civil societies, and I think being there - being the only black woman in the New York state delegation to Congress, being the only black woman serving on the energy and commerce committee, I'm compelled to really create those pathways and corridors for future generations."

Clarke has long lamented the minute number of women involved in politics, but as she told Flair, their lack of participation is to their own detriment. "There is not an issue that is not debated that policy is not derived for that is not a woman's issue. So for us to believe the veneer of a civil society that has to be led by men is to our own peril. Particularly in the United States, I can speak to the demographics of a lot of single female-headed households where the impact of economic downturns, of increased housing prices, lack of pay equity, the gap between the haves and have nots, have a disproportionate effect on those families and one way of changing that dynamic is making sure that we engage in the demographic process. In the US, as well as here in Jamaica, it's not a spectator sport - you can't sit on the sidelines and believe that someone is going to work in your best interest."

And the same she says goes for young people who may think that they are isolated from the political process. Go for it. If you are passionate about the lives of other's and improving their lives, don't let anything get in your way, most of all, don't let fear get in your way - be courageous, bold, outspoken, organise people, empower them, because that's the only way the civil society moves from strength to strength and grows and creates a culture. It changes through your participation, we all bring our own chemistry to the political arena; it all makes a difference."