Communique Magazine  

From Kinshasa to Richmond, Kelly Clark Works to Empower Community

Kelly Lugbill Clark MPP 2018 was driving along the streets of Kinshasa in April 2015 when the news came over the radio that the death of a young African American man in police custody named Freddie Gray had touched off days of rioting in Baltimore. Clark, winner of the Ash Center’s 2018 Martha H. Mauzy Award for the Advancement of Democratic Governance, was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo helping to oversee human rights and democracy programming for the Carter Center of Atlanta. She was pressed by her Congolese colleagues on why she had traveled thousands of miles to work when America was plainly grappling with human rights issues of its own. 

Clark, who hails from just a few hours south of Baltimore in Richmond, Virginia, began to reflect on whether she should shift her focus homeward. “Working internationally doesn’t mean you don’t think about how many of these same issues also play out in America,” said Clark.

Clark’s decision to translate her overseas experiences to the world of domestic politics and policy ultimately brought her to the Kennedy School. At HKS, she concentrated in Political and Economic Development and took a number of classes taught by Ash Center faculty affiliates. “I got lucky coming here right when Professors Scott Mainwaring and Khalil Muhammad both arrived,” remarked Clark.

In Professor Mainwaring’s “Building Better Democracies” course, Clark found herself exploring why democracy has been more successful in some contexts than in others. She recalled that “everyone was from a different country, everyone with different experience, and we had all worked either in politics or elections or in some broader sense, democracy-strengthening. Our discussions really made everything come to life.”

Clark also took Associate Professor Quinton Mayne’s highly-regarded urban politics course, which examines how race, ethnicity, and class shape group conflict and cooperation at the local level. “Reading these cases about how minority voters in cities like Atlanta were able to gain a voice, that all of a sudden their issues mattered and were on the table, served as a really strong parallel to the intersections between race, class, and political power in Richmond,” said Clark.

Clark’s passion for her hometown was evident to Mayne. “Kelly is a passionate advocate for social justice, and her reflections on Richmond underscored how pursuing equality and justice through our cities requires asking difficult questions with troubling answers about how race and racism have intersected with class and market economics to shape our cities for the worse,” recalled Mayne.

In both Mayne’s course and Professor Khalil Muhammad’s course on “Race, Inequality, and American Democracy,” Richmond was never far from Clark’s mind. “Being able to see the external perception of Richmond from my classmates—that really challenged my own view of the city and view of my home. It was really helpful for thinking about how we can make things better,” Clark reflected.

Clark and her husband hope to move back to Richmond soon, where she plans to start a nonprofit focused on expanding the political organizing power of residents in the city’s East End, an area of entrenched poverty and political disenfranchisement.

“In some of the lower-income neighborhoods, or districts, where most of the public housing is located, there’s really no opportunity outside of electing your own councilor to have your voice heard in city politics,” said Clark. “This lack of economic power translates directly to lack of political power,” she continued. Clark is hoping that she can reverse this political equation and help give voice and political power to those in Richmond who need it most.