Meet the first black president in Junior League of Nashville’s 96-year history
As a young black professional woman, Krystal Clark has often found herself in the position of being the first, the only, the one who was different. But she hasn’t let that be a barrier to her. And now, as the first black president of the Junior League of Nashville, she wants women of all social identities to feel welcome with the Junior League. Wochit
Jessica Bliss, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennesseean.com
The little boy, 4 years old with light brown skin and a great giggle, ran circles around Krystal Clark, teasing her.
The playful game centered around an apple. The fruit was significant in this little boy’s life — and, it turns out, in Clark’s.
Though decades apart in age, the two shared some similarities.
The young Hispanic boy was from Durham, N.C., and his family lived in a food desert, a low-income area where there isn’t access to fresh produce. That is what brought him to Kids in the Kitchen, a Junior League event focused on teaching kids about healthy food. Clark was there volunteering.
The project that day was to make apple smiles — fun, yummy food faces with peanut butter and marshmallows. But the little boy didn’t want to try it. He had never had one before.
Clark was also being exposed to something new.
Recently out of graduate school and living in a new town where she didn’t know a soul, Clark had just joined Junior League.
As a young professional black woman raised by a single mom, Clark was the first in her family to go to college. She didn’t come from the wealth and societal privilege that so many Junior League women did. Before joining, she had never heard of Junior League.
When the boy who had ran past her table briefly stopped, she finally convinced him to give the apple a try.
“He couldn’t help licking his fingers because apples are amazing,” she said with a laugh.
And that’s when she knew that the Junior League was for her.
“Whatever else is going on, this is the core of what the Junior League is doing,” Clark said. “We are helping children, we are developing women, we are building our community, and something as simple as loving an apple could change the way this young man looks at food and health and adventure and being willing to try things.
“And I thought, ‘OK. I can get into that. I can do that.’ “
Almost a decade later, Clark is the first African American to serve as president of the Junior League of Nashville in its 96-year-history.
It’s a historic and important role. One Clark both embraces and approaches with regard. Her focus is to encourage others, those from all backgrounds, to look beyond perceptions and try what is different and rewarding.
“I know women who would thrive here, who would love this and who could learn so much from the League — and we could learn so much from them — but they do not feel like they could walk into this space,” says Clark, 34, who is the director of the Office of Student Leadership Development at Vanderbilt University.
“So I know I have to use this opportunity to help other people feel comfortable and welcomed — and to feel like this is a place they can come and matter.”
Start of Junior League life was ‘startling’
Truthfully, the start was a bit “startling” for Clark.
In Durham, the ladies met in a huge, beautiful mansion called Hill House.
“Probably the biggest house I had ever been to,” Clark said.
“So, I think I was a little overwhelmed at first. … It was kind of like, ‘These people have resources that I don’t have, so how am I going to fit in this puzzle?’ “
And there was another thing. There were not many faces like Clark’s.
In the early years of Junior League’s history, to be asked to join was a high honor, and one bestowed only on the city’s most prominent people — mostly well-to-do white women who didn’t work.
Even as the League evolved, welcoming career women into the folds, that’s often where diversity stopped.
Junior League was something the Clark family had never heard of.
“I grew up in a single-parent family, low socio-economic status,” Clark says. “Very hard-working people but we don’t come from any riches at all. … My mom always made things happen for us, even if that meant that she worked more than one job.
“The Junior League was something that, once I started researching it, I realized why I didn’t know what it was — because the people in my life would have never joined the Junior League.
“It was just a different bracket of knowledge, and not having that social capital or cultural capital to understand what that was.”
But Clark, who then was working at Duke University as the program coordinator of fraternity and sorority life, often found herself in the position of being the first, the only, the one who was different.
She embraced it, and she wasn’t going to let perceptions keep her from pursuing an opportunity to give back to the community and learn leadership skills.
“There is this barrier — real or imagined — that keep people from walking into something that could be beneficial to them,” she said. “I was raised to be strong and not let people keep me out of things that are beneficial to me.”
Soon, she found herself laughing in the back of Junior League meetings with her new friends and volunteering for events like Kids in the Kitchen.
It fulfilled her.
“I’m a joiner,” she said. “I will fill out an application. I will raise my hand. I’m a front-row kid. The Junior League is perfect for that person.”
A different approach
When she again found herself in a new town in 2011, knowing Nashville only as the home of Vanderbilt and country music, Junior League became her connection point.
“I like being places where people don’t expect me to be,” she says. “And I like ushering other people into that space.”
Within the Junior League of Nashville, Clark found women who wanted to invest in her. They were drawn to her bright and joyful personality, impressed by her drive to take part and make a difference.
They invited her out for coffee to “help plan her life.” And she became a part of the leadership of the organization.
“Nashville has been good for me,” she said. “It has been open for me. It has been welcoming for me. I feel good here.”
Still, she says, social dynamics that separate others still exist — and maybe always will.
“How do we get out of that? If I knew, I would have done it by now. But organizations like this, we need to play a role in having hard conversations.”
Leaning into discomfort
After Charlottesville, Clark did just that.
She wrote a letter to the Nashville Junior League women, reminding them they that are a group of all social identities.
“As we are a training organization, I would also ask that you deepen your awareness of the issues presented. Read as much as you can, engage in hard conversations, lean into discomfort, and seek to understand and not simply to be understood.”
“We are an organization that has always been a force of positive change. Let’s continue to be so.”
She was nervous as she hit send, but Clark immediately received emails and texts thanking her for the leadership in a divisive time.
“It seems people invoke the term ‘political’ as an excuse try to avoid confrontational situations when in reality civil unrest requires activism from people and organizations,” wrote Ellie Wetzel, a Nashville attorney and judicial clerk, who has been a Junior League member for 12 years.
“It often seems people do not realize that maintaining silence or avoiding an issue out of comfort is making an implicit endorsement — basically choosing a side by default whether they realize or not.”
Clark knows not all presidents would have sent that letter.
She is proud to be one who did.
“I think there’s something that stirs in you as a human,” says Clark, a Virginia native. “… If you want to create change you have to do that.”
But news like that also serves as a reminder that not everyone is understanding.
A mother’s fear, a daughter’s confidence
Clark’s mother, Sharon, worries about her daughter. Sharon Clark was born in the decades of segregation. She saw a lot of hard and horrible things.
“I can’t tell you that I don’t,” she says. “I worry about her safety.”
Clark can be worried, too. And exhausted. But she feels a responsibility.
She may be Junior League of Nashville’s first black president, but she doesn’t want to be the last. There’s pressure, internal and external, real and assumed.
And there are changes to be made.
She knows too many people like her who would never walk in the door. Who, like that little boy so many years ago, are wary about trying something unfamiliar. Clark wants them to feel comfortable and welcome in a place where they can learn to be leaders and know that they matter.
“I don’t want anyone to say I can’t go in that building because I am African American or because I am Latina or because I am a lesbian or because I am not from a well-to-do family,” Clark said.
“There is no identity on community connection. That is for everybody.”
Her mother is confident in her daughter’s conviction and compassion.
“Krystal can sit down and talk to a 15-year-old and a 96-year-old,” Sharon Clark says. “She does not see a race. I raised her and her brother like that.
“And there’s nothing Krystal wouldn’t give for the success of someone else, including something off her back.”
Or an apple to sweeten someone else’s day.
Reach Jessica Bliss at 615-259-8253 and firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find her on Twitter @jlbliss.