Biking to work in a tight skirt may not be conventional, but then again, Cecilia Clarke is not a conventional person. Her voice is boisterous, but not obtrusive. Her passion for life and creating change exists, but it is not overbearing. She possesses a balance between observing and taking action.
Clarke holds a BA in Arts from Georgetown, has raised three children, and has enjoyed a successful professional life—but she did not get there by toeing the line of tradition.
Clarke bucks tradition to start her day the way she bucks tradition in her house. Unlike many New Yorkers who rely on their coffee pot to jolt them awake, Clarke prefers the subtle nudge tea offers. “I think tea came mainly because of a dislike of coffee. It made me too jittery. Plus I think it is just a nicer ritual,” she said while sipping a cup of black tea in her kitchen in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, on a sunny Friday morning in March.
Tea has been a tradition in her family. “My maternal grandmother used to do tea. She was kind of an anglophile—she lived in Westchester—but she used to do tea at 5 o’clock every day,” Clarke said. Like most tea enthusiasts, she has a collection of her favorites, including Smokey Early Grey from Fortnum & Mason that her daughter Allegra, 26, brought back from London for her.
Walking into her living room, one’s eye is not drawn to a pricey television, but rather three floor-to-ceiling book shelves and a healthy collection of LPs—homage to some of the ways Clarke likes to unwind. Her record collection includes classical music such as Mozart, to classics like The Beatles’ “Abbey Road.”
Like many audiophiles, what she listens to changes with life experiences, but “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye is always close by.
Clarke is an avid reader, mostly of contemporary fiction, but refuses to use a Kindle. “I really like having memories of all these,” she said, pointing to the book shelves. “I haven’t read all of them, but these are the books I really like and I will often go back and look at them.”
Her bookshelves are full, but you will never find any how-to business books in her collection. She has found success pulling from her own life experiences, as well as those of the women of generations past.
Her spirit of sweeping convention can be traced back to her great-grandmother, Virginia “Sadie” Nash, for whom Clarke’s non-profit is named after. Nash was community leader in Omaha, Nebraska, at the turn of the 20th century. While riding a trolley car on a cold December day in 1902, she noticed an infant shivering. She shimmied from her petticoat and wrapped the infant with it, saving the baby’s life. The story of a woman taking action moved many around the nation. Clarke calls the act a “gesture of grace” on her website.
A picture of Sadie Nash hangs in her living room today.
A century later, and three generations down the line, Clarke’s life embodies the bold spirit of her great grandmother’s. By taking action to create change, Clarke founded a program that empowers women to be leaders.
“It’s not that we just want to see women in more leadership positions, it’s that we want to see another voice at the table because that voice will bring about greater social justice,” she said.
At a young age, Clarke had strong convictions as a feminist. “I always say to people that it was around 9 years old that I used the term and I don’t know where it came from,” she said. Clarke said her mother would never identify with the term, but her stepfather was very progressive.
Clarke attended an all-girls high school in Dutchess County, an experience she calls “pretty miserable from beginning to end.” She disliked the snobby nature of her classmates, but in hindsight felt there was a “comfort and kind of fortifying of the soul being around girls at that very critical age,” she said. “Interestingly, I run an all-girls program now.”
After high school, she attended Georgetown University. Instead of finding a progressive college scene to enrich her strong feminist views, she found another conservative environment. She had an Equal Rights Amendment sticker that was constantly ripped off her dorm room door.
Clarke stuck it out and graduated with a BA in Arts and Art History. A year after graduation, 22-year-old Clarke found out she was pregnant. Unwed, she felt the pressure from outsiders to make a decision about keeping the baby and marriage.
“I was appalled that everyone felt they had the right to decide for me what I should do,” she said.
Despite the judgment surrounding her, Clarke had her daughter, Allegra, in 1985, but chose to not get married; raising her daughter by herself in Brooklyn.
She began her career as a social worker at Fountain House in Brooklyn, but quickly found it not for her. She fell into the arts world by responding to an ad in the Village Voice for a receptionist at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. After six months, she was promoted to grants manager and her career took off.
Clarke spent the ’90s conquering the fundraising department of the arts world, but as the millennium changed, so did her direction.
In 2000 she said had a “crisis of faith.” She felt a calling back to social work. She had monetary success, but realized her job was not fulfilling other parts of her life. “I had no complaints about my job. It wasn’t out of a negative place. I realized ‘if I don’t get out of this now, I am not going to get out of this.'”
Clarke quit her job without another one lined up and no real plan. Again, judgment rained down. But, as with her decision to have Allegra and not get married, she felt very clear about it.
She took five months off, the first time she had done that in her career. “I think 11 a.m. looks very scary when you are not working,” she said with a laugh.
A headhunter pursued Clarke to take another job in the arts world. She was unemployed and the offer was for a high level position at a major museum in New York. She turned it down. When the headhunter asked her why, Clarke unexpectedly blurted out, “because I want to start a woman’s organization!” Puzzled, the headhunter asked why she had never mentioned it before. Clarke replied, “I don’t think I mentioned it to myself!”
Clarke says she often reflects on this moment. “Basically you wake up one day and it just happens to be the day you have enough confidence to say you can do something, because the next day you might not. The day that you can is the day you should take advantage of.”
Her business began in the two-bedroom apartment she and Allegra shared in Brooklyn Heights. After writing an outline of the program, she put out an ad for a program director—without actually having a place to have the program.
“I interviewed everyone in Starbucks on Montague Street because I was too embarrassed to bring them to my house,” Clarke said with a laugh. She hired Beth Douthirt Cohen as her first program director in late 2001 and in the summer of 2002 the first Sadie Nash Leadership Program kicked off.
The conference table was a piece of plywood on two sawhorses in her living room—a table that is still with the company 10 years on.
“I won’t get rid of it. Everyone hates it because it is so makeshift, but I am so sentimentally attached to it,” she said.
Clarke once again got pregnant, but this time decided to marry the father.
“I was like, ‘yes, I am going to have a baby, I am going to start a non-profit, and I am going to run a program in the summer, and I am going to do all this 6 months after 9/11, and I am also going to get married, so let’s just go.'”
Much like 2002, 2012 is a milestone year. This year marks the 10th anniversary for Sadie Nash, which has come a long way from the plywood table in Clarke’s living room. The leadership program has evolved from a summer program for 16 girls to yearlong programs in high schools throughout New York, and now Newark, N.J. The program reaches almost 400 young girls a year.
This year also marks Clarke’s 50th birthday. Her 50 years of life experience have allowed her to take action and make positive change, something she reminds everyone they can do, “If you experience things in your community or there are things about your identity that fit into this larger social justice framework, you are in a position to change it.”
You can usually find Clarke working from her home on Fridays after taking her two children, Josephine, 9, and Simon, 6, to school.
The photograph of Sadie Nash looks on as a continual reminder of the seemingly small, but courageous feats women make every day.