Una Clarke is one St Bess girl proud to be US immigrant
If it were not for her cosmopolitan attire and professor-like reasoning one could easily forget that Una Clarke has been a councilwoman in New York, USA, for the past 10 years and an immigrant in that country since 1958.
Clarke is sharp and rootsy like an old time countrywoman. She has kept abreast of local current affairs and maintains a deep penchant for things Jamaican, having made routine trips back home.
“You no have no yellow yam, me is a St Elizabeth girl you know”, Clarke is overheard asking the waiters at a function during Carib News Multi-National Business Conference two Friday’s ago in Montego Bay.
Clarke, the next day, confides in her interview with All Woman, that when she visits her mother in Silo, St Elizabeth, in the coming days she will be sure to get her yellow yam and other traditional treats.
I am first and foremost a Jamaican, insists
Clarke, who was last year awarded the Commander of Distinction (CD) award. “I could never do away with my identity, I am a Jamaican maroon, I am a walking piece of this nation’s history, I am walking legacy of the struggle of this nation,” she declares, beaming with pride as an immigrant in the multi-ethnic USA.
She concedes that being an immigrant has been a challenge given her projection of herself as a Caribbean American rather than the more politically correct African American. But she is of the view that while identifying with her Caribbean roots she can serve the interests of all.
It is this philosophy that has guided her work as a New York councilwoman, representing a district where 80 per cent of the residents are “people of colour”, including a large number of immigrants.
Acclaimed US congressman, Charles Rangel, and others paid tribute to Clarke’s ability champion the interests of Caribbean peoples and the wider immigrant community, with a clear appreciation of the ties that bond this region and the US.
“This is one of the things that I think Una Clarke has been able to do, ensuring that the pride that was once enjoyed by people coming into the US goes back to the pride without the hostility,” said Rangel during a seminar at the conference.
Clarke does list immigrant concerns as one of her three pet issues, the other two being education and healthcare. “My constituency has one of the highest numbers of immigrants, some 78 ethnic groups,” she explains.
“As an immigrant myself I feel burning obligation to have new citizens and new Americans settled in a way that both the social environment is good for them, the opportunity to get an education is there for them, the opportunity for employment, for housing, and that the process of resettlement for them is made easier as new Americans.”
As an elected councilwoman Clarke has responsibility for all the municipal services that are delivered to her 140,000 constituents, addressing such issues as environment, welfare, infrastructure and small businesses. Clarke is not resting on her laurel, but seeking even more say in the American political system. In the recent US elections she lost out on a bid for a seat in Congress, but remains undaunted in her political ambitions.
Getting into politics was “easy” for Clarke. A former teacher and parent of two, Clarke says she developed an interest in looking about the welfare of others.
“It’s all about motivation and interest, first of all I am interested in policy and policy decisions, how they are made, who makes them and who’s affected by who makes them and certainly in America where the issue of race and racism is a real strong line from that if you have the leadership skill you want to be able to do something about it.”
More specifically, she expands, in 1989 a discussion in New York about representation and the influence of ethnic people in policies that affect them helped motivate the Caribbean community where she lived. So that when a decision was made to draw new political lines Clarke tried to get other Caribbean Americans involved in the political process.
“Very few people wanted to get involved so it ended up that because I was one of the first advocates for these two new districts that were drawn, I couldn’t back away from the challenge of running,” Clarke explained.
But the political instinct was instilled from even earlier as the daughter of a cane farmer on Appleton Estate who was one of the founding members of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), and actively involved in the church in Silo.
Clarke has fond memories growing up in Silo, engaging the usual “ring games and tricks of country life”, such as catching crayfish as her sister, Esmie DeWindt, reminisces while eating assorted seafood at one glitzy function during the conference weekend.
“We had a wonderful childhood, we were six, four sisters and two brothers, we were a very closely knit family “When we younger they called us the Tomlinson clan,” recalls Clarke.
She is the fourth of the children and describes herself then as tomboy. “I have always prided myself that whatever my brothers could do I could do better,” she swears.
She left her hometown to attend Boxton High School in Kingston, which used to be situated on Victoria Ave in Downtown. After leaving high school Clarke, a business school student, left for the US in 1958, and like so many before and after her gradually resettled there as a foreign student turned US citizen.
Clarke made use of her opportunities in the US. She holds a BSc in business management, a masters in art education, a masters ineducation, and post graduate work in curricular and instruction.
She taught early childhood education, both in the classroom and as a teacher trainee for 15 years. Said Clarke: “When my children were born and since I was in a new country I wanted to understand more the education system more, so I could better assist them.”
Moreover she has a deep-seated belief in the fundamental importance of education. “Education is the linchpin for which any society or any community moves forward. So, quality education leads to quality employment in the long run”.