Bruce Clarke '67 Tackles Issues of Race, Poverty, and Opportunity
As a criminal defense attorney who represented some of Washington, D.C.’s poorest defendants, Bruce Clarke ’67 saw a lot of things. But what he witnessed about 30 years ago during a tour through the District’s Children’s Center, a city-run juvenile detention facility, sticks with him to this day. At the time, Clarke was working with D.C.’s Public Defender Service. He was part of a team of lawyers who’d brought charges against the city for conditions at the center. “We were taken to a large storage room with no windows and no air conditioning,” Clarke remembers. “It housed 17 juveniles. The bunks were about two feet apart. It was 104 degrees in the room and there was one standing fan. Seeing young men living in conditions like that was unforgettable. This is why you litigate; this is why you push for change.”
As a young, white man growing up in the suburbs in the ’50s, and as college student in the ’60s (when IC had a nearly all-white population), Clarke was largely isolated from problems affecting people of color. That changed when he began practicing criminal law in the nation’s capital.
Clarke spent most of his days doing what he calls “street work”—investigating cases, searching for witnesses, and speaking with clients’ family members. This involved spending a lot of time visiting clients in jails and prisons, many of which were nearly 100 percent filled with people of color. “You realize that poverty and crime don’t just show up out of nowhere; there are reasons for it, and when you learn them, you find it’s hard to look people in the eye,” he says.
This realization weighed on Clarke emotionally, but it also motivated him to try to make a difference. “I decided I didn’t want to be part of the problem, and that meant I had to actively try to be part—maybe a small part, but a part—of the solution.”
From 2005 to 2014, Clarke worked as director of the education division at the Federal Judicial Center, a small government agency charged with providing orientations and education for federal judges and court executives. While there, Clarke had another epiphany. “It became clear that while we had a measure of diversity in the education division, that population, which was largely black and Hispanic, did not feel fully included. They didn’t feel their contributions were fully valued or that their feedback was given a great deal of weight. They didn’t think they had a full and fair shot at moving up in the organization.”
Simply having a large number of people of color in an institution or organization, Clarke learned, might make it diverse—but not inclusive. Inclusion required going public with the issues, having the difficult conversations, and taking specific steps to ensure that everyone’s contributions to the organization were fully valued.
In 2016, Clarke was invited to lend his insights as one of 14 members of IC’s alumni association committee on diversity and inclusion. The group is working to drive engagement among multicultural alumni and get them more involved in activities at IC. Clarke also is a member of ICUnity, an IC affinity group that promotes and facilitates multicultural understanding.
While he was an attorney, Clarke took a sabbatical and worked in the theater as an actor and playwright. He’s retired now, but those skills still come in handy. He is in his fourth semester teaching playwriting and short fiction to a group of inmates at Maryland’s Jessup Correctional Institution. Like most of his former clients, nearly all of Clarke’s students are people of color. Most of them, he says, are smart and creative— they just never had the opportunities to develop their talents. “You see that moment where someone is standing up, ready to read what they wrote, and the whole class is cheering them on,” Clarke says. “Maybe those moments are few and far between, but that’s where you see the possibilities.”