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Jo Ann Clark Auditorium honors longtime education advocate


A woman sits at her dining room table with her hands folded in front of her. She wears a red plaid jacket, a pearl necklace and gold hoop earrings.
Jo Ann Clark sits at her dining room table in her Battle Creek home. (CBJ Photo/Jasmine McBride)

This Saturday, the auditorium at Harding High School will be renamed the Jo Ann Clark Auditorium. For more than 35 years Clark has served as a Harding parent volunteer, PTA president, and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) tutor. She created and leads an annual HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) College Tour, which has served more than 1,000 students.


“I want to leave a legacy when I leave here,” said Clark. “When I have to go and talk to people, I always end with, ‘what would your legacy be?’ Will your legacy be all about you? Or will your legacy be that you were that hand that reached down and pulled that young person up?’” 


In September of 2023, Saint Paul’s Board of Education decided to honor Clark for her achievements and her impact on Harding High School students. Clark has also served as the Chair of the Thinking College Early Fair in partnership with Saint Paul Public Schools. Her “JoAnn Clark Scholarship” has raised $50,000 for high school seniors.


This is not the first time Clark’s efforts have been celebrated. In the last two years alone she has been recognized with the Mamie Till Mobley Woman of Courage Award, the History Maker at Home Award, and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter decreed September 11, 2022 "Jo Ann Clark Day.”


But even as she’s being honored, Clark is quick to share the credit.


“One person can’t accomplish all the things that I have accomplished – unless she had a group, a community behind her,” she said. “It's not about me. It's really a community effort.”


A HISTORY OF SERVICE


This journey of community service began for Clark when she moved to Minnesota in 1980 with her family from Memphis, Tennessee. She says the culture shock she experienced as one of the few Black families in the Battle Creek area of St. Paul served as a call to action. 


“I feel as a Black person, there’s targets on our kids' backs every day. Every day,” she said. “And I wanted to be that person who helped take some of those targets off our kids' backs.”


Clark says she has always had a passion for youth. She owned a daycare for 20 years before she developed a passion for working with teenagers. She credits her children with inspiring her; Clark has three children who all graduated from Harding High School. Two even have a plaque on the wall. Her son, for athletics. And her daughter, for singing.


She cites her daughter, an HBCU graduate who is now a Special Ed Teacher, as an example of why she loves HBCUs. Clark says her daughter encourages youth to think on their own rather than just mindlessly follow the rules.


“For example, one of her kids was just acting up. He’s rolling chairs everywhere. And she just let him do it. She said, ‘are you finished?’ He said ‘yes.’ And she asked him to sit in the middle of the room. She made all the other kids clean up while he sat there. And he said ‘but they didn't do that!’ And she said, ‘but when you do something it affects everybody in this classroom,’” recalled Clark. “And I think if we did stuff like that [in Minnesota], some of this shooting, and stuff like that, I don't think we would have–if they learned it at an earlier stage.”


Clark says her college fair is successful because she understands that college may not even be an interest, or accessible option for everyone.


“Then, my philosophy is ‘go somewhere as long as it’s not in an orange jumpsuit outfit.’” 


ADVOCATING FOR EDUCATION REFORM


Clark, despite her accomplishments, says she knows there is more to do. She says while she is committed to continuing to show up for the young people that are often overlooked, there needs to be cultural training at the administrative level. She says she’s not just referring to culture in regards to skin tone, but in regards to environment and behavior.


“There’s so many teachers who are in this profession who are scared of Black boys. Sometimes before we judge these kids about how they’re acting, we need to find out their story. They need to tell you their story, if they will tell you. But you’ve got to know how to approach them,” said Clark. “During the summer, before the teachers come back, I think we as a community need to come in and train them.”


Clark says she would also love to see HBCU alumni come to Minnesota to do workshops with educators across the state because she believes this would help retain African American teachers who end up leaving due to lack of support, and equip them with the tools they need to serve youth of color better. 


Clark has seen the impact of expanding cultural engagement in the classroom while a part of the mentorship program she created called Chosen to Achieve. She says Chosen to Achieve pairs African American students with a community leader to increase hope, motivation, and academic achievement. 


“Chosen to Achieve was developed at Progressive Baptist Church because I would come to the church fussing about our kids. I said they need some type of mentor. And it is a very successful program,” she said.


Clark isn’t limiting her work to Harding High. She says she now has grandbabies who are inspiring her to take her advocacy further. Clark recently made a visit to her grandchild’s middle school to ask about support programs for African American youth;  she was indignant when she told that there were none.


“That's why the battle is not over for our people. And that did bother me. And I said, well, did you know this was Black History Month? And I asked what are y'all doing? And she said ‘I don't know.’ My generation fought to have this day, and people who teach kids still think it's not important in this generation. This is why I’m still involved,” said Clark. 


Clark says having the Harding hall named after her honors her work, but that doesn’t mean she’s anywhere close to being done. 


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