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How To Be A Citizen: From MFA To DSA To N.Y. Legislature

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, getting involved in civic life can take a lot of different routes as we've been hearing. There's running for office like Congressman Joe Neguse did. We heard from him earlier, too. But there are other ways to serve apart from being elected yourself. Kara Clark is going to tell us about that now. She is chief of staff to New York State Senator Jabari Brisport, a Democrat who was just elected last year. Clark was also an active member of the Democratic Socialists of America before joining the senator's team. And she is with us now. Kara Clark, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

KARA CLARK: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So how does somebody go from having an MFA in - a master's in fine arts in fiction writing...

CLARK: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...To be a (laughter) chief of staff to a state senator? That seems kind of a twisty road. How did that happen?

CLARK: Yeah, yeah. It's a great question. So, I mean, I think for me, everything really changed in 2016 after Trump got elected president. You know, before that, I - if I'm being honest, politics, to me, seemed like something important but out of reach and something that ultimately didn't concern me. And so I just feel like the way that I thought about the world and my values really shifted. I was concerned for, yes, my country, but also my community around me in New York. And so I felt compelled to step away from the arts and dedicating myself to the arts, which I had done for most of my life, and decided that I wanted to be part of a solution to the problems that I thought were happening in my country and in my community today.

MARTIN: So what was the first thing you did? Like, how did you start? Like, as you were just telling us, that really wasn't your world. I mean, you were really interested in the arts and something else. So what was, like, the first thing you did? Did you look for a meeting? Or - how did you get - start? Like, what were the first steps?

CLARK: Well, the first thing that I did, honestly, was hit the streets and go to protests, I think, right after those election results. Yeah, I just remember even just, like, the atmosphere and the city being very charged. And so going to protests, there was great comfort to be taken in going somewhere and knowing that people felt the same way about the election that you did. And in going to protests, I met people, and I talked to them. And it was honestly in having those conversations with strangers and realizing that we had common ground felt really special.

MARTIN: Now you're working in a state legislature, which may not be as high-profile as, say, working in Congress or working at the White House. But state legislatures have a huge role to play in how people live their lives in their communities. So how did you decide to get involved in - on Senator Brisport's team? Did you work in his campaign? And how did - or how did that all come about?

CLARK: Well, so Senator Jabari Brisport and I knew each other as activists. One, we were part of the DSA and, you know, did a lot of this organizing work together. And when he won his campaign, many, you know, of my comrades really encouraged me to apply to work with him, which was a really compelling idea to me because I wanted to bring this community organizing background that I had to the state legislator - legislature and thought we could really make some positive changes. And it just took off from there.

MARTIN: Is there - if you were - if somebody's listening to our conversation and wonders whether they should get involved in this kind of work, what would you say?

CLARK: I think the society that we live in is something that we - that people make. And so if you recognize that and you talk to your neighbors and you can identify what things you want to change in your community and find that common ground and then, you know, collectively confront power wherever you are to bring the change that you want to see into the world, not only does it actually feel really good to do that work, to work with the people in your community to make that change, but it also works. And, you know, you can look to history to see that that is true. I mean, we wouldn't have something as basic as having the weekends off without something like collective organizing. And, you know, I can say certainly that I've seen it proven true in my life and being part of campaigns and, you know, winning victories that I think ultimately will improve the lives of working people.

MARTIN: That was Kara Clark. She is a writer and an activist, and she's currently serving as chief of staff for New York State Senator Jabari Brisport. Kara Clark, thanks so much for talking to us today.

CLARK: Thanks so much for having me again.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETE ROCK'S "A LITTLE SOUL")

MARTIN: We are planning a whole series of conversations in the months ahead about all the many ways you can be a good citizen in this country and how to get involved. We plan to cover lots of different topics, including things like what it's like to serve on a jury and how to get involved in civic life if you're not old enough to vote or not eligible to vote just yet. Next week, we'll hear from more activists, people with very different political perspectives to hear why and how they ended up choosing to take to the streets in support of a cause.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETE ROCK'S "A LITTLE SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.