Be about Something: how duty, forgiveness and faith shaped Ebony Clarke

May 15, 2019

Helen Sloan knew her baby was in trouble. She had used narcotics throughout her pregnancy and never received prenatal care.

Sloan was admitted to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center a month before her due date, as doctors tried to help her carry the child to term. She worried the drugs and alcohol would cause her child to be born with physical or mental disabilities.

Her daughter was born premature, but at six pounds she was still “fat as a ripe tomato,” Sloan said, with a thick head of black curls and a set of lungs she put to use.

Ebony Clarke, right, with her mother Helen Sloan, who has worked as a recovery mentor for nearly four decades.

“How can I say it?” asked Sloan, searching for the right words to describe her daughter’s first breaths.

“She came out fighting.”

Sloan recalls the story from a top-floor conference room in the Multnomah Building where her daughter, Ebony Clarke, born with Sloan’s opioids in her blood, had just been named director of Multnomah County’s Mental Health and Addiction Services Division.

“I raised her to be who she is,” Sloan said. “I knew this young lady was going to be about something. It was real clear to me. She was going to be about something.”

Clarke spent her babyhood shuffled between relatives, foster care and hospitals — before being returned to her mother at a residential treatment center. Clarke grew up attending her mother’s 12-step meetings and discovered the concept of a higher power long before she learned to name it God. When Sloan became a peer mentor to other women in the home recovering from addiction, Clarke looked after their children, coordinating activities and overseeing chores.

She learned accountability. And grace.

This spring, after 18 years as a clinician and manager of behavioral health services, Clarke has taken over the very agency that supported her mother’s choice to change.

What she learned from Sloan and throughout her upbringing shaped the way Clarke leads — with a deep faith in God, an ingrained sense of responsibility, a passion for equity and a willingness to be vulnerable, take risks and carry on.

“If you communicate, build trust and cultivate relationships, you can do anything,” Clarke said. “It’s about creating a level platform where people can have a voice.”

Creativity, curiosity and high expectations

Colleagues at Mental Health and Addiction Services, where Clarke served as a program manager and deputy director, say her leadership style combines creativity, doggedness, curiosity and a high need to hold individuals and the agency accountable.

When Clarke was promoted this April, Quality Manager Lynn Smith-Stott said, she immediately decided that every supervisor would receive what’s called a 360-degree performance review. That way they would receive feedback not only from their own managers, but also from their peers and staff.

“There’s an emphasis on accountability, and that demonstrates a lot of transparency and willingness to improve,” Smith-Stott said. “It’s a little vulnerable. But it’s the only way to improve.”

Dr. Nimisha Gokaldas, medical director for Mental Health and Addiction Services, said she’s quit other jobs because leadership failed to articulate expectations or follow through on promises. But Clarke is different, she said. Clarke is clear. She expects her team to take responsibility for a system that too often struggles to help marginalized people — their clients.

As interim director at Mental Health and Addiction Services, Clarke convened the first town hall to hear from African American residents about their needs.

Gokaldas offers a recent example. A provider called Gokaldas, concerned after a local emergency department failed to admit a client in a mental health crisis. The provider worried the emergency department didn’t admit the client because of their ethnicity or lack of English fluency.

Gokaldas instructed the provider to contact the hospital and advocate for her client.

“I get a little of that from Ebony,” she said. “You can ask a system to change, or you can use your power to change it. And we have that power. Use that instead to delegate.”

Clarke is seemingly undeterred by roadblocks, Gokaldas said. Clarke joined the Division’s equity committee to change the staff’s lack of racial diversity and promote culturally specific services. As a woman of color, Gokaldas was grateful for the emphasis.

“There’s more awareness about race,” she said.

Jacob Mestman, who is white, has sat on the Division’s diversity committee with Clarke for years. Her support prompted him to examine white employees’ disengagement — including his own — in conversations about race.

“It’s not taught to me as a white person that racism is a white person’s problem,” Mestman said. “This is my problem and my responsibility.” And so, with support from Clarke, he began calling in white managers and supervisors to talk about privilege, dominance and how to support employees of color.

Clarke has also challenged Mestman professionally. Mestman might provide her some data, he said, and Clarke will stop by his cubicle to ask, “How do we know this is happening?” and “Why do you think this is happening?”

“There’s a gracious inquisitiveness in asking questions to prompt thinking rather than telling,” he said. “She’s inquisitive about the process, not just why we did something or why we looked at a certain population — not just the outcome, but the purpose.”

Clarke was appointed interim director of the Division in August 2018, amid scathing media coverage of the Division’s handling of reports of abuse or neglect of an adult receiving mental health services. The coverage, and internal discord, sapped morale.

First, Clarke launched a study of program procedures and expanded supervisor reviews. Then she opened the door for conversations and feedback. Clarke held small-group meetings for staff who wanted to understand what had happened and what the fallout might be.

She left her office door ajar for anyone who needed to talk.

Clarke also convened, for the first time anyone can recall, a meeting of all of the division's 300 employees. She took to the mic for a rendition of Lauryn Hill’s rendition of "Killing Me Softly," and then turned it over for anyone to talk about what made the division great, and what they wanted to change.

“As a leader, not filling the space is a vulnerable thing to do. It’s a risky thing to do,” Mestman said. “That grace sets an example. When we see leaders being innovative, creative, vulnerable, we can do that as well.”

The fabric of family

After Clarke was born, her mother Helen Sloan dropped off the map, promising her family she would write and call — but she never did. She was 22, staying at a Denver hotel, when she finally picked up the phone. How were Ebony and her older brother, Jerome, doing?

“Helen, (child welfare) they picked them up a few weeks after you left,” her sister said.

“That’s when everything changed for me,” Sloan said. “Nothing worked after that. Not drugs. Not alcohol.”

Sloan gave up drugs and alcohol on Nov. 17, 1978, and moved into Freedom House, a small peer-based residential recovery program housed in a three-story craftsman in Northeast Portland. Its founder, Peggy Tomlin, promised to help Sloan regain custody of her two children.

“I wouldn’t care if she told me to take a toothbrush and scrub every inch from the basement to the third floor, if it meant I could get my kids,” Sloan said.

Sloan was six months pregnant with a third child, a boy, when she moved in. Her older son, Jerome, was 4 by then and Ebony had recently celebrated her first birthday.

Clarke, still in foster care, cried the first time she visited Freedom House. She didn’t know Sloan. So she looked out the window and wailed for her “momma.” Jerome just hugged Sloan and said, “Ebony, this is momma.”

Ebony Clarke, center right, grew up at a residential recovery home, attending meetings and learning about a "higher power."

Then, one day Tomlin called Sloan to her room. “Helen, your baby’s in the hospital,” she said.

Clarke’s foster mother had set the girl in scalding water. Clarke was in the hospital, where doctors began treatments including skin grafts.

“I’m leaving,” Sloan said. “I’m going to get my baby.”

But then she played out the tape: She would probably make it as far as the corner grocery, where she would steal enough to buy a bag of dope. Instead, as hard as it was, she stayed at Freedom House and kept working on her recovery.

A few months later, Clarke and her older brother came home to their mother. Shortly after, Sloan, who had never gone to high school, accepted a management job at the recovery house. They stayed at Freedom House six more years.

Clarke sat in on 12-step meetings and listened to people talk about their “higher power” and “taking an inventory.” At night, residents and children alike reviewed their day and considered what they might do differently the next day. Everyone was encouraged to be present and not let their minds drift.

“Ebony, are you drifting?” Tomlin might ask on a car ride, if Clarke looked out her passenger window.

“She grew up learning, ‘You take your own inventory,’” Sloan said. “Don’t look at the person next to you. Look at what you did.”

Clarke took the lesson to heart.

When she snuck the grapes her mother kept for special treats, she owned up to it immediately. Once Sloan caught Clarke saying she was going to the mall, when instead, she met up with a friend for a walk in the neighborhood.

“I didn’t have to discipline her. She beat herself half to death,” Sloan said with a chuckle. “She would be the one to admit to anything.”

When Clarke was in elementary school, the family finally moved into an apartment. Sloan worked at nonprofits as a peer mentor and addiction counselor. Clarke also found work, her first job, in third grade: She helped sort donations at a thrift store.

Jerome called Clarke a “nerd” and a “goody two shoes.” She would clean her room and make sure everyone else did their chores. “She can clean my room, too,” Jerome would say. Sometimes Clarke would cry if they were late for school. “You’re stupid,” Jerome would say. “Who cries to go to school?”

Clarke loved school and she knew exactly what she wanted to do.

Ebony Clarke chose a modest used hatchback when her mom took her out to buy her first car.
Ebony Clarke chose a modest used hatchback when her mom took her out to buy her first car.

“I always knew I was going to be a family therapist,” Clarke said. “It was part of the fabric of my family. Mom took care of the adults and I took care of the kids.”

Sloan was so excited when Clarke was accepted at the University of Oregon. She took her daughter out to buy a car and spotted a used sports car.

“No, mom,” Clarke said when Sloan pointed it out.

“She didn’t want it. She didn’t want anything fancy like that,” Sloan said. “She chose some little hatchback, might as well have been a Pinto.”

During Clarke’s first term on the Eugene campus, while she worked processing parking tickets for the campus public safety office, Clarke met a boy named Matt. The fellow freshman, dressed in grunge clothes and wearing a Floater cap, had been looking for a reason to approach her.

“I’m new to campus,” he finally said, after coming to the campus safety office twice that day. “Do you know where the weight room is?”

The couple dated throughout college. But when Matt left for law school at Temple University in Philadelphia, Clarke returned to Portland to pursue a master’s degree in social work. They would see one another when Matt visited Oregon on vacations. It wasn’t until three years later when Clarke let on how much she cared about him.

“She had never left home, so when she flew out to Philadelphia, that was a big deal for her,” he said with a smile. “She called her mom every few hours.”

Clarke earned her master’s degree in 2001 and went to work for LifeWorks NW, counseling African American boys struggling with mental health and addiction. It felt natural, she said, “helping them find a sense of self, a sense of hope. I wanted them to know you don’t need to be ashamed or held back by the experiences of your life.”

Ebony Clarke was the first in her family to attend college, and went right into graduate school.
Ebony Clarke was the first in her family to attend college, and went right into graduate school.

LifeWorks’ president, Mary Monnat, said she immediately saw Clarke’s potential. By age 24, Clarke had transitioned into a supervisory role.

“Here she came as a brand new clinician, so smart. You could just see the commitment,” Monnat said. “She was super bright, super energetic and she believed she could change the system for the better. So I got to watch her grow.”

Clarke and Matt married in 2002 and left the year after for Philadelphia, where Matt worked for a law firm. Clake accepted a counseling job at Juvenile Justice Center, rising to become a supervisor and then the director of the center’s behavioral health division.

When they moved home to Portland in 2008, Clarke returned to LifeWorks, this time as service director.

Monnat said Clarke’s ability to bring staff along when the agency needed to change was impressive.

“People trusted her. People worked with her,” Monnat said. “She’s intimately familiar with these issues. She has no judgment. And she believes in people’s resilience and ability to change.”

Clarke still faced some resistance from a generation of providers who weren’t ready for something new. One time her mother, working as a peer mentor for LifeWorks, saw an older man towering over Clarke, shouting.

Monnat recalls soothing a distraught Clarke after a similar exchange.  

“She soaks up everyone’s stuff and I remember telling her, “You just have to wring out the sponge,’” she said.

In the fall of 2010, Clarke took a job managing clinical services for the children’s system of care at Mental Health and Addiction Services, which funds services through nonprofits including Lifeworks.

“I knew the call was going to come when she would say she was moving on,” Monnat said. “I used to say, ‘One day she would have my job.’

Instead, she’s my boss. Now, I’m working for her.”

A way out

Clarke has often been called a young manager. And she was — once. But she’s long since grown, in life and in management.

This August, she and Matt will celebrate their 17th wedding anniversary. They’re raising two boys in a quiet cul-de-sac outside Portland. The couple wake up before sunrise and sit in matching lounge chairs. Sometimes they say nothing. Other times they talk about the day ahead or the latest drama with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Ebony and Matt Clarke married in Clarke's family church, the Community Church of God.
Ebony and Matt Clarke married in Clarke's family church, the Community Church of God.

“We’re a young old married couple,” she jokes. For Matt, Clarke’s character shines brightest in these simple moments. He might feel frustrated with work, and she offers him a solution.

“She’s doing this every day in little ways,” he said. “She sees opportunity and possibility where someone else might see a roadblock. She offers perspective. A way out.”

Despite a busy schedule at work and with family, Clarke dedicates Sundays to God. The family attends Rolling Hills Community Church, where Clarke volunteers as a group leader for teenage girls on Sunday evenings and during church summer camps.

In a congregation that is largely white, Clarke has organized racial equity training for middle and high school students where they focus on biblical teachings about advocating for the oppressed. She’s proposed similar groups for adults.

Over the years, Clarke has grown close with Rolling Hills’ pastor for wholeness ministries, Carolyn Lu. They talk a lot about race. Clarke recommends books and Lu reads them.

“The majority of white people are pretty unaware,” Lu said. “She’s helped me understand that I can come to her, but it’s because I'm trying to understand and I’m educating myself. If you’re lazy and you’re white, then it’s your problem.”

Lu knows Clarke well enough to know Clarke doesn’t shrug off her hardships. The big ones leave her aching for justice, and the small ones offend.

“She’s a powerful person yet there’s been a cost in her life,” Lu said. “You don’t realize that this is someone who has suffered. And yet she’s not a victim. She has pressed forward and tried to make change for other people.”

Space for Grace

On a recent Wednesday night, warm enough for tank tops and shorts, neighbor kids ran through Clarke’s house, sparking the fleeting interest of the family’s 4-year-old Boxer, Marcus, while Matt shot hoops in the driveway.

Inside, Clarke finished preparing Philly cheese steaks and laid out plates of vegetables and fresh fruit. Matteo, 12 (likes spaghetti, Basketball, baseball, football and wants to go to Penn State), makes himself scarce. Miles, 7 (likes waffles and wants to be a point guard), stands in front of the fruit bowl spooning strawberries onto a paper plate and popping grapes into his mouth.

Clarke, barefoot at the kitchen counter, cuts a slice of key lime pie. Work is never far from her mind. She talks about what she wants Mental Health and Addiction Services to become.

The Clarke family, from left, includes Matt, Matteo, Ebony and Miles.

“I want this organization to be adaptive, to be forward thinking,” she said. “We have to evolve with the people we’re serving.”

It will take two things to get there, she said, as if she’s presenting to a potential funder.

“First we have to look under the hood. It’s time to look at the system, look for gaps, for holes,” she said. “Then we have to create new models.”

She knows she has her work cut out for her, but people and systems can change. She’s seen it. When she took over as deputy director in 2014, someone told her she didn’t deserve it.

“You were only hired to check a box,” the co-worker said, commenting on her race. But years later that person came back to Clarke and acknowledged she was hired because she could do the job.

“I love that people can come back and grow,” she said. “You have to make space for grace because at some point, we’re all going to step in it.”

And right now at Multnomah County, she feels like she has support to make big changes.

“I’m working for a County that’s committed to leading with race and that’s a great place to be. We can have courageous conversations where you learn, you grow, you stretch,” she said.

“We have a team of leaders who will hold us up and lead us in the right direction. I do feel like I have the support of elected officials, of the Health Department director, of my team, and the staff within the division. I’m not alone.”