Alumni Interview: Five Things that Matter with Charity Clark '93
A couple weeks ago, we caught up with Charity Clark ‘93 who lives with her family in Williston and works as Chief of Staff to Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan.
1. Tell me about the work you do in the Vermont Attorney General’s office.
I started my career as a policy analyst in the Governor’s office under Howard Dean, and I loved my job. After law school, I worked for several years at a big law firm in New York City, and it was really intense--I worked all the time. I remember thinking I had really loved when my “client” was the state of Vermont; when I did good work, I was helping this place that I love. So, moving back to Vermont in 2014, I wanted to work for the state. I got lucky with an opening in the Attorney General’s office, and it turned out to be a good fit.
During the first year that TJ Donovan was in office, he approached me about a role that’s not just legal, but also has a policy component, a management component, and a communications component--which is the Chief of Staff role that had not previously existed. They were creating this new role, and they wanted me to fill it. I think that my experience working in the Governor’s office informed how I saw the work of our office. I didn’t just have a strict legal perspective; I also could see the broader impact and the broader policy considerations.
I think what really helps me succeed in this role is critical thinking, and so much of this stems from the humanities education I received at Burr and Burton. The camaraderie and professional interplay between my teachers created an enriching experience where you could see how things connected--and in my job, I have to do that. I can't just be thinking about the law; I have to be thinking, here’s the law, here’s the impact on real people, here are the policy considerations. Let’s weigh out all of those and try to make the best judgement that is going to help my client, the State of Vermont, the people of Vermont, the environment of Vermont. I feel so lucky I’ve had the foundation I have to see those things; not every lawyer has that ability, and that’s one reason why I think I was chosen for this role.
2. What kind of law are you most passionate about?
I touch a lot of different areas because I’m in a management role, but one area I’d like to highlight is criminal justice reform. Once you start learning about it, you can’t not be passionate about it, because our system is so damaged, and we are doing so much right now to make progress.
Recently, I’ve been working on expungement clinics. Our office partners with Vermont Legal Aid, and we help people in a county expunge old convictions from their record. There’s a statute in Vermont--not every state is like this--that allows that to happen. It doesn’t apply to serious crimes, but the ability to remove minor infractions makes such an impact on people’s lives. Why should it affect your life to have a minor marijuana conviction from 15 years ago, when now it’s legal? That’s crazy.
The work is about recognizing where our system has disproportionately impacted people of color, and digging in to how to rectify that. It’s about acknowledging that oftentimes people who find themselves interacting with the criminal justice system suffer trauma, addiction, or poverty--or a combination of those things--and trying to create a system that works for everyone. I’m so passionate about this. This is not the reason I went to law school, but I’ve been inspired by my work with the AG’s office to work more on criminal justice reform.
3. What is getting you through the pandemic?
I feel really grateful to still have a job, where so many people have lost work, and to be in a position where the focus of my work is helping; there are so many avenues to help others in my work community.
But the real answer to your question is that I try to go hiking everyday in the woods near where I live. I’ll go hiking in the morning with a headlamp on, I’ll go hiking in the rain; it doesn’t matter. After we finish up, I’ll go hiking . . Just being in the woods is so important--to exercise, and it gives you time to reflect. And I’m so lucky that my favorite hiking buddy, my Dad, moved nearby this summer, and on the weekends we get to go hiking--with masks and socially distanced, of course.
4. What are the most important things you took with you from Burr and Burton?
One thing that stands out is the connection with the community. When I moved back from New York, and I was about to have a baby, I wanted to pick a community for my child to grow up in. I knew what that looked like, because Manchester is such a community. You want a place where people support children and care about the future, and that was the message I got at Burr and Burton. People from town would come to watch basketball games, and come to the plays, even if they didn’t have children in school. It’s one of those values that stuck with me.
Another thing is that when I was at Burr and Burton, I felt like I was valued and encouraged to be curious and to explore my own interests. I felt like I was a teenager--growing, changing, and learning--and Burr and Burton met me there. I got the respect and honor that enabled me to grow and thrive.
One other thing I learned at Burr and Burton--and growing up in the Green Mountains--that shaped my life was the appreciation of nature. I have a memory of soccer practice during foliage season; it’s so sweet it brings me to tears. Our coach, Coach DeForest, was like, “all right, two laps around the field.” Our team set off together headed to the far end of the field, and my gosh, the hill was so beautiful! The mist was coming in, and it was all red and orange. We collectively stopped running, in awe of the gorgeous hill--this bunch of teenagers who should be too cool for school. Coach was yelling, “what are you all doing?” And we called back to him, “Come look! It’s amazing!”
5. In 1993, like so many teens, you were listening to En Vogue; what are you listening to now?
This summer I was obsessed with Taylor Swift’s Folklore; it’s incredible. Recently I’m getting into Lana Del Rey, but for a specific reason: my sister and brother and I decided to have a remote family band: I’ll play the piano and sing, my sister will sing back up, and my brother will play the guitar and produce it. But I’m so bad at the piano! So, Lana del Ray is both in my voice range and has very simple chords that I can play.
I also like the dance music of the Weeknd and Lizzo, but I’ve quickly realized that what I need to be playing in the car with my daughter is the Beatles, because the language is a little safer. ⭑