Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Claudia Clark Is Helping To Change Our World

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Writing the book is only a miniscule amount of work that it takes to get a book published. Writing a book is like starting a business and requires a lot of organization and resources. Everything from setting up a website to securing speaking engagements to promoting the book to finding an agent and publisher. All of these tasks AND MUCH MORE are required to get a book published, and that requires a lot more time, money, and patience than writing a book. Writing the book is the easy part….

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Claudia Clark.

Claudia Clark is an American-born author, speaker, and activist focused on progressive causes. In 2017 Clark and her husband moved from California to German where she is researching her next book comparing the lives and experiences of Germans divided by the Berlin Wall during the Cold War with the Irish divided by the Peace Walls in the 1970s and 1980s at the height of the IRA conflicts. Clark has several advanced degrees, with a focus on community organizing, women’s history, public policy and labor relations.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

My childhood backstory was somewhat challenging and unstable. I grew up in Michigan with my mother-a former French teacher turned librarian. Although my mother was highly educated, working as a librarian, she did not make a lot of money, so married a man who was verbally and emotionally abusive to both her and me in order to secure I had a stable economic home. While my mother and I were very close, I had a complicated and codependent relationship with her. She was extremely intelligent and demanded perfection and I often felt her love/approval of me was contingent upon academic success. We did not know it at the time (I was finally diagnosed when I was in graduate school), but I had both an auditory and visual processing learning disability.

Because of my learning disabilities, my grades did not always reflect how hard I worked, and I was a perfectionist in everything I did — often because I left my mother’s love depended on it. If I studied for two days for an exam, and I received a B on it, I would study three or four days for the next test, and if I didn’t do better on it, I was extremely hard on myself for it. My mother saw how hard I worked and did not want to admit I was the problem, so she blamed the school districts for what she saw as my “academic deficiencies”. As a result, we moved frequently — one school district for 5th and 6th grade, one for 7th and 8th, and then one for high school. By the time I reached high school, the cliques had formed, and I never felt like I belonged anywhere. I was in the marching band, and I played softball and tennis, but I was not particularly good at any of those. I was too smart for the normal kids, but not smart enough for the smart kids, and I truly felt like an outcast.

To complicate matters, I was 15 when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and for my sophomore year, she was extremely sick from chemotherapy. Between being unable emotionally to deal with her illness and having to care for her, my grades fell, and I spent my last two years in high school trying to get my grades back up. I suffered verbal abuse from my counselor — math was not my strong subject and he told me that “Michigan State was the only college that would accept me and that was only because they would accept anyone who paid the 25.00 application fee”, and my algebra teacher told me I was the dumbest student he had ever had in 25 years of teaching in front of the entire class. Fortunately, I was strong in languages and social sciences, and despite all of this, I managed to graduate from high school with a 3.4 GPA — nothing to be ashamed of, but it took me many years to come to that realization. Luckily, due to a combination of resilience, stubbornness, and determination to prove everyone wrong that I was accepted into four Big Ten Universities.

Because my mother was a tenured librarian at Michigan State University, I received a fairly reasonable tuition discount, so for practical reasons I decided it made the most sense for me to attend Michigan State. However, my mother insisted that I live in the dorms and have all the normal college activities despite my close proximity to my “home”. During my freshman year of my mother and my stepdad divorced, but despite the economic strains of sending me to college that through my mother’s saving and sacrificing, I graduated from college without owing a dime in student loans. Unfortunately, not too many people can say that.

Truth be told, I really hated school, and I did not even want to go to college, but I knew that was not an option for me. Now when someone looks at my bio and sees that I have four college degrees — including three master’s degrees, people question that. However, that is very true — while it is a long and complicated story on how and why this came about, the short answer is once I was in college and began to take classes that I actually enjoyed in subjects that interested me, all the struggles and difficulties I had vanished, and I loved to learn new things. Additionally, after my learning disabilities were finally diagnosed during my first semester in my first graduate program, accommodations were made to help me succeed, and it truly was a life changing event. I know many people do not like labels, but for me, I found the diagnosis as liberating. I was not stupid or lazy, there was a legitimate reason why I had more difficulties with some subjects than my peers. Once I realized that, even math classes were easier — even as a history and public policy student I could not avoid the math in the required statistics and economic classes.

I spent most of this section talking about my academic life because that played an overwhelming part of my childhood. Nevertheless, it was not the only part, and I feel I must discuss the social justice and political component briefly because it helped to shape who I am today. I come from a family of political activists — my great grandmother marched for women’s suffrage, my grandfather was a union shop steward for many years, and my mom was a feminist and social justice advocate. From the time I was 15 years old I went to rallies and protests with her fighting for women’s rights and the rights for workers to unionize. Hence, political activism and social justice were in my genes — and in fact it was something where I excelled. When I was in eighth grade, we found out that the high school was sending over sports representatives for the high school for boys interested in joining the sports teams when we entered high school. Girls were explicitly excluded, and some of my classmates turned to me and asked me to organize a walk out if they school refused to include girls. I did not realize this until years later the impact this would have on my later life, and it was a skilled I possessed from a young girl that others had seen in me even before I noticed it in myself.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

I can honestly say that reading Diary of Anne Frank when I was in sixth grade was a life defining moment. Although I had heard of the book, I did not know anything about it. I had lived a sheltered life in a small mid-Michigan town, and I knew only one black family and had never met anyone who was Jewish. We had not been taught about the Holocaust in school, and I only knew of occasional references I had heard on the news or from my family. My mother was going to a library conference for the weekend, and I was staying with friends, so I went into the school library for something to keep me occupied over the weekend. I remember reading the beginning pages where Frank described the anti-Jewish decrees which required among other things Jews wear a yellow star, and forbade them from attending theaters, and sporting facilities, and even visiting their Christian neighbors. I recall the outrage I felt toward what I read silently, and I was so offended that, I turned to the people I was staying with and read the passage out loud to them, prefacing my remarks with something along the lines of “Listen to this — this is outrageous.” Little did I realize at the time, but that book played a vital role with my lifelong obsession with the Holocaust, and fighting against hatred, and fighting toward social justice for people of all races, ethnicities, genders

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

The funniest mistake I have made in the course of my career stems from the fact that I am an American living in Germany, and it is often common for one to make a blunder when addressing language issues, well I am no exception to this rule. The German word for the number six is “sechs,” and it is pronounced very similarly — in fact too similarly to the English word sex. There is a slight nuance in the pronunciation that native German speakers have, but most non-native speakers have not mastered. I was at a meeting with native German speakers where I had planned to discuss and read an exert from my book and it just so happened the exerts, I read came from Chapter 6. In front of a group of fifty people I told my audience I was going to read a small portion of the book, but for some reason I excluded the word “Chapter”, and I just said what was the word “sechs” but came out sounding like sex. Instead of saying, “I am going to read an expert of the book from Chapter six” between my leaving out the word “chapter” and mispronouncing the word for six, it came across as, “I am going to read some portions of sex.” Fortunately for me, the members of the audience took the mistake in stride and laughed as I turned about fifty shades of red. Later, after my presentation, one of the hosts came up to me, and said, “If I can offer a suggestion to you. just pronounce it the English way, just say “six.” It is close enough to the German pronunciation and everybody will understand you.” I found this to be very sage advice, that I still use today despite the fact my German is much better than it was four years when I made the mistake.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

One of the biggest aims for social impact with my book is I hope to reinforce to people that it is okay for people of different political ideologies and differences of opinions to work together and form friendships and partnerships. I wrote this book because of concern I felt with regard to the isolation among others with differing political ideologies across the globe. As a lifelong political activist, I understand there is a fine line between compromise and selling out, but I felt we have gone to the other extreme, and nothing is getting accomplished because people do not want to be seen as “traitors” or weak because they cross party lines. As a result, people are more divided than they have been in a long time, and citizens have lost in the democratic process, and thereby opting not to participate. The takeaway from the relationship between Obama and Merkel is that people do not have to agree on everything to form partnerships, — even friendships and sometimes putting one’s ego or personal opinion aside for the greater good is still possible.

The two former heads of state, came from different political parties, and they had different strengths and weaknesses. Obama was a charismatic speaker — leader of the country’s center left Democratic Party and Merkel was the strait-laced behind the scenes negotiator of her country’s center right, Christian Democratic Union party. Thankfully, because both were notoriously pragmatic, they knew as leaders of allied nations they would at least have to learn to work together, and in the process of learning to work with one another on a professional level, they grew to like and respect each other as individuals. In fact, Merkel cried when she said goodbye to Obama for the last time, and the very last call Obama made before he left office was to the German Chancellor. The strength of the bond between these two can serve as role models to the rest of the world that it is okay to have different opinions and leadership styles,

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

The most interesting story that I shared in my book involves Chancellor Merkel’s husband, Joachim Sauer. The German tabloids often referred to Angela Merkel’s husband, former Chemistry Professor Joachim Sauer, as “Phantom of the Opera” because he hated the spotlight and usually the only time, he made a public appearance was during the Bayreuth Opera Festival. Interestingly enough, Sauer hated the public so much he even missed the historical moment when the German Bundestag swore in Merkel as the first female chancellor of Germany. Nevertheless, the relationship between Obama and Merkel was important enough that he made several public appearances with his wife during Obama and Merkel’s time together. The fact that the notoriously absent spouse made multiple public appearances when she met with President Obama speaks volumes about the strength of the relationship between the parties involved.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

While the decision to write Dear Barack, was one that was a long time in the making, the final press conference between Obama and Merkel in November 2016 started the process. I was immediately struck by how visibly upset Merkel was when questioned by a journalist about this being their last such event together in an official capacity. In both the days leading up to that final event and the days that followed it, I could not help but notice stories in the media regarding the strong bond between the two leaders. Journalists often noted Merkel’s use of the affectionate phrase “dear Barack,” and Business Insider ran a story titled “16 photos that demonstrate Obama and Merkel will truly miss one another,” which illustrated to me that others had also witnessed the chemistry between them.

I kept these images in the back of my mind but did not dredge them up again until March 2017, during Merkel’s first trip to Washington, DC, to visit President Donald Trump. I watched as Trump refused to shake Merkel’s hand, and noted the stark contrast compared to her interactions with his predecessor.

It was then that I realized Obama and Merkel had a truly memorable relationship — one that deserved special recognition, one that should be memorialized in some way. Less than a year later, from the other side of the Atlantic, and only six months after our move, I turned over a 250-page manuscript for review by the first of two editors and a translator, beginning a process about which I knew nothing — how to get a book published.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One of my biggest supporters from the beginning was a good friend of mine who happens to be a German living in the United States. She was one of the first people I approached as I pondered whether I were up to such a cumbersome task. She encouraged me from the start to give it a shot, and then throughout the course of the project I turned to her advice — whether on cultural issues or translation assistance she was there. She read drafts and provided any advice I asked for (and sometimes did not ask for) When I decided to try to have the book translated into German, she provided the translation and we worked together in that capacity. After the book was published, she promoted the book and helped in any way she could — often she had more faith in me and the project than I had in myself. There were many times I wanted to throw in the towel out of frustration or heartbreak, but she would not let me. From the side lines she would remind me of how far I had come, and she would help me see the final goal, and thanks to her help and encouragement I have a finished book published in both English and German.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I believe the increase in Populist/isolationist principles seen across the map is the root problem I am trying to solve. Whether we like it or not, we live in a globalized world and now more than ever it is imperative that nations work with one another instead of against each other to help keep everyone safe. I believe that there are three things communities, societies, and politicians can do to address their major concerns on this front.

  1. Politicians could allocate financial and human resources toward diplomacy and economic development of countries which face unrest. For example, in recent years, the number of people fleeing their homes in Honduras and Ecuador for the United States has increased dramatically. These people make the decision to leave their homes to escape from the challenges they faced in their own countries including natural disasters, gang violence, and unemployment. Nobody makes the decision to leave their home country, their families, their culture, and their language lightly. However, desperation leads people to drastic action. Meanwhile, the receiving countries (i.e. the United States) spends millions of dollars and resources to curb immigration and to prevent these people from entering the country. It seems more pragmatic and diplomatic to reallocate the funds the government spends on keeping immigrants out to using those resources to invest in diplomatic ties with the governments whose people are leaving. The U.S. government could work with the Honduran or Ecuadorian governments to determine how the U.S. could help improve the quality of life for people in these countries so they do not want to leave in the first place. For example, the US. government could provide economic aid to help a country rebuild after a hurricane or work with intelligence agencies to decrease the gang violence in these countries. Working diplomatically with other countries rather than spend millions of dollars to prevent refugees from entering the U.S. could do wonders for improving the diplomatic ties between the U.S. and South and Central America. The world has become so globalized that the U.S. relies on these countries for things like trade and it really is nobody’s interest to alienate them. This is a complicated subject and there is no easy solution, but it is a conversation that could be had far more often than it currently is.
  2. Increase cultural awareness — people are afraid of what they do not know. The changing demographics of people immigrating to not just the United States, but Europe has people scared. Both continents have primarily been occupied by white Christians. Over the years, that dynamic has changed with political, social, and economic unrest in Syria, and other African countries, and Europe has seen an unprecedented rise in Muslim and nonwhite people. This has caused an uproar in many European countries. One could say that Merkel’s willingness to open Germany’s border to over 1 million Syrian refugees in 2015 was the end of her political career. Others say that one of the main reasons for Brexit’s success was fear of the loss of culture at the hands of immigrants. It is true that the demographics of people immigrating is changing, but if handled correctly, it not something that should be feared. Political leaders could pass anti-discrimination laws, they could offer incentives for businesses and communities who welcome refugees into their cities, and they could also allocate money and resources for cultural centers (i.e. a Mosque or Syrian cultural center) Finally, political leaders could allot money for community members to teach and incorporate cultural awareness and diversity courses in the schools, the businesses, and the cultural centers. Forcing people to accept others is only part of the equation, the other part of the equation is education and awareness. That is is why the implementation of policies and laws are just important as awareness and trainings.
  3. Finally, and most importantly, politicians, community leaders, and citizens need to address climate change as the immediate danger that it is. We have already seen the devastating effects of climate change with natural disasters like burning wildfires, flooding, heat waves, and hurricanes in the United States, Australia, Europe, and Central America. These catastrophes are becoming more frequent, more devasting, and more widespread. It used to be only people who lived in Florida needed to worry about hurricanes or only citizens of California needed to worry about mudslides, wildfires, or droughts. However, the past decade has shown us that is not the case. The dangers of neglecting a warming climate have impacted people to the point where nobody anywhere is safe. Besides the devastating impact these disasters have on the landscape it creates other crisis that need to be addressed. Droughts and flooding are destroying agricultural land and farmers are in some regions face difficulty growing crops — which means not only are they unable to earn a living to secure their financial stability, but it means rising food prices for the rest of the world. The world can no longer ignore the dangers of climate change. Instead of viewing it as a hoax or as a problem for future generations to address, politicians and community leaders need to address this now. Invest in renewable energy, pass legislation that will encourage innovation in climate neutral invitation while penalizing industries that continue to pollute the environment. This issue is paramount to improving international relations/globalization because this is a global problem. Hurricanes in Florida and the damage they cause impacts people in Europe. Additionally, many people who can no longer earn a living in their home (village, city, state, country) will immigrate where they can survive which will in turn impact the economic and landscape of new communities. This is a vicious circle that will only continue to get worse, but politicians and scientists can do something about it with concrete policies and actions to combat climate change today and not tomorrow.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership is the ability for an individual to successfully empower others to do what they want for the greater good. Additionally, I identify a strong leader as someone who leads by example to empower and encourage others to work toward a common goal. I believe good leaders are humble, they lead by example, and they do not ask people to do anything they would not do themselves. For example, in my many years as working as a community organizer, I spent hours phone banking either recruiting volunteers or in many instances identify voters for political campaigns. It was a tedious task, and most everybody hates to do it. However, in the pre social media days, it was the most effective method to reach voters and to organize, so it needed to be done. Even after I worked my way up to a campaign manager, and I had organizers and volunteers under me, I always made a point to spend time on the phone myself. I thought this was important to illustrate to my team how important the task was, and that I was not simply asking them to work the phone so I would not have to do it myself.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Writing the book is only a miniscule amount of work that it takes to get a book published. Writing a book is like starting a business and requires a lot of organization and resources. Everything from setting up a website to securing speaking engagements to promoting the book to finding an agent and publisher. All of these tasks AND MUCH MORE are required to get a book published, and that requires a lot more time, money, and patience than writing a book. Writing the book is the easy part….
  2. Getting a book published requires a lot of money — Hiring editors, (and in my case a translator), a website designer, reputable PR firms, and a reliable assistant all requires a lot of money, and unless you are fortunate to sign on with a big publisher house (which is very rare) all these expenses fall on the author — not the publisher.
  3. Establish your social media following NOW. I was so paranoid that someone more well-known or famous than me was going to steal my idea that I kept the idea about the book to myself until the very end. Then, once it was written and I was looking for publishers, I was told my 5,000 friends on Facebook was not enough — I need that kind of following EVERYWHERE. So, once I knew that, I scrambled to get 35,000 followers on Twitter, 25,000 Linked In Contacts, 13,000 followers on Instagram etc. However, I learned this after the fact. Had I known how important this component was, I could have established these numbers simultaneously while I was writing the book — instead of struggling afterwards.
  4. Additionally, it is very unlikely you will become rich and famous from your first novel. After I wrote the book, I had heard this, and my own experience confirms this, writing your first book does not make you a lot of money, BUT it often gives you credibility and authority which then opens the doors for opportunities. Since, only a very small percentage (1/2 of 1%) of authors can make a living as an author, so this exposure is a helpful benefit.
  5. You cannot necessarily depend on your friends and family for support — One of the biggest disappointments in this project for me was the lack of support from my friends, family, and social media followers. Throughout the course of the project, people were supportive when I announced I found a publisher or shared the book cover. However, when I needed people to actually buy the book or write a review (despite the people who had promised) many failed to follow up. I found this particular component extremely heartbreaking, and I took it personally, and I asked other authors about it on various author forums on Facebook only to find out that the reactions and lack of action from my family and friends is very typical and not to take it personally. People often over commit on things, and do not always follow through and this reflects humankind and not necessarily you or your work.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Never be afraid to try something new. Remember, amateurs built the ark. Professionals built the titanic. -Unknown.

I bought a plaque with motto after seeing an ad for it in a Skymall magazine several years ago. It hangs in my office above my computer where I see it every time, I log onto my computer and I saw these words every day in the months which led me to the decision on whether I could write this book. After all, I was an unknown author, and I wanted to write a book about two of the most powerful people in the world. I knew in my heart the story was worth telling, and the task ahead of me was convincing the world I was the one who could and should the story. When I doubted whether I were up to the task, I would look at this plaque to give me the motivation I needed.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Since my book is about the relationship of Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, I think it goes without saying that the two people in the world I would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with it would be them — ideally together. I admire both of them so much, and this book gave my life meaning and purpose, and I want to take the opportunity to tell them that, and thank them for all the years of service they provided to the world. Also, and most importantly, I would like them to answer my (and my reader’s) most pressing question: “Do you still have contact each other since you left office?” That is the question I am asked more frequently than anything else, and regretfully I do not have the answer to that. I would like to be able to ask them that, and also see if they would be willing to provide me some off the record insights that I could use to write an afterward in a second edition to Dear Barack.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Claudia Clark Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.