Happy-ever-after storybook endings don’t always happen.
But Lisa Clarke now knows that’s okay.
Clarke, community engagement and project manager at Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre, (KSAC), was recently named as one of Peterborough’s 20 most influential people in 2017 for her work as an advocate for sexual assault victims and people of all genders in the Nogojiwanong/Peterborough, Ontario, area.
She’s responsible for engaging the community in conversations about sexual consent and healthy relationships. She works with students and adults to talk about prevention of violence and how to support people who have been sexually harmed.
But the journey to this job she loves has not been easy.
Unfortunately – or perhaps, in an ironic way, fortunately — Clarke has walked the walk of many of people served by KSAC. It’s something that has helped build trust in her conversations with survivors and LGBTQ youth.
Clarke, who grew up in Ajax and Toronto, has an Honours Bachelor of Arts in English and German from the University of Toronto and a post-graduate diploma in publishing. At present, she is working towards a Master’s degree in adult education.
She moved to Nogojiwanong/Peterborough 17 years ago when her husband got a job in the city, and where they wanted to raise a family. They had two sons, now aged 14 and 10.
“I subscribed, at the time, to the notion of the perfect life, perfect wife, motherhood, and career,” said Clarke, in an interview.
But as both a child and adult, she had experienced sexual trauma.
And five years ago, at the age of 36, Clarke “came out of the closet” — and she found herself no longer the perfect wife, the perfect mother and perfect employee, she said.
“I had to learn first-hand about loss and healing and resilience.”
It led to divorce. It led to her parents not speaking to her for a time. It changed how she mothered, how she was a friend and who were her “community”. It changed the trajectory of her career.
“It changed it all for the better for my own self-worth and self-growth,” said Clarke. “But I had to learn first-hand about loss and healing and resilience. All of those pieces together are the reasons why I am so passionate about the work I do.”
“I was lucky to find a position to be an advocate and use my story to help other people seek support,” she continued. “Being able to talk to people about that as a peer, as well as an educator, is such a privilege and responsibility. I had to find a safe place to land when I came out, and this was a place where I could be myself and do good work.”
She has previously worked at Trinity College School in Port Hope, Lakefield College School, Community Living Peterborough, PARN and COIN. She said it was at Community Living she started to do community development work and realised her passion for it.
Her sexual identity was something she had questioned since her teen years, but only at age 36 was she able to openly express it.
“Twenty-five years ago, growing up in Toronto there wasn’t access to the support and resources I needed. There weren’t people who looked like me, acted like me, even though I tried to find them,” Clarke said.
“My belief is that it’s in the relationships, by seeing people you relate to that you start your healing. As a white woman doing this work in the community, I realise there’s still a lot to change and grow in the services that everyone needs.”
“The majority of my work right now involves training with the police services. I’m also working on an upcoming Ontario Arts Council project that will promote healing within the community affected by MMIWG (Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Children).“
The KSAC team is getting ready for back-to-school and orientations at Trent University and Fleming College, and overseeing continued conversations about the television show ’13 Reasons Why’, she said. It’s also planning its participation in Peterborough’s Pride Week (Sept. 15 to 24) , and then the annual four-county Take Back the Night event Sept. 21.
In July, Clarke spent two weeks traveling through Germany — which she describes as a “healing” trip — with her sons and parents “to follow the paths of my parents’ journey as refugees to Canada after the Second World War.”
“It was profound to take my sons where their grand-parents were born and raised and to hear stories of war from their relatives first hand. They learned an alternate perspective on history by seeing the evidence of war — bullet holes still on the buildings’ walls in Berlin and Checkpoint Charlie as a memorial of Communist life.”
Clarke’s Jewish great-grandmother was a prisoner at the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp during the war where medical tests were performed on her by the Germans. She hid in a latrine to escape the final firing squads as the Soviets were liberating the camp. She survived and testified at the Nuremberg trials.
“It was really important for me to show my sons that. It think it’s so important in this age . . . to re-connect with culture and relationships and to better understand and appreciate your family’s history in world history and your responsibility to ensure that genocide and large-scale war never happen again.”
In fact, the best way to change the world, she says, is to have conversations — even the difficult ones, when people are ready.
Right now Clarke is enjoying the writing of Brené Brown, an American researcher and writer, and Pema Chrodron, an American Tibetan Buddist.
She said she has volunteered with a number of local organizations over the years, but her newest venture is her “favourite thing”. She’s the instructor of the Queen Mary School band, of which her younger son is a member. She also plays piano and flute.
“It’s one of the most rewarding and difficult tasks I’ve ever taken on, trying to figure out how to be a music teacher and to motivate young people to love music the way I do.”
Both her mother and step-mother, as well as her former partner and “a few strong women friends”, have helped her become who she is as a human being and challenged her to be a better person, she said.
“When people don’t challenge you and always say you’re perfect and you’re right, you never learn to grow.”
And what would she tell her younger self — the one who wanted everything to be “perfect”, but realised she had to live life her own way?
“You are worth it.”
By Melodie McCullough