At 80 years old, Frances “Bitsie” Clark stands just five feet tall. But as a recently retired alderwoman and current executive director of a New Haven nonprofit, Clark continues to make her mark on the city with energy that has not faded.
“Bitsie turned 80 in October, but she might as well have just turned 30,” said Maryann Ott, current director of New Alliance Foundation, an organization that provides financial support to charitable community groups, and a former colleague of Clark’s at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, which Clark used to head. “She has a joie de vivre that is unparalleled for most people, let alone an octogenarian.”
A mother of two children, Clark — called “Bitsie” by all who know her — came to New Haven in the 1950s and embarked on decades of civic activism. Though she retired in January from her post representing downtown New Haven as the alderwoman for Ward 7, a position she held for eight years, friends and colleagues say she has not lost steam and describe her as “a force of nature” and “a city legacy.” Her retirement from the board was intended to clear her schedule to focus on her role as the executive director of East Rock Village, a local nonprofit that provides health and living services that allow the elderly to retire in their own homes.
Clark’s departure came at a historic time for the board: 19 of the 30 current aldermen are serving their first terms.
With such a large group of freshmen lawmakers taking the reins, Clark — who served as chair of the youth services committee and vice-chair of the finance committee — said the new Board of Aldermen is set to be “the greatest show on Earth,” as new political debates continue to unfold in the city over the next two years.
“I think the Board goes through these big changes every six to eight years where you have a lot of people motivated to run because they have different ideas — there will be some that will be great and some that won’t be so great,” Bitsie said. “It’s going to be fun and it’s going to be interesting.”
While Benton and three current aldermen interviewed said the board was equipped to handle the legislative challenges ahead, all said the board had lost a special character. With a talent for facilitating compromise and galvanizing the interests of those with whom she works, they said, Clark is a figure that cannot easily be replaced.
During her tenure on the Board of Aldermen, Clark found success by maintaining a sense of humor and striving for compromise rather than conflict, Ott said.
Clark cited the debate about instituting a youth curfew in the city in 2004 and 2005 as a time early in her aldermanic career when she felt this optimistic attitude was particularly useful. While many voices on the board called for immediate curfews following a spike in adolescent crime, Clark urged greater dialogue with city youth and organized two hearings with both students and adult community members to discuss the potential curfews, which were unpopular with adolescents.
“The kids were articulate, smart and thoughtful — instead of being aliens to the conversation, the kids became involved,” Clark said. “By the time we held the public hearing, the curfew lost popularity and a street outreach program grew in favor instead.”
As she continued to serve as chair of the youth services committee, Clark came to be known as “a great facilitator of the youth,” said current Ward 16 Alderwoman Migdalia Castro, who worked as an artist when Clark served on the Arts Council and later collaborated with her as a colleague on the Board of Aldermen.
Clark said she fostered her leadership skills prior to becoming involved in politics with her experiences in community outreach. After graduating from Vassar College with a degree in political science in 1956, Clark moved to New Haven to work for the Girl Scouts of America. It was there, she said, that she learned how to recruit, train and direct volunteers, skills she used for the rest of her life. After 10 years, Clark left her job at the Girl Scouts of America for a new position as executive director of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. At the time, Clark said, the Arts Council was looking for new leadership with experience in community organizing.
“I didn’t know anything about art but I was hired because the Arts Council was looking for someone that had been a volunteer and led an organization,” Clark said. “They wanted a new building and didn’t know how to handle the city, so they hired a community organizer who could help bring people together.”
Clark served for 19 years as Council’s executive director of the Arts Council, helping to fundraise at community events, creating dance and theater groups, and supporting emerging artists by attending gallery openings.
Ott, who worked at the Council during Clark’s tenure, said that Clark’s ability to be a “bridgemaker” who brings different sides together to compromise has been one of her greatest strengths through her career of community activism. Ott added that one of the most significant projects the two worked on togeter was organizing a New England “Artists’ Congress” in 1999 that brought together New England artists and — through workshops, performances and “learning labs” — aimed to prepare them to make a living.
Ott added that she feels the atmosphere of the Board of Aldermen has grown more combative over recent years, with aldermen becoming “more polarized and more self-interested” on difficult issues.
“The Board of Aldermen has lost someone who was instrumental in holding it together and being a glue,” Ott said. “There may be others who can rise to the occasion and play that role, but Bitsie by that very nature was that every day.”
IN BITSIE’S ABSENCE
Ott said that while working for the Arts Council, Clark harbored an “amazingly productive energy and passion” for what she was doing. She added that Clark would rise at 5:30 a.m. every day to write grants and letters before arriving to the office around 8 a.m. Throughout the day, Ott said, Clark would take phone calls, meet face-to-face with artists, communicate with board members and manage volunteers. In the evenings, she frequently attended art-related events until 9 or 10 p.m., “never tiring or getting bored,” Ott said.
Ott and Castro said Clark’s unending energy and positivity are what helped her succeed in her role as alderwoman.
City Hall spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton ’04 said that while Clark was a “tremendous asset” to the Board, her close relationships with other aldermen and her successor in Ward 7, Doug Hausladen ’04, ensured that the Board did not lose all her institutional knowledge when she stepped down.
“One thing she was very careful to do was to very actively groom people to fill the role when she decided not to run for re-election,” Benton said.
In her absence, Clark said, the new Board will have to adjudicate entrenched conflicts such as those that persist over the city’s high-priced employee pensions and healthcare costs.
Many freshman aldermen have close ties to politically active labor unions that funneled resources into their campaigns last fall. As the process of drafting the city’s budget for the next fiscal year kicks into full gear, Bitsie said the unions’ agenda could run counter to “what it takes to run the city.”
Bitsie said City Hall and the unions agree on many issues, but New Haven’s budget is “where the rubber hits the road.”
“The mayor’s job is to figure out how to collect the necessary taxes to fund city services, but the Board’s job is to get the most services at the lowest tax rate for constituents,” Bitsie said. “There will be some [freshman aldermen] who will be very wedded to the unions’ point of view and others who say, ‘If we are going to be firing teachers and closing schools and community centers, I can’t vote for that budget.’ ”
Still, Clark said it is unclear what direction the Board will take in coming years, particularly when it comes to budgeting. But as Castro said of Clark, “I’m very happy we were able to share a lot of hard work together. She is someone who we can talk to and debate.”
In March 2011, Clark signed on as executive director of East Rock Village, a role in which Clark manages a network of volunteers to provide seniors with transportation, group lectures, musical entertainment and social companionship.