When Felicia Clark first heard her friend and former MCTC classmate Kirk Washington Jr. had died she had to pull over her car. Clark was so shaken she couldn’t drive.
Washington, who graduated with Clark from the Community Development program in 2015 was a poet, artist and activist who was well known and admired in the North Minneapolis community.
“His funeral was … standing room only. Public officials, poets, artists, run-of-the-mill bum off the street, preachers, pastors – all sorts of people, all races of people, all kinds of cultures. He knew and loved everyone and everyone knew and loved him,” she said.
When her friends showed up to give her a ride Clark’s first thought, through her tears, was Washington’s widow Aster Nebro, and his two daughters Azela and Keah.
They picked up food at Costco on the way over to the Washington home. They wanted his family to know that they would be supported by the community that Washington had celebrated and defended with his art and activism.
When they arrived at the Washington home it was filled with people in shock at the sudden loss of this 41 year old husband, father and community leader. Nebro was collapsing in the arms of her friends and family “like a withered rag,” Clark recalls. “It was like every person who walked through the door represented kirk in some kind of way and she was trying to grab that energy.”
Minutes later Clark was standing in Washington’s kitchen mourning the loss of her friend and classmate when her phone started ringing and ringing. Clark tried to ignore the phone but something about the persistence of the caller gave her feeling that it was urgent. She finally answered the phone to hear her niece’s voice -“I was on Facebook, and I’m sorry to hear about your friend, but did you know that Aunty Nan was driving the car that hit him?”
Everything stopped. All of the air left her body and her phone dropped to the floor, she remembered.
Her estranged sister, Nancy Scott, who she had not seen in 15 years, was driving from Chicago when she came around a curve aimed right at the sun. She put down her sun visor, and when she lifted it up, it all went black.
“She woke up to screaming,” said Clark. “She said ‘call my Mama, call my Mama.'” Nancy was transported to HCMC by ambulance where she was rushed into surgery to fight for her life.
Scott is still learning how to walk again, and will use a colostomy bag for the rest of her life, said Clark.
Clark’s face is partially paralyzed with Bell’s palsy, which she attributes to losing her friend, and having a sister fight with death.
Ed Kirwin, the Assistant to the Executive Director of the Foundation, spoke about Clark’s role in the scholarship.
Clark was initially hired a month before the accident by Andrea Nelson, the College Advancement Officer, who she met through her work with the Green Dot program. Green Dot is a program designed to protect people from sexual violence and harassment.
Clark was hired to help with the Foundation’s fundraising event for the, Power of Giving, said Kirwin.
When that ended, Kirwin said “My boss (Mike Christianson) hired her [on] a separate contract to work with the AME (African American Education Empowerment Program) group and Jay Williams,” where she gave campus tours to prospective donors.
“I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t function really,” said Clark, “I asked God what I should be doing”
“Mike Christianson gave me the answer … before we even got to losing Kirk.” said Clark. Christianson, the Executive Director of the MCTC Foundation, asked that a scholarship be established for students from North Minneapolis during Clark’s first week working for the Foundation.
Harry Davis Jr., the President of the Foundation and a black man asked, “Why is it that people who look like me don’t graduate from this college?” at their initial meeting, said Clark. “Why is the graduation rate for black people so low?” she said.
Clark responded with her own experience as a black woman at college, someone who received a Random Act of Kindness (a one time gift of five-hundred dollars) from the Foundation. She ran out of money two classes from graduating. “The president of the college had to make a way for me to graduate,” she said.
“If it were not for that relationship with Avelino Mills-Novoa (interim president of MCTC) I would not have graduated from this college.”
Just ten days after his death, at his celebration of life, it hit Clark. “I was at Kirk’s memorial service and on his program they had a list of outcomes they wanted, things they wanted to try to do to honor Kirk; and I said, ‘the promise scholarship!’ we’re gonna put Kirks name on that.”
From the ashes of unimaginable tragedy the Kirk E. Washington Jr. Northside Promise Scholarship was born. “Everything that had happened in my life came down to this moment,” said Clark. “I could not for the life of me understand how this man could come into my life and I could be connected to his death.”
The scholarship was voted on and “whole-heartedly and unanimously approved,” said Clark.
She then took to the streets of North Minneapolis and tabled at Northside Health and Wellness, Cub Foods, as well as just grabbing a bullhorn from Curt Schmidt in public safety “‘Go ahead Felicia, we know you and that bullhorn,'” she said, quoting Schmidt, and marching through the streets in various events.
“We’re saving lives through education at MCTC!” Clark said she shouted. “You don’t have to pick up a gun, pick up a book!”
The MCTC Foundation asked Clark to have twenty Promise Scholarship students prepared for school by July.
Kingdemetrius Pendleton and Byron Luff, like the rest of the twenty Promise Scholars, are receiving two years of college at no cost to them.
Pendleton described Washington with the same admiration and respect as Clark, recalling him as a figure who everybody on the Northside knew and loved.
“I hadn’t been to school in 28 years,” said Pendleton. He credits his return to college to Clark “what she said grabbed my attention; my daughter was killed by a drunk driver in 2013.”
Pendleton can pin the moment he was convinced to go back to school was when he heard Clark say “when I was young I went to school because the lights were on. I went to school because I was hungry. I went to school because there was heat in there. I went to school to get out of the way of some of the dysfunctional things that were going on in my house.”
He said now she came back to school to break the chain of dysfunction and start on a new path for herself and her community.
“Some of us can’t study at home,” Pendleton pointed out, “because the environment is so toxic.”
Clark approached Luff in Student Services, where he went when he couldn’t get help over the phone. “At first I thought ‘okay this is maybe going to be a one time scholarship of maybe one-thousand, five-thousand’ but when she said I would be eligible for a full tuition scholarship I was like ‘this is amazing.'”
Today, the scholars still have some concerns. “I don’t understand how a person can come in the community, gather people, get them to come to college, and after [their] contract is over, you sweep them under the rug and don’t hire them again,” said Pendleton.
Clark’s contract ran out on September 2. She is effectively working as a volunteer and is no longer being paid, despite her persistent support of the scholarship recipients
Kirwin said “My boss Mike (Christianson) really liked her. There was a number of different things including some initiatives we were working on in Cedar-Riverside and in the Northside that he specifically wanted her for, but he left.” Christianson was the person who would have given Clark another contract to sign, but he is working for Hennepin County now.
Sharon Pierce, the president of MCTC, is his current supervisor at the Foundation. Kirwin says they will “be underway with a search very shortly for a new Executive Director of the Foundation, but for now, Sharon is the supervisor.”
Fingers are also being crossed that the Board of Directors reevaluates and approves the Kirk E. Washington Jr. Northside Promise Scholarship for next year, which they do for all scholarships at MCTC. “We need to determine the success rate, are they graduating, are they completing their courses, are they passing their courses,” said Kirwin.
Pendleton said about Clark, “No one else is standing in solidarity with us. We feel like fish out the water.”