Dawn Wilson-Clark, who is 47 years old, was clowning around one day (quite literally — she works as a professional clown) in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood when she passed a for sale sign at a house that caught her eye. When she decided to buy the house and move her five children into it everyone she knew thought she was crazy.
“Brightmoor was the hood — like hood hood,” she explained. But Dawn was determined to make a home for herself in the house and neighborhood. “All I saw was a brand new house, nice neighbors, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
10 years later, Dawn is still there — and clearly saw something in Brightmoor that put her ahead of the curve. Soon after she moved to the neighborhood, The Skillman Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving the future of Detroit’s children and families, selected Brightmoor as a priority area and began to heavily invest in it.
Skillman’s arrival would also mark the beginning of Dawn’s development as a recognized leader in her community. When the Foundation began advertising neighborhood meetings to gather community input and discuss their plan for investing in the community, Dawn decided to attend. “I had no idea what a grant was or how that worked,” Dawn laughed. “But I learned that they were giving out small grants to organizations that were doing things to help kids.”
As a mother of five whose profession is to bring joy to children as her alter ego — Kuddles the Clown — the mission of Skillman spoke to her on a visceral level. Intrigued, she wanted to know more about the group’s work, so she began to volunteer. “I started learning about all this community work happening that I didn’t know about before,” she said.
It didn’t take long for others to begin recognizing her leadership potential. Soon after volunteering with Skillman, she was recruited to serve on the board of the community-based organization, the Brightmoor Alliance. Later, she began working as a lead organizer and researcher for the grassroots education group, 482Forward.
There, she learned of the Community Leadership Program at Henry Ford College from the group’s Executive Director. “I’d been doing a lot of community work by the time I enrolled in the program,” she said. “But I didn’t have a degree, and wanted to get some more training.”
Dawn, who is currently in her third semester, said she didn’t know what studying “community change” meant at first. “I’d been doing this work already so it seemed to me like community change is something you do, not go to school for.”
She quickly learned, however, that CLP-affiliated programs are not typical of many other areas of study. “Each day is different,” she said. “The classes introduce new concepts, and new ways of looking at things.”
In her first semester, she enrolled in Professor Robert Yarhmatter’s “Introduction to Community Leadership” course. Though she had already been working as an organizer, she said the course “opened her eyes” to new skills — like different ways to move different types of people to take action. “I have three teams of people I work with in my jobs,” she explained. “They’re all so different, but I’d been approaching them all in the same way — you need to recognize what is going to move one person to do something isn’t going to work on someone else.”
She also took a field trip as part of her coursework to hear Ruby Bridges speak, who at the age of six became the first African American student to integrate an elementary school in the South. “Having the opportunity to listen to her was so incredible,” Dawn said. “I realized it could have been one of my aunties up there talking, who went through the same stuff. What she went through wasn’t all that long ago.”
As for what’s next for Dawn, the dedicated children’s champion unsurprisingly already has her eyes set on helping groom the next generation of community leaders. “I want to help train people who think they don’t have a voice, to be a liaison between where they are now and being leaders in our communities,” she said. For her, that means continuing her role as a community organizer in education policy.
Though she’s juggling multiple jobs and leaderships roles at this point, Dawn also still plans to keep clowning around Detroit. “It’s something I just kind of stumbled into after my aunt needed a clown for a cousin’s birthday party,” she explained of her side gig. “I’m not going to give it up — I just love making kids smile.”