A survivor of sex trafficking and exploitation, Clarke devoted her life to advocating for the area’s most vulnerable women. In 2015, she founded Survivor Speak USA, an organization devoted to ending sex trafficking and exploitation by empowering survivors to create social and political change.
She also experienced homelessness and was a founding member of the Portland organization Homeless Voices for Justice. Clarke was also an artist and playwright who wrote a three-act play in development with Portland Ovations titled, “The Last Girl.”
Clarke, who was in hospice in Scarborough when she died, was remembered this week for her relentless, courageous, and inspiring pursuit for social justice. She served on two legislative committees aimed at vacating convictions of women for charges of prostitution and trafficking. Most recently, she led the charge to pass L.D. 1455, An Act to Support Survivors of Sex Trafficking and Exploitation. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills on June 21.
Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross broke down in tears Wednesday saying Clarke asked her to sponsor the bill.
“She didn’t just start a nonprofit. She wasn’t just a playwright. She didn’t just use her limited experience for testimony,” Talbot Ross said. “She wrote and helped write bills that are now chaptered law. This woman now has a legacy of being able to move the whole system to change people’s lives. She had a life of purpose.
“She went through horrors and trauma that no one should go through. She found purpose in her life. Now, there’s a legacy with her name on it. She left the world better. We are better people because Dee Clarke lived and fought and survived and gave and shared and loved. She was extraordinary because she went through such horrors, and she still had love in her heart to make someone else’s life better. She leaves us that legacy.
“We’re better people because this woman cared enough about our humanity. She never put herself first. She was an extraordinary, loving human being.”
Clarke grew up in the projects in Boston. Clarke was in and out of foster care and was sex trafficked at age 12, Talbot Ross said.
As a young mother, she experienced homelessness and lived in shelters while working several jobs and relying on food stamps.
Clarke was a survivor and rose above hardships to create a legacy of love and advocacy work for underserved women and people in the Portland area.
Cait Vaughan, chair of the board of directors for Survivor Speak USA, said Tuesday that Clarke was a hero to so many.
“She was a person who very powerfully put her love of survivors, of black and brown folks, of poor people into action. She did that more graciously and warmly than anyone I have ever met,” Vaughan said. “Part of what drew some folks to her was that she was authentically herself. No matter how much she achieved since she became a recovered person and advocate, she was always able to stay very grounded in who her people were and where she came from. She spoke to everyone directly from the heart.”
Donna Yellen, deputy director at Preble Street, said Wednesday that Clarke had a tremendous impact on people’s lives and did so with a smile on her face and love in her heart.
“She was a rabble-rouser,” Yellen said. “She would always get the crowd going at rallies and candidate forums. Because of her personal experience with homelessness, she made sure people who were homeless and struggling with mental illness or substance misuse still felt valued and that they were worth being heard by candidates running for office. She was brilliant at that.”
Mills said in an email Wednesday that Clarke was one of the most courageous people she had ever met.
“A survivor in every sense of the word. Outspoken, a fighter, an honest advocate, who spoke from the heart and from lived experience. We all need to keep listening to her. She was telling the truth” Mills said.
Assistant Attorney General Meg Elam, who first prosecuted human trafficking cases in Maine, said Clarke was dedicated to helping other survivors tell their stories.
“She set up a meeting with me, then unexpectedly brought three young women to my office to share their stories. She knew that I needed to hear them, and that they needed to be heard. By giving sex trafficking a human face, she pushed us all to do better,” Elam said in an email.
Clarke lived in Portland and was a loving mother of three children: Mei Li, Anastacia and Shoa Clarke.