How Erika Clark Jones is using inspiration from her mother to inspire others

Erika Clark Jones’ power to make change springs from her trailblazing mother and a deeply personal quest to help others.

Steve Wartenberg
For Columbus CEO
Erika Clark Jones, CEO of Alcohol Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County

To understand the passion and determination of Erika Clark Jones to bring people together and get things done, it’s essential to learn about her mother, Dannette “Danni” Palmore, who passed away on Jan. 15. “She was this amazing person,” says Clark Jones, the CEO of Franklin County’s Alcohol Drug and Mental Health Board (ADAMH).

Danni Palmore was a trailblazer, a political strategist who got her start in the 1970s, an era when Black women began to break through into national political discussions and campaigns. Palmore worked in some capacity with, for, and as adviser to a long list of Ohio political heavyweights, including former Gov. Richard Celeste and Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman. Palmore was the deputy national director of Jesse Jackson’s historic run for president in 1988, and then worked for Paul Tsongas four years later in the Democratic primary the Massachusetts politician lost to Bill Clinton.

“I knew Danni for 40 years, she was one of my closest friends,” says Coleman. “She was involved in most of my campaigns over the years.”

Most?

“Actually, all of them,” Coleman says with a chuckle. “She was one of my closest confidantes for all my years [in politics]… I’ve known Erika since she was 10 or 11.”

Clark Jones calls her mother a “force for good. She thought there was value in bringing elected officials and the people they serve together, making sure the people we consider underrepresented or marginalized had a seat at the table.”

These words, this description of the purpose of public service and government, the “seat at the table” analogy, are key to understanding the legacy of Palmore and now, the growing influence and leadership of her daughter. The two are similar, fighting the same battles for the same underrepresented populations, with one major difference. “I’m more humble than my mom,” Clark Jones says, adding the times dictated Palmore be more vocal and out front in the midst of the ongoing fight for civil rights and the inclusion of women. “I saw her on the front lines, fighting to be heard and to be seen, she had to fight, fight, fight for everything. My thing is, once we get everyone to the table, how can we be more effective, how can we implement change?”

The family tree

Danni Palmore wasn’t the only influence on Clark Jones, who says “public service isn’t new in my family, it’s on both sides, and I’m proud of that.” Her father, Glenn Clark, who lives in Las Vegas, was the first African American comptroller at St. Anthony’s Hospital (now Ohio State University East Hospital). Clark Jones also has a grandfather who helped integrate the public swimming pools in Lorain County; other relatives who worked at the Defense Supply Center Columbus.

And yet, it was Palmore’s political connections, influence and impact that seem to have motivated Clark Jones toward a career in public service. “She was always off somewhere, especially when she was working on the campaigns of Jesse Jackson and Paul Tsongas,” Clark says. During her daughter’s senior year at Eastmoor High School (now Eastmoor Academy), Palmore helped run Jackson’s presidential bid and spent most of her time in Chicago or on the road. A rotating circle of relatives stayed at the family house with Clark Jones and her younger brother, Seth, who is now an investment banker in Florida.

“She said, I need you guys to stay focused and take care of each other,” Clark Jones recalls. “She told us to take care of first things first, to treat people with dignity and respect, and that everyone has value.”

Into public service

Clark Jones got involved in political campaigns while still in high school, working—of course—on Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign, registering voters in South Central Los Angeles. She was part of Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste’s ambitious Participation 2000 program that trained the next generation of campaign workers. In 1990, the program sent Clark Jones to Texas to register voters, recruit county coordinators and work for the campaign of Nikki Van Hightower, who lost in her bid for state treasurer.

“The discrimination and voter intimidation were eye opening,” Clark Jones says, adding that “a couple of times, in east Texas, we saw burning crosses along the freeway.” She believes this racist message was intended for the members of her “caravan” of campaign workers driving down the highway, who refused to be intimidated. “I felt I was rolling with angels, doing what’s right and moral, and we kept right on going.”

Clark Jones studied political science at Northwestern University from 1989 to 1991. After, she put her academic and professional careers on hold during her first marriage and the birth of her two children. She spent a few years living in New York City before returning home, enrolling at Capital University and jumping back into politics and public service.

The Coleman years

Palmore and Clark Jones helped Coleman become Columbus’ first African American mayor. After he won the 1999 election, Clark Jones became a permanent and increasingly important fixture in his administration. She initially worked on constituent issues, then neighborhood issues, and led the city’s Office of Homeless and Social Service Advocacy.

“I gave her more and more challenging assignments over the years, and she excelled in every one of them,” Coleman says. “She got stuff done.”

One of the biggest things Clark Jones helped get done was the Reeb Avenue Center, a $12.5 million project, dubbed a “hub of hope” on the city’s South Side. The center opened in 2015 and works in collaboration with several nonprofit organizations to provide a wide range of services to South Side families.

“After the settlement house closed down [in 2011], Mayor Coleman said to me, ‘Erika go and bring together all the different interests, public and private, faith-based, everyone, and let’s rethink the notion of quality of life on the South Side and bring all these assets together and get this done,’ ” Clark Jones says.

Once everyone got together, and with the support of long-time South Side families the Cranes and Grotes, it was decided to convert the long-empty Reeb Elementary School into a community center. “We could not have done it without her,” Coleman says of Clark Jones. “She took it and ran with it and became the focal point of the Reeb Center.”

CelebrateOne

Mayor Andrew Ginther named Clark Jones executive director of CelebrateOne in 2017. Under her leadership, the African American infant mortality rate in certain local ZIP codes dropped by 23 percent, and Ginther calls her “a passionate advocate for the most vulnerable populations in Columbus.”

This was the first time Clark Jones led a department and had a staff. “Well, when I started, I only had half a staff person,” she says, adding it grew to 42 by the time she left.

CelebrateOne worked with about a dozen local agencies and was awarded a $4.5 million state grant to address “the disparity in successful birth outcomes experienced by African American women in Franklin County.”

Clark Jones quickly saw a link between her work with the homeless at the Reeb Center and the women she and her CelebrateOne team served. “It’s the convergence of social determinants,” she says. “They impact everything from an individual’s housing status to infant mortality, where you’ve got the lived experience and trauma from racism. You’ve also got economics in play and impacting the health of these moms and the outcome of their babies, and [I learned] how so many different systems have to all work together to be able to shore her up.”

Dr. Mysheika Roberts calls Clark Jones a “true servant leader.” And by this, the Columbus health commissioner means she is “someone who isn’t there for the title or the prestige, but rolls up her sleeves and gets to work and recognizes they’re there for the people.”

Roberts knew Danni Palmore and sees a lot of her in her daughter. “I see the same energy and spunk and willingness to help everyone. The apple did not fall far from the tree, and I think Erika will do tremendous things for our community going forward.”

The next step

A determination to identify, address and reduce the social determinants in what she calls “the behavioral health space” led Clark Jones to accept the task of leading ADAMH in January 2020. The county organization, she says, was well managed “for the last two or three decades, but did things alone, in a silo, and not in as much collaboration with other systems. That’s what brought me here, to take a signature organization and merge and partner with other collaborators and expand the impact.”

Clark Jones began the job with a long to-do list. It included: An assessment of the effectiveness of the community-based grants ADAMH awards to approximately 30 county organizations; implementing a needs-assessment survey that will help guide the development of a five-year strategic plan; and the passage of the Issue 24 tax levy in November 2020 that would renew and increase the organization’s five-year funding stream. A “no” vote would be a disaster. And then, two months into the job, the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in full force and “intensified the opioid epidemic and mental-health disorders,” Clark Jones says.

The tax levy passed, with just over 70 percent of Franklin County voters ticking the yes box. The additional funds from the increased levy will fund a $10 million crisis center that is at the heart of ADAMH’s goal of reducing the number of emergency room visits for overdoses, creating “stronger and better linkages to community-based care for outpatient treatment and ongoing counseling after a person presents with an episode,” Clark Jones says.

ADAMH owns a parcel of land in Franklinton that Clark Jones said is suitable for the new crisis center. Construction could start by the end of the year.

“She’s going to take ADAMH to new heights,” the proud Coleman says of his mentee. “She’ll think outside the box and put ADAMH in a position to serve the public in some new, dynamic way.” Coleman adds that he believes Clark Jones will continue to be a leader and advocate. “She learned from the best and witnessed history with her mother, and now she is so gifted. Whether it’s in the public sector or the private sector, I see her as a leader.”

Passing on the lessons

Clark Jones married Mark Jones, an underground network engineer who works for the city’s Department of Public Utilities, in 2004. Together, they have a blended family of five children, who range in age from 15 to 26. And now, like her mother before her, it’s Clark Jones’s turn to pass on some wisdom.

“What I see in my kids is they’re super inclusive, and I love that about them,” she says. “And, I have some leaders in my crew and it’s nice to see that, too. I’m a little more humble in my approach, so I think maybe they got that from my mom … and she thought that, too!”

One of the potential leaders is her son, Elyas Ingram, 25, a contract manager for the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services.

“The other night he came to me and said he was thinking of getting a public policy degree and who should he talk to about it, should he talk to Michael Coleman,” Clark Jones says. “I said, you’re missing a resource right here, you can always talk to me. But he said he wants to talk to Michael Coleman … He said he wants to make an impact and a difference, and I think we’ve been able to plant the seed that service is what we give, the price for our rent here on Earth.”

Q&A

Soon after you were named executive director of ADAMH, the pandemic hit. How did that impact ADAMH? It was six or seven weeks after I started, and it intensified the opioid epidemic and mental-health disorders. The first thing we had to do was open the lines of communication with all the agencies we work with. I think some of our agencies [ADAMH provides grants to 33 local organizations], the larger ones, felt like they had better access to us and some of the smaller ones, unless something was urgent, didn’t think they could reach out to us. We said, we want to know what everyone is going through and what you need from us to do your jobs better. What adjustments and tweaks do we have to make? How can we help?

The pandemic helped further expose some of the racial inequities that you’ve been dealing with in your career. How can the city and county move forward faster? Here at ADAMH, we did adopt a resolution in June declaring racism a public health crisis, because it is. We have to have the courage to practice and model anti-racist policies, ones that don’t discriminate against anybody and level the playing field for everyone and are rooted in equity. So that others feel courageous to address these issues, and there’s pressure to come into the fold.

What would be an example of this type of modeling? One of the first opportunities is with the city and the public safety department. The death of George Floyd and the social unrest we saw this summer brought to light the disparate treatment for some individuals when they encounter law enforcement and for folks who have behavioral challenges. Our challenge is, how do we establish protocols that bestow dignity on the individual and that doesn’t bring unnecessary force to a situation?

Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.

Erika Clark Jones

CEO

Alcohol Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County

Age: 50

In position since: January 2020

Previous: Executive director of CelebrateOne (2017-20); director of community strategies, Columbus Public Health (2015–17), deputy director, Columbus Community Relations Commission (2012–15); director, Columbus Office of Homeless and Social Service Advocacy (2008–12); director of policy/senior policy advisor (2002–08), city of Columbus

Education: Bachelor’s degree, public policy, Capital University, 2012; currently enrolled in master’s degree program in public policy and administration, Northwestern University.

Resides: New Albany

Family: Clark Jones and her husband Mark Jones have a blended family of five: Mark Jones Jr., 26; Elyas Ingram, 25; Celina Jones, 22; Redd Ingram, 21; and Jackson Jones, 15.