Clarissa Harris’s idea of Black excellence was formed at her mother’s knees.
Profile by Asheville in Black –
Born and reared in Durham, NC, Clarissa has been a resident of Asheville since 2015. Her partner at the time was moving to Asheville to complete his masters at UNCA, she says, “…so it seemed only fair to return the favor since he had moved to Durham for me.” Clarissa had completed her masters at Duke University.
Racial justice work has always been a part Clarissa’s life. Her mother’s family was intimately involved in the Civil Rights movement, and her mother was involved in the Black Liberation and Black Power movements. An academic, writer, and educator, her mother raised Clarissa and her sister to know their purpose in the world: wherever her daughters landed, they were to work with and stand by Black people, and seek out the movement and its manifestation. Her mother’s path was to distinguish between profession and calling. She said to Clarissa, “Your calling is your gift…and your gift will always make room for you if you do not stray from it.”
As an undergrad at Hollins University, Clarissa wrote these powerful words to her White classmates, “You will not deter me. I shall return here again another day and another after that. But one day you will look for me and I will not have come by. For you failed to realize that it was not that I needed your ‘yes’ … it was merely that I was giving an invitation for you to come with me.”
She wrote this while trying to figure out how to lovingly explain to them that the Civil Rights Movement was not fought over “friendship” and the “ability to live peacefully amongst each other”… it was fought for access … and this was after the realization that White folk wouldn’t allow even partial access unless Black people adopted their framework and their terms.
Clarissa’s world is that of blacademia; her profession and calling is teaching; racial justice work is her passion and commitment. When she landed in Asheville she sought out her profession and her calling. She taught at Rainbow Community School for two years before accepting the position of Director of the Wilson Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (WIDE) office at Warren Wilson College. Her calling, racial justice work, came through the Center for Participatory Change. There she found mentors, a community, and a better understanding of Asheville’s racial dynamics.
“If folk were to ask me what I see my role as in Asheville’s racial justice work, I would humbly and gratefully tell them that my role is to live in the in-between spaces. My work is in creating relationships and connecting and creating community. So much of our work is done in silos that prevent us from openly communicating across lines of difference. Angela Davis said, ‘Walls are just bridges when turned sideways,’ Some folk when they look at Asheville see lots of shut doors and high walls…I see lots of opportunities to make access through those repurposed doors and walls.”
Because of the rich and beautiful relationships she’s developed, along with all the great work she’s doing in Asheville, Clarissa has come to love it here and is grateful to call it home. She readily acknowledges that Asheville is not an easy place for a young black-bodied woman to navigate a lot of the time; sometimes it’s been a “trial by fire.” Her experience here has helped craft her into the educator and activist she is today. She is hopeful for Asheville that when access is given to everyone, and power-mongering ceases, it will be a place where all can thrive equitably.
From Beloved Asheville, we invite you: Y’all join us, right now, in giving Clarissa some Asheville in BLACK love!
Asheville in Black’s purpose is to center Blackness as we build relationships and connect and resource the community. These Black Excellence stories shed light on the excellent work and leadership of Black people from every walk of life in Asheville and beyond, and how these amazing people “show up” in community.