Being president of the Junior League of Nashville (JLN) was never a thought that crossed Krystal Clark’s mind.
Presidents were older and wiser with a tad bit more experience, Clark thought. Besides, she had been a member of this particular branch for only six years.
Ambitious and naturally curious, Clark stood out. And now, at 34 years old, Clark has the distinct honor of becoming the first African-American president of the Junior League of Nashville in the organization’s 96-year history, and one of the youngest too.
“It’s been pretty rewarding,” Clark said of her new position. “I get a little emotional sometimes thinking about all the good that’s coming out of the organization.”
Although news stories of Clark’s appointment were published in September, Clark and the JLN committee have been preparing for the official announcement since 2015. Clark spent half of that year as president-elect-elect, president-elect in 2016 and president for the 2017-18 year.
“[The presidency] didn’t hit me until November of my president-elect year, because that’s when I found out who was going to be on my board,” Clark said. “That’s when I thought, I need to get my life in order. I needed to get my energy together and solidify my vision. Before that, you’re training and learning things that you don’t know about the organization. But that November, it hit me that people who are on my board are now going to be looking at me for leadership.”
There were still things to figure out, but Clark had already begun to prepare for her exciting new role. Taking risks and chances on things that matter most to her wasn’t new, and becoming president would be no different.
Clark, who is originally from Portsmouth, Virginia, made her first big move once she accepted a job offer to work as a program coordinator for fraternity and sorority life at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Clark didn’t really know too much about the area, and she had no friends or family there. But this was an opportunity worth traveling for, and Clark accepted the challenge.
While in Durham, Clark was introduced to the Junior League after a league member named Kelly invited Clark and a group of young professionals out to lunch. Kelly believed the Junior League would be a great fit for the group and could help them navigate the world around them with the help of experienced women who would be there to lend support.
Since 1901, The Association of Junior Leagues International Inc. has dedicated its platform to helping women around the globe through volunteerism and improvement of communities. Some issues that remain a primary focus for the organization include pollution, illiteracy, domestic violence and fostering children without a safety net, according to its website. With the organization’s core values and mission in mind, Clark was sold.
Shortly after the meeting, Clark and a friend joined the Junior League. At first, Clark said, she and her friend naturally stuck together since they’d already known each other. But as the two began to meet other women in the organization, more friendships blossomed.
“Most of us joined because we wanted to meet people, so being able to be social with each other and do community service with each other, I started bonding,” Clark said.
Through the league’s events and community service initiatives, Clark also began to learn more about Durham and the environment around her. It was refreshing, given that Clark had not known much about the area nor anyone who lived there when she arrived after earning a master’s degree in college personnel from the University of Maryland.
After working at Duke for four years, the more confident Clark was ready for change. During the search for her next career move, Clark was offered a position as associate director of Greek life at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
“My career is important to me, and I’m a pretty ambitious human,” Clark said. “I’d never been to Tennessee, and I didn’t know anyone once again, but I also knew Vanderbilt was a really good school and the interview was really fun, so I took a chance and went. I actually do love country music too, so I figured I’d go and see what happens.”
Clark said her goodbyes to her Junior League sisters in North Carolina and began her journey to Tennessee. As with North Carolina, Clark was starting anew. There were no friends or family members to greet her in Nashville, but transferring membership and familiarizing herself with her new Junior League family is something Clark looked forward to.
Clark spent time meeting the members, both newcomers and veterans, and getting acquainted with Nashville. Although Clark enjoyed her work and time volunteering with the group, she’d never thought about taking on a larger role in the organization.
“When I get involved in something, I commit to it,” Clark said. “I certainly wanted to play a role in the organization, but I didn’t think I would be president. I thought I needed to be older to be president, and I thought that I needed to be in the organization longer to be president. I guess it didn’t cross my mind when I first started.”
What stood out to other women in the organization was Clark’s dedication. She was one of the most active members. She eagerly showed up to meetings and asked a lot of questions — the right questions. She coordinated events and fulfilled all of her duties.
“There were women in the organization who believed in me,” Clark said. “Throughout my time in the league, there were multiple women who let me know they believed in me and that I should aspire to be more in the organization.”
One morning, Clark was taken out to breakfast by a fellow Junior League member who suggested that she put her name in the running for president. Although she hadn’t given it much thought at first, the idea didn’t seem as far-fetched.
“I took a chance and did it,” Clark said. “I didn’t feel like I had much to lose, so I did it.”
Clark is continuing to adjust to her new leadership position but has already identified some of her top priorities, including member engagement, member involvement and making their presence known.
“We’ve been around for 96 years, and we also created a ton of other nonprofits that are still up and running. Sometimes people forget that the Junior League of Nashville is a philanthropic and service organization. We want to make sure we’re at the right tables and in the right rooms to be able to continue driving community change.”
And most importantly, as the organization’s first African-American president, Clark wants all women to feel welcome.
“It obviously can be hard to be the first and the only and the different one, but I sort of owned the fact that in order for this organization to be great for tons of women, regardless of their social identities, I have to put myself out there and I have to put my story out there,” Clark said. “I really try to go out in the community and be very present, going to meetings and introducing myself to people, because I think that’s the only way we can change that perception.
“I think sometimes we have a lot of self-limiting beliefs. We think people are going to look at us a certain way or we think people aren’t going to like us or be rude to us, but I think you have to give people an opportunity to prove you right or prove you wrong. … The only way that I’ve been able to be successful is just by owning what I want and going after it. Sometimes, I think we’re our own worst enemy. And we don’t have to be.”