Taylor, Kristin Clark 1959–
Kristin Clark Taylor 1959–
Kristin Clark Taylor has spent much of her life living in two different worlds: the African American world and the world of the white elite. She was raised in a traditional, closely knit, strongly proud black family that instilled in her the values of education and self-worth. She went on to become successful in mainstream white America, joining the staff of the White House in 1987, where two years later, she would become the first African American Director of Media Relations. Taylor is proud of her achievements, but is also conscious of the “bicultural balancing act” she has had to perform throughout her career; in her 1993 memoir, The First to Speak: A Woman of Color Inside the White House, she wrote of “straddling two worlds—trying to make sense of them both.”
Taylor was born the youngest of seven children to James W. Clark, a foreman at a large tire company, and his wife, schoolteacher Mary Elizabeth Clark. She credits both parents for her success. “Together,” she explained in First to Speak, “they instilled in us an insatiable hunger for knowledge and an unquenchable thirst for personal and professional achievement.” Because she had five older sisters and an older brother, “my self-esteem and pride had been nurtured long before even I myself had been created.” All the children in the family were close, as was the Detroit neighborhood in which they were raised: “The community grew closer,” she continued in her book. “Everyone knew each other; every mother watched out for every other mother’s child. Kids played outdoors well into the summer nights while their fathers, watching absently, sat on lawn chairs on the front porch, listening to [professional baseball’s Detroit] Tigers’ game on the radio.”
By the time Taylor was ready for school, the civil unrest of the 1960s had contributed to the decline in quality of the Detroit public schools to the point where her parents sought an alternative for their youngest child. For ten years, Taylor attended Roeper, a posh private school in one of Michigan’s wealthiest suburbs. Because she was one of only a few black children to attend this exclusive institution, she struggled with feelings of isolation and alienation, and began to learn how to accommodate two very different cultures simultaneously. The skills she would later use to survive in the white-male-dominated White House, she perfected at Roeper.
In her book Taylor recalled that her days at private school “represented the very first of the delicate balancing acts I would have to perform like a skilled high-wire artist in the circus: being the singular black voice in the midst of a white, powerful, status-conscious plurality…. Straddling the trappings of the privileged, powerful upper class by day and the comfortable, familiar ethnicity of my family and neighborhood friends by night began to take on a ring of cultural schizophrenia…. It was to be the beginning of a lifelong effort to converge my two worlds—to weave my competing cultures into one whole cloth.”
With strong parental support and encouragement, their.
At a Glance…
Born Kristin Clark, March 26, 1959, in Detroit, Ml; daughter of James W. and Mary Elizabeth (Moore) Clark; married Lonnie Paul Taylor; children: Lonnie Paul II, Mary Elizabeth. Education: Michigan State University, B.A., 1982.
Intern, Detroit Free Press, Detroit, Ml, 1982; Gannett Company, newswriter, editor, and public affairs officer of USA Today, 1 9S2-B7; assistant press secretary for U.S. Vice-President George Bush, 1987-88, then director of White House media relations, 1989-90; director of communications, BellSouth Corporation, 1990-94; vice-president of external affairs, Student Loan Marketing Association, 1994—. Author, 7he First to Speak: A Woman of Color inside the White House, Doubleday, 1993.
Addresses: Office —Student Loan Marketing Association, 1050 Thomas Jefferson St, N.W., Washington, DC 20007.
parent’s demand for quality, and their emphasis on educational achievement and hard work, all of the Clark children became eminently successful. Kristin was no exception. In 1982, immediately out of college and in the middle of an internship with the Detroit Free Press, she found herself employed by the Gannett Company to help launch their new newspaper, USA Today. Her initial job was as a full member of the editorial board with a daily editorial feature “Voices from Across the USA,” a person-on-the-street interview series. By the time she resigned five years later, Taylor’s position had grown to include regular bylined interviews as well as an occasional editorial or column.
When she got the call about a position in the White House in 1987, Taylor was not looking to move from USA Today. She was on maternity leave with her first child, looking forward to returning to her secure niche at the paper. A former USA Today colleague phoned her to tell her about an open position as assistant press secretary for Vice-President George Bush. With the encouragement of her husband, mother, and other family members, Taylor called Bush’s chief of staff, interviewed for, and won the position. Although she had not planned on making a career move outside of USA Today, she excitedly accepted the position. As Taylor explained in her book, she knew Bush was going to run for president, and as a life-long Republican, she found herself wanting to “do my part to serve my country and help get George Bush elected.”
“My daily responsibilities were varied and quite challenging,” Taylor wrote of her first White House position in The First to Speak. “I wore the hat of senior staff-writer in the press office, developed most of Bush’s White House press releases, and produced most of his videotaped addresses.” She and fellow staff-members updated Bush on the daily news to insure that he was well-informed when facing the outside press and oversaw all planned media events to ensure that nothing went wrong. Together, the staff developed strategies for using the vice-president’s daily activities—from visiting the Make-A-Wish Foundation for terminally ill children, to his annual physical checkup—to best advantage. The upcoming election left no room for error.
In January of 1989 Bush became the 41st president of the United States. During the last months of 1988, between the election and the inauguration, Taylor hoped to be appointed to a position on the new president’s staff—as did many other vice-presidential staff members. Because of her excellent work before the election, Bush insured Taylor’s receipt of a position by circulating a memo instructing his current staff to see to it that she was placed. She soon found herself director of White House media relations, the first woman of color to hold that position.
While jobs continued to open up for both women and minorities, the “old-boy network” remained strong. “In the White House,” Taylor explained in her book, “access was power…. The unwritten, unspoken rule was that sustained and regular access to the inner sanctum—the Oval Office, the apex of privileged domain—was reserved exclusively for the Big Boys. And I do mean boys. Yes, there were women in the White House who held powerful, responsible positions … but when it came time for the President to call together his exclusive group of “inner circle” advisors … the picture was still made up only of white males…. The same limitations held true for African Americans. Those few of us who made it in were simply unable to penetrate upward, beyond the glass ceiling.” Fortunately for Taylor, President Bush’s confidence in her abilities was well recognized; she was rewarded by frequently being called upon to work directly with the head of state.
Despite the power struggles, Taylor knew Bush well, and he obviously respected and appreciated her work. He had also met the members of her family, including her husband, children, and parents; when her mother was hospitalized, he sent a personal note wishing her well; after she died, he contributed generously to a memorial scholarship fund set up in her name. Yet Taylor still felt that old conflict between her two worlds; as she explained in her The First to Speak, she was still struggling “to assimilate my two dramatically different cultures into one world, to merge my past into my present—sometimes like trying to fit round pegs into square holes.”
After two years spent working for President Bush, Taylor decided to move on. “The White House wasn’t a place to set down stakes and stay indefinitely,” she explained in her book. “It was a place where you learned the ropes quickly, worked at a feverish, furious pace for as long as you were there … and eventually departed.” When she received an offer from telecommunications giant BellSouth Corporation to head the corporation’s communications and media relations offices in Washington, DC, and Atlanta, Georgia, it was too good to refuse.
On Taylor’s last day in the White House, she reported in her book, Bush told her, “Keep in contact. You’ve done a beautiful job the entire time you’ve been here, and I’m very, very, proud of you.” Since then, Taylor has continued to strive forward into challenges. By 1994—when she was appointed vice-president of external affairs of the Student Loan Marketing Association (also known as Sallie Mae)—Taylor’s successful career clearly demonstrated her ability to balance her two worlds.
Hawkins, Walter L., African American Biographies, McFarland, 1991, p. 405.
Black Enterprise, November 1993, p. 135.
Ebony, October 1990, p. 76.
Library Journal, June 15, 1993, p. 76.
Jet, November 19, 1990, p. 4; February 7, 1994, p. 28.
Publishers Weekly, June 28, 1993, p. 66.
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