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Categories: 5 Under 40, AUG/SEP 2022

5 Under 40: Seth Clark

Seth Clark, 37

Mayor Pro Tempore and County Commissioner, Macon-Bibb County and Executive Director, Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative

Tell us about your job and why you chose your career field.

I think a sense of duty to community, and the people and resources that make it up, is why I both ran for office and why I was excited to accept the position as Executive Director of the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative. I learned that right here in Middle Georgia. Macon taught me the value of preserving who we are while always moving forward in the image of what we can be. Both local government and ecological and cultural conservation most certainly allow me to use those lessons I learned from our neighbors every day.

Tell us about your activities in the community, especially what you’re most excited about.

We are on the cusp of becoming the gateway community for Georgia’s first National Park and Preserve. I’m not sure I can overstate what this means for our community, our economy, the conservation of the ecosystem locally and globally, and for the soul of this community. And it’s not just Macon – the potential impact will be generational for municipalities up and down the Ocmulgee Corridor and the state of Georgia as well. Our partners at the National Park Conservation Association and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation project that this park and preserve could attract up to 1.6 million visitors a year and create upwards of 287 million dollars in economic activity. This project allows us to protect the hunting, fishing, recreational use, and ecosystem along the Ocmulgee Corridor for generations. It protects endangered species and helps mitigate the effects of climate change. It boosts the quality of life and creates much needed buffer land outside of Robins Air Force Base. It is foundational in a relationship of trust and good faith with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Like I said, it’s hard to overstate this park and preserve’s impact on us.

Working to create the Ocmulgee Park and Preserve has been a civic effort that has been underway for almost a century. And thanks to the dedication of generations of Middle Georgians, partners like the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the 21st Century Partnership, conservationists, hunters and anglers, and dedicated support from our federal elected representatives, we’re almost there. It’s an incredibly exciting moment to be on the cusp of seeing a century-long, bipartisan vision be actualized.

As you look to the future, what are your professional and personal goals?

Personally, I am committed to being the best father and husband I can be… and catching some bowfin down in the swamp with a fly I tied. When I’m not working and spending time with my family, I try to be at fly tying vise or on the Ocmulgee River — which is easily one of the best fisheries of the South — with a fly rod. It keeps me sane(ish). So, a lot of my personal goals are wrapped up in that hobby.

Professionally, I pinch myself daily because of the opportunities to make a difference in this community with which I’ve been entrusted. Working with my colleagues on this commission and helping Mayor Miller and his administration make their agenda become a reality for so many of our neighbors is a chance of a lifetime. The mayor and I are very different people, as are my colleagues on the commission, but that’s a strength, I believe. I have learned a lot about public service, the value of waking up every day with a dogged sense of home and the necessity to check partisanship at the door when we’re crafting policy from Lester Miller. I admire Mayor Miller’s stewardship of our community greatly. So professionally, I look forward to continuing to make progress at City Hall with him and my colleagues on the commission.

And for the park and preserve expansion efforts, I am deeply focused on making sure the community and our federal elected officials understand this precise moment in the history of the arc of the park and preserve creation process. I think for a number of years, this park and preserve expansion effort has felt like a lofty and ambitious idea — because it is! But due to the work of generations of people, we’re to the point where accomplishing this goal is at our fingertips. And it’s up to the coalition who has shepherded us this far to make that case.

What are you personally committed to accomplishing in Macon and why?

I’m personally committed to fighting to make sure the country sees what we see in our community. That’s really the basis of my becoming so invested in the efforts to create a National Park and Preserve along the Ocmulgee River corridor. One of the most important pieces of this process is creating a lasting relationship between the ancestors of the Ocmulgee Corridor’s original stewards, the modern-day Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and its current stewards, our community. I hope that the work we’re doing to strengthen that relationship lives on far past my civic involvement.

Personally, I’ve come to believe that the relationship between our community and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation outliving the push to create a National Park and Preserve has deep, esoteric value to our community. There is a deep void in our community because of their forced and violent removal and dispossession. And I hope that our work with the tribe creates something foundational that begins to fill that void and heal wounds that we may not even know exist.

Right now, what is the best thing going on in Macon?

It’s hard to pick one but I believe the ones that are striving and making the most impact are the ones where their driving principles are dedicated to avoiding a homogeneity of opinion. Macon-Bibb County’s biggest asset is that we have such a broad array of leadership who bring incredible value to a project. The success of our community hinges on ensuring that it’s not one group, or “my group” setting out to complete a civic mission. And I believe the failures we often lament in larger civic contexts – state and federally – in large part happen because of general and natural partisanship. So, the inverse of those failures, the projects in Macon I believe to be the best things going on, are the ones that do the extremely hard work of not giving into that natural partisanship which leads to their success.

What have you learned about yourself or people during the post-2020 era (taking into consideration COVID, Black Lives Matter, economy, etc.)? What do you hope people will do in response to any/all of our current events?

Honestly, after such an elongated era of crisis, it feels like a totally different world now. We are certainly part of a national fabric that is evolving and that bends toward justice, but one that has been in crisis. I think, if anything, the way the national affects the local has come to the forefront during these last years of crisis. That’s forced me, personally, to bring my gaze down to a level where we can make a difference.

My hope is that a lesson we’ve collectively drawn is that instead of that national crisis trickling down, our tangible work locally to lift up this community trickles up. That’s how I believe we address and calm our current crises and I think it has and will continue to result in a more fair, just and healthy Macon and country.

What is your vision for our community?

That we keep pushing the way that we are; we cannot become complacent or tired.

Macon has this uncanny ability to admit its past ills — of which there are many — and not stagnate in them, but move forward together to create the image of what we want to be. That’s the only way we can accomplish exciting things like create a National Park and Preserve and address deeply pressing human issues like poverty and racism. That’s this community’s superpower: striving to meet our potential and not becoming debilitated by it. If I have any vision, it’s that we continue to embrace that unique and coveted trait.

What needs to change to encourage continued progress in our city?

We cannot fall victim to splitting up geographically or civically by ideology as other communities have. I don’t believe we have, but we most certainly can; in fact, I believe it is the easiest way forward. But we can’t take that easy road. There is so much that binds us and this community genuinely is teaching other communities that lesson daily. I think our understanding and pride in that could always be greater. That doesn’t mean we get content or pat ourselves on the back. We have to continue the intentional work of creating a more fair and just community; we can do both at the same time. In fact, I would argue that embracing and being proud of what binds us together makes that work more long-lasting. We are a good community that of course can be more perfect. I think it’s healthy and good to embrace that, and not get debilitated and split up by a “grass is greener” mentality of what we’re not.

What would be a missed opportunity in Macon?

Congress not recognizing the almost century-long effort to create the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve this year would be a missed opportunity not just for Macon, but for the region and state. This is the moment, and I don’t believe we have a choice but to rise to it.

When you talk about Macon to people who don’t live here, what do you tell them?

I describe the people. I’ve lived all over the world and never seen a community with such disparate ideologies dedicated to making itself better. In a time where you turn on the news and it seems our fate is to succumb to being pitted against one another, it’s terribly refreshing to turn it off, walk outside and into our community and see that another way is possible. And I hope our community understands how unique an asset that is and how coveted it is.

What does it mean to be a good leader?

When I was elected in 2020, I received a note from a former state-wide constitutional officer and conservationist that I deeply respect. The note read, “Remember that you are usually half wrong and the other guy is half right…” Trying to remind yourself of that when you’re at your most sure and your most righteous, I believe, is leadership.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

My family, but it’s hardly my achievement. My wife Rebecca and son Stroud have a kindness in them that I daily strive to match and nurture. Simply being able to witness and learn from the kindness Rebecca instills in our home and our community through her own work as a nonprofit leader and therapist is what I am most proud of. I’m deeply proud of both of them and learn to be a better person every day I get to spend with them.

What are three qualities that got you where you are today?

I’m not sure, to be honest. I make a lot of mistakes. When I do, I look to people in this community for grace and inspiration to keep going. I don’t believe I have any inherent quality that got me anywhere. This community — we, not I — has qualities that got us where we all are together, and those qualities collectively keep us going. This community got me where I am today; and for that, I am deeply grateful and forever in debt to it.