In Memoriam: Valerie Clowes _

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Valerie front and centre in blue: surrounded by some pretty awesome peopleValerie front and centre in blue: surrounded by some pretty awesome people

The first words Valerie Clowes said to me when I met her in person were, ‘I fucking love your blog!’, which I’d take as a compliment from anyone, but was particularly powerful coming from someone who could communicate so clearly and vividly about things that matter. A few days later, she greeted me as I ran into her on the Harmony University campus with the words: ‘Liz! We were just talking about female sexual autonomy...[in response to my ‘do go on’ face]...My Wild Irish Rose.’

Many words have been written over the past few days about Valerie, what she brought to the world, and how much she will be missed, and I’m not sure if I can add anything useful here. But even if I’m repeating what everyone else has already said, I’d like to take the space to honour her.

For many people in the barbershop world, Valerie will be known as the daughter of Lana Clowes, who was excluded from Sweet Adelines back in 1963 on grounds of race. Valerie accepted a presentation of posthumous membership to SAI on behalf of her mother at the 2016 International Convention, to mark the 50th anniversary of the removal of that colour bar; I think that was the first I knew of her, though it was only very shortly afterwards that I encountered her online through mutual friends.

What you may not know is how much work Valerie did behind the scenes in mobilising today’s barbershop organisations to engage in the work still to be done to make the genre a welcoming and inclusiveness for people of all demographics. The way she went about this, in countless in-person and online conversations, provides a model for us all.

  • Patience She would take the time to explain every time. You might think that someone ‘ought’ to have grasped something by now, but if they clearly hadn’t, she gave each new person she engaged with the amount of attention and required to communicate what they needed to know to bring them along.
  • Persistence She kept at it. Progress is often painfully slow: people are complacent, and in denial, and mostly lack the will and the oomph to effect meaningful change even when they recognise the validity of the campaign. But she kept going, and encouraged her fellow travellers to do likewise.
  • Kindness Valerie always spoke from a space of compassion. Even when someone was expressing opinions that she not only disagreed with, but that did active damage to her, she would see the humanity in them, reaching past the hate and seeking to bring them to a place of connection.
  • Clarity of Thought Being kind never stopped Valerie telling hard truths. She had an unerring capacity to see through flimflam and identify the heart of the matter. Her analysis was nuanced and insightful, and her articulation of core principles pithy and direct. Phrases I learned from her that continue to be useful include, ‘Intent is not the same as impact’ and ‘Nothing about us without us’.

I’ve tagged this blog post with the categories of ‘antiracism’ and ‘feminism’, those being the central arenas of principle in which I saw Valerie operate. But you know, if you come to this blog primarily for musical reasons, that list of her qualities also describes a pretty good way to approach rehearsing a choir, so I’m going to add the ‘rehearsing’ tag too.

Though even if your primary interest is music, I hope you will join in to help continue Valerie’s work to make your musical world a safer, more welcoming space for all-comers. For those of us who are grieving her loss, it will be a comfort to know that others are aspiring to follow her example with patience, persistence, kindness, and clarity of thought.

Thank you so much for this very thoughtful tribute to Val. There are not enough words to describe her impact on so many in the barbershop world but your call to continue the work she was a passionate, and ardent advocate of is one of the finest tributes I can imagine.

Thank you Anita. It is the only thing left we can do for her!

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