Jamaicans in New York

Irwine Clare: A Man of the People, Born to Serve – Influential Jamaican in New York

On any given day, one can find Irwine Clare, Sr. in any of five different places. He is a multi-tasking community service machine that settles at nothing when it comes to helping others. I was privileged enough to spend a few hours on “his time,” observing the morning activities of the man whose picture you will see next to the term “master of all trades”. His office, located on Parsons Boulevard in Queens, NY, has a sign that reads “Caribbean Immigrant Services: Your one stop empowerment center.” It’s located in an inconspicuous building but it is ironically one of the best known gems of the Caribbean community in New York City and beyond. As I entered the office, I was engulfed with a feeling of Caribbean pride. On the wall are two carvings of the Jamaican coat of arms, along with countless plaques that acknowledge the significance of CIS to the community. There are also several plaques dedicated to Irwine Clare with one recurring theme: Outstanding service to the Caribbean community. Around the office are myriad posters depicting Clare’s other passion, track and field. Irwine Clare’s name, though often misspelled, is one of the most recognized throughout the Caribbean community. His network is vast and at his immediate disposal is the formal directory of the Northeastern Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and other members of the local clergy. His address book boasts the numbers of several prominent Jamaicans, from Irie Jamboree promoter Anthony Turner and Basil Bryant, former Jamaican Consul General to New York to Una Clarke (former NY City Council member) and the record-setting Usain Bolt.

Clare is an unrelenting, colors-wearing, prideful son of St. Ann. He will tell you that St. Ann is the best parish because it is the birthplace three very significant M-s: Marcus, Marley, and “Me”. He is from a place called Bamboo, which fittingly explains the strong but flexible nature of this man who manages three telephones and two computers, all while talking with me about his legacy, the DREAM Act and other current affairs, without missing a beat. His phones often ring in harmony (sometimes even in unison) and he is constantly monitoring his computers. He is passionate about Jamaica and while his gentle sarcasm and wit are his trademarks, there is no mistaking his sincerity when he discusses the social, political, and economic affairs of Jamaica.

Clare attended York Castle High School, where he was proudly the first Student Council leader after former Prime Minister Michael Manley began the movement to form student councils on the island. In his words, he was “never a disciplined child,” yet when the opportunity came for York Castle to select a representative for the Ministry of Education’s National Discipline Committee, they appointed him, at sixteen years old. He jokes that he also attended but did not graduate from Westwood and St. Hilda’s high schools for while his friends were busy organizing students’ bodies, he toiled to organize the student body toward activism at both schools. As a youngster, Clare attended several leadership conventions in Cuba and across Jamaica and upon coming to the United States, he became a founding member of the Union of Jamaican Alumni Association.

Clare’s commitment to community service began in the womb. He quips that his mother nursed him well into his teens, as she is the one who instilled in him a strong sense of social responsibility. She was, after all, a member of the Jamaica Agricultural Society and the 4H Club and a very active woman in her church. She was a trailblazer in her own right, who built the basic school and library (which still stands today) in Bamboo and was responsible for getting telephone service in the community. With a secondary education, Clare’s mother emphasized the significance of service and scholarship in her only child and upon immigrating to the United States, he began planting his own seeds to continue bearing fruit of service.

The New York City Office of Planning and Development reports that immigrants from the Caribbean region account for two of the three largest immigrant groups to New York City. As the largest Anglophone immigrant group to New York City, Jamaicans, in particular, are in dire need of advocacy and advice. Thus, in the early 90s, Clare and his partner Winston Tucker saw a need to help provide honest and informed services to Caribbean immigrants in New York City. They established Caribbean Immigrant Services (CIS), an advocacy and consulting organization aimed at leading Caribbean immigrants toward attaining U.S. citizenship. Clare also founded the non-profit “Team Jamaica Bickle,” an organization that provides assistance for fledgling Jamaican athletes and their coaches to participate in the Penn Relays. Since its inception, Team Jamaica Bickle has raised over $30,000 in support of athletes and their coaches.

In addition to his many service activities, Clare has been the vice-president at a bank, hosted his own television and radio shows (Caribbean Lifestyle Magazine), helped draft and review legislation pertaining to immigration, and worked for the federal government as a consultant on special projects. Despite his many accomplishments, Irwine Clare Sr. is a humble man who likes to cook his own conch and bananas for breakfast and spend time with his family and friends. Hanging from his office door are countless lanyards and passes for the Penn Relays, and below them sit two untouched bottles of white rum peeking through a half-opened duty free carton box, undoubtedly being saved for the moment when he finally gets to relax. He is a family man whose firmest belief is in leaving a legacy for his two children, Irwine Jr., and Kayla. Service, he says, “is just a part of me! It’s healthy; it sustains my life.” And why does he do it all? For moments like the morning he stood in line with his children at the airport and a middle-aged man, with tears in his eyes, approached Clare to say thanks for helping him obtain a green-card. This help, the man stated, was the reason he was about to be reunited with his fifteen year old daughter that he had only seen when she was two years old.

During my conversation with Clare, I noticed a greeting card on a small desk in his office, near pictures of his family and behind countless papers and photographs of him tubing down a river in Jamaica. The outside reads, “if we measure success by the number of lives we touch and the ways that we reach out to others and truly make a difference…” I wondered if Hallmark custom- made this card for Irwine Clare, because no one is as giving, as cordial, and as committed to serving others than the third most important M from (what he insists is the best parish in Jamaica) St. Ann.

About the author

Kerri-Ann M. Smith

Dr. Kerri-Ann M. Smith is an author and educator. She is an Assistant Professor of Academic Literacy at Queensborough Community College, CUNY. She is a patois translator, a wife, and the mother of a gregarious little girl. She is a senior writer for jamaicans.com.