The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.
Clyburn first came to the Red Cross in 1969 to use her training in medical social work as a Hospital Field Director during the Vietnam war. In this role, Clyburn served in Vietnam as a Red Cross advocate for military personnel and as a communications link between service personnel and people back in the United States. Since then, she has been involved in 46 disaster relief operations that have taken her to every state with the exception of Idaho. She has served in numerous important leadership roles both as a paid Red Cross staffer and as a volunteer.
In 2001, immediately after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, Clyburn was summoned to Red Cross National Headquarters in Washington, DC. Upon arrival she was informed that she was to serve as the Director of the Disaster Operations Center in charge of providing relief to those affected by the terrorist attacks. Clyburn was surprised by the assignment but gamely stepped forward to do a job for which she was qualified due to her many years of service, training, and experience. She stayed on the job as Director for almost a full year.
Clyburn is very proud that as an African American woman she was the first person of color to have served as a Level 5 Disaster Director, the highest level for a Disaster Services Director within the Red Cross system. She was a founding member of a group of volunteers and Red Cross staffers who referred to themselves as Blacks in the American Red Cross (BARC). Originally, it was a group of African American Red Cross workers who met on a routine basis as a support group to mentor and encourage one another and find opportunities for promotion and advancement along Red Cross career paths. Over the years BARC outgrew its name as it expanded its membership to include all Red Cross workers who are members of minority groups.
A few years after serving in Vietnam as a Red Cross worker, Clyburn resigned as a paid Red Cross staffer to take a teaching position at Colorado State University. There she taught in the newly emerging social work program and was instrumental in the development of the curriculum and standards for the then developing profession. Later she made a move to Erie, Pennsylvania, where she was the head of the social work program at Villa Marie College. During those years of academic life Clyburn maintained her relationship with the Red Cross as a volunteer, a role that she holds in high esteem. “A Red Cross volunteer is a pay grade not a job description. We don‘t pay volunteers because they are useless; we don’t attempt to pay them because they are priceless,” says Clyburn.
Clyburn returned to the Red Cross as a paid staffer in 1989 when she made a move to St. Louis, Missouri, to assume the role of Director of Disaster Services for the Mid-Western Area. In this role she was in charge of disaster services for 17 states. Three years later she made a move to Memphis, Tennessee, as a Red Cross Disaster Response Planner with the primary responsibility for earthquake preparedness in the event that another New Madrid earthquake event should occur in this area.
Although now retired from her staff position in the Red Cross, Clyburn remains busy as a volunteer. In 2012 she completed planning for the possibility of a New Madrid level earthquake in the Mid-South area and incorporated that plan as a Catastrophic Annex to the All Hazards National Response Plan for the Red Cross. Currently, she is active with the Mid-South Chapter in establishing and implementing the Ready Rating Plan, which is an instrument for the public, businesses, and industry for disaster preparation.
Clyburn also currently serves as the Chair for the West Tennessee Seismic Safety Committee, a position to which she was first appointed by Tennessee Governor Bredesen and more recently Governor Haslam. The Committee is the state agency responsible for earthquake preparedness for the New Madrid Seismic Zone.
Many rewards and citations have come to Clyburn for her almost 50 years of service in the Red Cross. Most recently she received from the National Office of the Red Cross an Employee Excellence Award for outstanding contributions to disaster services, a Presidential Citation for her long and dedicated service, and a Legacy Award for service to the armed services in a time of war. The Mid-South Chapter acknowledged her as Instructor of the Year in 2008 and awarded her in 2010 the Clara Barton Leadership Award for outstanding service.
Clyburn grew up in Buffalo, New York. Her father worked as a city bus driver, and her mother was a stay-at-home mom until she went to work at a local factory to provide funding to send her daughter to a private Catholic high school and college. Clyburn received a B.S. degree in Social Science from LeMoyne College and was the first African American student to attend both her high school and college. Graduate work, which was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health, was at Howard University in Washington, DC, where she received a Master of Social Work degree.
During her college years, Clyburn participated with other African Americans in the fight for civil rights. In 1968 she traveled to Louisiana for Freedom Summer to participate in a voter registration campaign. Although she did not experience any physical harm during her three weeks in the south, she does vividly recall the intimidation, rejection, and harassment from many of the local residents.
In addition to her volunteer work at the Mid-South Red Cross, Clyburn volunteers at the Orpheum Theatre where she holds the record for service at the largest number of performances per year, 180 events in 2012. She also volunteers at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and at her church, St. Augustine Catholic Church, where she is active in the community garden. “I’m just a volunteer at heart,” says Clyburn.
Profile updated September 10, 2013
Story and photo credit: Robert W. Wallace/American Red Cross