The Tyler Loop Interview: Jackie Clay of East Texas Human Needs Network

Listen to the audio or read the full transcript, below.

📷 courtesy Jackie Clay

Jane: My guest today is Jackie Clay. Jackie currently serves as the chief executive officer of East Texas Human Needs Network, a collective action organization with over 100 community partners. She has over 15 years of experience leading nonprofit healthcare and government entities.

Prior to joining ETHHN, Jackie served as the executive director of Family Promise of Greater Chattanooga and the Free Medical Clinic of Oak Ridge, both in Tennessee. 

She serves as the board president of Social Works Advocacy Group; a community advisory board member for the University of Texas at Tyler’s School of Medicine; chair of the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce veterans committee; and is a member of the Smith County Food Security Council.

Jackie attends New Life Community Church in Tyler and lives with her son, Jaylen, and her dog, Bailey. In her spare time, she likes to listen to sermons, audio books, and music. Welcome, Jackie Clay. 

Jackie: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate this opportunity. 

Jane: You are very welcome. 

If someone was to ask, “What is ETHHN? What is East Texas Human Needs Network?” What would be your elevator speech? 

Jackie: I’d say that ETHHN is a collective of organizations and individuals that believe everyone has the right to live well and everyone can live well if given the opportunity, and that working together, we can create an environment for everybody to do so. 

Poverty simulation presented by ETHHN. 📷 courtesy Jackie Clay

ETHHN works in three major areas. One is poverty education. We host workshops and simulations to increase people’s empathy towards our neighbors who may have poverty as their experience, and we hope that by the end of one of our sessions, they understand that it’s a relationship that is a bridge from poverty to economic stability for individuals. They can be part of bridging that gap.

Another area where we work is collective action. We do a homeless Point in Time count for our county. We also do a needs assessment every three years for our county.

The third big area where we work is we manage an online directory of social services called It’s one way that we connect our neighbors with available services in Anderson, Smith, Rusk and Cherokee counties. Right now, our database has over 150 unique organizations with various programs, so we try to be a connector for them.

Jane: Wow. Tell us how you came into this role. 

Jackie: I stumbled upon the job posting for the CEO position. At the time, I wasn’t even really seriously — or maybe you could say subconsciously I was — I didn’t even need a job; I had a job. 

I read about the posting for the position at ETTHN, and I kept coming back to it. It just kept resonating with me and bringing me back and pulling me back. I have heard of organizations doing this kind of collective action work, and I have read about it. It was the first example for me that seemed real.

I thought, “I wanna be a part of whatever community is doing that, doing what Tyler is doing” — where organizations are not working in silos, they’re communicating with each other. They’re being intentional about finding out what everybody is doing, and they’re bringing their resources to the table to leverage for the benefit of the greater community.

It’s like the unicorn that’s in the far, far away. It’s happening in Tyler. It’s in Tyler; the unicorn is in Tyler. And I’ve worked in different communities. I’ve worked in rural communities, I’ve worked in urban communities, and I have seen what it’s like try to get things done when people are territorial, and they’re working in silos, and they’re not communicating, they’re not being intentional about working on projects together.

So, I really wanted to be aligned with an organization that seemed to be getting it right. And in Tyler, ETHHN and all of the partners, in my opinion, were getting it right. And so I applied. I said, “Okay, God, if it’s for me, it’ll unfold. And if it’s not, I’ll let it be.” But it wouldn’t let me go.

I got a call for an interview. Then, I got another call for another interview. And then, I got a job offer, and I said yes. I hadn’t even been to Tyler yet. 

ETHHN hosts “One Night without A Home” as part of national hunger and homelessness awareness. 📷 courtesy Jackie Clay

Jane: I didn’t know how rare it is to have a collective action group.

Jackie: I’ve been practicing since 2000. I’ve been doing this for a while, and I had never seen it, not really. It was the relationship-building phase that we are still in that’s the longest and hardest part of this kind of work; the time it takes to build trusting relationships so that people will let down those walls and come out of their silos.

And so Christina Fulsom Taliaffero, who was the CEO before me, started ETHHN in 2012. She put the time in to create an environment to build those relationships. And so, she did the heavy lifting and then gifted that to me. It’s been amazing to see what she and all of the partners of ETHHN have built over the years and how much can happen for our neighbors when we work together.

Jane: That’s incredible. I’m so glad that’s the point at which you came in and the setup for you. Tell us what existing or emerging programs connected to ETHHN are the most robust right now. 

Jackie: I think some of the work that’s going to be the most impactful is the work that’s going on in our economic wellbeing task force. So, we have a group of ETHHN members — about a dozen — and they are working on a strategy to assist our neighbors who may fall into predatory loans, either through a title loan or a payday loan. We did a study recently, and we surveyed 121 individuals who had taken out those kinds of loans with interest. That could be up to 500% interest. We asked them why they took out the loans, and all of them told us they took it out because it was a last resort.

They needed money for living expenses, food, rent, utilities. We took a look at who’s taking out these loans. And by and large, the folks we surveyed were senior citizens and veterans and of course people who are low income. These types of loans are being given to people who are our most vulnerable neighbors, right?

If there’s something we can do to help protect them, that’s what we want to do. We want to protect our neighbors. We want to tell them what alternatives exist in the community, either by tapping into a social service organization or getting them to a point financially where they don’t need it or helping them understand what other alternatives exist.

ETHHN’s fair lending luncheon with economist Ray Perryman. 📷 courtesy Jackie Clay

Jane: I learned so much — I think it was last spring — when Ray Perryman came and shared the statistics about how much money is getting siphoned out of Tyler and East Texas because of the lending. 

Jackie: Yes. You are 100% correct. Dr. Perryman showed us that every year our community loses over 30 million. That means people aren’t frequenting our small businesses, they aren’t going to plays, they’re not having dinner at restaurants. That money is going off to some corporate headquarters more than likely not in the state of Texas. Not only that, 151 jobs are being lost every year in our community because people’s cars are being repossessed. 

And so, they can’t go to work. No car, no job. And our community is losing money that could stay here. 

Jane: Yes. So, as you dig into that data, it just becomes apparent that these trickle down effects hurt us all.

Jackie: It does, it really does. It hurts all of us. Our community loses in the finances, in the jobs and the strain on our social services. 

Jane: I want to ask you something else. What population or issue would you like to see ETHHN assist in the next few years? Is there something up and coming?

Jackie: Well, I would love to, if I could explore with some of our ETHHN partners, how we as an organization can help them do more in the area of homeless prevention and affordable housing. 

Daily, we get calls and requests for rental assistance. I would love to explore ways with our partners we can support grants they might write or grants that we could write to give funds to organizations who are working hard in our community to keep people from losing their homes or to rapidly rehouse individuals who are homeless. 

I think we can support our partners in that way by helping to bring them the resources they really need. And so, I think in a perfect world, that’s what I would do. Now, my board of directors has not said they want to do that. But I think if there was a perfect world, that’s what I would want to do: to get more money flowing to our organizations that are working hard in the trenches every day.

Jane: What can you tell us about our homeless numbers and whether they’re increasing? 

Jackie: Well, they are increasing. Just recently, we conducted the Smith County Point in Time homeless count. 

Jane: And tell us what that is, Jackie.

Every year, we report to the Texas Homeless Network. They do a snapshot in time of the sheltered and the unsheltered individuals in our county. So in Tyler, in Smith County, what we did is we gathered 50 volunteers who went out on one day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

ETHHN’s Bridges out of Poverty workshop. 📷 courtesy Jackie Clay

We went to the shelters and we went to homeless encampments, and we observed our homeless neighbors, and we counted them. It’s an underestimation, of course. If they were out in a parking lot sleeping in their car after 8 p.m. and we missed them, they didn’t get counted. But it does give us an idea of the numbers of homeless we have in our community. And we do that every year.

This year, we counted 338 homeless, which is 76 more than we counted last year — which means our numbers of homeless are increasing — substantially increasing. We did 301 interviews and then 37 observations. 

It’s not just men; it’s not just women; it’s our homeless children as well. I actually talked to four folks living in an older model Lincoln Navigator. 

Jane: Oh my.

Jackie: Yeah, we have some pretty sad situations. Of the 338, 65 of them shared with us that they have a mental illness. It means we’ve got more opportunities to do some work in the area of homelessness for our neighbors, because the problem is getting worse, right? So, lots of opportunities for us to think about how we can work together to create opportunities for people to transition into permanent housing and also how we can work together to keep them from becoming homeless in the first place.

Jane: I had the privilege of watching you interact with people at the Salvation Army on that Point in Time day. 

Jackie: You did?

Jane: I did. I just came away from that thinking you are so good at this. There was no hint of awkwardness. I could tell people were really at ease in your presence and you seemed very comfortable.

Jackie: Well, you know, God has a funny way of doing things, right? In my family, we’ve had folks who’ve dealt with homelessness and mental illness and both at the same time. I actually have a sister who had some pretty severe schizophrenia, and she was homeless, and I would have to go out looking for her when I was in Chattanooga. This was at a time where I was actually executive director of a homeless shelter.

And you know, even my own son has his own behavioral health struggles, and so it makes me really sensitive to how I treat people. I know it’s not much that separates me from them, and that I would want somebody to be kind to me if it were me or if it were my sister or my son. 

Jane: Would you share some more about your personal life and how it has shaped you for the work you’re doing now? Is there anything else you would add to, of course, the huge influences of your sister and your son? 

Jackie: Well, that I love helping. When I decided to get into social work, it was after I had been out of college for a little while. I got pregnant with my son when I was 18, so I finished my first year of college and then I didn’t go back for several years. 

I was thinking I wanted to do something different with my life. I wanted to do something better. You know, I was living in public housing. I didn’t have a car. I was what you would call a statistic. I had made all the mistakes that my family wished I wouldn’t make.

I really wanted to become the kind of person that I would be proud to know. One of my sisters encouraged me to go back to college, because I’d done my first year of college. She encouraged me to go back and at that point, I was hesitant.

This was in the 90s. She sent me a packet; we didn’t have the internet. She sent me this big, thick envelope full of stuff from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville where she was. I got it, and I read every piece of that paper. I read it all and I read the information about every major.

And I was like, “Sociology looks kind of good. Psychology looks kind of good.” Then social work: it just really resonated with me. And so I told my sister, “If I get in, I will go. If I don’t, I don’t wanna talk about it anymore.” I got in, and it changed my life.

I would drive down the road. I lived in a bad neighborhood. I got this old, ratty car. Somebody stole the radio out of my car, and so I decided not to get another radio. Because I didn’t have a radio, I would drive, and I would be imagining myself walking across the stage. 

Jane: Oh, that’s good. 

Jackie: And I would feel like how it would feel: How proud I would feel of myself when I got that degree. And I’d actually start crying. I’m like, “I don’t even know what the stage looks like,” but in my head I saw it clear as day and I felt it.

That’s what got me excited about this new life that I could create for myself — the one that wasn’t on food stamps and didn’t have to take the bus and didn’t have to struggle.

Jane: I feel like you just imagined another version of someone who was already you; just older and wiser and farther down the road, and you just stepped into it.

Jackie: Yep.

ETHHN monthly meeting. 📷 courtesy Jackie Clay

Jane: Wow. Well, my last two questions are very much about what’s dear to you. And what’s your great hope for East Texas?

Jackie: My great hope for East Texas is that we can have a history of doing some good together, and it can flourish, and that somehow I can be a little part of that flourishing.

Jane: What do you wish more people in East Texas knew?

Jackie: I wish more people in East Texas knew about ETHHN and that they are welcome to come to our meetings. You don’t have to be a nonprofit organization to join ETHHN. You can be an individual who just wants to do good. You can be retired; you can be a student.

If you are interested in helping; if you are interested in addressing human needs and you want to work with other people who share that same passion, you can come to our meetings. We meet on the third Tuesday of every month at TJC West, room 104 of the RTDC building, and you are welcome. 

Jane: Jackie Clay, it’s been such a pleasure having you. Thank you for sharing with us. 

Jackie: Thank you so much for the opportunity. I’m grateful. I’ll come back anytime.

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Jane Neal is the executive director of The Tyler Loop and storytelling director of Out of the Loop: True Stories about Tyler and East Texas. In addition to the Loop, she works at the Literacy Council of Tyler and attends Sam Houston State University remotely, where she studies sociology. Jane is a certified interfaith spiritual guide. She is a member of Leadership Tyler Class 33 and a former teacher of French at Robert E. Lee High School, where she ran a storytelling program called Senior Stories. Jane and her husband Don have four children.