Dianne “Dee” Clarke was a prominent Maine activist who founded Survivor Speak USA. Photo courtesy Preble Street

dee Clarke spent her life marching, demonstrating, empowering, uplifting, creating and raising three remarkable children. She was a powerhouse. My life is better because of her. The world is better because of her. She died on Nov. 1, 2021. Here’s why the legacy lives on for a woman who never felt worthy of capitalizing her first name.

In 2013, dee presented testimony to the Maine Human Rights Commission about her experiences of being sex trafficked. When she sat down to write her testimony, she transformed into her 12-year-old self in Boston. It was the first time that dee shared her full story and included all the details. dee’s play, “The Last Girl,” is based on her testimony to the commission. It brings to life her story and those of other survivors, their traffickers and the system that allows such injustice. It is this play that won dee one of five recent Portland Ovations commissions. It will be heard for the first time in its entirety on Oct. 20 as a staged reading at Westbrook Performing Arts Center.

Portland Ovations met dee during their 2014 presentation of “Who’s Hungry,” a play focused on food insecurity. dee lent her voice to this project as an expert with lifelong experience of poverty. dee was a member of the Arts & Equity Initiative and participated in the Art at Work project in which Portland police officers turned their work into poetry. dee also was honored as a Pearl of Portland, which honors artists, activists and cultural agents in Maine. In 2015, dee founded Survivor Speak USA to address sex trafficking and its root causes of systemic poverty, racism and misogyny.

The title, “The Last Girl,” is inspired by the Indian caste system that traps girls and women into cycles of sex slavery. This isn’t a problem that happens “over there.” It happens here. The last girl is the child being abused by a relative. The last girl is the Black, brown or indigenous girl who disappears. The last girl is a target because of her poverty, family turmoil, sexual abuse, drug addiction or aging out of the foster care system. The last girl could be someone reading this right now.

When I was a grad student at NYU studying human trafficking, I called dee and asked, “Will you tell my professor that this happens here?” She came to New York City and taught the class. For years I watched her instruct cadets at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy with her memories of police separating her from her mom and the domino effect that resulted. She said it was healing to help them do better. dee was a frequent speaker at Portland’s annual homeless memorial vigil, sharing the stories of those in the homeless community who passed away the previous year. Last year, when dee’s name was among the dead, the featured speaker was a survivor whose life was changed for the better because of dee. I meet people all the time who knew and loved dee and remain deeply committed to the issues she championed.

The Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault reports that 200 to 300 people are trafficked for sex in Maine annually, although some experts estimate that the number is higher. The FBI considers Maine a “source state” for traffickers.

dee was a leader, a warrior, an advocate and a mentor, yet she lived in poverty her whole life. I believe that her death was the result of preventable systemic poverty. She would describe how I feel about her passing as “righteous rage.” She would tell me to be angry and then to get back to work, so no one else in Maine is exploited and sexually abused, so no one else in Maine dies of poverty.

I always wanted to write her biography. She would say: Not until I have a happy ending. In truth, it wouldn’t be right for her words to come from anyone other than dee. I hope you can join me at the world premier of “The Last Girl.”

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