Q&A: James “Faygo” Clark on losing his mentor, losing his mother, and the fight to keep her home

Sacramento activist James Lee Clark stands in front of a boarded up house in Sacramento, California on July 7, 2018. (Photo by Ashley Hayes-Stone)

Over the years, James Lee Clark—Faygo, as he’s known to friends—has been a tireless human rights advocate and a staple in the region’s protest movements, from 2011’s Occupy Sacramento to 2015-16’s Right to Rest. He’s also the founder of the Community Dinner Project, which feeds the homeless community outside Sacramento City Hall before city council meetings. Most recently, Clark defeated local officials in a federal free speech lawsuit challenging the city’s ban on ‘aggressive’ panhandling.

Oh, and did we mention he’s done all this without a roof over his head?

But for all the work he’s done for others, today it’s Faygo who needs support. In recent months he lost a dear friend and mentor. Then, soon after, his mother. Clark is heir to his mom’s Oregon home, but he must pay $27,000 by October if he wants to save it from foreclosure. It’s a long shot, but Clark is going to do all he can to save his mom’s house so that one day he might call it home, too.

VOICES: River City: You recently went up against Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Sacramento City Council for their unconstitutional ‘aggressive panhandling’ law, and came out victorious. Congrats on that.

Faygo: I can literally say that I fought the law and I won.

V:RC: One thing that’s always been impressive to me is, given all that you do, you do it while living with the status of homelessness. How long have you been without a roof?

Faygo: About 15 years.

V:RC: And how long have you been engaged in activism?

Faygo: Since 2011, when Occupy Sacramento started.

V:RC: A couple of things have affected you in the last year—the loss of a mentor, and then your mom. Can you talk a little about that?

Faygo: Andy Conn was one of the people within the Occupy movement that I connected with more than others. We had a similar ideology on how to approach things. He was also one of the first people to bring in me under his wing. He basically helped teach me how to do what I do in a lot of ways. And it’s sad that he ended his own life. It kind of goes to show that sometimes the best people in the world also need the most help. He was one of those people that affected so many people that I don’t think he even realized how much impact he really had.

And then a month later, as I’m marching in South Sac, in one of the Stephon Clark marches…. I feel bad now, because I was live-streaming, and I get a phone call and I’m just like, “ignore that.” And then I check my messages in the morning to find out that it was somebody calling me to let me know that my mom had just passed away. Which still weighs pretty heavy.

V:RC: All this while you’re out protesting the Stephon Clark shooting regularly, as well.

Faygo: Yeah, and I kind of made the conscious decision at that point that it was time for me to step off the front line for a while, because I don’t want to be going through my own stuff and let that affect the work. There’s a lot of really valid work that needs to be [done] out there and the last thing they need is somebody that has a voice lashing out from their own pain, or whatever.

V:RC: You’ve got to take care of yourself.

Faygo: Exactly. Well, our actions impact the rest of the movement. If I’m out there and I know that I’m not necessarily in the healthiest headspace at the time, and I’m on that front line and I make that mistake that impacts the movement, then that’s on me and not the movement. Unfortunately, people will turn it on the movement.

Activist James Lee Clark sits with his dog Kosmo in Sacramento, California on July 11, 2018. (photo by Ashley Hayes-Stone)

V:RC: So you got the call, and you are your mom’s next of kin. So you had to go up and take care of things. Where is this?

Faygo: Oregon. Sprague River. Just outside of Klamath [Falls]. The first step was to get out there, secure the property, make sure it’s in my name. Technically I can’t finish everything for another month or two, because in probate [court] you can’t start until six months after the death. Which, I have no idea why they make you wait six months after the person died. They’re not waiting six months to foreclose, which is where it’s at right now.

My mom had taken a loan out from someone, to keep the property secure, get a new trailer and all that. She owes about $27,000. And I initially set up a fundraiser to help raise money to get a chunk [of the payment] in and then start working on the property so I can make it rentable and get it to where somebody else can use the property until I’m ready for it. But about a month ago, the person who she owed informed me that they are going to push through with the foreclosure. And will accept nothing except the full amount.

V:RC: So what’s your timeline on this?

Faygo: October.

V:RC: And you want to live there one day as well?

Faygo: Yeah. My mom fought her whole life to have that. She died at 57 years old. But she finally had property of her own. And, I don’t necessarily believe in ownership, but I do believe in honoring her through showing stewardship to the land. It’s a chance to make sure that there’s not some corporate entity and that’s gonna take over and destroy this seven-acre parcel. Granted, when you look at the big picture, seven acres is not a lot. But even if in every community we had that seven acres set aside, saved, and treated as if it’s earth, not something to be developed and turned into something else, then maybe there would be, hopefully, more of that in the future for the next generations.

V:RC: You have an emotional connection to that property, too.

Faygo: I do now. It’s interesting. My mom was very much more right-wing than me. In fact, to the point where we didn’t talk to each other for years. And I just reconnected with her about two years ago. We still had our political differences, but one thing that always resonated true was, she was the one in my family that always taught me to respect nature, to care about nature. That was her gift that will always live on in me. And we may not have agreed about everything else, but that one thing… I remember times when I was a kid, she found injured birds, brought them into the house, fixed them up, gave them a splint, healed them and then let them go.

V:RC: So you’ve got until October to pull together $27,000. What are you doing to try and make that happen right now?

Faygo: Well, I’ve got some friends trying to help me put together a benefit show. I’ve got a GoFundMe. And I’m also doing odd jobs when they’re available, basically whatever I can do to try to put some money together. I did several different moving jobs recently. I actually helped a nonprofit move their entire office—two-week job.

V:RC: You’ve put a lot of work into the community over the years, and this is a time where you could use some help trying to hold onto this parcel of land that belonged to your mom.

Faygo: This parcel of land and my sanity [laughs]. I don’t really do what I do to get recognition, but you’re right, it is a time where I actually could use the help.

To help Faygo save his mom’s house from foreclosure, go to his GoFundMe page or attend his fundraiser Wednesday, August 22, at the Fruit Ridge Community Collaborative.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited for clarity and length.


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Dave Kempa
Editor at VOICES: River City
Dave Kempa is the founder and editor of VOICES: River City.