Spotlight: Lela Hilton, Executive Director
Updated: Jan 26
Long before she was Clemente's first Executive Director, Lela Hilton was an educator and an active member of a small community in rural Washington where many families made their living off the land. After watching many of her neighbors lose their incomes due to natural resource depletion, Lela realized that her community needed a way to process this loss.
Earl Shorris's 1997 article in Harper's convinced her that accessible humanities education would provide the space for self-reflection and growth, empowering people to imagine new futures for themselves and their families. Lela left her job to start the Jefferson County Clemente Course and has been involved with the organization ever since. Get to know Lela with our quick Q&A!
What makes Clemente and the study of the humanities special to you? What I love about Clemente most is its capacity to shake things up in a way that pretty much is always for the good. Our students see themselves in a new way. We faculty teach and learn differently than in our more traditional classrooms. I think we all—students and faculty alike—feel freer and braver. And our community partners change how they look at poverty, and what works best for people trying to live good lives and make positive changes for themselves and their families. Clemente classrooms are magical, fierce and tender places and the only part of my job that makes me sad is that I’m no longer in them on a regular basis! Please share a favorite Clemente memory, or a favorite "fact" about the program that makes you proud to share your time and support!
Gosh, there are so many. I think it’s when students see themselves in a piece of literature, or through discussions in art or philosophy, and something really visceral is activated in them. They see that they are a part of something pretty powerful and universal that they can really build on and share. Something that is certainly practical but that is also deeply aspirational, and that can’t be easily taken away from them. There is profound joy in these moments, for all of us, and if we’re feeling lonely, there is real connection. I love being able to create opportunities for that kind of joy to be shared. It’s what we need more than anything these days.
What do you do outside of the Clemente universe--for work and for play? I live on 20 acres of forest land most of which was clear cut when we bought it, so I spend a lot of time messing around outside in the gardens and keeping the wild berries at bay. We built our own house and until a year ago, we lived off the grid. It’s all a never-ending project. I love to swim in the lakes and nearby Puget Sound, so summer is an especially happy time for me. Last year I helped run a friend’s campaign for county commissioner and that was an eye-opener. During these fraught Covid time, what I love most is time with close friends and our kids and grandkids. Those moments are especially precious these days.