Sunni Hutton: community lobbyist
How did you get involved with the Dutchtown South Community Corporation (DSCC)?
I grew up in a transient family. There were times we were homeless and there were times that we we stayed in the hotels my mother worked at. I remember a teacher from High School, that I cared about and brought me to tour colleges and stuff, that told me that the reason why Black people are in the situation they are in is because they are lazy. I saw how many hours my mother worked, while still being able to have dinner prepared and a routine for us when we got back from school. I knew something was wrong and that the notion that “if you work hard, good things will come to you” is a myth. I wanted to find out more about it and do whatever I could to resolve it.
So I got into education, thinking that it’s the way to fix it all. I started out teaching and was supposed to go to San Francisco. The day I decided to go was the day I came home to St. Louis — I went to school out in Nashville at Vanderbilt. It was also the day Mike Brown was shot and that changed my whole view. My family lived down the street at the time and I was able to walk that same day to the scene. Throughout my time of the visit all we heard were helicopters and police sirens. I saw so many people get upset, it’s like everyone became woke in that moment. It was energizing seeing so many people come together out of camaraderie and anger.
It was a turning point that made me decide that I had to stay here because there was so much work to do. Like why not do the work I want to do where I’m already connected to people I love and know very well? I started teaching and realized that the public education system is one of the most resistant areas for change. So I decided to get involved in the work I was already doing.
I tell people I get paid to be a neighbor. I was already attending community meeting, having these difficult conversations, showing up at protests, going to these Board of Aldermen meetings — to the point our Alders started referring to me as a community lobbyist because I would show up at tweet everything. They started responding to my tweets and I saw that it did make a change in how they voted.
Our protests aren’t as big as Boston where they can get like 14,000 people to come out. But the thing is that people are fighting and speaking out because they do recognize that they’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Tell me more about Dutchtown and the work that you do.
We serve four neighborhoods: Marine Villa, Mount Pleasant, Dutchtown and Gravois Park. This area used to be 99% White and started to change after the intentional urban renewal in parts of the central corridor and the Southside of St. Louis — like the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe — Black folks started moving into the area. We call it mapping disorganization, these are intentional traumatic and racist events that have led to the disorganization of people. Other events include the demolition of Darst-webbe and Mcree town. We don’t talk about these events. People use words like ‘urban renewal’ but let’s call it what it is: gentrification fuelled by racist politics and profit-driven capitalist systems. In the last 30 years is when the number of Black folks moving in here have increased dramatically, now the neighbourhood consists of over 78% people of colour. The 2008 housing crisis also left a lot of people without homes, a lot of people lost their homes and became part of the renter population. There’s increased transiency and people that come here think we don’t give a fuck. But we’ve been disorganized and it’s hard to bounce back from that.
Is there a particular defining experience in your activism work?
My involvement in Socialist Alternative helped me analyze situations and understand how systems operate. It made me realize that activism is not just about being upset and vocal. Using dialectical materialism you can decide what struggle to embed yourself in and how to intervene. Because of socialism I don’t believe in one person or politician being the end all and be all. It’s not about you as a singular person but the masses, it’s about helping the most oppressed people. By understanding what the everyday struggles of the most oppressed peoples are activists can learn how to support them. We have to continuously develop ourselves [and the people we are serving] as leaders and make sure this movement is sustainable.
How do you measure impact/success? Or are there any personal milestones you’d like to share?
Having 40 committed residents, from different demographics, come to every community meeting. People say that renters don’t care, but majority of the people in our committee are renters that are low income. There’s this one lady who works like 12 hour days and I bring her up because she amazes me and consistently proves everyone wrong. She reminds me of my mother. She’s a mentor, she comes to cleanups and committee meetings, and soon she will be leading our organization as a board member.
You’re also a spoken word poet. How do you see your poetry and activism work come together?
On one hand for your mental health it can get kind of crazy. You have to find time for yourself. But it’s fulfilling to see everything brought together. We see art as a universal language. We use art to survey people and they don’t even know it. We’ve used art for people to create whole plans for this neighborhood. There are so many ways we use art. I’ve used my spoken word poetry to engage and ground people. You can start off any activity or event with some poetry, to ground people in the work.
Seeing my work life merge with my personal interests and activism was like heavenly for me.
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DSCC is currently looking for funding:
- To hire a staff member to oversee its tenant organizing committee
- To hire a real estate coordinator to create more affordable and sustainable housing in the neighbourhood