Transcript: Ep. 5 The Master's Tools
(Intro music, synth beat melodic repeating medium tone voice singing "ah, ah, ah ah...")
KAREN: You’re listening to Who Raised You Podcast? A kitchen table conversation between Karen Jia Lian Yang and Treasure Shields Redmond.
TREASURE: Unfurled and unafraid, we’re centering voices of color from flyover country. And we start every podcast with a poem.
(Music fades out)
JUSTIN: My name is Justin Phillip Reed and this poem is titled “Carolina Prayer.”
Let the blood if your belly must have it, but let it
not be of me and mine. Let my momma sleep.
Let her pray. Let them eat. Let the reverend’s
devil pass over me. Let the odds at least
acknowledge us. Let the breasts be intact,
the insulin faithfully not far, and let the deep
red pinpoint puddle its urgency on a pricked
fingertip. Let the nurse find the vein the first time.
Let the kerosene flow and let my grandma praise
her bedside lord for letting her miss another winter.
Let me be just a little bit bitter so I remember:
Your columns and borders aint but the fractured,
the broke clean, the brownest gouges in the blades
of our great-great-great shoulders. Let me leave
and come back when my chest opens for you wider
than your ditches did to engorge my placeless body.
The mosquito-thick breath in your throat coats my skin
and it almost feels as if you love me. Let the AC
drown out the TV. Let the lotion bottle keep a secret
corner til Friday. Let Ike, Wan, D-Block, all my brother’s
brothers ride through the weekend. Let the cop car
swerve its nose into night and not see none of them.
Let us smell rain. Let the breeze through an oak hymn
the promise that keeps us waking. Let the cicada
unwind while hushpuppy steam slips out the knot
of a tourist’s hand, and let him hear in it legends
of how hot grease kept the hounds and the lash at bay.
(“Carolina Prayer” by Justin Philip Reed, originally published in RHINO)
(Music fades in)
Song lyrics: Sometimes what I say ain’t right
Givin’ you such a hard time (time)
Ain’t nobody said I was perfect (perfect)
But baby, good love is worth it all and I won’t let you fall… (fades out)
TREASURE: What if a black poet from Mississippi and a Taiwanese-American minister from Silicon Valley had a podcast?
KAREN: We’re about to find out!
TREASURE: We might even blowuptuate.
KAREN: You’re listening to Who Raised You? A kitchen table conversation between Karen Jia Lian Yang, that’s me, and Treasure Shields Redmond (whoop whoop). As we explore how culture, family, and intersecting identities pave our way toward liberation, we wanna know: who raised you? We’re really curious. Sit down, we have lots to talk about.
TREASURE: Awesome, today we're joined by Sunni Hutton – and it is Sunni, right? Alright, Sunni is a St. Louis native, educator and poet. She began writing poetry in elementary school as a way of coping with tumultuous childhood experiences. She describes her motivation to write as: "Where I am muted in life, the volume increases on paper." Ooh, love that!
KAREN: Mm, I love that, too.
TREASURE: Some of her work includes customized pieces for organizations such as InspireSTL and Magdalene St. Louis. She's a St. Louis native, educator, performance poet, activist, and proclaimed lover with her B.S. in Education from Vanderbilt's Peabody College and Master's of Education from the University of Missouri. Sunni uses her ability to write and empathize with individuals to teach workshops around the city, such as Central Print's Print and Poetry Workshop, as well as motivate populations to action including graduates of InspireSTL and Magdalene St. Louis' employees, St. Louis Public Radio's We Live Here, Green Party Rally and Socialist Alternative's Mass March.
Although she freely shares her writings and original poetry, served as a way to voice her struggles in childhood, relationships and bouts of depression, a slam winning poet, Sunni Hutton is currently using platform to teach and tell her truth. (emphatically) Mmm!! As a performance poet, she's theatrical in performance, honest in content, and overall captivating. (exclaiming loudly) So! Sunni, how are you doing?
SUNNI: I'm good - that was a lot.
(laughter all around)
TREASURE: Well, you're doin' a lot!
SUNNI: I'm doing a lot...
KAREN: You contain multitudes... (laughing all around)
TREASURE: Hello! I am so glad that you agreed to join us. We knew that we wanted to feature a conversation with you in an episode about The Master's Tools. Because whether we can use the quote/unquote "master's tools" to dismantle this house, continues to be a foundational question for those of us trying to do radical work and operating in radical spaces.
You know, Karen and I both have a particular story when it comes to how we grapple with those contradictions. And we're really excited to hear your take on all of that, especially as someone who studied educational policy. So, the first question, the famous question is: Who raised you?
SUNNI: Oh... mon mère (French, “my mother”)! My mother and all of the many women in my family. My mom is, she was the oldest out of three and we grew up mostly - my family migrated from Birmingham, Alabama and then moved to Kinloch, if you all familiar with St. Louis County - one of the - a thriving Black neighborhood. My family used to tell me stories about Kinloch, like, you didn't have to leave Kinloch, you didn't have to go anywhere.
Because they had the candy shop, they had the furniture store, they had the movie theater, and the majority of it was Black owned and Black populated. So they grew up in that area, but my mom was a part of the poor Kinloch, not the middle class, not the upper class, just the poor Black Kinloch. And her experience, her mother, my grandmother, actually (long pause, then quietly), you know, we go through some things. Her mother actually left them at a young age and my mother was forced to raise her younger brother and her younger sister on her own. And she was probably what, like, early teens doing it?
TREASURE: (quietly) Oh wow.
SUNNI: So she took on that role as mom at an early age but also had a child at an early age, around sixteen, so had to be like, double mom? And my grandmother would leave during the first of the month, would leave the food stamps on the table so she could at least feed them. And because she took on that role, she was kind of like the momma for everybody in the family and she still is to this day. And she raised me, (proudly, confidently) and so I am just like her!
KAREN: Okay..! So I was gonna say, how much of that was passed on, you know? Like growing up fast, like taking care of others and mom for everyone...?
SUNNI: (confidently) Yeah, so I'm a boss, I'm not gonna lie! Because of her!
KAREN: (laughing) Okay, don’t hold back!
SUNNI: (clapping twice for emphasis) Because of her I'm bossy as fuck, but also because of her I just love being around my family. I have five siblings with six of us in total. My aunt and her kids always lived with us so we had a house of eleven. So it was always, I'm so used to being around people and I love it and I enjoy it and I get my energy from that.
And I do take on that role of taking care of other people. I'm the one who's always cookin. Even when I moved out to the south side. I used to live here as a youth, but when I came back to the south side, and I started making friends out here, I would just invite everybody over and we would eat.
KAREN: Yeah, so you need a home and you need to be nourished, so come to my place.
SUNNI: Exactly, exactly. Cause thing is, I want people to do that for me. I may not say it, (whispering) but if you feed me, you got me.
(laughing all around)
SUNNI: Especially if it's good....
KAREN: Right? So, so this means we have something on our to-do list because we find ourselves at a coffee shop today...
TREASURE: Mmm hmm.
KAREN: And Sunni, thankfully it's your day off, and you've celebrated with pizza and beer. (Treasure laughs) Usually, at my kitchen table we have a little bit of a spread and that's how we show hospitality as part of our podcast. So, we have that on our to-do to make that happen.
SUNNI: Okay, so I'll be lookin for that Sunday invite for food.
KAREN: Mmhm! Mmhm, yup! (Treasure laughing)
SUNNI: I love a day when I don't have to cook.
KAREN: Mhm, yes.
SUNNI: But with my mom it was you know just, you just feed people, you take care of them, and then you do what you have to do as a mom or as a woman. You just take on that role.
TREASURE: So you're this young, Black child, raised in the predominantly Black suburban community of Kinloch. Eleven people in the home and two, there are two, your aunt and your mom are the two adults, right?
TREASURE: And so, what we know about your biography is that you eventually went to Vanderbilt which is pretty damn Tony.
(laughing all around, two claps)
TREASURE: Not a lot of people with eleven folks in the house, maybe eleven servants (deep laughter)
SUNNI: That is true, that is true.
TREASURE: So how did that happen? and what was it like for you to let them have some of that soul St. Louis vibe at Vandy, as they call it. (laughing)
SUNNI: (amused) They do call it Vandy! Well, like, honestly my school was everything for me. That's where I thrived. Goin... and my teacher's really took a liking to me - they would take me to church with them. They would take me to their homes in St. Charles. And I'd be lookin’ around like, oh! That's a big window. How tall our those ceilings? Like… oh! That's what they do out here? Right? They'd even try to get me to date they sons - it was crazy.
But I was really nourished by the teachers and the administration of my schools. From student council to when they wanted to pilot a program to offer us more AP courses or college courses, they called on me. They pushed me to be a part of it. So they really nurtured me in that way and I would say the only, the way that I got to Vanderbilt was through them. Like, them believing in me, and them telling me that I could do it.
Because my mom didn't, she didn't help me through that process, like she didn't know how to fill out a college application. She didn't know what financial aid was and scholarship opportunities.
SUNNI: So, I had to just, luckily, like luckily, cause it's rare - cause these same teachers didn't treat someone else who was makin C's the same way that they treated a person like me who was makin A's.
KAREN: So, there was some, like exceptionality that was a part of that, so there's the mixed feelings of like, yes, I'm so glad we're able to have this connection, and at the same time, like, what about the other people?
SUNNI: Yeah, yeah, I even talked to - I talked to - I actually stopped talking to one of my teachers because of that same reason. When she came to visit me when I was out at Vanderbilt. She, we met at an IHOP - I had just left an Isaiah Rashad concert, cause it's very rare to get hip hop in Nashville, ok?!
SUNNI: So I had to leave! But I meet her at the IHOP. And she's like, well why couldn't the people who you went to school with, why couldn't they have made it? You're at Vanderbilt, why couldn't they have done it? She said, it's cause they're lazy.
And I was like, whoa.... are you telling me that a whole population of people? You're gonna generalize them and say that they're lazy? ‘Cause those people you're talking about is my family now. And I know what we went through, and I know the struggles that we had. And I know how hard it is - my mom worked three fuckin jobs. And so for you to say something like that, it just broke my heart to have someone who did support me to say that, that my people is lazy.
And I know that not to be the case because we work more hours than any other person that makes over a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year. We work more hours than they could ever dream of. So, that was a hard place to be in and I just recently got back in contact with her to try to mend that relationship and try to explain to her why I felt the way that I did. But because of the support that I did get from them, the motivation, the knowledge that they had, I was able to attend Vanderbilt.
KAREN: And then now, you found yourself journeying through education as well, huh?
SUNNI: Education at Vanderbilt... that was a stark difference from what I was used to to what I was being exposed to. We have this group on Facebook called "overheard at Vandy" - and you probably have it at a bunch of other universities too. And it's just like, people type up little statuses about what they overheard someone saying.
TREASURE: (giggling) Oh lord....
SUNNI: Oh yes...
TREASURE: (laughing) So it's like Black at Yale, Black at Harvard - they also have those, those kind of groups too.
SUNNI: Well this one was open to anybody though.
TREASURE: Okay, okay...
SUNNI: It's just like, we heard you say some crazy stuff which you ain't heard before and it just got posted. (TREASURE giggling) There was a post about someone talking about, like their family's private jet...
SUNNI cracking up
TREAUSURE: (laughing) Oh, just a private jet.
SUNNI: It's just a private jet - it's nothing to it. And what I came in contact with was just a stark difference. (high-pitched, incredulous) What?! A private jet? What does that look like?! I think...
KAREN: What do you use it for? Where do you fill it up? Like...
TREASURE: (emphatically) Does it take a bus card? Does it take a bus card?? (snaps)
(laughing all around)
SUNNI: The question I've been trying to find the answer to, Metro St. Louis bus card… (cracking up)
TREASURE: Oh my goodness. Yeah, that really, that puts a highlight on the kind of class difference that you were confronted with. But you know what, since this episode is about the master's tools… you know what I thought was intriguing? …was that schools do so much to mis-educate us. Right? So, it's... you and I kind of have similar pasts, in that I studied Education in undergrad, too, and I went on to teach.
I taught high school for about ten years, then I taught college for about ten years. And while I was in Education, I was constantly at odds with myself because they don't do everything that needs to be done to give Black children the health, wealth and safety that they deserve. But you're kind of given this explanation, like, this is how we do it. How you going to go up against the whole system? Just make the change in your classroom. So, how do you reconcile that in your studies in Education?
SUNNI: I'm thinkin about when... so I did a degree in, it's a long name, Human and Organizational Development in Education Policy. And, so I didn't get the traditional Education background. So because of that I went and did Teach for America and was placed here in St. Louis for Science, middle school education. And… here in St. Louis, things are a little bit different! (TREASURE giggles)
I'm not even going to lie. I was seeing a transition - like, what TFA was originally doin’, and what they're doing now. And I will say, I did see some change warriors in the TFA staff. I saw people who attempted, I don't know if you're familiar with St. John United Church of Christ off of Grand? I saw people who attended that church, who I normally see in the pews, who I normally see at the rallies, they were TFA staff. And there was also, Brittney, was her name I believe -
SUNNI: Yes, she was the executive director at that time I believe. So they were trying to be this, they were calling it transformational change and making sure that there was a social justice aspect when they came to teaching. So, making sure that the content that we taught was connected to the backgrounds of the students but also connected to, like, the macro issues and the macro system at hand. So you wanted to be able to make that connection with the kids. I will say that I did teach at a charter school and they weren't havin’ it. They, you know, a lot of places, you go to a charter school, they just provide the curriculum and say this is what you're supposed to teach and this is how you gonna teach it.
TREASURE: When you say they, do you mean administration?
SUNNI: Administration, yes. But I think with charter schools it exceeds administration because, it's like a franchise, so it's like gettin a Pizza Hut and saying this is the slogans you're gonna use, this is the logo that you're gonna use, this is the prices you're gonna keep it at. And they do a similar thing with charter schools - they say, this is the font you're gonna use, these are the colors you get to choose from, this is the type of uniforms they’re going to wear and these are some of the behavior systems you're gonna put into place.
TREASURE: So, you have to stay on brand and on message.
SUNNI: Yes. You do.
TREASURE: (laughing) Mmhm.
SUNNI: And so, there was a conflict with what TFA St. Louis was teaching me versus what the charter school wanted. So I had closed my doors, there’d be times when I would do lessons and I would just have to close it. And trying to teach to that, to my kids and expose them to some things and engage in discussion with them. And I tell you they ate that up. They loved it. They know more than we give them credit for.
KAREN: Mhm. TREASURE: Mm.
SUNNI: And I enjoyed it and I love it. But I did have struggles with administration, just the constant conflict with the administration. Cause, not only was the environment oppressive to the kids, it was oppressive to teachers as well, especially teachers who wanted to push those boundaries. But using the master's tools…? I had to tweak em. I had to!
TREASURE: Modified master's tools, ok?! (laughing)
SUNNI: (agreeing) I had to modify those tools so that they could - I couldn't lie to my kids about the reality, especially when they're experiencing it on a regular basis.
KAREN: Yeah, I love that you brought up that the kids know more than we have credit from, what we give them credit for... because my most recent job was working with children and I think about how there's more and more education now that's about from the ground up, let the students be co-teachers with you, rather than just filling them with information that's predetermined. In a way, that kind of approach is really western, it's really colonial, it says we know best - and it doesn't teach people to think for themselves.
SUNNI: Yeah, I like to think of myself as a facilitator. Like, you know what I'm sayin? I'm gonna set up this environment for you and whatever you choose to do with it, hey, I'm gonna let it happen. And maybe I'll ask questions along the way to push you? But they, they, they are the teachers in my book.
KAREN: And I think about how you pursued Education Policy and like a Master's of Education on purpose, and when you were sharing about your experiences growing up, I was thinking about my experience as a second generation immigrant where my parents wouldn't be able to walk me through how do you apply for colleges here in the US or how do you get financial aid - both of which are what Treasure has decided to put herself to. So, I'm curious because we ask a lot of our guests this, too - how do you see yourself now as kind of being who you wish was around for you when you were younger?
SUNNI: Oh, that's always hard, right? I got asked this awhile ago. I think it was, I forget, it was some type of assessment we did and they wanted us to look at the people in our lives and the role that they played. They were like, who are the people that push you, that... and I didn't have anybody on that side. Because I remember calling my momma when I was in college and was just cryin... like, I can't do this, this is what's wrong. And she was just like, you know, whatever decision you make you always have a place with us and we're gonna support you in that decision.
So, she never said, girl you better stay your butt in college and fight through that. Something I would have liked! But she didn't! But what I do appreciate about my mom is that she always allowed me to make my own decisions, I had to figure it out.
But the thing is, like, if I didn't grow up the way that I did, I wouldn't be fighting for what I'm fighting for now. And I wouldn't be the person that I am. And I love who I am and I'm continuously growing - and.. I have fun! That's all I can say. I have fun! There was some struggle, but I have fun - we kicked it! That's all I can ask for.
TREASURE: You know what you just reminded me of that Nikki Giovanni poem, is it Nikki Rosa? Where she writes about how I hope no one ever writes about me. Because they'll assume I was unhappy, never understanding I was quite happy all the while.
KAREN: Mm. SUNNI: Mhm.
TREASURE: So, let's move to your poet self. Cause we talked about your educational self and your policy driven self. But what about the words? How did you meet the words? How did you become a poet?
SUNNI: As a kid I just wrote. I'm not a very - when you asked me to do this, (whispering) I was kind of nervous, (louder) but I also kind of appreciated it because no one really asks me questions about me. And who I am and my background. And I also don't disclose that information. But if somebody's willing to ask me, I'm willing to answer the question. And so, being able to - losing my train of thought here.... (everyone laughing)
...But being able to have an opportunity to share with you of who I am is appreciated. As a kid I was the same way where I didn't speak much, I would just observe. Just watch, just observe. And whenever I felt some kind of way, I just froze. Cause that's also how my family was. I tell people this - the only emotion that my momma ever showed was anger.
SUNNI: So, you know when she was pissed off, okay? I just, anything that I felt I kept it in and I would just write about it. So that's how I started writing and to this day I'm trying to be more vocal and communicative, but for the most part I just write it down. And writing it down actually helps me understand what I'm feeling, why I'm feeling it, and what caused it. So it's just another step before actually voicing it.
TREASURE: But you say you don't share much but your bio says slam-winning poet. So you get up on stage and share some things. And I actually came into contact with you leading a meeting with Socialist Alternative. So, why don't you see that as sharing? or do you?
SUNNI: What, standing up on stage and sharing?
TREASURE: Yeah!! (laughing)
SUNNI: Oh my goodness. I didn't start sharing until, goodness, it 2015? December of 2015. And… I got up on an open mic stage and shared a poem that I wrote. It was a sonnet. It was a Shakespearean sonnet.
KAREN: You got the stanzas… rhythm… TREASURE: Right!!
SUNNI: Oh my goodness! And people looked at me crazy! I'm not even gonna lie. You know because people were coming up sharing like spoken word pieces. For me to get up and share a sonnet, people looked at me like hmm? (laughing all around)
Then I had a friend tell me, well if you want people to listen then you need to just write it the way that you speak. Because when I write my Shakespearean sonnets, it's like Elizabethan language mixed with the hood in me. You know’m sayin? And I love that, it's fun to me. So, just write it the way that you speak. That's when I started just saying things the way that I would normally say it in a conversation with someone. And it felt good to do that. I really liked it.
It was the other step - after the writing, and realizing what everything means and why I feel that way, it was like now perform it and let it all out. So I was able to let it out. And it resonated with people and I was ... you know, eventually after a while? I couldn't even feel what I felt from when I initially wrote those pieces. It, those feelings didn't matter anymore. I figured it and I learned from it and now it's time to keep pushing.
KAREN: So would you say that performing it is kind of the final stage of exploring a feeling that you're going through or trying to untangle or, it's not always like that?
SUNNI: No, I think that's a good way to explain it. After I get it out, it's like (sigh of relief) hehhh.....
KAREN: She has this blissed out face right now...
(laughing all around)
SUNNI: Yes, people have their yoga, I have my performance.
TREASURE: Well, I see that thing of modified tools coming through again because you took the Elizabethan, Shakespearean sonnet, but then you said you added or mixed it with some hood. So once again we have the master's tools, you know? The US canon of literature, it starts in Greece and it ends somewhere in 1958. And it's mostly dead white men. So… (cracks up laughing)
SUNNI: (laughing) That's what I learned in high school - that's what they gave me.
TREASURE: Exactly, exactly, that's what we all were given. But you modified those tools which brings me up to the Socialist Alternative. Alternative makes me think of modified tools too, right? It's not straight socialism, it's a socialist alternative. So are you connected deeply with that group, or were you just collaborating with them on the day that I saw you?
SUNNI: I would say that I am connected with them. I am the branch organizer of Socialist Alternative St. Louis - wonderful group of people.
TREASURE: And what's the mission of Socialist Alternative St. Louis?
SUNNI: Yeah, I wouldn't call it a mission, I don’t know, when I think mission I think of nonprofits...
KAREN: (jokingly) What are they trying to do? What are we doing?
TREASURE: What's the goal?
KAREN: What do we want to see happen?
SUNNI: Right... Right... just a socialist program that includes those basic things - we want that fifteen dollar minimum wage, we want Medicare for all, we want to be there to eliminate racism, sexism, able-ism, we're trying to eliminate those things.
KAREN: So when I started thinking about your involvement with Socialist Alternative what I kind of started wondering was- how do you think of your relationship to or understanding of, for example, the Black Panther party? Like a party just for Black folks or people of color or whatever. When I was looking and exploring that, it was like okay something that was such a big part of fracture of COINTELPRO and also infighting within that. So I'm curious to know, why Socialist Alternative or where do you see the possibilities in politics today? Especially given how entrenched that two-party system, all this gerrymandering nonsense and all that, lobbying of course...
TREASURE: And the smear program against alternative economy choices - the smear program against communism and socialism that we've been taught to associate that with some bad feelings, it’s almost Pavlovian. When somebody says communism, we're like (pretend scared) Oh!!! Or somebody says socialism, we're like (pretend frightened) Ohhh!!! (laughing) So yeah...
SUNNI: I think there's a huge opportunity in politics, in the US right now for a large left leading group. And you see that with the emergence, first off, like after Bernie Sanders started using that word “socialist” it was the most Googled word! People were like, “What does this mean??” They were trying to figure it out! Especially because they felt a connection to him, right?
And they were like, “Oh yeah, we can get with this fifteen dollar minimum wage, free education, of course we want Medicare for all! They, were like we can get with this! But they were like, (whispering) but what is socialism???”
(laughing all around)
TREASURE: Right! right! She's moving her fingers across her imaginary her keyboard.
SUNNI: Because there are these negative connotations associated with socialism and communism and when someone as prominent as Bernie Sanders uses that word, people wanted to really figure it out. With the surge of people becoming members of DSA, they have like 25,000 members now? 25,000 people that are identifying as democratic socialists??? That's a huge opportunity.
There was recently, I want to say September 9th, there was a town hall meeting with Socialist Alternative, DSA and this was spawned by a petition to get Bernie Sanders to make a call for a revolutionary party. And there was over 35,000 signatures. So there's a huge opportunity for us to take on a third party that will be representative of the people and not representative of the billionaire class or corporations.
Because that's what it is right now with Democrats. They got other interests and when they come to be paid for by these mass corporations, they're gonna put their interests over the interests of the working people. So there's an opportunity there.
TREASURE: So true.
KAREN: Yeah, there's this phrase that I really like that you have apparently which is that - the poets are the unofficial legislators of the world.
TREASURE: (laughing, amused) Wow…
KAREN: And I really want to hear you talk about it and specifically what's coming to my mind, you know people talk about the Bernie bros for example, and the problem you get when you don't race into account with the class analysis.
So I would love to hear your reflections on that and how in the poet world, how have you seen poets be that, those unofficial legislators or even how have you seen those ideas and the words that are onstage be brought to life by the people you surround yourself with?
SUNNI: That is not my quote!
KAREN: Oh! Whose is it??
SUNNI: I can't remember!
KAREN: Ok, so Sunni has referenced this before as an idea- okay.
SUNNI: When I think about poets, and this is not just people who call themselves poets, this is writers; these are rappers (whispering) love me some rappers! (laughing)
TREASURE: (laughing) Me too.
SUNNI: You know, these are singers, these are artists in every way - they create in their writings this ideal world, of what it would look like, what it feels like, what it tastes like. Then you see years from on, you'll see people try to replicate that. I'm thinking of frikkin Karl Marx - we're living by that right?
As socialists, we take a Marxist system to analyze our current system and then past history and then some type of analysis where we say this is what we can look forward to in the future if we continue on this route. But if we decide to take this route, this is what we can look forward to. So that's what I meant that when I said they're the unofficial legislators.
KAREN: There's a book that you have, is that correct? "The Art of Hurting"? Yeah... so we're thinking that has probably resonated with a lot of people and I imagine so because all over the place I see "Milk and Honey" by Rupi Kaur and I think there's something about that theme of transforming pain into beauty or people writing and that being a transformative process, a healing process for themselves and in that finding empowerment.
How do you see that playing out in your work? Have people ever talked to you about the things that you've written and-- I think, I imagine that when you write something there's so much of yourself that you put onto paper and then for people to interact with it is something pretty special and at the same time they never exactly get what your experience is.
SUNNI: If you, I like to say that poets we tell all our business in our writings. So when I go to an open mic, I say keep this between us...
KAREN: Okay.... okay... so you're creating an intimate space.
SUNNI: I'm saying that, but... share it if you want to. But in my writing, I kind of let it all out, everything I'm feeling, everything I'm thinking goes onto that paper. During that time where I wrote "The Art of Hurting," it was a collection of pieces written over about a year and I was in a very volatile relationship.
And the day that I did my book release, I was coming out of that depression and I was able to share that with people who are really close to me, people that I love, people who was probably just walkin’ down the street and saw a bunch of us crowded up in MESA Home, like… it was… it was a healing process and I wanted to share with people and let them know that when you are feeling that way, do the opposite of what you're feeling. Don't allow yourself to be stuck in it.
KAREN: It's that pushing yourself that you were talking about earlier, right? Like, who’s pushing you? Will you push yourself and how?
SUNNI: And that takes time, like you gotta build that muscle. Like, do all the things that you enjoy. Don't get stuck in the depression; don't allow it to weigh you down. That means get up and dance. That means get out of the house. That means go for a walk. That means go play some music, that means go do things you love to do. That means shop on a budget.
SUNNI: Right? You know, you take it to far....
TREASURE: You'll be really depressed.
KAREN: So Treasure, I feel like because you and Sunni have so many resonances together in your backgrounds and what you're doing - I'm curious about how you're pushing yourself or what all of that looks like, or if there is anything that Sunni has said that you're like, oh my gosh, I'm really being taken back to something that is always propelling me or some of the times I have felt those ways or... similar roots.
TREASURE: Yeah, well, there are a couple of resonances - the educational resonance is intriguing because we were both classroom teachers at one point. And dissatisfied classroom teachers at one point. I also was interested in her move from Kinloch to university - because when I was teaching, and I taught high school mostly, there were so many Sunnis in my classroom who I wasn't able to get my arms around because what was going on in your neighborhood was competing with what I wanted to do for them.
So your teachers were, because of your personality- you’re an observer, you didn't have a parent who anti-school. So even though your parent wasn't knowledgeable about the college process, they weren't impeding it, so you were kind of ideal. But the same reason you got mad at your mentor who said everybody else was lazy?
One of the things that she didn't understand was that the other people didn't have those same facets. Like some of them had parents who were anti education, or who were like, why don't you try to get that job at McDonalds - which of course is going to lower your grade point average because of course you can't spend as much time studying. You won't choose those AP classes because you know how rigorous they are and you're cool with a C or a B in your regular English. So I wonder what Sunni would say that we need to do in order to get our arms around more of those other Sunnis (giggling) in the classrooms.
SUNNI: Mmm.... get our arms around them Sunnis?
TREASURE: Yes, them other little Sunnis.
SUNNI: (big sigh) I tell you, when I think about being in my classroom, all I could do was just show myself as an educator, just show myself. If I was honest and bare with anybody, it was with my students. Like, I let them see every part of me, and every imperfection.
But then I also made sure that I did at least consistently attempt to stay in connection with their families. So that means showin up at their house, that meant gettin invited to birthday parties and being there, they really had to know you and trust you, for you to be that person for them. For them to even allow you to put your arms around them.
TREASURE: Because you did say that your teachers went that extra mile. Like, they invited you into their home and that sort of thing.
SUNNI: And so I did that with my kids. My kids was walkin on Cherokee with me. (TREASURE bursts out laughing) They were walkin on Cherokee with me. And I stay in contact with their moms and dads. And I didn't do, one thing that I did - I didn't spend all my money on them, I didn't do like, crazy, like, elaborate things to get them to want to be with me or like me. It was just like, I'm gonna be me. That's all I can do.
TREASURE: And when you're coming from a spirit of genuineness, you know like you said, they know more than you think they know. Children are much more empathetic than adults because we've been taught to shut out so much of that. So they can feel you, if you're real. And they can feel that you're not real, too. And they’ll let you know. (laughing)
SUNNI: And there's some kids you gotta be patient with. I'm thinking about one of my kids. There's one of my kids I had, oh my goodness she broke my heart so many times.
TREASURE: No, oh no.... (laughing)
SUNNI: Ooh!! She broke my heart so many times. But she still just calls me to this day. We just sit and talk on the phone. She let me know everything that's going on - at least her version.
TREASURE: What grade is she in?
SUNNI: She is in the 7th grade.
TREASURE: The 7th grade.
KAREN: It's a crucial time, right?
TREASURE: Oh god I would not go back....
(laughing all around)
KAREN: There's a whole story there...
SUNNI: What's so crazy is that you say we connect on the teaching level is that all of that the women around me that I admire used to be teachers.
TREASURE: Interesting! KAREN: Ah… okay.
SUNNI: Amanda is a teacher. I work with two women from the EPA right now with our cooperative agreement, both of them are teachers. Paula used to be a facilitator, she's the executive director of Thomas Dunn. So just to see that everybody has that little teacher in them. I don't know, makes me happy, makes me smile, and I'm like, I've got people I can really look up to and admire and model myself after. So, thank you for that.
TREASURE: Well, I also want to let you know that you're drawn to people who roll up their sleeves and do the work. Cause some people be, you know, they be talkin about the work, (giggling) but they don't be doin the work. (laughing) When you are in the classroom with kids, you'll do the work.
KAREN: You can't hide - you gotta hold your bladder (everyone laughing) - you gotta quiet them down...
TREASURE: Right, right, right. That's the work.
KAREN: The quiet coyote only goes so far… (to SUNNI) I saw you doing a little shoulder dance, like, clearly it does make you happy. I have a little bit of a challenging question for you - I think we know that you're not necessarily defined by what you do from nine to five, especially cause we surround ourselves with so many creative people - What would you define as a teacher? What makes a teacher?
SUNNI: (long pause) That IS a hard question.
KAREN: (laughing) I know, it seems so surface right? Like, Google as we talked about earlier, will tell you one thing, but what does it mean to you?
SUNNI: You know, I can only describe it as someone willing to let their guard down and be themselves - to show all those great qualities and those imperfections, but who want the best for the people they're going to be engaged with, right? I think… (pause) even though I just gave you that definition, I'm gonna have to take some time and think about it.
KAREN: It can be ever evolving, which is where Education should be headed. Ever evolving.
TREASURE: Mmmmm. Yeah, we're ever modifying those tools. You know, as a St. Louis native who came back. That is very interesting. That is interesting.
KAREN: (interrupting) You didn’t have to!
TREASURE: Yes… Karen often talks about the Midwest being perceived as flyover country. People mostly recognize Chicago, they're like middle country, New York and then there's nothing else until you get to L.A. (laughing) So, you know, what made you take that TFA assignment in St. Louis and not Philadelphia, Oakland, Harlem?
SUNNI: St. Louis was my first choice. St. Louis and Science was my first choice. I… my goodness! I knew that I wanted to come back. I was supposed to come back. But there was this defining moment. I was livin in Nashville, still going to Vanderbilt and I hadn't moved back because I wanted to assert my independence. And I was like let me try this thing on my own. Even during the summer I would stay, even during holidays I would stay.
And then, kind of the last couple weeks of the summer I decided to come back. And during that summer, the day that I arrive, I'm in the car with my sister and she was like, hey - Kayla just, Kayla's in Canfield right now and she's going live on Facebook, somebody just got shot. She was like, and I think they got shot nine times by the cops. And I was like, what, are you serious? And we lived off of, let me get my streets right, West Florissant and Chambers.
TREASURE: Oh wow. The heart.
SUNNI: So we're like, couple blocks. All I have to do is walk. And she shows me the video and I'm like, I'm staying. This is a clear sign that I'm supposed to be here. Because why would I go somewhere else? When I know St. Louis, my family is here, I'm connected here. And then like, I've traveled to so many places. I've been to Shanghai, China; I've been to Hangzhou; I've been to the UK; I've been to France. Mexico. And a couple other cities here in the States. And I said, (wry laugh) everywhere I go, one thing I realize, no matter where I go I'm still a nigger.
(long heavy quiet) So I might as well stay here and do the work. (quietly) So I'm here. And I'm stayin. And I'm tryin. And we makin strides. But we have somewhere to go.
TREASURE: Mmmmm. Well that was, that gave me chills. That gave me chills. You know the truth does that.
KAREN: It's those moments where, you're like, that's the last word... Right?
TREASURE: Yeah, yeah. Thank you so much for sharing with us.
KAREN: Yes. Thank you.
TREASURE: Where can we find out more about your work. Is there a current project you're working on? Where can we buy your book?
SUNNI: Well, you can look up my book at www.sunnihutton.com - that's Hutton like button but with an h.
KAREN: (laughing) Hutton like button.
SUNNI: Currently, I'm at Dutchtown South Community Corporation and we just doin work in Marine Villa, Gravois Park, Mount Pleasant and Dutchtown trying to resolve the issues of illegal dumping in our neighborhood. We are high-- we are like, top ten neighborhoods when it comes to dumping and that causes a lot of health concerns for our residents - also attracts vermin and rodents and all other types of stuff we ain't prepared for. So, if you want to look up, you know, find more about that and get involved with that cause we're also doin clean ups in the neighborhood as well. You can go to www.dutchtownsouth.org.
KAREN: Wonderful. Thank you so much. Well, that's really so important that you shared that with us because we love getting people to support everyone who comes on our podcast.
And then to tune into our podcast, we are going to be at whoraisedyoupodcast.com - and that's where people can learn more and support us. You can book us or contact the people that we've been talking to or donate and buy a cup of tea or coffee and support media by people of color from flyover country. You can like us on Facebook or Instagram. You can email as at firstname.lastname@example.org to suggest poets, guests, topics or to help with transcription – oh, we need some help! And we're thankful to Geletaria del Leone for giving us this conference room. They have a free reservation system, I know! Treasure Shields Redmond, her hands are out...
TREASURE: What?? I'm just like, FREE??
KAREN: We can talk like we need a map of free spaces where people can do creative things all around the city. And wherever you are, not necessarily just in St. Louis, wherever you call home - you should do that, too. And if you own a space, you should open it up to people.
We're thankful for consulting by FarFetched Collective. You can contact email@example.com to learn about more about how they can help you launch or expand your project, business or nonprofit with their agency framework. Just before we got here we had Andrew Warshauer in the house, and he’s helping with editing and we're so thankful to him.
TREASURE: Thank god!
KAREN: Thank you- we just had a talk. We know how to connect with people. And this is us! Co-hosted by:
TREASURE: Treasure Shields Redmond.
KAREN: And Karen Jia Lian Yang. Talk to you soon.
(music fades in)
Baby I just need you to know
Your essence is beautiful
I’ll always love you so (Oh)}
(music fades out)