Interview by Peter Sage with Mr. Jonathan W. Hutto, Sr. from Empower DC
Peter – How do you make a difference through Empower DC?
Jonathan – Empower DC is an advocacy organization that builds power among those most directly impacted by inequality. We work with front-line communities bearing the brunt of crises and trauma. We enter a community to learn, support and potentially to help build local leadership if desired by the people. When the people build organization, they are in a better position to influence and possibly wield power to affect progressive change.
Through Empower DC, for example, the Ivy City neighborhood has built a solid core of 15-20 people who have formed a permanent organization known as “The Friends of Crummell” which meets on a regular basis to carry out Political Advocacy and Social Support programs for the community
Peter – What are the core issues?
Jonathan – Housing as a Human Right for all Human Beings is the basis of our advocacy. Gentrification, due to DC being Ground Zero within the United States for the forced Exodus of Indigenous Black Citizens due to rising Housing costs over the last decade, is our major core issue. Sadly and disgracefully there is a national agenda to eliminate public housing which is the most affordable housing currently for the marginalized in DC. As it stands, the DC Housing Authority plans to reposition and/or remove up to 24,000 units of Public Housing which would mean displacement, loss of housing and loss of Tenants Rights. A recent PBS Ken Burns documentary titled “East Lake Meadows” documents the struggle of Public Housing residents in Atlanta, GA (where Public Housing was totally eliminated by 2011) which is a microcosm of the current struggle we’re engaged in.
Our Organization is deeply engaged in the Right to Return Struggle for displaced Barry Farm residents along with organizing alongside Public Housing residents in Park Morton and Greenleaf Gardens. The Movement for Racial Equity being codified within DC Law is also a work we’ve championed and advocated for.
Peter – How did you become a Community Organizer?
Jonathan – My formative years took place in Southwest Atlanta GA, both of my parents were born and reared in the segregated South. My Mother was primarily responsible for my early political and social education. She taught me about both the historical and enduring impact of racism upon our lives. I felt relatively secure within our all Black communities although the Black Working Class is not a Utopia. However, that feeling was shattered when at the age of nine in early 1987, I witnessed the late Rev. Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) lead 90 Black demonstrators into all White Forsyth County GA thirty miles outside of my hometown. The purpose of the march was for Integration and celebrating the King Holiday. The 90 demonstrators were met with the chant of “Niggers Go Home.”
I became an Undergraduate student leader and organizer at Howard University in the mid to late 1990’s advocating for Student Rights while simultaneously supporting the Black Working Class communities adjacent to the university at that time. The late Lawrence Guyot, Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) during the 1960’s and Civic Leaders within LeDroit Park at that time (there’s a street named for him in that neighborhood today), trained me in the art of street organizing and effective strategies to help people build power no matter where they reside in life. I paid tribute to Guyot upon his passing nearly 8 years ago.
The life-altering experience for me during this time was the Fireside Chat with Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) on February 17th 1998 from Howard’s Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel. He left us with dictums that are as relevant today if not more than they were back then. One of those dictums is “Once you fight for the people, the people will always fight to protect you.” I paid homage to Kwame and the impact he had upon my life at my 40th Birthday celebration a few years back.
Peter – What has changed in the COVID era?
Jonathan – COVID-19 has greatly exacerbated the existing challenges our constituency was already battling and struggling through everyday. This crisis has laid bare the sinister nature of Racism and Class Stratification within this society.
Peter – How do you use the food provided by Food For All DC?
Jonathan – Currently we’re supporting 50 plus families weekly within the Ivy City neighborhood with groceries from Food For All along with fresh produce from our partners Dreaming Out Loud. We’re also supporting 25 plus families weekly in the Greenleaf Gardens Senior Building in SW DC with fresh produce from our partners Owl’s Nest.
In order for our people to ultimately thrive and strive, we have to first survive this crisis. Therefore organizationally, in the spirit of what the Black Panther Party for Self Defense did a generation ago, we have pivoted towards Mutual Aid support in this critical hour for our people.
As the late Kwame Ture taught us in our early youth, “The Struggle is Eternal. Therefore there is no time for us to simply kick back, relax and enjoy life. To think this way is reactionary thinking of the worst order. Simply because the more you Struggle the more you know, the more you know the more you can do and your people are going to need you to do until you die. Therefore if one understands this they prepare themselves for ETERNAL STRUGGLE.”
Jonathan gives Special Thanks to his Executive Director Parisa Norouzi for her vision along with Front-line Empower DC Members Sebrena Rhodes of Ivy City, Berlin Dean of Trinidad and Shana Potter of the Greenleaf Senior Building. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org