The titles and roles of activists may differ, but a good activist can be spotted by their passion and dedication to their work. Most of us choose our paths of activism based on the impact we want to have or life sort of decides for us by placing us in social locations where the only path that makes sense is one of resistance. High levels of recognition are typically reserved for men, the wealthy, or those who have been doing this for so long that their fame is an accumulated fame. This blog series is not a remedy to this situation, but rather designed as a way to highlight activists and their justice work through brief interviews.
This installment is an interview with Kaijuanda Sutton, an advocate for girls and women who resides in Springfield, MO. Responses were provided during a one-on-one phone interview, and this write-up was reviewed and approved by the interviewee prior to publication.
How would you describe your activism?
I would say I’m very passionate about my activism. I always knew I cared about people, but I didn’t really learn I was an activist until I moved to Missouri. I’m really passionate about it because I can relate to so many people. I met a woman who was in an abusive relationship and needed help getting out, so through my experience I was able to assist her. That kept happening, and after meeting so many people I realized that this was my calling, but I’m still learning.
I can relate to the women I’ve come across and work with because I’ve seen abuse since I was a young girl through my mother and the abuse she went through, and then growing up in my first relationship at 15 as a young girl. After that relationship, I found myself in a series of abusive relationships, so I noticed a pattern as I got older and tried to navigate my way into different relationships.
One experience that really stands out to me is when my best friend lost her mom because she was murdered by her abuser. My best friend called me from Florida, two days before Christmas, because she could not contact her mom. Her mom had just got back from visiting my friend in Florida, and she had returned happy and in good spirits. The wild thing is that her mom was married for 30 years to an abuser, and only got out because he died. Eventually, she moved on and got in a new relationship, and was apparently getting abused, but no one knew until we found her dead. I have two best friends, and we all met as teens in alternative school because we were pregnant, so we have been friends a long time. It was me and my other best friend who found her. I was living in Chicago then. All three of us had witnessed abuse either via our parents or our own relationships so this hit us all pretty hard. We had to call the police to do a wellness check after not being able to contact her via calls or home visits. That shook us up pretty bad because to see the trail of blood – how she made it from the kitchen to the front door and was holding on to the door, but didn’t make it out. So from that moment, we said we have to do something for women because this woman was living in silence. At the time, I was in an abusive relationship, and this pushed me to gather my strength and get out.
In honor of my friend’s mom, we started an organization called Stand Up and Speak Out, so for the last eight years we all travel back to Chicago annually and advocate for domestic violence [victims]. Every year we have women call us and ask for help or who come forward with their stories, or they’re ready to leave and we try to help them come up with exit plans.
Is there anything else that speaks to how your personal story ties into the work you do?
I’ve always had a passion to inspire change, but as I got older I just feel like it’s a responsibility now. I have to help other people and sometimes act on the behalf of others, and inspire change. Sitting back and watching or being silent is being a part of the problem, because this is bigger than me, and it’s also not just about me, it’s about all of us. If it affects one of us it affects all of us.
Do you have an organizing philosophy?
I have two quotes that I try and live by. The one that means so much more to me is by Ghandi: “In order to see change you must first be the change you want to see.” If I’m out here promoting change then I can’t be out here being a part of the problem. I don’t know who said this but I saw it somewhere: “Be your ancestors wildest dreams.” This one took me back to my great grandma who raised me. She was born in 1933, and was a part of racial segregation and marched with Dr. King. I remember her telling me how she couldn’t wait to see me grow up and be something. She died when I was 11, but I think back to her hopes for me and that fuels everything that I do.
Is there something you came in with or learned along the way that informs how you go about your work?
I just want to say that there are some interesting people in this world and you just have to keep being who you are because through experiences with people there will be people you encounter who intentionally try to tear you down or speak against what you believe in. I’ve learned that no matter what you do there will always be something said, so you might as well just embrace the journey and be yourself because it’s gonna be a hell of a ride.
Being supported in our work is so very important. Who has been or who is your biggest supporter? From where do you receive most of your support?
My children. They are my motivation, but they’re also my biggest supporters because they’ve been there through the hard times. They’ve seen me fall, but they also got to see me rise again. So everything I do, every event I have, they’re involved. They’re there stapling, printing, making calls, sharing on Facebook, walking in the rain at a domestic violence rally; whatever I need they’re right there. That’s just the truth. I had a car accident a few years ago, and the doctor said I wouldn’t walk again. My 16-year-old fed and bathed the younger ones. When I came home she fed and bathed me too. They’re just my rock. They believe in me. I have four kids and one on the way!
How have your experiences as a Black woman helped you build your activism?
Just on the strength of knowing that we are powerful. We endure so much. We take on so much. I didn’t really understand it until I understood who I was. Being a Black woman is actually a gift. I believe that, and there’s a lot of us who have a lot of potential and a lot to say but we don’t always know how to go about getting involved. My experiences as a Black woman have inspired me to be a helping hand to other Black women, whether they’re younger or older, because I know the struggle and can relate to their struggles. My experiences as a Black woman make me feel like I have to be a voice as well.
What have you done within your activism that makes you the most proud?
Just giving myself the acknowledgement that I’m doing something great. I’ve always been a silent person, unnoticed, and afraid to speak up. All of a sudden I’m just this person who’s loud and speaks up, so I’m most proud that I’m just doing it. Many years ago, I never would have thought I would be this person. Being in activism has defined me. We all have no control over when we’re born or when we leave, but for the most part we can choose what to do with that time while we’re here. I want my story to speak louder when I’m gone than when I was here. I don’t want anyone to be able to say my name without also saying “activist.”
Kaijuanda has always been passionate about women and girls, but it was not until after losing her job while on maternity leave that she elevated her passion into advocacy work. In 2008, she launched Drama Free D.I.V.A.S, In. (DFD), a non-profit organization that empowers young girls. Its mission is to “Stand Strong to Inspire Change.” DFD works to make a difference in the lives of young girls and women on a daily basis and focuses on awareness and prevention of teen pregnancy, low self-esteem, domestic violence and encourages the importance of education. As a survivor of domestic violence, Kaijuanda is also a founding member of Stand Up & Speak Out, an organization that raises awareness on domestic violence, which was founded in 2011.