Every week, I’ll be doing a mini feature on my site (& blasting it on social media) on activists, artists, and educators who are doing important things in the world. Like Levar Burton says, the only thing these folks have in common is that I like them, and I hope you do too.
This week’s feature is Jessica Sutherland.
Photo by Kendrick Brinson.
Jessica is one of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever met. She is fierce in her convictions, devoutly loyal, a strong advocate for young people–in fact, her first client is graduating this May! Her writing and words are beautiful, and the world is a kinder place because of the hard work she does every day to make it so.
“I wanted those children to know they had nothing to be ashamed of, that homelessness is not permanent, and that scars heal. Most importantly, I wanted them to learn to ask for help. Once I’d learned to ask for help, to accept it, and to trust others, my life got so much better. I told them that nobody was waiting for them to fail. They had to be brave and open up to trusted adults.”– from Jessica’s article, The Secret Lives of Homeless Students
What themes or ideas do you feel your work engages with?
Well, I definitely write a lot about the things that matter most to me. Access to education, racism, poverty, and progressive politics.
What were you like as a child?
It’s funny that you ask that. I remember myself as an awkward little nerd who was desperate for praise, but thanks to social media, I’ve been able to reconnect with adults who knew me then, like my Girl Scout troop leader, and elementary school teachers. They all concede that I was a bright little geek, but what surprised me most is that so many of them described me as angry and scared. It makes sense; my home life was pretty terrifying growing up, but I guess I didn’t get very good at hiding it until I was a little older.
Can you remember the first piece of art– performance, literary, fine, street–you saw/read that wowed you?
My late father had a very nice litho of Salvador Dalí’s “The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.” I don’t know where he got it, but it was beautiful. When he died, I inherited it, and I would stare at it for hours. That copy is long lost, but one of my dearest friends who knew about it actually found a nice print of it a few years back and framed it for me as a gift, so I could get lost in it again.
What work do you do in the world that you feel proud of?
Homeless to Higher Ed is the greatest thing I’ve ever done, or ever will do. Helping young people get through college gave my life a purpose I didn’t realize it was lacking.
What’s keeping you embodied right now?
Fighting against this administration keeps me going. My dog keeps me happy. I hope those are good answers because I’m not sure I’ve ever heard “embodied” used like that!
Tell us a story.
One rainy day, when I was very young, maybe 3 or 4 years old, my mother and I were riding a city bus home. I’m not sure how I knew, but I became very aware that a man was drawing me in his notepad. I distinctly remember trying to play it cool, with all the subtlety a preschooler could muster. I kept hoping he’d finish it before either he or my mother and I had to get off the bus, because I wanted to see it. My mother was oblivious to both my posing and the artist for whom I was holding still.
When it came time for the artist to get off the bus, he tore the page from the notebook and handed it to my mother without a word. She looked at it for a minute, then handed it to me. It looked nothing like me, and I asked her why he drew it. She told me something like “it’s because you’re the most beautiful, brilliant, extraordinary little girl in the world.”
That night, we made a frame for it out of household items and hung it by my bed. It hung on our walls until I was 11, and we no longer had walls of our own. My mom’s long-expired praise rang in my ears, even after she began replacing those kind words with cruel ones. I’m certain that if she hadn’t told me I was extraordinary back then, I would have believed her when she told me I was worthless later.
That man, the artist on the bus, probably wouldn’t recognize himself in this story if he were to read it, but his anonymous appreciation of my tiniest self helped instill both a confidence and a sense of entitlement that pulled me through the worst of my life.
Though currently based in Southern California, Jessica Sutherland is a proud native of Ohio, where she grew up wide awake in a sleepy Cleveland suburb. After graduating from Cleveland State University in 2006, Sutherland then relocated to Los Angeles to attend graduate school at the University of Southern California, earning her master’s in 2010.
Since graduating, Sutherland has worked in development and production for the studio arms of companies like Amazon, and Yahoo!. In 2015, she joined the founding team of The Establishment as marketing director, before joining Daily Kos as a staff writer and social media strategist in 2017.
In 2013, Sutherland co-founded Homeless to Higher Ed, a nonprofit mentorship program dedicated to normalizing the college experience for homeless students aged 18-24. Sutherland is also a frequent speaker at educational conferences across the country.
When she’s not working, Sutherland can be found baking elaborate desserts that she immediately gives away to others, yelling at a TV about Cleveland sports teams, and/or playing with her perfect dog, Lucy McClane.
(Yes, she named her dog after a Die Hard character.)