As a young woman working for the Washington State Welfare Department in the 1950s, Suzanne Hittman was tasked with checking in on the many single men living in hotels along Seattle’s 1st Avenue in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II.
“You’d visit and talk to them, ask what their needs were. Did they need medical help?” she says. “I was young enough that I thought you could change it all, make it all better – that pie-in-the-sky feeling.”
Suzanne, one of Solid Ground’s many individual donors, is still trying to make it all better nearly 70 years later – albeit with eyes wide open. Now 90, she’s been a social worker, professional fundraiser, Seattle School Board president, and political activist. She’s still fiercely involved in Seattle politics and public policy. As a top donor to the House Our Neighbors! coalition, she helped lobby and defeat a proposed Seattle charter amendment that would have been harmful for people living without shelter – in part because it didn’t address the causes of homelessness. (See our blog posts Why ‘Compassion Seattle’ will do more harm than good for our unhoused neighbors and Compassion Seattle was a distraction. Here’s a solution.)
“My mantra now is, ‘Philanthropy can’t do it alone.’ It’s going to take some upheaval. We need to change public policy.” ~Suzanne Hittman, philanthropist and political activist
Suzanne is also a generous philanthropist who has given to countless Seattle institutions – from Plymouth Housing and The Seattle Public Library to Seattle Rep and Cascade Public Media – but she says she’s also come to recognize the limits of philanthropy.
One reason she supports Solid Ground is it pairs direct services with advocacy aimed at changing public policy and dismantling the barriers that keep people in poverty.
“My mantra now is, ‘Philanthropy can’t do it alone,’” she says. “It’s going to take some upheaval. We need to change public policy.” Suzanne has lived through plenty of upheaval already.
She grew up with her parents and grandparents on their farm in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood, near where Solid Ground continues to grow fresh fruits and vegetables for the community at the ¾-acre Marra Farm Giving Garden at Marra-Desimone Park.
Suzanne’s grandfather was Giuseppe “Joe” Desimone, an immigrant farmer turned businessman, who came to own Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market for several years. Her uncle Richard Desimone took over the market after Joe’s death in 1946 and ran it until the 1970s, when the city bought it and preserved it as a historic landmark.
Suzanne, meanwhile, charted her own course. After studying psychology at Stanford University, her welfare work entailed signing people up for New Deal-era safety net programs born out of the Great Depression. She later moved to Harborview Hospital to help with patient intake.
Suzanne left the workforce to raise her children and ended up being elected president of the Seattle School Board at a time when it was working to desegregate Seattle’s schools. After her children were grown, she got involved in fundraising, first at Children’s Home Society and later at United Way of King County. She served on the boards of a growing number of organizations into her 80s, when she decided it was time to make room for a new generation of leadership.
Over the years, Suzanne says she’s mostly just responded to requests made of her as she became more and more involved in Seattle nonprofits. But looking back, she can see she was motivated by a desire to dismantle the inequality she witnessed throughout her lifetime. She views today’s debates over homelessness through the lens of someone who can remember the “Hooverville” shacks that went up by the hundreds along the Seattle waterfront during the Great Depression.
She understands racism and segregation as someone who saw how redlining and city policy decisions shaped today’s Seattle neighborhoods. And she recalls with sorrow the year the Japanese families who worked the Desimone farm were forced into relocation camps as anti-Japanese sentiments swept the U.S. following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “It’s terrible the way we treated people,” she says.
These days, Suzanne thinks a lot about homelessness, transportation, wealth inequality, and mental health services, particularly for young people. “I’d like to see the time when we could really work on things and put private money to improve public policy,” she says. “We need to get better health care, we need to get better mental health care, and it needs to be paid for by everyone.”
She says she supports Solid Ground because it takes a comprehensive approach to solving poverty by meeting people’s basic needs and nurturing their success through housing, food, and transportation. “You can’t get too focused,” she says, “The world doesn’t operate quite that way.”
And Suzanne says she admires Solid Ground for going beyond its services to take bold stands and advocate for policies that dismantle the systemic barriers that keep people in poverty. She now pushes other agencies to take similar stands. “I believe all the social services agencies need to stand up in unison and say, ‘Hey, this can’t be,’” she says. “This can’t be.”