Bucking the status quo
Suzanne Mayer doesn’t take no for an answer
Like nearly every other project in Suzanne Mayer’s life, Hinge Neighbors started with a certain distaste for sitting still.
“I had mentioned I was [thinking of] running for City Council,” says artist Shawn Dunwoody.“I get a call a week later from this young lady: ‘Hey, are you gonna run or what? Get up off your ass!’ That was Suzanne.”
A self-described change agent, Mayer has been shaking things up since her early years.And she can convince nearly anyone to do just about anything.At age twenty, while living in Belgium, she convinced the nuns at the Catholic school where she taught to let her start a sex ed program. “The head nun said, ‘You have to go out to every single parent and get written permission,’” Mayer says.
A few weeks later, Mayer found herself standing in front of a room full of students, trying to figure out what to tell them when they asked if she was a virgin.
Mayer’s willingness to pursue, persuade, and find answers to uncomfortable questions would come to define her entire career, helping all kinds of organizations find new perspectives.
“I don’t do well with status quo,” Mayer says.“I had a boss at Citibank who understood that about me. They let me roam from one thing to another. [In] a lot of other careers, that’s really terrible, but it was a recognition of what I could do well.”
After nearly two decades at Citibank, Mayer found herself making waves as a consultant, everywhere from a plastic optics company to a gynecologists’ office to Writers & Books.
Then, in 2018, she decided it was time to take on Rochester. “Shawn’s brother David and I were his campaign,” Mayer says. They canvassed the city on foot, knocking on doors, talking to residents, and learning how to really listen—not just to their constituents, but to each other.
“When you run for office,” says Dunwoody. “You realize people are people regardless of where they live, their socioeconomic status, whatever. We were at Lewis Street, and Suzanne goes up to the cats that grew up in the neighborhood. They sit out there after four o’clock, they have a little drink, they talk. She walks up like, ‘Hey what’s up?’
And her neighbors [from Grove Place] are like, ‘Why are you walking up to this bunch of big Black dudes?’ But it’s like no, they know her. They know [she’s] invested.”
Dunwoody and Mayer found they had a lot more in common than they’d realized—they were both grandparents, they were both obsessed with tea, and they both wanted to see their neighborhoods flourish.
That was how Hinge Neighbors came about in 2018. Hinge Neighbors works to empower residents to define and fight for their visions for the Inner Loop Project, hosting workshops and training citizens to advocate effectively for their interests. The first thing they did was search for commonalities among Inner Loop–area residents.
“We had two meetings,” says Dunwoody. “At the first meeting in Grove Place, it was ‘No, no, don’t fill [the Inner Loop] in, because how am I going to get to the airport to catch my flight?’ Initially we thought, ‘Oh, just means they don’t want Brown people in the neighborhood.’ Then we go to Marketview Heights and they say, ‘Bad idea, because how am I going to get to Henrietta?’”
“You have to learn how to listen and become more of a sheep dog,” says Mayer.
Then, Mayer and Dunwoody experimented with ways to earn the trust, attention, and support of the community.
“We want to create creative touch points because it piques interest,” says Dunwoody. “You have an opportunity to connect with folks and say, ‘Hey, yeah, we’re painting this mural, but did you know they’re gonna fill in the inner loop?’”
“Shawn always wanted to paint a mural on the wall of the Lewis Street Y,” says Mayer. “Even the day before, [the neighbors] were contacting the Y to say, ‘Shut them down, we do not want this.’”
They were able to garner support from residents and local organizations. “They had to learn that Shawn’s wall paintings are not tagged, out of respect,” says Mayer.
Eventually the whole community had come around. Residents even showed up to the signing with COVID masks decorated to look like the mural.
For another project, Mayer and Dunwoody wanted to put sanitizing stations in bodegas, but they weren’t sure how to protect the stations from theft. They decided instead to put the sanitizing stations at old Pace bike hubs instead. They partnered with Rochester Midland, Iron Smoke Distillery, and RTS and called the project “Love in the Loop.”
For Mayer, every project is a learning experience.
“If I’m not learning something, I’m bored,” she says. “And when I’m bored, I’m dangerous.”
But for Mayer, dangerous seems to be a good thing. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘How the hell [is Suzanne] pulling all this off?’” says Dunwoody. “You sometimes think, when you’re working together in those quiet moments, that it will be this subdued sort of thing. But no, she’s got high energy, and she’s willing to say what’s on her mind. She doesn’t pull any punches. When she needs to, she’s gonna hit you in the gut.”