Stephanie Dinges is a working-class socialist, artist and activist running as a Green Party candidate for alderperson in the 13th ward of St. Louis. Stephanie is also a member of Socialist Alternative. She is running against a largely absentee pro-corporate law-and-order Democrat. On March 7th the aldermanic and mayoral primary was held in St. Louis. The general election takes place on April 4th. Red Wedge’s Adam Turl interviewed Stephanie about her campaign in late February.
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Adam Turl: Why did you decide to run – as a socialist and on the Green Party ticket – for alderperson in the 13th ward? What are the central themes of your campaign? And why run as an independent candidate?
Stephanie Dinges: I learned that my current alderperson was running for re-election unopposed, my friends asked me to run and said they would support me, and, with their help, we are actually running a serious campaign. It didn’t make sense to run as a Democrat when they’re responsible for so many of the policies I want to oppose as alderperson, and when they’ve co-opted the struggles I’ve worked hard to genuinely support.
Adam Turl: You’ve worked in food service for a number of years. And as you know all too well, despite the good times on Wall Street, working-class people are still struggling to get by. Wages are too low, debts are too high, medical costs and insurance premiums are climbing, rent is consuming too much of our income. What should we demand the city do to make life better for working-class people? And what do you plan to do as alderperson to push a working-class agenda for St. Louis?
Stephanie Dinges: I want to introduce participatory budgeting in the 13th Ward, and I will support the effort to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour (or, preferably, universal basic income). I think workers should have strong unions behind them, and we should demand the city and its establishment institutions stop making it so difficult for unions to operate on a basic, baseline level. Workers deserve far more compensation, fair representation, and protection and job security than they get in St. Louis. I will push back hard against Tax Incentive Financing (TIF) and development legislation that contributes to the gentrification and housing inequality in our city, fight for improvements in the lives of working-class people as conveyed to me through direct experience and through the community ties I will work to maintain as alderperson, and speak out against corporate corruption on the Board.
Adam Turl: There is a significant immigrant community in your ward – particularly the Bosnian community. In light of the attacks of the right-wing Trump administration on immigrants and Muslims, what would you propose we do to defend our immigrant and Muslim communities in St. Louis?
Stephanie Dinges: I will do everything in my power to help make St. Louis a sanctuary city, where we will not cooperate with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and we will not fund the enforcement of national immigration laws. I also support organizing efforts at local colleges and universities for the establishment of sanctuary campuses. I will encourage the city to fulfill municipal contracts with businesses owned by immigrants and people of color. I will work to establish and maintain direct lines of communication with immigrant communities impacted the most in St. Louis, and I will use my position to advocate for their self-determination.
Adam Turl: The Trump administration has claimed to be a “law and order” administration – empowering local police. Some of us on the left have called the administration revanchist – aiming to roll back the gains of social movements – and pointed out the connections the administration has to white supremacists and neo-fascists; most notably “alt-right” white-nationalist, and chief strategist, Steve Bannon. At the same time St. Louis has its own local history of racism, segregation, police brutality and murder directed against persons of color and poor people – especially African Americans. What do you hope to do to further the demands of Black Lives Matter here in St. Louis? And how could St. Louis resist the racist “law and order” rhetoric and policies coming from the White House?
Stephanie Dinges: I support the platform of the Movement for Black Lives and will do everything I can to help implement its vision in our city. We need to do better to fully implement the recommendations of the Ferguson Commission and go beyond it when necessary to achieve true racial justice. I will always defer to Black women organizing for justice for the lives we lose to law enforcement, and I will encourage other white people to do the same. I support and participate in civil disobedience and direct action, in direct resistance of these racist policies and the people who enforce them. I support the ongoing efforts of people organizing in and around Ferguson, as well as the Anti-Racist Collective and the #FireRoorda Campaign, St. Louis Action Council, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, and everyone who provides direct support to activists in the Arch City Defenders and the St. Louis Branch of the National Lawyers’ Guild.
Adam Turl: In addition to working and running for office you are an artist; particularly stencils, collages and zines. There are specific artistic and radical traditions using these materials; the constructivist collages of Alexander Rodchenko, the collages of Dadaist Hannah Höch, the anti-Nazi photo-montages of John Heartfield in the 1930s, the zine and poster art of 1970s and 1980s punk. At their core these all put forth a radical questioning of the status quo and a strong democratic impulse. Can you talk about your collage and zine art – how you started doing it and how it is related to your politics?
Stephanie Dinges: I actually started doing collage art as a kid, like I'm sure most of us did. I do remember spending an evening with my older half-sister making our own pictures, around 8 years old. Both she and my half-brother are artists, almost 10 years older than me, and I looked up to both of them very much. Adrian actually had a hand in radicalizing me at a young age. I remember another incident that helped shape me. She and I were spending time together, and she educated me on how the Halloween representation of ugly, scary witches surrounding us in Walgreens didn’t accurately represent her life at that moment, as a pagan teenager. I carried that with me, and it helped me keep an open mind in my Midwestern Nebraska upbringing.
I dabbled in collage art again as a teenager. It was a little less exciting than my current work. I do know that even if my materials came out of teen magazines, my intention was to keep images that I found truly beautiful. I still have a jewelry box I made during that time.
Now, there is still that streak of capturing the beautiful, but there is also beauty in darkness. My former partner and I started stockpiling thrift store art and history books, old magazines, and double copies of books we had in our personal library a few years ago and started using them to combine collage art and the cut up poetry method. J (my former partner) is very influenced by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs in his writing and art. I hadn't had much exposure to either before we meet, but I couldn’t help but be influenced after.
I feel I haven't created much in this new incarnation of my art, but now it is definitely colored by activism and politics. I created Spirit of Venus as a conversation about the complicated relationship between feminism, women empowerment, and respect in alternative lifestyles. On the one hand, you had a society that treats women as sexual objects, as furniture. On the other it can be truly empowering to having your sexual needs fulfilled if you are a woman (or man, or non binary person) who enjoys being subservient. The art I appropriated to use in that piece was itself, complicated and controversial.
Common Coffin came out of a lifetime of dealing with depression and trauma. It is a hard thing to balance, feeling so unoptimitstic about the state of our planet, but not being able to stop fighting to make it better.
The two pieces I made for the Explaining Death to Children zine, armistice; now and Knowledge is Power, were definitely commentaries on war, peace and feminism. Women have knowledge and perspective on these issues and give solutions that are often overlooked and have led to lifetime after lifetime of war, suffering, and death.
Adam Turl: Last fall a number of independent arts spaces closed in St. Louis – including White Flag projects and Fort Gondo. These weren’t in your ward. But overall, what could the city be doing to genuinely support independent art spaces and working artists? I don’t mean using artists as leverage in gentrification – as is so often the case – but providing help to artists looking for studios and places to work, working on reducing rents and increasing wages. Could the city be going more to support community arts organizations? Of course, a lot of issues facing artists are also issues that face most working-class people.
Stephanie Dinges: Absolutely – I think this question also touches on themes around why it’s important for the working-class and other marginalized communities to even be able to produce and have art, and why it’s so profitable for cities and other institutions to threaten those processes. We need art to sustain ourselves and our culture, to express resistance and commit to solidarity in creative ways. Artists give a lot of people reasons to live.
Adam Turl: You’ve been an activist for a number of years – particularly around environmental issues. Can you talk about some of the activist campaigns and issues you have been involved in?
Stephanie Dinges: So I started out in activism being trained as a team lead for Nokxl-STL in July 2013. I focused on environmental activism with MORE surrounding Peabody Energy and Laclede Gas, also in Summer 2013. I was invited to Greenpeace Action Camp for blockades and advanced blockades in Arizona and in DC, respectively, in 2014, and, in 2015, for the arts track in Florida and for advanced arts in Oakland. I worked directly with local groups - including BLM, OBS, Tribe X, Millennial Activists United, and MORE - in direct action in Ferguson, where I also helped as a medic. I happened to be at Mokabe’s when they shot tear gas into the coffeehouse in late November 2014 during the protests that followed Michael Brown's murder.
In 2015, I won a scholarship from a local group for women artists, Venus Envy, for a projector and screen for use in actions and community work. I used it for the first time for the #peabodykills action at Peabody Opera House when Neil DeGrasse Tyson came to speak in May 2015 and try and provide it for Veterans for Peace documentary showings as often as possible. I’ve done a lot of work with the St. Louis branch of Socialist Alternative, most recently protesting against Trump and the inauguration of Eric Greitens as governor and his Right-To-Work legislation in Jefferson City and in St. Louis in January.
Adam Turl: There are two parallel (but not at all separate) St. Louis histories. There is the St. Louis of immigrants seizing the federal arsenal to keep the city from going to the confederacy in the Civil War. This is the St. Louis of the 1877 General Strike – a strike of immigrant and Black workers; the St. Louis of the Jefferson Bank protesters in the early 1960s; the St. Louis of Black Lives Matter. Then there is the St. Louis of the Veiled Prophet Organization; the city of segregated schools; the St. Louis where Francis McIntosh, a Black riverboat worker, was lynched. This is the St. Louis of the “Delmar Divide.” What can we do, in addition to supporting your campaign, to try to build on first tradition in St. Louis – the tradition of resistance and solidarity – while organizing against its entrenched racism and social separation?
Stephanie Dinges: The race and class divides in St. Louis continue to harm those marginalized by the divides and further serve to continue to uphold the status quo. Politicians who are too worried about reelection and large donors continue to pay lip-service to radical change and a system that works for all, not just the privileged few. In order to enact real change, we’re going to need the working class to stand up in intersectional solidarity and fight for the rights of all. We need people to get involved in their local community organizations, schools, and governments and bring back power to the working class to meet the needs of all. One of the most famous Socialist candidates in American history, Eugene Victor Debs, reminds us that the rulers are few, and we are many. In the age of Trump, of Greitens, and of unregulated capitalism, we must stand up for the needs of all. The wisdom of Assata Shakur needs to continue to be put into action in St. Louis.
It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
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Stephanie Dinges is an environmental and anti-racist activist, artist, and server. She brings experience from her heavy involvement in struggles on the local level, in St. Louis City and in Ferguson, as well as on the national level, in training programs for nonviolent direct action coordinated by Greenpeace USA. She is a member of Socialist Alternative. You can find out more about her campaign on her website and on Facebook.
Adam Turl is an artist and writer currently based in St. Louis, Missouri. He is an editor at Red Wedge Magazine, writes its "Evicted Art Blog" and is an art critic for the West End Word. Turl's most recent solo exhibitions include Thirteen Baristas at the Brett Wesley Gallery in Las Vegas, Nevada and Kick the Cat at Project 1612 in Peoria, Illinois. In 2016 he was a resident at the Cité internationale des Arts in Paris. More of his art can viewed at his website.