Katie was the first Crush feature that I hadn’t actually met before. She was nominated by a mutual friend and I was immediately blown away by her list of accomplishments. Director of Community Relations to Council Member At Large Jason Williams, Founder and MC of NOLAW (New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling), Organizer of Nola to Angola solidarity bike ride, Singer, Ukulele player and Cat lover, Katie gives new meaning to the word “productive”. Under 30 and on top of her game, Katie has done more in the last decade to help people than many people do in their entire lives.
Makeup for this shoot was by our first Crush, Midori Tajiri-Byrd (midorimakeup.com) and assisting was provided by Sophia Lee Borazanian , a brilliant New Orleans Photographer. Our beautiful new logo was designed by the minds at iheartnola
LR: This is Crescent City Crush, Volume 3. We’re here with Katie Hunter-Lowrey in the ninth ward of New Orleans. We just spent all day running around like crazy people, playing with smoke machines and bicycles in the rain. Let’s just dive right in. Where are you from?
K: I grew up in New Jersey. I initially went to college in Boston but left and didn’t finish and ended up in New Orleans Post Katrina to volunteer.
LR: What drew you to New Orleans to volunteer? Had you been down here before Katrina or was it just the need to have people here?
K: I had never been here before. It was not quite two years post Katrina and I was doing a 20-year-old-roaming-around-the-country thing and this was geographically and emotionally a place I wanted to come through. I was supposed to be here for a week and I had a plane ticket to move on to my next stop in Florida. So I went and saw my friend in Florida and immediately got on a bus and came back. Now it’s been eight and a half years. I kept Volunteering when I came back and was offered a job at a homeless shelter for mentally ill/chemically dependent men. It was a good reason to stay.
LR: Was that your first foray into that kind of work?
K: I had volunteered at homeless shelters in Boston. But, a paid job, yes. And full time. I lived on site as a site manager. I shared space with the residents and all that that entails.
LR: So seriously hands on.
K: Yes. And I loved it. I loved those guys and the folks that created that safe space for them. But it was not sustainable for me at that time. I was there for about a year and a half.
LR: That’s a long time. Especially in that part of your life which are some seriously developmental years.
K: I don’t think I ever really realized that until much later on. I look back now and I’m like “Oh you were only twenty! Someone trusted you with a lot of responsibility… and I think you did a pretty good job!”
LR: I’m sure that “pretty good job” has taken you to where you are now. How are you crushin’ it right now?
K: I am the Director of Community Relations for Council-Member-At-Large Jason Williams. He was elected last year as an at large council member- the entire city is our district. I’ve learned a lot. I love New Orleans and learn more about it every day through my job, meeting people and being the constituent services and neighborhood liaison for our office.
LR: What exactly does that entail?
K: Folks call their council members when they have issues with zoning or…anything. People call for anything and everything. I handle those concerns. We are planning for this week- by the time this comes out it will have happened- a community forum on domestic and sexual violence to be able to connect residents with the New Orleans Family Justice Center and NOPD to get some of their questions answered about the crimes that have been happening.
LR: That’s really great. I saw a notice about it come into my inbox a couple of days ago.
K: Yeah- council members have legislative responsibilities and budgetary responsibilities and we are the connector of resources. I can’t physically go out and hang up a street sign for people who call for one but I can point people in the right direction. Many residents are incredibly civically engaged and work hard to make their communities better, I want more constituents to take advantage of the assistance we can provide. People have feelings about city government. I don’t blame them. It’s not a perfect system.
LR: I don’t think a lot of people feel that it’s very accessible. So having someone who is living in the same neighborhoods and letting them know “there’s actually this guy who cares!” is a really good service.
K: I don’t blame any citizens for feeling that government on any level is inaccessible. A lot of the systems that we have in place, in general, don’t make it easy. But I think it’s worth it to keep trying.
LR:I think it’s easy for the average citizen to feel disheartened and overwhelmed. So having someone tell you to keep trying or that there are options or that you’re not actually being shut out is really fantastic.
K: New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling (NOLAW) has been around since 2009. We were the third arm wrestling league in the country and we’re now part of the national, overarching, CLAW (the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers). We started when some folks who had done it in Hudson Valley moved to New Orleans and a couple of us got together to form one here. We raise money for women-focused projects across the city. The brawls are amazing and full of glitter and fun and strength. We really feel like they allow women to be whatever type of persona they want to be, whatever inner thing they want to let out. You can be sexy, you can be strong, you can be butch, you can be femme… you can be all of those things at once. We have a brawl coming up on December 12th to benefit LOUD which is a queer youth theater in town. I’m one of two Emcees at this point. We’ve all kind of moved positions around over the years. It’s the thing I’ve done the longest in my life which is really funny. But it feels great and I think we’ve really formed a community around it and I still love it.
LR: How do you choose which organizations you donate to?
LR: That’s awesome! Your organization Nola to Angola just raised $30k for-
K: The Cornerstone Builders Bus Project. They provide free transportation for loved ones in New Orleans to go visit their folks in prisons across the state. As far as we know, it’s the only service here that exists like that. Lots of people know it but more and more studies are coming out that show the financial burden on families who have people in prison. If we want to talk about lowering recidivism rates and keeping families in tact, face-to-face contact is one of the best ways to do that.
We had 50 riders this year which is our most riders yet. We ride over 3 days from New Orleans to Louisiana State Penitentiary and that’s 170 miles. It was awesome! This year was amazing- the weather was perfect, the group dynamic was perfect, and we raised far more money than we have in the past. When we left I had this tiny inner hope of “what if we got to $30k? No way! That’s impossible!” And then by the time we got back to town we had crossed that 30,000 mark. Cornerstone is run by an amazing group of people. It was started by Minister Leo Jackson who had spent time in Angola. As soon as he got out he started this program to keep families in tact. We are so grateful to be able to help them and they’re so grateful that we provide the funding that they need. It’s a really great relationship.
LR: I think that particular project is such a great cause and it’s just something that if you’ve never had a family member or friend in that situation, you wouldn’t necessarily think about.
K: Right. I think more and more, America is realizing what an incarceration problem we have. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate per capita in the world. People can feel what they want to feel about prisons- I, personally, dream of a world without prisons. I think that’s a fine goal to reach for. But regardless of where you fall in that spectrum- kids growing up without being able to be in touch with their parents is no good and couples being apart is no good. So it’s worth trying to change that.
LR: I agree with you 100%. When you’re doing all of these really awesome things and staying really busy, how do you stay motivated?
K: It’s never occurred to me to not be super involved. I really enjoy it and I think it’s worth it to have a job that you do, hopefully a job that you like, and then you need fulfilling things on the side too. The band that I used to be in- it’s on a hiatus, hopefully it will start again- “We Need to Talk”…we were never going to get famous or anything like that. But it was just really fulfilling to learn to become a band with some of my best friends and perform and sing. It’s really important to do things just because you love them and because you want to.
LR: What was the project that got “We Need to Talk” started?
K: “Not Enough Fest”. It’s not happening here anymore actually because of how successful it was its first two years. The idea was to really focus on bringing more ladies and queers into bands. Me and a couple friends decided to take a whack at it. You had to write songs and learn to play instruments. We all had a tiny bit of knowledge about our respective thing- Chaos and I had sang together before, Owen played guitar in High School, Mara and Maggie were getting better at their instruments- but we really learned it all as we went along. It was really amazing.
LR: Hopefully you guys get back together so I can see you play!
K: I know! I really want to! I’m part of Krewe of Robyn and we are having a fundraiser in January in time for Mardi Gras. We’ll be putting some music together for that which I’m really looking forward to. I miss it!
LR: What project are you most excited about right now?
K: I think I’m most excited about getting to other things now that [Nola to Angola’s] quieted down a little bit. There are so many things that I want to learn and want to do all the time. In November, I intend to finally master my sewing machine. Or learn some new songs on the Ukulele and read all the books I’ve been meaning to read.
LR: I think it’s great to have time to expand yourself. It’s really necessary actually because your projects couldn’t be anything without you growing and learning. It’s easy to get wrapped up and forget “oh yeah, there’s a person in here that needs to be nurtured as well”.
LR: What woman has influenced you the most?
K: Like Stevie Nicks and Madeline Kahn or like people I know in real life?
LR: Anyone! Who is your muse? Or who is someone you’ve always looked to?
K: My grandmother is the person that I still call when I need advice about anything from how to fix a costume to like “do I have a concussion?” She has always done whatever the hell she’s wanted to do. I think that’s amazing and I inherited quite a bit of that from her. She became a librarian right before she retired. My grandmother was the one who told me about Google. She never stopped learning and doing whatever it is that she feels like. And she’s fierce and she’s tough.
LR: Sounds like a badass.
K: Yeah. Really truly. And can crochet amazing things and can cook amazing things and can be sweet and tough and all of it. She also gives me a hard time in really sweet ways, which I very much appreciate. I just got a postcard from her saying she was proud of me for my work and the last line said, “You’re in great company. Jesus was an activist.” That would be my Grandmother throwing shade about my lack of religion.
LR: Hah! How old is she?
K: She’s in her late 70’s.
LR: Nice. I hope to still be kicking ass when I’m her age.
Who would you say is your Crescent City Crush?
K: I’ve been thinking about this so much because I have crushes on everyone. There’s no shortage of that. My good friend Nandi Campbell is someone who I think is absolutely crushing it. She currently has a private law practice and is the best criminal defense attorney in New Orleans. She was a public defender, she’s an advocate, she mentors young folks and is a real example of “you can change your path whenever you want”. She changed her path in High School, she changed her path after college and I can’t wait to see what she does next all the time.
LR: That’s the first time I’ve had anyone recommend someone to me who isn’t a creative or entrepreneur. She’s someone who has a big kid job.
K: Anyone who knows her will say she also has the most fun. But she takes her shit seriously and works really hard in the criminal justice system which is one of the toughest places to be.
K: The things I keep thinking recently are about- I think especially after reading your first two volumes- I really admire people who create their businesses independently and work so freely. My work isn’t like that. It’s a lot of collective organizing- it takes a coven. Because I do a lot with Nola to Angola and I do a lot for NOLAW and for my job but I couldn’t accomplish any of those things on my own. It’s a great skill to be able to work with people collaboratively. Also lately, I’ve been reminding myself to be open to know what we don’t even know that we don’t know. To be open to learn. That’s really important because we don’t have everything figured out as a society or as individuals. I don’t even know what I don’t know and I want to learn that all the time.
LR: I think it’s really important to remember that even if it’s somebody half your age or with less experience than you have, they have something to teach you if you’re open to it. Collaboration- this is something that keeps coming back in this project- how important it is to work with each other. So that’s part of why we’re doing this.
K: The velcro analogy.
LR: Yeah! It’s like one of those velcro nerf balls- it’s just picking up these badasses as it rolls along. I hope it keeps doing that because the greatest resource we have is each other.
K: Yeah. I think those things and also just imagination. No matter what job you’re in- if you sit at a desk all day or move your body all day or whatever- Angela Davis talked about how we can’t let our imaginations be restricted by the world we see in front of us and not let our dreams be trapped that way. I think everything good and bad had to be dreamed up at some point so who knows what the next thing is that someone just hasn’t dreamed up yet. It’s exciting.
LR: I like that. Is there anything that you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about?
K: Something I would love to make happen- I don’t know when there would be the time. A couple of years ago I started doing these “Loose Bloomers” training rides geared towards women and queers. It was not sustainable because people are so busy and it just never happened but that is something that I would love to see happen more as we are getting more infrastructure. I feel the most free and powerful when I’m on my bicycle. I want that for other people who feel kept out of that scene because it is mostly white male dominated. I think there is space for it to grow to be far more inclusive across gender and race and class in all the ways that things should not be restricted.
LR: Is this competitive cycling?
K: It doesn’t have to be competitive. I just think in general if you’re biking in groups, the ones that often gather are a certain type of dude in spandex and that’s great- competitive cycling is awesome. But I also think that can feel very exclusive and not accessible and riding your bike with groups of people is really fun.
LR: The issue that comes to mind for me with cycling is cyclist safety. Do you have any ideas of how this city could improve- they just had a whole campaign with the 610 stompers about cyclist safety but I haven’t seen it have any impact. Cyclists are still getting killed by motorists. I don’t feel especially safe when I’m on my bike. I find motorists are really aggressive Are there any suggestions you have to combat that?
K: I certainly think that the powers that be and the police and the courts need to take a stronger stance. We know that’s the reason we have laws. People pay attention to speed limits not out of a sense of necessity but because they don’t want to have to pay a speeding ticket. So I think that that same way of thinking needs to be applied to bicycle safety. The other thing is that we can’t completely legislate or enforce cultural behavior. It’s actually mind boggling to me, especially in this town, since we’re so used to being slowed down all the time- you can run into a second line, you could run into construction, you could just be taking your time because why not? It’s the south. We’re all moving slower. It’s great. And yet, someone will pull up behind a biker and all of a sudden they are in the biggest hurry they’re ever been in. I think it’s one of those things that is going to have to happen gradually through conversations. If folks tell people they meet “hey, I’m a cyclist. It’s really important that you slow down and not kill us because we’re super vulnerable” that’s how that mentality changes. While I’d like to see it better enforced with a legal framework, it’s also just people need to chill out and regard other humans’ lives with the dignity they deserve.
LR: We’ve all seen cyclists going the wrong way down the road and riding on sidewalks. Do you think it would help if bicycle laws were more heavily enforced?
K: I don’t actually think so. When bicycle laws do get enforced my mind is kind of blown. We as cyclists are kind of fighting to survive in a lot of ways. But when you’re dealing with a lack of infrastructure and you’re dealing with aggressive drivers, you have to bend the rules sometimes to get from point A to point B safely. I’ve had people yell at me to get on the sidewalk. They don’t even know that it’s illegal for cyclists to be on the sidewalk. Lots of cyclists were raised being told it’s safest to bike against traffic. We now know that’s not true. It’s just a lot of conversations that need to happen. I think people are mostly just trying to figure it out. New Orleans has got to figure it out. ♥