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Neighbor Spotlight – Katie Jesse

by Peggy Schulz, photo by Janice Christensen

If Katie Jesse looks back many years from now at her 20’s, living in Riverwest, trying to remember what her life was like then, she’ll have a good head start.

Jesse, 29, already has described her current existence as living three lives. She is an artist, an advocate and an event planner. Underlying it all, she works a “day job” at Glorioso’s Italian Market on Brady Street.

“Some people ask me how I do all that I do.” For Jesse, it’s about balancing practicality with passion. Even though Jesse just got a promotion and enjoys the people she currently works with while making a living, it is not her life. Jesse’s three passions – art, advocacy and event planning – truly define her.

Jesse grew up in Minnesota and came to Milwaukee for college at UW-Milwaukee. She decided to stay. She had been living in Shorewood, but knew even before renting here that she ultimately wanted to be a part of the Riverwest neighborhood.

“I heard it was a more artistic community,” Jesse says. She’s lived in just two locations in the last eight years in Riverwest. She’s currently – and conveniently – located just around the corner from People’s Books, where she volunteers as Event Coordinator. Jesse also serves on the People’s Books Cooperative board of directors.

After only six months as an employee at Glorioso’s, Jesse was promoted in mid-October to deli assistant manager. “I enjoy having a job that I don’t hate going to every day, but that I can leave at the end of the day,” Jesse says.

Jesse has a degree in Fine Arts (painting and drawing) from UWM. You can see a good amount of her artwork in Riverwest.

Along with several other artists, she made a giant puppet of Scott Walker during the 2010 recall effort. “I spent a lot of time in Madison and Milwaukee walking around in that giant puppet,” Jesse says.

For the recent Co-Op Fest on October 12, Jesse helped put together banners that hung on the side of the building.

“I do a lot of sign painting,” she says. “It’s one of the few things I get steady commissions for. I can paint a straight line and create freehand letters easily.” Jesse currently is working on a sign commission in Walker’s Point for a bike shop opening there soon.

Puppetry is a big part of Jesse’s artistic life, as well. For the first three years it existed, she was heavily involved in the All City People’s Parade as a resident artist, doing mask and puppet making and float building.

“That translated into the theater,” Jesse says. Last year, for the Quasimondo, a physical and visual theatre collective based in Milwaukee, she did mask and puppet making. The company is just starting their second season in existence.

“In my third life, I’ve lumped together all of the activist endeavors I participate in,” as event coordinator for People’s Books Cooperative, she says. Jesse has derived great satisfaction by coming to People’s Books at a time when they very much needed some help.

“It’s not a very high revenue-generating operation as it is, as a book store,” Jesse says. “People’s Books has always struggled.” An event planner by nature, Jesse was able to help the cooperative when “they desperately needed someone to help build foot traffic. I would like to think that my event planning has brought a lot more of that into the store,” she says.

As if all of those commitments weren’t enough, Jesse also is one of the main organizers of the Slut Walk. “It’s a walk to bring awareness to victim-blaming in sexual assault and domestic violence cases,” she says. This past summer was the third walk.

“We have shifted focus a little bit from when the walk first started,” Jesse says. Initially, the walk was begun to focus on the need for more SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners) staff at hospitals to deal with sexual assault cases. Currently in Milwaukee, only one hospital, St. Luke’s, has 24-hour, trained staff, including SANE responders, nurses that are specifically trained to deal with sexual assault cases.

Jesse notes that when dealing with victims of sexual assault, it’s not just about their emotional state, but also the know-how to process rape kits and how to give retrovirus antibiotics adequately.

“That was why Slut Walk was started by its original founder,” Jesse says, to try to expand the number of local hospitals with SANE personnel. When she took over organizing the Slut Walk, Jesse realized that mandating SANE responders 24 hours a day in private hospitals was a difficult thing to do. “So we shifted focus.”

Jesse saw other volatile things happening in the city that she could easily attack. For instance, “We’re now trying to put pressure on the fact that victim advocates are not always allowed in the room when the victims are being questioned by the Milwaukee Police Department,” Jesse says. It’s now up to the discretion of the investigating officer. In a lot of cases, victim advocates are not allowed.

Jesse’s been told by victim advocates in the city that they can’t wholeheartedly encourage victims to report to police because in a lot of cases, they’ll be re-victimized.

Jesse admits the Slut Walk is “a pretty divisive event, actually. A lot of people in Milwaukee really abhor the term slut,” she says. “Because we’re such a segregated city, I find myself having individualized conversations with different populations. Minority populations respond differently to the term.”

In her activist life, Slut Walk is one of the biggest events, but it’s not the only one by far. She created signs for the first Co-Op Fest this year. “I anticipate it becoming really big,” she says. This year it was planned in just under three months. There was hardly any time, she says, but organizers managed to put together a really cool and comprehensive event.

“There’s a lot going on in the city. I try to keep my hands in all of it,” Jesse says. She volunteers with a number of non-profits, including 9 to 5. “I do a lot of contract work with them,” Jesse says. “I handled all of the registration for their yearly conference in DC last year.”

Jesse enjoys living in Riverwest for a lot of reasons. “I like that it’s got little pockets of everything. I think since I moved in, in the last eight years, it’s really become a little city in and of itself,” she says.

Riverwest has an art center, the Riverwest Artists Association Jazz Gallery; Dominion gallery; Jackpot gallery; and a brand new gallery on Locust Street, Jesse observes, in addition to a number of great restaurants and the Riverwest Co-Op. “I really have grown to know and follow the co-op principle,” she says. “Supporting a local economy and voting with my money.”

Jesse got to know people involved with Shakespeare in the Park during her time with the All City People’s Parade. She got to see them this past summer, in their new venue in Kadish Park. “It’s the most amazing setting,” she says. “Seeing Shakespeare outside, the most perfect view of the city … it’s really magical,” Jesse says.

“COA (Children’s Outing Association) is a really important and vital part of our community,” Jesse says. “I really respect all that they’re doing. If I had another three hours in every day, that would be where I would dedicate it.”

People ask Jesse how she accomplishes it all. “I’m not really sure,” she says. “I’m not home a lot. I like to think I’m good at time management.

“Because I’ve lived in this place a number of years, I know a lot of my neighbors,” Jesse says. “I also think that Riverwest is unique in that we have a lot of ‘block pride.’ This really comes out in the Riverwest 24, when different blocks are doing different activities.

“It’s really funny to watch that sort of relationship develop,” she says. “Being in a single spot for the last several years, I’ve come to recognize that as a trait of the neighborhood.”