You may not have heard their names very often, but you have surely seen the effects of their accomplishments. These are women whose hands-on work in the trenches has improved the quality of life in Knoxville, making our city more livable for people of all backgrounds. Their efforts have made Knoxville a true community, richer in opportunity, beauty, and spirit. So if you don’t know who they are already, let us introduce you to them now.
Robin Easter: Design Trendsetter
Job: Creative Director, Robin Easter Design
Achievements: When Robin Easter started her own design firm in 1989, there weren’t many small studios that focused purely on graphic design itself—Knoxville had several big agencies with design departments. Not many small businesses or groups could afford to hire someone to create their logo or brand, so they did without—and as a result, Knoxville’s own visual identity was pretty rudimentary. Easter not only elevated the standards for great design in Knoxville, but her firm also created or refined many of the identities that we now think of as being synonymous with Knoxville itself—the places we hold out as being important parts of the city’s fabric: Knox Heritage, Tomato Head, Bliss, the Crown & Goose, Legacy Parks Foundation (and its Outdoor Knoxville and Urban Wilderness initiatives), Sunspot, Coolato Gelato, Aubrey’s, Knox Whiskey Works, and more. Her firm has also produced the visual identities for a wide range of projects, such as the Daniel apartment building in the Old City, the National Park Service’s display at Tyson McGhee Airport, and the design for Jack Neely’s elaborate coffee-table book, The Tennessee Theatre: A Grand Entertainment Palace. Easter’s touch can be seen almost everywhere around town—she’s helped make Knoxville a more distinctive-looking place.
“I think with everything we do, we really do our research and we strive to make sure it’s very authentic,” Easter says. “Making something perfect is a lot more important to us than the bottom line. For us, the end product and making sure it really represents somebody well is the most important thing. And that it’s really original and unique. I don’t have a bag of tricks, and we don’t use a lot of clip art. For example, the Tennessee Theatre book—there’s not one piece of canned anything in there. Every little filigree was hand-drawn based on a piece of filigree that’s in the theater. I think that’s part of what makes things stand out and be more special—you don’t see it repeated over and over.”
But how important is good design for a city?
“I think it’s crucial, really. You want to recruit businesses and tourism—a city needs that to be a vital city. You’ve got to look like you’re the same kind of quality, like you can play with the bigger cities on that level. But it also has to be functional—it’s important for design to make an impression, but it’s more important that it really functions and serves a purpose.
“It also helps set the personality of this city. You can go somewhere and see the look and get a feel for the soul of the city. If it’s done well, it can convey what the vibe is. But on a subliminal level, it just looks like they’ve got it together—they know what they’re doing. It’s professionally run and organized.”
In fact, envisioning Knoxville’s own visual identity would be her dream project. “I love this town and I love this area so much… I feel like the city could benefit from an overall brand identity, a really strong identity that pays attention to what is the soul of this city and how to represent that to people.
“I don’t know if I even have the words that would describe it—I would have to show it. But it’s one of the most welcoming places, I think. A lot of cities you go to, you just can’t break into the scene—it’s very cliquish. But Knoxville’s not like that. I feel like Knoxville is open arms and it’s got so many unique little facets to it. It would be an awesome challenge. I’d love to do it.” (Coury Turczyn)
Dawn Michelle Foster: Civic Planner
Job: Redevelopment Director, City of Knoxville
Achievements: As the person who heads up redevelopment for the city, Dawn Michelle Foster has a huge influence on shaping public spaces in Knoxville. She is managing (sometimes controversial) redevelopment efforts as they spread out from downtown to the Cumberland Avenue Corridor, South Waterfront, Downtown North, and Magnolia Warehouse District. Under Foster, the department has emphasized walkability and creating a defining neighborhood character, even for areas like the Strip where that might have seemed a lost cause.
“When you think about having an energized downtown and job creation and retention, we’re transforming all of these areas into vibrant communities,” Foster says. “Momentum from downtown has the opportunity to go into these adjacent areas.”
The city has faced accusations that it doesn’t put enough into improving infrastructure in East Knoxville, which is predominantly black, yet its residents have also expressed fear that the planned streetscape improvements to Magnolia Avenue will push out existing businesses and change the character of the community.
“When you want to provide redevelopment opportunities, you’re going to face the challenge of interested parties that come in and displace or buy out another business, but that’s not our intent here,” says Foster, who lives in East Knoxville herself. “We want to identify the needs of the community and make sure if development occurs, it meets the needs of community. We don’t want to force any project down…. We have to track the progress as it continues to see if we’re living up to our expectations.”
Foster expresses pride in how the city’s long-term approach to redevelopment has paid off. “The South Waterfront vision plan was adopted 10 years ago. It hit the wall with the recession. One of benefits with the mayor and Council moving forward with public dollars for park and waterfront was to spread investment over time, and look what’s happening now.
“My hometown is Louisville, Kentucky, and I saw a lot of displacement in my neighborhood. I had that interstate going through the backyard, an overpass that disconnected the school from the neighborhood. I don’t always tell my story, but I listen to a lot of stories that I can relate to. When I keep that in mind, I always think about areas that will remain disadvantaged, and what tools are needed to kind of move that forward, and that’s what my passion is. That’s why this department is very important, to provide the right policy to make these things happen, and to provide the right guidance to the community, the developer, and the stakeholders to make it possible.”
Foster, who constantly credits Mayor Madeline Rogero, City Council, and the women she works with for Knoxville’s resurgence, says, “I’m very much a team player. I have been a woman working in construction, and with the highway department in Kentucky when I started out. I’ve learned to just do my job well, because it was always a competition. And then raising three daughters and having them become successful, professional women, and having a son to understand that women are as important in the workforce as any man—it was always something I had to kind of teach and learn to deal with it myself.” (S. Heather Duncan)
Renee Hoyos: Environmental Protector
Job: Executive director, Tennessee Clean Water Network
Achievements: From Knoxville, Renee Hoyos turned the Clean Water Network into the state’s leading nonprofit for protecting water resources. Its budget has since quintupled, allowing it to better advocate for strong laws and file lawsuits against polluters. It has also begun promoting fair food policy. Since she took the job in 2003, the Clean Water Network followed its successful lawsuit against KUB to its conclusion, resulting in the cleanup of widespread sewage problems.
A native of California, Hoyos left a state government job there to steer the Clean Water Network.
“An outsider can see possibilities people on the inside don’t see,” she says. “Knoxville reminds me of California in the 1970s. When I got here, people didn’t seem to be that concerned about water resources. Creeks would be muddy because of bad development practices. … I think people now 13 years later think about water resources differently. Within the development community, I see a lot better-maintained sites than 12 years ago. The public has grown more intolerant of them being sloppy. We’ve done a lot of press and outreach.
“In 2007, we really fought back on some very bad water laws, and we haven’t seen that kind of thing come up since.
“Twelve years ago, we didn’t talk about climate change so much. Now it’s a daily conversation. Groups like us try to make those issues understandable at the local level.”
Hoyos says the KUB case, which her organization filed right before she arrived, was “the greatest learning experience I had here… KUB did an exemplary job of cleaning up. You don’t find many environmental groups that will praise the people that they sued, and they should when they do what they’re supposed to do.”
“We went on to work in Memphis, Chattanooga, and Madisonville, and all the concepts I learned from the KUB case I took with me. Also, for me personally as an environmentalist, that case showed me both sides of the issue. So in some of these cases I could advocate for things for these treatment plants that they needed to get the job done, that otherwise I might have just been dismissive.
“Every discharge permit to industry or municipalities gets looked at by a staff member. We comment on a good number of them, and about 20 percent of them get changed as a result.” (The Clean Water Network is still negotiating with the state over Gatlinburg’s permit, for example.) “No other organization in Tennessee looks at permits like we do. … We might be the only organization in the South that does it on a regular basis.
“Williams Creek is a little bit of a departure from what we would normally do,” she says. “East Knoxville has the lowest percent of parks of all the sectors. So it’s really important to me to stay in the game to make sure that park gets all the resources it can get. … It’s nice to participate in that way in your own backyard.” (S.H.D.)
Donna Braquet: LGBTQ Advocate
Job: Associate professor, University of Tennessee library system
Achievements: As founder and former director of the UT Pride Center, Donna Braquet is an advocate for LGBTQ rights, particularly on the UT campus. The Pride Center opened in 2010 and served about 50 students per day. The General Assembly earlier this year defunded the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at least through July 1, 2017. That led the university to shutter the center. Located in Melrose Hall next to Hodges Library, the center is still technically open, but has no professional staff—and it has weathered a series of vandalism attacks. Nevertheless, Braquet carries on.
Braquet often thinks about hate, and she still doesn’t understand its root: “I don’t get it. I don’t see why so many would take so much time and energy hating and fighting against other people,” she says.
Braquet, a lesbian who grew up in Slidell, La., found she wasn’t alone in the world after she “got up the courage” to go to a meeting of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance at New Orleans University. She cites her own college experience with gay support groups as an inspiration to speak out on equal gender and sexual rights.
“We grew up learning the same bad things about ourselves … (but) they were wonderful people. I found my voice. That’s why I know what a difference having LGBT support organizations can make,” she says. “I went from self-loathing to being a leader and outspoken. It definitely gave me a perspective on wanting to be involved in the fight for equality.
“The center was a point of pride for me. It was so much fun working for the students and seeing all the center did for them. You can see them blossom into these awesome people. Many felt the center was a home they never had.”
Her six-year effort to help fight the hate via the Pride Center was recognized at the Sept. 19 meeting of the UT Faculty Senate, which presented her with a plaque and resolution “celebrating her exemplary vision, leadership, and community-building, in service to the University of Tennessee and its commitment to diversity and inclusion of all…” The honor has encouraged her, though she notes that UT is now the only school in the Southeastern Conference without a chief diversity officer: “It’s a shell of what it was.”
“There needed to be a physical space where people could come together and be who they were,” Braquet says of the Pride Center then, and now. “There’s a big difference between a space and a center.”
Despite the setbacks, Braquet—who lives in Knoxville with her wife, Corrine (and her once-disapproving mother, Janice)—is not going anywhere soon.
“If everybody who was like me left, nothing would ever change—nothing would ever get better,” she says. (Thomas Fraser)
Flossie McNabb: Literary Booster
Job: Owner, Union Ave Books
Achievements: A year after Flossie McNabb and her partners closed Carpe Librum Books in 2010, McNabb decided to go it alone and open the city’s one and only independent new-books store, Union Ave Books. It’s been a gutsy move. Despite the bigger chain competitors (Barnes & Noble), online goliaths (Amazon), and technology (ebooks) arrayed against her, McNabb has managed to create a safe place for book lovers in the Daylight Building downtown. More than just a retail outlet, Union Ave is Knoxville’s literary bastion, a third place for readers to discuss books, for authors to read and discuss their works, and for children to discover new worlds.
“I just believe in it, and I believe our city and our literate community just needed it,” McNabb says about the book store. “It makes us different from other cities—it makes us a place where people can go and feel like they have something in common, whether they’re a reader or not. I’ve always lived in Knoxville and there was always a bookstore down here, and people would gravitate to that. I remember Miller’s had one on the balcony and would always go there and pick out books. There was something magical about picking a book that you could get into—you’d take it home and it was yours, a new world. … But there was something missing when those stores were gone.
“So many people come in here and say ‘Thank you. Thank you for being here. This is so important to us.’ People from out of town that come in for these conventions go, ‘Oh, I thought we weren’t going to find a bookstore downtown.’ It makes you realize how important it is to have that—it’s more than the literary aspect. It’s ideas.”
But helping foster ideas and boost Knoxville’s literary scene does not come cheaply—there are hard expenses involved that would probably discourage any traditional businessperson.
“It almost has to be an intuitive thing to you rather than a business—‘I want to do a business because I want to make X amount of dollars,’” she says. “It wasn’t that. I don’t want to lose money, but if we make a dollar at the end of the year and everybody’s paid and we’ve paid our bills, I feel like that’s big success. So it’s more intrinsic.
“Sometimes I wonder, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And then you’ll get a customer like the one that just came in—he looked hesitant, and he asked, ‘What are your favorite short story writers?’ And we just had the best time helping him. We piled up a stack this high. And that just feeds you. It’s a little world that’s created here with books, whether it’s short stories or children’s books. Every day is something different.
“And you go, ‘This is why I do it.’” (C.T.)
Carol Evans: Creative Conservationist
Job: Executive director, Legacy Parks Foundation
Achievements: Carol Evans was on the board of directors when Legacy Parks Foundation was founded in 2005, and 18 months later took the job of executive director. Envisioned mostly to raise money for city and county parks, Legacy Parks under her direction has become much more: Specializing in partnerships with private land owners and outdoors enthusiasts, it has worked deals to create more than 50 miles of walking and biking trails and develop the Urban Wilderness. Evans’ marketing background—she worked for Scripps Networks and was the first marketing director for the Lady Vols—helped her make outdoor recreation a key part of Knoxville’s identity.
Under Evans, Legacy Parks has conserved more than 1,000 acres and created 400 acres of new parks. Up next, Evans says: Creating and implementing a strategy for a greenway connecting Maryville to the Smokies; increasing access to the three rivers in Knox County; developing trail connections to adjacent counties like Blount and Anderson; and developing the Gulf & Ohio Railway trail to connect Chapman Highway and Mead’s Quarry.
“When I came on (at Legacy Parks), rather than fundraising and handing off money, we became quickly an organization that had initiatives we directed and managed” with the blessing of the city and county, Evans says. “We are very opportunistic and entrepreneurial. That suits me best. I do have 100 balls in the air at one time, and I figure I’ll catch a few of them.
“Our first effort at truly fundraising and helping create a park was Clayton Park in Halls. In four months, we raised $600,000. That was a good model for us, to work alongside folks that are already in the community.”
Legacy Parks’ first big-impact project was Ross Marble Quarry in 2007. “It became a great demo project to show: Here’s what a nonprofit can do. By IMRYS [the mining company that owned Mead’s Quarry] not donating it directly to the city, we were able to get services, donations, and grants. Then we gave the property to the city.”
The next year, the River Bluff property off Cherokee Trail came to Evans’ attention. “Our board was bold and said we should try to raise the money to buy it. For us as an organization, it was a watershed moment. In the worst possible economy, that you could raise $1.5 million for a piece of property in South Knoxville—it made us sit up and say, ‘Hey, I think people really want this.’ We used it as a way to launch the bigger initiative of the Urban Wilderness concept. Instinctively, I thought: This is very authentic. This is who we are,” Evans says.
“We had this seamless political support, which was so freeing. Then, too, there definitely is a shift in business [outlook]—businesses now know quality of life is what attracts and retains talent.
“The wonderful unintended consequence is [the Urban Wilderness] really made a place for people to want to move and live near and open businesses near.” (S.H.D.)
Drocella Mugorewera: International Ambassador
Job: Executive director, Bridge Refugee Services
Achievements: A refugee herself and former member of the Rwandan parliament, Drocella Mugorewera arrived in Knoxville in 2009 through Bridge and worked her way up from a retail job to leading the refugee placement and support service. During a political phase when many refugees are met with distrust, Bridge meets them at the airport. With the help of volunteers, it sets up their apartments, connects them with English classes and teaches them to navigate the school, public benefits, and health care systems.
After Mugorewera escaped Rwanda by attending a professional conference outside the country, “I saw my husband for the first time again a year later, and my (five) children almost two years later,” she says.
Mugorewera, who speaks five languages, first began helping fellow refugees by translating for Burundian immigrants in church and then for Cherokee Health. There, she identified challenges facing refugees, like being unable to read directions on medication. (The clinic started adding pictograms.) After taking the job of Bridge executive director a year ago, Mugorewera started reorganizing it to build better support networks for and among refugees, including the 231 who arrived in Knoxville in the last year.
“The three pillars of Bridge are learning English, working, and being involved in the community,” Mugorewera says. “Our accountability is very important to the government, our staff, and our clients.
“I want to expand Bridge partnerships from churches to employers and the business community,” she says.
Mugorewera recognized a gap for refugees who were skilled workers or professionals before escaping to the U.S., and a partnership with Tennessee Immigrant Employment Solutions led to a new program to link such people with local American mentors in their field. “Even if you can’t get work in that field, talking about what they know is empowering. Networking is what did it for me. I wouldn’t have known about Habitat (for Humanity) without that,” says Mugorewera, whose family received a Habitat house soon after coming to Knoxville. “I want to create support groups for refugees to share skills with each other and new arrivals, like how to participate in government meetings, how you get job references and start a business.”
Refugees are directed to different cities by the federal government, and Mugorewera is a great example of how they change the character of a community. This year, the majority of Knoxville’s immigrants have come from Iraq and Congo, but Mugorewera expects some Syrians will be part of the mix. That has been controversial in Tennessee, but Mugorewera says that Knoxville residents have mostly called to say, “This is not who we are. We want to help.”
Mugorewera says, “I want to train refugees to tell our stories. Our stories are our power. People don’t understand, I don’t leave all my belongings and family behind (in my home country) to go to the food stamp office. Refugees who have been helped need to show the social, cultural, and economic value they bring to this country.” (S.H.D.)
Beth Alford-Sullivan: Athletics Leader
Job: Director of track and field and cross country, University of Tennessee
Achievements: When Beth Alford-Sullivan was named head coach of the combined track and cross country teams at the University of Tennessee in 2014, she became the first woman to coach a men’s team in the SEC in any sport. (She had become the first woman in the country to coach a men’s team at the NCAA’s top competitive level when she became head coach at Penn State in 2006.) The Vols have one of the most storied programs in the country—seven NCAA titles, 80 conference championships in indoor and outdoor track and cross country, and dozens of All-Americans—but faded from the national spotlight during the late ’00s and early ’10s. In the second year of a long-term rebuilding project, Alford-Sullivan got surprising top-10 national finishes from both the men (sixth at the NCAA outdoor championships) and women (seventh in the indoor championships).
“I’ve had some great opportunities through my career—a lot of them have been created by people who had confidence in me and had a desire to help me move from one level to the next,” Alford-Sullivan says. “When I was coming out of high school and even college, for that matter, I had never seen a female coach. People definitely took some chances on me. When I was at Penn State, the athletic director, Tim Curley, put me in the position to be the director of the men’s and women’s program when our men’s coach, Harry Groves, retired. Tim really took a step forward when he gave me the directorship.
“But there have been obstacles along the way. I’ve always had to prove that I really do coach—a lot of people think of me more as a director or administrator, but honestly, I do coach. I coach the distance runners, men and women, and I have all the way through my career. Sometimes you just have to learn to work within a culture that you’re given.
“I definitely think that in the world of track and field and cross country there are some phenomenal women coaches who are developing the skill sets to be leaders in the sport. You see them popping up at major institutions, and they’re great role models for a large sport—we have huge participatory numbers in high school and up through college. A lot of kids take part in our sport. The more that women can be seen in leadership positions, I think it’s going to open more doors for people in the future.
“For young women, coaching can be tough. We don’t have an offseason in our sport, and there are other challenges—low pay, long hours. You end up in a relationship and want to start a family—those are times they have to fall out of the coaching ranks and then find a way back in, or they can try to have it all, which is challenging. There’s just no down time in our sport.
“I hope we continue to be diverse. It is tough in sports in this society. It’s focused on competition and success, and the predominant sports in college center around men. But I think women are cracking the code at all levels. As we evolve as people, we start to recognize that it doesn’t matter who does the job but how well the job gets done.” (Matthew Everett)
Brynn Crowell: Stylemaker
Job: Owner, Lox Salon, White Buffalo Boutique, The Basement Community Art Studio
Achievements: When Brynn Crowell graduated from beauty school in 2006, she couldn’t find a salon where she felt comfortable working—she had her own edgier sense of style that she wanted to express. So she went ahead and opened her own, Lox Salon, which has become an anchor in the Old City. And while she came from a punk aesthetic, Crowell has made sure that Lox feels welcoming to a wide range of clients, from college students to suburban housewives; it also serves as a community space, participating in First Friday and hosting Rhythm N’ Blooms events. Recently having a baby inspired her to envision a more family friendly Old City, so she opened White Buffalo, a children’s clothing and toy shop, as well as the Basement Community Art Studio below Lox, which provides an arts and crafts space for the whole family.
“People sit in my chair at the salon and I kind of pick their brain—what would you like to see? What is Knoxville missing?” Crowell says. “When I travel to other cities and go downtown, what do they have that we don’t have? And how can I make that happen? I love to see small businesses, and I want to help out wherever I can. Growing up, I always thought I was going to move to a big city; a lot of my friends did, but there’s something special about Knoxville, and I’m glad to be a part of that.”
The style she’s promoted in Knoxville is edgy yet fun—but, she says, “I really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how I want it. I think with the salon I found pieces that I really like and put them together. I like a vintage vibe, but I also like it to be really clean, too. I feel like simple is better. We’re so often overly stimulated with social media and everything else, I think when people walk into the salon, or they walk into White Buffalo, it has more of a calming effect.”
Of course, the Basement Community Art Studio is the opposite—a hodgepodge of creativity, it’s filled with arts and crafts supplies that families can pick up, make things, and not worry about cleaning up afterward; it also offers family yoga classes. Crowell was inspired by a trip to Portland where she found places that parents could bring their kids and enjoy themselves as well.
“With the Basement, my goal was to have a place where families could come and be able to work together, or let parents have a break from entertaining their kids. … I think it encourages people to be creative even if they don’t know how to or where to start.”
Crowell’s next idea may take further mulling, but she’s had it on her mind for a while: vegan barbecue.
“I think my goal in these businesses is that I really want to give back to the community. It’s been great to be able to have these spaces and watch them grow, to see Knoxville really develop. I think Knoxville is on the right track. It’s just a matter of every member of the community trying to encourage that and be a part of it. That’s kind of my mindset—how do I make Knoxville better, and make people proud of the town that they live in?” (C.T.)
Kathryn Frady Marvel: Fine Arts Trailblazer
Job: Cofounder and general manager, Marble City Opera
Achievements: Marble City Opera is Knoxville’s alternative opera company. Since 2013, the company has staged intimate, accessible opera productions in nontraditional venues—restaurants and bars, museum and gallery spaces, and even a coffee shop. The company supports new music (four of its productions have been world premieres), gives young singers and musicians valuable experience, and cultivates a new, younger audience for the fine arts.
“A friend and I wanted to perform an opera. We found an opportunity at the Atlanta Fringe Festival and they wanted a company name, so we gave them Marble City Opera,” Kathryn Frady Marvel says. “When they accepted us we decided we were going to perform in Knoxville and had a sold-out show—people were very excited and wanted to know if we were going to do more shows.
“There are a lot of great singers, locally and regionally, who aren’t getting the kind of work that they would like to have, or the experience to reach the next level. I’m very passionate about helping singers. When you’re in college, a lot of the bigger opera companies use you in their productions, because you’re cheaper or you’re free labor or the school has a deal—the University of Tennessee has a deal with Knoxville Opera. So a lot of the artists living in Knoxville aren’t singing the smaller roles they might have the opportunity to sing if there wasn’t a university here. That’s very common in our industry.
“Opera as an industry isn’t thriving the way some of us younger people think it could. Part of that is getting a younger audience and finding a new audience that can be engaged in this older art form in a new way. Because we’re a small company without many funds, taking smaller, shorter operas into interesting venues to help create the atmosphere of the piece became a cool concept that separates us from what the bigger opera company is doing or what the university is doing.
“We’ve done 11 different shows in 11 different venues since 2013. We try to do three bigger shows a year and some smaller events. That’s one of the ways we go out into the community and get the community engaged. It’s a lot of fun to go to different restaurants and bars. We’ve had a young crowd—people in their late 20s to late 30s have been the majority of our audience. We’re still reaching the older crowd who goes to Knoxville Opera and the traditionalists. With our productions, it’s an hour-long evening instead of three. It’s in English, so you can understand it. And when we’re fortunate enough to do it in a venue that serves alcohol, we’ve really nailed it. We can draw in a younger audience and engage them in a way that makes them say, oh, maybe I will spend a little more money and a little bit more time at the other opera.” (M.E.)
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