Written by Bobby Burns
During a recent drive through my old neighborhood in South Phoenix, I drove down Sunland Avenue, a place I hadn’t seen in years. As I passed my old house I thought about my childhood and the 50 years that have passed. Every time I visit the neighborhood has changed – a modern park, new homes, new stores, and new freeways. This old neighborhood seems out of place. Old brick houses remain. Generations of families never left. Grand kids have grown to adulthood. Familiar faces are no longer everywhere. One face I did recognize, tidying up her front yard as her three little dogs barked at passersby, is Carolyn T. Lowery, 75, who most know as the lady who has organized community coalitions for over 50 years.
At 15, she married and had one daughter and three boys. A native of New Iberia, Louisiana, her own mother died at the tender age of 27, and left behind four kids. A group of us nappy-headed kids played stick baseball with her boys in her front yard and when we did wrong she let us know about it. You behaved with respect around her. It was soon after the death of her only daughter, over forty or so years ago, a doctor asked Lowery to speak to a group of men at the Phoenix Ebony House, a place for recovering alcoholics. Helping those men helped her deal with her own grief.
We sat on her front porch as the sun beamed down on a sunny day talking about the old days and the current state of the South Phoenix community. She often responded sharply, abandoning all pretense, when she spoke about local black leaders who she believes have been bought out and abandoned the hood for their own gain. She frequently repeated that we don’t own anything anymore. Economic power is not with us and we have little to show generations to come after us. As she said that, a young mother with five small kids stopped by to say hi, before heading off to an ice cream truck rolling down the street toward them. The mother was someone Ms. Lowery mentored as a child and just one of thousands of kids she’s helped. She told the young mother’s little daughter to never put chemicals in her hair and reminded her that she is beautiful just the way she is. There was a bit of a critical tone in her voice, but hope is a waking dream for Lowery.
Most people know that she’s the founder of Kids Place and Arizona Black United Fund (17 programs) and that she was recognized by then First Lady Hillary Clinton for helping disadvantage kids back in 1997. She’ll be the first to say, she’s won many community awards, but today she’s also seeking rewards. She lost the Kid’s Place building a few years ago. Today her office is in her home that is paid for, and she lives on a small monthly social security check. Occasionally someone sends her a check to help her community fundraising efforts.
Running numerous times for Phoenix City Council District 8 has not panned out. Her critics say she’s too plainspoken and rubs people the wrong way.
Truth be told, Carolyn’s life has been like a running motor – always revving at its highest power. At age 75 she is still a voice for the little people in the community where the motor is still revving at a high speed.
These days her spiritual self keeps her going. Her membership in a mega church is not her style. Her church offers peace. Carolyn Lowery’s composure and dignity is etched into her face. There is also the frustration of living in a time where people often forget to slow down to reflect on community matters and how they can make things better collectively. She is one of those people on this earth who has made it her life’s mission to walk the walk and talk the talk. Her inner fight will carry on until she leaves this earth.