By Matt Dineen
How do people pursue their passions, the things that keep us going, while simultaneously surviving in a capitalist society? Katy Otto is one of those modern day superheroes that is truly following her dreams and getting by pretty well in this crazy world. Not only does she run a DIY record label and play drums in the fantastic rock band Del Cielo, but she is also the Director of Grants and Community Outreach for the DC-area Empower Program. She’s also been known to help organize, among many other things, the annual Visions in Feminism Conference and Lady Fest. Katy is an inspiration to all of us, and a living example of what a better society could look like. I had the chance to speak to her at this year’s National Conference on Organized Resistance (NCOR) at American University.
When people ask you, “What do you do?” how do you usually respond to them?
Well, professionally I work as a grant writer at a non-profit that’s a gender violence prevention program that works with youth. But I have a lot of other projects that take up a lot of time too. I play drums in a band, Del Cielo, that I love a lot, and I run a little record label with my friend Sara called Exotic Fever. I like to do projects and organizing. I think who I am as a person has been shaped by the community I grew up in—the punk community in DC. It has been very important to my organizing and has been my source of energy. And I like writing.
Tell me more about this grant-writing job. Do you enjoy that work? Is it a full time thing?
Mhm. I’ve been there for 6 and half years, two as an intern in college. I like it because I was a journalism major and it’s a way to combine some of my writing skills with interest I have in social justice work and particularly work around youth development and violence prevention, gender socialization. So, I like it.
It can be stressful. Being a fund-raiser isn’t always a laugh riot. Especially in the current economy, and because we are not an abstinence-only organization. And under the Bush administration those kinds of organizations are experiencing a much better situation [than us] in terms of funding available and tax cushions because of certain laws. So that sucks.
Yeah. Well, do you think you would continue to do this kind of work even if you weren’t getting paid for it? It obviously incorporates some of your interests but is the main function just the income that it provides, so you can support yourself?
Well, no. I don’t think that’s the main function although I certainly wouldn’t be able to devote the same amount of time to it if I wasn’t getting paid because I have to pay rent and bills. But part of my work is helping to co-facilitate a teen girls group and help mentor them and that’s the most rewarding part of the job. They organize a teen girl conference. They do public speaking, and community organizing and education. They’re just 10 amazing young women. That’s such a rewarding piece of the work. For the amount of money that people in non-profits get paid it’s usually other things fueling you to be there. But grant writing is not a stroll in the park.
Can you talk about living in the DC-area and how that affects your lifestyle? How did you choose to live here and make this your community?
I really love living in DC for a number of reasons. Because we’re in such a politically volatile world climate it’s very energizing to live in a place where a lot of really atrocious policies and decisions are being made. It makes it so that you do not escape. Politics and international relations are very much at the forefront of people’s minds here. And I think that’s important for people who are interested in social justice because it keeps you alert and active and responsive as long as that’s where your heart is. There’s also a really large resistance community here and a pretty diverse one. So that’s nice because growing up it was easy for me to learn about these kinds of issues. Also, there’s a lot of non-profits that do youth development work. There are hundreds in DC. And the punk and independent music community is really thriving and there are people who are older than me who helped mentor me when I wanted to do things like start a label. There’s just a lot of infrastructure for projects. It’s also interesting to live in a place that’s essentially a colony, with DC not being a state. It’s a very embattled place in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of spirit here.
Can you talk more about the dilemmas you’ve faced trying to work on all these projects that you’re passionate about while being able to pay rent and getting by?
Well, the nice thing about the label is that it’s successful enough now that a lot of the expenses of running a label are covered because we have a catalog of releases that does fairly well. I think I still lose some money each year on it, but it is able to be an active project because of the exciting attention people have paid to the releases. So that’s helpful. And also having the label in partnership with my best friend Sara. That’s helpful because we share the burden of the work, the financial burden, and we also share the excitement and the interest. With the band it’s been cool because we’re a very, very intentional DIY band but we’re also very active and we work really hard on our band and have been a band for 4 years. So when we travel we don’t lose money because we work really hard. When we’re on tour we try not to have days off. We go to the record stores in town and try to sell our cds. We’re very diligent about it. We plan things very far in advance to try to make sure they’re done really solidly and really well. So that’s nice because it’s definitely not making money or anything, but it’s not costing us money to do. So that’s nice. Although I’d love some equipment. I’ve got the same drum set I’ve had since I was a very little lady. (laughs)
I don’t know…coffee is a really good fuel for your projects. I drink a little too much of it. And I live in a group house with 3 very supportive men. I think living in a group house can be really awesome especially when people share interests. It just makes it a lot easier to do things like shows in DC because there is a network of people. I did a show for NCOR Friday night and literally an hour before I was like, “Man, this is gonna be a tiring night.” But then people called and were like, “How can I help? Can I do the door?” I don’t think that happens everywhere. A lot of times if I’m organizing something like a show I’ll be in a pretty visible role, but I’m not the only person that’s worked on it. So I try to make sure people get credit where credit’s due.
Does the group house arrangement cut down on your cost of living?
Greatly. Especially for this area because we live in a house that’s cheaper than most houses and we’ve also converted a 3 bedroom into a 4 bedroom. Otherwise, this area is brutal. But my rent is $300 a month, which in this area is pretty unheard of. That’s really the only way to live that cheaply here. Oh, and we eat together a lot too. Not all the time but we just share things in general. It cuts down on bills. We’re able to get things like cable that if we lived on our own none of us would be able to get. That’s kind of cool. At first I was like, “No! No cable.” But it’s kind of nice because then we don’t go to Blockbuster anymore. We can just watch Direct TV movies.
It seems like that’s part of this lifestyle where you can be able to have more time to pursue projects if you don’t have to work as much.
Yeah. My work has been really supportive of my touring too. The summer before last, because I had been at my job so long, I was able to take a sabbatical. So I had a 6-week tour and I was paid for all 6 weeks of work even though I wasn’t there. But that’s only a once every 5 years thing. I think at non-profits because you’re working so many long hours there are things people will do to make sure that the morale is high.
If you had the opportunity to live off your label and your band would you do that? Would you quit the job you have now?
I do have a dream of one day to be able to just do the label. The band is a little harder to think about. It would be amazing if we could do that, but what’s most important for me about our band is that all 3 people in the band always feel that they’re in positions they’re totally comfortable with. To me, that’s a pretty radical thing as a band of all women that the most valuable thing about the band is all three members’ opinions and nobody outside of that has any more say in what that looks like. So that makes it really hard because you think about some of the things that need to happen in order to get to that point. I know some people don’t believe that it’s possible for anyone to ever survive off their band without booking agents or really high profile, somewhat corporate-influenced record labels and things like that. Or people say, “Only if you’re Fugazi.” Well, I think there are other ways of people making that a reality. But it’s not a part of my ambition with my band because I feel like the process and the things that I gain from it are so much richer than that could ever be. I mean, if it just happened—sure. (laughs) I’m a very process-oriented person.
This interview originally appeared in the September/October 2005 (#34) issue of Clamor Magazine. To learn more about Katy Otto's projects check out The Empowered Program, Exotic Fever Records and Del Cielo.