People to Watch

People to Watch has been a staple tradition for New Orleans Magazine for more than 40 years, and this year’s class is equally as stellar as years past. We define a Person to Watch as someone that is doing something new, innovating mainstream ideas and contributing in a meaningful way to the fabric of the New Orleans community.¶ As always, the only problem is narrowing the field of nominees. New Orleans always has many candidates that would be a welcome contribution to our list. We will keep watching them, and we hope you will keep watching our 2020 class as they continue to excel.


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Sophia Omoro

“This is the beginnings of me giving back to my country and helping women.”

While growing up in Kenya, Sophia Omoro’s mother, a seamstress, would occasionally bring home a piece of fabric and ask her six daughters what they wanted her to make for them. ¶ “I’d immediately start thinking of ideas for how I could distinguish myself from the others,” said Omoro, who said she’d start making up crude sketches of designs. “It’s in my blood.” ¶ That love for fashion stayed in her blood when she moved to North America for her higher education, including an M.D. and Ph.D. at Tulane University, and during the nine years she spent as a head and neck surgeon. Then, in late 2015, Omoro lost her sister, Lily. ¶ “She was only 46 and it made me realize our length of time on earth is not promised,” she said.  ¶ Returning to her first love, Omoro began odAomo, designing clothes and having them made in Kenya, where she opened her second shop in 2017 — her first is at 839 Chartres St.  ¶ “This is the beginnings of me giving back to my country,” said Odomo, “and helping women everywhere.”


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Bivian “Sonny” Lee III

“It’s so important that they know we’re there for them.”

The program Sonny Lee began on Jan. 1, 2011 with the goal of transforming the lives of boys who have lost their fathers to death or incarceration, is almost the same age as the youngest of the boys it helps. But before Son of a Saint celebrates its birthday there’s a lot of work to be done — work that’s been made even more difficult during COVID-19. ¶ “We’ve provided over 10,000 meals so far,” said Lee. “We wanted to make sure we could feed not only our boys that needed it during this difficult time, but their whole families.” ¶ The organization has also given out approximately 50 laptops and provided tutoring to boys in need. ¶ “Right now [the boys] are really watching to see who is stepping up and supporting them when their families really need it,” said Lee. “For me, it’s so important that they know we’re there for them. That’s something they’ll pass along.”


 

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Crista Rock

I love what I do for so many reasons. I love meeting new people and hearing their stories.”

Crista Rock picked up her first camera when she was five years old. The rest is history. ¶ Captivated by storytelling in all its forms, Rock’s every photo, film and mural is another opportunity to capture the stories and struggles of New Orleanians. Her impressive resume includes collaborations with the Business Council of New Orleans, the NFL Network and, most recently, a series of public service announcements produced with NOLA Ready and Homeland Security. ¶ “I love what I do for so many reasons. I love meeting new people and hearing their stories,” Rock says. “I love being in the middle of whatever is going on, when it’s going on.” ¶ Even before founding her production company, Rock was refining her skills as an artist and storyteller through her photojournalism work. It was during her coverage of Hurricane Katrina that her commitment to celebrating and strengthening the city’s spirit was solidified, setting her on a path that is just as much a personal identity as it is a career. ¶ “Without this passion, I wouldn’t know what else to do or how else to be. I’m excited to keep going.”


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Allison Shapiro Dandry

“I want to make a difference in as many lives as I can, whether they’re two-legged or four-legged.”

Whatever project she’s taking on — innovating social media for international brands, serving on the LA-SPCA Board of Directors, or volunteering with the Junior League of New Orleans — you can bet Allison Shapiro Dandry is doing it with passion. ¶ After obtaining her master’s degree in neuroscience, Dandry spent several years working in scientific research before pivoting to sales, then to marketing and brand management, before finally stepping into her role as Director of Marketing & Technology at her family business, Krispy Krunchy Chicken. But what might seem like disparate accomplishments to the untrained eye is actually a unified, deep-rooted commitment to giving back. ¶ “Doing good in the community is my biggest passion and overall goal,” Dandry says. So far, that has included fostering more than 30 animals, raising over $250,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and providing hot meals to frontline workers in the wake of natural disasters. ¶ “I want to make a difference in as many lives as I can, whether they’re two-legged or four-legged,” she says. “I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life.”


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L. Kamisu Harris

“I am a steward of a culinary tradition by Black people too often overlooked.”

L. Kasimu Harris is an award-winning photographer, artist and writer. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, NPR and The Bitter Southerner. This year, his work appears in State of the Art 2020 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a solo exhibit at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh, and he is a 2020 Joan Mitchell Center Artist-in-Residence. ¶ While Harris’ food writing started out as a business, it has grown into a purpose-driven craft. ¶ “After graduate school, I basically took almost every opportunity that came my way,” he said. “Now, when I write about food, it’s much more intentional. I know I’m a steward of a culinary tradition by Black people too often overlooked and told from a Black perspective too few times.” ¶ Photography and visual art also remains a passion that Harris continues to create and grow. ¶ “In graduate school, [a professor] had me and a few other students come to New Orleans, 45 days after [Hurricane Katrina]. That trip was my foundation as a visual storyteller. Then, I [learned] how to go deep with stories and how to shape a visual narrative. Since then, it’s been a lot of looking at images and asking questions from mentors and peers. I’m not ashamed to ask how to do something, even now.”


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Kathleen Currie

I think of them as more than just perfumes, but as an object of ritual and self-care.”

For Kathleen Currie, owner of Smoke Perfume & Co., scents are more than just aromas. Launched in 2013, her perfumes provide a unique experience for each user, with an eye towards mindfulness of the body and the environment. ¶ “My scents are all unisex and 100 percent natural,” she said. “The world of natural perfume is growing as the green beauty movement evolves, and I’m proud to be at the forefront of the natural perfume movement. I think of them as more than just perfumes, but as an object of ritual and self-care.”¶ Originally from Belize, with family from New Orleans, Currie works out of her Bywater studio, and embraces travel, nature and the city of New Orleans as inspirations to her scents. ¶ “Jumping into the world of essential oil-based scent felt like a natural extension of my interests,” she said. “I liked the idea of creating a scent that connected you to your own power and breath. The idea of it growing into a company came later and after much trial and error.” ¶ Smoke Perfume can be found in stores locally, nationally and online, as well as the company’s newly opened brick and mortar space inside The Good Shop off Magazine Street.


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Thanh Truong

“Doing double duty was much more than I had anticipated.”

There are no shortage of mysteries in New Orleans. Journalist Thanh Truong has taken on some of the city’s most intriguing stories, becoming one of the most trusted sources for news and information. ¶ Recently, Truong moved from his job reporting for WWLTV to his own true crime podcast, “New Orleans Unsolved,” and then back again during COVID-19. ¶ “Doing double duty was much more than I had anticipated,” he said. ¶ Truong launched the podcast with his wife, Anna Christie. For Truong, it allowed him the chance to tell a story in a much bigger way than with on-air reporting.¶“Television reporting calls for brevity. In podcasting, there’s more room to expand a script and the people involved in the case or story. We were looking to take on a creative challenge and New Orleans Unsolved was it.” ¶ Truong knows there are more stories to share ¶ “Sadly, there is no shortage of unsolved cases in southeast Louisiana. We are currently looking into several.  Much of the future rests with finding sponsors and ways to fund the production. That was a challenge in the first season,” he said.


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Manuel Linares

“I am incredibly proud at how everyone at Touro and LCMC Health have come together.”

On July 9, 2019, Manuel Linares was named the new CEO of Touro hospital. Taking on the leading role at a metropolitan hospital in the midst of a global pandemic has not been easy, but Linares said the challenge has had a silver lining. ¶ “I am incredibly proud at how everyone at Touro and LCMC Health have come together,” he said. “Employees have been volunteering for extra shifts and taking on extra duties and procedures and it’s honestly felt like a family. The experience has made us more integrated as a hospital and a system.” ¶ Looking outside of COVID-19, Linares said one of Touro’s largest initiatives currently lies in senior care. ¶ “The Baby Boomer population is expected to grow by 27 percent in the next five years in our service area, and we are positioning ourselves to meet their needs by expanding services, including in cardiology and oncology. I’m proud to say Touro is the first hospital in the state to have a level two geriatric emergency department — the highest level of accreditation for emergency senior care.”


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Antonio Alonzo

“It’s important they have the support they need.”

For low-income and persons of color in greater New Orleans who want to make their dreams of growing a business a reality, Fund 17 is a smart first step. ¶ Focused on “turning hustles into livelihoods” since 2012, the nonprofit provides access to funding, business services and workspace to entrepreneurs. ¶ “We work generally with low-revenue, low-income ventures with under $150,000 in business revenue,” explains Fund 17’s Executive Director Antonio Alonzo, who previously worked negotiating license agreements with digital media company TurboSquid before joining Fund 17 as its community coordinator in 2017. In July of 2019, he was officially made the organization’s executive director. ¶ Fund 17’s small but mighty staff includes two full-time employees, seven contractors who serve as business case managers and a robust internship program. During COVID-19, Alonzo has led the team to convert all the nonprofit’s services to digital platforms and planned and relaunched a capital ready program. ¶ “Low-revenue businesses typically have less to rely on,” said Alonzo, “so it’s important they have the support they need.”


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Zella Palmer

“My journey to preserve and document culture led me around the world, but the stories of New Orleans, where my paternal lineage is from, gives me the passion to keep doing what I do.”

Lose the measuring cups and tablespoons — when you’re in the kitchen with Zella Palmer, cooking is about feeling, a creative process that relies on intuition rather than weights and measurements. ¶ Palmer calls this “vibrational” cooking, and it’s a method she carries into her work as an author, educator and food historian. In each role, her primary mission is to preserve Black, Native American and Latino culinary history in New Orleans while amplifying unheard voices within those foodways. ¶ “My journey to preserve and document culture led me around the world,” Palmer says, “but the stories of New Orleans, where my paternal lineage is from, gives me the passion to keep doing what I do.” ¶ At Dillard University, Palmer is Chair and Director of the Ray Charles Program in African-American Material Culture. While educating students about existing careers in the food and culture industries, she works hard to open new doors along the way. ¶ “My goal is to create more opportunities for youth in restaurant management, food policy, agriculture and ownership, with more opportunities for New Orleanians to own their stories on major media platforms.”


Mellissa Martin

Melissa Martin

“The food, the recipes, the stories, they can’t be separated.”

Melissa Martin wears many hats. Restauranteur, chef, writer, storyteller are just a few. When Martin opened her restaurant, The Mosquito Supper Club, in 2014, the goal was to bring real Cajun cooking, inspired by her upbringing along the bayous of south Louisiana, to a new audience. ¶ “There wasn’t a lot of Cajun food available in New Orleans, and there certainly wasn’t a woman cooking Cajun food,” she said. “I wanted people in New Orleans and visitors to experience it.” ¶ She also wanted to tell the bigger story of Cajun culture, cuisine, fishing and farming that she grew up with. From there her more-than-just-a-cookbook cookbook was born. Her passion, can be seen, felt and tasted on the pages of “Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes from a Disappearing Bayou.” The book was named a Best New Cookbook of Spring 2020 by “Bon Appétit,” “Food & Wine,” Epicurious and more. ¶ “My passion was always in fishing and farming, and cooking included all those things, as well as art. The food, the recipes, the stories, they can’t be separated.”


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Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes

“It’s my fate to be here doing this work, addressing the same thing they ran away from.”

Serving as a leader for change and social justice is more than just a calling for Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes — it’s a legacy that extends generations into her lineage. Her parents were Black Panthers, her grandfather was a founder of the Head Start education program, and even further back were ancestors who escaped enslavement in Louisiana. ¶ “It’s my fate to be here doing this work, addressing the same thing they ran away from,” Ecclesiastes says. “I know they see me now, protect me and guide my path.” ¶ That path has taken Ecclesiastes through an education at Vanderbilt University, several years as the Congo Square Coordinator for Jazz Fest, Director for Strategic Neighborhood Development with New Orleans Business Alliance, and most recently to Ashé Cultural Arts Center, where she’s the Executive Director of Efforts of Grace. Through it all, she’s channeled the power of art and community to guide people’s minds, spirits and hearts, as well as to restore opportunity and funding to underprivileged culture bearers. ¶ “I take so much pride and glory in this moment. This is my life’s mission.”