Editor’s Note: New Orleans is more of a matriarchal city than most. Yes, patriarchy exists here, but New Orleans women have held influential positions in families, businesses, the community and the arts in numbers rivaling few other U.S. cities. So much of what makes New Orleans such a fabulous city is undergirded by the (sometimes unrecognized) hard work and sharp intelligence of its female residents. Exhibit #1: Oretha Castle Haley. #2: Ella Brennan. #3: Mahalia Jackson. #4: Joyce Montana. #5: Ruby Bridges. #6: Leah Chase. #7 +++: Pick anything you care about in New Orleans, and you can pretty much guarantee there’s a woman behind it, supporting with work through sweat and sometimes tears. This summer, we highlight a few of the city’s unique female voices. Next up in our series: high-school-teacher-turned-boxer/trainer Susie Poulter.
Who: Susie Poulter
What: Director of Operations and Trainer at New Orleans Boxing Club; Executive Director of New Orleans Boxing Institute, NOBC’s non-profit
Where: Mid-City, at 2836 Conti
Tucked away on a residential street in Mid-City, across from the bar Good Times II, behind a dark, industrial-looking door, is a room packed with punching bags, weight machines, a ring, and a bunch of happy men and women sweating it out to Kendrick Lamar and Cardi B. You can sense right away that New Orleans Boxing Club is special; not only because it welcomes women into a stereotypically masculine space just as much as men, but because of the sense of community and togetherness that’s central to their business ethic.
Susie Poulter taught my first NOBC class (which, by the way, was attended by more women than men) and immediately made me feel welcome and not at all intimidated by the male-dominated sport. After eight years of teaching (at five different high schools!), Susie started working at NOBC full-time in December. The California native now runs operations at the gym and serves as Executive Director of NOBC’s non-profit, which mentors kids from local schools through boxing, tutoring, job skills training, and soon, counseling. A self-sufficient, supportive space, NOBC is suffused with feminism without commodifying it—no small feat these days, but one central to Susie’s professional and personal success.
On building an uncompromising, women-centric community
Susie: I came to the gym about three years ago and I was just a client. I was still a teacher at the time, and I just fell in love with it. Last summer I started training, and then I came on as Director of Operations in December. A lot of the gym’s procedures have changed in the past year. It’s constantly changing in a positive way. I really like working and running the business with Chase [NOBC’s co-owner], because he’s always open to new ideas and things that will make the gym run more efficiently, or things that will bring in a new market. When the gym first started, they had a LGBTQ class; it was kind of a specialty thing, and it went away, just because there wasn’t a huge pull for it. But it’s a community I’m really involved in, so we’re thinking about starting that up again. That’s gonna be a lot of fun.
Nora: Since you’ve been working at the gym, how have you gone about reaching different markets and making sure women feel included in the space? Because you can sense it when you walk in! I’ve never boxed before, and I didn’t feel intimidated–at least no more so than I do trying any new thing, which was surprising, since boxing is such a traditionally masculine activity.
Susie: I think that the space has always been very welcoming. When I first started, there wasn’t that many women at the gym. It’s not necessarily like I’ve been the one who’s brought a female presence, but there’s been a lot of things over the past couple of years that’s brought that. When I started I felt very welcome right away just because of the nature of the people who run the gym. Chase is very welcoming and inclusive, and all the guys that are there make you feel at home. You know how sometimes when you go to a gym and you’re working out, and you can feel a guy looking at you, like he’s gonna approach you? That doesn’t really happen at New Orleans Boxing Club, because if it did, the guys would shut it down instantly. They’re very clear about that—make sure you’re respectful.
Over the past couple years, they’ve developed the Bad Girls class, which I think has done a great job of bringing in women. And I’m a female trainer, and I think that’s helped, just having a woman there. Also, my rates for women are lower than they are for men. I always joke that it’s because of the gender pay gap!
Marquel, one of our trainers who has a lot of female clients, had a lot of them fight during our last charity sparring event. We all have a group message and we do brunch–we call it Ladies Sparring Club. It’s a bunch of us ladies who are interested in boxing not just as a fitness routine. We get together and cook a lot of food and gossip and drink champagne. They’re great. It’s a really supportive environment. But they all started coming around in the last year or so, and started sparring five or six months ago.
Nora: Do you think some women started coming to the club and then told a lot of other women about it, and they all started sparring at the same time?
Susie: A lot of them watched me spar, so they got used to the idea with me sparring. Most of Marquel’s clients are teachers or from the education world. It’s weird that a lot of the women in the gym are in education. It’s partially because I brought in a lot of my friends, it’s a word of mouth thing. We have a lot of doctors, too. I think one of the biggest things for our clients who are educators is that it’s a stress reliever. A lot of the teachers will come in right after school and box everyday.
Nora: It’s interesting thinking about where we are—New Orleans—being a matriarchal society in a lot of ways, boxing being a stress reliever, and boxing appealing to women living in New Orleans right now.
Susie: Yes. There’s a very big feminine power you feel when you go into our gym. But there’s no difference between the way females train at the gym and the way males train at the gym. Sometimes I feel like when a business or an activity is catered just to women things can get oversimplified, because men or society in general have this idea that women can’t do things the same way men do things. Or it’s intentionally made more girly. And it’s infuriating. But I don’t feel that when I watch into New Orleans Boxing Club. One of the reasons why I love training with Chase is because he’s just as hard, sometimes even harder, on me as he is on his male clients or his professional fighters. He treats us exactly the same.
On alternative economies in New Orleans
Nora: How do you foster community amongst members of the gym? You feel that when you go in there, with people hanging out, not necessarily training.
Susie: I think one of the main drivers in that is people feeling really supported, not just from an athletic perspective, but from a personal perspective, and they want to be there all the time. We have people who come into the gym and become a regular, become part of the family, and they always end up becoming part of the gym economy. Chase really encourages folks to become a part of the gym, not just from a familial perspective, but from an economic perspective. We don’t have any employees at the gym. They train there, and they make their money and we make our money. It’s very separate, but it’s together at the same time. It helps the gym run itself because we have people there that we trust. They’re always looking out for the space and the people within the space, and they’re able to enjoy themselves because all their friends are there, and make money at the same time.
Nora: It feels to me like the gym is part of the neighborhood, too. Not commercial, but actually part of it.
Susie: You see all the kids that are part of the gym, like Robriyell, and Bubba, and Robriyell’s little brother Robert. All those kids who live in the neighborhood have just come into the gym and made it a space. Robriyell loves to hold mitts for people. She’s really good at boxing but she doesn’t really wanna box, she wants to hold mitts. She’s ten years old, and she’s better than a lot of the trainers holding mitts you see on Instagram. And she feels very comfortable in the space […] she’s like another little employee. She’ll tell people what’s okay, she’ll look at clients and say ‘You can’t do that.’ So because it’s become her space, she takes agency over it.
Nora: You’re planning a second location Uptown, which will focus strictly on classes, providing trainers with additional income. This is key right, since many of the trainers aren’t employees of the gym itself, but actual amateur fighters who train at the gym and have a chance to be part of the business?
Susie: Yes, especially for our fighters. A lot of our trainers are people who are actually on our amateur and professional team. If you’re training out of our club with one of our trainers, you’re on our amateur team. Our professional boxers, they have their trainers, and they generally say, ‘I box out of New Orleans Boxing Club.’ It’s great because our amateur team is pretty successful and we’re pretty prominent. Sean [Hemphill] is on the Olympic boxing team and he’s probably gonna be in the 2020 Olympics. […] It’s a very inclusive space, because even our trainers, if you train or box at other places in the city, you have to pay the gym a fee. Our trainers don’t pay anything to use the gym, the only thing we ask is that all their clients have a membership. So the gym is really run as a way to maintain our fighters and our trainers livelihoods. We try to create our own economy.
Nora: I was just thinking about alternative economies in New Orleans, whether it be people selling watermelons out of a truck, or people making a bunch of food and selling plates for five dollars.
Susie: Communities really uplift each other. John Boy, one of our fighters, he’s gonna be on the undercard of a championship fight on July 14 at the UNO Lakefront Arena. It’s the first world championship fight that’s come back to New Orleans with a fighter from New Orleans [Regis “Rougarou” Prograis] in about sixty-two years. One of the reasons John Boy is so good to have on this fight isn’t just because he’s a good fighter and he works hard, but because he has a big community of support. John Boy’s best friend runs a lot of events in the city. It’s really great to see how their group of friends from their own community supports one another. New Orleans is a unique place in that it creates these little pockets where everyone is supporting each other and creating their own economy because the greater economy and society hasn’t done any good for them.
On doing business in a male-dominated field
Nora: Do you have advice for women, or anyone, setting out in a male-dominated business?
Susie: I think it’s twofold, and the first part is little harder than the second. Coming into a business that’s dominated by men, you really have to be extra assertive sometimes, and it kind of sucks. You have to be okay with not worrying about what other people think. Because, as I’m sure most women know, a lot of the time when you come into a business and you are assertive, you can get a label, and in order to move past that you have to just not think about it. Eventually people are gonna come around and realize what you’re doing is no different than what a man is doing, it’s just that society looks at you a little differently.
I also think that finding the right people that are supportive in their own ways is really, really important. I would have never thought that I’d be doing what I’m doing now, it just so happens that the people that I connected myself to didn’t care, or even love, the fact that I was a woman and I was assertive and I was trying to do what I was trying to do. […] My two business partners have told me that they feel really lucky to have me because they didn’t work with any women before. It’s really changed their perspective, I think, about what women are capable of doing in a male-dominated workplace. I don’t think any men in the gym respect me any less than they respect Chase.
Nora: It benefits them, to see what they could have been missing before you came on board.
Susie: And it wasn’t that they didn’t want a woman there, it’s just that women aren’t necessarily coming into this industry in general. There’s not a lot of female boxing coaches, or female boxing referees, or female judges, or women who promote boxing. There’s just a lack of knowledge on both ends of the spectrum. On the boxing side, it’s ‘We don’t know what it would be like to work with a woman,’ and from the female perspective it’s, ‘I don’t know what it would be like to work in this especially male-dominated field.’ You’re walking into a pool of testosterone.