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Nelson Mandela School Adds Another Building Block to North Omaha’s Future

January 24, 2016 1 comment

If you know me or follow my work then you know I have a heart for North Omaha.  I grew up there.  Went to school there.  For a complex set of reasons having to do with how my life unfolded the first 42-plus years and North Omaha’s role in that, I found myself drawn to writing about some of the dynamics there – past and present.  I still do. I am for anything that has the potential to do good there and when I heard about the new Nelson Mandela Elementary School going into the former Blessed Sacrament campus on North 30th Street it certainly caught my attention.  Here is a story i recently did for Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) that gives a glimpse of the school through the perspective of two key people behind it, Susan Toohey and Dianne Lozier.

 

 

NelsonMandelaSchool1

The Nelson Mandela Way

New School Adds Another Building Block to North Omaha’s Future

Published in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

North Omaha may be reversing five decades of capital resources leaving the community with little else but social services coming in. Emerging business, housing, and community projects are spearheading a revitalization, and a new school with promise in its name, Nelson Mandela Elementary, is part of this turnaround.

The free, private school in the former Blessed Sacrament church and school on North 30th Street blends old and new. An addition housing the library and cafeteria joins the original structures. The sanctuary is now a gym with stained glass windows. Vintage stone walls and decorative arches create Harry Potteresque features. South African flag-inspired color schemes and Nelson Mandela-themed murals abound.

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The school that started with kindergarten and first grade and will add a grade each year is the vision of Dianne Seeman Lozier. Her husband, Allan Lozier, heads the Lozier store fixture manufacturing company that operates major north Omaha facilities. The couple’s Lozier Foundation supports Omaha Public Schools’ programs.

Their support is personal. They raised two grandsons who struggled to read as children. The odyssey to find effective remedies led Dianne Lozier to new approaches, such as the Spalding Method used at Mandela.

Mandela sets itself apart, too, using Singapore math, playing jazz and classical background music, requiring students to study violin, holding recess every 90 minutes, and having parents agree to volunteer. Mandela “scholars” take College for Kids classes at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus.

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It’s all in response to the high-poverty area the school serves, where low test scores prevail and families can’t always provide the enrichment kids need.

Most Mandela students are from single-parent homes. Sharon Moore loves sending her son, Garrett, to “a new school with new ideas.” Eric and Stacy Rafferty welcome the research-based innovations their boy, William, enjoys and the opportunity to be as involved as they want at school. Moore and the Raffertys report their sons are thriving there.

“Parents are really getting into this groove of being here,” says Principal Susan Toohey. “It’s building a community here and a sense that we are all in this together.”

Community is also important to the Loziers.

“We’re just really connected here,” Dianne Lozier says. “Allan and I have really strong beliefs that the economic inequality in the country and north Omaha is a microcosm of a huge issue. It’s a fairness issue and a belief that, if we want it badly enough, we can make a difference.”

She and Toohey are banking that the school demonstrates its strategies work as core curriculum, not just intervention.

“I’m hoping by the end of the first school year here we’ll be able to compare students’ literacy against other places and show that children have developed stronger reading skills,” Lozier says. “Our longterm goal is that all kids will be grade-level proficient readers by the end of third grade.”

For Toohey, launching and leading a school in a high-needs district is appealing.

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“What an incredible opportunity,” she says. “Rarely do you get a chance to start a school from the ground up and pick everything that’s going to happen there and hire every person that’s going to work there. I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but my heart has always been in urban education.”

In preparation for opening last August, she says, “I spent a year researching educational practices and curricula and developing relationships with people.” Her outreach forged partnerships with Metro, College of Saint Mary, the Omaha Conservatory of Music, The Big Garden, and others.

“We really want to be a model of what makes a school stronger, and I think having the community involved makes it stronger so it’s not working in isolation.”

Dianne Lozier, whose foundation funds the school with the William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation, is a frequent visitor.

NelsonMandelaSchool5“I help out with breakfast,” she explains. “I tie a lot of shoes. I get and give a lot of hugs.”

Lozier says her presence is meant to help “faculty and staff feel a little more supported—because this is hard. Every teacher and para-educator here, even the head of school, would say this is the hardest job they’ve ever had.”

Toohey says the difficulty stems from teaching a “very different curriculum” and “starting a culture from scratch. Families are getting to know us, we’re getting to know the families, and this is a really challenging population of kids. Many have not been in preschool programs that helped them moderate their behavior.”

Despite the challenges, Lozier says, “We have incredible families and kids.”

Drawing on the school’s inspirational namesake, each morning everyone recites “the Mandela mantra” of “Education is the most powerful weapon you can produce to change the world,” and “I will change the world with my hope, strength, service, unity, peace, and wisdom.”

“I hope all those things are what this community sees coming out of this school,” Toohey says, “and that our kids develop those qualities of grit and resilience so critical for success.”

Lozier adds that Mandela is a symbol of hope and opportunity.

“To accomplish the things we’re capable of,” she says, “we have to believe we can do that. It’s an opportunity to make improvements and get past impediments, to use internal strengths and be recognized for what you can bring.”

Visit nelsonmandelaelementary.org to learn more.

NelsonMandelaSchool1

 

Lourdes Gouveia: Leaving a legacy but keeping a presence

December 18, 2015 Leave a comment

One of the smartest and kindest people I know, Lourdes Gouveia, has stepped down from directing the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies of the Great Plains or OLLAS, a program she helped found at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  A sociologist by training and practice, she and her program have helped the university, policymakers and other stakeholders in the state better understand the dynamics of the ever growing and more fluid Latino immigrant and Latin American population.  OLLAS has become a go-to resource for those wanting a handle on what’s happening with that population.  She is very passionate about what she’s built, the strong foundation laid down for its continued success and the continuing research she’s doing.  Though no longer the director, she’s still very much engaged in the work of OLLAS and related fields of interests.  She’s still very much a part of the UNO scene.

 

 

UNO's O Icon

 

 

Lourdes Gouveia: Leaving a legacy but keeping a presence

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico
When sociology professor and researcher Lourdes Gouveia joined the University of Nebraska at Omaha faculty in 1989 it coincided with the giant Latino immigration wave then impacting rural and urban communities.

Little did she know then she would found the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies of the Great Plains or OLLAS in 2003. She recently stepped down as director of that prestigious center she’s closely identified with.

The idea for OLLAS emerged after her field work in Lexington, Neb. documenting challenges and opportunities posed by the influx of new arrivals on communities that hadn’t received immigrants in a century. She focused on the labor trend of Latinos recruited into meatpacking. While doing a post-doctorate fellowship at Michigan State University she came to see the global implications of mobile populations.

“It really did become a transformative experience,” recalls the Venezuela native and University of Kansas graduate. “It gave me a whole new level of understanding of issues I had been working on. It opened opportunities I had no idea we’re going to be so influential and consequential in my life. These were colleagues as motivated as I was to try to understand this tectonic and dramatic shift going on of increased immigration from Latin America accompanied with an economic recession in the United States.

“I learned a tremendous amount. It just opened a lens that gave me confidence to understand this shift in a larger context.”

 

When Gouveia returned from her post doc she accepted an invitation to head what was just a minor in Latino Studies at UNO.

“I said yes but with a condition we explore something larger. Many of us were beginning to realize the minor was just not enough of a space to understand, to educate our students, to work with the community on issues of this magnitude.”

She led a committee that conceived and launched OLLAS and along with it a major in Latin American Studies.

“OLLAS was built upon a very clear vision that Neb. and Omaha in particular was seeing profound changes in the makeup of the Latino immigrant and Latino American population. Neither the university nor the community, let alone policymakers. were sufficiently prepared to understand the significance of those changes and their long-term consequences or respond in any informed, data-driven, rationale way. That message resonated with people on the ground and at the top.”

Lourdes Gouveia (far right) is the Director of OLLAS at UNO. (Photo Courtesy UNO)

Lourdes Gouveia (far right) is the Director of OLLAS at UNO. (Photo Courtesy UNO)

 

 

Significant seed money for making OLLAS a reality came from a $1 million U.S. Department of Education grant that then-Sen. Chuck Hagel helped secure.

From the start, Gouveia says OLLAS has existed as a hybrid, interdisciplinary center that not only teaches but conducts research and generates content-rich reports.

“Community agencies, policymakers, students and others tell us they find enormous value in those research reports and fact sheets we produce. That is a mainstay of what we do. It’s done with a lot of difficulty because they require enormous work, expert talent and rigor and we don’t always have the resources at hand. Yet we have maintained that and hope to expand that.”

She says OLLAS is unlike anything else at UNO.

“We’re an academic program but we’re also a community project. So we’re constantly engaging, partnering, discussing, conversing with community organizations, even government representatives from Mexico and Central America, in projects we think enhance that understanding of these demographic changes. We’re also looking at the social-economic conditions of the Latino population and what it has to do with U.S. immigration or U.S. involvement in Latin America.”

OLLAS also plays an advocacy role.

“We use our voices in public, whether writing op-ed pieces or holding meetings and conferences with political leaders or elected officials. We use our research to make our voices heard and to inform whatever issues policymakers may be debating, such as the refugee crisis.”

Gouveia says the way OLLAS is structured “allows us to be very malleable, more like a think tank.” adding, “We define ourselves as perennial pioneers always trying to anticipate the questions that need answers or the interests emerging we can fulfill. It’s extremely exhausting because we’re constantly inventing and innovating but it’s extremely rewarding. We’re about to put out a report, for example, on the changes of the Latino population across the city. Why? Because we are observing Latinos are not just living in South Omaha but are spread across the city. As we detect trends like this on the ground we try to anticipate and answer questions to give people the tools to use the information in their work. That guarantees we’re always going to be relevant to all these constituencies.”

 

 

OLLAS faculty and staff

 

 

OLLAS has grown in facilities and staff, including a project coordinator, a community engagement coordinator and research associates, and in currency. Gouveia says, “I’m very satisfied we did it right. We thoughtfully arrived correctly at the decision we just couldn’t be a regular department offering courses and graduating students but we also had to produce knowledge. Our reports are a good vehicle for putting out information in a timely manner about a very dynamic population and set of population changes.”

She says OLLAS could only have happened with the help of many colleagues, including Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado and Theresa Barron-McKeagney, “who shared enthusiastically in the mission we were forging.” She say OLLAS has also received broad university support and community philanthropic support.

“There was resistance, too,” she adds. “It’s a very creative space that breaks with all conventions. Like immigrants we create fear that somehow we’re shaking the conventional wisdom. But I think our success has converted many who were initially skeptical. I think we’ve pioneered models that others have come to observe and learn from.”

One concern she has is that as Latino students in the program have increased UNO’s not kept apace its hiring of Latino faculty.

A national search is underway for her successor.

“I feel very good about stepping out at this time. It surprised a lot of people. As a founding director you cannot stay there forever. Once you have helped institutionalize the organization then it’s time to bring in the next generation of leaders with fresh visions and ideas.”

Besides, there’s research she’s dying to get to. And it’s not like this professor emeritus is going away. She confirms she’ll remain “involved with OLLAS, but in a different way.”

Visit http://www.unomaha.edu/ollas/.

 

Interface Web School: Coding, Collaboration, Community

December 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Shonna Dorsey is the face of one of Omaha’s new technology success stories, Interface Web School, and she does a great job of selling the endeavor through her personality and passion and her savvy use of social and traditional media. She’s the rare co-founder of a tech company with a real facility and flair for communication. This is a short piece I did for B2B Omaha Magazine on Shonna and Interface Web School. I will soon be posting a longer feature I did about her and the company for another publication. She is a real force on the Omaha startup scene and she does a great job, as the headline of my piece here says, of combining coding, collaboration and community. She’s passionate about putting the tools and skills of technology in the hands of more people. We will all be hearing much more from her in the years to come as she’s sure to consolidate her place as a dynamic leader and entrepreneur.

 

Shonna Dorsey

 

 

Interface Web School: Coding, Collaboration, Community

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the Winter 2016 issue of B2B Omaha Magazine

(http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/b2b-magazine/)

Shonna Dorsey has merged an aptitude for technology with a desire to help others via Interface Web School, Omaha’s latest cyber ed alliteration. It’s not the first time she’s combined her entrepreneurial, networking and community interests. She’s done that as a Leadership Omaha participant and as co-founder of the monthly Coffee and Code meet-up she hosts with Autumn Pruitt of Aromas Coffee.

Long tabbed a real comer, Dorsey’s been recognized with the 40 Under 40 Award from the Midlands Business Journal.

In 2013 she cofounded Interface with Dundee Venture Capital’s Mark Hasebroock and others. She serves as managing director of the school that until recently housed in north downtown’s tech-haven Wareham Building but now offices in the AIM Building, which is also known as The Exchange at 19th and Harney Streets.

The North High graduate studied technology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“A turning point for me as a master’s student came working on a project for an organization that serves child abuse survivors – Project Harmony. Our small student team developed an application to store and monitor videos. That was such a meaningful project. It really sparked something to see that people can really benefit from what techies like us know and do.

“It made me think, How can I do this and make it my career?”

While working corporate jobs she mentored for Hasebroock’s startup accelerator Straight Shot. Before long, they formed Interface.

“I’ve always had a knack for saying, ‘OK, this is risky but I can see the reward on the other side.’ That was how I felt about Interface,” Dorsey recalls. “Even though it was definitely a huge leap of faith at the time it made sense when I looked at the market and what the needs were.”

Many tech jobs go unfilled in-state due to a shortage of qualified prospects. Interface strives to bridge that gap.

“We’ve all been affected by this need for more talent in technology, whether it be web developers or project managers or user interface designers,” she articulated in a Nebraska Entrepreneurship video. “We wanted to put together a pretty intensive program people could go through, which started at 200 hours over 10 weeks and has been adjusted to 200 over 15 weeks, meeting three times per week to accommodate students who need to hold down full-time positions during training..”

kidscoding

Dorsey concedes there are online services that teach coding, but she says many Interface students “have tried those tools and realized a more structured approach is necessary.” Among the benefits of a physical versus virtual class is having on-site mentors who personally “help you overcome hurdles and explain why your code isn’t working.”

Interface serves largely nontraditional students.

She says, “Currently 80 percent are full-time employees. Ten percent are minorities. Most are mid-career, late 20s-early 30s, just looking for a way to transition into a new career in web development or tech or to add more skills in order to add more value to their organization. Or to potentially start their own business.

“We usually have a stay-at-home mom or two in every class.”

Interface requires prospects complete an on-line application, in-person interview and assessment.

“It’s been a really effective tool to gauge aptitude and motivation,” she says. “Those things help determine how successful applicants might be.”

Flexible, interactive class offerings are proving popular.

“Students complete weekly evaluations of their performance and how they feel about the class. It allows us to make tweaks and changes as they’re going through it. Students constantly apply what they learn, build on what they know. It’s all pretty hands-on. We’re able to get you to a level of proficiency where you’re marketable at the end.”

In 15-week courses, students design actual applications, portals, websites for nonprofits.

“That’s an important part of what we do. Students really get excited about creating something that is their own by applying what we’re teaching to something very specific. It’s pretty impactful knowing you’re helping organizations who otherwise couldn’t afford development work. It’s a great way for students to get experience working with a client and building a real-world product. It’s good for clients to understand what it’s like to work with developers.”

 

I'm developing a new tech training scholarship fund with AIM and Omaha Community Foundation

 

It all follows Interface’s emphasis on immersive serving learning.

“The nonprofit projects give our students a chance to extend the learning beyond the classroom and maybe learn something new.”

Developer-client Interactions are just as critical as programming.

“There’s so much to web development that cannot be taught in a class. Even if you’re a great technologist if you can’t work well with people then it makes it difficult to stay employed or get promoted. Skills like collaboration, project management and communication are important no matter what our students decide to do outside Interface.”

Dorsey says employers are hiring and promoting Interface grads, many of whom report salary gains. Some employers partner with Interface.

“We’re happily surprised with how much traction we’ve gained in terms of employer support. We have several companies, including Hudl and Agape Red, that offer tuition reimbursement for our students. That’s really helped us on the student enrollment side.”

Dorsey and her partners have cultivated” close relationships” with the AIM Institute and the Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, Heartland Workforce Solutions provides financial assistance and  Affirm provides tuition financing.

From the school’s inception Dorsey’s been its most public face through the networking and training she does.

“I started offering free workshops through the Omaha Public Library. It proved a great way to get Interface’s name out there and help people get exposed to web development and all the opportunities available. Since then I’ve transitioned to teaching at small startups almost every weekend. We’re starting to offer workshops outside Omaha.”

She says when Interface announced its bootcamp approach, some skeptics questioned its effectiveness.

“Our average reported starting salary is $51,000 after training with us. We’ve had students make $20,000 a year more in a new position. That’s a pretty incredible return on investment. So, the outcomes are real and what students are able to do is real and their jobs are real.”

For Dorsey, having a hand in making people tech savvy and empowered is a heady thing.

“I really do enjoy it so much and I love what we’re able to do in terms of the life changes we help facilitate and get to witness. I could not ask for a better job.”

Visit https://interfaceschool.com/.

 

Omaha’s old lion of philanthropy Dick Holland slowing down but still roaring and challenging the status quo

December 4, 2015 Leave a comment

Nebraska has one of the highest per capita millionaire ratios in the nation and that stinking rich club includes a gallery of characters from all walks of life.  One of the most colorful is Dick Holland.  The Omahan’s penchant for unscripted, off-the-cuff, colloquial-style remarks is refreshing in this all too polished and canned age.  Here is a new profile I did about him for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  It’s part of a larger look at philanthropy and philanthropists in the December 2015 issue.  Following this piece is a shorter one I did on some of his fellow charitable givers: Michael and Gail Yanney, Todd and Betiana Simon and Paul and Annette Smith.  Like any town of any size, Omaha has a mix of old and new money and these philanthropists represent a nice blend of each.

 

Omaha’s old lion of philanthropy Dick Holland slowing down but still roaring and challenging the status quo

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Omaha’s philanthropic heavyweights are generally male, old-monied Great White Fathers whose wealth and influence support health, human services, education and the arts.

A veteran of this deep-pocketed fraternity is Richard D. Holland. The Omaha native came from an upper middle class family that produced high achievers. Holland took over his father’s small advertising firm and built it into the metro’s second largest agency but his real fortune came from investing with Warren Buffett.

An entrepreneur from the jump, he ran an ice house that fronted for a bookie operation, he probed rail grain shipments, he sold Fuller brushes door to door, he cut lawns and he did janitorial work.

“I found out kind of early I didn’t want to work for somebody – I wanted to be my own boss,” he says.

He also served a stint in the Chemical Corps during World War II.

“It’s obvious I learned a lot as I went along.”

“There were disappointments in all the things I did,” he says, but it taught him the resilience he finds lacking in many today. He advises young people that “by trying out things regardless of what they are you begin to gain confidence.”

According to the occupational assessment inventory developed by his late star psychologist brother John “Jack” Holland, he’s an investigative, artistic, entrepreneurial type. Those traits, along with some luck, helped him amass wealth.

The Holland Foundation he and his late wife Mary Holland established reported assists of $150 million in 2014.

Like his first generation philanthropic cronies, Holland’s a Great Depression and Second World War product. While they largely operate behind the scenes on capital and building campaigns. Holland’s an outlier who speaks bluntly and publicly about things he’s passionate about. That’s in stark contrast to his peers, who parse words in carefully prepared press releases and sound bites devoid of personality and controversy.

Where others prefer uniformity, Holland, a science geek, favors chaos theory. He’s the rogue who says what’s on his mind not only behind closed doors but in interviews and letters to the editor and lets the chips fall where they may. He’s equally capable being a team player or going his own way. For example, when an organization he helped found and fund, Building Bright Futures, balked at doing lobbying and research he favored, he cut ties with it to form two organizations of his own – Holland Children’s Movement and Holland Children’s Institute – charged with those two priorities, respectively.

This Europhile’s opinionated critiques of what he deems American lapses can come off as the bluster of a crusty, crotchety old man. Like what he says or not, he puts his money where his mouth is.

The ultra progressive Holland is a robust Democratic Party political contributor. He proudly proclaims his liberal leanings and Unitarian beliefs by supporting humanistic public policies and rigorously questioning things. Unlike some fellow travelers, he favors giving the undeserved tools or means for success rather than hand-outs.

This blend of pragmatist and creative studied art at what’s now the University of Nebraska at Omaha and spent his salad days wooing ad clients. His agency devised campaigns for industrial clients, including Valmont, and political candidates.

His philosophy on giving is getting “results,” and “making ideas a reality.” “It’s always great to have ideas but somehow or other somebody has to pay, and pay big in order to get something done.” He does his homework before committing funds. “I’m not throwing money at it.” He says he makes his donations public because “I’ve learned I actually influence a few people. I’m sure if somebody hears I’m into anything big they say, ‘Well, he’s not just playing around.’ I hope it’s true.” He uses the same art of persuasion he practiced as a Mad Man trying to win others over to his way of thinking.

“Some of the great lessons I learned in advertising, like how to talk to people to try and convince them of an idea, have served me well.”

He adamantly endorses America providing free prenatal care and early childhood education for all at-risk families. He says the presence or absence of that care and education is often the difference between success and failure in school and later in life.

“Brain research indicates what happens to a child between 0 and 3 is far more important than anything else that happens to him in his life in terms of growing up and becoming a productive citizen. It’s a truth I’m trying to get across to the rest of society. Hell, yes, I’m trying to influence public opinion. ”

He considers his advocacy for early childhood ed the most important thing he’s ever supported. “Oh, absolutely.”

He envisions a large, central funding apparatus to support another passion, the arts, but rues it iall take someone younger to launch it.

“I see the future not being so much private but much more public,” says the man for whom the Holland Performing Arts Center is named. “I don’t see the enormous private fortunes coming along in Omaha where they can make $100 million gifts.”

Holland points out that some of the biggest local fortunes were made by early Warren Buffett investors like himself and by the heads of dynastic companies. Both groups are dying out and there isn’t necessarily new rich blood replacing them.
Mary and Dick Holland

Mary and Dick Holland. photo by Joe Mixan

 

 

He says the more cosmopolitan Omaha that’s emerged was a long time coming as the city’s economic base transitioned from blue collar industrial to white collar professional and things like the arts became more valued quality of life measures

“We had a helluva time getting over the fact we were a cow town. That was Omaha’s original wealth. We had all the great packing plants. That whole thing just disappeared and a new system or class replaced it.”

Like his peers, Holland’s giving includes many education initiatives. He funded the Robert T. Reilly Professorship of Communications at UNO named in honor of his old advertising partner. Holland monies established the Cardiovascular Research Laboratories at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He helped found the Nebraska Coalition for Lifesaving Cures. He backed the purchase of a supercomputer at the Peter Kiewit Institute in the Holland Computing Center.

He’s equally bullish in his arts philanthropy. “I suppose it really began in the mid-’80s and really got going in the late ’90s.” His lead donations enabled construction of the Holland Performing Arts Center and renovation of the Orpheum Theatre.

“I was on a symphony committee about building a new home and every time we had a meeting we had great ideas and no money. I got to talking to Sue Morris of Heritage Services because I knew about its work with the Joslyn and so on. That was Bob Dougherty and Walter Scott getting together the fat cats. Bob was after me on it and then it was the SAC museum. Coming home from some meeting he and Walter were talking and they said we ought to set up a permanent organization to take on some of these things important to the city,”

That something became Omaha Performing Arts and Holland says his two giving buddies “are greatly to be complimented because few cities have this.” He recalls a backstage inspection at the Orpheum revealed an antiquated theater ill-equipped to accommodate large touring shows. “It was just dismal. I think that viewing of the Orpheum opened some eyes to the need and things began to move after that.”

The Hollands made the biggest gift and later gave more but he credits others for actually making the Orpheum project happen.

“Without Heritage I don’t think we would have got it done then. Sue (Morris) is a wonderful gatherer. She also understands construction.”

Adapting the Orpheum from a vaudeville and movie house into “a full-blown theater” hosting Broadway shows before record crowds paid off.

“Hell, we have tours coming that take two weeks to load-in with eight over-the-road trailers. Elaborate damn things. That wouldn’t have been possible without that work. We reseated it, too. Cut out one aisle to make a better line-of-sight. We brightened it up. It’s a lovely place. If you had to duplicate it today you better start with $150 to $200 million.

Besides being home to the symphony, the Holland Center hosts dozens of shows a year across the live arts spectrum.

He’s proud of how generously Omaha supports its arts, as most recently evidenced by community giving that made the new Blue Barn Theatre possible. But he bemoans the way funding’s done.

“Our support of the arts leaves everybody gasping at the end of every year over a lack of funds. This to me we don’t see the arts is an economic engine for the whole damn society. Major donors tend to be heads of companies, corporations and generally they’re not artistics in the sense of having great artistic interests. The net is they dismiss the arts – there’s a lack of understanding of value.

“Nobody’s ever nailed down that value but I always think about European cities where they think nothing of putting up millions for operas and symphonies and privately and publicly support them because they recognize a major industry for Vienna or Berlin or Paris is the arts. And it’s not just the performing arts – it’s museums, galleries.”

 

 

 

Dick Holland is pictured in his Omaha home on Oct. 2, 2012.

 

He feels America must move away from its haphazard support to something more consistent and equitable but he concedes that sea change requires a new mindset.

“At the present time most of the arts struggle. Funding is dispersed, it’s spread around, there’s no leadership of it. That’s one of the reasons why I think a great coalition is needed.”

He says if the city can invest $150 million to build TD Ameritrade Park for the two-week College World Series there’s no reason it can’t invest similarly in arts that serve audiences year-round. It galls him that the public sector leaves the bulk of arts funding to the private sector.

He feels Omaha could capitalize more on its existing amenities and perhaps expand offerings to become a regional destination.

“It almost defies anybody saying the arts don’t amount to much because of all these things going on and the audiences that go there. In the 10 years since the opening of the Holland and the refurbishing of the Orpheum we’ve had millions of people pass through. Those people came from not just Omaha or the outlying districts. We’ve done studies which indicate that maybe 20 or 25 percent and once in a while as high as 40 percent come from beyond. It’s a support for the restaurants, hotels, parking garages-lots, shops and so on.

“I think there’s an enormous amount to be gained by making Omaha a Middle Western city that is well known for its arts.”

For him, it’s part of the calculus that makes a city livable and attractive.

“I think what’s greatly underestimated is why people come to Omaha and want to live here. One of the economic engines is the Med Center. I’ve talked to them about the arts and its effects and one of the things they point out is that when they want to bring in someone to head up a new initiative or an existing section they tell me the key is the wife. The first question she asks is, ‘What are the arts like?’ She’s the key because if she says no it’s no and it doesn’t make much difference how good the offer is. These decisions are made like that.

“The whole cultural scene is a big, big part of a community.”

He’s dismayed America forces presenting organizations to be perpetually on the beg and cuts arts ed in public schools.

“They cut out the arts in the schools at a time when they’re needed most,” he says about a nationwide patern. “They cut out the arts in a town when they have to balance budgets. This is nearsightedness.”

An area he feels Omaha has fallen much shorter in yet is handling its growing poverty population.

“It’s neglected its poor people badly. Omaha’s doing OK economically
but it is has great difficulty educating poor kids. To me that’s the worst thing Omaha does.”

While he applauds the metro’s “highly developed educational system” he says too many children enter school unprepared to learn and too few programs address preparing them. Reading difficulties, for example, get magnified when kids become adults and don’t have the education or skills to get living wage or salaried jobs.

“‘i don’t see this so much as an intellectual problem as a community problem. We have all kinds of government programs designed to grab these people as they fall off the cliff. The failure is to raise them so they can climb cliffs. There’s no question in my mind it’s going to be a major government project. It has to be.”

He insists universal early childhood education is the key to reversing the situation but claims legislators ignore the evidence.

“We are terribly ignorant in this country about early childhood. We just plain are dumb. We don’t understand how kids get educated even though it stares us in the face and we are not willing in many cases to turn around and fix this. The proof is all over the place, all you have to do is look at it. There’s no point sitting around speculating about it. If we do it, it will end the problem. It’s very clear. Hell, we can look at all kind of European education systems – you’ll see the same thing.”

He feels America may have missed an opportunity with Head Start. “If we had continued to develop Head Start we might have got there.”

New models have emerged that show promise. “We have something going on in Neb. headed by Susie Buffett, Educare, that’s a helluva good idea. It’s also expensive. But it is a proven thing now.”

“The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation is one of the largest in the United States. What they’re attempting to do in education and the schools through Building Bright Futures is just monumental.”

He’s also encouraged by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and the impact it’s making in raising awareness and standards.

The goal is creating holistic after school and daycare programs that are educational and developmentally based, not just caretakers.

 

 

Holland Performing Arts Center

 

Child Saving Institute

 

 

Holland, whose support of the Child Saving Institute is legendary, says, “I just decided to focus on this problem. It’s difficult because it’s costly. Trying to get the kind of money from the state and the nation to really look after these children is just plain expensive.”

He says even as Building Bright Futures, Partnership4Kids and other education efforts have scaled up their impact “is tiny in terms of the need,” “Five thousand-plus kids enter the Omaha Public Schools each year and half of them are probably not ready to learn, which indicates a serious problem,” he says. “Multiply that over some years and these kids are more likely to have problems becoming productive citizens. That describes in Omaha the size of the problem. It’s enormous.”

Mentoring is another thing he supports.

“It’s been shown that even after this bad beginning if we get a hold of a child and mentor him properly we can get him higher up in the education scale.”

Holland wants America do something overarching, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan or the Great Society, to once again assert leadership that’s inspirational at home and abroad.

“We’re beginning to see we have to make some changes but the changes I’ve seen so far are not nearly as drastic as I think they should be. I’m more and more positive it’s going to take a revolution.”

The old ad man in him tells him “we haven’t really been able to sell the benefits of doing something like this even though it would be far better than the cost of not doing it.”

“We have more than two million people in prison in the United States, leading the world, and not realizing this is our own fault. We think they’re just bad people. They weren’t bad when they were born, I’ll guarantee you.”

He’s concerned the American Empire he came of age in is eroding.

“I’m worried about it terribly. I think our national government and even our state governments are not using their ability to think about the good of the country and to work together to improve it. Hell, everybody and his brother knows about it that pays any attention.”

Compounding the problem, he says, is America’s own policies.

“We have not reformed our immigration policy. We’re getting fewer immigrants as we make stupid requirements to get a person into this country anymore. That’s backwards because immigrants are highly motivated people who work hard to succeed..

“We don’t tax the wealthy or anything like that. We don’t seem to have any ability to take a look at a good country in Europe and realize that those people pay much higher taxes than in the United States but they’re better educated, they’re happier, they have decent transportation systems, they have universal health care.”

He’s not sure the country has the will to do what’s right.

“I used to think of the United States as affinity. In the post-World War II era we dominated the world. One of my great disappointments is that we’re not leading the world, we’re responding to problems.”

Better sooner than later for him that America take action.

“I want it to happen now. What the hell, I’m 94.”

_ _ _

Giving for the greater good

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha’s philanthropic community is known for its unusual generosity.

Some attribute this largess to the small town feel of a city where relationships still matter and where it’s possible to rally people around a good idea or cause. Others point to the concentration of several wildly successful companies grown here that give back. Then there’s the metro’s large number of wealthy families, some of whom acquired their fortunes through business and others through investments. The latter include those who’s trust in a young Warren Buffett to invest their money in Berkshire Hathaway was rewarded beyond belief.

Many landmarks and streets are named after early figures whose late 19th century and early 20th century philanthropy built Omaha. Joslyn.
Dodge. Kountze. Creighton. Hitchcock. Cudahy. Doorly. Kenefick.

As those early givers passed, new figures stepped up such as Leo A. Daly, Peter Kiewit, Walter Scott, Bob Dougherty, Mike Harper, Tom Nurnberger, Dick Holland, the Storzes, the Durhams, the Hawks, Alan Marcia Baer, the Blumkns-Batts. More recently, Susie Buffett, Bruce Lauritzen, Wally Weitz, John Gottschalk, David Sokol. Bill and Ruth Scott, Allan and Dianne Lozier, the Simons and the Smiths have emerged among Omaha’s new generation of major givers.

These movers and shakers underwrite some of Omaha’s great public-private places and endeavors. Holland Performing Arts Center. Orpheum Theatre. University of Nebraska Medical Center. UNO. Creighton. Film Streams. Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Durham Museum. Omaha Community Playhouse. Omaha Symphony. Opera Omaha. Great Plains Theatre Conference. Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. And many others.

They have skin in the game, too, in things like the United Way and Building Bright Futures, whose greatest benefactor, Susie Buffett, is a notable female exception in what’s otherwise ostensibly a men’s club.

These charitable doyens not only give money but provide leadership on boards and committees and lend more informal advice and service.

Few donors are as colorful or irascible as Dick Holland (see main story). The 94-year-old represents a dying breed who tells it as he sees it, throwing political correctness out the window, but getting things done, too.

 

Gail and Michael Yanney

Michael and Gail Yanney

A bridge figure between Holland and today’s new generation philanthropists is Michael Yanney, 81, founder and chairman emeritus of The Burlington Capital Group.

Yanney, who came from poverty in small town Neb. to work his way up the ranks of commercial banking and commodities markets, found key mentors he tried emulating in his own leadership and philanthropy.
One was former Peter Kiewit Sons Construction head Walter Scott and another was former Northwestern Bell head Tom Nurnberger.

“Both of these people I trusted a lot. And my wife has probably been one of my best mentors.

Yanney and his wife Gail are a team when it comes to their giving.

“We really like to do things that will make a difference and we want to do them the best we can. Therefore you don’t pick a lot of projects, you pick very few and you make sure they’re outside of the box and you’re going to have to stretch to get there.”

He says giving decisions are not arrived at by accident but by due diligence. “It is something that comes as you see the demand and the opportunity to pick things up.”

Youth mentoring is a prime giving area for him. What’s known now as Partnership4Kids has grown from 20 to some 5,000 young people served. “It’s certainly a commitment and we feel it’s working and there’s very good leadership.” The program mentors at-risk kids from early elementary school through college to try and break the cycle of poverty many come from. “Anything we can do to eradicate poverty is going to make a long-term difference to the overall picture and happiness of our community,” Yanney says.

Health care, particularly UNMC, is another prime giving area. “We have an absolutely strong feeling that medical center is making a big difference to this region. Anything you can do to improve medical research, quality of patient care will make a huge difference.”

Yanney doesn’t see an end to the generosity that’s made “Omaha a very unique place,” adding, “I think there’s a very good chance it will continue as long as there’s very good leadership. The money is there but there’re not going to give if the quality of leadership isn’t there.” He says the leadership of Walter Scott, whom he calls “the chairman of the board of Omaha.” will be “very hard to replace” whenever he’s gone.

Still, Yanney says, “I’m very optimistic. We’ve really got some great young people moving into the leadership.”

 

Alexander Payne with Feature 2008 Chairs Betiana and Todd Simon

 

Todd and Betiana Simon with Alexander Payne

 

 

Todd and Betiana Simon
Todd Simon points to the fourth generation of his Omaha Steaks family empire, including his late father philanthropist Fred Simon, as “very inspirational to me personally.” He adds, “It was basically leading by example. That giving back to the community is just something you do both through financial support but also by being on boards, helping with capital campaigns, providing leadership where appropriate. I think it was my uncle Alan who said to me one time, ‘Community service is my hobby,’ and I think that really struck with me. It’s a great hobby to have when you can take something you’re really passionate about and turn it into something you really want to spend time on.”

He says the calculations he and his wife Betiana use in making giving decisions “starts with the heart” and follows with the head. “The question Betiana and I ask is. ‘How can we have the most positive impact on the project, whatever that project is, and on the community that project serves.’ We’ve made the choice to support the arts and human services and obviously those are both really big buckets. Within those we make the decision of how we’re going to support.

“We have been focused on doing programming support in the arts and making sure the institutions we’re supporting can do first class programming work. In health and human services we’re more focused on the mission of the organization and in those instances we’re happy to fund just direct operating support because we know so much of the work of these organizations goes right to their beneficiaries.”

In weighing an organization and its need, he says, “I try not to over-think it,” adding, “I think what it really comes down to is people give to people and so I look to the leadership of the organizations both from a staff and a board perspective and the question I ask is, Does this organization have the capacity to deliver on their mission? That’s usually a fairly easy determination to make and once I’m confident they can, then we’ll typically feel good about giving. I leave it up to the leadership of the organization to deliver on their programming and promises, which they almost always do.”

The Simons prefer going with sure things and sticking with them.

“What we tend to do is find organizations doing a terrific job and we stay with them, not only financially but also from a time commitment perspective. We join the board or participate in a committee or get involved in leadership in some way. That keeps us really connected.

“We kind of want to go deep rather than broad. We’re most effective in our philanthropy when it’s not just about writing a check.

“I think the most fulfilling thing is planting seeds and seeing them grow into the community.”

 

AnnetteAndPaulSmith copy

Paul and Annette Smith

Philanthropists sometimes partner on projects. The Simons joined forces with another new era power couple, Paul and Annette Smith, in founding The Impact Circle for Big Brothers, Big Sisters.

The Smiths, recipients of the 2015 Sower Award in the Humanities, have used others’ giving to guide their own.

“There are a host of great examples we’ve borrowed from,” says Paul Smith, a founding member of Tenaska Capital Management. “Our approach is probably an amalgam of different approaches we’ve seen with others.”

An early influence on them was Howard and Rhonda Hawks.

The Smiths divide their giving between youth serving organizations and the arts. In each case, their head and heart enter the equation.

“We try to focus on outcomes – on how much impact we’re really having,” Smith says. “I suppose that is the head part but we’re pretty passionate about both of these areas, so there’s a lot of heart in it, too. So it’s some of both for us.”

When it comes to young people they look to impact “underserved and disadvantaged youth, especially through avenues that enhance their educational and social opportunities,” Smith says. “What we look for is a real efficacy and real difference made sustainably over time in the lives of young people in our community.”

When it comes to the arts, he says, “we’re looking to create cultural assets in our community.” He says they prefer to support programming of the kind that Film Streams does that “serves to create a cultural connection around people and a dialogue around important issues – I think that’s true of all of the arts organizations we support.”

Annette Smith says such activities enrich the cultural landscape. “It makes our community a more vibrant place to live for everyone.”

Paul says they support any arts endeavor that promotes access and diversity “in creating community around art.”

Sometimes, their passions for youth and arts overlap, as in the examples of their investments in the Kent Bellows Institute and Omaha Conservatory of Music.

He says their giving reflects their belief the arts are integral to a well-rounded life and city.

“Imagining our city without these things – without a symphony, an opera, art museums and challenging places where new art is being created – imagines a less interesting, less connected, less enjoyable place to live. So that’s why we think of it as a form of investment when we invest in the arts.”

Smith says he and his wife remain “active in the dialogue that exists in our community broadly around these sorts of institutions, so we try to support them not only with contributions but with counsel and service. And sometimes that means a board seat and sometimes it doesn’t.”

 

Sam Meisels leads early childhood mission through Buffett Institute

October 9, 2015 1 comment

The more researchers explore the human brain the more evidence there is that very young children, even infants, learn from the very start of life and then so much of their continued development is dependent on how they are nurtured and stimulated and what they are exposed to.  The more enriching and interacive the environment it seems, the more children thrive and the better prepared they are to succeed as they progress through those critical developmental years.  Sam Meisels knows all about that and a lot more when it comes to early childhood.  He leads the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and he and his staff work hard to make Nebraska the standard by which early childhood progams and initiaitives are judged.

Samuel J. Meisels

Sam Meisels

Sam Meisels leads early childhood mission through Buffett Institute

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Since Sam Meisels arrived in 2013 to head the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, he’s become the academic-based advocate ally to the socially conscious philanthropist who hired him, Susan A. Buffett.

The dynastic wealth of the Buffetts has always had a progressive bent, Billionaire investor Warren Bufffett’s first wife, the late Susan Thompson Buffett, gave generously to liberal causes.

The daughter has carried on this legacy by supporting quality education for children from low income families. Her Sherwood Foundation is a major player behind programs attempting to bridge achievement and opportunity gaps from birth through college. Her Buffett Early Childhood Fund backs Educare. The Fund created the Institute in partnership with the University of Nebraska.

The research, policy, outreach-armed Institute housed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha emerged from her conversations with NU-system leaders about the need to improve early childhood outcomes for at-risk populations. She and Meisels say since learning begins at birth any early deficits can contribute to later academic-reading struggles. That’s why enriching activities from infancy on are vital. As the Institute’s tag lines read: “Start Early, Start Well” and “All children need the opportunity to develop, learn and succeed in life.”

In Meisels, she tapped an early childhood guru as BECI’s founding executive director and as Neb.’s new Pied Piper for the cause.

“Sam is the real deal. He’s a world-class early childhood leader deeply committed to leveling the playing field for very young children growing up in families facing some very tough odds. Sam’s vision of making Neb. the best place in the country to be a baby is a vision inspiring more and more people, and I’m convinced we’ll get there,” she says.

“Children are born learning. Their earliest experiences set the trajectory for how they will succeed in school and life. Sam has put together a team at the Institute to help him and, really, to help all of us across the state close the student achievement gap and develop an early childhood workforce to do the critical work of nurturing Neb.’s youngest learners.”

Meisels came from Chicago, where he helped make Erikson Institute the nation’s leading graduate school in child development. Before joining Erikson in 2002, he held senior positions at prestigious schools.

The University of Rochester graduate with a master’s and Ph.D. from Harvard Graduate School of Education has ample experience with children both as a parent and as a former pre-school, kindergarten and first grade teacher. As a leading authority on the assessment of young children he’s spent much time observing early child ed programs.

Most of his time today is spent with stakeholders, including school district superintendents, education officials, legislators and philanthropists, as well as with fellow experts in devising strategies and policies for better assessment and training.

On September 11 the Buffett Institute and the Aspen Institute hosted a panel discussion featuring leading early childhood experts about the future of early childhood education and care.

Institute staff have traveled the state to meet with and speak to many constituencies. With the Buffett and NU names preceding them, Mesiels and Co. can get in any door and before any audience to advocate for quality, accessible early childhood programs that educate rather than warehouse, that have well-trained staff and that are accountable to state standards.

Meisels is impressed by the public-private support marshaled for early childhood efforts in Nebraska. Those initiatives are in part responses to societal failures. The state faces a crisis of young children living in poverty, a factor posing serious challenges for healthy development. The 2010 census showed 40 percent of all children birth through age 5 in the state meet the Nebraska Department of Education’s general at-risk criteria, including low income, English as a second language, having adolescent parents or being born prematurely. That percentage equates to 60,000 children statewide. The numbers keep growing.

These problems are magnified in families and communities lacking resources for quality out of home child ed and care. Meisels sees a need for more such programs wherever he visits.

“A lot of pre-schools I go into, not just in Neb. and certainly not just in Omaha, are places where kids spend time, but they don’t learn very much. They meet in places where there’s very little attention paid to something as simple as transitions, whether it’s from home to school or within school from one activity to another activity. Most very young children have trouble making transitions – being able to change what they’re doing into something else and do it in a way that makes sense in a group of 12 or 20 children.

“We’re talking also about relying not at all on television but relying instead on what takes place interactively. We’re talking about having art experiences, alphabet letters, displaying children’s work on the walls, having goals in the areas of social problem solving, literacy, math. Even for 3 year-olds and 4 year-olds you should have appropriate goals in those areas.”

A Vision of the Future

Meisels doesn’t often see those things in place. He also sees disturbing disconnects in the continuum of early childhood programs.

“Right now in this area we have a number of 4 year-old programs sponsored with public dollars but very, very few programs for 3 year- olds. It’s like having sixth grade and fourth grade but no fifth grade.
That doesn’t work.”

Meisels not only finds it illuminating but rejuventating to visit pre-schools in order to get a handle on what’s happening in settings where young children spend much of their time.

“When I go into a pre-school I actually feel transformed, honestly. I’m taken over by the environment. The first thing I do is look around and see how many adults are there and how many children are there. Then I just listen for a little bit to get the tone – how are children talking to each other, how are adults talking to children, how are children tailing to adults. I note the interactions and how problems are solved.

“Then I start to walk around and note what the materials are like – are children able to reach them, are they in good repair, is there a good variety. Do we just have a few books and counters for math or are there blocks, is there a dress-up corner for dramatic play. On and on and on. That gives me a pretty darn good idea.”

He says while most out of home providers are motivated by the right reasons, some cut corners rather than put children first.

“If you’re going to be very concerned about the bottom-line, you’re going to try to have to hold costs down, most of which are for the personnel, and to that extent you’re going to short change everybody.”

He says most providers pay relatively poor salaries – on average $28,000 – to child care educators.

“That’s a terrible salary given that who’s more important to us in the world than our children. We’re also paying it all out of our pocket. The amount of federal and state dollars that goes into early childhood is very, very small compared to what goes into K-12 education. So who pays for it? Parents pay for it.

“Salaries, work conditions and benefits are very, very bad and the status of that profession, my profession, is low as a result.”

All of which serves as a disincentive to enter the field, leaving many inner city and rural communities wanting because there aren’t enough early childhood educators to meet the need.

With providers charging a few hundred dollars to a thousand dollars or more a month, parents must make hard decisions and sacrifices, perhaps going well out of their way in order to access child ed or care.

“These are generally young people and they can’t be stretched very far,” Meisels says.

Parents of limited means sometimes choose the more expedient rather than best option, including in-home providers operating off the radar and therefore outside the eyes of regulators.

“Many people are unlicensed and then they’re totally unregulated,” Meisels says.

Since not all children who receive out of home child care are in licensed-regulated settings, he says, “We have to find ways of reaching out to them through professional development, improving the quality of the programs as a general rule.” He says, “For those programs that do enroll children who receive any kind of state subsidy the state now has a quality rating system and so those programs over the coming years will have to meet certain minimum requirements of quality, not just health and safety, and we will work with that and try to improve that.”

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The Institute has launched the Early Childhood Workforce Development Program in order to raise the standards and skill levels of early childhood staffers. It is hosting higher education faculty from across the state October 5-6 for the conference “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce in Nebraska.”

Meisels says another challenge posed by the early childhood arena is variable quality in day cares and after school programs. ”

Some of them have educational goals, some of them have more fun, play-based goals. It’s a big issue all around. Actually United Way of the Midland here is focusing more of their attention now on trying to improve after school programs.”

A formal approach to the issue is the Achievement Gap Challenge through the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan mandated by the Nebraska Legislature (LB 585). The plan will be funded for three years by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. Created in collaboration with 11 metro area school districts, the plan aims to reduce achievement gaps for children birth through age 8. It emphasizes creating more quality pre-school for 3 and 4 year-olds and enhancing teaching and curriculum for pre-K through third grade.

Home visits will target at-risk kids up to age 3. The idea is to educate families about activities and resources that aid development in situations where children may not be getting the stimuli they need.

“For example, we know if children aren’t exposed to a lot of words early in life that even as early as 18 months they’re going to show a deficit in vocabulary that can persist all the way through third grade,” Meisels says. “And we know there’s a very tight correlation between vocabulary and learning to read.

“So we want to teach people to talk, to read and to sing to their kids. We want to help them learn how to help their children grow in terms of physical well-being, fine motor and gross motor skills, all aspects. We need to communicate to parents – what are our goals for learning. how well is your child doing in terms of what has he learned about this and about that. We particularly want the parent to have a strong relationship with the child. What takes place between the parent and child is the driving force in childhood development.”

He says it’s not only parents who can stand to be schooled about children’s age appropriate behavior.

“We need to teach parents about why play is a valuable avenue of learning for young children, why there’s always a surplus of activity level in children. We need to teach teachers that, too. Some kids getting expelled are not wanting to sit down all day long or for a few hours, which is what we would expect for a 4 or 5 year-old. Some people don’t know that.”

He says the Institute will monitor and support early elementary ed outcomes with schools, centers and families.

“We’ve got to think in terms of families rather than parents because a lot of children are raised by other family members. We have to think about the family with the child all the time. There’s no such thing as an isolated child because as humans cannot survive alone. That’s not just our physical needs but our emotional needs, our intellectual needs. We need to be supported, scaffolded all the way, for a long time.”

He says education intervention is generally well-received.

“Because you’re very alone when you’re the parent of a very young child and a new-born especially, you want someone to talk about it with. How you do it is very important. Finding someone from the community who understands what you’ve been through is very important.”

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He says the early childhood field’s come a long way.

“We have learned what to do with kids, we’ve learned how to do it better. We’ve learned that children can learn a great deal. We’ve learned the first five years of life is when the greatest amount of brain growth occurs. All of that is supportive of what we’re doing. We can teach very young children about letters, about numbers, about shapes, about space, about all kinds of things like that.

“A more recent revolution is we’ve learned we need to teach them about non-cognitive things, too, like taking responsibility for their actions, relating to others, being cooperative. It’s these non-cognitive factors that have a lot to do with how well they succeed then in life. Much of the evidence behind that has grown out of what we’ve learned from early childhood programs as we follow kids longitudinally through their early adult years.”

He says early childhood has more visibility “than at any time” and
“the research is pretty clear that if we can be persistent in our effort we will experience the persistence of effect.”

When it comes to assessment, Meisels says No Child Left Behind initiated “more testing than we’ve ever seen and most of it has not been useful.” He adds, “A lot of it has been punitive in nature. I think something that is punitive is not educational.”

“The assessment work I do,” he says, “is based upon teachers observing, recording and comparing to standards in order to differentiate what they do with individual children. You have to have evidence-based data. We learn how to observe so that we have some reliability and repeatability. Based on that I can see this is a child who learns in this way but not so well in that way and I can use that to help the child develop and have success.

“It is more resource-intensive for a teacher but teaching’s a tough job and this actually improves your teaching.”

Another punitive thing that happens in pre-schools, he says, is children being suspended or expelled for behavioral issues.

“It is a national problem. Boys are more frequently expelled than girls.”

Some reports suggest boys of color are disproportionately impacted.
Meisels isn’t surprised it happens given that the overwhelming early childhood workforce is white females.

“There are problems of identification with an authority figure who looks so different and is so different. Children from minority backgrounds may not have encountered a white authority figure before.”

Samuel J. Meisels

He says the kinds of behaviors that can lead to disciplinary action are preventable and solvable.

“Often a teacher doesn’t know how to structure a physical space for pre-schoolers. Some kids will respond to your saying ‘no running,’ others won’t, they like to challenge, they like to test limits. which is a very natural healthy thing to do.

“It’s our job as adults to help the child cross that divide and we have to understand where the child is so we can be successful at that. It’s a huge responsibility for the teacher to bring a child into a learning world
and to expel a child at that age is a failure on the part of the teacher.”

Meisels sees a largely health early child landscape here.

“Some factors that led to the establishment of this Institute help Neb. stand out in a very positive way. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of work to do, but it means there are points of excellence here. We have combined public-private programs focusing on the first three years of life that very few states have. We have four Educare schools. We have three colleges of education in the NU system.

“There are things that need to improve, too. We are a rural, low population state, so as you get into greater Neb. there are fewer people prepared at a high level. Our standards of qualification for taking care of children are not high. Some say if we made them too high we’d have nobody to serve the kids in need. We want to find ways of improving that situation. We have very few birth to 3 programs and very few programs for 3 year-olds.”

Overall, he says, “there’s room for a lot of improvement and there’s a lot of strength to build from.”

He says the investment made to support the Institute’s work sends a message that “the lives of young children at risk and their families are important enough that they would rise to be a priority of the university,” adding, “Most universities don’t do that and this is one saying that it’s important enough for us to do it.”

The Institute’s interdisciplinary-collaborative work spans across all four University of Nebraska campuses in Lincoln, Kearney and Omaha.

“What I say to the deans around these campuses is that we can identify where most of the children at risk are coming from and we want every single one of those children 18 years after they’re born to be eligible to apply and to be qualified to be accepted at the university.

“So in a way it’s a jobs program – that these kids should grow up and hold jobs and be real contributors here in this state. Early childhood I always say is not an inoculation, it’s an investment.”

Visit http://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu.

Moving right along: Educators, dancers, advocates, activists Josie Metal-Corbin and David E. Corbin not slowing down in retirement


For all of us there are people in our lives, even if tangentially, who we admire for the way they, well, live.  Josie Metal-Corbin and David E. Corbin are two of those people for me.  This married couple just knows how to do life right.  At least that’s the distinct impression I get whenever I’m around them, which is rarely and then only for brief visits, but my instincts about people are good and all evidence suggests my perception about them is right on.  There’s a joyous spirit to them and their pursuits, both personal and professional, that largely remains elusive to those of us, like me, who fall on the depressive, anxious side of the spectrum.  Oh, I’m sure they have their dark, down moments and struggles like anyone else but I suspect they are far more positive than negative in the balance of things.  I also know for a fact they intentionally, consistently keep themselves healthy in mind, body, spirit by virtue of their degreed disciplines, specializations, and passions having to do with physical education, recreation, healthy aging, and dance.  They are active people and in retirement they’re still moving right along, just as the headline for my New Horizons profile about them says.

 

 Cover Photo

Moving right along: Educators, dancers, advocates, activists Josie Metal-Corbin and David E. Corbin still on the move in retirement

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

Josie Metal-Corbin and David E. Corbin are aware not everyone is as fortunate as they are in following their passion work. Their magnificent obsession happens to be health, physical education, dance and, more broadly speaking, the humanities.

They were already married and established in their respective fields when they joined the University of Nebraska at Omaha staff in 1980, where the next four decades they pursued their professional lives. Today, they look back fondly on distinguished educational careers that often intersected with one another.

A soon to be retired dance educator and choreographer, Josie led UNO’s award-winning resident dance troupe, The Moving Company, whose concerts explore myriad subjects in diverse spaces. David’s an emeritus professor of health education and public health who led many community health initiatives and is now an environmental activist.

Besides their mutual interest in health education and recreation, they share in common a passion for performance – she’s a dancer and he’s a musician – along with art, activism and advocacy. In addition to being each other’s favorite dance partner, he’s often accompanied, on guitar, performances she’s danced in or directed-choreographed. He’s even danced with The Moving Company himself.

The two actually met over dance – at a Brigham Young University social ballroom dance workshop in Provo, Utah. He came to the workshop from Saskatchewan, Canada, where he was teaching at the University of Regina and she traveled there from back East, where she was teaching at Robert Morris University in her native Pittsburgh.

They both actively promote healthy aging through activities like dance and Tai Chi and they use their expertise to support progressive, humanist causes.

Married 38 years and residing in the same Dundee house they’ve always lived in, they are parents to a daughter, Quinn Corbin. She describes her folks as “an incredibly inspiring couple,” adding, “They always follow their passion and work incredibly hard while still taking the time to meditate every day as well as view life through a positive yet realistic lens. They both care for so many others and are heavily involved in the community.”

Her parents are friends, colleagues and collaborators with a large circle of fellow creatives and concerned citizens.

 

 

©photo vt David Conway

 

 

Putting down roots

These Omaha transplants were both teaching in Pittsburgh when they accepted offers from UNO. He was completing his Ph.D. and she was following him wherever he landed. He weighed options in Boston and Indiana when jobs serendipitously opened for each at UNO.

Before Omaha David Corbin never lived anywhere longer than eight years. His educator parents moved the family from Ohio to New Mexico when he was young and he came into his adolescence in that sun-swept and desert land, living on a ranch in a small Sandia Mountains town. His folks taught at a two-room schoolhouse. He attended a school 18 miles from home. He often rode into town on one of the family’s horses. Before his senior year his parents accepted positions at an American school on a U.S, military base, Fort Buchanan, in Puerto Rico. That’s where he graduated and after getting his teaching degree in the States at the University of New Mexico he returned to Puerto Rico to make his living as a teacher and musician.

Music’s been a big part of his life since age 12. As a young man his father played bass in touring bands. When David got struck by the folk and rock explosion, his father gave him his first guitar lessons. David headed up a band during high school in New Mexico. A popular song then, “El Matador,” by the Kingston Trio was naturally adopted as the fight song for his school, nicknamed the Matadors. David’s group performed the tune before basketball games.

His band’s gigs extended to ski resorts.

“We didn’t get paid. We got room and board and free lift tickets. We didn’t care,” he recalls of those free-spirited adventures.

He led a band all through college at UNM.

“After college I became solo in Puerto Rico. i worked on cruise ships and I was teaching by day and playing by night in bars.”

A tee-totaler, he never imbibed at those night spots, but he was burning the candle at both ends.

“Looking back, I wonder why in the world was I doing that. After working a full school day I’d get home at 4 p.m,, take a nap, go to work at 10 to sing and play guitar, get off at 2 a.m. and then have to be back at school at 7:30.”

Even though his parents were educators, he says it was really his older brother Charles “Chuck” Corbin, a noted fitness-wellness educator and author, who influenced him to pursue a physical education track.

After Puerto Rico, David’s roaming began again. He studied at the University of Oslo (Norway), he taught in Fort Worth, Texas, he earned his master’s from the University of Ohio, he taught in Maryland, he lectured in Canada, he attended an intensive course on human sexuality at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University,

Josie, meanwhile, rarely left Penn. before he came into her life.

Her father was a coal miner turned hobo hell-bent on being a lumberjack before contracting tuberculosis. He then learned the craft of fine motor watchmaking and clockmaking. Her father and mother raised the family in an undeveloped Pittsburgh suburb that was more like the country. The eldest of three, Josie led adventures in “these great woods behind our house.”

But it was work, not play, combined with a self-sufficient attitude that was most impressed upon Josie by her folks.

“Work, work and work. We were the Metal girls and we could do anything – this was the philosophy. We went hunting and fishing, we skinned rabbits, we chopped off cement from bricks so my father could salvage brick.”

Running parallel to that blue collar, tomboy lifestyle were the dance lessons she took from age 3 on.

“This Metal girl had an unbelievable opportunity. The Carnegie Museum of Art had this wonderful program called the Tam O’Shanters. Kids from the public schools were selected to come every Saturday for free. I did that from third grade through high school, by which time we were going to the Carnegie Mellon Institute of Art. So I had free art lessons, I saw different exhibitions. It introduced me to this whole other world. It was really amazing.”

That experience is so ingrained in her, she says, “when I go to museums or older institutions to get a drink from the old brass fountains it just all floods back.”

“One of the highlights of my life came when the Durham Museum (Omaha) asked me to be a scholar in residence,” she says.

Fine art and higher ed were not part of her parents’ experience and she appreciates that these things became a vital part of her life.

“I was first generation college,” she says. “I went to Slippery Rock Sate College  (Penn.). I actually played soccer on a sheep field there. I was always in dance, Dance then was part of physical education. Now you go to study dance. Then I went to the University of Pittsburgh (for her masters). I taught three years in the public schools – health and physical education – and did dance and choreography. Then I went to Robert Morris, where I founded Orchesis (the greek word for dance).”

UNO’s company was originally called Orchesis after a nationwide modern dance  movement and honorary society.

Metal-Corbin stretched herself while at Robert Morris.

“Not only did I found the dance company, I joined folk dancers from Duquesne University as an itinerant grad school teacher for Penn State University. I coached varsity basketball for women, I was the softball director, I was the cheerleader sponsor. I did a million things there.”

 

 

DJsculpture

Sculpture by Jamie Burmeister; ©photo by Quinn M. Corbin

 

 

Dance as life

Once at UNO she contributed to The Moving Company’s long legacy.

“I’ve been involved in the work of carrying on a tradition of modern dance at UNO that goes back to 1935. We’re in our 80th year of continued existence, which makes us one of the oldest modern dance university companies on the planet.”

There have been four directors – Ruth Diamond Levinson, Aileene Lockhart, Vera Lundhahl and Josie Metal-Corbin.

Bringing dance to people and places that don’t often see it is one of Josie’s passions. She’s done that as a Nebraska Arts Council Artist in Schools and Communities and via the Moving Company, whose mission, she says, is community oriented. “We were doing community engagement before it became the byword of institutions.”

Indoors or outdoors, kids to seniors, she’s made dance accessible everywhere, for everyone.

“We invite the community. When i came to UNO I wanted to see the dancers and the audience reflect north, south, east and west Omaha. I worked for a very long time to get diversity of audience and performers and today we are diverse in age, religion, language, race. you name it That is I think my biggest accomplishment.”

She’s been intentional doing outreach work with the Omaha International Folk Dancers and the African Culture Connection. She’s worked with a local ballroom dance group. She formed Reach for It, a dance class for people with Parkinson’s disease.

Her interest in dance as cultural rite, symbol and storytelling device found full expression in a native Bosnian dance-inspired piece she choreographed. The performance was accompanied by authentic music and projected images of the Bosnian-Serb War. Among the dancers and musicians were Bosnian refugees living in Omaha.

“I love collaborations, I thrive on collaborations, I always have from day one in my teaching career. You see, dance is very ecumenical. Dance is physics, dance is force, gravity, weight, flow and time, so connecting it to science in any way is a natural connection. We’ve done the water cycle dance, the spider dance…There’s an easy connection to math with patterns and forms and shapes. There’s most definitely a connection to fine art, to music, to language arts.”

She says “dance is very universal” but American culture doesn’t readily see its broad integration until someone like her choreographs a site specific work where you least expect it.

“A recent book I published a chapter in is about site specific dance. I illustrate how you can have dance on bridges, in the middle of water, on mountaintops. There’s vertical dancing now where people are hooked up on rigs and they do the mountain or climbing wall.”

Some of her favorite site specific work has intersected with some of the area’s most sublime spots.

“The first meaningful site specific piece I did here was with artist Catherine Ferguson, storyteller Nancy Duncan and musician Michael Fitzsimmons. We did it in a Joslyn Art Museum gallery with words, music and dance within a Catherine Ferguson installation of slate and rope. Then we did something through the galleries at the Sheldon Art Museum in Lincoln with works by artist Jamie Burmeister.”

She recalls another Joslyn performance that brought nontraditional dancers together for a piece that took some improvising.

“In 2005 The Moving Company was commissioned to respond to an exhibition, Renaissance to Rococo. I wanted the dance performed in the galleries among the works of art but was denied permission due to security issues. Our performance was relegated to the Witherspoon Concert Hall. I was disappointed but richly rewarded with the premiere of a piece I made for five physical education majors. They were future teacher candidates learning ways of integrating dance, language arts and sign language into the physical education setting.

“A quarterback, a coach, an assistant at Boys Town and two K-12 physical education majors made their dancing debut, much to the amazement of their peers. Although the site was a traditional stage to our Moving Company dancers, it was a very unexplored place to these newcomers. In this new environment they learned to navigate space, time, effort and relationships on a stage versus on a playing field.”

A few years earlier she assembled dancers at UNO to serve as models for sculptor John Lajba and his commission to create what became the “The Road to Omaha” bronze sculpture for the College World Series.

“Lajba and a photographer came to the UNO Dance Lab and worked with dancers as they performed combinations of running, jumping and lifting. Lajba used photos of the dancers as departure points for maquettes and ultimately some dancers sat for wax casts.”

Then there’s her work for the great outdoors.

“Two times we did a dance on the Glacier Creek Preserve,” she notes.

Northwest of Omaha, this topographically diverse nature preserve is dedicated to the study and appreciation of the tall grass prairie and associated ecosystems of Eastern Nebraska.

“The first prairie dance was based on a poem. It came out of an environmental presentation I did at Kaneko. Then when the preserve’s barn was dedicated we performed in the loft. David played music for it.”

She describes how a public byway became a medium for dance.

“Last year we did a dance along the full length of the Bob Kerresy Pedestrian Bridge. The theme was the fragility of U.S. waterways and our performance was synched with performances by dancers across the nation at 3 o’clock on April 6 to bring attention to the issue.”

Legacy

Now that she’s retired, she’s pleased the university “is going to carry on the dance company” with an interim director.

Metal-Corbin says while she’s stepping out of the field, she’ll always remain a part of dance.

“I don’t want to say that I’m through. I am a dancer, I’ll be dancing in my kitchen, I’ll be on the highways and byways dancing, but it’s not going to be these huge events. I am setting boundaries. There are other people that can do this now. I’ve done it and it takes a lot of energy. I now want to take my energy and put it somewhere else.

“I’m not fading away. I am leaping and stepping out and landing – I don’t know where. We will see what kind of a landing it will be. I’m OCD, and so it’s unlike me not to know what the next step is.”

There are still bound to be those whimsical moments, at home or in public, when the mood strikes and she, and sometimes David, too, trip the light fantastic, not giving a hang what people think.

“Once while visiting a shop in Quebec City,” Josie recalls. “I became engaged in conversation with the hat maker at a millenary store concerning the art of modern dance. She was intrigued I was a dancer-choreographer. Before I knew it, she suggested a ‘trade.’ She asked me to create a dance within the store, and in turn, I would receive a discount on the beautiful hat I had been admiring and trying on. She locked the front door and for a few minutes I improvised dancing through the aisles and around the displays.

“She got her dance and I walked out with the hat.”

Quinn Corbin grew up expecting the unexpected with her parents.

“At times them dancing in the aisles of the supermarket or singing loudly on the street corners in New York City was embarrassing but I’ve always pretty much embraced it as have my friends.”

Retired or not, Josie’s spontaneity to break out in dance will never go away as long as she can still move.

Always a teacher, always of service

Even when she stopped concert dancing more than a decade ago, teaching still brought out the performer in her.

“When I’m teaching I also am performing. Every teacher who is a good educator is looking for a performance level. So every time I go into that classroom or studio I humbly feel I have a captive audience and I’m pulling out all the tricks in the book to engage people. Even though I stopped performing in formal concert at age 56 I was still directing, choreographing and teaching.”

She says the passion she expresses for her work is contagious.

“My (teacher) evaluations have always said, ‘She’s energetic, she’s enthusiastic,’ and the truth is it’s a quid pro quo. I get my energy because there’s people there, so they reflect things back to me. Or if they don’t, I have a genre to get them to move or to respond.”

Her ability to connect with students and to be a leader in her profession earned her National Scholar-Artist recognition from the National Dance Association in 2012, one of many awards recognizing her work in the studio and in the classroom.

All in all, she’s content with how her career evolved.

“I have worked very hard to create a body of work on the academic side and on the artistic side that’s been very rewarding. I’ve had the chance to work with so many different people I’ve given to but that in turn have given back. That quid pro quo is what I always try to do.”

 

 

©photo by Josie Metal-Corbin

 

 

Alone and together

David has his own recognized body of work separate from Josie. They respect that they are their own persons, professionally and otherwise.

“We’re two independent people,” Josie says. “We don’t speak for each other and people have honored that because I think we’ve kind of insisted on it. I’m not Mrs, Corbin. I have a hyphenated last name. I have my own professional title. He has his own professional title. David has his teaching, his writing and all these other initiatives that retirement allowed him to expand.”

He confirms he’s a man of varied interests, saying, “I have many passions. Certainly teaching and advocacy are among them. But I also enjoy music, nature, travel and reading.” Writing, too. He’s authored or co-authored many books in his field, including a pair of high school textbooks he worked on shortly after retiring. His brother Charles, whom he considers a mentor, was a co-author on those projects.

An earlier book the brothers did, Homemade Play Equipment, landed David on The Late Show with David Letterman Show. He’d sent a copy to the show. Years passed when a staffer called to request a video of what he’d demonstrate if he were a guest. Thus, he ended up showing Dave reuses of bicycle inner tubes, milk jugs, panty hose and other throwaways as resistance and strength training tools. Corbin utilizes some in an exercise program he conducts at deFreese Manor. He even gives Green Fitness workshops that emphasize getting in shape using fun, repurposed, low environmental impact devices.

He’s traveled extensively for his work, once serving as a consultant in Romania. He and Josie taught a stress management workshop in China. She says she’s grateful for the support he’s shown her to go after certain professional opportunities.

The couple have merged their interests and expertise to do many projects together. For years he’s taught, with Josie assisting, exercise classes and workshops for older adults, many of them for the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging (ENOA). The pair ended up writing a book together, Reach for It, that grew out of their shared interest and experience in getting older adults moving to improve their health. David says, “The subtitle of that book is A Handbook of Health, Exercise and Dance Activities for Older Adults. I was teaching healthy aspects of aging at UNO at the time. Part of it was at that time there were no decent textbooks around, so it was kind of meant to be background information on aging, plus activities that people could do.”

David says introducing exercise to older adults may meet with resistance at first but once people participate they’re hooked.

“We were giving a workshop for ENOA and it was pretty obvious the group was very reticent to get involved. Some people had canes.

We actually had a parachute canopy (a tool to stimulate perceptual, cognitive and motor skills) and we said, ‘OK, we’re going to try this,’ and finally everyone was up. Then we got the activity going and one person took his cane, threw it down, and started dancing. We felt like Oral Roberts or someone,” he’s says, laughing at the memory. “So it turned completely around. It went from people rolling their eyes and I don’t want any part of it to active joyful engagement and movement.”

 

 

©photo by Quinn M. Corbin

 

Performance of “Thriller” at the Durham Museum; ©photo by Debra S. Kaplan

 

 

Parkinson’s program

Josie borrowed the book’s title for a dance program at UNO she started for persons with Parkinson’s.

“There are inherent therapeutic benefits of dance no matter whether you’re ill or you’re well,” she says. “The joy of movement, being with other people in a community of learners, sharing in the rhythm and the music – that’s the therapeutic part of it. You have a chance to be creative, sometimes to do problem solving. You’re moving in the kinesthetic domain, so if you’re under stress your body gets a chance to get rid of some of the stress products.”

She says the Parkinson’s program’s been well-received.

“It’s a very sound program. It’s based on one I studied in New York that is worldwide. At Reach for It we do 10-week sessions. This last semester we had speech, language and hearing students come – that’s really important because with Parkinson’s you have to exercise your voice as well as your body. We let in free the caretakers or drivers of the persons with Parkinson’s. So we have usually a nice circle of maybe 20 people at the UNO Dance Lab.. We always have live music.

“We’re in our fifth year. The Nebraska chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association and The Moving Company are the sponsors. We just got a grant to carry it forward, which I feel good about because I’m leaving and at least the funding’s in place. The person leading them now is Danielle Laurion, who is a dance therapist and a choreographer.”

David says the benefits of dance for Parkinson’s are well documented.

“Part of the philosophy behind it is that the rhythm of the music helps with the tremors and things like that. Music is part of it and rhythm is part of it. People will usually report they have an after-effect, too – they feel better for a couple of hours.”

“When you’re losing some of your physical movements in your flow, to get it back even for a short while is reassuring,” Josie says. “It’s well known in the Parkinson’s community that dance is beneficial. This is all about the healing powers of dance. Participants are moving in all ranges of motion and the thing is they’re with other people. You have a community of learners and these people want to have music and dance in their life. Instead of going to play bingo maybe or going to a book club, they’re going to a dance class.”

Last year she directed an impromptu private performance in the backyard of a longtime Moving Company supporter battling a terminal illness. Josie says the patron’s daughter shared that her mother seemed like her old self for the first time in awhile during the dance.

David says whatever your age, the best advice he can offer is “keep moving and exercising” and “emphasize what you can do and not what you can’t do.” After a 23-year gap, he did Bike Ride Across Nebraska last year and found it much tougher this time. But he did it.

 

 

©Cover photo by Bill Sitzmann

 

 

Public health

With that same can-do attitude he’s taken on public health issues and affected change. He helped get the smoking ban in Omaha and statewide. He helped get funding from the Master Tobacco Settlement to establish new public health departments in Neb. so that for the first every county’s covered by a local or district public health department.

“Both of these were collaborative initiatives, but I am proud to have played a role in each of them.”

His mission to connect people with public health issues is ongoing.

“I am still educating about the relationships between public health and climate change. If you ask people whether or not they support public health or taking steps to reduce the consequences of climate change you get somewhat tepid support. If you ask people if they support clean air and water and safe and healthy foods, you get very high support. Good public health programs and slowing or mitigating the consequences of climate change are essential to clean air and water and safe and healthy foods.”

He wishes Obamacare had gone much further.

“It baffles me the U.S. is one of only a few so-called developed countries that does not have universal health care. I think we should.”

He’s not shy expressing his views in public forums.

“I’ve certainly been active in writing letters to editors and op-eds for as long as I can remember. I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in kind of major things. Sometimes they’re little. For example, I’m trying to get something going for a plastic bag ban here in Omaha, not because it’s the biggest issue in the world but it’s a way to get people talking about recycling in general – to get the argument going.

“The average person uses 500 single-use plastic bags a year and most of them get used for less than 20 minutes and then they’re tossed. We did a trash day at Prospect Hill Cemetery. I put all the trash on display – there were over 70 plastic bags. Of all the times I’ve been in the newspaper more people remember me for picking up trash. I still pick up the trash every day when I walk.”

He even produced videos about the evils of plastic bag proliferation. In one, he does a dance he choreographed himself.

He’s focused on environmental issues these days. He’s on the Sierra Club board. He’s president of Nebraskans for Solar. He’s on the Public Health Association of Nebraska board. He’s also a self-appointed watchdog at all Omaha Public Power District open board meetings.

“I think we’ve been pretty successful in getting them to have more wind power and less coal,” he says of his and other activists’ pressure on OPPD. “I follow a lot of the legislation.”

Environmental events he attended in 2014 included Earth Day Omaha, the People’s Climate March and the Harvest the Hope Concert in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline.

 

 

©photo by Josie Metal-Corbin

 

 

©photo by Josie Metal-Corbin

 

 

Happy trails

Just like Josie, he’s never at a loss for what to do. She says upon announcing her retirement “the first thing people said was, ‘Oh, you and David will get to spend more time together.'” She’s quick to point out, “We don’t need more time – we have good time. We’ve managed to figure out our own space. We’re not a couple that has to do everything together. But we do a lot together. We travel. We’ve done a lot of very good trips together.” They celebrate wedding anniversaries trekking to exotic locales.

“For our 30th we did Argentina and Patagonia,” she says. “In Buenos Aires we took tango lessons at an Armenian social club late at night. Then we took a little plane down to Patagonia and stayed on this sheep ranch. To me, it was what the creation of Earth must have looked like because we were on the water, no lights. Beautiful.”

“For our 35th we went to Iceland,” she says. “It was the best. Beautiful.

Little hamlets, horses, black and white sheep on the hillsides, no telephone poles, geothermic.”

David marveled at Iceland’s “one hundred percent renewable energy.”

They both like that Iceland’s tech savvy enough to have wi-fi in the most remote regions yet protects its pristine, lush, green environment.

On another trip they enjoyed the vistas of Vancouver, British Columbia, at one point staying in a tree house with all the amenities. They got around by sea-plane, kayak, tandem bicycle, hiking, bus, car and ferry.

In 1998 she made her New York City dance debut and has also performed in Lisbon, Portugal, Paris, France and Italy. In 2001 she led a large group of Moving Company dancers to Cesena, Italy to compete in the international Dance Grand Prix Italia. The UNO team won second place in Theatre Dance. David made the trip, too.

For their own personal travels, the couple often do self-guided tours she extensively researches, though their itineraries leave plenty of room for unexpected discoveries and adventures. Like taking tango in the wee hours of the night or suddenly dancing when the spirit moves them, wherever they happen to be.

A miniature sculpture by artist Jamie Burmeister, who was a graduate student of David’s, captures the effervescent couple in, what else, a dance pose that reflects their embrace of life.

“Their commitment to making the world a better place through their activities really inspires me,” says Burmeister, who simply titled the piece, “David and Josie.”

When it comes to living and relating, the couple answer a resounding yes to the question: May I have this dance? Their life is a living metaphor for the symbiotic give and take and affirmation that is dance.

 

 

 

 

 

©photo by Quinn M. Corbin

 

THE GREAT MIGRATION: WHEREVER PEOPLE MOVE, HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS


I am posting for the first time an iBook I wrote for 3rd graders in the Omaha Public Schools. As explained below, the book is one of two I wrote for a series of Nebraska Department of Education iBooks that paired local authors and artists with educators in exploring various aspects of African-American history. This was all part of the OPS program Making Invisible Histories Visible. The book I’m sharing here covers the Great Migration. Many elements of the book are missing from this post but suffice to say that the actual iBook is a graphic-heavy, interactice experience meant to be used by teachers in classroom settings with their students. I am making a separate post with my second series book that looks at Civil Rights through the lens of the effort that integrated the Peony Park pool.

You can access the Great Migration book in PDF format at-

http://www.education.ne.gov/nebooks/ebooks/great_migration.pdf

Or you can download this and other books in the series at-

http://www.education.ne.gov/nebooks/ebook_library.html

 

MAKING INVISIBLE HISTORIES VISIBLE

THE GREAT MIGRATION: WHEREVER PEOPLE MOVE, HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS

©BY LEO ADAM BIGA

©ILLUSTRATIONS BY VICTORIA HOYT

DEVELOPED BY OCTAVIA BUTLER

 

ABOUT THIS PROJECT

During the summer of 2013, eight Omaha Public Schools teachers each developed an iBook on a topic of Omaha and Nebraska history as it relates to African American history. I wrote two of the 3rd grade books: Civil Rights: Standing Up for What’s Right to Make a Difference and the one shared here, The Great Migration: Wherever People Move, Home Is Where the Heart Is.

Each book paired an Omaha author and artist. Not included in this post are photographs, documents, and other artifacts provided by local community members and through partnership with the Great Plains Black History Museum.

Each book in the series provides supplemental information on the role of African Americans in Omaha and Nebraska history topics.

ABOUT THIS BOOK

The Great Migration: Wherever People Move, Home is Where the Heart Is describes the Great Migration as it pertains to Omaha’s history. Topics covered include jobs, culture, historical events, and local figures. The piece itself is written similarly to a newspaper article, and interviews with local community members inform the majority of the story.

This book is meant to encourage students to compare the experiences of the people in the story to their own lives. There are several activities along the way that allow students to reflect critically on the content of the story. They will explore and analyze photos, newspaper articles, maps, and graphs. Students will examine not only the period of the Great Migration, but also the culture brought to Omaha and other parts of the North because of the Great Migration.

FREEDOM

Freedom means many things to many different people. For some, freedom means the right to be treated equally under the law. Others value the importance of being free to speak one’s mind. Freedom also means the ability to move and travel without limits. Indeed, freedom is about all of these things.

For African Americans, it was important that they be free to move to a place they would be able to express their beliefs, be treated equally under the law, and enjoy other benefits of an open society. With the end of slavery, African Americans began leaving the U.S. South for greater freedom and opportunity in the North and West.

There’s a long history of masses of people moving from one area of America to another. One of the largest internal movements occurred from the 1910s through the 1960s when millions of African Americans fled the South for other regions during the Great Migration.

During both World Wars, the movement of African Americans out of the South rose to such high levels that it became known as the Great Migration. One of the destinations for black people leaving the South was Omaha. African Americans came here not only to enjoy greater freedom but also to take advantage of employment and educational opportunities.

Imagine living some place where you’re made to feel less than a full citizen or even less than human simply based on the color of your skin. For many years African Americans living in the South were treated unfairly and cruelly because they were the black minority and whites were the ruling majority.

The discrimination blacks faced were remnants from the days of slavery. Blacks were denied the same educational, housing, job, voting, and recreational opportunities as whites. The threat of physical violence was real.

These were reasons enough for blacks wanting to leave the South. Other reasons included the hard times that the South experienced in the first half of the 20th century, where most blacks made their living working the land. When crop failures and natural disasters occurred there, some blacks felt they had no choice but to leave to find better fortune in other parts of the country.

Reflect: Can you think of a time you were treated unfairly?

How would it feel to have less rights than someone else because of how you look?

COMING AND GOING

JOBS

Blacks left the South to take advantage of the better paying jobs open to minorities in other parts of the nation. In Omaha, the railroads and the packinghouses were the main job magnets that pulled people here.

Black men could find work as Pullman Porters, baggage handlers and cooks with the railroads, and as laborers in packing plants. Porters dressed in crisp uniforms and prided themselves on giving great customer service to passengers on trains. Packinghouse workers performed physically demanding and dangerous duties. These jobs paid well enough that a black man could support his family and even buy a home.

The Omaha Monitor would promote businesses that hired members of the black community.

The railroad industry provided many jobs for black men

Black women found work as domestic help in well-to-do people’s homes, where they worked as maids, housekeepers, or nannies. Some cleaned offices. Black women were also employed as cooks, laundresses, cleaning help, and aides in hospitals and nursing homes.

It was very important for the black community to promote businesses that not only would serve black customers, but would also hire them for jobs.

Reflect: Why was this important to members of the community when looking for a job?

How did writing about these businesses in the newspaper help the black community?

OMAHA’S GROWTH

The Great Migration had dramatic effects on the communities African Americans left and the communities they moved to. For example, the first wave from 1910 to 1920 doubled Omaha’s black population.

Newcomers were not always warmly welcomed where they moved. Early on in Omaha, blacks lived in multicultural neighborhoods throughout the city. However, outbreaks of racial violence, including the 1919 lynching of a black man, Will Brown, gradually confined blacks to a few neighborhoods on the North and South sides.

Migrants came to Omaha as individuals, couples, families, and groups. They came by bus, train, and automobile. Often, one family member would make the move, find employment and housing, and after getting settled would send for another relative.

 

looking to Omaha Looking to Omaha out of agricultural despair in the South, African-American men “stepping up” from share-cropping to the meat-packing plants.

The vibrant, yet increasingly isolated, black community in North Omaha.

Feeling the effects of destructive segregation and racism from the same Omaha that offered new opportunities.

 

ESTABLISHING COMMUNITY

Blacks largely came here from Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. A group of Christians from Brewton, Alabama, established Pilgrim Baptist Church in Omaha in 1917 during that first big migration movement. These church founders helped build a thriving congregation, which their descendants kept alive. Today, Pilgrim is nearly a century old and still going strong.

A half-century later the migration had slowed quite a bit, but was still in progress. Two women who left the South in the 1960s to make new lives for themselves in Omaha are Luriese Moore and Lorraine Jackson. Moore came from Boligee, Alabama. Jackson came from Brookhaven, Mississippi.

SEEKING A BETTER LIFE

Exactly why migrants left, the mode of transportation they used to get here, and how they did once they arrived differed. But generally speaking everyone wanted a better life, and most found it too. They were motivated to go by the chance for greater equality and freedom and glad to leave behind reminders of slavery.

In the South there were separate facilities and sidewalks for the races. “They had one side colored and the other side white,” Moore recalled. “You just didn’t get in on the white side because you knew where you were supposed to be. There were some stores we couldn’t even go in in my hometown, like exclusive stores that sold very fine clothes. It was just a way of life. We didn’t like it but it’s what was happening.”

Jackson, whose grandparents were sharecroppers, said blacks would go to town and head right back home because “we were expected to stay in our place. There was no hanging out downtown. You did what you had to do and left because you didn’t know what might happen. I mean, you really had to walk careful.”

Moore wanted to join the civil rights protests happening then but her mother wouldn’t let her. Her father transported demonstrators from their rural homes into town to participate in marches and demonstrations. It was a brave thing to do because if the Ku Klux Klan caught him doing it he could have been in serious trouble.

Moore left Alabama for Omaha after graduating high school and marrying. “I had never left the South before,” she said. “I came here on the bus. When I left Alabama I had to sit in the back of the bus and then by the time we got to St. Louis (Missouri) we could sit anywhere we wanted.”

Venturing North to start a new life stirred “mixed emotions” in her. She was recently married at the time, and her husband moved ahead of her to get work at a packinghouse.

Reflect: Have you ever moved to somewhere new before?

What plans did you have to make before moving?

MAKING A NEW START

Moore found life far different here than it was down South. “The integration and everything was all new to me. It was just totally different from where we were. I didn’t see the (colored only or white only) signs we saw in Alabama. You could just go anywhere you wanted to here. You could go to any store.”

However, not everything was open to everybody. Until the 1970s blacks could only live in certain areas and some businesses refused to serve or hire them. But things were far more limiting in the South.

Jackson said the stories she heard about the way things were up North made enough of “an impression” she decided “it was right for me to go.” She came by train. From Mississippi to Illinois, blacks had to ride in separate cars. When they reached Chicago, they could sit anywhere on trains headed West, East or further North. Lorraine headed West to Omaha.

Both she and Moore became beauticians and raised families here. The women, who were able to go into business for themselves here, say they encountered some racism in Nebraska, but overall they feel they made a good choice in coming to the Midwest.

Both have returned to the South almost every year. Their families still own land there. They marvel at how the South has changed. “I can’t believe all the mixed marriages there. And the white people are at the black church,” said Jackson. “I never dreamed I would be seeing this. We’ve got a black mayor there in our hometown. I’m just shocked because I never thought it would ever happen, but it has.”

DRAWING ON THE OLD TO MAKE NEW

African American migrants often feel a strong connection to the South, where their roots are. Their families hold regular reunions, sometimes in their childhood hometowns. Many blacks who left the South have reversed their migration and moved back. Moore said, “Boligee means so much to me because of how my dad risked his life. He could’ve got killed doing what he was doing, just to get the vote. He always preached to us, ‘Hey, when y’all get the chance to vote you vote,’ and I’ve never missed voting.”

Jackson, Moore, and their siblings all finished school and some went on to college. Looking back on how much they overcame, Jackson said it’s “amazing we’re successful – I think it was our upbringing. In that time we lived in we had to be strong and respectful. Faith was a big factor, too.”

Migrants brought their culture wherever they settled. Traditional African American music and food are now staples in the larger culture. North Omaha became a haven for jazz, blues, and gospel music, soul food, stepping, and Southern slang. Emma Hart of Omaha still uses the treasured family recipes for sweet potato pie, candied yams, collard greens, and cornbread dressing brought here from Arkansas by her family. The hospitality southerners are famous for was also brought North.

Similarly, migrants and immigrants of other races and ethnicities have brought and continue bringing their own sounds and flavors. This infusion or blending of cultures has created a richer stew than what existed before.

The Great Migration changed America by dramatically increasing the black population in cities across the land, thus creating a more diverse society.The migrant experience continues to play out in many locales around the world.

SPOTLIGHT: DAN DESDUNES

Dan Desdunes was one of the first major musicians to play in Omaha, and played a major role in North Omaha’s jazz scene and musical culture. He is considered the father of black musicians in Omaha.

Desdunes was born in 1873 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He started studying music when he was 17 years old. He learned to play the violin, cornet, trombone, and trap drums. In 1894, at the age of 21, Desdunes traveled as a musician with different theater companies. During this time, he began to learn to play wind instruments.

After he got married in 1904, Desdunes decided to settle in Omaha. He felt there were good musical opportunities in the city. Since Omaha was in the middle of many bigger cities along the Union Pacific Railroad, many musicians would stop here to perform.

In Omaha, he started the Desdunes Band and the Desdunes Jazz Orchestra. The Desdunes Band started in 1915, and Dan Desdunes led the band until his death in 1929. They played annually in the Ak-sar-ben Parade, and other events for the Chamber of Commerce. The Desdunes Jazz Orchestra was one of the first black orchestras to perform in Omaha.

Desdunes also trained many young musicians. He was a music teacher and bandleader for Father Flanagan’s Home for Boys during the last eight years of his life. He believed that the study of music made people better citizens.

Take a Stand

There were many positive reasons to leave the South and move North. However, the black community still experienced some discrimination in the North.

Make a list of the positive reasons to move North. Then list the struggles still faced in the North.

Think about each list. Next, decide whether you would choose to move North or stay in the South.

Defend your choice by explaining why you chose to move North or stay in the South.

MEET THE AUTHOR

Leo Adam Biga is an Omaha-based author-journalist- blogger best known for his cultural writing-reporting about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. His book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” is the first comprehensive treatment of the Oscar- winning filmmaker. Biga’s peers have recognized his work at the local, state and national levels. To sample more of his writing visit, leoadambiga.com.

MEET THE ARTIST

Victoria Hoyt is an artist working in Omaha, Nebraska, the city she grew up in. She received her BA from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota and her MFA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. You can find her making paintings and things that make her laugh in her North Omaha home studio, or teaching part- time at Metro Community College. To see more of her work, please visit her website at victoriahoyt.com.

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