Praise for my recent story, ‘Change in North Omaha, It’s Been a Long Time Coming…’
I am fortunate to have a dear acquaintance by the name of Paul Serrato who is a consummate jazz keyboardist and composer. He left Omaha a long time ago for New York City only to return to his hometown a few years ago. I have high admiration for his work, which deserves wider recognition. Well, he sent me the nicest note the other night expressing much praise for my August 2015 feature story in The Reader (www.thereader.com) headlined “Change in North Omaha, It’s Been a Long Time Coming…” I am aware the piece has found a receptive audience and apparently been the topic of and/or the catalyst for much conversation. Like any writer, I appreciate it when anyone bothers to actually read my work. To have someone carefully consider it and respond to it is, well, a rare and gratifying thing. Thank you, Paul.
With his kind permission, I am sharing his message below along with the following links to the story he is giving props to-
I have also posted the story below in two different layout formats.
I am proud of the piece and if you haven’t already read it, I hope that you do. I certainly don’t expect everyone to respond to it the way Paul did. By the way, he generously describes my work as “investigative journalism,”which it most decidely is not, nor does it pretend to be. Instead, it is alternative journalism that attempts to give some fresh perspectives on persistent issues. No more, no less.
Congratulations on you first-class piece of investigative reporting, (The Reader, Aug. 15), “Change in North Omaha, It’s been a long time coming.” This was a serious piece of in-depth journalism on an overlooked topic crying for
measured, authentic reporting.
You’ve released authentic voices to be heard in contexts other than “candlelight vigils”. Who knew
so much good, caring work is being done by citizens who have risen to action in an effort to make a
As a relatively recent transplant to Omaha, I’ve been, at best, puzzled by and, at worst, depressed
by the acute dichotomy I’ve observed of black and white here. (To be sure, I’ve noticed it with other
groups, as well.)
Your piece belongs in the OWH. That it’s not there tells us, in itself, where a good part of the problem
lies. Perhaps they can give you an award for “Best Investigative Reporting.”
Change in North Omaha: It’s been a long time coming for northeast Omaha
African-American residents weigh in on old-new challenges, opportunities, approaches to revitalize the area
©BY LEO ADAM BIGA
NOW APPEARING IN THE READER (WWW.THEREADER.COM)
Quality-of-life metrics assessing the state of African-American northeast Omaha paint a stark picture. Pockets experience some of America’s worst poverty and gun violence. Disparities contradict Omaha’s high best-place-to-live rankings.
Riot-scarred landscapes remain untouched decades later. Urban renewal brought distrust and dislocation. Combined with education, employment, income, home-business ownership gaps, it’s a stuck-in-time place. Stalled economic growth and limited opportunity drive many away. Others stay out of conviction or concession.
While North Omaha is the focus of unprecedented education initiatives and redevelopment efforts driven by major public-private coalitions, key markers show little’s changed where people’s lives are concerned.
With ex-pats back for the biennial Native Omaha Days, there’s much nostalgia and lament. Seven community-engaged residents trying to remedy the challenges recently shared their take on the situation.
After being away, Omaha native Michelle Troxclair, 46, Nebraska Writers Collective deputy director, says upon returning she noted “North Omaha and the people who live there were stagnate in many ways.”
“They became comfortable with nothingness. Our leadership appeared, for the most part, to be spinning their wheels and more concerned with the scraps they were getting than a place at the table. Then they began fighting for those scraps amongst themselves. I thought I could make a difference, and I did, but in a very different community. Yeah, we got a Walmart and Aldi’s. North (High) is getting a new stadium. They tore down the Hilltop projects. I see some new housing. Again–scraps.”
When Angel Martin, 31, moved to Omaha from Milwaukee she saw abandoned, boarded-up properties here as seeds of potential. Now she views them as emblems of lost opportunity.
“If people see that every day you’re unfortunately going to believe it’s the norm,” says Martin, who directs the Katherine Fletcher Center at Girls Inc. “We should have took on that mindset of taking back our community. It starts with the homes. We should have pooled our resources together to buy these houses.”
Preston Love Jr., 73, hails from a North O legacy family led by his late father, musician Preston Love Sr. He left for a while–to work for IBM and to manage political campaigns. He says when he came back home, “my community was in shambles. I got motivated to get involved because of what I found.” He’s since been on a “soap box” about this once great community being brought down by “residual negatives.”
“When I was growing up, North Omaha was rich in culture, rich in commerce, rich in religion and church. We had our own everything. We had each other. We had neighborhoods. We had love for your neighbors and spankings if you didn’t act right. We had all that.”
Discrimination and racism still ruled, however.
“We didn’t have the ability to go places, we didn’t have the ability to go downtown to see a movie, we couldn’t swim at Peony Park, we couldn’t go inside Joe Tess. We didn’t have this, we didn’t have that, and some of it was a little deeper than some carp.”
Love believes blacks “made a catastrophic mistake” choosing integration over desegregation.
“If you integrate you lose half the things you did have because you begin to water down your culture. When you integrate Walmart into this culture, mom and pops close. We should have affirmed all the things we had and fought for desegregation to get what we didn’t have.”
Sundiata Menelik, 57, has returned after decades as a developer and real estate magnate in Minnesota. He recalls as a kid the flourishing North 24th Street business district: “It was alive.” By the time he went away, however, it died. Job prospects for blacks dried up.
“Everybody from my generation was trying to escape this the way you escaped apartheid South Africa or any place that is hell on Earth. For us, that’s what it was.”
In Menelik’s opinion, “nothing’s happened” to reverse the black brain drain and narrow opportunities. He deems this stalemated community “backwards” compared to more progressive sister communities.
“This is a reservation right here and the same ills on the reservation are here, it’s just not in your face. A lot of this is institutional.”
Menelik also says North O is a separate world from the majority of the world. Some blacks can freely step in and out of both worlds. Others can’t.
“When you can’t escape, there’s nothing, What you see is bleak.”
“People feel oppressed,” Martin says. I think poverty is what comes from being oppressed. If you don’t have opportunities to get good paying jobs, then it’s difficult to rise above.”
Ean Garrett, 29, came up in North O’s poverty zone.
“Three to four generations growing up in poverty have come to believe poverty is their place in life as opposed to understanding they should be able to work hard and gain the fruits of this system,” Garrett says.
Menelik says inclusion is an illusion here for many.
“We’re the best place for startups, the best place to raise a family, but it don’t have nothing to do with black people. Nebraska’s as segregated and racist as anywhere in the United States.”
He asserts blacks here are “not looked at as full citizens.”
Garrett says it’s not just blacks getting the shaft in North O.
‘There’s still a lot of white people living here and they’re being given the short end of the stick as well.”
“What we have left is an impoverished community,” Love says. “That doesn’t mean everybody in it. When you have serious poverty like it is here you have a (drug-gang) subculture that’s figured out there’s no future in the (mainstream) community. So they created their own community and it’s thriving. Money’s flowing, big time. Everything’s working just fine. They may have to die but that’s OK because they’re not expected to live and all that logic. That subculture is created by poverty and breeds total disconnect from lawfulness.”
Menelik has lost loved ones to gun violence, He’s doing prevention work as local Mad Dads chapter president. He is also on the board of the Bryant Center Association that serves at-risk young people.
He sees an urgent need to intervene in the hopelessness.
“The game is over, man. The kids, they’re hollering out silently. If it was a movie you’d see a bunch of black hands reaching up and saying, ‘Where are you and when are you coming?’
“We’re taking it upon ourselves to do for ourselves and to do it right now. It’s crucial.”
“The only major solution is economic inclusion, economic health for this community,” Love says. “If you lay on the table jobs and alternatives a lot more will take it than people realize. Do we need better education? Yes, we’ve got educational gaps that need filling. We’ve got a high drop-out rate that needs improving. We need to reduce STDs. All of those are more factors than potential solutions.”
He says North O should demand more autonomy and accountability from the nonprofit social sector set up to address its myriad needs.
“We have a lot of people pimping the community. They don’t live in the community, they work in the community receiving what benefits there are coming into a poverty-infected area and then they escape out of it, taking the benefits of the drops, the crumbs.”
Menelik says after ignoring North O the power elites “understand they’ve got to do something because we’re right on the doorstep of North Downtown development. They want to come off [as] multicultural.” Whatever happens, he says “we want to see results, we want performance-based, sustainable, social-economic development.”
Garrett says, “You have an entire middle class that lives outside the North Omaha community that benefit by way of employment from programs addressing the issues in North Omaha. So if the issues in North Omaha go away, then a lot of those jobs go away as well. Our destiny is intertwined with the destiny of those that have the resources. What happens if the philanthropic dollars dry up?
“The philanthropic industry here in Nebraska is not sustainable–throwing money into a community and 10, 15, 20 years later not seeing any outcomes. Let’s takes those funds and use them towards outcome-based investments and address these issues from a private sector approach. That is the type of mindset and vigor we need.”
Garrett’s Infinite 8 Institute poses social impact models. He says too often nonprofits don’t produce the social good their grant applications promise and that he favors outcome-based models.
“If you give them the money up front and you don’t make them work for it, there’s no incentive to get the outcome.”
Garrett’s partner Aledia Kartchner, 36, says they find innovative ways to handle “the huge lack in North Omaha.” One is via non-cognitive life skills and work force development classes they teach at Bryant Center. However, programming costs money and resources are scarce.
“If you’re only giving us enough funds to keep the lights on then we can’t bring resources and people in to prepare these young people,” Garrett says. “We have to be able to close the deal. That means people at the top being willing to open up the doors of opportunity in a way that’s sincere and not just talk.”
Kartchner says they’re seeking investments “in human capital.”
Garrett says North O’s human resources get overlooked.
“These kids have been through so many traumatic experiences they are better prepared than many who live in the outer community. As an employer I don’t want somebody who hasn’t dealt with a tough problem before. These kids are having to solve tough problems on a daily basis. Those skills are transferrable in this new knowledge-based economy, where soft skills–the ability to adapt and to be resilient–are things employers applaud.
“If you just look at it at face value, you see thugs with impoverished, destitute, sad stories. But if you turn that around you see potential human capital that can really add value.”
He says the skills he teaches “are all the intangibles that made the difference between myself and those peers who maybe fell victim to unfortunate circumstances.”
“We’re working with kids from early childhood through 12th grade. Local elders volunteer, so it’s very intergenerational. We have a pipeline all within that one structure to measure long-term outcomes.”
He says another key thing taught is “mindfulness meditation to ensure kids focus on peace of mind when they go back to their chaotic environment and the negative energy around them–you can’t control what’s happening around you but you can control how you react.”
Infinite 8 seeks to raise $1.5 million for a social impact bond for violence prevention.
“As an organization one of the things we focus on is creating social impact financing,” says Garrett, who sees it as a litmus test for how serious Omaha is in finding fresh ways to tackle persistent issues.
“Omaha has so much wealth and prosperity but then you wonder why is it not circulating into northeast Omaha. There are people in the city who singlehandedly could eradicate poverty here. It’s a question of whether or not the powers that be actually want that to happen. If you’re trying to do something like turn around the most deadly place to be black in America and integrate that with one of America’s most highly acclaimed places, then I think you have to look at what resources are necessary in order to accomplish that.”
The public sector also has a role to play.
“If we’re not electing elected officials willing to fight those battles for equal distribution of tax revenues and other funding streams, we lose. We’ve paralyzed most of our elected officials because of where they’re financed to get elected, so they’re not willing to stand up and try to act like Ernie,” Love says, referring to firebrand Neb. state senator Ernie Chambers. “They’re nice people but they’re not independent. When it comes time to fight for the community, we ain’t got nobody there.
“The net effect is we’ve become a community on the receiving end and almost on the beg. So you’ve got a community that has to sit down. There’s only a few of us that stand up. That’s a problem. The community doesn’t have enough leverage to fight these battles.”
Garrett agrees. “It’s time for North Omaha to become independent. For North Omaha to be able to do for people in North Omaha we need our own resources. If you want to see us do better, than empower us but don’t beholden us. We have to recognize what’s in our own community and that we have what it takes. We do believe there are people willing to do the right thing and we want to work with them.”
Kevin Lytle Jr. with the Leadership Institute for Urban Education in Omaha, says, “I believe our biggest resource in North Omaha is the people who live and struggle there. We have not found an effective way to develop, foster and encourage true community and camaraderie amongst African-Americans in Omaha.”
Kevin Lytle Jr.
Menelik says “It’s like we’re waiting for somebody to come in out of the sky to save us, when sometimes you’ve got to go within yourself.”
Troxclair says “In the arts community many are coming together and their voices are starting to be heard. In every other major city’s revitalization effort, there is a concentration on arts investment. Omaha did not do that. We are connecting with each other and artist-allies who know we need to work together. Omaha’s leadership is still focused on housing and jobs. We get that, but every artist has created his-her own job and is an entrepreneur. White folks get it. How many people do the Holland, Joslyn, Bemis, Kaneko, Omaha Community Playhouse, Rose employ? We let the John Beasley Theatre go to waste. We let our stagnate leadership dictate the artist landscape and they have ignored our young people completely.”
Meanwhile, Angel Martin has noted a “halt” in the movement by young African Americans to get involved.
“A lot of young people (including herself) ran for the school board or the city council. There were a lot of new faces and voices with a lot to say. That was a prime time to tap into that energy. A lot of those people have since said, ‘I’m out of here,” and that energy’s kind of gone I sense. That’s a concern. Where are we going next?
“Some people are choosing to move on to where things are thriving more and it’s more progressive.”
Everyone concedes North O loses many of its best and brightest.
Martin doesn’t begrudge the defectors.
“I can definitely see why people do not choose to stay here. Some of those who do choose to stay are looking for ways out. Some elders have told me, ‘You might want to look to move on.'”
She’s seriously considered it.
“We don’t have affirmative action. A lot of employers don’t look for faces that look like mine.”
Martin expresses another concern many share.
“I think there’s a lot of outsiders dictating which direction North Omaha should go. There’s a lot stirring. My concern is who’s doing the stirring and what are they mixing up. Was everybody invited to sit at this table? A lot of deals have been made relating to North Omaha’s future. My only hope is my great aunt in North Omaha was kept in mind when they talked about redevelopment. I hope as a people we understand it’s our right to question, to ask for details.”
“We have to stand up together and fight. We’ve gotta put your foot down and say we’re not taking this lack of economic inclusion anymore and be willing to take the heat,” Love says.
Love recently put himself on the line by advocating minority contractors get a share of the $2.3 billion in waste water and sewer separation construction happening. He pressed the mayor and others hard on it. He expected the corporate backlash he got but not the flak from his own community.
“They don’t want you messing with ‘Mr. Charlie.'”
Too, often, black advocates are left standing alone.
Garrett feels the millennial generation offers new hope.
“They’re a lot more informed. Millinials, regardless of color or shade, believe in social good and they’ll put their money behind products and services that have a positive impact on the community and the environment. I believe there needs to be more courage from the outer community to stand up and do what really needs to be done and to do it in a way that sits well with the indigenous people in North Omaha.”
He says Infinite 8 has piloted programs in Kansas City, Mo. and other cities but runs into “a barrier to entry” here he attributes to decision-makers “not being open to new paradigms, ideas, best practices.” He’s not waiting for approval. Bryant Center kids are introduced to Bitcoin, drone technology, green sustainability, 3D printing and mobile Web programming. “We’re really focusing on what sectors have the most promising outlooks. We’re preparing young people with these skills so when they go into the workforce they actually have a leg up.”
“Rote methods are outdated and we all know the world of technology has changed the landscape. Young people don’t want to be bothered with minutia. Applicability, immediacy are what they’re looking for. The arts must be used to stimulate interest and academic motivation.”
Lytle says, “A huge factor not being deeply addressed is how our children are being taught and who is teaching our children.” He wonders “how effective are the educational lessons being transmitted in relation to the culture African-American students” interact with.
Garrett and Co. decry how elements of this civil society demonize and dismiss a segment of the city they have no direct experience with.
“Is it civil to deny opportunity to your own citizens? Are we uncivil because we have violence going on in our community? Is a person who sits back and watches the violence and does nothing more civil?”
Aledia Kartchner echoes others in saying she’s tired of her people being depicted as “just savages killing each other – there’s many positive things going on but they don’t focus on that.”
North O’s good people, neighborhoods, anchors, programs and events get obscured by the actions of a few knuckleheads.
Martin says, “It’s an unfair perception that’s very disheartening. If you never highlight the positive things going on you’ll never know. If you’re not in the area, you won’t know. When we take back our community as a people we’ll take back those perceptions.”
Troxclair takes exception to media depictions of “us as nincompoops holding candlelight vigils waiting on Jesus.” She says, “When a murder occurs, a murder occurs. Report that a murder occurred. Report who the suspects according to the facts. Do we really need to know the criminal record of the entire family?”
Where controlling the message is concerned, Melenik says North O could benefit from more black-owned media outlets and Martin suggests more blacks are needed in newsrooms.
Lytle, 32, repeats a mantra many sound–leaders are doing what they can with what they have. But he says, “We are not getting the job done. The role of leadership is to warn a people of potential dangers and opportunities, educate a people on how to navigate through that and create avenues in which a people can effectively execute and implement the steps that will best serve them.”
Yet, he adds, “I am hopeful for the future of blacks in Omaha and for the area of North Omaha because I believe the up and coming leadership is learning from the choices and paths laid by current symbolic individuals and will dedicate their efforts towards going against the grain and truly establishing community and ownership.”
Martin feels the same. “We have a long way to go but I’m hopeful because I do think our people get it and we have a genuine love for each other and for North Omaha. I’m just hoping it’s not a day late and a dollar short.” She says even Native Omaha Days might be a catalyst for “capitalizing on connections, sharing ideas, holding roundtables, digging in and getting things moving. It takes all us all working together–those currently living here and those who used to live here.”
Love says The Days are not the pure fun they once were due to the specter of violence. The festival’s still a good time, “but when the dust settles we are still left with the new pure–poverty.”
Sundiata Menelik says all the community gatherings and dialogues are no substitute for “bootstrapping” grassroots action.
Despite much to be pessimistic about, Ean Garrett says, “We’re optimistic. We know there are people who are tired of the situation as it stands. I think there’s good people out there who do want to change some things and to do so in ways that empower people in the community to do it themselves.”
Visit http://www.infinite8institute.com/byinfinite8institute, http://www.bryantcenteromaha.org/ and nativeomahaclub.org.
With Native Omaha Days in full swing, here’s a new story I wrote for the August issue of The Reader that sounds out some African-American residents for their take on northeast Omaha’s challenges and what can be done to revitalize that area. Hard copies should now be out and about in North O, Midtown, Downtown and the Old Market, among other places.
The cover for my new book with Father Ken Vavrina, “Crossing Bridges, A Priest’s Uplifiting Life Among the Downtrodden”
The cover for my new book with Father Ken Vavrina-
“Crossing Bridges, A Priest’s Uplifiting Life Among the Downtrodden”
Father Ken served diverse populations in need in America and in developing nations. His overseas work brought him in close relationship with Mother Teresa.
Look for future posts about where you can get your copies. All proceeds will be donated to Catholic organizations.
Coming Soon: A new book I wrote with Father Ken Vavrina, “Crossing Bridges,” the story of this beloved Omaha priest’s uplifitng life among the downtrodden
COMING SOON A new book I wrote with Father Ken Vavrina-
The story of this beloved Omaha priest’s uplifitng life among the downtrodden.
Look for future posts about where you can get your copies. All proceeds will be donated to Catholic organizations.
Omaha’s had its share of social justice champions. They’ve come in all shapes and sizes, colors and styles. Tommie Wilson may not be the best known or the loudest or the flashiest, but she’s been a consistent soldier in the felds of doing the right thing and speaking out against bias. Her work as an educator, as president of the local NAACP chapter and more recently as a community liaison finds her walking the walk. Read my profile about her for The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Civil rights veteran Tommie Wilson still fighting the good fight
Retired public school educator lives by the creed separate is not equal
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the May 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Social justice champion Tommie Wilson experienced the civil rights movement as it happened. For her, the good fight has never stopped.
While president of the local NAACP she brought a lawsuit against then-Gov. Dave Heineman over redistricting legislation that would have re-segregated Omaha schools. As Community Liaison for Public Affairs at Metropolitan Community College she chairs a monthly Table Talk series discussing community issues close to her heart, especially reentry resources. A grandson did time in prison and his journey through the system motivates her to advocate for returning citizens.
“I’m interested in how we can help them to have sustainable, productive lives,” says Wilson, who often visits prisons. “You know what they call me in prison? Mommie Tommie.”
Giving people second chances is important to her. She headed up the in-school suspension program at Lewis and Clark Junior High and the Stay in School program at the Wesley House.
“It took the kids off the streets and gave them the support they needed to be able to go back into school to graduate with their classes.”
Though coming of age in segregated Nacogdoches, Texas, she got opportunities denied many blacks. As a musical prodigy with an operatic voice she performed for well-to-do audiences. She graduated high school at 15 and earned her music teaching degree from Texas Southern University at 20.
She knew well the contours of white privilege and the necessity for she and fellow blacks to overachieve in order to find anything ilke equal footing in a titled world.
Her education about racialized America began as a child. She heard great orators at NAACP meetings in the basements of black churches. She read the words of leading journalists and scholars in black newspapers. She listened to iconic jazz and blues singers whose styles she’d emulate vocalizing on the streets or during recess at school.
Through it all, she gained a dawning awareness of inequities and long overdue change in the works. She credits her black professors as “the most positive mentors in my life,” adding, “They actually made me who I am today. They told me to strive to do my best in all I do and to prove my worth. They challenged me to ‘be somebody.'”
She and her late husband Ozzie Wilson taught a dozen years in Texas, where they helped integrate the public school teaching ranks. When the Omaha Public Schools looked to integrate its own teaching corps in the 1960s, it recruited Southern black educators here. The Wilsons, who came in 1967 as “a package deal,” were among them.
The couple’s diversity efforts extended to the Keystone Neighborhood they integrated. Tommie didn’t like Omaha at first but warmed to it after getting involved in organizations, including Delta Sigma Theta sorority, charged with enhancing opportunities.
“I’ve never shied away from finding things that needed to be done. I’m a very outspoken and vocal person. I don’t have a problem expressing what I feel. If it’s right, it’s right. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong, I don’t care who it hurts. That’s my attitude.”
She was often asked to lend her singing voice to causes and programs, invariably performing sonatas and spirituals.
Much of her life’s work, she says, has tried to prove “separate is not equal.” “I’m a catalyst in the community. I try to motivate folks to do what they need to do.”
She feels the alarming rates of school drop-outs, violent incidents and STDs among inner city youth is best addressed through education.
“Education is the key. Children have to feel there’s love and care about them learning in the classroom. Teaching is more than the curriculum. It’s about getting a rapport with your kids, letting them feel we’re in this together and there’s a purpose. It has to be a personal thing.”
Schools can’t do it alone, she says, “It’s got to start with church and home.”
She applauds the Empowerment Network’s efforts to jumpstart North Omaha revitalization.
“I love everything they’re trying to do because together we stand, divided we fall. If we can bring everybody together to start working with these ideas that’s beautiful.”
She’d like to see more financial backing for proven projects and programs making a difference in the lives of young people.
Since retiring as an educator, Wilson’s community focus has hardly waned. There was her four-year stint with the NAACP. She then approached Metro-president Randy Schmailzl to be a liaison with the North O community, where she saw a great disconnect between black residents and the college.
“We had students all around the Fort Omaha Campus who had never even stepped foot on campus.”
She feels Metro is “a best kept secret” for first generation college students,” adding, “For affordable tuition you can get all the training and skills needed to be successful and have a sustainable life.”
The veteran volunteer counts her 15 years as a United Way Loaned Executive one of her most satisfying experiences in helping nurture a city that’s become dear to her.
A7 79, Tommie Wilson finds satisfaction “being able to share my innermost passions, talking to people about their issues, trials and tribulations and teaching and guiding people to change their lives.”
What’s a good day for her?
“A good day is when I make a difference in the lives of others. Hardly a day goes by somebody doesn’t ask for advice.”
All Abide: Abide applies holistic approach to building community; Josh Dotzler now heads nonprofit started by his parents
North Omaha has seen its share of organizations over the years impose programs on the community to address some of the endemic problems facing that area’s most challenged neighborhoods, most of which have to do with poverty. As well intentioned as those organizations and programs may be, too often they end up as temorary or incomplete responses that come off as missionary projects designed to save the disadvantaged and misbegotten. Decades of this has resulted in a certain skepticsim, even cynicsm, and downright resentment among residents tired of saviors riding in to save the day, and then leaving when either the work is supposedly done or proves too daunting or the grant funding runs dry. To be fair, plenty of these do-gooders have stayed to fight the good fight and to make a postive difference, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. One of these is Abide, which also goes by Abide Omaha and which used to be called the Abide Network. Whatever its name, Abide has put down some serious roots in North Omaha over its 25 year history and the seeds of its community building work are just now beginning to blossom. Read about how Josh Dotzler, a son of Abide founders Ron and Twany Dotzler, is now leading the nonprofit in building Lighthouses in neighborhoods to provide hope, stability, fellowship, and community. Read my cover story about Abide now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/).
NOTES: If you’re looking for a related story, then link to my 2013 piece on Apostle Vanessa Ward and the community block party she and her followers organize in a North Omaha neighborhood only a few blocks from where the Dotzlers and their Abide nonprofit operate: http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/?s=vanessa+ward
Also, Ron and Twany Dotzler were one of the interracial couples I profile in a story I did at the start of 2014, Color Blind Love, that consistently gets dozens to hundreds of views a week: http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/?s=color+blind+love
All Abide: Abide applies holistic approach to building community; Josh Dotzler now heads nonprofit started by his parents
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
Former Bellevue West hoops star and Creighton University point guard Josh Dotzler has lived through the saga of Abide, the northeast Omaha ministry his parents started in 1989.
Twenty-five years ago Ron and Twany Dotzler stepped out on faith to move their large multi-cultural family – he’s white and she’s black – from the suburbs to the inner city to pursue a community-focused calling. Gangs were first asserting themselves. Shootings and killings became endemic. Through their nonprofit the couple responded to conditions giving rise to crime, poverty and hopelessness.
Josh and his family have lost neighbors and friends to gun violence. Others have ended up in prison. Residents are skeptical of do-gooders coming in from outside. As Abide’s front person Ron Dotzler battled credibility issues as a white preacher in a black community. The light-skinned Josh and his rainbow-hued siblings – all 13 of them – had to prove themselves, too. After establishing the ministry as one not just passing through but there to stay, Abide made traction. Josh’s parents have since handed the leadership reins over to him.
He admires his parents’ courage to climb out on a limb as a mixed-race couple doing street missionary work while raising 14 kids. His parents feel being an interracial duo has been a help not a hinderance.
“I think that’s why I love what we do,” Twany Dotzler says. “We can be a bridge to expose people to those differences, to people who may not think like you do, act like you do, look like you do. If you can just be intentional about getting to know them through relationships you’ll see what we do have in common and what we can do together.”
“Most of what happens to try and bring people together is dialogue and while there’s importance to that and it definitely brings awareness,” Ron Dotzler says, “the reality is most of us don’t really change by dialogue. For our work in this community we intentionally get people together. The last two years we’ve had 15,000 volunteers come into this community from outside this community and that means they are now interacting with people. The result of our diversity is our work together, not our conversation.”
He says the Bridge church he launched as part of Abide is “very diverse” and openly discusses race. “I don’t know of too many churches that do that. If we’re going to have the deep meaningful relationships God called us to we’ve got to be honest with this stuff.”
Ron and Twany Dotzler and their family
Twany feels Abide’s accepted because it values people “right where they’re at” and makes the effort “to build relationships, to break down those denominational walls, those racial walls, those economic walls.” Ron says, “We intentionally create multicultural environments. You have to have people that really want to be bridges and not take sides.”
Josh admires the path his parents blazed for him to follow and the sacrifices and risks they took staying true to it.
“I feel like they’re groundbreakers and have gone through incredible odds. There’s been times when we had no money and my parents didn’t know if they’d be able to provide Christmas presents for us or have groceries for the next week. I can think of multiple times when they hit some of those lows but as children we never felt it. We were broke and poor and people turned their back but my parents never let on to us, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to keep going on,’ even though my dad shares now there were times he felt that way.”
Josh’s folks always found a way. They converted a trashed-out former hospital laundry facility that had originally been a horse-and-buggy fire station at 3335 Fowler St. into the home for their growing family and the headquarters for their organization. Josh and his older siblings pitched in. The couple opened a second community center at 3126 Lake St. that became the worship space for Bridge, which targets at-risk youth. The couple turned a nearby home into a half-way house and “Lighthouse.”
Seven years ago Abide went from tackling select problems such as gang activity to taking a holistic, immersive neighborhood approach. Together with church partners it began “adopting” blocks to make its presence felt through celebrations and cleanups. It also started acquiring, rehabbing and occupying abandoned homes to create Lighthouses that bring stability to transient areas. Abide networks with contractors and churches for donated materials and human resources.
This new approach is modeled after what the Dotzlers did on their own block to build community. Following their lead, neighbors fixed up their houses. Front porch talks became common. Criminal activity dropped.
“We saw the change that was happening,” Josh says. The Omaha Police Department noticed, too. “The police came and said this neighborhood that was once one of the worst is now one of the best and we’d love to partner with you.” Dotzler says Abide is “the eyes and ears of the community.”
That partnership continues today. Omaha Police Department Capt. Scott Gray, who heads the Northeast Precinct that includes Abide’s operational territory, says, “We meet quarterly with them to discuss any issues that might be occurring in the neighborhood and how we can best solve them. They’ll communicate with us if there are any problems and they’ve actually been pretty instrumental in serving as a contact point for any police-community friction that needs to be resolved.”
He says Abide’s work to beautify properties and foster fellowship helps residents take more ownership in their community, which dovetails with OPD’s Neighborhood Stakeholder’s strategy. He says Abide’s well-attended events give police welcome opportunities to interact with the community in a positive light. He champions Abide taking rundown, vacant properties and flipping them into occupied homes again.
Dotzler says, “One abandoned house with broken windows can be a magnet for negative activity that messes up an entire neighborhood. We see that all over the place. Within a one-mile square radius of us there’s over 100 vacant homes. A Lighthouse can transform an entire community by providing light where there was dark.” He says these homes serve as safe anchors and resources. Lighthouse residents are supports and facilitators as well as conduits to Abide and Bridge.
“When we start to work on a Lighthouse we take on that entire neighborhood,” Dotzler says. “We go door to door to all the houses to connect with the families and invite them to community events. We have barbecues where we grill out front and invite everyone. We intentionally do things so neighbors get to know each other.”
He says because many inner city residents are in “survivor mode,” there’s “a relational drought” stemming from fear or mistrust. That’s why he says “building relationships is our biggest mission – it’s crucial.”
Lighthouse residents sign covenants pledging to engage neighbors in ongoing fellowship. It’s all part of Abide’s integrated approach to build community, one person, one family, one block at a time.
“You can’t just focus on one aspect of a person’s development or a community’s development,” he says. “You can’t just focus on education and expect crime to go down. You can’t just focus on building a house and expect that community to change. You have to focus on taking that dark side of the neighborhood, which was that abandoned house, fixing it up, putting a family or a person into that house that is a part of the change for that community, and providing the programs for people to develop, whether it’s in education or employment.
“You have to break down this huge challenge into bite size pieces, which is why we take a neighborhood approach (Better Together). You have to engage people at a grassroots level. You have to be in the neighborhood and community you want to see transformed. You have to have community buy-in, so most of our staff members actually live in the community we work in and many of them live in Lighthouses.”
Jennefer Avant, her husband Damone and their son DJ reside in a two-story, three-bedroom Lighthouse on Larimore Avenue. The family reaches out to people on their block to create community.
“We do a neighborhood block party and clean-up. We do one-on-one outreach to neighbors,” Jennefer Avant says. “We have a neighbor renovating a home with no running water and we’ve made our outside spout available for him along with our outside electric sockets. We have extended our own time to help if he needs us, we’ve shared our wood for his outside fire pit, and we’ve provided a warm meal.
“We have an elderly neighbor that also cares for her ailing son. We help with her yard and we check on her and her son to make sure they’re safe. If they need something beyond what we can do we forward their needs to Abide-Bridge. When we talk to our neighbors we find out exactly what is needed and then inform Abide. Not everything is about money. Mostly we provide companionship.”
Dotzler says, “All our programs are built around providing relationships with people who can paint a picture of what life can be like.” Much of Bridge’s work is directed at youth and young adults. “It’s mentors coming alongside young people, spending time with them, speaking into their life, encouraging them and helping them become who we believe they’re created to be,” he says.
Hanging from a wall at the Abide offices is a city map with pins charting every homicide committed in Omaha since 1989.
Another map shows the city’s churches. It saddens Dotzler that the two maps could be overlaid and look identical, suggesting the mere presence of churches doesn’t curb violence. For churches to make a difference, he says, they must minister in the streets. Therefore, Bridge aims to be “about change,” he says. “I think the powerful thing about Bridge is it’s a church in the community for the community. We go and engage people on their terms, in their turf. We keep it real. We say, ‘We’re not anybody better than you but we’d love to help you in any way we can.'” That approach has found a receptive audience. It helps, he says, that
Bridge leaders are from the community and thus “have the relational equity to engage” with everyone from elders to Young Gs.
Avant says. “No matter how small, we have to do our part to keep each other safe, especially our kids.” She says Abide has become a well known and accepted player in the inner city “because of the investment of volunteers and staff that have made a difference and gained the trust of our neighborhood.” She adds, “Young and old alike always ask when the next event is. Yes, prizes are given away, but it is more than that. People receive prayer, hugs, acknowledgement, someone to listen and connect. If Abide or the churches they partner with were not around, our neighborhood would be in much worse condition.”
Omaha Police Capt. Scott Gray says, “We’ve seen a reduction in incidents, especially with violent crime in the areas where they operate. They do a lot of outreach in the community. They get that sense of community re-instilled in the neighborhood.”
Abide’s increased imprint has seen it go from a single adopted block to 100 and from one to 20 Lighthouses. Seven new Lighthouses are being readied for occupancy. Abide block parties have gone from a couple hundred attendees to 2,000-plus, outgrowing the Abide site and moving to nearby Skinner Magnet Center at 4304 No. 33rd St. Similarly, Bridge has outgrown the Lake St. building and now holds services at North High School, where 500 followers gather on Sundays. Thousands of volunteers annually work on Abide projects and programs, from painting houses to mowing lawns to mentoring kids.
Skinner Magnet principal Tarina Cox says the block parties Abide throws at her school are inspiring.
“It is amazing to see the large number of kids, parents, volunteers, Abide Staff, community members, Skinner staff and members of Omaha Police Department come together to provide a fun and safe environment for our community.”
Skinner also partners with Abide on hosting an annual Thanksgiving dinner that draws hundreds as well as neighborhood festivals, Easter egg hunts, staff appreciation days and backpack giveaways.
Dotzler says he and his parents believe that overturning the foundational poverty that keeps people in despair or isolation requires addressing not only education, jobs and housing but “love, safety, care, nurture,” adding “People hunger for someone who actually cares and wants to see your needs met and see you become successful. At the heart of it is a hunger for spirituality, for purpose in life.
“In our holistic way of thinking you need housing, which provides safety and stability and which turns a negative spot in the community to a bright spot. You need family support programs which provide opportunities for individuals to grow and develop. You need community building activities and events to create a sense of camaraderie and neighborliness. We say we want to put the neighbor back in the hood. It’s a part of this bigger strategy in neighborhoods we’re working in on an ongoing basis and so it’s a building block.”
An Abide Lighthouse under construction
Abide’s growth has coincided with its more organic approach.
“We have partners come in and take on these specific neighborhoods, again not just doing a program but building relationships in that community that carry on past just a house getting refurbished. It’s more than providing a service, we’re creating a whole new culture and where you’re creating a new culture you better make sure you’re addressing the different cultural realities there.
“By being in and living in the neighborhoods we’ve been the ones who have been changed because our eyes have been opened, our perspective has been broadened. The longer I’m in it the more I realize what I don’t know and the more we realize we need to continue to learn from the community and the people were working with. We’re always figuring it out and evolving.”
Above all, he says, “we’re not here to save the day – we don’t want to be the organization that comes in and has the answer for everything but we’re here to provide resources and relationships so that people’s lives can be enhanced.”
Dotzler loves his work but didn’t expect to be doing this. The 2009 Creighton grad saw himself playing ball overseas and going into business. There was no succession plan for him to take over Abide but seeing his parents grow it made an impression on him.
“I got to see a picture of what it looked like to live with purpose, passion and something that was bigger than yourself,” he says.
Besides, he adds, “I think everybody wants to make a difference.”
But he didn’t think he was up for the job and so he resisted it even as his parents nudged him to be more involved.
“I’ve never seen people step back with more humility,” he says of his parents. “I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for them pushing me here.
It was them saying, ‘You have it in you, we believe in you, we want you here.’ I never thought I was equipped or the person to do this and didn’t want to be but through encouragement from my dad and the rest of the family, my leadership capabilities just kind of emerged. My parents got more confident in me and I got more confident in my role.”
Finally, with his older siblings variously away or enmeshed in their own careers, he committed to Abide and for his own family – he and his wife have three kids – to live in a Lighthouse.
“My wife gave me a three month ultimatum. She said. ‘Let’s move here for three months and then move somewhere else.’ We both said let’s give it a try and see what happens, and we’re still trying it out five years later. But we really feel like this is where we’re supposed to be.
“It’s been nothing but a blessing.”
Josh Dotzler, his wife Jennifer and their three children
He says a good day on the job can mean many things.
“It can look so different, whether I’m coaching the 1st and 2nd grade basketball team and a kid attitude or behavior-wise made a step or trying to make this Lighthouse program go to another level so we can impact more neighborhoods.”
Making progress in any area satisfies him.
“Progress in individuals, progress in our own process as an organization, always moving forward. When we get better everybody gets better. I love that process of trying to get better every single day – to make a community and individuals better.”
He says it’s not about plaudits, though his parents have received their share and have many admirers.
“In these neighborhoods people may or may not know the name Abide but they would know we’re the group that does the block parties or goes door to door passing stuff out or they would know Bridge church. They definitely would know our family.”
Jennefer Avant makes no bones about the impact the Dotzlers make.
“Ron and Twany Dotzler are amazing people. Caring, down to earth. God is definitely at work in their lives. Where they started to where they are now is such an awesome testimony to their faith and in turn strengthens mine. So many lives touched, including mine personally.”
Josh Dotzler just wants to take Abide where community needs lead it. He’d like to one day scale up to 700 Lighthouses. Whether that happens or not, he wants to make Abide a part of the solution.
“We feel very confident in terms of the pieces we have to see the neighborhoods transformed. Everything that’s happened over this past 25 years has kind of helped prepare us for this.”
North’s Star: Gene Haynes builds legacy as education leader with Omaha Public Schools and North High School
In the 1960s the Omaha Public Schools was in need of African-American educators and not finding enough suitable college-educated candidates here the district looked to historically black colleges in the South. The irony of this is that many candidates from Omaha were denied teaching, coaching and administrative positions by a district that practiced blatant racism for much of its history. For decades OPS only hired a small number of black educators and then restricted them to predominantly black schools in the inner city. For years black public educators in Omaha were also restricted to elementary schools. It took a long time for OPS to dismantle those barriers and open the gates of fair employment and placement. One of the many educators recruited here from the South under those conditions was Gene Haynes, a native Mississipian who had actually followed his older brothers to Omaha and lived and worked here for a time before going back to Miss. to attend Rust College, a private historically black college. After he graduated from Rust he applied with and accepted an offer from OPS to teach and in 1967 he began what is now a 47-year career in the district. His first 18 years were at Omaha Technical High School and the last 29 have been at Omaha North High School, where he’s been principal since 2001. He’s helped lead a major turnaround at North, whose academic and athletic programs are doing great things. My New Horizons cover profile of Haynes follows.
North’s Star: Gene Haynes builds legacy as education leader with Omaha Public Schools and North High School
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horixons (http://www.database.to/assoc_admin/assocviewfile2.asp?53V9875VT96=1969&AP3126=9&C885I0=536&pagecase=2)
It is a marvel Omaha North High Magnet School pxrincipal Gene Haynes relates so well to students given how far removed his life experience is from theirs.
The 70 year-old Mississippi native came of age in a time and place unlike anything his students know. Haynes grew up in the grip of poverty and segregation in the post-World War II South. Yet he’s current and cool enough to accept either a handshake or a fist bump from students. He either calls them by name or by “brother man” or “sister girl” as he makes his presence known in the hallways, cafeteria and other common areas every school day.
“When you say their name they know you’re paying attention to them,” he says. “I take a lot of pride in going to the activities and seeing what the young people are doing and encouraging them to do their best.”
He’s such a fixture at North and in the community that he knows most students’ extended families. Omaha Public Schools superintendent Mark Evans says, “It makes a huge difference when the person telling you which direction to go knows not only your mom and dad but your aunt and uncle, your grandma and grandpa. I think it makes kids so responsive to Gene – much more so than most administrators.”
A message Haynes conveys to students is, “Do your best when no one is around.” When he’s around and sees students applying themselves, he says he knows “they want to be highlighted” and thus he singles them out. North students increasingly shine academically and athletically in the transformation he’s leading there.
“When you treat people right, good things happen,” he says. “I make it a point every day I come to this building to be outside greeting kids as they come in. They see this crusty old man. I’m not an office person. I have to do my paperwork on Saturdays or after school. When the kids are moving to and from class I’m out there to see what the kids are doing. You can’t stay in one place, you have to be able to move, and I do, which prompts kids to ask, ‘Are there two of you?’ I show up when they least expect it, not looking to catch them in anything but to give them that extra encouragement they need.
“We have a staff at North High School that cares about every student. The kids know that. I think that’s the key. You have to go in with a positive attitude. Every student is worth something. The young people you’re working with on a daily basis are going to be your future.”
For Haynes, there’s no conflict about his mission.
“The bottom line has been and always will be what’s best for young people, not personally for me. It’s to make a difference in the lives of young people that you come across in your path.”
It’s all about setting expectations.
“If you don’t expect anything from them they’re not going to give you anything but if you have those high expectations and you communicate that there’s no wiggle room. You need to know how to do that. I’ve kind of mellowed in my latter years. I was very aggressive (before). It goes back to my father who said, ‘You’ll catch more bees with honey than you will with a stick.'”
When he sees students acting out he handles it differently today than in the past, though he still bellows “Hit the bricks” to stragglers.
“If you reprimand or put them down in front of their peers you’re not going to get anywhere. The best thing to do is to approach them and treat them with all due respect.”
A credo he likes imparting is, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to worry about repeating it – it’s always going to be there.”
Haynes realizes students confront a lot these days between the pressure to have sex at an early age, the lure of drugs, the threat of bullying and the high incidence of teen depression and suicide. He’s aware many inner city students come from broken families and live in active gang areas where instability and fear rule.
“I think the biggest challenge we face is we don’t have enough time for the magnitude of issues students bring to school. It’s not about books, it’s about time and effort to convince these young people there’s a better way of dealing with issues.”
Rather than an extended school day or extended school year, he advocates schools and communities “provide the best opportunities” for students to develop.
He says parents are vital cogs in their children’s education and he actively solicits their participation.
“I pick up the phone and call them. If I need to go make a home visit I do that. We make them a part of the equation.”
He says “the trust level has improved” among North’s parent base. He
suspects some had bad experiences in school, making it incumbent on himself and his staff “to ease any apprehensions they feel,” adding, “There’s a support system in place to eliminate some of those concerns. We have a very strong PTSO (Parent Teacher Student Organization).”
Coming out of Miss. in an era when blacks were denied basic human and civil rights, he knows about hard times and perseverance. You don’t forge a 47-year career without overcoming odds.
Haynes grew up the youngest of four sons to a sharecropping father and homemaking mother in a country hamlet between Gholson and Preston, Miss. During the off-season his father drove a truck. Like his brothers and cousins he was delivered by his midwife grandmother.
“We came in with the blessings of my grandmother,” is how he puts it.
In that tight-knit community he says, “We kind of looked out after for each other.”
In the fully segregated South he attended all black schools that got “hand-me-down” textbooks from the white schools. As a child he walked miles to a one-room schoolhouse. At 9 he started taking a bus to school. By high school the routine found one bus picking up a white neighbor girl and another bus picking him up, the vehicles taking the youths to “separate and unequal schools.”
Blacks were treated as second-class citizens in every way.
“That was the way of life back in that time. Growing up in the Jim Crow South toughened your skin up.”
His parents never got as far as high school but they stressed education’s importance. The black teachers who taught at the choolhouse boarded with the Haynes family during the week. That close proximity to educators made “a big impact on me,” he says.
An influential figure in his life was a landed white man, Vardaman Vendevender, who took an interest in young Gene.
“This gentleman was very dear to my family. On the weekends I worked for him. I did things around his house. I had access to his tractor, truck, jeep. If he needed things from the store I was able to go into town and get them. He called me Gene Robert after my grandfather. He once said to me, ‘If you ever want to be successful you have to leave the state of Miss.’ Here was a white guy sharing that with me. That was a relationship I treasured for years. Up until he passed every time I would go back to Miss. I would visit him.”
Vendevender’s son, Jake, visited him at North a few years ago. “He said, ‘When I pulled up I couldn’t believe a young skinny kid from Miss. is the principal of this big high school. My father must have made an impression on you.’ That’s something that sticks with me even right now.” Haynes returned the favor, visiting Jake below the Mason-Dixon Line. “We talked about the olden days.”
Haynes was in high school, where he excelled in sports, when the civil rights movement came to Miss. and all hell broke loose. Native son James Meredith integrated “Ole Miss” in 1962 but only with the full force of the nation’s highest court and National Guard troops behind him.
“The most frightening thing in my life was riding the bus to school and having federal marshals on every corner. Tension ran very high.”
James Meredith integrates the University of Mississippi under armed guard
Every time activists or lawmakers threatened dismantling segregation, racist stakeholders in that apartheid system reacted violently. In 1964, his freshman year in college. a trio of Freedom Riders were killed. The deaths of the Mississippi Three further heightened fear.
Haynes says despite the obstacles and dangers he never despaired things wouldn’t improve. He believed in the power of education and in letting the truth shine through ignorance.
“I could see that because of my training and my teachers, who were always discussing how important it was to get an education. They embedded that into us – that education is a key for success.”
Blacks were also resourceful to find some kind of way through barriers to pursue their goals and dreams.
“We managed in spite of the opportunities denied us.”
Haynes says that as a college-bound African-American then his higher ed choices in the South were severely limited. In much of the region at that time blacks could not attend anything but historically black colleges. “When I was coming out of high school if you were black and you didn’t go to Jackson State, Alcorn, Mississippi Valley State, Rust College or one of the other private black schools, you couldn’t go.”
During the ’60s some challenged this exclusion but not without the federal government enforcing it. Even then there were serious, often ugly consequences. It would be some time before blacks were able to attend schools of their choice without incident.
Haynes was fortunate to have as a mentor a male high school biology teacher who also coached him in football.
“He was very instrumental in working with me from grade 10 on, preparing me for college. He had gone to Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss, and he was very instrumental in my attending Rust. I felt that was the opportunity for me to do the things I need to do.”
Before attending Rust, however, Haynes followed his brothers to Omaha, where the extended family put down roots during the Great Migration blacks made from the South to the North in search of a better life. Omaha’s booming meat packing plants and railroad operations drew many unskilled blacks and other minorities here.
“We had relatives here and they hooked my oldest brother, who came here in ’59. with a job. iI was a kind of networking that went on. He came here on a weekend and he went to work at the packinghouse on Monday. That started a chain of events,” says Haynes, whose other brothers followed. In 1963, Gene did, too. His brothers went to Miss. for his high school graduation and no sooner did the ceremony end then they took him back to Omaha with them.
“I left to the chagrin of my mom and dad. I was the baby and now the nest was empty. In 1964 my mother and father pulled up stakes and moved to Omaha. Mom couldn’t stand not being around her boys.”
Unlike his brothers, Gene didn’t work in the packinghouses. Instead, a relative got him on at the fancy Blackstone Hotel, with its distinctive exterior, ornate interior and popular Golden Spur and Orleans Room.
He returned to Miss. to attend Rust, majoring in social studies and economics.
“They provided me with a great education,” he says of his alma mater. The school also served as his introduction to his life partner. “I met a great lady whom I ended up marrying – my wife Annie. We graduated from Rust in 1967 and we got married in 1968.”
Haynes and his wife are the parents of one son, Jerel, and the grandparents of Caleb and Jacob.
Work-study and a scholarship put Haynes through college. He toiled in the dorms and athletic offices to pay his way in becoming his family’s first college graduate. Given the sway educators had in his life, he naturally looked at teaching as a career. Places like Omaha had a dearth of black college grads then, so OPS looked to historically black colleges for candidates. He joined other newly minted educators from the South as OPS hires, including Sam Crawford, Jim Freeman and Tom Harvey, all of whom enjoyed long careers like him.
“A large group of us that went to predominantly black schools came to Omaha to teach,” he says. “We’ve been very blessed because we have carved out a legacy that’s been great. We stuck together.”
Haynes didn’t intend staying in Omaha. When he started at OPS in 1967, at Omaha Technical High School. he came alone while Annie pursued teaching opportunities in Alabama and then Cleveland, Ohio.
“My plan was to teach here one year and go to Miami, where I also applied. I lived with my parents to save money. Forty-seven years later I’m still here and I haven’t saved any money yet,” he says, laughing.
After that first year in Omaha he went to Cleveland to court Annie.
“I convinced her Omaha was the place she needed to be.”
She got a job teaching 3rd grade at Lothrop Elementary. Annie ended up teaching 37-plus years in the district.
Haynes, who earned a master’s degree in education, administration supervision from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1974, taught and coached at Tech until the school closed in 1984. The massive Tech building is now the OPS headquarters, He was an assistant football coach when future University of Nebraska All-American and Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers played for the school. During his tenure at Tech Haynes became the state’s first black head basketball coach. Breaking that new ground meant dealing with some racist coaches, officials and fans.
“With a predominantly black team we had some skewed eyes looking at us. I had to tell the kids, ‘You have to play above that because let’s face it if it’s close, you can forget it,'” says Haynes, referring to blatantly bad calls that went against his team and other minority-laden teams then at Omaha Central and Omaha South.
“I told the kids, ‘You have to be twice as good as your competition.’ And so we tried to prepare them for that.”
He says he instilled in his players the philosophy – “You give it your best. Winning is not everything, but a sincere effort is.” He says he still believes that today. “It’s not about wins and losses it’s about the success of the young people at the end of their high school term.”
He has fond memories of his time at Tech.
“I can think about so many young people I was fortunate enough to work with.”
One of those is Thomas Warren Sr., who became Omaha Police chief and is now president-CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska. Warren played basketball for Haynes and remembers his old coach as “a strict disciplinarian who had the respect of his players” because he went the extra mile for them. He sees Haynes doing the same thing today.
“For many of his players he was responsible for facilitating scholarship opportunities. For me individually, he drove me to Sioux City, Iowa in his personal vehicle for my recruitment visit to Morningside College, where I eventually attended. I have watched him spend countless hours serving the students of Omaha North High School and our community. He has been an advocate for at-risk students and I have never seen him give up on a kid. I consider Gene Haynes a friend, mentor and role model and I will always refer to him as ‘Coach.'”
Other students Haynes molded became entrepreneurs, lawyers and professionals in one field or another. He finds it ironic many of them are now retired while he’s still working.
“Doesn’t seem right,” he says, smiling.
He says “the passion the staff developed caring about individual students made all the difference in the world” at Tech “and that’s what I’ve attempted to do and incorporate here at North.” He and his staff work to create an environment where students “feel they can come and talk to us about their concerns and we’ll address the situation.”
When Tech closed Haynes became assistant principal and athletic director at McMillan Magnet School for a year before joining the North High staff in 1987. At North he served as assistant principal and athletic director for 14 years until assuming the principal post in 2001.
Since taking over at North, whose 4410 North 36th Street campus borders some of Omaha’s highest crime areas, he’s credited with leading a turnaround there. But he says the transformation began under predecessor Tom Harvey, who changed the school’s image. Starting in the 1980s North’s once proud reputation suffered under the strain of urban pressures that saw school dropouts and disruptive behaviors rise, along with test scores decline. Haynes says Harvey began the process of turning this wasteland into an oasis of success.
“Tom Harvey was a driving force behind the resurrection of North.”
The impoverished neighborhoods around North had fallen into a mire of drugs, gangs, violence, vacant homes and hopelessness but have rebounded with help from community building organizations like Abide.
North’s leaders, Haynes says, made a conscious effort to make the school an anchor and resource in a community hungering for something it could be proud of and call its own.
“Tom Harvey invited the alums and the Vikings of Distinction to turn North High School around. They talked about what would it take to change the perception. There used to be a fence around the place.
When you saw that fence you thought about the prison mentality and we had to change that. The fence came down and there was a trust factor then within the community that North is the place to be.”
Haynes has continued to enhance North’s community engagement.
“North High School is a key component of this community. We have opened up North for community events and activities. We found that when people in the community feel they are part of something your vandalism goes down. They feel they have ownership in this. The second Saturday of the month the Empowerment Network uses our facility. Every Sunday Bridge Church holds services here.”
He says if northeast Omaha is to realize its hoped-for revival then North High and its companion schools must be actors in it.
“If it’s going to change North High School and the Omaha Public Schools are going to be key players in turning things around. Right now I see we’re moving in the right direction.”
Haynes welcomes community partners.
John Backus, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in North Omaha, says, “When we approached him about ways to be helpful in his school he was ready with ideas, answers and the sort of willing spirit that accomplishes things. Gene Haynes is a capable leader and intensely interested in the well-being of his students.”
Perhaps the biggest sea change for North came when it was made a magnet center for STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.
“Haynes says, “We wanted the best and the brightest people to be a part of North High School – students and staff. We went out and brought in the best and the brightest and we will continue to do so.”
The Haddix Center for STEM Education
North High is a blend of old and new but its STEM education is state of the art
To accommodate this influx of students and new curriculum Haynes invited the entire North community of staff, students, alums and neighbors to weigh-in on a vision for a new addition. A group of students took the initiative and drew up the initial design for what became the 34,000 square foot, multi-million dollar Haddix Center.
“When the students are active I think it’s important you allow them to have input,” says Haynes. “It took 11 years from the time we started to plan until we were able to build. That was huge. We cherish the fact the alumni association and one gentleman, George Haddix, gave up $5 million. The district bought the project and supported it. We dedicated it in 2010. This is our fifth year in that facility.”
As a magnet center North draws students from around the metro. Haynes says one third of its students come from outside its attendance area. The school’s test scores have soared and the number of academic college scholarship awarded graduates has exploded. OPS superintendent Mark Evans says, “It’s a great success story and his leadership has made a difference there not only in the classrooms but in the extracurriculars. The principal sets the tone and is the leader of that culture and Gene Haynes is one of the best examples of that. When you say North High, you think Gene Haynes – that’s how much identification there is with him there.”
Evans adds that North’s success has a ripple effect on its student body and the surrounding community. “I think it’s huge. I think it sends a message of hope that we can and will succeed. We’ve got some young people who haven’t always thought they were going to be successful but because of North High and Gene Haynes they all believe they can be successful now and they are being successful.”
Haynes feels the STEM experience students receive there is preparing them for working living wage 21st century jobs that demand tech savvy employees. He’s confident as technology becomes ever more important that North’s on the cutting edge of utilizing it in the classroom. For example, some algebra classes are entirely taught on iPads. A new Samsung Smart School Solutions pilot program invites students to use a 75-inch touch interactive display and tablets to make stock market purchases, deliver tech-driven business presentations and get hands-on learning experiences with real life business partners.
“We have the best technology persons in Rich Molettiere and Tracy Sage,” Haynes says of North’s technology coordinators. “We really appreciate what they’ve been able to do. If someone tried to take them out of North High School, it’s on.”
North’s academic progress is matched by the success of its athletic programs. Until recently the school was known for its wrestling dominance, including multiple team and individual champions and at least one Olympic hopeful, Vikings grad RaVaughn Perkins. But more recently North’s football team has been the dominant force, winning back to back Class A state titles behind superstar running back Calvin Strong, a South Dakota commit. and Husker lineman recruit Michael Decker. The 2014 Vikings finished 13-0 and are widely considered one of the top teams in Nebraska prep football history.
Rendering of the proposed North High football stadium
North has done all this without having a true home field to play on. Its football team plays at Northwest High’s Kinnick Stadium some four miles away. A proposal for North High to build a stadium of its own, right in the neighborhood, is being looked at. As with the earlier Haddix Center, North students did an initial design. Haynes and the school’s foundation are assessing if there’s enough support in the community for what would be a privately funded project costing millions of dollars.
“We want it be state of the art,” Haynes says.
He believes the stadium would be another “bright light for this community” and he says the facility would be available for use by nearby Skinner Magnet School and the Butler Gast YMCA.
Haynes keeps long hours at North, whose doors hardly ever seem to close for all the activity there. He says he goes home satisfied when “I see the kids leaving school with a smile on their face and a pat on the back from the principal and they acknowledge it.” He adds, “I have a post I go to at dismissal that borders the neighborhood. From my perch I can see kids coming and going and if anything’s going to happen from the outside that’s where it’s going to come from. The kids know that and I know that. That’s why I choose to go out there. As the kids walk by I acknowledge them and give them encouragement. That’s what I consider a most gratifying day.
“I try not take anything from school home, and vice versa.”
As for how much longer he’ll be doing this, he’s promised the class of 2017 he’ll walk with them at their graduation.
“That’s the plan – if my health stays good.”
That would make 50 years at OPS.
He won’t have any say in his successor but he and others will be keeping a close eye to make sure this sweet ride continues.
“I feel whoever comes in is going to do the right thing, and if not it’ll be a short tenure.”
Whoever follows him will have big shoes to fill. A measure of the high esteem he’s held in is the street named after him right outside the school. At the dedication for it last summer and on social media people offered tributes, calling him “humble, genuine, dedicated, a role model – commands true respect.” A grateful Haynes takes it all in stride, saying, “The Omaha community has been very gracious to me and my family and now I have to live up to it.”
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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