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.
Interface Web School: Coding, Collaboration, Community
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the Winter 2016 issue of B2B Omaha 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..”
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.”
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.”
Shining Light: News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future
Shining Light: News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the December 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
One of the things that makes North Omaha North Omaha is the Omaha Star, the historic black newspaper made famous by Mildred Brown. For the first time since Marguerita Washington took it over from her late aunt in 1989, the future of the 77-year-old newspaper is unclear as Washington battles cancer. But those close to the situation say under no circumstances will they let the paper fold because it means too much to the community it serves. Check out my Reader story about the legacy of the Star under Brown and Washington and how strongly people feel about it and what it’s meant to them. Read, too, about people’s admiration for what these black women did to give Black Omahans a voice.
With Native Omaha Days having just concluded, it’s a good time for reflection. Here’s a new story I wrote for the August issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) that sounds out some African-American residents for their take on old-new northeast Omaha challenges, opportunities and approaches to revitalize that area. Hard copies should now be out and about in North O, Benson, Midtown, Downtown and the Old Market.
I am presenting the story in this post in two layouts: the first is exclusively for my blog and the second is how the story appears in The Reader.
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.
The Champ Goes to Africa: Terence Crawford Visits Uganda and Rwanda with his former teacher, this reporter and friends
The Champ Goes to Africa
Terence Crawford Visits Uganda and Rwanda with his former teacher, this reporter and friends
Two-time world boxing champ Terence Crawford of Omaha has the means to do anything he wants. You might not expect then that in the space of less than a year he chose to travel not once but twice to a pair of developing nations in Africa wracked by poverty, infrastructure problems and atrocity scars: Uganda and Rwanda, I accompanied his last trip as the 2015 winner of the Andy Award for international journalism from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Until now I’ve posted a little about the grant that took me to Africa along with a few pictures and anecdotes from the trip. But now I’m sharing the first in a collection of stories I’m writing about the experience, which is of course why I went there in fhe first place. This cover story in the coming July issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) emphasizes Crawford within the larger context of what he and the rest of us saw, who we met and what we did. Future pieces for other publications will go even more into where his Africa sojourns fit into his evolving story as a person and as an athlete. But at least one of my upcoming stories from the trip will try to convey the totality of the experience from my point of view and that of others. I feel privilged to have been given the opportunity to chronicle this journey. Look for new posts and updates and announcements related to this and future stories from my Africa Tales series.
NOTE: This is at least the fifth major article I’ve written about Crawford. You can find all of them on this blog site. Find them at-
AFRICA TALES IN IMAGES
Here is a link to a video slideshow of the June trip I made to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa with The Champ, Terence Crawford and Alindra I Person, Jamie Fox Nollette, Scott Katskee, Joseph Sutter and Julia Brown.
The visuals were edited, set to music, given movement and in some cases captioned by my friend Victoria White, an Omaha filmmaker.
NOTE: I am available to make public presentations about the trip and the video slideshow will be a part of the talk that I give. We will be updating the video slideshow with new images to keep it fresh and to represent different aspects of the experience we had in those developing nations.
All my stories about the trip can also be found on this blog. Access them at-
(Below is a text-only format of the same article)
The Champ Goes to Africa
Terence Crawford Visits Uganda and Rwanda with his former teacher, this reporter and friends
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Senior contributing writer Leo Adam Biga, winner of the 2015 Andy Award for international journalism from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, chronicles recent travels he made in Africa with two-time world boxing champion Terence Crawford.
Expanding his vision
Terence “Bud” Crawford’s rise to world boxing stardom reads more graphic novel than storybook, defying inner city odds to become one of the state’s most decorated athletes. Not since Bob Gibson ruled the mound for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1960s has a Nebraskan so dominated his sport.
When Bud overheard me say he might be the best fighter pound-for-pound Neb.’s produced, he took offense:. “Might be? I AM the best.”
En route to perhaps being his sport’s next marquee name, he’s done remarkable things in improbable places. His ascent to greatness began with a 2013 upset of Breidis Prescott in Las Vegas, In early 2014 he captured the WBO lightweight title in Glasgow, Scotland. He personally put Omaha back on the boxing map by twice defending that title in his hometown before huge CenturyLink Center crowds last year.
In between those successful defenses he traveled to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa in August. He went with Pipeline Worldwide co-founder Jamie Fox Nollette, an Omaha native and Bud’s fourth grade teacher at Skinner Magnet School. After reuniting in mid-2014, he expressed interest going to Africa, where her charitable organization works with partners to drill water wells and to support youth-women’s programs.
When I caught up with The Champ last fall, he left no doubt the impact that first trip made.
“It’s life-changing when you get to go over there and help people,” he says.
Nollette recalls, “When Terence left he had an empty suitcase. He left all his clothes, except what he was wearing, to a bus driver.”
“I just felt they needed it more than I did,” he says. ‘I just thought it was the right thing to do.”
Seeing first-hand profound poverty, infrastructure gaps and atrocity scars made an impression.
“Well, it just made me appreciate things more. It kind of humbled me in a way to where I don’t want to take anything for granted. I haven’t in my life experienced anything of the nature they’re experiencing over there. For one thing, I have clean water – they don’t have clean water. That’s one of their biggest issues and I want to help them with it. They appreciate everything, even if it’s just a hug or a handshake.”
Simpatico and reciprocal
Nollette says the trips and fundraisers she organizes raise awareness and attract donors.
Only weeks after winning the vacant WBO light welterweight title over Thomas Dulorme in Arlington, Texas last April Bud returned to those same African nations with Nollette.
“I told Jamie I would like to go back.”
He says locals told him, “We have a lot of people that come and tell us they’re going to come back and never do. For you to come back means a lot to us.”
“Just the little things mean a lot to people with so little, and so I guess that’s why I’m here,” Bud told an assembly of Ugandans in June.
None of this may have happened if he and Nollettte didn’t reconnect. Their bond transcends his black urban and her white suburban background. He supports Pipeline’s work and she raises funds for his B&B Boxing Academy in North O.
His first Africa trip never made the news because he didn’t publicize it. His June 1 through 12 trip is a different matter.
What about Africa drew this streetwise athlete to go twice in 10 months when so much is coming at him in terms of requests and appearances, on top of training and family obligations?
Beyond the cool machismo, he has a sweet, soft side and burning curiosity. “He really listens to what people say,” Nollette notes. “He wants to understand things.”
His pensive nature gets overshadowed by his mischievous teasing, incessant horseplay and coarse language.
This father of four is easy around children, who gravitate to him. He supports anything, here or in Africa, that gets youth off the streets.
He gives money to family, friends, homies and complete strangers. In 2014 he so bonded with Pipeline’s Uganda guide, Apollo Karaguba, that he flew him to America to watch his Nov. fight in Omaha.
“When I met Apollo I felt like I’ve been knowing him for years. I just liked the vibe I got. He’s a nice guy, he’s caring. He took real good care of us while we were out there.”
Bud says paying his way “was my turn to show him my heart.”
He respects Nollette enough he let her form an advisory committee for his business affairs as his fame and fortune grow.
Even with a lifelong desire to see “the motherland” and a fascination with African wildlife, it took Nollette reentering his life for him to go.
“Certain opportunities don’t come every day. She goes all the time and I trust her.”
His fondness for her goes back to when they were at Skinner. “She was one of the only teachers that really cared. She would talk to me.”
He needed empathy, he says, because “I got kicked out of school so much – a fight here, a fight there, I just always had that chip on my shoulder.” He says she took the time to find out why he acted out.
Catching the vision
Boxing eventually superseded school.
“I used to fall asleep studying boxing.”
Meanwhile, Nollette moved to Phoenix. On a 2007 church mission trip to Uganda she found her calling to do service there.
“It really impacted me,” she says. “I’ve always had a heart for kids and
I always had an interest in Africa.”
She went several times.
“There’s not really anything that can prepare you for it. The volume of people. The overwhelming poverty. Driving for hours and seeing all the want. I didn’t know what possibly could be done because everything seemed so daunting.
“But once I had a chance to go into some villages I started to see things that gave me hope. I was absolutely amazed at the generosity and spirit of these people – their hospitality and kindness, their gratitude. You go there expecting to serve and after you’re there you walk away feeling like you’ve been given a lot more. I was hooked.”
Bud got hooked, too, or as ex-pats say in Africa, “caught the vision.”
“I was very touched by the people and how gracious and humble and thankful they were about everything that came towards them. I had a great time with great people. I experienced some great things.”
Coming to Africa i:
For this second trip via KLM Delta he brought girlfriend Alindra “Esha” Person, who’s the mother of his children. Joseph Sutter of Omaha and myself tagged along, Julia Brown of Phoenix joined us in Detroit and Scott Katskee, a native Omahan living in Los Angeles, added to our ranks in Amsterdam. Nollette arrived in Uganda a day early and met us in Entebbe, where Bud and Apollo enjoyed a warm reunion.
The next seven days in Uganda, which endured civil war only a decade ago, were a blur made foggier by jet lag and itinerary overload. Dividing our time between Kampala and rural areas we saw much.
Roadside shanties. Open market vendors. Christian schools, clinics, worship places. Vast, wild, lush open landscapes. Every shade of green vegetation contrasted with red dirt and blue-white-orange skies. Immense Lake Victoria. Crossing the storied Nile by bridge and boat.
The press of people. Folks variously balancing fruit or other items on their head. Unregulated, congested street traffic. Everything open overnight. Boda bodas (motor bikes) jutting amid cars, trucks, buses, pedestrians. One morning our group, sans me, rode aback boda bodas just for the thrill. I suggested to Bud Top Rank wouldn’t like him risking injury, and he bristled, “I run my life, you feel me? Ain’t nobody tell me what to do, nobody. Not even my mom or my dad.”
Ubiquitous Jerry cans – plastic yellow motor oil containers reused to carry and store water – carted by men, women, children, sometimes in long queues. “All waiting on water, that’s crazy,” Bud commented.
Stark contrasts of open slums and gated communities near each other. Mud huts with thatched roofs in the bush.
Long drives on unpaved roads rattled our bodies and mini-bus.
Whenever delays occurred it reminded us schedules don’t mean much there. Bud calls it TIA (This is Africa). “Just live in the moment…go with the flow,” he advised.
In a country where development’s piecemeal, Apollo says, “We’re not there yet, but we’re somewhere.”
Africans engaged in social action say they’ve all overcome struggles to raise themselves and their countrymen. “I was one of the lucky few to get out (of the slums),” Apollo says. They want partners from the developed world, but not at the expense of autonomy.
Many good works there are done by faith-based groups. Apollo works for Watoto Child Care Ministries, whose campus we toured. Three resident boys close to Nollette bonded with Bud on his last trip. The boys joined us for dinner one night.
We spent a day with Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, whose vocational work with exploited females has won acclaim. Last year Nollette produced a video showing Bud training Sister for a mock fight with Stephen Colbert. This time, Nollette, Bud and Co. outfitted a dormitory for her girls in Atiak, where Pipeline built a well. Bud played music the girls danced to. They honored us with a traditional dinner and dance.
We toured Pastor Ben Kibumba’s Come Let’s Dance (CLD) community development organization. Bud and others gave out jerseys to kids.
Nakavuma Mercy directs CLD’s Thread of Life empowerment program for single moms in Kampala’s Katanga slum.
We met Patricia at Bless a Child, which serves cancer-stricken kids in Kampala, and Moses, who’s opening a second site in Gulu. We met young entrepreneurs Charles Mugabi and Richard Kirabira, whose Connect Enterprise and Chicken City Farms, respectively, are part of a creative class Pipeline partners with.
“One of the things I see is that you have a lot of young people with strong leadership skills and I want to be able to come alongside them and support them in their efforts,” Nollette says.
Apollo says Uganda needs new leadership that’s corruption-free and focused on good resource stewardship.
Nollette says she offers “a pipeline to connect people in the States with opportunities and projects in Africa that are really trying to make a difference in their communities.”
It’s all about leveraging relationships and expertise for maximum affect.
We met ex-pats living and work there: Todd Ellingson with City of Joy and Maggie Josiah with African Hospitality Institute.
Josiah offered this advice:
“A lot of times, especially we Americans come over thinking we have all the answers and we know how to fix all the problems, and really we don’t need to fix any of the African problems. They will fix them themselves in their own time. But come over and listen and learn from them. The Africans have so much to teach us about joy when we have very little, they have so much to teach us about what it really means to live in community, what it means to live the abundant life…”
Hail, hail, The Champ is here
Having a world champ visit proved a big deal to Ugandans, who take their boxing seriously. The nation’s sports ministry feted Bud like visiting royalty at a meeting and press conference. He gained extra cred revealing he’s friends with two Ugandan fighters in the U.S., Ismail Muwendo and Sharif Bogere.
“I want to come back with Ismail.”
Ministry official Mindra Celestino appealed to Bud “to be our ambassador for Uganda.” Celestino listed a litany of needs.
“Whatever I can do to help, I’d like to help out,” Bud said. “I’m currently helping out Ismail. He fought on the undercard of my last fight. We’re building him up.”
Bud won over officials, media and boxers with his honesty and generosity, signing t-shits and gloves, posing for pics, sharing his highlight video and delivering an inspirational message.
“For me coming up was kind of hard. You’ve got gangs, you’ve got drugs, you’ve got violence. I got into a lot of things and I just felt like boxing took me to another place in my life where I could get away from all the negativity. I got shot in my head in 2008 hanging out with the wrong crowd. At that time I knew I just wanted to do more with my life, so I started really pursuing my boxing career.
“I had a lot of days I wanted to quit. For you boxers out there this ain’t no easy sport. It’s hard, taking those punches. You might be in the best shape of your life, but mentally if you’re not in shape you’re going to break down.”
He emphasized how much work it takes to be great.
“Every day, any boxing I could watch, I would watch. I would take time out to study, like it was school. I would tell you to just work hard, stay dedicated, give your all every time you go in there and who knows maybe you can be the next champion of the world.”
He referred to the passion, discipline and motivation necessary to carry you past exhaustion or complacency.
“There’s going to be days you want to quit. Those are the days you’ve got to work the hardest. I never was given anything. I was one of those kids they said was never going to make it – I used that as an opportunity to prove them wrong.”
We did take time out to enjoy the outdoors, hiking to the top of Murchison Falls and going on safari at Paraa game preserve. I brought up the rear on the hike and Bud hung back to encourage me: “I’ve got you, Leo…you can do it.” On safari his fondest wish of seeing big cats was fulfilled when we came across two lion prides. He earlier spotted a rare leopard perched on a cliff.
Into Africa II:
Uganda still swam in our heads after flying into Kigali, Rwanda, a city less teeming than Kampala. Despite only a generation removed from genocide, urban Rwanda’s more developed than Uganda. There are even some street lights and stop signs, plus more Western-style construction. In the rural reaches, it’s a sprawling complex of hills and valleys unlike Uganda’s flatlands.
Our guide, Christophe Mbonyingabo, reunited with Bud at the airport.
Just as Bud was mistaken for Ugandan, Rwandans mistook him for one of theirs, too. He delighted in it, especially when residents tried engaging him in their language and he begged off, “I’m American.”
In both countries, access to clean water is a daily challenge.
“Whether you’re passionate about women or children or health or education, once a village gets access to clean drinking water, this very basic need, it just changes everything,” says Nollette. “If a village gets a well it all of a sudden gets a school, a clinic, some agriculture.”
We met young men hoping to make a difference when they complete their U.S. studies. Another, Olivier, lost his entire family in the genocide but has gone on to become a physician.
As Bud put it, we were “happy to meet new friends, new faces.”
Like the work Apollo does in Uganda, Christophe works to heal people in Rwanda. The eastern Congo native needed healing himself after losing his father and two brothers to violence there. He credits being spiritually saved with his founding CARSA (Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Assistance), which counsels genocide survivors and perpetrators to find forgiveness. We met a man and woman – he was complicit in her husband’s murder and stole from her – who’ve come to a serene coexistence. They now share a cow.
All of us expressed awe at this turning-the-other-cheek model.
“They love each other, too, that’s the crazy part,” says Bud, though Christophe said not every survivor forgives and not every perpetrator makes amends.
Bud summed it up with, “Life’s about choices.”
We met a survivor widow for whom Pipeline’s building a new home.
Bud caught up with two boys he met last year. He nearly caused a riot when the gifts he gave and the backflips he performed were spent and a crowd of kids clamored for more.
On the drive into the hills, the stunning vistas resembled Calif. or Mediterranean wine country. It’s a sensory explosion of nature’s verdant, colorful abundance and folks plodding the roadsides on foot and bike, selling wares, hauling bundles, Jerry cans,. you name it.
Upon hiking into a pygmy village, a young woman, Agnes, impressed on us residents’ extreme poverty. Their subsistence living and limited water source pose problems. She shared aspirations to finish school. The villagers danced for us. Our group returned the favor. Then Scott Katskee played Pharrell’s “Happy” and everyone got jiggy.
Seeing so much disparity, Bud observed. “Money can’t make you happy, but it can make you comfortable.”
A sobering experience came at the genocide memorial in Kigali, where brutal killings of unimaginable scale are graphically documented.
Group dynamics and shooting the bull
The bleakness we sometimes glimpsed was counteracted by fun, whether playing with children or giving away things. Music helped. At various junctures, different members of our group acted as the bus DJ. Bud played a mix of hip hop and rap but proved he also knows old-school soul and R&B, though singing’s definitely not a second career. Photography may be, as he showed a flair for taking stills and videos.
In this device-dependent bunch, much time was spent texting, posting and finding wi-fi and hot spot connections.
On the many long hauls by bus or land cruiser, conversation ranged from music to movies to gun control to wildlife to sports. Apparel entrepreneur Scott Katskee entertained us with tales of China and southeast Asia travel and friendships with noted athletes and actors.
Bud gave insight into a tell Thomas Dulorme revealed at the weigh-in of their April fight.
“When you’re that close you can feel the tension. I could see it in his face. He was trying too hard. If you’re trying too hard you’re nervous. If he’s intimidated that means he’s more worried about me than I am about him. I won it right there.”
Our group made a gorilla trek, minus me. Even Bud said it was “hard” trudging uphill in mud and through thick brush. He rated “chilling with the gorillas” his “number one” highlight, though there were anxious moments. He got within arm’s reach of a baby gorilla only to have the mama cross her arms and grunt. “That’s when I was like, OK, I better back off.” A silverback charged.
Back home, Bud’s fond of fishing and driving fast. He has a collection of vehicles and (legal) firearms. He and Esha feel blessed the mixed northwest Omaha neighborhood they live in has welcomed them.
Nollette correctly predicted we’d “become a little family and get to know each other really well.” She was our mother, chaperone, referee and teacher. Her cousin Joseph Sutter, an athlete, became like a little brother to Bud, whom he already idolized. When the pair wrestled or sparred she warned them to take it easy.
“Stop babying him,” Bud said. “I’m not going to hurt him. I’m just going to rough him up. You know how boys play.”
Like all great athletes Bud’s hyper competitive – “I don’t like to lose at nothing,” he said – and he didn’t like getting taken down by Suetter.
Once, when Bud got testy with Nollette. Christophe chastised him, “I hope you remember she’s your teacher.” Bud played peacemaker when things got tense, saying, “Can’t we all get along? We’re supposed to be a family.” We were and he was a big reason why. “What would y’all do without me? I’m the life of the party,” he boasted.
Out of Africa…for now
As The Champ matures, there’s no telling where he’ll wind up next, though Africa’s a safe bet. When I mentioned he feels at home there, he said, “It IS home. I’m AFRICAN-American. It’s where a lot of my people come from historically down the line of my ancestors. Damn, I love this place. I’m just thankful I’m able to do the things I’m able to do. I can help people and it fills my heart.”
Our last night in Africa Christophe and Nollette implored us not to forget what we’d seen. Fat chance.
Recapping the journey, Bud said, “That was tight.”
Bud may next fight in Oct. or Feb., likely in Omaha again.
Next generation of North Omaha leaders eager for change: New crop of leaders emerging to keep momentum going
North Omaha’s prospects are looking up, even as longstanding problems remain a drag on the largely African-American community, and a strong, established leadership base in place is a big part of the optimism for the area’s continued revival. These leaders are in fact driving the change going on. Working side by side or coming up right behind that veteran leadership cohort is a group of emerging leaders looking to put their own stamp on things. The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) takes a look at this next generation of North Omaha leaders and their take on opportunities and vehicles for being change agents.
Thomas Warren and Julia Parker
Next generation of North Omaha leaders eager for change: New crop of leaders emerging to keep momentum going
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
If redevelopment plans for northeast Omaha come to full fruition then that long depressed district will see progress at-scale after years of patchwork promises. Old and new leaders from largely African-American North Omaha will be the driving forces for change.
A few years and projects into the 30-year, $1.4 billion North Omaha Revitalization Village Plan, everyone agrees this massive revival is necessary for the area to be on the right side of the tipping point. The plan’s part of a mosaic of efforts addressing educational, economic, health care, housing, employment disparities. Behind these initiatives is a coalition from the private and public sectors working together to apply a focused, holistic approach for making a lasting difference.
Key contributors are African-American leaders who emerged in the last decade to assume top posts in organizations and bodies leading the charge. Empowerment Network Facilitator Willie Barney, Douglas Country Treasurer John Ewing, Urban League of Nebraska Executive Director Thomas Warren and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray are among the most visible. When they entered the scene they represented a new leadership class but individually and collectively they’ve become its well-established players.
More recently, Neb. State Senator Tanya Cook and Omaha 360 Director Jamie Anders-Kemp joined their ranks. Others, such as North Omaha Development Corporation Executive Director Michael Maroney and former Omaha City Councilwoman and Neb. State Sen. Brenda Council, have been doing this work for decades.
With so much yet to come and on the line, what happens when the current crop of leaders drops away? Who will be the new faces and voices of transformation? Are there clear pathways to leadership? Are there mechanisms to groom new leaders? Is there generational tension between older and younger leaders? What does the next generation want to see happen and where do they see things headed?
Some North Omaha leaders
The Reader asked veteran and emerging players for answers and they said talent is already in place or poised to assume next generation leadership. They express optimism about North O’s direction and a consensus for how to get there. They say leadership also comes in many forms. It’s Sharif Liwaru as executive director of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, which he hopes to turn into an international attraction. It’s his artist-educator wife Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru. Together, they’re a dynamic couple focused on community betterment. Union for Contemporary Arts founder-director Brigitte McQueen, Loves Jazz and Arts Center Executive Director Tim Clark and Great Plains Black History Museum Board Chairman Jim Beatty are embedded in the community leading endeavors that are part of North O’s revival.
Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. Executive Director Othello Meadows is a more behind-the-scenes leader. His nonprofit has acquired property and finished first-round financing for the Highlander mixed-used project, a key Village Plan component. The project will redevelop 40 acres into mixed income housing, green spaces and on-site support services for “a purpose-built” urban community.
Meadows says the opportunity to “work on a project of this magnitude in a city I care about is a chance of a lifetime.” He’s encouraged by the “burgeoning support for doing significant things in the community.” In his view, the best thing leaders can do is “execute and make projects a reality,” adding, “When things start to happen in a real concrete fashion then you start to peel back some of that hopelessness and woundedness. I think people are really tired of rhetoric, studies and statistics and want to see something come to life.” He says new housing in the Prospect Hill neighborhood is tangible positive activity.
Meadows doesn’t consider himself a traditional leader.
“I think leadership is first and foremost about service and humility. I try to think of myself as somebody who is a vessel for the hopes and desires of this neighborhood. True leadership is service and service for a cause, so if that’s the definition of leadership, then sure, I am one.”
He feels North O’s suffered from expecting leadership to come from charismatic saviors who lead great causes from on high.
“In my mind we have to have a different paradigm for the way we consider leadership. I think it happens on a much smaller scale. I think of people who are leaders on their block, people who serve their community by being good neighbors or citizens. That’s the kind of leadership that’s overlooked. I think it has to shift from we’ve got five or six people we look to for leadership to we’ve got 500 or 600 people who are all active leaders in their own community. It needs to shift to that more grassroots, bottom-up view.”
Where can aspiring North O leaders get their start?
“Wherever you are, lead,” John Ewing says. “Whatever opportunities come, seize them. Schools, places of worship, neighborhood and elected office all offer opportunities if we see the specific opportunity.”
“They need to get in where they fit in and grow from there,” says Dell Gines, senior community development advisor, Omaha Branch at Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
Empowerment Network board member and Douglas County Health Department health educator Aja Anderson says many people lead without recognition but that doesn’t make them any less leaders.
“There are individuals on our streets, in our classrooms, everywhere, every day guiding those around them to some greater destiny or outcome,” Anderson says.
Meadows feels the community has looked too often for leadership to come from outside.
“A community needs to guide its own destiny rather than say, ‘Who’s going to come in from outside and fix this?'”
He applauds the Empowerment Network for “trying to find ways to help people become their own change agents.”
Carver Bank Interim Director JoAnna LeFlore is someone often identified as an emerging leader. She in turn looks to some of her Next Gen colleagues for inspiration.
“I’m very inspired by Brigitte McQueen, Othello Meadows and Sharif Liwaru. They all have managed to chase their dreams, advocate for the well-being of North Omaha and maintain a professional career despite all of the obstacles in their way. You have to have a certain level of hunger in North Omaha in order to survive. What follows that drive is a certain level of humility once you become successful. This is why I look up to them.”
LeFlore is emboldened to continue serving her community by the progress she sees happening.
“I see more creative entrepreneurs and businesses. I see more community-wide events celebrating our heritage. I see more financial support for redevelopment. I feel my part in this is to continue to encourage others who share interest in the growth of North Omaha. I’ve built trusting relationships with people along the way. I am intentional about my commitments because those relationships and the missions are important to me. Simply being a genuine supporter, who also gets her hands dirty, is my biggest contribution.
“Moving forward, I will make an honest effort to offer my expertise to help build communication strategies, offer consultations for grassroots marketing and event planning and be an advocate for positive change. I am also not afraid to speak up about important issues.”
If LeFlore’s a Next Gen leader, then Omaha Small Business Network Executive Director Julia Parker is, too. Parker says, “There is certainly a changing of the guard taking place throughout Omaha and North O is not an exception. Over the next several years, I hope even more young professionals will continue to take high level positions in the community. I see several young leaders picking up the mic.” She’s among the new guard between her OSBN work and the Urban Collaborative: A Commitment to Community group she co-founded that she says “focuses on fostering meaningful conversation around how we can improve our neighborhoods and the entire city.”
Parker left her hometown for a time and she says, “Leaving Omaha changed my perspective and really prompted me to come home with a more critical eye and a yearning for change.”
Like Parker, Othello Meadows left here but moved back when he discerned he could make a “meaningful” impact on a community he found beset by despair. That bleak environment is what’s led many young, gifted and black to leave here. Old-line North O leader Thomas Warren says, “I am concerned about the brain drain we experience in Omaha, particularly of our best and brightest young African-Americans students who leave. We need to create an environment that is welcoming to the next generation where they can thrive and strive to reach their full potential.” Two more entrenched leaders, John Ewing and Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers, are also worried about losing North O’s promising talents. “We have to identify, retain and develop our talent pool in Omaha,” Ewing says.
Omaha Schools Board member Yolanda Williams says leadership doors have not always been open to young transplants like herself – she’s originally from Seattle – who lack built-in influence bases.
“I had to go knock on the door and I knocked and knocked, and then I started banging on the door until my mentor John Ewing and I sat down for lunch and I asked, ‘How do younger leaders get in these positions if you all are holding these positions for years? How do I get into a leadership role if nobody is willing to get out of the way?’ They need to step out of the way so we can move up.
“It’s nothing against our elder leadership because I think they do a great job but they need to reach out and find someone to mentor and groom because if not what happens when they leave those positions?”
Ewing acknowledges “There has been and will always be tension between the generations,” but he adds, “I believe this creative tension is a great thing. It keeps the so-called established leaders from becoming complacent and keeps the emerging leaders hungry for more success as a community. I believe most of the relationships are cordial and productive as well as collaborative. I believe everyone can always do more to listen. I believe the young professional networks are a great avenue. I also believe organizations like the Empowerment Network should reach out to emerging leaders to be inclusive.”
Author, motivational speaker and The Truth Hurts director Tunette Powell says, “It’s really amazing when you get those older leaders on board because they can champion you. They’ve allowed me to speak at so many different places.” Powell senses a change afoot among veteran leaders, “They have held down these neighborhoods for so long and I think they’re slowly handing over and allowing young people to have a platform. i see that bridge.” As a young leader, she says, “it’s not like I want to step on their toes. We need this team. It’s not just going to be one leader, it’s not going to be young versus old, it’s going to be old and young coming together.”
In her own case, Yolanda Williams says she simply wouldn’t be denied, “I got tired of waiting. I was diligent, I was purpose-driven. It was very much networking and being places and getting my name out there. I mean, I was here to stay, you were not just going to get rid of me.”
LeFlore agrees more can be done to let new blood in.
“I think some established leaders are ignoring the young professionals who have potential to do more.”
Despite progress, Powell says “there are not enough young people at the table.” She believes inviting their participation is incumbent on stakeholder organizations. She would also like to see Omaha 360 or another entity develop a formal mentoring program or process for older leaders “to show us that staircase.”
Some older leaders do push younger colleagues to enter the fray.
Shawntal Smith, statewide administrator for Community Services for Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska, says Brenda Council, Willie Barney and Ben Gray are some who’ve nudged her.
“I get lots of encouragement from many inside and outside of North Omaha to serve and it is a good feeling to know people trust you to represent them. It is also a great responsibility.”
Everyone has somebody who prods them along. For Tunette Powell, it’s Center for Holistic Development President-CEO Doris Moore. For Williams, it’s treasurer John Ewing. But at the end of the day anyone who wants to lead has to make it happen. Williams, who won her school board seat in a district-wide election, says she overcame certain disadvantages and a minuscule campaign budget through “conviction and passion,” adding, “The reality is if you want to do something you’ve got to put yourself out there.” She built a coalition of parent and educator constituents working as an artist-in-residence and Partnership 4 Kids resource in schools. Before that, Williams says she made herself known by volunteering. “That started my journey.”
Powell broke through volunteering as well. “I wasn’t from here, nobody knew me, so I volunteered and it’s transformed my life,” says the San Antonio native.
“The best experience, in my opinion, is board service,” OSBN’s Julia Parker says. “Young leaders have a unique opportunity to pull back the curtain and see how an organization actually functions or doesn’t. It’s a high level way to cut your teeth in the social sector.”
JoAnna LeFlore, ©omahamagazine.com
Chris Rodgers, director of community and government relations at Creighton University, agrees: “I think small non-profits looking for active, conscientious board members are a good start. Also volunteering for causes you feel deeply about and taking on some things that stretch you are always good.”
The Urban League’s Thomas Warren says, “We have to encourage the next generation of leaders to invest in their own professional growth and take advantage of leadership development opportunities. They should attend workshops and seminars to enhance their skills or go back to school and pursue advanced degrees. Acquiring credentials ensures you are prepared when opportunities present themselves.”
Gaining experience is vital but a fire-in-the-belly is a must, too. Yolanda Williams says she was driven to serve on the school board because “I felt like I could bring a voice, especially for North Omaha, that hadn’t yet been heard at the table as a younger single parent representing the concerns and struggles of a lot of other parents. And I’m a little bit outspoken I say what I need to say unapoligitically.”
Powell says young leaders like her and Williams have the advantage of “not being far removed from the hard times the people we’re trying to reach are experiencing.” She says she and her peers are the children of the war on drugs and its cycle of broken homes. “That’s a piece of what we are, so we get it. We can reach these young people because our generation reflects theirs. I see myself in so many young people.”
Just a few years ago Powell had quit college, was on food stamps and didn’t know what to do with her life. “People pulled me up, they elevated me, and I have to give that back,” she says. In her work with fatherless girls she says “what I find is you’ve got to meet them where they’re at. As younger leaders we’re not afraid to do that, we’re not afraid to take some risks and do some things differently. We’re seeing we need something fresh. Creativity is huge. When you look at young and old leaders, we all have that same passion, we all want the same thing, but how we go about it is completely different.”
Powell says the African-American Young Professionals group begun by fellow rising young star Symone Sanders is a powerful connecting point where “dynamic people doing great things” find a common ground of interests and a forum to network. “We respect each other because we know we’re all going in that direction of change.”
Sanders, who’s worked with the Empowerment Network and is now communications assistant for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chuck Hassebrook, says AAYP is designed to give like-minded young professionals an avenue “to come together and get to know one another and to be introduced in those rooms and at those tables” where policy and program decisions get made.
Aja Anderson believes Next Gen leaders “bridge the gap,” saying, “I think this generation of leaders is going to be influential and do exceptionally well at creating unity and collaboration among community leaders and members across generations. We’re fueled with new ideas, creativity and innovation. Having this group of individuals at the table will certainly make some nervous, others excited and re-ignite passion and ideas in our established group.”
County treasure John Ewing sees the benefit of new approaches. “I believe our emerging leaders have an entrepreneurial spirit that will be helpful in building an African-American business class in Omaha.”
While Williams sees things “opening up,” she says, “I think a lot of potential leaders have left here because that opportunity isn’t as open as it should be.”
Enough are staying to make a difference.
“It’s exciting to see people I’ve known a long time staying committed to where we grew up,” 75 North’s Othello Meadows says. “It’s good to see other people who at least for awhile are going to play their role and do their part.”
Shawntal Smith of Lutheran Family Services is bullish on the Next Gen.
“We are starting to come into our own. We are being appointed to boards and accepting high level positions of influence in our companies, firms, agencies and churches. We are highly educated and we are fighting the brain drain that usually takes place when young, gifted minorities leave this city for more diverse cities with better opportunities. We are remaining loyal to Omaha and we are trying to make it better through our visible efforts in the community.
“People are starting to recognize we are dedicated and our opinions, ideas and leadership matter.”
Old and young leaders feel more blacks are needed in policymaking capacities. Rodgers and Anderson are eager to see more representation in legislative chambers and corporate board rooms.
Warren says, “I do feel there needs to be more opportunities in the private sector for emerging leaders who are indigenous to this community.” He feels corporations should do more to identify and develop homegrown talent who are then more likely to stay.
Shawntal Smith describes an added benefit of locally grown leaders.
“North Omahans respect a young professional who grew up in North Omaha and continues to reside in North Omaha and contribute to making it better. Both my husband and I live, shop, work, volunteer and attend church in North Omaha. We believe strongly in the resiliency of our community and we love being a positive addition to North Omaha and leaders for our sons and others to model.”
With leadership comes scrutiny and criticism.
“You have to be willing to take a risk and nobody succeeds without failure along the way to grow from,” Rodgers says. “If you fail, fail quick and recover. Learn from the mistake and don’t make the same mistakes. You have to be comfortable with the fact that not everybody will like you.”
Tunette Powell isn’t afraid to stumble because like her Next Gen peers she’s too busy getting things done.
“As Maya Angelou said, ‘Nothing will work unless you do,’ I want people to say about me, ‘She gave everything she had.'”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.