Gina Ponce has a passion for helping girls and women reach their potential because people helped her find her her own best self. She leads an annual event called the Women On a Mission for Change Conference that is designed to empower women and girls to achieve goals in core quality of life areas. This year’s all-day conference is Friday, March 13 at UNO’s Community Engagement Center. Read my El Perico story about Gina and her event and some of the participants it’s helped. The story includes contact information for registration.
Gina Ponce Leads Women On a Mission for Change Conference
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
When Gina Ponce meets first-time participants of her Women on a Mission for Change Conference she sees herself 15 years ago. Ponce was then-executive director of the local Chicano Awareness Center (now Latino Center of the Midlands). The single mom was making it but didn’t see much more ahead educationally or professionally.
Then an opportunity came her way. She didn’t think she was up to it at first. But Ponce followed some advice and trusted herself to go back to school for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. That added education anchored a 10-year work career at Bellevue University. “It was the best thing I could have ever domn,” says Ponce, who then moved into her current job as Salvation Army Kroc Center education and arts director.
She says the annual conference, which this year is March 13 at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Community Engagement Center, is for all women but particularly aimed at those stuck in life, unsure how to reach their potential.
“The women I’m serving have slipped through the cracks. Maybe they went to college and didn’t finish after getting married or having kids. Some are in relationships where they get emotionally, mentally beat down. These women may be in that stagnant part of their life where they don’t know which way to go. We talk to them about going back to get their degree and how important that is to moving forward.
“Some may be senior citizens who still have the ability to do something else after retirement. We empower them to believe that just because you’re retired doesn’t mean you have to sit home and do nothing. You can go out and get a job or volunteer or go back to school.”
At the event motivational speakers accomplished in various fields address five pillars of self-improvement: change, health, applied life skills, nutrition, growing your spirituality and education. There’s also a meet-and-greet and a luncheon.
“Through this conference women have the opportunity to talk to professionals who are great at telling them the importance of having all these things in their life,” she says.
The event also has a girls component that includes a mentoring program, Women Influencing Girls. Separate speakers present to women and girls. Networking and mentoring opportunities abound. Ponce wants to light a fire under participants to stop settling, start dreaming and pursue goals.
“I hope they take away being motivated to become whatever they want to be. I want them to really walk out of there saying, ‘I can do this and I’m going to do it,’ and to really stay focused and motivated to get a degree, change their job, improve their diet and health, whatever it is. I want women to know they can have a family and still get an education and have a career. I know, because I did it.”
Ten years ago Bellevue University officials asked Ponce to help fill the position of South Omaha outreach coordinator. After searching, officials told Ponce they wanted her. Afraid her two-year associate’s degree wouldn’t make the grade, Bellevue agreed to pay her way through school if she took the job. She wavered until she walked out on faith and believed in herself.
“I was scared. I had been out of school 25 years. I had all those feelings of, Oh my God, can I do this, how am I going to balance this with working and raising kids? All that stuff, But I didn’t let it get in my way. It was an incredible opportunity given to me. Yeah, it was a big strain, but it was worth everything I went through.”
Ponce wants conference participants to believe in themselves and take positive steps to aspire higher and live deeper.
“I want them to do it now. It doesn’t matter whether you’re married and have kids or whatever, just do it. This is something you’re going to do just for yourself.”
Conference veteran Judy Franklin is sold on Ponce and the event.
“When we met I was going through a time in my life where I knew I needed more and needed to expand my horizons, and Gina said, ‘I know exactly where you’re at – come to the conference.’ I did,” Franklin says, “and it really let me look at myself to see the potential in me and what I can do. She really took me under her wing to become a mentor with no strings attached. She just wanted to see me be successful in my work, my family, my relationships.”
Franklin says the conference exposes her to “powerful women doing the things I desire to do,” adding, “I get some good insights. It’s not just a conference, it’s your life as you go forward in your calling to find what you have to do. It’s a very empowering thing.”
She says Ponce has a heart for helping people tap their best selves.
“She’s just all about getting us to where we need to be. She opens up so many doors for me, for other women and for young girls and then it’s for to us to step through.”
Franklin, a state social security district manager, has done some serious stepping. She credits the conference and Ponce with “having a lot to do with me getting the job I’m in now.”
Alisa Parmer has come a long way, too. Parmer was a single mom and an ex-felon when her transformation began 10 years ago.
“I found myself being identified as a leader and a change agent with my employer, Kaplan University. I was a college graduate with a variety of degrees and letters after my name. I was giving back to the community. But I was caught up with working for others – attempting to balance family, career and a variety of roles.”
That’s when she came to the conference, whose board she now serves on.
“It gave me the first opportunity to share my story to empower women, to be empowered, to network and develop life-changing relationships with women in the community whose lives mirror pieces of mine or where I strive to be. The conference is a life-changing experience, Ms. Gina (Ponce) does not settle for anything less for each attendee.”
That holds for girl attendees as well. Judy Franklin says her daughter Abrianna, who earned the conference’s first academic scholarship, and other girls learn goal setting and leadership skills and do job shadowing. “It’s amazing to watch how she grew in a short time.”
When Ponce meets conference veterans like Judy or Alisa she sees her empowered self in them. It’s all very personal for Ponce, who feels obligated to give other women what she’s been given.
“I’m at a place in my life where I want to do it for others. I want to see more motivated women be successful and do the things I know they can do,. They just need somebody to tell them that.”
She believes so strongly in paying-it-forward that she underwrote much of the conference herself, along with sponsors, when she launched it five years ago. She’s since obtained nonprofit status to receive grants. But she feels she’s only just getting started.
“When I retire I’m doing this full-time and I’m going to make it bigger.”
The 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. conference is $40 for adults, $25 for students and $10 for girls 14 to 17 years old.
For registration and schedule details, visit womenonamissionomaha.org or call 402-403-9621.
There was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed Omaha was hell-bent on tearing down its history. All manner of historic structures were razed: the old United States Post Office ; the Fontenelle Hotel, a huge tract of warehouses in Jobber’s Canyon, the Medical Arts Building. Thank God more jewels were saved than lost: the Old Market district; the Orpheum Theatre, the Rose Theater; Union Station, Burlington Station, the Brandeis Building, Joslyn Castle, the Storz Mansion, the Mastercraft, Omar Bakery, the Livestock Exchange Building, St. Cecilia Cathedral and many more that have been protected, renovated, and repurposed. Some of those survived narrowly escaped being razed. It took agitation, activism, vision, and purpose by determined people to save some if not all of those treasures. The tension between new development and historic preservation continues, as witnessed by the recent loss of the apartment buildings just east of Midtown Crossing and the Johnson & Johnson Mortuary on South 10th Street. One of the most signifcant saves was Union Station ,which today goes by the name Durham Museum to reflect its adapted reuse as a museum charting Omaha’s and the nation’s history. My new story about the Durham for Metro Magazine (/www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) explains how that building has now reached the same number of years, 40, in its role as a museum that it served as a passenger rail station for Union Pacific Railroad. It is one of those grand structures, certainly by Omaha terms, that never fails to mesmerize and impress me by its sheer size and grandeur. My eyes automatically fix on the far upper reaches of that proletarian palace. I never met or caught a train there, but I recently had the privilege of delivering a lecture there and I hope to have the opportunity to do so again in the near future.
It’s not often a grand public space celebrates a dual legacy with a shared milestone of service. From 1931 to 1971 millions of rail passengers passed through. Starting in 1975 the old Union Station became a cultural-historical venue that millions more have visited.
Much like the history it celebrates, Durham Museum was not built in a day. Neither was its home, Union Station. Union Pacific began construction on it in 1929, the year the Stock Market Crash triggered the Great Depression. The Gilbert Stanley Underwood-designed structure opened in 1931, the year when a congressional resolution officially made the “Star Spangled Banner” America’s national anthem.
As soon as Union Station closed in 1971 the site’s future lay in doubt. Its survival looked bleak the longer it sat abandoned and untended. Even after UP donated the place to the City of Omaha in 1973, most officials regarded it as a burden or albatross, not a gift. Many called for the “eyesore” to be torn down. Enter a group of preservationist-minded private citizens who formed the Western Heritage Society as a vehicle for reopening the former train station as a museum. If not for their efforts this monument to Omaha’s vigor may have gone the way of other historic buildings that got razed rather than saved.
Originally known as the Western Heritage Museum, the institution was resource-poor its first two decades yet managed to give new life to the old digs that had seen far better days. Most importantly it built a formidable body of artifacts related to early Omaha, including the Byron Reed Collection of rare coins and documents and the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection of late 19th century-early 20th century photographs. It also originated events, such as Christmas at Union Station, that became community traditions.
Durham executive director Christi Janssen admires the vision and fortitude of those angels, including Itey Crummer, Emi Baker and Ron Hunter, who made the old train station a museum.
“Their challenges were way different than our challenges today,” she says. “They were really fighting hard to raise money to turn the lights on essentially.”
Then, in the mid-1990s, the struggling museum that long postponed much-needed renovations and improvements for lack of funds was gifted with tens of millions of dollars through a Heritage Services drive. That campaign also brought the museum one of its greatest champions, the late Charles W. “Chuck” Durham, who grew HDR Inc. into a national engineering firm and became a major philanthropist.”Fortunately, Chuck Durham showed up with a keen architectural and engineering instinct. Walking into this Union Station Chuck could see beyond the collapsing roof, the peeling paint and the tarnished light fixtures and envision its magnificence with the right amount of money and the best of architecture and construction firms,” recalls Heritage Services President Sue Morris.
As an active museum board member Durham committed himself to helping it reach its potential and restoring the building to its former glory. His children note their father saw great value in the work the museum did and in the history the building represented.
Daughter Sunny Lundgren says, “He thought this is Omaha’s history and we need to preserve it and so the first thing he did was give money to this place and then he started knocking on doors and saying, ‘Do you know what an important building this is? It’s part of Omaha, we need to restore it.'”
“He led the charge in raising dollars from community leaders who responded generously,” daughter Lynne Boyer adds.
Among those Durham reeled in was then-Kiewit Corporation CEO Walter Scott. His support was recognized when the museum’s most iconic space was renamed the Suzanne and Walter Scott Great Hall.
“The building and I have something in common. We were both ‘born’ in 1931,” Scott says. “Many years later it was Chuck Durham who introduced me to its role as a museum. He convinced me to help him establish the museum’s relationships with the Smithsonian, Library of Congress and National Archives. Chuck had a vision for what the Durham Museum could become, and I think he’d be pleased to see the board and staff have realized a good part of his vision.”
Sue Morris says Durham was persuasive enough that the Heritage Services-directed campaign raised more than $30 million for the museum. The funds underwrote a major 1996 project that entailed constructing a new parking deck, installing a new roof as well as new mechanical and electrical systems and creating new office spaces, classrooms and permanent exhibits. The Great Hall was repainted and restored and interactive sculptures added. A 22,000 square foot addition was built over Track #1.
In recognition of Durham’s efforts, the museum was renamed in his honor in 1997 as part of a general rebranding.”It’s always been centered on Omaha’s history and western heritage,” Janssen says, “but as the museum has evolved we have aspired to be much more than that. We want to be a gathering place. The events we host are a great way to celebrate traditions. Beyond Omaha’s history and its western heritage our mission is to share the nation’s story. We are a significant piece of that. We mirror the national story in terms of rail travel and the industry that built this community. So we have broadened our scope quite a bit over the years. Thus, we’ve been able to tap into a new audience.”
Janssen says “a very strong education focus now takes front and center,” adding, “We get into school classrooms, we host school field trips and summer camps down here, we offer a scholars in residence education series that is much sought after.” The museum does special programming around various history months, such as Black History Month (February), Women’s History Month (March), Jazz Appreciation Month (April), National Hispanic Heritage Month (September) and Native American Heritage Month (November).
The lecture hall is fully outfitted for distance learning. Presentations made there are regularly fed to classrooms, community centers and other sites around the nation. A mobile video camera unit allows educators to focus on various architectural details of the Great Hall, for example, as part of distance learning history curriculum.
“We continue to look for ways to engage people and to make the museum a presence wherever we can,” Janssen says. “We want people to realize it’s not just about the permanent and traveling exhibits, it’s about lectures, films, concerts, the Ethnic Holiday Festival, Christmas at Union Station, the authentic soda fountain and more.”
As the building transformed from dusty relic to gleaming palace once again and the museum grew its programming, attendance increased. In the first decade of the new millennium Chuck Durham contributed a generous match to new philanthropic gifts that funded several more infrastructure needs and the building of the Stanley and Dorothy Truhlsen Lecture Hall.
“But I think the thing that continues to get people excited about the museum is that everyone leaves with an appreciation for the history and the experience they find here. We are a repository of stories and we share those stories through our artifacts and our programs. We have been able to capture and retell those stories, and again this building speaks louder than words.”
With the museum’s finances stabilized and the institution becoming an affiliate of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution (in 2002), whose popular traveling exhibits show there, Durham was pleased by how far things had progressed and how bright the future looked.
“My father enjoyed watching the museum come alive with outstanding programs and exhibits which attracted large numbers of visitors from all over the city, state and country,” Boyer says. “It gave him a sense of great satisfaction to know the museum would continue to educate and entertain visitors of all ages for generations to come.”
Right up until his death in 2008 Durham, then wheel-chair bound, made a point of visiting the museum as often as he could.
“He enjoyed coming to the museum,” Janssen says. “Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that we had ice cream. He appreciated the opportunity to visit the soda fountain. He loved to eat a sundae.”
The Durham family remains involved. Lundgren formed the museum’s guild and served as its president one year. She supports various education efforts there and still volunteers at events. She says her family’s Christmas is not complete without visiting the museum.
Boyer enjoys taking her grandchildren there, saying, “When I visit the museum with them I view it through their eyes and gain an even greater appreciation for all it has to offer. It is an educational gem.”
Janssen says the Durham could not have blossomed without the generous support of individual members, families, corporations and foundations or without the committed work of board members, docents, volunteers and staff. She says the museum has been fortunate to have both good leadership and stewardship.
The Durham has become a major attraction – welcoming a record 204,000 visitors in 2013 and on pace to record a similar number in 2014. Its household membership base is over 7,000.
New directions and neighbors
That kind of support, she says, “just changes the way we can do business.” There’s no time to rest on laurels. “Our job is always to take it one step further,” Janssen says. “A big focus going forward is incorporating technology into the experience, both in digitizing our photo archive and in making our gallery exhibits more interactive.”
After years of being an outlier the Durham’s poised to be one of many anchor attractions along a revived South 10th Street. It can partner with such new neighbors as the House of Loom, the resurgent Little Italy district, KETV, which is moving into the restored Burlington Station, the new Blue Barn Theater and the coming Omaha Public Market. That’s in addition to North Downtown, the Capital District, the Old Market, Lauritzen Gardens and the Henry Doorly Zoo.
All of it, she says, speaks to “a new vibrancy” in the area. “It’s not just about us anymore. It’s about everybody around us. We can do so much more if we do it together and we become a destination corridor.”
Follow the 2015 anniversary events at durhammuseum.org.
Somehow I missed it, but for years now my alma mater the University of Nebraska at Omaha has been making itself a national leader in local community engagement efforts and service learning projects. In doing this story for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) about the still new UNO Community Engagement Center I was properly schooled on just how deeply interwoven the university is in the community. Just in the few months since filing this piece I’ve found myself drawn to that center for a variety of events.
Better together: UNO Community Engagement Center a place for conversations and partnerships
Collaboration the hallmark of new university facility
Center in line with UNO’s metropolitan university mission
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the February/March/April 2015 edition of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
Since opening last March the Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center at UNO has surpassed expectations in its role as a bridge between the university and the community.
“We knew it was going to be a benefit to the community,” CEC director Sara Woods says, “we just didn’t anticipate how much use it was going to get and how many organizations were going to take as much advantage of it as they have.”
In its first eight months alone the two-story, 60,000 square foot building located in the middle of the Dodge Street campus recorded 23,000 visits and hosted 1,100 events. The $24 million structure was paid for entirely by private funds. It’s namesake, Barbara Weitz, is a retired UNO School of Social Work faculty member. She and her husband, Wally Weitz, are longtime supporters of UNO’s service learning programs. The Weitz Family Foundation made the CEC’s lead gift.
As an outreach hub where the University of Nebraska at Omaha and nonprofits meet, the center welcomes users coming for meetings, projects and activities. Interaction unfolds transparently. Conference rooms have windows that allow participants look out and passersby look in. The glass-fronted facade offers scenic views of the campus and lets in ample sunlight. A central atrium creates an open, airy interior whose enclosed and commons areas invite interaction.
“This is a very public place and we want to keep it that way.” Woods says.
She, along with UNO colleagues, students and community stakeholders, worked closely with Holland Basham Architects to envision a collaborative environment that, she says, “feels different than any other campus building and offers incredible flexibility.” Project designer Todd Moeller says, “Spaces were intentionally arranged so that users would be prompted to utilize several parts of the building, thus increasing the opportunity for the spontaneous meeting.”
Artwork by several community artists adorns the walls. UNO junior art major Hugo Zamorano joined community artists in creating a 120-foot mural in the center’s parking garage.
Zamorano is a former tagger who found a positive outlet for his graffiti at the Kent Bellows Mentoring Program, under whose supervision he worked on several community murals. Now a mentor for the program, he joined two other artist mentors and three high school artists in creating the CEC mural symbolizing community engagement after input from UNO and community leaders.
Diverse partners and spaces
Woods says the collaboration that went into the mural project mirrors the CECs intended purpose to “be a place where people gather, plan, collaborate to find ways to solve problems.” She says that’s exactly what’s happening, too. “People are holding workshops and meetings and conferences around critical community issues and these things are happening very organically, without any orchestration. We’re excited about the extent of use of it and the range of organizations using it. We’re excited about the debates, the dialogues, the forums.”
Nineteen entities – 11 nonprofits and eight university-based organizations – officed there last fall. Among the nonprofits are the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and Inclusive Communities. Signature UNO engagement efforts housed there include the Service Learning Academy and the Office of Civic and Social Responsibility. All have different focuses but each is in line with serving the common good.
“They all work side by side in this great collaborative environment we created,” Woods says. “Those organizations are thriving here with us. They’re great ambassadors. They take advantage of our volunteers, our interns, our graduate assistants, our service learning classes. They have students work on special projects for them.”
Service Learning Academy director Paul Sather and Office of Civic and Social Responsibility director Kathe Oelson Lyons report new partnerships resulting from the ease of collaboration the CEC fosters.
“I mean, you just walk down the hall to have conversations with people,” Sather says and new partnerships get formed.
Building namesake Barbara Weitz, who serves on many community boards, says the sheer variety and number of organizations that office or meet there means connections that might otherwise not happen occur.
“People engage in conversation and find they have common interests. There’s just so many possibilities. The communication just starts to ripple and in a way that’s easy for everybody and in an environment that encourages collaboration and creativity.”
She says many small organizations lack space of their own for meetings and the CEC, whose meeting rooms are free for nonprofits meeting certain criteria, provides a valuable central spot for confabs. Those rooms come in a range of sizes and are state-of-the-art.
Among the CEC’s many engaging spaces, the Union Pacific Atrium, honors the legacy of Jessica Lutton Bedient, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate and UNL Foundation employee who devoted her short life to volunteering.
Nine additional organizations were slated to move in over the semester break. In a few years the current roster of community tenants will have moved out and a new group taken their place. Whoever’s there the center will continue being a funnel for community needs and a tangible expression of UNO’s metropolitan mission to respond to those needs.
Fulfilling a larger community mission
“A metropolitan university has an obligation and commitment to serving its urban community and we do that through purposely applying our student, faculty and staff resources through teaching, service and applied research,’ Woods says. “It’s reciprocal in that way. We don’t just treat the city as a laboratory, although we want to learn from it and gain knowledge from it, but we try to do work that benefits the community as opposed to being in an ivory tower where the university exists within a metropolitan area but doesn’t necessarily give back.
“We really see ourselves as a thriving part of the metropolitan community and because of that we have an obligation to contribute to it. That’s our metropolitan mission. Not only is it part of our DNA we believe urban universities like ours are going to become more and more important going forward.”
She says the ever enhanced reputation UNO enjoys in its hometown is a direct result of the university “connecting to our community and showing the value we offer our citizens in so many ways and you see a lot of these things come together in this building.”
Woods says UNO’s engagement legacy is strong and ever growing.
“There’s a sea change taking place in faculty seeing engagement, whether through their research or teaching or service, as a natural part of what they do. This campus allows that to happen. A lot of physical, student and faculty capital is going towards that. It’s wonderful watching it grow. The CEC is one giant mechanism to promote engagement throughout this campus. We hope to support, encourage and promote engagement wherever it takes place at UNO.”
She says the center is “the only stand-alone comprehensive engagement-focused facility of its kind in the United States,” adding, “We’re very unique and we’re getting a lot of national attention.” Because access is everything the center’s easily found just south of the landmark bell tower and has its own designated parking.
Service learning projects and volunteering opportunities connect students to community
Being intentional about engagement means that not only UNO faculty and staff connect with community at the center, so too do students, who use the CEC to find service projects and positions in the metro.
“We know those co-curricular experiences are really helpful in building a student’s professional portfolio,” Woods says. “If we can engage students as volunteers or inservice they are more likely to do well in school, to be retained, to graduate, to get a good job in a profession. When they are successfully employed they are more likely to be engaged in their community. We know that’s even more the case for first generation students and students of color.”
UNO annually offers more than 100 service learning courses across academic disciplines. In service learning projects UNO students gain experiential opportunities to apply classroom lessons to real-life nonprofits and neighborhoods. UNO students work collaboratively with K-12 students on projects. Some projects are long-standing, such as one between UNO gerontology students and seniors at the Adams Park Community Center. Other projects are nationally recognized, such as the aquaponics program at King Science Center, where UNO biology and chemistry students and urban farmer Greg Fripp teach kids to build and maintain sustainable systems for growing food.
A new project recently found UNO political science students partnering with the Northwest High School student council on the No Place to Hate dialogue process taught by the Anti-Defamation League’s Plains States Region. The ADL invited 100-plus students from nine high schools to the CEC for a discussion facilitated by UNO-ADL. In small groups participants shared views on bullying and racial attitudes and strategies to increase understanding and compassion.
“It’s very much integrated learning where you take learning and combine it with the needs of a nonprofit or a neighborhood or a community organization,” Woods says. “Part of students’ academic credit is earned working with a partner organization.”
Students find other service avenues through the Office of Civic and Social Responsibility (CSR), whose the Volunteer Connection and the Collaborative pair students with organizations’ short term and long-term needs, respectively. Woods says these service opportunities are designed to “put more meaning into students’ volunteer experiences” by putting them into leadership positions. In the Collaborative UNO students serve as project managers for a year with the nonprofits they’re matched with, giving students resume-enhancing experiences that assist organizations in completing projects or events.
CSR director Kathe Oelson Lyons says, “Corporations are more and more seeking employees who are willing to engage in the community. We know service enriches students’ educational experience and that stimulates success in academics and in the soft skills of learning how to interact with others and gaining an awareness of the greater community. We know our students will leave with a rich set of skills transferable to any work environment upon graduation.”
“Service is a great open door,” Lyons says. “Anybody can do it and everybody is welcome. It allows for access to all and that’s a wonderful leveler for community and university. When you have students out in a neighborhood rehabbing a home they’re interacting with neighbors, who see that these students aren’t so different from me. It’s a great equalizer. Students learn a great deal from the community, too. They learn more about what the needs are, what’s happening in areas of the community they’d never entered before.”
Lighting the way
As a conduit or liaison for community collaboration, Lyons says the center “isn’t the end point, it’s the connecting point – we still need to be out in the community” (beckoning-reaching out). “That’s the power of the building. It’s kind of a beacon. It always feels like to me it’s the lighthouse and it shines the light both ways. It’s a reflection of who the university is and the university is a reflection of who the community is.
“What a wonderful symbol of a metropolitan university – to be a lighthouse of stewardship and scholarship.”
Donor Barbara Weitz was turned on to the power of service learning as a UNO faculty member. She and her philanthropic family regularly see the benefit of engagement on the social justice causes they support. Weitz sees the UNO Community Engagement Center as the culmination of what UNO’s long been cultivating.
“For me it’s the embodiment of what everyone’s been working towards at UNO, including the chancellor. This idea that we’re a metropolitan university set in the middle of a community with rich resources but also huge needs. The fact that we can a have a place where we come together and through a variety of methods, not just service learning, and meet and talk about what we’re working, compare it with what other people are working on, and find ways to partner.
“It’s all about bringing people together to create the kind of energy it takes to make big change in a metropolitan area. It’s the kind of vital space that’s needed on a college campus.”
Connect with the CEC at http://www.unomaha.edu/community-engagement-center.
Culinary artist Jim Trebbien: Lifelong love affair with food led to distinguished culinary arts education career at Metropolitan Community College
Jim Trebbien is one of those good-natured personalities you meet in the course of a working life who remind you that nice guys can finish on top. He’s had plenty of success as an executive chef and as the leader who grew Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts in every way possible. Under his reign ICA made great strides in terms of academics, facilties, student enrollment, and industry perception. He faced many challenges trying to elevate the fledgling program he took over in 1985 into a full-fledged institute. But as he retires this spring he leaves knowing he established it as a nationally respected and relevant institute. It took lobbying, pleading, strategizing, and good-old fashioned hard work. The educator and entrepreneur is still an integral part of Omaha’s maturing culinary scene through his Chef Squared and Omaha Culinary Tours businesses.
Culinary artist Jim Trebbien: Lifelong love affair with food led to distinguished culinary arts education career at Metropolitan Community College
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the March 2015 issue of New Horizons
Food for life As Jim Trebbien retires from heading Metropolitan Community College’s well-regarded Institute for Culinary Arts, which he was instrumental in building, he leaves with the satisfaction of a job well done. That job was 35 years in the making. Fifty-two years counting the time he put in learning the culinary trade before joining Metro.
He began teaching in the then-fledgling program in 1980 and became its director in 1985. He brought years of experience on the line, working at iconic spots and training under demanding chefs. He brought considerable food management experience at institutions. He gained some of his chops as a U.S. Army cook.
At Metro Trebbien transformed a struggling program, growing it from a few dozen students to 700-plus, boosting its reputation and overseeing a major facilities upgrade. It was all capped by the construction of the $16 million Institute for Culinary Arts building. As soon as the glass-enclosed, state-of-the-art structure opened in 2009 it became the crown jewel and gateway of Metro’s Fort Omaha campus. Along the way, he and his staff put in prodigious time and effort to create a top-notch program that now owns the respect of prospective and current students as well as graduates and food service professionals.
“I feel really good about what’s been accomplished here,” Trebbien says. “I feel real good this is a name brand school that people come to from many miles away and from many states to attend. I feel good that people get a fantastic education here.”
For Trebbien, a 67-year-old father of three and grandfather of five, his passion for food has always been about making people happy. “Food is what gets people to talk around a table and to forget their troubles.” He says this idea of giving people a pleasurable experience over breaking bread is one he tried imparting to instructors and students.
“It’s not just about what happens at the stove, although flavorful food is really memorable. It’s the expectation of having good food that fits the occasion and it’s people sitting at a table, getting involved in that food, and talking. It’s all the conversation that goes on people remember.”
He says it’s no accident many religions connote paradise with a banquet. He grew up in homes with the image of “The Last Supper” hanging on walls.
For the cook who makes a banquet feast, he says, “it’s a high that gets repeated time after time after time.” The high comes just as surely for a home cook satisfying family and friends as it does for a chef pleasing paying customers. It’s all about doing a job well by serving people.
A work ethic was instilled in Trebbien growing up on an Iowa farm in the 1950s and 1960s. He recalls his father as “a complete farmer” who raised livestock and row crops, supplying homegrown meat, dairy and produce for family meals. The home cooking Trebbien’s mother and grandmother did with fresh, off-their-own-farm ingredients gave him an early appreciation for how good food is prepared and presented. The free-range chicken his mom pan fried still can’t be beat.
“You know what it was? Mom knew how to pan fry that chicken and dad raised that chicken and just the last week or so of its life he would feed it corn and that corn would put so much flavor in that chicken.”
Thus, long before the farm-to-table movement became fashionable with today’s foodies and restauranteurs, Trebbien lived it. He grew up knowing there’s no substitute for fresh, local food made with love. It’s something he championed at Metro, where the culinary and horticulture programs are closely aligned and the Sage Student Bistro serves seasonal-based menus utilizing the best local ingredients grown by Metro and area small producers.
“I always looked forward to Sunday dinner because that’s when we went to Grandma Winnie’s after church. She’d always had really good food – better food than you could get at your friend’s house.”
He’s practically rhapsodic about his mother’s potato salad. Her recipe, as with most of her dishes, isn’t written down anywhere. Trebbien, the formally-trained chef, finally found the secret but still can’t duplicate it.
“Nobody can make potato salad like my mom,” whom he calls the consummate cook. “I’ve even stood next to her while she made it to try and do everything she did. When she saw me cooling down the potatoes before adding the dressing, she said, ‘You ought to mix in the mayonnaise while they’re warm yet – just don’t stir them too much or you’ll have mashed potatoes.’ Instead of high-priced mustard she put in prepared mustard, which I consider yucky, but damn if that wasn’t what gave it that kick that made it good. Mom’s 89 years old and she still does a great job. She’s just got this understanding of flavors.”
Amateur or professional, he says good cooks share a knack for developing pleasing flavor profiles. It comes from experience and instinct but it’s all about love – for food and people. That kind of care will always translate into a good dish that makes a good meal.
“I think anybody’s who got a heart to do it can do it with enough practice and time.”
Cooking requires skill that’s part art and craft and gets better the more it’s applied. Learning the right techniques is where culinary training comes in. Where technique leaves off, inspiration takes over.
“I think it goes back to education,” says Trebbien, noting “everybody” in Metro’s culinary program is “classically trained. We’re trained on the cooking methods and on the ingredients. For example, everybody knows how to sauté, when to add the milk to something to make a hollandaise sauce. But most chefs in most kitchens don’t have recipes. The only time you have a recipe is if you’re working for a corporate kitchen and you want that goulash to taste the same every time because people come to expect it. The same holds true for every franchise restaurant and place like that.
“But if you go to most fine dining restaurants you don’t necessarily expect it to taste exactly the same. It probably does because the chef’s back there anyway but maybe the chef has some fresh ingredient that just came in that day and so he’s going to use it a little bit.”
The addition of a new ingredient or the subtraction of an old one, the application of more or less seasoning, perhaps varying with the mood or whim of the chef that day, is bound to affect the flavor.
All these factors and many more enter into the equation of what makes food stand out enough to get people talking and coming back. The pursuit of that happiness is what’s driven Trebbien his whole career.
Though it took him a while to recognize it, he found his calling at 15, when he first worked in a commercial kitchen.
“I didn’t know it at the time, I really didn’t,” he says. “Even when you find your passion you don’t even know it’s your passion, you just show up for work every day and laugh hard.”
Earning his chops, paying his dues For that first food service job he made onion rings and malts at Rick’s Drive-In in Milford, Iowa near Lake Okoboji, where much of his early food apprenticeship played out. Even way back then, he was “intrigued” by what made people happy or dissatisfied customers.
He went from that dive to the fancy Highpoint Hacienda, where he learned to make a good steak. He worked at Boys Town’a summer camp at Okoboji. “That’s where I met the famous chef Pierre (Bossant).” Trwbbien says he learned culinary basics from the classically-trained French chef who taught him no matter who you cook for and what you make, “you should make it the best tasting you can.”
After graduating high school in the mid-1960s Trebbien let himself be talked into being a college math major, first at the University of Northern Iowa and then at Mankato (Minn.) State. He wasn’t sure what else to study. He was in college as much to avoid the military draft as anything. But Uncle Sam caught up with him and in 1969 this former anti-war protestor found himself in basic training. His kitchen background landed him cooking duty at the Army stockade in Fort Lewis, Washington. Hearing the stories of men who’d been in Vietnam but were now behind bars for violating Army rules, he began feeling “a sissy or a chicken for not wanting to go over there.” So he volunteered for Vietnam, twice, but was denied and assigned to Korea instead.
Bergan Mercy Hospital
With his two years up he came back home. He returned to the only work he knew besides farming (though by his admission he never was much of a farmer): food service. He was the assistant school dining hall manager at Boys Town, where he soon realized he was stuck in “a dead-end job,” saying, “I loved the people there and it was fascinating being around the boys, but I had to get out.” He saw an ad in the paper for a “night chef” at the Holiday Inn Central and applied despite warnings from colleagues he didn’t have the temperament to last under the tough executive chef there, Paul Goebel.
“I was a little scared when I went there, thinking, ‘What could this guy be like?’ The first night I report to his office he said, ‘I think you’re late.’ Well, he was late. He introduced me to his head sous chef, Ed Butterfield. ‘This is your new night cook.’ Well, I thought the title was night chef. Then he said to me, ‘I understand you won’t need a lot of training and that you’ve run a burner before. I said, ‘Definitely, where is the burner?’ and he said, ‘You’re looking at it.’ I didn’t even know where it was. I thought, Oh crap, I am really in trouble here. I didn’t know how stupid I was. Goebel yelled at me and after he left Ed said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’ll be a good chef around here in no time.'”
Trebbien says the saving grace was, “I knew i could work hard, so I just worked hard and I got the system down.”
Goebel never became easy to work for but his perfectionism helped raise Trebbien’s own standards.
“Paul was always intimidating. There was one way of doing stuff and it was Paul’s way. But I kept in contact with that man over the years. Then I hired him to work for me out here (Metro). People that knew me and knew him asked, ‘Jim, did you hire Paul to get a little revenge?’ and I said, ‘Not at all, I treated him like my dad, I treated him with love and respect.’ People wondered why since he’d been so mean to me before – because Paul taught me an awful lot. He was so demanding that you figured out how to do it before he’d get there because you wanted to do it right and please him. I love the guy.”
While at the Holiday Inn Trebbien hired Danny Hunter, one of the first grads of the MCC culinary program, which started in 1974. “He was pretty good and so I thought, Well, maybe there’s something to it, so I came out here, met some people and started taking classes. I thought if I’m going to be in the industry I should get some training.” He was soon asked to serve on the advisory committee.
By the mid-1970s he dedicated himself to a food service career. He boosted his credentials earning an associate degree in Culinary Arts and Management and later being named a Certified Culinary Educator by the American Culinary Foundation (ACF). Many awards followed.
But when he broke the news to his family he was going to cook for a living not everyone rejoiced.
“When I told my grandma Winnie I was going to be a cook she cried.
She was totally disappointed. The images of cooks then was Mel’s Diner – short-order cooks in greasy spoons.”
Metro’s culinary program had a similarly negative reputation its first two decades, Trebbien didn’t know how poor it was until he tried attracting students and teachers. Before he took over there he worked at three Omaha institutions. The first was the Union Stockyards, where he ran the Livestock Exchange Building dining room.
“That was a booming place,” he says of the stockyards, “though I didn’t see the terribly booming years – I was right at the tail end of that.”
The dining room specialized in short ribs, minute steaks, hamburgers and an item featuring seasoned, battered and deep-fried calves’ testicles. “I didn’t know about Rocky Mountain Oysters until one of the guys out in the pens brought this bucket in and said, ‘Make that.'” The acquired taste delicacy was washed down with copious alcohol. Trebbien recalls, “Oh, God, people used to have good times down there. These farmers and ranchers would come in and they’d work so hard to get their livestock in there and either they were happy to get the price or not, and they’d have a drink or two or three and eat some good food. They’d have a great time. When they were through they’d maybe go to one of the restaurants or bars in South Omaha.”
When the dining room closed he went to work as food and beverage director at the gilded J.L Brandeis & Sons flagship department store, whose wide dining choices included a buffet-style cafeteria, diner-like counter service, a hot dog stand and the fancy Tea Room.
“I loved working at the downtown department store and the coolness of all that. A year and a day after I started my boss called me in his office and said, ‘Jim, we’re going to close this store. We can send you to Des Moines to work there.’ I didn’t want to move.”
And so the intrepid Trebbien adjusted his chef’s hat once again and reluctantly took the job of executive chef and production manager at Began Mercy Medical Center. The pay was much better than he’d been making but he didn’t like the bland, often subpar food that hospital and others settled for in appeasing dietary restrictions.
“God, it was so boring. You could work so hard and we did making the food better but the cooks, who had all been there a long time, all had reasons for why you couldn’t do certain things to enhance flavor.”
He pushed the staff.
“It was really hard to do. I always looked at that as a challenge – to try to make it better.”
He met his wife Patty, a dietician, at Bergan.
He’d been married before but his first wife, Daise, died of complications from an infection.
At Bergan Patty prodded Jim to accommodate patients’ special requests. At her urging, he recalls, “I started meeting some of these patients and they were real people with families. I went back and told my cooks, ‘We cant have these people upset about the food, it’s unacceptable, we’ve got to find a way to make them happy.’ I had them meet the patients, too.”
He had mixed success changing that rigid culture. But the principle underlying that experience applies to the entire food service field.
“You’ve got to get in the mind of the customer,” he says. “No matter what you want to do you’ve got to find out what your customers really want. You’ve got to listen to them carefully.”
The early Metro years and the steep ascent to excellence He was still at Bergan when he began teaching at Metro. The school’s culinary program was housed then in Building 5 but it originated at a 50th and Dodge storefront. The Dodge site, where CVS Pharmacy is now, is where Patricia Barron, aka Big Mama, attended. Culinary arts eventually moved into Building 10 and that’s where it stayed until Trebbien got its own building erected.
He admits being “petrified” the first class he taught. There were only four students and one lodged a complaint after he exhausted his flimsy notes in less than half the allotted four-hour time, whereupon he excused everyone to go home. A young woman complained she was being short-changed for her tuition.
“She didn’t care I was new and didn’t have time to prepare, she was still paying good money for an education, and she was right. From then on I always looked at things from the student’s point of view.”
More than one person warned Trebbien not to get too deeply involved with then-Metro Tech or its culinary program.
“I was told this place will never amount to anything. The program had a terrible reputation, too.”
He says an “absolute sweetheart” of a woman, Ada Max Brookover, ran the program when he joined the adjunct faculty but she struggled getting herself and the program taken seriously. It was more a home economics set-up than a professional kitchen. Trebbien says, “She had no backing in town whatsoever because she didn’t come up through the chef ranks, so she just wasn’t connected to those people she had to get connected with. She couldn’t get any money for what she needed and nobody understood what she needed.”
Things changed under former Metro president Richard Gilliland after he toured a successful culinary program at an Illinois community college. Ada was let go and Gilliand put out the word he was looking for someone with considerable industry experience. When her replacement didn’t work out Trebbien, tired of the hospital job, applied. Once again, people told him he was making a mistake. After getting the job and discovering just how monumental the challenge was, he had second thoughts. Despite it all, he stayed.
His willingness to stick it out, with a 50 percent pay cut, had much to do with his rearing.
“My dad always had high expectations. When putting hay in the barn there might have been a hundred bales and nobody expected you to do more than 50 but you got 70. Dad would say, ‘I think you could have got more of them, boys.’ And I’d be like, ‘Aw, I let my dad down, I could have got more done,’ And then he’d say something like, ‘You would have built-up a few more muscles, too,’ and I’d think, Yeah, I could have.’ So the next time I’d try to get a few more (bales).
“Failure never was an option. I learned you’ve got to try things. If you can’t do it, that’s fine, but if you say you’re going to do something, do it, and don’t do it half-way. That was the way we were all raised.”
Another factor that kept him from cutting and running, though tempted a few times, was his lifelong “desire to please other people.”
At the start, he says he had no grand vision for what Metro culinary arts could be and he didn’t necessarily see himself as its steward.
“I wish i could say, yes, but no I didn’t start out thinking that. It was more like, I’ll prove that guy wrong and I’ll prove other people wrong – we will make a go of it. But I really didn’t count on staying here. It was kind of a year to year thing with me. Each year I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ll sign up one more year,’ and each year it got to be a little feeling of ownership. I got that feeling from Richard Gilliland. He’d tell all of us, no matter what our area, ‘Just run that program like it’s yours.’ So I always thought if it’s mine I’m not going to answer to anybody, I’m just going to do it. So I would just start doing stuff.”
One thing he did was check-out the thriving Johnson County Community College Culinary Arts Program in Overland Park, Kansas.
“i asked the director, Jerry Vincent, ‘How did you do this?’ and he said I should take care of my college president. Whatever the president says, he told me, do it, and sometimes suggest something you can do, but don’t try to take care of everybody else because you can’t. You’ve got to concentrate on who’s important. The same with the board of governors. He advised getting to know those people because they’re going to vote sometimes on funding for your program.”
Thus, Trebbien became a political animal. He made it his business to know the college’s decision-makers and the restaurant community in order to build a broad support base.
“So I joined the Omaha Restaurant Association (ORA) and did all that stuff I never thought I had time for or that I thought was stupid before.”
In cultivating friends and advocates Trebbien learned “what makes something good is when a lot of people say it’s good.” When he heard a radio report about a bowlers hall of fame it sparked an idea. “I thought, Why don’t we do that?”
During the annual ORA dinner at the French Cafe he and colleagues Linda Anania and Ron Samuelson formed the Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame. The outreach and collegiality from that bolstered the culinary program’s profile. At the suggestion of colleague Arlene Jordan she and Trebbien paid early morning visits to local radio and television stations hoping to pitch the program on the air. They came up empty until realizing the way to the media’s heart is through their stomachs.
“Nobody would let us in the door, everyone turned us down, so finally Arlene said, ‘Why don’t we bake them some cinnamon rolls?’ We did and all of a sudden they all let us in. Once inside the door we’d usually talk ourselves into being on the air. Sometimes it’d be two minutes. We were on KQKQ one time all morning long, even after they changed DJs. What I learned from that is that we have a story to tell.”
Turning the corner Spreading the word little by little meant getting to know local food writers, speaking to community groups, recruiting students at high schools and schmoozing at parties with potential donors.
All the while he worked to raise standards.
“The first thing I could ever identify that turned it around was rewriting the curriculum and making it tough. Expectations changed. And just like that the enrollment went down but the reputation started going up.”
Then he started attracting better chef instructors. For years though he couldn’t get any local top chefs to even consider teaching there.
“They wouldn’t talk to me. This wasn’t a real culinary school to them and the trouble was we really weren’t. Tightening up the curriculum, being involved in national groups and the exposure from my touring over 20 states to meet chefs and restaurant owners really helped.
“The restaurant industry started to catch on that we placed good graduates and a lot of chefs began wanting to teach here where they didn’t want to be associated with us before ”
New kitchens were added in 1987.
And where school counselors once used culinary arts as a dumping ground for students who didn’t test well or place anywhere else, the program began to have its pick of motivated students.
For all the progress being made, one key element was still missing.
“We needed a building. People wanted a name, like the School of Culinary Arts, that lent it credibility and they wanted an impressive building or campus. Although the enrollment was increasing. it was so crazy, so crowded. Our kitchens were behind the cafeteria.”
Out of sight, out of mind.
“It just didn’t say magic, it didn’t say this place is quality.”
Trebbien and other Metro officials sold donors and the board on the dream. He campaigned for a new name commensurate with the new building, Former Metro president Jo Ann McDowell pushed for the project, which when built greatly expanded and updated the teaching kitchens and added many other amenities.
“The building made a big splash,” says Trebbien, who agreed with McDowell that the structure provided Metro a gleaming front entrance and anchor symbolizing excellence.
Enrollment went through the roof. It’s leveled off some since but interest remains high.
Looking back and ahead To Trebbien, the Institute’s success is emblematic of how Metro has come into its own as an educational engine that serves tens of thousands of students. Ground has been broken on a major expansion of the Fort Omaha campus that will add three new buildings. Just like culinary arts overcome negative perceptions, so did Metro as a whole.
Trebbien is a big believer in community colleges and specifically in Metro. He says MCC offers an outstanding education for a fraction of the cost of a four-year school and that it’s the area’s clear applied ed leader for certain careers.
“If you’re studying culinary arts, here’s where you come, You can learn it here, just like plumbing, construction, electrical –. you go to Metro.”
He’s proud the Institute’s produced scores of graduates doing great
things here and from coast to coast, even overseas. He feels comfortable saying its students have helped grow Omaha’s culinary scene, which is far more than steakhouses these days.
“Some graduates have opened their own chef-driven places, like Paul and Jessica Urban with Block 16. I would guess a lot of new restaurants wouldn’t have happened because where would they have found the kitchen staff who understood food enough to execute their concepts? Before the Institute came into its own, a lot of people working in restaurants just weren’t trained.”
Trebbien twice flirted with being a restaurant owner before backing out of deals he just didn’t feel right about. But within the last two years he’s become a food entrepreneur with a pair of businesses he co-owns, Chef Squared, a gourmet oil and vinegar shop in Midtown Crossing, and Omaha Culinary Tours. With his Metro tenure ending he’s devote more time to his booming business pursuits.
“Chef Squared had three profitable months last year and so we’re happy that we’ve turned the corner,” he says. “Omaha Culinary Tours ended with a very profitable year and we feel really good about that.”
Being a business owner has been a learning experience.
“Running a business is a little bit different than talking about it. You’ve got to apply all those principles you’ve taught. When you’re counting your dollars instead of somebody else’s its a lot different.”
He’s planning to develop a new business, this time a Web-based one-stop shop for all things food. “I’m just waiting to get the right people together. It’s going to be a big deal.”
Meanwhile, he walks away from Metro a departing patriarch anxious that the program he brought to maturation gets the TLC he feels it needs to sustain excellence.
“I don’t know if everybody realizes the building blocks. It’s easy to see what sits here now but what caused it to be is less obvious.”
He says to remain relevant and competitive it can’t sit pat or lose its edge but must maintain the energy and hunger that built it.
“All those principles still need to happen,” he says. “It needs to be rejuvenated all the time.”
Trebbien leaves on his own terms, content that the media now goes to the Institute for stories rather than the other way around. Since announcing his retirement, the media’s sought him out. That’s how he knows what he worked so hard to elevate has truly arrived.
Sex talk comes with the job for Douglas County (Neb.) Health Department HIV-STD specialist Sherri Nared-Brooks
Talking sex is what Sherri Nared-Brooks does for a living. As the Douglas County (Neb.) Health Department HIV-STD Prevention Specialist she makes it her business to find out what risky behaviors people are engaging in and to get them tested and informed to help prevent them from becoming new casualties in the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases impacting urban Omaha, particularly the Africa-American community. My profile of her and her work is in the February 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Sherri Nared-Brooks and her mobile sex ed-STD testing clinic, ©Debra S. Kaplan
Sex talk comes with the job for county HIV-STD specialist Sherri Nared-Brooks: Telling it like it is no problem for this veteran on the sexual health frontlines
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
America’s schizophrenic about sex. Images and hookups abound, yet in this information age many folks don’t know, follow or discuss safe practices. That incongruity explains why sexually transmitted diseases are at epidemic levels and why things never slow down for Sherri Nared-Brooks in her role as Douglas County Health Department HIV-STD Prevention Specialist.
Her main focus is North Omaha, where the epidemic’s acute among African-Americans. Her deep ties there, along with her straight talk and personal mission, give her street cred making the rounds at barber shops and clubs.
“I believe in keeping it real, so I talk in the vernacular they understand,” she says of young men and women she encounters at her office or out and about.
She knows urban sex slang and doesn’t make moral judgments.
“It’s about accepting people where they’re at and reminding them the things they’re doing are putting them at risk, so whether it’s at the jail or at a barbershop or I’m walking down 24th Street, I pass out condoms. They may not know my name, but they know me as the Condom Lady or the STD Lady.”
She addresses the topic, too, at prisons, hospitals, schools, churches, community centers, health fairs. Always looking for nontraditional sites, she has eight public libraries holding screenings.
In her experience young people are cool talkng sex but what kids get at school, home, worship center or doctor’s office is often woefully inadequate. That leaves teens gleaning often wrong or insufficient info where they can. Denial and magical thinking – “it happens to other people, not me” – run rampant. She fills gaps, dispels myths and emphasizes anyone not using protection or practicing abstinence is at risk, period. It’s about education and testing, but it starts with self-worth.
“It’s just about loving them and wanting them to love themselves. It’s getting people to understand they’re important and they need to take responsibility for their own health. I teach women they’re the prize. When you know you’re the prize you’re not going to just give yourself to anybody, because once he gets it from you he wants it from your friend, your cousin. If you keep yourself, he doesn’t have a choice but to respect you because you’re respecting you.
“The things I teach I had to learn over my own lifetime,” she says.
Raising five kids helped prepare her.
Then there’s the fellas.
“I tell guys, if she’s having sex with you that easy, you need to be afraid because she’s giving it to everybody else, too, and if she’s saying she doesn’t want to use a condom you really need to be afraid.”
When you have sex with someone, she stresses, you essentially have sex with everyone they’ve been with. It’s all about exposure. She imparts the same message to folks engaging in same-sex relations.
She enlists business owners as foot soldiers in the fight to reduce STDs. Alesia Lester at Gossip Salon, 5625 Ames Ave., is glad to help the cause. “Sherri comes in and educates us and that allows us to educate the client. She makes people aware. She’s very passionate about it and it’s so needed. I had a child at 15. I didn’t understand myself, so I definitely didn’t understand my body. I wish I’d had someone that could have sat me down and talked to me without me being afraid my mom would know. Sherri makes it plain and people respect her.”
“To me, they’re champions in helping get the word out to educate people,” Nared-Brooks says of community partners like Lester.
Nared-Brooks targets barbers, stylists, bartenders on the theory people open up about their sex lives to them. “You may not tell your doctor, but you’re going to tell your barber. They know who’s doing what.” She schools owners on the basics, leaving condoms, fact packs and kits for on-site testing. Lester welcomes it all. Both women say confidentiality is maintained throughout.
With so many places to hit and so many people at risk, Nared-Brooks ends up doing much work on her own time.
“It needs to be done.”
She calls her personal SUV “the STD truck” for all the supplies it carries. She trains others to do prevention-education work and she’d like to train more.”There’s only one of me,” she says.
She’s encouraged her strategy’s working when proprietors take the lead. Lester and her salon colleagues all tested and customers often ask for kits. Confirmation comes, too, when people seek the STD Lady’s advice about behaviors or symptoms and come in for testing.
“That makes me know I’ve done my job. Until we look at getting tested for STDs as a regular checkup and take away the stigma of it, the numbers are going to stay high. We need to give the message it’s OK to get tested and it’s kind of crazy to not get tested. You need to do it for yourself before you start sharing with someone else. And show each other your test results. Before my husband and I got married we showed each other our paperwork.
“It’s about loving me.”
Her husband, Walter Brooks, joins her on the front-lines of sexual health. They earned the Nebraska AIDS Project’s Shining Star Award for their awareness-prevention efforts. It wasn’t their first recognition. He covered prevention as a University of Nebraska Medical Center public relations specialist and still does for the Omaha Star. They met when he interviewed her.
She accepted his invitation to speak at his church. They’ve been a team ever since.
“My husband is awesome. He’s like my biggest fan, my biggest advocate. We do this community service together. He knows it’s not just something I do as a job. Right now, it seems like for me it’s life.
“When I stand before God and give an account of my life I want to know I used all my talents.”
Change Agent: Mark Evans leads OPS on bold new course full of changes in his first year as Omaha Public Schools’ superintendent
The Omaha Public Schools District deals with the diversity, needs, and challenges that any large urban school distrect does but it has had more than its share of infighting, controversy, and push back in recent years, much of it revolving around an administration deemed distant and unresponsive. As the following profile of new OPS Superintendnet Mark Evans indicates, there’s a new approach at the top, starting with him, as he has ushered in sweeping changes, much of them having to do with the district being more transparent and inclusive. This change agent has led the development of a new strategic plan among many other transformative actions. My piece is now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Mark Evans, ©ketv.com
Change Agent: Mark Evans leads OPS on bold new course full of changes in his first year as Omaha Public Schools’ superintendent
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When Mark Evans accepted the job of Omaha Public Schools superintendent in December 2012, he knew the mission would be immense in this sprawling urban district facing myriad challenges.
With 51,000 students spread out over 86 schools located in divergent environments ranging from inner city poverty to suburban affluence, the district responds to a wide spectrum of needs and issues. In his due diligence before starting the job he found the district’s good work often overshadowed by controversy and conflict due to an embattled school board and an aloof administration and no clear, unified vision.
Besides struggling to close the achievement gap of its majority minority student population, many of whom attend overcrowded, poorly resourced schools, the district reeled from internal rancor and scandal. Longtime district head John Mackiel exited with a $1 million retirement payout many viewed as excessive. His replacement, Nancy Sebring, quit when it came to light she’d exchanged sexually explicit emails with her lover during office hours at her previous employer. The often divisive OPS Board of Education and its handling of the matter drew sharp criticism that resulted in its president’s resignation. The perception was of deep rifts among OPS leaders who spent more time putting out fires than making systemic changes,
District elections turned over an almost entirely new board when Evans, who came to OPS from Kan,, officially started in 2013. The board has navigated a flood of changes that Evans has introduced in fulfilling a promise to shake things up and to address identified weaknesses in Neb.’s largest school district.
One of his first orders of business was conducting a needs assessment that sought broad community input. Feedback from parents, teachers, administrators and stakeholders shaped a new strategic plan for the district. The plan outlines strategies for better communication, more transparency and accountability, closer alignment of goals and greater classroom rigor. He reorganized district staff and created new positions in response to an expressed need for better support of schools. He’s overseen a new student assignment plan, a new hiring policy and a facilities wish-list for $630 million in upgrades.
Evans wants to stem the tide of students OPS loses to other districts, saying that’s difficult “if you don’t have room for them and many of our schools are just packed to the gills.” He adds, “You can’t compete with other districts unless you have facilities of similar caliber and we’re a real inequitable district today. About half our schools are beautiful facilities. The other half there’s a whole list of things that need to be worked on.” The facilities plan may go before voters as a bond issue.
He compares the task of changing the district’s direction to turning around an aircraft carrier at sea. As captain, he plots the course but he relies on a vast team to implement the necessary maneuvers. Evans began the turnaround even before he started.
“I didn’t start officially until July 1 but once I accepted the job I started visiting, collecting information, studying, so that when I did walk in the door I didn’t walk in cold. I walked in running because I’d already met staff and community. I’d purposely reached out. I had a very clearly laid out entry plan that described the things we were going to do.
“You have to have a real clear plan of how you’re going to implement this kind of stuff or you’re going to get lost and lose the prioritization. You’ve still got to do what you’ve been doing but do it better while doing these major lifts. So a lot of it has to do with prioritization and focus. A lot of it has to do with 60-plus hour work weeks.”
Evans likes what he sees on the horizon now that OPS has aligned goals at every level.
“We’ve not had a clearly defined destination until today. What you had was some schools saying, ‘This is my destination, this is what I think is most urgent,’ and they just kind of did it on their own. The difference today is we’ve got clear alignment and we’re creating a system that creates support and accountability throughout. Everyone’s success is contingent upon someone else’s success.
“Accountability is now built in because it’s on paper, it’s in writing:
Here’s your goal for graduation rate, here’s your goal for NESA scores, here’s your goal for the achievement gap…”
He says strategies are being honed “to create that same level of accountability” at all 86 schools and in every classroom.
“That’s the whole restructure piece we created. Principals told us, ‘We want more help in our schools,’ so we shut down a department in the district office and put 30 people out in schools. Then we created four executive directors of school support positions. Each is directly responsible for 21 schools. We spent all summer training them. They’re former star principals who serve at the cabinet level with me and top level staff. They look at the alignment of the big picture goals to the school improvement plan and help principals improve that. Everyone is working towards the same goals.”
He says until the strategic plan there wasn’t a coherent, clearly expressed vision “of where we’re at, where we’re going and how we’re trying to get there,” adding, “I think what I feel best about is we’ve created more transparency and communication from the get go because we asked people what are the strengths and needs of our district. We did forums, we did surveys, we used different tools on our website. That was the start of our saying, ‘We’re going to ask you first and then we’re going to use what you tell us to help us see our critical needs.’ To be honest, I already knew we had critical needs but it can’t be my plan, it’s gotta be our plan, it can’t be my thoughts, it has to be our thoughts, and the truth is most of where we ended up at I would have ended up at, too.”
Engaging people in the process, he says, “is much more powerful” and staff take more ownership for “achieving specific targets.” The changes have been welcomed by some and met with push-back by others. He jokingly says response is “somewhere between embrace and fisticuffs.”
He’s well aware steering this unwieldy district in a new direction will take time given its sheer size.
“You just have to know it’s a big journey.”
He left a good thing at the Andover (Kan.) school district to make this journey.
“I had a great job, we were making progress and nationally recognized. I’d been there eight years and I could have finished my career there fairly easily.”
He declined OPS overtures before throwing his hat in the ring.
“I knew what it was going to take to do something like this, so I said no twice. The third time they asked me to call some people I knew up here and I did and I heard positive things from them. They said to look beyond the headlines because the headlines had been pretty devastating. In my initial research I saw a mess beyond repair but the further I looked, and I still feel this way a year later, the mess has been at the 10,000 foot level – with the superintendent and the board. It’s about getting rid of the noise and distraction and chaos there.
“It wasn’t easy moving but at the end of the day I thought I could make a difference here. I know how to systemically build schools. Everywhere I’ve gone we’ve been able to have progress with kids because I understand how to bring a system together and to build teams and create collaborative decision makers.”
Making it easier for him to take the plunge was the community support he found here he didn’t find in Wichita, Kan., where he spent 20 years working in that city’s largest public school district.
“I’d spent most of my career in Wichita in a very similar setting – from the size of the schools to the number of employees to the demographics of the kids. But there is one significant difference and this is part of the reason I said yes – the community here is more supportive than Wichita is. This community still cares. People want OPS to be successful. There’s philanthropic support. There’s several foundations and individuals that care about OPS.”
Along with the deep pockets of the Sherwood and Lozier Foundations, OPS has relationships with mentoring initiatives like Building Bright Futures, Partnership 4 Kids and Teammates. Recognizing that many of its students live in poverty and test below grade level, the district partners with organizations on pre-K programs in an effort to get more at-risk children ready for school. New early childhood centers modeled after Educare are in the works with the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.
Evans champions community-driven endeavors aimed at improving student achievement and supporting schools because no district can do it alone, especially one as large and diverse as OPS.
“Not only is it a big district, which creates some challenges, we have more and more free and reduced (lunch) students who qualify for the federal poverty line and we know that brings with it some extra challenges which is why we need community support. We have an increasing number of English as Second Language learners because we have a growing number of refugee families. These young people not only have language barriers but huge cultural barriers.
“We also have more young people coming to us with life challenges and neighborhood issues. Partnering with community groups makes a big difference with those extra challenges. What we’re trying to do in many situations is fill in gaps. Organizations are critical because we’re filling in more gaps than we have before.”
Those gaps extend to resources, such as high speed Internet access. Some kids have it at home and school, others don’t because their parents and schools can’t afford it.
He says the efficiencies possible in a corporate, cookie-cutter world don’t fit public schools because no two suppliers, i.e. parents, and no two products, i.e. students, present the same specs.
“We take whoever walks in the door and wherever they’re at is where we take them, whether they have special needs, language arts deficiencies or advanced skill sets. So school A and school B might look different, in fact they’ll inherently look different even though the summative assessments are still going to look the same with standardized testing and those kinds of things. We do have these summative tools that tell us something about whether a school is progressing or not.
“On the other hand, school A may be quite a bit different than school B because school A has 20 percent refugees with some very specific skill gaps and so how we support them and the grade level assessments tied to that curriculum are going to be a little different than school B which has no refugees, no ELA-ELL (English Language Acquisition-English Language Learner) students. Students in school B are prepared and ready for something much different than what students at school A are prepared and ready for. And so we demand that each school and each staff differentiates based on the needs of the young people. You do formative tests to get those early indicators of where are the skill gaps and how are we going to bridge those skill gaps.”
Differences aside, the same overarching goal apply to all schools.
“No matter where they’re at, what you’re looking for is progress in both groups. It’s gotta be about growth and progress, wherever they came from, whether from a refugee camp or a single-parent family or a household where both parents are college graduates. The day they walk out they’ve gotta be better than the day they walked in.”
Closing the achievement gap, he says, “is not just resources,” adding, “There’s a lot of things we can do with existing resources – that’s what we’re trying to do with alignment. For example, if we know of a specific strategy to improve math or language arts skills for kids below level why wouldn’t we train all our staff in that methodology for all our schools? We’d never done that. Instead, school A and school B would pick out whatever strategy they wanted. Some would buy a compute-based piece and some would do a tutorial piece at the Teacher Administration Center.
“There was no collaborative where educators said, ‘Which one has the highest return on impacting those skills?’ That just doesn’t make any sense. So now we’re attempting to scale those things. Part of it is getting out of our silos and scaling the quality and part of it is helping people develop the skill sets to know how to implement that, because not everybody knows.”
Pam Cohn (Secondary)
Melissa Comine (Elementary)
Dwayne Chism (Elementary) Lisa Utterback, Elementary
His executive directors of school support, including Lisa Uttterback, were principals at high performing schools. Evans has charged them with helping principals adopt best practices at their own schools.
“Lisa had great success in a high needs school (Miller Park). The test scores look good, there’s community partnerships and parent involvement. Kids are walking out the door with pride, ready for middle school. I took grief for taking her out of there but my thinking is she can have more impact by scaling her capacities to 21 schools. I need her to develop her skill sets to these principals she supports and I need the other EDs to do that with the leaders they support.
“The whole concept is to find where it’s working and make decisions collaboratively on best practices and then support the implementation. It doesn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen overnight at Miller Park, but it did happen. So what happened? Well, you had good leadership. She (Utterback) figured out strategies that work.”
Other principals have done the same thing.
“We’ve got islands of excellence, we’ve got schools doing wonderful things, but then you’ve got other schools that for whatever reasons need more supports and until now there really wasn’t a methodology to try to recognize it and to provide that support.”
To achieve the greater classroom rigor district-wide the strategic plan calls for he says OPS is enhancing efforts started before he came to “retrain teachers on baseline skill sets for instructional practice.” He acknowledges “these are things they should have probably had in college but for whatever reason didn’t.”
In addition to raising performance, there’s a push to keep kids in school.
“In our district right now were at 77.8 percent graduation rate, which by the way is pretty high for an urban setting. But the truth is we’ve got to be higher than that, we’ve got to be over 80 and be moving toward 90, because if they don’t have a high school diploma today the research abundantly shows the opportunities in life are slim.
“Were trying to move 13 percentage points over the next five years,
which doesn’t sound like a big deal but it kind of is a big deal.”
Moving forward, he feels good about the school board he answers to.
“I would say our relationship’s good. They’ve had an enormous learning curve. I think their hearts are really good. I think they’re still struggling with the learning curve – heck, I am. They’re trying to wrap their arms around big stuff, I mean, we’re talking big numbers here – a $600 million facilities plan. We’re talking big information – a strategic plan, a student assignment plan, a new hiring policy. I think they’ve done amazing for the amount of time they’ve had to try to capture this.”
He says minus drama and acrimony at the top, OPS can thrive.
“We have great schools doing really good things. I thought and I still think if we could get rid of that noise and distraction and have an aligned, coherent system we may have one of the only opportunities in America where a community still values urban education, and they do here. There are very few communities like this.”
He feels good, too, about he and the board having come in together to provide a restart for the district.
“I think this community wanted and desired a feeling of a fresh start. I think people feel like they are seeing something different today than what they saw the last five years. I know we are doing things different because OPS hadn’t done a strategic plan in 10 years, they hadn’t done a bond issue in 15 years, they haven’t done a student assignment plan in many years, they hadn’t done a reorganization with a focus of supporting schools.”
Evans likes where his ship of a district is headed.
“We’ve got the pieces in place to get it lined up. We’re already doing partnerships, we’re developing better classroom practices, we’re developing leadership for the schools and aligning them to very specific, collaboratively agreed upon goals. If we can pass this facilities plan we can give kids high speed internet access and safer, more secure environments.
“Without those kinds of pieces the ship’s going to go on the wrong course.”