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Coming to America: The Immigrant-Refugee Mosaic Unfolds in New Ways and in Old Ways In Omaha

July 10, 2011 12 comments

I was born and raised in America, as my parents were before me, yet when I allow myself to think about it, the immigrant experience is well engrained in my DNA. You see, both sets of my grandparents emigrated here from Europe: my father’s family, the Bigas, from Poland; my mother’s family, the Pietramales, from Italy. I always used to kid my folks about their mixed marriage. And so despite my own experience and appearance to the contrary, I am not so very far removed from the newcomer tale, though I was spared all of the struggles of leaving one’s homeland and making it in a new land that my grandparents endured. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is an attempt to chart the immigrant-refugee landscape in a place like my city, Omaha, and what it looks like to be a newcomer here.

 

 

 

Coming to America: The Immigrant-Refugee Mosaic Unfolds in New Ways and in Old Ways In Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of the story is published in The Reader

You don’t need to look far to find the tired, poor and huddled masses following America’s seductive promise as THE immigrant-refugee haven. With Omaha hosting ever more ethnic minority populations from around the globe, the metro increasingly mirrors the culturally diverse world.

Actually observing these newcomers is another matter. That’s because many stay close to their own tight-knit communities. If you want to engage them, you best go where they live, shop, eat or worship. Seen or unseen, they are part of a long, multicultural stream that’s fed Omaha since its 1854 founding. Omaha’s story, like that of America’s, is an ever evolving immigrant flow.

“It’s not a static story, it’s a very complex mosaic we have here and it takes a long time to appreciate some of the nuances of it,” says University of Nebraska at Omaha emeritus history professor Bill Pratt.

Complicating that mosaic are ethnic-religious tensions within and between certain national groups. Then there are segments of American society that express hostility, suspicion or discrimination toward The Other.

Pratt’s UNO emeritus history colleague, Harl Dalstrom, says the immigrant dynamic varies among ethnic communities and the circumstances surrounding them.

“Different groups tend to have different patterns of settlement. Each group from each country are going to have different experiences. You really have to get down to whatever the time period is,” he says. “Many folks who come today are from backgrounds even more alien to the American experience then the immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century. After all, many new arrivials today are from Africa. They’re not only black, they’re not part of the European language group, and so on.”

Nebraska’s foreign-born population increased 31 percent from 2000 to 2008. From 1990 to to 2000 that segment nearly tripled. Latinos, Asians and Africans account for most of the growth. The new groups are mainly concentrated in Omaha and Lincoln. The Omaha Public Schools now serve thousands of refugee students, including more than 1,100 from Burma, Thailand, Sudan and Somalia.

One measure of a place’s diversity, says Pratt, is its signs. Omaha’s Eurocentric, English-only commerce now has its Asian, Arabic, African, Spanish counterparts.

As low-key as many new immigrants may be, it’s fairly common now to hear their mother tongues and to see their native fashions in public. Events like World Refugee Day and Omaha Heritage Festival celebrate this diversity. Signs and symbols all of Omaha’s maturation into a more cosmopolitan, international city.

South Omaha continues its historical role as the city’s primary immigrant gateway and resettlement district. Its affordable housing, blue collar job sector and robust small business climate make it a conducive place to get started. North Omaha and mid-town accommodate growing pockets of immigrants and refugees.

For most of its history South O hosted Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians and Germans. Just south of downtown, Sicilians and Calabrese formed Little Italy. There were Jewish, Greek, Chinese and other well-defined ethnic communities as well, each replete with small businesses, most often grocery stores and restaurants.

Then, as now, anti-immigrant sentiments peaked during hard times and fell silent during good times. Riots prompted by nativist attitudes erupted in the early 1900s.

Omaha’s a welcoming place, says UNO history professor Maria Arbelaez, but here as elsewhere, barriers exist: “There is still segregation, there is still prejudice, there is still racism, sometimes overt, sometimes well hidden, and people do feel it.”

The south side’s now a largely Latino district whose eateries, food carts and shops are emblazoned with Spanish names. Not that Latinos weren’t there before. They were, just in smaller numbers and almost exclusively tracing their roots to Mexico.

“The Mexicans have always been here,” says Arbelaez.

Historically, she says, ethnic minorities go undercounted, as their racial identities fall outside census categories and they tend to be highly mobile populations. Plus, the undocumented among them have extra motivation to remain under the radar.

 

 

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Maria Arbelaez

 

 

Despite the Latino migration that’s transformed the area, remnants of South O’s immigrant past persist in such landmark venues as the Bohemian Cafe, Johnny’s Cafe, Sokol South Omaha and St. Stanislaus Catholic Church. Italian vestiges remain in Orsi’s Bakery, St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church and Sons of Italy hall.

Even though many second, third and fourth generation immigrant groups no longer live in defined ethnic neighborhoods, their heritage festivals continue.

Today, the variety of cuisines found in South O extends well beyond Mexican to encompass Guatemalan, Salvadoran and national foods from Central America, South America, Africa and many other parts of the world, too.

Exotic eats are no longer confined to South O or the Old Market, as greater Omaha is home to an ever expanding landscape of ethnic dining spots. Then there are ethnic retail stores and other expressions of cultural identity. Inner city health clinics, social service agencies and public schools serve large immigrant bases.

It’s much the same way the immigrant story played out a century ago.

The story of Early Omaha is inextricably linked to the large European immigrant waves from 1880 through 1920 that helped grow this and nearly every U.S. city and filled the industrial labor pool. The internal migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and their subsequent resettling in places like Omaha also brought an influx of new ethnic-cultural influences and workers.

In the aftermath of World War I and the Great Depression and in the first two decades of the Cold War, America grew isolationist, instituting more restrictive immigration policies, and so the steady flow slowed to a trickle. Exceptions were the millions of braceros recruited from Mexico to work in the agricultural, railroad and meatpacking industries and the many displaced persons or refugees from Europe. Omaha welcomed its share of both groups.

The heavy tides of new arrivals didn’t begin in earnest again until the mid-1960s, spurred by more open immigration policies. These waves, no longer predominantly European, but Asian, Indian, African and Latin-American, continue today. Somalia, the former Burma and Bhutan account for a large number of recent newcomers to Omaha. Each group of asylees fled homelands marred by war and political or religious persecution. A generation earlier, Sudanese escaped similar trauma. As did Soviet Jews before that. In the ‘70s, Vietmanese and Laotian refugees.

The surge in Latino immigrants and refugees the past two decades followed economic crises in Mexico and civil wars in Central and South America.

Then, as now, Omaha’s home to ethnic enclaves of foreign-born new arrivals and first generation offspring. South Omaha, once a separate municipality, earned the nickname Magic City for a dynamic growth spurt fueled by the railroads, the meatpacking plants, the stockyards, plus all the ancillary services that supported these industries. Large numbers of immigrants lived and worked in South O. The jobs lasted through the 1960s. Many contemporary immigrants and refugees work equivalent jobs in meatpacking and construction as well as in painting, lawn care, cleaning and other service sector fields.

Not all newcomers work menial jobs, reminds Arbelaez. Their ranks include professionals, skilled tradespeople, entrepreneurs. Many start micro businesses.

Just as opportunity and freedom drew the first waves of immigrants here, they remain enticing beacons of hope for those coming today.

“The pull of the (U.S.) economy is so strong,” says Arbelaez. “It’s better to get a menial job (here) than in Mexico because the pay is so much greater in the States that it allows you to support yourself and your family in Mexico.”

Whether propelled by family, economic, political or survival reasons, new arrivals expect and find a higher standard of living and greater liberty here. That doesn’t mean they don’t struggle making it. Most do. Language-cultural hurdles hinder them. Many live near the poverty line. Even basic food staples like rice stretch tight budgets. Then there’s the scarcity of jobs new arrivals traditionally fill.

Many of those originating from Third World nations or refugee camps harbor unrealistic expectations for what Sudanese community leader Malakal Goak terms “the heaven” they envision America to be. Invariably, say Goak and local refugee community leaders, reality falls short of these utopian, riches-laden dreams.

While Omaha remains an attractive destination or secondary migration site for its relatively low cost of living, healthy job market, good schools and family-friendly environment, it’s not devoid of challenges.

Kumar Gurung, a Bhutan community leader, says his people have great difficulty overcoming language-cultural barriers and finding employment. He says these struggles cause a disproportionate percentage of Bhutanese-Americans to suffer mental health problems such as depression.

The language-cultural divide is a serious barrier for newcomers, say local refugee and immigrant leaders. Clashing cultural norms of child-rearing practices and spousal relationships cause conflicts and sometimes leads to arrests.

Finding decent affordable housing is also an issue.

Many go months before starting a job, while studying to become proficient enough in English to be interview and work-ready. Those finding employment often work two or more jobs to try and make it. Omaha’s spotty public transportation system poses problems, leaders say, for individuals working overnight shifts in industrial areas where buses don’t run off-hours.

Leaders say some newcomers cannot feed their children, cover rent and pay bills on the temporary state allotment provided refugees.

“They’re really struggling,” says International Center of the Heartland & Refugee Services director Maggie Kalkowski.

Newcomers still requiring aid after six to eight months are referred to agencies like ICH, an arm of Lutheran Family Services.

 

 International Center of the Heartland in the Center Mall

 

 

 

The situation just got tougher for some due to the state ceasing welfare assistance to legal, noncitizen immigrant adults. Parents depend on the aid to help support their family households. Aid to children is not affected by the cut.

“It’s definitely going to affect some refugees here,” says Goak. “If they cannot quality for any government assistance I don’t know how they’re going to survive if they can’t find jobs.”

Goak says some refugees exhaust public aid limits before achieving self-sufficiency. No one, he says, wants new arrivals to become a chronic community burden, but he feels aid should be extended as needed.

Local pantries, Goodwill, Salvation Army, Heart Ministry Center and like agencies pick up the slack for those who fall through the cracks.

In good times or bad, assimilation is hard. It’s that much harder for illiterate individuals.

“Navigating the systems and paperwork process is still very difficult, especially for those refugees who do not read or write in their native languages,” says Southern Sudan Community Association executive director Anne Marie Kudkacz. “Assimilation can be made easier by means of programs and services available to assist refugees along the way.”

Kudlacz says new arrivals here benefit from solid support provided by two main resettlement agencies: SSC and Lutheran Family Services. Catholic Charities’ Lincoln office does resettlement and its Omaha office offers legal and additional services. Ethnic communities themselves also provide educational and other support. “Omaha has not only helpful organizations but strong ethnic groups that provide cultural support and integration,” she says.

Caseworkers, many of them from the communities they serve, assist clients with housing, banking, budgeting, interpreting and various other needs. Kalkowski says these indigenous caseworkers, all multi-lingual, become vital conduits, advisors, mediators and advocates for newcomers. “Because they are the knowledge ones, they are leaders and they’re willing to share it,” she says, “their job doesn’t end. They’re always on call. It’s a great service they do.”

Whatever the issue someone calls him with, says Goak, “it’s a big problem in their life until you solve it.”

“In my community, when you speak English they depend on you,” says Thein Soe, a local Burmese community leader and LFS caseworker.

Hamid Guled, a medical-legal interpreter and LFS caseworker for her native Somali community, says, “It’s fulfilling to me when I get to speak up for somebody who cannot speak up for themselves. I step up on their behalf — I advocate.”

“I think that advocacy is an important part of the work we do,” says Kalkowski.

In the process, she says, local merchants and landlords are educated about these populations’ special needs and clients are taught “how to navigate the American systems of healthcare, housing, legal issues, education, et cetera.”

Refugee service organizations provide English as a Second Language classes, legal assistance, micro business programs and a myriad of other assistance. Most services are free. Some require a nominal fee.

Three of Omaha’s largest and newest refugee groups — from Burma, Bhutan and Somalia — have their own community associations. The same is true of established refugee groups, such as the Sudanese. Using words like “empower” in their mission statements, the groups offer everything from ESL and driving classes to job and life skills training. They also stage activities to help members maintain their native culture.

Cultural cohesiveness is important as groups transition to being American while holding on to familiar, touchstone traditions and ways.

“Whether you come out of rural Alabama or Poland or Sicily or Mexico, you want to hang on to as much as you can that’s meaningful to you,” says historian Bill Pratt. “Not simply the language but a social structure, a social order, and so there’s often a built in cultural conservatism for new arrivals. If you come here from Mexico this is why you’d want to move into a neighborhood where there’s Mexicans. You have an emotional support system there, and then as people move up economically they move away.”

 

 

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Bill Pratt

 

 

There’s power in numbers. Thus, each organization serves as a communal network, lifeline and link for newcomers. Each provides a voice for it’s community’s needs.

Pratt says, “One of the things I think is sometimes overlooked is that these (associations) are products of these particular communities — they’re not organized by well-meaning folks outside the community, they’re not part of government, they’re part of a civic structure that comes out of that community.”

UNO’s Maria Arbelaez says grassroots community organizations often emerge in response to unmet needs. Their formation is an act of self-determination. She cautions that self-contained ethnic enclaves can isolate immigrants from the mainstream and curtail their progress. She says providers must be vigilant reaching out to immigrants and connecting them to services.

Kudlacz says collaboration among service providers and ethnic communities happens through the Omaha Refugee Task Force and the Refugee Leadership Academy, whose members identify issues and work together on addressing them.

Coming to America as an immigrant is one thing. Arriving as a refugee is another. The assimilation path for both groups is strewn with challenges. But whereas immigrants tend to be more highly educated and with some financial assets, “most refugees arrive with little more than clothing, personal items and legal refugee status documentation,” says Kudlacz. She adds that refugees generally have little education due to the disruption caused by wars or disasters in their homeland or lack of opportunities in camps they get placed from.

Lutheran Family Services’ Maggie Kalkowski admires the resilience of those coming here. She surmises today’s new arrivals face a harder road than their predecessors by virtue of the more complex social-government systems and technologies they navigate. “There’s so much more to learn,” she says. “It’s so much more demanding.” America’s bounty, she adds, is a blessing and a curse for new arrivals, who find  “overwhelming” all the choices and decisions.

One thing that hasn’t changed is new arrivals supporting family members still residing in refugee camps or countries of origin.

Hamdi Guled says, “The families back home expect, ‘OK, you’re in America, you have to send some money to support us — don’t forget about us.’ They don’t want to hear about how hard you have it in America.”

Then there’s the pressure newcomers feel to be Americanized overnight, though the reality of learning English and everything else is a long process.

“That’s a lot easier said than done,” says Pratt. “People ask today, ‘Why don’t they learn English?’ Well, it’s damn hard to learn another language when you’re working and raising kids.”

Arbelaez says immigrants-refugees here generally are “moving along into mainstream society,” but adds that full integration “takes generations.”

The cultural enrichment immigrants bring extends beyond food or language. They have something to teach about communal engagement, too.

“They still have that whole idea of it takes a village to raise a child,” says Kalkowski, “I think the values these new populations bring actually help America move more to the center, back to family, to neighborhood, to community, to working for others, instead of being focused on the greed side or what’s in it for me. It’s really valuable to us from my perspective.”


Tiempo Libre Kicks Off Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing in Omaha

July 4, 2011 1 comment

One of the neat things about being a journalist covering arts and cultural happenings is the opportunity it provides to intersect with emerging or rising talents. In the case of this article for El Perico I got to speak with Jorge Gomez, the leader of the breakout Latin band  Tiempo Libre, who kick off this season’s Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing series in Omaha. The timba-jazz infused, Miami-based group performs July 7, and the series featuring regional and national jazz acts runs through August 11. If you haven’t heard of Tiempo Libre, as I hadn’t, you’ll soon learn why you should take notice in the space of my short article. First of all, the group has only been together 10 years and yet they’ve already earned three Grammy nominations. They’e opened for and collaborated with some world class artists. Their music draws from many different sources and influences. These musicians are highly skilled and steeped in a classical foundation. They are also inventive enough to blend their native Cuban rhythms with all manner of musical styles. And they have a great story of what fired their imaginations in Cuba and of living out their dream now as a headline act around the world.

 

 

 

Tiempo Libre Kicks Off Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing in Omaha

by Leo Adam Biga

As soon to be published in El Perico

Growing up in Cuba members of the hot Miami-based Latin band, Tiempo Libre, studied classical music at Havana conservatories. Popular music, especially American, but even their native timba, was deemed subversive and thus forbidden. Hungry for what they were denied, the players clambered atop roofs at night with homemade antennas to pick up faint Miami radio broadcasts.

The staticky sounds of Michael Jackson, Chaka Chan, Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan, Manhattan Transfer and Earth Wind and Fire filled the tropical air. “It was fuel for our dreams. It opened a new door for us,” says Jorge Gomez, Tiempo Libre lead vocalist, keyboardist and musical director. “We listened, we recorded and during the day we put the music on and everybody in the neighborhood came to my house. We danced and sang and played dominos, everything. It was a new hope for us.”

Today, Gomez and his Grammy-nominated bandmates are touting their new Afro-Cuban fusion album, My Secret Radio, and its celebration of those clandestine raves. Fresh from performing at an Italian music festival, Tiempo Libre opens the Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing season Thursday. Their pulsating rhythms begin at 7 p.m. at Turner Park (31st and Dodge Streets).

The band describes their gigs as parties rather than concerts, says Gomez, “because by the end of the show everybody’s going to be singing and dancing with us. It happens all the time, and that’s the whole idea — to have fun. It’s all about the energy people are going to feel. That’s the best reason to play music .”

The free performance kicks off the weekly series that runs through August 11.

This is Tiempo Libre’s first Omaha show but the group’s well known for breakout recordings on Sony Masterworks and high profile appearances on Dancing with the Stars and the Tonight Show and at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Their genre busting work includes collaborations with classical artists Sir James Galway and Joshua Bell and Venezuelan composer Ricardo Lorenz.

 

 

The band first made a splash in 2002 opening for Cuban music legend Celia Cruz.

Formed a year before, Tiempo Libre only came together after its seven members separately fled Cuba. Their individual journeys included long stays in other countries before their paths merged again in 2000 in Miami. They were all working with different artists then “and in our free time we came together to make the band, ” says Gomez, hence the name Tiempo Libre or “free time.”

He’s proud the band has disproved predictions timba cannot thrive outside Cuban-centric Miami. “It’s fantastic the way people respond to it,” he says. Playing before enthusiastic audiences around the world, he says, “it’s incredible how beautiful the music can be between people who don’t even speak the same language.” By mixing timba with other styles, Tiempo Libre breaks down artificial barriers, as in the live orchestra work Rumba Sinfonica and the album Bach in Havana.

“Timba style is a mix between jazz and Cuban music. For example, if you put Buena Vista Social Club with Chic Corea, that’s timba style,” he says. “The harmony’s going to be deeper in the jazz roots but the rhythm is going to be, of course, Cuban rhythms, like rumba, ch-cha-cha, bolero. We play a mix of everything — timba, jazz, classical.”

Gomez says as the band’s exposed to ever more diverse musical influences, the more there is to blend with Cuban rhythms, including a new Placido Domingo Jr. album they’re collaborating on.

“We are living our dream playing all the music, all the mix that’s in there, adding a lot of Cuban flavor.”

 

 

Noted for their rigorous musicianship, yet free-spirited manner, Gomez says, “the way we’re playing now is so different from the beginning. We feel so secure. Now it’s all about how to enjoy yourself and transmit that energy to everybody around you. It’s unbelievable, the sensation. It’s a beautiful life.”

Now that Cuba’s more free, Gomez expects Tiempo Libre will perform back home.

“That’s part of our dream, too,” he says. “We want to play there in our neighborhood, for our friends.”

And perhaps inspire others to live their dreams. “Exactly, that’s the idea,” he says.

Jazz on the Green features other Latin-style bands this summer, including Incendio on July 14.

Visit jazzonthegreenomaha.com.

Long Live Roberto Clemente, A New Exhibit Looks at this Late King of the Latin Ball Players and Human Rights Hero

July 4, 2011 4 comments

I am a moderate baseball fan at best, but I am drawn to the stories behind the game and to the figures who animate it. One of the all-time great players, Roberto Clemente, made millions take notice of his baseball skills, which earned him a well-deserved spot in Cooperstown, but what he did off the field may be what he’s ultimately best remembered for. This little story for El Perico newspaper in Omaha takes a cursory look at the impact the late Roberto Clemente still has on people nearly 40 years after he tragically died at age 38 while attempting to carry out a humanitarian mission. The occasion for the story was a touring exhibition of his life that landed at El Museo Latino, and I simply asked a few folks in the local Latin community what Clemente’s legacy means to them. The exhibition continues through July 17.

 

 

Long Live Roberto Clemente, A New Exhibit Looks at this Late King of the Latin Ball Players and Human Rights Hero

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

With baseball season in full swing, El Museo Latino hosts a touring exhibition from Puerto Rico celebrating National Baseball Hall of Fame legend Roberto Clemente.

Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente continues through July 17 as part of a 20-city tour.

It’s curated by Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico with the Carimar Design and Research studio and organized for touring by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The Smithsonian Latino Center is a sponsor.

When Pittsburgh Pirates great and Latin symbol Roberto Clemente died December 31, 1972, his native Puerto Rico wept. He was only 38. The grief extended throughout the Americas.

The first great Latino star in the big leagues, Clemente was a trailblazer who opened pathways for other Latin players to follow. He’s remembered as more than a magnificent athlete, but as a man of the people, devoted to his countrymen and Spanish-speakers worldwide.

He died when a plane he was aboard delivering relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims went down in the ocean. His body was never recovered. It was not the first time he acted as a humanitarian — he helped needy people in the United States and Central America and held free baseball clinics for children in Puerto Rico. After his death his wife and children have continued his work.

In recognition of his brilliant play in the outfield, at the plate and on the base paths, the usual five year waiting period for Hall of Fame consideration was waived and he was elected by an overwhelming majority into Cooperstown. The Roberto Clemente Award was established to salute Major League Baseball players who combine outstanding play and community service. The award, given annually since 1973, made Clemente the inaugural honoree.

His homeland is replete with stadiums and streets named after him. As a national hero, his image adorns homes of Puerto Ricans there and everywhere.

With Clemente’s legacy so strong, El Perico asked members of Omaha’s Puerto Rican community and others for lasting impressions.

Antonia Correa vividly recalls the news of his tragic death on the island, where Clemente’s aid mission to stricken Nicaraguans was well known. His sudden loss cast a pale over holiday celebrations.

“It was a major emotional thing,” she says. “It was sad twice because we lost him, someone everybody was passionate about, and because of his trip to help victims.”

 

 

Correa’s memory of Clemente is forever fixed in context of what he died doing. “I remember him as this face of humanity. I keep in my mind the face of this humble man eager to help others.”

Maria Valentin remembers “days of mourning Roberto” after his death. In life he was beloved because he never forgot his roots. “He was very proud of being a Puerto Rican,” says Valentin.

Beyond baseball success, his charitable work endeared him even more.

“He was young and he wanted to help, and he did it and we loved him in the process,” says Valentin. She notes that he’s revered as “a champion for human rights” and “a role model for kids, adding “He was ours. He created a legacy not only for him but for all of us Puerto Ricans, carrying the country along. His talent, his energy, his commitment to help people still remains within us.”

She says his example of overcoming discrimination to excel when he and other Latin and black players were treated as “second class” citizens is inspiring. “He broke barriers for the younger generation. The language, the color, the strange territory should not stop you once you have a dream, once you have a talent.”

Hector Santiago says Clemente is a rare figure who transcends eras to still inspire.

Acclaimed jazz artist Miguel Zenon, who played Omaha May 21, says Clemente’s place in history “really surpasses anything that has to do with sports or fame. He just took it to another level in terms of what he achieved as a human being.”

University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado says Clemente “presented for us the archetype of what we wish all humans do when given the immense gifts and skills he possessed…His dignified presence was equivalent to that of the icons of his age and his too-soon passing only served to remind us of what had been taken from us. He would have been the penultimate ambassador for sport and humanity to the Latin world.”

Special programs in conjunction with the exhibition include a lecture series, a baseball clinic and a celebration of Puerto Rican culture.

El Museo Latino is located at 4701 South 25th St. For details, call 402-731-1137 or visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org.

Returning To Society: New community collaboration, research and federal funding fight to hold the costs of criminal recidivism down

July 2, 2011 3 comments

Having posted an awful lot of fluff or soft journalism stories lately, I thought it time to present something completely different, as in the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on reentry programs that work with offenders to prepare and guide them for what is hopefully their successful reintegration in society. I don’t tackle many serious or hard subjects like this, but I do enjoy the challenge. As freelancing for newspapers and magazines in Omaha does not pay well, I can never justify devoting the amount of research-reporting time such a story deserves. The compensation doesn’t come close as it is to compensating me for the time I invest, much less for the time I would like to invest.

 

 

 

 

Returning To SocietyNew community collaboration, research and federal funding fight to hold the costs of criminal recidivism down

©by Leo Adam Biga

A somewhat different version of the story appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

As the doors of America‘s overcrowded prisons swing ever wider, sending more ex-offenders back into society, reentry‘s become a major focus nationwide, including Nebraska.

America has 2.2 million individuals incarcerated in prison. That number’s expected to rise with the cost of housing inmates amid already strained resources.

Nationally, thousands enter and leave the corrections system every day. Hundreds of thousands every year. As community corrections, early parole releases and probation sentences send more offenders back into society, there’s new emphasis on preparing them for release and supporting their transition. Nebraska, like the rest of the U.S., is navigating this flood of returnees.

 

 

Ray Kyles, You Are Not Alone

 

 

Not surprisingly, corrections is better at confining folks than “fixing” them, which helps explain why prisons see so many repeat offenders. A 2011 Pew Center on the States study found more than four in ten offenders return to state prison within three years of release. Nebraska does better than the national average, at about three in ten, but there’s concern too many end up back in the system or struggle on the outside, thus becoming a drain or risk.

For veteran reentry worker Teela Mickles, the problem is crystal clear. “Even individuals who’ve been in prison will say, ‘If you don’t get us before we get out, it’s a waste of time.’ This cold turkey stuff won’t work,” says Mickles, who works with inmates and parolees through her nonprofit Compassion in Action.

Two ex-offenders now working with returning citizens confirm reentry is an inside game that must start early on.

“Turning your life is very hard, take it from me,” says Ray Kyles, adding it was “only when I finally took an inventory of myself and seen what I was worth that I started transforming.” That change only came during his third and last stint in prison. “I’ve come to the conclusion that in order for a man or woman to be successful once they come out of prison they must start working within the moment they hit the prison system. It’s a learning process.”

“Transition starts on the inside,” says Garry Kern, who was incarcerated 13 years and is now a caseworker for Goodwill Partnerships. “It’s a mindset. That’s where change comes.”

There’s growing recognition of the importance of pre-release preparation.

“By helping an inmate get a high school diploma or GED, help them address their substance abuse and mental health issues, and by helping them become a better parent or learn a vocation, we are giving them a better chance to return to the community as a successful citizen,” says Nebraska Department of Correctional Services programs administrator Layne Gissler.

Reentry programs are voluntary for prisoners. “If waiting lists occur, generally the inmates who are closest to release are given priority for programming,” he says.

 

 


Teela Mickles, Compassion in Action

 

 

Ideally, pre-release programs lead to changed attitudes and behaviors inside that persist on the outside. That’s the expressed goal of the UNO Transformation Project. Using The Autobiography of Malcolm X and motivational interviewing as talking points, facilitators encourage inmates to take stock and develop personal life plans. The program, largely funded by UNO grad John Morgan, works with inmates on addressing six stability domains:

housing

employment

education

substance abuse

mental health

social networks

“So, your family, your friends, your health, the people you hang out with,” says project manager Nicole Kennedy, who wrote the curriculum. “We picked those six areas because the research tells us for every one one of those areas you can help stabilize somebody in, you see a reduction in recidivism.”

She says project modules ask inmates to be self-reflective.

“We’re recognizing that until somebody has taken the time to sit down and actually think about who they are, what they value and what they want out of life, all that programming is not really being applied in the most productive manner. What we’re trying to do is get them to think a little more deeply about how do all these factors relate to what plan you’re going to have when you return to the community. We’re asking these guys to take a critical look at some personal and sensitive topics.

“I think a lot of prison programming is very narrowly skill based. What we’re trying to do is much more broad based. You can’t really think about your substance abuse in isolation of your employment or your housing or your social networks. All of these factors, while they have their own unique components, will be impacted by the others. So it’s going to be harder for you to stay sober and clean if you don’t have a job and you don’t have a place to live, because the life pressure that brings will eventually build up. Likewise, if you’re not managing your substance abuse it could be really hard to keep a job. If you’re dependent on your family to provide you housing and are couch surfing, that’s going to take its toll on family relationships.”

 

 

Nicole Kennedy, UNO Transformation Project

 

 

Kennedy credits Nebraska corrections officials for supporting a holistic model that serves inmates from the jump. She says there’s wide agreement the more inmates do to address their needs beforehand the more likely they are to make positive choices upon release.

“Corrections gives these guys a lot of tools and resources but this is kind of the mortar that holds those bricks together,” she says. “We’re really trying to get you to take all this information and apply it to yourself and your own unique circumstances.”

The Transformation Project refers its graduates to Ray Kyles and his You Are Not Alone program. Kyles is convinced accountability must first take root behind bars if an offender is to turn his or her life around.

“We need to start working with the choices you make in your life, We need to open your eyes up to what got you there. We need to get you to the point where you understand the trickle down effect of the crimes you may have committed — it’s not only hurting you, it’s hurting your family, it’s hurting the community. Until we understand the people we hurt we’ll still be wallowing in the world of that dumb shit of somebody owes me.”

Similarly, Teela Mickles says her reentry curriculum “is comprehensive and developmental in addressing the real issues in that individual for why drugs became an issue, for why crime became an issue. They have to understand, embrace and begin to work with the reasons why before they get out. That’s where job sustainability comes in, because an individual has to understand that there’s going to be a process of transition.”

Federal mandate and community advocacy are making reentry a priority in today’s more enlightened, research-based corrections field. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that involves law enforcement professionals, judges, lawyers, corrections officials, probation and parole officers, caseworkers and community-based service providers, both professional and volunteer.

The sheer volume of inmates has increased with get-tough policies in the war on drugs. Nebraska’s projected prison population for 2011 is 4,713, which is near where it’s hovered for several years. From 1995 to 2009 Nebraska’s overall incarceration rate per 100,000 adults increased from 185 to 245.

The cost of prosecuting and detaining individuals, most of whom are nonviolent, has become more of a burden in budget-strapped times. In line with national trends, Nebraska’s overall corrections spending has skyrocketed, from $72 million in 1995 to $181 million in 2010. Nationally, state corrections expenditures are an estimated $50 billion per year. Those costs don’t include what communities spend to house, train, educate, counsel, treat, employ and otherwise transition ex-offenders to law-abiding, productive lives. When a parent goes to prison there are “hidden” costs for welfare, foster care, legal services, family court.

In response to the unsustainability of mass incarceration and high recidivism rates public-private coalitions have pushed for more proactive reentry efforts both behind the wall and outside it.

The 2003 federal Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) and the 2008 Second Chance Act, both made hundreds of millions of dollars in grant monies available to reentry providers. Second Chance also established the National Reentry Resource Center, which offers education, training and technical assistance to providers, large and small.

These measures have brought new players onto the scene of a varied reentry landscape. In Nebraska, providers range in size, approach, scope and service area. Most are human-social service organizations or faith-based groups. The largest is Christian Heritage, a Lincoln, Neb. nonprofit that’s new to reentry yet has secured major Second Chance grants to fund programs that target reconnecting fathers with children and restoring families.

“The passing of the Second Chance Act has made some impact on our reentry efforts,” says Layne Gissler. For example, he says a new parenting program for incarcerated fathers administered by Christian Heritage “has been very beneficial.

“Outside of that,” he says, “our approach to reentry has remained the same. We utilize a multi-faceted approach that includes mental health and substance abuse programming, educational, vocational, parenting, life skills and other programs to address deficits. With the exception of the parenting program in our male facilities, these programs were in our facilities prior to passage of the Second Chance Act.”

The issue’s further come into focus through: a 2008 evaluation of Nebraska’s Serious and Violent Reentry Program by UNO’s School of Criminal Justice; the Douglas County Reentry Task Force, now reformed as the Reentry Initiatives Council; and the monthly Reentry Table Talk series at Metropolitan Community College.

Gissler said both the federal reentry initiative and the UNO study “helped educate, sharpen the focus and provide the necessary foundation for reentry in Nebraska,” adding, “There was a significant increase in the department’s long range commitment to reentry and the subsequent shift in emphasis based on risk.”

Increasingly, corrections works collaboratively with the community. The shared goal is reducing recidivism and improving quality of life outcomes. NDCS had fairly robust programs before, but is doing more with partners like UNO and Christian Heritage now that more dollars are available from Second Chance and other sources.

On the outside, ex-offenders encounter many hurdles piecing a life together in a fast-moving world that doesn’t cater to them. Jim Erwin of Christian Heritage advises inmates, their loved ones, sponsors and caseworkers work months in advance of release to line up leads on things like housing and employment. He and others working in the field say a safety plan and a support network is vital, The more on the margin someone lives, the greater the risk for recidivism. Substance abuse, family disputes or just being around negative influences can derail things.

“Folks can become very discouraged quickly if there’s not preparation,” says Mickles.

A big hurdle ex-offenders in Nebraska face is accessing vital records. There’s no central office to get a social security card, birth certificate, driver’s license, work permit. It presently takes days to obtain IDs from far-flung agencies. Support for a one-stop-shop is a hot topic and focus of the Douglas County Reentry Initiatives Council.

 

 

Douglas County Commissioner and UNO Transformation director Chris Rodgers

 

 

County Commissioner Chris Rodgers, who sits on the Council’s board, says Heartland Workforce Solutions in Omaha offers the framework for a one-stop-shop and the county’s seeking funds to help consolidate services for ex-offenders under the Heartland umbrella.

“There’s a need,” says Rodgers, who oversees the UNO Transformation Project. He says the Council looks at reentry in broad-based terms as well. “Our job is to identify issues and gaps and solve them within the system instead of reinventing the wheel.” If he’s learned anything it’s that successful reentry is up to the individual.

“It’s not magic, it’s hard work,” he says. “We’re not going to give you this yellow brick road outline to get there. What we do is lay you out a path with opportunity, but you have to put the work in.”

Ray Kyles of You Art Not Alone says, “Just like everything else, what you put in is what you get out. You become institutionalized the moment you get locked up by the police because from there on everything is given to you. Once you’re released from prison you still expect people to keep giving you. But what have you given yourself or what are you willing to give back to society? I’m not going to hold your hand, it just doesn’t work that way. I have a list of services gentlemen can go to for assistance. I get a hot jobs list every Monday.”

Christian Heritage’s Jim Erwin says, “remember to empower, not enable” ex-offenders.

To that end, Metro produces a reentry resources book it distributes to correctional facilities and community service providers to give inmates, ex-offenders, caseworkers and sponsors contacts for statewide programs and services.

“If an ex-inmate has a job, place to live and family-community support,” says Gissler, “the odds he or she will return to prison are much lower. A pro-social network is needed upon release and this has been provided in part by civic and faith-based groups. They have teams set up to assist ex-inmates with securing housing and employment.”

Providers who establish bonds behind the walls are better placed to help offenders once they’re on the outside, say reentry veterans. Consistently being there builds trust. “People need to understand the more they make themselves visible and empower the individuals inside in preparation to come out,” says Mickles, “the more effective their reentry programs on the outside will be.” Neither her program nor any others work in isolation. None has the capacity to address every need.

“We cant do it alone,” Mickles says. “That person coming out needs a job, a place to live. They may need drug rehabilitation. They may need legal assistance to get their kids back. Things like that. We have to work with all the entities to assist that individual with all the areas they need to experience a successful reentry.”

As Mickles does Compassion in Action by herself, she acts as a clearinghouse by referring ex-offenders to needed services she doesn’t provide. Kyles works much the same way.

Regardless of size or resources, reentry providers work collaboratively.

“We all need each other, there’s plenty of pain to go around, and we all have our areas of expertise, and the better we work together the better the population will be served,” says Mickles, who’s hopeful about the momentum surrounding reentry. “In doing reentry here for 30 years this is the first time Omaha is really on task as far as working together and helping each other do what we do best.”

Recently, some facilitator associations and forums have emerged to help bring reentry players at the same table for enhanced communication and coordination. The Reentry Alliance of Nebraska is one. The Reentry Initiatives Council is another. Omaha’s Northeast Weed & Seed program held a spring reentry workshop at Metro that included representatives from the Omaha Police Department, Heartland Workforce Solutions and the Douglas County Department of Corrections as well as ex-offenders and their advocates.

 

 

Tommie Wilson, Reentry Table Talk

 

 

Since 2009 Metro liaison Tommie Wilson has organized the Reentry Table Talk the third Wednesday of every month. At the May 18 forum 48 attendees represented some two dozen organizations, including Eastern Nebraska Action Community Partnership (ENCAP). Some state corrections officials were there. Mickles was present. Christian Heritage’s Jim Erwin was the featured speaker.

Erwin says he attends in order “to build relationships” with other providers. Diane Good-Collins, who with her husband Steve operates ReLeasT transition home for women in Nebraska City, says, “The relationships I’ve made in this room have helped people beyond this room. You never know who you’re going to meet and how that’s going to affect someone else.”

As an ex-felon, Good-Collins is among those who’ve “been there-done that” and now work with ex-offenders. Entrepreneur Rodney Prince is another, though his role is more as advocate and watchdog. His was among the few critical voices heard at the event as he challenged those present “to be coordinated and streamlined,” adding, “We need you to be on the same page.” Activist Eliga Ali and Black Men United president Willie Hamilton expressed concerns about the effects that mass incarceration of black males has on families and communities.

Wilson says some sessions can get rather heated. It’s all in the name of continued dialogue.

“We started out with four people talking about what we needed to do,” says Wilson, who has a grandson in prison, “and now the meetings average 45-50. I gather people here to talk about what’s going on with reentry, to bridge that connection to find out where resources are, to learn who’s doing what, to collaborate. I also bring to the table ex-offenders. If they’re having difficulties finding things they can connect with people and get into programs.”

Programs are one thing, reality is another. Because life happens, how an ex-offender responds to events or situations will ultimately determine his or her fate.

Rodgers cautions change is “not a one size fits all” proposition. “People transform in different stages.”

Mickles agrees, saying, “The term for each individual to experience success is quite different. Also, the definition for success is quite different. It may not be no recidivism. The person may need to reoffend in order to be successful. I’ve learned to redefine certain things.” She says a woman she worked with reoffended several times before going straight, “and she’s now giving back to the community in a major way” as a reentry provider.

Good-Collins, tells a similar story of a chronic reoffender who’s finally turned her life around. After hundreds of lock ups, then being homeless, Good-Collins says the client is now in a stable home environment and working. “She got her first paycheck in over 30 years. She’s doing awesome.”

“With that individual acceptance and lack of preconceived anything,” Mickles says, “individuals tend to find themselves. But society needs to know there is a cost.”

Lit Fest Brings Author Carleen Brice Back Home Flush with the Success of Her First Novel, ‘Orange Mint and Honey’

July 2, 2011 10 comments

Another Omaha native writer enjoying breakout success is Carleen Brice, whose first two novels have done very well. This is the first of a few articles I’ve written about Carleen and her work. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared shortly after her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey, announced her as a major new voice to be reckoned with, and she soon proved that debut novel was no fluke with Children of the Waters. More recently, the superb Lifetime Movies adaptation of Orange Mint, which goes under the title Sins of the Mother, won NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding TV Movie and for Jill Scott in the lead role of Nona. Now. Brice’s sequel to Orange Mint, which she calls It Might As Well Be Spring, is due out this summer, and she’s at work on yet another novel, Calling Every Good Wish Home.  I feel a personal investment in Carleen because her late grandfather, Billy Melton, was a vital source and good friend.  He always spoke with great pride about her accomplishments.  Go to my Billy Melton category to check out some of the stories I wrote about him and his various passions and adventures.

You can find my other Carleen Brice articles, including one about that Lifetime adaptation, by clicking on her name in the category roll to the right.  I expect I’ll be adding more pieces about her as her career continues going gangbusters. Billy’s smiling somewhere.

 

 

 

 

Lit Fest Brings Author Carleen Brice Back Home Flush with the Success of Her First Novel, ‘Orange Mint and Honey

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Denver author Carleen Brice, an Omaha native who left here after graduating Central High School in the 1980s, is getting raves for her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey (One World Ballantine Books, 2008). It follows three nonfiction books and numerous newspaper-magazine essays-articles that earlier established her as a wry observer of the African American experience and the larger human condition.

Now Brice is returning as an invited author at this weekend’s (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. That makes it sound like she hasn’t been back in awhile, which isn’t so, but now she’s riding the momentum of her novel being an Essence Magazine Recommended Read and a Target Bookmarked Breakout pick.

She’ll appear on a Saturday noon panel at the Bemis about music as an influence on writing. That’s apt as music’s a family legacy Brice inherited “by osmosis” from her beloved late grandfather, Billy Melton, or “Papa,” whose best friend was the late jazz musician and her surrogate uncle, Preston Love Sr. Her jazz-blues bassist husband, Dirk, jammed with Preston at Papa and grandmama Martha’s 50th wedding anniversary. Papa’s vast music collection led Brice to jazz singer Nina Simone. In Orange Mint Simone’s presence appears to the embittered, traumatized daughter, Shay, as a guide to find healing with her recovering alcoholic mother, Nona.

Shay, portrayed as a fan of classic jazz-blues, gets involved with a younger man she works with at a Denver music store. He schools her on contemporary artists.

Then consider Brice often uses music when writing to evoke moods she wants to convey. There’s plenty of mood swings in Orange Mint. The strained mother-daughter story is infused with pain and humor. Forgiveness walks a rocky road. The messy reconciliation between two strong wills rings true. The relationship is fiction but draws on the dynamic Brice had with her own mom. Just as Nona bore Shay as a teen, Brice’s late mother bore her at 15. Like Nona, her mom was a pistol. Unlike Nona, she was no alcoholic. Brice’s folks divorced when she was young.

“We had kind of the typical mother-daughter, love-hate so-close-that-we-drove-each-other-insane kind of relationship,” Brice said by phone. “We were more like sisters. What it’s like to have a young mom that you sort of sometimes feel like you’re raising her instead of she’s raising you comes out in the book.”

Brice’s novel never devolves into melodrama or soap opera. It satisfies and surprises in ways only a gifted writer and old soul can deliver. The book’s being adapted by a producer for a Lifetime Television movie and one hopes it’s treated with the care and sophistication it deserves. On her blog, The Pajama Gardener, a compendium of Brice’s musings about working in the earth and writing, activities she sees parallels in, the author votes for Angela Bassett to play Nona.

Nona’s passion for gardening reflects the kinds of creative, expressive outlet many black women have sought in lieu of limited opportunities for careers in the arts.

 


 

 

Orange Mint confirms the promise Brice has long exhibited as a storyteller.

Her first book dealt with African Americans and the grieving process and her next offered affirmations for people of color. More recently, she edited Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number (Souvenir Press, 2003), a collection of writings by black female authors, including icons Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, Niki Givoanni and Maya Angelau, that Brice put together on the subject of black women navigating mid-life. Brice contributed two pieces of her own to that well-reviewed compilation. One comments on the unrealistic expectations black women like herself face when young and how, in middle age, she’s attempted to free herself and her expressive soul from the bondage of myth.

Just don’t mistake those projects for advice column fodder. They’re much more than that. Brice writes with an eloquence and depth that put her on the same plane as the literary lionesses she shares the pages with in Age Ain’t Nothing. It’s only fitting that Brice, who grew up reading many of the very authors she’s now immortalized with, should be recognized as a serious new African American voice.

Early on she evidenced a love for the written word. “My mom liked to read,” she said, “so when I was really little I learned the joy of reading and storytelling, and I think that’s what led me to want to be a writer. I used to tell stories to other kids. I’d just make things up. I wrote my grandmother Martha stories. When I was in high school I studied creative writing. In college I studied journalism. Most of my job jobs involved writing. So it’s something I’ve always enjoyed.”

Brice no longer works a day job. She writes every day, a discipline she credits Dirk with inspiring in her. “Kind of like building my chops as a writer,” she said. “When not laying down “the bones” or “the heart” of her stories, she interacts with a literary community via book clubs, readers’ circles, writers’ groups.

She’s in-progress on a new novel, Children of the Waters, due out next July. It explores issues of race, identity and what really makes a family, she said. The story explores what happens when a pair of biracial sisters raised in separate families — one white, the other black — find each other as adults.

The author is musing with the idea of continuing Nona’s story in a future project.

Brice is among that vast exodus of blacks who’ve left this place over the years to realize their dreams elsewhere. But like many of these expatriates she’s never really left. She has lots of family and friends here. A contingent even came to Orange Mint’s release party in Denver. They’re a tight bunch and they’ll be representing at Lit Fest. They’ll have a good time, too, she said, as her “larger-than-life” family knows how to party — another legacy of sweet, ebullient Papa.

His music, she said, speaks through her.

The Sept. 19-20 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest is its usual eclectic self, with a mish-mash of events that address diverse literary themes, some with more than a wink of the eye. The BIG theme this year is Plagiarism, Fraud & Other Literary Inspiration. Fest events take place at some of Omaha’s coolest venues, including the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the RNG Gallery, Slowdown, Aromas Coffee House and the Omaha Public Library’s W. Dale Clark branch.

Some of Omaha’s and America’s hottest writers converge for readings, panel discussions and other litnik activities. Brice fits the bill to a tee. Think of the fest as a progressive mixer for readers, authors and artists engaging in a literary salon experience — Omaha-style. A scene where laidback meets high brow. For a complete schedule visitwww.omahalitfest.com.

The Worth of Things Explored by Sean Doolittle in his New Crime Novel ‘The Cleanup’

July 2, 2011 3 comments

Omaha is home to many fine novelists and I have the opportunity to sit down and talk writing with some of them from time and time. One of these is Sean Doolittle, a crime novelist of the first rank and a man who leaves all pretensions at the door. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the first piece I did on Sean and his work, and the second will soon be posted on this site as well. If you’re looking for a good summer read that engages your mind and your adrenalin then I highly recommend his intelligent page-turners.

 

 

Sean Doolittle

 

The Worth of Things Explored by Sean Doolittle in his New Crime Novel ‘The Cleanup

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Sean Doolittle has you join him in the very booth at the very Omaha watering hole, the Homy Inn, where the violent denouement of his new novel The Cleanup (Dell) unfolds. Just as you slide in, he mentions you’re about to sit where Gwen, the wan victim in his tale of ever escalating misdeeds, nearly loses her life. The fact he looks a bit like the towering Red Dragon character in the film Manhunter gives you pause. Within minutes he reveals the same disarming tone of his classic crime fiction, which sardonically, not gravely, lets characters stew in their own juices.

In The Cleanup the Omaha-based author has his cop protagonist Matthew Worth discover a murder and rather than call it in, clean it up, which throws into motion, ala Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, a cascade of unforeseen results that keep forcing Worth’s hand, raising the stakes each time. Things get complicated when it turns out the corpse was a mule in an illicit racket short a quarter million bucks. The question becomes how far will Worth go to cover his and the murderer’s tracks and how far will those after Worth’s neck or the loot, or both, go to get answers?

“I really like stories where the plot is dictated by the choices the characters make. It’s a continual reaction against cause and effect. That feels to me the way life is,” said Doolittle, whose previous novels DirtBurn, both set in L.A., and Rain Dogs elicited warm words from some of crime fiction’s top names. The Cleanup, due out October 31, is getting similar raves. His agent is in negotiations over a potential feature film deal. Unlike many crime authors, Doolittle’s “been lucky” to avoid pressure by editors/publishers to do a series or sequel. His are stand-alone books.

The new novel grew out of a short story, Worth, Doolittle wrote years ago that ended where The Cleanup begins. The character of Worth, a burned out cop reduced to supermarket patrol seeks to redeem himself, gnawed at him.

“I like the idea of this character really trying to do maybe the wrong thing for the right reasons,” he said. “He’s driven to do it. In a dream sort of state, he keeps going. There’s definitely a point of no return in a situation like that where once you step far enough over the line, you have to keep going and keep going. The impulsive action quickly becomes unreturnable. No matter how much he tries to dig himself out he just keeps digging himself in deeper and deeper and deeper. To me, it’s more intriguing than a mystery per se, where you’ve got some clues and you’re trying to piece together a puzzle of who-did-what.

“I’m much more interested in the way people respond to circumstances, what that leads them to do and how those actions compound on each other…There’s really not any sort of mystery in The Cleanup, except wondering how it’s all going to play out for the characters. There are little surprises along the way.”

 

 

 

 

As a nod to classic noir, Doolittle has Worth cross the line for the sake of a woman (Gwen) who, while not quite a femme fatale, draws the cop into a dark place where his one rash act has dangerous consequences in a kind of domino effect.

“In a way, we’re looking at this character of Worth on the day he did something he might not have done on any other day. It ends up changing his life,” Doolittle said of his disaffected hero, who in the course of the story moves from apathy to conviction. “He comes from a long line of police officers and so he goes into that profession as sort of a family trade. But he doesn’t have the temperament for it. He’s not cut out for it. He’s a laughing stock in the department.

“Here’s this guy who became a police officer for this sort of civic minded idea of being useful to the world and found much more self worth in the simple act of bagging people’s groceries than he ever had in the frustrating job of being a cop. In wanting to save her (Gwen) she represents what he wanted to do in becoming a police officer in the first place. This temporary savior complex that overcomes him has lots of levels in it that he puts all together in Gwen.”

What Worth doesn’t know is that his quest to find self-worth in helping Gwen out of a jam is really about saving himself. But, as Doolittle said, his redemption comes “at a fairly high cost by the time it’s all over.”

Although long “drawn to kind of darker stuff,” Doolittle’s not sure why and feels the reasons for it may be best left unexamined.

“It’s the sort of thing where you don’t really want to solve that mystery because it is your fuel and once you learn the secret maybe you lose the fuel,” he said. “The old chestnut is good drama is based on conflict and I think crime novels provide a very visceral, bottom line conflict you can start with and work from. I like what you can do within the general framework of a crime novel or a noir novel in terms of exploring human behavior. I think the way people respond to extreme pressure or in extraordinary circumstances is an interesting dramatic place to play around.”

He recalls the first story he wrote, for a school class exercise, was in the hard-boiled, first-person vein of a P.I. narrator. A kind of, “I was sitting in my office when…” tease. Strangely, he’d not yet read any crime fiction, “but I must have osmosed that sort of iconic story through my skin or something,” he said. “I don’t know if I caught pastiches on television…You just pick that stuff up everywhere.”

 

 

 

 

Among his earliest influences was Stephen King. That led him to Robert Bloch (Psycho). Then about the same  time he was exposed to the neo-noir of Quentin Tarantino’s films and the breezy mayhem of Elmore Leonard’s novels, which led to old masters like Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, Philip Chandler and James M. Cain. “I kind of started like a lot of people do,” he said, “by finding somebody in the mainstream and then reading my way back into the margins from there.”

Born and raised just outside Lincoln, Neb., Doolittle began as a journalism major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln but switched to English under the tutelage of Gerald Shapiro and Judith Slater. As an undergrad his first “pro fiction,” a short story, sold and paid “real money.” He intended on an academic career teaching college English and writing, but after getting his master’s, he said, “I decided what I really wanted to do was write fiction. I got a regular job and just kept on writing.”

Married now with two young children, he still holds down a regular office gig, writing technical manuals for First Data Resources, but he hopes his books will catch on enough to “relieve the need for that day job.”

He credits his wife Jessica for cutting him slack over the odd writer’s life he leads. “When I’m in the middle of a book it’s not just that I’m physically away at the computer typing, when I’m walking around the house my head is somewhere else,” he said. “It’s very difficult to explain, even to a very supportive spouse…that sitting in a chair staring into space is working. You know, there are tough weeks when everybody’s had long days and any human being would lose their patience. With The Cleanup I was very much behind deadline and the end of that book got very tense. I was really having to lock myself away…to try to finish the book. Jessica was very understanding but by the end it was clear that something had to give.”

In his acknowledgements he thanks his mother for coming to the rescue in “the perfect storm” of deadlines, travel commitments and family illnesses that hit all at once. “Everything just fell apart,” he said. “Without my mother I don’t know how we would have gotten through that.”

Where Rain Dogs was set in Valentine, Neb. and The Cleanup in Omaha, the book he’s working on now is set in a fictional Iowa college town. For this as yet untitled “suburban thriller” he doesn’t want the distraction of adhering to a specific place but instead an Anytown USA readers can project their own experiences onto.

Just as he doesn’t like showing his work until he has a finished piece in hand, he dislikes talking about a book still in embryo. “The idea is kind of fragile for a period of time,” he said, “and you can really crush an idea by talking about it too much.” It’s why he’s reluctant to say much about a big screen adaptation of The Cleanup other than there’s “pretty strong interest” from “a fairly well known writer-director. It’s the first book that’s drawn interest prepublication. Things look fairly promising for a deal, but everything in Hollywood is talk until something happens.”

Doolittle may have left Omaha and environs for his new work but he plans to revisit Nebraska again in his fiction. “I’ve really enjoyed writing the last couple of books closer to home and I want to continue to work around this area.” Besides, it’s so much fun to track blood lettings in the very places one haunts.

Jesuit Photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University Documents the Global Human Condition – One Person, One Image at a Time

June 23, 2011 6 comments

Supremely talented photojournalist Don Doll, a Jesuit at Creighton University in Omaha, has been documenting the human condition around the world for five decades, shooting assignments for national magazines and for the Society of Jesus. He’s also a highly respected educator and benevolent mentor. The handful of times I have communicated with him over the years invariably finds him just returned from or prepping for his next jaunt to some faraway spot for his work. Now in his 70s, he has more than kept up with the technological revolution, he’s been on the leading edge of it in his own field, where he long ago went all digital and began practicing the much buzzed about convergence journalism that now routinely sees him file assignments in stills and video and for print, broadcast, and Web applications. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is from a few years ago and is one of a few pieces I’ve done on him and his work that I’m posting on this blog.

 

Don Doll

 

 

Jesuit Photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University Documents the Global Human Condition – One Person, One Image at a Time

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When noted photojournalist Don Doll leaves Omaha on assignment, he generally goes to document the travails of poor indigenous peoples in some Third World nation and what his fellow Jesuits do to help alleviate their misery. The all-digital artist shoots both stills and video. Last spring the Creighton University journalism professor, named 2006 “Artist of the Year” (in Nebraska) by the Governor’s Arts Awards, reported on peasant conditions in Ecuador and Colombia with writer-photographer Brad Reynolds, whom he’s collaborated with for National Geographic stories.

Always the teacher, Doll will share his expertise in a Saturday Joslyn Art Museum class from 9 a.m to noon in conjunction with the Edward Weston exhibit. His work can currently be seen at: the Boone County Bank in Albion, Neb., where photos he shot along the historic Lewis & Clark trail are on display; and the Sioux City (Iowa) Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, where his Vision Quest, 76 images of men, women and sacred sites of the Sioux Nation, shows now through August. His work is included in the permanent collection of the Joslyn, among other museums.

Many of the images he’s filed in recent years chronicle the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which ministers to exiles around the world. Doll’s traveled to many JRS sites. He’s captured the human toll exacted by land mines in Angola and Bosnia and the wrecked lives left behind by civil strife in Sri Lanka. He returned to Sri Lanka again last year to record the devastation of the tsunami and efforts by Jesuit Relief Service to aid families. He’s borne witness in Cambodia, Belize, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and other remote locales. In 2005 he went to Uganda, where his words and photos revealed the “terrible” atrocities visited upon the Night Commuters of Gulu by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Doll estimates 15 million people are displaced from their homes by the war and the LRA. The human rights crisis there is but a small sample of a global problem.

“We don’t even know how many refugees there are in the world,” he said. “There’s probably 20 million internally displaced people and another 20 million who have been forced to leave their countries. I go to these terrible places in the world and try to tell the stories of people who have no other way to have their stories told.”

Making images of hard realities has “an effect” on him. “What does it do to you to photograph in these situations? I think it does something irreparable,” he said. “I mean, you carry those people inside all the time. It makes you aware of how poor people are and what awful things they go through.”

 

 

Chad, refugee

 

 

Even amid the horror of lost limbs and lives, hunger, torture, fear, there’s hope. He recalled an El Salvadorian woman who recounted how gunmen killed her daughter and four sons, yet declared, “‘I have to forgive them because I want God to forgive me.’ Well, the tears started coming down my eyes,” he said. “Here’s this poor, unlettered woman who lost five of her children in the El Salvador war and she’s saying, ‘I forgive them.’ Oh, my God, the insights the poor have.”

Balance for him comes in the form of the humanitarian work he sees Jesuits do.

“I try to tell what Jesuits are doing around the world in their work with the poorest of the poor. Not many people know this story of Jesuits in 50 different countries helping refugees. I’m so proud of being a Jesuit. I’m so impressed by these men,” said Doll, who celebrated 50 years as a Jesuit in 2005.

 

 

 

 

Two colleagues exemplify the order’s missionary work. One, Fr. Tony Wach, is the former rector at Omaha Creighton Prep. Wach aids refugees in Uganda, where he hopes to start a primary school and a secondary school and provide campus ministry for a nearby university. Doll tells his story in a new Jesuit Journeys magazine article titled “Fr. Tony’s Dream.” “He’s amazing,” Doll said.

The other priest, the late Fr. Jon Cortina, built the refugee town of Guarjila in El Salvador and began a program, Pro-Busqueda, to reunite war-displaced children with their families. Doll profiled his friend and ex-classmate on a “Nightline” special. Cortina educated many, even Archbishop Oscar Romero, to the plight of the poor. “Jon used to say, ‘We have the privilege of working with the poorest of the poor to help them.’ That’s what he loved about working up in Guarjila,” Doll said. “He loved those people and they loved him. He really lived the idea of liberation theology.”

Doll came to photography in the late 1950s-early 1960s as a young priest on the Rosebud (South Dakota) Sioux reservation, “where,” he said, “I discovered how to teach.” He said the experience of living and working with Native Americans, whom he made the subjects of two photo books, Crying for a Vision and Vision Quest, “changed my life. There’s something wonderful about being in another culture, being a minority and experiencing the values. It gives you a different perspective on your own culture because it enables you to see in a kind of bas relief your own cultural values and you can either recommit to them or reject them.”

The new values he’s assimilated give him a new understanding of family. “The whole kinship is a really beautiful thing about the Lakota people and how they hold one another in a very close relationship. That’s what you don’t see when you drive through ‘a rez,’ past a tar paper shack surrounded by cars that won’t run — you don’t see the powerful, beautiful relationships inside.”

Doll, who owns a tribal name given him by the Lakota Sioux, maintains ties with Native Americans, photographing an annual Red Cloud Indian School calendar featuring tribal children in traditional dress and mentoring students off ‘the rez’ at Creighton, where he’s proud of the school’s significant native population. He’s proud, too, of native students who’ve gone on to win major awards and jobs.

As much as he enjoys teaching, the pull of far away is always there. “I love to travel. My passion is to make pictures and to document visually what’s going on in the world,” he said. There are many places yet to visit. “I haven’t been to Russia, nor China, nor Australia, but I’ll get there.” His rich Jesuit journey continues.

Check out Doll’s work on his website magis.creighton.edu.

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