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Omaha’s Culinary Culture Rises: Dedicated Local Chefs Elevate Your Dining Experience

August 30, 2015 Leave a comment

I don’t know if thinking about food a good deal of the time and preparing things from scratch once or twice a week qualifies me as a foodie, but in truth I am somewhere between the eating to live and living to eat camps.  Wherever I fall on the spectrum, I do know enough about good food to know when I see it and taste it.  And while my resources don’t allow me to dine out nearly as much as my curiosity and palate would have me, I try enough of the local culinary scene and read enough about it too to have a fair appreciation for what’s happening in terms of the players, the cuisines, the menus, and the venues that are trending hot.  Anyone with a pulse who’s paid attention and sampled even a small portion of Omaha’s culinary culture the past decade knows that the city is in the midst of a food renaissance of sorts that’s seeing more and more highly trained chef owners taking the farm to table movement seriously and serving up diverse offerings that highlight local, fresh, seasonal ingredients and products.   In that spirit, here is a new Reader (www.thereader.com) feature story I did that explores some of what’s making the Omaha culinary culture a much discussed topic.  I sounded out some chef movers and shakers making it happen as well as others with a perspective on this fluid, dynamic scene.

Omaha’s Culinary Culture Rises

Dedicated Local Chefs Elevate Your Dining Experience

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

If you’re an Omaha foodie who believes as many do the local dining out experience has never been better, then you can thank an infusion of original chef-driven and chef-owned eateries for it.

Not coincidentally, many of these places are steeped in the locally-sourced, organic, farm-to-table, artisan, and made-from-scratch movements. Classically trained culinary artists have built relationships with area growers and producers, in some cases designing seasonal and even daily menus around what’s at its peak of freshness and flavor.

Grey Plume chef-owner Clayton Chapman, a strong adherent and leader of the sustainable model, says there are about 50 grower-producers he works with on a regular basis.

“It’s a good healthy number. Some folks grow seasonally, some grow year-round. Some are local, some are in western Nebraska, and some are in Iowa. We work with a few as far as Jefferson, SD and Caledonia, Minn. I feel like our list is vast and it continues to grow.”

The Omaha research and design collaborative, Emerging Terrain, helped bring chefs and purveyors together at two events; 2010’s Stored Potential’s Harvest Dinner and 2011’s Elevate, which some point to as tipping points.

“Those events were so ambitious, so crucial in interconnecting the community,” says Chef Paul Kulik, the driving force behind the Boiler Room and Le Bouillon. “I know we were introduced to a bunch of new suppliers and growers that were extremely helpful. That’s when I really saw through the looking glass.”

 Emerging Terrain dinner

The Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society holds similar events, including the annual Producers Choice and monthly Sustainability Happy Hour.

Metropolitan Community College’s marriage of its well-ranked Institute for Culinary Arts with its Horticulture Department is considered cutting-edge. MCC instructor chefs like Brian O’Malley champion a local foods infrastructure. ICA graduates permeate the local restaurant scene.

Chapman took things to the next level with his Grey Plume Provisions store which opened last summer.

“It only increases our network of farmers because of the volume we’re purchasing. We really wanted to be able to provide the Grey Plume quality of food – the marmalades, the jams, the preserves, our house-roasted coffees, our series of hand-crafted chocolate, the charcuterie – but in an every-day accessible retail format for the home consumer.”

The sustainable, farm-to-table culinary ethos is nothing new. It’s been around since the time of Escoffier, but largely dissolved in America, only to be rediscovered by Alice Waters in California in the late 1960s-early 1970s. In Omaha the trend never quite took hold until recently. Now local chefs such as Chapman, Kulik, and Bryce Coulton of the French Bulldog, are earning national attention for their rigorous and creative applications of old and new philosophies.

“It’s really supply and demand,” Chapman says. “It’s the demand of chefs because we want the best ingredients available. We want to know where our ingredients are coming from. We want to know the farmers, ranchers, and growers raising these products. I think there’s a lot of guest requests for us to procure these items. They want to see them on the menus, too, and it’s because the dining public has never been as educated into what they’re eating, and the health benefits of eating organic, local, or seasonal as they are now .

“There’s so much more attention to it in the media that it’s really kind of come full circle from consumer to chef to farmer, and it’s really kind of putting us all on the same playing field, which is neat.”

 Clayton Chapman

Whether Omaha truly has a signature culinary culture is debatable, but what’s not is that a city long pegged as a steakhouse town, albeit with some continental fine dining spots thrown in, has changed its profile. It’s hard imagining Omaha has ever boasted this depth of culinary talent and diversity of highly executed cuisines before. This critical mass of good food, served in settings that range from fine dining to ultra-casual, and found in virtually every part of the metro, comes just as customers are more discerning and demanding.

“There are a lot of wealthy Omahans who travel domestically and abroad and they see these things happening everywhere and they want it here,” says Dante Ristorante Pizzeria chef owner Nick Strawhecker, an evangelist for wood-fired Neapolitan pizza. “We have so many regulars, they’ve seen the light and they will not go back to the dark again, and it’s fantastic.”

Omaha is developing distinct dining districts to complement its one holdover, the Old Market. A local food tourism industry is in sight as Downtown, Midtown, Dundee, Benson, South Omaha and West Omaha roll out ever more interesting restaurants and food stores.

It’s a happy convergence of trends for diners, who have far more good options today than even five years ago. There is promise of more to come as some sous chefs and line cooks working at top end places invariably launch their own concepts.

“Because you are seeing more and more Omaha restaurants worthy of that type of apprenticeship or up to that sort of training challenge, it really creates a kind of self-sustaining circle of chefs,” Chapman says.

 Paul Kulik

Kulik agrees, saying, “They’re going to take these work habits into their take on a new place. This is why I think it’s not a flash in the pan but a durable change. You have enough people realizing that as an investor, you can probably make money in a restaurant that cares.”

Kulik has a long history on the Omaha culinary scene, and like many of his peers he left here to hone his craft under top chefs across America and Europe. He may best sum up the state of then and now with, “It’s really tough to say 10 years ago there was anything relevant to the national food conversation coming out of Omaha at all. The kind of dynamism and enthusiasm happening now is a trend I expect will continue. It’s just about as significant a turnaround as you can imagine.”

He suggests the culinary evolution has caught up with the arts-cultural-entrepreneurial growth that’s witnessed a more confident, vibrant city.

“About 20 years ago the conversation around town amongst people who cared about cooking and restaurants was whether Omaha was ready for this or for that. Fifteen years later we opened the Boiler Room and that conversation hadn’t changed one iota. The reality is, much like any professional field, it is incumbent on the professionals to maintain the highest level of continuing education, curiosity, development, enrichment, energy, focus and drive to keep the conversation moving forward.

“The food scene cannot simply wait for the sea of change to happen from the customer first, it has to be driven by professionals.”

His declaration of principles, or food manifesto, is shared by many.

“We’re trying to update the dining culture to make it so that it’s kind of entered into the 21st century and in some ways returned to the 19th century, which is to say going back to real products,” Kulik says.

He believes it didn’t happen earlier here because of “a prevailing sentiment in the market to simply continue on and customers settling for what they were accustomed to getting. I think that lethargy of curiosity bled over to the culinary, professional side, where any white table cloth, continental cuisine kitchen was essentially serving the same dish, buying product from the same two or three vendors, with almost no thought about the distinguishing traits of regionalism, of raw products, of raw food techniques, which is taking food that came of the earth that day and maximizing its potential on the plate.”

Life many of his contemporaries, he’s excited by the sophisticated beverage and craft cocktail programs to have emerged in Omaha. He says until now “beverage programs tailored to menus didn’t exist here,” adding, “So now what’s really thrilling is you have determined, in some cases courageous or stubborn cooks and chefs offering the food and the menus they feel most passionate about and are most excited to offer their guests.”

“You don’t go to every restaurant and expect to receive an identical menu,” Kulik says. “Restaurants now can be distinguishable from each other. When that happens you have specialization of labor. Someone can do a particular brand or type of food enough times to become a true expert at that skill set. This is what’s happening now and it’s happening to such a degree that you’re not only getting the chefs doing this but the rest of the kitchen staff. It’s having the ability to do a product thousands and thousands of times, whether it’s the right kind of bread or pizza crust or house made pasta or charcuterie or butchering whole animals or working with farmers.”

Bryce Coulton

Bryce Coulton, whose French Bulldog has won awards for its charcuterie, brought authentic influences here from training he did abroad. He’s bullish on the quality of diverse culinary traditions available.

“We now have Omakase (style of sushi) in Benson. Charcuterie is quite commonplace and has more options than just old-school butcher options African cuisine is now within reach. Pastas are handmade and dishes are just as would be found in Italy, and I lived in Puglia for five years. The whole animal concept is a matter-of-course and it’s not just ribeye, New York strip, et cetera as our steak options. This diversity is part of what has made the culinary scene better. That we’re focusing on local products is another aspect that forces cooks to be more aware of the seasons and prepare a menu and dishes accordingly.”

Bosnian native Dario Schicke, chef-owner of Dario’s Brassiere and Avoli Osteria, has seen a big difference since moving to Omaha in 2002.

“You’d have a really hard time even finding fresh mozzarella on the market. Now restaurants are serving more fresh ingredients we can get from either coast shipped overnight and utilize them in our menu as soon as the next day. That’s a huge improvement in the aspect of all ingredients being available to us. More farmers are being more restaurant-oriented and it’s kind of pushing local chefs, including myself, to use better, fresher local ingredients.”

Dario Schicke

Dario

Kukik describes the benefits a diner like himself experiences at a place featuring this considered, well-articulated approach.

“I’m someone who loves to get taken care of at a restaurant, and I love to be able to have a conversation with the sommelier or the bartender about what beverage makes sense with this, what’s on their bar back, why are they pouring this, why are they into sour beer or cider. These are all parts of the conversation I get to have now because they cared enough, they spent enough time

and energy and money to educate themselves for my benefit.”

“For me, as a diner I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than going to a place and understanding that the people working there care more about my experience than I do. Now there are all these people who are so committed to their craft that it matters deeply and personally if they haven’t given the experience the guest wanted. This is such a huge change compared to before, when after service everyone was partying until 4 in the morning and dragging themselves back to work the next day to deal with the rigors of service or being in the industry, throwing around those terms like a badge of courage – when the challenge is to be excellent despite all the pressures not to be.”

It’s not that Omaha’s past food scene was bereft of quality or care. The now defunct French Cafe, Cafe de Paris, Old Vienna Cafe and Marino’s Italian Restaurant, for example, delivered countless great meals. Mainstays like M’s Pub continue long traditions of excellence. Overall, though, it was a spotty scene and in some instances things began slipping as cooks or owners turned to “shortcuts.”

“A lot of Italian restaurants got away from using real, authentic, high quality ingredients,” says Schicke.

Kulik says, “A lot of white table cloth places became sort of really derivative and unmotivated and there was almost no room for thoughtful casual places.”

Fine dining can be found at select steakhouses, French and Italian restaurants and Asian spots. High concept casual places, especially those doing killer fresh, from-scratch comfort food, abound.

Chefs, along with veteran area food writers Nichole Aksamit and Summer Miller, say the real difference from then to now are the new chef-driven and chef-owned places that display an enthusiastic, even obsessive embrace of well-prepared fresh foods that don’t skimp on technique or flavor. Free of corporate pressures, these chefs truly are the masters of their own kitchens as well as the front of their houses and therefore they can stay absolutely true to their vision and passion, including working closely with purveyors to get the best ingredients for their in-house creations.

Brian O’Malley

Brian O’Malley says rather than a culinary culture, there is an identifiable Omaha culinary school.

“If I were to give it four words to define its primary tenets, they would be: Rustic, honest, beholden and Brave. Omaha’s food is getting better because Omaha’s craftsmen are getting better. We are growing from the knowledge and skills handed to us, and beat into us, by the craftsmen that came before us. We are not magic. We hold no newer, grander philosophical approaches to food than did our predecessors. We are stewards of the craftsmanship we cherish.”

“We have more and more people that care a great deal about their food. This pushes the producers, chefs, and restaurateurs in a loving way to be more respectful of the ingredients and how they are prepared.”

Some local culinary stars are leading the way, and nearly all have come up through the ranks of Omaha’s finer dining establishments.

“Five years ago Paul Kulik down at the Boiler Room was kind of a lone wolf in regards to his sourcing and his menu practices,” Chapman says. “Then we opened and a lot of other people opened after we did, but the availability and the accessibility of those ingredients when we first opened was far less significant than it is now.”

Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society executive director William Powers says, “Numerous chefs have really gotten behind this idea of an Omaha food culture that works hand-in-hand with local farmers who embody the idea of community and culture. Clayton Chapman at Grey Plume, Nick Strawhecker at Dante Ristorante Pizzeria, Joel Mahr at Lot 2 and Paul Kulik of Le Bouillon and Boiler Room are leaders in this good food revolution.

“OverEasy, Kitchen Table, and Block 16 are all great examples of new restaurants embracing this food culture. At the root of this is a sustainable agriculture predicated on supporting local and craft ideals. Farmers and chefs continue to cultivate the relationships through conversations that, in too many restaurants. never happen because the sourcing unfortunately is not as important. But a good chef, like a good farmer, knows the value of creating and growing a product representative of the ideals and culture they’re trying to create.”

Kulik says, “If it’s not the Boiler Room at the tip of the spear then it’s Dante. It’s people coming back in the midst of the economic downturn or Grey Plume opening and offering another white table cloth experience with an overt and extremely full-throated support for local purchasing and sustainable farming practices. It’s Bryce (Coulton) at the French Bulldog with his charcuterie program. Or it’s (chef) Joel Mahr and (owners and sommeliers) Brad and Johanna Marr at Lot 2 being a little bit fresher and more progressive in a revived Benson. Or it’s the Duggans (Colin and Jessica) moving back from San Francisco and opening Kitchen Table.

“All these things coincide with each other but it starts when somebody says, “I’m not going to dilute the message of my product.'”

Several chefs applaud the camaraderie present on the scene.

“Due to the collaborative nature of the culinary environment here, we share experiences, knowledge-technique and farmer-rancher contacts,” Coulton says. “Unless we’re resistant to new ideas, we’re bound to take input from other cooks and further develop ourselves professionally, which leads to dishes that possess a bold creativity, yet with a Midwestern reserve.”

Chapman says, “We’re all kind of rooted in some type of approach. A lot of what we do is rooted in French technique but we combine New American type flavors or presentations. I think it’s allowed everybody to develop their own styles but it’s also created a universal thread. It’s helped build the expectation for the guest, which is probably the most important thing. When we say Contemporary American or New American it just help gives the guest insight into what we do.

“A lot of it is diner or guest awareness. The more educated the home consumer, even the more they cook meals from scratch themselves at home, the more they’re going to appreciate meals from scratch when they go out to eat and the more they’re going to look for it. I think that’s huge and I definitely think that’s where the market is headed.”

“But really what drives it is the reward, the satisfaction you get for giving a value-added experience that’s appreciated,” Kulik says. “When enough guests say, ‘I had no idea it could ever be like this,’ boy are you ever emboldened and want to step it up. It’s like a drug and you so desperately want to offer that experience all the time.

That’s how it really pushes the expectations higher.”

Nick Strawhecker, ©photos by Dana Damwood from the book New Prairie Kitchen by author Summer Miller

The recognition some Omaha chefs have received, including James Beard nominations, can rub off on others.

“I’m a firm believer in a high tide raising all ships,” Chapman says.

“As one chef gains acknowledgment for a job well done, it forces the rest of the chefs to want to step up their game as well,” Coulton says.

Kulik says where only a few years ago he struggled naming even a few places to steer big city visitors to, he has a ready list today.

“What’s awesome now is I can say, ‘You need to go here for brunch, here for lunch, here for dinner, here for this kind of meal, there for that kind of meal, this place is great for this or the other thing.’ There’s like 12 to 18 places I can recommend, from rehabilitated places like V Mertz that’s turned this corner and become a really interesting and inspiring restaurant, or Taita, the best restaurant in town nobody’s heard of, Lot 2, Kitchen Table, Block 16, the French Bulldog, Avoli, Dario’s, the Boiler Room, Le Bouillon, the Grey Plume, Dante…”

Other spots getting love include Mark’s Bistro. DixieQuicks, Le Voltaire, Laos Thai, China Garden, Taqueria Tijuana and Metro’s Sage Student Bistro. Enzo’s and Mouth of the South are new players in underserved North Omaha (Florence).

“What are you in for? Where are you staying? That’s the whole point right? That there’s food to be had all over town that’s going to stay with you,” Kulik says.

Strawhecker says, “I’m definitely a lot more proud about our culinary scene than before. When I was in Chicago I balked at moving back because I was like, ‘There’s no place for me to eat’. It was kind of bleak. Now there’s like 10 joints I go to on a regular basis that are fantastic. That’s just from a personal standpoint but that overlaps professionally because of the discerning guests who have to have certain things we now have in Omaha to offer.”

Omaha may be an emerging regional food destination but everyone agrees it has room to grow in terms of more markets and eateries that feature fresh products and authentic ethnic choices.

“If there’s food tourism coming then that’s because we’re not only participating in the national conversation about food but in fact we’re also directing a portion of that conversation,” says Kulik. “That’s where I hope we can take what we do here.”

Vic Gutman, the man behind the metro’s largest farmers markets, is planning what may be the next big catalyst on the local food scene – the Omaha Market, an under-one-roof fresh foods hub.

Life comes full circle for singer Carol Rogers

August 28, 2015 Leave a comment

Cover Photo

A good portion of my life is spent interviewing and profiling artists and creatives of one type or another.  It’s a good challenge for me to try and give readers an authentic representation of the subject and his/her persona, spirit, character, and voice without reducing them to stereotype or generic personality.  I really strive to have you feel and hear the individual as I come to know them.  My encounters with these talented folks are often rich experiences for the lively give and take that happens as I more or less give them free rein to be themselves.  I want them to express themselves without holding back or self-censoring  One of my more recent experiences along these lines was with singer Carol Rogers and I thoroughly enjoyed our time together.  She is all positve love, light, and energy and she has a distinctive way of expressing herself that is poetic and soulful, earthy and esoteric, all at once.  I believe I’ve captured her many colors in this new cover piece for the September 2015 New Horizons.  Look for it at newstands or call 402-444-6654 for a free subscription to the monthy paper.  Make the call and you’ll have the issue with her story and every forthcoming issue sent to your home or business.

NOTE: For the same newspaper, New Horizons, I profiled Carol’s mother, singer-pianist Jeanne Rogers, and some other Omaha black women in music.  Jeanne was the music director and pianist at one of my regular places of worship in Omaha, Church of the Resurrection.

Here is a link to that earlier story on my blog-

http://leoadambiga.com/?s=black+women+in+music

Life comes full circle for singer Carol Rogers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the September 2015 New Horizons

Since putting down Omaha roots again after years away pursuing her music career, free-spirited singer Carol Rogers is sure she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be.

This hipster hails from a revered musical heritage family that’s done great things with their craft. Like her brothers Donnie, Ronnie and Keith, she made a name for herself here but enjoyed her biggest success elsewhere. Her big break came earning a spot singing and recording with Brazilian star Sergio Mendes. It meant performing in English and Portuguese across myriad musical styles. Her virtuosity has inspired some in the biz to call her “a vocal god.”

Her stage persona and song interpretation can be sweet, salty or sultry. She can scat, sing jazz, R&B, soul, blues, country, pop, rock, even heavy metal. She once covered “Rage Against the Machine.”

Her association with Mendes put her in the company of celebrities and dignitaries. That heady period fulfilled a lifelong desire to feed the beat-of-a-distant-drummer leanings she’s always felt.

Despite growing up surrounded by the sounds of Motown’s black divas, Rogers said, “I used to think I was Doris Day. I would come down the stairs, ‘Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be,’ and my brothers would wait for me at the bottom of the stairs to pummel me with, ‘Who do you think you are? Wake up, you skinny chicken head, wake up.’ So I kind of lived in a fantasy land. I never really saw myself like everyone else looks at themselves. I like to do things differently. I kind of was a hippy without the drugs because I liked the way they dressed.”

“Even as a young woman I couldn’t look like everybody else. To this day I feel most comfortable when I have on lots of colors.”

Her funky sensibility extends to a window treatment in her home that has a gingham curtain with a paisley print against a red wall, though she said she’s self-conscious enough to wonder if visitors think “I’m decorating like a crack-head in a brothel.” At the end of the day, she said, “I just want to celebrate and excite as I go and come.”

It’s why after dying her hair she’s let it go gray, proudly wearing the beauty of her age in dreadlocks that frame her queenly features.

“I began to embrace my gray. It’s a crown of righteousness if it’s accompanied by good works.”

Her righteous energy found expression in a Ladies Sing the Blues concert at Loves Jazz & Arts Center when she arrived in character as an elder negotiating a walker to the stage. Once there, she shed costume, wig and prosthetics to reveal her youthful, high-octane self and sleek legs. She then proceeded to tear up the joint with a full-throated, hip-swaying, table-topping blues performance in the spirit of Big Mama Thornton and Shemekia Copeland.

“Coming in with the girls, I knew I was going to break it down into something completely different,” Rogers said. “Yeah, I’m an entertainer. I think that’s what makes me different from other folks. I’m not afraid to put on fake boobs and a fake butt and act a little silly. I want to explore my uniqueness as an entertainer and to never compromise my professionalism.

“I don’t fit into anybody’s mold and I will not acquiesce.”

Rogers in stairwa (reduced)

During the kinetic A Happening concert she did at Carver Bank with new age musician Dereck Higgins she adorned herself in head band and glitter to help affect just the right groovy mood for this retro rave.

She feels certain her bohemian spirit is divinely directed, saying. “God was deciding my mind frame to think outside the box.”

The family matriarch who made music a family inheritance for Carol and her brothers is their mother Jeanne Rogers. She was a woman who did her own thing as well. Jeanne sang with area big bands and gigged as a jazz pianist-vocalist. A talent for music didn’t fall far from the tree, as Carol and her brothers have all made a living in music and joined their mother as Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame inductees.

Carol’s four children “all have voices,” too. Bethany, a recording sound engineer by trade, is especially gifted. Mom proudly watched her daughter “tear it up” one Sunday at One Way Ministry Apostles Doctrine Church, where the family worships.

Even when Jeanne became an Omaha Public Schools educator and administrator, she never left music behind. Indeed, she used it as a tool to reach kids. Carol, who as a girl used to accompany her mom to school to help her and other teachers set up their classrooms, followed in her footsteps to become a teacher herself, including running her own “kindergarten school of cool” that all her kids went through.

Carol, 61, also grew up under the influence of her grandmother Lilian Matilda Battle Hutch, She remembers her as an enterprising, tea-totaler who on a domestic worker’s wages managed buying multiple homes, subletting rooms for extra income. She sold Avon on the side.

“She could see opportunity and she was on the grind all the time. They called her ‘The General’ because she’d rifle out her demands – You comn’ in? I need you to go in the backyard and weed some stuff.'”

When Jeanne developed dementia, Carol’s trips back home increased to check on her mother and eventually take charge of her care. When Jeanne could no longer remain in her own home, Carol placed her in nursing facilities. She rests comfortably today at Douglas County Health Center. Carol’s since come back to stay. She and two of her kids reside in her mother’s former northeast Omaha home.

Carol with her mother Jeanne

As a homage to her educator mother, Carol has a kitchen wall double as a chalk board with scribbled reminders and appointments.

“Chalk is how she relayed things,” Carol said of her mom.

Both sides of a living room door are also chalk boards, only Rogers calls them “blessing boards. She has guests leave inscriptions and affirmations on one side and she writes scriptural passages on the other side. She calls it “seasoning” the door.

There in her home, one August morning, Rogers recounted her personal journey as an artist and a woman of faith who’s been born again. She recalled growing up in a bustling household on Bristol Street where she couldn’t help but be immersed in music between her siblings rehearsing and her mother and her musician friends jamming. That 24-7 creative hub imbued her with a love for performing.

“In the summertime it was just crawling with people because my brothers had instruments. In the basement they were always practicing. It got so I couldn’t study without a lot of noise. I still sleep with noise. If you didn’t get home in time and there was food you didn’t eat because the people who were in the house ate. It was first come-first served. That used to make me mad.

“But there was music. Folks would come. A typical weekend, Billy Rogers, not any relation, would come and jam. Everybody who was anybody came in and jammed. I didn’t know who they all were, all I knew there was always noise.”

The Rogers’ home was the place neighborhood kids congregated.

“My mother would boast that kids’ parents would say, ‘Why is my child always at your house?’ Because they’re welcome and there’s music. And so that’s just the way it was. That’s the way I remember the house. I didn’t have to go looking for people or excitement – it came to the house. There was always something going on.”

Her mother grew up near enough the old Dreamland Ballroom to hear the intoxicating rhythms of the black music greats who played there.

“That’s when she got bitten by the jazz bug,” Carol said. “She would go to sleep hearing the music playing at Dreamland.”

Carol enjoyed an even more intimate relationship with music because of the nightclub atmosphere Jeanne orchestrated at home.

“Oh, these jam sessions that mama would have. All I know is we would have to be whisked to bed. Of course, we could hear them at night. They would never go past 10 or so. Occasionally she would let us come down and just watch, which was a privilege. There’d be Basie Givens, who she played with forever, Clean Head Base, Cliff Dudley, the names go on of all the people who would come in. And they’d just jam, and she’d sing and play piano.

“It was a big party and to-do thing at the house. I would go to sleep hearing her and her friends play the jam sessions. Coming downstairs in the morning there was always somebody crashed out on the floor.

Rogers & board (reduced)

As a girl, Rogers was aware of the racism and discrimination that confined African-Americans to Omaha’s Near North Side.

“I didn’t venture past 72nd (Street) much.”

But she also saw how music broke down such barriers.

“Music was colorless and it brought everybody together. White folks would come into the neighborhood to play at my mother’s house. Italians, Jews were coming in. It was like a United Nations. Anybody could play, you came in.”

The diversity she was exposed to at home and at Omaha Central High School helped prepare her for the cultural smorgasbord she found with Mendes on international tours and in cosmopolitan Los Angeles.

It took a lot to finally get this restless singer to come back home to stay. She went through a stage when life was a series of gigs and parties. Then she settled down to raise her four kids as a single mom, eventually making her living as a much-in-demand vocal instructor.

She still works with artists today.

The truth is that even though Rogers is settled here now, there’s still a part of her yearning to go off somewhere. It’s why she’s in Rio de Janeiro this month working with an aspiring performing artist.

Now that she’s back home, she’s gigging at different venues around town. This is where it all started for her. Some of her earliest musical expressions came performing in youth Show Wagon concerts in Omaha city parks and in talent shows at the Omaha Civic Auditorium. She starred in Central High Road Shows. She appeared at Allen’s Showcase in North Omaha. She made her first television appearance on KETV’s Black on Black community affairs program.

         
    
    
The Omaha native first flew the coop as a teen with the Omaha Can Do Ambassadors on a tour to Greenland, Iceland and Canada.
Rogers, whose musical influences never seemed in synch with the times or her culture, as witnessed by her idolizing Judy Garland and Doris Day, eventually fixed on a suitable model.

“I wanted to be Diana Ross,” she said. “I wanted to stand up and sing, ‘Baby, baby…’ Yeah, that was my dream.”

She never found the solo career she craved but she did tour the U.S. with C.W, McCall in the wake of the “Convoy” hit record. Chip Davis later of Mannheim Steamroller fame, was the producer-composer-arranger. Playing red-neck honky-tonks with McCall she couldn’t be out front with her big personality because African-Americans weren’t always welcomed. Receding further into the background and having her spirit dampened was killing her.

She quit C.W. McCall and returned to Omaha, where she was the area’s most requested studio background singer for records and commercials, but she once again found the city too stultifying for her free spirit. This caged bird not only needed to fly but to soar far away.

She went out to Calif. to audition for Stevie Wonder but never really got a fair shake, not even meeting the famed artist. Dejected by that experience, she despaired what to do next.

“I was very depressed here because I knew I had to do something else. I said, I need something more. A true story: I was lying in bed knowing I should go to church – I hadn’t been born again at the time – when God’s voice told me to go back to California. There was no doubt in my mind who had spoken to me. I immediately put everything I wanted in my Volkswagen and left and and I haven’t had to look back. That mission was successful.”

She managed a face to face audition with Sergio Mendes, who needed singers for an upcoming tour. It came down to her and another girl and Carol won the spot. Rogers said it worked to her advantage she didn’t realize just how big a star Mendes was before trying out.

“Naivete was the angel’s wings I floated on with him. I had no idea how huge he was, otherwise I’d have panicked. I auditioned in the latter part of June 1976 and on July 4 he called to say, ‘If you want the job, it’s yours.’ I put the phone down and screamed.”

She said she reminded him that she’d earlier sent in an audio tape of her voice that he never acknowledged, to which he responded, “I never even listened to it and per that tape I would have never hired you.”

As the whirlwind touring commenced, she said she soon discovered like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Whew! But I was ready.” During nearly 25 years working together, she and Mendes became muses to each other.

“We fit because I was ready to totally immerse myself into something. I was fascinated with black people speaking another language. The ability to immerse myself in something and travel the world and get paid for it, well, it was a great education, it was a Ph.D.”

Rogers cover (reduced)

She got the adventure she sought but like many who get what they ask for, she found that career success alone didn’t complete her.

“I went through some things in L.A. Severely depressed for some years. Working top dollar but depressed because something was missing – I was separated from the Lord. I was still traveling with Sergio when I was reborn in 1980 coming off a long tour in Japan.

“I baby sat a friend’s house and I needed something to read, so I went to a bookstore and got Billy Graham’s book, How to be Born Again. I read it and knew that when Jesus went to that cross he died for me, too, It absolutely blew me away. I spontaneously started writing Christian songs.”

The words and music came flowing out of her as if supplied by a higher source.

“You see, when you’re first born again the Lord sojourns with you and he talks to you. Today, my faith is now seasoned with trials and rejoicing in trials.”

She found great satisfaction teaching at a prestigious L.A. performing arts school. At a certain point she developed a sort of alter ego for her teaching role – Mama O.

“Mama O came about when I needed an identity to separate me from the students. Everybody respects mama, so I decided I’m going to be Mama. And Mama what?. So, Mama O, in deference to my time in Brazilian culture.

“That got to my psyche so powerfully that I felt more powerful as a teacher. I’m not just Carol Rogers, no, I’m Mama. When Mama tells you to do something, you better do it. Mama won’t loan you no money, because I’m not that kind of mama. Mama might give you a little lecture because that’s what mamas do. But Mama’s going to show you how it’s done and Mama’s going to ask you to do it exactly.”

She said that bigger-than-life persona is “the rock side of me, the metal side of me.” Since relocating back to Omaha in 2013, Rogers said, “Mama’s a bit quieter here because nobody believes her. After I start teaching again (which she plans to do at the collegiate level) I would like to be called Mama O again.”

Even with work and faith, the L.A. scene became trying.

“California became my Canaan experience. Friendship is hard to find. Backsliding is very easy. But if you’re called and you know you’re born again, nobody can pluck you from God’s hand. Now, the deeper story. Everything closed for me in my life. You know when God closes a door but opens another? That’s exactly what was happening to me.”

Cover Photo

 Carol with Dereck Higgins promoting A Happening.

She said though she was “a favorite, award-winning” teacher at the school where she taught, she endured a backlash from administrators because her forceful personality made her stand out. Students asked for her specifically.

“Kids would come thousands of miles from Europe, India, Japan and say, ‘We want Mama.’ They called me Mama. They were told, ‘Well, she’s taken, you can’t have her.’ I said, ‘Fix it, give me some more hours.'”

The young singers she worked with on all aspects of performance represented many vocal-music styles and Rogers determined she wouldn’t teach something unless she could do it herself.

“I had to do it all, even heavy metal. How can I tell to do something if I don’t show you I can do it? I was adamant about that and it set me apart from my contemporaries at school and for that reason the director of the school said, ‘You’re an easy target, we want everybody to be alike. But you stand out like a sore thumb.'”

As her situation there became tenuous, she was touched by students siding with her. But each time she spoke out, tensions only increased. She felt like the administration wanted to dampen her originality in order to make her conform.

“When my job began to become corporate, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t exercise my God-given uniqueness.”

So, she left, and in 2013 she finalized her move to Omaha.

“I didn’t want to come back to Omaha but I knew i had to come back for my mom because I became her guardian. I needed to be here in all of the Midwest’s mystery and awe and hummingbird moths and thunderstorms. I was telling my daughter during a beautiful thunderstorm that the lightning was God’s paparazzi.'”

She said she never imagined her two children living with her would ever take to Neb., but they have.

“They both marvel at the thunderstorms and the cicadas in the trees and the squirrels and wild turkeys running around. My oceans are the cicadas at night, the diminuendo and the crescendo.”

It’s not just her family who’s fond of Midwest living.

“If I describe this place to my Calif. friends – ‘Everything I need for a taco is running around free ‘ they think it’s paradise.”

She’s disheartened though Omaha now suffers from inner city woes like persistent gun violence that didn’t really exist back in her day. Like many from her generation, she longs for a return to the It-takes-a-village-to-raise-child culture she grew up in.

With some perspective now, she feels things worked out the way they were supposed to in bringing her back home to be with her mom. She never forgets the inspiration for her life’s journey in music.

“Mom gave us music and she gave us a house full of it all the time.”

Seeing her mom’s mental capacities diminish has been difficult. Seeing her no longer recall the words to songs she sang thousands of times, like “My Funny Valentine,” cuts deeply. No one is prepared for losing a loved one, piece by piece, to the fog of Alzheimer’s. All Rogers or anyone can do is be there for the afflicted.

“I’m glad I’m close by for her sake to remind her she’s loved and hopefully, even though she doesn’t recognize me, give her a familiarity.”

As if dealing with her mother’s odyssey were not enough, Rogers no sooner got situated here than the home she inherited from her suffered a disaster while she was away.

“I came back to find the pipes burst over the winter. The water in the basement was up to my knees. Then the tears began to roll because I’m thinking, You don’t know how much insurance will pay off. That winter was so terrible that they couldn’t get to me for five days. By the time they got to me this place stank of mildew and mold.”

There was insurance but it didn’t come near to covering the damage.

“I didn’t know what i was going to do but I knew God didn’t bring me this far for nothing.”

She attributes providence with bringing the home from disaster to rebirth and the blessings that came with it.

“A Christian couple to whom the Lord has given many gifts love my vocal ministry and they gave me $50,000 to put this house back together. The demolition guys came in like piranhas and took everything down to beams and joists. I could see the attic from downstairs.”

She was put up at a Residence Inn for five months while the heavy work was done. The result is essentially a brand new home.

“Everything is new,” she said. “As the guys were installing the appliances I was crying. Why? Because God has granted me favor beyond favor. The Lord impressed upon my heart the scripture that says, ‘In Christ, all things become new.’ It just doesn’t mean your spirit – you can get some new stuff, too. That’s OK.”

She’s given the home a Biblical name.

“I call my home Lazarus Resurrected because by the time they got to it, it stank, but Jesus resurrected it. My mission statement of this home is to serve. Just like my mother’s house did but with a little bit more decorum. Can’t just anybody get in and out of here.

“And once music begins I’m sure I’ll have more people coming through. Inevitably the basement will become my kick-it space like it was once before. I’ll be able to put instruments down and not fear water finding it’s mark again.”

Playing hostess will be new for her, she said, “because in L.A. I was too busy to have company. I’d come home after driving to and from and would want to collapse. So I’m learning hospitality and welcoming it. I look forward to it because this house is blessed, it’s anointed. It’s blessed me. It was an inherited blessing from my mother, it has to continue and it will. My kids are here.”

Rogers in chair (reduced)

She feels blessed, too, whenever she takes the stage.

“In this day in age when you’re inundated with the electronic ability to insulate yourself, I never ever count it anything less than a privilege to be heard by a live audience. That being the case, I have to prepare. I’m not so fast at learning things anymore, so it takes a long time to prepare these days,

“Yeah, it’s a privilege to be able to share my feelings and my life experience through my singing. Sometimes my nerves derail me but usually that means I needed to pay a little bit more attention to details.”

Just as she’s most alive when she freely expresses her uniqueness, she helps voice students find and nurture their own uniqueness.

The student she’s working with in Brazil has all the necessary vocal chops, Rogers said, but needs confidence in herself and in her ability to perform in front of live audiences. Rogers draws her own vast experience to try and get students to look at performing as a collaboration or communion. She likens it to a figure eight.

“The band is behind me and at the apex is me and then the audience is in front of me. Everything they do when I’m on stage comes through me and it’s just a circular exchange of credibility – we believe you, we give you our energy. And the band’s supporting me. What a privilege to have people backing me. They’ve got my back.

“To be in front at that apex, sharing it and feeling it come back to me through them is such a high. That is what I really concentrate on. It’s cathartic, especially as I’ve learned to sing the blues.”

Hanging on a wall of her home is a metal artwork depicting an after the club scene with unmanned band instruments and overturned chairs. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture her at the apex with a hot three-piece band behind her and a live wire crowd in front of her.

Rogers still records from time to time. On a 2011 visit to Omaha she met local jazz pianist, composer, arranger Chuck Marohnic at Countryside Community Church when she insinuated herself into a piece he was playing. He immediately asked her to be one of the singers from around the nation lending their voices to his Jazz Psalms Project that features original music for all 150 psalms in the Bible’s Book of Psalms.

“I’d never been asked to do something like this before,” she said, referring to jazz arrangements of scriptures. Ironically, her mother introduced jazz tinges to traditional hymns at Church of the Resurrection in Omaha when she was music director there.

For the Jazz Psalms Project Rogers said, “We did everything live. Oh, what a high. And the guys were great, including Chuck at the piano. It was absolutely amazing all of us playing together.”

Upon return from her coaching stint in Brazil she’ll no doubt grace various nightspots with her unique talents starting in the fall.

It’s a good time for Carol Rogers. She’s more comfortable in her own skin than she has been in a long while.

“Being home has helped. Having two of my kids here has helped. Also seeing God work miracles, ah, that’ll make you get your head right.”

This ever curious searcher just wants to keep creating and stretching herself. Her exploration, she said, “never done.”

Just don’t ask her to stay in the shadows.

“I want my light to shine.”

Follow the artist at http://www.carolrogersmusic.com.

My new book with Father Ken Vavrina, ‘Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden,’ officially releases today – August 26, 2015

August 26, 2015 1 comment

My new book with Father Ken Vavrina

Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden

Releases today, August 26, 2015

Order your copies at-

http://www.UpliftingPublishing.com

My new book with Father Ken Vavrina, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden, officially releases today, August 26, 2015, in conjunction with the birthday of Mother Teresa. He variously knew the late nun and humanitarian now in line to become a saint in the Catholic Church as his inspiration, boss, colleague and friend.

Before going overseas to do missionary work the Clarkson, Neb. native served various parishes in the state, including Sacred Heart and Holy Family in Omaha. After years away serving the poorest of the poor, he returned home and served at St. Richard and St. Benedict the Moor.

He’s ministered to many diverse communities in his time, including Native American reservations, Hispanic parishes and inner city African-American congregations. He is a long-time social justice champion and an outspoken equal rights advocate. He’s also served divese populations around the world, including long stints in Yemen, India and Liberia.

The book is the story of this beloved priest’s life and travels – simple acts that moved him, people that inspired him and places that astonished him. Father Vavrina has served as a priest for many years and has served several missions trips to help the needy. Father Ken worked with lepers in Yemen, and was ultimately arrested and thrown in jail under false suspicions of spying. After being forcibly removed from Yemen, he began his tenure with Catholic Relief Services, first in the extreme poverty and over-population of Calcutta in India, and then with warlords in Liberia to deliver food and supplies to refugees in need. Father Ken also spent several years working with Mother Teresa to heal the sick and comfort the dying. Father Ken has spent his life selflessly serving the Lord and the neediest around him, while always striving to remain a simple, humble man of God.

The book features a beautiful full-color album with Father Vavrina’s photo collection. Crossing Bridges is available online for single copy or bulk purchase at-

http://www.UpliftingPublishing.com

It is also available in black and white and Kindle ebook formats on Amazon.com.

Soon to be available in select bookstores. Watch for announcements about signings.

After the costs of publishing are subtracted, all proceeds from this book will be donated to Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Omaha. It is Father’s sincere hope that others will read the stories and be inspired to serve their fellow man, either right next door or somewhere across the world.

From the book:
“The very first bridge I crossed was choosing to study for the priesthood, a decision that took me and everyone who knew me by surprise. Then came a series of bridges that once crossed brought me into contact with diverse peoples and their incredibly different yet similar needs.”

From Father Ken:
“I pray this account of my life is not a personal spectacle but a recounting of a most wonderful journey serving God. May its discoveries and experiences inspire your own life story of service.”

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPTS FROM

CROSSING BRIDGES: A PRIEST’S UPLIFTING LIFE AMONG THE DOWNTRODDEN

©2015 Kenneth Vavrina

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NOTE: Father Vavrina contracted malaria in Yemen and he’s dealt with malaria attacks ever since. He describes one in the book that ;anded him in the  hospital

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Praise for my recent story, ‘Change in North Omaha, It’s Been a Long Time Coming…’

August 26, 2015 2 comments

Praise for my recent story, ‘Change in North Omaha, It’s Been a Long Time Coming…’

I am fortunate to have a dear acquaintance by the name of Paul Serrato who is a consummate jazz keyboardist and composer. He left Omaha a long time ago for New York City only to return to his hometown a few years ago.  I have high admiration for his work, which deserves wider recognition.  Well, he sent me the nicest note the other night expressing much praise for my August 2015 feature story in The Reader (www.thereader.com) headlined “Change in North Omaha, It’s Been a Long Time Coming…” I am aware the piece has found a receptive audience and apparently been the topic of and/or the catalyst for much conversation.  Like any writer, I appreciate it when anyone bothers to actually read my work.  To have someone carefully consider it and respond to it is, well, a rare and gratifying thing.  Thank you, Paul.

With his kind permission, I am sharing his message below along with the following links to the story he is giving props to-

http://leoadambiga.com/2015/08/01/change-in-north-omaha-its-been-a-long-time-coming-for-northeast-omaha/

http://leoadambiga.com/2015/08/03/change-in-north-omaha-its-been-a-long-time-coming-for-northeast-omaha-2/

I have also posted the story below in two different layout formats.

I am proud of the piece and if you haven’t already read it, I hope that you do.  I certainly don’t expect everyone to respond to it the way Paul did.  By the way, he generously describes my work as “investigative journalism,”which it most decidely is not, nor does it pretend to be.  Instead, it is alternative journalism that attempts to give some fresh perspectives on persistent issues.  No more, no less.

Leo,

Congratulations on you first-class piece of investigative reporting, (The Reader, Aug. 15), “Change in North Omaha, It’s been a long time coming.” This was a serious piece of in-depth journalism on an overlooked topic crying for
measured, authentic reporting.

You’ve released authentic voices to be heard in contexts other than “candlelight vigils”. Who knew
so much good, caring work is being done by citizens who have risen to action in an effort to make a
difference?

As a relatively recent transplant to Omaha, I’ve been, at best, puzzled by and, at worst, depressed
by the acute dichotomy I’ve observed of black and white here. (To be sure, I’ve noticed it with other
groups, as well.)

Your piece belongs in the OWH. That it’s not there tells us, in itself, where a good part of the problem
lies. Perhaps they can give you an award for “Best Investigative Reporting.”

Paul Serrato

Change in North Omaha: It’s been a long time coming for northeast Omaha

African-American residents weigh in on old-new challenges, opportunities, approaches to revitalize the area

©BY LEO ADAM BIGA

NOW APPEARING IN THE READER (WWW.THEREADER.COM)

Quality-of-life metrics assessing the state of African-American northeast Omaha paint a stark picture. Pockets experience some of America’s worst poverty and gun violence. Disparities contradict Omaha’s high best-place-to-live rankings.

Riot-scarred landscapes remain untouched decades later. Urban renewal brought distrust and dislocation. Combined with education, employment, income, home-business ownership gaps, it’s a stuck-in-time place. Stalled economic growth and limited opportunity drive many away. Others stay out of conviction or concession.

While North Omaha is the focus of unprecedented education initiatives and redevelopment efforts driven by major public-private coalitions, key markers show little’s changed where people’s lives are concerned.

With ex-pats back for the biennial Native Omaha Days, there’s much nostalgia and lament. Seven community-engaged residents trying to remedy the challenges recently shared their take on the situation.

After being away, Omaha native Michelle Troxclair, 46, Nebraska Writers Collective deputy director, says upon returning she noted “North Omaha and the people who live there were stagnate in many ways.”

“They became comfortable with nothingness. Our leadership appeared, for the most part, to be spinning their wheels and more concerned with the scraps they were getting than a place at the table. Then they began fighting for those scraps amongst themselves. I thought I could make a difference, and I did, but in a very different community. Yeah, we got a Walmart and Aldi’s. North (High) is getting a new stadium. They tore down the Hilltop projects. I see some new housing. Again–scraps.”

When Angel Martin, 31, moved to Omaha from Milwaukee she saw abandoned, boarded-up properties here as seeds of potential. Now she views them as emblems of lost opportunity.

“If people see that every day you’re unfortunately going to believe it’s the norm,” says Martin, who directs the Katherine Fletcher Center at Girls Inc. “We should have took on that mindset of taking back our community. It starts with the homes. We should have pooled our resources together to buy these houses.”

Preston Love Jr., 73, hails from a North O legacy family led by his late father, musician Preston Love Sr. He left for a while–to work for IBM and to manage political campaigns. He says when he came back home, “my community was in shambles. I got motivated to get involved because of what I found.” He’s since been on a “soap box” about this once great community being brought down by “residual negatives.”

“When I was growing up, North Omaha was rich in culture, rich in commerce, rich in religion and church. We had our own everything. We had each other. We had neighborhoods. We had love for your neighbors and spankings if you didn’t act right. We had all that.”

Discrimination and racism still ruled, however.

“We didn’t have the ability to go places, we didn’t have the ability to go downtown to see a movie, we couldn’t swim at Peony Park, we couldn’t go inside Joe Tess. We didn’t have this, we didn’t have that, and some of it was a little deeper than some carp.”

  •  Preston Love Jr.

Love believes blacks “made a catastrophic mistake” choosing integration over desegregation.

“If you integrate you lose half the things you did have because you begin to water down your culture. When you integrate Walmart into this culture, mom and pops close. We should have affirmed all the things we had and fought for desegregation to get what we didn’t have.”

Sundiata Menelik, 57, has returned after decades as a developer and real estate magnate in Minnesota. He recalls as a kid the flourishing North 24th Street business district: “It was alive.” By the time he went away, however, it died. Job prospects for blacks dried up.

“Everybody from my generation was trying to escape this the way you escaped apartheid South Africa or any place that is hell on Earth. For us, that’s what it was.”

 Sundiata Menelik

In Menelik’s opinion, “nothing’s happened” to reverse the black brain drain and narrow opportunities. He deems this stalemated community “backwards” compared to more progressive sister communities.

“This is a reservation right here and the same ills on the reservation are here, it’s just not in your face. A lot of this is institutional.”

Menelik also says North O is a separate world from the majority of the world. Some blacks can freely step in and out of both worlds. Others can’t.

“When you can’t escape, there’s nothing, What you see is bleak.”

“People feel oppressed,” Martin says. I think poverty is what comes from being oppressed. If you don’t have opportunities to get good paying jobs, then it’s difficult to rise above.”

Ean Garrett, 29, came up in North O’s poverty zone.

“Three to four generations growing up in poverty have come to believe poverty is their place in life as opposed to understanding they should be able to work hard and gain the fruits of this system,” Garrett says.

Menelik says inclusion is an illusion here for many.

“We’re the best place for startups, the best place to raise a family, but it don’t have nothing to do with black people. Nebraska’s as segregated and racist as anywhere in the United States.”
He asserts blacks here are “not looked at as full citizens.”

Ean Garrett, J.D. - Chief Innovation Officer  

Ean Garrett

Aledia Kartchner - Social Innovation Consultant

Aledia Kartchner

Garrett says it’s not just blacks getting the shaft in North O.

‘There’s still a lot of white people living here and they’re being given the short end of the stick as well.”

“What we have left is an impoverished community,” Love says. “That doesn’t mean everybody in it. When you have serious poverty like it is here you have a (drug-gang) subculture that’s figured out there’s no future in the (mainstream) community. So they created their own community and it’s thriving. Money’s flowing, big time. Everything’s working just fine. They may have to die but that’s OK because they’re not expected to live and all that logic. That subculture is created by poverty and breeds total disconnect from lawfulness.”

Menelik has lost loved ones to gun violence, He’s doing prevention work as local Mad Dads chapter president. He is also on the board of the Bryant Center Association that serves at-risk young people.

He sees an urgent need to intervene in the hopelessness.

“The game is over, man. The kids, they’re hollering out silently. If it was a movie you’d see a bunch of black hands reaching up and saying, ‘Where are you and when are you coming?’

“We’re taking it upon ourselves to do for ourselves and to do it right now. It’s crucial.”

“The only major solution is economic inclusion, economic health for this community,” Love says. “If you lay on the table jobs and alternatives a lot more will take it than people realize. Do we need better education? Yes, we’ve got educational gaps that need filling. We’ve got a high drop-out rate that needs improving. We need to reduce STDs. All of those are more factors than potential solutions.”

He says North O should demand more autonomy and accountability from the nonprofit social sector set up to address its myriad needs.

“We have a lot of people pimping the community. They don’t live in the community, they work in the community receiving what benefits there are coming into a poverty-infected area and then they escape out of it, taking the benefits of the drops, the crumbs.”

Menelik says after ignoring North O the power elites “understand they’ve got to do something because we’re right on the doorstep of North Downtown development. They want to come off [as] multicultural.” Whatever happens, he says “we want to see results, we want performance-based, sustainable, social-economic development.”

Garrett says, “You have an entire middle class that lives outside the North Omaha community that benefit by way of employment from programs addressing the issues in North Omaha. So if the issues in North Omaha go away, then a lot of those jobs go away as well. Our destiny is intertwined with the destiny of those that have the resources. What happens if the philanthropic dollars dry up?

“The philanthropic industry here in Nebraska is not sustainable–throwing money into a community and 10, 15, 20 years later not seeing any outcomes. Let’s takes those funds and use them towards outcome-based investments and address these issues from a private sector approach. That is the type of mindset and vigor we need.”

Garrett’s Infinite 8 Institute poses social impact models. He says too often nonprofits don’t produce the social good their grant applications promise and that he favors outcome-based models.

“If you give them the money up front and you don’t make them work for it, there’s no incentive to get the outcome.”
Garrett’s partner Aledia Kartchner, 36, says they find innovative ways to handle “the huge lack in North Omaha.” One is via non-cognitive life skills and work force development classes they teach at Bryant Center. However, programming costs money and resources are scarce.

“If you’re only giving us enough funds to keep the lights on then we can’t bring resources and people in to prepare these young people,” Garrett says. “We have to be able to close the deal. That means people at the top being willing to open up the doors of opportunity in a way that’s sincere and not just talk.”

Kartchner says they’re seeking investments “in human capital.”

Garrett says North O’s human resources get overlooked.

“These kids have been through so many traumatic experiences they are better prepared than many who live in the outer community. As an employer I don’t want somebody who hasn’t dealt with a tough problem before. These kids are having to solve tough problems on a daily basis. Those skills are transferrable in this new knowledge-based economy, where soft skills–the ability to adapt and to be resilient–are things employers applaud.

“If you just look at it at face value, you see thugs with impoverished, destitute, sad stories. But if you turn that around you see potential human capital that can really add value.”

He says the skills he teaches “are all the intangibles that made the difference between myself and those peers who maybe fell victim to unfortunate circumstances.”

“We’re working with kids from early childhood through 12th grade. Local elders volunteer, so it’s very intergenerational. We have a pipeline all within that one structure to measure long-term outcomes.”

He says another key thing taught is “mindfulness meditation to ensure kids focus on peace of mind when they go back to their chaotic environment and the negative energy around them–you can’t control what’s happening around you but you can control how you react.”

Infinite 8 seeks to raise $1.5 million for a social impact bond for violence prevention.

“As an organization one of the things we focus on is creating social impact financing,” says Garrett, who sees it as a litmus test for how serious Omaha is in finding fresh ways to tackle persistent issues.

“Omaha has so much wealth and prosperity but then you wonder why is it not circulating into northeast Omaha. There are people in the city who singlehandedly could eradicate poverty here. It’s a question of whether or not the powers that be actually want that to happen. If you’re trying to do something like turn around the most deadly place to be black in America and integrate that with one of America’s most highly acclaimed places, then I think you have to look at what resources are necessary in order to accomplish that.”

The public sector also has a role to play.

“If we’re not electing elected officials willing to fight those battles for equal distribution of tax revenues and other funding streams, we lose. We’ve paralyzed most of our elected officials because of where they’re financed to get elected, so they’re not willing to stand up and try to act like Ernie,” Love says, referring to firebrand Neb. state senator Ernie Chambers. “They’re nice people but they’re not independent. When it comes time to fight for the community, we ain’t got nobody there.

“The net effect is we’ve become a community on the receiving end and almost on the beg. So you’ve got a community that has to sit down. There’s only a few of us that stand up. That’s a problem. The community doesn’t have enough leverage to fight these battles.”

Garrett agrees. “It’s time for North Omaha to become independent. For North Omaha to be able to do for people in North Omaha we need our own resources. If you want to see us do better, than empower us but don’t beholden us. We have to recognize what’s in our own community and that we have what it takes. We do believe there are people willing to do the right thing and we want to work with them.”

Kevin Lytle Jr. with the Leadership Institute for Urban Education in Omaha, says, “I believe our biggest resource in North Omaha is the people who live and struggle there. We have not found an effective way to develop, foster and encourage true community and camaraderie amongst African-Americans in Omaha.”

Self Xpression (Kevin Lytle Jr.)

Kevin Lytle Jr.

Menelik says “It’s like we’re waiting for somebody to come in out of the sky to save us, when sometimes you’ve got to go within yourself.”

Troxclair says “In the arts community many are coming together and their voices are starting to be heard. In every other major city’s revitalization effort, there is a concentration on arts investment. Omaha did not do that. We are connecting with each other and artist-allies who know we need to work together. Omaha’s leadership is still focused on housing and jobs. We get that, but every artist has created his-her own job and is an entrepreneur. White folks get it. How many people do the Holland, Joslyn, Bemis, Kaneko, Omaha Community Playhouse, Rose employ? We let the John Beasley Theatre go to waste. We let our stagnate leadership dictate the artist landscape and they have ignored our young people completely.”

Meanwhile, Angel Martin has noted a “halt” in the movement by young African Americans to get involved.
“A lot of young people (including herself) ran for the school board or the city council. There were a lot of new faces and voices with a lot to say. That was a prime time to tap into that energy. A lot of those people have since said, ‘I’m out of here,” and that energy’s kind of gone I sense. That’s a concern. Where are we going next?

“Some people are choosing to move on to where things are thriving more and it’s more progressive.”
Everyone concedes North O loses many of its best and brightest.

Martin doesn’t begrudge the defectors.

“I can definitely see why people do not choose to stay here. Some of those who do choose to stay are looking for ways out. Some elders have told me, ‘You might want to look to move on.'”

She’s seriously considered it.

“We don’t have affirmative action. A lot of employers don’t look for faces that look like mine.”

Martin expresses another concern many share.

“I think there’s a lot of outsiders dictating which direction North Omaha should go. There’s a lot stirring. My concern is who’s doing the stirring and what are they mixing up. Was everybody invited to sit at this table? A lot of deals have been made relating to North Omaha’s future. My only hope is my great aunt in North Omaha was kept in mind when they talked about redevelopment. I hope as a people we understand it’s our right to question, to ask for details.”
“We have to stand up together and fight. We’ve gotta put your foot down and say we’re not taking this lack of economic inclusion anymore and be willing to take the heat,” Love says.

Love recently put himself on the line by advocating minority contractors get a share of the $2.3 billion in waste water and sewer separation construction happening. He pressed the mayor and others hard on it. He expected the corporate backlash he got but not the flak from his own community.

“They don’t want you messing with ‘Mr. Charlie.'”

Too, often, black advocates are left standing alone.

Garrett feels the millennial generation offers new hope.

“They’re a lot more informed. Millinials, regardless of color or shade, believe in social good and they’ll put their money behind products and services that have a positive impact on the community and the environment. I believe there needs to be more courage from the outer community to stand up and do what really needs to be done and to do it in a way that sits well with the indigenous people in North Omaha.”

He says Infinite 8 has piloted programs in Kansas City, Mo. and other cities but runs into “a barrier to entry” here he attributes to decision-makers “not being open to new paradigms, ideas, best practices.” He’s not waiting for approval. Bryant Center kids are introduced to Bitcoin, drone technology, green sustainability, 3D printing and mobile Web programming. “We’re really focusing on what sectors have the most promising outlooks. We’re preparing young people with these skills so when they go into the workforce they actually have a leg up.”

Michelle Troxclair, ©C4Photography
Troxclair is all for creative approaches.

“Rote methods are outdated and we all know the world of technology has changed the landscape. Young people don’t want to be bothered with minutia. Applicability, immediacy are what they’re looking for. The arts must be used to stimulate interest and academic motivation.”

Lytle says, “A huge factor not being deeply addressed is how our children are being taught and who is teaching our children.” He wonders “how effective are the educational lessons being transmitted in relation to the culture African-American students” interact with.

Garrett and Co. decry how elements of this civil society demonize and dismiss a segment of the city they have no direct experience with.

“Is it civil to deny opportunity to your own citizens? Are we uncivil because we have violence going on in our community? Is a person who sits back and watches the violence and does nothing more civil?”

Aledia Kartchner echoes others in saying she’s tired of her people being depicted as “just savages killing each other – there’s many positive things going on but they don’t focus on that.”

North O’s good people, neighborhoods, anchors, programs and events get obscured by the actions of a few knuckleheads.

Martin says, “It’s an unfair perception that’s very disheartening. If you never highlight the positive things going on you’ll never know. If you’re not in the area, you won’t know. When we take back our community as a people we’ll take back those perceptions.”

Troxclair takes exception to media depictions of “us as nincompoops holding candlelight vigils waiting on Jesus.” She says, “When a murder occurs, a murder occurs. Report that a murder occurred. Report who the suspects according to the facts. Do we really need to know the criminal record of the entire family?”

Where controlling the message is concerned, Melenik says North O could benefit from more black-owned media outlets and Martin suggests more blacks are needed in newsrooms.

Lytle, 32, repeats a mantra many sound–leaders are doing what they can with what they have. But he says, “We are not getting the job done. The role of leadership is to warn a people of potential dangers and opportunities, educate a people on how to navigate through that and create avenues in which a people can effectively execute and implement the steps that will best serve them.”

Yet, he adds, “I am hopeful for the future of blacks in Omaha and for the area of North Omaha because I believe the up and coming leadership is learning from the choices and paths laid by current symbolic individuals and will dedicate their efforts towards going against the grain and truly establishing community and ownership.”

Angel D. Martin

Angel Martin

Martin feels the same. “We have a long way to go but I’m hopeful because I do think our people get it and we have a genuine love for each other and for North Omaha. I’m just hoping it’s not a day late and a dollar short.” She says even Native Omaha Days might be a catalyst for “capitalizing on connections, sharing ideas, holding roundtables, digging in and getting things moving. It takes all us all working together–those currently living here and those who used to live here.”

Love says The Days are not the pure fun they once were due to the specter of violence. The festival’s still a good time, “but when the dust settles we are still left with the new pure–poverty.”
Sundiata Menelik says all the community gatherings and dialogues are no substitute for “bootstrapping” grassroots action.

Despite much to be pessimistic about, Ean Garrett says, “We’re optimistic. We know there are people who are tired of the situation as it stands. I think there’s good people out there who do want to change some things and to do so in ways that empower people in the community to do it themselves.”

Visit http://www.infinite8institute.com/byinfinite8institute, http://www.bryantcenteromaha.org/ and nativeomahaclub.org.

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Exclusive excerpts from my new book with Father Ken Vavrina: Crossing Bridges, A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden

August 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Exclusive excerpts from my new book with Father Ken Vavrina-

Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden

The new book I did with beloved Omaha Catholic priest Father Ken Vavrina is now available for pre-orders at-http://www.conciergemarketing.com/#!online-store/c1dbb/!/Crossing-Bridges-A-Priests-Uplifting-Life-Among-the-Downtrodden/p/52473405

It releases August 26 in conjunction with the birthday of Mother Teresa – the late nun and humanitarian he variously knew as his inspiration, boss, colleague and friend.

Father Ken will sign copies Wed., Sept. 2 @ 6:pm @ The Bookworm, 90th & Center Streets. I will be there, too. Hope to see you.

The book is the story of this beloved priest’s life and travels – simple acts that moved him, people that inspired him and places that astonished him. Father Vavrina has served as a priest for many years and has served several missions trips to help the needy. Father Ken worked with lepers in Yemen, and was ultimately arrested and thrown in jail under false suspicions of spying. After being forcibly removed from Yemen, he began his tenure with Catholic Relief Services, first in the extreme poverty and over-population of Calcutta in India, and then with warlords in Liberia to deliver food and supplies to refugees in need. Father Ken also spent several years working with Mother Teresa to heal the sick and comfort the dying. Father Ken has spent his life selflessly serving the Lord and the neediest around him, while always striving to remain a simple, humble man of God.

From the book:
“The very first bridge I crossed was choosing to study for the priesthood, a decision that took me and everyone who knew me by surprise. Then came a series of bridges that once crossed brought me into contact with diverse peoples and their incredibly different yet similar needs.”

In addition to his overseas missionary work, he’s also ministered to many diverse communities in Nebraska, including Native American reservations, Hispanic parishes and inner city African-American congregations. He is a long-time social justice champion and an outspoken equal rights advocate.

From Father Ken:
“I pray this account of my life is not a personal spectacle but a recounting of a most wonderful journey serving God. May its discoveries and experiences inspire your own life story of service.”

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPTS FROM

CROSSING BRIDGES: A PRIEST’S UPLIFTING LIFE AMONG THE DOWNTRODDEN

©2015 Kenneth Vavrina

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NOTE: Father Vavrina contracted malaria in Yemen and he’s dealt with malaria attacks ever since. He describes one in the book that ;anded him in the  hospital

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Countdown to North Omaha Summer Arts Crawl underway – The event is this Friday, August 14

August 12, 2015 Leave a comment

North Omaha Arts Crawl 2015-3-1

Countdown to North Omaha Summer Arts Crawl underway – The event is this Friday, August 14

The North Omaha Summer Arts Crawl countdown is underway, so please clear part of your Friday evening to partake in this progressive arts tour. Whether you drive it or stroll it, you’ll enjoy a laidback night of inspiring art and artists.

So, get your comfy shoes or sandals ready to make the-
NORTH OMAHA SUMMER ARTS CRAWL
Friday, August 14 – from 6 to 9 pm

Sample great art and food at multiple venues. Visual art work by Bart Vargas, Michael Girón, Shea Wilkinson, Pam Hinson, Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru. Brett Henderson, David Guy and many, many more metro artists.

Enjoy the handiwork of Omaha Fashion Week designers.

View a community peace mural.

Chill out to performances by Edem Soul Music Kegey, Kenneth Be, Marilyn Martinez and other musical artists.

North Omaha native, resident and artist Pamela Jo Berry saw a need for more art to be infused into her community. So she dreamed up something called North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) in order to bring art in all its forms into that underserved neighborhood. With the help of partners and collaborators she’s made it a reality. This free, family-friendly arts festival for the community, by the community wraps up Year 5 with the annual Arts Crawl on Friday, August 14 from 6 to 9 p.m. The Arts Crawl happens at venues up and down and around North 30th Street.

Take a stroll or drive from Metropolitan College Fort Omaha campus north to various churches to Heartland Family Service/Solomon Girls Center to enjoy inspiring visual art and soothing live music by artists from the community.

Sample the work of artists in a wide variety of mediums and meet some of the artists sharing their work.

Free refreshments and homemade snacks available at each stop.

“I am very excited about the fifth annual North Omaha Summer Arts Arts Crawl.” Berry says. “From 6 to 9 p.m. we have five locations showing beautiful art and serving really good food. New this year, the Washington Branch Library is hosting a reception from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. and there will be food and art there as well.

The Arts Crawl features established artists and newcomers, all of whom love to share their art and its story with audiences. The food is wonderful at each stop. The deserts at Parkside Baptist Church are another work of art.”

The Arts Crawl lineup:
• Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus, Mule Barn Building #21 New this year: Work by Omaha Fashion Week designers and photographer David Guy at the Mule Barn
• Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd. (just northwest of 30th and Kansas Ave.)
•Trinity Lutheran Church, 6340 North 30th St. (30th and Redick) Featuring a Community Peace mural made by teens and seniors from the North Omaha Intergenerational Human Services Campus
• Parkside Baptist Church, 3008 Newport Ave. (30th and Newport Ave.)
• Heartland Family Service/Solomon Girls Center, 6720 North 30th St. (30th and Titus Ave.)
NEW THIS YEAR:
• Washington Branch Library, 2868 Ames Ave. is hosting an Arts Crawl reception from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Enjoy art and refreshments at the library.

Berry describes the Community Peace mural that a group of teens and seniors from the North Omaha Intergenerational Human Services Campus made under the direction of artist Pamela Hinson:

“This year we wanted to make a mural about North Omaha,” Berry says. “It is a beautiful, vibrant place to live, yes. even with all the attention on the violence and the issue of poverty. There are sweet, peaceful neighborhoods, people of different hues, faiths and languages, families of all generations in the parks, community gardens and small forests. And there is art in all forms.

“Many people care about North Omaha’s redevelopment and the well-being of the people. Better things are on the horizon. There is much prayer for peace in exchange for the violence that seems to linger in the in-between spaces here.. Our mural is about peace in and for North Omaha. Maybe as we focus on the good that can be found here, better ideas for mastering poverty and violence will come forth.”

The mural will be displayed at Trinity Lutheran Church during the Crawl.

The North Omaha Summer Arts team invites the general public from all over the metro to come participate in this important milestone of 5 years bringing art to North Omaha. Discover art and artists in our midst whose work deserves wider appreciation and recognition.

Before, during or after the Crawl, enjoy some of North Omaha’s other resources, including the Loves Jazz & Arts Center, the Carver Bank, the Union for Contemporary Art, the Bryant Center, Miller Park and the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation.

Please Like the NOSA Facebook page and indicate you’re going to the event on the NOSA Arts Crawl Facebook Event page.

For more information, email pamelajoh100@hotmail.com or call 402-502-4669/402-709-1359.

Omaha Performing Arts at 10: Rhapsody

August 5, 2015 Leave a comment

Like any city of any size Omaha’s had all manner of presenting arts organizations, some small, some large, some financially well-endowed, some financially-strapped.  There have been organizations with sizable staff and there have been one-man bands.  Some have cast a wide net across the performing arts spectrum and others have been more narrowly focused on a particular niche or segment.  Most presenters have come and gone, never to be seen or heard from again, and a few disappear for a time, only to resurface again.  The following story for Metro Magazine  (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) is about today’s major Omaha Player in this arena, Omaha Performing Arts, the organization that both books and maintains the two principal performing arts venues in the city, the Holland Performing Arts Center and the Orpheum Theatre.  Befitting its well-heeled status, the organization is celebrating 10 years in a big way this fall with an October 16 gala and an October 17 Holland Stages festival.  These will be boffo, bring-the-house-down blow-outs that are as much a recognition of the rich programming that enhances the cultural fabric here as they are opportunities for OPA to say thank you to its patrons for the community to return the gratitude for all the great shows that come here on a year-round basis.

Omaha Performing Arts at 10: Rhapsody

Presenting organization serves as steward of major halls and brings Broadway and other world-class shows to town

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the August-September-October 2015 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

What a difference a decade makes.

In that relatively short period the Omaha arts and entertainment scene has blown up thanks to a critical mass of new organizations, venues and events. Together with the treasures already here, this cultural synergy’s transformed Omaha from sleepy flyover spot into dynamic destination place.

Leading the new arrivals is Omaha Performing Arts. The organization books world-class artists at the venerable Orpheum Theater and its state-of-the-art companion, the Holland Performing Arts Center. As the steward of these spaces, OPA’s charged with caring for them and filling their halls with high quality events that appeal to all demographics.

Growing the performing arts scene
Great halls are only truly alive when people inhabit them. OPA schedules year-round offerings that keep its spaces hopping to the tune of 3 million-plus patrons since 2005. All those folks, many from out of town, pump $40 million into the local economy each year.

By bringing the best of performing arts to town, OPA adds to the rich stew of the Blue Barn Theatre, the Rose, the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Great Plains Theatre Conference, the Omaha Symphony, Opera Omaha – all of which are thriving.

OPA president Joan Squires says, “Across the board the arts community has elevated attention and we’re seeing a lot of our colleagues doing well at the same time. So there’s been renewed energy downtown and in our community for people wanting to come to performances and there’s more options to select from than ever before. I do believe we contributed to had a lot to do with that sea change.”

Dick Holland, who with his late wife Mary made the lead gift for the Holland, has no doubt of OPA’s impact. “It’s added enormously to the luster that this is a great city through new events, new opportunities, new shows that bring in a pile of people from out of town.”

That’s on top of popular attractions such as the Old Market, College World Series, Omaha Storm Chasers, Joslyn Art Museum, Durham Museum, Lauritzen Gardens and Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.

 

Celebrating a decade but looking ahead
OPA board chairman John Gottschalk says the public’s reception to the programming has “vastly” exceeded expectations and quelled any doubts Omaha could sustain two major performing arts centers.

This organization that never rests is pausing long enough this fall to commemorate its boffo first decade run. The October 16 Celebrate 10 Gala will feature Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth in a Holland spectacular. The October 17 Holland Stages will be a free daylong festival highlighted by diverse performing artists at the Holland.

“We’ve had a lot of milestones in a short period of time,” Squires says, “and we really want to use our anniversary to celebrate what everybody has done for the institution and to start looking forward to the next decade. I think it’s something Omaha as a community should really celebrate. It’s an extraordinary story and opportunity for us.”

“For a very young center we’re really advanced in terms of audience, finances, facilities and other ways,” Gottschalk says. “We’re a very healthy arts organization.”

OPA grew out of an initiative Gottschalk, Dick Holland, Walter Scott and others led to renovate the Orpheum and build the Holland. Gottschalk says much effort was made recruiting Squires from the Phoenix Symphony to oversee the Omaha facilities and “she’s done a wonderful job,'” Holland says, “I don’t think we’d have the same success without her. Joan is a perpetual motion machine looking after every single detail you can think of. She’s just plain marvelous.”

Investing in the community
Squires deflects accolades to others.

“The generosity of the donors here has made this possible. We can have all the vision and passion we want but without that support none of this would have happened. Their continued commitment and philanthropy behind all this has been absolutely key.

“The people involved in this organization are highly committed and passionate and that starts with our board of directors. John Gottschalk, who’s been our chairman since inception, certainly Dick Holland, and the entire board have been tremendously committed, generous and great stewards. Their leadership has been everything.”

The public’s done its share, too.

“The response by the Omaha community buying tickets and showing up at performances has been incredible. We can continue to get better and better shows because producers look at our ticket sales and results. Broadway shows come in here and report this is one of the best opening night audiences they have.”

She says the fall anniversary events are “our way to say thank you to everybody who’s a part of this,” adding, “The folks that started this institution made an extraordinary investment and you just have to stand back for a moment and say, ‘Bravo.'”

Getting to this point required a remarkable growth spurt for an organization that began with Squires, an assistant production manager, a desk and a computer in 2002. The Orpheum renovation was underway. The Holland was still in the planning stages. Heritage Services raised more than $100 million in private giving to complete the two projects and to help get OPA up and running.

That level of community buy-in is what attracted Squires to take the job and she continues to be impressed by the ongoing support that feeds her organization and to make enhancements at its venues.

“Omaha is known for the deep roots of its philanthropic community. The leadership behind this project was extraordinary. They were invested in its success.”

Then there’s the fact OPA filled a void left by arts impresarios and presenting organizations no longer around.

“There were no other major presenters in town, so I felt there was an opportunity to bring to the community some of these great art forms and artists that didn’t have a place to perform or anybody to take charge of that. It felt like the puzzle pieces were all here to really make this organization a success. Everybody wanted this to succeed and I felt if we could put this together the right way we really could give Omaha something pretty special.”

She says the support that coalesced around all this “is really about
a commitment to quality of life and making Omaha better for current and future generations.” She adds, “We couldn’t have done this without the partnership of Heritage Services raising the money to get the Holland up and open at the same time we were getting things started here. It’s another key why we were successful from the beginning. That partnership gave us an advantage coming out of the chute.”

Gottschalk says donors made substantial gifts “because they thought it would be good for Omaha and it was, and that’s really been the legacy of the community – we’ve been able to sustain that view – if it’s good for our community, let’s do it.”

Scaling up
The Orpheum renovations have allowed the theater to host the biggest Broadway touring shows (The Lion King, Wicked, Once) whose wildly popular runs make the venue one of America’s best draws. The Holland is home to the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and to a diverse slate of jazz, dance and specials that range from the Omaha Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam to the Hear Nebraska indie music showcase to the Salem Baptist Church holiday concert to Film Streams’ annual Feature event.

The buildings are rich in patron and guest amenities, the latest being the addition of Zinc restaurant just off the Holland courtyard.

Squires spent her first three years putting in place OPA’s infrastructure and branding, including the Ticket Omaha service it operates. She now has a full-time staff of 50 with another 50 part-time staff, plus a volunteer corps of more than 500.

“I’m really delighted with the administrative team here. They are passionate, committed, and talented. They drive so much of this business. We’re lucky to have our volunteer Ambassadors and Presenters. There are hundreds of people involved who are passionate and committed about Omaha Performing Arts.”

With its $18 million operating budget OPA is the state’s largest arts organization. It’s growth, even programmatically, has been gradual.

“You can’t be everything to everybody the day you open the doors,
so you phase it in in stages,” Squires says. “Also by the nature of presenting we’re continuously experimenting in what works or what doesn’t. One of the challenges our very first year is that the Orpheum schedule didn’t allow for much touring Broadway productions. When the symphony moved to the Holland the schedule opened up to allow us to build that Broadway market. That took time and now we’re having tremendous success. This next year is probably going to be our most successful yet. We’re having a wonderful response with subscriptions.”

The mixing and matching OPA does to serve different tastes is always a work in progress but Squires says, “We really have hit our stride in the series we offer. Broadway is one of the biggest draws but we get great responses to our jazz, dance, family and showcase series. New last year was the National Geographic Live Series. The 1200 Club has a following.

“Our mission is to bring in breadth, so we want to really provide a good cross-section to reach lots of segments and to grow audiences.”

The search for new headliners never ends.

“We always have opportunities to bring new shows in but sometimes when they’re touring we may not have availability, so we’re always juggling the schedule. It’s a complex and complicated process to book every year. It’s one of the biggest jigsaw puzzles you can imagine. It takes a lot of coordination to get it all put together.”

More than numbers
She says while OPA depends on earned revenue for 75 percent of its budget, ticket sales are not the only barometer for success.

“For some types of performances, a thousand people is just great because that’s what we expected and budgeted.”

The experience people have is more important than anything.

“My favorite thing is to stand in the back of the theater and to watch a performance both for the quality of what’s happening on the stage and for the response of the audience,” she says. “You do all this work behind the scenes, booking the shows, selling the tickets and raising the money to make that happen and then you get the satisfaction of seeing those performances touch people.

“The arts have that capacity to move people in ways I think nothing else does.”

In addition to the performances it books OPA has a growing education and community engagement mission piece that brings school-age students together with visiting artists and recognizes area youth arts.

“It’s a real important initiative for us,” Squires says. “It’s a chance to reach the community in new ways and have them connect to the arts in ways they may not have a chance to otherwise.”

OPA’s implemented anti-bullying and social justice programs around certain shows and organized master classes with top artists. Its Nebraska High School Theater Awards program is going statewide.

She appreciates how OPA is increasingly seen as an arts leader.

“We’re becoming more and more respected nationally because of the success we’ve had, the quality of the programs and the quality of the buildings. Omaha’s on the map for the kind of work we’re doing.
Artist management companies recognize this is an important tour stop. We’ve been asked to be on some national symposiums and organizations, where we didn’t have that seat at the table in the past.”

Mario Garcia Durham, president and CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), says, “Running a large arts program and arts center is extremely challenging. The best nationally recognized arts organizations have the equally daunting tasks of presenting the very best artists available and truly engaging with their respective communities. These endeavors take years of dedicated commitment and experience. Kudos to Omaha Performing Arts and the Holland Performing Arts Center for their well-deserved success.”

A solid foundation and a bright future
Squires says OPA will continue building on what it’s done.

“There’s always more to do and more money to raise. That never stops. We never rest on our laurels. There’s always new opportunities for people to make a difference by giving to our institution. The philanthropic side, we’re always working. Nothing is ever a given.

“For the future we have set up the planned giving Marquee Society. Those gifts will go into a permanent endowment.”

She feels OPA’s proven itself a worthy recipient of planned gifts.

“We had to attract people in large numbers and financially we had to show we’re responsible by meeting our budget numbers every year, which we have done. If people have confidence in the organization then you can start to talk about the future so they can leave legacies that will continue to sustain these programs and facilities. These legacy gifts will ensure the longer term future of this institution.”

“We’ve started down that road and I think it’s going to be well-supported,” Gottschalk says of the endowment.

With a decade under its belt, Squires says OPA is squarely focused now on “where do we go from here, how do we build on our success and how do we continue to evolve and grow to continue to touch the community.”

Gottschalk says, “I think there’s more growth ahead for us in terms of amenities and facilities and programming.”

For event or ticket info, visit http://www.omahaperformingarts.org or http://www.ticketomaha.com.

“The generosity of the donors here has made this possible. We can have all the vision and passion we want but without that support none of this would have happened. Their continued commitment and philanthropy behind all this has been absolutely key.”

“…I felt there was an opportunity to bring to the community some of these great art forms and artists that didn’t have a place to perform or anybody to take charge of that. It felt like the puzzle pieces were all here to really make this organization a success. Everybody wanted this to succeed and I felt if we could put this together the right way we really could give Omaha something pretty special.”

“My favorite thing is to stand in the back of the theater and to watch a performance both for the quality of what’s happening on the stage and for the response of the audience. You do all this work behind the scenes, booking the shows, selling the tickets and raising the money to make that happen and then you get the satisfaction of seeing those performances touch people.”
-Joan Squires

“For a very young center we’re really advanced in terms of audience, finances, facilities and other ways. We’re a very healthy arts organization.
-John Gottschalk

“It’s added enormously to the luster that this is a great city through new events, new opportunities, new shows that bring in a pile of people from out of town.”
-Dick Holland

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