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Ex-reporter Eileen Wirth pens book on Nebraska women in journalism and their leap from society page to front page

March 22, 2013 6 comments

Women journalists cover anything and everything today.  They work in all facets of media.  But there was a time, and not so long ago at that, when they were restricted to a narrow range of reporting topics and jobs.  There were always exceptions to that rule.  Here and there, pioneering women journalists defied conventions and overturned stereotypes to file assignments and fill roles traditionally prescribed for men only.  A new book by Eileen Wirth profiles some of the revolutionary figures among Nebraska women journalists over the last century.  Wirth is a pioneer or revolutionary herself.  She became one of the first modern women in city news at the Omaha World-Herald in the late 1960s-early 1970s, then she broke the gender barrier in the public relations at Union Paciific, before becoming the first female chair of the Journalism Department at Creighton University, where she oversees what’s now called the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing.  Her book, From Society Page to Front Page, is published by the University of Nebraska Press.  It’s officially out in May.  My story about Wirth and the female journalists she writes about whose lives and careers advanced the cause of women both inside and outside the media field will appear in the April 2013 New Horizons.  This blog contains several stories by me about journalists in print, radio, and television.

 

 

Eileen Wirth

 

 

Ex-reporter Eileen Wirth pens book on Nebraska women in journalism and their leap from society page to front page

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

Eileen Wirth doesn’t seem to fit the part of a revolutionary but that’s exactly what she’s been during her three careers. Wherever she’s worked, whether as a reporter or public relations practitioner or academic, she’s broken gender barriers.

As the women’s liberation movement played out from the 1960s through the 1980s she fought the good fight for equal rights, only not in the street or in the courtroom but by challenging male chauvinism, sexism and discrimination in newsrooms, offices and boardrooms. Her feminist predecessors fought similar battles as suffragists from the late 19th century through the immediate post-World War II era.

She says the struggles women endured to open new opportunities in the workplace is a story she feels deeply about, especially the stories of women in her own profession of journalism.

In the course of researching her new book, From Society Page to Front Page, Nebraska Women in Journalism, Wirth developed a deep appreciation for and kinship with maverick women who preceded her in the field she loves. She documents dozens of women of high achievement, many of whom she never previously knew about, and the obstacles they faced to work as publishers, editors, reporters. PR professionals and media moguls.

Some ran small weeklies, some made their names as columnists with local newspapers, others as reporters with national wire services and major metropolitan dailies. One woman covered the White House. Three women covered the Starkweather murder spree in great detail. Beverly Deepe became the longest serving American correspondent of the Vietnam War.

Mildred Brown became one of America’s only black newspaper publishers. Cathy Hughes is still running a media empire. Other women are still doing their thing as well.

“In writing the stories of these women it became a journey of self discovery,” says Wirth. “I identified so strongly with these women and with their struggles and their achievements. Both of my sisters had national level careers and I’ve always been in Omaha, but I realized we need to redefine what we mean by female achievement. We have too often downplayed the local, the personal, the balancing act of career and family. I don’t think our society values that enough. One of the things I hope this book does is really give recognition to women who juggled both.”

 

 

 

 

She also hopes the book gets some deserving women elected to the Nebraka Journalism Hall of Fame, where there are cases of men inducted there whose wives are not, even though the wives were co-editors and publishers and full partners of small weeklies.

Wirth says doing the book proved both an awakening and an education for her.

“What was amazing to me is that we had so many absolutely remarkable Nebraska women in journalism. Even as someone who has spent her entire life in journalism and more recently teaching journalism history, if you had asked me to name them I probably couldn’t have named five or six, until you get to the ’50s when I knew some of these people. But even then I was finding people right and left.”

The finding took considerable effort. “It took a lot of digging to find most of them,” she says.  “This book is nothing but a huge reporting process. I went to people and said, ‘Who do you know about, what am I missing?’ I went to sources and people would tell me stuff and I would follow up on leads.”

Elia Peattie, a popular Omaha World-Herald writer from the late 19th century into the and early 20th century, is a prime example of someone Wirth found..

“If I were going to pick one woman in the book I fell absolutely passionately in love with it was Elia Peattie. Hardly anybody has heard of her. I resonated to her. She wrote a column that in some ways is very similar to the Mike Kelly columns of today’s Omaha World-Herald. This was before they had social or women’s pages. She’s kind of the World-Herald’s entree into that.

“She came to Omaha in the 1880s. She had been a society girl on a Chicago paper. She got a woman’s column at the Herald. This is when women’s news was in its infancy and the reason why women’s news was created in the first place was for advertisers. Women could not vote and the headlines were mostly about politics and crime, and if you look at the lives of women in the 1880s this just wasn’t relevant to them. They were working incredibly long days, raising large families, taking in work. They had very hard lives.

“Advertisers pressured the papers to do something to attract women readers because women were the primary shoppers. This was in an age when advertising was exploding. And the Herald hired Elia Peattie to write a column about women and apparently they put almost no restrictions on her. It was up to her to define what would interest women. Well, what she thought would interest women was apparently anything that interested her, which was everything.”

 

 

Elia Peattie

 

 

Wirth admires Peattie’s range.

“A professor from the University of Nebraska-Kearney compiled her columns in a book and I was blown away because it was reading a social history of the city in the 1880s. I mean, she has everything from this wonderful description of a young Bohemian slaughtering cows down at the Cudahy plant to a nursing sister at St. Joseph Hospital to the people riding a streetcar to showgirls. She did a very sympathetic portrait of the African American community when racism was horrible.

“She did some hilarious satirical columns about Omaha society people and why did they have to go back East to buy finery when they could buy anything they wanted in Omaha.”

Peattie’s community service involvement also appeals to Wirth, who has a strong service bent herself.

“Peattie ran for the school board when that was the only office women could run for or vote for. She was also one of the founders of the Omaha Woman’s Club. It was a way of localizing the city’s upper class women to do social work stuff. Nationally the woman’s club movement got behind the needs of working women in factories.”

All these activities made Peattie a popular figure.

“She became a larger than life personality,” says Wirth.

Another reason to like Peattie, according to Wirth, is “the work she did to bring together the handful of women journalists in the state. She documented a great deal about fellow women journalists. A lot of my best material came from work she did and recorded for history. She gathered the names of women active in journalism in the 1880s and 1890s. That was invaluable.”

Peattie’s become something of a hero to Wirth.

“One of the other reasons I resonated to Elia Peattie is that while she was writing this column her husband got very ill and it was up to her to support the family. She was writing everything right and left to make money to keep the family going and as a former working mother raising two children I just totally identified with her.

“If she was alive today she’d be running half the city, she’d be writing a blog.”

She might be publishing her own newspaper or magazine, ala Arrianna Huffington.

Wirth also writes about the one certifiable superstar among Nebraska-bred women reporters – Bess Furman.

“If you were going to pick a single woman that was our state’s most distinguished contribution to journalism it would probably be Bess Furman Armstrong,” says Wirth. “She was remarkable and she spanned a lot of eras. She was once referred to as a flapper journalist for her work in Omaha in the ’20s. She was what we would now call a liberated young woman writing rather risque satirical stuff about Omaha. She covered bootleggers and weird crimes down in Little Italy. She wrote this saucy column about Omaha’s most eligible bachelors.”

 

 

(Photo)

 

Bess Furman Armstrong

 

 

Furman was a product of her post-Victorian emancipated times.

“The ’20s were a wonderful period for women,” notes Wirth. “They had gotten the vote, there were more economic and education opportunities. She loved Omaha and she probably would have stayed except she worked for the Omaha Bee and when it  was purchased by William Randolph Hearst she wanted out and when the opportunity came to leave she did.

“With women now having the vote the Bee needed somebody to write the women’s angle to politics. When Al Smith came to give a speech in Omaha in his 1928 campaign she got assigned to cover it and she wrote such a good story that she won a major journalism award for it and the head of the ;Associated Press who was in town with Al Smith offered her a job in Washington (DC) and she took it. Timing is everything.”

Furman made an immediate impression on Capitol Hill

Wirth says, “She was one of the first women to be allowed on the floor of the House of Representatives. She was assigned to cover First Lady Lou Hoover, who absolutely hated journalists. One time in order to write a story about what the Hoovers were doing for Christmas she dressed up like a Girl Scout” and infiltrated a troop visiting the White house. The ruse worked, too.

“When Hoover got beaten by FDR Eleanor Roosevelt started holding women’s only press conferences in order to force papers to give jobs to women,” says Wirth. “She and Eleanor Roosevelt hit it off wonderfully. Furman and her husband hit it off so well with the Roosevelts that they took home movies of the Roosevelts. When Bess became pregnant she decided she wanted her child to have a Neb. birth certificate, so she drove back here in the middle of the Dust Bowl to have her physician brother deliver what turned out to be twins. She brought with her a baby blanket Eleanor knitted her, and that got reported and went nationwide. Postmaster General (James) Farley sent her $10 worth of flowers and that was such a big order they had to send a special train.”

Furman later she did war information work during World War II and then joined the New York Times as one of its first female political reporters.

“She ended her career as the public information officer for the Department of Health Education and Welfare under Kennedy. Bess Furman may have gone to Washington but she was very deeply a Nebraska person and remained so for her whole life,” says Wirth.

Bringing to light women of distinction she feels connected to is satisfying to Wirth.

“Oh yeah, these are my people. We’re out of the same background, the same occupation. Yeah, I felt a very strong affinity with these women. I really found myself as I was writing about them feeling like I knew them and wishing I could actually have known them. I guess I felt especially this way with the women who wrote books, so you got a real feel for them, you weren’t just getting them second hand, you were getting their own take on the world.

“Their struggles were things I could totally identify with. You don’t have to be a journalist to feel this way about these women. Their humanity, their humor, the way they overcame obstacles with grace and courage and dignity, their persistence. To have careers like theirs was pretty daunting but they did it. I identified with the fact they juggled the personal and the professional and really probably never lost sight of either one.

“Culturally, anyone who has Neb. roots would identify with their style. Most of them let their work speak for them, which is what a journalist usually does.”

 

 

Mary McGrath

 

 

One that Wirth did get to know well is Mary McGrath, who preceded her at the Herald and labored 12 years in club news before becoming a highly respected health and medicine reporter. McGrath helped the green female reporters like Wirth negotiate the male-dominated newsroom.

“Mary McGrath was really the pioneer in city news at the Omaha World-Herald,” says Wirth. “She made a huge difference.”

Wirth recalls McGrath organizing potlucks for the paper’s women journalists and how these occasions became vital airing out and strategizing forums.

“It was a support system and an expression of solidarity. It was a safe place to bounce off ideas. If we would have said we were having a consciousness raising session the older women wouldn’t have gone, but to throw a potluck, how more Midwestern could you get? Mary knew the young women on staff were increasingly militant and she knew how smart and talented they were and she knew they were not writing about who was having who to coffee because they wanted to. She broke down the barrier between the two sections (city news and women’s news) by having those potlucks.

“The guys never had a clue what was going on.

Wirth says the Omaha Press Club served the same function for women in journalism across different media. “It was a great way to get to know other women journalists. You realized you were not alone.” Wirth adds, “A sociologist at Iowa State told me if you’re going to get social change made you have to have a cohort and in a sense you could look at the potlucks or the friendship ties that women journalists formed through the Press Club is how we had a cohort. There were enough of us who felt the same way to make a difference and it really made me feel for women of earlier eras who were one of a kind, out there on their own, whereas

I could go cry on Mary’s shoulder or vice versa .”

Each pioneering woman journalist in her own way contributed to the women’s rights cause and helped move their peers a little further along than before.

“There was a movement afoot. That was how this revolution was waged – one tiny step at a time.”

All those steps taken together made big changes, which is why Wirth was so offended when a feminist of high stature, former First Lady Hilary Clinton, was subjected to sexist coverage during her 2008 presidential campaign bid. The way Clinton was dismissed felt to Wirth like a slap in the face and a setback given how far women have come and what they’ve endured to get there.

“It was very disrespectful to women of our era,” says Wirth. It was like, Don’t they realize what we went through? Most of the Baby Boomers fought very quietly to infiltrate, to get a seat at the table, and nobody knew what it had taken to integrate the American workplace. That was my inspiration for writing the book.

“The women involved have kept silent about what they did because that’s how they were able to do it. We were a minority. The women were mostly just asking to practice the field they loved and were good at. They weren’t asking for special treatment.”

Much like the civil rights movement, the women’s movement gained its biggest victories through mass protests, the passage of new laws and court decisions, but there were many smaller, no less important victories won every day by ordinary women asserting their rights.

“When you look at coverage of the women’s movement it all focuses on things like lawsuits and militant demonstrations and you couldn’t do that in a city like Omaha if you intended to go on working in journalism. It wasn’t like you had a union that would protect you or a vast choice of employers, and for most of us that wasn’t our style anyway,” says Wirth.

Big, loud, public displays, she says, “weren’t the only way women made progress.”

Most of the change, she says, was the result of “the stealth revolution.” She adds that “KETV News Director Rose Ann Shannon said it very well when she told me, ‘I always felt I was dealing with reasonable people and we could work problems out.’ I too found that if you could have a reasonable conversation with somebody you could make progress. You were not going to change things overnight.”

She says there’s still work to be done, such as closing the pay gap between the sexes and shattering the glass ceiling that still limits women from advancing the way men do.

“But it’s sure better than what it was in 1970, and those changes were made nationwide by unsung young women quietly sticking their necks out on relatively small things over and over again.”

She says “it kind of boggles the mind” of her students to realize that as late as the 1970s women were still marginalized in journalism. “When you tell this to girls today they’re like, What? They can’t believe it, which I guess shows that we succeeded. They take it for granted.”

Wirth grew up in a large, high-achieving Nebraska City farm family whose parents set high academic standards and expectations for their children. Wirth loved reading and showed a knack for writing early on. She intended on being a history major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln until her father insisted she take a journalism course.

“What really made me into a journalist  besides Dad ordering me to take the class was working on the Daily Nebraskan and I still think of as ‘the rag.’ It was so much fun. I fell in love with journalism people. The women were strong, funny, delightful, intelligent people and the guys wouldn’t have had us be any order way. I had found myself.”

When Wirth went to work for the World-Herald in 1969 she became one of the paper’s few female news reporters and right up to leaving its employ in 1980 she and women colleagues there, along with women at t countless other workplaces, waged that “quiet revolution” to bring about change.

“When women said, No, I’m not going to get you coffee, that’s not part of my job description, they were part of this revolution,” she says.

So was Wirth when she brought to the attention of an editor the fact that some young males colleagues hired the same time she was had received new section assignments while she was still in the religion beat she began in three years before.

“I’m a contemporary of Steve Jordon and Mike Kelly and both of them had had a couple of assignment changes, and I thought I was as talented as they were and I certainly worked as hard as they did. I told my editor, ‘If you’re doing this for the guys then you should treat the two groups the same. There shouldn’t be a difference. You should give young women the same opportunities as young men.”

She got the assignment change she desired.

At a time when female journalists were confined to covering only certain subjects, such as religion or society news or women’s news, her work made the case that women were capable of covering anything.

“There was a lot of hesitancy about assigning women to cover cops, which was fine with me because I hated it, but I covered them every Saturday for years simply because I wanted to show that a woman could do it.

“There was a lot talk that women couldn’t cover politics because they couldn’t get stories in bars and nonsense like that. There was real hesitancy about sending women to certain places. The ironical thing is that my religion beat in the early ’70s was at a time when the churches were heavily involved in the civil rights movement, so under the guise of covering religion I was actually doing a tremendous amount of civil rights coverage.

“I never regretting spending those three years on religion but I felt like I wanted to grow, to expand, to try new things.”

She also had the opportunity to take on occasional stories that struck a blow for women’s rights by shining a light on gender inequities.

“Quite a few of the stories I did were aimed at showing this inequality.”

 

 

Connie Claussen

 

 

Take the time that former University of Nebraska at Omaha women’s coach and athletic director Connie Claussen called to say she was fed up with the unfair and unequal treatment she experienced at the beginning of her career there. Claussen, whom Wirth describes as “a force of nature, a great lady.” was an equal rights champion who served on the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women.

Claussen eventually built a much envied women’s athletic department at UNO featuring championship programs but that legacy almost ended before it started because of how frustrated she was with the short end of the stick offered her and her student-athletes. Before Title IX was passed women’s athletics were separate and unequal in every way.

Wirth recalls, “Connie called one Saturday and said, ‘I’ve had it, I’m not going to do it anymore, I’m not going to teach a full load of physical education classes and coach two or three sports for nothing extra.'” Wirth was sympathetic. “No male would ever coach a (college) sport for free. Women’s athletics were housed in a quonset hut with no showers. I thought, Well this is a sports story and I went over to the UNO beat reporter and he yelled at me, ‘Women sports are a joke, there’s no story here.’ He practically threw me out of the sports department. So I went over to the city desk and they said, Oh yeah, great story. I wrote it and they put it on page one of the Sunday paper. It stirred up enough indignation and attention that Connie ran with it and she got the support she needed to build an outstanding program.

“And I think that was one of the major things we did as women journalists – we were approachable, we were interested in the problems.”

Another story resulted when Doris Royal, a farm wife from Springfield, Neb., called Wirth and in her gravely voice asked, “Are you interested in stories on women?”

“She told me a lot of farm women were losing the family farm operation because of inheritance taxes. The IRS said farms belong to the husband. The only way a woman could escape paying inheritance taxes on a family farm or family small business if she became a widow was if she had worked in town, so she could show she made an economic contribution or if she had brought family inheritance into it.

“A lot of women on farms had worked side by side, they’d driven the tractor and milked the cows, they’d done all the farm work, plus kept the books, and of course that doesn’t account for all their work in the home. But the IRS in effect said, You have made no contribution. Well, that was driving women off the farm because they couldn’t afford it. Land prices had gone up. So Doris started a petition drive and she wanted me to cover a story on it, so I did, I looked into all this stuff. I grew up on a farm and I was horrified, I was shocked, I had no idea. I wrote the story and Doris leveraged my story in the World-Herald to get the Farm Journal, which is the nation’s largest farm magazine, to take up the crusade.

“Doris got petition signatures from every state, she testified before Congress. This woman’s amazing, and they got the law changed.”

Wirth did an entire series on inequitable credit practices that devalued and punished women. “If a woman got married and changed her name she immediately lost all of her credit history,” says Wirth. “Banks assumed the credit rating belonged to the husband even if the women worked full time and could document it.”

With stories like these to file, Wirth’s work was fulfilling enough but when she and her then-husband Ron Psota decided to start a family she knew the demands of her work and the inflexibility of her employer would make motherhood and reporting incompatible. Besides, she was ready for a change.

“It was still the era when women were fired if they got pregnant. My ex-husband and I had been approved to adopt a child and at the World Herald at that time there was no way you could be a reporter and a mother. You had to work 12 and 15 hour days at the drop of a hat if some story broke.”

Making it easier to leave, she says, was the fact that “after 11 years I was burned out on reporting. It was time.”

When hired as the first woman outside of secretaries or receptionists to work in the Union Pacific public relations department she broke down the doors of what had been an exclusive boys-only club. She didn’t appreciate it when one of the old gang complained that she was a token hire to conform with Equal Employment Opportunity and affirmative action policies.

“A crusty old guy who didn’t begin to have my educational credentials and who couldn’t write protested that they had had to hire a woman.”

The bosses set him straight, she says by stating, ‘We hired someone who could write.’ Period. End of story.

Then in 1991 she joined the teaching staff at Creighton University, where in addition to her professor’s role she later became that Jesuit institution’s first female chair of the Department of Journalism (now called the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing). Teaching college is something she always knew was in her future and making a difference in the lives of her students is what most satisfies her about academia.

She’s glad that her book gives students an appreciation for who came before them.

“I think it is very important for my students, especially my female students. You want to give them a sense of what went before so when they invariably face some challenges they will do so with grace and with confidence knowing that women like themselves have conquered similar challenges.”

Wirth’s book, published by the University of Nebraska Press, is available starting May 1.

 

 
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Documentary shines light on civil rights powerbroker Whitney Young: Producer Bonnie Boswell to discuss film and Young

March 21, 2013 3 comments

The name is familiar to some and totally unknown to others, but a new documentary leaves no doubt about the significant role Whitney Young Jr. played in the civil rights movement.  The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights makes a compelling case for Young being an overlooked giant of that progressive and momentous social justice effort to give African Americans the equality promised by law and practiced in every day life they were so long denied.  The film’s producer, Bonnie Boswell, is the niece of the late Whitney Young, whose work to secure better lives for his people was largely done behind the scenes, in boardrooms and offices, rather than in public forums.  My story about the film, Boswell’s motivation to do it, and her take on Young is in the current issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).  A screening and discussion with Boswell is scheduled March 28 at Film Streams in Omaha, where Young served as head of the Urban League of Nebraskas in the early 1950s.

 

 

Whitney Young

Whitney Young during a meeting with President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office (AP Photo/LBJ Presidential Library, Yoichi Okamoto)

 

 

Documentary shines light on civil rights Powerbroker Whitney Young:

Producer Bonnie Boswell to discuss dilm and Young

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The civil rights and black power movements seem distant from Omaha until noting that Whitney Young Jr. cut his teeth as an advocate-organizer here and Malcolm X was born here.

While Malcolm X moved with his family from Omaha as a child and only returned once as an adult, Young served as Urban League of Nebraska president from 1950 to 1953. Young faced racism first-hand growing up in the South and serving in the U.S. Army. In Omaha he found blacks severely restricted in terms of where they could live, work, eat and recreate. He worked with DePorres Club president Father John Markoe and Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown in mounting challenges to discrimination and segregation. He forged alliances with local business and civic leaders to try and improve opportunities for minorities.

Those mediating experiences undoubtedly informed his later work as National Urban League executive director from 1961 until his untimely death in 1971, a tenure that coincided with momentous civil rights events.

Young. who’s been called “the inside man of the black revolution,” is the subject of a new documentary produced by his niece, television journalist Bonnie Boswell. A free 7 p.m. screening of her PBS-telecast film, The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights, is set for March 28 at Film Streams. A Q&A with Boswell follows.

Boswell says she was motivated in part to do the project to ensure Young’s role in history got “the credit” it deserved because his contributions had become obscured over time. “The other reason I wanted to do the film,” she says, “is that I think it’s important to lift up people like Whitney Young, of whom there are many, who do work behind the scenes people don’t necessarily know about, who get things done, who make cities work. I think it’s important for future generations to have a sense of, as they start thinking about their lives, it’s not necessarily about getting your name in the newspaper or your picture on the front of some magazine but about being effective and getting a job done. I think we need to encourage people to take pride in that.”

 

 

Bonnie Boswell

Bonnie Boswell

 

Whitney Young and Bonnie Boswell

 

 

The most enduring images from the struggle for self-determination remain the public protests, marches and speeches that pricked the heart and conscience of a nation divided by race. Beyond the raised fists and voices, however, was the largely unseen and unheard back room maneuvering of activists, lawyers, politicians, ministers and others. These social justice soldiers brokered most of the change that delivered equal rights protections to African Americans.

Young was perhaps the most significant inside player among this largely unheralded vanguard of freedom fighters. Trained as a social worker, he used his pragmatist problem solving and people skills to gain access to corporate boardrooms and the White House to advance the case for equality as a good thing for America. Though famous in his time, his work was overshadowed by that of Martin Luther King Jr., who remains the enduring face of the movement.

Boswell says she fixed on doing the film after speaking at a Whitney Young health center in 2002 and reflecting on how her uncle’s diplomatic approach to facilitating compromise amid the tumultuous ’60s could be instructive for leaders negotiating our own ultra partisan, divisive times.

“I was concerned America was continuing to engage in overseas wars and the gap between rich and poor was widening, and I was like, Can’t we do better? Then as I studied the role he played as a mediator and a bridge-builder I thought, This is exactly the kind of person we need to have as a role model and more people need to know his story so he really can be that role model.”

 

 

Young with LBJ

 

Young with JFK

 

 

Now that she’s helped reclaim his legacy, what does she imagine Young would make of America today?

“I think he would be gratified and also disappointed. I think we’ve clearly made a lot of progress in many areas. We have a lot of work to do for true equity and we should be about continuing that job. I think he would want us to be picking up the baton that others left.”

Boswell says viewers would do well to remember that both MLK and Young challenged America to live up to its larger ideal of creating a better America.

“It went far beyond race, it was about the beloved community, the just society, our democracy, so we have to continue that work.”

The documentary is also extremely personal. Boswell’s early rearing came at the hands of her uncle’s and mother’s parents at the Lincoln Institute in Kentucky, where her grandfather was principal. She learned the same values her grandparents taught them. As a girl she adored her uncle but as a afro-wearing young woman caught up in Black Power fervor she favored the militancy of Stokely Carmichael to the diplomacy of Whitney Young. Her film makes clear the movement required many approaches to affect needed change.

As a middle-aged woman today, she says, “I certainly have come to appreciate Whitney’s role and the subtleties of things he was dealing with that I didn’t have the maturity to really understand. I was much more emotional about discrimination, period. He grew up in a time when you couldn’t afford to be so emotional and I didn’t understand that. I can definitely appreciate his legacy more today.”

The civil rights champion’s name adorns schools, organizations and empowerment programs around the nation. In Omaha the Urban League of Nebraska’s Whitney Young Jr. Academy offers life and career skills to youths.

Ticket reservations for the film screening-discussion are recommended. Call 402-933-0259 or visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

Omaha Film Festival features strong lineup, including “The Sapphires” and “Breaking Night”


Omaha Film Festival features strong lineup, including “The Sapphires” and “Breaking Night”

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Caught the Omaha Film Festival’s opening night screening of The Sapphires on Wednesday and was completely taken with it.  It’s a feel-good movie with some real soul and depth and bite to it.  It’s certainly not a great film from an aesthetic point of view, although it has high production values and a very good cast, but it tells a familiar Dreamgirls-like story in an entirely new context.  The movie’s based on the true story of an Aboriginal girl singing group being discovered and groomed in the late ’60s for a wild adventure performing for U.S. troops in Vietnam.  Sure, some predictable stuff happens, but the movie makes it seem fresh and it keeps you captivated throughout.

As good as the actresses are that portray the girl singers, the real star of the show is Shari Sebbens as their manager, Dave,

If this flick comes back for a regular theatrical run then make sure you catch it.

The Sapphires is one of many dozen curated new films, including narrative and documentary features and shorts, playing at the Festival.

I meant to see on the big screen the writing-directing debut work of my friend and fellow Omaha native Yolonda Ross, whose dramatic short Breaking Night was an official selection at the fest.  She also stars in it.  Fortunately I did see it on my computer thanks to a link she shared with me and after several viewings I must say it’s an impressive achievement that shows much promise for her as a feature writer-director, which is her ultimate aim.  In the current issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)  I profile Yolonda and her recent work, which in addition to Breaking Night includes parts in new films by David Mamet and John Sayles.  You can find my new Ross piece, along with previous profiles I did about her, on this blog.  If you love film, then take some time out to peruse and read my many other film stories on the blog.

Ross is among several film artists participating in panels and workshops at the Festival, which has a solid history of bringing in top professionals from across the film arts landscape to discuss their work and craft.

The Festival continues through Sunday.  Check out its impressive offerings at http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.

My Two Moms: Zach Wahls Brings His Message of Equality to UNO Human Rights Lecture Series


 

Zach Wahls may not be what you expect the son of same sex parents to look like.  And that’s the point.  He’s a strapping young man, an Eagle Scout and an entrepreneur who also just happens to be the product of lesbian partners he calls “my two moms,” which is also the title of his 2012 book.  He became a gay marriage and gay parents advocate when his personal 2011 testimony before Iowa lawmakers in support of LGBT equality went viral on YouTube.  He’s a much in demand speaker today and my story below for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appears in advance of his March 12 appearance for the Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights in Omaha.

 

 

 

Zach Wahls testifying before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee

 

 

My Two Moms: Zach Wahls Brings His Message of Equality to UNO Human Rights Lecture Series

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

With gay marriage being assailed during an Iowa House Judiciary Committee public hearing in 2011 Zach Wahls offered counter testimony that not only charged the proceedings but the national dialogue about the issue.

Raised by same sex partners, Wahls made the case that sexual preference has nothing to do with effective parenting. He used himself as a case in point. The 21-year-old University of Iowa student and Eagle Scout, who happens to be straight, owns and operates his own tutoring business, Iowa City Learns, that hires local high school students to tutor peer students.

What Wahls spoke that afternoon became a YouTube sensation and ever since he’s emerged as a leading LGBT advocate.

His 2012 book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength and What Makes a Family, distills his thoughts and experiences as the son of a lesbian couple. The book’s message picks up where his testimony ended, when he said “the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero impact on the content of my character,” and frames his frequent public talks. He’s the featured speaker for the March 12 Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights at the Thompson Alumni Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His 7 p.m. address is free and open to the public.

Wahls will emphasize what unites people, not divides them.

“I obviously grew up in a family that is in some ways very different from the median American family,” he says, “but at the end of the day I think there’s much more that makes us similar to most other American families than makes us different. So my remarks are really going to be focused on trying to find this common ground.”

 

 

 

Wahls with his two moms, holding his speech, relaxing at home, ©Ackerman and Gruber for People Magazine

 

 

The 2011 plea he made before Iowa legislators did not stop the Republican-controlled Iowa House from passing the same sex ban, which the Democrat-majority Senate has thus far blocked. But the argument he made for gay marriage and parenting resonated far beyond the confines of that state debate.

“My family really isn’t so different from any other Iowa family,” he told lawmakers. “When I’m home, we go to church together. We eat dinner, we go on vacations. But we have our hard times too. But we’re Iowans. We don’t expect anyone to solve our problems for us. We’ll fight our own battles. We just hope for equal and fair treatment…

“So what you’re voting for here is not to change us. It’s not to change our families, it’s to change how the law views us, how the law treats us. You are telling Iowans, ‘Some among you are second-class citizens who do not have the right to marry the person you love.’ I’m sure we’re going to hear a lot of testimony about how damaging having gay parents is on kids. But not once have I ever been confronted by an individual who realized independently that I was raised by a gay couple.”a

His remarks went viral online overnight. Life hasn’t been the same since. He’s given national media interviews and appeared on The Daily Show and the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

“It’s an interesting place to find one’s self, no doubt about it, especially at such a young age,” he says of the notoriety. “The thing a lot of folks don’t necessarily  understand is that when you are the son of a same sex couple, especially in a place like Iowa or Wisconsin, where I was born, you are already an ambassador  simply because there aren’t a whole lot of us. And so growing up I was really the only kid that a lot of folks knew who had gay parents and that put a certain amount of pressure on me when I was younger.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Active in the Scouts for Equality campaign to end the ban on gays in the Boy Scouts, he’s hopeful a policy change is near. He says the organization is listening to the Scout community and trying to formulate equality language to be voted on May 24 at the meeting of its national council.

He’s embraced the activist role that’s come his way and is encouraged by the support he’s encountered in his many travels.

“Over the last two years now I’ve had this incredible opportunity to go all over the country and have a conversation with people who are similar to me, who are different from me about this question and this debate the nation is currently having about marriage and family and tried to make some sense of it.

“My message really resonates with people both on the left and the right politically.

In my generation I’ve found there are increasingly very few people who view this as a partisan issue and it think that is a very good thing. As I’ve had the chance to speak with young conservatives and liberals and libertarians I’ve found there’s interest in coming together to find solutions and a desire for collaboration and problem solving and less interest in fighting this culture war that’s dominated American politics.”

He says his advocacy role “has absolutely changed me,” adding, “When my generation was growing up we were always told by our guidance counselors that we could change the world. I think a lot of us thought it was b.s.. We didn’t necessarily think it was true and this showed me that well, actually, it is true. There is nothing more powerful than an idea thats time has come.”

Several times now, he says, people have told him his words have helped change their minds about gay marriage and parenting and he calls this feedback “a very powerful reminder of the ability we all have to impact other people’s lives and to expose them to different ideas and new points of view.”

Follow Wahls on Facebook and via his website, http://www.zachwahls.com.

 

Live Wires: Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN) Nurtures Leadership


The Institute for Career Advancement Needs or ICAN offers leadership immersion experiencse that give established and emerging leaders the tools they need to improve and empower themselves.  My new story about ICAN for Metro Magazine looks at the organization’s core values and service, the institute’s continued growth, and where it is headed in the work it does to nurture today’s and tomorrow’s leaders.  An earlier article I did about ICAN and its own leader, Mary Prefontaine, can also be found on this blog.  Perhaps the most public face of ICAN is its annual Women’s Leadership Conference and this year’s slate of keynote speakers for the April 3 event is as impressive as past years.
Live Wires: Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN) Nurtures Leadership
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now in Metro Magazine

 

 

With the Institute for Career Advancement Needs 30-plus years old now and its annual Women’s Leadership Conference celebrating 20 years April 3, the not-for-profit has entered the ranks of established Omaha institutions.

ICAN’s footprint

ICAN’s reputation as an effective leadership accelerator has led the organization to expand its coaching, mentoring and training into new geographic areas, including Denver, Colo. and Vancouver, British Columbia.

The organization’s goal of developing inspired business leaders and equipping them with the tools to transform the communities they serve is carried out in many ways, including Defining Leadership programs.

ICANs biggest splash is the all-day women’s conference held at the CenturyLink Center, where attendees from around the nation hear national and international thought leaders and innovators. This year’s keynote speakers come from vastly different backgrounds but have in common lives and careers built around self-improvement and empowerment. Model-turned-CEO Kathy Ireland has become a design mogul, best-selling author and philanthropist. Muslim studies consultant Dalia Mogahed is a White House advisor and the author of the best selling book Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. Humanitarian Tererai Trent is the founder of Tinogona, which builds and repairs schools in her native rural Zimbabwe, and she’s a staunch advocate for education and women’s rights as empowering tools to lift people out of poverty and oppression.

More than 2,000 attendees are expected at what is one of the region’s largest women’s conferences. There’s been a surge of partners and sponsors.

ICAN board member Katrina Becker says the conference gathers globally connected individuals representing a diversity of thought, behaviors and locations. Participants share a desire to grow and serve. ICAN president and CEO Mary Prefontaine says her organization’s leadership programs invite participants “to engage with others regardless of place or space or credentials,” adding, “That’s a really important principle ICAN stands on. It offers an opportunity to be engaged regardless of career level. It’s more about the level of curiosity and interest to evolve one’s self.”

Core values

ICAN’s curriculum of emotional intelligence and behavioral science is the framework that guides participants on a self-reflective journey of discovery. Prefontaine says those discoveries are enhanced when participants interact with each other.

“What we’re doing is allowing people to connect in the most meaningful way around the things most important to them – their values, their life’s purpose, their ability to succeed in their organization or career or family or community.”

The curriculum draws on the latest neuroscience and behavioral findings.

“Science has provided us more and more tools we use in our programs that help people assess their emotional intelligence and understand where they’re strong and where there are opportunities for growth. Through that we create programs where graduates can step more fully into their own wisdom to impact the results for their company, for the people they lead and for their community,” says ICAN board president Scott Focht.

ICAN encourages participants to share their self-inventories with their peers.

Prefontaine says, “The opportunity to have a meaningful conversation within a safe context of peers is a really unusual things for most leaders in business today.”

“The curriculum really provides the structure for the dialogue to happen around the networking and the connection. The most important thing that happens is the actual dialogue,” says Focht.

Why?

“Because you learn from that dialogue,” says Becker. “You have to talk and dig deep on yourself but you also learn from other people talking and digging deep around themselves. There’s a two-way symbiosis of learning. Our learning programs teach you how you react, what you value, what’s important to you and how to become better at recognizing that in other people,

“As important as it is to learn about yourself you have to learn how to pull that out in other people. For people to grow in an organization they need to build to inspire and motivate and align people around common goals and objectives. It can’t be all about you. You have to know where other people are coming from. That becomes important if you’re going to take an organization to the next level because you have to help people come together to achieve those objectives.”

Emotional Intelligence

The emotional intelligence ICAN teaches strives for harmony.

“The work of ICAN gets participants to look at things from the heart and head levels,” Becker says.

“Emotional intelligence is where fact and emotion come together to create something that’s real and truthful,” says Focht. “So let’s say there’s an economic issue a company is facing. There are the facts surrounding that economic issue. There’s also the emotions triggered by having to take some action. Well, there’s this space where it’s not just about the fact or the emotion, but where the two blend together beautifully, where you come up with the right direction to go that is a good balance between the two and that represents and respects both sides.

“When you’re pursuing the most wise thing, the results are going to be optimized.”

Focht says it’s all about finding balance.

“If I say for example it’s just and only exclusively about the bottom line there could be some downstream consequences that are more negative and far reaching than you had anticipated that actually could have a longer term negative effect on the bottom line if you don’t pay attention to the emotional side. But if you just go with the emotion you might not be able to manage your way through the financial part of it.”

Maximizing potential

Prefontaine shares a testimonial by a recent graduate that perfectly sums up for her what the organization seeks to do:

“You hold a mirror up for me to see who I truly am and who I hope to become.”

She says that sentiment is not an isolated experience but expresses “really what occurs for many if not all of our participants in these programs.” She adds that many graduates tell her “that without ICAN their career and life trajectory would perhaps have been much more narrow.”

Focht says ICAN has proven its worth again and again.

“Thirty years ago a conversation began because a couple of community leaders really saw a need for the leadership dialogue here to shift and to change to really become something about authenticity in leadership and moving away from some older models of leadership.

“And I think the fact the conversation has lasted for so long tells us we have the right conversation going and that is – How do we as leaders show up authentically to make a contribution to impact the communities we serve? People keep showing up and participating in the conversation. It’s something people clearly want to have.”

Prefontaine terms ICAN’s evolution and growth, especially its recent expansion of services outside Omaha and the adoption of its programs within companies, “gratifying and exciting.” She fully expects the organization to continue adding value for existing and new customers.

Focht suggests the most fundamental impact ICAN will continue making is the personal and professional transformation its graduates experience.

“I’ve seen people transformed in terms of not only how they’re showing up at work but also how they’re showing up in their families and communities and in whatever groups they’re serving. It makes them more effective all-around. They understand what they can bring to the table and how they can make a contribution.”

For ICAN program and conference details, visit http://www.icanglobal.net.

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