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MindMixer: Rethinking the town hall meeting

August 28, 2013 1 comment

MindMixer is more than a great name, it has a great concept and utility behind it too.  Entreprereurial partners Nick Bowden and Nathan Preheim have combined their urban planning and tech savvy skill sets to an online platform that is rethinking the town hall meeting.  My B2B Omaha Magazine story about the duo and their innovative Omaha-based business follows.

 

 

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MindMixer founders Nathan Preheim (left) and Nick Bowden

Rethinking the town hall meeting

© Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Urban planners turned entrepreneurs Nick Bowden and Nathan Preheim never got used to the slim turnouts that town hall meetings drew for civic projects under review. It bothered them that so few people weighed in on decisions affecting so many.

Preheim, 39, and Bowden, 29, also didn’t feel comfortable cast in the roles of experts who knew what was in the best interests of citizens. They felt too many good ideas went unheard in the process.

The way the Omaha natives saw it, a new approach was needed to better engage people in civic discourse and therefore help build stronger communities. “Lucky for us, urban planning is really stodgy,” says Preheim. “Technology has not really infiltrated the inherent processes within the field, so there was a great opportunity for us to integrate technology into public participation. That’s where we kind of came up with the solution to a very common problem—how do you get more people engaged and interested in talking about community betterment?

Town halls had been and still are the primary vehicle by which cities solicit feedback. They’re hundreds of years old, and they really haven’t changed much at all. We saw an opportunity to enliven the conversation by inverting that model and empowering people to be a part of that change.”

The business partners developed a startup technology company called MindMixer (see related story on page 33) whose online platform offers a virtual front porch for ideas and opinions to be shared, noticed, and acted upon.

 

 

Nathan Preheim

Nathan Preheim

 

 

“We’ve always felt that people generally care for their community, but maybe it was an issue of convenience, not an issue of apathy, that prevented them from participating,” says co-founder and CEO Bowden. “Our founding premise is that technology can break that barrier of convenience and open up a bigger world of potential inputs.”

Co-founder and COO Preheim says, “There’s probably something I could learn from you; there’s probably something you could learn from me. We’re way smarter together than we are individually. I think some of that same mantra and guiding force influences what we’re trying to do here.”

“Our purpose is to build a stronger community by involving people in things that matter,” says Bowden. If the response from investors, clients, and everyday citizens is any indication, these visionaries have found a powerful engine to connect everyday people with local government bodies, schools, hospitals, and organizations of all kinds.

“We’ve always felt that people generally care for their community, but maybe it was an issue of convenience, not an issue of apathy, that prevented them from participating.” – Nick Bowden

Launched in 2011, MindMixer, which offices at the Mastercraft Building in North Downtown, has more than 400 clients and expects to reach 1,000 by year’s end. As of July, MindMixer had raised $6.2 million in venture capital, much of it from local investors, to develop its tool. The company’s roster of 30 employees is also expected to grow.

By digitizing the town hall, MindMixer facilitates discussions and debates for projects large and small, from rebranding the entire San Francisco public transit system to a crosswalk put in outside Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park.

Whatever the idea, whether it relates to recreation or education or health care or some other quality of life issue, people now have a 24/7 avenue to have a say in it.

Preheim notes, “We think we’re the first company that’s trying to pull this off—to unify all those different communities and allow you to sort of contribute to each of them from a single place. It’s providing opportunities for people to give back or reinvest or make a contribution. We’re a funnel, we’re a vehicle, we’re kind of giving voice to people who may not have had that before. It’s empowering, it’s uplifting.

“We are part of something, call it a new movement if you will, that’s enabling better transparency and decision-making by stakeholders who are sort of tapping into the collective wisdom of their constituents. We’re kind of in the meaningful change business. That’s exciting stuff.”

 

 

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Nick Bowden

 

 

Validation that they’re onto something big, Preheim says, also comes in the large “number of citizen-submitted ideas that have actually been carried forward and implemented” nationwide and the sheer participation happening on sponsored MindMixer sites.

“Last year, we engaged over 800,000 participants, and those 800,000 participants submitted over 38,000 ideas,” says Preheim. “Those are empowering statistics, these are encouraging numbers.” He projects two million-plus participants to submit upwards of 100,000 ideas in 2013.

Sometimes, projects respond to urgent human needs. For example, MindMixer-supported sites which assisted citizens organizing to fight back flood waters in Fargo, N.D., as well as those rebuilding neighborhoods in tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The startup’s success earned it 2013 Innovator of the Year honors from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and Technology Company of the Year recognition from the AIM Institute. Forbes magazine named Bowden an “up and comer.”

With the growth and attention come pressures to relocate, but Bowden and Preheim are determined to prove a tech company can make it big in Omaha. They believe there’s enough talented, smart people locally to lead the paradigm shift the company’s helping lead. MindMixer’s big aspiration is restoring the fabric of community by being the front porch of the internet, where people discuss things that matter and get involved in making positive change happen.

To see this story and other stories in this issue of Omaha B2B Magazine visit its website at: http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/b2b-magazine/
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Veteran Omaha TV meteorologist Jim Flowers weathers the storm

August 28, 2013 3 comments

Jim Flowers may not be the boon to KMTV‘s ratings the station hopes for as it tries to climb out of last place among local network affiliates, but there’s no question he brings a recognizable name and face to TV weathercasting.  After his contract was not renewed by WOWT last fall  he had to deal with unfounded rumors that took him and his family aback.  All that’s behind him now as he leads the weather team at KM3 just as he did at WOWT and KETV before that, making him one of the rare on-air talents, if not the only one, to have worked for all three major Omaha stations.  My Omaha Magazine story about Flowers follows.

 

 

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Jim Flowers

Veteran Omaha TV meteorologist weathers the storm

© Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Now appearing in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Dapper Jim Flowers, with his trademark moustache and buttonhole flower, is a fixture in people’s lives after 31 years as an Omaha television meteorologist. This husband and father of two has invested himself in the community as a public speaker, Knights of Columbus volunteer, and churchgoer. He and his wife, Barb, are members of Mary Our Queen parish.

It all made the ugly rumors that surfaced about him after WOWT did not renew his contract last December more unsettling. With Flowers suddenly off the air and no official word from station management explaining his absence (due to contractual reasons), anonymous social media speculation filled the information void. The chatter was mostly innocuous, but some alleged Flowers had been caught in a 2012 FBI sting operation targeting a local massage parlor fronting for a prostitution ring. It’s not the image a public figure like Flowers can afford, especially when looking for a new job.

Flowers, who flatly denies involvement in any illegal activity, believes a parlor client used his name when procuring sexual services. Unfortunately, Flowers found his good name sullied when the sting broke.

“…in social media, people can say anything about anyone they please without identifying themselves or taking responsibility…just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s the truth.”

Despite the cloud, Flowers landed at KMTV. He debuted there June 3 as part of a long-term contract he reached with the station, thus making him perhaps the only on-camera talent to have worked at each of Omaha’s three major network affiliates.

The Ohio native and Penn State University grad came to Omaha in 1982 to work at KETV from a TV weathercaster post in South Carolina. After 10 years, he moved to WOWT. He was there 20 years, the last several as chief meteorologist.

He says he and his wife found Omaha to be “a great place to raise kids.” Even though their boys are now men, he says all the roots he and Barb put down here and all the relationships they built here make it a hard place to shake.

 

 

Barb and Jim relaxing at home.

Barb and Jim relaxing at home.

 

 

But in the wake of what happened over the winter, he seriously considered moving to another market.

With his exit from WOWT fueling the gossip mill, he posted Facebook and TVSpy responses that reflected his resolve to lay the tittle tattle to rest.

“…I have never been involved in a massage parlor prostitution investigation. I have not been arrested, questioned, or told by the authorities that I am a suspect [a statement confirmed by Omaha Magazinewith Omaha Police Department public information officer Lt. Darci Tierney]…those lies have been very hurtful to me, my wife of 34 years, and our family…I appreciate the loyalty of the many fans who have continued to support me, and I want to assure them that there is nothing behind those rumors.”

He more extensively addressed the situation in June 3rd guest spots on the Todd-N-Tyler radio show and KM3’s own, The Morning Blend.

“Doing that interview with Todd-N-Tyler literally put an end to it,” he says.

But when the rumors were still fresh, they stung. “When this first happened, I was like my life has been an open book, people know me, who’s going to believe this stuff? Obviously, people do, and that was the surprising part of the whole thing. Some folks want to bring people down, for whatever reason. It’s the human psyche.”

“When this first happened, I was like my life has been an open book, people know me, who’s going to believe this stuff? Obviously, people do, and that was the surprising part of the whole thing.”

His initial reaction was to get mad.

“The first thing you feel is anger because you know you’re not a part of it. That’s what’s frustrating. It had an effect more on my wife and my family, especially my two boys. My two boys were angry…They wanted to find out who used my name, how the stuff got out there.”

His wife has had his back the whole way. She offered this statement about the rumors: “I knew it wasn’t true. It was hurtful to me and my family to think that people would believe those rumors about Jim. I would like to thank those that supported us with positive comments.”

Flowers, an outdoorsman who loves fishing, hunting, and chasing storms, isn’t the type to run scared, but there was little he could do about this.

He gained insight into how his name got dragged into the mud when he contacted authorities, none of whom could speak to the specific case, then active in the judicial system. However, they did lay out a likely scenario.

“I was told by the Omaha Police Department’s public information officer Lt. Darci Tierney that, in general, this is the way it works. The guys that go [to massage parlors] wind up on a list. They don’t use anything that will identify themselves. They don’t use credit cards, they don’t use checkbooks, and they don’t use their real names. She said, ‘Obviously, someone decided to use your name and guess what, now you’re a part of it.’ I said, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ and she said ‘no.’”

 

 

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He says the local FBI office and U.S. Attorney Jan Sharp confirmed the same.

Unfortunately for Flowers, someone used his familiar name. It comes with the territory of being a
public figure.

“Our exposure to this kind thing is not unusual, but this form and how it took off seemed to have a life of its own,” he says. “The constraints that exist for print, television, and radio don’t exist for social media. There are no checks and balances out there. So if there’s a lesson, it’s that, in social media, people can say anything about anyone they please without identifying themselves or taking responsibility. But just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s the truth.”

He’s satisfied with how he’s managed the incident. “You take the high ground and have faith that things will work out. The night before I went on The Blend and Todd-N-Tyler, I told my wife, ‘I’m starting tomorrow [on KM3], and I feel really excited about it. There’s all these opportunities. But the one thing that’s still out there is this whole rumor thing. I don’t know where, I don’t when, and I don’t know how, but at some point in time this thing will be put to rest.”

He says he and Barb put their “very strong faith in God” that this bad dream would disappear. “I’ve had people compliment me and say you handled it professionally.”

KMTV General Manager Chris Sehring is pleased how it all worked out, too. “Jim’s a great guy, and we are thrilled to finally have him on our KMTV Weather Alert team.”

“You take the high ground and have faith that things will work out…I don’t know where, I don’t when, and I don’t know how, but at some point in time this thing will be put to rest.”

Though Sehring couldn’t comment on what steps the station took or on how much the incident played in its hiring decision, he did say, “Journal Broadcast Group is second to none in its commitment to integrity and the highest ethical standards. I still believe we live in a society where one is innocent until proven guilty…It’s truly a shame Jim and his family have had to endure these unsubstantiated rumors and malicious speculation. After all, it could happen to any of us.”

Both Sehring and Flowers are focused on making KM3, currently in last place in the ratings, number one. Flowers helped bring both KETV and WOWT to the top spot and feels confident he can work magic a third time.

“I’ve been down this road before. I know what it takes to win,” says Flowers. “Whoever wins weather in Omaha wins the ratings; that’s what it boils down to. You can ask every general manager, and they’ll tell you the same thing. It’s not only in Omaha; it’s in a lot of weather-sensitive markets. I didn’t decide that, the public did.”

He feels his experience and attention to detail set him apart from other weathercasters in this market.

So do his fishing skills. Once a competitive bass tournament champion, he takes his boat and fishing gear out these days purely for relaxation. With the rumors behind him, he’s forecasting nothing but clear skies and calm waters ahead.

Visit the Omaha Magazine website to see the story and the rest of this issue’s stories at: http://omahamagazine.com/

Making Community: Apostle Vanessa Ward Raises Up Her North Omaha Neighborhood and Builds Community

August 13, 2013 4 comments

 It takes a village, the saying goes.  To raise a child, to raise a neighborhood, to raise a community.  That’s what Apostle Vanessa Ward does in North Omaha and that’s the story I tell in this week’s issue of The Reader that comes out Wednesday.   Saturday, Aug. 10 was the annual block party she organizes and it was as usual a peaceful, joyful gathering of hundreds in a neighborhood once known as Death Valley.  The block party is just one manifestation of all the work she puts into raising up her block and surrounding neighborhood.  For her, it’s all about building community.  It starts with transforming lives.  It’s her ministry and mission.  Job well done, soul sister, job well done.  But she’ll be the first to tell you that the work continues.  She’s heartened that her neighbors are beginning to do some of that good work themselves so that the gains that have been made will not be lost but be passed on.

 

 

 

Making Community: Apostle Vanessa Ward Builds Community and Strengthens Neighborhood in North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Nearly 600 folks turned out Saturday for the 16th Annual Community Block Party hosted by Apostle Vanessa Ward and her husband Keith Ward. As usual this multi-generational celebration of community in a northeast Omaha neighborhood once known as Death Valley went off without any trouble.

During this street festival-reunion-revival Apostle, cordless mic in hand, is everywhere preaching her grassroots doctrine of community togetherness. It’s praise and worship in the guise of kickin’ it.

“Do you feel it?” Apostle likes to say.”C’mon, community, let’s celebrate, let’s do it…” she implores the crowd.

“Let’s celebrate,” rejoins her daughter Va’Chona Graves, aka the Holy Ghost Girl, who emcees from a makeshift DJ booth under a tent. The music ranges from hip hop to contemporary gospel to old school R&B and soul. At various points a dance line forms and little girls to adult women move in unison with the beat.

The laid-back event is held on the very block that Apostle and her husband live on. It’s a poor, working class area dotted by boarded up houses and vacant lots. Their home and yard serve as the hub for the party, whose activities stretch up and down the long block.

 

 

Apostle’s book

 

 

That block, from Fowler to Grand Ave., is part of a stretch of 38th St. starting at Ames Ave. that bears her name in recognition of the work she’s done transforming the neighborhood. Her 2008 book Somebody Do Something tells the story. She’s writing a new book about the evolution of her community building work and her vision for the future.

That vision is much bigger than the block party, which is just one expression of year-round efforts to keep the neighborhood clean and safe. It’s a mission for this community matriarch, organizer, builder, evangelical activist minster. She pastors. mothers and advises her neighbors. She often picks up trash and cooks for them, too.

“I’m trying to teach by example. People respect you when they see that you’re not leading from behind,” she says.

She started two community gardens on nearby vacant lots. The Peace Garden sits atop a tall bank. It overlooks a curbside memorial to a drive-by shooting victim. A corner Hope Garden adjacent to her home is where she conducts Sunday morning services for her charismatic Afresh Anointing Church congregation. Boxed flower beds and a nativity scene adorn it. Her message there is consistent with her exhortations at the party.

 

 

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“Alright community, you have to be ready to fight for what you believe in, you have to battle for what’s right.”

This faith warrior and her holy roller faith friends conduct a two-hour call and response service that draws dozens. People walking or driving by take it slow and quiet. Some end up joining the service. The amplified preaching, singing and music can be heard for blocks.

“The neighbors are coming in greater numbers,” Apostle says. “People will wait to cut their grass till were done. The ice cream truck guy won’t even ring his bell. These are things that have evolved  – the respect.”

That same respect and unity infuse the block party

“It just becomes this wonderful place,” she says. “Everybody in the      neighborhood contributes. They manicure the block, they make sure every lot is clean. The young people set up and take down tables and chairs. People donate food.”

Many neighbors have been personally ministered to by her and that’s given her serious street cred with 21-year-old Andre “Right” Boyd.

“I really appreciate everything she does for the youth. Most of us have been raised up by her. I’ve been coming to her for awhile and she helps me out. i have that relationship with her that I can go to her for things. She’s like a mother, she’s like a helper…She means a lot.”

She’s an admired figure.

“I think everybody sees her as a icon. She’s definitely going to have a legend here,” says Tina Knight. “Everybody knows who she is, everybody knows what she’s about. She’s highly respected.”

During a recent neighborhood tour Apostle led she caught sight of some teen boys and, as is her habit, she chatted them up. After making intros one of the boys looked up at the street sign with her name on it and said, ‘Ain’t this your street?” “Well, that is my name up there, yes dear,” she said. “But it’s really our street.”

Getting people to take ownership of the neighborhood has been key.

Nettie Houston says she’s seen “big changes here,” adding, “There’s no problems, everybody trusts each other and we watch out for each other.” She credits Apostle with making the difference in getting “the neighborhood working together.”

Apostle says even little things like greeting people, picking up litter, cutting the grass, bringing homemade cookies to a new neighbor or decorating the street with balloons creates a sense of community.

“Keep Omaha Beautiful statistics show that when a neighborhood is clean crime is down. Are you feeling me? So what do you think happens when you take the time to decorate and serve food?”

The block party features plenty of decorations and food.

Balloon displays line both sides of the street, one in the shape of a cross. Young kids queue up for face painting, balloon animals and the bounce house. A portable basket attracts young fellas for spirited hoops minus the trash talking. Elders play dominos at a card table under shade trees. Grills fire the smoke for the pulled pork sandwiches and beans served at lunchtime.

The Marching Dragons drill team performs. A talent showcase gives kids and adults alike their neighborhood American Idol moments.

There’s no cursing, no drama. It all flows free and easy.

 

 

Apostle with Mayor Stothert and her husband

 

 

Bound up in this neighborhood’s story is her own saga of heeding the call to minister to an area “under siege” from open air dope dealers, gang members and drive-by shootings. A young man, Columbus Brown, was shot and killed in front of Apostle’s home. The mother of four feared for her own family’s safety.

A gang leader and his crew hung out up the street. “Their presence was very intimidating,” she says. “Corner boys on every corner sold drugs and you had to come through them like a gauntlet to get to your own home. They’d come right up to you and say, ‘You want some of this?’ When friends used to drive me home from church they’d say, ‘Hey, pastor, you sure enough live in the ghetto.'”

Raucous music blared from car speakers. Unkept abandoned rental properties and vacant lots became breeding grounds for negative activities. Then and now the area includes young single mothers and retirees struggling to get by. Some residents are unemployed or underemployed, lacking education or skills to move up. It’s a microcosm of the woes that beset segments of northeast Omaha.

Apostle’s seen it over and over and it stands in stark contrast to when she came up there a half-century ago.

“In these very impoverished, transitional situations people come and go. There’s a high risk element of crime, isolation and desperation. People are not interested in knowing each other. It’s very unfriendly.

“When I was a little girl I came up in community. My mom would have talent shows and leaf raking parties in the backyard. She was one of the main organizers of block parties. I saw something that it did – it brought people out, it brought people together and it just forced community. When I grew older and moved into neighborhood after      neighborhood that shared that heaviness, that separation I was never satisfied with it, although I found out you become very complacent to what you’re used to.”

 

 

Like her neighbors, she was conditioned by an urban code that says to look the other way and keep silent.

“I had been raised up with the main rules of living in the inner city – don’t get involved, mind your own business and don’t snitch.”

As things got worse she took her first action to address the chaos.

“I broke the rule that governs these neighborhoods and I called the police. That was big for me.”

But she wasn’t yet ready to take the next step.

“I was about to go out and give the facts of what I saw, what I heard but my husband wasn’t having it. We weren’t on the same page at that time for me to take a step that bold. So I backed down…”

A tragedy moved her farther down the path.

“When the young man was murdered in front of my house it just fired me on my journey. I just knew I was going to have to do something. But I didn’t know what.”

She faced an “inner struggle” living in that predatory environment.

“You become hard-hearted. You become angry. After a while you’re hating and hate can never change anything. I hated the gang members. I hated the loud noise. I hated the police helicopter hovering over me. I had become a victim of my own circumstances. The Lord began to show me how cold and callous I had become. Transformation starts inside yourself, so I had to go through a whole spiritual cleansing and healing because I was so hurt.”

That’s when the street became her church and its residents her flock as she intentionally went about softening hearts and reviving the community she knew growing up.

The memory of block parties from her childhood inspired her to recreate those times of “camaraderie and hope.” She’d come full circle.

The first block party she threw in 1995 marked the start of her neighborhood ministry. But to close off a street you must get everyone on the block to agree. That meant getting the gang leader’s OK. Before she could approach him she needed her husband’s approval.

“My husband was scared for my life.”

Keith Ward Sr. says while Vanessa went to talk to the gang’s top dog “I sat on the porch with my shotgun.”

Apostle recalls her anxious approach to the young man and his homies who ruled The Hood with fear.

“I said to him, ‘You know what guys, we’ve got a cloud of gloom hanging over us. Your homeboy’s dead. Everything is heavy. How about let’s have us a block party. We’ll do some dancing in the street and just move this heaviness.’ It got real silent and I waited and finally the answer came: ‘Cool.’ Then I said, ‘Three rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no violence.’ I waited again for his answer: ‘That’s fine.’ I was shaking all the way home i was so nervous.”

Then she went about making it happen.

“I called on different churches and friends. They gave what they could.”

From the start, the family friendly event has held a nostalgic feel.

“All I could see was old-fashioned fun. Hula hoops, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, relays, three-legged races, hopscotch, paper airplanes balloons. Kids running and playing. All the things that engage us.”

About 75 folks attended that first year. The no drugs, no alcohol, no violence mandate was abided by then and has been ever since.

She says, “It’s been made clear that is the standard.” “I know that everything was right because the gang leader came over and said, ‘What do we owe you for this?’ I told him nothing and he said, “Thank you for doing this for us.’ That took me some years to process. When does a person own something and believe it’s for him?”

As neighbors took ownership of the party the numbers grew. She estimates as many as 600 to 700 people have attended in peak years.

Apostle believes that buy-in speaks to how much people crave community.

“That’s what I found out it is. That’s why they come every year. That’s why nobody wants to leave. That’s why it’s been 16 times now and we’ve never had a violent outburst, not even a fight. We’ve never had to call the police to bring peace. How do you do that with that many people in the middle of a neighborhood that was called Death Valley if it’s not something we all hunger for and really want.

“What I see is that people want to get together in a safe environment, they want to connect in love, they yearn for that. That’s what it’s come to be. It’s kind of like a slice of heaven.”

When Apostle’s son, Keith Ward Jr., sees young adults at the party he’s reminded they were small children when his mother began this work. Many are now parents themselves and their babies are the next in line for this each one to teach one modeling.

“There isn’t hardly anyone here that hasn’t been touched by her or advised by her or grown up by her or looked out by her or prayed by her. Hopefully they’ll know there’s a better way for the future,” he says. “If there’s nobody out here like my mother to guide ’em or show ’em how we can come together as a community or what it is to be a community then we’re lost.”

He’s proud of her.

“It takes a special type of person to pull this off. It takes a lot of patience, it take a lot of love. She sees everything beautifully. She sees something better in you that you might not even see yourself.”

As the event grew and the area’s criminal activities subsided, her work there drew attention. Elected officials and community leaders have attended to sing her praises and to encourage neighbors to continue building community. Mayor Jean Stothert made an appearance on Saturday. Media covered the party.

Today, when you walk the block the tranquil setting is a far cry from what it used to be. Apostle can hardly believe the change herself.

“I can walk out here at 11 o’clock at night barefoot and go all the way up to the corner with no risk at all. Sometimes when I go out of my house at night I don’t want to slam my door because i don’t want to disturb the peace. This was not the case even 10 years ago. We have arrived and everybody knows i

Much of her best work there happened after she and her husband moved away for two years and then moved back.

“My husband’s health was failing. He had kidney failure. We were going through a time where we were just spiraling down. We got evicted from our house and ended up moving to the suburbs.”

But she still retained a presence on the block.

“I took time off only from living here because every Saturday I would come back to pray.”

She didn’t like what she found.

“It was like suspended animation. Houses were vacant, nothing was moving forward. I set up a microphone at the top of the hill and prayed. I reminded the neighbors of where we came from and what we’ve been through. I’d say, ‘C’mon, we can do this, let’s keep showing love.’ Then I would walk and pray up and down the block, keeping the pot stirred so to speak. I had to leave my comfort zone and think of strategic ways to approach people. That took a lot of work.”

Then she decided she needed to move back to The Hood. That took some convincing of Keith, who didn’t like the idea of leaving the comfortable burbs for “the trouble land.” When she told him her work there wasn’t done he relented. Once they returned to 38th she wasn’t sure she’d do the block party that first year back but neighbors kept asking when she was having it. So she held it. She’s faced doubts about doing it since then, too. It’s a major undertaking.

“It’s hard work,” says Apostle, who dips into her own pocket to cover what donations don’t. “Every year I feel like I don’t know why I do this but I’ve found out this thing has become bigger than me.”

Despite the stability she’s brought to the neighborhood challenges persist. Unsavory persons and activities try slipping back in. But she sees more neighbors being vigilant.

“Every now and then the element still comes back and tests,” she says.

“At one time I thought it was just up to me. There’s other people involved now that want to protect and hold onto it. I get so happy when someone else steps up to call the police. Yeah, it’s more than me. That’s the whole point.”

She feels there’s no reason what’s being done there can’t be replicated.

“Can you imagine a block party here, a block party there, all promoting that love and connectedness? Where could the negative element run? It would only have to succumb.”

While she believes outside individuals and agencies have a role to play in reviving North O she says change must come from within.

“I do believe there are bridges that need to be laid but I do not believe you can bring change from the outside. You cannot come into my neighborhood and bring about change and correction if you’re not part of it. When you live out west and you come down here to preach you’re not connected. What do you know about it and where have you earned the people’s trust? I had to earn their trust.”

She’s sure she’s where she needs to be and she knows what she wants to do next there.

“I think this area is in dire need of a church and a community development center.”

When she looks at the empty lots around her she sees opportunities to offer programs that help people get out of poverty and off welfare.

“On all these empty lots we should be able to have something to help us connect or bridge to the various agencies we have in North Omaha.

We need to get people built up and ready to take advantage of the wonderful things we have. We’ve got to give people the ability to dream. You’ve got to get people to see beyond their circumstances.”

She realizes she may not live to see all her dreams fulfilled but she’s hopeful her children and others will see them through.

“I won’t always live here but I’m raising it to be able to go on beyond me.”

Her best takeaway from the 2013 block party is that the neighborhood has taken it on as their own. “They’re doing it now. If I wasn’t to do another one, it would live on. They’ve grown into it. It’s so rewarding.”

 

No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending North Omaha Food Desert

August 13, 2013 3 comments

A food movement is afoot in the U.S. and organizations like No More Empty Pots in Omaha are on the leading edge of efforts to get people to eat healthier by buying fresh, organic and local and growing their own produce in their own gardens or in community gardens.  My story about No More Empty Pots and the women who run it is in the new issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).  On this blog you can read my stories about related efforts, including pieces on Minne Lusa House, the documentary Growing Cities, and the marriage between the culinary and horitculture programs at Metropolitan Community College.

 

Nancy Williams

 

No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending North Omaha Food Desert

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Addressing the food insecurity problems that nag poverty-stricken northeast Omaha, where access to fresh, organic produce, dairy and bread products is limited, are an array of individuals, organizations, projects and initiatives. Many efforts aim to educate residents on how to grow their own food, cook healthier and eat better. That’s part of the mission of a fairly new nonprofit player in the food mosaic, No More Empty Pots (NMEP).

“I want our community to be healthy, I want people to understand the importance of having healthy, nutritious food, I don’t want this community to not have what everybody else has. I also want us to learn we have a right to know how our food is grown, what is being put in it and how it impacts our body. That’s what drives me,” says NMEP program director Susan Whitfield,

Healthy ingredients are important in that designated food desert area whose residents consume mostly processed, packaged and fast foods and a scarcity of fresh, natural items. Unhealthy eating habits contribute to the disproportionately higher rates of diabetes and heart disease among that community’s African American population.

In a district with high unemployment and spotty education there’s also emphasis by NMEP and others on getting people to achieve economic self-sufficiency through their own food businesses, from urban agriculture and catering ventures to food trucks and small eateries.

Launched in 2010, NMEP is dedicated to supporting existing food systems and creating new ones that reach people where they live and given them tools to help themselves.

There are many moving parts in this landscape of needs and delivery systems but NMEP founder Nancy Williams tries keeping it simple.

“NMEP is a backbone organization in the collective impact process for local food systems development,” she says. “We serve as a conduit when needed and a catalyst when necessary. We are trying to help connect entities and fill gaps. We partner, connect, collaborate, initiate and contribute as needed. We try not to duplicate.

“Our neighbors struggling to survive the effects of poverty deserve to have all of us working together with contributions from everybody to develop and implement strategies that work and gets us to self-sufficiency and economic resiliency.”

Besides her scientific background, Williams draws on her experience growing up in Louisiana. Her family and countless others across America employed communal, sustainable food practices that largely fell by the wayside as people became increasingly dependent on mass production. NMEP is part of a continuum of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farm to table programs that seek to revive food activities once routinely engaged in.

Referring to her parents Jesse and Nancy Webber, Williams says, “They grew food because cash was short and family labor, plus land, was available. Cash was used for wealth creation – buying property, starting businesses, paying for education, et cetera. Their parents and other family members had bought land and property doing the same thing, so they did what they knew, improving what they could for us as they learned better. Nobody was rich but education was a priority and having your own stuff was important.”

WillIams worked the communal gardens her family planted, helping harvest a bounty shared with friends and neighbors. She applied her experience to 4H projects, once winning a national competition. The Louisiana State University science graduate earned her master’s in weed science and plant pathology at Cornell University. A job with Dupont brought her to Omaha, where she and her musician husband raised four children. The couple introduced their kids to gardening.

“It was important for us to garden when our children were younger so that they understand where food came from, how to grow it and harvest it and had access to the same good food I grew up with. Now we enjoy supporting local farmers and farmers markets.”

Her experience and expertise long ago planted the seed for the sustainable food work she does today.

“I actually wrote plans for elements of No More Empty Pots in 1999 before I knew any of the folks that helped to get it off the ground.”

Around that same time she directed Omaha’s City Sprouts program, whose mantra of “sustaining communities through gardens” fit her philosophy. Then she and a group of friends began talking about doing something to help alleviate the disparities plaguing northeast Omaha.

“Seeing little change in our neighborhoods and with residents as a result, we decided to take action.”

Informal meetings led to a food summit and monthly forums. NMEP was born from the discourse and partners with many like-minded organizations, including Tomato Tomato and Metropolitan Community College‘s Institute for Culinary Arts and horticulture program.

“Because we are a diverse community and alleviating poverty is complex, there is ample room for multiple strategies,” says Williams.

 

 

 

 

She says everyone comes to food issues from their own vantage point  “but I think maybe others detect a certain authenticity in me,” adding, “I can speak with authority about food and practices in this way because I have lived it and internalized it.”

“I’m passionate about this because I understand the power of good food,” Williams says. “When you have access to it, when you know how to provide it for yourself, when you consume it, when it becomes available on a wider scale for you and your neighbors, I know the overarching impact it can have in your life and the ripple effect it can have in your neighborhood and community from a self-sufficiency and sustenance standpoint, from a nutrition standpoint, from a brain development-child development standpoint, from an economic development standpoint.

“Because if you have access to good food you have more energy and better capacity to do those things well and you can invest those dollars you would have been spending on food on something else. You can also have income from providing that food to others or you can create a value-added product from the food that comes from someone else. So it is what I see as a perfect system for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education and micro enterprise development.”

NMEP or its partners provide everything from cooking demonstrations to food entrepreneurship programs and looks to expand these offerings and add new ones. Everything NMEP does is about education, collaboration and sustainability. Witness one of its new partner programs, Truck Farm Omaha. The mobile garden planted in the bed of a Chevy pickup educates area youth about sustainability. Truck Farm founders-directors Dan Susberg and Andrew Monbouquette, the makers of the new documentary Growing Cities, sees= their project as a perfect fit, just as NMEP sees Big Muddy Urban Farm or Minne Lusa House or Tomato Tomato as natural co-conspirators in this movement toward food security.

“More and more organizations and public entities are asking us to do cooking demonstrations,” says Whitfield. “People are amazed at how simple and easy it is to cook these foods. If you don’t see it, you don’t know.”

NMEP is located in a former Harvester Truck and Tractor sales and service center at 1127 North 20th St., in a mixed used tract of light industrial plants and single family housing units. There are plans to retrofit the 19,000 square foot facility to house The Eleven27 Project, an urban agriculture and food systems innovation zone that will feature shared commercial kitchens, event space, food production, aquaponics systems, workshops, classes and on the surrounding two acres outdoor urban agriculture, hoop houses, raised garden beds and composting.

Williams says 1127 will approach food “from production to processing to distribution to marketing to composting so that we have a full cycle for these products. We will extract the value along that food chain so that we’re maximizing the resources. We will make this sustainable by generating income to cover the education costs as well as the hands on training people are getting while going through the programs. It’s several different levels of sustainability built into this.”

By year’s end NMEP plans to initiate a $3 million-plus fundraising campaign for the renovation.

NMEP has picked a good time to have emerged.

“The universe is conspiring in our favor,” says Whitfield. “Evidence of that is community gardens and farmers markets. There’s been an explosion over the last few years. In supermarkets local foods are starting to take up more and more space. Stores want to reduce that carbon print, they want to know who their small farmers are, they want to know where their food is grown, they want to know what is put on that food.

“People are becoming more and more educated.”

Follow NMEP at nomoreemptypots.org.

 

Omahans recall historic 1963 march on Washington

August 12, 2013 2 comments

There can’t be too many people who’ve done what Dan Goodwin and Robert Armstrong of Omaha have done.  Both men we’re at the historic 1963 March on Washington that became famous for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  In 1995 Goodwin went to D.C,.for the Million Man March.  In 2009 Armstrong journeyed to the nation’s capital for Barack Obama’s first presidential inaugration.  That’s a lot of history between these two African American gentlemen.  Those weren’t their only brushes with history either.  They recently spoke with me about their memories from the ’63 March on Washington for the following story to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  My path has interesected with them before.  You’ll find on this blog a cover story I did about Goodwin and his Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop that I refer to in the story.  That earlier piece is called “We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds Too.”  Also available on the blog are two cover stories I did about the noted race documentary A Time for Burning, which as I allude to in the story shot some pivotal scenes at the shop.  And I was embedded with a group of Nebraskans, among them Armstrong, who bused to the 2009 O’Bama inauguration.  That story can be found under the heading, “Freedom Riders: A Get on the Bus Inauguration Diary.”

 

 

 

 

Omahans recall historic 1963 march on Washington

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

When Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s turn to speak came at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it was near the end of a long program on a hot August day featuring addresses by civil rights leaders and performances by musicians.

Omahans Robert Armstrong and Dan Goodwin were among the estimated quarter of a million people gathered 50 years ago on the National Mall for the historic event. As young black men active in the civil rights movement they went to show solidarity for the cause of equality. Each was a military veteran and family man. Each had felt the sting of racism and gotten busy confronting it.

Armstrong had been a member of the NAACP Youth Council in his native St. Joseph, Mo., where he participated in demonstrations. He led the integration of a movie theater in his hometown. By 1963 Omaha native Goodwin already made his Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop a haven for political discourse. It’s where Ernie Chambers held court en route to winning election to the Nebraska Legislature. Goodwin was involved in the social action group 4CL and its efforts to combat discrimination. Goodiwin helped organize a local speaking appearance by Omaha native Malcolm X the next year and his shop played a prominent role in the 1968 race documentary A Time for Burning.

At the time of the march Armstrong was teaching high school with his wife Edwardene in east Texas. The couple moved to Omaha a year later. She embarked on a teaching career with the Omaha Public Schools, whose quota of black male teachers denied him getting on there. He broke barriers as the first black professional to work at Mutual of Omaha’s home office and went on to a city government career, eventually heading the Omaha Housing Authority.

He attended the 1963 march to honor his late father, an AFL-CIO field representative. The union co-organized the march. In 1960 the family home hosted AFL-CIO titan Walter Reuther, other labor leaders and King. Mere months before the ’63 march Armstrong’s father, who was slated to attend, was killed in an automobile accident and his son felt compelled to go in his place.

Goodwin says he attended the march because “I felt I needed to be involved…” He shared the expectations of Armstrong and others that it would foster change. “We hoped it would bring people together. Of course we needed more than a feel good moment.”

Despite oppressive heat that summer day the crowds were larger than anticipated and none of the predicted disturbances occurred. Neither Armstrong nor Goodwin had ever seen that many folks assembled at one time. They couldn’t get anywhere close to the Lincoln Memorial, where the presenters were, and the sound from the speakers wasn’t always clear but both men were struck by the prevailing calm mood.

“The atmosphere was tremendous, it was awesome,” recalls Goodwin. “In a word what I saw was unity. People felt for the day or for that period of time empowered. It made you feel like some things were really going to change.”

Armstrong remembers “the sense of purpose of people knowing why they were there – the fight for freedom, integration,” adding, “We had no idea of the magnitude of the people that were going to be there. That was overwhelming, seeing all the people from so many different places.”

Before King came on civil rights stalwarts Reuther, A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins spoke. Artists Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson and Marion Anderson performed. As the program drew on the crowd grew a bit restless, anxious to get out of the sun. That changed when King launched into what became known as the “I Have a Dream” speech.

“About three minutes into it you realized this is a different kind of speech,” says Armstrong. “You could hear the attention go back to the podium. When he got to the point about the blank check (“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.”) people really got into listening to what he was saying. From that point all attention was on him.

“When people talk about Dr. King’s speech they concentrate on the ‘I Have a Dream’ portion because that’s what people wanted to hear. But they seem to have forgotten he also talked about accountability and responsibility…We saw his speech as a call to action.”

It was the culmination of a black pride-filled gathering.

“I felt like it was our day,” says Goodwin. “I just felt like we really had something going on.”

Armstrong says, “You felt good about the day, the day had gone well. We’d heard a great speech and we hoped the nation would rally to offer more freedom, jobs, integration.” Back home, pragmatic reality set in that “the discrimination you faced yesterday” was still there.

“People went back and fought for the things they talked about that day. It still took a lot of work by a lot of people in different locations in different ways to make these things happen.”

Goodwin saw the march as a positive thing that ushered in major civil rights protections but he says the dream MLK and others envisioned is far from being fulfilled.

“I feel a strong sense of disappointment about the way things are today. Racism is hot and heavy in this country.”

Both Goodwin and Armstrong returned to the site of the ’63 march for more recent history-making occasions, In 1995 Goodwin bused into D.C. for the Million Man March and in 2009 Armstrong and his wife joined other area residents on a bus trip to the Obama inauguration.

Armstrong says Obama’s swearing in as the nation’s first black president “was a much happier occasion than the March on Washington,” adding, “The inauguration was a celebration – the march was a plea for justice.” Goodwin feels Obama’s presidency has been rendered more symbolic than anything by partisan politics.

 

Omaha theater gypsy Gordon Cantiello back with new show

August 9, 2013 2 comments

Omaha theater has its stalwart, perennial, deeply rooted figures who do their thing here year in and year out.  Theyre just always part of the scene and therefore you can always count on them for a certain number of shows, often at the same venues.  Then there’s someone like Gordon Cantiello, who was once a constant presence himself on stages in town before taking a job to teach theater on the west coast.  He’s an actor, director, producer.  But he never really left Omaha.  He’s come back intermittently since his move and with increasing frequency the last few years to put on cabaret revues such as the popular Beehive.  He’s had great success with theatpiece in Omaha on four different occassions, including last year.  Now this theater gypsy is back with a production of Always…Patsy Cline, another show he’s had success with.  The limited engaement run begins Aug. 10.  The diminutive, quiet-spoken Cantiello is known for getting the best out of his actors and staging rousing, audience-pleasing productions.  He’s never had a real theater home here but he considers Omaha home and has even purchased a place here as his second residence.  He’s thinking of opening his own theater venue here once he retires from teaching.  Then this theater gypsy might finally settle down again.

 

 

 Picture

 

 

 

Omaha theater gypsy Gordon Cantiello back with new show

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Theater gypsy Gordon Cantiello is back in town again.

The stage veteran and former full-time Omaha resident teaches speech and theater at a private school in San Diego, Calif. When he lived here he put on dozens of plays from the early 1970s through the mid-’80s but made his biggest splash in 1992 when he produced and directed Beehive, an all-female rock ‘n’ roll musical revue that played 10 months at the Howard Street Tavern in the Old Market.

He revived the piece in 1996 and 2002 and again last year at The Waiting Room in Benson, when he gathered four original cast members in local divas Kathy Tyree, Tiffany White-Welchen, Ginny Sheehan Hermann and Sue Gillespie Booton.

“I’ve done a lot of different things in Omaha but without a doubt Beehive had the longest run,” he says.

Now he’s returned with another cabaret production he’s visited before, Always…Patsy Cline, which begins a limited engagement at The Waiting Room on August 10 through his own Performing Artists Repertory Theatre. Erika Hall , who essayed the title part in an Omaha Community Playhouse production, portrays the country singer and Cantiello favorite Gillespie Booton plays fan-turned-friend Louise Seger.

Cantiello’s been a player on the local theater scene since the East Coast native first came here in 1972 to head the theater department and teach part-time at Dominican High School. Prior to that he made the rounds in summer stock and Broadway auditions trying to make it as an actor. Though he got work going on all those cattle calls was difficult. He didn’t like the “insecurity” of never knowing where his next job was coming from.

Fortunately, he listened to his parents and theater coaches and pursued his education. He earned an undergraduate degree in speech and theater from Ricker College (Maine), teacher certifications in Neb, and Calif. and a master’s from Schiller International University in West Germany.

“I think I always knew I was a teacher and a director,” he says.

When his gig at Dominican High ended he supported himself waiting tables while  acting at Omaha’s three dinner theaters – the Westroads, the Upstairs and the Firehouse. The old insecurity bug bit again and he wound up teaching speech and theater at Duchesne Academy from 1981 to 1986. With some prodding from Cantiello his brightest student, Tiffany White-Welchen, became a star performer at the Firehouse and later one of the stalwarts in his Beehive.

He left in ’86 for San Diego, where he’s lived and worked since, but he’s never stopped reengaging with Omaha theater. He bought a home here eight years ago and plans making this his main residence and staging ground once he retires.

“I knew I liked Omaha when I landed here. There’s just something about the city, the people that’s friendly. It is my home, I love it here, I feel comfortable here, I feel accepted here. I feel the warmth of the people.”

 

 

He’s also found devoted followers for his brand of theater.

“My niche is cabaret. People miss the dinner theater experience, where the theater’s sort of all around you and people can relax, have a cocktail, watch a show and have something to eat.”

If his name is not readily familiar it’s because Cantiello’s never been affiliated with a single venue or two, Instead, he’s freelanced from place to place. There may not be anyone who’s put on such a variety of shows in such diverse locations in the metro.

He’s did Side by Side by Sondheim and Celebration at M’s Pub, The World Goes ‘Round at the Jewish Community Center, Smokey Joe’s Cafe at Harrah’s Casino, Kathy Tyree and Friends at The Max, Oliver at the Omaha Music Hall, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Chanticleer Theater and the Lincoln Community Playhouse. He also did shows at funky spots no longer around, including Smokey Joe’s at The Ranch Bowl and Forever Plaid at Frankie Pane’s.

In addition to Beehive at the Howard Street, he did Always…Patsy Cline, Reunion, Studs and Kathy Tyree and Friends there. His most prolific spot was the French Underground below the French Cafe, where he staged Jacques Brel, Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Belle of Amherst, Some Enchanted Evening, Dames at Sea and Side by Side by Sondheim.

Over the years he’s worked with some of Omaha’s top female stage artists and he admires them all: Phyllis Doughman (“a remarkable actress”), Kathy Tyree (“a wonderful cabaret performer with an incredible voice and personality people love”), Tiffany White-Welchen (“a great talent”) and Sue Gillespie Booton (“I love her work ethic – she just jumps in”). There’s also been Nola and Carole Jeanpierre, Patty Driscoll and now Erika Hall.

“All those women are really talented.”

He’s counted many of them as friends. They appreciate what he’s done for them.

Tyree says Cantiello helped her “go to my next level as a professional entertainer,” adding “He has very high expectations of us as performers. I love him as a friend and a producer and a director.” She says she can always expect him to get intense when something’s wrong. “That’s the perfectionist in him. He wants it right.”

None of his Omaha ties would have likely happened if he hadn’t done summer stock at the Priscilla Beach Theater in Plymouth, Mass. An Omaha woman was the music director there but taught at Dominican back here during the school year. She let him know the school was looking for a theater director. After doing the New York thing again a real job sounded good and he applied and got hired at the school.

Another reason he’s not a household name despite his many credits is that he’s been mostly on the West Coast the last quarter century, only returning for those cabaret originals and revivals. He’s reinvented himself several times but in the last act of his life he’s content doing theater his way.

Kathy Tyree

“It’s a tough road but if you’re passionate about it and do it there’s nothing that can stop you, and I’ve done it and I’m proud of that.”

That philosophy goes back to some career advice he got from theater legend Mary Martin, whom he was infatuated with from network television broadcasts of her iconic title role in the satge hit, Peter Pan.

“I wrote to her and she wrote back (with a signed 8 by 10 glossy of herself). She said, ‘Billy Rose (famous impresario) once told me to go back to Texas and run a dance school and be a housewife. Had I listened to him I would never have had the pleasure of entertaining you and countless others. So go with your passion, go with your heart, and nothing can stop you.’ It was very liberating and encouraging and to this day I have her picture hanging in my office, though I have to explain to my students who she was and all she did.”

From the start, he could never get enough theater. As a young man he helped start a children’s theater and at one point found himself doing four productions at once.

“I had all this energy. I loved it so much.”

Today’s Omaha theater community is different than the one he came to all those years ago. He likes the mix of viable companies and venues that’s evolved.

“It surprises me that in Omaha there’s so much and all the theaters seem to do well.

Theater breeds theater. The more you have that, the better the community. I think Omaha may be ready to take that step of having a professional equity theater. It very well will happen I think.”

He’s even eying his own venue to host the kind of productions he’s become best identified with. He’d like to offer classes, too.

For Always…Patsy Cline dates, times and tickets call 402-706-0778 or visit performingartistsrepertorytheatre.org.

 

 

Matter of the heart: Pamela Jo Berry’s love for community brings art fest to North Omaha

August 8, 2013 6 comments

One of Pam's crosses

One of Pamela Jo Berry’s cross pieces

 

 

When I first posted this, I wrote about the subject of this story, “Pamela Jo Berry is a photographer who doesn’t like her picture taken.”  I could have added that she also doesn’t allow her picture to be used without her permission.  That’s still true but she has since relented to let me post a self-portrait she created.  The fact that we’ve became a couple since I wrote this story may help account  for this change of mind.  She’s still very shy and particular about her image.  What you will see in this self-portrait, which is broken up into two images here, is her heart.  The mixed media artist displays her big, warm heart in everything she does, including the North Omaha Summer Arts festival she just dreamed up herself and has staged three consecutive years now out of her own pocket and with in-kind donations from friends, fellow artists, and supporters.  The grassroots event is very much an expression of her passion for art in all its many forms,  her deep spirituality, and her abiding love for her North Omaha community.  As always, this year’s featival culminates in an Arts Crawl up and down a section of North 30th Street that not coincidentally is also her neighborhood.  The crawl runs from 6 to 9 p.m. and Berry’s organized an eclectic roster of artists to show their work.  Berry’s done something here that should be a lesson to us all.  She saw a need for more public art in her community and instead of bemoaning its absence she went about creating a festival that brings art there.

PAM BERRY
Matter of the heart: Pamela Jo Berry’s love for community brings art fest to North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Pamela Jo Berry saw a need for more art offerings in the section of northeast Omaha where she resides and decided to do something about it.

With the help of friends and venues the photographer and mixed media artist created North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) in 2011 to serve the area north of Ames Ave. along the 30th Street corridor, The free public festival is a homespun hodgepodge of writing and quilting classes, a gospel concert and an arts crawl. She says all of it’s “open to anyone interested in participating.”

“It actually came about as wanting to put a taste of art in the area,” she says.

This year’s festival has already seen: a Creative Writing Journey for Women workshop series taught by best-selling romance novelist Kim Whiteside (who publishes under Kim Louise) of Omaha; and a Free Motion Quilting course taught by former Union for Contemporary Art resident Shea Wilkinson.

A free home-cooked dinner was served before each class.

The June 22 gospel concert at Miller Park featured the Cadence Ensemble, Highly Favored and Eric and Doriette Jordan.

That leaves the August 9 Arts Crawl, from 6 to 9 p.m., featuring artists, art talks and homemade food and refreshments at the following sites:

Metropolitan Community College, Fort Omaha Campus, Mule Barn (Building 21) – Bart Vargas

Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd. Work and art talk by sculptress Pamela Conyers-Hinson

Blessed Sacrament Church, 6316 North 30th St.

Trinity Lutheran Church, 6340 North 30th St.

Jehovah Shammah Church International, 3020 Huntington Ave.

Parkside Baptist Church, 3008 Newport Ave.

Solomon Girls Center/Heartland Family Service, 6720 North 30th St.

Other artists featured in the Arts Crawl include: Whiteside, Wilkerson, Peggy Jones, Linda Garcia, Reginald LeFlore III and Gerard Pefung.

Berry’s also showing her own work.

It’s only natural for Berry to utilize churches because she’s a deeply spiritual woman who sees the festival, like her own artwork, as a faith-led mission.

“It’s just an extension of who I am as a follower of Christ.”

PAM BERRY (2)opt

The normally shy Berry, whose extrovert daughter is local actress and playwright Beaufield Berry puts herself out there with NOSA because she feels called to it

“When you see something as a ministry you kind of go with it,” she says. “This gives me a chance to share. North Omaha Summer Arts is quite important to me.”

She sees NOSA as a much needed asset for an underserved community challenged by poverty, crime, scarce amenities and a perception problem.

“In the area of North Omaha where we live we could find no art,” she says. “We knew it was there, we just had to uncover it. We knew art would bring hope and peace and most of all community to our neighborhood. We’ve seen it grow, we’ve noticed the interest and the benefits…and we want it to continue to flourish.”

Nebraska Arts Council Heritage Arts Manager Deborah Bunting says NOSA is part of the new energy and sense of community being built in North O.

Berry, who works with Omaha Community Playhouse education director Denise Chapman in organizing the fest, says while the number of people who engage with NOSA is still small it positions North O as a place of beauty, creativity and potential.

“The impact of art in places deemed ‘artless’, the impact of music to create growth and connectedness, the impact of strangers coming together for a common goal of creativity, creating opportunity, is magical. We want the community of North Omaha, particularly the youth, to open themselves up to creativity, of what is possible and to be a part of.”

Berry, who regularly attends Trinity Lutheran, says her pastors, Revs. John and Liz Backus, “have been very supportive” as have pastors at other churches she’s enlisted.

John Backus admires Berry’s efforts.

“Her open spirit is a challenge to everyone to make things better. She successfully combines her passion for her art with her passion for the world around her. Her contribution has been of unimaginable value in bringing one more hope to the North Omaha area, cultural opportunities, and the chance to meet neighbors in an atmosphere of elevation and inspiration.”

Berry says her decision to create NOSA was much like her decision 20-plus years ago as a young single mother to make art her life.

“I just made a choice one day to go ahead and try it and do it.”

She succeeded too with commissions, exhibitions, Nebraska Arts Council residencies and a Mid-America Arts Alllance fellowship. Just as her art career got in full swing a series of challenges, including a chronic illness, interrupted her plans. It’s taken time for her to learn to budget her energy.

“What you do is end up trying to work your life around it and try to make it work around your life, but you’ve got to take your time with it, so you step back and you slowly come back into it. It’s almost like I’m starting over again with creating.”

She’s producing and exhibiting again. She currently has a show of mixed media work in the Mulitcultural Affairs office at Creighton University’s Harper Building.

“Art opportunities keep popping up. I guess this is my time to be an artist again. I’m making things from found objects. In my last show I had older images shown along with the new images I’ve made. All of it’s an expression of the spiritual side of my life.”

She says a turning point in her artistic life came with photographing the homeless, “It helped me to understand that in order to tell a true story the subject needs to be a partner and shown the same respect I would want.”

Where she used to be consumed trying to make things perfect, she says she’s now fine keeping imperfections in her work. Her mixed media piece “Change” includes a torn photograph she views as a metaphor for the permutations life holds.

“Going through changes you realize your flaws,” she says. “I’m not perfect, nobody is. So now when I make the artwork I am not so set on making it perfect. I make it from the heart. It’s very liberating.”

That same easy attitude infuses NOSA. Berry appreciates that after a long lull the 24th and Lake Street hub is alive with arts activities again thanks to Loves Jazz and Arts Center, Carver Bank, the Union for Contemporary Art and the Great Plains Black History Museum. NOSA fills a gap further north and offers programs the others don’t. She likes that NOSA has a quirky, do-its-own-thing vibe.

“You can do that when you’re not paying attention to what everyone else is saying. You’re free to do whatever you want to.”

In putting NOSA together Berry calls on fellow African American female creatives.

“There are artists I admire and am friends with. I’m not walking this myself believe me.”

The artists feel a kinship with Berry, whose big heart and bright spirit they respond to. Peggy Jones says of Berry, “She is committed, passionate and has great love for both the arts and her community. Pam is a tireless advocate for helping people tell their own stories and create art because she is a true believer in the way the arts can be used for expression as well as heal and connect disparate groups.”

Berry likes that she and her “sisters” produce a festival that not only gets people to experience different forms of art but that gives them a chance to create art and to get it seen. Students in the creative writing class pen pieces published in an anthology and students in the quilting class get their work shown in the Arts Crawl.

For Berry, it’s all about giving North O its due.

“I love my community.”

For details visit http://www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts.

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