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North Omaha: Voices and Visions for Change

February 29, 2016 3 comments

North Omaha: Voices and Visions for Change

This is a compilation of stories I’ve written over the last six or seven years that address North Omaha and some of the many voices and visions for change that have surfaced.

 

Here’s a cover story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about a plan and a vision that may at last signal the start of significant turnaround for long stagnated North Omaha. To be more precise – Northeast Omaha, where the predominantly African-American community is located and has awaited meaningful change for going on half-a-century. If it doesn’t happen now, then when?

Overarching Plan for North Omaha Development Now in Place, Disinvested Community Hopeful Long Promised Change Follows

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Recent adoption of the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan into the city master plan gives direction and impetus to energizing a stagnated, disinvested area never fully recovered from decades-ago civil disturbance and urban renewal.

Unanimous approval by the Omaha Planning Board and City Council sends a strong signal to public-private funders and developers the plan provides an officially endorsed blueprint for action. What happens next to realize its 30-year vision is up to stakeholders, entrepreneurs, elected officials, movers and shakers.

The Empowerment Network initiated plan, which drew input from residents, business concerns, philanthropists, planning consultants and others, envisions $1.43 billion in redevelopment along key corridors. The initiative puts the Northside in the crosshairs of major transformation as never before.

Some plan contributors and likely implementers recently spoke with The Reader about what this means for a section of the city that’s long awaited significant change.

“One reason it’s important is to show the people who participated, who live in the community, that we’re serious about a North Omaha that is a strong component of the overall city, one that shares in the successes and in the future of the whole city,” says Omaha Planning Director Rick Cunningham.

“It’s important because as the Planning Department this gives us then our marching orders. This is what we then work with with developers to compare their ideas and plans against. It gives people a clear understanding of what the vision is and where they can best take their dollars and invest them.”

Omaha Economic Development Corporation president Michael Maroney sees the plan as “absolutely essential” for addressing some sobering realities.

“I’ve been working in this community for over 40 years and over that period of time I’ve heard over and over again from the political leadership of this city, from the corporate-business community, why can’t North Omaha leadership get together and speak with a single voice in terms of what the needs are.

“And this whole effort going back five years in the creation of the Empowerment Network was really in part a response to that, because we recognized we had to start doing things differently.”

The need for a new approach became painfully obvious, he says, in the wake of a 2005 study. It showed that in every quality of life measure constituting a healthy community blacks “were either no better off or worse off compared to the majority community” than they were in 1977, he says.

“That basically said all the good work all of us thought we were doing wasn’t making a difference, not in the overall scheme of things. Something was missing.”

The community action coalition African American Empowerment Network was born.

“We sat around a table and said we’ve got to start working together, we’ve got to start collaborating, we’ve got to start connecting with each other, and bring all our combined talents together,” says Maroney. “That led to this village revitalization visioning we did.”

 

“When $3 billion has been spent in downtown and midtown, what’s a billion dollars for North Omaha to make it a strong resource, a strong player, a big part of the tapestry for a sustainable Omaha?” asks Cunningham.

It’s no exaggeration to say the plan is a put-up or shut-up moment in Omaha history.

Maroney says, “For decades the greater community has said come together and the support will be there. Well, we’ve done that now, and I have to say we’ve had good vibes all along the way from those various entities. But the proof is going to be in the pudding. We now have a very solid process we’ve gone through that creates a long term vision for the community. We’ve done this in a collaborative way that engaged the city and the business and philanthropic community. Now the question becomes, Will you step up to the plate? We’ve got this down, we’ve got it in phases, we’ve got even the first couple projects identified. So we’re moving to that next level and we’ll see if what has been suggested and indicated for years will actually happen.”

Empowerment Network president Willie Barney says the plan’s “going to take focus and commitment from the community itself,” adding, “New businesses and venues will only be sustainable to the level they’re supported by the people who live here.”

For the area to thrive, says Maroney, “it’s more than just brick and mortar because we know if people don’t feel safe and secure, I don’t care how nice we make it, they’re not going to be there, they’re not going to come.”

Observers agree infrastructure needs like the sewer-separation project must proceed to lay the way for large scale development.

Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp. executive director Othello Meadows says whatever happens next, the Network deserves credit for making North O a priority.

“I’m encouraged by what the Empowerment Network is doing,” he says. “They’ve been consistent, they haven’t let the momentum fizzle out. They’ve been diligent. They’ve put together a really comprehensive plan. Anybody can quibble with aspects of it, but the fact they’ve put this together is a major accomplishment.

“They’ve kept the conversation going long enough to get the attention of the right people and it’s moved to a very concrete step being part of the master plan.”

He’s confident North O has the players it needs to drive the plan to fruition.

“I think there’s far more executors than they’re used to be. There’s more people who are used to being held accountable, to executing and getting things done and who are much less interested in talking about it and much more interested in doing it. That’s the single biggest component of what will make North Omaha successful.”

Another aspect of economic development the plan implicitly addresses is improving work skill readiness and creating more living wage to career job pathways.

“Omaha has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, yet we still have in North Omaha a very high unemployment rate,” says Barney. “We have not really bridged that gap yet. We really haven’t come to grips with job creation and development. I think more so now than ever the business community is alongside us in looking at how to solve this. There are training programs through the Urban League, Heartland Workforce Solutions, Metro Community College that I think will do a more effective job of getting people ready.”

The Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Solutions partners with local employers, Metro and Goodwill Industries to train skill deficient workers for entry level professional jobs. Meadows, who headed the Omaha Workforce Collaborative, says too many North Omaha residents still have “the steepest of hills to climb” to become proficient.

North Omaha is a much studied, social serviced area suffering disproportionately from poverty, unemployment, underemployment, educational-skill gaps and health problems. As Omaha as a whole has prospered, North O’s languished, cut off from the mainstream of commerce and affluence that ranks the city among the nation’s best places to live. For half a century its predominantly black population has seen their community cast as a crime-ridden danger zone and charitable mission district.

Branded as an undesirable place to live or do business in, major investment has bypassed it. Thus, it lacks goods and services, its population is down, its housing stock deteriorated, its vacant, condemned properties number in the thousands. Added to this is a sparse entrepreneurial class and scarcity of entertainment options-attractions.

Planning Director Cunningham says though efforts have “stabilized what was a declining part of town, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work to do,” adding. “To say we’ve stabilized is not great, but it does give us a platform upon which to move forward.”

“If North Omaha is to be a sustainable community, and that means it really takes care of itself and it doesn’t need to be a welfare community, we have to have a different mind set,” says Maroney. “That does not mean we forsake those in need, but we have to create the atmosphere by which we not only bring back people with higher incomes but we elevate those people within upward. We must create a community that is generating resources that turn around in the community by creating jobs, creating opportunity.”

“The whole idea is to make North Omaha a neighborhood of choice,” says Cunningham. “That not only people who live there now stay, because they can afford to stay, because of new jobs and opportunities, but people who moved away are invited-enticed to move back and people looking for a new place to raise their families move there.”

He says the plan mitigates against gentrification pricing out residents.

“The concept is to not have just one type of housing but a full range of housing types and income levels. I think that’s all through the plan.”

Facilitating mixed income housing projects is what Seventy Five North plans doing. The new nonprofit, in partnership with Purpose Building Communities, is quietly acquiring properties to infuse new life into neighborhoods.

Prospect Hill has recently seen the addition of new “green” homes to its stock of older homes courtesy of a collaborative venture between OEDC, Alliance Building Communities, Holy Name Housing, Wells Fargo Bank and Family Housing Advisory Services. More partnerships like this are needed, says OEDC’s Maroney.

Cunningham says if North Omaha is to be a prime development landscape the same way other parts of the city are, “we need to identify innovative and new ways we can invest. So we’re looking at the economic development tools we have to make it just as easy to develop and reinvest there. We’ve got to do that. We’ve got to utilize the resources of this city.” He says, “A plan like this is a catalyst that begins people thinking about, What if? Why not? and people are doing that already. There are partners (emerging) out there the public doesn’t know about at this point.”

Othello Meadows feels a serious attitude change is necessary.

“One of the things I see a lot is almost this antithetical attitude to people coming into North Omaha to make money,,” he says, “as if it’s almost a bad or exploitive thing, and I don’t understand that. The only way North Omaha grows in a sustainable way is if somebody sees an opportunity to go in there and make some money. That’s how North Omaha gets tied to the rest of the economic prosperity the city has enjoyed.”

Othello Meadows

Nurturing more entrepreneurs, says Maroney, “is absolutely key. It’s an area we’re working on. It needs a lot of help. A lot of it is access to credit and capital. A lot of its entrepreneurial development training. That’s critical because as we develop all this brick and mortar we need to have people ready to move in and create businesses and jobs and hopefully make a lot of money.”

The city and Chamber are actively recruiting black businesses outside Nebraska to open operations in North Omaha. Consultant Jim Beatty heads an Atlanta initiative that’s imported one business thus far, All(n)1 Security. He says aggressive, wide net efforts like these are needed to market the revitalization plan to entrepreneurs, philanthropists and developers. “I think we need to present North Omaha as an opportunity for investment, and we need to tell that story, not only locally but nationally,” says Beatty, who chairs the Black History Museum board.

The Chamber’s Ed Cochran, who heads the North Omaha Development Project, says, “There are several ways to grow business in a community. One is to grow it organically through inspiring entrepreneurs with brand new businesses. Another is to strengthen and grow existing businesses. A third is to import businesses from other locations.” He says North Omaha needs all these approaches.

For too long, says Meadows, the Northside has been treated as a charity case.

“I feel like there’s almost a patriarchal type relationship that always leaves North Omaha in a secondary position. At this point North Omaha doesn’t have the capital, in a lot of ways it doesn’t have the personnel, kind of by way of brain drain, to transition itself organically without outside resources. At this point it needs help from philanthropy and individuals whose hearts are in the right place, who simply want to do the right thing.

“I think the compassion that exists in this city is rare, especially in the philanthropic community, but I think we have to have a little bit more analytical, clinical approach.”

While the adjacent downtown, riverfront and mid-town have bloomed, North O’s seen piecemeal, stop-gap change, with pockets of redevelopment surrounded by neglect.

“Historically what we’ve done, and I’ve been a part of that, is have a scattered gun approach toward development,” Maroney says. “A lot of good things have been done, but they’ve been done in isolation. We need to better coordinate and understand how these things relate to each other, and then how you build on top of those. We’re now trying to take a more deliberative and directed approach toward development

Backers of the revitalization plan see it as a guide and stimulus to making North O a destination to live, work and recreate in. Among the early focal points is developing 24th and Lake into a heavily trafficked, tourist-friendly arts-culture district.

“In North Omaha one of the real epicenters is 24th and Lake, where you have a really nice combination of history and communal feeling,” says Meadows. “It’s one of the hubs of the community. I think you could make a tremendous splash by focusing on that area. You can’t find somebody who grew up in North Omaha that hasn’t spent a lot of time in that area, whether they got their cut there or they went to church there. So to me it makes sense to start with an area that touches so much of North Omaha.

“If I were a developer I’d start right there. It’s close enough to downtown to draw from a lot of different nodes, which is important.”

Anticipated commercial development would build on existing anchors in strategic areas:

24th and Lake (Bryant Center, Jewell Building, Omaha Star, Family Housing Advisory Services, Blue Lion Centre, Loves Jazz & Arts Center, Omaha Business & Technology Center, Great Plains Black History Museum)

30th and Lake (Salem Baptist Church, Salem Village, Miami Heights, Urban League, Charles Drew Health Center)

Adams Park and the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation

Refinements to 16th and Cuming and the 24th and 30th St. corridors are meant to spur a “seamless transition” from north downtown to North Omaha. Cunningham says “development there would integrate with the downtown and begin to bring the flow of people, goods, enterprise and economic development over into and overlapping with what has been historically the North Side.”

He adds, “We’re working now with 24th Street and an existing building there housing an historic business to revamp their footprint so that it says this is a front door rather than a back door. We’re also working with Creighton (University) and their plans for 24th and Cuming. That’s an entry portal for them too. They’re a partner in this and they have a vision for what’s happening there, really from 30th to 16th Streets, in creating a Cuming that is not a barrier, not a border, but a strong component of activity.”

Asked if it’s vital the first projects find success, Cunningham says. “Absolutely, because that builds momentum. We have to have successes early because it will be easier for the next developer to come in.” Sources indicate government funded projects are likely to launch first to “prime the pump” for private investment to follow.

Sustainability will be critical.

“Each one of those projects, particularly ones in the initial stages, have to be able to stand on their own in the event nothing else happens so that 20 years from now that project will still be there, will still be functioning,” says Maroney. “Not only do we look at what is it going to cost to create that project, but what is it going to take to sustain it over time. We nee to make sure thats built in also.”

Meadows says, “The same kind of rigor, due diligence and economic models that went into determining the feasibility of midtown and downtown development projects needs to take place with each North Omaha project” to ensure their sustainability.

More than anything, Meadows just wants to see change.

“When my friends come to visit from out of town there’s very little positive to show them on the Northside, very little you can point out and say, ‘Wow!’ So I’m glad we potentially have some things to be proud about in our neighborhood, in my community.

“I think North Omaha is really poised. I think residents are getting ready to see actual movement, they’re getting ready to drive down certain streets and see real development, real improvement. I can’t remember when that’s happened here.”

_ _ _

With the 2011 Native Omaha Days, July 27-August 1, just around the corner I am posting stories I’ve written about this every two years African American heritage and homecoming event and how it serves a kind of litmus test for the black community here to take stock of itself in terms of where it’s been, where it is today, and where it’s heading. The following story appeared just as the 2009 Native Omaha Days concluded. I spoke to a number of individuals for their take on the state of Black Omaha at a time when there is both much despair and much promise for the predominantly African American northeast Omaha community. I interviewed folks who grew up here and stayed here and those who left here but who retain deep ties here and come back for events like the Days in order to get a cross-section of perspectives on what the past, present, and future holds for North Omaha. This much discussed community, where generational problems of poverty and underachievement are rampant but where many success stories have also been launched, is finally getting the kind of attention it’s long required. Initiatives like the African American Empowerment Network are helping drive a planned revitalization that seems much closer to reality today than it did even two years ago. The role of Native Omaha Days shouldn’t be overlooked because it does bring together thousands of current and former Omaha residents whose individual and collective vision and energy are helping fuel what is about to be a major North Omaha revival. That doesn’t mean all the challenges that face that community will be eradicated overnight. It took decades for those problems and wounds to become embedded and it will take decades to heal them, and events like Native Omaha Days help give a purpose and focus to affecting change.

Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

The 2009 African-American heritage celebration Native Omaha Days concluded Monday. Natives came from across America to indulge memories of this touchstone place. The biennial, week-long Days lends itself to gauging the African-American experience here — past, present, future.

Taking stock has added import with North Omaha at a tipping point. Ambitious new housing and commercial developments, job training programs, educational reform efforts and gang intervention initiatives are in the works. All in response to endemic problems of poverty and unemployment, low job readiness, poor academic performance, high dropout rates, epidemic-level STDs and ongoing drug traficking-gang violence. North O has a strong sense of identity and purpose yet struggles with scarce opportunities. The persistent challenges of segregation and inequality have led many natives over time to leave for better prospects elsewhere, but a sense of home and family keeps their ties to Omaha strong.

The Days brings thousands of natives back to meet up with friends and relatives for homecomings, large and small. Last week’s public events included: a mixer at the Native Omahans Club; a parade along North 30th Street; a dance at the Mid-America Center; appearances by NBA star Dwayne Wade and actress Gabrielle Union at North High School; and a picnic at Levi Carter Park.

Visitors helped swell the numbers at Jazz on the Green, at clubs and bars on the north side and at black church services. Celebrants were out in force too at school reunions. Then there were untold family reunions and block parties that unfolded in people’s homes and yards, in the streets, and in parks all over the city.

Northeast Omaha was jumping as visitors mixed with residents to sight-see or just kick it. Kountze Park, the Native Omahans Club, the Love’s Jazz & Arts Center, the Bryant Center, Skeets Barbecue and other haunts were popular gathering spots. Joe Tess on the south side was a popular stop. Streams of cars toured the black community’s historical corridors. Many made the rounds at post-card amenities like the riverfront, the Old Market, Lauritzen Gardend and Henry Doorly Zoo.

Nobody seems to know how many expatriates arrive for The Days. That’s a shame, as these visitors represent resources for a strapped city and state hurting from a brain drain and a small tax base. Many natives who come back are the same upwardly mobile blacks Omaha has trouble retaining, a costly decades-long trend. The city’s black population is small to begin with, so every talented native lost is felt acutely by a community with a paucity of black entrepreneurs and professionals for a city this size.

Hometown girl Felicia Webster has twice left for the East Coast but has since returned to live here with her young son. She wonders what would happen if residents collaborated with visitors on visioning new initiatives, ventures, projects, even start-up businesses aimed at reviving North Omaha.

“I feel Native Omaha Days right now is a good opportunity and a wonderful manifestation of African-American people coming together of one accord and building and talking and socializing. It would be nice to just have a really huge collective on what could actually happen with development here,” said Webster, a spoken word artist, “because, you know, people come from everywhere that are doing all kinds of things. They can bring their knowledge and tools with them to share something fresh, new and vital here. I personally would like to see that.

What about The Days serving as a catalyst for brainstorming-networking forums that capitalize on the skill sets and entrepreneurial ideas and investment dollars of natives near and far? All geared toward building the kind of self-sufficiency that black leaders point to as the most sustainable path for black prosperity.

Nate Goldston III  left Omaha as a young man and went on to found Gourmet Services in Atlanta, Ga., one of the nation’s largest food service companies. He’s doing just what Webster advocates by working with locals on stimulating new development. The self-made millionaire has been advising the Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the North Omaha Development Project on the landscape for new North O investment. He’s bullish on the prospects for that long depressed district.

“I think it’s going to grow, but you’ve got to plant the seeds first and that’s what were interested in helping do with some business development there in the food service area,” Goldston said by phone from Atlanta.

He’s close to finalizing plans for a brick-and-mortar Gourmet Services backed project here to provide entrepreneurial opportunities for local African Americans.

“If we can bring this business opportunity there and put some young people in place and let them have a little piece of the action and begin to develop a franchise type operation, and then allow them to go on and grow it themselves, manage and own at the same time, that’ll bring that missing link and fill that gap in the economic development portion. At least a small portion of it,” he said.

He said it’s the kind of grassroots development that’s required. “It’s not the Chamber’s job to develop North Omaha. North Omaha needs to be developed by people from or attached to North Omaha, and the kinds of things that need to go in need to be done from within as opposed to from without.” Goldston’s impressed with the “pro-business, pro-development, pro-North Omaha” focus of the Chamber and city. “They just need the right teammates, they need the right partners to help them do it, and that’s the first time I’ve ever noticed that collaborative attitude in Omaha. I think there’s a real chance there.”

New Omaha City Planning Director Rick Cunningham, who most recently lived on the East Coast, is a native who hopes to implement Mayor Jim Suttle’s vision for a revitalized north side. “His agenda includes a strong commitment to North Omaha,” Cunningham said of Suttle. “He has a goal for 24th and Lake Street to become a new Dundee for Omaha.”

Cunningham knows first-hand Northeast Omaha’s prolonged decline. He also knows “there have been pockets of success,” including the Blue Lion Center at 24th and Lake he served as project manager for under Omaha architect and mentor Ambrose Jackson. He said most North O redevelopment has come from “investments in new rooftops, in new housing,” and while that needs to continue he said there must be a focus on creating more employable residents and attracting businesses and services that generate new jobs and commerce. “To bring Omaha into a very livable community with an environment that all residents and visitors can enjoy we’ve got to make sure we’ve got a diverse economy.”

He looks forward to being part of solutions that “return North 24 to the vibrancy it had, when 24th and Lake was the heart and soul. We will be engaged in that effort.” He looks forward to meeting with community partners from the public and private sectors to “build synergy in accomplishing those goals.” He said the city cannot afford to let North Omaha wallow. “If there is an area that suffers in Omaha than the entire city suffers,” he said. “It’s important we revitalize the core area. Those communities that are alive and thriving have inner cities that are alive.”


Nate Goldston III

Goldston vividly recalls when North O had a greater concentration of black-owned businesses than it does today, but he said even in its heyday Omaha’s black community had few major black entrepreneurs.

“Omaha’s African-American community has always been job-oriented as opposed to entrepreneurial-oriented,” he said. “I see great opportunity and I see opportunity that’s been missed only because I don’t know that we’ve been blessed with a lot of entrepreneurs that have had the path or the ability to develop businesses in the area. We had the model of the bars, the nightclubs, the pool halls.”

He could have added restaurants, barbershops, beauty salons, clothing stores and filling stations. There were also black professionals in private practice — doctors, dentists, attorneys, accountants, pharmacists, architects.

Their example “gave me inspiration and hope,” said attorney Vaughn Chatman, a native Omahan who made it back for The Days from Calif. North 24th Street was once a thriving hub of black and white-owned businesses. Few, however, survived the ‘60s riots and their aftermath. Urban renewal did in more. Once the packing house and railroad jobs that employed many blacks vanished, few good-paying  employment options surfaced. “My friends and I had no desire to leave Omaha until opportunities for us began to disappear,” said Chatman . “Most, if not all my friends, faced with lack of opportunity have left Omaha. My friends and relatives (still) there tell me the quality of life for them and their generation has not gotten any better despite the best efforts of a number of individuals and organizations.”

Several new businesses have popped up but many have come and gone over time. Despite some redevelopment North 24th is largely barren today.

“That positive feeling of inspiration and hope is what I miss the most about the North Omaha I grew up in,” said Chatman.

An old-line exception is the Omaha Star, a black weekly now 70-plus years strong. Founder Mildred Brown was one of America’s few black women publishers. She earned a national reputation for her crusading work during the civil rights movement. Goldston learned valuable lessons working for the Star as a kid.

“The Omaha Star was my entree to entrepreneurship,” he said. “That’s what taught me to create a marketing sense, the ability to be able to develop a customer base and customer service and the whole nine yards.”

Cathy Hughes is another Star veteran who credits her experience there and at Omaha black-owned radio station KOWH with helping give her the impetus to be a broadcast owner and eventually build her Radio One empire.

“It encouraged me to go ahead and to try to own my own radio station because I saw some folks in Omaha do it,” she said by phone from her Maryland home. “You lead by example. When you do something, you never know who you’re touching. you never know who you’re having an impact on. I saw Bob Gibson and Rodney Wead and Bob Boozer and Gale Sayers come together and buy a radio station, so I knew it was possible, and now I’m the largest black-owned broadcast corporation in America and the only African-American woman to head a publicly traded corporation. None of that would have been possible if I hadn’t seen the examples I saw in Omaha, if I hadn’t seen Mildred Brown keeping her newspaper not only afloat but providing her with a very comfortable existence for that day and time.”

Hughes, like Goldston, is pleased by gains that have been made via new housing developments, streetscape improvements and the Love’s Center, but is dismayed there aren’t more Mildred Brown figures in Omaha by now. In Hughes’ estimation Omaha should be much further along than it is in black entrepreneurship.

“It has a long ways to go,” she said.

Hughes is also concerned that strong community leaders like North O developer Al Goodwin, educator Katherine Fletcher and job training director Bernice Dodd are no longer on the scene. She’s warily watching the new generation of local black leadership to assess their commitment to redevelopment.

Goldston said black businesses in Omaha are not as visible as they once were.

“Those things have all gone away,” he said, adding that Omaha “is miles apart” from the dynamic black business culture found in Atlanta. “I think other opportunities were just not there (in Omaha) at that time to start and build a business.”

All these years later, he said, few if any Omaha businesses have made the Black Enterprise 100 list of the largest African-American owned businesses.

Most black-owned Omaha businesses of any size are not located on the north side today. Out of sight, out of mind. Hard to emulate what you don’t see. “I think we flourish when we see reflections of ourselves in the community where we live,” said Webster. “And when you don’t see that, what do you have to strive for?”

Introducing students to Omaha black achievers via school curricula is something Vaughn Chatman, founder of the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, advocates.

Webster presents programs in schools that attempt to expand kids’ vision. “I want them to see a bigger picture, a bigger view of the world than what they normally see, and I hope that by my being African-American young boys and girls are seeing reflections of themselves in me of what they possibly could attain,” she said.

Hughes and Goldston are concerned about the education gap that finds black students on average lagging behind whites. The truancy and drop-out rates for blacks are higher. The two are alarmed by how far Omaha’s inner city schools trail their suburban counterparts. “We’re going to have to really cure that before anybody can make any progress,” said Goldston, who’s challenged a national organization he once led, 100 Black Men, with making a difference in schools.

Webster said she was fortunate to have parents who stressed education and showed her “the world was bigger than Omaha.” Omaha’s segregation meant she would often frequent places and be the only black person there. Cathy Hughes had the same experience coming of age here. “That’s challenging,” said Webster. The first time Webster left, for Philadelphia, in the early ‘90s, Omaha was viewed as a dull place by many young people — black and white.

“A lot of my close friends did end up leaving and going to more heavily populated cities, and I think a lot of that had to do with not only wanting to explore the world but what opportunities they saw. For some, it was a larger African-American presence. For others, it was bigger metropolitan areas where you felt like you were getting paid what you were worth and could fulfill what you desired.

“Coming back this time I can see Omaha is really growing but I think Omaha is still a work in progress. I have friends with degrees who are still making $12 an hour, and I think that’s a challenge. They can’t find jobs with livable wages. And I find I’m still the only person that looks like me when I go certain places.”

Webster likes that Omaha has far more going on now than even five years ago, but she said she misses Philly’s constant slate of cultural activities and larger base of African-Americans to share them with. The big city scene “reignites” her.

Author Carleen Brice (Orange Mint and HoneyChildren of the Waters) is a native living in Denver, Colo. with mixed feelings about Omaha.

“It’s always complex being from a small city and having big dreams,” said Brice. “I can’t speak for others, but I felt I needed to leave Omaha to achieve what I wanted to achieve. Part of that had to do with my specific family background. When my parents divorced, we went through some bad times and so I associate Omaha with those negative memories as well as with the positive ones.

“What I sense the most in Omaha is a kind of small thinking, small dreaming. Strange since Omaha does have a lot going for it. But I also think every city is what you make of it. I live in Denver and think it’s great, but I have friends who grew up here and feel very much like it’s a tiny, backwards city. I’ve begun to think that if I moved back to Omaha I could experience it differently, without feeling so blinded by my past.”

Still, Brice said she senses North Omaha’s quality of life is worse today. “I know my grandmother is saddened by the decline of that part of the city. My friends don’t see much improvement in how people actually interact or how they are treated, which makes them feel depressed. Back to that word depressed again. It’s sad, but true, I think Omaha is depressed.”

Beaufield Berry is a playwright and actress who’s come and gone from her hometown several times. She’s here again. She feels a big part of what holds Omaha back is its “small town ideas” that don’t readily embrace diversity. She believes North Omaha will not reach its potential until the cycle of inequity and despair is broken.

“For Omaha’s black population to really thrive I think you’ve got to start at the poverty line. You have to start at where the people may not have the role models that other kids do. You have to make it so they can see a father figure or an older brother making the right decisions.”

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But Berry sees much to be hopeful about, too. “On the flip side of that I see so many amazingly talented young people of all different races who are really working towards something, who can really make a difference, not only with their work but with their words, with their presence, and I want to see more of that. I think that’s how Omaha, black or white, will start to thrive citywide.”

Webster sees Omaha progressing but like many blacks she’d like to see more done.

“I think with a collective idea and voice from all kinds people that it could kind of put a faster spark into it happening. It could manifest into something where everybody that lives here really enjoys it. I think it would be amazing.

_ _ _

Art meets urban planning meets community engagement in the work of Theaster Gates.  The Chicago-based artist and planner is the driving force and facilitator behind a collaborative between his own Rebuild Foundation, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, and the City of Omaha in giving new life to an abandoned building in the inner city.  In an era when red lining practices confined blacks to certain areas the former Carver Savings and Loan Association helped them get into homes of their own, where they wanted to live, and now its old offices will be home to black artists from North Omaha as well as to an art gallery and a Big Mama’s sandwich shop.  I write about the venture in the following piece appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com), and allude to how this project is one of several developments in North O that are laying the foundation for the envisioned arts-culture district in the 24th and Lake area.  I will be revisiting this story over time.

 

Carver Bank

Carver Building Rebirthed as Arts-Culture Haven; Theaster Gates, Rebuild and Bemis Reimagine North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

A once prominent but long vacant building in Omaha‘s African-American hub is now reborn thanks to catalysts bridging the divide between need and opportunity.

The former Carver Savings and Loan Association at 2416 Lake St. was Omaha’s first black-owned financial institution. The lender helped black families avoid red lining practices to become home owners. The newly restored site now houses Carver Bank, a combined artists residency, gallery and Big Mama’s Sandwich Shop. In its new life Carver will once again provide “homes,” only this time studio work spaces for North Omaha minority artists. It also means an area once rich in jazz and blues players will again be a haven for creatives.

The endeavor is the brainchild of Chicago-based artist-developer Theaster Gates, who partnered with his own Rebuild Foundation and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha. Artist-craftsman Sean R. Ward led the construction. Volunteers from North High, Impact One and the FACT design lab at the Univerity of Nebraska-Lincoln assisted.

Gates repurposes vacant inner city spaces for new uses that support artists and engage community. He was brought to Omaha by the Bemis. The Carver Bank idea took shape after Town Hall listening sessions with stakeholders and city officials.

“On one level the city has a problem with vacant buildings and on another level there’s this tremendous need for space artists articulated,” says Gates.

Bemis chief curator Hesse McGraw says his organization’s artists residency history meshes well with what Gates does.

“The Bemis mission is to support artists,” McGraw says, “and Theaster’s ambition is to build up new infrastructures to support artists in places where artists had no support previously, specifically in black communities, in places disinvested or under-resourced.

“There’s so many places where capital has left but value still exists. I think North Omaha is such a place. If you look hard you find incredibly talented, creative visionary young artists that bring a lot of value to their surroundings but have no institutional support. We can support artists in a very focused and strategic way.”

Carver program coordinator Jessica Scheuerman says the project “discovers and recognizes emerging artists who maybe don’t have a platform or a space to present or produce their work.”

The venue’s seen as a harbinger of positive changes for a struggling inner city district poised for redevelopment. The hope is that Carver is a magnet for visitors.

The 24th and Lake intersection is ground zero for a projected arts-culture district. Players in the effort gathered for an Oct. 16 press conference at the adjacent Loves Jazz & Arts Center to announce the city’s $100,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Some of the monies support Carver and LJAC programming.

Carver’s the latest building block in what the Empowerment Network, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, the city and others envision as a revitalized 24th and Lake corridor. Loves Jazz is the anchor. The Union for Contemporary Art and its own artists residency program is a recent addition. The proposed centerpiece is Festival Square. Plans call for new Great Plains Black History Museum and John Beasley Theater facilities.

Theaster Gates

Gates described his role as “a catalyst or flux to help move things forward and to help deliver a product or opportunity,” adding, “We had to be really sensitive to the fact people made their own plans already for cultural life in the neighborhood and those plans have been approved.” He says he applied to Omaha “the body of knowledge we’ve gained from restoring buildings in Chicago and St. Louis” and a track record for getting buildings occupied and busy.

“Our mission is to be open, to be a beacon,” says Scheuerman. “We’re going to be a space people can reliably come to, where they can encounter the arts, get food from Big Mama’s and really count on us to be part of the social fabric of the neighborhood.

“The (artist) residents will have 24/7 access to their studios, so they’re going to be ambassadors of this project. They’re going to exhibit their work and be part of the community. We’re going to have programming that reflects and challenges and stretches the neighborhood. We’ll bring other elements of Omaha art here to have those cultural exchanges you wouldn’t necessarily imagine taking place on 24th and Lake.”

Gates says it’s all a result of identifying artists who need work spaces with small businesses wanting to grow into them. It required artists and the Bemis and the Empowerment Network and the Omaha Planning Commission to make this one modest intervention happen. But this modest intervention has the capacity to do all this other stuff.” He says he simply uncovered hidden potential and forged new partnerships.

“Sometimes I feel like the work I do is shining a light on the good things already there. It’s really about framing things. Then after a while the work doesn’t need me to do any light shining anymore. Other people will shine the light.  I just kind of rang the alarm. Now I think the only thing I have to offer is encouragement.”

The linchpin for the whole project, Gates says, was getting Big Mama’s on board.

“I think having Big Mama’s on the block is going to be huge. People come from all over the city to Big Mama’s. I can envision a lot of people being present who are not currently present on 24th and Lake. I think people might hang out and hanging out is super cool and leads to new friendships and to people to getting hungry and needing to use the bathroom and wanting to know what’s happening next door to the thing they came to.

“People are going to be curious about what’s happening at the Union and Loves Jazz and Carver. People who give to Bemis will have other places to land their generosity.”

He can imagine a larger impact that “will effectively model what culture looks like in North Omaha and that will create a desire for other people to model cultural activity there, which is the part that feels like catalytic work.”

He and McGraw feel Carver adds another element to a growing mix of arts attractions to drive traffic to North O.

“What I often find is that people don’t come to a place because they ain’t been invited or they don’t know something’s happening in that place,” says Gates. “Having these spaces that will have the occasion for people to come – I’m really excited about what that does.”

“I think the synergies are there and all these activities will be stronger in concert with one another,” McGraw says.

Gates believes all the organizations will benefit from working together informally or via a planned North Omaha Arts Alliance. He and Scheuerman say the Bemis provides strong backing. “The Bemis has got reach, history, reputation,” says Scheuerman. “It’s a huge benefit to have that type of infrastructure.”

McGraw expects Carver and its companion attractions are just the start:

“It’s taken a long time to get there but maybe that is a metaphor or analogy to the neighborhood on a larger scale. There has been a lot of small conversations happening and a big vision produced and now is a moment when the city is starting to see aspects of that vision come to life in a tangible and exciting way. When the pieces start to come together in a coordinated way you really begin to see there are huge possibilities within this neighborhood. It’s very exciting for us to be centered around artists and culture, not even so much in a historic or nostalgic way, but in a contemporary and real time way.”

Scheuerman sees mentoring possibilities for aspiring artists and arts managers. Gates sees skilled wood and metalworkers training apprentices to fabricate interiors for new eateries as part of emerging “cultural economies.”

The Carver hosted a December 1 open house as part of the Christmas in the Village celebration. Gates is expected to partcipate in more Carver open house events this month leading up to the project’s anticipated January 2013 launch.

For more about the artist residency program and the Carver project, visit www.bemiscenter.org/carverbank.
_ _ _

Change is coming to North Omaha and one of the change agents is Brigitte McQueen, one of those transplants to this place who brings a new energy and perspective that can help the community move in positive new directions. She’s just begun her work there with her fledgling Union for Contemporary Art but my bet is that she and her organization will wind up being long-term playera and change agents who make a difference.

Brigitte McQueen

Art as Revolution: Brigitte McQueen’s Union for Contemporary Art Reimagines What’s Possible in North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Brigitte McQueen is hell-bent on revolution.

The entrepreneurial arts maven first made a splash with Pulp in Benson. Then she revived the Bemis Underground in the Old Market. Now she’s about to shake up North Omaha via The Union for Contemporary Art, which she could have located anywhere.

She chose North Omaha.

“It’s one of the only communities in Omaha that does not have a dedicated, consistent art presence, and it shows in the neighborhood. There’s very little public art, the kids are not getting it in their after school programs, it’s not in the schools,” she says. “Kids there can go for weeks without seeing a piece of art or anything beautiful.”

The Union is leasing two eyesore buildings on a mostly empty plot between Patrick Ave. and Burdette St., and 24th and 25th Sts. One structure housed the landmark Fair Deal Cafe, where Charles Hall served soul food and welcomed community activists. The other is the former St. Martin de Porres food pantry.

A future capital campaign will attempt to raise the $400,000 to $500,000 she estimates renovations and repairs will cost. The cafe will be gutted, save for the tin ceiling, overhead fans, booths and lunch counter, and converted into a gallery. The bunker-like pantry will be opened up with more windows and reconfigured for artist studios, a classroom, a commons area and offices. Both buildings will be refaced. The design work is being donated by Leo A Daly, Alley Poyner Macchietto and BVH.

The Union will be home to artist residency and youth education programs. Visiting artists in the Studio Fellowship will receive a stipend for supplies and access to professional development and critique. At the end of their four to six-months stay participants will get an exhibition. During their immersion experience McQueen says artists “will have to be doing community service the entire time, whether teaching a class or curating a show or working with kids. They’ll be a part of the community and leave something tangible behind. It’s all about engaging the community in a constant dialogue about the arts.” McQueen says she has several artists lined up to teach upcoming youth art classes.

Board president Watie White, an Omaha artist, says, “The Union is working off the model of not-for-profit street-level arts activist organizations” that do community-based projects aimed at addressing real issues and transforming lives and neighborhoods. In return for the opportunities given, he says, the expectation is for “the creative generation we foster to pay it forward to the community they come from.”

The Stockyard Institute in Chicago will be sending Windy City artists here and The Union will reciprocate with Omaha artists there.

“Ideally I would like to have relationships like that built with organizations all across the country so that we’re constantly sending people out but having people come in,” says McQueen.

Her “arts campus” is to include finished green space. Perhaps a sculpture garden. In three to five years she’d like to erect a new building housing artist live-work spaces and retail art bays.

As a North O resident McQueen is making a statement that contemporary art shouldn’t bypass a community based on perceptions and is creating a reason for greater Omaha to visit the area.

“Omaha is my adopted city and ever since I’ve been here I’ve been really aware of the segregation that exists. You can see the lines. It’s horrible we’ve divided ourselves up that strongly. I want Omaha to be a truly open city.

“Why can’t we build something that would provide all of this support to Omaha’s arts community and put it in a neighborhood that so desperately needs to have that influx of people? It adds a level of vibrancy to this community.”

It’s about “building bridges and changing the way we think about Omaha and the lines we have made,” she says. “Nothing’s going to change until we start doing that and bringing people into the community. If I can open a small door and people from outside come to see stellar contemporary exhibitions, then maybe that’s how that migration north starts to happen.”

She says she’s doing something “dynamically different than what has been done before” to prove more than just social services or Afro-centric art-culture can flourish there.

After initial resistance she’s “overwhelmed” by the support The Union’s received from such stakeholders as the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, the Empowerment Network and the City of Omaha.

The Union is slated as the front door to a revitalized North 24’s mixed use arts- commercial-residential district.

“I think it makes perfect sense to have this place where creativity is celebrated as the entrance way and gateway,” she says.

The Union’s received grants from the Weitz Family Foundation and the Omaha Venture Group and will apply for funds to help underwrite programs and building makeovers.

Collaboration will be key. Last summer the Union partnered with Catholic Charities of Omaha on a kids art program at the Christ Child Center. It joined the Bellows Studio in bringing artist Lavie Raven here. Through Dec. 11 Birdhouse Interior Design and Birdhouse Collective is staging a Home exhibition at the Bancroft Street Market as a Union fundraiser. Early next year Union is collaborating with Peerless Gallery and Worksite on an art-in.

Until its own buildings are completely renovated some Union programming will occur off-site.

McQueen’s convinced the arts can make a difference in spurring North O’s renaissance.

“I want to make an impact. I want to change lives. It’s all about creating this cyclical process where The Union is supporting the arts and artists, the artists are encouraged to support the community and then hopefully the community feels a stronger connection and therefore wants to be more supportive of the arts.”

Up to six artists will begin using the former St. Martin de Porres space in January. A January community clean-up to get the building ready will be announced soon. Applications for the Studio Fellowship slots will be taken starting Dec. 16. Artists working in any contemporary art form are eligible to apply.

For application details and to follow Union developments visit http://www.u-ca.org.

_ _ _

The Reader Aug. 21-28, 2014

North Omaha’s prospects are looking up, even as longstanding problems remain a drag on the largely African-American community, and a strong, established leadership base in place is a big part of the optimism for the area’s continued revival.  These leaders are in fact driving the change going on.  Working side by side or coming up right behind that veteran leadership cohort is a group of emerging leaders looking to put their own stamp on things.  The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) takes a look at this next generation of North Omaha leaders and their take on opportunities and vehicles for being change agents

 

Next generation of North Omaha leaders eager for change: New crop of leaders emerging to keep momentum going

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

If redevelopment plans for northeast Omaha come to full fruition then that long depressed district will see progress at-scale after years of patchwork promises. Old and new leaders from largely African-American North Omaha will be the driving forces for change.

A few years and projects into the 30-year, $1.4 billion North Omaha Revitalization Village Plan, everyone agrees this massive revival is necessary for the area to be on the right side of the tipping point. The plan’s part of a mosaic of efforts addressing educational, economic, health care, housing, employment disparities. Behind these initiatives is a coalition from the private and public sectors working together to apply a focused, holistic approach for making a lasting difference.

Key contributors are African-American leaders who emerged in the last decade to assume top posts in organizations and bodies leading the charge. Empowerment Network Facilitator Willie Barney, Douglas Country Treasurer John Ewing, Urban League of Nebraska Executive Director Thomas Warren and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray are among the most visible. When they entered the scene they represented a new leadership class but individually and collectively they’ve become its well-established players.

More recently, Neb. State Senator Tanya Cook and Omaha 360 Director Jamie Anders-Kemp joined their ranks. Others, such as North Omaha Development Corporation Executive Director Michael Maroney and former Omaha City Councilwoman and Neb. State Sen. Brenda Council, have been doing this work for decades.

With so much yet to come and on the line, what happens when the current crop of leaders drops away? Who will be the new faces and voices of transformation? Are there clear pathways to leadership? Are there mechanisms to groom new leaders? Is there generational tension between older and younger leaders? What does the next generation want to see happen and where do they see things headed?

Transformational Leadership

The Reader asked veteran and emerging players for answers and they said talent is already in place or poised to assume next generation leadership. They express optimism about North O’s direction and a consensus for how to get there. They say leadership also comes in many forms. It’s Sharif Liwaru as executive director of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, which he hopes to turn into an international attraction. It’s his artist-educator wife Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru. Together, they’re a dynamic couple focused on community betterment. Union for Contemporary Arts founder-director Brigitte McQueen, Loves Jazz and Arts Center Executive Director Tim Clark and Great Plains Black History Museum Board Chairman Jim Beatty are embedded in the community leading endeavors that are part of North O’s revival.

Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. Executive Director Othello Meadows is a more behind-the-scenes leader. His nonprofit has acquired property and finished first-round financing for the Highlander mixed-used project, a key Village Plan component. The project will redevelop 40 acres into mixed income housing, green spaces and on-site support services for “a purpose-built” urban community.

Meadows says the opportunity to “work on a project of this magnitude in a city I care about is a chance of a lifetime.” He’s encouraged by the “burgeoning support for doing significant things in the community.” In his view, the best thing leaders can do is “execute and make projects a reality,” adding, “When things start to happen in a real concrete fashion then you start to peel back some of that hopelessness and woundedness. I think people are really tired of rhetoric, studies and statistics and want to see something come to life.” He says new housing in the Prospect Hill neighborhood is tangible positive activity.

Othello Meadows

Meadows doesn’t consider himself a traditional leader.

“I think leadership is first and foremost about service and humility. I try to think of myself as somebody who is a vessel for the hopes and desires of this neighborhood. True leadership is service and service for a cause, so if that’s the definition of leadership, then sure, I am one.”

He feels North O’s suffered from expecting leadership to come from charismatic saviors who lead great causes from on high.

“In my mind we have to have a different paradigm for the way we consider leadership. I think it happens on a much smaller scale. I think of people who are leaders on their block, people who serve their community by being good neighbors or citizens. That’s the kind of leadership that’s overlooked. I think it has to shift from we’ve got five or six people we look to for leadership to we’ve got 500 or 600 people who are all active leaders in their own community. It needs to shift to that more grassroots, bottom-up view.”

Where can aspiring North O leaders get their start?

“Wherever you are, lead,” John Ewing says. “Whatever opportunities come, seize them. Schools, places of worship, neighborhood and elected office all offer opportunities if we see the specific opportunity.”

“They need to get in where they fit in and grow from there,” says Dell Gines, senior community development advisor, Omaha Branch at Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Empowerment Network board member and Douglas County Health Department health educator Aja Anderson says many people lead without recognition but that doesn’t make them any less leaders.

“There are individuals on our streets, in our classrooms, everywhere, every day guiding those around them to some greater destiny or outcome,” Anderson says.

Meadows feels the community has looked too often for leadership to come from outside.

“A community needs to guide its own destiny rather than say, ‘Who’s going to come in from outside and fix this?'”

He applauds the Empowerment Network for “trying to find ways to help people become their own change agents.”

Carver Bank Interim Director JoAnna LeFlore is someone often identified as an emerging leader. She in turn looks to some of her Next Gen colleagues for inspiration.

“I’m very inspired by Brigitte McQueen, Othello Meadows and Sharif Liwaru. They all have managed to chase their dreams, advocate for the well-being of North Omaha and maintain a professional career despite all of the obstacles in their way. You have to have a certain level of hunger in North Omaha in order to survive. What follows that drive is a certain level of humility once you become successful. This is why I look up to them.”

LeFlore is emboldened to continue serving her community by the progress she sees happening.

“I see more creative entrepreneurs and businesses. I see more community-wide events celebrating our heritage. I see more financial support for redevelopment. I feel my part in this is to continue to encourage others who share interest in the growth of North Omaha. I’ve built trusting relationships with people along the way. I am intentional about my commitments because those relationships and the missions are important to me. Simply being a genuine supporter, who also gets her hands dirty, is my biggest contribution.

“Moving forward, I will make an honest effort to offer my expertise to help build communication strategies, offer consultations for grassroots marketing and event planning and be an advocate for positive change. I am also not afraid to speak up about important issues.”

If LeFlore’s a Next Gen leader, then Omaha Small Business Network Executive Director Julia Parker is, too. Parker says, “There is certainly a changing of the guard taking place throughout Omaha and North O is not an exception. Over the next several years, I hope even more young professionals will continue to take high level positions in the community. I see several young leaders picking up the mic.” She’s among the new guard between her OSBN work and the Urban Collaborative: A Commitment to Community group she co-founded that she says “focuses on fostering meaningful conversation around how we can improve our neighborhoods and the entire city.”

Parker left her hometown for a time and she says, “Leaving Omaha changed my perspective and really prompted me to come home with a more critical eye and a yearning for change.”

Like Parker, Othello Meadows left here but moved back when he discerned he could make a “meaningful” impact on a community he found beset by despair. That bleak environment is what’s led many young, gifted and black to leave here. Old-line North O leader Thomas Warren says, “I am concerned about the brain drain we experience in Omaha, particularly of our best and brightest young African-Americans students who leave. We need to create an environment that is welcoming to the next generation where they can thrive and strive to reach their full potential.” Two more entrenched leaders, John Ewing and Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers, are also worried about losing North O’s promising talents. “We have to identify, retain and develop our talent pool in Omaha,” Ewing says.

Omaha Schools Board member Yolanda Williams says leadership doors have not always been open to young transplants like herself – she’s originally from Seattle – who lack built-in influence bases.

“I had to go knock on the door and I knocked and knocked, and then I started banging on the door until my mentor John Ewing and I sat down for lunch and I asked, ‘How do younger leaders get in these positions if you all are holding these positions for years? How do I get into a leadership role if nobody is willing to get out of the way?’ They need to step out of the way so we can move up.

“It’s nothing against our elder leadership because I think they do a great job but they need to reach out and find someone to mentor and groom because if not what happens when they leave those positions?”

Ewing acknowledges “There has been and will always be tension between the generations,” but he adds, “I believe this creative tension is a great thing. It keeps the so-called established leaders from becoming complacent and keeps the emerging leaders hungry for more success as a community. I believe most of the relationships are cordial and productive as well as collaborative. I believe everyone can always do more to listen. I believe the young professional networks are a great avenue. I also believe organizations like the Empowerment Network should reach out to emerging leaders to be inclusive.”

Author, motivational speaker and The Truth Hurts director Tunette Powell says, “It’s really amazing when you get those older leaders on board because they can champion you. They’ve allowed me to speak at so many different places.” Powell senses a change afoot among veteran leaders, “They have held down these neighborhoods for so long and I think they’re slowly handing over and allowing young people to have a platform. i see that bridge.” As a young leader, she says, “it’s not like I want to step on their toes. We need this team. It’s not just going to be one leader, it’s not going to be young versus old, it’s going to be old and young coming together.”

Yolanda Williams

In her own case, Yolanda Williams says she simply wouldn’t be denied, “I got tired of waiting. I was diligent, I was purpose-driven. It was very much networking and being places and getting my name out there. I mean, I was here to stay, you were not just going to get rid of me.”

LeFlore agrees more can be done to let new blood in.

“I think some established leaders are ignoring the young professionals who have potential to do more.”

Despite progress, Powell says “there are not enough young people at the table.” She believes inviting their participation is incumbent on stakeholder organizations. She would also like to see Omaha 360 or another entity develop a formal mentoring program or process for older leaders “to show us that staircase.”

Some older leaders do push younger colleagues to enter the fray.

Shawntal Smith, statewide administrator for Community Services for Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska, says Brenda Council, Willie Barney and Ben Gray are some who’ve nudged her.

“I get lots of encouragement from many inside and outside of North Omaha to serve and it is a good feeling to know people trust you to represent them. It is also a great responsibility.”

Everyone has somebody who prods them along. For Tunette Powell, it’s Center for Holistic Development President-CEO Doris Moore. For Williams, it’s treasurer John Ewing. But at the end of the day anyone who wants to lead has to make it happen. Williams, who won her school board seat in a district-wide election, says she overcame certain disadvantages and a minuscule campaign budget through “conviction and passion,” adding, “The reality is if you want to do something you’ve got to put yourself out there.” She built a coalition of parent and educator constituents working as an artist-in-residence and Partnership 4 Kids resource in schools. Before that, Williams says she made herself known by volunteering. “That started my journey.”

Powell broke through volunteering as well. “I wasn’t from here, nobody knew me, so I volunteered and it’s transformed my life,” says the San Antonio native.

“The best experience, in my opinion, is board service,” OSBN’s Julia Parker says. “Young leaders have a unique opportunity to pull back the curtain and see how an organization actually functions or doesn’t. It’s a high level way to cut your teeth in the social sector.”

JoAnna LeFlore, ©omahamagazine.com

Chris Rodgers, director of community and government relations at Creighton University, agrees: “I think small non-profits looking for active, conscientious board members are a good start. Also volunteering for causes you feel deeply about and taking on some things that stretch you are always good.”

The Urban League’s Thomas Warren says, “We have to encourage the next generation of leaders to invest in their own professional growth and take advantage of leadership development opportunities. They should attend workshops and seminars to enhance their skills or go back to school and pursue advanced degrees. Acquiring credentials ensures you are prepared when opportunities present themselves.”

Gaining experience is vital but a fire-in-the-belly is a must, too. Yolanda Williams says she was driven to serve on the school board because “I felt like I could bring a voice, especially for North Omaha, that hadn’t yet been heard at the table as a younger single parent representing the concerns and struggles of a lot of other parents. And I’m a little bit outspoken I say what I need to say unapoligitically.”

Powell says young leaders like her and Williams have the advantage of “not being far removed from the hard times the people we’re trying to reach are experiencing.” She says she and her peers are the children of the war on drugs and its cycle of broken homes. “That’s a piece of what we are, so we get it. We can reach these young people because our generation reflects theirs. I see myself in so many young people.”

Just a few years ago Powell had quit college, was on food stamps and didn’t know what to do with her life. “People pulled me up, they elevated me, and I have to give that back,” she says. In her work with fatherless girls she says “what I find is you’ve got to meet them where they’re at. As younger leaders we’re not afraid to do that, we’re not afraid to take some risks and do some things differently. We’re seeing we need something fresh. Creativity is huge. When you look at young and old leaders, we all have that same passion, we all want the same thing, but how we go about it is completely different.”

Powell says the African-American Young Professionals group begun by fellow rising young star Symone Sanders is a powerful connecting point where “dynamic people doing great things” find a common ground of interests and a forum to network. “We respect each other because we know we’re all going in that direction of change.”

Sanders, who’s worked with the Empowerment Network and is now communications assistant for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chuck Hassebrook, says AAYP is designed to give like-minded young professionals an avenue “to come together and get to know one another and to be introduced in those rooms and at those tables” where policy and program decisions get made.

Aja Anderson believes Next Gen leaders “bridge the gap,” saying, “I think this generation of leaders is going to be influential and do exceptionally well at creating unity and collaboration among community leaders and members across generations. We’re fueled with new ideas, creativity and innovation. Having this group of individuals at the table will certainly make some nervous, others excited and re-ignite passion and ideas in our established group.”

John Ewing

County treasure John Ewing sees the benefit of new approaches. “I believe our emerging leaders have an entrepreneurial spirit that will be helpful in building an African-American business class in Omaha.”

While Williams sees things “opening up,” she says, “I think a lot of potential leaders have left here because that opportunity isn’t as open as it should be.”

Enough are staying to make a difference.

“It’s exciting to see people I’ve known a long time staying committed to where we grew up,” 75 North’s Othello Meadows says. “It’s good to see other people who at least for awhile are going to play their role and do their part.”

Shawntal Smith of Lutheran Family Services is bullish on the Next Gen.

“We are starting to come into our own. We are being appointed to boards and accepting high level positions of influence in our companies, firms, agencies and churches. We are highly educated and we are fighting the brain drain that usually takes place when young, gifted minorities leave this city for more diverse cities with better opportunities. We are remaining loyal to Omaha and we are trying to make it better through our visible efforts in the community.

“People are starting to recognize we are dedicated and our opinions, ideas and leadership matter.”

Old and young leaders feel more blacks are needed in policymaking capacities. Rodgers and Anderson are eager to see more representation in legislative chambers and corporate board rooms.
Warren says, “I do feel there needs to be more opportunities in the private sector for emerging leaders who are indigenous to this community.” He feels corporations should do more to identify and develop homegrown talent who are then more likely to stay.

Shawntal Smith describes an added benefit of locally grown leaders.

“North Omahans respect a young professional who grew up in North Omaha and continues to reside in North Omaha and contribute to making it better. Both my husband and I live, shop, work, volunteer and attend church in North Omaha. We believe strongly in the resiliency of our community and we love being a positive addition to North Omaha and leaders for our sons and others to model.”

With leadership comes scrutiny and criticism.

“You have to be willing to take a risk and nobody succeeds without failure along the way to grow from,” Rodgers says. “If you fail, fail quick and recover. Learn from the mistake and don’t make the same mistakes. You have to be comfortable with the fact that not everybody will like you.”

Tunette Powell isn’t afraid to stumble because like her Next Gen peers she’s too busy getting things done.

“As Maya Angelou said, ‘Nothing will work unless you do,’ I want people to say about me, ‘She gave everything she had.'”

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With Native Omaha Days having just concluded, it’s a good time for reflection. Here’s a new story I wrote for the August issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) that sounds out some African-American residents for their take on old-new northeast Omaha challenges, opportunities and approaches to revitalize that area. Hard copies should now be out and about in North O, Benson, Midtown, Downtown and the Old Market.

I am presenting the story in this post in two layouts: the first is exclusively for my blog and the second is how the story appears in The Reader.

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

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

©BY LEO ADAM BIGA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discrimination and racism still ruled, however.

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

  •  Preston Love Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Menelik says inclusion is an illusion here for many.

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

Ean Garrett, J.D. - Chief Innovation Officer  

Ean Garrett

Aledia Kartchner - Social Innovation Consultant

Aledia Kartchner

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

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

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

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

He sees an urgent need to intervene in the hopelessness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garrett says North O’s human resources get overlooked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The public sector also has a role to play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin doesn’t begrudge the defectors.

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

She’s seriously considered it.

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

Martin expresses another concern many share.

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

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

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

Too, often, black advocates are left standing alone.

Garrett feels the millennial generation offers new hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CULTURE 1

CULTURE 2

CULTURE 3

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NorthStar encourages inner city kids to fly high

Boys-only after-school and summer camp put members through their paces

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

NorthStar Foundation nurtures the dreams of young inner city males.

The area’s lone boys-only after school program and summer camp at 4242 North 49th Avenue doen’t put limits on students regardless of socio-economic, family or environmental circumstances. It provides fifth to ninth graders academic and exploratory experiences designed to transition them to high school.

It helps when kids aspire to success and mentors reinforce their aspirations. For director of programming Jannette Taylor that anything’s possible attitude is a welcome change from the despair she encountered as founder-director of Impact One, which among other things does gang intervention work.

“Working with the young people there I knew they had potential but they had to believe it. They’d had so many people telling them they couldn’t do something they started to believe that instead of believing in themselves, and that was a challenge,” she recalls.

After a stint with Weed & Seed under Mayor Mike Fahey, the then-Creighton University law student launched Impact

One as her impassioned response to quell rampant gun violence.

“I was really ambitious and naive. I believed I could do anything.”

In five-years she lost several clients as well as two of her own relatives to violence. Those tragedies brought home the toxic, consequences of limited expectations, negative perceptions and devalued lives. Emotionally wasted, she left, not expecting to return anytime soon.

“You would have a kid fill out an individual development plan and it would be so short-term because they didn’t think into the future what they could do. You’d be working with a kid one day and they’d be dead the next.”

She reached her breaking point.

“It’s hard to lose family members. It’s hard to lose kids you work with and love. I put all this time, energy and effort into trying to help people onto the right path. It was pretty much game over for me. I was pretty much done. I had given all I could give and I didn’t have anything else to give.”

Then NorthStar founder-director Scott Hazelrigg, who’d collaborated with Taylor and used her as a consultant, asked her to join NorthStar. She accepted. Now she’s refocused on helping her community again. Trusting Hazelrigg’s vision helped her decide to return.

“I just believe in what he’s doing – I always have. I think that’s why I jumped on board.”

He saw her as the right fit.

“We recruited Jannette back to Omaha,” he says, “because she really gets it. She cares passionately about these kids and not only wants to see them succeed but passionately believes they will succeed. We just have to give them the structure and the opportunity to do so.”

He says she helped build the NorthStar “climate and culture” that provides many avenues to discover passions and to build skills for future success. The center’s interior features learning labs, homework areas, a rock climbing wall and a basketball court. The exterior includes a sports field and garden. The comprehensive, experiential-based offerings range from art immersion to healthy lifestyles to employment readiness to chess, robotics, computer coding, culinary arts, gardening and lacrosse.

STEM education is stressed.

Youth also make college tours, visit historic cites, attend cultural events, go on wilderness treks and test themselves on the adjacent Outward Bound ropes course.

“Parents are really excited their kids here are able to find what their strengths and talents are,” Taylor says. “We do have research on all of our programs. Everything’s based off of a best practice model.”

At NorthStar every kid’s encouraged to try new things. She says unlike the punitive measures some schools use to deny behaviorally-challenged students participation in things like robotics, NorthStar uses incentives and old-school remedies to motivate kids.

Members are encouraged to seize and own their future rather than have it dictated to them.

“When I talk about our boys, I say these are our new leaders. That’s how I see them. One of the worst things we do is we put limits on kids. At NorthStar we do things and get them to critically think and that’s good because they’re young, they have potential and they believe it. I know they believe in themselves because I see it and hear it every day. In order for that to grow we have to have people that will believe in them and push them forward.

“I want this to be a brotherhood of us believing in the kids and them believing they can do anything.”

 NorthStar

Empowering kids “to think differently about their future and getting them to realize, Hey, we can make opportunities for ourselves, helps prepare them to make smarter choices,” she says.
Molding kids at an impressionable age helps.

“What I love about NorthStar is that the kids are young, they haven’t been jilted by life, they haven’t had people beat them down and tell them you can’t do this. We have them playing lacrosse for God’s sake. They believe they have this potential to go and do great things. When kids have that faith and that belief, you can’t kill that. It really makes me happy to see a kid always in trouble in school or getting kicked out of other programs come and be successful here because we’re not telling him what he can’t do, we’re telling him what he can do.”

She says NorthStar rejects “assumptions kids coming out of North Omaha won’t amount to anything, especially African-American boys.”

“We don’t care what neighborhood you come from or what you’ve been through. We all have a story. What’s more important is where do you think you can go and how can I help you get there. We remove barriers for our kids. It’s why we have seventh graders writing essays for college scholarships.”

With high expectations comes accountability.

“A big component of NorthStar is trying to get kids to stay on course, stay on grade level. The curriculum is based off of Neb. state standards. We have really clear communication with parents, teachers and counselors.”

Hazelrigg says getting kids grade-ready before their sophomore year is critical as that’s when a disproportionate number of African-American students drop out after falling far behind.

He and Taylor say the academically rigorous summer camp is meant to reduce summer learning loss. Then, as during the school year, kids are kept engaged by programming of NorthStar’s own design or of partners’ design.

“Anything we can build up in these kids as far as character and leadership, we do.,” she says “If it’s something that fits with our core areas that will enrich the kids then well do it.”

Thus, NorthStar invites partner organizations in or brings kids out to partners to experience everything from live theater to ballgames.

Hazelrigg says compared to many after school and summer programs “we have more structure,” adding, “When kids walk in the door it’s not three hours of playing basketball – there’s a sequence of things they’re going to do. It’s how we expose them to a broad band of things.”

Taylor says a sure sign the center’s a hit is that despite being only a year-old it’s added feeder schools due to demand by students and parents. “They are our biggest advocates.” She says kids who come there “take ownership over this space and they don’t want to leave.” She notes some school staff want their kids there bad enough that they pay students’ yearly dues.

The center’s a welcome addition to a neighborhood whose troubled Park Crest apartment complex was known as New Jack City for its drug-gang-gun activity. That blighted omplex was razed to make room for NorthStar. Hazelrigg says, “We’re intentionally in the neighborhood as essentially the neighborhood school. We want this to be the safe space for kids living in this area.”

Taylor says the Omaha Police Department’s North Precinct reports reduced crime in the area, which has seen a community garden flourish, a Walmart open and a Heartland Family Services building renovation.

“It just changes the entire community when you have people investing in the communitys.”

For Taylor, the Impact One scars remain, though she says, “There were some good things that happened with that” job,

“Everything you go through is either a blessing or a lesson.”

Now it’s a time for healing and hope.

Visit northstar360.org.

 

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Civil Rights March on Washington, leaders marc...

Image via Wikipedia

The Empowerment Network in Omaha is a catalytic force for positive change in North Omaha not seen before in terms of the scale and scope of its vision and reach. This is a a two-part Reader cover story series I did several years ago about the Network.. The long version shared here was not published in the paper. The shorter version that was published is also available on my blog if you care to see it.

Part I: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking

©by Leo Adam Biga

Mark it down. 2007 may be when northeast Omaha’s depressed African-American community reached its limit. A demographic bound by race, history, circumstance and geography seemingly exhaled a collective sigh of exasperation to exclaim, Enough already. Longstanding discontent over inequities in income, housing, education, economic development and opportunity solidified into resolve by a people to take matters into their own hands.

Going on four years ago, a coalition of local blacks reached consensus to intentionally rebuild the community from within. As catalyst for this call to action, they formed the African-American Empowerment Network. The nonprofit community leadership organization uses advocacy, mobilization, engagement, collaboration and coordination as tools for enacting change.

The effort is inspired by a national movement of black empowerment laid-out by author and television/radio talk show host Tavis Smiley in his best selling 2006 book, The Covenant with Black America,. Borrowing from Smiley and other sources, Omaha’s Empowerment Network targeted 13 strategic covenant areas for improvement.

The disparities dogging segments of Omaha’s black community are long in the making. Efforts by the Network and partners to address these woes are the latest attempted remedies. In the 1940s and ‘50‘s the De Porres Club pressed the cause for civil rights. In the ‘60s the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties or 4CL, took up the banner. Well into the ‘70s federally funded programs and agencies spurred by the Great Society and its War on Poverty operated here. At various times the Urban League of Nebraska and the Omaha Chapter of the NAACP have led on social justice and community betterment issues. Other well-meaning efforts and groups have sprung up.

When the last in a series of major civil disturbances in the late ‘60s badly damaged the old North 24th St. business-entertainment hub, many business owners abandoned the area for good. Relatively few new businesses have opened since.

Northeast Omaha’s chronic gun violence has contributed to the perception of an unsafe environment in which to do business or raise families, exacerbating deeply entrenched negative attitudes about the area. While the rest of the city has thrived, North O has lagged behind. Stagnation has further isolated it and inhibited new development there.

This once self-sufficient area is regarded as a mission district dependent on government assistance, social services and philanthropy. Even as African-Americans try empowering themselves, limited capital, combined with enormous needs gone unmet or underserved, makes outside investment necessary. The difference this time is that the black community is taking the lead, in collaboration with the larger community, to transform northeast Omaha. Blacks are doing much of the visioning, crafting and implementing of plans. Rather than change imposed from without, it’s organically generated from within, a model not seen before here.

Innovations By Design president and chief consultant Tawanna Black, co-chair of the Network’s advocacy and justice strategy, said where some cities improved conditions for African-Americans via a black political or corporate base, Omaha did not. “In the absence of African-Americans in powerful political or economic positions to drive this,’ she said, “small changes have occurred but nothing major. The network really flips that theory on its head and says, Why are we waiting for the power to be given, let’s own the power that’s within. It’s an empowerment thing. It means more than just a name on a piece of paper. It’s really what it’s all about — empowering people to take control of themselves. A process committed to that is completely new in this community.”

For some, it’s a manifesto for long overdue self-determination.

“There’s been a lot of psychological damage done to us as a people. Historically we just allow things to happen to us and what we have to do is starting taking control of our own destiny and that means also having skin in the game,” said Omaha City Councilman and Network violence intervention-prevention chair Ben Gray Jami Anders-Kem

Empower Omaha drafted a rising-tide-lifts-all-ships community covenant identifying quality of life indicators needing attention. Copies of the covenant went to north side businesses and churches. It can be glimpsed inside beauty and barber shops, stores, offices. Pastors distribute it to congregations, sometimes preaching on it.

Through monthly community meetings, periodic summits and activities like prayer walks, neighborhood cleanups, block parties and surveys the Network interfaces with residents, inviting them to share concerns and ideas. The organization works closely with neighborhood associations in forming a North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance.

“We keep the community engaged, we listen to the community, we write down what they say. I think that’s how we get the buy-in from the community,” said director of operations Vicki Quaites-Ferris. “Most things implemented actually come as a result of listening to the community. That’s why it’s so important to keep the community engaged because at some point the community may say, We’ve got to turn it around and now focus on this.”

Highlander Neighborhood Association president Kristina Carter said the Network’s “an integral part” of neighborhood cleanups. “There are a lot of (neighborhood) associations but alone they don’t have the capacity to have an impact and I think that’s what this Alliance is poised to do. It gives the area a single voice, it puts some teeth to it.

Network strategies encompass neighborhoods, housing, employment, education, family,  faith, crime, et cetera. The strategies come from community leaders, residents and best practices in other cities. Not a direct service provider, the Network partners with others to support or facilitate programs and to link efforts in order to build synergy and capacity.

The backdrop for all this empowerment is profound want. The Network was already in place before a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series revealed black Omaha poverty rates as among the nation’s worst. What was already known is that many youths underachieve in school. Only half graduate. On top of that is an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, a preponderance of single parent homes and little economic development or opportunity.

Newly detailed were the area’s high joblessness rates and low household income levels. Northeast Omaha also suffers from a distressed infrastructure, Vacant lots, condemned structures and unkempt rental properties abound. There’s a paucity of black-owned businesses. The area’s endured a net population loss. Freeway construction disrupted, some say severed, a tight community. As restrictive housing practices waned, upwardly mobile blacks moved west. Others left the state for better prospects and larger, more progressive African-American communities elsewhere.

Network leaders say the series shone a light on conditions heretofore ignored. The result? Broad-based engagement from initiatives like the Chamber’s North Omaha Development Project and the privately funded Building Bright Futures. Many feel the city needs to make an It-stops-here pledge. “Omaha has yet to really stand up the way we do to other things and say we will not accept having the highest black poverty again,” said Black. “We haven’t done that. We’ve done some projects, we’ve announced some nice things, but we have not said we will not be here again.” Rev. Jeremiah McGhee doubts the larger community yet appreciates a revitalized north Omaha is good for all of Omaha, saying, “I don’t think they’re quite getting it.”

Combatting gun violence is one issue Omaha’s managed a united front on. The Network has endorsements from Mayor Jim Suttle, Omaha Police Chief Alex Hayes and some 100 public-private partners for the Omaha 360 anti-violence coalition. Asking hard questions about the violence problem spurred the development of the Empowerment Network in the first place. Why is this happening when Omaha as a whole prospers and some black communities thrive by comparison? Connecting the dots, it became clear the despair is rooted in certain realities: an entrenched gang and drug culture; fractured family units; a lack of positive role models for young people; barriers to educational, job, home ownership and business opportunities; a sense that nobody cares.

Douglas County Treasurer and Network chair John Ewing knows it from his former career as an Omaha cop and the Empowerment prayer walks and community meetings he joins. He said residents openly “complain about the violence, the lack of economic opportunities, the fact they feel abandoned, neglected, overlooked, forgotten. All this leads to a sense of hopelessness. That’s when people become demoralized, when they feel like they don’t matter to anybody else, when they see all the nice things Omaha’s doing but don’t feel they can participate in those things.”

Illegal gun and drug activity, violence, high drop-out and jobless rates, unskilled workers making minimum wages with no real future are all symptomatic of systemic, cyclical problems having gone unchecked or received piecemeal attention.

Making matters worse, northeast Omaha’s lost some 11,000 households over time. A diminished tax, voter, consumer base has deluded what little clout it had to hold the public and private sectors accountable for the economic and social ills.

“There’s been a lot of benign neglect thats gone on in north Omaha by the majority community and I don’t hesitate in saying that because it’s a fact,” said Gray. “But what we’ve got to do now is rather than point fingers and place blame put together the necessary mechanism to fix it. We’ve got so much work to do and we’ve got so many areas that we’re operating in.”

“Oh, mercy,” Black said in response to the task. One way or another, she said, “economics feed into all this. If you have money you have health insurance and you get screened, if you have money you can afford education to get a better job. It all ties back to that, and so we’re aiming to see measurable changes. Getting unemployment rates down and household income up to what it is in the rest of the city. Moving more folks off public assistance and public housing into being able to sustain their own families and afford market rate housing. Getting more people out of GED classrooms into college classrooms. Getting people into workforce development programs.”

She acknowledges the goals describe “a long-term process.”

Davis Companies CEO Dick Davis spearheads the economic covenant and the recently formed Economic Strategy Taskforce, an offshoot whose targeted outcomes speak to economic viability. He said the taskforce’s and covenant’s ambitious goals include preparing every African-American for a sustainable living wage job; moving persons from unemployment or underemployment to full employment and from jobs to careers; encouraging entrepreneurship by increasing access to credit and capital.

The Network endorses a from-birth-to-career strategy similar to Bright Futures.

Davis has been doing his part for years, from starting-up black businesses to providing college scholarships to black students. Entities like the African-American Academic Achievement Council, 100 Black Men, 100 Black Women, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, the Urban League of Nebraska, along with black churches, have done their part, too. Pockets of progress have appeared in some new home construction, a few business parks, a refurbished section of North 24th St. and new quarters for anchors Salem Baptist Church, the Urban League and Charles Drew Health Center. But nothing of real scale has been attempted.

Overall, northeast Omaha appears stuck in the same quagmire of decline and disenfranchisement that befell it in the late 1960s, A recent Pew Partnership for Civic Change report found that of 33,000 metro businesses, only 200 are black-owned — most single owner-operator endeavors.

It was in this bleak context the Network formed. Family Housing Advisory Services director Teresa Hunter, co-chair of the Network’s housing development covenant, said underpinning the effort was the shared “thought that we need to make a change, we need to do something.” From the start, she said, it’s been about avoiding duplication and instead building capacity for existing programs and services and filling gaps.

We work within the framework of what’s already going on, trying to make it cooperative. We identify issues and who’s already addressing them and what’s missing. Why are people still falling through the cracks — what else do we need to do?” No one entity, she said, holds the whole answer. “We take who does this well and who does that well and we put them all together.”

Where most Network players are native Omahans like Hunter, the driving force is a transplant, Willie Barney, who until recently made his living as a strategic consultant. The Iowa native worked in media marketing for Lee Enterprises and moved here for an Omaha World-Herald post. He worked on Salem Baptist Church’s administrative team when he galvanized efforts to create the Network. He served as the Network’s unpaid president and facilitator, then as a consultant, and is now its second paid staff member.

What began as a loose association testing the waters is now an established, structured player in broad, multi-faceted initiatives that have gotten buy-ins from public and private stakeholders both within and outside the African-American community.

“In evolving over time we’ve stayed true to our mission,” said Barney. “We said we want to be positive and pro-active and to build partnerships…with the entire city. Those are some core values we have. Our goal is to bring individuals and organizations together to help facilitate positive, measurable change…It has to be bottom-up and top-down for it to be anywhere close to being successful — individuals, families, leaders at all levels working together collaboratively.

“We were asked early on, How are you going to look at jobs, violence, housing, education all at the same time? And our answer is, How can we not when only 50 percent of our kids graduate high school, certain census tracts have 30 to 50 percent unemployment and 38 percent home ownership and a majority of homicides occur in the same concentrated area. If anybody thinks you can only focus on one of those areas and get anything done…” he said incredulously. “It has to be comprehensive. There’s not one organization or segment that’s going to solve what we’re in right now.”

Recently, however, the Network’s consolidated things. Barney said, “The more we went forward we realized we would spread ourselves too thin trying to have initiatives and groups in every one of the 13 covenant areas, so we really started focusing on seven core areas: faith and community engagement; education and youth development; violence intervention and prevention; housing and neighborhood development; jobs, jobs training and business development; health and healthy families; arts, culture and media.”

Evidence of the Network’s wide reach was seen during its annual Harmony Week (May 21-29), when dozens of organizations and thousands of people across the Metro participated in expressions of unity and community engagement.

Black said turf wars “have been removed by a higher agendaEveryone at the table realizes this agenda can’t happen through just one of the organizations or churches, it can’t happen with folks who want just one neighborhood or one part of the community or one business discipline. And yet everyone realizes there are opportunities for each of our organizations to play a significant role in this. It really takes all of us being at the table, title-less, organization-less, to make this happenThat’s huge.

Barney officed the first two-plus years wherever he and his laptop were, although the Network’s regularly convened at three main sites: the Family Housing Advisory Services building.; North High School; and the former In Play, now Tip Top Ballroom. In 2009 the organization opened an office in the historic Jewell Building, right in the heart of North O, across from the Omaha Star.

John Ewing

Ben Gray

After a low key start that shunned media attention the Network’s boosted its presence via an expanded web site, a Facebook page and Revive! Omaha Magazine, which Barney’s SMB Enterprises LLC publishes. A TV spot features Network leaders reciting, like a creed, the Empowerment credo:

“We can change Omaha. It’s time to rebuild the village. Family by family, block by block, school by school, church by church, business by business. Each person doing their part. Working together, let’s transform Omaha. Do your part. Live the covenant…”

After a slow start, an Adopt-a-Block initiative for pastors to lead their houses of worship in nurturing neighborhoods has taken off, with some 70-plus pastors attending training compared to 15 last year.

Barney said in line with moving from “a grassroots movement into a formal organization,” the Network hired its first full-time staffer in Quaites-Ferris. The former deputy assistant under former Mayor Mike Fahey said, “My role is to make sure all operations and covenants are remaining as active as can be.” She said some covenants are more active and self-sufficient then others.” In terms of collaboration, she said, “it’s not always about partners coming to us but sometimes it’s about us going to them and seeing how can we partner together.”

Three-and-a-half years in now, the Network has a track record.

Said Barney, “There’s a lot of powerful signals. I think people are beginning to see there’s more strength and we can get more done if we just simply sit down and talk. We may not agree on everything but we can talk through those differences and keep a common goal in mind of trying to help our kids and employ parents in sustainable jobs. That’s really what we’re all trying to do. We may have different ways of getting there but if we can sit down and talk we’ll have a better chance.”

He said whatever course the Network adopts, it relies on others to carry it out.

“At the end of the day it’s ENCAP, the Urban League, Omaha Economic Development Corporation that are doing the work. But I think because we’re here we’ve helped facilitate potentially more partnerships than would have happened before.”

Malcolm X Memorial Foundation president Sharif Liwaru said he feels the Network’s facilitator rather than direct service provider role “is still hard for people to grasp.” Barney acknowledges as much. While Liwaru and community activist Leo Louis feel the Network effectively engages established organizations and leaders, they advocate more outreach be done to new, more loosely organized groups as well as to youths.

“We’re doing more to really make sure it is an inclusive process,” said Barney. “If they don’t come, we’ll go to them, and we’re not perfect, we make mistakes, but we keep pushing forward.”

The Network doesn’t pretend to work with every organization. It puts time and money where it can make the most difference. Barney said many early initiatives were pilots that explored what works and what doesn’t. “Now,” he said, “we have a better feel for what truly makes a difference and for what organizations are committed and actually have the resources and infrastructure to implement programs.”

He can list many Network accomplishments, but the work being done with young people is closest to his heart.

Mid-2008 the Network noted workforce development gaps for at-risk young persons and launched a life skills and jobs program. No one wanted a summer like 2007, when there were 31 reported shootings in 31 days during one stretch. Program participants included kids failing in school and drop outs , ex and active gang members among their ranks. Barney and Ben Gray contacted employers to secure 150 paid internships. The program was repeated last summer, with enrollees split between returning and new participants. Barney said many “transitioned back into school, some went on to get GEDs and others got offers for full time work.” 2009 saw hundreds more jobs created by federal stimulus funds and private donors. The Urban League facilitated.

Minus any federal funds in 2010, the number of summer jobs provided at-risk youth this year will be closer to 500, rather than the 800 created last year.

“In a lot of instances we basically have to start from scratch — we have to teach people how to fill out an application, how to successfully interview, how to do some things we take for granted,” said Gray. “This is a big job because you’ve got to change attitudes as well as change behavior. Neither is easy, but you’ve got to get it done because the only other choice is to build more jails and at the end of the day that’s costing us three to four times as much money as to provide jobs and job training and proper schooling.”

Barney said feedback from community forums identified unemployment as an underlining cause of violence. The program’s one of several Network initiatives aimed at curbing violence, with Omaha 360 and Enough is Enough being the latest and largest.

“We launched a formal violence prevention collaboration where we have community groups, faith groups, law enforcement, the Urban League, employment agencies, health organizations, housing organizations meeting every week to focus on youth violence and how we can reduce it,” said Barney. “It’s not just telling folks, Don’t do this, now we’re providing options.”

Impact One Community Connection, formerly New World Youth Development, was formed to do gang intervention-prevention. The Network also collaborates with ENCAP, the Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership (formerly GOACA).

Barney said a Stop the Violence summit that tapped young people’s input included former and current gang members. Those sessions morphed into regular youth forums. “People have been sitting down with gang members and not just telling them stuff but listening to what’s on their mind. Why didn’t you stay in school? What are the supports you need? What do you think of attempts to rebuild the community and what issues do you see going on from your perspective?”

Teresa Hunter said she, Barney and others were impressed “a group of youths wanted to continue meeting and talking about the issues and the remedies. They wanted to keep coming back and to make a change.”

In turn, said Barney, participants “were amazed somebody cared enough to spend all that time one-on-one with them and to help them get a job. They will flat out tell you no one has ever given them these opportunities before. Even some of the kids on the street that everybody totally discounts and that people said there’s no way you’re going to reach, well, we reached them.”

Building trust with this population, said Barney, is key. “They’ve been hurt so many times, people have given up on them, people have ruined their trust.” Recruiting them, he said, was largely the work of the late Roy Davenport and of Gray. Both brought long gang intervention experience. “That’s kind of the bridge that was built,” said Barney. “The Network has been able to tap into those who’ve been doing the work of trying to get people to leave gangs, giving us a link to that segment, and giving the intervention workers the support, resources and organization they lacked before.”

The Network’s aligned itself with the Omaha Police Department, particularly the Northeast Precinct, and North Omaha Weed & Seed to do Safe Night Outs and other efforts for improving police-community relations. Ben Gray and the police report progress in residents providing information and tips that lead to arrests.

Gray, who leads an emergency response team, said street work is where it’s at in reaching past or present gangbangers.

“You got to meet them where they are. If you are not willing to get out in those blocks, in those neighborhoods, in those houses where they live, you are not going to reach those young people. You gotta be at the hospitals, you gotta be at the funerals, you gotta be constantly talking about not retaliating…about going in a different direction. That’s very time consuming, painstaking, difficult work and there are no set hours. We have ex-gang members employed through Impact One. They monitor the streets on a regular basis.”

Gray lauds the Network for “putting it’s neck on the line” to even do this outreach, saying it’s a microcosm for how a wounded community can heal. “We have people that have been disappointed so much they’re not willing to necessarily buy-in until they have seen some stability in you going down the road getting a few things accomplished, and then you’ll hopefully get that groundswell of people that will come on board with you.”

“That’s how it clicks there, it’s grassroots, it’s organization, it’s strategic planning, it’s building relationships,” said Barney. “The summer program crystalized for many of us what’s possible.”

Barney said the Network “has the opportunity to really make a tremendous difference. Some of it will be over time, some of it will be dramatic,” such as the 36 percent reduction in gun violence in July-August 2008. “Now we can’t take direct credit for that but police will tell you that has never happened before at that level. Some folks went from being on the street to being in the life skills program to having a stipend to do voter registration work to being fully employed. So the possibilities are there for reaching the kids. Now it’s having all the support services lined up so we can link them together.”

For Kristina Carter, the Network is a vehicle for change and a conduit for action.

“I love what they’re doing with getting the-powers-that-be to listen to the community and for voices to be heard and not just patronized. The Empowerment Network can be that central point, strategic center of command where you can branch out to all the different organizations that service this community. That’s what it represents to me.”

Leo Louis and Sharif Liwaru say there are grassroots segments of the community that fall outside the Network’s structure that need to be engaged more.

“We’re doing as much as we can pushing it in that direction,” said Barney. “But I’m sure there are people in the community who still feel it’s not open enough or they feel they don’t have a voice. I would ask anyone who feels that way to contact me directly. We’ll sit down and we’ll meet and we’ll listen and try the best we can to make adjustments.”

Barney said it’s important to remember rebuilding north Omaha will be a process. Embedded problems will not suddenly vanish.

“We are building a long-term foundation. We’re getting more and more people engaged, more people are stepping forward. That doesn’t meant the violence is going to stop today or next week. I keep saying to folks, ‘It did not happen overnight and it will not be solved overnight’. That message rarely gets printed or becomes a sound bite. We’re not getting our minds around how big this is — the depth of this, and how long it’s been going. It’s painful just to say this is going to be a long term situation. To be successful this has to be a citywide effort.

“At the end of the day what’s kept everybody together is that it’s bigger than us individually and bigger than us as an organization or a church or a business. It’s about young people that need to graduate, it’s about mothers and fathers taking care of their kids, it’s about people being able to start a business, it’s about economic redevelopment. And it’s not about waiting on someone else to do it for us…”

Guardedly optimistic, he said, “We’ve seen some things slowly move in the right direction.” He’s encouraged by the positive alliances and community spirit built but he knows residents are eager to touch brick-and-mortar change.

Geraldine Wesley with Long School Neighborhood Association embraces the Network “getting people’s hopes up to empower” North O, adding, “If they carry out all the things they intend to do, it would be good.” She’s cautiously expectant. “Well, right now it’s just ideas, there’s nothing concrete as far as I know. I am waiting for the results. It’s going to be a long process, I know that. I hope I’ll live to see it.”

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Prominent figures of the African-American Civi...

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The Empowerment Network in Omaha is a catalytic force for positive change in North Omaha not seen before in terms of the scale and scope of its vision and reach. This is Part II of the two-part Reader cover story series I did several years ago about the Network.. The long version shared here was not published in the paper. The shorter published version is also available on my blog if you care to see it.

 

Part II: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking

©by Leo Adam Biga

All along, African-American Empowerment Network leaders have known that in order to transform north Omaha, the nonprofit must partner.

A measure of just how wide the Network’s cast its reach since forming three-and-a-half years ago is its established ties with: philanthropists, CEOs, social service agency executive directors, pastors, neighborhood association leaders, current or ex-gang members, school administrators, law enforcement officials, city planning professionals, local, county and state elected officials.

From the start, the Network’s taken a systematic approach to build community-wide consensus around sustainable solutions. North Omaha Contractors Alliance president Preston Love Jr. began as a critic but now champions the Network’s methodical style in gaining broad-based input and support:

“My compliment to them is even bigger than most because they stayed by their guns. I highly commend them because they did it the right way in spite of people like myself. They’ve gained my respect for their process because they have done it the hard way. They developed a process which has involved every level, from leadership on down to grassroots, for people to participate. That is the key to me.

“What looks like the easy road now was the hard road. It’s harder to work a game plan than it is to just go ahead and shoot from the hip. They had some real strategic things they felt they needed to do before they sought press or went public. All of that made sense but for those of us who are activists there’s stress in that because we wanted things to happen right away. As this thing has evolved there has been tremendous credibility built within and outside the organization and the results are now beginning to show themselves.”

For Empowerment Network facilitator Willie Barney, it’s all about making connections.

“When we started there were not enough forums and venues for people to come together and share ideas and solutions in an an environment where you felt comfortable no matter who you were,” he said. “If we take it down to our core, we’re about connecting people, connecting organizations, then identifying where the strengths are and where the gaps are, and then building on the strengths and filling in the gaps.

“It’s encouraging we have so many more partnerships now, almost to the point where it’s overwhelming. We get calls, e-mails, people stop in quite often just saying they want to help, they want to be a part of something. We’ve launched a lot of activities, helped launch organizations, started initiatives. Now we’re to a point where we’re working with residents at planning meetings, trying to get as many people as we can involved to tell us what is their vision for the targeted areas — what does it look like in north Omaha, what does it look like for African-Americans in the city, what would they like to see. ”

He refers to North Omaha Village Zone meetings at North High that invite community members to weigh in on developing plans for the: 24th and Lake, 16th and Cuming, 30th and Parker/Lake and Adams ParkMalcolm X and Miami Heights neighborhoods. At the May 27 meeting some 100 residents turned out to be heard.

A homeowner who lives in the Adams Park area said she’s interested in how development will affect her home’s resale value and improve quality of life.

“I’m very concerned about my investment, so anything that’s going on we want to know because it will eventually impact us,” said Thalia McElroy, who was there with her husband Greg. “It’s totally positive,” she said of the Network’s community-building focus. “They’re trying to make an effort to level the playing field. You know, when your community doesn’t even have a movie theater, that’s ridiculous. I’m hoping the redevelopment will get more more diversity as far as recreation activities and shopping.”

Greg McElroy said he appreciates how the development process is allowing residents to have a say in helping shape plans at the front end rather than the back end.

Wallace Stokes, who just moved here from Waterloo, Iowa with his small construction business, likes what’s he’s seen and heard thus far. “They’re trying to get the best ideas to redevelop north Omaha. They’re trying to empower the neighborhood and create jobs and also make it better for everybody else. All of that’s what I believe in,” said Stokes.

Bankers Trust vice president Kraig Williams has lived and worked all over America. He said he’s impressed with how the Network coalesces community participation:

“I can honestly say I’ve never seen this happen before. I think there is a sincere invitation for people to experience this and to be a part of it, and the invitation is actually coming from the Empowerment Network. This appears to be something that’s got the appropriate amount of focus. City government’s there, a lot of the commercial companies are involved as well.”

While confident the Network “will continue to push forward for change,” Williams said “the real key” to sustainability “is going to be the other parties at the table” and how the economy affects their budgets and bottom lines.

Gannie Clark adds a cautionary note by saying. “The plight we have as black people is bigger than the Empowerment Network. It’s not about any one entity, it’s about people coming together so that the city can move forward, it’s about what is the city going to do to revitalize this part of town, it’s about us as people getting representation.”

“People are passionate about it, they want to see things done,” Barney said. “As this whole thing transitions, more and more individuals in the neighborhoods are getting engaged in what is it going to take to rebuild north Omaha, and that’s really encouraging. I think people need to see their ideas being respected, they want to be a part of what’s going on, they want to be at the table when decisions are made, they want to be active, they don’t want to just go along for the ride.”

Barney’s aware the community’s trust has been hard won. “I think at one point people were kind of like, What is it? Is this going to be a top down deal? I think people who have actually sat down at the table have realized their ideas count as much as anybody else.” He’s aware, too, of perceptions the Network is elitist, composed of middle-aged, highly-educated, high-earning managers, directors, owners, but insists there’s participation by a broad range of ages, education levels and socio-economic groups.

A segment missing from the leadership is age 30-and-unders. That’s why Dennis Anderson and others created the Emerging Leaders Empowerment Network. “We want to be heard at the table as well,” said Anderson, who has his own real estate business. “We have our own ideas and our own solutions we want to bring forward.” He said ideas generated by Emerging Leaders are presented to the larger Network. “Now we are being heard. They have been extremely supportive of us,” he said.

The larger Network revolves around a self-empowerment covenant that challenges people to do their part to improve themselves and their community. There are targeted areas for improvement, each with its own strategy.

So what makes the Network different beyond its covenant calling for African-Americans to harness change through self-empowerment? What do residents and neighborhoods stand to gain and how does the organization interact with them? Who’s holding the Network accountable? Where could this feel-good train get derailed?

These are important questions for a community that’s heard much talk these past 40 years but seen meager action. Stakeholders want to know why this time around should be any different and what mechanisms the Network has in place to ensure it will outlast what were previously mercy missions?

For one, it appears this initiative is an unprecedented collective of black leaders working and speaking as one to address comprehensive change.

“I don’t see any other kind of a way and I don’t see any other time that this has happened,” said Family Housing Advisory Services director Teresa Hunter, co-chair of the Network’s housing development covenant..

“There has not been the kind of movement like this in our community in a very long time. There have been attempts at it, and I have been a part of those attempts to bring community together, but the structure currently in place is a structure that has not been there before,” said Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray, chair of the violence intervention-prevention strategy.

Davis Companies CEO Dick Davis, who heads the economics covenant and a newly formed Economic Strategy Taskforce, said the Network represents a departure from past initiatives programmatically and philosophically in its approach to economic development. “The principles we set up are a market-driven merit-based economic model as opposed to the social justice, social equity models Omaha has been doing.” This new business-like approach he said requires experienced business people like himself out front and behind the scenes to analyze, guide, refer, partner, support.

Proposed development projects up for review before the Taskforce or its eight sub-taskforces, he said, are held to a rigorous set of “expectations and outcomes” to select sustainable initiatives. He said the economics have to be there for a project to work, whether it’s a grocery store, a radio station or anything else.

The goal isn’t just to vet and endorse projects or programs, he said, but to improve the landscape for African-American commerce and progress.

He said Taskforce members, who include elected and appointed public officials, are working to change public policies to “open up more contract, procurement opportunities” for African-Americans. He added that members are also woking with institutions of higher learning to enroll more black students and with lending institutions and venture capitalists to create more accessible lines of credit and capital.

Buttressing the Taskforce’s and the Network’s economic models, said Davis, “are substantial amounts of dollars I’m committing.” He’s living the “do my part” mantra of the Empowerment covenant by, among other things, constructing a new headquarters building for the Davis Cos. in NoDo, investing $10,000 in seed money in each of 10 small black-owned businesses over a decade’s time. He’s on his third one now. His Chambers-Davis Scholarship Program and Foundation for Human Development are some of his other philanthropic efforts.

Davis uses his own generosity as calling card and challenge.

“I go to white folks and black folks and say, OK, here’s how I’m stepping up, tell me how you’re going to step up? How you going to do your part? That doesn’t mean necessarily just by money, it’s by expertise, it’s by commitment, it’s by whatever the case may be. But once you step up I want you to be accountable for it, I don’t want you to say it’s somebody else’s fault.”

Dick Davis

The idea is that as others put up personal stakes, assume vested interests and make commitments, African-Americans gain leverage in the marketplace.

The economic initiatives add up to a new construct for building financial capacity in north Omaha. The empowerment aspect posits blacks having primary input in economic decision-making. Owing to exclusionary practices, Davis said, blacks “have always had more of a secondary input, meaning we could be part of the decision but the authority and the money were outside our input. What we’re saying is, let’s figure out what we can do within our resources. We have less than a handful of folks that are significant business people with a million dollars or more that could be invested. That’s horrible. The good news is we have at least 24 African-Americans that hold 28 positions of authority either as a public appointed or elected official or senior executive…There’s enough (critical) mass there…related to time, influence, authority and money.”

Urban League of Nebraska president and Network education-youth development co-chair Thomas Warren said a primary reason “why this initiative is different than past efforts” is the number of “individuals involved who are in decision-making roles within their respective organizations, agencies and institutions. They have influence over viable programs and ideas generated through the network and our discussions in getting these initiatives implemented.”

For Davis, the promise of the Network is its transformational potential. “If I’m going to dedicate the rest of my life to see if we can develop benefits for African-Americans in Omaha what I want to see is not another project, not another job, not another business. But what I want to see is a cultural change, a value change, a behavioral change of African-Americans’ psyche toward economics.”

He said a Network-sponsored 2009 economic summit brought segments together who normally do not cross paths, much less collaborate: “…at the last summit we did something that never happened in terms of black folks interacting with white folks. We have black leaders heading black banks and we have white leaders heading white banks. When will be able to have a black leader heading that one thing, whatever that thing is, for all the people? What I would like to see for keeping me motivated and inspired is an African-American heading the corporate community just because he’s the most qualified, capable, competent person.”

He will at least keep people talking. “One of my gifts is I can bring a group of people together that in most cases don’t talk to each other. The social justice advocates don’t talk to the pro business advocates, Republicans don’t talk to Democrats, white folks don’t talk to black folks, and we don’t get anything done.” If the Network’s done nothing else, he said, it’s brought diverse people together. “It’s called shared responsibility, shared accountability — that’s what makes it feel different.”

Thomas H Warren, Sr, MSWarren said, “Everyone realizes that in order to build capacity with limited resources you have to collaborate. There are very strong-willed individuals who speak candidly with one another.” Despite disagreements, in the end I believe there’s true consensus in terms of the strategy and the approach we take. This is not an ivory tower operation, this is a front line grassroots mobilization. The individuals involved are reputable, they’re credible, they have the highest level of integrity and they recognize the need for things to change. It’s a mindset more-so than anything else that in my opinion has led to this initiative being so far successful.”                   

Apostle Vanessa Ward, whose gang intervention, community gardening and block party activities through her Afresh Anointing Church mesh with the Network, said, “This is the first time I’ve seen Omaha reach a place with this kind of solidarity.”

It may also be the most cohesive united front Black Omaha’s presented in a long time.

“A strength of the Network is that disagreements unfold in private, behind closed doors, not for public display,” said Rev. Jeremiah McGhee, co-chair of the faith covenant. “We’re only human, we’re going to disagree but we work hard at not airing our differences in public. If it happens it’s a fluke. The Network only speaks after a consensus is reached, so that it’s message is delivered with one voice.”

He said where past coalitions have been reactive to violent crime or allegations of police brutality, the Network takes a more considered, strategic approach to a multitude of persistent issues. Where the confrontational outcry of passionate citizens tends to “fizzle out,” he said the Network’s moderate, conciliatory approach is built for “the long haul. We’re not just a flash in the pan. We’re being very deliberate about this.”

That echoes the observations of Warren, who said, “We’ve been very methodical and incremental in terms of how these issues are identified and how strategies are developed to address these issues. It’s a very comprehensive strategy. I think we have a level of commitment from individuals who will stay the course.”

McGhee noted that past overarching responses like the Network’s have tended to be church-led and therefore limited by the skill sets of its pastors. “The difference is we’ve got our best and brightest, the experts, the professionals,” leading the Network, he said.

Salem Baptist Church Pastor Selwyn Bachus, the faith covenant co-chair, said, “I would say one of the identifiable, unique elements of the Empowerment Network is it brings to the forefront leaders who have expertise, exposure and experience in our covenants…and those leaders are willing to work together. It’s unique. I’ve lived in four different cities for fairly significant periods of time and have never seen the community unified in such a way. It’s a collaborative effort that allows us to do what we do even more effectively.”

As McGhee said, “We’ve got a lot of people who’ve come together. It’s a large group that’s pretty deep in its reach.”

Innovations By Design president and chief consultant Tawanna Black, the advocacy-social justice co-chair, said the organization’s careful to be inclusive, That includes collaborating with agencies who’ve been there doing the work. The overriding message, she said, “Is that we’re not here to replace you, we’re here to help you, we’re here to build your capacity, we’re here to inform the community about what you do so that you’re able to truly serve those you exist to serve. When you do that then there’s no need to have a tug of war.”

Warren said “the key is to connect services to clients” and a big part of what the Network does is communicating what services are available and linking people to them.

Then there’s what Warren and others describe as a new African-American leadership class that’s emerged on the political, financial, community, corporate scene who either lead the Network directly or are positioned to indirectly further its aims. Warren, Black, Davis and Gray are among this influential cadre. Network members say this confluence of new leadership seemed to make the time right for a concerted effort to improve the state of African-American Omaha.

It was a formation, kind of a like a call to the troops to come together,” said Empowerment operations director Vicki Quaites-Ferris, who came from the Mayor’s Office. “Kind of an uprising of new leadership and new voices and younger voices, and that really was something that was near and dear to my heart.”

Adding a certain momentum and basis was a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series that delineated the stark realities for thousands of African-American residents whose impoverished living conditions rank among the most severe in America. Black Omaha has an almost nonexistent entrepreneurial base. With historically little visible or string-pulling presence in political and corporate circles, the community’s languished in a malaise that began more then four decades ago and has only become more engrained.

In 2009 a Pew Partnership for Civic Change assessment both confirmed the morass and recommended remedies that coalesced with Network strategic plans. Taken together, it was an indictment of a shameful status quo and a call to action.

“We don’t want to be known for having one of the highest rates of black poverty, we don’t want to have one of the highest  gaps between black poverty and white affluence, we don’t want to be known as the worst place for STDs, we don’t want to have those things at the same time we’re in the Wall St. journal for having one of the best economic trends in the country,” said Black. “I think all those things put together make it a prime time for this to work and maybe the only time for it to work.”

Pastor Bachus believes “the dose of reality” these failings represent “awakened something in us.” With the context of this new sense of urgency, he said, “many of us have realized we’re at a crisis point, we’re at a crossroads, and if not now, never. There’s extreme possibilities for greatness in our community, but we have to do it now.”

McGhee said there’s a symbiosis between what the Network does and the work black churches do. After all, many church ministries and programs address the same issues as the Network, making churches natural partners for implementing strategies and engaging the community in shared covenant goals. He said the Network’s broad focus and many collaborations can help church projects build capacity but also relieve some of the burden. “We don’t have to be everything to everybody anymore,” he said. At the same time, he said the Network’s a unifying and stimulating force for getting churches to work together on things like safe night outs for youths.

McGhee said it helps that Network leaders Willie Barney and John Ewing are “people of faith” who set their egos aside. “Personality has a a lot to do with building coalitions and acceptance in the community and they’ve got a good reputation, they don’t offend people, they know how to facilitate.”

The Network’s been cautious to put itself in the media spotlight because it prefers a behind-the-scenes role and because it’s sensitive to past disappointments.

“There’s always been a hesitation,” said Willie Barney. “We see so many groups come before the camera and make grand announcements about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it and for whatever reason we don’t see them again, and the community gets really tired of that.”

A skeptical public must be convinced this time is different. “They’ve heard the great ideas before, they’ve heard the talk before, and they see things in the community as a whole remain the same if not worse than what they were before,” said Highlander Neighborhood Association president Kristina Carter. “I’ve talked to neighbors trying to get them involved and I’ve been told to my face, ‘It’s not going to do any good.’ Everybody thinks it’s a great thing but we’ve had great things before and people are waiting to see if this is not just more of the same.”

Getting neighborhoods and residents on board has taken time. At the start, Barney said, “We didn’t do as good of a job as reaching out as we could have.”

Quaites-Ferris said it’s been a challenge getting past the point of people asking, “Are you really here to stay?” Her answer: We’ve been around three years and we’re just beginning, so we are around and we’re going to stay around.”

Barney said, “They’re seeing there’s consistency to it, that we’re not going away.” He also senses people are impatient to see visible progress.

Carter speaks for many when she says, “As a resident I should be able to see with my eyes physical change taking place. That’s what people I’ve spoken to are waiting to see.”

Preston Love Jr. said any commercial development that occurs should “involve north Omaha in the process from top to bottom or we’re missing the point of what development really is.” He wants African-Americans involved from planning to financing, bonding and insurance on through construction, ownership, management and staffing.

Community activist Leo Louis takes issue with something else. “If the idea is to empower the community then the community should be growing,” he said, “not the Network. What I’m seeing happening is the Network growing and the community falling further and further down with rising drop out, STD, homicide rates. Yes, there’s more people getting involved, more marketing, more funds going towards the Network and organizations affiliated with the Network, but the community’s not getting any better.”

Leo Louis

Tangible change is envisioned in Network designated neighborhood-village strategy areas. The plan is to apply the strategic covenants within defined boundaries and chart the results for potential replication elsewhere. One strategic target area includes Carter’s Highlander Association, the Urban League, Salem Baptist Church and the Charles Drew Health Center. The strategy there started small, with prayer walks, block parties, neighborhood cleanups. It’s continued through discussions with neighborhood associations. Brick-and-mortar projects are on tap.

“We’ve received some financial support to take the strategy to the next level,” said Barney. “We’re really focused on housing development, working with residents to look at housing needs. We’re partnering with Habitat for Humanity, NCDC, OEDC, Holy Name, Family Housing Advisory Services. Our goal is that you’ll be able to drive through this 15-block area and begin to see physical transformation. That’s where we’re headed.”

The Network also works with Alliance Building Communities and the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority. Some major housing developments are ready to launch.

Teresa Hunter said enabling a new wave of homeowners is about creating “a community that people are moving to instead of away from.”

The goal, Barney said, is to “remove obstacles and create more pathways” for African-Americans to not only achieve home ownership but to start and grow businesses, become employable, continue in school. It’s about people reaching their potential. Some  key stakeholders, such as Salem, have big projects in the works.

Another target area includes 24th and Lake. The Network’s plans for redevelopment there jive closely with those of a key partner, the North Omaha Development Project.

As the Network matures, its profile increases. Barney doesn’t care if people recognize the Network as a change agent so long as they participate. “They may not know what to call it but they know there’s something positive going on,” he said. “They know we get things done. The message is spreading. We’ve had a lot of opportunities to go and present. There’s definitely more interest. We can tell by the volume of calls we get and the number of visitors to our web site (www.empoweromaha.com).”

Quaites-Ferris said public feedback suggests the Network is winning hearts and minds by doing more “than just talking and strategizing, but by putting plans together and implementing those plans.”

In terms of accountability, Barney said, “the leaders hold the leaders accountable and we invite the community in every second Saturday to an open meeting. They can come in, look at what’s going on. There’s nothing hidden, it’s up on the (video) screen. They  have the chance to redirect, ask questions. It’s an open environment.” McGhee said the leadership “is really holding our feet to the fire” for transparency and responsibility.

Where could it go wrong?

Preston Love cautions if the Network becomes “the gatekeeper” for major funds “that gives them power that, if wrongly used,” he said, “could work against the community.”

Carter said letting politics get in the way could sabotage efforts. McGhee said public “bickering” could turn people off. He said the leadership has talked about what-if scenarios, such as a scandal, and he said “there’s no question” anyone embroiled in “something counter-productive like that would need to step down.”

Former Omaha minister Rev. Larry Menyweather-Woods worries about history repeating itself and a community’s hopes being dashed should the effort fade away. “You’d go back to square one,” he said. He wonders what might happen if things go off course and the majority power base “turns against you.” “When all hell breaks loose,” he said, “who from the Network will go to the very powers they’ve made relationships with and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this isn’t right?’” He suggests only a pastor has “nerve enough to do that.”

And that may be the Network’s saving grace — that pastors and churches and congregations are part of this communal mission.

“The history of African-Americans has been founded on faith and the church, so it’s the primary thing and everything else kind of grows out of that,” said Pastor Bachus. “Faith is that hub and the covenants and the efforts really are spokes out of that hub, and that’s the thing that holds it together.”

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Hot Movie Takes: READ ALL ABOUT IT EXCLUSIVE – Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” starring Matt Damon

February 27, 2016 2 comments

UPDATE: It turns out that Alec Baldwin did not participate in “Downsizing” after all. Insstead, his part of a real estate magnate was played by another name actor with a similar vibe and facility for playing smarmy – Bruce Willis.

Here is your first and only exclusive insider’s look at Oscar-winner Alexander Payne’s jusst under production new film, “Downsizing,” starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz and other stars. From yours truly, Leo Adam Biga, the chronicler of this important writer-director since 1997 and the author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” – soon to be re-released with a new design, plus updated and expanded content.

UPDATE In its original version this story reported that Reese Witherspoon would co-star alongside Matt Damon, but only days before the April 1 production start it was announced she was no longer attached to the project and that Kristin Wiig had replaced her.

Since this story was first published in early March, Oscar-winning actor Christoph Waltz, along with Udo Kier, Paul Mabon and Warren Belle were officially added to the cast.

 

Hot Movie Takes:

READ ALL ABOUT IT EXCLUSIVE – Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” starring Matt Damon

Film about miniaturized human life tackles big themes

“Downsizing” finally going before the cameras April 1

©by Leo Adam Biga, Your A.P. Expert and Author of Soon to Reboot “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Original story appeared in the March 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The high concept behind Alexander Payne’s soon to shoot new feature, Downsizing, unfolds in a near future world where humans can opt to be miniaturized. Everything about the story, from the title to the characters to the plot-lines, gives Payne and co-scriptwriter Jim Taylor ample metaphorical opportunities.

The big budgeted Paramount picture starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Sudeikis, Alec Baldwin, Paul Wabon, Warren Belle and Hong Chau endured a long gestation. A different cast was attached in 2008-2009 before the road to financing collapsed with the economy. The pieces almost came together again in 2014. All the while, the script, begun in 2006, got reworked and pared down to meet the budget cap Hollywood placed on this risky project marking Payne’s first foray into science fiction and visual effects..

The production is based at Pinewood Studios in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where Payne will work for the first time on sound stages and with green screens, CGI and motion capture. Little or no forced perspective will be used.

The sprawling, three-month shoot rolls out April 1 for a week in Los Angeles, then comes to Omaha for a few days. The whole works heads off to Norway for more shooting but the bulk will occur across the border in Canada, where post-production will also happen.

Arch satirists Payne and Taylor use the downsizing premise to skewer the small-mindedness of persons, policies. constructs. In this new work the veteran scenarists, whose previous credits together include the Payne-directed Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways, suggest not only are Earth’s physical resources at risk but its intellectual-moral capital, too.

Downsizing’s all too real musings on diminishing returns and bankrupt values posits a redemptive protagonist in Paul, a South Omaha Everyman whom Matt Damon will play. Although the story has a fatalistic, end-of-world backdrop, it dangles hope that humankind, in whatever size survives, will muddle through somehow.

That Payne should use science fiction’s expansive prism to consider world crisis issues and explore the nature of humanity may seem at odds with his intimate dramedies about neurosis, infidelity, promiscuity, loneliness, yearning. Then again, all his work has churned the existential wheel with mundane characters bogged down by the weight of their own mess. Just think of the angst that Ruth (Citizen Ruth), Jim (Election), Warren (Schmidt), Miles and Jack (Sideways), Matt (The Descendants) and Woody (Nebraska) confront. For all its fantastic elements this new narrative is anchored in that same morass of folks dealing with adult dilemmas, conflicts and flaws. Problems dog them wherever they go, even the would-be miniature haven, Leisureland.

And why shouldn’t Payne dip his toes in the sci-fi pool when filmmakers equally identified with humanistic storytelling have done the same? John Sayles (The Brother from Another Planet) and Barry Levinson (Sphere) come to mind.

Besides, sci-fi is a liberating and therefore attractive gateway for artists to tackle large, serious subjects free of constraints. The genre invites storytellers to ponder endless what ifs. In that spirit Payne and Taylor lay out an imagined scenario and burrow down that rabbit hole of speculation to follow what they deem the inevitable consequences.

Downsizing hinges on a hero sensitively responding to a world around him transformed. The implications and stakes are deeply personal and global. At least on the page Payne and Taylor manage to make us care about the micro and macro. Paul’s journey pulls us along this upheaval of life as he knew it. Expectations, definitions and limitations are threatened or overturned. Ultimately, everything is on the line.

 

 

Matt Damon Picture  Kristen Wiig Picture  Christoph Waltz Picture

 

 

Unavoidably, the story echoes other speculative tales, including any dealing with miniature humans. It also resonates with themes from such disparate sources as Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Truman Show, Children of Men and The Hobbit. Payne and Taylor concoct a fable-like framework to hold the narrative together.

The most obvious if unintentional resonance – to The Incredible Shrinking Man – happens at the end, when our hero-pioneer once more enters the great unknown. As with Payne’s previous films, the story concludes with a feeling more than an event or a resolution.

Payne, now married to a native of Greece and coming off his stark tone poem Nebraska, recently spoke about Downsizing with The Reader.

“We always knew it would take a while, first to get the script right, then to secure the financing, and 10 years is a long time. Fortunately I was able to squeeze in two other features and a pilot during that time. But it feels right now. You know, it’s interesting that in life, not just film, you try to do something and you run into obstacles. You try again and you run into more obstacles, and you think, This is never going to happen. And then finally when it does it unfolds elegantly and without obstructions and you say, Wow, I guess this was the time it was supposed to happen. That has been my experience with Downsizing.”

As the 125-page script sits now, he says, “the story hums along with a good filmic rhythm.” Achieving that flow was challenging for the.”big idea” at its core. “So big,” he says, “it was difficult during our writing process to always discern where it breaks off because every idea you come up with for this idea has a very long series of chain reactions. So you just kind of drive yourself crazy with possibilities. The script goes in very unpredictable directions. I’m not saying they’re good because they’re unpredictable. They were unpredictable to us as we were writing. So to corral this story and to get it happening as efficiently and we hope elegantly from point to point to point took a while. Right now it looks good on paper. I hope it will lend itself to a good movie. I won’t know that until I’m in post-production.”

He says the big idea that propels the piece is rife with “social-political overtones” but that it’s the “human aspects of the story that most interest us.” Thus, he’s not getting hung up on its sci-fi pedigree. He just enjoys the unlimited canvas he has to work on.

Payne also isn’t stressing the visual effects world he’s entered though he acknowledges he’s a fish out of water.

“It’s a whole new focus for me and everything. I’m not worried but I’m curious to see how they’re going to work. There’ll be a certain amount of tedium involved because you have to shoot the same scene two, sometimes three times to get the different aspects and elements.

“I want to make sure the actors who are acting in a vacuum on a stage against green screen feel as comfortable and normal as possible.  That’s my job. The acting style should not suffer because of the means of production. But it’ll be fine. You know, who cares, it’s just a movie.”

One whose budget is reportedly double any of his previous pics.

“If they don’t spend it on that, they’re just going to spend it on something else.” he says by way of classic Hollywood reasoning.

 He feels in good hands with his visual effects supervisor, James Price, with whom he’s been in discussions since 2008-2009.

“He is my effects czar. He knows how to explain things to me to make things easy for me and how to teach me how these things are achieved – what I need to know, what I don’t need to know. It’s really exciting. The best thing those guys do is to free the director up to say, ‘I want a shot like this, can we do this?’ and they say, ‘Yeah, we can do that,’ and I say, ‘How?’ and they say, ‘Don’t worry about how, but we can do it.’ Between the visual effects supervisor, the DP, the production designer,  they have to trick the director as much as possible into thinking that he or she is just shooting a regular movie so that I don’t censor my imagination, or what I have left of it.”

Payne says Price is on the same page as he and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael in terms of the desired visual palette.

“James knows the aesthetic we want and he’s an avid film watcher and film guy and so that makes me feel good. What I aspire to from the visual effects for this movie is not how eye-popping they are but rather how banal they are. I don’t want the seams to show.”

Payne also hopes to keep the effects to a minimum and to “try to do things in camera as much as possible.”

In addition to Price and his visual effects team Payne is working with a new production designer, Stefania Cella. But he’s mainly surrounded by trusted old friends and collaborators in producer Jim Burke, casting director John Jackson, Papamichael and costume designer Wendy Chuck. His longtime editor, Kevin Tent, is on board as well.

After the seven year gulf between Sideways and Descendants, Payne’s happy to be making films in short order. His last, Nebraska, was received warmly in Greece, where he met his wife while vacationing with his mother (Payne’s father passed away in 2014.).

“I showed the film in Greece a couple times and people were only too quick to tell me they thought it was a Greek film, which surprised me. I said, ‘Why do you think it’s a Greek film?’ and they said, ‘Well. it has the elements of going back to the village where your people are from.’ ‘Okay,’ I said. And they connected with the part of dutifully ‘taking care of the parents who drive you crazy,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m sure that’s not just Greek.’ I think that’s pretty universal.”

On the eve of finally making Downsizing after so long a wait and “jettisoning” subplots he admittedly “misses,” he’s content. “A movie is a movie is a movie and we have enough to make this movie, so it’ll be fine. And if the gods decree there might be a Downsizing 2, than we have other ideas that we’ve been collecting.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

FINAL FRONT COVER 6-28-16

YOU CAN READ THE REST IN THE NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through Nebraska in 2013 and his new film Downsizing releasing in 2017 )

Now available  at Barnes & Noble and other fine booktores nationwide as well as on Amazon and for Kindle. In Nebraska, you can find it at all Barnes & Noble stores, The Bookworm and Our Bookstore in Omaha, Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln and in select gift shops statewide. You can also order signed copies through the author’s blog leoadambiga.com or via http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga or by emailing leo32158@cox,net. 

For more information. visit– https://www.facebook.com/pg/AlexanderPayneExpert/about/?ref=page_internal

Lew Hunter’s small town Nebraska boy made good in Hollywood story is a doozy

February 25, 2016 5 comments

Of all the Hollywood greats Nebraska has produced, and there are far more than you think, Lew Hunter may boast the most impressive career behind the camera outside of Darryl Zanuck from Tinsletown’s Golden Age.  Hunter’s career stacks up well, too, among more more recent Hollywood players from here, such as  Joan Micklin Silver and Alexander Payne.  While it’s true Hunter never ran a major studio the way Zanuck did and has never directed a film the way Silver and Payne have, he did hold high executive level positions at each of the three major broadcast televison networks and at various studios.  And like Zanuck, Silver and Payne, he’s written and produced movies.  But he’s also done some singular things that stand him alone from his predecessor and peers.  For example, he’s taught a well-regarded screenwriting class at UCLA since 1979,  “Screenwriting 434,” that became the title and basis for his best-selling book about how to write screenplays.  He’s also conducted many screenwriting workshops or seminars.  He annually hosts the Superior Screenwriting Colon at his home in Superior, Neb., near his childhood home of Guide Rock.  Unlike the vast majority of Nebraskans who’ve made a name for themselves in film and television, Hunter never lost touch with his Midwest origins and some 15 years ago or so he and his wife Pamela departed the Left Coast to move back to his roots.

He’s now the subject of a new documentary, Once in a Lew Moon, showing at the Omaha Film Festival.

On this blog you can find an earlier profile I wrote about Lew that drew on my being embedded in his screenwriting colony for several days.

NOTE: Thanks to Lonnie Senstock and Bill Blauvelt for providing some of the photos here.

 

Lew Hunter teaching

Hunter (COVER)

Lew Hunter

 

Lew Hunter’s small town Nebraska boy made good in Hollywood story is a doozy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the March 2016 issue of the New Horizons

 

Nestled at the bottom of Eastern Nebraska, about a three-hour drive from Omaha, the sleepy hamlet of Superior is home to one-time Hollywood Player Lew Hunter. Pushing 81 and retirement now, he still exerts enough influence to bring Tinseltown types to this isolated  spot. Growing up a Neb. farm boy not far from there, Hunter dreamed of doing something in show business and he did as a television network and Hollywood studio executive. producer, screenwriter.

He’s on the short list of Nebraskans with major Hollywood credits. He isn’t as well known as some as his success came behind the camera, not in front of it. Not since Darryl Zanuck’s mogul days did a native reside so far within Hollywood’s inside circle as Hunter. Of past screen legends from Neb., he says, “These people were role models for me.”

Hunter’s a role model himself for having programmed popular network shows in the 1960s and 1970s that still draw viewers on Nick at Nite. Some mini-series and TV movies he shepherded for the networks were sensations in their time. Three movies he wrote, two of which he produced himself, earned huge shares and generated much discussion for their sensitive treatment of hard issues.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Site of the Superior Screenwriting Colony

 

 

 

A full life and an amazing career

Hunter’s the first to tell you he’s led one helluva life.– one as big as his oversized personality. Given where he came from, his career seems unlikely, but a desire to prove himself drove him to succeed.

Throughout the Great Depression and Second World War, he was enamored by the movies and radio. Then, during the Cold War and Baby Boom, he fell under TV’s spell.

Weaned on MGM, RKO and Paramount musicals – the only motion pictures his mother allowed him to see – he projected himself into the fantasies he saw in the lone theater in his hometown of Guide Rock. He imagined himself up there on the silver screen.

“I wanted to be Fred Astaire so bad. I danced with a pitchfork, and the pitchfork was Ginger Rogers.”

The barnyard filled in for a ballroom or nightclub.

The fact that Hunter went on to enjoy a storybook career rubbing shoulders with the likes of Astaire and other stars does not escape him. He knows how fortunate he was to create top-rated movies of the week. He’s grateful to be emeritus chairman and screenwriting professor at UCLA and to have written a book based on his class, Screenwriting 434, that’s the bible for cracking the scriptwriting code.

Some of his students have enjoyed major film-TV careers, including Oscar-winner Alexander Payne, one of dozens of great screenwriters and directors Hunter’s had as guests for his class. Those sessions have featured everyone from the late Billy Wilder and Ernest Lehman to William Goldman and Oliver Stone.

Hunter’s the subject of a new documentary, Once in a Lew Moon. It portrays his love of the writing craft and writers and the reciprocal love writers feel for him. The feature-length film by fellow Neb. native Lonnie Senstock premiered at UCLA, where Hunter’s retiring after this quarter. The doc screens at the Omaha Film Festival on March 12.

This once big wheel and still beloved figure in Hollywood gave up that lifestyle years ago when he and his wife Pamela settled near his boyhood origins to make their home in Superior. Twice a year there he convenes the Superior Screenwriting Colony, an immersive two-week workshop for aspiring and emerging film-TV writers. He leads it in an inimitable style that is equal parts Billy Graham, Big Lebowski and Aristotle on the Great Plains.

This prodigiously educated and well-read man once considered entering the ministry. He long served as the lay leader of a Methodist congregation. He does treat screenplays with a reverence usually reserved for the scriptures. When he gets rolling about scene structure and character development, he might as well be a preacher. Far from being a choir boy though, this let-your-hair-down free spirit uses coarse language the way some people use punctuation. There was a time when he drank to excess. A naturally verbose man and born raconteur, his preferred way of teaching is telling stories. Asides and anecdotes beget full-blown stories. He has a vast store of them.

The site of the Colony is a restored Victorian mansion across from another period house he and Pamela occupy. He’s prone to lecture in shorts, T-shirt and bare feet. While professing he keeps near him a file folder bulging with lecture materials. He fishes out writerly quotes, excerpts or tidbits to share, referencing Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Joseph Campbell. He relates how as a Northwestern University grad student he asked guest lecturer John Steinbeck what to do to be a great writer. The legend’s response: “Write!” Hunter’s appropriated a variation as his sign-off in letters and emails: “Write on!”

Colony sessions are largely unscripted improvisations. Hunter doesn’t need notes, he says, “because the structure is exactly the structure I do in a 10-week class.” At table readings he reads, aloud, students’ ideas or outlines and offers verbal notes, inviting group feedback. He proffers precise analysis that constitutes Lew’s Rules.

“Too little story.” “Too much story.” “What’s your story really about?” “Your imagination is the only restriction you have.” “Conflict, conflict, conflict.” “Story, story, story.” “Character, character, character.” “All comedy and all drama is based on the three-act structure.” “My paradigm is situation, consequences and conclusion.” “Don’t even think about writing down to the audience.”

His rapid-fire yet relaxed, let-it-all-hang-out approach is fun. But his sunny, cruise-ship-recreation-director manner is leavened by a semi-scholarly seriousness that makes clear this is no joke. There’s work to be done and no time to waste, well, maybe a little. Students pay thousands of dollars to attend, many traveling long distances to participate. Perks include drop-in visits by Hollywood friends like Kearney native Jon Bokenkamp, creator of The Blacklist.

Colonists aim to please their guru, whose laid-back Socratic Method has its charms. It suits this one-time King of Pitchers who bent the ear of producers and executives when trying to sell a story idea or script. Hunter knew how to play the game because he was on the other side as a producer-executive, listening to writers-directors pitch him.

How it all happened for Hunter is, well, a story. One he’s only too glad to share. It aptly falls into three-acts. But leave it to Hunter to digress.

 

15 Lew Hunter 2

Lew back in his salad days at the networks

 

Midwest roots

Raised in an “extraordinarily conservative” environment full of narrow-minded views – “I felt like I had a pretty sheltered life” – Hunter had a lot of growing up to do post-Guide Rock.

His classically trained mother exposed him to cultural things to round out the corn pone experience. For example she had him take dance and music lessons. His father was “known as the most loved and strongest man in Webster County” before a massive stroke left him paralyzed and unable to speak. “The first 12 years of my life I had him and then I lost him to a stroke and aphasia,” Hunter recalls.

As his father slipped further away, Hunter’s overbearing “hell on wheels” mother became the dominant presence in his life.

“She was the head of the Nebraska Republican Party, the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) and WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) in her lifetime. Someone asked me once, did you love your mother?” and I said, ‘Well, I think I loved her, but I didn’t much like her. I respected her. And my father, I adored.”

A bright boy who felt betrayed by life for taking away his father and bored with his surroundings, Hunter rebelled. He got caught doing petty vandalism. With his mother unable to handle him, a judge offered a choice – reform school or military school. Hunter chose the latter. A valuable takeaway from Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington Mo. came playing football. Back home he had no experience with African-Americans. He only heard disparaging, scornful things. Then one game while playing guard he went up against a black tackle whose extreme effort and high ability made a lie of what he was told.

“I got the shit beat out of me. That was a very good learning lesson. I deserved it.”

Hunter’s racial education continued at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, where his roommate was a black student-athlete.

“Meeting him was clearly one of the best things. We palled around together. He took me down to the jazz cellars in Lincoln.”

Hunter became enough of a jazz devotee that at 17 he hitchhiked to Chicago to see Art Tatum at the Blue Note.

He studied theater at Wesleyan and he made his first foray into show biz working at Lincoln radio and TV stations.

“I became so caught up in the idea of being a professional that it spurred me to go to Chicago.”

 

Hunter, Coppola B & W

Lew with Francis Ford Coppola

 

 

Rebel with a cause

Intent on studying broadcasting at Northwestern, he applied but was rejected. Not taking no for an answer he garnered letters of support from Neb. dignitaries and struck a bargain with school officials to enroll on a probational basis. If he got all As, he stayed. If he got even one B, he’d leave. He stayed and excelled, earning a master’s in 1956.

“That rebellious aspect of me is still part of me.”

He worked in Chicago radio as a disc jockey and producer. But he wanted out of the Midwest in order to try his hand in Hollywood. Everyone he consulted told him to quit what they considered a cockeyed dream and stay put. Instead, he followed his heart and went.

“I’ve been pretty much a guy that ‘no’ is just a word on the way to ‘yes.’ If I really want something bad enough, I keep on it.”

He did not head out alone. Though barely 20, he was already married. He and his young bride packed their Packard and hoped for the best.

He laid the groundwork for his eventual break into the big time by getting a second master’s at UCLA, this time studying film.

“I went to UCLA on a David Sarnoff Fellowship. I took a lot of pleasure and pride in that.”

He used that opportunity to get his foot in the door.

Future cinema legend Francis Ford Coppola was a classmate. Years after their graduate student days, Hunter had Coppola appear at the UCLA class he teaches to talk screenwriting with students.

At the Westwood campus Hunter indulged in some serious hero worship of his favorite instructor, Arthur Ripley.

“I had very specific mentoring with Arthur Ripley. I just adored him. He was the most charismatic, interesting man.”

Hunter says Ripley’s sarcastic humor was reflected in a famous one-liner attributed to him. When stoic former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge died Ripley was said to have cracked, “How could they tell?”

A veteran from Hollywood’s early sound era, Ripley helped create the miserly, misanthropic W.C. Fields character the comedian parlayed to great success. Ripley worked for cinema giants Mack Sennett, Frank Capra and Irving Thalberg.

“I admired Arthur Ripley and all these wonderful stories he told when he worked at MGM for Irving Thalberg. He told stories about running around with Thomas Wolfe. I was like a sponge soaking up all that stuff. I have more show business stories because I loved the business and the people and the craziness of it all.”

 

Lew and Pam B & W

Lew and Pamela

 

 

The start of it all

Hunter got on as a page at NBC and then worked in the mailroom, where he rose up the ranks to music licensing and promotion.

“I could see there was a ladder I could climb at NBC.”

He later worked in promotion at ABC and served stints at CBS and Disney, among other entertainment conglomerates, before eventually transforming himself into a producer-writer. He later rejoined NBC.

Then-NBC and MTM president Grant Tinker gave Hunter some sage advice about the vagaries of Hollywood when Hunter was torn between staying at NBC or taking an offer at ABC.

“He said, “For your benefit you need to know that in this business you’re not rewarded for loyalty. Quite to the contrary, we’ll probably be more interested in you if you go over to ABC, and so I did.”

And just as Tinker predicted, after making the move Hunter found himself more in demand than ever.

“In this business, if they want you, over hot coals and razor blades they will come get you. But if they don’t want you, nothing. I mean you’re either eating high on the hog or on the hoof of the hog.

“For one brief shining moment,” as the song goes, Hunter officed at four different studios, including Paramount.

He got schooled by (Aaron Spelling) and had run-ins with (Irwin Allen) some big-name producers.

Seeing so many different sides of the business, he learned the ins and ours of how shows and movies get developed, packaged, marketed.

“I was in promotions doing trailers for BonanzaDick Powell TheatreDinah Shore Chevy Show and so forth. I was around it all the time. A sound engineer and I went around to stars’ homes with a reel to reel tape machine to record them reading copy promoting their shows. Once, we went to the home of my idol, Fred Astaire. As he was reading into a microphone the copy I’d written for him I glanced through another room’s open doorway and I saw a pool table inside. When he was done I said, ‘Do you play pool, Fred?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, do you play pool?’ I said, Well, a little, and he said, ‘Oh-oh, I’m toast, c’mon, let’s go.’ I played a game of pool with Fred Astaire and he won and I let him win. I could not dream of beating my idol.

“I have lots of stories about John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant. It just goes on and on.”

Perhaps the star he got closest to was Judy Garland.

“She and I were very close on an emotional level. We had such a wonderful relationship. We never went to bed with each other but we sure flirted with each other a lot. I’m still in sorrow over what happened to her over the last few years of her life and how she died.”

He enjoyed getting to know the real personalities behind the personas.

 

 

The writer’s way

Doing promos was fine but he felt pulled to go where the action is – programming. He took endless meetings with writers, producers, agents. He gleaned what he could from those around him.

“I had doors open for me all the time I think because of my Neb. decency. I was just eager to absorb everything I could and I learned so much in those story conferences, going to dailies, watching rough cuts and observing artists working on the backlot.”

He was at ABC and then Disney (as a story executive) when the urge or, more accurately, the obligation to be a writer got the better of him.

“I had been for like four or five years telling writers how to write and never having made a living as a writer myself. It bothered me a lot because I really didn’t think I had the cachet. I mean, it’s very, very alarming to give notes to Paddy Chayefsky, who I idolized, or Neil Simon. I was having lunch with Ray Bradbury at the Disney commissary and I said, ‘I’ve read 2.000 scripts in the last two years and 90 percent of them are shit. I think I can be in the top 10 percent. He encouraged me to read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Dorthea Brande’s Becoming a Writer.

“I came home and told my then-wife I’ve gotten to the point where I want to try to be a writer myself. And she said fine.”

It was a leap of faith as the couple had young kids and a mortgage.

Hunter left his job to scratch this itch. He made a pact that if he didn’t make it in a year he’d find a job. Fifty-one weeks later none of the screenplays he wrote had sold. Tapped out and with a family to support, he took a job as a body sitter at Forest Lawn cemetery. The ghoulish work entails sitting up with corpses and laying them down if they rise up from rigor mortis. He’d done it at an uncle’s funeral home in Guide Rock and again to pay his way through college.

The day before he was to start Aaron Spelling called saying he wanted to buy Hunter’s script for what became If Tomorrow Comes. If it hadn’t sold at least Hunter knew he’d tried.

If Tomorrow Comes is the story of an ill-fated romance between a Caucasian girl and Japanese-American boy in the days before and after Pearl Harbor. The couple get separated when he and his family are ostracized after Japan’s attack on the U.S. and eventually imprisoned in an internment camp.

Even though Hunter grew up during the period when Japanese-Americans were interned he was, like the general public, oblivious to what happened. He only thought about the internment as the premise for a script when a relative recalled this infamy in less than sympathetic terms. That propelled Hunter to research the subject. He was appalled to discover that innocent Japanese-Americans were summarily stripped of property, businesses, livelihoods. Their kids taken out of schools, their lives disrupted. They were treated as criminals and traitors. All without due process. He was dismayed to find they were interned in camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

“I was shocked we incarcerated more than 120,000 citizens.”

He was shocked this injustice was not mentioned in textbooks. He was offended that many folks dimssed the incident as just part of the price of war. That it was merely a regrettable inconvenience when in fact it was a traumatic severing and breach of trust and civil rights.

In writing his script he found an emotional hook everyone could relate to by imagining a star-crossed Romeo and Juliet romance torn asunder by those harsh, unforgiving events. Patty Duke and Frank Michael Liu starred as the lovers whose lives are interrupted by history.

Anne Baxter, James Whitmore, Pat Hingle and Mako co-starred.

He considers the resulting 1971 movie made from his script among “the stuff that I’ve done that I’m most pleased with,” adding, “That was the thing that got me going. We got a 39 share. My phone was ringing off the hook. Then came another project and another one.”

Hunter resumed working for NBC and various studios in the 1970s and 1980s. As a general program executive at NBC he helped bring to the small screen two movies touching on social=political-moral issues in The Execution of Private Slovak and The Red Badge of Courage (both 1974). Later, as director of program development, he oversaw some major mini-series, including Centennial.

His next venture as a writer confronting social issues was Fallen Angel (1981), in which he tackled pedophilia long before the Catholic Church scandal broke. The idea for taking on the sensitive topic seemingly popped in his head during a meeting.

“I was pitching to Columbia executive Christine Foster when the phone rang. We heard, ‘This is Peter Frankovich here.’ He was an executive at CBS. Christine said, ‘I’ve got Lew Hunter.’ We all knew each other. I said, ‘Can I show you something, Peter?’ He asked, ‘You got anything hot?’ And I found myself saying, ‘Child pornography.’ It just came to me. And then, boom, he said, ‘You’ve got a deal.'”

Only Hunter didn’t have a story, much less a script. He was due to meet Frankovich the next week.

“I said to m self, ‘Oh, shit, I’ve gotta get a story together.” I went down to what was called the Abused Children’s Unit at LAPD. They told me everything they could tell me. I was in constant horror. They had me go down to the hall of records and look at the pedophile records.”

He learned how perpetrators groom their victims. In his script the perp is a photographer (Richard Masur) who befriends a fatherless girl (Dana Hill) and convinces her to pose nude. It bothered Hunter that kids could be manipulated or coerced to appear nude and perform sexual acts and that L.A. was the porn capital of the world.

It was only after Fallen Angel aired he remembered he had a childhood encounter with a pedophile.

“My mother thought she’d make a little bit of money by renting out a room to a Superior Knights semi-pro baseball player. He was a large man and he roomed right next to my room. One day he suggested we go out to the cornfield for a beer. We drove out there and parked. He said, ‘You’ve been really naughty to your mother.’ Of course, I had. I was a little ass-wise, That’s how I ended up at military academy. And then he put his hand on my thigh and said, ‘You know, you deserve to be spanked.’ I didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on but I knew it was bad, so I disengaged myself, leaped out of the car and ran through the cornfield back home. I didn’t say anything to my mother. That man was back in his room that night and I spent  every night for the next month with a .22 rifle next to me when I went to bed. I was going to shoot him if he came in and tried something.”

Hunter says the man attempted to molest some of his buddies, too. While Hunter was away at military school he heard the authorities finally caught the predator. Several boys filed complaints against him.

Fallen Angel scored a record 43 share.

 

 

Fallen Angel Poster

 

Too close for comfort

A personal tragedy informed Hunter’s next controversial and much viewed project, Desperate Lives (1982).

“My best friend at the time said we should so a story together about our boys. Our sons were both deep into drugs. One of the people I talked to in researching this was my son, who said, ‘I can get drugs at my high school quicker than I can get lunch at the cafeteria.'”

Hunter made a decision to give the protagonist played by Doug McKeon the same name as his son, Scott, who didn’t appreciate it.

“it was a stupid thing because it really estranged us, I’m sure for the rest of our lives. He basically doesn’t talk to me, just superficially. That was a very negative thing in my life and something I deeply regret.”

About doing projects that meant something, even at a cost, he says, “I just started poking round through life and coming up with things that really energized me. That was the key for me.”

Fast forward a couple decades, to soon after Lew and Pamela moved to Superior, when the scourge of methamphetamine hit hard.

Concerned by its devastating effects on residents’ lives, he and Pamela formed a nonprofit to raise awareness of the dangers and of helping resources available.

“This bloody meth problem is a terrible problem,” he says. “It’s a rural holocaust.”

He got retired Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne and other public figures, along with law enforcement officials, to appear at a town hall meeting. The Hunters mentored in Osborne’s Teammates program.

 

Lew with Tom Osborne

Lew and Tom Osborne, ©The Digg Site Productions, photographer Christine Young

 

Lew says. “Boy, we really had a roll going. We certainly woke the town up to the fact we have a very serious problem and the reality is the problem still exists. I don’t think it’s going to subside.”

The nonprofit he launched has since been absorbed into a state Health and Human Services program.

Superior Express publisher Bill Blauvelt says the Hunters are a presence in that tiny community.

“Lew and Pam have been active on many fronts. When they take on a project it is a joint effort. You don’t get one with out the other. They have financially supported many community activities and encouraged programs.  Last summer they brought in a painter to work on their homes and then kept finding work so that he and his crew stayed the entire summer. They provided a house for the men to stay in.

“Their homes are always open. If we have important people coming to town and they need a place to stay, you can count on the Hunters to provide lodging. The colony program has brought lots of visitors to town, many of whom spend freely while here. And the colony has brought me friends.  Often I have been invited to attend their get acquainted picnics and late night parties.”

 

 

Desperate Lives Poster

 

Finding his niche as teacher and author

After If Tomorrow Comes and before Fallen Angel. Hunter began teaching at UCLA in 1979. From the start, he’s taught grad students.

“I love that. Undergraduates, they know too much – they haven’t been knocked around as the graduate students.”

He says teaching screenwriting while penning scripts himself proved fruitful.

“It was great. I’d be working on a script and I’d realize. ‘I can’t do this,” because I just told students they’re not supposed to have two people in a room agree with each other – one of my dictums.”

His classes became popular, especially 434. Each student starts with a synopsis and they’re guided step by step to create an outline, story points, and by the end of the class they have a first draft screenplay.

“Then somebody said, Why don’t you put your class on paper?’ I said, ‘That’s a good idea.'”

He says. “Other screenwriting books are ABOUT screenwriting but they don’t tell you HOW TO write a screenplay, they don’t give you the caveats you get on a professional level. Not only do I tell you how to write a screenplay I tell you how 80 to 90 percent of professionals write a screenplay.”

As more than one person in Once in a Lew Moon states, Hunter demystified the screenwriting process and made it accessible to everyone. Like the evangelist he is for screenwriting, he even spread the gospel doing workshops around the world in his aw-shucks style.

“From me, you don’t get this academic bullshit you get from other people who have only learned from a book or they’re failed screenwriters. They give misinformation. I would not have gone into professing had I not been successful. If you go to IMDB you’ll see it’s a pretty long list of stuff I’ve done – probably over a hundred hours of actually writing stuff and producing it. I’m really quite proud of that.”

Front Cover

 

He’s also proud he and his colleagues helped “professionalize” the screenwriting program at UCLA.

“We have more professionals professing.”

Since the program produces many grads who work in the industry, there’s a deep talent pool of writers who come back to teach. Their experience gives students is a taste for how things really work.

“We try to recreate what they’re going to face when they go out into the professional world with the meetings and note sessions before they actually write the screenplay and polish the screenplay.”

Soon into his teaching career he and a group of his students formed the Writers Block, a monthly social for writers. Newly divorced at the time, he offered to host it at his three-bedroom Burbank home.

This open house started small but grew like wildfire.

“The first one had about 20-25 people, then we got 40 and then 40 became 70 and 70 became…until eventually we got hundreds. People would come in and out over the evening. Professional writers dropped by because they liked the atmosphere. We socialized and bull-shitted.

I’ve always felt we writers socialize but we don’t party – it’s too frivolous. It was a wonderful thing.”

In the documentary, former students express gratitude for Hunter creating “a community” of writers. When Pamela entered Lew’s life she became part of the scene. Once Lew and Pamela adopt you, you not only have the keys to their heart but to their house, too.

The last Writers Block in ’99 was held off-site to accommodate the 1,000-plus attendees.

“We closed it down when we moved back to Nebraska,” he says. “Going back to the roots,” he calls that full circle relocation.

He and Pamela will be buried in the Guide Rock cemetery.

“We’ll be stacked,” he says. “The one that goes first will be on the bottom and the one after that will be on top. That’ll raise some gossip.”

 

Hunter, Senstock B & W

Lew and Lonnie Senstock

 

 

Once in a Lew Moon

The documentary about Lew is a passion project for director Lonnie Senstock, who regards the Hunters as surrogate parents.

“Well, he wanted to do something about me,” Lew recalls. “He came to the colony and shot a lot of footage. That was a decade ago. He’s been working on this sucker for 10 years. Very shortly on into the relationship he said, ‘I’d like you and Pamela to be my parents.’ His parents died within a ear of each other. We said sure and so he calls us papa and mama and we’re cool with that. He’s a really nice man.”

Senstock says the film could have gone a different direction when he and Lew experienced some difficulties in their lives. But, he adds, “I found myself celebrating something beautiful instead of something dark. I didn’t realize it was going to be that way until Lew and I talked about the celebration of writing. We realized it was bigger than him. We really wanted it to celebrate that life that so seldom is given kudos.”

Hunter appreciates that focus, “Everybody in it is talking about  screenwriting. I like that.” He likes, too, how it overturns the idea that    somehow actors and directors just make up movies as they go along.

“There are men and women who write these things.”

Meanwhile, this old lion of cinema, now battling illness, is readying his next book, Lew Hunter’s Naked Screewriting: 25 Academy Award-winning Screenwriters Bare their Art, Craft, Soul and Secrets.

Whatever’s happening with him, he still makes time for past-present students. He’s frequently sought out to consult on scripts and projects. He makes himself available 24-7.

“I’ve always thought being accessible was the right thing to do.”

Besides, he says, “I identify so much with people who are dreamers.”

Once in a Lew Moon screens Sunday, March 12 at 3:45 p.m. at Marcus Village Pointe Cinema in Omaha.

Follow Lew’s adventures at http://www.lewhunter.com.

 

 

 

TERENCE CRAWFORD STAMPS HIS PLACE AMONG OMAHA GREATS

February 24, 2016 2 comments

In a relatively short time I have developed a fairly significant body of work about one Terence “Bud” Crawford, the two-time world boxing champion from Omaha.  He and I share that city as hometown and residence.  Here is the latest piece I have written about this young man who has taken the prizefighting world by storm, single-handedly resurrected the sport in Omaha, and will be making his Madison Square Garden debut on Feb. 27 against Hank Lundy.  The piece appears online at http://reviveomahamagazine.com/.  You will be hard-pressed to find a more well-rounded picture of him than what I give you in the stories in the aggregate of stories I have written about him.  I have spent time in his Omaha gym, I have been to his grandmother’s house and I have met and interviewed most of his immediate family, I have gotten to know some of his closest advisors and primary coaches and trainers, I have traveled with him to Africa.  I have charted his rise through the sport from his youth to the elite professional standng he’s arrived at today.

You can read my collection of stories about him on this blog. Link to those stories at-

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/terence-crawford/

 

Terrance Crawford in stadium

TERENCE CRAWFORD STAMPS HIS PLACE AMONG OMAHA GREATS

©by Leo Adam Biga


Terence “Bud” Crawford, cemented his status as King of Omaha Sports Figures by dispatching Dierry Jean in a WBO super lightweight bout on October 24 before 11,000 hometown fans at the CenturyLink Center arena.

Crawford, who’s quickly become The People’s Champ, imposed his will on the game, but overmatched the contender from Canada. He dropped Jean three times and had him in serious trouble again when awarded a 10th round technical knockout. The Omaha native carried the fight from the opening bell, using superior boxing skills and decisive height and reach advantages to repeatedly back Jean against the ropes and in the corners, landing nearly at will when pressing the action. The few times Dierry managed an attack, Crawford countered with combination barrages that left the challenger bloodied and bruised.

The end was never in doubt because Crawford was never in trouble. It was just a matter of when Derry would go or when the referee would stop the scheduled 12-rounder.

Photos courtesy of Terence Crawford Management

The event marked another coronation for Crawford, who has gone from a hungry kid just looking for a shot, to a mature champion on the cusp of being one of his sport’s highest paid big names. Along the way he’s captured the hearts and minds of a city he is proud to call his own. From the moment this local hero entered the arena amidst entourage members holding aloft his two title belts, the fighter exuded the confidence and star quality associated with sports icons.In the days before the fight Jean and his manager called out Crawford, vowing to take his lightweight belt to Canada. When Jean trash talked during the bout, Crawford first let his fists do the talking before variously chirping back. Stomping the canvas and smiling at the crowd as if to say, “I’ve got this” and “He’s mine.”

During the HBO interview just after the fight’s conclusion Crawford taunted Jean and his manager in the ring with, “Did you get what you were looking for?” The crowd erupted in cheers. He also got a big response when he answered commentator Max Kellerman’s question about the source of his fierce fighting nature with, “Where I’m from…” and gestured to friends and family who share the same neighborhood he does. He also expressed love for all the support Omaha gives him. The way he handled everything, from the crowd, to the media, to Jean, and still took care of business showed a professional athlete with real poise and presence. The more the spotlight shines on him, the more the boxing world discovers he’s also a humanitarian with a deep commitment to his community.

At the post-fight press conference, where WBO head Bob Arum sat next to him and all but crowned him the fight organization’s next superstar, Crawford was the calm, confident picture of Boxing’s Next Big Thing. Crawford’s already the toast of this town.

Now he’s the toast of New York City, where he’s fighting challenger Hammerin Hank Lundy Feb. 27 at fabled Madison Square Garden. In the Big Apple for a press conference announcing the fight, Crawford was afforded star treatment. He got more of the same attending a Knicks game at the Garden, where he was pictured with the likes of Spike Lee, Ice Cube, Floyd Mayweather and Carmelo Anthony. It turns out those celebrities are fans and followers of The Champ.

Omaha’s African-American community has produced high achievers in many fields, but none more than in sports.

A small sampling of black athletic greats from Omaha include:

Eugene Skinner, Charles Bryant, Marion Hudson, Bob Boozer, Bob Gibson, Roger Sayers, Gale Sayers, Don Benning, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers, Mike McGee, Larry Station, Maurtice Ivy, Jessica Haynes, Andre Woolridge, Ahman Green, Peaches James, Ashley Carter, RaVaughn Perkins, Mayme Conroy, Niles Paul.

The list goes on and on.

Photos courtesy of Terence Crawford Management

An undisputed new entry to the list of great athletes from Omaha is Crawford. The North Omaha native is enjoying a ride few in sport or any endeavor ever experience. In less than two years he’s gone from being just another challenger, to the man nobody wants to face. Along the way singlehandedly reviving the city’s long dormant boxing scene.Everywhere he fights, he represents by wearing trunks emblazoned with Omaha and caps bearing University of Nebraska emblems.

The unbeaten fighter’s dramatic ascent began with him taking the WBO lightweight title from reigning champ Ricky Burns in Scotland.

Crawford then twice successfully defended that belt in his hometown before mega CenturyLink crowds, scoring a 9th round technical knockout against Yuriokis Gamboa and then tallying a unanimous 12-round decision over Raymundo Beltran.

Those three signature wins in 2014, all carried by HBO earned him the Fighter of the Year recognition from the Boxing Writers of America.

Crawford then went to Texas last April to capture the vacant WBO junior welterweight title by dismantling Thomas Dulorme via 6th round TKO. His dominance over Dierry back in Omaha this past fall was the latest in a string of convincing wins for the unbeaten (27-0) fighter.

It’s all in a day’s work for Crawford.

“I’ve always been confident,” he says. “I’ve never doubted myself.”

Not since Bob Gibson carried the St. Louis Cardinals in three World Series in the 1960s has a Neb.-born athlete dominated a sport in so many high-stakes settings.

Crawford’s work landed him on the cover of Ring Magazine and reinforced TopRank’s grooming of him to be prizefighting’s next king.

In addition to the BWA and Ring honors, he’s been:

  • Inducted into the Omaha Sports Hall of Fame
  • Inducted into the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame
  • Added to the Omaha Press Club’s Face on the Barroom Floor roster
  • Immortalized in a mobile mural by artist Aaryon Lau Rance Williams
  • Nominated for an Espy as Fighter of the Year

That’s a heady rush of fame and adulation for a 28-year-old, yet he’s taken it all in stride. His cool-under-pressure comes from childhood, when he first dreamed of being a champion. He got steeled early on by countless scrapes and school suspensions, He often sparred guys older and bigger than him. He never gave in. He never gave up.

“I was one of those kids they said was never going to make it – I used that as an opportunity to prove them wrong.”

A wakeup call that nearly cost him his life happened just as his pro career was taking off when he caught a bullet in the back of his head after “hanging with the wrong crowd.” Since that 2008 incident he’s rededicated himself, staying away from bad elements and throwing himself into a grueling training regimen. His renowned mental and physical toughness, plus his well-studied approach, has thus far made him an unstoppable force in the ring.

Until Crawford, Omaha hadn’t seen a pro title fight since Ron Stander fought Joe Frazier in 1972. Thanks to Crawford, Omaha’s now hosted three in short order. He once again brought the focus of the fight world back home when he scored that TKO over Dierry Jean in October.

Crawford’s best performances and biggest paydays may yet be ahead, including possibly facing legend Manny Pacquiao in 2016.

Through it all, Crawford’s hometown rootedness remains strong. His community giveback saw him and co-manager Brian “BoMac” McIntyre open his own gym, the B&B Boxing Academy, in his old neighborhood. He sees the gym as a refuge for youth and young adults to escape the streets and engage in positive, supervised activities. It’s the same mission Carl Washington’s CW Boxing Club served for Crawford when he was growing up.

“I look at it as an outlet for the kids that are just hardcore and mad at the world because of their circumstances,” Crawford says. “They come to this gym and they feel loved and they feel a part of something. For some kids, feeling a part of something changes them around.

“It’s not just all about boxing. We’re trying to teach kids how to be young women and young men – to have respect and dignity. We’re teaching life skills. Boxing is a great way for kids to learn discipline.”

He knows from experience the difference caring adults make.

Photos courtesy of Terence Crawford Management

“If they feel like nobody cares, than they’re not going to care, but if they feel one person cares than they tend to listen to that person.”Among those to take an interest in him was boxing coach Midge Minor. He’s been with the fighter all through the amateur ranks and up the pro ladder and is still a vital Team Crawford member today.

“He’s got the wisdom,” Crawford says. “Every fight, he tells me what he thinks I should do, and we go from there. Midge is the brain. Everything goes through Midge before it’s all said and done. Without the brain we can’t do nothing. So it’s very important Midge is there.”

He says Minor saw his potential and convinced him he was special.

“Midge always instilled in me ‘can’t nobody beat you,’ especially if you work hard and put your heart into your training. The fight’s the easy part. Preparing for it, that’s the hard part.”

Crawford’s surrounded by figures influenced by Minor.

“Every person I turn to in my corner that’s giving me instructions came up under Midge,” he says.

The fighter’s allegiance to Omaha extends to his crew.

“Midge always told my manager, ‘Don’t let nobody get a hold of him.’ A lot of people were coming at me with deals, wanting me to move out of town, trying to get me to fight for them and sign with them, telling me I can’t make it from Omaha. They said I need new corner men – that they took me as far as they could.

“But I’m loyal and I think that’s what a lot of people didn’t understand. My coaches have faith in me and they trust I’m not going to do nothing to jeopardize our relationship. And I trust them and have faith in them.”

Some public school teachers have been instrumental in his life as well, including Jamie Fox Nollette, who taught him in fourth grade at Skinner Magnet School. The pair forged a bond then, but they lost touch with each other in the ensuing years. They only reconnected 2 years ago and in short order he was traveling with her to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa, where her Pipeline Worldwide nonprofit supports sustainability, self-sufficiency and empowerment programs for vulnerable populations.

He went with her again in June. They visited humanitarian organizations and met the people running programs and receiving services. They visited places benefiting from clean water wells and other places in need of resources. They ventured into crowded urban slums and small rural villages. They went on safari. They danced with locals. They shopped at outdoor markets.

Crawford and Nollette went every step of the way together. He helps raise awareness for her organization’s work and she helps do the same for his gym. She’s leading a $1.2 million building campaign to renovate and expand his B&B gym at 3034 Sprague Street.

The fighter and his former teacher have something special together.

“It’s a very close relationship,” he says. “She treats me like a son.”

“Terence is really family to me. He’s like this second son I feel responsibility for looking after,” Nollette confirms. “At the end of the day I care about him and what happens to him and his future. I just want to be there for him.”

Their friendship is largely why he’s twice gone to these developing nations wracked by poverty and the aftermath of violence. His girlfriend and the mother of his children, Alindra “Esha” Person, accompanied him the second journey.

He says “seeing the Motherland” always appealed to him and Nollette afforded the chance to show him things he might otherwise not see.

“You know you only live once and certain opportunities don’t come every day, so I just saw this as an opportunity to get out and see something new.”

Experiencing Third World conditions, he says, “just made me appreciate things more – it kind of humbled me in a way to where I don’t want to take anything for granted. Their way of living and our way of living is totally different. They appreciate everything that comes upon them, even if it’s just a hug, even if it’s a handshake, even if you give them a piece of paper.”

He returned a different man each time.

“It’s life-changing when you get to go over there and see people and help people. I had a great time with great people. I experienced some great things.”

Just like he wants to assist Uganda and Rwanda, he’s committed to North Omaha.

“This is my community, B & B is my gym, so I am in it for the long haul.
I could be anywhere, but my heart is with Omaha. We just want to help as many kids as we can. Everything is for the kids.”

The same message he delivered to African boxers, he delivers here:

“Work hard, stay dedicated, give your all every time you go in there and who knows maybe you can be the next champion of the world.”

Just as he will “never forget” the people in Africa, he will never forget the people in his hometown.

 

Family of creatives: Rudy Smith, Llana Smith, Q (Quiana) Smith

February 23, 2016 1 comment

Family of creatives: Rudy Smith,  Llana Smith,  Q (Quiana) Smith

©by Leo Adam Biga

Creativity can certainly run in families and one of the most blessed and beloved Omaha families I know of in this regard is the Rudy and Llana Smith family. He’s a photographer. She’s a playwright. One of their adult children, Q (Quiana) Smith, is an actress. Here is a collection of stories I’ve done about them individually over the years.

Rudy Smith

Rudy Smith’s own life is as compelling as any story he ever covered as a photojournalist. Both as a photographer and as a citizen, he was caught up in momentous societal events in the 1960s.  This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) examines some of the things he trained his eye and applied his intellect and gave his heart to — incidents and movements whose profound effects are still felt today.  Rudy’s now retired, which only means he now has more time to work on a multitude of personal projects, including a book collaboration with his daughter Quiana, and to spend with his wife, Llana.  This blog contains stories I did on Quiana and Llana.  I have a feeling I will be writing about Rudy again before too long.

 

Hidden in plain view, Rudy Smith’s camera and memory fix on critical time in struggle for equality

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

It was another August night in the newsroom when word came of a riot breaking out on Omaha’s near northside. If the report were true, it meant for the second time that summer of 1966 minority discontent was turning violent. Rudy Smith was the young Omaha World-Herald photojournalist who caught the story. His job at the newspaper was paying his way through then-Omaha University, where the Central High grad was an NAACP Youth Council and UNO student senate activist. Only three years before, he became the first black to join the Herald’s editorial staff. As a native north Omahan dedicated to his people’s struggle, Smith brought instant credibility to his assignments in the black community. In line with the paper’s unsympathetic civil rights stance at the time, he was often the only photographer sent to the near northside.

“And in many cases my colleagues didn’t want to go. They were fearful of the minority community, and so as a result I covered it. They would just send me,” said Smith, a mellow man whose soft voice disguises a fierce conviction. “As a result, the minority community that never had access to the World-Herald before began to gain access. More stories began to be written and more of the issues concerning north Omaha began to be reported, and from a more accurate perspective.”

It was all part of his efforts “to break down the barriers and the stereotypes.”

Archie Godfrey led the local NAACP Youth Council then. He said Smith’s media savvy made him “our underground railroad” and “bridge” to the system and the general public. “Without his leadership and guidance, we wouldn’t of had a ghost of an understanding of the ins and outs of how the media responds to struggles like ours,” said Godfrey, adding that Smith helped the group craft messages and organize protests for maximum coverage.

More than that, he said, Smith was sought out by fellow journalists for briefings on the state of black Omaha. “A lot of times, they didn’t understand the issues. And when splinter groups started appearing that had their own agendas and axes to grind, it became confusing. Reporters came to Rudy to sound him out and to get clarification. Rudy was familiar with the players. He informed people as to what was real and what was not. He didn’t play favorites. But he also never hid behind that journalistic neutrality. He was right out front. He had the pictures, too. This city will probably never know the balancing act he played in that.”

As a journalist and community catalyst, Smith has straddled two worlds. In one, he’s the objective observer from the mainstream press. In the other, he’s a black man committed to seeing his community’s needs are served. Somehow, he makes both roles work without being a sell out to either cause.

“My integrity has never been an issue,” he said. “As much as I’d like to be involved in the community, I can’t be, because sometimes there are things I have to report on and I don’t want to compromise my professionalism. My life is kind of hidden in plain view. I monitor what’s going on and I let my camera capture the significant things that go on — for a purpose. Those images are stored so that in the next year or two I can put them in book form. Because there are generations coming after me that will never know what really happened, how things changed and who was involved in changing the landscape of Omaha. I want them to have some kind of document that still lives and that they can point to with pride.”

For the deeply religious Smith, nothing’s more important than using “my God-given talents in service of humanity. I look at my life as one of an artist. An artist with a purpose and a mission. I’m driven. I’m working as a journalist on an unfinished masterpiece. My life is my canvas. And the people and the events I experience are the things that go onto my canvas. There is a lot of unfinished business still to be pursued in terms of diversity and opportunity. To me, my greatest contributions have yet to be made. It’s an ongoing process.”

The night of the riot, Smith didn’t know what awaited him, only that his own community was in trouble. He drove to The Hood, leaving behind the burnt orange hard hat a colleague gave him back at the office.

“I knew the area real well. I parked near 20th and Grace Streets and I walked through the alleys and back yards to 24th Street, and then back to 23rd.”

Most of the fires were concentrated on 24th. A restaurant, shoe shine parlor and clothing store were among the casualties. Then he came upon a church on fire. It was Paradise Baptist, where he attended as a kid.

“I cussed, repeating over and over, ‘My church, my church, my church,’ and I started taking pictures. Then I heard — ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ — and there were these two national guardsmen pointing their guns at me. ‘I’m with the World-Herald,’ I said. I kept snapping away. Then, totally disregarding what I said, they told me, ‘Come over here.’ This one said to the other, ‘Let’s shoot this nigger,’ and went to me, ‘C’mon,’ and put the nuzzle of his rifle to the back of my head and pushed me around to the back of the building. As we went around there, I heard that same one say, ‘There ain’t nobody back here. Let’s off him, he’s got no business being here anyway.’ I was scared and looking around for help.

That’s when I saw a National Guard officer, the mayor and some others about a half-block away. I called out, ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!’ ‘Who is it?’ ‘Rudy Smith, World-Herald.’ ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ ‘I’m taking pictures and these two guys are going to shoot me.’ The officer said, ‘C’mon over here.’ ‘Well, they aren’t going to let me.’ ‘Come here.’ So, I went…those two guys still behind me. I told the man again who I was and what I was doing, and he goes, ‘Well, you have no damn business being here. You know you could have been killed? You gotta get out of here.’ And I did. But I got a picture of the guardsmen standing in front of that burning church, silhouetted by the fire, their guns on their shoulders. The Herald printed it the next day.”

Seeing his community go up in flames, Smith said, “was devastating.” The riots precipitated the near northside’s decline. Over the years, he’s chronicled the fall of his community. In the riots’ aftermath, many merchants and residents left, with only a shell of the community remaining. Just as damaging was the later North Freeway construction that razed hundreds of homes and uprooted as many families. In on-camera comments for the UNO Television documentary Omaha Since World War II, Smith said, “How do you prepare for an Interstate system to come through and divide a community that for 60-70 years was cohesive? It was kind of like a big rupture or eruption that just destroyed the landscape.” He said in the aftermath of so much destruction, people “didn’t see hope alive in Omaha.”

Today, Smith is a veteran, much-honored photojournalist who does see a bright future for his community. “I’m beginning to see a revival and resurgence in north Omaha, and that’s encouraging. It may not come to fruition in my lifetime, but I’m beginning to see seeds being planted in the form of ideas, directions and new leaders that will eventually lead to the revitalization of north Omaha,” he said.

 

 

 

 

His optimism is based, in part, on redevelopment along North 24th. There are streetscape improvements underway, the soon-to-open Loves Jazz and Cultural Arts Center, a newly completed jazz park, a family life center under construction and a commercial strip mall going up. Then there’s the evolving riverfront and Creighton University expansion just to the south. Now that there’s momentum building, he said it’s vital north Omaha directly benefit from the progress. Too often, he feels that historically disenfranchised north Omaha is treated as an isolated district whose problems and needs are its own. The reality is that many cross-currents of commerce and interest flow between the near northside and wider (read: whiter) Omaha. Inner city residents work and shop outside the community just as residents from other parts of the city work in North O or own land and businesses there.

“What happens in north Omaha affects the entire city,” Smith said. “When you come down to it, it’s about economics. The north side is a vital player in the vitality and the health of the city, particularly downtown. If downtown is going to be healthy, you’ve got to have a healthy surrounding community. So, everybody has a vested interest in the well-being of north Omaha.”

It’s a community he has deep ties to. His involvement is multi-layered, ranging from the images he makes to the good works he does to the assorted projects he takes on. All of it, he said, is “an extension of my faith.” He and his wife of 37 years, Llana, have three grown children who, like their parents, have been immersed in activities at their place of worship, Salem Baptist Church. Church is just one avenue Smith uses to strengthen and celebrate his community and his people.

With friend Edgar Hicks he co-founded the minority investment club, Mite Multipliers. With Great Plains Black Museum founder Bertha Calloway and Smithsonian Institute historian Alonzo Smith he collaborated on the 1999 book, Visions of Freedom on the Great Plains: An Illustrated History of African Americans in Nebraska. Last summer, he helped bring a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum exhibit to the Western Heritage Museum. Then there’s the book of his own photos and commentary he’s preparing. He’s also planning a book with his New York theater actress daughter, Quiana, that will essay in words and images the stories of the American theater’s black divas. And then there’s the petition drive he’s heading to get Marlin Briscoe inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame.

Putting others first is a Smith trait. The second oldest of eight siblings, he helped provide for and raise his younger brothers and sisters. His father abandoned the family after he was conceived. Smith was born in Philadelphia and his mother moved the family west to Omaha, where her sister lived. His mother remarried. She was a domestic for well-to-do whites and a teenaged Rudy a servant for black Omaha physician W.W. Solomon. Times were hard. The Smiths lived in such squalor that Rudy called their early residence “a Southern-style shotgun house” whose holes they “stuffed with rags, papers, and socks. That’s what we call caulking today,” he joked. When, at 16, his step-father died in a construction accident, Rudy’s mother came to him and said, “‘You’re going to take over as head of the family.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ To me, it was just something that had to be done.”

Smith’s old friend from the The Movement, Archie Godfrey, recalled Rudy as “mature beyond his years. He had more responsibilities than the rest of us had and  still took time to be involved. He’s like a rock. He’s just been consistent like that.”

“I think my hardships growing up prepared me for what I had to endure and for decisions I had to make,” Smith said. “I was always thrust into situations where somebody had to step up to the front…and I’ve never been afraid to do that.”

When issues arise, Smith’s approach is considered, not rash, and reflect an ideology influenced by the passive resistance philosophies and strategies of such diverse figures as Machiavelli, Gandhi and King as well as the more righteous fervor of Malcolm X. Smith said a publication that sprang from the black power movement, The Black Scholar, inspired he and fellow UNO student activists to agitate for change. Smith introduced legislation to create UNO’s black studies department, whose current chair, Robert Chrisman, is the Scholar’s founder and editor. Smith also campaigned for UNO’s merger with the University of Nebraska system. More recently, he advocated for change as a member of the Nebraska Affirmative Action Advisory Committee, which oversees state departmental compliance with federal mandates for enhanced hiring, promotion and retention of minorities and women.

The camera, though, remains his most expressive tool. Whether it’s a downtown demonstration brimming with indignation or the haunted face of an indigent man or an old woman working a field or Robert Kennedy stumping in North O, his images capture poignant truth. “For some reason, I always knew whatever I shot was for historical purposes,” he said. “When it’s history, that moment will never be revisited again. Words can describe it, but images live on forever. Just like freedom marches on.”

__________________________________________________________________

Rudy Smith was a lot of places where breaking news happened.  That was his job as an Omaha World-Herald photojournalist.  Early in his career he was there when riots broke out on the Near Northside, the largely African-American community he came from and lived in.  He was there too when any number of civil rights events and figures came through town.  Smith himself was active in social justice causes as a young man and sometimes the very events he covered he had an intimate connection with in his private life.  The following story keys off an exhibition of his work from a few years ago that featured his civil rights-social protest photography from the 1960s. You’ll find more stories about Rudy, his wife Llana, and their daughter Quiana on this blog.

 

20131227_bs_9063-Edit
Rudy Smith, ©photo by Bill Sitzman, Omaha Magazine

Brief history of Omaha’s civil rights struggle distilled in black and white by photographer Rudy Smith

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Coursing down North 24th Street in his car one recent afternoon, Rudy Smith retraced the path of the 1969 summer riots that erupted on Omaha’s near northside. Smith was a young Omaha World-Herald photographer then.

The disturbance he was sent to cover was a reaction to pent up discontent among black residents. Earlier riots, in 1966 and 1968, set the stage. The flash point for the 1969 unrest was the fatal shooting of teenager Vivian Strong by Omaha police officer James Loder in the Logan Fontenelle Housing projects. As word of the incident spread, a crowd gathered and mob violence broke out.

Windows were broken and fires set in dozens of commercial buildings on and off Omaha’s 24th Street strip. The riot leapfrogged east to west, from 23rd to 24th Streets, and south to north, from Clark to Lake. Looting followed. Officials declared a state of martial law. Nebraska National Guardsmen were called in to help restore order. Some structures suffered minor damage but others went up entirely in flames, leaving only gutted shells whose charred remains smoldered for days.

Smith arrived at the scene of the breaking story with more than the usual journalistic curiosity. The politically aware African-American grew up in the black area ablaze around him. As an NAACP Youth and College Chapter leader, he’d toured the devastation of Watts, trained in nonviolent resistance and advocated for the formation of a black studies program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he was a student activist. But this was different. This was home.

On the night of July 1 he found his community under siege by some of its own. The places torched belonged to people he knew. At the corner of 23rd and Clark he came upon a fire consuming the wood frame St. Paul Baptist Church, once the site of Paradise Baptist, where he’d worshiped. As he snapped pics with his Nikon 35 millimeter camera, a pair of white National Guard troops spotted him, rifles drawn. In the unfolding chaos, he said, the troopers discussed offing him and began to escort him at gun point to around the back before others intervened.

Just as he was “transformed” by the wreckage of Watts, his eyes were “opened” by the crucible of witnessing his beloved neighborhood going up in flames and then coming close to his own demise. Aspects of his maturation, disillusionment and  spirituality are evident in his work. A photo depicts the illuminated church inferno in the background as firemen and guardsmen stand silhouetted in the foreground.

The stark black and white ultrachrome prints Smith made of this and other burning moments from Omaha’s civil rights struggle are displayed in the exhibition Freedom Journeynow through December 23 at Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2512 North 24th Street. His photos of the incendiary riots and their bleak aftermath, of large marches and rallies, of vigilant Black Panthers, a fiery Ernie Chambers and a vibrant Robert F. Kennedy depict the city’s bumpy, still unfinished road to equality.

The Smith image promoting the exhibit is of a 1968 march down the center of North 24th. Omaha Star publisher and civil rights champion Mildred Brown is in the well-dressed contingent whose demeanor bears funereal solemnity and proud defiance. A man at the head of the procession holds aloft an American flag. For Smith, an image such as this one “portrays possibilities” in the “great solidarity among young, old, white, black, clergy, lay people, radicals and moderates” who marched as one,” he said. “They all represented Omaha or what potentially could be really good about Omaha. When I look at that I think, Why couldn’t the city of Omaha be like a march? All races, creeds, socioeconomic backgrounds together going in one direction for a common cause. I see all that in the picture.”

Images from the OWH archives and other sources reveal snatches of Omaha’s early civil rights experience, including actions by the Ministerial Alliance, Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties, De Porres Club, NAACP and Urban League. Polaroids by Pat Brown capture Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his only visit to Omaha, in 1958, for a conference. He’s seen relaxing at the Omaha home of Ed and Bertha Moore. Already a national figure as organizer of the Birmingham (Ala.) bus boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he’s the image of an ambitious young man with much ahead of him. Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Jr. joined him. Ten years later Smith photographed Robert F. Kennedy stumping for the 1968 Democratic presidential bid amid an adoring crowd at 24th and Erskine. Two weeks later RFK was shot and killed, joining MLK as a martyr for The Cause.

Omaha’s civil rights history is explored side by side with the nation’s in words and images that recreate the panels adorning the MLK Bridge on Omaha’s downtown riverfront. The exhibit is a powerful account of how Omaha was connected to and shaped by this Freedom Journey. How the demonstrations and sit-ins down south had their parallel here. So, too, the riots in places like Watts and Detroit.

Acts of arson and vandalism raged over four nights in Omaha the summer of ‘69. The monetary damage was high. The loss of hope higher. Glimpses of the fall out are seen in Smith’s images of damaged buildings like Ideal Hardware and Carter’s Cafe. On his recent drive-thru the riot’s path, he recited a long list of casualties — cleaners, grocery stores, gas stations, et cetera — on either side of 24th. Among the few unscathed spots was the Omaha Star, where Brown had a trio of Panthers, including David Poindexter, stand guard outside. Smith made a portrait of them in their berets, one, Eddie Bolden, cradling a rifle, a band of ammunition slung across his chest. “They served a valuable community service that night,” he said.

Most owners, black and white, never reopened there. Their handsome brick buildings had been home to businesses for decades. Their destruction left a physical and spiritual void. “It just kind of took the heart out of the community,” Smith said. “Nobody was going to come back here. I heard young people say so many times, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here.’ Many went away to college and never came back. That brain drain hurt. It took a toll on me watching that.”

Boarded-up ruins became a common site for blocks. For years, they stood as sad reminders of what had been lost. Only in the last decade did the city raze the last of these, often leaving only vacant lots and harsh memories in their place. “Some buildings stood like sentinels for years showing the devastation,” Smith said.

His portrait of Ernie Chambers shows an engaged leader who, in the post-riot wake, addresses a crowd begging to know, as Smith said, “Where do we go from here?’

Smith’s photos chart a community still searching for answers four decades later and provide a narrative for its scarred landscape. For him, documenting this history is all about answering questions about “the history of north Omaha and what really happened here. What was on these empty lots? Why are there no buildings there today? Who occupied them?” Minus this context, he said, “it’d be almost as if your history was whitewashed. If we’re left without our history, we perish and we’re doomed to repeat” past ills. “Those images challenge us. That was my whole purpose for shooting them…to challenge people, educate people so their history won’t be forgotten. I want these images to live beyond me to tell their own story, so that some day young people can be proud of what they see good out here because they know from whence it came.”

An in-progress oral history component of the exhibit will include Smith’s personal accounts of the civil rights struggle.

__________________________________________________________________

Llana Smith

Choir Boy

 

About a decade ago I became reacquainted with a former University of Nebraska at Omaha adjunct professor of photography, Rudy Smith, who was an award-winning photojournalist with the Omaha World-Herald.  I was an abject failure as a photography student, but I have managed to fare somewhat better as a freelance writer-reporter.  When I began covering aspects of Omaha‘s African-American community with some consistency, Rudy was someone I reached out to as a source and guide.  We became friends along the way.  I still call on him from time to time to offer me perspective and leads.  I’ve gotten to know a bit of Rudy’s personal story, which includes coming out of poverty and making a life and career for himself as the first African-American employed in the Omaha World-Herald newsroom and agitating for social change on the UNO campus and in greater Omaha.

I have also come to know some members of his immediate family, including his wife Llana and their musical theater daughter Quiana or Q as she goes by professionally.  Llana is a sweet woman who has her own story of survival and strength.  She and and Rudy are devout Christians active in their church, Salem Baptist, where Llana continues a family legacy of writing-directing gospel dramas. She’s lately taken her craft outside Omaha as well.  I have tried getting this story published in print publications to no avail.  With no further adieu then, this is Llana’s story:

Gospel playwright Llana Smith enjoys her Big Mama’s time

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

When the spirit moves Llana Smith to write one of her gospel plays, she’s convinced she’s an instrument of the Lord in the burst of creative expression that follows. It’s her hand holding the pen and writing the words on a yellow note pad alright, but she believes a Higher Power guides her.

“I look at it as a gift. It’s not something I can just do. I’ve got to pray about it and kind of see where the Lord is leading me and then I can write,” said the former Llana Jones. “I’ll start writing and things just come. Without really praying about it I can write the messiest play you ever want to see.”

She said she can only be a vessel if she opens herself up “to be used.” It’s why she makes a distinction between an inspired gift and an innate talent. Her work, increasingly performed around the nation, is part of a legacy of faith and art that began with her late mother Pauline Beverly Jones Smith and that now extends to her daughter Quiana Smith.

The family’s long been a fixture at Salem Baptist Church in north Omaha. Pauline led the drama ministry program — writing-directing dramatic interpretations — before Llana succeeded her in the 1980s. For a time, their roles overlapped, with mom handling the adult drama programs and Llana the youth programs.

“My mother really was the one who started all this out,” Smith said. “She was gifted to do what she did and some of what she did she passed on to me.”

Married to photojournalist Rudy Smith, Llana and her mate’s three children grew up at Salem and she enlisted each to perform orations, sketches and songs. The youngest, Quiana, blossomed into a star vocalist/actress. She appeared on Broadway in a revival of Les Miserables. In 2004 Llana recruited Quiana, already a New York stage veteran by then, to take a featured role in an Easter production of her The Crucifixion: Through the Eyes of a Cross Maker at Salem.

Three generations of women expressing their faith. From one to the next to the other each has passed this gift on to her successor and grown it a bit more.

Pauline recognized it in Llana, who recalled her mother once remarked, “How do you come up with all this stuff? I could never have done that.” To which Llana replied, ‘Well, Mom, it just comes, it’s just a gift. You got it.” Pauline corrected her with, “No, I don’t have it like that. You really have the gift.”

“Them were some of the most important words she ever said to me,” Smith said.

Miss Pauline saw the calling in her granddaughter, too. “My mother would always say, ‘Quiana’s going to be the one to take this further — to take this higher.’ Well, sure enough, she has,” Smith said. “Quiana can write, she can direct, she can act and she can SING. She’s taken it all the way to New York. From my mother’s foundation all the way to what Quiana’s doing, it has just expanded to where we never could have imagined. It just went right on down the line.”

Whether writing a drama extracted from the gospels or lifted right from the streets, Smith is well-versed in the material and the territory. The conflict and redemption of gospel plays resonate with her own experience — from her chaotic childhood to the recent home invasion her family suffered.

Born in a Milford, Neb. home for young unwed mothers, Smith knew all about instability and poverty growing up in North O with her largely absentee, unemployed, single mom. Smith said years later Pauline admitted she wasn’t ready to be a mother then. For a long time Smith carried “a real resentment” about her childhood being stolen away. For example, she cared for her younger siblings while Pauline was off “running the streets.” “I did most of the cooking and cleaning and stuff,” Smith said. With so much on her shoulders she fared poorly in school.

She witnessed and endured physical abuse at the hands of her alcoholic step-father and discovered the man she thought was her daddy wasn’t at all. When her biological father entered her life she found out a school bully was actually her half-sister and a best friend was really her cousin.

It was only when the teenaged Llana married Rudy her mother did a “turnabout” and settled down, marrying a man with children she raised as her own. “She did a good job raising those kids. She became the church clerk. She was very well respected,” said Smith, who forgave her mother despite the abandonment she felt. “She ended up being my best friend. Nobody could have told me that.”

 

 

Until then, however, the only security Smith could count on was when her Aunt Annie and Uncle Bill gave her refuge or when she was at church. She’s sure what kept her from dropping out of school or getting hooked on drugs or turning tricks  — some of the very things that befell classmates of hers — was her faith.

“Oh, definitely, no question about it, I  could have went either way if it hadn’t really been for church.” she said. “It was the one basic foundation we had.”

In Rudy, she found a fellow believer. A few years older, he came from similar straits.

“I was poor and he was poor-poor,” she said. “We both knew we wanted more than what we had. We wanted out of this. We didn’t want it for our kids. To me, it was survival. I had to survive because I was looking at my sister and my brother and if they don’t have me well, then, sometimes they wouldn’t have nobody. I had to make it through. I never had any thought of giving up. I did wonder, Why me? But running away and leaving them, it never crossed my mind. We had to survive.”

Her personal journey gives her a real connection to the hard times and plaintive hopes that permeate black music and drama. She’s lived it. It’s why she feels a deep kinship with the black church and its tradition of using music and drama ministry to guide troubled souls from despair to joy.

Hilltop is a play she wrote about the driveby shootings and illicit drug activities plaguing the Hilltop-Pleasantview public housing project in Omaha. The drama looks at the real-life transformation some gangbangers made to leave it all behind.

Gospel plays use well-worn conventions, characters and situations to enact Biblical stories, to portray moments/figures in history or to examine modern social ills. Themes are interpreted through the prism of the black experience and the black church, lending the dramas an earthy yet moralistic tone. Even the more secular, contemporary allegories carry a scripturally-drawn message.

Not unlike an August Wilson play, you’ll find the hustler, the pimp, the addict, the loan shark, the Gs, the barber, the beauty salon operator, the mortician, the minister, the do-gooder, the gossip, the busy-body, the player, the slut, the gay guy, et cetera. Iconic settings are also popular. Smith’s Big Momma’s Prayer opens at a church, her These Walls Must Come Down switches between a beauty shop and a detail shop and her Against All Odds We Made It jumps back and forth from a nail shop to a hoops court.

The drama, typically infused with healthy doses of comedy, music, singing and dancing, revolves around the poor choices people make out of sheer willfulness. A breakup, an extramarital affair, a bad business investment, a drug habit or a resentment sets events in motion. There’s almost always a prodigal son or daughter that’s drifted away and become alienated from the family.

The wayward characters led astray come back into the fold of family and church only after some crucible. The end is almost always a celebration of their return, their atonement, their rebirth. It is affirmation raised to high praise and worship.

At the center of it all is the ubiquitous Big Mama figure who exists in many black families. This matriarch is the rock holding the entire works together.

“She’s just so real to a lot of us,” Smith said.

Aunt Annie was the Big Mama in Smith’s early life before her mother was finally ready to assume that role. Smith’s inherited the crown now.

If it all sounds familiar then it’s probably due to Tyler Perry, the actor-writer-director responsible for introducing Big Mama or Madea to white America through his popular plays and movies. His big screen successes are really just more sophisticated, secularized versions of the gospel plays that first made him a star. Where his plays originally found huge, albeit mostly black, audiences, his movies have found broad mainstream acceptance.

Madea is Perry’s signature character.

“When Madea talks she be talking stuff everybody can relate to,” Smith said. “Stuff that’s going on. Every day stuff. We can relate to any and everything she be saying. That character’s a trip. It’s the truth. One of my mother’s best friends was just like Madea. She smoked that cigarette, she talked from the corner of her mouth, she could cuss you out at the drop of a hat and she packed her knife in her bosom.”

Smith appreciates Perry’s groundbreaking work. “That is my idol…my icon. At the top of my list is to meet this man and to thank him for what he’s done,” she said. She also likes the fact “he attributes a lot of what he does to the Lord.”

Her own work shows gospel plays’ ever widening reach — with dramas produced at churches and at the Rose and Orpheum Theatres. She first made her mark with Black History Month presentations at Salem with actors portraying such figures as Medgar Evers, Harriet Tubman and Marian Anderson. Her mom once played Jean Pittman. A son played Martin Luther King Jr. She enjoys “bringing history to life.”

Her Easter-Christmas dramas grew ever grander. Much of that time she collaborated with Salem’s then-Minister of Music, Jay Terrell, and dance director, Shirley Terrell-Jordan. Smith’s recently stepped back from Salem to create plays outside Nebraska. That’s something not even her mother did, although Pauline’s Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God did tour the Midwest and South.

At the urging of Terrell, a Gospel Workshop of America presenter and gospel music composer now at Beulahland Bible Church in Macon, Ga., Smith’s taking her gift “outside the walls of the church.” In 2005 her Big Momma’s Prayer was scored and directed by Terrell for a production at a Macon dinner theater. The drama played to packed houses. A couple years later he provided the music for her These Walls, which Smith directed to overflow audiences at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Wichita, Kansas. In 2008 her Against All Odds was a hit at Oakridge Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan., where she, Terrell-Jordan and Jay Terrell worked with some 175 teens in dance-music-drama workshops.

Against All Odds took on new meaning for Smith when she wrote and staged the drama in the aftermath of a home invasion in which an intruder bound and gagged her, Rudy and a foster-daughter. Rudy suffered a concussion. A suspect in the incident was recently arrested and brought up on charges.

Smith’s work with Terrell is another way she continues the path her mother began. Doretha Wade was Salem’s music director when Pauline did her drama thing there. The two women collaborated on Your Arms Are Too ShortThere’s a Stranger in Town and many other pieces. Wade brought the Salem Inspirational Choir its greatest triumph when she and gospel music legend Rev. James Cleveland directed the choir in recording the Grammy-nominated album My Arms Feel Noways Tired. Smith, an alto, sang in the choir, is on the album and went to the Grammys in L.A.

Terrell’s been a great encourager of Smith’s work and the two enjoy a collaboration similar to what Doretha and Pauline shared. “To see how Doretha and her worked to bring the music and the drama together was a big influence and, lo and behold, Jay and I have become the same,” she said.

Smith and Terrell have discussed holding gospel play workshops around the country. Meanwhile, she staged an elaborate production at Salem this past Easter. There’s talk of reviving a great big gospel show called Shout! that Llana wrote dramatic skits for and that packed The Rose Theatre. It’s all coming fast and furious for this Big Mama.

“This is like a whole new chapter in my life,” she said.

__________________________________________________________________

Quiana Smith

NOTE: I am reposting the following article because its subject, Quiana Smith, who goes by Q. Smith professionally, is back in our shared hometown of Omaha, Neb. with the national Broadway touring production of Mary Poppins.  Quiana, recently promoted to the part of Miss Andrew, will perform as part of a 23-show run at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha, where loads of family and friends will be sure to cheer her on.  This isn’t the first time she’s made a splash:  she’s made waves off-Broadway (Fame) and on Broadway (Les Miserables) and in many regional theater productions.  But this time she’s come home as part of a Broadway show.  Sweet.

Quiana is a daughter of my good acquaintances Rudy and Llana Smith.  She’s inherited their talent and drive and gone them one further by pursuing and realizing her dream of a musical theater career in New York.  This profile of Quiana for The Reader (www.thereader.com) expresses this dynamic young woman’s heart and passion.  It’s been a few years since I’ve spoken with her, and I’m eager to find out what she’s been up to lately, and how she and her father are coming along on a book project about African-American stage divas.  Quiana is to write it and Rudy, a professional photographer, is to shoot it. Her mother, Llana, is a theater person, too — writing and directing gospel plays.  My story on Llana Smith is posted on this site and I will soon be adding a story I did on Rudy Smith. They are a remarkable family.

 

 

Quiana Smith’s dream time takes her to regional, off-Broadway and Great White Way theater success

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Once the dream took hold, Quiana Smith never let go. Coming up on Omaha’s north side she discovered a flair for dramatics and a talent for singing she hoped would lead to a musical theater career. On Broadway. After a steady climb up the ladder her dream comes true tomorrow when a revival of Les Miserables open at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Q. Smith, as her stage name reads, is listed right there in the program, as a swing covering five parts, a testament to her versatility.

Before Les Miz is over Smith will no doubt get a chance to display her big, bold, brassy, bodacious self, complete with her shaved head, soaring voice, infectious laugh and broad smile. Her Broadway debut follows featured roles in the off-Broadway Fame On 42nd Street at NY‘s Little Shubert Theater in 2004 and Abyssinia at the North Shore Theater (Connecticut) in 2005. Those shows followed years on the road touring with musical theater companies or doing regional theater.

Fame’s story about young performers’ big dreams resonated for Smith and her own Broadway-bound aspirations. As Mabel, an oversized dancer seeking name-in-lights glory, she inhabited a part close to her ample self, projecting a passion akin to her own bright spirit and radiating a faith not unlike her deep spirituality. In an Act II scene she belted out a gospel-inspired tune, Mabel’s Prayer, that highlighted her multi-octave voice, impassioned vibrato and sweet, sassy, soulful personality. In the throes of a sacred song like this, Smith retreats to a place inside herself she calls “my secret little box,” where she sings only “to God and to myself. It’s very, very personal.” Whether or not she gets on stage this weekend in Les Miz you can be sure the 28-year-old will be offering praise and thanksgiving to her higher power.

It all began for her at Salem Baptist Church, where her grandmother and mother, have written and directed gospel plays for the dramatic ministry program. At her mother Llana’s urging, Smith and her brothers sang and acted as children. “My brothers got really tired of it, but I loved the attention, so I stuck with it,” said Smith, who began making a name for herself singing gospel hymns, performing skits and reciting poetry at Salem and other venues. She got attention at home, too, where she’d crack open the bathroom window and wail away so loud and finethat neighborhood kids would gather outside and proclaim,  “You sure can sing, Quiana” “We were just a real creative house,” said Quiana’s mother.

Quiana further honed her craft in classes at the then-Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre and, later, at North High School, where music/drama teacher Patrick Ribar recalls the impression Smith made on her. “The first thing I noticed about Quiana was her spark and flair for the stage. She was so creative…so diverse. She would do little things to make a part her own. I was amazed. She could hold an audience right away. She has such a warmth and she’s so fun that it’s hard not to like her.”

Still, performing was more a recreational activity than anything else. “Back then, I never knew I wanted to do this as a career,” Smith said. “I just liked doing it and I liked the great response I seemed to get from the audience. But as far as a career, I thought I was going to be an archaeologist.”

She was 15, and a junior at North, when her first brush with stardom came at the old Center Stage Theatre. She saw an audition notice and showed up, only to find no part for a black girl. She auditioned anyway, impressing executive directorLinda Runice enough to be invited back to tryout for a production of Dreamgirls. The pony-tailed hopeful arrived, in jeans and sweatshirt, sans any prepared music, yet director Michael Runice (Linda’s husband) cast her as an ensemble member.

Then, in classic a-star-is-born fashion, the leading lady phoned-in just before rehearsal the night before opening night to say she was bowing out due to a death-in-the-family. That’s when Mike Runice followed his instinct and plucked Smith from the obscurity of the chorus into a lead role she had less than 24 hours to master.

“It was like in a movie,” Smith said. “The director turned around and said to me, ‘It’s up to you, kid.’ I don’t know why he gave it to me to this day. You should have seen the cast. It was full of talented women. I was the youngest.” And greenest. Linda Runice said Smith got it because “she was so talented. She had been strongly considered for the role anyway, but she was so young and it’s such a demanding role. But she was one of those rare packages who could do it all. You saw the potential when she hit the stage, and she just blew them out of the theater.”

What began as a lark and segued into a misadventure, turned into a pressure-packed, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not only did an already excited and scared Smith have precious little time to steel herself for the rigorous part and for the burden of carrying a show on her young shoulders, there was still school to think about, including finals, not to mention her turning sweet 16.

“The director wrote me a note to let me out of school early and he came to pick me up and take me to the theater. From 12 to 8, I was getting fitted for all the costumes, I was learning all the choreography, I was going over all the line readings, I was singing all the songs, and it was just crazy. A crash course.”

Smith pushed so hard, so fast to nail the demanding music in time for the show that she, just as the Runices feared, strained her untrained voice, forcing her to speak many of the songs on stage. That opening night is one she both savors and abhors. “That was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “It was the best thing because if it wasn’t for that experience I’d probably be digging up fossils somewhere, which isn’t bad, but I wouldn’t be fulfilled. And it was the worst because I was so embarrassed.”

In true trouper tradition, Smith and the show went on. “What a responsiblity she carried for someone so young, and she carried it off with all the dignity and aplomb anyone could ever want,” Linda Runice said. Smith even kept the role the entire run. The confidence she gained via this baptism-by-fire fueled her ambition. “I told myself, If I can do this, I can do anything,” Smith said. Runice remembers her “as this bubbly, fresh teenager who was going to set the world on fire, and she has.”

 

Quiana Smith

 

 

To make her Broadway debut in Les Miz is poetic justice, as that show first inspired Smith’s stage aspirations. She heard songs from it in a North High music class and was really bit after seeing a Broadway touring production of it at the Orpheum.

“It was my introduction to musical theater. I fell in love with it,” she said. “I already had a double cassette of the cast album and I would listen to this song called ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ over and over. It was sung by Patti Lapone. I tried to teach myself to sing like that. When I finally met her last year I told her the story. That song is still in my audition book.”

Smith dreamed of doing Lez Miz in New York. Ribar recalls her telling him soon after they met, “‘One day I’m going to be on Broadway…’ She was bound and determined. Nothing was going to stop her. So, she goes there, and the next thing you know…she’s on Broadway. With her determination and talent, you just knew she was right on the edge of really brilliant things in her life. I brag about her to the kids as someone who’s pursued her dream,” he said. Stardom, he’s sure, isn’t far off. “Once the right role shows up, it’s a done deal.”

A scholarship led her to UNO, where she studied drama two years. All the while, she applied to prestigious theater arts programs back east to be closer to New York. Her plans nearly took a major detour when, after an audition in Chicago, she was accepted, on the spot, by the Mountview Conservatory in London to study opera. Possessing a fine mezzo soprano voice, her rendition of an Italian aria knocked school officials out. She visited the staid old institution, fell in love with London, but ultimately decided against it. “The opera world, to me, isn’t as exciting and as free as the musical theater world is,” she said. “Besides, it was a two or three-year conservatory program, and I really wanted the whole college experience to make me a whole person.”

High Res Can't get enough of Q. Smith. Photo by David Wells.

©photo by David Wells

 

 

Her musical theater track resumed with a scholarship to Ithaca (NY) College, where she and a classmate became the first black female grads of the school’s small theater arts program. She also took private voice and speech training. At Ithaca, she ran into racial stereotyping. “When I first got there everybody expected you to sing gospel or things from black musicals,” she said. “Everything was black or white. And I was like, It doesn’t have to be like that. I can do more than gospel. I can do more than R&B. I can do legit. I really had to work hard to prove myself.”

Her experience inspired an idea for a book she and her father, Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith, are collaborating on. She interviews black female musical theater actresses to reveal how these women overturn biases, break down barriers and open doors. “We’re rare,” she said of this sisterhood. “These women are an inspiration to me. They don’t take anything from anybody. They’re divas, honey. Back in the day, you would take any part that came to you because it was a job, but this is a new age and we are allowed to say, No. In college, I would have loved to have been able to read about what contemporary black females are doing in musical theater.” Her father photographs the profile subjects.

She’s had few doubts about performing being her destiny. One time her certainty did falter was when she kept applying for and getting rejected by college theater arts programs. She sought her dad’s counsel. “I said, ‘Dad…how do I know this is for me?’ He was like, ‘Sweetheart, it’s what you breath, right?’ It’s what you go to bed and wake up in the morning thinking about, right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah…’ ‘OK, then, that’s what you should be doing.’ And, so, I never gave up. I kept on auditioning and I finally got accepted to Ithaca.”

Smith has worked steadily since moving to the Big Apple. Her credits include speaking-singing parts in productions of Hair at the Zachary Scott Theatre and The Who’s Tommy at the Greenwich St. Theatre and performing gigs in five touring road shows. Those road trips taught her a lot about her profession and about herself. On a months-long winter tour through Germany with the Black Gospel Singers, which often found her and her robed choir mates performing in magnificent but unheated cathedrals, she got in touch with her musical-cultural heritage. “Gospel is my roots and being part of the gospel singers just brought my roots back,” she said.

New York is clearly where Smith belongs. “I just feel like I’ve always known New York. I always dreamed about it. It was so easy and comfortable when I first came here,” she said. “Walking the streets alone at 1 a.m., I felt at home, like it was meant to be. It’s in my blood or something.”

Until Fame and now Les Miz, New York was where she lived between tours. Her first of two cross-country stints in Smokey Joe’s Cafe proved personally and professionally rewarding. She understudied roles that called for her to play up in age, not a stretch for “an old soul” like Smith. She also learned lessons from the show’s star, Gladys Knight. “She was definitely someone who gave it 100 percent every night, no matter if she was hoarse or sick, and she demanded that from us as well,” Smith said, “and I appreciated that. The nights I didn’t go on, I would go out into the audience and watch her numbers and she just blew the house down every single night. And I was like, I want to be just like that. I learned…about perseverance and about dedication to the gift God has given you.”

For a second Smokey stint, starring Rita Coolidge, Q. was a regular cast member. Then, she twice ventured to Central America with the revues Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber andBlues in the Night. “That’s an experience I’ll never forget,” she said. “We went to a lot of poor areas in Guatemala and El Salvador. People walk around barefoot. Cows are in the road. Guns are all around. We performed in ruins from the civil wars. And there we were, singing our hearts out for people who are hungry, and they just loved it. It was a life-changing experience.”

She loves travel but loves performing more in New York, where she thinks she’s on the cusp of something big. “It’s a dream come true and I truly believe this is just the beginning,” said Smith, who believes a higher power is at work. “I know it’s not me that’s doing all this stuff and opening all these doors so quickly, because it’s taken some people years and years to get to this point. It’s nothing but the Lord. I have so much faith. That’s what keeps me in New York pursuing this dream.”

Connecting with long time friend Jia Taylor

 

 

While not a headliner with her name emblazoned on marquees just yet, she’s sure she has what it takes to be a leading lady, something she feels is intrinsic in her, just waiting for the chance to bust on out. “I’m a leading lady now. I’m a leading lady every day. Yes, I say that with confidence, and not because I’m so talented,” she said. “It’s not about having a great voice. It’s not about being a star. It’s about how you carry yourself and connect with people. It’s about having a great aura and spirit and outlook on life… and I think I’ve got that”

Her busy career gives Smith few chances to get back home, where she said she enjoys “chilling with my family and eating all the good food,” but she makes a point of it when she can. She was back in September, doing a workshop for aspiring young performers at the Hope Center, an inner city non-profit close to her heart. She also sang for a cousin’s wedding at Salem. On some breaks, she finds time to perform here, as when featured in her mother’s Easter passion play at Salem in 2004. She’d like one day to start a school for performing arts on the north side, giving children of color a chance to follow their own dreams.

Occasionally, a regional theater commitment will bring her close to home, as when she appeared in a summer 2005 production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coatin Wichita. Despite lean times between acting-singing gigs, when she works with aspiring youth performers for the Camp Broadway company, Smith keeps auditioning and hoping for the break that lands her a lead or featured part on Broadway, in film or on television. She’s not shy about putting herself out there, either. She went up for a role opposite Beyonce in the film adaptation of Dreamgirls, the other show she dreams of doing on Broadway. She can see it now. “Q. Smith starring in…” She wants it all, a Tony, an Oscar, an Emmy. A career acting, singing, writing, directing, teaching and yes, even performing opera.

Smith’s contracted for the six-month run of Les Miz. Should it be extended, she may face a choice: stay with it or join the national touring company of The Color Purple, which she may be in line for after nearly being cast in the Broadway show.

That said, Smith is pursuing film/TV work in L.A. after the positive experience of her first screen work, a co-starring role in the Black Entertainment Network’s BETJ mini-series, A Royal Birthday. The Kim Fields-directed project, also being packaged as a film, has aired recently on BET and its Jazz off-shoot. A kind of romantic comedy infomercial for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the project also features Gary Dourdan from CSI and gospel artist David Hollister.

The Royal Birthday shoot, unfolding on two separate Caribbean cruises, whet her appetite for more screen work and revealed she has much to learn. “It was absolutely beautiful. We went horseback riding, para-sailing, jet-skiing. I had never done any of those things,” she said. “I learned a lot about acting for the camera, too. I’m very theatrical, very animated in it. It doesn’t need to be that big.”

Should fame allude her on screen or on stage, she’s fine with that, too, she said, because “I’m doing something I truly love.” Besides, she can always find solace in that “little secret box” inside her, where it’s just her and God listening to the power of her voice lifted on high. Sing in exaltation.

Blacks of Distinction

February 18, 2016 1 comment

African American History

This set of profiles is from my large collection of Omaha African-American subjects.  Read on and you will meet a gallery of compelling individuals who each made a difference in his or her own way.  These figures represent a variety of endeavors and expertise, but what they all share in common is a passion for what they do.  Along the way, they learned some hard lessons, and their individual and collective wisdom should give us all food for thought.  These stories originally appeared in the New Horizons.

Blacks of Distinction

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

Frank Peak, Still An Activist After All These Years

Addressing the needs of underserved people became a lifetime vocation for Frank Peak only after he joined the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s.

Today, as administrator of community outreach service for the Creighton University Medical Center Partnership in Health and co-administrator of the Omaha Urban Area Health Education Center, he carries on the mission of the Panthers to help empower African-Americans.

The Omaha native returned home after a six-year (1962-1968) hitch in the U.S. Navy as a photographer’s mate 2nd class, duty that saw him hop from ship to ship in the South China Sea and from one hot zone to another in Vietnam, variously photographing or processing images of military life and wartime action.

The North High grad came back with marketable skills but couldn’t get a job in the media here. He went into the service in the first place, he said, to escape the limited horizons that blacks like himself and his peers faced at home.

“There weren’t a lot of opportunities for blacks in the city of Omaha.”

In the Navy he found what he believed to be a future career path when he was sent to photography school in Pensacola, Florida and excelled. It was a good fit, he said, as he’d always been a shutterbug. “I had always liked photography and I always took pictures with little Brownies and stuff.”

His duty entailed working as a military photojournalist and photo lab technician. Many of the pictures he took or processed were reproduced in civilian and military publications worldwide. In 1965 he prepared the production stills for an NBC television news documentary on the 25th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. He said the network even offered him a job, but he had to turn it down, as he’d already reenlisted. Despite that lost opportunity, he counts his Navy experience as one of the best periods of his life. Not only did he learn to become an expert photographer but he got to travel all over the Far East, much of the time with his younger brother, William, who followed him into the service.

The service is also where Peak became politicized as a strong, proud black man engaged in the struggle for equality.

“Back in the ‘60s there was such a lot of turmoil related to the war, related to the whole race struggle. You know, Malcolm, Martin…It all tied together. There were a lot of riots going on at a lot of the bases and on the ships. There was both bonding and animosity then between whites and blacks. It was a challenging time. ”

A buddy he was stationed with overseas helped Peak gain a deeper understanding of the black experience.

“I had a close friend, Bennie, who was a Navy photographer, too. He was from Savannah, Georgia and he really began to educate me. He was the one that really initiated me into the black experience. That’s when the term black was radical. Coming from Omaha, I was isolated from a lot of things he’d been involved in down South. Interestingly, I ended up a member of the Black Panther party and he ended up a member of the Black Muslims.”

After Peak got out of the Navy and came back to find doors still closed to him, despite the obvious skills he’d gained, he was disillusioned.

For example, he said the Omaha World-Herald wouldn’t even look at his portfolio when he applied there. For years, he said the local daily had only one black photographer on staff and made it clear they weren’t interested in hiring another.

Frustrated with the obstacles he and his fellow African-Americans faced, he was ripe for recruitment into the Black Panthers, a controversial organization that several of his activist friends joined. But he didn’t join right away. He was working as a photo technician when something happened that changed his mind. A black girl named Vivian Strong died from shots fired by a white Omaha police officer. The tragedy, which many in the black community saw as a racially motivated killing, touched off several nights of rioting on the north side.

“I got involved with the Black Panther party after that,” Peak said.

The Panther platform was an expression of the black power movement that sought, Peak said, “self-determination and liberation” for African-Americans. “It was about building capacity into the black community. It was working to end police violence in the black community. It was organizing breakfast programs for our children. Tutoring kids. Holding rallies, organizing protests and standing up for our rights.”

What made the Panthers dangerous in the minds of many authorities were the party’s incendiary language, paramilitary appearance — some members openly brandished firearms — and militant attitude.

“Our premise was we wanted our rights by any means necessary,” said Peak, a philosophy he feels was misconstrued by law enforcement as a subversive plot to undermine and overthrow the government. “What we meant by that was we wanted our education, we wanted to be a part of the political process, we wanted to be a part of determining our own destiny. We even asked, as part of our platform, to have a plebiscite, where blacks would vote to directly determine, for themselves, their own fate.”

Instead, the leadership of the Panthers and other radical black power groups were “crushed” and “dismantled” in a systematic crackdown led by the FBI. In Omaha, Peak was among those arrested and questioned when two local Panthers, Ed Poindexter and David Rice, were implicated and later convicted in the 1970 killing of Omaha police officer Larry Minard. The pair’s guilt or innocence has long been disputed. Appeals for new trials or new evidentiary hearings continue to this today. Peak was friends with both men and he believes they’re wrongfully imprisoned. “I don’t believe they got a fair trial,” he said. Ironically, it was his cousin, Duane Peak, who allegedly acted at the men’s behest in making the 911 call that lured Minard to the house where a suitcase bomb detonated. Doubt’s been cast on whether Duane Peak made the call or not and on the veracity of his court testimony.

Frank Peak traces “the roots” of his advocacy career to his time with the Panthers, when he helped set up “a liberation” school and breakfast program for kids. He said the Panther mission has been “very much diversified” in the work being done today by former party members in the political, social, health, education and human service fields. “The struggle goes on.”

He and other young blacks here were inspired to affect change from within by mentors. “Theodore Johnson put together community health programs. Dr. Earl Persons got us involved in the black political caucus. Jessie Allen got us involved as delegates to the Democratic party. He really brought us around and politicized us to mainstream politics. Dan Goodwin and Ernie Chambers had a great influence on us, too. They made sure we were accountable. They had high standards for us.” There was also Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, reporter/activist Charlie Washington and others. Peak’s education continued at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he earned a bachelor’s in journalism and psychology and a master’s in public administration. Lively discussions about black aspirations unfolded at UNO, the Urban League, Panther headquarters, Charlie Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe and Dan Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop.

Frank Peak

The spirit of those ideals lives on in his post-Panthers work, ranging from substance abuse counseling to community health advocacy to he and his wife, Lyris Crowdy Peak, an Omaha Head Start administrator, serving as adoptive and foster parents. He sees today’s drug and gang culture as a major threat. He rues that standards once seen as sacrosanct have “gone out the window” in this age of relativism.

“The only way change is going to occur is if people make it happen,” he said. “If you wait around for somebody else to make it happen, it might not…So, we all have a responsibility to make a contribution and I’m trying to make one.”

He enjoys being a liaison between Creighton and the community in support of health initiatives, screenings and services aimed at minorities. “We just finished glaucoma screenings in south Omaha and we put together the first African-American prostate cancer campaign in north Omaha. We sponsor programs like My Sister’s Keeper, a breast cancer survivors program focused on African-American women.” He said in addition to assessment and treatment, Creighton also provides follow-up services and referrals for those lacking the access, the means, the insurance or the primary care provider to have their health care needs met.

“I’m somebody who believes in what he does. People ask me, Do you like your job? I say, Well, if you get paid for doing something you’d do for free, how could you not like it? That’s my philosophy. To think maybe in some small way you’ve been a part of growing a greater society, then that’s all the reward I need.”

Charles Hall’s Fair Deal

As landmarks go, the Fair Deal Cafe doesn’t look like much. The drab exterior is distressed by age and weather. Inside, it is a plain throwback to classic diners with its formica-topped tables, tile floor, glass-encased dessert counter and tin-stamped ceiling. Like the decor, the prices seem left over from another era, with most meals costing well under $6. What it lacks in ambience, it makes up for in the quality of its food, which has been praised in newspapers from Denver to Chicago.

Owner and chef Charles Hall has made The Fair Deal the main course in Omaha for authentic soul food since the early 1950s, dishing-up delicious down home fare with a liberal dose of Southern seasoning and Midwest hospitality. Known near and far, the Fair Deal has seen some high old times in its day.

Located at 2118 No. 24th Street, the cafe is where Hall met his second wife, Audentria (Dennie), his partner at home and in business for 40 years. She died in 1997. The couple shared kitchen duties (“She bringing up breakfast and me bringing up dinner,” is how Hall puts it.) until she fell ill in 1996. These days, without his beloved wife around “looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do,” the place seems awfully empty to Hall. “It’s nothing like it used to be,” he said. In its prime, it was open dawn to midnight six days a week, and celebrities (from Bill Cosby to Ella Fitzgerald to Jesse Jackson) often passed through. When still open Sundays, it was THE meeting place for the after-church crowd. Today, it is only open for lunch and breakfast.

The place, virtually unchanged since it opened sometime in the 1940s (nobody is exactly sure when), is one of those hole-in-the-wall joints steeped in history and character. During the Civil Rights struggle it was commonly referred to as “the black city hall” for the melting pot of activists, politicos and dignitaries gathered there to hash-out issues over steaming plates of food. While not quite the bustling crossroads or nerve center it once was, a faithful crowd of blue and white collar diners still enjoy good eats and robust conversation there.

Fair Deal Cafe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running the place is more of “a chore” now for Hall, whose step-grandson Troy helps out. After years of talking about selling the place, Hall is finally preparing to turn it over to new blood, although he expects to stay on awhile to break-in the new, as of now unannounced, owners. “I’m so happy,” he said. “I’ve been trying so hard and so long to sell it. I’m going to help the new owners ease into it as much as I can and teach them what I have been doing, because I want them to make it.” What will Hall do with all his new spare time? “I don’t know, but I look forward to sitting on my butt for a few months.” After years of rising at 4:30 a.m. to get a head-start on preparing grits, rice and potatoes for the cafe’s popular breakfast offerings, he can finally sleep past dawn.

The 80-year-old Hall is justifiably proud of the legacy he will leave behind. The secret to his and the cafe’s success, he said, is really no secret at all — just “hard work.” No short-cuts are taken in preparing its genuine comfort food, whose made-from-scratch favorites include greens, beans, black-eyed peas, corn bread, chops, chitlins, sirloin tips, ham-hocks, pig’s feet, ox tails and candied sweet potatoes.

In the cafe’s halcyon days, Charles and Dennie did it all together, with nary a cross word uttered between them. What was their magic? “I can’t put my finger on it except to say it was very evident we were in love,” he said. “We worked together over 40 years and we never argued. We were partners and friends and mates and lovers.” There was a time when the cafe was one of countless black-owned businesses in the district. “North 24th Street had every type of business anybody would need. Every block was jammed,” Hall recalls. After the civil unrest of the late ‘60s, many entrepreneurs pulled up stakes. But the Halls remained. “I had a going business, and just to close the doors and watch it crumble to dust didn’t seem like a reasonable idea. My wife and I managed to eke out a living. We never did get rich, but we stayed and fought the battle.” They also gave back to the community, hiring many young people as wait staff and lending money for their college studies.

Besides his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, when he was an officer in the Medical Administrative Corps assigned to China, India, Burma, Japan and the Philippines, Hall has remained a home body. Born in Horatio, Arkansas in 1920, he moved with his family to Omaha at age 4 and grew up just blocks from the cafe. “Almost all my life I have lived within a four or mile radius of this area. I didn’t plan it that way. But, in retrospect, it just felt right. It’s home,” he said. After working as a butcher, he got a job at the cafe, little knowing the owners would move away six months later to leave him with the place to run. He fell in love with both Dennie and the joint, and the rest is history. “I guess it was meant to be.”

Deadeye Marcus Mac McGee

When Marcus “Mac” McGee of Omaha thinks about what it means to have lived 100 years, he ponders a good long while. After all, considering a lifespan covering the entire 20th century means contemplating a whole lot of history, and that takes some doing. It is an especially daunting task for McGee, who, in his prime, buried three wives, raised five daughters, prospered as the owner of his own barbershop, served as the state’s first black barbershop inspector, earned people’s trust as a pillar of the north Omaha community and commanded respect as an expert marksman. Yes, it has been quite a journey so far for this descendant of African-American slaves and white slave owners.

A recent visitor to McGee’s room at the Maple Crest Care Center in Benson remarked how 100 years is a long time. “It sure is,” McGee said in his sweet-as-molasses voice, his small bright face beaming at the thought of all the high times he has seen. In a life full of rich happenings, McGee’s memories return again and again to the first and last of his loves — shooting and barbering. For decades, he avidly hunted small game and shot trap. In his late 80s he could still hit 100 out of 100 targets on the range. Yes, there was a time when McGee could shoot with anyone. He won more than his share of prizes at area trapshooting meets — from hams and turkeys to trophies to cold hard cash. As his reputation began to spread, he found fewer and fewer challengers willing to take him on. “I would break that target so easy. I’d tear it up every time. I’d whip them fellas down to the bricks. They wouldn’t tackle me. Oh, man, I was tough,” he said.

As owner and operator of the now defunct Tuxedo Barbershop on North 24th Street, he ran an Old School establishment where no fancy hair styles were welcome. Just a neat, clean cut from sparkling clippers and a smooth, close shave from well-honed straight-edge razors. “The best times for me was when I got that shop there. I got the business going really good. It was quite a shop. We had three chairs in there. New linoleum on the floor. There were two other barbers with me. We had a lot of customers. Sometimes we’d have 10-15 people outside the door waiting for us to come in. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed working on them — and I worked on them too. I’d give them good haircuts. I was quite a barber. Yes, sir, we used to lay some hair on the floor.”

McGee’s Tuxedo Barbershop was located in the Jewell Building

 

A fussy sort who has always taken great pains with his appearance, he made his own hunting vests, fashioned his own shells and watched what he ate. “I was particular about a lot of things,” he said. Unlike many Maple-Crest residents, who are disabled and disheveled, McGee walks on his own two feet and remains well-groomed and nattily-attired at all times. He entrusts his own smartly-trimmed hair to a barbering protege. Last September, McGee cut a dashing figure for a 100th birthday party held in his honor at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church. A crowd of family and friends, including dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, gathered to pay tribute to this man of small stature but big deeds. Too bad he could not share it all with his wife of 53 years, LaVerne, who died in 1996.

Born and raised along the Mississippi-Louisiana border, McGee’s family of ten escaped the worst of Jim Crow intolerance as landowners under the auspices of his white grandmother Kizzie McGee, the daughter of the former plantation’s owner. McGee’s people hacked out a largely self-sufficient life down on the delta. It was there he learned to shoot and to cut hair. He left school early to help provide for the family’s needs, variously bagging wild game for the dinner table and cutting people’s hair for spare change. Just out of his teens, he followed the path of many Southern blacks and ventured north, where conditions were more hospitable and jobs more plentiful. During his wanderings he picked up money cutting heads of railroad gang crewmen and field laborers he encountered out on the open road.

He made his way to Omaha in the early 1920s, finding work in an Omaha packing plant before opening his Tuxedo shop in the historic Jewel Building. People often came to him for advice and loans. He ran the shop some 50 years before closing it in the late 1970s. He wasn’t done cutting heads though. He barbered another decade at the shop of a man he once employed before injuries suffered in an auto accident finally forced him to put down his clippers at age 88. “I loved to work. I don’t know why people retire.” As much as he regrets not working anymore, he pines even more for the chance to shoot again. “I miss everything about shooting.” He said he even dreams about being back on the hunt or on the range. Naturally, he never misses. “I always take the target. Yeah, man, I was one tough shooter.”

Proud, Poised Mary Dean Pearson

A life of distinction does not happen overnight. In the case of Omaha executive, educator, child advocate, community leader, wife and mother Mary Dean Pearson, the road to success began just outside Marion, La., where she grew up as one of nine brothers and sisters in a fiercely independent black family during the post World War II era — a period when the South was still segregated. From as far back as she can remember, Pearson (then Hunt) knew exactly what was expected of her and her siblings– great things. “I grew up in the South during the Crow era and my father instilled in all of his children a very profound sense of obligation to improve on what we were born into. To make it better. Whether that was our immediate economic circumstances or social status or whatever,” she said.

Despite the fact her parents, Ed and Rosa Hunt, never got very far in school they were high achievers. He was a respected landowner and entrepreneur and, together with Rosa, set rigorously high standards for their children. Even the daughters were expected to do chores, to complete high school and, unusual for the time, to attend college. “My father was a very driven, very aggressive man who believed it was our right and our duty to do well everyday. And to do only well. The consequences were quite severe if you didn’t do well. He also instilled a work ethic, which is probably unparalleled, in all of us,” said Pearson, a former Omaha Public Schools teacher and past director of the Nebraska Department of Social Services who, since 1995, has been president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Omaha, Inc.

“I was his workhorse from time to time. I call him the father of women’s lib because he never hesitated to say, ‘Baby, do this,’ even if it was a heavy job traditionally reserved for men. I really credit him with helping me understand that anything that needed to be done, I perhaps had the capability of doing it, and so I just approached everything with that can-do sensibility. I got that from him, no doubt.”

Where her father cracked the whip, her mother applied the salve. “My mother was a gentle soul who was the one always to seek peace and to seek a solution. I think my attempt to become a peacemaker and facilitator was my desire to be more like her. She created an absolutely wonderful balance for our family. They were a dynamite team.” For Pearson, the lessons her parents taught her are bedrock values that never go out of style: “Honesty, integrity, loyalty, perseverance.”

Pearson and her siblings did not let their parents down, either. They became professionals and small business owners. She graduated with a liberal arts degree from Grambling State University, hoping for a career in law. Her plans were put on hold, however, after marrying her old beau Tom Harvey, who got a teaching contract in Omaha, where the young couple moved in the late 1960s. She tried finding work here to earn enough money for law school but found doors closed to her because of her color. Then, she joined the National Teacher Corps, a federal teaching training program pairing liberal arts majors with students in inner city schools. She soon found she could make a difference in young lives and abandoned law for education. “I discovered there were some young folks in this world who were absolutely starving for intellectual challenge, and I enjoyed providing that to them.”

As part of the program she earned a master’s degree in education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where former College of Education dean Paul Kennedy became the strong new mentor figure in her life. “If I ever thought I was going to slack off once I had left my father, I was wrong. Paul Kennedy saw my soul and demanded the very best from me.” After earning her teaching degree at UNO, she embarked on a 20-year education career that included serving as an OPS classroom teacher, assistant principal and principal. She treasures her experiences as an educator and holds the role of educator in the highest esteem.

“As a classroom teacher you can actually see you have touched someone. The satisfaction is immediate. As an administrator, the obligation is to give every child, every learner, the maximum opportunity for success. It is to say, ‘All children can learn.’” She is “proudest” of how successful some of her former students are. “They are carrying on the lessons they were taught to make our society a better one as teachers, lawyers, doctors, ministers.”

By 1986 Pearson was ready for some new challenges. Starting with her term as executive director of Girls Incorporated through her stewardship of the state’s social services agency (at then Gov. Ben Nelson’s request) and up to her current post as head of the Boys and Girls Clubs, she has focused on programs for disadvantaged youths that “improve their life chances.” While Pearson can one day see herself exploring new challenges outside the social service arena, she would miss impacting children. “Of all the groups present in our society, children are the one one group who need an advocate more than any other.”

Mildred Lee , Standing Her Ground

When brazen drug dealers threatened over-running her north Omaha neighborhood in the early 1990s, Mildred Lee reacted like most residents — at first. With an open-air drug market operating 24-hours a day within yards of her well-maintained property, she saw children wading through discarded drug paraphernalia and strewn garbage. She saw neighbors growing fearful. She saw things heading toward a violent end. That’s when she made it her crusade to pick-up debris and to let the pushers and addicts know by her defiant demeanor she wanted them out. She hoped they would all just go away. They didn’t.

As the criminal activity increased, Lee considered moving, but the idea of being run out of her own house infuriated her. A dedicated walker, she refused letting some punks stop her hikes. “I thought, ‘If I live in the neighborhood, I’m going to walk in the neighborhood.’ They attempted to intimidate me, but I wasn’t afraid of them. I just didn’t back off.” As months passed and she realized others on her block were too afraid to do anything, this widow, mother and grandmother decided to act. “I was disgusted. I could see that nobody else was going to do it, so I thought, ‘I’ll just do it myself.’”

Fed up, she called a friend, Rev. J.D. Williams, who had worked with local law enforcement to rid his own district of bad apples. He set-up a meeting with Omaha Police Department officials, who informed Lee they were aware of the problem but were waiting for residents to come forward to ask what could be done to reclaim the area.

What happened next was a transforming experience for Lee, who went from bystander to activist in a matter of weeks. It just so happened her coming forward coincided with the city’s first Weed and Seed program, a federally-funded initiative to weed out undesirables and to seed areas with positive activities. Several things happened next. First, the Fairfax Neighborhood Association was formed and Lee was elected its president. The association acted as a watchdog and liaison with law enforcement.

Then the Mayor’s Office proposed a Take Our Neighborhood Back rally to showcase residents’ solidarity against crime. The Mad Dads lent their support to the event, which saw a parade of citizens chanting and holding anti-drug slogans outside known drug dens and a convoy of trucks displaying caskets as a dramatic reminder that drugs kill. Police on horseback added symbolic fanfare. A brigade of citizens armed with rakes, shovels and brooms swept up litter in the area and others hauled away old appliances and assorted other junk from residents’ homes and deposited the items in dumpsters. As a reminder to  criminals that police were ever-vigilant, a mobile command unit was stationed on-site around the clock. No parking and no loitering signs were posted on streets. Finally, sting operations conducted by police and FBI resulted in dozens of arrests.

Under Lee’s leadership, the Fairfax Association launched a latchkey program for school-age children at New Life Presbyterian Church, painted houses for elderly residents, converted a vacant lot into a mini-park and hosted Neighborhood Night Out block parties among other good works. Recognized as the driving force behind it all, Lee was asked to serve on the city’s Weed and Seed steering committee and her ideas were sought by public and private leaders. Not bad for someone who had never been a community activist before. She never had time. She was always too busy working (as an employment interviewer with the Nebraska Job Service) and, after her husband died from a massive heart attack at age 36, raising their four children alone.

As Lee became a focal point for taking back her neighborhood, she began fielding inquiries from residents of other areas facing similar problems. She shared her experiences in talks before vcommunity groups and received a slew of honors for her community betterment efforts, including the 1999 Spirit of Women award. With her work here now finished, Lee is preparing to move down South to start a new life with her new husband. The legacy she leaves behind is a community now brimming with active neighborhood associations, many modeled after Fairfax.

“One of the reasons we’ve gotten attention is we’re the neighborhood that stood up first,” she said. The whole experience, she said, has been empowering for her. “It brought to light a lot of things I didn’t know I could do. I never thought of being a leader before. But when you’re put in a certain position, you do what you have to do.” The message she imparts with audiences today is that we can all make a difference, if we care enough to try. “Most people are afraid. They don’t want anything to do with it. But they don’t realize you’ve already got something to do with it if drug dealers are in your neighborhood. You’ve just got to take charge. You can’t just sit back and wait for somebody else to do it.” She said doing good works gets to be contagious. “When other people see all you’re doing, then they want to start doing more too.”

 

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Omaha’s African-American community is replete with doers, past and present, and every once in a while a local newspaper has me write profiles of some of these leaders, who range from community activists and small business owners to educators to administrators and executives.  The following four individuals all made a difference here and though at least one has now passed on and another has retired and still another has moved out of the area, their impact remains.

Blacks of Distinction II

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Edmae Swain: A Pioneering Educator

Edmae Swain helped change the face of public education locally when, in 1964, she became the first African-American female principal in the Omaha Public Schools. Upon arriving in Omaha from St. Louis at the end of World War II, she got a job with OPS as a substitute teacher, the only option then available to black educators in Omaha’s segregated public schools. She subbed at Howard Kennedy School, one of a few all-black schools serving the near northside. In 1947 she was among the first blacks hired as a regular teacher. She was assigned to Long School. She remained there until OPS Superintendent Paul Miller appointed her principal of Lake School. Years before, Eugene Skinner became the first black administrator here. Until her hiring, there hadn’t been another. Progress seemed to had passed over Omaha.

That’s why news of her appointment, coming as it did the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed, made headlines as far away as Kansas City and her native St. Louis and touched off a celebration at the home she and her husband, Howard Swain, Sr., shared with their son, Howard, Jr. In the context of the fight for equal rights, hers was a victory for Omaha’s black community and the wider freedom struggle.

“Yes it was,” Swain said. “It’s certainly one of the positive results of the struggle,” said retired Omaha educator Edwardene Armstrong, a teacher under Swain at Lake.

Recently, in the comfortable Immanuel Village suite that Edmae and Howard, Sr., now reside in, the 88-year-old Swain paged through a scrapbook containing the congratulatory telegrams and letters she received 41 years ago. For her, the most meaningful message came from the man that showed confidence in her — Paul Miller. A controversial figure, he had only a brief tenure as superintendent here, she said, because “he was too progressive for Omaha.” In his letter to her, he alluded to the pressure Swain felt in assuming the mantle for her race:

“I am glad to know you are nervous because this is your recognition of the fact that it is a big step from the classroom to the principal’s office…” I am confident “you will make this step cautiously yet firmly and with resolution to serve.”

Swain recalls having “butterflies” in her stomach a long time after getting that long overdue, high-profile post. She didn’t want to do anything that could reflect badly on her or her people. “More was expected of me. Therefore, there were things I just couldn’t do and places I couldn’t go after I became principal. I felt like I was in a bubble. All eyes were on me,” she said. Failure, she added, was not an option. “I knew I had to do it. I had to succeed for myself and all black Americans. I had to do well to make it possible for anyone that came after me.”

Despite the pressure, she made the transition with her characteristic grace and reserve. Friend and fellow educator Thelma Costen said that Swain, as always, carried herself “in a dignified manner. She was very firm and maintained excellent discipline. Everything was done in a positive manner.” Edwardene Armstrong said Swain handled the situation well. “Whatever pressures there were, it didn’t show. Edmae Swain is kind of a born leader. Her organizational skills are among her great assets. She was more than capable” when the opportunity came.

A few years later, Swain once again made history. When named principal at predominantly white Jackson School, she became the first black educator assigned to an Omaha public school outside the near northside. “I don’t know if she thinks of herself as a pioneer, but she really is,” said Costen. As before, Swain took on the job with professionalism. For Swain, it wasn’t so much about making history as breaking down another barrier. About time, too. It was another steep challenge, but faced with those circumstances, she said, “You do what you have to do.”

Any misgivings Swain had about how she’d be accepted at Jackson were soon eased by the support parents showed her. She was relieved. “They really embraced me. They had a wonderful PTA. A husband and wife were presidents and they saw to it parents participated in everything. They were all very cooperative. Anything I thought I needed, they would get it for me. I couldn’t ask for anything more.” The reception, she noted, “could have been far different,” particularly as her appointment coincided with the school district’s court-ordered desegregation plan  — a hot-button issue that incited violence in other communities.

When she got to Jackson hers was the only black face with the exception of a lone female student. “I said to her, ‘Well, there’s two of us here now. We’ve integrated the building.’” Even with forced busing, few blacks ended up going to school there. It remained that way, she said, until she retired from education in 1977. It was another case of “talking about integration” but not doing much about it.

Inequality, discrimination and segregation are evils that Swain, who’s active in the NAACP, Urban League, Zion Baptist Church and National Baptist Convention, fought against. She participated in civil rights demonstrations. Once, while a teacher at Long School, she called her principal to say, “’I won’t be coming in. The activists are having a walk-in at city hall and I have to march with the group.’ When I got to school, my principal complimented me for doing what I felt was the thing to do.”

A recipient of the NAACP’s Freedom Fighter Award, Swain led a sheltered life as a girl growing up in the black neighborhood of St. Louis known as The Ville. Her parents later explained to her they purposely kept her away from the prejudice blacks encountered outside the hood. It was only a matter of time, however, before Swain ran into racism. She got her first brush with Jim Crow on a train trip down south. At a railroad station, she saw a sign reading, For Whites Only. And on the train itself she found strictly segregated dining cars and waiting rooms.

“That was really when I first knew there was something different about us.”

With little formal schooling of their own, Swain’s hog carrier father and homemaker mother worked hard to ensure Edmae and her sister got an education that prepared them to move ahead. “They had no formal education but they knew the advantages of our getting an education, and they saw to it we went to museums and libraries and places they thought would be helpful.” Even as a girl, Edmae was enamored with the idea of being a teacher, making sure she always assumed the role when she and her friends played school. It wasn’t long before she graduated from Stowe Teachers College in St. Louis and began her 44-year education career.

Like any former educator, she enjoys the successes of her former students, many of whom have gone on to fine professional careers, including a judge and an attorney she stays in contact with. “It makes me feel good knowing what I did wasn’t in vain. Maybe I gave them something to strive for.”

She’s seen many changes in the education system and decries today’s loss of discipline at school and in the home. She feels things were better when a village really did raise a child. Even though she virulently opposes segregation, she said the black schools model of the past did have the advantage of students being taught by committed staff who looked and sounded like the kids. “There was a strength in that,” she said. Besides making sure her students left school every day “knowing something new,” she included black history lessons not in the standard curriculum.

It turns out Swain’s still a trailblazer all these years later. When she and her husband moved into Immanuel Village a few years ago, they became the community’s first black residents. One other black couple has followed them since. Another example of how the struggle for equality continues. Her deep faith tells her “all things are possible with God” and that “we shall overcome some day.”

Erline Patrick: A Professional Woman with a Social Conscience
For a newcomer, Erline Patrick has made her presence felt since coming to work at Creighton University in 2001 after years in public school administration and senior government management service. Community involvement is the hallmark of her accomplished, far-ranging life and career that’s featured challenging jobs in many locations. Her local activities reflect her interests in education, theater, music, women’s issues and multi-cultural diversity. In only a short time, this stunning African-American woman has touched many lives here. Soon, though, she’ll be leaving for an as-yet unknown new challenge. This time it’s Phoenix, where her husband, Omaha Housing Authority director Alphonso Patrick, has taken a new post. Public service runs in this couple’s blood, and where service calls, they go.

As interim associate dean of faculty affairs and development in the Creighton School of Medicine, Erline Patrick provides administrative support to the school’s faculty, oversees recruitment of minority medical professionals and prepares grants that funnel millions of dollars towards the institution’s research efforts. Yet, somehow she finds time to volunteer. Her many good works here include: serving on the boards of the Jesuit Middle School and the John Beasley Theater & Workshop and as a Governor-appointed member of the Women’s Health Initiative Advisory Council; performing as cantor at St. Cecilia’s Cathedral; and mentoring folks on campus and in the community. She offers advice. She puts people together. She contributes funds. She sends care packages. She frets. She prays.

All this comes naturally to Patrick, a big sister, mother, grandmother and wife whose heart has never really left the roles of teacher and principal she filled back east. She talks wistfully about “how much I’ve missed working with young people,” but still makes a point of “mentoring young people. It’s very dear to me.”

She began teaching in her native, then-segregated Charlotte, N.C. and, later, in Lancaster, Penn. and Hartford, Conn. She eventually headed schools in Charlotte and Hartford, turning around a troubled urban high school with her characteristic high expectations and down home ways. Like any good leader, she makes people want to please her. She exudes warm Southern charm and displays genuine hospitality. She holds fast to old school values. She shares wise counsel with a mix of managerial authority and motherly concern. She is at once a professional to admire and a friend to confide in. A real mensch.

“It’s very important to me to be able to empower people. To help people reach their potential. To feel that I’m making a difference,” she said. “Most of my adult life I’ve been in management and leadership positions. I guess I must be a kind of born leader. I’ll be quiet and not stand out in a crowd — until somebody needs to take over…then I’ll do whatever needs to be done.”

A stickler for getting things right, she demands much from those she leads. “Today, there isn’t nearly the strive for a superior product there once was. I will not accept a shoddy product. I still hold myself to that standard, and anywhere I work will be held to that standard. And I may not be liked for it, but that’s just the way I am. I try not to be a tyrant about it.” She feels enough isn’t expected of today’s youth. “It’s appalling to hear some of our young people talk and to read their writing. A lot of that ‘dumbing down’ has been driven by television and by less structured home environments. The standards just aren’t as high.”

Aiming high was embedded in her by her mother and teachers. Her parents had little formal education. They’d been farmers and sharecroppers. Once moved to the city (Charlotte, N.C.), her father worked factories and construction and cut hair on weekends. Her mother was a domestic for well-to-do whites. “Mama was the matriarch and really guided us. She encouraged us all to go to college.” Erline and three of her four siblings ended up with college degrees.

A star in and out of the classroom, Erline was into everything at school. Her precocious talents as a singer, orator and writer included penning a song for the Decca Records label. For a time, her fine, church-honed singing voice earned her “a little bit of money singing with big bands in Charlotte. I was quite a little shapely, attractive young thing. I had a lot of admirers. But Mama trusted me. Besides, I knew how to take care of myself and the guys knew not to bother me.” Her torch singer days ended with a scholarship to Talladega College in Alabama, where she acted in theater productions and sang in the choir. Her knack for science led her to major in biology. Instead of once hoped for careers in drama or medicine, she chose teaching. With her versatility, she could have done anything. As a professor told her — Take what you have, and make what you want. That credo, she said, “has helped me tremendously. It motivates me to feel that all things are possible.”

Always in search of new horizons, she no sooner began teaching then she started work on her master’s degree in urban education. Then came her 6th Year Degree in administration and supervision. She earned two National Science Foundation grants, including one from Columbia University. She was later a National Education Policy Fellow at George Washington University. It wasn’t long after she earned her Ph.D in educational administration that she left the field for the private sector. And then Washington politics called her, first as a U.S. Senate staff member and then as a senior manager with the Small Business Administration. She made the grade wherever she went. “One of my strengths is that I’m a quick study. Wherever I’ve gone, there’s been a steep learning curve that I’ve mastered,” she said. She credits coming so far so fast to her faith. “How else could I be where I am today? So many miracles have happened in my life. I just don’t know what I would do without the Lord and that strength,” she said.

What appealed to her about The Beltway? “I wanted to learn about the legislative system and how it worked. It was new. It was exciting. And one of my goals was to work for then-Vice President George Bush. Then, in that serendipitous way my life has about it, he was elected President and I got a Presidential Appointment. It’s purely political. Somebody recommends you to the President’s chief-of-staff. At the time, I was in the Senate with Lowell Weiker. He lost the election. So, I was looking for the next thing to do when, before I knew it, I had an interview for a position in the Small Business Administration.” She got the job.

Then she was hired to manage the Minority Small Business and Capital Ownership Development Program, which oversees billions in federal procurements. “It was a huge responsibility,” she said. She took an unusual route to this senior-most management level. “I won the position competitively over many other candidates. I never took a civil service test. It was the first time it had ever been done in the agency.” She paid a price for being viewed as an interloper, “I really thought that if you do a job well, you’ll be admired. But you’re not. It’s just the opposite. It’s almost as if they’re waiting for you to falter. I think a part of it has to do with race and gender. It’s the white male patriarchal thing. Even now, I can be sitting in a board room and I’ll say something everybody agrees with, but until it comes out of the mouth of a white male, no attention is paid to it. It’s also a function of being an outsider, and that’s been the story of my post-education career. It doesn’t matter what you bring to the table. If you’re from the outside and if you rise quickly through the ranks, you’re the target of viciousness.”

Later, she fought against such attitudes as head of the SBA’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and Civil Rights Compliance. Creighton’s been a different story. “To their credit, Dr. Dan Wilson (former School of Medicine dean) and Father John Schlegel (CU president) saw the strength of my being an outside. I’ve gained so much here. I’ve made so many friends. And I think I’ve brought about needed change.” Now, as she readies to relocate again, she wants to indulge her artistic side. “I want to do a little more now that satisfies my soul. I don’t think I’ve used the talent enough God gave me.” In Omaha, she’s shown glimpses of that talent. Her contralto, mezzo soprano voice graces St. Cecilia’s masses, where she sings an occasional spiritual, and Creighton functions. She was Mama in The Beasley Theater’s staging of A Raisin in the Sun, a part she played in college.

“She’s an incredible talent,” said theater namesake, John Beasley. “She’s done an amazing job for us. She’s a woman full of knowledge. She’s even kept me in check at times. ‘Now, John…’ she’ll say. “That’s why I have respect for her. And she has a tremendous heart. She’s very thoughtful of others. I think she’s just a treasure. We’ll miss her, but she’s assured us she will come back to work at the theater.”

Until then, look out, Phoenix. A whirlwind named Erline is coming your way.

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Al Goodwin: Community Development Catalyst
North Omaha economic development catalyst Al Goodwin grew up in a near northside teeming with commerce. This self-described “product of the area” is proud of his roots. In the 1950s, it was a tight, self-sufficient, well-maintained district where residents could get any good or service imaginable from the rows of businesses operating up and down North 24th Street. Day and night, the streets flowed with a tide of folks shopping, running errands, taking in movies, dining out, catching live music acts, feeding their soul, hailing a cab or jumping a streetcar.

Of course, this enclave was enforced by defacto segregation that told blacks to “stay in their place.” In this apartheid system, blacks did for themselves because they had to and, in the process, created a thriving, cohesive environment built on strong families and institutions,. By the time Goodwin graduated from Omaha University in the late-’60s, the community was hemorrhaging from riots that destroyed properties and scared off many merchants and residents. By the ’70s, the once bustling North 24th strip was a tattered eyesore of boarded-up, abandoned buildings and weed-choked vacant lots. Then, like a stake in the heart, the North Freeway’s construction severed the community — uprooting hundreds of families and razing many fine homes. Finally, in the face of attitudes and practices that denied blacks fair housing, good jobs and equal rights, young and middle-aged blacks left Omaha in droves to pursue better opportunities elsewhere.

Ever since the riots and the later youth gang epidemic that surfaced in the ‘80s, the area’s real and perceived crime problems have cast a shadow of fear and doubt over the community that’s kept both potential business investors and home owners away. Today, the near northside lacks many basic goods and services and its old housing stock and sewer system is in need of repair. Recently, however, signs of a turnaround have been cropping up in a series of housing, commercial and public developments. Al Goodwin is behind some of these and plans to be part of more.

He’s remained through it all, devoting his entire professional life to reviving the community he regards as home. As president of the Omaha Economic Development Corporation (OEDC), which he’s headed since founding the non-profit 401C3 in 1977, he leads Omaha’s oldest and perhaps largest entity dedicated to inner city revitalization. His work has won him respect as a key architect for change.

“I’ve always had a deep interest in and genuine love for my community,” he said. “You have to enjoy what you do for a living, and I thoroughly enjoy having a vision to make things better and pulling together the resources to do what needs to be done and which others are not willing to step up and do.”

Unlike organizations that mainly give lip service to affecting positive change, Goodwin can point to brick and mortar evidence of progress in the various multi-family housing, commercial and renovation projects his company’s engineered. OEDC’s renovation of the historic Jewell Building, home of the Dreamland Ballroom, preserved a piece of North 24th Street’s rich legacy. It’s where OEDC offices at. The largest of its projects, Kellom Heights, is a seven-phased, mixed-use residential and commercial development completed during the 1990s. Bounded by Cuming on the north, Hamilton on the south, 24th Street on the east and the North Freeway on the west, the 40-acre project features 378 living units and a retail/office strip center. Associated businesses, notably a State Farm service center, have been drawn to the area by the renewed economic activity there.

Today, Kellom Heights is a bright flower blooming in a once depressed area. Despite it and other hopeful signs like it, the near northside is still dismissed by many outsiders as a ghetto. Few investors — then or now — have the vision to see beyond the blight. Yet, Goodwin’s somehow succeeded in selling enough people on the dream that OEDC has pumped $40 million of reinvestment into the area, not to mention the many homes, businesses, services and jobs generated. He said this success stems from its strong board, strategic planning and rigorous standards.
Goodwin, a math and economics major in college, can crunch the numbers with the best in making the case for north Omaha investment. He can dangle tax credits in front of investors. He can appeal to people’s social conscience.

“When we first started, there were many professionals that advised us not to do redevelopment in the area,” he said. “‘How are you going to attract people into the area?’ they asked. But in spite of those comments we put together a public-private community-based partnership that raised and leveraged more than $19 million to complete the (Kellom) development over a 10-year period.”

“Above industry” occupancy rates in Kellom’s living-retail-office spaces have more than justified the investments made in the project. “That’s certainly an example of what can be done,” he said. Another example is the now under construction Long School Marketplace that’s building a new 63,500 square-foot commercial center at 24th and Hamilton. Future plans envision going “further north” with commercial-residential efforts designed to “bring the population back into the area” as well as provide “assistance to residents who want to improve their own property.”

He said the monies invested in such projects come back in the form of an increased tax and spending base. “We take unused properties that were off the tax rolls and make them into revenue generating properties. It makes economic sense.” Besides, he said “there are unique business opportunities in north Omaha’s underserved market. In a four or five square mile area, there’s only one grocery store and no dry cleaning establishment. Basic, fundamental kinds of services are absent,” he said. Few are willing to take the plunge, however, due to the area’s bad rap. Despite perceptions to the contrary, he said North O boasts a strong work force, plentiful disposable income, stable institutions and safe neighborhoods. “One of the things we want to do is change the perception by making investments here and by attracting national and regional retailers into the area,” he said.

He feels the only way to rebuild the inner city is with investment and the only way to achieve long-term growth is if the area gains economic parity with the rest of Omaha. More homes, businesses and amenities will create more commerce. In addition to the new market potential the area holds, he said it’s well-positioned by its close proximity to the airport, freeway, convention center-arena, riverfront and Creighton University. With Creighton and the riverfront booming, Goodwin wants north Omaha to share in the growth and not be isolated from it.

“Any development taking place near there should and must include north Omaha. We can’t have a thriving area adjacent to a declining one. It certainly is to the advantage of those entities that have made investments nearby to see north Omaha revitalized, not deteriorated. And we want to be part of the planning and implementation process — not left out or behind. All the development taking place ought to be seamless. There should be connectivity. That way you get a bigger multiplier effect for all. As they say, all ships rise together. Omaha is small enough and our problems manageable enough that we can do this very successfully and without it taking masses amounts of money to make any significant change. And while I’ve seen some progress, there’s much more that needs to be done.”

Goodwin, a player in the emerging riverfront scene and Creighton expansion, said, “I think we’ve got to be careful that, unintentionally or otherwise, artificial barriers are not put in place that would turn their back on north Omaha.” He feels people of color should no longer have to settle for leftovers when it comes to opportunity. He hopes one day the words of Martin Luther King are fully realized and all people can “sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” His beliefs are a product of his formative years. Of the Civil Rights Movement and parents who stressed he and his siblings make a difference in the struggle for equal rights. “If ever you want to be remembered for anything, you should be remembered for making a difference. If I can look back at my life and career and say that I’ve made a positive difference, then I think I’ve accomplished a lot,” he said.

District 2 Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown said Goodwin already has. “He’s left his mark — no doubt. He’s improved areas the private sector would not touch. And hopefully that drive and energy will stick around. My only worry is that when Al Goodwin retires, who’s out there to replace him?” Goodwin is hopeful. “There are people with dreams and vision that are making things happen to capitalize on the area’s rich heritage of jazz and sports,” he said, referring to recent streetscape improvements along North 24th, the completed jazz park, the soon-to-open Love Cultural Arts and Jazz Center and reports of a new sports museum. “This can serve as a linchpin to attact people back into the neighborhood.”

Dan Goodwin: A Strong Man True to His Beliefs
©by Leo Adam Biga

Dan Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop, a classic six-chair operation at 3116 No. 24th Street, is where it all comes down. Old-school owner Dan Goodwin has been cutting heads there for half-a-century. He’s been listening to the pulse of his people all that time, using the airy environs as a lively forum for free expression.

Like any barbershop, his place is where customers come to relax, get a cut or shave and say what’s on their mind. Goodwin likes good conversation. He invites an open exchange of ideas. He isn’t afraid of folks voicing strong viewpoints.

In the 1960s he took on a brash young man by the name of Ernie Chambers as a barber. Soon, the Spencer Street became a forum for Chambers and his advocacy of black concerns and criticism of white racism. Anyone wanting to know the current black thought came to hear Ernie or others sound off. Along with the Fair Deal Cafe and a few other north side spots, it’s where young blacks met to air grievances, address problems, float ideas and formulate strategies and tactics in the civil rights struggle and black power movement.

“A lot of people came down to this barbershop to hear him speak to the problems. To be honest, a lot of people feared him because he spoke out so strong. He’s tough. Even now, he asks no quarters and he gives no quarters. He says what he wants to say and he’ll say it the way he wants to say it,” Goodwin said.

“A lot of people came to talk to me to discuss issues and it was a place where others would meet when they wanted to talk and just speak freely about what was on their mind. It was like a gathering place,” Chambers said.

The shop is immortalized thanks to Chambers being filmed there for segments of the 1967 Oscar-nominated documentary A Time for Burning, which focused on white Omaha’s staunch resistance to the kind of black independence he embodied.

He remained a part-time barber there even after becoming a state senator. His barber chair not only served as lectern and pulpit but as an extension of his public office and a conduit for his District 11 constituents. This was all made possible by Goodwin welcoming a vital ideological discourse and debate in his shop.

“Definitely,” Chambers said.

As outspoken as Goodwin is himself, he said he couldn’t very well deny the floor to someone else who believes in the credo — “I have to tell it like it is.”

Chambers found in Goodwin a kindred spirit. “I liked the kind of person he was. We got along very well. He’s true to his beliefs. He rented me a chair and I stayed there for years and years.” In him, Goodwin found “a young man who could articulate like nobody I’ve ever known. He always had answers. He did his homework. He knew what he was doing and saying. People were really impressed with him. And we communicated real good. We were really seeing things so much alike.” Not that they didn’t disagree. “Oh, we used to argue nose to nose.”

Even though Chambers long ago left his barber chair to focus full-time on his duties in the Nebraska Legislature, the two men remain close. “We talk all the time,” Goodwin said. “He’s a great influence. I’m just impressed with his brilliance. So, it’s friendship and mutual respect.”

He loathes the possibility of Chambers being forced out of office by term limits. “It’ll be a big void. Nobody’s more committed. His whole life is what he does in the legislature. I mean, everyday he’s working on something involving the people.”

Goodwin isn’t loud or rash when offering his own considered opinions. He listens intently to what others say. But, make no mistake, he’s The Man in the shop. He commands respect by virtue of the dues he’s paid as a small businessman, community activist, role model and mentor.

In the ‘60s he hit the streets protesting injustice as a member of the 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties). Unlike other organizations here that were reluctant “to confront” the system, the 4CL “believed in going out and demonstrating. It was an action group,” he said. “We integrated different places and we petitioned for jobs and open housing. We marched on city hall. We did things like this that brought about some changes. We were considered troublemakers and that’s what it takes to get the changes.”

Now in his sixth decade in business at essentially the same location (his shop was originally housed in a building directly north of his present site), Goodwin has seen it all along North 24th Street. He’s been there for the high times and the low times. For the promenade of people and cars that once made this strip the hub and spot to see and be seen. For the riots that torched or trashed much of the business district. For the inevitable decline that brought a great community down and emptied out most of the buildings (his is the only one on the west side of his block). And for the revival now underway in north Omaha.

He’s never left the area, he said, “because this is where I feel comfortable.”

Chambers admires Goodwin and applauds him for remaining in the heart of the community, where he and his shop provide stability and continuity. “And especially when he continues to grow personally and intellectually. It lets people know that not everybody who could go someplace else is going to do that. This is home and this is where we stay.  People do need to see that, especially the young ones. When they can see people (like Goodwin) who are in a position where they don’t have to hang around, but they choose to, that lets them know there’s something of value in our community and a benefit to staying here.”

One of 14 children, Goodwin’s bedrock values come from his late parents, Joseph and Martha. As their bible-inspired names suggest, he said, “they were “strong believers. They were the best examples of living right I ever saw in my life. If we were seeing more of that today, we wouldn’t have the kind of problems we have.”

As he looks around at the way society’s changed with its relaxation of morals and standards in things like language, clothes, drugs, music, sex and violence, he said: “I feel a lot of frustration. There used to be rules. Nobody was perfect, but at least we knew right from wrong. There were certain lines you wouldn’t cross. Now, there’s no line. The message now is, Whatever you want to do, it’s OK. It’s out there. It’s a whole different culture, the drug culture. I don’t blame kids. I blame my generation. We allowed the rule book to get thrown out. And I’m not a fool or anything. I’m not even into religion. I’m into right. I’ll believe in right till I die.”

It hurts him to see his community still embroiled in the quest for equality.

“I think this community like all communities in the inner city in America has big problems and the problems are even bigger now than they have been. Schools are in trouble. The job situation is bad. Drugs. There are so many things plaguing us now. It’s really interfered with what we called The Struggle. A lot of our young people are not even enlightened about the things we did struggle to try to change. I don’t feel real good about it sometimes, but you can’t put up your hands. You just do what you can and keep pushing.”

His own social-political consciousness was formed, in part, by his experiences in the U.S. Navy. He left Tech High at age 17 to enlist. “I was like a kid on an adventure. I never considered making it a career,” he said. “It was a good experience. But I went through a lot in the military. I went through boot camp with only one other black in my company. In the tent I was in in the Philippines, I was the only black. I’d hear things. I didn’t start nothin’, but I wouldn’t take nothin’. Every time I had a fight, they thought they could just say anything — the ‘n’ word, you name it — and I didn’t take it. But, you know what, it wasn’t that I was tough. I was dealing with cowards and they weren’t looking for much of a reaction. I must admit sometimes after I finished off one of those people, the other Caucasians would say, ‘Man, he had it coming.’”

Once back home he confronted racism all over again. “Racism’s everywhere,” he said. But as a service veteran he was outraged when an Omaha Public Schools official discouraged him from completing his high school education. And he was angry at the way his people were denied opportunities, mistreated in public places and brutalized by police. His activism began as soon as he graduated barber school and opened his own shop. Being his own boss and his own man is everything to him.

“See, I could work for anybody, but I have to be treated like everybody else. If you’re going to make it a double standard, I couldn’t take it.”

Always one to improve himself, Goodwin began weight training at 40, jogging in his 50s and competitive power lifting at 68. A world-class competitor in the masters division, the ripped 73-year-old holds many state and national records. He’s traveled as far away as India and South Africa to compete. “I’m having a lot of fun. I’m really enjoying it.” The same with barbering. “I don’t even consider retiring. I’m doing what I like. I’m doing what takes care of me. It’s mine.”

Omaha’s black sirens of song and spoken word

February 15, 2016 3 comments

Omaha’s black sirens of song and spoken word

Here is a collection of stories I have done on some amazingly gifted black singers and spoken word artists whose work enriches all our lives. Just focusing on women artists in this post.

 

 

Kathy Tyree 

 

 

 

Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald

Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Ella, the dramatic musical revue of the life of American songbook diva Ella Fitzgerald at the Omaha Community Playhouse, reveals the anguish behind the legendary performer’s sweet voice and carefree persona.

Call it kismet or karma, but the woman portraying her is veteran Omaha chanteuse Kathy Tyree, whose ebullient, easy-going public face has similarly disguised her own torment.

The high points surely outweigh the low points in their respective lives but Tyree’s experienced, much as Ella did, her share of failed relationships, including two divorces, and myriad financial struggles.

“I’m in a much better place now,” Tyree says.

Known for her bright spirit and giving heart, Tyree’s usually worked a regular job to support her and her son. Currently, she’s program manager at Omaha Healthy Start. A few years ago she used all her savings and 401K to launch her own production company and after a rousing start one bad show broke the business.

The enigmatic Fitzgerald died in 1996 at age 79 with few outside her inner circle knowing her private travails because her handlers sanitized her regal image as the First Lady of Song.

As Tyree researched Fitzgerald’s life for the role, which director Susie Baer Collins offered without an audition, she identified with what Ella did to separate, if not always reconcile, her private and public sides.

“She was very weak and very strong at the same time,” Tyree says of Ella. “She had all these secrets and these hurts, all this internal pain, but she always held it together. She was at the top, she was international, she was the goddess of scat.”

Fitzgerald was respected for her dignified demeanor, the purity of her well-modulated voice and her perfect elocution, though some criticized her for being too precise, too pristine, too white. All of it helped to popularize jazz.

Tyree says the adoration that flowed Ella’s way was due to her talent but also to “how she carried herself as a black woman,” adding, “She wasn’t Lady Day (Billie Holiday), she wasn’t drinking and popping pills and going through all these changes publicly. That takes a lot.”

Before getting the role Tyree was lukewarm about the singer. Her favorite female artists were Diana Ross, Patti Labelle and Cher. After months listening to the Ella canon, Tyree says ,”I have a completely different appreciation for her. Now I am a fan. This woman was a walking instrument. She could do just amazing things with her voice.”

 

 

Kathy Tyree as Ella

 

Because the script peels back the layers of myth around Fitzgerald’s antiseptic image, Tyree now feels connected to the real woman behind the silky voice and prim and proper mask

“There’s so much more to her than was allowed to be shared with the world. She definitely has a story, she definitely was singing from a place of pain. In rehearsals I began seeing a lot of the parallels between us.”

Both grew up fatherless and both lost a sister. By their mid-teens both were mixed up in the wrong crowd. Just as performing saved Fitzgerald, it gave the “rebellious” Tyree a purpose and discipline she’d lacked. She began singing in church, at Morningstar Baptist, where she still attends today, and at Omaha Technical High School. Outside of her faith, performing is Tyree’s spiritual sanctuary.

“For me theater and music are my therapy but from everything I’ve learned about Ella it was more like her drug. For me it takes me to another place and it gives me a peace and a calm. I leave everything outside. It’s like this is a whole other world.”

Just as performing helped Tyree cope with insecurities, she guesses it did so for Ella, whose character in the show says, “I’m always OK when I’m on the stage. When I’m not working, I turn off, I get lost.”

Tyree’s usual reticence about her own turmoil isn’t to protect a well-manufactured facade, but a personal credo she inherited.

“I shared with Susie (Baer Collins) in a read-through that in my family we have a rule – you never look like what you’re going through. Though I’ve been through a lot, I’ve had a lot of heartbreak and heartache, I never look like what I’m going through, and that was Ella.

“It’s a pride thing. I was raised by strong black women. These women had to work hard. Nobody had time for that crying and whining stuff.

It was, ‘Straighten your face up, get yourself together, keep it moving.’”

She says what she doesn’t like about Ella is “the very same thing I don’t like in myself,” adding, “Ella didn’t have enough respect for herself to know what she deserved. She didn’t have those examples, she didn’t have a father. People always say little boys need their fathers, well little girls need their fathers. too. They need somebody to tell them they’re beautiful. They deserve somebody in their life that isn’t going to abuse them. When you don’t have that you find yourself hittin’ and missin’, trying to figure it out, searching for that acceptance and that love. That’s very much our shared story.”

That potent back story infuses Tyree’s deeply felt interpretations of  Fitzgerald standards. Tyree’s singing doesn’t really sound anything like her stage alter ego but she does capture her heart and soul.

 

 

Kathy Tyree as Ella

 

Tyree, a natural wailer, has found crooning ballad and scat-styles to conjure the spirit of Ella. Tyree makes up for no formal training and the inability to read music with perfect pitch and a highly adaptable voice.

“My voice is very versatile and my range is off the charts,” Tyree says matter-of-factly. “I can sing pretty much anything you put in front of me because it’s all in my ear. I’ve been blessed because they (music directors) can play it one time and I get it.”

She considers herself a singer first and an actress second, but in Ella she does both. She overcame initial doubts about the thick book she had to learn for the part.

“It’s a lot of lines and a lot of acting and a lot of transitions because I’m narrating her life from 15 years-old to 50.

But after months of rehearsal Tyree’s doing what she feels anointed to do in a space where she’s most at home.

“This is where I get to be lost and do what I do best, this is where I don’t miss. I think it’s because it’s coming from a sincere place. My number one goal is that everybody in the audience leaves blessed. I want to pour something out of me into them. I want ’em to leave on a high. It’s not about me when I’m on stage. This is God-given and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it to deliver.”

This popular performer with a deep list of musical theater credits (Ain’t Misbehavin’Beehive) feels she’s inhabiting the role of a lifetime and one that may finally motivate her to stretch herself outside Omaha.

“I’m still like blown away they asked me to come do this show. I still have goals and dreams and things I want to do. As you go through your journey in life there’s things that hinder those goals and dreams and they cause you to second guess and doubt yourself – that maybe I don’t have what it takes. I’m hoping this will instill in me the courage to just go for it and start knocking on some of those doors.”

Ella continues through March 30. For times and tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunityplayhouse.com.

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Camille Metoyer Moten

I have had the distinct pleasure now of profiling a handful of Omaha’s chanteuses – those vexing songbirds of the nightclub or cabaret set who enchant as much with their attitude as with their voice. The magic they imbue a song with has everything to do with how they interpret the words and music, bending notes with tone, texture, posture, expression. One such songstress is Camille Metoyer Moten, who fairly oozes sophisticated style.  This piece I did on her for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared a few years ago. More recently, I’ve written about two more sisters of the Great American Songbook in Karrin Allyson and Anne Marie Kenny.  You can find my stories about these other artists on this same blog.  I still hope to write about the most legendary of the cabaret singers from Omaha, namely Julie Wilson.

 

Camille Metoyer Moten, A singer for all seasons

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Excuse the shameless alliteration, but singer Camille Metoyer Moten often gets props for her versatile chops, a quality she amply displayed in concert at the Multi-Faith Music Festival last month. In short order the Omaha native effortlessly went from a jazzy cabaret interpretation of the Harold Arlen standard “Over the Rainbow” to a soaring duet with Seth Fox of “Make Our Garden Grow” from the Leonard Bernstein classic Candide to wailing solo and harmony turns on the Rent anthem “Seasons of Love.”

Her classically trained mezzo soprano hit all the requisite notes, leaving no doubt she could call on more if required. She confirmed this in a recent interview at the north Omaha home she and her husband Michael Moten, pastor of One Way Ministry church, share. If necessary she said she can still find the first soprano notes she once reached automatically as a Xavier University voice major in New Orleans in the early 1970s, where she sang with the school’s noted jazz band and in clubs around town. Ellis Marsalis often sat in with her and the Xavier crew.

As impressive as she was that night at All Saints Episcopal Church, where she shone the brightest on a talent-rich festival bill, it was just another example of how easily she swings from one thing to another. Last spring she sang opposite Broadway veteran Kevyn Morrow in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s mega production of Ragtime. She’s a musical theater legend there, with two Fonda/McGuire Awards to her credit. But she’s best known for her cabaret shows. Lately, she’s been laying down tracks for her first CD, Go Forward, a mix of contemporary religious music. Then there’s her work at One Way Ministry, where she leads the choir and sings solos. She’s also a regular in Opera Omaha and Soli Deo Gloria Cantorum concerts.

She can sing anything,” said Playhouse music director Jim Boggess. Pianist- producer-conductor Chuck Penington, a frequent accompanist of hers, said, “She has a very broad repertoire. She can go clear across the 20th century in music. She knows lots and lots of material and she sings it all really authentically.”

Metoyer Moten, who began singing at home imitating “the silky, velvety sound” of song stylists Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald she listened to on her mother’s records, finds satisfaction in having “a lot of versatility. That’s one of the reasons I stay so busy,” she said. “That was my goal when I first started out. I wanted to be able to do it all. I love it all so. I love the fact I can do that. I love when people say, ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’” Long fascinated by how those legends got just the right inflection or phrasing, she’s now the model of cool, the caress of her voice enveloping a lyric, pulling you into the embrace of its meaning.

As those who work with her are quick to point out, her artistry extends beyond technique. “She has an innate sense of musical style and makes the message in a lyric very personal,” said Opera Omaha artistic director Hal France. “You can talk about voice and her voice is warm and compelling, but you can’t separate voice from life experience, intelligence and soul. I suppose if one can bring all of that together in performance then you really have something, and Camille does.”

Camille Metoyer Moten

 

The 52-year-old mother of two draws on many things. Her grandpa Vic and dad Ray ran the family business, Metoyer’s Barbecue, on North 24th Street. She said in one of the late ‘60s riots her fair-skinned father went there to “protect” the place. “As he stood outside a group of teens advanced and he overheard one say, ‘Let’s get him,’ thinking he was white, before another one said, ‘No, man, that’s Metoyer” and moved on.” Her dad was president of the Nebraska Urban League. Her folks were “involved” in the 4CL civil rights group. As a child she marched on city hall with them demanding fair housing and she met Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson.

While a Burke High School senior her mother died from a brain tumor. She said her mom was “a great singer.” Family legend has it she even landed an audition with Duke Ellington, “but never did anything with it,” except harmonize with her children, choosing life as a homemaker over touring torch singer. The loss of her mom occurred the same year Burke’s then music director denied Metoyer Moten a part in a production of Guys and Dolls due to her race. Years later she helped overturn bias in local theater by winning nontraditional roles — Mary Magdalene, Fanny Brice and Eva Peron — which helped make it happen for other minorities. “I do feel like I kind of opened the door to that color blind casting,” she said.

At lily white Burke things weren’t so enlightened. “I had some issues there,” she said. A sympathetic drama teacher did come to her “with tears in her eyes and said, ‘I just want you to know it had nothing to do with your talent. That man said he’s not having no black girl kiss a white boy on his stage.’ It was messed up. I was crushed but I appreciated her honesty.” After graduating she fled Omaha, at 17, for a new start down south, in Louisiana, where her dad’s Creole family hailed from.

“It was a bad year,” she said. “So I went to New Orleans. It was kind of just an opportunity to get away from the whole thing.” To her “roots.”

The Crescent City proved a tonic. There, blond afro and all, she trained her voice, met her husband, underwent a born again conversion and discovered jazz. With “so much” to engage her, what most enamored her was “the heart and soul of the people. They live their culture. The music and the food, it’s so them, and I admire that,” she said, “because it’s just a passion you don’t see other places. It’s a very spiritual place.” It’s where jazz first truly spoke to her. “Growing up and listening to the jazz artists my mother had was one thing. Then to see and feel the passion of the jazz artists there was a totally different thing.” She came to see it as an inheritance. “I had all these peers that had come from generations of jazz players. So I was surrounded with all these incredibly gifted musicians from that city.”

Partying her way through college, she found an eager playmate in a local boy named Michael Moten. Raised a Catholic, she’d fallen away from organized religion. He was no churchgoer himself. But then he made a resolution to “get closer to God” and made good on it. She did, too. “It completely changed our life,” she said.

The couple married and in 1979 acted on the advice of her dad, a counselor at Boys Town, to apply as family teachers there. They flew in on a Friday and nailed the interview. They went back to New Orleans on a high after landing the jobs. The following Monday her father was shot and killed at the family’s eatery by a deranged woman he’d fired a year before. He was 52. The “drugged-out” woman had harassed him and the family by phone, spewing “profanities.” “Just a senseless death,” Metoyer Moten said. “My father was such a giving man. His funeral was massive. So many people turned out because he was a great guy.”

Camille Metoyer Moten

 

Upon her return to town in ‘79 she began gigging in theater and concert settings.

Having endured the pain of losing both parents prematurely, she has a well of emotions to summon in coloring her soulful cabaret work. For someone as shy as she, the intimacy of that performing “took some getting used to,” she said. As a girl she used to sneak downstairs to dress up in her mother’s red cape with leopard trim and mimic what she imagined an elegant jazz singer in a club must look and sound like. Her mother would creep down the stairs to listen, the creak of the steps giving her away, enough to make the self-conscious Camille clam up.

Metoyer Moten prefers the “nice distance” a theater’s stage and lights provide as a buffer from audiences, but she’s come to embrace the “freer style” of cabaret, even if it exposes her. “When you’re doing that cabaret thing they’re right there, you know. You might spit on them. which has happened,” she said, cracking her big easy laugh. “I just talk…about my panty hose… whatever, and people like that. People get involved and talk back. It’s fun. It’s helped me get over that shyness.”

Her laidback vibe wins over everyone. “She’s truly one of the funniest people I have ever met in my life,” Boggess said. “A wonderful sense of humor. She doesn’t take herself very seriously. She is so easy to work with because she’s always open to suggestions. But she’s usually right about what’s right for her. I just love working with that girl. I love her to death. And she breaks my heart when she sings.”

One of Camille Metoyer Moten’s many upcoming engagements is singing for the Omaha Holiday Lights Festival concert Thanksgiving night at the Gene Leahy Mall.

Here’s my Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) piece about how beloved Omaha performing artist Camille Metoyer Moten used social media as a communnication and connection point to share her odyssey with cancer and her reliance on faith for getting through the illness. On my blog you can find other stories I’ve done on Camille, who is an inspiration through her work and her life.

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Camille Metoyer Moten

Faith, Friends and Facebook

The Journey of Camille Metoyer Moten

When cancer struck beloved Omaha performer Camille Metoyer Moten, she shared her odyssey and faith on Facebook

January 7, 2015
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Now appearing in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
Popular singer-actress Camille Metoyer Moten is a fun-loving, free-spirited soldier of faith.

 

Robinlyn Sayers transforms herself into Hattie McDaniel in “Hi Hat Hattie”
Vivacious Robinlyn Sayers seemingly came out of nowhere to mesmerize Omaha theatergoers with her captivating portray of Hattie McDaniel in a one-woman show at the Blue Barn Theatre.  The niece of football legend Gale Sayers and the daughter of the less well known but equally gifted Roger Sayers, Robinlyn was in the process of trying to reinvent herself when I met her.  She was already a distinguished medical professional but she also possessed serious chops as a singer and actress and was intrigued with the idea of doing something professionally with those skills, too, perhaps even transforming herself into a full-time performer.  The show at the Blue Barn was her Omaha stage debut and after its success she moved to Texas for another medical position.  I lost contact with her along the way and now I see she’s working as the chief financial officer for Family Service Center of Galveston County.  I trust she still performs now and then, because she’s been blessed with a great gift and it was her desire to heal people not just through health and medical services but through song and theater.  My story about her originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly.

 

Leontyne Price, American opera singer

Image via Wikipedia

 

A woman under the influence

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published by the Omaha City Weekly

 

After a diverse medical career that ranged from molecular research to community health, Omahan Robinlyn Sayers, M.D., now applies a form of healing arts, with a capital A, in service of the theater, where she’s found a home for her many dreams and talents. Fresh off a one-woman tour de force portraying the late Academy Award-winning actress Hattie McDaniel in the Blue Barn Theater production of Larry Parr‘s Hi Hat Hattie, for which her singing and acting drew raves, Sayers sees a parallel between what she did in medicine and what she does in drama. That congruence is like the kinship she feels with McDaniel, a kind of alter ego for her.

“I feel like I’m still healing on the stage,” said Sayers, a living-out-loud figure whose juke joint voice drips with honey, gin, sex and smoke and whose round, expressive eyes fill easily with tears. “I always wanted to cure. I never wanted to be somebody to just push a thermometer or check a yeast infection. I never wanted to be that simplistic. Now, it’s so gratifying to go up there for two hours on the stage and make people cry or smile or forget what happened at home. I just want to make people feel inspired, motivated, hopeful. Afterwards, they come to you and they’re so fulfilled. Like this is the best thing in their life. It’s like I’m their wonder drug.”

Sayers herself finds acting such an elixir that she’s put her work in medicine on hiatus to forge a new life in the theater, an arena she plans using to reach people. “I’m going to be very selective in the types of pieces I become involved in,” she said. “I really want to only be involved in things that are both educational and entertaining. They need to have some element of truth to them. They need to convey some sort of a message or theme or issue or be somewhat political.”

That she made her Omaha dramatic debut as Hattie McDaniel, a woman whose story intersects with her own, makes it all seem fated. “It was just God for me to be able to do this show,” Sayers said. “My goodness…there’s so many things that are similar in our lives.” Both are the youngest of Midwest families. Each dreamed of going on stage from an early age. Each married more than once without bearing a child. Like Hattie, Sayers possesses what Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, who directed her in the play, called “a zest for life and a passion for the work. She’s so intelligent and she has such a desire to tell the story.”

Like Hattie, she’s soldiered on. “I like the struggles and challenges of life,” said Sayers, whose Birth of the Blues rendition is a soul-stirring summation of the black experience. And, like high-living Hattie, she said, “I give the best parties in town.”

Throwing herself into the demanding one-woman show that encompasses 80 pages of dialog and song, Sayers did extensive research on McDaniel and the Jazz Era and spent extra hours working with Toberer on character nuances. “I had to be so focused for that show,” Sayers said. “I had to isolate everybody from my life. I put in six hours a day with Susan (Toberer), not to mention what I did at home. I put a lot into it.” During the February 6 through 29 run Sayers also cultivated some rituals to help her get in character and commune with Hattie’s spirit. For example, before the curtain went up she got in the habit of quickly running through the show backstage and she enlisted the crew, including Toberer and the play’s musical directorKeith Hart, who also played the mute pianist on stage, to pray with her.

“It was all about ushering in Hattie,” Sayers explained. “There were times when we had ushered in so many feelings, it would be scary. I wouldn’t even feel like me. I mean, there were times I felt like I was Hattie McDaniel. There was one night, and it was the last night, when I really, truly felt it. She’d won her Oscar 65 years ago that same day (as brassy Mammy in Gone with the Wind).”

“Even now,” months removed from the show, “I’m not quite separated from her,” said Sayers, adding the experience of getting so close to a figure she admires “was magical for me.” The connection she feels is so acute, she said she likes to think that “if Hattie could have chosen someone to do this role — someone with balls enough to really get her record straight for the fabulous actress and entertainer she was — that I would be the one to do it.”

She’s likely to get a chance at playing Hattie again if the Blue Barn can secure the rights to the show for an as yet undetermined revival that may go on tour.

Performing has been a dream of Sayers, a native of north Omaha’s Florence area, forever. But until a couple years ago, she’d done little to heed her hunger aside from playing the lead in two Little Theater dramas at Tuskegee University, where she earned a biology degree. Despite scoring successes on stage in college, her drama aspirations were deferred in favor of her burgeoning genetic research career.

She first made a splash in academia when her research won her awards and opportunities to present papers at national conferences. Then, using her bravura persona to get noticed, she landed a job, at age 24, with the National Cancer Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. Her NIH stint found her working in the lab of Robert Gallo, the renowned medical scientist who first isolated the AIDS virus. It was the late 1980s, a momentous period in the scientific-medical community’s investigation of AIDS and a heady time for Sayers.

“I was able to get into it (AIDS research) when it was just blowing up,” she said. “All the talents I have and all the things I learned over the years — to be able to isolate and sequence and clone — I got from working with the AIDS virus. I was blessed to be right there when they were just starting to do some really fundamental things in molecular biology. It just opened up a whole bunch of other things for me.”

Sayers has been something of a curiosity in the various labs she’s worked in over the years because she’s an M.D. without a Ph.D. “My expertise as a molecular biologist is just from OST — On the Job Training,” she said, adding there’s a weird gulf between holders of the alphabet soup titles, so much so that Ph.Ds responded to her with incredulity. “They were like, ‘Who do you think you are? We’ve gone to graduate school and defended our dissertations. Why didn’t you go to graduate school?’ And I’d tell ’em, ‘Because I have a million other things I want to do.’ And I didn’t ever want to be just clinical. Never did.”

 

 

Hattie McDaniel stamp

Hattie McDaniel

 

Doing cutting edge research appealed to Sayers’ sense of discovery, but since she didn’t want always to be confined to a lab, she went after and got her M.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Any acting thoughts were put on hold during medical school, especially when she got married. The marriage didn’t last.

After college, she worked with Boys Town National Research Hospital’s renowned Dominic Cosgrove in exploring Alports Syndrome, an inherited kidney disease that can result in deafness. Then, she and her second husband moved to Texas, where she was a microbiology and immunology research associate at the Baylor College of Medicine. Her days revolved around research, leaving little time for anything else.

“It’s a very consuming life. You’re talking 80 hours a week, seven days a week,” she said. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure I had to put on my technicians and on myself to pay very close attention to details. In science, you can’t have flaws. Your data has to be statistically significant and reproducible. You spend many hours not sleeping because you’re worried whether your incubation period is going to work out and if the temperature is going to be all right.”

Deferring one dream to pursue another has been the pattern of her life. Acting just had to wait until her passion for research ran its course. “I’m a dreamer. And the thing with me is…I have all these dreams and I know it’s just a matter of time before I knock them all out. I just go for one, and go for the other, and go for the other…and just live.” For a long time, she kept her performing ambition to herself. “A lot of times I’m afraid to share my dreams because people, you know, poison them and get you distracted and make you doubt yourself,” she said.

The youngest child of straight-laced parents, Roger Sayers and Madeline Adams Sayers, she never acted before college, but instead threw herself into her passion for animals — she was forever bringing home stray dogs — and science — she and her brother dissected salamanders and frogs. She worked for local veterinarian Bill Lofton. Her love for animals was so great, she began her Tuskegee studies in animal science, but she changed her mind after a mentor convinced her that as a bright, bold African-American female she could go far in human medicine.

As a kid, she did sing briefly with the Salem Baptist Church youth choir. Otherwise, the Northwest High grad strutted her stuff in cheerleading, gymnastics, swimming and track activities. The fact she found an outlet for self-expression in sports is no accident, as she hails from one of Nebraska’s most prominent athletic families. Her father Roger was a top American sprinter and NAIA football player at then-Omaha University in the early 1960s. Her legendary uncle, Gale, is a member of both the college and pro football halls of fame following All-America and All-Pro careers with Kansas University and the Chicago Bears, respectively.

All her other performing was done privately, before friends and family, or secretly, as when she learned all the lines of a play her siblings appeared in at north Omaha’s old Afro-Academy. She was, she said, “a closet performer.” As she got older, she rarely performed publicly. There were the two plays she starred in in college. Then, while an NU Medical School student, she let her hair down singing a cover of Roberta Flack’s The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face at an on-campus multicultural affairs concert. When an unexpectedly large crowd showed up, she got stage fright. As if the packed house wasn’t bad enough, she was unfamiliar with the lyrics. Then, the canned music went out mid-song, forcing her to finish acapella.

“I went all the way back in the closet,” she said of that performance nightmare.

It wasn’t until moving to Texas she ventured on stage again when, at the prodding of her second husband, who “loved to hear me sing,” she sang at a string of honky tonk karaoke bars. With a penchant for singing country music and overturning people’s stereotypes, she’d go into a black bar and defiantly belt out a Shania Twain hit. “When the twang would start up,” she said, “people would be like,’Wrong song, wrong song,’ and by the end they would be like, ‘Yee-haw.’ We’d have ’em going, and it’d be so great that I’d think, Hey, I might be kinda good.”

Still, she didn’t try out for her first play in Omaha for two years after moving back here in 2001. Her second marriage had ended. She wasn’t ready. “I was down that I couldn’t stick it out like other women and stay married,” she said. As usual, she immersed herself in work, this time at the Charles Drew Health Center, advocating  for the homeless and running the center’s chronic disease management program.

Finally, in 2003, she reached a now-or-never point in her drama dreams. “I was like, ‘I have left both of my husbands. I have no children. I’m about to turn 39, so go for it, girl, go for it.'” Without telling a soul, she auditioned for a staging of the Fats Waller revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the John Beasley Theater and won a part. Theater founder and guru, John Beasley, the film and TV actor, took her under his wing, telling her, “You∂ve got it” — meaning the acting gift. “She’s definitely got it,” he said. “She has the talent, the presence and the personality.”

She followed up Ain’t Misbehavin‘ with a part in Little Shop of Horrors at the Millenium. It was there she met Keith Hart, who told her she’d be perfect for Hi Hat Hattie, a production of which he’d worked in in Kansas City. He sold the Blue Barn on the play and about “how completely” Sayers “threw herself into a character and a song” and how “tough and gutsy” she was. “I knew Hattie needed to be kind of a tough broad,” Hart said. One thing led to another and the Blue Barn added the play to its season and Sayers won the part in an open audition.

As much as her talent impressed Toberer and Hart, her work ethic may have won them over even more. For the audition and rehearsal process, Sayers steeped herself in all things Hattie. Untrained as an actress, she gave herself over to Toberer’s direction, learning to “link” and “pull” emotions from her own life to serve her character; for certain scenes, she drew on troubled relationsips and disturbing memories of racism. “There was unlimited discovery for me,” she said.

Among the discoveries was a tolerance for things not going according to plan, something “the control freak” struggled with in the tyranny of the lab. “It’s made me, at 39, give myself a break in life,” she said. “The last week of the show, I felt like I was running track again. When you start rockin’ and you own the show, you feel like you’re in the starting blocks again. It’s fun…crazy…exciting. I love it.”

She hopes to “ride” the momentum from Hi Hat as long as it lasts. On John Beasley’s advice, she’s taken the plunge and is seeking regional theater and film gigs in larger markets, the very path he took in launching his career. Now residing in Galveston, Texas, she recently turned heads at a Houston audition where 25 theater directors saw her. “I’m auditioning like crazy. I get great comments every time. I have been using a monologue from Hi Hat Hattie. So Hattie is still helping me.” She’s intent on going after any role that interests her and on avoiding being typecast.  If acting doesn’t work out, well, she’s already been back to school preparing for a health administration career and is in the running for a research associate spot. Either way, she said, “This is what I’m supposed to do…inspire people to dream.”

 

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Felicia Webster and Michelle Troxclair

Spoken word.  The word-based performance art ranges the gamut in terms of style and form.  But it’s best practitioners usually deliver emotive, intelligent work touching on personal, social, cultural, political themes and featuring a lyrical rhythm and rhyme cadence not unlike that of song.  Spoken word events can highlight a range of approaches and subjects that stretch your mind.  My soon to appear story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) profiles one of the Omaha metro area’s most diverse spoken word events, Verbal Gumbo, and the two women who stir its pot, Felicia Webster and Michelle Troxclair.

 

 

Picture

Picture

Images of WithLove Felicia

 

Spoken word soul sisters stir the verbal gumbo pot to keep it real and flavorful

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Soul sister poetesses Michelle Troxclair and Felicia “WithLove” Webster stir the pot to make the spicy mix of Verbal Gumbo, the spoken word series throwing down the third Thursday of every month at House of Loom.

The artists launched the series last fall at the invitation of Loom’s Brent Crampton.

“Felicia and Michelle have brought a consistently diverse, experimental and truthfully honest night of poetry and performance. They’re two very strong women in our community that have been really active in the social progressive and arts scene here,” says Crampton. “They help us to live out our mission here with social issues and culture and bringing people together.”

Gumbo’s beats and hipsters fit right in at Loom, 1012 South 10th Street, with its music-dance cultural blends and crafted cocktails.

The spoken word sets are as diverse as the poets themselves. Some pieces are intensely personal. Others, political. Some call for action, others ask you to think.

The mic’s evenly shared across genders and races, with people standing to deliver everything from private testimonies to slam spits to hip hop rhymes to indignant rants to preacher-like sermons to social justice screeds to inspired songs.

“This is a very open, diverse atmosphere and we’re not in judgment of how people choose to be in the world,” says Webster, an arts educator. “Diversity is how we present ourselves here. We’re ‘edutainers.’ If somebody comes up and shares a poem about abuse, well that gives us an opportunity to have a conversation about it.”

“Disseminating information that is going to charge people to heal, to change, to move, to educate, to motivate is also a part of what we do at Verbal Gumbo,” says Webster.  “The issues in the community we come from are very deep. There are a lot of wounds, some of them still open. Having a platform where you are not being judged for what you do or what you say or how you say it allows people to get up there.”

“It’s a healing. Like I have anger management issues and I have to write it and say it, it has to come out. It’s a cleansing experience. And that’s what a lot of people are using this for. People share things on this microphone they wouldn’t share anywhere else. We’re here to provide the platform for people to share and to be transparent and vulnerable,” says Troxclair, a former arts and social services administrator.

Michelle Troxclair

Michelle Troxclair

 

 

Poet Ruth Marimo’s raw story of surviving an abusive relationship, being arrested as an illegal alien and coming out as a lesbian has been embraced there. The Zimbabwe native and mother of two reels about the seemingly contradictory facets of her life in her intense yet whimsical piece, “Who Am I?”

I’m a stranger to my own mother,

A child with no parent,

A sister with no siblings,

An immigrant to this land,

An alien to my own nation.

Who am I?

I’m everything I’m not supposed to be,

A Lesbian who owns no cats,

A literate African,

An educated fool,

A voice that can’t be silenced,

A turbulence that can’t be calmed,

An answer that can’t be found…

Marimo describes how for her Gumbo debut “both Michelle and Felicia really took me in with open arms and under their wing,” adding, “Everyone has just been very supportive.”

 

 

Ruth Marimo

 

 

Troxclair says Marimo’s “very tragic story that’s had this phenomenal outcome” is among many stories of personal transformation told there.

“Sometimes someone will say something that someone needed to hear. That’s how it works here. We’re all about that,” says Webster.

Judging, formally or informally, has no place at Verbal Gumbo.

Troxclair says, “Part of my housecleaning when I get up there is to say, ‘It’s difficult to come up here and put your soul and your life experience up on this microphone and so if you don’t like what you’re hearing be quiet.’ We do not allow anybody to be criticized belittled or demeaned in any way. That’s not what we’re here for.”

“When somebody’s on the mic, we respect the mic,” Webster likes to say.

“People are comfortable here,” says Troxclair. “They feel loved, respected and  honored and part of something bigger than just themselves. People who wouldn’t set foot in a regular church, mosque, temple, whatever, say it’s almost like church because it’s an uplifting and spiritual experience.”

“Verbal Gumbo is my nondenominational church,” says Webster. “We’re speaking life into words, we’re breathing life into the experience. And we make everybody feel like family when they come in. There have been plenty of nights when I have needed to be lifted up. This is like my poetic-spiritual reciprocity. It feeds my soul, it mixes that gumbo pot up, adding spices when I’m needing a little cayenne pepper to get through.”

Cultivating new artists like Marimo is part of the deal.

“We adopt people on a regular basis,” says Troxclair. “I’m very much a mama and so I take in all strays. When people come in here and they share their stories we’re like, ‘You’re family.’  We embrace everybody we come into contact with and we want to make sure everybody feels like this is a home.”

Before her Jan. 17 Gumbo set Marimo said it herself. The author of the self-published memoir Freedom of an Illegal Immigrant says, “It’s something I look forward to every month because it’s such a welcoming space and it’s diverse.”

“The people who come through those doors come from such different backgrounds and are able to share their experiences and it feeds us for a number of reasons,” says Troxclair, “The level of talent is one. It’s always good to see talented people come and do what they do. Some of the things they talk about is another reason. They talk about everything from relationship stuff to political stuff to tragic life experiences. It’s just edifying.”

The styles and themes range from Marimo’s lyrical reflections to Webster’s old-school beatboxing to Developing Crisp’s rap-style hooks to Nathan Scott’s political history lesson to Paula Bell’s black woman identity manifesto that ends with, “So you can take it or you can leave it, I really don’t give a damn.”

 

 

 

 

 

The audience of creatives sits at cocktail tables and cabanas or stands at the bar. Onlookers really feeling it lean into a performance. It’s the epitome of Omaha Cool, complete with snapping fingers, knowing, nodding heads, raised drinks and adult conversation .

The women behind Gumbo have a long history celebrating The Word. Webster lays claim to organizing the metro’s first spoken word series at the defunct Dazy Maze in the late 1990s. She then left for Philadelphia, where she and Davina Natanya Stewart formed the spoken word duo Daughters of the Diaspora. Troxclair hails from a family of storytellers and has written and orated since youth. When Webster returned to Omaha a few years ago Troxclair recruited her for the Poetry in Motion series she hosted at Loves Jazz & Arts Center.

The diversity and the vibe of Loom, the pair say, help set Gumbo apart from other spoken word venues and events here.

“It brings people from all walks of life and every community in one spot and everybody enjoys each other and respects each other’s culture,” says Troxclair. “We’re open to all different kinds of audiences and artists.”

Gumbo’s wide-open aesthetic complements Loom’s ultra laid-back scene.

“It’s very chilled, very relaxed,” says Webster. “The antique furniture, the vintage feel, the exposed brick, the music, the artwork, it’s very eclectic. All of that creates the ambience that is totally different from any other place in Omaha. You feel like you’re not in Omaha for one night. It’s a whole other vibration. It’s for grown-ups. There’s this opportunity to be a part of a rich culture of artistic expression.”

That expression may include music, dance, body painting and moving to whatever groove grabs you. Small community vendors are invited to promote their side hustle goods and services. Webster and Troxclair say Gumbo’s also a networking-information forum, ala the black barbershop-salon, where community issues and events get discussed and personal problems get aired and vetted.

“It’s a lifeline,” says Webster.

The next Verbal Gumbo is Feb. 21. The event starts at 7 p.m. Admission is $5.

For series updates visit http://www.facebook.com/verbalgumbo.

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Zedeka Poindexter

This is a breakout season in the life and career of Omaha slam poetry champion Zedeka Poindexter.  Her work is getting in front of more and more people thanks to her live and YouTube performances, her readings, and her published pieces.  My Reader (www.thereader.com) story about her and her passion for all things poetry related, including the Nebraska Writers Collective and its Louder Than a Bomb Omaha festival, reveals a woman extremely passionate about what she does and supremely confident in her own skin.  Zedeka’s coached several teams in Louder Than a Bomb Omaha, which runs March 17 through most of April, but work commitments are preventing her from coaching this year.  Her heart though will be with the youth competing in the event.

 

Photo by Justin Limoges 

Zedeka Poindexter, ©Photo by Justin Limoges 

 

 

Bomb girl Zedeka Poindexter draws on family, food and angst for her poetry

©by Leo Adam Biga

For The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Three-time Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards poet nominee Zedeka Poindexter envies the performing outlets high school-age poets have today. The March 17-April 20 Louder Than a Bomb is a case in point. There wasn’t anything like it when she was in school.

“I was working in a notebook, I always did, but there was no place to go with these things,” says Poindexter, 39, who’s blowing up with her personal anthems about race, family, relationships, loss and blessings.

But as a teen her thoughts didn’t find a voice outside her private journals. That’s a far cry from today’s young poets, who have platforms galore for their innermost musings. Poindexter should know since she’s coached LTAB teams from Blackburn, Westside, Millard West and her alma mater, Omaha North.

“These kids are doing things that blow my mind and all I have to do is facilitate a space for them to do what they were already going to do anyway and help them figure out the best way to present it, These kids are fearless, they will tell you any personal story they have, They are incredibly courageous and just all by themselves so cool. It kind of fuels you as an artist, You’re like, If you’re doing this and you’re 16, what the hell’s my excuse.”

Just as LTAB gives youth an expressive arena, Poindexter uses slam and other opportunities to evolve her own work. For example, her Union for Contemporary Art fellowship will culminate in a new collection of poems that revolve around family recipes and food as focal point and bridge for familial divisions. She plans a May 2 reading and tasting.

“It’s a very different thing trying to write a series of poems that interconnect and relate to one another,” says Poindexter, who’s used to crafting slam’s more instinctive, one-off performance pieces.

In 2012 she became Omaha’s only female city slam champion.

“It has almost always been a white man. I might also be the only person of color who’s won, but I know I’m the only woman, so that’s a huge honor for me. I was a cranky woman that year because there was only one other woman and there wasn’t anybody else brown. I was like, ‘C’mon, y’all, can do better than this.’ I was pissed.”

She represented Omaha at the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam in Minneapolis, where she was voted an audience favorite.

“It’s all women, it’s all storytelling, it’s very affirming.”

Her work appears in the WOWPS anthology, Alight.

She’s not inclined to leave her slam roots. She has a long history with the Nebraska Writers Collective, whose head, Matt Mason, is the godfather of Omaha slam. He considers her “a cultural treasure for our community.”

“Zedeka is a nationally-known performance poet. You wouldn’t know by meeting her as she doesn’t name-drop or talk about all she’s accomplished, but her work is among the best in the country,” he says. “It’s been great to see her expand her role by publishing more lately as well as taking on the role of running Omaha’s poetry slam. She really does it all. She’s also a great presence in classrooms.”

In turn, Poindexter’s proud of her Collective family. “We’ve been a force for a good long time. We really had a pretty good run as far as accolades in the slam community. A lot of writers have grown beyond that and published work I really love.”

Beyond her Collective circle she’s studied with former Kennedy Center Imagination Celebration poet laureate Stacy Dyson and with storyteller A-Nanci Larenia Stallworth.

Recently, she joined novelist Joy Castro and poet Roger Gerberling for a Backwaters Press reading and paired with Nebraska state poet Twyla Hansen at the Kaneko Feedback Reading Series. Being matched with Hansen gave her pause.

“Being a slam artist is very different than being somebody who’s devoted their life basically to craft and teaching, which I have not done,” says Poindexter, who’s a thesis away from completing her master’s in communication at UNO. “But it turned out to be amazing. I think there are some people who exist strictly in the performative world and some who exist strictly in academia, but there is a lot of crossover.

“I think the bigger separation or chasm I noticed for awhile was a white scene and a black scene. Myself, i just went wherever the baddest ass readings were. They were different things but vitally important to how I grew as a writer and performer. The perception that anybody is not welcome at either place worries me.”

 

 

©photo by Eric David Herrera

 

 

She appreciates the diversity of the OEAAs and enjoyed doing her thing at last year’s awards show.

“The fact I got to perform poems really important to me before a roomful of artists and everybody got quiet was absolutely one of the most magical things.”

She often writes about the dynamics of her large African-American family. The Great Migration brought her people from the South to Chicago and Omaha. She mines their rich vein of idioms and imbroglios, delighting in food as a bond that nourishes and heals.

Her poem “Poor Relations” discusses her Omaha family line being branded inferior by their affluent Chicago relatives.

“There were struggles, we had our own personal dysfunctions but we were strong and we were happy. It’s been really cathartic to try to tell these stories and be honest about them.”

Born into a family of matriarchs who were “voracious readers,” Poindexter immersed herself in books and writing from an early age.

“Poetry’s been this thing that’s sustained me spiritually but it kind of existed outside regular life.”

She dabbled in theater and journalism but discovered her artistic home in the emergent slam and spoken word movement.

“I always wrote poems but I kind of started finding a community when Matt Mason ran readings at Borders years ago. There were Pop Tarts for prizes.”

She followed the local slam scene to the Om Center, where it’s still based.

Slam slayed her the first time she saw Def Jam. “I didn’t know what that thing was but I was going to figure out how to do that thing.”

She immersed herself in slam in Colorado, where she moved after losing her grandmother and anchor. She returned to Omaha a few years ago to be close to her spoken word soul sister, Felicia Webster, and to her slam girls, Katie F-S and Sarah McKinstry-Brown.

“Slam has saved me in more ways that I can think of. It feels right. If I migrate away from performance and writing I feel the atrophy of it. I like the fact I have a passion, that there’s this thing that drives me. I don’t know what I would do without that as a rudder.”

She wouldn’t know what to do without her creative community.

“I don’t know if I could function without having that sense of support. It’s afforded me most of the close friendships and safety nets I’ve experienced the last 15 years.”

She’s encouraged by the camaraderie LTAB students display. She’s still struck by what happened a few years ago when a Lincoln High team member lost her mother.

“As a team they decided they wanted to come to finals with all new work, including a piece that the girl who’d just lost her mother had written. And so they scrapped everything. There was no strategy, they were not worried about winning, they were like, This is the work we want to feature. They believed in it and they won, and it was so good. The thing that was so cool was they were willing to sacrifice to do this thing intrinsically personal to them. I’ll take that any time over people who live for the scores and stuff.”

She calls LTAB coaching “the best job ever.”

She feels confident about one day supporting herself as an artist and teacher. She may next pursue a master of fine arts degree,

“I don’t know many artists who value themselves for the work they do because it’s always something that’s never fully supported them,” says Poindexter, who works a corporate day job.

“Being valued for my artistry is something I’ve learned to do a lot better.”

Zedeka hosts the Om Center poetry slam the second Saturday of every month. Visit OmahaSlam.com.

View her performing at buttonpoetry.com.

For Louder Than a Bomb details, visit ltabomaha.org.

 

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The Jeanpierres and Family

I have the distinct pleasure of being friends with a remarkable group of women musical artists in Omaha who are all related to each other. Once in a while they gift the community with their individual and collective talents in concert. Their DIVA 3 concert on Sunday, February 8 at New Life Presbyterian Church will commemorate Black History Month with performances of arias and spirituals from the classical canon that celebrate the legacy of African-American women in classical music. Nola Jeanpierre, her daughter Carole Jeanpierre and Carole’s daughter Elyssia Reschelle Finch possess powerful, dramatic soprano voices that will raise the rafters and give you goosebumps. They are all classically-trained. Nola’s sister Johnice Orduna will add her fine vocals as well. As if that’s not enough this musical line, those three generations of performers will be joined by a fourth generation, in the person of Nola’s aunt, Claudette Valentine, who will accompany this family of vocalists on piano. It will be a program you won’t soon forget. Your heart and soul will never be the same. I’ve always thought that if someone with a video camera would record oen of this family’s concerts and post it to YouTube that the video would stand a good chance of going viral because people all over world will be struck by the magic of their music. Nola, Carole and Elyssia deserve the recognition.

 

 

Diva3 (NS)

 

 

BLACK HISTORY MONTH CONCERT DIVA 3 A TRIBUTE TO HISTORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMEN IN CLASSICAL MUSIC

Three generations of classically-trained Omaha singers bound by blood, faith and black musical heritage will perform a DIVA 3 concert on Sunday, February 8 at New Life Presbyterian Church, 4060 Pratt Street.

The 6 p.m. Black History Month show will feature Nola Jeanpierre, her daughter Carole N. Jeanpierre and Carole’s daughter Elyssia Reschelle Finch performing songs celebrating African-American women in classical music. In the tradition of Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle, the three local women will use their dramatic soprano voices to interpret arias and spirituals from the classical canon.

Nola is a veteran musical theater performer on Omaha stages. She portrayed Bloody Mary in South Pacific at the Omaha Community Playhouse. She sang the role of the High Priestess in the memorable Opera Omaha mounting of Aida at the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum. She’s the featured soloist at the St. Cecilia Cathedral Flower Show each year. She’s done summer stock back East. She traces her vocal abilities to her mother, Bernice Bragg.

 

Nola Jeanpierre

 

Carole Jeanpierre

Carole Jeanpierre

 

Carole has performed with national artists on stage and in the recording studio. She is often a guest soloist with the University of California Davis Gospel Choir. She also composes music, including an original, faith-based opera she wrote, Noalia: An Opera of Love that she is workshopping She recently adapted the opera into a children’s book.

Ejyssia, a student at Concordia University in Seward, Neb., has a goal of auditioning for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, which her grandmother Nola did as a young woman.

Nola’s sister, Johnice Orduna, will lend her own fine voice to the concert. Nola and Johnice’s aunt Claudette Valentine, a piano instructor and choir director, will accompany the vocalists, which means a fourth generation of musicianship will be represented.

This long line of musical talent is viewed by family members as a gift from On High they feel called to share.

“As a family music represents the fruits of the spirit,” says Carole. “It is our hope to enlighten hearts, to share the gift with love and with unity so that audiences are uplifted. That’s the bottom-line.”

“I’ve always been so appreciative that we were blessed with a gift that we could give back,” says Nola.

“Music is love,” Valentine says simply.

Carole created DIVA 3 as a vehicle for the family to sing together, just like they did at family reunions back in the day.

“We’d have family gatherings and someone would bring the macaroni and cheese and someone would bring the guitar, and we would all sit up under each other and sing. That was our best times,” recalls Carole.

“The piano was the center of everything we did,” Valentine says of growing up.

As each next generation came into the family’s musical fold, a new talent was nurtured and another voice added to the mix. When Nola and her two sisters showed a musical knack as toddlers, their mother had them start piano lessons. Voice lessons followed. Claudette formed the girls into a sweet harmonizing trio that performed widely. As Nola’s music career blossomed her first-born, Carole, soaked it all in.

Nola recalls their earliest musical bonding, “She would be under the piano and sometimes I would sit her on the stool next to me and we would sing. She’d touch the keys and play the piano. When I heard the talent then it was time to use it because she has the most phenomenal gift of pitch and mimicking a sound of a one I’ve ever known. She can sound like anybody.”

“I picked up everybody’s gift,” says Carole, who made her public performing debut at age 3 in church.

“I just gave her what was given to me and passed it on down,” says Nola.

Truthfully, it probably started in the womb,” Carole says of this music osmosis. She went on to train with some 17 vocal coaches but says her mom’s “the best.” Nola and Carole both teach vocal students.

The family’s closeness carries over to performing, where their intuitive understanding allows them to cover for one another.

“We feel each other,” says Nola. “We just know when one is going to drop out and the other needs to pick it up.”

Elyssia, who has a mixture of her grandmother’s and mother’s voices. appreciates the musical legacy she is part of and the warm comfort of performing with loved ones.

“I definitely recognize how special that is. Not everybody has that and it does bring your family into a closer connection because we all do share something and we all display our gifts in the same kind of way.”

For the February 8 concert the doors open at 5:30 p.m. for a private auction from the Creations 2 Bragg About Collection.

DIVA tickets are $15. Purchase advance tickets by calling 402-.281-5396. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Raw DAWGS after-school program.

For more information, call 402-281-5396.

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Richetta Wilson

When Omaha jazz vocalist Richetta (Lewis) Wilson sings, she can’t help but sound a little like icons Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dianah Washington and Nancy Wilson, as she worked and forged friendships with these legends when they performed here. Once a featured artist in Omaha’s finest clubs, Richetta naturally drew on the impeccable phrasing and posh stage craft of divas she admired. “I had a little bit of all of ‘em in me because I dealt with all of ‘em,” she said from her showplace of a home. With sophisticated ladies as models, it’s no wonder the petite Wilson has been the epitome of art and class among Omaha song stylists for half-a-century.

“Those were all my favorite people. I loved ‘em,” she said. She “especially” cherishes how she was able “to get to know” them as human beings. She got particularly “close” to Dianah and Ella. “Practically all of ‘em stayed at my house. We’d cook. We had a lot of fun together. Dianah Washington was my idol. From 10 years old I always wanted to sing like her. I did every tune she did. She put so much feeling in her tunes. She was a great person. Ella was a dream. I did her hair. We’d go to work together. She was a honey. I really enjoyed her.”

Getting schooled by old souls was nothing new for Wilson, whose father, Richard Lewis, mother Camille, and uncles and grandpa, all played professionally. Early on her dad saw his little girl’s talent and hunger to perform. She was so enamored with his life in music she’d “wait up on him” to come home from the Trocadero Club, where he played with Cliff Dudley’s band, pumping him for all the details.

“I had to know everything that went on,” she said. “He always sang ‘Laura’ to me because I loved to hear him sing that. When I got to be about 12 he let me go to rehearsals with him down to the Trocadero. I’d be wide-eyed.”

He bought her a baby grand piano for her 7th birthday and saw to it she and her four siblings learned their chops. “He dearly loved music. He instilled it in all of us,” she said, adding that a brother, Victor Lewis, has enjoyed a long career as a jazz drummer-composer. “Everybody had to play.” She balked, declaring, “‘All I want to do is sing.’ She later appreciated the training ”because that’s how you learn to phrase and get your chords down and everything.”

At home she imitated Dianah, crooning into a lamp while her brothers made believe brooms were horns or saxes. Her dad eased her into show biz by having her sing at American Legion halls. “That’s when I took off,” she said. “I told him, ‘This is what I want to do, Daddy. I want to sing.’ I threw my lamp away and picked up the real mike.” When he felt she was ready, he had her audition for bandleader Dudley. Shy Richetta was coaxed to sing “Tenderly.” She recalls finishing the tune and Dudley turning to her dad to declare, “’She’s hired.’ That got me on the circuit,” she said.

Dudley became her mentor. “He made me sing some of everything. I couldn’t just do jazz. I did country western, all the show tunes…so I have a rep where I can do a little bit of everything,” she said. “He was a heck of an arranger. He was my foundation, I’ll put it that way. He was stern…I cried a lot, but he taught me everything I know. It was worth it. It got me good jobs and sent me on my way.” She was 17 when she joined Dudley and 19 when she hooked up with Preston Love’s territory band, touring the South on a big yellow bus with a pot belly stove in it. She was the  group’s only female. Before her dad let her go he made pianist Roy Givens “promise he’d take care of me.” Givens kept his word.

Life on the road with a 17-piece orchestra was “an experience” she said. They played Jim Crow venues where the band had to enter through the back door and the crowd on the dance floor was separated by a rope — whites on one side, blacks on the other. The band slept on the bus. She got teased by the guys. Nine months away from home with all those crazy cats was enough for her.

She performed many more times with Love and Givens. She regarded them and players like Sonny Firmature and Buddy Graves “my musical family.” With her real family she sang in a trio that had her dad on sax and her mom on piano.

In her heyday she performed at swank local night spots — The Colony Club, Angelo’s, the Carnation Ballroom, Mickey’s, the M & M, the Blue Room — and the best hotels. She headlined a Joslyn jazz festival. Her “great following” went wherever she did. She took gigs in Denver, San Francisco and once had an extended, nine-month engagement at a hip Kansas City club. By then she was married with kids. It meant a weekly routine of getting her house in order before hopping a Wednesday charter for K.C, performing through the weekend there, then flying back to Omaha Sunday night to begin the cycle all over again. Her late husband, Richard Wilson, generally didn’t like her going on the road.

“I was amazed he let me do it that long,” she said. “I had many opportunities to go and do a whole lot more than I did. He said, ‘We’ve got four daughters here and I don’t think you’re going to be going away leaving girls.’ So, I made myself happy with working around here. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done and all the people I’ve had the opportunity to meet and the good times we’ve had.”

She only plays the rare gig anymore. There’s still nothing better than blending her sweet voice with the sound of a full, swinging orchestra. She last did that in 2005 at Harrah’s Casino, singing a duet with Omaha native Eugene Booker McDaniels on his classic “Feel Like Making Love” at the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame awards dinner. She was inducted for her lifetime as a consummate jazz interpreter.

Much of the old gang’s gone now, but she still performs from time to time with Buddy Graves at Touch of Class Lounge. She sings at her annual birthday bash, too. She and her brother Victor Lewis jammed at a recent Jazz on the Green.

“I’ve had an adventurous life with all the things I’ve done,” she said. “It’s hard to kind of believe. But I wouldn’t trade it for nothing in the world.”

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Shannon Marie
[image]

Shannon Marie

 

 

Hip-hop artist Shannon Marie, whose real name is Shannon Ennis, was in the first group of resident fellows at the Carver Bank in North Omaha’s historic Lake Street district. She grew up a few blocks from the Carver and she’s adamant about developing a national name for her writing and singing.

“I’m definitely confident about it,” says Marie, who’s produced several mix tapes. “It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s where you want to go. I can make it happen.”

If it doesn’t happen here she may leave to try her hand elsewhere, though she admits she needs more polish.

“I feel like I need to be more prepared before I step out with the big dogs.”

She got serious about rapping as a junior at Benson High School. Her early professional forays taught her lessons about not selling out.

“I would contact promoters and they’d just kind of brush me off like, ‘Who is this chick?’ Now when they have something going on I’m one of the first people they contact. I’ve gained their respect. They’ve seen the growth and they know I have people backing me.”

Her YouTube videos attract hundreds of thousands of views. Her Omaha fan following is such she gets recognized most everywhere she goes.

Gone are the days when promoters tried extracting sexual favors from an aspiring newbie. “It’s a male-dominated industry and sometimes guys look at females like a piece of meat. You have to be confident to let people know, Hey, you cant treat me like this. Now they’re like, ‘She’s just about her business. She’s not about sleeping her way to the top.’

“I kind of had to learn the hard way in some cases. I still have to learn a few things.

But it’s a lot better now than me being naive and saying, ‘OK, let’s just do music.’ All that glitters isn’t gold.”

A dispute with a local record label resulted in some of her original music being withheld from her. She’s moved on.

She plans a Carver event featuring herself and other empowered women who’ve overcome obstacles. She’s also planning a listening party for her new work.

“Now I’m here, I’ve got my opportunity, everything is still possible.”

Working alongside fellow residents who are “so different,” she says, “is going to be interesting.” She adds, “We really do vibe together. There’s going to be positive stuff going on. I want to support everybody and I want them to support me, too.”

She feels the love from friends, family and fans. “Everyone is excited for me.” She terms the multicultural turnout for Carver’s grand opening “a beautiful thing” and encourages all of Omaha to support its programs. “It’s for everybody.”

She’s eager to add to the area’s rich music legacy, saying, “Now it’s our time.”

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Portia Love
Portia Love
Portia Love

 

 

Portia Love understands why she’s identified with her father, whose band she sang with for several years, but music was his thing, not hers.

“The writing thing is mine,” says Love, who retreated into words and stories as an “introverted” adolescent and began winning recognition for her work at Marian High School.

She went on to work in and teach human services but always wrote on the side. As a veteran artist with Why Arts she conducts writing workshops for people with disabilities. She also holds workshops through the Bemis.

She’s self-published two books of poems, Eclipses of the Sun and Redefinition. She creates poems by commission for clients, placing her original works in designer boxes, frames and photo albums.

WriteLife is publishing her debut novel, The Men’s Club, as well as a book of short stories, High Heel Shoes, Bright Red Lipstick and Strange Love.

Carver appeals to her for practical reasons.

“I went after it for the working space and the recognition. I’m real if nothing else. I tear my house up doing this stuff. Now I have a studio to work out of. This is my time for me and my writing. This is an opportunity that I hope is going to put me to another level. i hate anybody trying to put limitations on me and what I do.”

Moving artists along is part of the idea.

“We hope this opportunity provides a crucial jump for the residents and that they are able to move their artistic practices to new levels,” says McGraw.

Love says Carver’s location is “significant,” adding, “The whole thing is significant. I love that Hesse (McGraw) said the Bemis cannot be this white organization that ignores the fact there are people of color in this city with talent. And yes this is the perfect place for it, 24th and Lake. I think about my dad and how much he would have loved coming through here wearing the hell out of everybody. I think he would be so overjoyed to see me excelling at something that was not his.”

Love’s hosting a poetry reading from 3 to 6 p.m. on May 25. She’s invited her fellow resident artists to add their distinct flavors.

 

 

 
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