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Brigitte McQueen Shew’s Union of art and community uses new Blue Lion digs to expand community engagement

June 26, 2017 1 comment

Brigitte McQueen Shew’s Union of art and community uses new Blue Lion digs to expand community engagement

©by Leo Adam Biga

Brigitte McQueen Shew so believes the arts can promote social justice she founded and directs The Union for Contemporary Art as a resource supporting artists in their practice and as a change agent engaging underserved North Omaha. Last year, The Union moved from cramped 2417 Burdette Street quarters in northeast Omaha to much larger new quarters at the nearby renovated Blue Lion Center.

Once that occurred, the organization’s already full program slate increased, as didl the number of people it serves.

Union artist studio and coop spaces, exhibits, youth activities, mural projects, community garden, tool lending library and neighborhood potlucks expanded with the fall move to the Blue Lion and courtyard at 24th and Lake. With the move, The Union is now an anchor at the intersection of a once thriving black business corridor and live music scene finally emerging as a new arts and culture district.

Going from 3,000 to 16,000 square feet has enlarged adult and youth spaces and thus allowed greater capacity and participation. There are dedicated facilities for graphic art, printmaking, ceramics, fiber arts, woodworking, cooking. Instead of leasing a storefront for its Wanda Ewing Gallery, the organization has a permanent gallery for curated shows in its new home. A mixed use space doubles as a black box theater hosting performances by Union’s newly formed Performing Arts Collective. Under the direction of Denise Chapman, the Collective stages African-American theater, dance, spoken word and music events.

The two-story, brick. century-old Blue Lion housed many enterprises, including McGill’s Blue Room, before going empty in recent years. Its new life is made possible by the Sherwood Foundation, whose purchase and renovation was expressly for the Union. McQueen Shew coveted the building as her organizatIon’s home. “It perfectly fit us,” she says.

Seizing the moment

“The Union has been a key player in the revitalization of the Blue Lion,” says former board member Julia Parker, Omaha Small Business Network (OSBN) executive director. “This is a culturally significant building known as a gathering place in North Omaha and the home of small business and job creation. The reopening of the Blue Lion is yet another indicator North 24th Street is being reactivated as an arts, culture and small business district.”

That district already includes Loves Jazz & Arts Center and Carver Bank. It also encompasses the Omaha Star, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, OSBN and the former homes of the Great Plains Black History Museum and the Dreamland Ballroom. The recently opened Fair Deal Village Marketplace features cargo container spaces for micro entrepreneurs and artists.

All of this is in addition to major construction projects on North 30th Street, including Highlander Village, three new Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus buildings and a new mixed-use of the former Mr. C’s site. Together with new housing developments, the Nelson Mandela school, the North Star Foundation campus, No More Empty Pots, the 40th Street Theatre, North O’s long dreamed of revitalization is taking shape.

“It’s our moment,” McQueen Shew says. “More money is coming into the community than has happened in years. I think it’s an amazing thing that’s happening and if you look at 24th and Lake, it’s the hub that connects everything together. This is our moment and if we don’t seize it then it just quiets down again. This is the time. That’s why it’s so important to me and why I push so hard.”

Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp. executive director Othello Meadows, whose organization is developing Highlander, says, “There’s this culmination of a lot of things happening at once and I think there’s definitely pressure to continue to move the ball forward. We’re not going to be satisfied with the status quo. We’re looking at new and innovative ways to address old problems. The point really is to continue to push and learn and get better at serving the community. A lot of people are saying, ‘Let’s try something different’ or let’s do something in existence before but do it better.”

Even with all these currents, McQueen Shew says, “so much more needs to happen in making it a place people want to live, such as dealing with food policy issues. North Omaha is one of Nebraska’s largest food deserts. How do you expect families to move into this community and set down roots if you can’t even get food? There’s lots of vacant land that needs developing. There’s lots of things we’re lacking on an infrastructure level. We need to coalesce behind real economic development. We also need to train the next generation of leaders. Who will they be? Those conversations need to be tackled now because there are eyes on North Omaha in a positive way that weren’t on this community before, and that’s exciting.”

She insists the arts will drive people to North 24th but once there they need other gathering places to hang out, such as eateries and coffeehouses. Meadows agrees arts-entertainment amenities are essential. “In a healthy community you have multiple avenues of self-expression and self-actualization for people to explore their interests and to fulfill who they are,” he says.

Stakeholders see retail commerce flowing in North Downtown, Midtown, Benson and South Omaha but still lagging on North 24th.

“I’ve started pointedly asking investors, developers and realtors why they don’t think this of this neighborhood or community for development” McQueen Shew says.

 

 

Art as social change

That she and The Union are players in this equation is unexpected given the organization launched only six years ago and its leader got fed up with Omaha the first time she lived here A journalist by training and trade, McQueen Shew worked for a national magazine when she arrived in 2001 at the urging of an artist friend residing here. She liked the local arts scene and the people but she hated the segregation that excluded persons of color from opportunities that, by contrast, were open to everyone in New York City, where she’d lived, and in Detroit, where she grew up.

She left Omaha dismayed by its racial inequity, but returned to do something about it. She asked people hard questions.

“When I got here it was like, ‘Well, this is just the way it is, this is the way it’s always been.’ And so I started asking why. Why have you never crossed Cuming Street? Why don’t you ever go over there? Why did this happen? How has this been allowed to go on?”

It took her awhile to find the right advocacy-activist vehicle. Her failed Pulp store in Benson nearly cost her everything. Then she ran the Underground Gallery at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts before a new idea overtook her: starting a North Omaha-based organization to address chronic studio space shortages and limited access to equipment and to engage residents through programs. The Union name reflects her interest in community, inclusivity, unity and sharing.

Among Omaha residencies The Union uniquely requires fellows do a community service project in North Omaha. McQueen Shew feels it’s vital artists give back, connect with community and demystify the arts. She believes deeply in fellows being social practice artists who do public work with some greater purpose. The Union’s Neighborhood Tool Library began as a project by then-fellow Kjell Peterson. During their residency Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette worked on their sustainable foods documentary Growing Cities and formed Truck Farm, a mobile urban farm ed program operating independently today.

“Having artists engaged and visible in the community gives North Omaha residents a chance to meet artists and talk art and to find out it’s not all about sacred spaces but really a part of everybody’s life,” says McQueen Shew.

She’s aware most fellows get their first real taste of North Omaha during their residency and she’s confident they leave with changed perceptions and broader knowledge.

Before doing her Union fellowship artist Shea Wilkinson says she was “completely ignorant of what was in North Omaha” but the experience so inspired her that she’d North Omaha her home. “I love my home and my neighborhood there. One hears a lot about the crime but rarely does one hear the things that make it an area worth investing in. I have lived here three years now and love seeing the positive changes happening.”

Artist Angela Drakeford grew up in North O but she says her Union residency helped her “think about the realities of what it meant to be a black artist in America,” adding, “I started not only to think about who I was and who my audience was but also what my obligations were as an artist. The Union has a very radical mission to help empower the community. Honestly, I would not be the artist and person I am today without this fellowship. It was truly a transformational experience.”

 

 

Embracing, implementing, fine-tuning a vision

The first person McQueen Shew shared The Union’s radical concept with, Katie Weitz, caught her vision and got the Weitz Family Foundation to back it. Not everyone was supportive. “I had donors tell me I was committing career suicide when I started The Union – that no one would follow me over here and no one would come.” She ignored the naysayers. “Maybe it’s just about tenacity.” Grants came in. She took a year to flesh out the idea and to devise a strategy for making The Union, launched in 2011, sustainable. At the start it was just herself at the repurposed former food bank on Burdette. As more funding’s come, she’s added staff and programs.

For a small nonprofit with a short history the organization’s made a large impact and won over many fans. So much so it isuccessfuly realizing a $5 million Growth Campaign to support its operations and programs.

Board chair Mary Zicafoose, a textiles artist, admires how McQueen Shew has “carved out a template for an organization designed to uniquely serve the community and become a unifying bridge for the arts for the entire metropolitan area. Many hundreds of metro area citizens and arts supporters have broken bread and attended Union community events that previously had never ventured farther north than Cuming Street. That’s powerful in itself. It’s mission is to unify our greater community through the arts and that is what it does program by program, artist by artist, exhibition by exhibition.”

Zicafoose has an insider perspective on how McQueen Shew has gained so much traction so fast for the organization and its niche.

“The Union’s mission and Brigitte’s vision is a story about understanding one’s purpose, seizing opportunity, taking action and then moving forward without hesitation. Her vision and attitude is simply quite contagious. Hence, the great interest, growth, stellar track record and support of this project. Brigitte is also an articulate and accomplished networker.”

No More Empty Pots executive director Nancy Williams says, “Brigitte is genuine. She has a rich history and eloquently shares her experiences. Brigitte is also generous. Brigitte has many talents and knows how to effectively leverage those talents for The Union. She is focused and reaches out for help when needed.” When McQueen Shew put out a call for folks to clean up the current site shortly after moving in, Zicafoose says “It was transformed in one weekend with the sweat equity of a hundred community volunteers.”

Zicafoose marvels at all the organization does. “It’s really quite shocking the amount of programming that has emerged from this small building, lovingly worked and reworked, to make every inch of precious space be of purpose. The move provides more appropriate and much needed additional space for existing programs to expand and thrive as well as allow new programs to be born. Its strategic location makes it a natural hub and meeting place.”

Seventy Five North’s Meadows appreciates that The Union is “a constant and consistent presence” instead of a “one-off” project. He adds, “What I love about Brigitte and what she’s doing is that she’s made a commitment to this neighborhood and to being there all the time. Having access to explore art is an amazing opportunity for this community, whose population is often forgotten about.” For a community that’s had many promises made and unfulfilled it was important McQueen Shew and the Union develop trust and Meadows says that’s happened. “People know she’s there for the right reasons.”

Prospect Village Neighborhood Association’s Rondae Hill is impressed by how The Union’s partnered on art-infused beautification projects, including a mural, bus benches and a redesigned park, in her area.
“Prospect Village appreciates everything the Union has helped to start in our neighborhood. The mural brought new life to an old building that started a ripple effect of prosperity. It has now become the center of our neighborhood and brings pride to the area.”

Not everything The Union’s done has succeeded but it’s small and nimble enough to try new things. Three areas where McQueen Shew feels it’s fallen short is connecting with area residents, helping artist fellows with their community service projects and integrating exhibition themes across all programming. To strengthen those elements she’s hired Nicole Caruth as director of pedagogy and public practice.

“Nicole joined our staff to help ensure all of our programs revolve around our commitment to social practice,” McQueen Shew says.

“Even though we were in the community people still saw us as Other. We were still missing the opportunity to connect. We had to fix that. Here at The Union we do everything as a team, so we had conversations about that disconnect. Nicole comes from that background. She has the resources and the networking connections
to be in tune with community.

“It’s about being flexible, realizing the gap and then going back and fixing it,. You have to be willing to jump off and readjust the course. It’s probably easier for The Union to do that than it is for an organization thats been around 40 years. Almost everything we do is a grand experiment. If we do it once and it works, awesome, let’s keep it. If it fails, then we’ glean some knowledge and let it go. We’re in an amazing position to do that.”

 

 

Forging a more perfect Union

The Union name is apt because in classic union organizing style, McQueen Shew came to Omaha as an outside agitator to build solidarity around addressing certain disparities.

“It’s just such a simple premise – that you can use the arts as a vehicle for social justice and to effect change in your community. That you can put things in place to uplift your local artists but at the same time be working to make some headway into ridiculous issues with segregation in this community. No one else was putting those two things together. They were two very separate issues and I don’t think people we’re seeing the connection,” she says.

She’s coalesced like-minded people around the mission.

“I may have been the one to stand up and wave the flag but if other people weren’t willing to fall in line with that then it never would have happened. The Union wouldn’t exist without people willing to take a leap of faith on this idea the arts can be more than just something you look at on a wall. I’m just fortunate the people with the means to help us get there also felt it a risk worth taking.

“People have made sacrifices to do this with me. Our program manager Paige Reitz took a crazy cut in salary to be here because she believed in the work I was doing. Paige was not the only staff member to take a pay cut to work with us. Actually the majority of my staff did. People willing to sacrifice something of their own to put into this dream is really how tTe Union has continued to grow.”

The Growth Campaign, which went public last summer, closed in early 2017. Its millions have helped boost employee salaries in addition to increasing the budget and solidifying things moving forward.

Public celebrations of that growth happened in October when the organization held open houses and special events at the Blue Lion. Since then, McQueen Shew and staff have been proudly welcoming visitors to their new digs and the community’s new gathering place.

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Brenda Council: A public servant’s life

June 26, 2017 3 comments

Brenda Council: A Public Servant’s Life
Appearing in the July 2017 issue of the New Horizons
©by Leo Adam Biga

Community. Service. Family. Home.

All recurrent themes for Brenda (Warren) Council, a familiar civic figure with various firsts to her name.

•First African-American female senior counsel at Union Pacific
•First female football official in the state of Nebraska
•First four-time president of the Omaha School Board
•First black female Omaha City Council member

Along with Tanya Cook, she was the first black woman to serve in the Nebraska Legislature.

Featured multiple times in Ebony Magazine, the lifelong Democrat garnered broad support for two Omaha mayoral bids. The second, in 1997, came within 800 votes of victory. Had she won, she’d have been the city’s first female mayor. In 2008, she succeeded living legend Ernie Chambers in the state senate seat he held since 1970 until term-limited out.

Those who know Council call her “dynamic,” “high achieving,” “hard working,” “caring,” “committed” and “community focused.”

The fall
She had a thriving legal career (after U.P. she worked for Kutak Rock and had her own firm), a strong track record of public service, a sterling reputation.

Then, a casino gambling addiction caught up with her in 2012 as she sought re-election to the Nebraska Legislature. Unusual activity on her campaign account trigged an investigation that found she repeatedly borrowed funds. The law permits candidates to borrow and repay campaign account monies (she repaid them in part) as long as they report it, which she didn’t. Her actions made headlines and resulted in misdemeanor charges for misuse of funds. She plead guilty and paid a fine. Her opponent, Chambers, openly disparaged her. She lost the election and in 2014, she plead guilty to felony wire fraud charges. She received three years court-supervised probation. The Nebraska Supreme Court disbarred her.

She’s never denied what she did.

Council’s back serving her community again leading a Women’s Fund of Omaha project. She’s in a good place now, but things got tough.

“I watched what I had built through work, passion and commitment threatened by what I did,” she said. “I can’t think of anything more terrifying. There were times I was mad. I asked, ‘God, how did you let this happen to me?’ I’m really a good person, I’ve never hurt anybody in my life.’ Then I got into GA (Gamblers Anonymous). As a 12-stepper, you’ve got to connect to your Higher Power. I’ve always been a spiritual person. I’ve been a member of the same church for 52 years. But as a result of this, I realized although I had been attending church, I had disconnected from my Higher Power.”

She’s glad to have found support for her addiction.

“I’m a committed, devoted, servant of Gamblers Anonymous, and I’m so grateful.”

She does want to set the record straight about what she did and didn’t do that got her in trouble.

“I never went out and solicited money to feed my campaign account so that I could access it. I make no bones about it – what I did was to enable me to gamble, but what i did not do is I didn’t take anybody’s money.”

Council understands what she did was improper.

“I see where the question of trust is paramount and legitimate.”

Redemption
About two years after that “embarrassment,” she joined the Women’s Fund of Omaha as coordinator of its Adolescent Health Project aimed at reducing teen pregnancies and STDS. The project addresses issues of deep concern to Council, who’s long advocated for comprehensive sex ed.

As important as she considers the work to be for women and families, she regards it as her own lifesaver.

“It’s provided an opportunity for me to move forward with my life and to show I’m still the public servant. I’m still Brenda, and I’m going to be out there working hard for the community serving in whatever capacity I can.”

For her, the work’s more than a job, it’s affirmation.

“I really enjoy the folks I work with, and I’m just so pleased with the progress we’ve made. But I know I owe it all to the fact that people who know me know who I am and they know I’m not a deceitful or distrustful or dishonest person. As a gambler, was I? Yeah.

“I’m so blessed that through the work I’ve done and the relationships I’ve built, people are supportive.”

Addiction, she’s come to realize, compels people to act out-of-character.

“What I was doing was totally contrary to the way I was raised. My daddy valued a dollar. I was a tight wad. I saved. I (still) had some of the first money I ever made. It wasn’t until it was starkly put in front of me – the compulsive patterns of my behavior – I realized, ‘Damn, that’s what I’ve been doing.'”

Before that rude awakening, she said, she “rationalized” her binge gambling as “‘I’m not hurting anybody, it’s my money.’ I discovered that what I thought at the time was an outlet, an enjoyment, not harming anybody, was an insidious, compulsive addiction that I denied.”

She took heart that even after coming clean, the people that meant the most to her still had her back.

“They understood and appreciated gambling wasn’t who I was, it’s something that happened. I am so blessed with an incredible family and close friends who have stood there steadfast supporting, encouraging.”

Her husband Otha Kenneth Council stood by her through it all. They celebrate 32 years of marriage this fall.

Home is where the heart is
The ties that bind are so tight with Brenda that despite extensive travels and offers to take jobs elsewhere, she considers herself “a North Omaha kid.” Except for undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and working for the National Labor Relations Board in Kansas City, Omaha’s remained home. Even when in K.C., she made frequent visits home.

“Practically every weekend I was driving back to Omaha. I had I-29 like memorized. I never missed one of my brother Tommy’s football games.”

Since moving back in 1980, she’s lived within a few blocks of where she grew up at 24th and Pinkney.

She came up in a strict home where both parents, Evelyn and Willis Warren Sr., worked. Her mother retired after 25 years at the VA hospital. Her father caught the No. 7 Crosstown bus to work at Swift packing company in South Omaha for 40 years. Her father especially expected Brenda and her siblings to study hard and get good grades.

“In addition to education, service was also something my father in particular placed a heavy emphasis on. He was a firm believer that to whom much is given, much is expected. We were raised to respect and assist our elders.”

Her family lived in a two-story house in an era when redlining practices and restrictive housing covenants prevented African-Americans from living outside the area. She attended mostly black Lothrop elementary school and Horace Mann Junior High.

Her coming of age coincided with 1960s’ racial unrest, the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Panthers, Malcolm, MLK, Vietnam, rock ‘n’ roll.

In North O she experienced a tight-knit, insular community where almost any service or product could be found. The live black music venues then prevalent on North 24th Street beckoned her. As an under-age fan, she snuck into Allen’s Showcase, McGill’s Blue Room, the Offbeat Lounge and the Carnation Ballroom to see her idols. She got to know the late Buddy Miles that way.

“Incredible entertainment came through. Those were the days.”

Music impresario Paul Allen appreciated her spunk in catching shows.

“He always called me ‘Little Girl.’ He often joked about the times he caught me sneaking into the Showcase. They had some great musicians.”

Years later she operated her own live music venue there – BJ’s Showcase. She now resides in the former home of Omaha nightclub impresario Shirley Jordan. The columned, cream stucco, hacienda-style abode was built as a party place and includes a sunken living room.

In addition to music, sports is another passion. Council was a fireplug point guard for Forrest Roper-coached Hawkettes AAU teams. She admired the late Roper.

“He had a tremendous impact on me and other young women. He, like my parents, stressed the importance of education and refraining from engaging in negative activity. For many of the members of the team, their first travel outside of Omaha was when Forrest took us to play in tournaments.”

Council didn’t get to play high school basketball in those pre-Title IX days. But she stayed close to the game as a recreational player and coach and later as an official. She and Otha refereed many high school hoops games together. Her contributions to athletics got her elected to the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame.

She also bore witness to trying times for her community. She was at Horace Mann when students filed out in protest of a young black man shot to death by police. The peaceful protest turned heated before Ernie Chambers helped quell the agitated crowd. She saw the the looting and fires when North 24th burned in the 1969 riot following the police shooting death of Vivian Strong.

She was at the Bryant Center when the riot broke out.

“I actually drove through the rioting on 24th Street on my way to pick my mother up from work. I will never forget how I headed west on Hamilton Street to be met by a police barricade at 30th. The police approached my car, shined their flashlights in the faces of my friends who were riding with me. They were not going to let me past until I pleaded with them to allow me go pick up my mother.”‘

Council graduated from Omaha Central High School in 1971 during tense times at the racially diverse school.

She watched the once bustling North 24th business district left-in-shambles and struggle to recover. Railroad and packing house jobs vanished. The North Freeway severed the community. Generational poverty set in. Gangs brought unprecedented violence. Incarceration rates for black males soared along with black teen pregnancies and STDS. Single-parent households became the norm. Educational achievement lagged.

She dealt with many of these issues as an elected official. She sees progress in northeast Omaha but questions where it goes from here.

“I’m definitely encouraged by the development that has occurred. However, the overwhelming majority of the development, particularly along 24th Street, is the result of not-for-profit investment. If we are to revive the Near North Side we must have private, for-profit investment with a focus on African-American entrepreneurship.”

Wherever life’s taken her, North O’s been her sanctuary.

“She absolutely loves North Omaha,” her brother Thomas Warren said. “Her purpose has been service and she’s always put North Omaha first.”

Warren, former Omaha police chief and current president-CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska, said his sister’s path serving the community inspired his own.

Council’s husband, Otha, echoed many when he said, “She’s never forgotten about where she came from. She’s committed to serving North Omaha and making sure people here have a better place to live.”

From education to law
Back at UNL she was thinking her career path would be an an educator, not an attorney or public officer holder.

“I made a career decision when I was in the third grade to be a school teacher. I had some genetic predisposition for that. My mother’s two oldest sisters and a younger brother were educators. My mother’s oldest sister, Geraldine Gilliam, was the first black teacher to integrate the staffs of the Topeka Public Schools after Brown vs, Board of Education. She was really a proponent of education and educators, and I really just wanted to be like her. So much so that when my younger siblings. Thomas and Debbie, and I would come home from school, I would make them play school with me before they could go outside. I’d use old teachers’ manuals and flash cards my aunts sent me.

“The game was they’d start at the top of the steps and if they answered correctly they moved down the steps and when they got to the bottom they could go outside. They used to hate me that I’d make them do that, but I always teased them as we got older at how prepared they were academically. Both of them did well.”

Thomas Warren was Omaha’s first black police chief. Debbie White is a retired medical professional. An older sibling, Willis Warren Jr., is deceased.

Brenda earned her teaching degree from UNL. She also got turned on to the prospect of studying the law and using it as a tool to improve conditions for blacks.

“My perspective was education, education, education. I firmly believed in it as the path upwards.”

She said she gained an appreciation for how “the law has an impact on everything you do in life and if you can affect changes in the law, you can create new opportunity and address problems.”

Council did her due diligence and applied to the Creighton law school. She got accepted. She applied for an affirmative action scholarship and received it.

“I graduated from Nebraska on August 17, 1974 and I started Creighton law school August 23. I really fell in love with the law. I went to law school with every intention of being a social justice lawyer, so that passion with constitutional law meshed. If you’re addressing the issues defined as social justice issues, constitutional questions are more than likely involved.”

She thought she’d change the world.

“You go in there with this idealistic perspective and then you start facing reality.”

One reality check involved two career choices straight out of law school. She applied for a national fellowship to work in a legal aid office. She wanted Omaha but only Dayton was open. Meanwhile, she was offered a job with the National Labor Relations Board in Kansas City. Then the fellowship came through for the Omaha Legal Aid office, but she’d already accepted the K.C. job.

“I’m a person of my word and my commitment, and so I went to Kansas City.”

With a little help from her friends
Helping her make tough calls were elders.

“I was blessed to come at a time that I had a tremendous number of mentors – people I could go to for advice and counsel. They’d talk you through these decisions. One of my major mentors was the late (activist-journalist) Charles B. Washington.”

Others were Mary Dean Harvey, Beverly Blackburn, Rowena Moore. Though she didn’t have much interaction with her, Council also admired Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown.

But it was Washington, for whom a North Omaha library branch is named, who opened her horizons.

“This guy introduced me and so many other young people in North Omaha to some of the most influential African-Americans of our time. Through Charlie, I had sit-downs with the late Harold Washington, the late Barbara Jordan, the late Mary Frances Berry, Lerone Bennett Jr., Tony Brown. I mean, he made a point of exposing us to many critical minds and civil rights, social justice advocates. Because of the relationships and the introductions he made for me, I was featured the first time in Ebony Magazine.”

Council, and two of her girlfriends, Kathy J. Trotter and Terri Goodwin, were so often seen in the company of Washington they were called “Charlie’s Angels.”

Though Council reluctantly went to K.C., it was a good experience.

“It certainly aided in my maturation, my independence.”

Her return to Omaha to work at Union Pacific, she said, “was a Charles Washington-influenced opportunity.”

“In 1979 my dad died and then in 1980 my mother’s mother died. I was in Kansas City and my oldest brother returned from Vietnam not in a good place, so he couldn’t really provide our mother much support. I was waffling about staying in Kansas City. I called Charlie (Washington) and said, ‘I need to look at getting back to Omaha.’ By this time I had three years doing labor law. He knew the personnel director at U.P. He sent in my resume and I got an interview.”

U.P.’s then-general counsel, Valerie Scott, hired Council. The two women became close colleagues and friends.

Entry into public life
Confidantes prodded Council to seek public office for the first time when she made her initial bid for the Omaha School Board in 1982.

“Ruth Thomas, who had served on the board and knew of my passion for education, was among those who approached me about it. I didn’t know anything about running for public office, but I had the benefit of having met and become friends with one of the greatest political minds of his time, the late Sonny Foster. He was a political genius. He volunteered to help me with my school board campaign.”

Council wanted to redress the board’s decision to eliminate summer school as part of budget cuts.

“That disturbed me because it disproportionately hurt youth in my district who needed remedial studies and enhancement opportunities. Their parents couldn’t afford to send them to special science or math camps. So, I ran, and in the primary got thumped. Sonny (Foster) said, ‘Between now and November, you’ve got to go to every house in this district and let them know who you are and what you’ll do.'”

She said she pounded the pavement and knocked on doors and when the general election rolled around, she “closed an incredible gap” to win. She was 28.

Finding a soulmate
Otha, whom she was just friends with at the time, showed up unexpectedly at her place on election night. He was co-owner of an Arby’s franchise.

“Election night, my campaign manager Sonny Foster, my dear friend and law school classmate Fred Conley and a couple other folks were at my house awaiting the results. Out of nowhere, a knock on the door and there’s Otha with a six-foot Arby’s submarine sandwich. He said, ‘I thought you might need something to eat.’ He took a seat and just sat there for the rest of the evening.

“The results came in and were favorable. People trickled out. The only ones left were me, Sonny and Otha.”

The two men made quite a contrast: the gregarious Sonny and the quiet Otha.

“I discovered later Otha thought Sonny and I had a thing. That was the furthest thing from the truth.”

Otha’s persistent wooing finally won her over when he drove her to the airport in the dead of winter. He got the door, handled the bags and even had a cup of hot chocolate for her. “He was such a Boy Scout.” From then on, she said, “he became my ‘hot chocolate’ and we began to spend more time together.”

“Our officiating (sports) together definitely strengthened our bond. Otha encouraged me to become an official because I grasped the rules so quickly when he was taking the exams while we were dating. Believe me, officiating can really test your patience and understanding.”

The couple have two children from his first marriage and five grandchildren. He has a landscaping-snow removal business and he owns-manages rental properties. He was by her side for all her subsequent political runs.

They also share a passion for service, community and family. They met when she volunteered with the Boy Scouts while he was this areas’s district commissioner.

“Family has always been incredibly important,” Council said, and I was fortunate to marry into a family that equally values family. We just got back from my husband’s 41st annual family reunion in Marianna, Arkansas. He’s one of 13 children, so it’s a huge family.”

A family migration story
Her extensive family on her father’s side has branches extending into Canada. Council said her father’s people relocated from Alabama to northeast Texas before settling in the Oklahoma Territory as part of the Exodusters migration. They faced hazards both natural and manmade.

“My father’s father drowned during a flash flood while trying to get the cattle across the creek. The current washed him and his horse down stream and his body was never recovered. My grandmother remarried a man with the last name of Gordon.”

Racial tensions worsened. The Ku Klux Klan was on the rise. A 1919 race riot in Omaha resulted in William Brown being lynched and the courthouse being burned. The “Black Wall Street” district of Tulsa, Oklahoma was burned down in 1921. Malcolm X’s family fled Omaha in 1925 after the Klan threatened his preacher father.

Some years before, African-Americans looking to escape hate were presented with an intriguing opportunity and Council’s paternal family ran with it.

Canada recruited Americans to settle the prairie provinces by offering homesteads. Canada advertised in Kansas and Oklahoma, never expecting the huge migration of African-Americans that followed.

“My dad’s stepfather took advantage of this new opportunity and moved the family to Winnipeg, Alberta, but left my father to be raised by one of my grandmother’s sisters in Oklahoma.”

Generations later, she said, her people are “spread all over” Canada, including Vancouver. where a first cousin Council’s gotten to know lives.

Brenda attended a Pioneer Family Reunion of descendants of black families who fled Oklahoma for Canada. She visited a recreated Canadian black settlement and learned of tragedy and triumph. A great aunt named Love was murdered with her child at the hands of her husband.

An uncle, Robert Gordon, was among the few black lumberjacks. Only his Paul Bunyan-like strength helped him survive. “He caught hell initially until he pummeled a few guys and became infamous – you don’t mess with Robert Gordon,” said Council. She met the tall, broad-shouldered man and said he still cut an imposing figure in old age.

Unfortunately, black pioneers were made to feel unwelcome. Eventually, no more were allowed in.

“So many were coming across,” she said, “ordinances were enacted by the border communities. One such ordinance read, ‘From this day forward, no more Negroes will be allowed to enter Canada because they’re deemed undesirable for the climate and culture …’ Everybody tells me, ‘Brenda, you ought to write this story.’ I do know i’ve got to put it down at some point.”

An uncommon political life
Her political life would make a good book, too. Her baptism-by-fire on the school board was just the start.

“I had some really up moments and I had some really down moments. A down moment was being the lone dissenting vote on closing Tech High. I presented diplomas to the last graduating class.”

A budget shortfall and concurrent need to consolidate district offices led to Tech’s closure and its reuse as district headquarters.

“One of the things I was most proud of was advocating for the adoption of a sex education curriculum in 1985. Thirty years later, here I am back pushing OPS to adopt an updated sex ed curriculum (through the Women’s Fund initiative). It’s kind of deja vu.”

Another thing she “took pride in, was the naming of Skinner elementary school after Eugene Skinner, both her grade school and junior high principal.” She said, “He had an incredible impact on me. Gene Skinner was a giant.” Yet another of the community stalwarts in her life. “I was impacted by so many of them,” she said.

Council displayed her own leadership abilities in office.
She not only became president of the Omaha School Board but president of the National Association of Black School Board Members.

“I got the knowledge of what was effective in other school districts and brought it back.”

She and former Omaha Public Schools assistant superintendent Don Benning got the district to begin its “nationally recognized Adopt-a-School program.

“We knew you improve educational outcomes when everybody’s got a stake in it and you have to involve business, parents, faith community. The program was a vehicle to get people who were otherwise not connected to schools involved in the schools. It’s still doing that.”

She agonized over running for the City Council in 1993.

“My passion is education and I believe I was making a difference. I was in my fourth term as school board president. We were moving on some things. I was torn. When Fred Conley announced he was not going to seek reelection, I honestly looked at who was going to be running and thought our district deserves better. That’s why I ran. I didn’t want a political career. I’ve never seen myself as a politician. I’m a public servant.

“Now, am I partisan? Yeah.”

A confluence of events led her to run for mayor only one year into her only City Council term. Then-mayor P.J. Morgan unexpectedly resigned with three years left. The city charter then allowed for the Council to choose someone among its ranks to finish the term but Brenda opposed this approach.

“I had to convince three other people we need to pursue a special election to change the charter because it’s not fair to the citizens that essentially an entire term is decided by seven people. I was able to convince the requisite number of City Council members to go for a special election and the results were what I predicted Omahans wanted. The charter was changed. I achieved my objective.”

She didn’t plan to run for mayor until Hal Daub announced his candidacy.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, there’s too much happening in this city to put it in the hands of someone who hadn’t lived in Omaha in years. The next mayor should be somebody who knows what’s been going on and been working on it.’ I just didn’t think it was fair and right and just for someone who in my opinion was a career politician to take an opportunity to come back. So I said, ‘I’m going to run, too.’ It was a special election in December of 1994. What made it problematic was there were mid-term elections a month before. I struggled to find campaign staff and team for my first citywide race.”

She got “soundly defeated” but “came a lot closer than people expected.” She was “perfectly content” to serve on the City Council with no future mayoral bid in mind until politicos shared data suggesting a near majority of Omahans would vote for her in a new election.

“I was pleasingly surprised.”

Confident she could muster enough support to unseat Daub, she took him on in the ’97 election only to suffer an historically narrow loss.

“That election night was one of the most painful nights of my life,” she said, “not for me personally but for all the people who invested so much of their being into supporting an individual they entrusted to address the issues that were critical to them.”

The thing she disliked the most about the process was having to make fundraising calls.

Mrs. Council goes to Lincoln
Eleven years elapsed before she sought public office again. During the hiatus she was a judge on the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations. In 2008 she entered the race for Nebraska legislative District 11.

“The same thing that motivated me to run for mayor is what motivated me to run for the legislature,” she said.
“It should be somebody representing this district who’s worked in this district, been in touch on a daily basis with the issues that affect residents and has the skills, knowledge and experience to make a difference. Again, no disrespect, I knew some of the people who were going to run and I was like, ‘That’s not going to get it.’ Call it arrogance or whatever, but I feel that passionate about the people in this district and what they deserve.”

She knew her expertise was a good match for the legislative process and “its interconnectedness with the law.” She also saw “an opportunity to address some things that may not have been on the front burner.”

Council won a seat at the table in the mostly white male Unicameral alongside fellow African-American Tanya Cook, who was communications manager for one of Council’s earlier elective office runs.

“I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish in the one term I served in the legislature. I was focused and driven by what I could get done to move this community forward.”

She found satisfaction getting a New Markets Tax Credit program approved. She was frustrated when she got several pieces of legislation passed on the floor only to have then-Governor Heineman veto them. One would have required a lead poisoning test for children entering school. Another would have aided expansion of community gardens and incentivized healthy food stores to help address food desert issues.

“I was most proud of my Youth Conservation program legislation. Approximately 150 youth were employed in state parks across Nebraska during the summer of 2012, with a significant percentage of the youth being from North Omaha.”

Taking stock and moving on
Even after revelations of her addiction, she said, “there was still a tremendous amount of support for me to continue to serve in the legislature.”

Ending her political life was not nearly as hard as losing her license to practice law.

“Being disbarred,” she said, “it hurt, it really hurt.”

She does not plan to seek reinstatement of her license.

Today, she can acknowledge that when it all came out, “I wanted to stay in the shadows.” She said she wondered “is anybody going to give me a chance,” adding, “I know I come with some baggage.”

She’s found redemption at the Women’s Fund, whose Adolescent Health Project fits right in her wheelhouse.

“One of the first bills I introduced as a state senator was to mandate comprehensive sex education. One of the things I bring to the table is six years facilitating the Community Advisory Group for the Super Fund Site. We achieved some rather remarkable successes, including the formation of the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance.”

She feels reducing unintended pregnancies is critical “if we’re ever going to have any meaningful, sustainable impact on reducing poverty,” in a community where single mother-headed households predominate.

Come what may, North Omaha is where her heart will always be.

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