Hope Hero: Vanessa Ward


Hope Hero: Vanessa Ward

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the February 2019 New Horizons (hitting mailboxes and newsstands starting Jan. 31)

 

They call her the Hope Hero.

Vanessa Loftin Ward, 65, is a positive, energetic spirit by nature. Anyone who’s ever heard her speak – whether stumping for the Nebraska Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2018 or leading prayer chains for peace – can attest to her dynamic presence.

“I’ve always been an encouraged heart,” she said. “My grandmother worked for rich white people and she taught me to hold your head up and to be proud.”

The historical example of abolitionist-activist Harriet Tubman leading escaped slaves to freedom via the underground railroad made a big impression on Ward.

“I could clearly see the power that Harriet demonstrated by one person caring enough to do something over and over and over again.”

But in the late 1980s Ward despaired at the sorry quandary she and her late husband Keith Ward found themselves in. Like their fellow working-class neighbors, the couple struggled getting by. Their poor but once peaceful northeast Omaha neighborhood had become plagued by unsavory, illegal, dangerous activities that sprung up there like weeds. A few drug dealers, gang members, pimps and prostitutes took hold and stubbornly, brazenly held on.

Bereft of trust, respect and consideration, neighbors became strangers to each other.

A pall fell over the neighborhood. Its upstanding citizens were afraid of being victims in what became known as Death Valley for all the violent fatalities there. Calling the police was discouraged. People didn’t seem to care anymore. They let their properties go and litter fill the street. The sense of safety and community Vanessa and Keith grew up with only a few blocks away was broken. It became a rough place to raise their four children but limited means left them with few options. Besides, they lived in their own home and the couple were not about to be run out by some thugs. So they stayed.

“When my neighborhood was so disconnected because  nobody knew each other, that bothered me,” Ward said.

“Living in an impoverished area where nobody really connected or cared because it’s The Hood, the slum, the ghetto – that bothered me. Then the fact my children had to play in the backyard. There was no break for them. Why couldn’t they play in the front? But we were worried about a drive-by. That’s the way we survived – by hiding. I just couldn’t take it.”

The last straw came after a young man got shot and killed right across the street from where the gang members hung out. He died in front of the Wards’ home.

“Nobody did anything. Nobody called the law. Because if you called you were a snitch. You didn’t do anything but survive. It was always eating at me because I had a free childhood without all this mess.”

Somebody do something

Rather than hide and remain silent anymore, Vanessa, an ordained minister who pastored Afresh Anointing Church, proceeded to step out on faith to lift up her neighbors and confront the troublemakers.

The healing ministry she did right there on her own block eventually restored a sense of community and hope among residents. It all began with Ward picking up trash and greeting her neighbors. Then, drawing on an event her mother organized back in the day, she planned the first of what became an annual block party there. She reached out to gang members to get their assurance there would be no trouble. The party went on without incident and proved a rallying point for the neighborhood, drawing hundreds for fellowship and fun. Over time, the area underwent a profound change. Gardens were planted and homes renovated. She led outdoor church services. The bad element moved out and criminal behaviors ceased. Death Valley became Hope Valley.

The block party celebrated 20 years in 2017. It grew so big that last year it moved off the block to nearby Fontenelle Park, where some 1,500 people gathered.

The transformation that occurred in the neighborhood has earned Ward much recognition. It became the inspiration for her book, Somebody Do Something. None of it would have happened though, she insists, if she hadn’t changed her own heart first.

“I hated the gang members, I hated my neighborhood, I hated my quality of life. If I had stepped out out of hate I would never have endured. It took love, forgiveness, empathy to be able to step out and make significant change. To go over to the gang members and ask that there not to be any trouble during this event took love –and they knew it.

“You can’t accomplish anything without truth,” she said. “Truth builds trust, and you’re nowhere without it.”

Placing fault or pointing fingers wasn’t the answer. “You can’t choose sides,” she said. “You have to find a better way.” It wasn’t about expecting someone else to come to the rescue either. “No one can come into your community and produce effective change. You have to accomplish that from within.”

 

ward2.jpg

 

Be the change

Empowering others to be change agents became her life’s work.

“I feel like in every negative situation, be it relational, community, citywide, worldwide, people need to understand they have the potential of making a difference beyond the bolt. I think you need people to inspire you to step out or step up in whatever your situation is to make positive change.

“Now your situation may not be as dire as mine with a young man dying right in front of your home and you’re already totally dissatisfied with the condition of your condition. It may not have to be that much to push you, but it does require asking what can I do. It may be as small as greeting, smiling, waving, engaging. Always more is required. But if you’re keeping your head down, not making eye contact, avoiding your neighbor – that’s how this negative element around us grows.”

Just don’t be looking for scapegoats.

“Everybody wants to blame the government. The government can’t see what’s going on on your block or in your family. That’s not the government’s responsibility. You can’t be blaming other people.

“For me the block party was basically an example of what YOU can do where you are.”

Ever since then her mission’s been to raise up others by encouraging them to be the change they want.

“What I’m doing is giving wisdom keys to people to inspire them to keep hope alive.”

She feels elders like herself have much to offer. She likes repeating what her fellow residents at Salem Village have to say about being seniors: “Retired but not expired.”

She feels she and other seniors can show the way for how things are done.

“Without direction, people go astray. If somebody’s not there like grandpa and grandma and we don’t keep the direction and say, this is the way you do it, we go astray. We need to pull on that wisdom because we need direction. This young generation is screaming for it. It’s a silent scream of ‘somebody tell me what to do, how to do it – encourage me to do it.'”

A once cohesive community torn asunder

This woman that stepped boldly forth to reclaim her community went through her own transformation only a few years before. Without this “conversion,” she said, she wouldn’t have been able to take the actions she did. To understand that transition one has to return to her childhood and young adulthood and the doldrums she found herself in at age 38 before being born again.

One constant in her life is community. She’s always been about community.

“I love community. Community for me was the Near Northside.”

She grew up at 25th and Evans when segregation was still the de facto force of law.

“This was North Omaha in the late ’50s, early ’60s when the civil rights movement was at its peak. We were living in the cluster of moving no farther south than Cuming Street, no farther north than Ames Avenue, no farther east than 16th Street and no farther west than 30th Street. No matter what your educational status was, your profession, your financial stability – as long as you looked like me, that’s where you lived.”

Segregation had its benefits, including a tight-knit, self-sustaining black community.

“My fondest memories came from community,” Ward said. “We looked out for each other. It was like there was no divisiveness, no competition. There was Miss (Bertha) Calloway right next door. Johnny Rodgers right up the street. Officer Mahoney down the alley. Brenda Council and Thomas Warren and all the rest of them around the corner – Luigi Waites, Camille Steed.

A cohesive village raised her and her peers.

“My community had guidelines. You didn’t ever talk back to your elders. That was a no-no. You had to be in the house-yard by the time the street lights came on. Men in my community took an active role model presence. Mr. Winburn would take all the neighborhood youth on ‘The Hay Ride’ a ride in the back of his truck to Hummel Park or out in the country – just to get us out of The Hood. Mr. Waites led the Contemporary Drill Team.

“If any adult had to scold you, then by the time mom and dad got word you were sure to get a ‘whupping’ back home. My community understood living and working together. We watched out for one another. Everyone knew one another. Most adults were homeowners.”

Her family was active at Hope Lutheran Church. She and her siblings attended its Christian school. Two-parent households were the norm, not the exception. Ward grew up in one until age 10, when her folks divorced. She adored her father, who operated the first black barber shop in South Omaha.

“My fondest memories were with my biological father.”

Her mother was an entrepreneur, too, making and selling home-made candied apples and popcorn balls from the family’s home. Ward recalls she and her siblings going to a North Omaha orchard with their mother to pick apples.

Suddenly living in a broken home “was hard on me.” she said, Her mother remarried but things just weren’t the same with the stepfather and that second marriage didn’t last anyway.

Ward went through a period of rebellion in her late teens before checking herself and finding a positive outlet in cheerleading at Omaha Technical High School. When her mother and stepfather moved to New York state, she went there her senior year to complete school and to see the Big Apple, but she found it too big, fast and unfriendly and gladly returned to her hometown.

When desegregation came, the sense of community and stability she knew eroded. Where before, professionals and laborers were all mixed together, blacks began dispersing by income or class. Busing to integrated schools found black students sometimes separated from friends.

“When we started dispersing, you definitely could not live in neighborhoods you couldn’t afford. That became a big divider. You started to lose that sense of oneness. When you’re separated you’re no longer quite sure what someone else’s plight is or where they’re struggle comes in. You don’t know. That’s what happens when we start getting more divided.”

Further disrupting things and causing insecurity were the loss of good paying packinghouse and railroad jobs that many blacks worked. Many natives left to pursue better opportunities elsewhere.

The riots of the late 1960s destroyed several businesses in the North 24th Street hub. The mostly white owners chose not to rebuild. Owners of unaffected businesses chose to close shop in that tense time. Many vacant lots and abandoned storefronts remained empty for decades. Some still remain so

“Twenty-fourth Street was burning right outside my neighborhood,” Ward recalled. “There was burning and pillaging of stores of friends you met in the community. Everything was being destroyed. My whole life was up in flames during that time.”

Construction of the North Freeway forced many residents to move and imposed a barrier that severed neighbors and neighborhoods from each other.

The community that was once so “alive and vibrant” became a shell of its former self.

“It was rough,” Ward said. “But I think if we didn’t have  each other, it could have been a whole bunch worse. I really believe that.”

 

A block party unites

Through thick and thin

As if the deteriorating community were not challenge enough, her husband Keith was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes and eventually lost his legs. This jack of all trades who drove a bus and was employed as a custodian, groundskeeper and security guard, could no longer work and the family lost their home.

An angel came to their rescue.

“A landlord who had a vacant home let us come stay there free for six months because he admired what I was doing in the neighborhood. Then we were able to get into another home. We never had to leave the neighborhood. You can’t do the block work if you’re not on the block. You have to actually live there.”

For two years the couple did live off-site for his health. Even though she went back on weekends to pray for the neighborhood, it wasn’t the same. She found that without her nurturing, things had become stagnant. When she told Keith she was dissatisfied being apart from her roots, they moved back.

“My husband was my number one supporter.”

Even when he disagreed with how she went about things and feared for her safety, Keith had her back. And even with their world coming down around them, she persevered. They were strong for each other that way.

She told a biographer, “I had to keep my work going – it was too important. I had to keep Keith going. He was literally dying in my arms and he was afraid for my life. Can you imagine – he was worried about me?”

These high school sweethearts married three times.

“The first time we got married in front of the justice of the peace. The second time we had an official church wedding where all our children were in it. That was awesome. And then the third time we got married in the community garden so that the neighbors and everybody could come share.”

His remains are buried in the Hope Garden.

The soulmates made a life for themselves and their family. Things were tough but good. But it never set right with her that as blacks they often had to settle for things.

“I was never satisfied living where we had to live because this was all we could afford. It took you back to slavery where you have the house slaves and the field slaves. Light skin, dark skin. Silky hair, wooly hair. All of that division.”

 

Crucible

Just when things got really tough, she underwent a crisis of faith that spurred a catharsis that changed her life’s course.

“We were going through the roughest part of our marriage. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to continue it. I felt like a zombie. I was dead inside. I was going through the motions taking care of my husband and children. I didn’t even know you could get that removed and still function. Keith knew there was a problem. He said, ‘I want you to go take care of my mother.’ She was dying of cervical cancer. I said, ‘Okay. sweetheart.;”

Ward didn’t know it then, but this caregiving experience with her mother-in-law, whom she called Mom, would prove more impactful for her than the patient.

“Mom would sing songs like ‘Amazing Grace.’ She had Christian TV on and she was always talking the Lord. It started doing something inside of me. I could feel my spirit trying to come awake. I revisited that place of love I knew as a child.”

The spirit moved in her and took her to another place.

“One day I broke down crying at the dining room table talking to my mother-in-law about her son like a dog. She got out of her seat, put her hands on my shoulders and she began to pray in a tongue. All of a sudden I had an out-of-body experience. I traveled back, and I knew it was the Lord with me, to the second grade on my knees praying in chapel that I would never have premarital sex. Why was it so important to have made that promise at age seven? When I saw myself it resonated in me and I heard the Lord say clearly, ‘I forgave you, how come you haven’t forgiven yourself?’

“Suddenly I was back at that dining room table. I thought, Was it that easy – am I really mad at me? What’s wrong? I looked into my mother-in-law’s eyes and she said, ‘Baby, you’ve got to forgive yourself.'”

Right there Ward declared, “I need to know this Jesus.” She began studying the Bible under Mom’s tutelage. The New Testament’s theology of love, compassion and peace set the framework for a reborn life that saw her become Apostle Vanessa Ward.

“My conversion activated what was already in me, but it also caused me to have the courage and the love to take the steps. I tell people be prepared to examine your motives in whatever you step out to do. You don’t want to find out if it gets difficult along the journey that you didn’t have enough steam because you’re out here for your own reasons.

“You have to be out here for a greater reason than yourself in order to make significant change.”

She undertook a personal housecleaning.

“Once i was able to look at myself I decided the premise has to be love. God is love. Anything I’m doing I’m moving in love. If I’m standing against injustice or saying there’s a better way, it’s all based in that. As I project out, that’s the voice you’ll always here, even in correcting. I’ll correct you, too, in love.”

Carrying her message across the state

To thine own self be true, she preaches.

“Until you as an individual find your identity, your purpose, your destiny, you’re just aimless. I don’t care what color you are, where you live, how much money you have, you’re just aimless. Your identity is not how much money you have or don’t have.”

That lesson got reinforced during her campaign for governor.

“When I first started my campaign the frustrating part was people telling me I had no business running because I didn’t have the money. My response was, ‘How can you tell me that when I’ve never had the money?’ When do you ever aspire for your dreams or set course for your goals based on having money?Where I come from not having the money is merely a hurdle or an obstacle you have to clear in order to finish the race. So that should never be a geiger counter as to where you’re at. I’m called to discourage that.”

Ward’s commitment to serving others is clearly engrained. Most of that work’s done without any renumeration, though it has brought her notoriety.

She received the key to the City of Omaha from Mayor Jean Stothert and the “Gold Volunteer Of The Year” award from President Barack Obama. A four-block stretch of North 38th Street now bears her name.

So by the time she announced her surprise candidacy for governor, she was already a public figure in some quarters. But few gave this black woman without an established base a chance in such a red-white state.

She had in fact been approached by party operatives to put her name in the ring.

“I had been doing a lot of soul-searching prior to the delegation approaching me and asking me to run. I felt called to share my life experiences as well as the wisdom I’ve gained over the years. It was just about stepping out – and that’s the same thing I’ve represented all my life. Step out and do something you believe. No matter how hard the obstacles may seem, just go ahead and do what you know to do.

“I’d like to encourage more people to do that right where they are.”

It’s a message she shares with audiences large and small and with cadets in her Hope Hero Academy. The Academy promotes “identity, destiny and victory” in its youth cadets. “Our young people need that.” she said.

She will share that message again during the Hope Hero Conference on March 23 at Tri Community Church at 6001 Fontenelle Boulevard. She will deliver the keynote address and other presenters will lead breakout sessions. The free, family-friendly event is from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and includes breakfast and lunch.

“I’m getting heroes together that will inspire our community to make positive change where they are. The focus is building up future leaders,” she said. “A hero is just an ordinary person that overcomes  outstanding obstacles.”

The charismatic Ward can get a crowd fired up. “I’ve always had a knack for speaking,” she said. “That’s a gift.”

Whenever Ward has an audience, whether it’s one person or a crowd, she aims to teach.

Her daughter Va’Chona Graves benefits from many lessons.

“I’ve learned that one person can make a difference,” said Graves. “If you are that difference, if you are that change, it can spread. It really starts with one person and she’s living proof of that. I’ve seen that change and I really want to apply that more in my life.”

Va’Chona credits her mother for making her a better mother to her sons. More than anything, this proud daughter wants people to know her mother is genuine.

“I get to see her behind closed doors and I can honestly say she is really real about what she does. It’s not a show, it’s not just for the pulpit or the camera. She lives it on and off the screen. She’s a real living, walking testimony.”

But politics operates by its own rules and Ward found that the team organized around her had little faith in her ability to raise money, much less win votes. Some of the very people charged with trying to get her elected, sabotaged or abandoned her when the going got tough. A campaign manager quit when she questioned how certain things were being done without her consent.

“I said, what did you plan for me? Did you think I was going to be a puppet? Why would you approach me to run for the most important position in the state if you didn’t think I would need to know?”

Another campaign manager publicly dismissed her viability as a candidate. She felt betrayed.

“If you don’t support me, then do it silently or get out of the way. Even if you don’t think I have a chance, don’t publicly say it. If we’re going down, we’re not going to hang each other on the way down. By the end, the only person left on my team was Va’Shona. We had no money and we still pulled in close to 30,000 (25,692)votes.”

The impressive second place showing in last May’s primary to the well-monied campaign of Nebraska legislator Bob Krist, who received 50,000-plus votes, was not expected by anyone inside or outside the state Democratic Party.

Her simple message seemed to resonate with folks.

“We need to have integrity, come together, stand united and be willing to listen. That commonality I really believe is what brought my votes in,” she said. “The rural areas were the strongest.”

She got a warm welcome everywhere she stopped on her caravan.

“On the governor trail I went from here all the way to Scottsbluff. I took my kids and the grand-babies with me. I was not just tying to get votes, I was trying to create memories, so I took the whole family by van. People were excited to see I brought my family. What I learned along the journey is how hungry people are that don’t look like me for relationship. We were received with love all across Nebraska.”

If there was an over-riding takeaway from the trip, she said, “I saw how important it is that you speak the truth.”

She chalks up the campaign as a positive experience.

“No regrets at all. I feel it was both rewarding and refreshing for myself and for Nebraska.”

 

 

(left to right) Pastor Vanessa Ward; Mayor Stothert, and Mr. Stothert

 

All we need is love and with a little hope we’ll get by

The attempt only confirmed her belief that the way past the animosity permeating the nation is by meeting people where they’re at without judgment.

“I believe the way we get there is to be intentional about becoming safe. When people feel safe they can be         themselves regardless of their differences. When people feel safe, they talk, and when we start communicating then we start building relationships – without the masks and the personas.

“We have to create that place to feel safe. It’s all an approach to being an approach – and we’ve got to make some approaches or I think we’re going to self-consume. Without hope, there’s chaos, and with chaos then there’s doom.”

If people from different backgrounds are to be in communion with one another, she said, it must be modeled.

“If you do not teach or train people how to stay engaged, they won’t, they’ll disconnect really quick.”

Meanwhile, she’s expecting to be fully healed from a broken leg she suffered last fall by the time the next block party rolls around for its traditional second Saturday in August (the 10th) slot. Like last year, this year’s event will be held at Fontenelle Park from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in and around the pavilion.

“in another four months it should be like the broken leg never happened and by the block party I should be skipping.”

Whatever she does, you can bet she’ll be moving forward in hope and love.

“Let’s keep hope alive.”

Follow Vanessa Ward on Facebook and YouTube.

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

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