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Women still calling the shots at the Omaha Star after 81 years


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Women still calling the shots at the Omaha Star after 81 years

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the August 2019 edition of The Reader (thereader.com)

Native Omaha Days is a biennial, first-week-in-August nostalgia trip for current and former residents reliving the black-is-beautiful experience of their youth. Among the many touchstones of African-American life here is the newspaper serving that community, the Omaha Star.

From its 1938 founding by Mildred Brown, the paper’s continued a legacy of black women publishers and editors. When Brown died in 1989. niece Marguertia Washington took the helm. Upon her 2016 passing, Phyllis Hicks took the reins. With Hicks retiring in early 2019, Frankie Williams has assumed interim publisher-editor roles as the paper’s come under the ownership of the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center.

Brown’s matriarchal presence still looms large. The apartment-office she kept at the Star is a shrine in this National Register of Historic Places building. The loud. proud Brown was often the only woman present in the circle of power she convened there.

“She was performing in a man’s role,” Frankie Williams said,” and did it very well.”

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Brown’s trademark white carnation corsage was her calling card at myriad social-community events she made it her business to attend.

Scores of youth worked for her as carriers and sales staff. She paid for many young people’s education and mentored many others.

Paul Bryant credits “Aunt Millie” with supporting him through his “starving student” days. He came to admire her social entrepreneurship.

“Mildred Brown was a fighter who used intellect, tenacity and moral authority to win. She was a visionary trailblazer decades ahead of her time.”

In 1968 Frankie Williams sold ads and edited a teen page for the Star while a Central High School. She recalls Brown holding court.

“This was a gathering place for community leaders.” Williams said of the paper’s offices. When news broke of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, she witnessed a procession of leaders seek Brown out there. “It was such a solemn, somber experience, It was silence and then talking and then – where do we go from here. Mildred led the conversation. Hers was definitely a voice of reason. She was a thinker and strategist. I wouldn’t say calm, though, She was a very forceful person.”

Williams and others were on the receiving end of “tough conversations” with Brown.

“I remember the day she told me to order her carnation corsage. I decided she should have a pink one instead of the white. Well, that was something I got called back here for,” Williams said from that same back room. “She told me it wasn’t my decision to make.”

Terri Sanders, a board member of the Mildred Brown Center, grew up in awe of the regal Brown, whom she remembers as “someone to be admired that you could pattern yourself after working in the community.”

The paper’s heyday is long past as it struggles finding sustainability in this tenuous time for print media.

Williams aims to increase visibility. The paper held a July 27 gala screening of The Wiz at Bryant Park and will have a conspicuous display in the Native Omaha Days stroll and parade.

For Williams, heading up the Star is a “full-circle” event. Brown wanted Williams to one day succeed her. It was too far off and daunting a prospect for an 18-year-old to process then. After decades working in youth services in Atlanta and Omaha, Williams returned to the fold 11 years ago to assist Washington and Hicks.

“The paper started going through some really tough times. One of the staff resigned because Marguerita (Washington) just wasn’t able to make payroll,” Williams recalled. When Washington died, Hicks managed her estate. Thus, Williams assumed “more and more Star responsibilities.” Now that she’s in the post Brown groomed her for, she’s fully aware of being a steward.

“I am grateful to be here. I can’t be Mildred. nor would I try to be. The thing I can do is carry her torch and make sure the legacy lives on. I want to take care of it.”

She agrees with Terri Sanders “the paper’s in good hands” with the Study Center.

“There were a lot of people interested in purchasing it, and still are. But I’m happy it happened like this.” Williams said. “I would not have wanted it to go to someone who didn’t understand the legacy and would have no value in Mildred other than the name.”

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Sanders feels the Study Center board and Star staff share a mission. “Part of our job is to reacquaint or introduce people to the Omaha Star and why it is important.”

The Study Center awards scholarships, operates the Junior Journalist Program and feeds the Star interns.

“We’ve had several interns and scholarship recipients go on to do well,” said Sanders, including, most prominently, her own daughter Symone Sanders, a national Democratic Party consultant and news panelist.

Two generations earlier, Urban One founder Cathy Hughes got her media start with Brown, whose example inspired her own entrepreneurial drive.

Despite female-centric leadership. the paper’s been a vehicle for such strong male voices as Ernie Chambers, Matthew Stelly, Walter Brook and Leo Louis and the late Charles B. Washington.

“Mildred Brown’s desire was for the paper to thrive after her departure. I know she would be pleased the Star is still in print,” said Paul Bryant.

Reshon Dixon, who resides in Atlanta, is among the legion of native Omahans living elsewhere who still take the Star to stay connected with Black Omaha goings-on.

It’s how she keeps up with events and deaths.

Sustaining the paper on ad revenues and subscriptions alone is “never enough,” Williams said. “We’re just making enough to keep the doors open.”

Another revenue stream is the fee-based online archive

accessed by students, academics, historians and journalists across the nation, Sanders said.

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Williams aims to increase subscriptions by moving from a column-heavy, soft news pub to a harder news biweekly. “It’s a work in progress,” she said. “Everyone is feeling their way, but I feel assured everyone is working to enhance what we’ve done in the past.”

“Our advantage is we are a trusted source,” she said. “Being relevant is even more important to maintain credibility. One of the tag-lines Marguerita and Phyllis used is: we report positive news. But we’re doing a disservice if we’re not trying to educate and inform our readers. We need to report pertinent news. With the political climate the way it is, we would do a disservice to our community not to talk about the hard topics.

“We have the census and election coming up. It’s our responsibility to educate our community on how the candidates and census impact our lives. We have to be relevant. In the fall we’ll start featuring photos of murder victims whose killings have not been solved and of missing people of color. This stuff is going on around us and we cannot act like it’s not happening.”

Williams is ever conscious of legacy.

“When I make decisions I do think about how Mildred Brown would have handled this.”

Williams said the National Newspaper Publishers Association Brown helped form “takes pride that this is a paper founded by a female and led by females for 81 years.” She added, “It just has to continue like that. It would tarnish the legacy for it not to. It’s our responsibility to groom whoever is next.”

“Black women started it, black women have led it, and it is my hope that will continue throughout the life of the paper.” Sanders said. “To lose that would be to lose the flavor of what the Omaha Star is and was.”

“I think it is wonderful women still run the Star.” Bryant said. “My prayer is that they have as much impact on the community as Mildred Brown did. “

Reshon Dixon seconds the sentiment by saying the legacy is “a testimony to the community.”

Native Omahan Amber Ruffin, writer-performer on Late Night with Seith Meyers, said, “I love the fact the Star has been led by black women for its whole existence. It makes me feel proud to be a black Omahan.”

Williams feels the future is “bright.” She’s impressed by young North O leaders. Perhaps one of them will be the torchbearer taking the paper to its centennial.

“We have a pool of young people to mentor and to help along their journey, and hopefully when the time comes one of them will be able to step up.”

Visit https://theomahastar.com.

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

Street prophets and poets depict ‘A Day in the Life’ of the homeless in new play by Portia Love


 

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Portia Vivienne Love

 

Street prophets and poets depict ‘A Day in the Life’ of the homeless in new play by Portia Love

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the August 2019 edition of The Reader (thereader.com)

 

A new play by Omaha writer Portia Vivienne Love gives voice and face to a subject she has first-hand experience with – homelessness.

She actually wrote A Day in the Life before she was a resident of Stephen Center shelter in 2018. She wound up there, she said, through “life circumstances” that “could happen to anyone.” The reality of homelessness being only a crisis away for many average Americans is a key message of her work, which shows August  4 and 5 at B Side of Benson Theatre.

“I hope this play will help audiences see not all homeless people are at fault,” said Love, a poet. short story author and murder mystery novelist. “The majority of homeless people are not lazy. Many have mental health issues that perpetuate their homelessness.

“It is my wish everyone would spend one night in a shelter. A number of myths and misguided opinions about the homeless would be changed.”

Dispelling stereotypes is personal for Love, too, as she once regarded the homeless as shiftless bums unwilling to work. She even said so in the presence of a friend, who promptly schooled her on the myriad life situations that force folks to live on society’s margins.

“I was one of those people who said, ‘Why don’t they just get a job?’ I was an idiot.”

Her education took many forms. She worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor in Omaha and Los Angeles with clients recently released from prison. They introduced her to their challenge of making it on the outside amidst employment, education, housing and healthcare barriers.

As homelessness became a big story, she heard and read more tales of people’s struggles.

“I started to find out who these people were through their stories and it impacted me very strongly.”

Love’s wired to care for those in need. She invites into her home strangers to celebrate the holidays.

“I can’t stand to see people alone on the holidays. so I have them over my place. I get that from my mother. We always had somebody else living with us because she could not stand to see any child without.”

Love’s the daughter of the late Betty Love and Omaha musician great Preston Love Sr.  She sang with her father’s band. Her brothers Norman and Richie Love are also musicians. So is her half-sister Laura Love. Portia’s surname befits her nature.

“I have deep empathy for people. I just hate to see people hurting and going through some of the things they go through. I have a heart for people in crisis. I always have, I always will, and I’m glad I’m that way.”

Writing for her is also a matter of the heart.

“In every writing workshop I do, I say, ‘Write from the heart.’  You’re not going to affect anybody if you don’t write from the heart and with passion.”

She wrote A Day in the Life a decade ago. She didn’t set out to write it as a play. “But,” she said, “in the end the best way I thought to approach this was as a play and to have chatacters step forward to tell you what has happened in their life to make them homeless.

It remains her only play.

Though her own brush with homelessness is not specifically referenced, it resonates with real-life woes depicted in the drama.

“My play is about life circumstances creating homelessness,” she said, whether through loss of job, loved one, a divorce or medical emergency.

“In my case, both of my daughters were in transition. I was out here floundering and didn’t have a place to stay, so I was going from one friend’s house to my daughters’ house, and here and there. Then someone told me Stephen Center would help me get housing, so I called there. They didn’t have a bed that night but said they said to call in the morning. I did and they had a bed.

“It’s not a situation you want to be in. The feeling I had while there was, I have my own space, I’m not in  anybody’s way, and I’m going to follow the rules necessary for me to be here right now. The 6 p.m. curfew was hard for me.”

On the other hand, she loved “living with this group of people and learning their stories. “

Center staff helped find her a low-rent apartment.

The fact someone as accomplished as Love (she has bachelor’s and master’s degrees) found herself homeless is emblematic of her plays’s theme. It’s why she designed the piece with homeless characters emerging from a street crowded with people of every walk of life to reveal their truth.

“My play takes place on a street corner. People are on their way to work, to the store, and some step up to the front of the stage from the crowd to tell their story.”

The characters include men, women and children. Some adults lament lost careers and families. Others rue losing themselves to addiction. These street prophets and poets riff to the beat of distant drums. A poem Love wrote well before the play is the show’s first soliloquy. It speaks to shattered dreams and the dichotomy of so much want amidst so much plenty.

“I decided it needs to be in this play because it speaks to what this play is all about. I think it really captures people that live in ghettos and impoverished areas.”

Long after writing the play, Love intersected with homelessness in ways that gave a point of comparison.

“Once I had the experience of living in a homeless shelter under my belt, I went back to the play to see if it was realistic, and I was kind of amazed how on track I was. I don’t know how, but I was really on the money.”

She’s also compared notes by gauging what she with what she lived driving a van for a homeless ministry.

“I formed relationships with these homeless men.” she said. “They loved me because I treated them like people.”

Again, she discovered that she’d gotten it right.

Today, she doesn’t need to look far to find people adrift. “Down the street from where I live a lot of homeless people stand with signs.” She sometimes talks to them and shares a hot meal.

Satisfied she painted an accurate interpretation, she heeded a mandate B Side director Amy Ryan, also known for her big heart, gave to produce the play there. Love then reached out to Jessica Scheuerman, who ran the Carver Bank where she did a residency, to help fundraise and market. Love also got the Nebraska Writers Collective, for whom she’s done workshops, to serve as her fiscal agent.

Casting the show, Love wanted authenticity, not training.

“I didn’t want actors. I wanted people who feel these parts because they’ve been there, identify with it, and will make the audience feel it. In readings and rehearsals it’s been powerful to see them execute their parts. Several people were silent after reading their parts before sharing how what’s in the script resonated with something that happened in their lives.”

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D. Kevin William, among the few professional actors in the piece, delivers the” Under the Rainbow” speech.

“He just captures all the right rhythms and inflections and feelings,” Love said.

Prepping the play has consumed most of Love’s time. It’s taken her away from marketing her new book of poetry, That’s All I Have to Say. She leads youth and adult writing workshops. When not writing for publication, she creates original works of art with her poems and sells them through her own Just Write 4 Me.

But for now, the play’s the thing.

“My whole focus has been on this and I don’t want to take the focus off. This play has been such a weight on my heart. I am so glad I finally have the opportunity to share it.”

Shows are at 7 p.m. at the B Side, 6054 Maple Street.

Tickets are $15. Bring a food or clothing donation for a $1 ticket discount at the door. Proceeds and donations will benefit Stephen Center, Siena Francis House and MICAH House.

Follow the writer at https://www.facebook.com/portia.v.love.

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

Outperforming and Including Others: Makayla McMorris

March 20, 2019 Leave a comment

Outperforming and Including Others 

Makayla McMorris

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in the March-April 2019 edition of B2B Omaha Magazine (https://omahamagazine.com/articles/outperforming-and-including-others/)

 

Marketing whiz Makayla McMorris became executive director of the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Office of University Communications in December 2018.

The Omaha native hopes to elevate her hometown community, leading by example as an African-American female in UNO’s executive ranks. “Being in this position is a huge hope for the community,” McMorris says. “It’s difficult in Omaha. A lot of people from the community leave for better opportunities. ”

She and her husband, Charles Drew Health Center CEO Kenny McMorris, have spurned offers to relocate.

“We both are very committed to the success of Omaha,” she says. “We see where change is starting to happen. Networking and understanding how things work here has allowed us to stay in Omaha and thrive.”

The Nebraska Wesleyan graduate’s local professional life began as a Hearst Television Broadcast Sales Academy Fellow, where she found herself to be the only African-American in local media marketing. She often exceeded sales goals, surpassing her new business goal alone by 30 percent in 2007.

The position at Hearst empowered her to be an entrepreneur. That two-year experience helped her relate to clients when she joined Cox Media in March 2009.

“I could talk to business customers about things other consultants couldn’t—about how to write a business plan, supervise construction of a physical space, hire and train employees, make payroll,” she says. “I had a connection with, and understanding of, small- to medium-sized businesses and what the value of a dollar means to them. It put me so far ahead of other consultants.”

Over the next few years, she climbed steadily in her career, and in 2013, exceeded her first quarter goals by 12 percent for new business, and by 139 percent for digital. But it took time to for McMorris to overcome stereotypes.

“When I would go into a business for the first time I could see they didn’t expect a black person,” McMorris says. “They were like, ‘who is she to tell me how to run my business?’ I felt like I was always under the microscope. I had to perform at a higher level. I had to break down barriers to get them to understand I’m of value to their company.”

She out-performed revenue targets by devising integrated media campaigns across broadcast, publishing, and digital platforms. Word of her achievements led KETV to recruit her back into the Hearst fold. As the KETV senior marketing executive, she led multi-million dollar integrated sales campaigns that grew station revenue by millions.

She’s also grown her circle of influence, serving on the Omaha Women’s Fund and Metro Community College Foundation boards, doing professional meet-ups, and encouraging peers.

“You just really have to be connected,” McMorris says. “This position at UNO came to me because of those things. People I had worked with who I stayed in connection with vouched for me in this role. It’s a testament to that networking.”

That’s one reason she brings a democratic, inclusive leadership style to “the UNO family.”

“I lead a team of 21. I want to be someone they actually feel connected to,” McMorris says. “I like to sit back and listen. But when I do have something to say, it’s effective. I want it to be relatable. People don’t respond well to jargon…I prefer one-on-one, intimate conversations.”

McMorris believes UNO is “a premier institution for higher learning, not only on a local level, but on a national level.”

And with her track record for marketing, she will certainly help elevate the school into an even more premier institution.


Visit unomaha.edu/university-communications for more information.

This article was printed in the April/May 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Makayla McMorris

An Omaha Star: Phyllis Hicks – The Publisher & the Newspaper She Never Meant to Run

March 10, 2019 Leave a comment

An Omaha Star: Phyllis Hicks

The Publisher & the Newspaper She Never Meant to Run

by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the March-April 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/articles/an-omaha-star-phyllis-hicks/)

 

 

 

 

When the story of the city’s longest-running African-American-owned newspaper, The Omaha Star, is written, three women will dominate its 80-year narrative.

Founding publisher Mildred Brown ran the ship from 1938 until her death in 1989. Her niece Marguerita Washington (a career educator), who spent time working for her aunt growing up, succeeded her. Phyllis Hicks joined the paper in 2005 and took over more and more of its operations after Washington fell ill. Upon Washington’s 2016 death, Hicks officially became publisher and managing editor; in truth, she had been running things for some time.

Hicks—the last survivor of this troika of black women journalists—never intended getting so deeply involved with the paper. Brown was only an acquaintance and Hicks’ association with the Star was limited to reading and submitting news items to it. She only joined the staff as a favor to her mother, who was close to Washington. Hicks studied journalism in school, but besides writing occasional press releases for her work in the public and private sectors (including her coaching of the Stepping Saints drill team), she had nothing to do with the Fourth Estate.

Fate had other plans, and thus Hicks, like Brown and Washington before her, became the matriarchal face of the paper. She did it her way, too. Lacking the entrepreneurial and sartorial flair of Brown, Hicks nevertheless managed attracting enough advertisers to keep the Star afloat through troubled economic times and declining ad revenues and subscriptions. Without the publishing and academic background of Washington, Hicks still found ways to keep the paper relevant for today’s readers.

After more than a decade with the paper, Hicks—who turns 76 on March 7—is looking to step away from the paper due to her own declining health. She broke her ankle in 2017, and then, last year went to the hospital to be treated for pneumonia; she was discharged with a dysfunctional kidney requiring dialysis.

She is eager for someone to carry the Star torch forward. As this issue of Omaha Magazine went to press, a management transition involving the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center was in progress.

Whatever the paper’s future, Hicks is glad to have been part of its legacy of strong black women. That legacy extends to her late mother, aunts, and grandmother (Emma Lee Agee-Sullivan)—all independent achievers from whom she drew much inspiration.

When Agee-Sullivan was young, she was a member of the church pastored by the Rev. Earl Little (Malcolm X’s father). Agee-Sullivan was with the Little family when a lynch mob came looking for Earl Little. The family hid him and covered for him, and the Littles fled Nebraska the next day. As an adult, Hicks says, Agee-Sullivan was active in the Baptist church and started the state’s first licensed, black-owned home daycare.

Hicks had aunts who worked in finance and another who was a championship golfer (who would have gone professional “if she had come at another time”), she says, adding that her paternal grandfather, the Rev. J. P. Mosley Sr., led a demonstration to integrate swimming pools in Chillicothe, Missouri, in 1954, and “built Mount Nebo Baptist Church from the ground up” in Omaha.

When the challenge of the Star or anything else presented itself, she was ready. “I just did it because it had to be done,” Hicks says.

She followed the path laid out by other “black women taking the leadership role.”

At a time when few black women owned businesses, Brown launched the Star only a year after moving to town. She originally worked for the city’s other African-American paper, The Guide. She left its employment for her startup, which competed against The Guide for advertisers and readers. The Star soon won out thanks to her entrepreneurial savvy and not-taking-no-for-an-answer grit. The publisher made her paper a bastion for civil rights and community pride.

Following Brown’s death in 1989, Washington took command. By the early 2000s, the
paper struggled.

Meanwhile, Hicks’ mother, Juanita, befriended Washington. When Juanita fell ill, Washington helped care for her to allow Hicks to manage the Stepping Saints. Then, when Juanita’s house got flooded, she stayed with Washington for six weeks.

“They kind of adopted each other and threw me in the mix,” Hicks says.

Hicks was retired but, at the urging of her mother, she offered to assist Washington at the Star. Hicks soon took on editorial and business duties.

“I went to do a little marketing for Marguerita, and I’ve been there ever since,” she says. “I discovered there was a lot of help she needed. The paper was in dire straits. And I just started doing some of everything.”

Along the way, Hicks and Washington grew close. “It was a growing relationship that became more of a personal one than a business one,” she says.

Together, they formed the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center as a fundraising and scholarship vehicle.

As Washington’s health failed, Hicks became her caregiver and eventually power of attorney. By the time Washington died of multiple malignant brain tumors in 2016, Hicks transitioned the paper from a weekly to a biweekly as a cost-savings move. She also got the paper’s archives digitized online.

Hicks continued running the paper, she says, because “I just felt an obligation. When I take on something, I try to see it through.”

Woodcut of Phyllis Hicks by Watie White

The Star is believed to be the nation’s oldest African-American paper owned and operated by women. Through the Great Depression, the late ’60s riots, the 2008 economic collapse, the death of publishers, and declining print ad revenue, it has never ceased publication.

Hicks admires how Washington took up the mantle after Mildred Brown died.

“She wanted the paper to go on as a legacy to Mildred because Mildred put her all into the paper. Plus, Marguerita felt the paper needed to be in the community to allow the black community a voice. She felt the newspaper was another way to educate people.

“She made the ultimate sacrifice and put her life on hold to keep somebody else’s dream alive,” Hicks says.

With Washington and Brown as her models, she ensured the Star’s survival.

“I take satisfaction in knowing I kept it from going under because it was close to going under,” she says. “With some personal sacrifices, I’ve been able to keep the doors open and pay people’s salaries. I paid off allThe Omaha Star bills. There were several years of back taxes. All that’s been caught up to date.”

Hicks came to believe, as Brown and Washington did, the Star serves an important role in its “ability to tell it like it is in the community, without it having to be politically correct.”

Just don’t expect crime reporting.

“I’ve tried to keep the paper in the light that Marguerita and Mildred did in positive news,” she says. “We don’t report who got killed, we don’t report crime, we don’t report any of that, because there’s a mess of that being reported already. What we try to do is paint a bright picture of what’s going on in the community—people’s accomplishments. We try to put information out there that builds the community up as well as inspires the community.”

The Star’s long been home to strong voices—from Charlie Washington and Preston Love Sr. to Ernie Chambers and Walter Brooks—calling for change. For many black Omahans, including those living elsewhere, it remains a main conduit to their shared community.

Hicks wishes more young people used the paper as a resource and recognized its role in fighting injustice and championing black self-determination.

“It’s a legacy for them,” she says. “It’s a part of this community’s history, and it’s a vehicle for them to tell their stories. We invite young people to submit stories.”

The Star intersects with young people through internships it offers students and scholarships granted by the Study Center. Engaging with community youth has been a priority for Hicks for years.

Long before joining the Star, Hicks made her community mark as co-founder and director of the Salem Baptist Church Stepping Saints drill team. The team was originally organized in 1966 to perform at a single event. But Saints dancers and drummers wanted something permanent, so the group became a fixture in area parades and at Disneyland, Disney World, Knott’s Berry Farm, and many other attractions across the nation.

Hicks says, the last time she counted, the Saints had performed in 38 states and some 2,000 youths had cycled through the team’s ranks over time. Some veteran Saints have seen their children and grandkids participate, making it a multigenerational tradition.

The Saints celebrated 50 years in 2017. The team is still going strong. Even though Hicks no longer takes an active hand in things, she’s still the matriarch.

Just as she never meant for the Saints to be a long-term commitment, her Omaha Star gig turned into one. Her promise-keeping may be her enduring legacy.

“If I say I’m going to do something, then I’m going to try to see it to the end,” she says.

Hicks wants the paper to remain black-owned and managed and based in North Omaha, where its red brick building (at 2216 N. 24th St.) has landmark status on the National Register of Historic Places.


Visit theomahastar.com for more information.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Hope Hero: Vanessa Ward

January 27, 2019 1 comment

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.”

 

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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.

As screen veteran Yolonda Ross from Omaha enjoys today’s black renaissance, she gears for next big career move

December 12, 2018 1 comment

Yolanda Ross

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As screen veteran Yolonda Ross from Omaha enjoys today’s black renaissance, she gears for next big career move

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

In her two decades as a working screen actress Omaha native Yolonda Ross has seen Black Cinema explode and women filmmakers assert themselves. She’s “making it happen” herself as a recurring character in Showtime’s The Chi after recurring parts in How to Murder Your Wife, The Get Down and Treme. She’s in HBO’s latest hit Random Acts of Flyness. She plays opposite Patricia Clarkson, James Caan and Toby Jones in the new indie feature Out of Blue.

Next spring, she breakouts behind the camera for her feature writing-directing debut, Scenes from Our Marriage. It shoots in her adopted hometown New York City with the same production team from the 2012 short Breaking Night she wrote-directed. She’s also executive producing and starring in Scenes. She and Clarke Peters are husband and wife theater artists dealing with professional challenges, jealousy, infidelity and race.

Omaha native Tim Christian’s Nightfox Entertainment is co-producing.

Ross left Omaha for NYC to pursue a fashion career. The multitalented artist (she also sings and paints) is glad for more opportunities today than ever.

“Yeah, this is a great time to be a black creative in our industry,” Ross said.

The emergence of Shonda Lynn Rhimes, Lena Waithe, Ryan Coogler, Jordan Peele, Terence Nance and other black TV-film players marks a wave if not sea change.

“Things have improved some,” Ross said. “I think it’s great there’s more people of color telling their own stories and not having pretty much the white race telling everybody else’s story. It makes for more specific voices for people to really see themselves on screen. It’s from a more authentic place because it’s coming from the people that live it.

“There’s still a lot of change that can happen though. There needs to be more people of color on the other side as far as green-lighting and distributing because you can produce things, but that still doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to get picked up.”

Ross has also seen her industry change in terms of how talent and content get discovered.

“Now having the Internet very much planted in the middle of everything, because you can stream everything, definitely has broadened the industry and made it smaller at the same time. There’s a whole crop of people that are stars now for not really doing anything but talking to a camera telling you about something, which is not actually acting.

“They’re just very different things.”

She sees a content glut.

“I feel it’s all very saturated right now. There’s an overload of material out there. You have to really look for the quality stuff. As far as acting, I feel if you are at the top of what you do in your work, the cream of the crop still rises no matter the clutter. You just have a lot more to get around than before because everybody’s jumbled up into one big industry.”

Concurrent with these trends are new funding, production, distribution mechanisms to help women get their work seen and supported.

“It’s wonderful,” said Ross, who’s worked with many women directors (Cheryl Dunye, Reed Morano, Carol Morley).

Her upcoming feature is getting love from Level Forward, a female-run production company supporting women’s stories and women of color.

Her project is also nurtured by Film Independent and its Fiscal Sponsorship Program, which opens the door to nonprofit funding for independent filmmakers and media artists. The Friends of Mary Riepma Ross (no relation) Media Arts Center in Lincoln, Nebraska made a grant to her project through the program.

“My film is also going to be in Film Independent Fast Track,” Ross said. The film financing market held during the LA Film Festival helps producers-directors “fast track” their projects via intensive meetings with executives, financiers, agents, managers, distributors, granting organizations and production companies.

Meanwhile, Ross, who’s worked with Denzel Washington, John Sayles, David Mamet and Baz Luhrmann, continues keeping good company. Being part of Terence Nance’s Flyness is the latest example.

“I think Terence is one of those voices we need to see. We need his Afropunk voice. We need voices like his. We need Lena Waithe’s voice. We need my voice. We need these different kinds of voices with black skin to show that we are not all the same. We don’t all think the same, we don’t all process things the same.”

Ross has prepared to make her own feature for years.

“I’m really psyched about it. We have a lot of things to say. I’m so ready. All the directors I’ve worked with, all the Sundance labs I’ve done, all the different mediums I’ve worked in – it all helps with making my own first feature film. Also, I feel I understand how to deal with other actors to get emotion without over-talking, overdoing things – but just letting people do their work.

“My experience working with so many people allows me to get the best actors, and they’re willing to do favors, which is great. In terms of production, I understand how to get things in an efficient way because I’ve dealt with so many different types of situations. I’m able to look at things from the outside in and from the inside out, where sometimes directors kind of get stuck in the writing or the set. I also have a strong team around me to keep me on track so that I can lock down and streamline what I want to get in a moment, in a scene.”

Doing Breaking Night was “extremely important,” she said. “I needed to learn every step in making a film – from writing it to getting it out to festivals. Not only did I learn everybody’s job, I dealt with everything from insurance to licensing music. I needed to understand the business side. It’s helped me preparing to make this feature. I can talk to my producers about different elements and guide the project in a way that will be bes as far as time, money, creatively, everything.

“I like the producing aspects of filmmaking.”

Her screen journey began in earnest with her breakthrough in the 2001 HBO movie Stranger Inside.

“When you’re in it, sometimes you don’t look back on it because everything is about the next job. You’re always striving for more. Whatever you did in the past is great, but it’s also the past. But I’m very thankful to be here and to be able to have touched people in various ways. I’m thankful to continue to work on great projects and to be able to support myself by doing my passion, my art.”

She’s never forgotten her roots.

“I’m always down to do things in Omaha. I was just there (May) at the Dundee Theater for a panel on women in television. Supporting artists there is totally my thing. I feel seeing people who grew up in the same setting as you living their dream is a really powerful thing.”

Visit yolondaross.com.

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

 

Putting it on the Line: Omaha’s Amber Ruffin making a name for herself in late-night TV

December 8, 2018 1 comment

Omaha’s Amber Ruffin has so much to say and so much going on that I couldn’t fit it all into one story. That’s why in addition to the recent Omaha Star cover story I did on her, I wrote a Reader feature on this writer-actress best known for “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” While she came to national attention with her work on that show, she’s no overnight sensation. She put many years into an improvisational comedy career before network TV gave her a mass media platform for her talents. Her performing start goes clear back to Omaha Benson High School and local theaters.

But first, here are some thoughts about Amber and her being part of a long legacy of African-Americans with Nebraska ties making their marks in the entertainment industry.

Amber Ruffin: A consideration

For the second year in a row Ruffin came home to headline the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving event.

There’s little doubt we will be hearing and seeing a lot more from this smart, engaging writer-performer who often skewers wrongdoers and haters with her subversive, silly, serious takes. Her humor, especially when it deals with race and other social justice issues, resonates strongly because it’s grounded in reality and truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if she proves herself a fine dramatic actress as well.

She’s part of an impressive contingent of black creatives from here to make their mark variously in music, theater, film, television, literature and media.

These talents include:
Noble and George Johnson
Lloyd Hunter
Preston Love Sr.
Wynonie Harris
Anna Mae Winburn
Mildred Brown
Helen Jones Woods
Ruth Norman
Buddy Miles
Arno Lucas
Calvin Keys
Victor Lewis
Cathy Hughes
Carol Rogers
Nole Jeanpierre
Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris
John Beasley
Monty Ross
Kevyn Morrow
Randy Goodwin
Camille Steed
Sandra Organ
Alfred Liggins Jr.
Jade Jenise Dixon
Gabrielle Union
Yolonda Ross
Q Smith
Carleen Brice
Kim Louise
Victoria Benning
Omowale Akintunde
Michael Beasley
Lafayette Reed Jr.
Tim Christian
Beaufield Berry
Symone Sanders
Chanelle Elaine

 

Putting it on the Line

Omaha’s Amber Ruffin making a name for herself in late-night TV

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Since joining NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” in 2014 as a writer-performer, Omaha native Amber Ruffin has made a name for herself. The gig made her the first black female writer in U.S. late-night network television.

Her strong Afro-centric takes on social issues are part of a disarming package. She can be sweet, silly, manic comedian or edgy commentator and provocateur.

In the recurring “Late Night” segments “Amber Says What” and “Amber’s One-Minute of Fury,” she skewers newsmakers and outs injustice. Her subversive bits play like funny truth sessions by a righteous sister reporting from the trenches of Being Black in America.

“That’s my goal,” Ruffin said. “You’ll never be wrong when you say police should stop murdering children in the street. That (racism) being a lot of my subject matter just gives me tremendous confidence because it’s never been more right and it’s never been more important.”

This fresh TV face and voice is steeped in a long, deep improv background that started here and took her to comedy capitals. Last month she came home to display her authentic, unvarnished self during an Inclusive Communities event at Slowdown. The audience got a taste of her formidable improv skills.

Replicating improv on TV is elusive.

“Oh, how I wish the feeling of improv translated to television. A lot of people have tried to get that feeling in a show, but it’s pretty difficult.”

Playing off a live audience is crucial.

“You’re constantly adjusting your tone, cadence because you have instant feedback and that allows you to give the best performance.”

Working in a corporate culture is still an adjustment.

“It is crazy for comedy to exist in an office. I’d never seen it before I was a part of it. I still find it shocking that it works.”

She’s learned to work within network TV boundaries.

“You can’t be crazy politically incorrect. When you’re on stage doing improv it only exists in that moment, so you can say whatever comes to mind, but on this show whatever you say exists forever. So you have to get it right so that 20 years from now when someone plays it you’ll still stand by it.”

Going out on a limb is a Ruffin trait.

“We are a little adventurous,” Ruffin said of her family. “My mom graduated high school at 16. Every summer she went to New York to find out what the world was about. My oldest sister lived in Panama. Another sister lived in Namibia. It’s just in our bones to see what’s out there.”

Her retired military parents are from the South. They met at Offutt Air Force Base. They later ran their own daycare business. Amber’s the youngest of their five children. Her sisters are also published writers.

Growing up, Ruffin used humor as escape.

“Humor WAS my way to survive. When kids make fun of you, it’s nice to give them something else to laugh at.”

That experience still informs her.

“My day-to-day humor stems from a need to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable and happy, which stems from getting made fun of so badly. It’s assumed people use comedy to put up walls, but I think in many cases the opposite is true. I can say exactly how I feel no matter how uncomfortable it makes you – if there’s a joke attached.”

Musically and dramatically inclined (she plays piano and sings), she developed an early passion for theater.

“I just love musicals.”

The movie The Wiz made a big impression for more than the music.

“It was rare to see a show with an all-black cast that has nothing to do with being black,” she said. “Often times, black people have to talk about their experience being black to be valued. But these people didn’t. It was just a story of joy. The movie, the live musical, every performance of it leaves so much room for you to express yourself. It reminds us the world wants us at our weirdest. When you pretend to fit in, you fade away.”

She contributed to the book of a new stage version of The Wiz that premiered in June at The Muny amphitheater in St. Louis. She hopes a national tour comes here on what could be a Broadway-bound path.

“What distinguishes our version is its timelessness. I wanted it to never have to be rewritten again.”

The stage bug bit while playing Princess Winnifred in an Omaha Benson High production of Once Upon a Mattress. The Benson grad honed her craft via Stages of Omaha at the Millennium Theatre. She did improv at the Shelterbelt and Blue Barn.

Encouraged to try it in Chi-Town, she caught on with Boom Chicago – working with Jordan Peele, Matt Jones and Jessica Lowe – and then Second City. In between, she did a stint with Boom’s company in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Within days of an unsuccessful “SNL” audition, she got hired by “SNL” and Boom alum Seth Meyers.

“I think it’s been a natural progression because I have always been writing my own black point of view. I haven’t found it (TV) to be too crazy because at Boom Chicago we would do short form, where the audience suggests the set-up and then you have to deliver punch lines. You have three or four seconds to come up with something. But on “Late Night” I have all day to come up with a punch line. It’s much more relaxed.”

She usually has a week to hone her “Late Night” routines.

“You write it up and you rewrite it a bunch and you show it to the audience and you get one last rewrite and then it has to go in the show.”

She believes she provides a good change-up.

“Because Seth is so grounded in his comedy there is room for an insane person like me.”

She doesn’t make a big deal about having been the first black female writer in the late-night lane.

“I am not sure if any of that matters. What matters is knowing that we exist and being able to see us. What matters is that everyone knows there’s room for them – because there is.”

She says she was long ready for the opportunity. “I could have done this job years ago, for sure.” But happening when it did kept her real. “Now that I’m in this environment, I’m still me. If I had got this job years ago, I would have bent to what the culture was, and it’s my not having done that has made my career what it is.”

Her go-to topic, racism. is informed by her travels.

“The racism in Omaha is different than anywhere else. We don’t have a huge history of lynchings, scary slavery and Confederate monuments, and so we feel we are above racism, which is what puts us so far beneath it. No one’s really angry because you’re a black woman. People don’t think of you as much as a threat. They just think you are kind of gross.

“Omaha’s pretty bad. It’s way less in Chicago. In Amsterdam, way less, but still there – just a different kind. In L.A., there’s less palpable racism. It’s all institutionalized instead of in your face. In New York, people say something the tiniest bit racist and everyone knows it and sees it. It has gone from me being gross to racism itself being the gross thing, which is a relief.

“Now racism is fixed and over, so we win. Just kidding.”

Coming of age here, she craved diversity.

“I remember being in Omaha and just wanting there to be more me and to have a place where you felt like you could belong, and there wasn’t. I still don’t have a lot of me. I just see how critically important it is, especially for young kids.”

Her diversity advocacy made her an apt choice as special guest for the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving fundraiser.

Meanwhile, she has an NBC development deal for a show, “Village Gazette,” on which she has co-writing and executive producer credits. It’s set in fictional Benson, Nebraska. The name is inspired by her real-life alma mater, Benson High, and the neighborhood that school is in.

She’s also writing feature film scripts. And she can be seen on Comedy Central’s “The Detroiters” and “Drunk History.”

“I shouldn’t be doing this many things, but I figure you only have so much time. I want to give it a shot.”

Follow Amber on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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