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Tech maven LaShonna Dorsey pushes past stereotypes

January 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Tech maven pushes past stereotypes

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

LaShonna Dorsey, 38, busts stereotypes. Start with this sunny disruptor launching and selling a successful technology organization in her hometown.

As an African-American entrepreneur, she bridged the digital divide with Interface Web School. Though now part of the AIM Institute, she still heads the coding school that’s won her and its work much recognition. Her AIM title is Vice President, Tech Education.

She’s bypassed the Omaha ceiling for young black professionals that finds many leaving for better advancement opportunities elsewhere.

She’s defied expectations by going public, rather than remain silent, about an assault she endured.

For this superstar doer who serves on multiple boards, AIM’s acquisition of Interface was strategic.

“Interface had really reached a point of capacity,” said Dorsey. “We were growing, which was great, but I just knew I couldn’t take on more classes without having more infrastructure and all that. AIM has the infrastructure, they’ve got the space, they’ve got human resources, accounting, marketing departments.”

AIM Interface solidifies and expands partnerships.

“We had really good relationships with the Nebraska Department of Labor and Heartland Workforce Solutions and still maintain those, but it’s a lot easier for us to partner with companies and other organizations because we’re AIM now.

“It fit right with where AIM and Interface wanted to go. They have the youth education side and professional development, but they didn’t have adult tech training. The cool thing is that Interface LLC was a for-profit and now we’re a program within a nonprofit and so we get to take advantage of having that 501 designation.”

Building Interface fulfilled a dream.

“I really thought I was a starter, and so it was good to see something through from idea to completion in a major way.”

She frequently shares her start-up story, warts and all.

“I felt like especially in the early days of Interface I often had to act like I had it altogether all the time because I was selling it, too. It’s kind of a challenging position to be in because you can’t be truly authentic.

“I was really grateful to have good friends and a really strong support system. That made a huge difference.”

She especially enjoys sharing her story with women.

“Women that have done a ton in their career appreciate how difficult it is to do something like this. Women just getting started are like, ‘How did you even do that?’ We have real conversations about what it’s like and the pitfalls – but also the rewards. Being in the middle myself, I am kind of still navigating that.

“I do feel I have a lot of value to add and information to share if people are ready to hear it. I tell people it wasn’t easy all the time, but the thing that kept me moving forward was that it was so rewarding. I have so many graduate stories of people whose lives were changed because of what they learned. It helped them get better jobs and buy homes. They’re still reaping the benefits. It’s still rippling. The culture of Interface is like that.”

She readily accepts being a role model and mentor to young black women.

Growing up in a single-parent family, Dorsey learned self-reliance skills. As a bright Goodrich scholar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, she became a self-motivated high achiever. Early in her career, she proved a project management whiz.

“I like to just figure my way forward. I like problem solving. When things get a little too simple, then that is hard for me. Then I’m like, ‘Okay, what else can we do here?’ I’m not afraid of conflict, so I do lean into it, and I encourage people who work for me to do the same. If you really want to get the thing you want, you have to work through the hard stuff, too.”

Omaha’s limited horizons saw Dorsey leave in her 20s.

“But I came back. The thing that’s really tough here is that as you move up in your career, the leadership gets more white. Working in tech, you’re with a lot of white professionals and when I lived in west Omaha I’d go home, where it was all white, and I felt I had no community. It’s unfortunate and it felt uncomfortable.

“Living in a diverse community is important for me.”

Workplace inclusion requires more than new hires.

“You can hire a bunch of black and whatever programmers but that is not going to change the culture of organizations who might not be ready for it. You have to give people a space where they’re comfortable being themselves and not feeling like they have to fully assimilate in order to fit in.

“I cannot wait until we don’t have to have this conversation anymore and where it’s not special that I’m a black woman in tech. But it matters a lot to people and I have to talk about it.”

She feels she’s reached a personal breakthrough by reclaiming her given name, LaShonna, in place of Shonna and letting her hair go natural.

“Now, I feel like I can be more of myself.”

Dorsey embraces the new diversity in revitalized northeast Omaha, where African-American culture is being discovered by white millennials.

“Whenever you can create opportunities for people to have those experiences with people they don’t interact with on a daily basis, you start to change the narrative. That’s the only way were going to see change.”

Mindset to her is critical to create the transformation she and others hope to see there.

“I think we’re still many years out from seeing the fruits of it. There’s a lot of work to do because we can’t deny the fact poverty is the highest in those zip codes. That’s something to address and fix but people have to want it and see it even as an issue.”

She’s doing her part to equip adults with job-ready tech skills by bringing her code school to the Highlander Village purpose-built community on North 30th Street.

“Those economic improvement opportunities can make a big difference for people,” she said. “It will be awesome to see all of that come to life.”

Her career exploded two years ago, but few knew she was reeling from having barely survived an assault.

“Everything was still new at Interface and I still didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing all the time when I had this really difficult, tragic thing happen. There were many work days when I had to meet attorneys or go to court Turning those emotions on and off was really hard.”

It stemmed from someone she’d dated suddenly revealing a side he’d concealed before.

“It turned into a night where he took me from where I was without my permission. He strangled me three times, including once where I lost consciousness. He assaulted me in all sorts of ways in what was a five-hour ordeal.”

Fifteen months elapsed from when she pressed charges to her attacker’s sentencing.

“It was a really hard process. I totally understand why people don’t pursue that path because it is very difficult and as the victim you have to prove something happened. Typically, this kind of stuff happens one-on- one.”

Dorsey nearly didn’t report the incident for fear of how she’d be perceived.

“I remember thinking this is going to be so embarrassing and people are going to think I can’t do anything right. It’s irrational thinking, I know, but that was in my head. I decided to report it anyway.

“I try to do everything on my own all the time. But I did get some counseling and I did work through some of this with friends. Leaning into work helped a lot.”

Nature walks and karaoke nights helped, too.

Then she began dealing with it in public forums, including a poignant Facebook post.

“It was hard to carry around all the time. People were really supportive. They called me brave and things like that. I just felt it was relieving a burden for me.”

She posted soon after the last presidential election and urged people to walk through their fear and anger over the results as she had with her assault.

“Every time I talk about it publicly, more than one person will come up to me and say, ‘Me, too,’ or “My friend, my sister, my daughter.’ It’s so common. There’s a bunch of people who feel like they can’t talk about it, so I decided to share what happened to me.”

If nothing else, she said, her story reveals all is not what it seems on the path to success.

“People tend to look at the surface and just assume that because you’ve done a lot, it was without hardship.”

Visit Interfaceschool.com. Follow Dorsey on Facebook.

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

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Dope actress Yolonda Ross is nothing but versatile – from ‘The Get Down’ to cinema cannibals to dog-eat-dog politics

October 18, 2016 Leave a comment

Dope actress Yolonda Ross from Omaha gave me some love for the new Reader (http://thereader.com)) article I wrote about her, her recurring role as a teacher in “The Get Down” and an inspirational teacher in her life–

“Hey Leo!! I saw The Reader. It looks great. Thanks for including the part about Mrs. Owens. She meant a lot to a lot of people. Thanks for the nice spread in The Reader.”

Just now featuring it on my blog, leoadambiga.com, where you can find several more pieces I’ve written about Yolonda as well as Gabrielle Union, John Beasley and dozens of other Omaha native screen and stage stars.

Love the photo of Yo going all glam. How about you? She’s that rare actress who can transform herself from role to role and go from high to low, serious to silly, hard to soft in a heartbeat.

 

Dope actress Yolonda Ross is nothing but versatile – from ‘The Get Down’ to cinema cannibals to dog-eat-dog politics

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in October 2016 issue of The Reader (http://thereader.com)

You can find the piece on the paper’s website at:

http://thereader.com/film/actress-from-omaha-once-again-in-must-see-project

You can find my other work in The Reader by visiting–

http://thereader.com and searching via my name, Leo Adam Biga.

This post falls under the heading: This is why I do what I do

August 15, 2016 Leave a comment

This post falls under the heading:

This is why I do what I do.

 

Received the amazing email message below from Kac Young. She fell under the influence of a dynamic group of radical feminists at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, California of all places during the late 1960s. These were provocateurs who challenged all kinds of conformity and many of them were the nuns who taught there. These women were unafraid to challenge the status quo when it came to the Catholic Church, higher education, culture and society. They were known as the Rebel Nuns of Hollywood. They brought cutting edge figures to the campus, including activists and artists. Among the resident artists was Megan Terry, a major figure in the New York and national experimental theater scene then. Kac Young appeared in the original production of Terry’s “The Tommy Allen Show” at the college. Kac found a Reader cover story I did on Megan and Jo Ann Schmidman, who together forged compelling, socially relevant work at their Omaha Magic Theatre. Kac wanted to make sure Megan knew that one of those cheerful subversives at the college, in fact the very woman who brought Megan there, had passed away.

 

 

Megan Terry

 

You can linl to that Reader story at–

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/19/the-magical-mystery-tour-of-omahas-magic-theatre-a-megan-terry-and-jo-ann-schmidman-production/

I have also included, thanks to Kac, links to some content about the places, the figures and the times she references in her message.

Kac says some very nice things about my writing but you should know she enjoyed quite the career as a television director before changing careers a few years ago. She’s also an author. Check out her website at http://www.kacyoung.com/about-kac-young/ and her LinkedIn page at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kacyoung1.

Kac Young

Here is the message she sent that made my day yesterday and that I think you will enjoy too (that’s Kac on the right).

“Dear Leo: I was in the original play The Tommy Allen Show that Megan Terry wrote and directed at Immaculate Heart College in 1969.  I was searching for her and found your incredible interview with her and Jo Ann Schmidman. I’m now following you and what you write about because you are terrific and there are no accidents. Thank you for a great piece on Megan.  I am writing to you because I want to get in touch with Megan. The beautiful nun who hired her to come to our drama department passed away two summers ago. She was Sr. Ruth Marie Gibbons that we all called “Ruth.” She was one of the leading drama teachers and persons of theatrical merit in the 60’s and 70’s having worked with Joe Papp, The Bread and Puppet Theater and La Mama. She graduated from the then Carnegie –Mellon and was way ahead of her time and vocation. Ruth brought Megan to our campus for the experience of having a radical playwright in residence at Immaculate Heart College which was frequented by The Berrigan Brothers and other anti-war protestors. These are the nuns who rebuked the Vatican and left the church because the powers that be in Rome wanted them to get back in their habits after a two-year experiment without them. The nuns found that being out of the habit made their work in the community more effective and in line with their purpose which was to serve humanity. The uniform habits proved to be a barrier and they wanted to be effective not quaint.  They were a feisty lot and they were smart. They owned the deed to the property at Western and Franklin in Hollywood, where AFI now sits, and were able to subsidize their mission statement with the proceeds from the sale of the College land.  They formed a lay community and have been doing good in the world ever since.

“I wanted Megan to know Ruth died. I thought maybe you could connect me with Megan. Or at least forward my info to her.  It was 47 years ago that we worked together. I became the 4th woman to join the Director’s Guild in 1973 and have three Doctorates to my name and other rabble-rousing credits.  It would be great fun to speak with Megan and let her know what an impact she had on all of us and the theatrical world. She probably already knows that, but it never hurts to tell her again.

“I love your writing Leo and I thank you for anything you might be willing to pass along to Megan on my behalf. Thank you…Your help is much appreciated. Thank you and I’ll be reading what you write from now on.  Thanks a zillion.” -kac

Love and Heartlight

 

The Mary’s Day Parade at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles,1964

The Mary’s Day Parade at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles,1964
Reproduction permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

 

The Immaculate Heart College silkscreen room in 1956. Corita Kent is in the middle in the back, standing and pointing.

The Immaculate Heart College silkscreen room in 1956. Corita Kent is in the middle in the back, standing and pointing.
Courtesy of the Corita Art Center

 

Here are some links about the times and the place that was so alive in the 60’s.

http://www.laweekly.com/arts/the-rebel-nuns-of-hollywood-why-they-embraced-the-60s-and-broke-from-catholicism-5726544

http://www.independent.com/news/2008/aug/28/how-group-ex-catholic-nuns-saved-their-famous-mont/

http://www.skylightbooks.com/event/rebel-nuns-immaculate-heart-community-discuss-art-and-legacy-sister-corita

The most famous of them all: Sister Corita Kent.

http://articles.latimes.com/1991-01-28/entertainment/ca-236_1_fine-art

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine was performed first in LA at The Mark Taper Theater and was based on the Berrigan work.  Those were the people who gathered at the college along with Megan Terry, our playwright in residence.

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-berrigan-legacy-20160501-story.html

Ann Schatz on her own terms – Veteran sportscaster broke the mold in Omaha

March 30, 2016 1 comment

Women covering sports today is routine but not so long ago it was a rarity. Ann Schatz broke the mold as the first female sportscaster in Omaha in the late 1970s. She then became the first in Portland, Oregon. In both cities she dealt with serious push-back that got ugly. Not from male colleagues, who supported her, but from fans and viewers. She’s stuck it out to have a big career as a reporter and play-by-play announcer. I distinctly remember when Ann broke through on Omaha television. It really was A Thing and topic for conversation because she was the first. Because viewers, myself among them, were not entirely sure how we felt about her doing sports, which back then was the clear domain of men, we collectively put her through a trial-by-fire period that saw some folks get downright rude and nasty. She rose above it all to prove herself a real pro who could talk and report sports with the best of her male counterparts. Ann’s been away from Omaha a long time but she’s coming back as a keynote speaker for an event I will be at and I’m very much looking forward to meeting her for the first time. However, I feel like we do know each other already as a result of the interview I did with her for the following profile appearing in the April 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Ann hails from a prominent Omaha family. Her brother Thomas Schatz is a noted film educator, historian, and author who wrote one of the forewords fro my book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.

 

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Ann Schatz on her own terms – Veteran sportscaster broke the mold in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the April 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha native Ann Schatz swears she never meant to be a pioneer. She became one as her hometown’s first female sportscaster in the late 1970s, repeating the feat in Portland, Oregon in 1989. From that Pacific Northwest base she’s traveled to cover the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, where she broke the Tonya Harding story, and the 2000 Sydney, Australia Summer Games. She’s covered everything from the NBA finals to the Boston Marathon to the U.S, Women’s Open Golf Championship.

These days, she does play-by-play of women’s college sports for the Pac-12 Network. sometimes gigging for Westwood One.

Schatz is back in Omaha as keynote speaker for the April 29 Toast to Fair Housing Gala at the Livestock Exchange Building Bsllroom.

As a woman sportscaster, she’s confronted gender bias. As a lesbian, she once hid her sexual orientation for fear of repercussions.

Today, with women sports reporters galore on ESPN and Fox, her story may seem passe. But a few decades ago, even as recently as 2000, a female covering sports raised eyebrows and ire. Being there first paved the way for others.

Schatz’s late father was a federal district judge in Omaha. She grew up playing sports with her siblings.. She competed in basketball and softball at Creighton University. where she earned a broadcasting and mass communication degree. A WOWT internship introduced her to local television sports legend Dave Webber, the first of many men in the business who encouraged her. Still, she didn’t see herself as a sports journalist until KMTV hired her as a weekend sports reporter despite scant experience. The late Terry Yeager mentored her.

Try as she might, she says, “there were very few women role models” in the field then. None locally. Only former beauty queens Phyllis George and Jayne Kennedy nationally. “There wasn’t anything to aspire to. It’s not like you could point to somebody and say, ‘I want to be like her.’ There weren’t any hers, they were all hims.”

She’s mused whether affirmative action or her family name got her in the door but she’s concluded, “It really doesn’t matter why, it just matters what you do with what they’ve given you,” adding, “It didn’t take me long to find out I had found my calling. i knew the questions to ask. I wasn’t afraid of hard work.”

To her surprise and delight, male peers schooled and shielded her.

“They taught me in the most kind, compassionate, relevant way. Those guys saved me and the rest of the newsroom saved me. When I heard potshots from people it would be from athletes and fans, never from my colleagues, and that meant everything to me. I got nothing but support and it was genuine.”

That support extended to her family. From her pre-Title IX childhood on, they championed Schatz’s love of sports.

“It didn’t occur to me girls weren’t supposed to play sports because that’s not how I grew up. In the neighborhood I played with boys all the time and it was no big deal. My brothers taught me how to bat, throw, shoot, run. My dad, my brothers and I read the sports section of the Omaha World-Herald every night. My dad would wake me up in the morning and let me know how my beloved Boston Celtics did the night before. I learned how to read box scores. It never occurred to me this was an odd, difficult activity for a young girl to love and pursue.

“What a gift. What a testament, especially to my father and mother who never once caused me to question it. All they did was encourage.”

 

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Not everybody was so inclusive. In Omaha she endured vitriol from some viewers and fans.

“People would tell me, ‘You suck, we hate you. you’re the worst, we never watch you.’ Some of the stuff that came out of the stands, especially at high school games, was just brutal.

“Some of the athletes would test me. I would remind myself, Hey, you chose this, you knew exactly what to expect, so either figure out a way to deal with it or walk away.”

As bad as it got here, she says. “Portland was tougher initially because I was the girl from the cowtown with the hick accent. It was very much, Are you kidding me – who the hell is she?””

Worse yet, she was far from her family’s embrace.

“I knew not a soul in Portland You can only call home so often. Not having any support personally was really difficult. That made the comments, the letters, the phone calls sting much more. I just didn’t have that ability to vent and let off steam.”

Her saving grace was an empathetic workplace at KOIN-TV.

“Had I had any kind of push-back in that newsroom in Portland I’m not sure I would have lasted. Their support meant everything to me. It was critical I did not bail out on a tough situation. I’m glad I stuck with it. And, hey. look, I’m still here 27 years later.”

Portland’s also an LGBT-friendly place that, she says. is “not counterproductive to my head and heart,” adding that being gay is not something “I lead with, but if it comes up – and it took a long time – I am absolutely comfortable.”

As time went by, she was no longer the lone woman covering sports.

“It was a relief to see another female in those environments in which I was the only one for all those years”

 

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She loves what’s happened at the networks with Erin Andrews and Co.

“God bless that these women are young and blonde and pretty. It’s not just style either, but substance, too. I applaud these women for going in an arena where women are still judged differently.”

She says women are still not immune from double standards she confronted.

“You always had to be better. You were judged much more harshly. Your mistakes were magnified. The smallest things were scrutinized. If a guy got something wrong, like a score, it’d be, ‘Oh, there goes Bob again.’ If I got it wrong, it was, ‘See, I told you – stupid women.’ You always had to be better, more nimble, more prepared.

“As hard as it was, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes where I’d excuse myself because I needed a good cry, that awareness I had to be better helped immensely.”

For all the strides women in sports media have made elsewhere, she notes that after opening the door here and in Portland few have followed her footsteps.

“That makes me sad. I thought there would be more after me. The fact that there isn’t is puzzling.”

She says the playing field will only be level when more women call the shots in media executive suites and in sports organization front offices.

Her biggest professional coup was getting Tonya Harding to address the Nancy Kerrigan imbroglio. KOIN sent Schatz and her cameraman to Lillehammer sans credentials. They were among hundreds of journalists on the outside looking in but found a way to reach Harding when no one else did. “Connie Chung, Dan Rather, 60 Minutes were calling us. We went from the step child to the golden child real quick.”

After years reporting, including sideline work for the Portland Trailblazers, she found her niche doing play-by-play for the Big East, Conference USA and the Pac-12 (soccer, hoops softball). She likes the “purity” of women’s college athletics and its lack of “hired guns.”

“There’s nothing like an in-the-moment call when you gotta get it right. You don’t get to take it back and do it again.”

Unlike the mellifluous tones of her sportscaster idols Vin Scully and Keith Jackson, she’s fast-talking, high-energy, high-emotion.”

She feels privileged witnessing-chronicling great moments in athletics.

“The only way we can understand greatness is to watch athletes do their thing at the highest level. It doesn’t have to be the Super Bowl. Greatness happens at every level if you’re open to it. That’s the beauty of sports.”

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

 

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Gina Ponce Leads Women On a Mission for Change Conference

March 11, 2015 Leave a comment

Gina Ponce has a passion for helping girls and women reach their potential because people helped her find her her own best self.  She leads an annual event called the Women On a Mission for Change Conference that is designed to empower women and girls to achieve goals in core quality of life areas.  This year’s all-day conference is Friday, March 13 at UNO’s Community Engagement Center.  Read my El Perico story about Gina and her event and some of the participants it’s helped. The story includes contact information for registration.

 

Gina Ponce

 

Gina Ponce Leads Women On a Mission for Change Conference

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

When Gina Ponce meets first-time participants of her Women on a Mission for Change Conference she sees herself 15 years ago. Ponce was then-executive director of the local Chicano Awareness Center (now Latino Center of the Midlands). The single mom was making it but didn’t see much more ahead educationally or professionally.

Then an opportunity came her way. She didn’t think she was up to it at first. But Ponce followed some advice and trusted herself to go back to school for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. That added education anchored a 10-year work career at Bellevue University. “It was the best thing I could have ever domn,” says Ponce, who then moved into her current job as Salvation Army Kroc Center education and arts director.

She says the annual conference, which this year is March 13 at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Community Engagement Center, is for all women but particularly aimed at those stuck in life, unsure how to reach their potential.

“The women I’m serving have slipped through the cracks. Maybe they went to college and didn’t finish after getting married or having kids. Some are in relationships where they get emotionally, mentally beat down. These women may be in that stagnant part of their life where they don’t know which way to go. We talk to them about going back to get their degree and how important that is to moving forward.

“Some may be senior citizens who still have the ability to do something else after retirement. We empower them to believe that just because you’re retired doesn’t mean you have to sit home and do nothing. You can go out and get a job or volunteer or go back to school.”

At the event motivational speakers accomplished in various fields address five pillars of self-improvement: change, health, applied life skills, nutrition, growing your spirituality and education. There’s also a meet-and-greet and a luncheon.

“Through this conference women have the opportunity to talk to professionals who are great at telling them the importance of having all these things in their life,” she says.

The event also has a girls component that includes a mentoring program, Women Influencing Girls. Separate speakers present to women and girls. Networking and mentoring opportunities abound. Ponce wants to light a fire under participants to stop settling, start dreaming and pursue goals.

“I hope they take away being motivated to become whatever they want to be. I want them to really walk out of there saying, ‘I can do this and I’m going to do it,’ and to really stay focused and motivated to get a degree, change their job, improve their diet and health, whatever it is. I want women to know they can have a family and still get an education and have a career. I know, because I did it.”

Ten years ago Bellevue University officials asked Ponce to help fill the position of South Omaha outreach coordinator. After searching, officials told Ponce they wanted her. Afraid her two-year associate’s degree wouldn’t make the grade, Bellevue agreed to pay her way through school if she took the job. She wavered until she walked out on faith and believed in herself.

“I was scared. I had been out of school 25 years. I had all those feelings of, Oh my God, can I do this, how am I going to balance this with working and raising kids? All that stuff, But I didn’t let it get in my way. It was an incredible opportunity given to me. Yeah, it was a big strain, but it was worth everything I went through.”

Ponce wants conference participants to believe in themselves and take positive steps to aspire higher and live deeper.

“I want them to do it now. It doesn’t matter whether you’re married and have kids or whatever, just do it. This is something you’re going to do just for yourself.”

Conference veteran Judy Franklin is sold on Ponce and the event.

“When we met I was going through a time in my life where I knew I needed more and needed to expand my horizons, and Gina said, ‘I know exactly where you’re at – come to the conference.’ I did,” Franklin says, “and it really let me look at myself to see the potential in me and what I can do. She really took me under her wing to become a mentor with no strings attached. She just wanted to see me be successful in my work, my family, my relationships.”

Franklin says the conference exposes her to “powerful women doing the things I desire to do,” adding, “I get some good insights. It’s not just a conference, it’s your life as you go forward in your calling to find what you have to do. It’s a very empowering thing.”

She says Ponce has a heart for helping people tap their best selves.

“She’s just all about getting us to where we need to be. She opens up so many doors for me, for other women and for young girls and then it’s for to us to step through.”

Franklin, a state social security district manager, has done some serious stepping. She credits the conference and Ponce with “having a lot to do with me getting the job I’m in now.”

Alisa Parmer has come a long way, too. Parmer was a single mom and an ex-felon when her transformation began 10 years ago.

“I found myself being identified as a leader and a change agent with my employer, Kaplan University. I was a college graduate with a variety of degrees and letters after my name. I was giving back to the community. But I was caught up with working for others – attempting to balance family, career and a variety of roles.”

That’s when she came to the conference, whose board she now serves on.

“It gave me the first opportunity to share my story to empower women, to be empowered, to network and develop life-changing relationships with women in the community whose lives mirror pieces of mine or where I strive to be. The conference is a life-changing experience, Ms. Gina (Ponce) does not settle for anything less for each attendee.”

That holds for girl attendees as well. Judy Franklin says her daughter Abrianna, who earned the conference’s first academic scholarship, and other girls learn goal setting and leadership skills and do job shadowing. “It’s amazing to watch how she grew in a short time.”

When Ponce meets conference veterans like Judy or Alisa she sees her empowered self in them. It’s all very personal for Ponce, who feels obligated to give other women what she’s been given.

“I’m at a place in my life where I want to do it for others. I want to see more motivated women be successful and do the things I know they can do,. They just need somebody to tell them that.”

She believes so strongly in paying-it-forward that she underwrote much of the conference herself, along with sponsors, when she launched it five years ago. She’s since obtained nonprofit status to receive grants. But she feels she’s only just getting started.

“When I retire I’m doing this full-time and I’m going to make it bigger.”

The 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. conference is $40 for adults, $25 for students and $10 for girls 14 to 17 years old.

For registration and schedule details, visit womenonamissionomaha.org or call 402-403-9621.

Aisha’s Adventures: A story of inspiration and transformation; homelessness didn’t stop entrepreneurial missionary Aisha Okudi from pursuing her goals

July 10, 2014 1 comment

The Reader July 10 - 16, 2014

 

If you’re looking for a pick-me-up story to lift you out of the self=pity blues or doldrums then you’d be hard-pressed to top the story of Aisha Okudi, an Omaha woman who has not let anything stop her, including homelessness, from pursuing her entrepreneurial missionary purpose and dream.  This is my new cover story about her for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I did a previous story about Aisha and her path of inspiration and transformation which you can find on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

Aisha’s Adventures:  A story of inspiration and transformation; homelessness didn’t stop entrepreneurial missionary Aisha Okudi from pursuing her goals

Her Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire line of beauty products serves African missions dream

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Entrepreneurial African missionary Aisha Okudi, 37, laid the foundation for her thriving business and ambitious humanitarian work during a period when she and her children were sometimes homeless. She’d been through worse.

Regardless of how bad things have gotten, she’s remained focused on her mission because she considers her story of transformation a testimony to her faith in a Higher Power she serves for the greater good. The Omaha visionary is proud of how far she’s come with her Sha Luminous line of organic shea butter skin rejuvenation and beauty products. Sha Luminous is available at HyVee supermarkets in six states as well as Akins Natural Food Stores, No Name Nutrition, Jane’s Health Market and select salons. She’s working to get in Whole Foods.

She’s humble about her success because she’s following a plan she feels called to. She views everything about her journey, even the dark side, as a conduit for the missionary work that is her real passion.

The base of her hand-crafted products is butter extracted from the shea nut, a natural plant indigenous to the same rural African provinces she serves. After years helping poor African children by sending supplies and making donations, she visited Niger in 2010 through the auspices of the international NGO, Children in Christ. She made connections with villagers, tribal leaders, fellow missionaries, government representatives and American embassy officials. She purchased a missionary house to accommodate more evangelists.

She says she’s tried getting Omaha churches on board with her work but has been rebuked. She suspects being a woman of little means and not having a church or title explains it. Undaunted, she works closely with CIC Niger national director, Festus Haba, who calls her work “a blessing.” In addition to Niger, where she once considered moving, she also visited Togo on that 2010 trip.

She visited Ghana in 2012. She’s returning to Africa in August, this time to Mali. With the help of Haba and CIC she’ll explore growing her business there to create import-export streams. At one time she weighed developing holistic herbal health clinics in West Africa.

“I want to create job opportunities for people because this business is about helping people who come out of poverty just like me.”

She wants more Africans enjoying the fruits of the shea nut grown there by employing locals in its production and sale and by making her products affordable so more locals can enjoy their health benefits.

It’s a far cry from the self-centered, destructive path she was on from the early-1990s through 2004. Growing up in Omaha and Des Moines she long headed for a hard fall. Her family often moved. Finances were always tight. She was a head-strong girl who didn’t listen to her restless mother and alcoholic father. She got in trouble at school.

“There were issues at home. I was always told no coming up and I got sick of hearing that. I felt I was a burden, so I was like, ‘I’m going to get out and get my own stuff.'”
At 15 she left home and began stripping. A year later she got pregnant. She gave birth to the first of her four children at 17.

“I found myself moving around a lot. I really didn’t know what stability was. I never had stability, whether having a stable home or just being stable, period, in life. I was young and doing my thing. My dad walked in the club where I was stripping. My sister told on me.”

The ensuing confrontation only drew her and her parents farther apart.

“I was trying to live that life. I wanted to have whatever I wanted to have. I danced, I sold my body and I made lots of money from it. I did it for about 12 years. I wanted to have it all, but it was not the right way.”

 

 

 

 

 

She got caught up in the alcohol, drug abuse and theft that accompany life on the streets.

“I was in and out of prison a lot. I used to steal to make money.”

In 1997 she served time in the Douglas Country Correctional Center for theft by receiving stolen property.

In 2004 she was crying in an Iowa jail cell after her second Operating While Intoxicated offense. Her arrest came after she left the strip club where she performed, bombed out of her head.

“I had to get drunk so I could let these men touch me all night,” says Okudi, who drove her car atop a railroad embankment, straddling the tracks, poised to head for a drop-off that led straight into a river.

That night in jail a decade ago is when it all came to a head. “I just sat there and I thought about my kids and what I just did,” she says. She felt sure she’d messed up one too many times and was going to lose her children and any chance of salvaging her life, “I was crying out and begging to God. I had begged before but this time it was a beg of mercy. I was at my bottom. I surrendered fully.”

To her relief the judge didn’t give her prison time at her sentencing hearing. “I told the judge, ‘I will never do this.’ He said, ‘If I ever see you in my courtroom again it will be the last time.’ I burnt my strip clothes when I got out, and I didn’t turn back. I got myself into treatment.” She’d been in treatment before but “this time,” she says, “it was serious, it wasn’t a game. I enrolled in school.”

Ten years later she has her own business and a higher calling and, she says, “I’m so proud that I write the judge and tell him how I’m doing.” Okudi’s learned how to live a healthy lifestyle and not surround herself with negative influences and enablers.

Her life has turned many more times yet since getting straight and sober. In 2006 she seemingly found her soulmate in George Okudi, an ordained Ugandan minister and award-winning gospel artist. They began a new life in Washington DC and had two children together. Then she discovered he was still married to another woman in Africa. The couple is separated, awaiting a divorce.

She’s learned to forgive, but she’s only human. “Even though I’ve grown sometimes it feels like, When is it going to end? But to much is given, much is required. You’ve just gotta consistently stay on track. No matter what it is, stay focused.”

Even as recently as 2012 and 2013 there were tests and setbacks, including bouts of homelessness. The difference then and now is that when adversity strikes she doesn’t get too high or too low, she doesn’t feel entitled to act out. She claims she experienced an epiphany in which God spoke to her and set her on her Esha Jewelfire mission.

“When I had that vision and dream I was pregnant with my youngest son. I was living with my grandmother. I was newly separated from my husband. I said to my grandmother, ‘I don’t know if I’m going crazy or what, but the Lord said I will build like King Solomon and go and help my people in Africa.'”

Since childhood this Africaphile has expressed a desire to help alleviate poverty overseas. Her visit to Niger and the overwhelming reception she received confirmed she’s meant to serve there.

“It was immediate. I was able to blend in wherever I went. I know that’s where my calling is. I cook African, my children are African, my friends are African. It’s just a natural thing for me.”

She even speaks some native dialects.

She’s long made a habit of sending clothes and other needed items to Africa. But a call to build was something else again.

“Where am I going to get the money from to help these people in Africa?” she asked her grandma. “I didn’t know.”

Then by accident or fate or divine providence a friend introduced her to shea butter, an oil used in countless bath and beauty products. “And that’s how the idea for my business came up,” Okudi says.

Shea is gritty in its natural state and only transforms with love. Sound familiar? “I researched it and found that it moisturizes, it cleanses, it refreshens, it heals, it brightens, it just makes you shine. It’s naturally rich in vitamins A, E and F. So I figured out what I needed to do with it.”

Her experiments led to lightly fragranced shea butter-based products, including lotions, creams and scrubs. She began marketing them.

She gets raw shea in big blocks she breaks down by chopping and melting. She incorporates into her products natural oats and grains as well as fruit and herb oils to lend pleasing textures and scents. The fresh fruit and herbs are pressed by hand. Nothing’s processed. “All this stuff comes from God’s green earth — oils, spices, herbs, organic cane sugar,” she says. Nothing’s written down either. “I have it all in my head. I know every ingredient in everything I make. Everything is made fresh to order and customized. Everything is hand-packaged, too.”

Selling at trade shows, house parties, off the Internet, the small business “started really growing and taking off for me,” she says. With her products now in chain stores, she contracts workers to act as sales demo reps where her products are carried. She also has a contract with a hand-mass manufacturing firm in Nashville, Tenn. She’s in discussions with a majo beauty products manufacturer-distributor.

She says besides her line being “bomb diggity,” retailers and customers alike respond to “the mission purpose behind it,” adding, “It’s purposeful, its meaningful, there’s life to my company.”

Her business has been based at various sites, including the Omaha Small Business Network. Production’s unfolded in her mother’s kitchen, in a friend’s attic, in her house, wherever she can find usable space. “My business is simple, it doesn’t really need a big plant or office.”

Having a store of her own though was a dream. A few years ago “an angel” came into her life in the form of Robert Wolsmann, who within short order of meeting Okudi wrote her a check for $10,000 – as a loan – to help her open her own shop.

Wolsmann is not in the habit of lending such amounts to near total strangers but something in Okudi struck him. Besides, he says, “I could see she needed help. She showed me what she made and I was so impressed I presented her with that money. I couldn’t resist investing.”

“He’s an awesome person,” Aisha says of Wolsmann. “We’ve become great friends.”

She says her dynamic personality attracts people to her. She feels what Wolsmann did is evidence “things work in mysterious ways – you don’t know what’s going to happen, you’ve just got to be prepared.”

Her Organically Sweet Shea Butter Body Butter Store opened in 2010. The labor of love proved star-crossed when after two months her landlord evicted her. Okudi’s opened and closed two more stores to pursue new opportunities .

“Entrepreneurs go where they have to go to get things done.”

Evictions from two rental homes found to be uninhabitable took their toll. “I asked God, “What is going on? Why does this keep happening to me?’ I didn’t have nowhere to go. I was seeing myself back living from place to place like I’ve always been, still trying to take care of my kids and do my business.” Stripping’s fast money lured her back for a short time. She and her kids stayed at the transitional housing program, Restored Hope, but when things didn’t work out there they went back to couch surfing before finding stability at the Salvation Army Shelter.

“It kept me focused on my mission. I’ve been called to be that missionary, so I’m not so upset anymore about why I’ve been bounced around or why things have happened the way they have. There’s a way bigger purpose. If you just be really humble and wait and be patient to see what God’s doing, He’ll turn things around.”

 

A Restored Hope residence

 

Aisha and her wares at a store

 

 

 

It’s why she no longer dwells on the past or worries about what she doesn’t have right now.

“Nothing matters when it comes to material things. The only thing that matters to me is my health and just doing what I know is right in my heart to do. Even though I lived the way I lived, basically homeless, I realized I am very blessed and I remained grateful.

“God only gives you what you can handle. He obviously knew I was equipped to do it. You just do it, but there’s preparation to everything. Nothing goes to waste. Everything I’ve been through I’ve actually used as a powerful testimony to either encourage someone else or to inspire myself to move forward.”

For the past year she’s earned enough money to find stable living in her own downtown condo.

Often asked to share her story before church congregations and community groups, her message is simple:

“To persevere, period. I don’t care what your situation is you’ve got to keep going. The world doesn’t stop, time doesn’t stop, problems never cease. You have to go through them. I go through my trials and tribulations and I never ask God to remove me out of them because it builds character, strength and perseverance for you to move on. I always tell people, ‘Don’t stop, just keep going.’ The fight is not easy, the fight ain’t no joke, it’s a war, it’s a battle. You’ve got to put full armor on and fight. God don’t have punks in his army.

“You’ve got to be a soldier for everything you put hour hands to.”

She’s aware her success amid myriad struggles inspires others.

“It reminds me who I am and that when I don’t think people are watching me they are. I’ve always been a happy, giving, loving person. Even when going through something, I pick myself up. Even my father said, ‘If you can be changed from where you came from, I know there’s a God.’ Now, he’s stopped drinking. He’s reborn.”

She realizes her own rebirth may be hard for some to swallow. “People who knew me in my past might say, ‘Oh no, not Aisha, with what she used to do?'” She acknowledges she couldn’t transform without help.

“When I got the call to start my business to support the Africa missions I had no business training or education, I just did it. I’ve learned as much as I can from experts and entrepreneurs who’ve already been there and done it. I’ve seen what not to do and what to do. I’ve learned to listen more, to be more patient, to look at all options instead of just what I know, because it’s not about what I know it’s about what I need to know. This has been a very humbling and hard faith thing for me.”

In 2011 she graduated from Creighton University’s Financial Success Program for low income single mothers.

“I learned how to be very resourceful working within my means, how to budget and how to cut out unnecessary costs.”

She was introduced to EcoScents owner Chad Kampschneider, who became a mentor and ended up picking up her product line.

After being accepted to tape an episode of Shark Tank she decided to pass on the opportunity rather than risk gaining partners who would wrest control of her vision.

“I’ve gotten this far with my mission and purpose and I don’t want to get detoured on another path. I figure one day I’ll be a shark myself helping people grow their businesses and realize their dreams. If I continue to follow the path I’ve been following I’ll get there. I see myself global helping in poverty areas through my company.”

She’s determined to complete her mission.

“I just get up knowing I gotta do what I gotta do, and I live one day at a time. I don’t let my financial and emotional path haunt me. There’s nothing you can do but do what you need to do every day and be a part of hope. Too many people are hopeless. There’s no light in them. I’m not about that, I’m about life and living to the fullest and being happy with what I have and where I’m at because I know greatness will come some day for me. I’m a very favored woman in all things I do.

“I haven’t been at a standstill. I’ve come a long way and I continue to grow. I’m still transforming, I’m still moving forward. I still reach out for help in areas I need help in.”
She suspects she’s always had it in her to be the “apostolic entrepreneur” she brands herself today. “Sometimes you don’t discover it until things happen to you. I think I had it but I didn’t embrace it then. I heard so much negative in my life coming up that it turned me away…I said, ‘I’ll show you,’ and I made wrong decisions. What the devil meant for bad, God turned it for good.

“I’m a natural born hustler but I hustle in the right way now.”

This month Okudi will be at select Walmarts and No-Frills stores seeking donations for her African missions.

For more about her products, visit her Facebook page, Sha-Luminous-by-Esha-Jewelfire.

 

One of Aisha’s many different looks

Ex-Reporter Eileen Wirth Pens Book on Nebraska Women in Journalism and their Leap from Society Page to Front Page

March 22, 2013 3 comments

Women journalists cover anything and everything today.  They work in all facets of media.  But there was a time, and not so long ago at that, when they were restricted to a narrow range of reporting topics and jobs.  There were always exceptions to that rule.  Here and there, pioneering women journalists defied conventions and overturned stereotypes to file assignments and fill roles traditionally prescribed for men only.  A new book by Eileen Wirth profiles some of the revolutionary figures among Nebraska women journalists over the last century.  Wirth is a pioneer or revolutionary herself.  She became one of the first modern women in city news at the Omaha World-Herald in the late 1960s-early 1970s, then she broke the gender barrier in the public relations at Union Paciific, before becoming the first female chair of the Journalism Department at Creighton University, where she oversees what’s now called the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing.  Her book, From Society Page to Front Page, is published by the University of Nebraska Press.  It’s officially out in May.  My story about Wirth and the female journalists she writes about whose lives and careers advanced the cause of women both inside and outside the media field will appear in the April 2013 New Horizons.  This blog contains several stories by me about journalists in print, radio, and television.

 

 

Eileen Wirth

 

 

Ex-Reporter Eileen Wirth Pens Book on Nebraska Women in Journalism and their Leap from Society Page to Front Page

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the New Horizons

 

Eileen Wirth doesn’t seem to fit the part of a revolutionary but that’s exactly what she’s been during her three careers. Wherever she’s worked, whether as a reporter or public relations practitioner or academic, she’s broken gender barriers.

As the women’s liberation movement played out from the 1960s through the 1980s she fought the good fight for equal rights, only not in the street or in the courtroom but by challenging male chauvinism, sexism and discrimination in newsrooms, offices and boardrooms. Her feminist predecessors fought similar battles as suffragists from the late 19th century through the immediate post-World War II era.

She says the struggles women endured to open new opportunities in the workplace is a story she feels deeply about, especially the stories of women in her own profession of journalism.

In the course of researching her new book, From Society Page to Front Page, Nebraska Women in Journalism, Wirth developed a deep appreciation for and kinship with maverick women who preceded her in the field she loves. She documents dozens of women of high achievement, many of whom she never previously knew about, and the obstacles they faced to work as publishers, editors, reporters. PR professionals and media moguls.

Some ran small weeklies, some made their names as columnists with local newspapers, others as reporters with national wire services and major metropolitan dailies. One woman covered the White House. Three women covered the Starkweather murder spree in great detail. Beverly Deepe became the longest serving American correspondent of the Vietnam War.

Mildred Brown became one of America’s only black newspaper publishers. Cathy Hughes is still running a media empire. Other women are still doing their thing as well.

“In writing the stories of these women it became a journey of self discovery,” says Wirth. “I identified so strongly with these women and with their struggles and their achievements. Both of my sisters had national level careers and I’ve always been in Omaha, but I realized we need to redefine what we mean by female achievement. We have too often downplayed the local, the personal, the balancing act of career and family. I don’t think our society values that enough. One of the things I hope this book does is really give recognition to women who juggled both.”

 

 

 

 

She also hopes the book gets some deserving women elected to the Nebraka Journalism Hall of Fame, where there are cases of men inducted there whose wives are not, even though the wives were co-editors and publishers and full partners of small weeklies.

Wirth says doing the book proved both an awakening and an education for her.

“What was amazing to me is that we had so many absolutely remarkable Nebraska women in journalism. Even as someone who has spent her entire life in journalism and more recently teaching journalism history, if you had asked me to name them I probably couldn’t have named five or six, until you get to the ’50s when I knew some of these people. But even then I was finding people right and left.”

The finding took considerable effort. “It took a lot of digging to find most of them,” she says.  “This book is nothing but a huge reporting process. I went to people and said, ‘Who do you know about, what am I missing?’ I went to sources and people would tell me stuff and I would follow up on leads.”

Elia Peattie, a popular Omaha World-Herald writer from the late 19th century into the and early 20th century, is a prime example of someone Wirth found..

“If I were going to pick one woman in the book I fell absolutely passionately in love with it was Elia Peattie. Hardly anybody has heard of her. I resonated to her. She wrote a column that in some ways is very similar to the Mike Kelly columns of today’s Omaha World-Herald. This was before they had social or women’s pages. She’s kind of the World-Herald’s entree into that.

“She came to Omaha in the 1880s. She had been a society girl on a Chicago paper. She got a woman’s column at the Herald. This is when women’s news was in its infancy and the reason why women’s news was created in the first place was for advertisers. Women could not vote and the headlines were mostly about politics and crime, and if you look at the lives of women in the 1880s this just wasn’t relevant to them. They were working incredibly long days, raising large families, taking in work. They had very hard lives.

“Advertisers pressured the papers to do something to attract women readers because women were the primary shoppers. This was in an age when advertising was exploding. And the Herald hired Elia Peattie to write a column about women and apparently they put almost no restrictions on her. It was up to her to define what would interest women. Well, what she thought would interest women was apparently anything that interested her, which was everything.”

 

 

Elia Peattie

 

 

Wirth admires Peattie’s range.

“A professor from the University of Nebraska-Kearney compiled her columns in a book and I was blown away because it was reading a social history of the city in the 1880s. I mean, she has everything from this wonderful description of a young Bohemian slaughtering cows down at the Cudahy plant to a nursing sister at St. Joseph Hospital to the people riding a streetcar to showgirls. She did a very sympathetic portrait of the African American community when racism was horrible.

“She did some hilarious satirical columns about Omaha society people and why did they have to go back East to buy finery when they could buy anything they wanted in Omaha.”

Peattie’s community service involvement also appeals to Wirth, who has a strong service bent herself.

“Peattie ran for the school board when that was the only office women could run for or vote for. She was also one of the founders of the Omaha Woman’s Club. It was a way of localizing the city’s upper class women to do social work stuff. Nationally the woman’s club movement got behind the needs of working women in factories.”

All these activities made Peattie a popular figure.

“She became a larger than life personality,” says Wirth.

Another reason to like Peattie, according to Wirth, is “the work she did to bring together the handful of women journalists in the state. She documented a great deal about fellow women journalists. A lot of my best material came from work she did and recorded for history. She gathered the names of women active in journalism in the 1880s and 1890s. That was invaluable.”

Peattie’s become something of a hero to Wirth.

“One of the other reasons I resonated to Elia Peattie is that while she was writing this column her husband got very ill and it was up to her to support the family. She was writing everything right and left to make money to keep the family going and as a former working mother raising two children I just totally identified with her.

“If she was alive today she’d be running half the city, she’d be writing a blog.”

She might be publishing her own newspaper or magazine, ala Arrianna Huffington.

Wirth also writes about the one certifiable superstar among Nebraska-bred women reporters – Bess Furman.

“If you were going to pick a single woman that was our state’s most distinguished contribution to journalism it would probably be Bess Furman Armstrong,” says Wirth. “She was remarkable and she spanned a lot of eras. She was once referred to as a flapper journalist for her work in Omaha in the ’20s. She was what we would now call a liberated young woman writing rather risque satirical stuff about Omaha. She covered bootleggers and weird crimes down in Little Italy. She wrote this saucy column about Omaha’s most eligible bachelors.”

 

 

(Photo)

 

Bess Furman Armstrong

 

 

Furman was a product of her post-Victorian emancipated times.

“The ’20s were a wonderful period for women,” notes Wirth. “They had gotten the vote, there were more economic and education opportunities. She loved Omaha and she probably would have stayed except she worked for the Omaha Bee and when it  was purchased by William Randolph Hearst she wanted out and when the opportunity came to leave she did.

“With women now having the vote the Bee needed somebody to write the women’s angle to politics. When Al Smith came to give a speech in Omaha in his 1928 campaign she got assigned to cover it and she wrote such a good story that she won a major journalism award for it and the head of the ;Associated Press who was in town with Al Smith offered her a job in Washington (DC) and she took it. Timing is everything.”

Furman made an immediate impression on Capitol Hill

Wirth says, “She was one of the first women to be allowed on the floor of the House of Representatives. She was assigned to cover First Lady Lou Hoover, who absolutely hated journalists. One time in order to write a story about what the Hoovers were doing for Christmas she dressed up like a Girl Scout” and infiltrated a troop visiting the White house. The ruse worked, too.

“When Hoover got beaten by FDR Eleanor Roosevelt started holding women’s only press conferences in order to force papers to give jobs to women,” says Wirth. “She and Eleanor Roosevelt hit it off wonderfully. Furman and her husband hit it off so well with the Roosevelts that they took home movies of the Roosevelts. When Bess became pregnant she decided she wanted her child to have a Neb. birth certificate, so she drove back here in the middle of the Dust Bowl to have her physician brother deliver what turned out to be twins. She brought with her a baby blanket Eleanor knitted her, and that got reported and went nationwide. Postmaster General (James) Farley sent her $10 worth of flowers and that was such a big order they had to send a special train.”

Furman later she did war information work during World War II and then joined the New York Times as one of its first female political reporters.

“She ended her career as the public information officer for the Department of Health Education and Welfare under Kennedy. Bess Furman may have gone to Washington but she was very deeply a Nebraska person and remained so for her whole life,” says Wirth.

Bringing to light women of distinction she feels connected to is satisfying to Wirth.

“Oh yeah, these are my people. We’re out of the same background, the same occupation. Yeah, I felt a very strong affinity with these women. I really found myself as I was writing about them feeling like I knew them and wishing I could actually have known them. I guess I felt especially this way with the women who wrote books, so you got a real feel for them, you weren’t just getting them second hand, you were getting their own take on the world.

“Their struggles were things I could totally identify with. You don’t have to be a journalist to feel this way about these women. Their humanity, their humor, the way they overcame obstacles with grace and courage and dignity, their persistence. To have careers like theirs was pretty daunting but they did it. I identified with the fact they juggled the personal and the professional and really probably never lost sight of either one.

“Culturally, anyone who has Neb. roots would identify with their style. Most of them let their work speak for them, which is what a journalist usually does.”

 

 

Mary McGrath

 

 

One that Wirth did get to know well is Mary McGrath, who preceded her at the Herald and labored 12 years in club news before becoming a highly respected health and medicine reporter. McGrath helped the green female reporters like Wirth negotiate the male-dominated newsroom.

“Mary McGrath was really the pioneer in city news at the Omaha World-Herald,” says Wirth. “She made a huge difference.”

Wirth recalls McGrath organizing potlucks for the paper’s women journalists and how these occasions became vital airing out and strategizing forums.

“It was a support system and an expression of solidarity. It was a safe place to bounce off ideas. If we would have said we were having a consciousness raising session the older women wouldn’t have gone, but to throw a potluck, how more Midwestern could you get? Mary knew the young women on staff were increasingly militant and she knew how smart and talented they were and she knew they were not writing about who was having who to coffee because they wanted to. She broke down the barrier between the two sections (city news and women’s news) by having those potlucks.

“The guys never had a clue what was going on.

Wirth says the Omaha Press Club served the same function for women in journalism across different media. “It was a great way to get to know other women journalists. You realized you were not alone.” Wirth adds, “A sociologist at Iowa State told me if you’re going to get social change made you have to have a cohort and in a sense you could look at the potlucks or the friendship ties that women journalists formed through the Press Club is how we had a cohort. There were enough of us who felt the same way to make a difference and it really made me feel for women of earlier eras who were one of a kind, out there on their own, whereas

I could go cry on Mary’s shoulder or vice versa .”

Each pioneering woman journalist in her own way contributed to the women’s rights cause and helped move their peers a little further along than before.

“There was a movement afoot. That was how this revolution was waged – one tiny step at a time.”

All those steps taken together made big changes, which is why Wirth was so offended when a feminist of high stature, former First Lady Hilary Clinton, was subjected to sexist coverage during her 2008 presidential campaign bid. The way Clinton was dismissed felt to Wirth like a slap in the face and a setback given how far women have come and what they’ve endured to get there.

“It was very disrespectful to women of our era,” says Wirth. It was like, Don’t they realize what we went through? Most of the Baby Boomers fought very quietly to infiltrate, to get a seat at the table, and nobody knew what it had taken to integrate the American workplace. That was my inspiration for writing the book.

“The women involved have kept silent about what they did because that’s how they were able to do it. We were a minority. The women were mostly just asking to practice the field they loved and were good at. They weren’t asking for special treatment.”

Much like the civil rights movement, the women’s movement gained its biggest victories through mass protests, the passage of new laws and court decisions, but there were many smaller, no less important victories won every day by ordinary women asserting their rights.

“When you look at coverage of the women’s movement it all focuses on things like lawsuits and militant demonstrations and you couldn’t do that in a city like Omaha if you intended to go on working in journalism. It wasn’t like you had a union that would protect you or a vast choice of employers, and for most of us that wasn’t our style anyway,” says Wirth.

Big, loud, public displays, she says, “weren’t the only way women made progress.”

Most of the change, she says, was the result of “the stealth revolution.” She adds that “KETV News Director Rose Ann Shannon said it very well when she told me, ‘I always felt I was dealing with reasonable people and we could work problems out.’ I too found that if you could have a reasonable conversation with somebody you could make progress. You were not going to change things overnight.”

She says there’s still work to be done, such as closing the pay gap between the sexes and shattering the glass ceiling that still limits women from advancing the way men do.

“But it’s sure better than what it was in 1970, and those changes were made nationwide by unsung young women quietly sticking their necks out on relatively small things over and over again.”

She says “it kind of boggles the mind” of her students to realize that as late as the 1970s women were still marginalized in journalism. “When you tell this to girls today they’re like, What? They can’t believe it, which I guess shows that we succeeded. They take it for granted.”

Wirth grew up in a large, high-achieving Nebraska City farm family whose parents set high academic standards and expectations for their children. Wirth loved reading and showed a knack for writing early on. She intended on being a history major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln until her father insisted she take a journalism course.

“What really made me into a journalist  besides Dad ordering me to take the class was working on the Daily Nebraskan and I still think of as ‘the rag.’ It was so much fun. I fell in love with journalism people. The women were strong, funny, delightful, intelligent people and the guys wouldn’t have had us be any order way. I had found myself.”

When Wirth went to work for the World-Herald in 1969 she became one of the paper’s few female news reporters and right up to leaving its employ in 1980 she and women colleagues there, along with women at t countless other workplaces, waged that “quiet revolution” to bring about change.

“When women said, No, I’m not going to get you coffee, that’s not part of my job description, they were part of this revolution,” she says.

So was Wirth when she brought to the attention of an editor the fact that some young males colleagues hired the same time she was had received new section assignments while she was still in the religion beat she began in three years before.

“I’m a contemporary of Steve Jordon and Mike Kelly and both of them had had a couple of assignment changes, and I thought I was as talented as they were and I certainly worked as hard as they did. I told my editor, ‘If you’re doing this for the guys then you should treat the two groups the same. There shouldn’t be a difference. You should give young women the same opportunities as young men.”

She got the assignment change she desired.

At a time when female journalists were confined to covering only certain subjects, such as religion or society news or women’s news, her work made the case that women were capable of covering anything.

“There was a lot of hesitancy about assigning women to cover cops, which was fine with me because I hated it, but I covered them every Saturday for years simply because I wanted to show that a woman could do it.

“There was a lot talk that women couldn’t cover politics because they couldn’t get stories in bars and nonsense like that. There was real hesitancy about sending women to certain places. The ironical thing is that my religion beat in the early ’70s was at a time when the churches were heavily involved in the civil rights movement, so under the guise of covering religion I was actually doing a tremendous amount of civil rights coverage.

“I never regretting spending those three years on religion but I felt like I wanted to grow, to expand, to try new things.”

She also had the opportunity to take on occasional stories that struck a blow for women’s rights by shining a light on gender inequities.

“Quite a few of the stories I did were aimed at showing this inequality.”

 

 

Connie Claussen

 

 

Take the time that former University of Nebraska at Omaha women’s coach and athletic director Connie Claussen called to say she was fed up with the unfair and unequal treatment she experienced at the beginning of her career there. Claussen, whom Wirth describes as “a force of nature, a great lady.” was an equal rights champion who served on the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women.

Claussen eventually built a much envied women’s athletic department at UNO featuring championship programs but that legacy almost ended before it started because of how frustrated she was with the short end of the stick offered her and her student-athletes. Before Title IX was passed women’s athletics were separate and unequal in every way.

Wirth recalls, “Connie called one Saturday and said, ‘I’ve had it, I’m not going to do it anymore, I’m not going to teach a full load of physical education classes and coach two or three sports for nothing extra.'” Wirth was sympathetic. “No male would ever coach a (college) sport for free. Women’s athletics were housed in a quonset hut with no showers. I thought, Well this is a sports story and I went over to the UNO beat reporter and he yelled at me, ‘Women sports are a joke, there’s no story here.’ He practically threw me out of the sports department. So I went over to the city desk and they said, Oh yeah, great story. I wrote it and they put it on page one of the Sunday paper. It stirred up enough indignation and attention that Connie ran with it and she got the support she needed to build an outstanding program.

“And I think that was one of the major things we did as women journalists – we were approachable, we were interested in the problems.”

Another story resulted when Doris Royal, a farm wife from Springfield, Neb., called Wirth and in her gravely voice asked, “Are you interested in stories on women?”

“She told me a lot of farm women were losing the family farm operation because of inheritance taxes. The IRS said farms belong to the husband. The only way a woman could escape paying inheritance taxes on a family farm or family small business if she became a widow was if she had worked in town, so she could show she made an economic contribution or if she had brought family inheritance into it.

“A lot of women on farms had worked side by side, they’d driven the tractor and milked the cows, they’d done all the farm work, plus kept the books, and of course that doesn’t account for all their work in the home. But the IRS in effect said, You have made no contribution. Well, that was driving women off the farm because they couldn’t afford it. Land prices had gone up. So Doris started a petition drive and she wanted me to cover a story on it, so I did, I looked into all this stuff. I grew up on a farm and I was horrified, I was shocked, I had no idea. I wrote the story and Doris leveraged my story in the World-Herald to get the Farm Journal, which is the nation’s largest farm magazine, to take up the crusade.

“Doris got petition signatures from every state, she testified before Congress. This woman’s amazing, and they got the law changed.”

Wirth did an entire series on inequitable credit practices that devalued and punished women. “If a woman got married and changed her name she immediately lost all of her credit history,” says Wirth. “Banks assumed the credit rating belonged to the husband even if the women worked full time and could document it.”

With stories like these to file, Wirth’s work was fulfilling enough but when she and her then-husband Ron Psota decided to start a family she knew the demands of her work and the inflexibility of her employer would make motherhood and reporting incompatible. Besides, she was ready for a change.

“It was still the era when women were fired if they got pregnant. My ex-husband and I had been approved to adopt a child and at the World Herald at that time there was no way you could be a reporter and a mother. You had to work 12 and 15 hour days at the drop of a hat if some story broke.”

Making it easier to leave, she says, was the fact that “after 11 years I was burned out on reporting. It was time.”

When hired as the first woman outside of secretaries or receptionists to work in the Union Pacific public relations department she broke down the doors of what had been an exclusive boys-only club. She didn’t appreciate it when one of the old gang complained that she was a token hire to conform with Equal Employment Opportunity and affirmative action policies.

“A crusty old guy who didn’t begin to have my educational credentials and who couldn’t write protested that they had had to hire a woman.”

The bosses set him straight, she says by stating, ‘We hired someone who could write.’ Period. End of story.

Then in 1991 she joined the teaching staff at Creighton University, where in addition to her professor’s role she later became that Jesuit institution’s first female chair of the Department of Journalism (now called the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing). Teaching college is something she always knew was in her future and making a difference in the lives of her students is what most satisfies her about academia.

She’s glad that her book gives students an appreciation for who came before them.

“I think it is very important for my students, especially my female students. You want to give them a sense of what went before so when they invariably face some challenges they will do so with grace and with confidence knowing that women like themselves have conquered similar challenges.”

Wirth’s book, published by the University of Nebraska Press, is available starting May 1.

 

 
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