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Diana Rogel: A life of service

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Diana Rogel: A life of service

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

Diana ‘Ariss’ Rogel Mendoza

Diana Rogel

 

In the calling she feels to serve others, Diana Rogel of Omaha often addresses community needs.

“I feel like that is my reason for being here,” she said.

Rogel’s done tobacco prevention education in minority communities through UNMC’s Center for Reducing Health Disparities, She’s trained facilitators to dialogue with Latinos on sexual identity issues for a National Human Rights Campaign project, As ßLead Navigator-Program Specialist with the Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership, she informed underserved groups about affordable healthcare options.

Now, as Student Advocate with the Latino Center of the Midlands, she’s working with Ralston Public Schools in the Pathways to Success Program.

“I am part of an organization and a program that wants to be that bridge for students to use to get to the next level,” she said of her LCM position. “I am a mentor to students at Ralston High School. For me the absolute most important thing is that youth feel like there are people that care about them and will advocate for them.”

Growing up, Rogel didn’t seriously consider college since she didn’t see other Latinas following that path. That changed when an adult in her life encouraged her to try. It’s what she now does for youths.

“I get to work with students that may not (otherwise) see people that look like me at school. I think representation is very important for students – to see that people like them can be successful. I don’t necessarily just serve Latino students. I serve all types of students who may feel disconnected. As an adult mentor looking out for them, I create that sense of belonging and as a woman of color, I say, ‘Look, I’m successful, you can be, too.'”

Making a difference motivates her.

“Leaving things better than how I found them really satisfies me. I know I did a good job when I’m able to connect people and those relationships build and people utilizd services because of some part that I played.”

Many community projects she initially spearheaded continue going strong today, including outreach efforts at OneWorld Community Health Centers and the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition.

“It’s really comforting to have projects be taken up by  organizations. Then I can go onto my next thing knowing it’s in good hands.

“I’m always working on the next thing, the next project.”

The University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate recently enhanced her professional development as a New Leaders Council Leadership Institute fellow.

“The Institute looks for people in the community making an impact. We learned how to be better directors and supports of nonprofits and even to create more opportunities for others to lead, to follow and to mentor through entrepreneurship. We learned all these aspects that create progressive values and communities.

“We each took on a capstone project to implement in the community and see it through. My capstone is to create a youth conference that helps youth of color identify what their next steps are after high school, whether a four-year university or a two-year certification program or a vocational school. The conference will also get youth connected with resources in the community.”

She also wants to connect young Spanish-speakers to jobs-careers where dual language fluency is in demand.

Rogel’s working with LCM and partners to make the conference a reality in 2019.

“If I see a gap where things aren’t in place for youth to be successful, then I want to be a part of creating that for them. I take that to heart,” said the mother of two, “because if I pave the road for them, then when I’m old and gray they’re going to look out for me.”

A decade ago she noted Omaha lacked a young professionals network for Latinos, so she co-founded the Metro Young Latino Professionals Association.

“I took great pride in being able to form that group because we didn’t have anything like it and we had to create it from scratch. It has a huge membership today.”

This daughter of immigrant parents (her mother’s from Mexico and her father’s from El Salvador) grew up in Los Angeles. At 19 she moved to Omaha to be near her godmother and to pursue higher education.

“I really had a passion to learn more about my own culture and history. I helped reactivate the Latino student association on campus (UNO). My involvement got me noticed by the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies – OLLAS. I pretty much got recruited to be a part of that program.”

While a UNO student she worked as an OLLAS intern, went on a service learning trip to Peru and did field studies among Latinos in rural Nebraska communities.

“It made me realize the only way to help my community is to learn about it and to be a resource. That’s what I sought to do once I graduated – to build bridges and to get connected.”

Her role models include fellow Latinas Lourdes Gouveia, the former director of OLLAS, and community activist Marta Nieves.

Through Gouveia, Rogel said, “i’ve learned how to have tough conversations with people who feel disenfranchised and discriminated against.” Rogel said she’s inspired by the leadership Nieves shows and her ability “to bring people together.”

Rogel serves on the Nebraska Democratic Party’s Latinix Caucus board.

“Once I’m a little bit guided. I just take it and run.”

Looking ahead, she said, “I do see myself continuing to serve where I see gaps. I also see myself running a nonprofit that develops skills for youth, particularly in language.”

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

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Marta Nieves: Woman with a purpose

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Image may contain: 4 people, including Dulce Sherman, people smiling, people standing

Sharlette Schw Marta Nieves pictured on far left.

 

Marta Nieves: Woman with a purpose

©by Leo Adam Biga, Originally published in El Perico (el-perico.com)

Community advocate and organizational development expert Marta Nieves, 81, nearly always finds the silver lining.

“I’m a visionary. I can envision so many positive things,” said Nieves.

The bilingual Nieves has family roots in Cuba. Born in Tampa, Florida, she grew up in New York City, where she learned life lessons from her grandmother Theresa.

“Her philosophy has really impacted me,” Nieves said. “She was very open and thought everybody is worthy of being treated with dignity if they are honest and respectful. The word spread to anybody coming from Cuba, ‘Go to Theresa’s house and she will give you a good meal and be supportive.'”

Nieves comes from a strong line of women.

“The women in my family were brilliant but they didn’t get far in school. If they had the opportunities I had, they’d be in the history books. I said, ‘It’s not going to be that way for me or for my kids.’ I was the first one in my family to go to college. I’ve been a determined person my whole life and I’m not going to change now.”

Her family moved from Tampa to escape discrimination. NYC’s melting pot shaped her life.

“I’m very grateful I grew up in a multicultural environment. That diversity’s helped me to get along with many different kinds of people. I’ve developed a natural trust of people. That belief has held me in very good stead my entire life. I make a choice to set aside any preconceived notions.”

Before pursuing higher ed, she used her hand-arts skills.

“I went through the Central Needle Trades High School in New York. I got placed in one of the better (fashion) houses when I graduated but then I got married and moved to Washington D.C. I’ve always been a doer, so I went to work at a milliner shop in Maryland.”

She moved with her career U.S. Air Force husband from station to station, including Ankara, Turkey, the Philippines and Great Falls, Montana. When, in 1969, they moved to Bellevue for his final post at SAC headquarters the couple had four kids. Upon his retirement, they made Nebraska home.

Through all her travels and experiences, she’s never wavered from core beliefs.

“I care about what happens to people. I have an undergraduate in psychology and a master’s in social work. I chose social work specifically because it gives me many avenues to work on the positive side of things. A lot of social workers try to fix problems. My philosophy is you need to do prevention so the problem doesn’t arise in the first place. The different organizations I have worked with all have prevention in mind.

“If I can make the world a better place for others, it’s making it a better place for me and my family.”

Though she’s mostly worked with nonprofits, she enjoyed an 11-year career at United Healthcare, where she guided “culture change.”

“I still run into people who tell me they never found another work environment like we had there.”

For the national Girl Scouts council she helped develop programs that allowed Latino employees to increase their educational attainment and get promoted. One program enabled her to finish college and become local girl scouts program director.

She’s taught cultural competency, change management, conflict resolution and team work for many groups. She facilitates enhanced interpersonal relationships within organizations. Clients learn to identify biases and negative attitudes and to adopt positive mindsets.

“A big part of the work I’ve done in all these organizations is build self-awareness. The decision making is up to the person. but the self-awareness has to be there or nothing changes.

“I’m a systems person. If I have a vision and can gather people around me to share that vision, it’s amazing what can happen. You can’t tell me something can’t be done because I’ve done things people said couldn’t be done. I’m a problem-solver.”

She balanced her consulting work with Nebraska Democratic Party politics. She helped form and chaired the state party’s Latinx Caucus. At the last state convention, she passed the torch to others.

“I’m so proud of the new Latinx Caucus team,” Nieves said. “They are a dynamite group.”

She’s paved the way for more Latino involvement in the party as volunteers, voters and candidates.

But these are hard times for her party.

“We’re battling two things: the fatigue people feel because of this president and the tremendous divide.”

Nieves wants people to know their voice matters and they can make the change they want by voting.

She mentors young Latinos she views as future leaders  through Latinas Unidas and other groups.

“We have so much talent in the Latino community. Lots get recognized but not enough. They don’t always have the connections. The key thing is that you see the opportunity. Latino people are very humble people as a rule. That sometimes makes it difficult to navigate this competitive environment and fight for what you want.”

“It’s important emerging leaders get on track, meet the right people, so they can blossom to their full potential. I’m always keeping my eyes open for possibilities to enhance other people’s lives. That’s my legacy.”

Her children and grandchildren are also her legacy. The opportunities given her have benefited her family.

“It’s a true gift. I feel we have been given so much I have a responsibility to contribute, so I want to pay it forward. That’s the story of my life. I want to see people happy and fulfilled. It’s such a joy when that happens.”

Her human relations and civic engagement work has netted her many honors and awards.

The energetic Nieves vows, “I will continue to mentor, support, empower and encourage. It’s a passion.”

Follow Marta on Facebook.

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

Community activist Dulce Sherman follows servant-leader path set by her minister father

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Community activist Dulce Sherman follows servant-leader path set by her minister father

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico.com)

Dulce (Mejia) Sherman has spent years campaigning for Nebraska Democratic Party candidates, but one office seeker’s bid consumes most of her time now: her own. The novice candidate is vying for an at-large representative spot on the Millard School Board in the November general election.

This self-described community activist’s desire to serve comes from the example set by her late father, Rev. Mario Mejia, who was a Spanish Assemblies of God minister.

“He was a very compassionate, patient person,” Sherman said. “He was not judgmental. He would take a step back and observe and not be reactive – even if people were not very kind to him. He was very committed to helping people in his ministry.”

Her parents were from Mexico, where her father was a muralist. Sherman and her five siblings were born and raised in the U. S. Their first language was Spanish, not English. The family lived in Grand Island and Minden, Neb. as Majia established churches around the region.

“My mom didn’t speak English or drive, so there was limited adult interaction for her. Her life and my dad’s life was really about the church.”

It wasn’t unusual for the family to leave home Saturday for services, then attend a weekend-long church conference, and get back Monday morning.

“I always admired my dad because after he would finish ministering during the day, he went to work at a factory job. It was a huge commitment. He had a really strong work ethic that’s very much embedded in me.”

Sherman remembers helping her late mother pick potatoes in a field. But her real focus was on getting an education – something her parents always stressed.

“Four of us completed college. Two of us have a master’s level degree.”

Sherman earned her bachelor and master’s degrees at Bellevue University. She may pursue a law degree. Her attainments are part of how she honors her father.

“I was really close to my dad and I learned a lot from him. He was my role model. I wanted to be like him. I really wanted to help people.”

That calling led her to Human Resources as her career.

“I love meeting new people. It feeds my soul to have conversations about their dreams and help them be the best that they can be.”

After years in HR positions at Omaha for-profits, she joined One World Community Health Centers in 2017.

“I didn’t really feel I was making a difference in where I was at before. I decided I needed to go work for a nonprofit and give back to my community. Now I feel I’m able to help the Latino community in that servant leadership role just like my dad did.”

She likes that One World walks the talk.

“Other organizations have a mission on the wall. Here it’s a mission people live by. They really care about what they do. It’s very rewarding working for a place that’s really making a difference.”

Culturally, it’s a good fit, too.

“For the first time in a workplace, I’m called by my Latino name. It’s a really diverse organization I can call home. We currently employ about 86 percent Latinos and 85 percent women.”

Politically active since the 1990s, she said, “I’m very passionate about ensuring our Latino vote is represented. Women, children, healthcare, immigration and DACA – all things I’m passionate about – I feel are at risk and need representation.”

She feels obligated to help because of what she’s done.

“I’m a first-generation American who’s been able to go to college, learn two languages and go somewhere and do something with that. Not everybody has that opportunity.”

She was indecisive about seeking office when fellow politico Christian Espinosa Torres encouraged her to run. The school board made sense since her four sons graduated from Millard Public Schools.

Besides, she said, “some board members have been there a long time and I want to shake it up and bring some change.” Her platform emphasizes “making sure we have enough funding for special education and  suicide prevention.”

Two of her sons are gifted and two have special needs. Her experience with the district’s processes for students with learning and attention issues motivates her to be “an advocate” for parents navigating the system.

“I can be the voice for them.”

“Suicide prevention has impacted my home as well,” she said. “Anytime there’s a child with a disability, there’s going to be some emotional aspects tied to that. I am passionate about equipping these kids so they can be successful in life and handle that.”

She wants to make the district more “inclusive of everyone regardless of race, gender, abilities.”

She participated in a July 25 Women Who Run event, where, she said, “It was empowering to see how many women are running for office. I am especially proud there are several women of color running.”

Canvassing has convinced her that most “people don’t know much about the school board and its purpose and how the education system and budget process works.”

Family members working on her campaign include her sister Esther Mejia, owner of E Creative, her husband Allen Sherman and her four sons.

Balancing a campaign around work, family and volunteering is a challenge. She’s an at-large delegate for the state Democratic Party, a member of the professional networking-educational group, Latinas Unidas, and she’s active in the Women’s Fund Circle advocacy group. She also serves on the Latino Center of the Midlands board.

In June. the Women’s Center for Advancement honored her for her community service at its “Tribute to Women” event. That same month at the state Dem convention she was elected Latinx Caucus Chair – succeeding her political mentor, Marta Nieves.

With so much on her plate, she said, “I’ve learned that no matter what you stay grounded to your values and you don’t waver in times of conflict.”

In this divisive era, she said, “I think it’s really important we aren’t viewing things as a bi-partisan situation. We should be thinking about how we want our children and grandchildren to be taught and treated and what we’re willing to do to make sure the course were taking as a society respects humanity.”

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

My Early New Year’s Wish for America

December 9, 2016 1 comment

My Early New Year’s Wish for America

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

 

 

Given the fear and hate-mongering the recent presidential campaign brought to the surface, my fondest wish for the new year is that each of us find it in our hearts to love The Other. Healing the nation must start inside individual hearts and minds before recovery from distrust and division can be expressed through words and actions.

America is a fractured mosaic created by tumults and traumas that the nation has never fully addressed. Revolution, slavery, immigration, migration, civil war, world wars, economic depression and recession, social movements, mass industrialization, ghettos, riots, illicit drugs, violent crime, mass incarceration, hate groups, suburban sprawl-white flight, urban renewal, states rights fights and regional wars are just a few of the ruptures to have shaped America. The individual and collective weight of these fissures are incalculable and generational. The resulting psychological, emotional, social, economic consequences affect policies and systems as well as group dynamics that in turn impact people’s lives.

So many defining events in the nation’s history pit people against each other on one side or the other of some issue or cause or reality. Competing self-interests collide at every turn. The harder, more unsure the times, people tend to be extra protective of what they have and wary of anyone different from them. That is human nature. Minorities are often targeted for their differences and made the scapegoat for the disenfranchised’s struggles or reversals of fortune. The less empowered people feel, the more they blame others who are different from them and the more they look to groups they identify with to be their sounding board or acting out cover.

The more people erect figurative or literal walls to isolate themselves from The Other, communities and neighborhoods cease being unifying, free, open spaces for engagement and interaction and instead become closed circles of self-interest that keep folks apart.

Here’s hoping that those holding a grudge against another group or fearing another group, whether justified or not, take the opportunity to try and authentically connect with someone from that group. If your attempt is rebuked, well, at least you tried. If your attempt is accepted, well, then maybe, just maybe a bridge has been made that positively impacts two lives and perhaps stimulates a larger ripple effect beyond them. Big things start in small ways, after all.

On a larger level, here’s hoping some breakthrough happens during the Trump presidency whereby the president himself along with senators, congressmen or cabinet members of different races or faiths model embracing The Other as acceptable, desired behavior. America needs all the reinforcing it can get from the nation’s leaders that interracial, interfaith communion is not only healthy for the United States but necessary for its survival as a pluralistic, democratic society.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the outgoing president who preached inclusion and appealed to the better angels of our souls only to be opposed at every turn were to lead a unifying movement with this president-elect who preached division and pandered to the worst in us? That kind of strange bedfellows union that overlooks personal differences for the greater good would not be a first in American politics but it has been sorely lacking in this era of uncompromising agendas and silo building.

Is it just wishful thinking that these two men so opposite in their beliefs, values and world views could put their differences and animosity aside in service of healing and unity? I pray not. If they could be joined in this effort by Bernie Sanders, Al Gore, the Clintons, the Bushes, Condoleezza Rice, Gen. Colin Powell and other players from past elections and administrations, then so much the better.

Whatever the occupant of the White House does, here’s to all of us choosing to build bridges rather than silos in 2017.

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