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Hope Hero: Vanessa Ward

January 27, 2019 1 comment

Hope Hero: Vanessa Ward

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

They call her the Hope Hero.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somebody do something

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Be the change

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

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

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

Just don’t be looking for scapegoats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A once cohesive community torn asunder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cohesive village raised her and her peers.

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

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

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

“My fondest memories were with my biological father.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A block party unites

Through thick and thin

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

An angel came to their rescue.

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

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

“My husband was my number one supporter.”

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

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

These high school sweethearts married three times.

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

His remains are buried in the Hope Garden.

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

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

 

Crucible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She undertook a personal housecleaning.

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

Carrying her message across the state

To thine own self be true, she preaches.

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

That lesson got reinforced during her campaign for governor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her daughter Va’Chona Graves benefits from many lessons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her simple message seemed to resonate with folks.

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

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

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

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

She chalks up the campaign as a positive experience.

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s keep hope alive.”

Follow Vanessa Ward on Facebook and YouTube.

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

North Omaha rupture at center of PlayFest drama

April 30, 2018 4 comments

 

North Omaha rupture at center of PlayFest drama

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

In her original one-act More Than Neighbors, playwright Denise Chapman examines a four-decades old rupture to Omaha’s African-American community still felt today.

North Freeway construction gouged Omaha’s Near North Side in the 1970s-1980s. Residents got displaced,homes and businesses razed, tight-knit neighborhoods separated. The concrete swath further depopulated and drained the life of a district already reeling from riots and the loss of meatpacking-railroading jobs. The disruptive freeway has remained both a tangible and figurative barrier to community continuity ever since.

Chapman’s socially-tinged piece about the changed nature of community makes its world premiere Thursday, May 31 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Great Plains Theatre Conference’s PlayFest.

The site of the performance, The Venue at The Highlander, 2112 North 30th Street, carries symbolic weight. The organization behind the purpose-built Highlander Village is 75 North. The nonprofit is named for U.S. Highway 75, whose North Freeway portion severed the area. The nonprofit’s mixed-use development overlooks it and is meant to restore the sense of community lost when the freeway went in.

The North Freeway and other Urban Renewal projects forced upon American inner cities only further isolated already marginalized communities.

“Historically, in city after city, you see the trend of civil unrest, red lining, white flight, ghettoizing of areas and freeway projects cutting right through the heart of these communities,” Chapman said.

Such transportation projects, she said, rammed through “disenfranchised neighborhoods lacking the political power and dollars” to halt or reroute roads in the face of federal-state power land grabs that effectively said, “We’re just going to move you out of the way.”

By designating the target areas “blighted” and promoting public good and economic development, eminent domain was used to clear the way.

“You had to get out,” said Chapman, adding, “I talked to some people who weren’t given adequate time to pack all their belongings. They had to leave behind a lot of things.” In at least one case, she was told an excavation crew ripped out an interior staircase of a home still occupied to force removal-compliance.

With each succeeding hit taken by North O, things were never the same again

“There was a shift of how we understand community as each of those things happened,” she said. “With the North Freeway, there was a physical separation. What happens when someone literally tears down your house and puts a freeway in the middle of a neighborhood and people who once had a physical connection no longer do? What does that do to the definition of community? It feels like it tears it apart.

“That’s really what the play explores.”

Dramatizing this where it all went down only adds to the intense feelings around it.

“As I learned about what 75 North was doing at the Highlander it just made perfect sense to do the play there. To share a story in a place working to revitalize and redefine community is really special. It’s the only way this work really works.”

Neighbors features an Omaha cast of veterans and newcomers directed by Chicagoan Carla Stillwell.

The African-American diaspora drama resonates with Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and August Wilson’s Jitney with its themes of family and community assailed by outside forces but resiliently holding on.

Three generations of family are at the heart of Chapman’s play, whose characters’ experiences are informed by stories she heard from individuals personally impacted by the freeway’s violent imposition.

Faithful Miss Essie keeps family and community together with love and food. Her bitter middle-class daughter Thelma, who left The Hood, now opposes her own daughter Alexandra, who’s eager to assert her blackness, moving there. David, raised by Essie as “claimed family,” and his buddy Teddy are conflicted about toiling on the freeway. David’s aspirational wife, Mae, is expecting.

Through it all – love, loss, hope, opportunity, despair, dislocation and reunion – family and home endure.

“I think it really goes back to black people in America coming out of slavery, which should have destroyed them, but it didn’t,” Chapman said. “Through our taking care of each other and understanding of community and coming together we continue to survive. We just keep on living. There are ups and downs in our community but at the end of the day we keep redefining communityhopefully in positive ways.”

“What makes Denise’s story so warm and beautiful is that it does end with hope,” director Carla Stillwell said.

Past and present commingle in the nonlinear narrative.

“One of the brilliant things about her piece is that memory works in the play in the way it works in life by triggering emotions. To get the audience to experience those feelings with the characters is my goal.”

Feelings run deep at PlayFest’s Neighborhood Tapestries series, which alternates productions about North and South Omaha.

“The response from the audience is unlike any response you see at just kind of a standard theater production,” GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler said, “because people are seeing their lives or their community’s lives up on stage. It’s very powerful and I don’t expect anything different this time.”

 

Neighbors is Chapman’s latest North O work after 2016’s Northside Carnation about the late community matriarch, Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown. That earlier play is set in the hours before the 1969 riot that undid North 24th Street. Just as Northside found a home close to Brown and her community at the Elk’s Lodge, Neighbors unfolds where bittersweet events are still fresh in people’s minds.

“The placement of the performance at the Highlander becomes so important,” said Chapman, “because it helps to strengthen that message that we as a community are more and greater than the sum of the travesties and the tragedies.

“Within the middle of all the chaos there are still flowers growing and a whole new community blossoming right there on 30th street in a place that used to not be a great place – partly because they put a freeway in the middle of it.”

Chapman sees clear resonance between what the characters in her play do and what 75 North is doing “to develop the concept of community holistically.”

“It’s housing, food, education and work opportunities and community spaces for people to come together block by block. It’s really exciting to be a part of that.”

ChapMan is sure that Neighbors will evoke memories the same way Northside did.

“For some folks it was like coming home and sharing their stories.”

Additional PlayFest shows feature a full-stage production of previous GPTC Playlab favorite In the City in the City in the City by guest playwright Matthew Capodicasa and a “homage collage” to the work of this year’s honored playwright, Sarah Ruhl, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient. Two of Ruhl’s plays have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

Capodicasa uses a couple’s visit to the mythical city-state of Mastavia as the prism for exploring what we take from a place.

“It’s about how when you’re traveling, you inevitably experience the place through the lens of the people you’re with and how that place is actually this other version of itself – one altered by your presence or curated for your tourist experience,” he said.

In the City gets its world premiere at the Blue Barn Theatre on Tuesday, May 29 at 7:30 p.m. Producing artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer said the piece is “a perfect engine” for the theater’s season-long theme of “connect” because of its own exploration of human connections.” She also appreciates theopen-ended nature of the script. “It’s evocative and compelling without being overly prescriptive. The play can be done in as many ways as there are cities and we are thrilled to bring it to life for the first time.”

You Want to Love Strangers: An Evening in Letters, Lullabies, Essays and Clear Soup celebrates what its director Amy Lane calls Ruhl’s “poetic, magical, lush” playwriting. “Her plays are often like stepping into a fairytale where the unexpected can and does happen. Her work is filled with theatre magic, a childlike sense of wonder, playfulness, mystery. We’ve put together a short collage that includes monologues, scenes and songs from some of her best known works.”

The Ruhl tribute will be staged at the 40th Street Theatre on Friday, June 1 at 7:30 p.m.

All PlayFest performances are free. For details and other festival info, visit http://www.gptcplays.com.

South Omaha takes center stage

May 5, 2017 1 comment

What would Omaha be without South Omaha? Well, for starters, the city would lose a whole lot of history, culture, character and vitality. Just like the murals springing up all over South Omaha, the area is a mash-up of races, ethnicities, cultures, neighborhoods, traditions, colorful characters and intriguing landmarks that express a diverse tapestry of work, family and social life that not only enriches the city’s livability but that helps make Omaha, well, Omaha. Sometimes though it takes an outsider to appreciate the personality of a place. Los Angeles playwright Michael John Garces has spent time in South Omaha the last couple years familiarizing himself with the area and its people in prepration for creating stage works that celebrate different aspects of South Omaha for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. In 2015 and again in 2017, the conference’s PlayFest is focusing on South Omaha as part of its Neighborhood Tapestries program and each time Garces has gone into the community to extract its essence. His process involves walking the streets, stopping in places to talk to people and formally collecting people’s stories through interviews and exercises he conducts. His resulting new play “South” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 31 during the free PlayFest at Omaha South High School. Some of that school’s students participated in story circles Garces conducted and will perform in the play. This is my story about the appeciation that Garces has gained for South Omaha. The piece appears in the May 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Image result for south omaha 24th street

 

South Omaha takes center stage

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com)

 

South.

When applied to Omaha, the word refers to a neighborhood and a school where cross-cultural intersections happen every day. South is also the working title and setting of a new play by Los Angeles playwright Michael John Garces. His original work is having its world premiere at South High on Wednesday, May 31 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the May 27-June 3 Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC).

South Omaha’s a landing spot for migrants, immigrants and refugees. South High’s a microcosm of the area and its range of social-racial-ethnic diversity. Garces spent time in South O researching his play. He visited there in 2015 for a similar project. His new drama expresses fears, aspirations, issues and traditions of the two primary populations comprising the area today – Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans. Other ethnicities are represented in the piece as well.

The GPTC production is part of the conference’s community-based PlayFest. The free show featuring South High students will be performed in the school auditorium. South High is at 4519 South 24th Street.

The annual conference hosted by Metropolitan Community College takes turns exploring aspects of inner city Omaha through its Neighborhood Tapestries. Last year’s focus was North Omaha. This year, it’s South Omaha. Garces visited last fall garnering the raw material for the play from story circles convened with people who variously live, work and attend school there or otherwise identify as South Omahans.

“Community-based work creates a story vibrantly alive in the truths of the specific community participating in it,” said GPTC artistic director Kevin Lawler. “It allows for the community to share stories directly, in-person, and with the depth theater provides. With the annual PlayFest Neighborhood Tapestries we are creating a living history of the local neighborhoods of Omaha that is unlike any other that exists for the city.”

For South, Garces created two fictional families. One, Lithuanian-American. The other, Mexican-American. The lives of Lina, younger sister Gabija and their parents are juxtaposed with the lives of Lupe, younger brother Diego and their parents. The two households contend with things universal across cultures but also singular to their own family and life situation.

 

 

 

Image result for michael john garces
Michael John Garces

 

 

Once Donald Trump got elected President, Garces returned for an extra story circle, this time with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, who expressed concerns about anti-immigrant stands.

“It just changed what it meant to write a play at this moment,” Garces said. “I appreciated how my colleagues at the conference stepped up to that and had me come back out to have more conversations with people, which was really necessary.”

The threat of DACA’s repeal, wholesale deportations and a border wall were among the concerns shared.

“There was definitely some trepidation expressed to me about what certain changes would mean for South Omaha, particularly for young people.”

In the play Lina’s intensely curious about the legal status of friends Lupe and Diego, who avoid the subject until something brings it to light. The two girls wind up protesting on behalf of immigration reform. Garces said, “I talked to people with a very wide range of relationships to activism, so I wanted to represent young people who were activists like Lina and Lupe, and others, like Diego, who aren’t so much.”

By play’s end, Diego’s run afoul of the law and he and Lina have grown apart. Lina and Lupe ponder their respective futures. Lina’s free to go and return as she pleases. Lupe and Diego don’t have that luxury.

“Lina is frustrated with some things happening in her community and for her to leave is a different choice then for Lupe to leave because Lina knows she can come back,” said Garces, whose play intentionally explores who America is home to and isn’t today.

“I think this notion of home is challenging and contested right now. What does it mean to live in the United States since you were 2 and be told you have to go back ‘home’ to a place you don’t have any memory of and whose language you may not speak and leave the place where you do speak the language and where everyone you know lives. There’s a high degree of precariousness and uncertainty for people.”

Questions about identity and home resonate for Garces.

“There’s definitely personal connections in the play for me of families being put under stress by political concerns and as a young person having to make those decisions. Some of the interpersonal stuff that happens both within the family and with friends resonates, too.

“My father’s Cuban, my mother’s Anglo-American, and I grew up in South America, which has its own series of complexities. But at the end of the day I have friends who can’t make the same choices I can make. Regardless of how complex my life and how hard the choices may be, regardless of my convictions, there is always the simple fact I have an American passport, which unless I do something very specific cannot be taken away from me. And so I have the option of certain choices some of my friends don’t. Me choosing to leave the United States or stay is a vastly different choice than it is for someone who’s not a citizen.”

In terms of how South Omahans view themselves, Garces sees a dynamic, healthy tension between permanency and transition. It’s a working-class place with rich history and strong cultural ties, yet always reinventing itself. The one constant is aspiration.

“When I talk to people in the taqueria or the school or the Lithuanian Bakery or wherever I go, there’s always this sense of people looking forward to what’s going to be possible for the next generation and what is the neighborhood going to be. It’s been so many things but what it’s going to be is always in question.

“The sense of excitement and possibility around that is very real. The food, the murals, the sense when you’re on the street that lives are being made and that it’s a place of possibility – that’s what I’ve really taken away with me from South Omaha.”

He said even apart from questions about how federal policies, laws or executive orders might crack down on illegal immigrants, currents of change fill the air.

“I hear this from young people, old people, people from a wide range of backgrounds talking very consistently about how the neighborhood is perceived to be changing. People talk about what they think is positive about that change but also express concern.”

He said he finds people there take a “great deal of pride in their origins. whether Lithuania or Mexico or other places, whether they’re first, second or third generation.” He added, “They’re very proud, too. of being from South Omaha. At the same time they feel South Omaha is not highly regarded by people not of South Omaha.”

GPTC associate artistic director Scott Working, who’s directing the play, admires what Garces has wrought.

“He artfully distills dozens of stories and hundreds of images into these beautiful collections of relatable moments. His characters absolutely feel like you ran into them on South 24th Street. Some of our younger cast were a part of the South High discussion and recognize moments in the play that were in that conversation.”

Garces was still tweaking the ending in mid-April. Though he also directs and heads L.A.-based Cornerstone Theater Company, he’s put the production in the hands of Working, co-designers Bill Van Deest and Carol Wisner and costumer Lindsay Pape.

“As a writer I tend to try to create a framework that’s pretty open for the designer and the director to interpret that physical world. I talked to Scott about how from my writer’s perspective I think the play needs to flow and there needs to be rhythm but beyond that I’m trusting in them to capture something sort of essential about what it means to be in South Omaha. I’m actually excited to see what they come up with.”

Garces has enjoyed the experience of representing the former Magic City in a dramatic structure.

“It’s been a really good process. I’ve felt really supported by the conference. I don’t mean to sound all Hallmark about it but you occasionally have those artistic experiences that just feel good and this has been one of them. This has felt really right.”

He’s also come to feel a kinship for South O. Though he’s learned much over two years, he considers himself “more informed guest” than honorary South Omahan.

For the complete PlayFest schedule, visit

http://www.gptcplays.com/.

A North Omaha Reflection

June 3, 2016 2 comments

A North Omaha Reflection

 A post by Adam Fletcher Sasse on the popular Facebook group site Forgotten Omaha –
prodded me to make this post of my own because it stirred some things in me I feel very strongly about.
Adam, who has a great online site called North Omaha History Blog –
wrote:
“The last 50 years haven’t been kind to North Omaha. Here’s the Conestoga Place neighborhood from 1941 to 2013. — thinking about the way things used to be at North Omaha, Nebraska.”
And the aerial photos he posted provide stark evidence of how North Omaha, where I grew up and lived most of my life and where my heart still is, has undergone a devastation usually only associated with war. There are many complex reasons explaining what took place but it all gets back to the fact that North Omaha, and here I mean northeast Omaha, has been predominantly African-American for 75-plus years and the well-documented inequities and issues that disproportionately affect the area and its residents are inextricably tied to racism.

 

Here are my reflections on his post:

Adam Fletcher Sasse, your Forgotten Omaha posts tonight about the way things used to be in North Omaha, using the example of Conestoga Place Neighborhood as an illustration, touches a nerve with residents, past and present. The segregation and confinement of African-Americans in North Omaha had mixed results for blacks and the community as a whole. There is no doubt that at every level of public and private leadership, North O was systematically drained of its resources or denied the resources that other districts enjoyed. With everything working against it, North O, by which I mean northeast Omaha for the purposes of this opinion piece, the neighborhood devolved. Using a living organism analogy, once businesses left en masse, once the packinghouse and railroad jobs disappeared, once the riots left physical and psychological scars, once aspirational and disenchanted blacks fled for greener pastures, once the North Freeway and other urban renewal projects ruptured the community and displaced hundreds, if not thousands more residents, once the gang culture took root, well, you see, North O got sicker and weaker and no longer had enough of an immune system (infrastructure, amenities, jobs, professional class middle class) to heal itself and fend off the poison. There is no doubt the powers that be, including the Great White Fathers who controlled the city then and still control it now, implicity and explicity allowed it to happen and in some cases instigated or directed the very forces that infected and spread this disease of despair and ruin. The wasteland that became sections and swaths of North O did not have to happen and even if there was no stopping it there is no rationale or justiiable reason why redevelopment waited, stalled or occurred in feeble fits and starts and in pockets that only made the contrast between ghetto and renewal more glaring and disturbing. North O’s woes were and are a public health problem and the strong intervening treatments needed have been sorely lacking. As many of us believe, the revitalization underway there today is badly, sadly long overdue. It is appreciated for sure but it is still far too conservative and slow and small compared to the outsized needs. And it may not have happened at all if not for the Great White Fathers being embarrased by Omaha’s shockingly high poverty rates and all the attendant problems associated with poor living conditions, limited opportunities and hopeless attitudes. If not for North Downtown’s emergence, the connecting corridors of North 30th, North 24th and North 16th Streets would likely still be languishing in neglect. Seeing images of what was once a thriving Conestoga neighborhood gone to seed says more than my words could ever say and the sad truth of the matter is is that Adam could post dozens more images of other North O neighborhoods or blocks that suffered the same fate. So much commerce and potential has been lost there. What about reparations for North O? The couple hundred million dollars of recent and in progress construction and the infusion of some new businesses is a drop in the bucket compared to what was lost, stolen, sucked dry, displaced, denied, diverted, misspent, wasted. I know hundreds more millions of dollars are slated to be invested there, but it’s still not getting the job done. It’s like a slow drip IV managing the pain rather than healing the patient. I know that the infusion of money and development are not the only fixes, but it is absolutely necessary and the patient can’t get well and prosper unless there’s enough of it and unless it’s delivered on time. I just hope it’s not too little too late. And like many North Omahans, I’d feel better if residents had more of a say in how their/our community gets redeveloped. I’d feel better if we controlled the pursestrings. We are the stakeholders. Beware of the carpetbaggers.

North Omaha Summer Arts back for 6th annual free arts festival

May 23, 2016 1 comment

North Omaha Summer Arts back for 6th annual free arts festival

 

NOSA is dedicated to the proposition that the arts can positively change the world and the community. Support local arts and local artists because they are making a difference through their work. Let’s make this a beautiful, arts-filled summer. And hope to see you at our family-friendly, community-based events.

Check out the schedule below:

 

Cover Photo

We are delighted to announce that June 2016 marks the beginning of the 6th year for North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA), a free, grassroots, community-based arts festival!

Our mission is to bring the experience of art in all forms to the community of North Omaha. NOSA classes and events are open and free of charge to everyone.

The summer-long fest is the creation of North Omaha native and North High graduate Pamela Jo Berry. She is a veteran artist and art educator who lives in North Omaha.

Pamela began NOSA in the summer of 2011 with the support and assistance of fellow parishioner Denise Chapman and Pastor John Backus when she saw a need for more art to be infused into her community. She also wanted to provide more opportunities for area artists to exhibit their work and talent. Under the NOSA banner she organized community arts events and activities, including writing classes, a Gospel Concert and an Arts Crawl, open to all. As the community has embraced the offerings, NOSA has added new programming and partners. The goal is for this arts festival to continue growing and flourishing, but it needs help to do that.

Pamela administers NOSA with the help of volunteers. She has found success paired with a volunteer board who has history and interest in the areas of both North Omaha and the arts.

NOSA has attracted a loyal following for its annual events. New programs and opportunities continue to be added.  It is truly a privilege for everyone involved to celebrate the arts in North Omaha and to provide these enriching experiences.

2016 Highlights include:

Gospel Concert in the Park
Saturday, June 18
5 to 7:30 pm
Miller Park

The 6th annual Gospel Concert in Miller Park features soloists, ensembles and choirs performing a variety of gospel styles.

NOTE: Watch for announcements about the concert’s performing artists lineup

Women’s Writing Classes and Retreats
Wednesdays, June 1 through July 27
5:30 pm dinner followed by 6 to 8 pm class
Trinity Lutheran Church
This summer the focus is on Getting Published.

Facilitator Kim Louise is a playwright and best-selling romance novelist who guides participants in finding their inner writer’s voice.

Art and Gardening Class
Saturday, July 9
10:30 am to 12:30 pm
Florence Branch Library

Combine your passion for making and growing things in a fun-filled session painting art on clay pots and planting flowers that attract pollinators.

 

NEW EVENT
Pop-Up Art
Various locations TBA

Happening throughout July, Pop-Up Art gives adults and children the opportunity to create art at different locations around North Omaha.

 

Arts Crawl
Friday, August 12
Reception at Charles Washington Branch Library
5:30-6:30 pm.
The Crawl at several venues on or near North 30th Street
6 to 9 pm
This walkable, continuous art show showcases the diverse work of emerging and established artists at venues on or near North 30th Street. The Crawl starts at the Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus Mule Barn building and ends at the North Heartland Family Service – with Church of the Resurrection, Nelson Mandela School and Trinity Lutheran in between. Walk or drive to view art in a wide variety of mediums, to watch visual art demonstrations and to speak with artists about their practice. Enjoy live music at some venues.

NOTE: Watch for posts about The Crawl’s visual and performing artists roster.


COMING SOON: Look for our announcement about an opportunity to help NOSA continue offering these and other arts experiences free of charge to the community.

Like/follow NOSA on Facebook–

NOSA Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts/?fref=ts

NOSA Facebook Group https://www.facebook.com/groups/1012756932152193/

For more information, to be a participating artist or to partner with NOSA, call 402-502-4669.

North Omaha Summer Arts's Profile Photo

 

 

South Omaha stories on tap for free PlayFest show; Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries returns to south side

May 6, 2015 2 comments

Omaha’s various geographic segments feature distinct charecteristics all their own. South Omaha has a stockyards-packing plant heritage that lives on to this day and it continues its legacy as home to new arrivals, whether immigrants or refugees. The free May 27 Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayFest show South Omaha Stories at the Livestock Exchange Building is a collaboration between playwrights and residents that shares stories reflective of that district and the people who comprise it. What follows are two articles I did about the event. The first and most recent article is for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and it looks at South O through the prism of two young people interviewed by playwrights for the project. The second article looks at South O through the lens of three older people interviewed by playwrights for the same project. Together, my articles and participants’ stores provide a fair approximation of what makes South O, well, South O. Or in the vernacular (think South Side Chicago), Sou’d O.

 

South Omaha stories on tap for free PlayFest show

Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries returns to south side

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Perhaps more than any geographic quadrant of the city, South Omaha owns the richest legacy as a livestock-meatpacking industry hub and historic home to new arrivals fixated on the American Dream.

Everyone with South O ties has a story. When some playwrights sat down to interview four such folks, tales flowed. Using the subjects’ own words and drawing from research, the playwrights, together with New York director Josh Hecht, have crafted a night of theater for this year’s Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries.

Omaha’s M. Michele Phillips directs this collaborative patchwork of South Omaha Stories. The 7:30 p.m. show May 27 at the Livestock Exchange Building ballroom is part of GPTC’s free PlayFest slate celebrating different facets of Neb. history and culture. In the case of South O, each generation has distinct experiences but recurring themes of diversity and aspiration appear across eras.

Lucy Aguilar and Batula Hilowle are part of recent migration waves to bring immigrants and refugees here. Aguilar came as a child from Mexico with her undocumented mother and siblings in pursuit of a better life. Hilowle and her siblings were born and raised in a Kenya refugee camp. They relocated here with their Somali mother via humanitarian sponsors. In America, Batula and her family enjoy new found safety and stability.

Aguilar, 20, is a South High graduate attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha. GPTC associate artistic director and veteran Omaha playwright Scott Working interviewed her. Hilowle, 19, is a senior at South weighing her college options. Harlem playwright Kia Corthron interviewed her.

A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) work permit recipient, Aguilar is tired of living with a conditional status hanging over head. She feels she and fellow Dreamers should be treated as full citizens. State law has made it illegal for Dreamers to obtain drivers licenses.

“I’m here just like everybody else trying to make something out of my life, trying to accomplish goals, in my case trying to open a business,” and be successful in that,” Aguilar says.

She’s active in Young Nebraskans for Action that advocates restrictions be lifted for Dreamers. She follows her heart in social justice matters.

“Community service is something I’m really passionate about.”

She embraces South O as a landing spot for many peoples.

“There’s so much diversity and nobody has a problem with it.”

Hilowle appreciates the diversity, too.

“You see Africans like me, you see African Americans,, Asians, Latinos, whites all together. It’s something you don’t see when you go west.”

Both young women find it a friendly environment.

“It’s a very open, helpful community,” Aguilar says. “There are so many organizations that advocate to help people. If I’m having difficulties at home or school or work, I know I’ll have backup. I like that.”

“It’s definitely warm and welcoming,” Hilowle says. “It feels like we’re family. There’s no room for hate.”

Hilowle says playwright Kia Corthon was particularly curious about the transition from living in a refuge camp to living in America.

“She wanted to know what was different and what was familiar. I can tell you there was plenty of differences.”

Hilowle has found most people receptive to her story of struggle in Africa and somewhat surprised by her gratitude for the experience.

“Rather than try to make fun of me I think they want to get to know me. I’m not ashamed to say I grew up in a refugee camp or that we didn’t have our own place. It made me better, it made me who I am today. Being in America won’t change who I am. My kids are going to be just like me because I am just like my mom.”

She says the same fierce determination that drove her mother to save the family from war in Somalia is in her.

About the vast differences between life there and here, she says, “Sometimes different isn’t so bad.” She welcomes opportunities “to share something about where I come from or about my religion (Muslim) and why I cover my body with so many clothes.”

Aguilar, a business major seeking to open a South O juice shop, likes that her and Hilowle’s stories will be featured in the same program.

“We have very different backgrounds but I’m pretty sure our future goals are the same. We’re very motivated about what we want to do.”

Similar to Lucy, Batula likes helping people. She’s planning a pre-med track in college.

The young women think it’s important their stories will be presented alongside those of much older residents with a longer perspective.

Virgil Armendariz, 68, who wrote his own story, can attest South O has long been a melting pot. He recalls as a youth the international flavors and aromas coming from homes of different ethnicities he delivered papers to and his learning to say “collect” in several languages.

“You could travel the world by walking down 36th street on Sunday afternoon. From Q Street to just past Harrison you could smell those dinners cooking. The Irish lived up around Q Street, Czechs, Poles, and Lithuanians were mixed along the way. Then Bohemians’ with a scattering of Mexicans.”

He remembers the stockyards and Big Four packing plants and all the ancillary businesses that dominated a square mile right in the heart of the community. The stink of animal refuse permeating the Magic City was called the Smell of Money. Rough trade bars and whorehouses served a sea of men. The sheer volume of livestock meant cows and pigs occasionally broke loose to cause havoc. He recalls unionized packers striking for better wages and safer conditions.

Joseph Ramirez, 89, worked at Armour and Co. 15 years. He became a local union leader there and that work led him into a human services career. New York playwright Michael Garces interviewed Ramirez.

Ramirez and Armendariz both faced discrimination. They dealt with bias by either confronting it or shrugging it off. Both men found pathways to better themselves – Ramirez as a company man and Armendariz as an entrepreneur.

While their parents came from Mexico, South Omaha Stories participant, Dorothy Patach, 91, traces her ancestry to the former Czechoslovakia region. Like her contemporaries of a certain age, she recalls South O as a once booming place, then declining with the closure of the Big Four plants, before its redevelopment and immigrant-led business revival the last few decades.

Patach says people of varied backgrounds generally found ways to co-exist though she acknowledges illegal aliens were not always welcome.

New York playwright Ruth Margraff interviewed her.

She and the men agree what united people was a shared desire to get ahead. How families and individuals went about it differed, but hard work was the common denominator.

Scott Working says the details in the South O stories are where universal truths lay.
“It is in the specifics we recognize ourselves, our parents, our grandparents,” he says, “and we see they have similar dreams that we share. It’s a great experience.”

He says the district’s tradition of diversity “has kept it such a vibrant place.” He suspects the show will be “a reaffirmation for the people that live there and maybe an introduction to people from West Omaha or North Omaha.” He adds, “My hope is it will make people curious about where they’re from, too. It’s kind of what theater does – it gives us a connection to humanity and tells us stories we find value in and maybe we learn something and feel something.”

The Livestock Exchange Building is at 4920 South 30th Street.

Next year’s Neighborhood Tapestries event returns to North Omaha.

For PlayFest and conference details, visit http://www.mccneb.edu/gptc.

 

South Omaha stories to be basis for new theater piece at Great Plains Theatre Conference

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Historically, South Omaha is a melting pot where newcomers settle to claim a stake of the American Dream.

This hurly burly area’s blue-collar labor force was once largely Eastern European. The rich commerce of packing plants and stockyards filled brothels, bars and boardinghouses. The local economy flourished until the plants closed and the yards dwindled. Old-line residents and businesses moved out or died off. New arrivals from Mexico, Central America, South America and Africa have spurred a new boon. Repurposed industrial sites serve today’s community needs.

As a microcosm of the urban American experience it’s a ready-made tableaux for dramatists to explore. That’s what a stage director and playwrights will do in a Metropolitan Community College-Great Plains Theatre Conference project. The artists will interview residents to cultivate anecdotes. That material will inform short plays the artists develop for performance at the GPTC PlayFest’s community-based South Omaha Neighborhood Tapestries event in May.

Director Josh Hecht and two playwrights, Kia Corthron and Ruth Margraff, will discuss their process and preview what audiences can expect at a free Writing Workshop on Saturday, January 24 at 3 p.m. in MCC’s South Campus (24th and Q) Connector Building.

Participants Virgil Armendariz and Joseph Ramirez hail from Mexican immigrant clans that settled here when Hispanics were so few Armendariz says practically everybody knew each other. Their presence grew thanks to a few large families. Similarly, the Emma Early Bryant family grew a small but strong African-American enclave.

Each ethnic group “built their own little communities,” says Armendariz, who left school to join the Navy before working construction. “There were communities of Polish, Mexicans, Bohemians, Lithuanians, Italians, Irish. Those neighborhoods were like family and became kind of territorial. But it was interesting to see how they blended together because they all shared one thing – how hard they worked to make life better for themselves and their families. I still see that even now. A lot of people in South Omaha have inherited that entrepreneurial energy and inner strength. I feel like the blood, sweat and tears of generations of immigrants is in the soil of South Omaha.”

Armendariz, whose grandmother escaped the Mexican revolution and opened a popular pool hall here, became an entrepreneur himself. He says biases toward minorities and newcomers can’t be denied “but again there’s a common denominator everybody understands and that is people come here to build a future for their families, and that we can’t escape, no matter how invasive it might seem.”

 

 

He says recent immigrants and refugees practice more cultural traditions than he knew growing up. He and his wife, long active in the South Omaha Business Association, enjoy connecting to their own heritage through the Xiotal Ballet Folklorico troupe they support.

“These talented people present beautiful, colorful dance and music. When you put that face on the immigrant you see they are a rich part of our American past and a big contributor to our American future.”

Ramirez, whose parents fled the Cristero Revolt in Mexico, says he and his wife faced discrimination as a young working-class couple integrating an all-white neighborhood. But overall they found much opportunity. He became a bilingual notary public and union official while working at Armour and Co. He later served roles with the Urban League of Nebraska and the City of Omaha and directed the Chicano Awareness Center (now Latino Center of the Midlands). His activist-advocacy work included getting more construction contracts for minorities and summer jobs for youths. The devout Catholic lobbied the Omaha Archdiocese to offer its first Spanish-speaking Mass.

He’s still bullish about South Omaha, saying, “It’s a good place to live.”

Dorothy Patach came up in a white-collar middle-class Bohemian family, graduated South High, then college, and went on to a long career as a nursing care professional and educator. Later, she became Spring Lake Neighborhood Association president and activist, helping raise funds for Omaha’s first graffiti abatement wagon and filling in ravines used as dumping grounds. She says the South O neighborhood she lived in for seven decades was a mix of ethnicities and religions that found ways to coexist.

“Basically we lived by the Golden Rule – do unto others as you want them to do unto you – and we had no problems.”

She, too, is proud of her South O legacy and eager to share its rich history with artists and audiences.

MCC Theatre Program Coordinator Scott Working says, “The specifics of people’s lives can be universal and resonate with a wide audience. The South Omaha stories I’ve heard so far have been wonderful, and I can’t wait to help share them.”

Josh Hecht finds it fascinating South O’s “weathered the rise and fall of various industries” and absorbed “waves of different demographic populations.” “In both of these ways” he says, “the neighborhood seems archetypally American.” Hecht and Co. are working with local historian Gary Kastrick to mine more tidbits.

Hecht conceived the project when local residents put on “a kind of variety show ” for he and other visiting artists at South High in 2013.

“They performed everything from spoken word to dance to storytelling. They told stories about their lives and it was very clear how important it was for the community to share these stories with us.”

Hecht says he began “thinking of an interactive way where they share their lives and stories with us and we transform them into pieces of theater that we then reflect back to them.”

Working says, “This project will be a deeper exploration and more intimate exchange between members of the community and dramatic artists” than previous Tapestries.

The production is aptly slated for the Stockyards Exchange Building, the last existing remnant of South O’s vast packing-livestock empire.

All Abide: Abide applies holistic approach to building community; Josh Dotzler now heads nonprofit started by his parents

December 5, 2014 1 comment

North Omaha has seen its share of organizations over the years impose programs on the community to address some of the endemic problems facing that area’s most challenged neighborhoods, most of which have to do with poverty. As well intentioned as those organizations and programs may be, too often they end up as temorary or incomplete responses that come off as missionary projects designed to save the disadvantaged and misbegotten. Decades of this has resulted in a certain skepticsim, even cynicsm, and downright resentment among residents tired of saviors riding in to save the day, and then leaving when either the work is supposedly done or proves too daunting or the grant funding runs dry. To be fair, plenty of these do-gooders have stayed to fight the good fight and to make a postive difference, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. One of these is Abide, which also goes by Abide Omaha and which used to be called the Abide Network. Whatever its name, Abide has put down some serious roots in North Omaha over its 25 year history and the seeds of its community building work are just now beginning to blossom. Read about how Josh Dotzler, a son of Abide founders Ron and Twany Dotzler, is now leading the nonprofit in building Lighthouses in neighborhoods to provide hope, stability, fellowship, and community. Read my cover story about Abide  now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/).

NOTES: If you’re looking for a related story, then link to my 2013 piece on Apostle Vanessa Ward and the community block party she and her followers organize in a North Omaha neighborhood only a few blocks from where the Dotzlers and their Abide nonprofit operate: https://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/?s=vanessa+ward

Also, Ron and Twany Dotzler were one of the interracial couples I profile in a story I did at the start of 2014, Color Blind Love, that consistently gets dozens to hundreds of views a week: https://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/?s=color+blind+love

 

The Reader Dec. 4 - 10, 2014

 

 

All Abide: Abide applies holistic approach to building community; Josh Dotzler now heads nonprofit started by his parents

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

Former Bellevue West hoops star and Creighton University point guard Josh Dotzler has lived through the saga of Abide, the northeast Omaha ministry his parents started in 1989.

Twenty-five years ago Ron and Twany Dotzler stepped out on faith to move their large multi-cultural family – he’s white and she’s black – from the suburbs to the inner city to pursue a community-focused calling. Gangs were first asserting themselves. Shootings and killings became endemic. Through their nonprofit the couple responded to conditions giving rise to crime, poverty and hopelessness.

Josh and his family have lost neighbors and friends to gun violence. Others have ended up in prison. Residents are skeptical of do-gooders coming in from outside. As Abide’s front person Ron Dotzler battled credibility issues as a white preacher in a black community. The light-skinned Josh and his rainbow-hued siblings – all 13 of them – had to prove themselves, too. After establishing the ministry as one not just passing through but there to stay, Abide made traction. Josh’s parents have since handed the leadership reins over to him.

He admires his parents’ courage to climb out on a limb as a mixed-race couple doing street missionary work while raising 14 kids. His parents feel being an interracial duo has been a help not a hinderance.

“I think that’s why I love what we do,” Twany Dotzler says. “We can be a bridge to expose people to those differences, to people who may not think like you do, act like you do, look like you do. If you can just be intentional about getting to know them through relationships you’ll see what we do have in common and what we can do together.”

“Most of what happens to try and bring people together is dialogue and while there’s importance to that and it definitely brings awareness,” Ron Dotzler says, “the reality is most of us don’t really change by dialogue. For our work in this community we intentionally get people together. The last two years we’ve had 15,000 volunteers come into this community from outside this community and that means they are now interacting with people. The result of our diversity is our work together, not our conversation.”

He says the Bridge church he launched as part of Abide is “very diverse” and openly discusses race. “I don’t know of too many churches that do that. If we’re going to have the deep meaningful relationships God called us to we’ve got to be honest with this stuff.”

 

 

 

Twany feels Abide’s accepted because it values people “right where they’re at” and makes the effort “to build relationships, to break down those denominational walls, those racial walls, those economic walls.” Ron says, “We intentionally create multicultural environments. You have to have people that really want to be bridges and not take sides.”

Josh admires the path his parents blazed for him to follow and the sacrifices and risks they took staying true to it.

“I feel like they’re groundbreakers and have gone through incredible odds. There’s been times when we had no money and my parents didn’t know if they’d be able to provide Christmas presents for us or have groceries for the next week. I can think of multiple times when they hit some of those lows but as children we never felt it. We were broke and poor and people turned their back but my parents never let on to us, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to keep going on,’ even though my dad shares now there were times he felt that way.”

Josh’s folks always found a way. They converted a trashed-out former hospital laundry facility that had originally been a horse-and-buggy fire station at 3335 Fowler St. into the home for their growing family and the headquarters for their organization. Josh and his older siblings pitched in. The couple opened a second community center at 3126 Lake St. that became the worship space for Bridge, which targets at-risk youth. The couple turned a nearby home into a half-way house and “Lighthouse.”

Seven years ago Abide went from tackling select problems such as gang activity to taking a holistic, immersive neighborhood approach. Together with church partners it began “adopting” blocks to make its presence felt through celebrations and cleanups. It also started acquiring, rehabbing and occupying abandoned homes to create Lighthouses that bring stability to transient areas. Abide networks with contractors and churches for donated materials and human resources.

This new approach is modeled after what the Dotzlers did on their own block to build community. Following their lead, neighbors fixed up their houses. Front porch talks became common. Criminal activity dropped.
Better Together

 

 

“We saw the change that was happening,” Josh says. The Omaha Police Department noticed, too. “The police came and said this neighborhood that was once one of the worst is now one of the best and we’d love to partner with you.” Dotzler says Abide is “the eyes and ears of the community.”

That partnership continues today. Omaha Police Department Capt. Scott Gray, who heads the Northeast Precinct that includes Abide’s operational territory, says, “We meet quarterly with them to discuss any issues that might be occurring in the neighborhood and how we can best solve them. They’ll communicate with us if there are any problems and they’ve actually been pretty instrumental in serving as a contact point for any police-community friction that needs to be resolved.”

He says Abide’s work to beautify properties and foster fellowship helps residents take more ownership in their community, which dovetails with OPD’s Neighborhood Stakeholder’s strategy. He says Abide’s well-attended events give police welcome opportunities to interact with the community in a positive light. He champions Abide taking rundown, vacant properties and flipping them into occupied homes again.

Dotzler says, “One abandoned house with broken windows can be a magnet for negative activity that messes up an entire neighborhood. We see that all over the place. Within a one-mile square radius of us there’s over 100 vacant homes. A Lighthouse can transform an entire community by providing light where there was dark.” He says these homes serve as safe anchors and resources. Lighthouse residents are supports and facilitators as well as conduits to Abide and Bridge.

“When we start to work on a Lighthouse we take on that entire neighborhood,” Dotzler says. “We go door to door to all the houses to connect with the families and invite them to community events. We have barbecues where we grill out front and invite everyone. We intentionally do things so neighbors get to know each other.”

He says because many inner city residents are in “survivor mode,” there’s “a relational drought” stemming from fear or mistrust. That’s why he says “building relationships is our biggest mission – it’s crucial.”

Lighthouse residents sign covenants pledging to engage neighbors in ongoing fellowship. It’s all part of Abide’s integrated approach to build community, one person, one family, one block at a time.

 

SpringCleanup

 

“You can’t just focus on one aspect of a person’s development or a community’s development,” he says. “You can’t just focus on education and expect crime to go down. You can’t just focus on building a house and expect that community to change. You have to focus on taking that dark side of the neighborhood, which was that abandoned house, fixing it up, putting a family or a person into that house that is a part of the change for that community, and providing the programs for people to develop, whether it’s in education or employment.

“You have to break down this huge challenge into bite size pieces, which is why we take a neighborhood approach (Better Together). You have to engage people at a grassroots level. You have to be in the neighborhood and community you want to see transformed. You have to have community buy-in, so most of our staff members actually live in the community we work in and many of them live in Lighthouses.”

Jennefer Avant, her husband Damone and their son DJ reside in a  two-story, three-bedroom Lighthouse on Larimore Avenue. The family reaches out to people on their block to create community.

“We do a neighborhood block party and clean-up. We do one-on-one outreach to neighbors,” Jennefer Avant says. “We have a neighbor renovating a home with no running water and we’ve made our outside spout available for him along with our outside electric sockets. We have extended our own time to help if he needs us, we’ve shared our wood for his outside fire pit, and we’ve provided a warm meal.

“We have an elderly neighbor that also cares for her ailing son. We help with her yard and we check on her and her son to make sure they’re safe. If they need something beyond what we can do we forward their needs to Abide-Bridge. When we talk to our neighbors we find out exactly what is needed and then inform Abide. Not everything is about money. Mostly we provide companionship.”

Dotzler says, “All our programs are built around providing relationships with people who can paint a picture of what life can be like.” Much of Bridge’s work is directed at youth and young adults. “It’s mentors coming alongside young people, spending time with them, speaking into their life, encouraging them and helping them become who we believe they’re created to be,” he says.
Hanging from a wall at the Abide offices is a city map with pins charting every homicide committed in Omaha since 1989.

Another map shows the city’s churches. It saddens Dotzler that the two maps could be overlaid and look identical, suggesting the mere presence of churches doesn’t curb violence. For churches to make a difference, he says, they must minister in the streets. Therefore, Bridge aims to be “about change,” he says. “I think the powerful thing about Bridge is it’s a church in the community for the community. We go and engage people on their terms, in their turf. We keep it real. We say, ‘We’re not anybody better than you but we’d love to help you in any way we can.'” That approach has found a receptive audience. It helps, he says, that

 

Basketball group

 

Bridge leaders are from the community and thus “have the relational equity to engage” with everyone from elders to Young Gs.
Avant says. “No matter how small, we have to do our part to keep each other safe, especially our kids.” She says Abide has become a well known and accepted player in the inner city “because of the investment of volunteers and staff that have made a difference and gained the trust of our neighborhood.” She adds, “Young and old alike always ask when the next event is. Yes, prizes are given away, but it is more than that. People receive prayer, hugs, acknowledgement, someone to listen and connect. If Abide or the churches they partner with were not around, our neighborhood would be in much worse condition.”

Omaha Police Capt. Scott Gray says, “We’ve seen a reduction in incidents, especially with violent crime in the areas where they operate. They do a lot of outreach in the community. They get that sense of community re-instilled in the neighborhood.”

Abide’s increased imprint has seen it go from a single adopted block to 100 and from one to 20 Lighthouses. Seven new Lighthouses are being readied for occupancy. Abide block parties have gone from a couple hundred attendees to 2,000-plus, outgrowing the Abide site and moving to nearby Skinner Magnet Center at 4304 No. 33rd St. Similarly, Bridge has outgrown the Lake St. building and now holds services at North High School, where 500 followers gather on Sundays. Thousands of volunteers annually work on Abide projects and programs, from painting houses to mowing lawns to mentoring kids.
Andrew and Tete

 

Skinner Magnet principal Tarina Cox says the block parties Abide throws at her school are inspiring.

“It is amazing to see the large number of kids, parents, volunteers, Abide Staff, community members, Skinner staff and members of Omaha Police Department come together to provide a fun and safe environment for our community.”

Skinner also partners with Abide on hosting an annual Thanksgiving dinner that draws hundreds as well as neighborhood festivals, Easter egg hunts, staff appreciation days and backpack giveaways.

Dotzler says he and his parents believe that overturning the foundational poverty that keeps people in despair or isolation requires addressing not only education, jobs and housing but “love, safety, care, nurture,” adding “People hunger for someone who actually cares and wants to see your needs met and see you become successful. At the heart of it is a hunger for spirituality, for purpose in life.

“In our holistic way of thinking you need housing, which provides safety and stability and which turns a negative spot in the community to a bright spot. You need family support programs which provide opportunities for individuals to grow and develop. You need community building activities and events to create a sense of camaraderie and neighborliness. We say we want to put the neighbor back in the hood. It’s a part of this bigger strategy in neighborhoods we’re working in on an ongoing basis and so it’s a building block.”

 

 

 

 

Abide’s growth has coincided with its more organic approach.

“We have partners come in and take on these specific neighborhoods, again not just doing a program but building relationships in that community that carry on past just a house getting refurbished. It’s more than providing a service, we’re creating a whole new culture and where you’re creating a new culture you better make sure you’re addressing the different cultural realities there.

“By being in and living in the neighborhoods we’ve been the ones who have been changed because our eyes have been opened, our perspective has been broadened. The longer I’m in it the more I realize what I don’t know and the more we realize we need to continue to learn from the community and the people were working with. We’re always figuring it out and evolving.”
Above all, he says, “we’re not here to save the day – we don’t want to be the organization that comes in and has the answer for everything but we’re here to provide resources and relationships so that people’s lives can be enhanced.”

Dotzler loves his work but didn’t expect to be doing this. The 2009 Creighton grad saw himself playing ball overseas and going into business. There was no succession plan for him to take over Abide but seeing his parents grow it made an impression on him.

“I got to see a picture of what it looked like to live with purpose, passion and something that was bigger than yourself,” he says.
Besides, he adds, “I think everybody wants to make a difference.”

But he didn’t think he was up for the job and so he resisted it even as his parents nudged him to be more involved.

“I’ve never seen people step back with more humility,” he says of his parents. “I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for them pushing me here.

It was them saying, ‘You have it in you, we believe in you, we want you here.’ I never thought I was equipped or the person to do this and didn’t want to be but through encouragement from my dad and the rest of the family, my leadership capabilities just kind of emerged. My parents got more confident in me and I got more confident in my role.”

Finally, with his older siblings variously away or enmeshed in their own careers, he committed to Abide and for his own family – he and his wife have three kids – to live in a Lighthouse.

“My wife gave me a three month ultimatum. She said. ‘Let’s move here for three months and then move somewhere else.’ We both said let’s give it a try and see what happens, and we’re still trying it out five years later. But we really feel like this is where we’re supposed to be.

“It’s been nothing but a blessing.”

 

DotzlerWeb2

 

 

He says a good day on the job can mean many things.

“It can look so different, whether I’m coaching the 1st and 2nd grade basketball team and a kid attitude or behavior-wise made a step or trying to make this Lighthouse program go to another level so we can impact more neighborhoods.”

Making progress in any area satisfies him.

“Progress in individuals, progress in our own process as an organization, always moving forward. When we get better everybody gets better. I love that process of trying to get better every single day – to make a community and individuals better.”
He says it’s not about plaudits, though his parents have received their share and have many admirers.

“In these neighborhoods people may or may not know the name Abide but they would know we’re the group that does the block parties or goes door to door passing stuff out or they would know Bridge church. They definitely would know our family.”
Jennefer Avant makes no bones about the impact the Dotzlers make.

“Ron and Twany Dotzler are amazing people. Caring, down to earth.  God is definitely at work in their lives. Where they started to where they are now is such an awesome testimony to their faith and in turn strengthens mine. So many lives touched, including mine personally.”

Josh Dotzler just wants to take Abide where community needs lead it. He’d like to one day scale up to 700 Lighthouses. Whether that happens or not, he wants to make Abide a part of the solution.

“We feel very confident in terms of the pieces we have to see the neighborhoods transformed. Everything that’s happened over this past 25 years has kind of helped prepare us for this.”

Visit http://www.abideomaha.org.

 

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