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Omaha Small Business Network Empowers Entrepreneurs

August 22, 2017 2 comments

If you’re an entrepreneur seeking to establish or take your start-up to the next level, then the Omaha Small Business Network may be the place for you. Julia Parker (pictured below) is the latest in a succession of women of color to head the OSBN. The OSBN is located at the historic 24th and Lake hub where a revitalization is happening. North Omaha entrepreneurs might want to look at working with the organization to help make their dreams come true and perhaps be a part of the North O revival. Read my B2B Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) feature about the services and programs the OSBN offers.

Omaha Small Business Network
Empowers Entrepreneurs

©By Leo Adam Biga
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally published in Jan-Feb 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

The Omaha Small Business Network is on its third female executive director since its 1982 launch. Julia Parker leads an all-female full-time staff that continues the nonprofit’s founding mandate to assist historically undercapitalized entrepreneurs achieve financial inclusion.

OSBN helps remove barriers that inhibit some women and racial minorities from realizing business ventures. Parker says clients lack access to capital and lines of credit and often have no formal business training. Lacking collateral, they’re rejected by lenders. “To be eligible for our micro-loans, the first qualification is you be turned down for traditional financing,” Parker says.
OSBN helps “un-bankable” clients do a financial makeover.

“What OSBN seeks to do is to initially bridge that gap between the bank and the consumer. But after receiving an OSBN loan, our desire is for you to become bankable. We really hope after that two- or three- or six-year loan you develop a relationship with a local banker, through strong payments and good credit history, and then take the leap into the traditional financial market,” she says. “That’s really where we want you to go and thrive.”

On The Edge Technology co-owner Rebecca Weitzel credits a $35,000 OSBN micro-loan, plus information gleaned from OSBN classes, and network opportunities with helping grow her firm and navigate the economics of doing business. She explored options at banks and credit unions before deciding OSBN was “the best choice for us.”

“Each opportunity with OSBN helped develop my confidence as a business owner. Now, I refer other people to OSBN that want to start or grow a business,” says Weitzel.

OSBN offers a three-pronged support system: micro-loans between $1,000 and $50,000 at low interest rates; free monthly professional development and small business training classes; and below-market-rate commercial office spaces at Omaha Business and Technology Center (2505 N. 24th St.) and two nearby buildings. Ken and Associates LLC is one of two dozen OSBN tenants benefiting from commercial office space renting for 80 percent less than market value.

OSBN has lent $2 million-plus in micro-loans to startups and existing businesses since it began micro-lending in 2010.

As of October 2016, OSBN had $500,000 in outstanding loans, with $300,000 in loan payoffs during the past calendar year.

Parker says, “Those are big numbers. Our clients are paying off their loans and going on their way as successful entrepreneurs. We’re pretty proud of that.”

Spencer Management LLC owner Justin Moore is another OSBN success story.

Since receiving a $35,000 micro-loan, Parker says his business expanded services, moved to a new, larger facility, paid off the loan in full, and exceeded $1 million in annual revenue.

As a micro-enterprise development entity, OSBN is funded by private donations from local philanthropists and banks.

Parker leverages her plugged-in experience in the nonprofit and business arenas. She served as director of operations and communications at Building Bright Futures from 2007 to 2013. She applies the skills she used there, along with lessons learned as a black female running a small business, to engage OSBN clients and partners. She owns her own communications consulting agency.

“I think there’s always a barrier for minorities in certain spaces in Omaha,” she says. “The key is to try and overcome those by having a strong work ethic and being on top of your game at all times. But I think across the city, no matter what sector you’re in, there are barriers to entry.”

She reports to a board whose members represent public and private interests. OSBN partners with leading Omaha giving institutions to even the playing field.

“With the support of the Sherwood Foundation,” she says, “we have created a loan pool specifically for minority contractors and suppliers because of the issues they face. And we’ve teamed up with Creighton’s Financial Hope Collaborative to put those contractors and suppliers through a 12-week training course to ensure they’re prepared to go out and bid on, win, and fulfill those contracts. We just completed our first cohort and started our second.”

Parker likes helping dreams be realized. It’s why she said yes when the board offered her the job in 2013.

“I took the position because I really believe in the mission of supporting low-to-moderate-income entrepreneurs. I also like the idea of micro-enterprise development and its very unique take on financial inclusion.”

She described that mission in testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship on Capitol Hill last August. She says OSBN is “dedicated to bringing underserved local small business owners, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits the tools needed to become successful and sustainable entities.” She added, “OSBN and like-minded, community-based micro-lenders…have the ability to become a catalyst for both community and economic development.”

She sees OSBN playing a role in increasing the dearth of black middle class residents and small business owners in northeast Omaha and stimulating economic revival there.

“Small business ownership has long been held as a path to financial inclusion. Owning your own business allows you to break that cycle of poverty. Often those businesses become generational. We would love to see the 24th Street corridor come alive again with small businesses.”

Besides, she says, small businesses have a positive ripple effect by creating jobs and paying taxes.
Visit osbnbtc.org for more information.

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A systems approach to addressing food insecurity in North Omaha

August 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Nancy Williams with No More Empty Pots and other players are taking a systems approach to addressing food insecuity in North Omaha.

A systems approach to addressing food insecurity
by Leo Adam Biga

Food insecurity in northeast Omaha is a question of access, education and poverty.

Nancy Williams has designed her nonprofit No More Empty Pots around “equitable access to local, fresh, affordable food” via a holistic approach. It offers the Community Market Basket CSA (community supported agriculture) as well as shared commercial kitchens, a training kitchen and classes. Its Food Hub in Florence is adding a business incubator, community cafe, kids kitchen and rooftop garden.

“We could just do one thing and satisfy a symptom, but we’re trying to address the root cause issue of poverty – of which hunger is a symptom. The food hub concept is a systems approach to not just deal with hunger but to get people trained and hired and to support startup businesses. So we have a multi-pronged approach to supporting local food and supporting people who need access to food and the people providing that food.

“Poverty is not just about food deserts and hunger. it’s about livable wages, adequate education, meaningful connections. It’s about being able to take advantage of the opportunities in front of you. It’s about people engaging. You see, it’s one thing to get people to food because they’re hungry or they don’t have access to it. It’s even something more if they have access to living wage jobs where they can then choose their food.”

Pots is based in North Omaha, she said, in recognition of its “rich cultural heritage of food and community” and concurrent “disparities in health, healthy food access, equity and economics.”

“So, we wanted to make a difference there first, then catalyze a ripple effect in urban, suburban and rural spaces. We believe in the reciprocity of local food.”

An effective food system involves a social contract of public-private players. In Omaha it includes United Way, Together, the Food Bank, Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue, vendors, producers, schools, churches.

“It’s not a simple thing to talk about food access and deserts,” Williams said. “It’s a whole system of the way we produce food and get food to people, the way people consume it and how we value it. The different ways intersect. It takes all of it. But there needs to be some calibration, hole-plugging and shifting.

“We can get there, but it has to be done collaboratively so we’re not working in silos.”

On the access-education-employment side are community gardens and urban farms like those at City Sprouts, which also offers classes and internships. A farmers market is held there, too. Charles Drew Health Center and Florence Mill also host farmers markets.

Minne Lusa House is a neighborhood engagement-sustainability activator..

Some churches, including Shepherd of the Hills and New Life Presbyterian, provide free monthly community meals. New Life also provides food to participants in its youth summer enrichment program.

“There are food insecure kids that come,” pastor Dwight Williams said. “There is a lot more need than we are able to access.”

Community organizations serving seniors, youth and the homeless have a free meals component to meet food insecurity needs. The Omaha Public Schools provides free and reduced lunches to the majority of its students. Private institutions rely on donations to fill the gap. Local farmer Brian Vencil recently directed a $2,500 donation from the America’s Farmers Grow Communities program to help feed kids at Holy Name School.

Nancy Williams said everything has its place.

“Community gardens make food accessible, help people become more self-sufficient and engage. It’s about community building. You can’t have food without community. At farmers markets customers learn about where the food comes from, talk to growers about production practices and how to use products. It develops relationships. The more food customers get from farmers markets the more likely they’ll continue shopping there and expand their palette, which gives growers the opportunity to grow and sell more and put more money into the local economy.”

Pantries play a role, too.

“On average we have about 600 clients come through our food pantry weekly,” Heart Ministry Center executive director Eric Crawford said. “We’ve been seeing more clients come. We’re on pace to give away more than 3 million pounds of food this year.”

Heart case management services strive to get clients to self-sufficiency.

Project Hope director Lori Lindberg said its pantry serves mostly one-time, emergency needs recipients.

Church of the Resurrection is trying a mobile food pantry starting July 15.

Then there are the aquaponics systems Greg Fripp and his Whispering Roots team build, often with students in schools, that grow vegetables and fish.

“Aquaponics has its place in that next level of production,” Williams said. “There’s education, job training, entrepreneurship. There’s an opportunity to do institutional supply because you can scale it.”

The new Fair Deal Grocery was located on North 24th Street to fill fresh food scarcity in the area.

“Whenever you can put food where people are, it’s better than trying to find transportation or other means of getting people to it,” Williams said.

Fair Deal Village Marketplace manager Terri Sanders said it’s challenging getting people to try it.

“Sometimes it takes more education in some places than others,” Williams said. “If you’ve never been exposed to it, just because it’s plopped down in front of you doesn’t mean you’re going to go to it. You need somebody to help you make that transition. Sometimes you don’t even know you need it until somebody points out the benefits and then you take advantage of it.”

The Creatives Collective works with north side residents on education-advocacy through classes, events and activities, including culture fairs.

Jody-Ann Coore is community engagement coordinator for the Omaha Economic Development Cooperation, which sponsors the Collective.

“Education is a big gap for people,” Coore said. “Residents say it’s something the community needs. They often don’t know how to shop for healthy foods or don’t know some of the foods or don’t know how to cook them so they are tasty and appealing to the palette.”

Partnerships with local organizations help built food literacy. Still, getting residents’ buy-in takes time.

“It’s a neighborhood difficult to engage because they’re so used to being told what to do and not asked how to solve those issues. But we’ve seen progress. Resident committee members are taking part in the planning. We’re working on getting more residents involved. The beautiful thing is that each has personal networks they can tap into, so it’s pretty much radiating out.”

Greg Fripp’s sustainable practices dream is taking shape at Highlander Village on North 30th Street. The world headquarters for his Whispering Roots will include a greenhouse, education center and production center. Steelhead trout and vegetables will be grown there. He partners with farmers markets, Hy-Vee stores and others to get food to market. Roots teaches youth and adults how to build food systems and grow food.

“Highlander’s goal is about community development- engagement, and that’s exactly what Whispering Roots does. We say, ‘we grow, we feed, we educate.’ We need to draw more attention to North Omaha. it’s not that students in underserved communities can’t learn and don’t want to learn, they just need access to support, materials and resources. And then they can compete.”

Fripp said he’s learned “you have to meet people where they are and understand that community in order to deliver them a solution that actually works.”

“You provide solutions tailored for that specific community because every community’s different. Everybody needs food, but the way you implement these techniques, policies or systems needs to fit within that community.”

He sees more inclusivity happening.

“We’re getting more organizations that want to spend time with community and collaborating.”

“I am a fan of any model that works in a community with the community that produces what the community needs in the way the community needs and that values people in that process,” Nancy Williams said. “It’s not going to look the same everywhere and frankly most things shouldn’t look the way they’ve always looked because those things aren’t working.”

Fripp sees a need to bridge a disconnect between policymakers and “people implementing change on the ground.” “When that happens,” he said. “we’re going to see an acceleration of change in terms of how some of this stuff gets delivered. You still have some people who make decisions not really connected to the community.”

“We’ve made progress getting access to lots,” said Fripp, who also does community gardens and urban farms. “That was something that didn’t happen in the past. We put together a team to write new policies to allow people to use city lots to grow food.”

Similarly, he’s seen acceptance of aquaponics grow.

“We’re not as advanced as other cities, but we’re coming along. People are starting to see the power of what we do – from growing food to educating children to engaging public. They’re starting to see it really works
and at whatever scale you want to do it.”

Native Omaha Days 2017: A Homecoming Like No Other

August 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Here is the Reader (www.thereader.com) story I did previewing Native Omaha Days 2017. From all reports, the celebration was a great success. Pam and I made it down to a few different Native Omaha Days events and we thoroughly enjoyed outselves, too. If you’ve never been, you’ve got to sample this autheniic slice of Omaha.

A homecoming like no other
by Leo Adam Biga

The African-American diaspora migration from the South helped populate Omaha in the 20th century. Railroad and packing house jobs were the lure. From the late 1960s on, a reverse trend has seen African-Americans leave here en mass for more progressive climes. A variant to these patterns finds thousands returning each odd-numbered August for a biennial community reunion known as Native Omaha Days.

The 21st reunion happens July 31 through August 7.

If you’ve not heard of it or partaken in it, you’re probably not black or some of your best friends are not black, because this culture-fest is in Omaha’s Afrocentric DNA. But organizers and participants emphasize everyone’s welcome to join this week-long party.

Featured events range from gospel and jazz concerts to talks and displays to a parade to a ball.

Nobody’s quite sure how many native Omahans living outside the state head home for it to rekindle relationships and visit old haunts.

There are as many takes on it as people engaging in it.

Thomas Warren, president-CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska, which this year hosts its 90 anniversary gala during Omaha Days, may put it best:

“People make it a purpose to come back.”

Reshon Dixon left Omaha for Atlanta 24 years ago and she’s been coming back ever since, except when military commitments prevented it. She hopes to free up her schedule for this year’s fest.

“I’m trying to. I usually plan a year ahead to come back.”

She said she brought her children for it when they were young because “that’s pretty much where our roots are from.” She’s delighted her now grown kids are “planning to come back this year.”

Serial nonprofit executive Viv Ewing said Omaha Days touches deep currents.

“People look at this event very fondly. In the off-year it’s not being held, people ask when is it happening again and why isn’t it every year because it’s such a great time bringing the community together with family and old friends. People look forward to it.

“There are people who have moved away who plan their vacations so that they come back to Omaha during this particular time, and that says a lot about what this event means to many people across the country.”

Even Omaha residents keep their calendars open for it.

“I’ve cut business trips as well as vacations short in order to make sure I was at home during this biennial celebration,” Warren said.

Sheila Jackson, vice president of the nonprofit that organizes it, said, “It’s one big reunion, one big family all coming together.”

Juanita Johnson, an Omaha transplant from Chicago, is impressed by the intentionality with which “people come together to embrace their commonality and their love of North Omaha.” She added, “It instills pride. It has a lot of excitement, high spirits, energy and enthusiasm.”

As president of the Long School Neighborhood Association and 24th Street Corridor Alliance, Johnson feels Omaha Days could play a greater role in community activation and empowerment.

“I think there’s an opportunity for unity to develop from it if it’s nurtured beyond just every two years.”

Empowerment Network director of operations Vicki Quaites-Ferris hopes it can contribute to a more cohesive community. “We don’t want the unity to just be for seven days. We want that to overflow so that when people leave we still feel that sense of pride coming from a community that really is seeing a rebirth.”

Ewing said even though it only happens every two years, the celebration is by now an Omaha tradition.

“It’s been around for four decades. It’s a huge thing.”

No one imagined it would endure.

“I never would have dreamt it’d be this big,” co-founder Bettie McDonald said. “I feel good knowing it got started, it’s still going and people are still excited about it.”

She said it’s little wonder though so many return given how powerful the draw of home is.

“They get emotional when they come back and see their people. It’s fun to see them greet each other. They hug and kiss and go on, hollering and screaming. It’s just a joyous thing to see.”

Dixon said even though she’s lived nearly as long in Atlanta as she did in Omaha, “I’m a Cornhusker first and a Peach second.”

Likewise for Paul Bryant, who also left Omaha for Atlanta, there’s no doubt where his allegiance lies.

“Omaha will always be home. I’m fifth generation. I’m proud of my family, I’m proud of Omaha. Native Omaha Days gives people another reason to come back.”

A little extra enticement doesn’t hurt either.

“We really plan things for them to make them want to come back home,” said McDonald. She drew from the fabled reunion her large family – the Bryant-Fishers – has held since 1917 as the model for Omaha Days. Thus, when her family convenes its centennial reunion picnic on Sunday, August 13, it will cap a week’s worth of events, including a parade and gala dinner-dance, that Omaha Days mirrors.

Bryant, a nephew of McDonald, is coming back for the family’s centennial. He’s done Omaha Days plenty of times before. He feels both Omaha Days and reunions like his family’s are ways “we pass on the legacies to the next generation.” He laments “some of the younger generations don’t understand it” and therefore “don’t respect the celebratory nature of what goes on – the passing of the torch, the knowing who-you-are, where-you-come-from. They just haven’t been taught.”

Sheila Jackson said it takes maturity to get it. “You don’t really appreciate Omaha Days until you get to be like in your 40s. That’s when you really get the hang of it. When you’re younger, it’s not a big thing to you. But when you get older. it seems to mean more.”

Sometime during the week, most celebrants end up at 24th and Lake Streets – the historic hub for the black community. There’s even a stroll down memory lane and tours. The crowd swells after hours.

“It’s almost Omaha’s equivalent of Mardi Gras, where you’ll have thousands people just converge on the intersection of 24th and Lake, with no real plans or organized activities,” Warren said. “But you know you can go to that area and see old friends, many of whom you may not have seen for several years. It gives you that real sense of community.”

Fair Deal Village Marketplace manager Terri Sanders, who said she’s bound to run into old Central High classmates, called it “a multigenerational celebration.”

Touchstone places abound, but that intersection is what Warren termed “the epicenter.”

“I’m always on 24th and Lake when I’m home,” said homegrown media mogul Cathy Hughes, who will be the grand marshall for this year’s parade. “I love standing there seeing who’s coming by and people saying, ‘Cathy, is that you?’ I always park at the Omaha Star and walk down to 24th and Lake.”

“I do end up at 24th and Lake where everybody else is,” Dixon said. “You just bump into so many people. I mean, people you went to kindergarten with. It’s so hilarious.
So, yes, 24th and Lake, 24th Street period, is definitely iconic for North Omahans.”

That emerging art–culture district will be hopping between the Elks Club, Love’s Jazz & Arts Center, the Union for Contemporary Art, Omaha Rockets Kanteen,
Jesse’s Place, the Fair Deal Cafe and, a bit southwest of there, the Stage II Lounge.

Omaha Days’ multi-faceted celebration is organized by the Native Omahans Club, which “promotes social and general welfare, common good, scholarships, cultural, social and recreational activities for the inner city and North Omaha community.” Omaha Days is its every-other-year vehicle for welcoming back those who left and for igniting reunions.

The week includes several big gatherings. One of the biggest, the Homecoming Parade on Saturday, August 6, on North 30th Street, will feature drill teams, floats and star entrepreneur Cathy Hughes, the founder-owner of two major networks – Radio One and TV One. She recently produced her first film, the aptly titled, Media.

Hughes is the latest in a long line of native and guest celebrities who’ve served as parade grand marshall: Terence Crawford, Dick Gregory, Gabrielle Union.

During the Days, Hughes will be honored at a Thursday, August 3 ceremony renaming a section of Paxton Blvd., where she grew up, after her. She finds it a bit surreal that signs will read Cathy Hughes Boulevard.

“I grew up in a time when black folks had to live in North Omaha. Never would I have assumed that as conservative as Omaha, Neb. is they would ever consider naming a street after a black woman who happened to grow up there. And not just a black woman, but a woman, period. When I was young. Omaha was totally male-dominated. So I’m just truly honored.”

“Omaha Days does not forget people that are from Omaha,” Reshon Dixon said. “They acknowledge them, and I think that’s great.”

During the Urban League’s Friday, August 4 gala concert featuring national recording artist Brian McKnight at the Holland Performing Arts Center, two community recognition awards will be presented. The Whitney M. Young Jr. Legacy Award will go to Omaha Economic Development Corporation president Michael Maroney. The Charles B. Washington Community Service Award will go to Empowerment Network president Willie Barney.

Maroney and Barney are key players in North Omaha redevelopment-revitalization. Warren said it’s fitting they’re being honored during Omaha Days, when so many gathering in North O will have “the opportunity to see some of those improvements.”

Quaites-Ferris said Omaha Days is a great platform.

“It’s an opportunity to celebrate North Omaha and also the people who came out of North Omaha. There are people who were born in North Omaha, grew up in North Omaha and have gone on to do some wonderful things locally and on a national level. We want to celebrate those individuals and we want to celebrate individuals who are engaged in community.

“It’s a really good time to celebrate our culture.”

“I really admire the families who are so highly accomplished but have never left, who have shared their talents and expertise with Omaha,” said Hughes.
She echoes many when she expresses how much it means returning for Omaha Days.

“Every time I come, I feel renewed,” she said. “I feel the love, the kindred spirit I shared with so many of my classmates, friends, neighbors. I always leave feeling recharged. I can’t wait.”

The celebration evokes strong feelings.

“What’s most important to me about Omaha Days is reuniting with old friends, getting to see their progression in life, and getting to see my city and how it’s rebuilt and changed since I left,” Dixon said. “You do get to share with people you went to school with your success.”

“It’s a chance to catch up on what’s going in everybody’s life,” Quaites-Ferris said.

Juanita Johnson considers it. among other things,
“a networking opportunity.”

Paul Bryant likes the positive, carefree vibe. “There we are talking about old times. laughing at each other, who got fat and how many kids we have. It’s 1:30-2 o’clock in the morning in a street crowded with people.”

“By being native, many of these individuals you know your entire life, and so there’s no pretense,” Warren said.

Outside 24th and Lake, natives flock to other places special to them.

“When I come back,” Dixon said, “my major goal is to go to Joe Tess, get down to the Old Market, the zoo, go through Carter Lake and visit Salem Baptist Church, where I was raised. My absolute favorite is going to church on Sunday and seeing my Salem family.”

Some pay respects at local cemeteries. Dixon will visit Forest Lawn, where the majority of her family’s buried.

Omaha Days is also an activator for family reunions that blend right into the larger event. Yards, porches and streets are filled with people barbecuing, chilling, dancing. It’s one contiguous party.

“It’s almost like how these beach communities function, where you can just go from house to house,” Hughes said.

The Afro-centric nature of Omaha Days is undeniable. But participants want it understood it’s not exclusive.

“It just happens to be embedded in the African-American community, where it started,” Dixon said. “Anyone can come, anyone can participate. It has become a little bit of a multicultural thing – still primarily African-American.”

Some believe it needs to be a citywide event.

“It’s not like it’s part of the city,” Bryant said. “It’s like something that’s going on in North Omaha. But it’s really not city-accepted. And why not?”

Douglas Country Treasurer John Ewing agrees. “Throughout its history it’s been viewed as an African-American event when it really could be something for the whole community to embrace.”

His wife, Viv Ewing, proposes a bigger vision.

“I would like to see it grow into a citywide attraction where people from all parts come and participate the way they do for Cinco de Mayo. I’d like to see this event grow to that level of involvement from the community.”

Terri Sanders and others want to see this heritage event marketed by the city, with banners and ads, the way it does River City Roundup or the Summer Arts Festival.

“It’s not as big as the College World Seriesm but it’s significant because people return home and people return that are notable,” Sanders said.

Her daughter Symone Sanders, who rose to fame as Bernie Sanders’ press secretary during his Democratic presidential bid, may return. So may Gabrielle Union.

Vicki Quaites-Ferris sees it as an opportunity “for people who don’t live in North Omaha to come down and see and experience North Omaha.” She said, “Sometimes you only get one peripheral view of North Omaha. For me, it’s an opportunity to showcase North Omaha. Eat great food, listen to some wonderful music, have great conversation and enjoy the arts, culture, business and great things that may be overlooked.”

John Ewing values the picture if offers to native returnees.

“It’s a great opportunity for people who live in other places to come back and see some of the progress happening in their hometown.”

Recently completed and in-progress North O redevelopment will present celebrants more tangible progress than at anytime since the event’s mid-1970s start. On 24th Street. there’s the new Fair Deal Village Marketplace, the renovated Blue Lion Center and the Omaha Rockets Kanteen. On 30th, three new buildings on the Metro Fort Omaha campus, the new mixed-use of the former Mister C’s site and the nearly finished Highlander Village development.

For some, like Paul Bryant, while the long awaited build-out is welcome, there are less tangible, yet no less concerning missing pieces.

“I think the development is good. But I truly wish in Omaha there was more opportunity for African-American people to be involved in the decision-making process and leadership process. But that takes a conscious decision,” Bryant said.

“What I’ve learned from Atlanta is that unlike other cites that wanted to start the integration process with children, where school kids were the guinea pigs, Atlanta started with the professions – they started integrating the jobs. Their slogan became “We’re a city too busy to hate.” So they started from the top down
and that just doesn’t happen in Omaha.”

He worked in Omaha’s for-profit and non-profit sectors.

“A lot of things happen in Omaha that are not inclusive. This isn’t new. Growing up, I can remember Charlie Washington, Mildred Brown, Al Goodwin, Bob Armstrong, Rodney S. Wead, talking about it. The story remains the same. We’re on the outside running nonprofits and we’ve got to do what we have to do to keep afloat. But leadership, ownership, equity opportunities to get involved with projects are few and far between. If you’re not able to share in the capital, if your piece of the equation is to be the person looking for a contribution, it’s hard to determine your own future.”

Perhaps Omaha Days could be a gateway for African-American self-determination. It’s indisputably a means by which natives stay connected or get reconnected.

“I think its’ critical,” said Cathy Hughes, who relies on the Omaha Star and her Omaha Days visits to stay abreast of happenings in her beloved North O.

She and John Ewing suggest the celebration could play other roles, too.

“I think it’s a good way to lure some natives back home,” Hughes said. “As they come back and see the progress, as they feel the hometown pride, it can help give them the thought of, ‘Maybe I should retire back home in Omaha.'”

“I think Omaha could do a better job of actually recruiting some of those people who left, who are talented and have a lot to offer, to come back to Omaha,” Ewing said, “and if they’re a business owner to expand or invest in Omaha. So there’s some economic opportunities we’ve missed by not embracing it more and making it bigger.”

Ewing, Sanders and others believe Omaha Days infuses major dollars in hotels, restaurants, bars and other venues. The Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau does not track the celebration’s ripple effect, thus no hard data exists..

“I don’t think it’s accurately measured nor reflected in terms of the amount of revenue generated based on out-of-town visitors,” Warren said. “I suspect it has a huge impact on commerce and activity.”

Some speculate Omaha Days could activate or inspire homegrown businesses that plug into this migration,

“I think it can certainly be a spark or a catalyst,” Warren said. “You would like to see the momentum sustained.
You hope this series of events may stimulate an idea where a potential entrepreneur or small business owner sees an opportunity based on the activity that occurs during that time frame. Someone could launch a business venture. Certainly, I think there’s that potential.”

For Omaha Days history and event details, visit nativeomahacub.org.

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

In a North Omaha state of mind …

July 26, 2017 1 comment

In a North Omaha state of mind …
As many of you know, North Omaha holds a special place in my heart. I grew up there and went to school there (Holy Name). Through age 47, my home address was 4129 Maple Street. I began writing about North Omaha while still a North O resident. Since moving to northwest Omaha, my interest in North O has remained strong and I continue making it a subject of my work. With Native Omaha Days here and the Bryant-Fisher 100th family reunion coming up, I felt nostalgic about the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve committed to that community.

So, without further adieu, enjoy this curated list of links to North O stories from my archive. Some go back a minute. Others are as recent as this month. Hopefully, the articles provide a fair and balanced view of that community: past, present and moving forward.

African-American Empowerment Network | Leo Adam Biga’s My …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/african-american-empowerment-network/‎

Overarching plan for North Omaha development now in place – The …
http://thereader.com/news/overarching_plan_for_north_omaha_development_now_in_place/.

North Omaha beckons investment, combats gentrification
https://www.morningsky.com/omaha/…/north-omaha-beckons-investment- combats-gentrification

Behind the Vision: Othello Meadows of 75 North Revitalization Corp.
https://morningsky.com/…/othello-meadows-lifting-up-a-community-called- home

North Omaha: Where for art thou? | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/03/…/north-omaha-where-for-art-thou/

North Omaha: Voices and Visions for Change | Leo Adam Biga’s My …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/north-omaha-voices-and-visions-for-change/‎

Black Lives Matter – The Reader
http://thereader.com/news/From_Social_Media_to_the_Streets/

Malcolm X Memorial Foundation coming into its own – The Reade
http://www.thereader.com/post/malcolm_x_memorial_foundation_coming_into_its_own.

Two to One – The Reader
http://thereader.com/visual-art/two_to_one/

Returning To Society – The Reader
http://thereader.com/news/returning_to_society/

Girls, Inc. Expands & Renovates – The Reader
http://thereader.com/news/girls_inc-_expands_renovates/

North Star Foundation | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/tag/north-star-foundation/

Where Hope Lives, Hope Center for Kids in North Omaha | Leo …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/where-hope-lives-hope-center-for-kids-in-north- omaha/

The Nelson Mandela Way | Omaha Magazine
http://omahamagazine.com/articles/the-nelson-mandela-way

Play considers North Omaha history through the eyes … – The Reader
http://thereader.com/arts/play_considers_north_omaha_history_thorugh_the_eyes_of_mildred_bown/.

Change, it’s been a long time coming for northeast Omaha – The …
http://thereader.com/news/change_its_been_a_long_time_coming_for_northeast_omaha/

Next generation of North Omaha leaders eager for change – The …
http://thereader.com/news/next_generation_of_north_omaha_leaders_eager_for_change/.

Abide applies holistic approach to building community – The Reader
http://thereader.com/news/abide_applies_holistic_approach_to_building_community/

Making community – The Reader
http://thereader.com/news/making_community/.

Big Mama, Bigger Heart | Omaha Magazine
http://omahamagazine.com/articles/big-mama-bigger-heart/

Entrepreneur and craftsman John Hargiss invests in North Omaha …
http://thereader.com/visual-art/entrepreneur_and_craftsman_john_hargiss_invests_in_north_omaha/.

Revival of Benson Business District Gives Omaha a New …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/revival-of-benson-business-district-gives-omaha-a -new-destination-place/‎

Omaha Northwest Radial Hwy | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/tag/omaha-northwest-radial-hwy/

A Brief History of Omaha’s Civil Rights Struggle Distilled in Black …
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A WASP’s racial tightrope resulted in enduring book – The Reader
http://thereader.com/news/a_wasps_racial_tightrope_resulted_in_enduring_book/

When New Horizons dawned for African Americans in Omaha – The …
http://thereader.com/news/when_new_horizons_dawned_for_african_americans_in_omaha/

De Porres Club | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/tag/de-porres-club/‎

UNO Wrestling Dynasty Built on a Tide of Social Change – OnToplist …
http://www.ontoplist.com/articles/uno-wrestling-dynasty-built-on-a-tide-of-social-change_4c46fa1dc6d11/

[PDF] civil rights: standing up for what’s right to make a difference
https://www.education.ne.gov/nebooks/ebooks/peony_park.pdf‎

Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop – Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …
https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/29/goodwins-spencer-street-barbershop-we-cut-heads-and-broaden-minds-too/.

Free Radical Ernie Chambers – The Reader
http://www.thereader.com/post/free_radical_ernie_chambers.

North’s Star: Gene Haynes builds legacy as education leader with …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/norths-star-gene-haynes-builds-legacy-as- education-leader-with-omaha-public-schools-and-north-high-school…

Preston Love, His Voice Will Not Be Stilled | Leo Adam Biga’s My …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/preston-love-his-voice-will-not-be-stilled/‎

Cool Cat Billy and the Sportin’ Life | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/01/sportin-life/‎

Wesley House | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/tag/wesley-house/

Coloring History, A Long, Hard Road for UNO Black Studies | Leo …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/coloring-history-a-long-hard-road-for-uno-black- studies/

Burden of Dreams: The Trials of Omaha’s Black Museum | Leo Adam …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/burden-of-dreams-the-trials-of-omaha’s-black- museum/

Great Plains Black History Museum Asks for Public Input on its …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/great-plains-black-history-museum-asks-for- public-input-on-its-latest-evolution/‎

Long and Winding Saga of the Great Plains Black History Museum …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/long-and-winding-saga-of-the-great-plains-black- history-museum-takes-a-new-turn-2/

‎Charles Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/05/11/charles-halls-fair-deal-cafe/

Soul Food | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/tag/soul-food/

Chef Mike Does a Rebirth at the Community Cafe | Leo Adam Biga’s …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/chef-mike-does-a-rebirth-at-the-community-cafe/

Time Out Foods | Omaha Magazine
http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/time-out-foods/

Omaha Rockets Kanteen | Omaha Magazine
http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/omaha-rockets-kanteen

A synergy in North Omaha harkens a new arts-culture … – The Reader
http://thereader.com/news/a_synergy_in_north_omaha_harkens_a_new_arts-culture_district_for_the_city/

Art as Revolution: Brigitte McQueen’s Union for Contemporary Art …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/art-as-revolution-brigitte-mcqueens-union-for- contemporary-art-reimagines-whats-possible-in-north-omaha/

Brigitte McQueen Shew’s Union of art and community uses new Blue …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/brigitte-mcqueen-shews-union-of-art-and- community-uses-new-blue-lion-digs-to-expand-community-engage…

Loves Jazz & Arts Center | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/category/loves-jazz-arts-center/

Carver Building Rebirthed as Arts-culture Haven; Theaster Gates …
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Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank …
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Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/category/omaha-black-music-hall-of-fame/

Making the Case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame | Leo …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/making-the-case-for-a-nebraska-black-sports-hall -of-fame/‎

The Artist in the Mill: Linda Meigs Brings Agriculture, History and Art …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/linda-meigs-brings-agriculture-history-and-art- together-at-florence-mill/‎

The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …
https://leoadambiga.com/tag/the-rhythm-boys-of-omaha-central/‎

A Homecoming Like No Other – The Reader
http://thereader.com/news/a-homecoming-like-no-other/

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/native-omaha-days-a-black-is-beautiful- celebration-now-and-all-the-days-gone-by/

Bryant-Fisher | Omaha Magazine
http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/bryant-fisher/.

A Family Thing – The Reader
http://thereader.com/news/a_family_thing/

Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and Churches Making a …
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Heart Ministry Center | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
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Sacred Heart Freedom Choir | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/tag/sacred-heart-freedom-choir/‎

Salem’s Voices of Victory Gospel Choir Gets Justified with the Lord …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/salems-voices-of-victory-gospel-choir-gets- justified-with-the-lord/

When Omaha’s North 24th Street Brought Together Jews and Blacks …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/when-omahas-north-24th-street-brought-together -jews-and-blacks-in-a-melting-pot-marketplace-that-is-no-more/‎

OUT TO WIN – THE ROOTS OF GREATNESS: OMAHA’S BLACK …
https://leoadambiga.com/out-to-win-the-r…k-sports-legends/

Opening Installment from My Series Out to Win: The Roots of …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/from-my-series-out-to-win-the-roots-of-greatness -an-exploration-of-omahas-black-sports-legends/‎

Closing Installment from My Series Out to Win: The Roots of …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/closing-installment-from-my-series-out-to-win- the-roots-of-greatness-an-exploration-of-omahas-black-sports-legen…

Behind the Vision: Othello Meadows of 75 North Revitalization Corp.


Behind the Vision: Othello Meadows of 75 North Revitalization Corp.

A law degree in hand, Othello Meadows in 2008 returned back to his roots in North Omaha, where a voter registration project that turned out record numbers of minorities led him to feel the need to stay in his home community and turn around decades of decline.

by Leo Adam Biga
leoadam.biga@morningsky.com

Othello Meadows is the executive director of Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp.

Othello Meadows III rode the Omaha brain drain train to play ball at East Carolina, get his law degree and establish a defense and family law career in Atlanta. Then he returned home to work on a voter registration project that put him in close contact with the North Omaha neighborhoods he grew up in. That 2008 project registered record numbers of minorities. The experience also marked a turning point in the life of Meadows, who found the community he grew up in in such decline that he resolved to stay to try and turn things around.

His new focus on revitalizing North Omaha coincided with the Empowerment Network’s efforts to transform the area. Conversations with local leaders and philanthropists led him to form Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp., whose $88 million mixed-use, purpose-built Highlander Village on the site of a former public housing project is now in the final build-out phase.

Jay Palu
Architect, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects
We have a long working relationship in eastern Omaha in a variety of building types that match what Othello is looking to do. But that’s the easy part.

What Othello provides is the hard part, which is a deep understanding of the community that he’s trying to serve, a love of that community, and a vision for a way to do business.

Meadows’ decision to make a difference in his hometown has resulted in Omaha not only regaining one of its best and brightest, but in reactivating a once dying neighborhood. It may not have happened if he hadn’t been ready for a career change.

“I was kind of tired of what I was doing and wondering where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing, and then I got this opportunity to work on a voter registration project here. I had never done anything like that. Everything I’d done had been strictly for-profit stuff. Some part of me felt like I was supposed to go back home doing something more meaningful.

“It turned out to be probably the best decision I’ve made. It was more fun than I had had doing anything in a long time. I thought, I can’t go back to what I was doing before. It meant too much, it felt too good. I wanted to find a way to keep this same feeling.”

It was another feeling, despair, he saw expressed in North Omaha, and his desire to replace it with promise, that ultimately inspired the creation of Seventy-Five North and its game-changing project.

“I lived in other communities that had issues but it still felt like there was hope and positivity there. When I came back to Omaha as an adult it felt so much different than those places. It felt like there was no hope, it felt like there was so much despair.”

Like many Omaha natives, Meadows concluded North O’s long awaited reset needed to happen now.

“When things start to happen in a real concrete fashion then you start to peel back some of that hopelessness and woundedness. People are really tired of rhetoric, studies and statistics and want to see something come to life.

Jay Palu
, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects
We at Alley Poyner feel that a number of neighborhoods — especially vulnerable neighborhoods — have been the subjects of experimentation for a long time. Othello has focused us toward listening to the community, talking to individuals who live there, and producing a different result not by experimenting as much but using communication, outreach, and community meetings to do what we think will work well.

Othello is extraordinarily well-read and traveled, and he’s researched solutions that makes our job easier. The staff, partners, and community leaders he brings together are all from the same mold; After a few brief conversations, you realize when someone isn’t in it at the same level, and Othello constantly brings together partners who are as motivated to make change in this neighborhood as he is.”

The work of the Empowerment Network and others set the stage for 75 North, he said, by generating “a greater awareness about issues on the north side.” “People were actually really starting to talk about what makes this community different, how do we identify the things keeping it in this cycle. There was this burgeoning support for doing significant things in the community.”

He said a spate of new North O housing developments delivered “real tangible benefits for people that live in those neighborhoods.”

Then the Sherwood Foundation offered him the opportunity to realize the Seventy-Five North’s ambitious Highlander project.

“I couldn’t pass up this chance of a lifetime to work on a project of this magnitude in a city I care about.”

The project checks several urban revitalization boxes with its high quality, mixed-income housing, birth-to-college education pipeline and onsite support services.

“The whole reason for us being here in this neighborhood is to make sure it gets better,” he said.

Highlander, he added, represents an investment in capital and human resources to address “the very stubborn issue of intergenerational poverty” plaguing the area.

In his 2011 TED talk, “Place as Fate: The Injustice of Geography,” Meadows asked if the place of your birth should determine the quality of your life. He simply wants to help give North O residents the same chances others in the city get to realize their potential.

Meadows advocates positive community changes starting in people’s homes. He and wife Tulani Grundy-Meadows, a Metropolitan Community College professor, are themselves products of stable, two-parent family homes and now model that same same stability as the parents of two boys. For them, strong parents and families are the frontline change agents in neighborhoods and communities.

“The highest form of leadership is motherhood and fatherhood and providing that leadership for your own individual family first and kind of radiating from that,” he said. “That leadership is more internal and helps a community guide its own destiny rather than saying, who’s going to come in from outside and help us fix this?”

He feels grassroots leaders at the community, neighborhood and block level are the real difference-makers. He hopes Highlander and projects like it help people find ways to become “their own change agents in their own communities.” He said, “All these little small actions within a community are what make the sea change. You don’t get it from a guy holding a bullhorn, you get it in lots of little pieces. It’s a real test of the will of the community to say, I’m invested here, this is my neighborhood, this is my community, I’m going to make a lot of really small but right decisions.”

He sees leaders like himself facilitating change.

“The reality is what we may do is give that ball at the top of the hill the slightest of pushes, but everybody has to keep it going. So maybe you start something – maybe you’re a catalyst. I try to think of myself as someone that sparks something that gets something else going.

“True leadership is service and service for a cause. I try to think of myself as somebody who is kind of a vessel for a lot of the hopes and desires for this neighborhood.

Jay Palu
, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects
There’s a lot of risk in development. The success of any developer depends on a number of financial target being hit, plus, a number of complicated technical aspects just have to work out. When you start a project, there are things you’ll discover in the process that will delay or defer or modify things. There will be a number of complicated things with procurement, contracts. In the end, it’s still construction which can wear people out. But there’s been a positive vibe since day one for Othello and his team. They’ve all got an attitude that perhaps we can all learn from about how this is really a remarkable project. To a lesser degree, every project we get that touches designers is really remarkable; it’s something new that we get to either create or bring back to life in a renovation. Othello has the attitude that’s steady, confident, supportive, humorous. It’s refreshing; We leave meetings where sometimes we have to make hard decisions feeling treated with respect, kindness, and quite frankly it’s addictive to be around people making positive change and see them enjoy it and ask what else they can do; It’s been really positive for us.”

He took this everyone-has-their-part-to-play philosophy from his late father and other elders.

“He was probably the biggest influence. Then I was fortunate enough to have really good mentors after him.”

With North O on everyone’s radar, more development is happening there now than in the previous few decades combined. Public and private projects on Ames Avenue, 24th Street and 30th Street are tangible signs of progress. Highlander’s North 30th build-out is the result of several funding streams.

“Anytime you’re working in a neighborhood like ours you have to be kind of creative,” Meadows said. “You’re talking about 40 percent philanthropy and then the rest kind of split-up into equal parts: new market tax credits, low-income housing tax credits, regular debt and equity. It’s all broken-up by phase and by housing type and by building, so it’s different with every building on the site.”

The project just got its first tenants moved in. This dream to improve a blighted area where nothing seemed to ever change is now a reality.

Tulani Grundy-Meadows has described her husband’s “wondrous spirit” as a key to his following dreams.

“He seeks wonder in anything he does.”

Meadows once left here, but he’s glad to have returned to help shepherd North O’s revival. He’s heartened that many are fighting the same good fight to fulfill shared dreams for the community they call home.

“It’s exciting to see people I’ve known a long time staying committed to where we grew up. The easiest thing to do is to go somewhere else. I did it for awhile. But it’s good to see there are other people who say, at least for awhile, I’m going to play my role, I’m going to do my part.”

He’s sure he made the right decision to return and is happy to see brick-and-mortar progress, but he’s unclear about the impact he’s having.

“If you care about neighborhoods, and people and creating a better quality of life for families, then you are always wringing your hands about whether or not what you are engaged in is making a real difference.”

Brigitte McQueen Shew’s Union of art and community uses new Blue Lion digs to expand community engagement


Brigitte McQueen Shew’s Union of art and community uses new Blue Lion digs to expand community engagement
©by Leo Adam Biga

Brigitte McQueen Shew so believes the arts can promote social justice she founded and directs The Union for Contemporary Art as a resource supporting artists in their practice and as a change agent engaging underserved North Omaha. Last year, The Union moved from cramped 2417 Burdette Street quarters in northeast Omaha to much larger new quarters at the nearby renovated Blue Lion Center.

Once that occurred, the organization’s already full program slate increased, as didl the number of people it serves.

Union artist studio and coop spaces, exhibits, youth activities, mural projects, community garden, tool lending library and neighborhood potlucks expanded with the fall move to the Blue Lion and courtyard at 24th and Lake. With the move, The Union is now an anchor at the intersection of a once thriving black business corridor and live music scene finally emerging as a new arts and culture district.

Going from 3,000 to 16,000 square feet has enlarged adult and youth spaces and thus allowed greater capacity and participation. There are dedicated facilities for graphic art, printmaking, ceramics, fiber arts, woodworking, cooking. Instead of leasing a storefront for its Wanda Ewing Gallery, the organization has a permanent gallery for curated shows in its new home. A mixed use space doubles as a black box theater hosting performances by Union’s newly formed Performing Arts Collective. Under the direction of Denise Chapman, the Collective stages African-American theater, dance, spoken word and music events.

The two-story, brick. century-old Blue Lion housed many enterprises, including McGill’s Blue Room, before going empty in recent years. Its new life is made possible by the Sherwood Foundation, whose purchase and renovation was expressly for the Union. McQueen Shew coveted the building as her organizatIon’s home. “It perfectly fit us,” she says.

Seizing the moment
“The Union has been a key player in the revitalization of the Blue Lion,” says former board member Julia Parker, Omaha Small Business Network (OSBN) executive director. “This is a culturally significant building known as a gathering place in North Omaha and the home of small business and job creation. The reopening of the Blue Lion is yet another indicator North 24th Street is being reactivated as an arts, culture and small business district.”

That district already includes Loves Jazz & Arts Center and Carver Bank. It also encompasses the Omaha Star, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, OSBN and the former homes of the Great Plains Black History Museum and the Dreamland Ballroom. The recently opened Fair Deal Village Marketplace features cargo container spaces for micro entrepreneurs and artists.

All of this is in addition to major construction projects on North 30th Street, including Highlander Village, three new Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus buildings and a new mixed-use of the former Mr. C’s site. Together with new housing developments, the Nelson Mandela school, the North Star Foundation campus, No More Empty Pots, the 40th Street Theatre, North O’s long dreamed of revitalization is taking shape.

“It’s our moment,” McQueen Shew says. “More money is coming into the community than has happened in years. I think it’s an amazing thing that’s happening and if you look at 24th and Lake, it’s the hub that connects everything together. This is our moment and if we don’t seize it then it just quiets down again. This is the time. That’s why it’s so important to me and why I push so hard.”

Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp. executive director Othello Meadows, whose organization is developing Highlander, says, “There’s this culmination of a lot of things happening at once and I think there’s definitely pressure to continue to move the ball forward. We’re not going to be satisfied with the status quo. We’re looking at new and innovative ways to address old problems. The point really is to continue to push and learn and get better at serving the community. A lot of people are saying, ‘Let’s try something different’ or let’s do something in existence before but do it better.”

Even with all these currents, McQueen Shew says, “so much more needs to happen in making it a place people want to live, such as dealing with food policy issues. North Omaha is one of Nebraska’s largest food deserts. How do you expect families to move into this community and set down roots if you can’t even get food? There’s lots of vacant land that needs developing. There’s lots of things we’re lacking on an infrastructure level. We need to coalesce behind real economic development. We also need to train the next generation of leaders. Who will they be? Those conversations need to be tackled now because there are eyes on North Omaha in a positive way that weren’t on this community before, and that’s exciting.”

She insists the arts will drive people to North 24th but once there they need other gathering places to hang out, such as eateries and coffeehouses. Meadows agrees arts-entertainment amenities are essential. “In a healthy community you have multiple avenues of self-expression and self-actualization for people to explore their interests and to fulfill who they are,” he says.

Stakeholders see retail commerce flowing in North Downtown, Midtown, Benson and South Omaha but still lagging on North 24th.
“I’ve started pointedly asking investors, developers and realtors why they don’t think this of this neighborhood or community for development” McQueen Shew says.

Art as social change
That she and The Union are players in this equation is unexpected given the organization launched only six years ago and its leader got fed up with Omaha the first time she lived here A journalist by training and trade, McQueen Shew worked for a national magazine when she arrived in 2001 at the urging of an artist friend residing here. She liked the local arts scene and the people but she hated the segregation that excluded persons of color from opportunities that, by contrast, were open to everyone in New York City, where she’d lived, and in Detroit, where she grew up.

She left Omaha dismayed by its racial inequity, but returned to do something about it. She asked people hard questions.

“When I got here it was like, ‘Well, this is just the way it is, this is the way it’s always been.’ And so I started asking why. Why have you never crossed Cuming Street? Why don’t you ever go over there? Why did this happen? How has this been allowed to go on?”

It took her awhile to find the right advocacy-activist vehicle. Her failed Pulp store in Benson nearly cost her everything. Then she ran the Underground Gallery at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts before a new idea overtook her: starting a North Omaha-based organization to address chronic studio space shortages and limited access to equipment and to engage residents through programs. The Union name reflects her interest in community, inclusivity, unity and sharing.

Among Omaha residencies The Union uniquely requires fellows do a community service project in North Omaha. McQueen Shew feels it’s vital artists give back, connect with community and demystify the arts. She believes deeply in fellows being social practice artists who do public work with some greater purpose. The Union’s Neighborhood Tool Library began as a project by then-fellow Kjell Peterson. During their residency Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette worked on their sustainable foods documentary Growing Cities and formed Truck Farm, a mobile urban farm ed program operating independently today.

“Having artists engaged and visible in the community gives North Omaha residents a chance to meet artists and talk art and to find out it’s not all about sacred spaces but really a part of everybody’s life,” says McQueen Shew.

She’s aware most fellows get their first real taste of North Omaha during their residency and she’s confident they leave with changed perceptions and broader knowledge.

Before doing her Union fellowship artist Shea Wilkinson says she was “completely ignorant of what was in North Omaha” but the experience so inspired her that she’d North Omaha her home. “I love my home and my neighborhood there. One hears a lot about the crime but rarely does one hear the things that make it an area worth investing in. I have lived here three years now and love seeing the positive changes happening.”

Artist Angela Drakeford grew up in North O but she says her Union residency helped her “think about the realities of what it meant to be a black artist in America,” adding, “I started not only to think about who I was and who my audience was but also what my obligations were as an artist. The Union has a very radical mission to help empower the community. Honestly, I would not be the artist and person I am today without this fellowship. It was truly a transformational experience.”

Embracing, implementing, fine-tuning a vision
The first person McQueen Shew shared The Union’s radical concept with, Katie Weitz, caught her vision and got the Weitz Family Foundation to back it. Not everyone was supportive. “I had donors tell me I was committing career suicide when I started The Union – that no one would follow me over here and no one would come.” She ignored the naysayers. “Maybe it’s just about tenacity.” Grants came in. She took a year to flesh out the idea and to devise a strategy for making The Union, launched in 2011, sustainable. At the start it was just herself at the repurposed former food bank on Burdette. As more funding’s come, she’s added staff and programs.

For a small nonprofit with a short history the organization’s made a large impact and won over many fans. So much so it isuccessfuly realizing a $5 million Growth Campaign to support its operations and programs.

Board chair Mary Zicafoose, a textiles artist, admires how McQueen Shew has “carved out a template for an organization designed to uniquely serve the community and become a unifying bridge for the arts for the entire metropolitan area. Many hundreds of metro area citizens and arts supporters have broken bread and attended Union community events that previously had never ventured farther north than Cuming Street. That’s powerful in itself. It’s mission is to unify our greater community through the arts and that is what it does program by program, artist by artist, exhibition by exhibition.”

Zicafoose has an insider perspective on how McQueen Shew has gained so much traction so fast for the organization and its niche.

“The Union’s mission and Brigitte’s vision is a story about understanding one’s purpose, seizing opportunity, taking action and then moving forward without hesitation. Her vision and attitude is simply quite contagious. Hence, the great interest, growth, stellar track record and support of this project. Brigitte is also an articulate and accomplished networker.”

No More Empty Pots executive director Nancy Williams says, “Brigitte is genuine. She has a rich history and eloquently shares her experiences. Brigitte is also generous. Brigitte has many talents and knows how to effectively leverage those talents for The Union. She is focused and reaches out for help when needed.” When McQueen Shew put out a call for folks to clean up the current site shortly after moving in, Zicafoose says “It was transformed in one weekend with the sweat equity of a hundred community volunteers.”

Zicafoose marvels at all the organization does. “It’s really quite shocking the amount of programming that has emerged from this small building, lovingly worked and reworked, to make every inch of precious space be of purpose. The move provides more appropriate and much needed additional space for existing programs to expand and thrive as well as allow new programs to be born. Its strategic location makes it a natural hub and meeting place.”

Seventy Five North’s Meadows appreciates that The Union is “a constant and consistent presence” instead of a “one-off” project. He adds, “What I love about Brigitte and what she’s doing is that she’s made a commitment to this neighborhood and to being there all the time. Having access to explore art is an amazing opportunity for this community, whose population is often forgotten about.” For a community that’s had many promises made and unfulfilled it was important McQueen Shew and the Union develop trust and Meadows says that’s happened. “People know she’s there for the right reasons.”

Prospect Village Neighborhood Association’s Rondae Hill is impressed by how The Union’s partnered on art-infused beautification projects, including a mural, bus benches and a redesigned park, in her area.
“Prospect Village appreciates everything the Union has helped to start in our neighborhood. The mural brought new life to an old building that started a ripple effect of prosperity. It has now become the center of our neighborhood and brings pride to the area.”

Not everything The Union’s done has succeeded but it’s small and nimble enough to try new things. Three areas where McQueen Shew feels it’s fallen short is connecting with area residents, helping artist fellows with their community service projects and integrating exhibition themes across all programming. To strengthen those elements she’s hired Nicole Caruth as director of pedagogy and public practice.

“Nicole joined our staff to help ensure all of our programs revolve around our commitment to social practice,” McQueen Shew says.
“Even though we were in the community people still saw us as Other. We were still missing the opportunity to connect. We had to fix that.
Here at The Union we do everything as a team, so we had conversations about that disconnect. Nicole comes from that background. She has the resources and the networking connections
to be in tune with community.

“It’s about being flexible, realizing the gap and then going back and fixing it,. You have to be willing to jump off and readjust the course. It’s probably easier for The Union to do that than it is for an organization thats been around 40 years. Almost everything we do is a grand experiment. If we do it once and it works, awesome, let’s keep it. If it fails, then we’ glean some knowledge and let it go. We’re in an amazing position to do that.”

Forging a more perfect Union
The Union name is apt because in classic union organizing style, McQueen Shew came to Omaha as an outside agitator to build solidarity around addressing certain disparities.

“It’s just such a simple premise – that you can use the arts as a vehicle for social justice and to effect change in your community. That you can put things in place to uplift your local artists but at the same time be working to make some headway into ridiculous issues with segregation in this community. No one else was putting those two things together. They were two very separate issues and I don’t think people we’re seeing the connection,” she says.

She’s coalesced like-minded people around the mission.

“I may have been the one to stand up and wave the flag but if other people weren’t willing to fall in line with that then it never would have happened. The Union wouldn’t exist without people willing to take a leap of faith on this idea the arts can be more than just something you look at on a wall. I’m just fortunate the people with the means to help us get there also felt it a risk worth taking.

“People have made sacrifices to do this with me. Our program manager Paige Reitz took a crazy cut in salary to be here because she believed in the work I was doing. Paige was not the only staff member to take a pay cut to work with us. Actually the majority of my staff did. People willing to sacrifice something of their own to put into this dream is really how tTe Union has continued to grow.”

The Growth Campaign, which went public last summer, closed in early 2017. Its millions have helped boost employee salaries in addition to increasing the budget and solidifying things moving forward.

Public celebrations of that growth happened in October when the organization held open houses and special events at the Blue Lion. Since then, McQueen Shew and staff have been proudly welcoming visitors to their new digs and the community’s new gathering place.

Brenda Council: A public servant’s life

June 26, 2017 1 comment

Brenda Council: A Public Servant’s Life
Appearing in the July 2017 issue of the New Horizons
©by Leo Adam Biga

Community. Service. Family. Home.

All recurrent themes for Brenda (Warren) Council, a familiar civic figure with various firsts to her name.

•First African-American female senior counsel at Union Pacific
•First female football official in the state of Nebraska
•First four-time president of the Omaha School Board
•First black female Omaha City Council member

Along with Tanya Cook, she was the first black woman to serve in the Nebraska Legislature.

Featured multiple times in Ebony Magazine, the lifelong Democrat garnered broad support for two Omaha mayoral bids. The second, in 1997, came within 800 votes of victory. Had she won, she’d have been the city’s first female mayor. In 2008, she succeeded living legend Ernie Chambers in the state senate seat he held since 1970 until term-limited out.

Those who know Council call her “dynamic,” “high achieving,” “hard working,” “caring,” “committed” and “community focused.”

The fall
She had a thriving legal career (after U.P. she worked for Kutak Rock and had her own firm), a strong track record of public service, a sterling reputation.

Then, a casino gambling addiction caught up with her in 2012 as she sought re-election to the Nebraska Legislature. Unusual activity on her campaign account trigged an investigation that found she repeatedly borrowed funds. The law permits candidates to borrow and repay campaign account monies (she repaid them in part) as long as they report it, which she didn’t. Her actions made headlines and resulted in misdemeanor charges for misuse of funds. She plead guilty and paid a fine. Her opponent, Chambers, openly disparaged her. She lost the election and in 2014, she plead guilty to felony wire fraud charges. She received three years court-supervised probation. The Nebraska Supreme Court disbarred her.

She’s never denied what she did.

Council’s back serving her community again leading a Women’s Fund of Omaha project. She’s in a good place now, but things got tough.

“I watched what I had built through work, passion and commitment threatened by what I did,” she said. “I can’t think of anything more terrifying. There were times I was mad. I asked, ‘God, how did you let this happen to me?’ I’m really a good person, I’ve never hurt anybody in my life.’ Then I got into GA (Gamblers Anonymous). As a 12-stepper, you’ve got to connect to your Higher Power. I’ve always been a spiritual person. I’ve been a member of the same church for 52 years. But as a result of this, I realized although I had been attending church, I had disconnected from my Higher Power.”

She’s glad to have found support for her addiction.

“I’m a committed, devoted, servant of Gamblers Anonymous, and I’m so grateful.”

She does want to set the record straight about what she did and didn’t do that got her in trouble.

“I never went out and solicited money to feed my campaign account so that I could access it. I make no bones about it – what I did was to enable me to gamble, but what i did not do is I didn’t take anybody’s money.”

Council understands what she did was improper.

“I see where the question of trust is paramount and legitimate.”

Redemption
About two years after that “embarrassment,” she joined the Women’s Fund of Omaha as coordinator of its Adolescent Health Project aimed at reducing teen pregnancies and STDS. The project addresses issues of deep concern to Council, who’s long advocated for comprehensive sex ed.

As important as she considers the work to be for women and families, she regards it as her own lifesaver.

“It’s provided an opportunity for me to move forward with my life and to show I’m still the public servant. I’m still Brenda, and I’m going to be out there working hard for the community serving in whatever capacity I can.”

For her, the work’s more than a job, it’s affirmation.

“I really enjoy the folks I work with, and I’m just so pleased with the progress we’ve made. But I know I owe it all to the fact that people who know me know who I am and they know I’m not a deceitful or distrustful or dishonest person. As a gambler, was I? Yeah.

“I’m so blessed that through the work I’ve done and the relationships I’ve built, people are supportive.”

Addiction, she’s come to realize, compels people to act out-of-character.

“What I was doing was totally contrary to the way I was raised. My daddy valued a dollar. I was a tight wad. I saved. I (still) had some of the first money I ever made. It wasn’t until it was starkly put in front of me – the compulsive patterns of my behavior – I realized, ‘Damn, that’s what I’ve been doing.'”

Before that rude awakening, she said, she “rationalized” her binge gambling as “‘I’m not hurting anybody, it’s my money.’ I discovered that what I thought at the time was an outlet, an enjoyment, not harming anybody, was an insidious, compulsive addiction that I denied.”

She took heart that even after coming clean, the people that meant the most to her still had her back.

“They understood and appreciated gambling wasn’t who I was, it’s something that happened. I am so blessed with an incredible family and close friends who have stood there steadfast supporting, encouraging.”

Her husband Otha Kenneth Council stood by her through it all. They celebrate 32 years of marriage this fall.

Home is where the heart is
The ties that bind are so tight with Brenda that despite extensive travels and offers to take jobs elsewhere, she considers herself “a North Omaha kid.” Except for undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and working for the National Labor Relations Board in Kansas City, Omaha’s remained home. Even when in K.C., she made frequent visits home.

“Practically every weekend I was driving back to Omaha. I had I-29 like memorized. I never missed one of my brother Tommy’s football games.”

Since moving back in 1980, she’s lived within a few blocks of where she grew up at 24th and Pinkney.

She came up in a strict home where both parents, Evelyn and Willis Warren Sr., worked. Her mother retired after 25 years at the VA hospital. Her father caught the No. 7 Crosstown bus to work at Swift packing company in South Omaha for 40 years. Her father especially expected Brenda and her siblings to study hard and get good grades.

“In addition to education, service was also something my father in particular placed a heavy emphasis on. He was a firm believer that to whom much is given, much is expected. We were raised to respect and assist our elders.”

Her family lived in a two-story house in an era when redlining practices and restrictive housing covenants prevented African-Americans from living outside the area. She attended mostly black Lothrop elementary school and Horace Mann Junior High.

Her coming of age coincided with 1960s’ racial unrest, the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Panthers, Malcolm, MLK, Vietnam, rock ‘n’ roll.

In North O she experienced a tight-knit, insular community where almost any service or product could be found. The live black music venues then prevalent on North 24th Street beckoned her. As an under-age fan, she snuck into Allen’s Showcase, McGill’s Blue Room, the Offbeat Lounge and the Carnation Ballroom to see her idols. She got to know the late Buddy Miles that way.

“Incredible entertainment came through. Those were the days.”

Music impresario Paul Allen appreciated her spunk in catching shows.

“He always called me ‘Little Girl.’ He often joked about the times he caught me sneaking into the Showcase. They had some great musicians.”

Years later she operated her own live music venue there – BJ’s Showcase. She now resides in the former home of Omaha nightclub impresario Shirley Jordan. The columned, cream stucco, hacienda-style abode was built as a party place and includes a sunken living room.

In addition to music, sports is another passion. Council was a fireplug point guard for Forrest Roper-coached Hawkettes AAU teams. She admired the late Roper.

“He had a tremendous impact on me and other young women. He, like my parents, stressed the importance of education and refraining from engaging in negative activity. For many of the members of the team, their first travel outside of Omaha was when Forrest took us to play in tournaments.”

Council didn’t get to play high school basketball in those pre-Title IX days. But she stayed close to the game as a recreational player and coach and later as an official. She and Otha refereed many high school hoops games together. Her contributions to athletics got her elected to the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame.

She also bore witness to trying times for her community. She was at Horace Mann when students filed out in protest of a young black man shot to death by police. The peaceful protest turned heated before Ernie Chambers helped quell the agitated crowd. She saw the the looting and fires when North 24th burned in the 1969 riot following the police shooting death of Vivian Strong.

She was at the Bryant Center when the riot broke out.

“I actually drove through the rioting on 24th Street on my way to pick my mother up from work. I will never forget how I headed west on Hamilton Street to be met by a police barricade at 30th. The police approached my car, shined their flashlights in the faces of my friends who were riding with me. They were not going to let me past until I pleaded with them to allow me go pick up my mother.”‘

Council graduated from Omaha Central High School in 1971 during tense times at the racially diverse school.

She watched the once bustling North 24th business district left-in-shambles and struggle to recover. Railroad and packing house jobs vanished. The North Freeway severed the community. Generational poverty set in. Gangs brought unprecedented violence. Incarceration rates for black males soared along with black teen pregnancies and STDS. Single-parent households became the norm. Educational achievement lagged.

She dealt with many of these issues as an elected official. She sees progress in northeast Omaha but questions where it goes from here.

“I’m definitely encouraged by the development that has occurred. However, the overwhelming majority of the development, particularly along 24th Street, is the result of not-for-profit investment. If we are to revive the Near North Side we must have private, for-profit investment with a focus on African-American entrepreneurship.”

Wherever life’s taken her, North O’s been her sanctuary.

“She absolutely loves North Omaha,” her brother Thomas Warren said. “Her purpose has been service and she’s always put North Omaha first.”

Warren, former Omaha police chief and current president-CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska, said his sister’s path serving the community inspired his own.

Council’s husband, Otha, echoed many when he said, “She’s never forgotten about where she came from. She’s committed to serving North Omaha and making sure people here have a better place to live.”

From education to law
Back at UNL she was thinking her career path would be an an educator, not an attorney or public officer holder.

“I made a career decision when I was in the third grade to be a school teacher. I had some genetic predisposition for that. My mother’s two oldest sisters and a younger brother were educators. My mother’s oldest sister, Geraldine Gilliam, was the first black teacher to integrate the staffs of the Topeka Public Schools after Brown vs, Board of Education. She was really a proponent of education and educators, and I really just wanted to be like her. So much so that when my younger siblings. Thomas and Debbie, and I would come home from school, I would make them play school with me before they could go outside. I’d use old teachers’ manuals and flash cards my aunts sent me.

“The game was they’d start at the top of the steps and if they answered correctly they moved down the steps and when they got to the bottom they could go outside. They used to hate me that I’d make them do that, but I always teased them as we got older at how prepared they were academically. Both of them did well.”

Thomas Warren was Omaha’s first black police chief. Debbie White is a retired medical professional. An older sibling, Willis Warren Jr., is deceased.

Brenda earned her teaching degree from UNL. She also got turned on to the prospect of studying the law and using it as a tool to improve conditions for blacks.

“My perspective was education, education, education. I firmly believed in it as the path upwards.”

She said she gained an appreciation for how “the law has an impact on everything you do in life and if you can affect changes in the law, you can create new opportunity and address problems.”

Council did her due diligence and applied to the Creighton law school. She got accepted. She applied for an affirmative action scholarship and received it.

“I graduated from Nebraska on August 17, 1974 and I started Creighton law school August 23. I really fell in love with the law. I went to law school with every intention of being a social justice lawyer, so that passion with constitutional law meshed. If you’re addressing the issues defined as social justice issues, constitutional questions are more than likely involved.”

She thought she’d change the world.

“You go in there with this idealistic perspective and then you start facing reality.”

One reality check involved two career choices straight out of law school. She applied for a national fellowship to work in a legal aid office. She wanted Omaha but only Dayton was open. Meanwhile, she was offered a job with the National Labor Relations Board in Kansas City. Then the fellowship came through for the Omaha Legal Aid office, but she’d already accepted the K.C. job.

“I’m a person of my word and my commitment, and so I went to Kansas City.”

With a little help from her friends
Helping her make tough calls were elders.

“I was blessed to come at a time that I had a tremendous number of mentors – people I could go to for advice and counsel. They’d talk you through these decisions. One of my major mentors was the late (activist-journalist) Charles B. Washington.”

Others were Mary Dean Harvey, Beverly Blackburn, Rowena Moore. Though she didn’t have much interaction with her, Council also admired Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown.

But it was Washington, for whom a North Omaha library branch is named, who opened her horizons.

“This guy introduced me and so many other young people in North Omaha to some of the most influential African-Americans of our time. Through Charlie, I had sit-downs with the late Harold Washington, the late Barbara Jordan, the late Mary Frances Berry, Lerone Bennett Jr., Tony Brown. I mean, he made a point of exposing us to many critical minds and civil rights, social justice advocates. Because of the relationships and the introductions he made for me, I was featured the first time in Ebony Magazine.”

Council, and two of her girlfriends, Kathy J. Trotter and Terri Goodwin, were so often seen in the company of Washington they were called “Charlie’s Angels.”

Though Council reluctantly went to K.C., it was a good experience.

“It certainly aided in my maturation, my independence.”

Her return to Omaha to work at Union Pacific, she said, “was a Charles Washington-influenced opportunity.”

“In 1979 my dad died and then in 1980 my mother’s mother died. I was in Kansas City and my oldest brother returned from Vietnam not in a good place, so he couldn’t really provide our mother much support. I was waffling about staying in Kansas City. I called Charlie (Washington) and said, ‘I need to look at getting back to Omaha.’ By this time I had three years doing labor law. He knew the personnel director at U.P. He sent in my resume and I got an interview.”

U.P.’s then-general counsel, Valerie Scott, hired Council. The two women became close colleagues and friends.

Entry into public life
Confidantes prodded Council to seek public office for the first time when she made her initial bid for the Omaha School Board in 1982.

“Ruth Thomas, who had served on the board and knew of my passion for education, was among those who approached me about it. I didn’t know anything about running for public office, but I had the benefit of having met and become friends with one of the greatest political minds of his time, the late Sonny Foster. He was a political genius. He volunteered to help me with my school board campaign.”

Council wanted to redress the board’s decision to eliminate summer school as part of budget cuts.

“That disturbed me because it disproportionately hurt youth in my district who needed remedial studies and enhancement opportunities. Their parents couldn’t afford to send them to special science or math camps. So, I ran, and in the primary got thumped. Sonny (Foster) said, ‘Between now and November, you’ve got to go to every house in this district and let them know who you are and what you’ll do.'”

She said she pounded the pavement and knocked on doors and when the general election rolled around, she “closed an incredible gap” to win. She was 28.

Finding a soulmate
Otha, whom she was just friends with at the time, showed up unexpectedly at her place on election night. He was co-owner of an Arby’s franchise.

“Election night, my campaign manager Sonny Foster, my dear friend and law school classmate Fred Conley and a couple other folks were at my house awaiting the results. Out of nowhere, a knock on the door and there’s Otha with a six-foot Arby’s submarine sandwich. He said, ‘I thought you might need something to eat.’ He took a seat and just sat there for the rest of the evening.

“The results came in and were favorable. People trickled out. The only ones left were me, Sonny and Otha.”

The two men made quite a contrast: the gregarious Sonny and the quiet Otha.

“I discovered later Otha thought Sonny and I had a thing. That was the furthest thing from the truth.”

Otha’s persistent wooing finally won her over when he drove her to the airport in the dead of winter. He got the door, handled the bags and even had a cup of hot chocolate for her. “He was such a Boy Scout.” From then on, she said, “he became my ‘hot chocolate’ and we began to spend more time together.”

“Our officiating (sports) together definitely strengthened our bond. Otha encouraged me to become an official because I grasped the rules so quickly when he was taking the exams while we were dating. Believe me, officiating can really test your patience and understanding.”

The couple have two children from his first marriage and five grandchildren. He has a landscaping-snow removal business and he owns-manages rental properties. He was by her side for all her subsequent political runs.

They also share a passion for service, community and family. They met when she volunteered with the Boy Scouts while he was this areas’s district commissioner.

“Family has always been incredibly important,” Council said, and I was fortunate to marry into a family that equally values family. We just got back from my husband’s 41st annual family reunion in Marianna, Arkansas. He’s one of 13 children, so it’s a huge family.”

A family migration story
Her extensive family on her father’s side has branches extending into Canada. Council said her father’s people relocated from Alabama to northeast Texas before settling in the Oklahoma Territory as part of the Exodusters migration. They faced hazards both natural and manmade.

“My father’s father drowned during a flash flood while trying to get the cattle across the creek. The current washed him and his horse down stream and his body was never recovered. My grandmother remarried a man with the last name of Gordon.”

Racial tensions worsened. The Ku Klux Klan was on the rise. A 1919 race riot in Omaha resulted in William Brown being lynched and the courthouse being burned. The “Black Wall Street” district of Tulsa, Oklahoma was burned down in 1921. Malcolm X’s family fled Omaha in 1925 after the Klan threatened his preacher father.

Some years before, African-Americans looking to escape hate were presented with an intriguing opportunity and Council’s paternal family ran with it.

Canada recruited Americans to settle the prairie provinces by offering homesteads. Canada advertised in Kansas and Oklahoma, never expecting the huge migration of African-Americans that followed.

“My dad’s stepfather took advantage of this new opportunity and moved the family to Winnipeg, Alberta, but left my father to be raised by one of my grandmother’s sisters in Oklahoma.”

Generations later, she said, her people are “spread all over” Canada, including Vancouver. where a first cousin Council’s gotten to know lives.

Brenda attended a Pioneer Family Reunion of descendants of black families who fled Oklahoma for Canada. She visited a recreated Canadian black settlement and learned of tragedy and triumph. A great aunt named Love was murdered with her child at the hands of her husband.

An uncle, Robert Gordon, was among the few black lumberjacks. Only his Paul Bunyan-like strength helped him survive. “He caught hell initially until he pummeled a few guys and became infamous – you don’t mess with Robert Gordon,” said Council. She met the tall, broad-shouldered man and said he still cut an imposing figure in old age.

Unfortunately, black pioneers were made to feel unwelcome. Eventually, no more were allowed in.

“So many were coming across,” she said, “ordinances were enacted by the border communities. One such ordinance read, ‘From this day forward, no more Negroes will be allowed to enter Canada because they’re deemed undesirable for the climate and culture …’ Everybody tells me, ‘Brenda, you ought to write this story.’ I do know i’ve got to put it down at some point.”

An uncommon political life
Her political life would make a good book, too. Her baptism-by-fire on the school board was just the start.

“I had some really up moments and I had some really down moments. A down moment was being the lone dissenting vote on closing Tech High. I presented diplomas to the last graduating class.”

A budget shortfall and concurrent need to consolidate district offices led to Tech’s closure and its reuse as district headquarters.

“One of the things I was most proud of was advocating for the adoption of a sex education curriculum in 1985. Thirty years later, here I am back pushing OPS to adopt an updated sex ed curriculum (through the Women’s Fund initiative). It’s kind of deja vu.”

Another thing she “took pride in, was the naming of Skinner elementary school after Eugene Skinner, both her grade school and junior high principal.” She said, “He had an incredible impact on me. Gene Skinner was a giant.” Yet another of the community stalwarts in her life. “I was impacted by so many of them,” she said.

Council displayed her own leadership abilities in office.
She not only became president of the Omaha School Board but president of the National Association of Black School Board Members.

“I got the knowledge of what was effective in other school districts and brought it back.”

She and former Omaha Public Schools assistant superintendent Don Benning got the district to begin its “nationally recognized Adopt-a-School program.

“We knew you improve educational outcomes when everybody’s got a stake in it and you have to involve business, parents, faith community. The program was a vehicle to get people who were otherwise not connected to schools involved in the schools. It’s still doing that.”

She agonized over running for the City Council in 1993.

“My passion is education and I believe I was making a difference. I was in my fourth term as school board president. We were moving on some things. I was torn. When Fred Conley announced he was not going to seek reelection, I honestly looked at who was going to be running and thought our district deserves better. That’s why I ran. I didn’t want a political career. I’ve never seen myself as a politician. I’m a public servant.

“Now, am I partisan? Yeah.”

A confluence of events led her to run for mayor only one year into her only City Council term. Then-mayor P.J. Morgan unexpectedly resigned with three years left. The city charter then allowed for the Council to choose someone among its ranks to finish the term but Brenda opposed this approach.

“I had to convince three other people we need to pursue a special election to change the charter because it’s not fair to the citizens that essentially an entire term is decided by seven people. I was able to convince the requisite number of City Council members to go for a special election and the results were what I predicted Omahans wanted. The charter was changed. I achieved my objective.”

She didn’t plan to run for mayor until Hal Daub announced his candidacy.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, there’s too much happening in this city to put it in the hands of someone who hadn’t lived in Omaha in years. The next mayor should be somebody who knows what’s been going on and been working on it.’ I just didn’t think it was fair and right and just for someone who in my opinion was a career politician to take an opportunity to come back. So I said, ‘I’m going to run, too.’ It was a special election in December of 1994. What made it problematic was there were mid-term elections a month before. I struggled to find campaign staff and team for my first citywide race.”

She got “soundly defeated” but “came a lot closer than people expected.” She was “perfectly content” to serve on the City Council with no future mayoral bid in mind until politicos shared data suggesting a near majority of Omahans would vote for her in a new election.

“I was pleasingly surprised.”

Confident she could muster enough support to unseat Daub, she took him on in the ’97 election only to suffer an historically narrow loss.

“That election night was one of the most painful nights of my life,” she said, “not for me personally but for all the people who invested so much of their being into supporting an individual they entrusted to address the issues that were critical to them.”

The thing she disliked the most about the process was having to make fundraising calls.

Mrs. Council goes to Lincoln
Eleven years elapsed before she sought public office again. During the hiatus she was a judge on the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations. In 2008 she entered the race for Nebraska legislative District 11.

“The same thing that motivated me to run for mayor is what motivated me to run for the legislature,” she said.
“It should be somebody representing this district who’s worked in this district, been in touch on a daily basis with the issues that affect residents and has the skills, knowledge and experience to make a difference. Again, no disrespect, I knew some of the people who were going to run and I was like, ‘That’s not going to get it.’ Call it arrogance or whatever, but I feel that passionate about the people in this district and what they deserve.”

She knew her expertise was a good match for the legislative process and “its interconnectedness with the law.” She also saw “an opportunity to address some things that may not have been on the front burner.”

Council won a seat at the table in the mostly white male Unicameral alongside fellow African-American Tanya Cook, who was communications manager for one of Council’s earlier elective office runs.

“I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish in the one term I served in the legislature. I was focused and driven by what I could get done to move this community forward.”

She found satisfaction getting a New Markets Tax Credit program approved. She was frustrated when she got several pieces of legislation passed on the floor only to have then-Governor Heineman veto them. One would have required a lead poisoning test for children entering school. Another would have aided expansion of community gardens and incentivized healthy food stores to help address food desert issues.

“I was most proud of my Youth Conservation program legislation. Approximately 150 youth were employed in state parks across Nebraska during the summer of 2012, with a significant percentage of the youth being from North Omaha.”

Taking stock and moving on
Even after revelations of her addiction, she said, “there was still a tremendous amount of support for me to continue to serve in the legislature.”

Ending her political life was not nearly as hard as losing her license to practice law.

“Being disbarred,” she said, “it hurt, it really hurt.”

She does not plan to seek reinstatement of her license.

Today, she can acknowledge that when it all came out, “I wanted to stay in the shadows.” She said she wondered “is anybody going to give me a chance,” adding, “I know I come with some baggage.”

She’s found redemption at the Women’s Fund, whose Adolescent Health Project fits right in her wheelhouse.

“One of the first bills I introduced as a state senator was to mandate comprehensive sex education. One of the things I bring to the table is six years facilitating the Community Advisory Group for the Super Fund Site. We achieved some rather remarkable successes, including the formation of the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance.”

She feels reducing unintended pregnancies is critical “if we’re ever going to have any meaningful, sustainable impact on reducing poverty,” in a community where single mother-headed households predominate.

Come what may, North Omaha is where her heart will always be.

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