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Hot Movie Takes: Three generations of Omaha film directors – Joan Micklin Silver, Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler

September 8, 2017 Leave a comment


Hot Movie Takes: Three generations of Omaha film directors – Joan Micklin Silver, Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler
©by Leo Adam Bga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Three filmmakers from Omaha who’ve made impressive marks in cinema as writer-directors represent three distinct generations but their work shares a strong humanistic and comedic bent:

Joan Micklin Silver
Alexander Payne
Nik Fackler

You may not know her name or her films, but Joan Micklin Silver is arguably the most important filmmaker to ever come out of Nebraska. Her feature debut “Hester Street” (1975) was something of a phenomenon in its time and it still resonates today because of how it established her in the film industry and helped open doors for other women directors in Hollywood.

Dorothy Arzner was a studio director in the early talkies era and then years went by before another woman filmmaker got the chance to direct. Actress Ida Lupino directed a small but telling batch of features from 1949 through the mid-1950s and became a busy television director. Lupino helmed the original “Twilight Zone’s” classic episode, “The Masks.” The last feature she directed “The Trouble with Angels” was a hit. Her subsequent directing was back in television for a large variety of episodic shows. But it was years before other women followed Lupino as studio directors and Elaine May and Joan Micklin Silver led that fledgling movement. They ushered in an era when more women directors began working in the mainstream: Lee Grant, Penelope Spheeris, Amy Heckerling, Barbra Streisand, Kathryn Bigelow. Hundreds more have followed.

Silver first came to the industry’s attention with her original story about the stateside struggles of wives of American POWs in Vietnam. No studio would let her direct and the story ended up in the hands of old Hollywood hand Mark Robson, who’d made some very successful pictures, and he brought in future director James Bridges to work on the script with her. Silver was not happy with the changes made to the story and though the screenplay bears her and Bridges’ names, she largely disowns the resulting shooting script and the movie Robson made from it, which was released under the title “Limbo” in 1972. However, Robson knew how much she wanted to direct and did something unheard of then: he invited her to be on set to observe the entire shoot and be privy to his interactions with cast, crew, producers, et cetera. She may have also had access to pre- and post-production elements. This experience allowed her an intimate study of how a major feature film production gets made. This, along with the films she’d been keenly watching since falling in love with cinema at the Dundee Theatre in Omaha, was her film school. Only a couple years after “Limbo” Silver was shopping around another script she penned, this one an adaptation of a novella about the Jewish immigrant experience in early 20th century America that was part of her own family’s heritage. The focus was on New York City’s Lower East Side and the travails of a young woman trying to reconcile the ways of the Old Country with the new ways of America. Jake has come ahead to America and sends for his wife, Gitl, and their son. Gitl is little more than chattel to Jake and she finds herself stifled by social, cultural, economic pressures. Much to Jake’s surprise, she rebels. Silver titled the story “Hester Street” and again no studio wanted her to direct and she was not interested in giving control of her script to another filmmaker. To be fair to the studios, on the surface the project did have a lot going against it. For starters, it was a heavily ethnic period piece that Silver saw as a black and white film. Indefensibly though, while Hollywood by that time was giving all sorts of untested new directors opportunities to direct, it wasn’t affording the same opportunities to women.

Silver and her late husband Raphael Silver, who was in real estate then, raised the money themselves and made the film independently. Her beautifully evocative, detailed work looked like it cost ten times her minuscule budget. She and Raphael shopped the finished film around and, you guessed it, still no takers. That’s when the couple released it themselves by road showing the film at individual theaters with whom they directly negotiated terms. And then a funny thing happened. “Hester Street” started catching on and as word of mouth grew, bookings picked up, not just in Eastern art cinemas but coast to coast in both art and select commercial theaters. Before they knew it, the Silvers had a not so minor hit on their hands considering the less than half a million dollars it took to make it. National critics warmly reviewed the picture. The story’s feminist themes in combination with the film having been written and directed by a woman made it and Silver darlings of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The film even got the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as the film’s then unknown female lead, Carol Kane, earned a Best Actress nomination.

Years later “Hester Street” was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” work. In designating the film for inclusion, the Library of Congress noted historians have praised the film’s “accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process in its portrait of Eastern European Jewish life in America.”

Silver is now writing a book about the making of “Hester Street,” which is also being adapted into a stage musical the adapters hope to bring to Broadway. A biography of Silver is also in the works.

The success of “Hester Street” allowed Silver to make a number of feature films over the next decade and a half, some with studios and some independently, including “Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” “Crossing Delancey” and “Loverboy” as well as some notable made for TV movies such as “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” and “Finnegan Begin Again.” These films show her deft touch with romantic comedies. I’ve always thought of her work as on par with that of the great Ernest Lubitsch in its sophisticated handling of male-female relationships and entanglements.

I recently saw “Finnegan Begin Again” for the first time and now I see what all the fuss was about for this 1985 HBO movie starring Mary Tyler Moore, Robert Preston, Sam Waterston and Silvia Sydney. It’s a thoroughly delightful, mature and surprising dramedy that features perhaps the two best screen performances by Moore and Preston, which is saying a lot. Waterston goes against type here and is outstanding. Sidney never lost her acting chops and even here, in her mid-70s, she’s very full in her performance. A very young Giancarlo Espositio has a small but showy part. Watch for my separate Hot Movie Takes post about the movie.

During the 1990s and on through 2003, Silver directed several more feature and television movies, “Big Girls Don’t Cry, They Get Even,” “A Private Matter” and “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” among them. The tlater two made for cable movies are straight dramas, which she also handled with a sure touch. I just saw “A Private Matter” for the first time and it is a searing true-life tale about a young American married couple with kids who become the center of the thalidomide scandal and tragedy. Sissy Spacek and Aidan Quinn portray Sherri and Bob Finkbine, who discover that the fetus Sherri is carrying will likely be born severely deformed due to the effects of the then widely prescribed drug thalidomide. When their intent to terminate the pregnancy goes public, it sets off a firestorm of controversy that nearly destroys them. In the midst of the medical deliberations, legal wrangling and media stalkings, the couple learn how widespread abortions are and how secret they’re kept. Silver brilliantly contrasts sunny, placid 1960s suburban family life with the dark underside of hypocrisy, greed, fear and hate that surface when issues of morality get inflamed. In this case and cases like it, what should be a private matter becomes a public controversy and the people involved are persecuted for following their own conscience. Spacek delivers a great performance as Sherri and I don’t think Quinn has ever been better as Bob. Estelle Parsons is excellent as Sherri’s mother. William H. Macy has a small but effective turn as a psychiatrist.

More recently, Silver had been working on some documentary projects that never came to fruition. And then her longtime life and professional partner, Raphael, died. Now in her early 80s, she’s seemingly more focused on archiving her work and sharing her experiences as a woman trying to shatter the American film industry’s glass ceiling.

Her maverick ways and superb films are highly regarded and yet she remains almost unknown in her own hometown, which both saddens and baffles me. The lack of recognition for her here is a real shame, too, because she’s one of the great creatives this place has ever produced and her exquisite films stand the test of time. I believe Alexander Payne, who is her junior by some 26 years, is one of the great American filmmakers to have emerged in the last half-century and I regard the best of Silver’s films on a par with his. And yet her name and work are not nearly as well known, which reminds us that even after all this time women filmmakers are still not accorded the same respect as their male counterparts. Even in their shared hometown, Payne is celebrated but not Silver. I’d like to do something to change that.

When Silver was eying a career in film starting in the late 1960s-early 1970s, the old studio contract system was dismantled and the New Hollywood hot shots from television and film schools were all the rage. Even guys who’d never directed anything were getting their shot at studio features. Women were still left out of the equation but for the rare exception like Silver, and even then it took her battering on the walls before she was reluctantly let in to that privileged Old Boys Network. Her path to breaking in was to learn her writing and directing chops in theater and television. It was her ability to write that got her a seat at the table if not at the head of the table. She had to make her own way the hard way. She’s lived long enough to see progress, if not enough yet, for women directors to now be almost commonplace.

Alexander Payne’s cinephile development came right in the middle of the New Hollywood revolution and his entrance into the industry happened right on the wave of the indie film explosion. But like Silver before him, there was no visible Hollywood presence around him when he was coming of age here as a cineaste. No one was making anything like grade A feature films locally. The industry was remote and disconnected from places like Nebraska. His entry into the industry was his student thesis film. But it wasn’t until he wrote “Citizen Ruth” and got financing for it that he arrived.

Dan Mirvish is another Omahan from the same generation as Payne whose directorial efforts bear discussion. He’s actually been the most ingenious in pulling projects together and getting them seen. None of his films have yet crossed over in the way that Silver’s, Payne’s and Fackler’s have, but he and his work are never less than interesting. He, too, is a writer-director.

A generation later, Nik Fackler came of age when the new crop of filmmakers were coming from film schools as well as the worlds of commercials and music videos. But just as Silver and Payne used their writing talents to get their feet in the door and their first films made, so did Fackler. His script for “Lovely, Still” was good enough to attract a pair of Oscar-winning legends in Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn. He directed those Actors Studio stalwarts when he was in his early 20s. He was much younger than Payne and Silver were when they directed their first films but he had the advantage of having directed several short films and music videos as his film education. He also had the advantage of having seen a fellow Omaha native in Payne enjoy breakout success. But where Payne and Silver followed up their debut feature films with more projects that further propelled their careers, Fackler did not, It’s been nearly a decade since “Lovely, Still” and many of us are eager to see if Fackler can recapture the magic he found so early.

I find it interesting that Fackler, Payne and Silver all tackled tough subjects for their first features:
Alzheimer’s in Fackler’s “Lovely, Still”
Abortion in Payne’s “Citizen Ruth”
Jewish immigrant experience in “Hester Street”

Whereas Payne and Fackler have made most of their films in Nebraska, Silver, despite a desire to do so, has never shot here. There’s still time.

These three are not the only Nebraskans who’ve done meritorious work as directors, but they are in many ways the most emblematic of their times.

Wouldn’t it be fun to get Silver, Payne and Fackler on the same panel to discuss their adventures in filmmaking? I think so.

Meanwhile. a special screening of “Lovely, Still” in memory of Martin Landau is happening at Film Streams on Thursday, Oct. 12. Payne’s “Downsizing” is playing festivals in advance of its Dec. 22 national release. And Silver’s films can be found via different platforms, though a retrospective of her work here is long overdue.

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Syed Mohiuddin: A pillar of the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha

September 1, 2017 1 comment

Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, co-founder and director of the American Muslim Institute in Omaha, is one of the driving forces behind a singular project here called the Tri-Faith Initiative that’s garnering worldwide attention. Nebraska is known for many things, but the Tri-Faith Initiative may just end up being what most folks identify with this state other than perhaps Warren Buffett, Alexander Payne, Nebraska football, corn and the Sandhills. The Tri-Faith is a truly visionary and brave undertaking that you might not expect to find in this conservative place, but here it is happening. This intentional effort at bringing the three Abrahamic faiths together in communal ways and at a shared physical campus called the Tri-Faith Commons is getting national and international media coverage because nothing like this has been attempted before. This intense interest is ongoing despite the fact the campus is still being developed. Temple Israel Synagogue and the American Muslim Institute are now neighbors there and soon to follow will be Countryside Community Church. That’s right, a synagogue, a mosque and a church will purposely be close neighbors and partners. Their congregations and visitors will share a planned Tri-Faith Center. For Mohiuddin and his fellow Tri-Faith players, it is a dream come true. Read my cover story about him in the September 2017 issue of New Horizons just hitting newsstands and mail boxes. Or read it right here.

Syed Mohiuddin: A pillar of the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the September 2017 issue of the New Horizons

Omaha’s national name recognition hinges on a few staple people, places and things.

Everybody by now knows about Warren Buffett and Alexander Payne. Jun Kaneko and Conor Oberst have their followers. Terence Crawford’s made Omaha a relevant pro boxing championship site. Mutual of Omaha, the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Henry Doorly Zoo, the Old Market, Creighton University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center boost the city’s profile. So do the College World Series, Creighton men’s basketball, the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials and the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Finals.

Something new here making a big impression nationwide is the Tri-Faith Initiative, the decade-old interfaith endeavor whose partners are a Jewish synagogue, an Islamic mosque and a Christian church. Two of three worship spaces at its Tri-Faith Commons campus are now open at the Sterling Ridge development near 132nd and Pacific. Temple Israel got there first in 2013. The American Muslin Institute followed earlier this year. Ground has broken on the new Countryside Community Church joining them in 2018. That leaves a fourth and final building, the joint Tri-Faith Center, slated to start construction next year and welcome visitors in 2019.

The project’s been profiled by national media ranging from CNN to “The Daily Show.” But unlike so many things, the Tri-Faith isn’t dependent on celebrity or attendance or ratings – but on being good neighbors.

A founder, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, is a household name and much beloved figure for his many years leading reform Temple Israel, where he’s rabbi emeritus. He’s known for supporting social justice causes and he did interfaith work long before this project. He and Temple member Bob Freeman initiated the conversation that grew into the Tri-Faith. Their earliest confabs about it were with someone less known but no less important in making it a reality, Dr. Syed Mohiuddin. The Omaha cardiologist and teacher is the co-founder and president of the American Muslin Institute.

Eventually, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska came on board to complete this troika of Abrahamic faiths. Rev. Tim Cannon was a player in those early years. When the diocese later pulled out, United Church of Christ member Countryside Community Church elected to be the project’s Christian partner led by Rev. Eric Elnes, who is himself a veteran of interfaith efforts.

“I was disappointed the Episcopal church did not do it, but for some reason I never had any doubt we would have a third partner and that we will have a Tri-Faith campus,” Mohiuddin said. “I always had that faith.”

Mohiuddin has been there from the start and he’s never ceased being inspired by the Tri-Faith concept.

“From day one when I heard about it, I thought it was a great idea and I was sorry i didn’t think of it myself,” he said. “It’s so unique and it’s so exciting. This has never been done, at least purposely.”

His unwavering faith has inspired others.

“My work on the Tri-Faith Initiative helped me to encounter the kind and compassionate Dr. Mohiuddin – a man of dignity, peacefulness, knowledge and kindness. A man of infinite patience, full of courage and a clever navigator in a sea full of obstacles and hazards.” said Azriel. “In all my years of knowing him, nothing deterred him from the goal of building the Tri-Faith. He’s a real advocate for the Muslim community in Omaha and the world.”

The two men forged their bond when, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Azriel rallied Jews to protect a mosque at 73rd and Pinkney. No harm came to it.

Cultural exchanges began occurring between the mosque and the synagogue. So when a few years later Azriel reached out about forming the Tri-Faith, Mohiuddin already knew his heart.

“We had a very good relationship with Rabbi Azriel and the synagogue,” he said, “He came to the defense of the mosque when 9/11 happened. Synagogue members were in the process of thinking of moving from 70th and Cass. It was too small for their congregation and too old. They wanted to go somewhere where they could select their neighbors.”

It just so happened the newly formed AMI was looking to build its own facility rather than continue leasing spaces.

“It was very important to us that we have an educational and religious center in Omaha, particularly in west Omaha, so that we could have a place that we call our own to have not only religious activities but also educational, cultural activities.”

Thus, the founders like to say the project sprang from a conversation about sharing parking lots.

Mohiuddin credits Azriel with moving the Tri-Faith forward, saying, “He is the prophet.” He added, “Bob Freeman was also very prominent in this development. Bob was the first president.”

Common ground
The Tri-Faith blossomed from the fertile soil of celebrating commonalities and differences.

“First of all, we began with the idea that the three Abrahamic religions have a common root,” Mohiuddin said. “We have a very rich historical tradition which goes all the way back to the prophet Abraham. The idea which prophet Abraham preached is common to all three faiths. We have different interpretations, but we believe in the same things. And based on this idea we thought we could establish a campus where we could live together and demonstrate to the world that the three faiths really have no animosity per se, but they really are branches of a common tree.”

The vision from the start called for three worship spaces and a communal, nondenominational interfaith center.

“We will be able to show the world that the three faiths do believe in the common traditions, they can be servants of God and they can work for good things in the world, including social justice and other things which we need to defend with a common voice.”

Fixing on a location for the campus took time.

“The first few years we just met and talked about things -– mostly about where we should go. I can’t remember how many places we went looking for a site that would be ideal. In the meantime we began to know each other and we became very good friends. We thought this was something which had more truth than simple parking. We were building relationships, we were beginning to know each other not only through our religious practice but how we lived our lives.”

Relationships are the foundation of it all because the partners understand that tensions and fears borne of not knowing the other have prevented Jews, Muslims and Christians from interfaith communion.

“Our intent was to correct some of this misunderstanding, establish working, cooperative, friendly relationships among the Abrahamic faiths,” he said, “and we thought there could be no better way of doing this than sharing a campus. That became a very early goal with the partners. That’s exactly what has happened and it has deepened our friendship, deepened our trust in each other.

“The amazing thing is when we started this project nobody said, Why are you doing it and what is it in for you? We simply trusted each other and believed that this is something which needs to be done and we did it.”

Along the way, few have openly questioned or doubted the project’s validity and sustainability. Mohiuddin said it’s crucial that he and his fellow visionaries never let the detractors sway them. He said the project could have been derailed “if we had allowed ourselves to get discouraged by the dissenting voices and if did not have the courage of our own convictions.”

Ultimately, he said the Tri-Faith’s survived due to” the conviction of the founding members to stay with it,” adding, “We had such a strong belief that what we were doing was necessary and needed to be done and that this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”

He has an answer for skeptics who worry participation in the project will dilute or diminish any of the faiths.

“The most important thing we’re doing is expressing the belief we have and that has actually made our faith stronger. We understand our own faith better than we did before because we have to explain it to people. It actually makes your faith stronger, it doesn’t weaken it.”

Why did it take until the 2000s for this to happen and why did it find life in Omaha?

“If you look at any of the wonderful things that happen in the world, you need a core, usually a spark, which acts as a nucleus around which everything turns,” Mohiuddin said. “It just happens to be in Omaha, it just happens to be us.”

Coming out of the shadows
The fact that Mohiuddin is still relatively unknown despite being a Tri-Faith founder and longtime fixture in Omaha’s medical community reflects the low profile Muslims have here and his own soft-spoken, modest demeanor. Hardly a newcomer, the 80-year-old first came here from his native India in 1963 to study at Creighton. Though a familiar figure in local medical circles, he remained off the general public’s radar until the emergence of the Tri-Faith. Even now, his reserved manner is more likely to keep him in the background than the foreground.

From its humble start amongst a few friends, the Tri-Faith’s evolved into a public display of interfaith action with events like Dinner Under Abraham’s Tent and the annual Tri-Faith Picnic. Mohiuddin’s been the face of the low-key Muslim community here. He galvanized support for the AMI to be a part of the Tri-Faith. He helped secure donors to build its combined mosque and educational center at the Commons.

He often appears with his Jewish and Christian counterparts at community forums and press conferences. Though he’s happy to share the Tri-Faith story, he prefers letting the limelight shine on others. Avoiding publicity is getting harder these days. Thousands of well-wishers and dozens of reporters turned out for the AMI’s open house in July. The overwhelming response took Mohiuddin by surprise, though it was hardly the first time locals extended welcome to Muslims here.

He appreciates how Muslims are generally well-received in America but he’s aware hate crimes are a reality, too.

“Muslim integration to the United States is a new phenomenon,” he said, “and Muslim integration to Nebraska is an even newer phenomenon.”

He said the more exposure people have to Muslims, the more they’ll recognize the core values of Islam –acceptance, compassion, equality, justice, peace – are the shared values of the partners and of all humanity and specifically of the three Abrahamic faiths.” He hopes the Tri-Faith can help dispel myths. “Many stories you hear and read are biased – they don’t present a true picture of Islam.”

Against this backdrop, he was all the more touched by how many people attended the open house.

“It was astounding, it was stunning,” he said seated in a conference room at the new facility. “We had never anticipated more than 150 people. We served food and it was probably gone in the first 15 minutes. There were anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 people here. The open house was to start at one but people started coming here at noon and they didn’t leave until 5 or later.

“It was absolutely a wonderful occasion. It indicated to us there is enough interest in our community and we hope we did a good job of introducing our Institute and mosque and how our Muslim faith is practiced.”

The event fulfilled the vision for the campus, as the parking lot for the synagogue, which is just to the west of the Institute, accommodated the overflow crowd. He said Tri-Faith communications director Vic Gutman may have captured the moment best by commenting, “Where in the world can you see people parking at a Jewish temple and walking over to a Muslim mosque?”

Where indeed.

The outpouring of good will goes back to when funds were being raised for the $6.2 million Institute building.

“What was amazing was getting support from the non-Muslim community – almost 50 percent,” he said. “It again reaffirmed my belief that the three faiths are supportive of each other.”

Finding a home at Creighton and in Omaha Mohiuddin experienced American egalitarianism and Midwestern hospitality when he and his late wife first arrived in the States. They’d only been married a month earlier overseas. He said though Omaha’s become a much larger city, “what hasn’t changed is how welcoming it is.””That’s the reason I decided to stay in Omaha,” he said. “That, and my university – Creighton, which I loved and still do. Creighton, a Catholic institution, has always been very open, accepting and supportive. I never felt that I was a stranger.” This despite “there being hardly any Muslims or people from India at that time in Omaha,” he noted. “We were so pleased with the reception we got from Creighton University and Creighton Medical Center.”

“I never looked back.”

He fondly recalled he and his wife being befriended.

“We were looking for an apartment because on an intern’s salary we couldn’t afford to buy a house. Somebody introduced us to an Italian family who owned a house and wanted to rent an apartment out to a couple. We took the apartment and we became friends. They would invite us to their celebrations, including Christmas. It was wonderful. It was a large family and we all sat at a long table and thoroughly enjoyed the food and each other’s company.”

Mohiuddin fell in love with America and applied for his U.S, citizenship as soon he was eligible. Gaining citizenship is something he cherished.

“It was a wonderful occasion. Again, it was part of being accepted and how welcoming America is.”

His fascination with America began back in India. He grew up in the city of Hyderabad.

“I come from a middle class Muslim family, so we lived comfortably, but we didn’t have cars or other luxuries. My father was a forest officer. He died very young – when I was only 4-years-old. My mother was my teacher. She was very interested in teaching me. All the things I know about Islam and Muslims is from her.”

His mother didn’t have much formal education.

“In India in those days girls were not really allowed to have a formal education. It’s getting better.”

The India he knew has given way to new ways but persistent challenges remain.

“There has been a lot of progress. It’s certainly much more modern than what we had. But I think there’s still some fundamental problems with the annual population growth. It’s a very small country (geographically) and if the overpopulation problem is not addressed, then we’ll really have a problem.

“There’s still consistent lack of education, particularly in the rural areas, that needs to be addressed.”

Motivated to help people from an early age, Mohiuddin was still a boy when he vowed to be a physician. He was in college in India when he decided he wanted to do all his post-graduate training in the West. He became proficient in English, which all the medical literature was written in, and determined he would study in the U.S. rather than Great Britain.

“I admit freely I had a fundamental suspicion of the British because I knew how they had treated the people of India and our struggle for freedom, so I came here.”

He came intending to be an endocrinologist but got hooked on the then-new field of cardiology.

“I liked the idea that cardiology was going to make very rapid progress and in that I was not wrong.”

He’s seen dramatic advances in cardiac diagnoses and care. He said today’s interventions don’t just treat symptoms “but truly make people better” and get them right back on their feet. “We used to keep our (surgical) heart patients for weeks. All of that has changed. Now people go home in two days.”

Teaching became his real passion.

“I don’t think I would have even been satisfied being only in practice and treating patients and not teaching. That’s why I stayed at Creighton. I could have left and joined one of the large cardiology practices in Omaha and probably been much more financially successful,
but that’s not what I wanted to do.

“I was very fortunate to have very good teachers at Creighton and they just happened to be cardiologists. They’re one of the reasons I went into cardiology. I learned from them how enjoyable it is to teach, how enjoyable it is to see the light that comes on a student’s face when they learn this how a cardiac murmur starts.”

His teachers also modeled a career commitment to education by remaining there for decades as he went on to do himself.

His own integration into the mainstream was reflected by him being named chairman of the Department of Medicine at the Creighton University School of Medicine. He also served as president of the American Heart Association and governor of the American College of Cardiology (Nebraska Chapter).

Syed and his wife raised three children. Their fully Americanized kids attended Brownell Talbot and Creighton.

Standing for what is right
Life for the Mohiuddins was good, safe and uneventful. Then 9/11 happened and Muslims were suddenly under suspicion. When the Jewish community stood watch at the mosque, that show of concern and solidarity reassured Mohiuddin about his fellow man.

The love and respect demonstrated by that stand infuses the Tri-Faith and explains why it still flourishes.

“That’s where it starts,” he said, “because you know there have been a lot of interfaith dialogues that have not gotten anywhere. The key is having respect for our partners and for any differences we have. These are the similarities in our intention and purpose which brings us together. The word tolerance is a no-no in our discussions. ‘Don’t speak to me of tolerance,’ Rabbi Azriel says. “That’s not what we’re about. That is the change in paradigm. One of the things Rabbi Azriel said in our first meeting was, ‘I’m tired of dialogue.’ This is about relationships, not dialogue.”

Being in relationship is what it means to be a true neighbor and, he said, “by forming a Commons together, constantly we are neighbors – we look to each other and share our dreams.”

“Unlike a dialogue, at the end of which you get up and leave, here we cannot leave,” he said looking out at the green spaces between the synagogue and mosque. The unturned dirt for the church is next door.

More evidence of togetherness came a few years ago when Gaza hostilities erupted between Palestinians and Israelis.

“The Muslim population was distraught this was happening. But we were able to come together with our Jewish and Christian friends and write a joint editorial in the Omaha World-Herald which expressed the concerns we had without blaming anybody. I thought it was a remarkable accomplishment.”

Then came acquiring the former Highland Country Club land for the campus. Jews had built the club at a time when they were denied access and membership to gentile-only venues. Jews, Muslims and Christians now break bread there.

“We spent almost eight years looking for a place to build and finally we found the ground for the campus. When the Jewish synagogue began construction we began to see that this is really going to be a real thing. It was no longer (just) an idea we had been celebrating but a real fact of life. This will be an example for the whole community and hopefully for the United States and possibly the world.”

Mohiuddin emphasizes that situating the synagogue and mosque there also fills practical needs because their memberships mostly live out west. And just as with Temple, the AMI needed a new place with more space.

“There are three mosques in Omaha but they are simply small prayer places,” he said. “None of those have any capability of providing educational or civil services. What we have built is not only a prayer center but also a center for education and for support of the Muslim community, especially the new arrivals who need a lot of help and support and anything else the community might need.”

He said whereas the Institute and Temple were already looking to build new structures before the Tri-Faith, Countryside Community Church was not, which makes their participation all the more impressive.

Mohiuddin admires Countryside pastor Eric Elnes for bringing his congregation into the fold.

“He was probably the most visionary person among us because it was his leadership that got his congregation to consider this was the thing to do, this was the place to go, and they passed a resolution to move with a 99 percent majority.”

A larger purpose for erecting the AMI building was uniting a sometimes factious Muslim community.

“There are, as in any religion, different sects with different interpretations of Islam or the Koran or what the prophet said or didn’t say. That has caused division within the Muslim community. We wanted to be clear from the beginning this is a mosque for all Muslims no matter who they are. Whether they are Shiite, Sunni, whatever, we are not going to prohibit them – we are going to open them with open arms.

“If you can’t welcome your own brothers and sisters, how can we welcome our cousins?”

Another overriding goal is to practice gender equity,

“We want to make sure, and we have made it our fundamental aim, to treat women and men as equals because all religions, and Islam is not exception, have treated women as somewhat inferior to men. Our board members include three women.”

The new mosque’s prayer hall has only a discreet screen separating the sexes and it’s there at the request of women, he said, for modesty.

A bright shining symbol of trust A distinguishing feature of the building exterior is a towering, free-standing minaret that departs from the traditional custom of being affixed to the structure. The minaret symbolizes rising shafts of light that represent the five pillars of islam.

“These are the fundamentals of our religion and they meet at the top at the star that’s lit in the evening. One of our board members took a special interest in designing the minaret.”

The intent of the building also reflects where it is, who it serves and what happens there.

“This is not a typical Middle Eastern mosque,” he said. “This is a mosque for people in Omaha. This is an Omaha mosque. The building not only serves as a mosque and a place for prayers in Omaha, which is its primary function, but it is also an institute that has educational functions, civic functions, social functions. It includes a gymnasium and a space for children. The building provides for all that and that was something badly needed in Omaha. That’s why we continue to call it American Muslim Institute.”

Mohiuddin has enjoyed a long, distinguished professional career but nothing tops this.

“Establishing the American Muslim Institute and being a part of the Tri-Faith initiative I consider the most important things I have done.”

Already, the Tri-Faith Commons is becoming a destination spot for tour groups who want to see this experiment with their own eyes.

“I think people will come to see it’s a unique campus.They will see the three Abrahamic faiths working with each other, learning from each other, sharing their dreams, their hopes together.

“This will be the exact opposite of what we’re hearing about and some of its true – that Muslims mistreat Christians or Christians and Jews mistreat Muslims. This will be a counter to all of these things,”

The partners’ relationship as neighbors is readily evident.

“From the mosque you can see the synagogue and you will be able to see the other buildings. You’ll be able to see how closely we are situated.”

The gleaming glass-fronted buildings glow at night.

Proximity alone, he said, will offer tangible proof of this unique interfaith community and “of our message that the people of the Abrahamic faiths can live and work together and go on to the next generation.” The Commons is here and now but it’s real impact may yet come in the future.

“We are doing it for our children,” he said. “The whole purpose is for the next generation. This has been a dream for us and it is a dream come true. That’s our dreamland.”

None of it would have been possible without trust.

“We just had somehow this bond of trust when we started and we still have it.”

Can it happen elsewhere?

“I say why should this be unique. There ought to be other Muslims and Christians and Jews who follow similar paths and when they see this thing actually working this will give them more hope and more faith that this can be done.”

He advises others contemplating such an interfaith marriage: “Don’t have high expectations because you’ll only be disappointed. But there has to be a fundamental trust, there has to be a fundamental sharing of objectives and what is our goal. Then also a shared vision for how are we able to get there.”

As work readies on the new Countryside church, plans for the Tri-Faith Center are being finalized.

“I think soon we’ll make a decision on how large the building will be and what the function will be,” Mohiuddin said. “My own vision is that it will be an education center that would serve all three faiths. More importantly. it would serve people in Omaha and outside Omaha.”

Yes, the Tri-Faith is the culmination of a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian having fellowship. But just as there are no walls or fences separating the buildings, there are no boundaries excluding anyone from participating in it.

“The Tri-Faith belongs to all of us,” said Mohiuddin.

He and the others invite everyone to this dreamland.

Follow the project at http://trifaith.org.

‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ Now a Metropolitan Community College non-credit Continuing Education class

August 24, 2017 Leave a comment

“Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Now a Metropolitan Community College non-credit Continuing Education class taught by yours truly.

Alexander Payne’s Journey in Film
Movie Discussion Club
9/26-10/24 (five classes offered ala carte or bundled)
MCC @ Do Space
7205 Dodge Street (catalog has the incorrect address)
Must be 18 years old
Watch for your MCC catalog in the mail. Register: mccneb.edu/ce • 531-MCC-5231

Explore the creative process of Oscar-winning Indiewood filmmaker Alexander Payne through screenings and discussions of his work. The book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” serves as informal guide for this appreciation of the American cinema master who calls Omaha home and describes all his films as comedies. Payne’s in a long line of Nebraskans in Hollywood, yet he’s the only one who makes A-list films here. He not only brings the industry here via his productions, he hosts major film artists for special events and supports Omaha’s arts community.

Don’t be surprised if some film artists drop in to share a few things about Payne and their own cinema careers.

Purchase optional book from me for $25.95
Bundle all five classes to receive a discount.
MCC at Do Space
Tuesdays
5:45-8:45pm
09/26-10/24

Alexander Payne: Introduction/Overview/The Passion of Martin
Discover the influences that shaped Payne and how far he’s come on his writer-director journey. The film nerd fell in love with movies growing up in Omaha. Many travels and studies later, he embarked on a filmmaking path at UCLA. His student thesis short “The Passion of Martin” was his ticket to Hollywood. Rated R.
MCC at Do Space
Tue. 09/26
5:45-8:45pm
$10

Alexander Payne: Citizen Ruth
Though Payne got a production deal with a major studio right out of college, several years passed before he made his feature debut with “Citizen Ruth” and emerged as a filmmaker to be watched. For his first film, he chose an audacious subject: abortion. Laura Dern stars as Ruth Stoops, an unlikely symbol of both abortion camps. Rated R.
MCC at Do Space
Tue. 10/03
5:45-8:45pm
$10

Alexander Payne: Election
Payne’s second feature “Election” established him as a sharp new voice on the world cinema scene and earned him his first Academy Award nomination for this satire about a teacher and student engaged in a war of principles that’s more about their own insecurities. Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon star as the embattled teacher and student, respectively. Rated R.
MCC at Do Space
Tue. 10/10
5:45-8:45pm
$10

Alexander Payne: About Schmidt
Working with a big budget and superstar (Jack Nicholson) for the first time, Payne scored a critical and commercial hit with “About Schmidt.” In the story a man set adrift by life events hits the road in search of meaning. The film’s success brought Payne, Nicholson and the film much adulation. Rated R.
MCC at Do Space
Tue. 10/17
5:45-8:45pm
$10

Alexander Payne: Sideways
Shooting his first feature outside Nebraska, Payne’s “Sideways” became a surprise box-office smash and elicited the best reviews of any of his films to that point. The story follows two loser buddies on a road trip in lush California wine country that results in more than they bargained for. The script won Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor their first Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay. Rated R.
MCC at Do Space
Tue. 10/24
5:45p-8:45p
$10

Bundle all five classes for a total of $40 ($8 per class)

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.

Terence Crawford, Alexander Payne and Warren Buffett: Unexpected troika of Nebraska genius makes us all proud

August 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Terence Crawford, Alexander Payne and Warren Buffett:
Unexpected troika of Nebraska genius makes us all proud

©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Terence “Bud” Crawford has fought all over the United States and the world. As an amateur, he competed in the Pan American Games. As a young pro he fought in Denver. He won his first professional title in Scotland. He’s had big fights in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in Orlando, Florida, in Arlington, Texas. He’s showcased his skills on some of the biggest stages in his sport, including the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and New York City’s Madison Square Garden. He;s even traveled to Africa and while he didn’t fight there he did spend time with some of its boxers and coaches. But he’s made his biggest impact back home, in Omaha, and starting tonight, in Lincoln. Crawford reignited the dormant local boxing community with his title fights at the CenturyLink Center and he’s about to do the same in Lincoln at the Pinnacle Bank Arena, where tonight he faces off with fellow junior welterweight title holder Julius Indongo in a unification bout. If, as expected, Crawford wins, he will have extended his brand in Nebraska and across the U.S. and the globe. And he may next be eying an even bigger stage to host a future fight of his – Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium – to further tap into the Husker sports mania that he shares. These are shrewd moves by Crawford and Co. because they’re building on the greatest following that an individual Nebraska native athlete has ever cultivated. Kudos to Bud and Team Crawford for keeping it local and real. It’s very similar to what Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne from Omaha has done by bringing many of his Hollywood productions and some of his fellow Hollywood luminaries here. His new film “Downsizing,” which shot a week or so in and around Omaha, is about to break big at major festivals and could be the project that puts him in a whole new box office category.These two individuals at the top of their respective crafts are from totally different worlds but they’re both gifting their shared hometown and home state with great opportunities to see the best of the best in action. They both bring the height of their respective professions to their own backyards so that we can all share in it and feel a part of it. It’s not unlike what Warren Buffett does as a financial wizard and philanthropist who brings world-class peers and talents here and whose Berkshire Hathaway shareholders convention is one of the city’s biiggest economic boons each spring. His daughter Susie Buffett’s foundations are among the most generous benefactors in the state. He has the ear of powerbrokers and stakeholders the world over Buffett, Payne and Crawford represent three different generations, personalities. backgrunds and segments of Omaha but they are all distinctly of and for this place. I mean, who could have ever expected that three individuals from here would rise to be the best at what they do in the world and remain so solidly committed to this city and this state? They inspire us by what they do and motivate us to strive for more. We are fortunate that they are so devoted to where they come from. Omaha and Nebraska are where their hearts are. Buffett and Crawford have never left here despite having the means to live and work wherever they want. Payne, who has long maintained residences on the west coast and here, has never really left Omaha and is actually in the process of making this his main residence again. This troika’s unexpected covergence of genius – financial, artistic and athletic – has never happened before here and may never happen agaiin.

Let’s all enjoy it while it lasts.

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,

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