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Futures at stake for Dreamers with DACA in question

October 9, 2017 Leave a comment

Here is a followup to a story I did earlier this year about DACA or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. This executive order program of protections means everything to recipients. These so-called Dreamers and their supporters speak passionately about the need to keep DACA around and describe the devastating impact that losing it would have on recipients’ lives. President Trump has sent conflicting messages where immigration is concerned, No sooner did he decide to end the program or have it rescinded, then he gave Congress a deadline to find a compromise that would extend or solidify the program and therefore prevent young people who entered the country illegally as children from being deported and from losing certain privileges that allow them to work, obtain licenses, et cetera. My new story is part of the cover package in the October 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Futures at stake for Dreamers with DACA in question
©by Leo Adam Biga

When, on September 5, President Donald Trump appealed to his base by ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a generation of American strivers became immigration reform’s collateral damage.

He’s since given Congress six months to enact a plan reinstating DACA protection from deportation for so-called DREAMers in exchange for more robust border security. DACA also provides permits for undocumented youth to work, attend school and obtain driver’s and professional licenses. Given the political divide on illegal immigrants’ rights, it’s unclear if any plan will provide DREAMers an unfettered permanent home here.

Thus, the futures of some 800,000 people in America (about 3,400 Nebraskans) hang in the balance. As lawmakers decide their status, this marginalized group is left with dreams deferred and lives suspended – their tenuous fate left to the capricious whims of power.

The situation’s created solidarity among DREAMers and supporters. Polls show most Americans sympathize with their plight. A coalition of public-private allies is staging rallies, pressing lawmakers and making themselves visible and heard to keep the issue and story alive.

Alejandra Ayotitla Cortez, who was a child when her family crossed illegally from Mexico, has raised her voice whenever DACA’s under assault. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln senior and El Centro de las Americas staffer has spoken at rallies and press conferences and testified before lawmakers.

“As Dreamers, we have been used as a political game by either party. Meanwhile, our futures and our contributions and everything we have done and want to do are at stake,” she said. “For a lot of us, having that protection under DACA was everything. It allowed us to work, have a driver’s license, go to school and pursue whatever we’re doing. After DACA ends, it affects everything in our life.

“It is frustrating. You’re trying to do things the right way. You go through the process, you pay the fees, you go to school, work, pay taxes, and then at the end of the day it’s not in your hands.”

If she could, she’d give Trump an earful.

“Just like people born here are contributing to the country, so are we. It’s only a piece of paper stopping us from doing a lot of the things we want to do. As immigrants, whether brought here as an infant or at age 10, like myself, we are contributing to the nation financially, academically, culturally. All we want is to be part of our communities and give back as much as we can. It’s only fair for those who represent us to respect the contributions we have made and all the procedures we’ve followed as DACA recipients.”

Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) legal counsel Charles Shane Ellison is cautiously optimistic.

“I’m hopeful lawmakers can do whatever negotiating they need to do to come up with a common sense, bipartisan path to protect these young people. It makes no sense whatsoever to seek to punish these young people for actions over which they had no control.

“These are, in fact, the very kinds of young people we want in our country. Hard working individuals committed to obtaining higher education and contributing to their communities. It’s incumbent upon lawmakers to find a fair solution that does not create a whole category of second class individuals. Dreamers should have a pathway to obtain lawful permanent resident status and a pathway to U.S. citizenship.”

Tying DACA to border control concerns many.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable if that was a compromise we had to arrive at,” Cortez said, “because it’s unnecessary to use a national security excuse and say we need increased border enforcement when in reality the border’s secure. It would be a waste of tax money and energy to implement something that isn’t necessary.”

Ellison opposes attempts to connect the human rights issue of DACA with political objectives or tradeoffs.

Not knowing what Trump and the GOP majority may do is stressful for those awaiting resolution.

“It’s always having to live with this uncertainty that one day it could be one thing and another day something else,” Cortez said. “It can paralyze you sometimes to think you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

“We could have made this a priority without inserting so much apprehension into a community of really solid youth we want to try to encourage to stay,” Ellison said.

To ease fears, JFON held a September 7 briefing at College of Saint Mary.

“It was an effort to get information in the hands of DACA recipients and their allies,” Ellison said. “We had more than 400 people show up.”

Moving forward, he said, “it’s imperative” DREAMers get legal advice

“Some studies show 20 to 30 percent of DACA youth could be potentially eligible for other forms of relief that either got missed or they’ve since become eligible for after obtaining DACA. If, with legal counsel, they decide to renew their Deferred Action, they have until October 5 to do so. We provide pro-bono legal counsel and we’ll be seeing as many people as we can.”

Ellison said nothing can be taken for granted.

“It’s so important not just for DACA youth to take certain action For people who want to stand with DACA youth, now is not the time to be silent – now is the time to contact elected representatives and urge them to do the right thing.”

Alejandra Escobar, a University of Nebraska at Omaha sophomore and Heartland Workers Center employee, is one of those allies. She legally emigrated to the U.S. six years ago. As coordinator of Young Nebraskans in Action, she leads advocacy efforts.

“Most of my friends are DREAMers. I started getting involved with this issue because I didn’t know why my friends who were in this country for all their lives couldn’t be treated the same as I was. I didn’t think that was fair. This is their home, They’ve worked and shown they deserve to be here.

“There has been a lot of fear and this fear keeps people in a corner. I feel like what we do makes DACA recipients know they’re not alone. We’re trying to organize actions that keep emphasizing the importance of the protection for DACA recipients and a path to citizenship and that empower them.”

She feels her generation must hold lawmakers accountable.

“I’d like lawmakers to keep in mind that a lot of us allies protecting DREAMers are 18-19 years old that can vote and we’re going to keep civically engaged and emphasizing this issue because it’s really important.”

As a UNO pre-law student who works in an Omaha firm practicing immigration law, Linda Aguilar knows the fragile legal place she and fellow DREAMers occupy. She was brought illegally to America at age 6 from Guatemala and has two younger siblings who also depend on DACA. But she’s heartened by the support that business, labor and other concerns are showing.

“It has inspired me to continue being active and sharing with elected officials how much support there is for the DACA community.”

She hesitated speaking at a public event making the case for DACA before realizing she didn’t stand alone.

“Just knowing that behind me, around me were other DREAMers and I was there supporting them and they were there supporting me made me feel a lot stronger. Because we’re all in the same position, we all know what it feels like, we all walk in the same shoes.”

Alejandra Ayotitla Cortez won’t just be waiting for whatever happens by the March 5 deadline Trump’s given Congress.

“I am hoping for the best, but I am also taking action. not only me just hoping things will get better, it’s me educating my community so they know what actions we can take, such as calling our elected representatives to take action and to listen to our story and understand how urgent this is.”

Cortez, too, finds “encouraging” support “from people across the state, from leaders, from some of our state senators in Lincoln, from UNL professors and classmates.”

The Nebraska Immigration Legal Assistance hotline is 1-855-307-6730.

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Amanda Ryan brings lifelong passion for education to school board

October 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Serving on the Omaha Public Schools board has got to be one of the more challenging non-paid positions around. First of all, you have to get appointed or elected. Then comes the reality of representing your subdistrict and the community as a whole as a voting member of the governing body that’s over the superintendent and the administration of a very large and diverse urban school district serving 52,000 students. Throw in the fact that public schools are something every one has an opinion about – often a highly critical one at that – plus the fact that education brings up emotionally charged issues surrounding children, families, resources and opportunities, and certain disparities involving them, and you have the makings for one tough job. Despite all this, Omaha Public Schools board member Amanda Ryan loves the work and the responsibility. Her service is part of a lifelong passion she’s had for education. Read my El Perico profile of her here.

Amanda Ryan brings lifelong passion for education to school board
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico

When Amanda Ryan and her fellow Omaha Board of Education members couldn’t agree on hiring a new OPS superintendent last spring, it left that search in limbo and the community asking questions.

Now, this emerging young leader is gearing up with her colleagues for a new search sure to be closely followed by stakeholders and media outlets.

The Minden, Neb. native is a third generation Mexican-American on her mother’s side and identifies as a Latina. “That’s something that’s really important to me,” said Ryan, who is single with no children.

The 26-year-old is finishing work on her master’s in sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, just one of several markers she’s surpassed in her family.

“It’s interesting having to navigate being the first one in your family going to college,” she said.

Until winning the race for the Subdistrict 7 school board seat in 2016, she’d never run for or held public office before. She came on the board in a transition period that saw several new members elected to the body. The nine-member board selects the superintendent, sets policy, does strategic planning and oversees the broad brushstrokes of a diverse urban public school district serving 52,000 students, including many from migrant, immigrant and refugee populations.

Ryan feels her ethnic background, combined with her studies, her past experience working for Project Interfaith and her current job with the Institute for Holocaust Education, gives her insight into the district’s multicultural mosaic.

“I think all my education and life experience comes back to cultural understanding. With the wide array of students and staff we have in OPS. I think it’s important to remember those things.”

She sees a need for more minorities to empower themselves.

“In the political atmosphere we live in now, I think it’s really important people from marginalized communities express themselves and show that identity. That’s something I kind of ran on. It’s important kids see people similar to them doing important things so they realize, ‘Oh, I can be a leader, I can strive to do that as well.’ I think that’s something we need more of In Neb. We’re starting to have more leaders of color emerge, but it’s going to take some more time to do that.”

She credits former Omaha Public Schools board member and current Nebraska state legislator (District 7) Tony Vargas with emboldening her to run.

“Tony has been a very big influencer and mentor.”

Her decision to serve was intensely personal.

“Education has been such a huge motivating factor in my life. Everything I’ve done, every career aspiration I’ve had has to do with education. I can pinpoint teachers throughout my educational experience that have motivated me and helped me get to different places. I wanted it to pay it back somehow,”

Running for the board, she got some push-back for not having a child in OPS and for her youth. Regarding her age, she said, “I know during my campaign some people viewed it as a negative, but I think it’s a positive. It wasn’t that long ago I was in public school worrying about everything. I know some of these struggles these kids are going through.”

She has some goals for this academic school year.

“I am going to try in to be in the schools a lot more building relationships and rapport with teachers and administrators. I know morale is low. I think you can see that in board meetings when the teachers’ union and support staff come out and express these extreme frustrations.

“I want to do more community forum-listening sessions so that people are heard.”

In the wake of internal board contention that resulted in stalemates, members participated in a training session to improve communication skills and build unity.

“It was a bad experience for me starting off with all of that – the failed superintendent search, some of us wanting change in board leadership and others not wanting it. Then nobody wanting to work together to fix it. That was really hard.”

She said personality and idealogical differences – “I’m the furthest on the left politically on the board” – are being put aside.

“I do think it’s getting a lot better.”

She said disagreements are bound to occur and can even be healthy.

“Conflict isn’t bad. Out of conflict comes change and that change can be really good.”

About the new superintendent search, she said, “It’s something I really want to make sure we do right. We need to get good candidates and we need to select the right person. I think that’s going to be the biggest thing.”

Incumbent district chief Mark Evans is delaying his retirement a year to shepherd OPS until his successor’s hired and assumes the post next summer. Whoever fills that role, Ryan said, will have a full agenda.

“We’re going to be facing a lot of budget issues and we need somebody who’s going to be creative and progressive in how they deal with that. We are going to have to be very strategic to maximize as many different streams of revenue as we can. We need somebody who is politically savvy to work with state legislators and community organizations.”

Ryan knows something about making one’s own path.

“I’m ridiculously independent,” she said.

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

Art in the heart of South Omaha

September 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Until I saw a Facebook post about Omaha South putting on a production of “In the Heights” in collaboration with SNAP! Productions. it had somehow escaped me that South was the Omaha Public Schools’ Visual and Performing Arts Magnet. The show, which I saw and was most impressed by, was a fundraiser for a planned visual and performing arts addition at the school, which has a robust arts curriculum far surpassing anything found in another OPS building. Indeed, the quality of the show was so high that it sold me on writing a story for The Reader about the arts magnet emphasis at the inner city school. I then found out from faculty and students just how much is going on there and how passionate these educators and kids are about what they do in the arts. My resulting story is shared here. It appears in the September 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Art in the heart of South Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appears in the September 13, 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Chances are, you don’t know Omaha has a public high school of performing arts, It may further surprise you that South High School is that Fame-style institution.

South has been the Omaha Public Schools’ Visual & Performing Arts Magnet for two decades. But the architect for the arts emphasis there, retired South drama teacher Jim Eisenhardt, said “by the time we were named an arts magnet, we were already an arts magnet in all but name.”

Dramatic growth in student numbers has seen a corresponding growth in programs that finds South with the district’s most robust arts curriculum. Students can even elect to be an arts major. Seventy percent of all students take at least one arts class. Forty percent take at least two. Participation has exploded, especially in dance and guitar.

The interest and activity have South facing serious space issues to accommodate it all. Thus, the school’s embarked on a $12 million private fundraising campaign for a planned Visual & Performing Arts addition.

Becky Noble, South curriculum specialist and a drts Magnet facilitator, said space is at such a premium that some labs and classrooms meet in cramped former “closets.” Film and music technology classes share the same small digs. Neither has a dedicated studio.

“We can’t grow music tech and film anymore.”

With no permanent spaces for some classes, she said, “they’re constantly moving from place to place.” Even the dance studio is makeshift. The present black box theater lacks flexibility and accessibility.

She described conditions as “maxed out,” adding, “We need space that is appropriate to enhance learning.”

Then there’s the battle for updated technology. She said it can be difficult getting district officials to accept why not just any computers or software programs will do for the high-end things students create in film, digital art and music tech.

“We are so unusual in the district that sometimes they almost don’t know what to do about us.”

Asking for state-of-the-art gear and contracting professionals to teach dance takes some explaining.

“It’s an ongoing kind of beating our heads with having them understand that it is a special thing and it is important, it’s not just a fluff thing. We don’t have students in here for fluff. We have them in here because there is a real, honest curriculum.”

“Our basic philosophy to use art as a springboard to enhance problem-solving and abstract thought,” South theater director Kevin Barratt said.

Noble said the fact teachers make-do and still net great results speaks to their commitment.

“It is really a labor of love.”

The 55,000 square foot addition would add seven general education classrooms, dedicated studio spaces, a new black box theater and an art gallery. Noble said South’s fortunate to have a strong advocate making its case in Toba Cohen-Dunning, executive director of the Omaha Schools Foundation, the project’s fiscal agent.

Administrators, such as former principal Cara Riggs, are arts advocates, too. “She put some additional money behind it and now our current principal Ruben Cano is doing a great job of listening,” Noble said.

“The equity formula of the Omaha Public Schools allowed for dollars to follow students,” Riggs said. “As we received more dollars for our magnet students, we continued to find ways to strengthen our magnet programs, We found it important to create programs in the arts that students couldn’t get anywhere else in the metro: Dance taught by professional dance instructors; a piano lab and a guitar program; a film program and a computer gaming program.

“Our school culture improved and enrollment rocketed, with successful programs and positive word-of-mouth.”

South staffers, past and present, say they hoped the arts would catch fire but Eisenhardt said no one expected this.

“We started a dance class with 12 kids and now it’s up above 400 (with five styles offered). There are over 300 kids in guitar and piano.”

Alum Kate Myers Madsen, who was active in music and theater at South, theorizes why the arts flourish there.

“I think the reason it’s so well-received is that it’s so in the community of people who are incredibly talented but might not come from homes that have the means to put them in private voice or instrument lesson and dance classes. It’s providing huge value to students who normally would not be able to access it.”

This arts infusion didn’t just happen, it was intentionally built by Eisenhardt and Co. from 1982 to his 2006 retirement. He cultivated relationships with community arts organizations that exposed students to professionals in many disciplines. Over time, South became the district’s arts epicenter and the magnet designation naturally followed.

“My colleagues across the district knew what the arts program was at South,” he said. “No one ever asked me why we got it (magnet status) and not somebody else. There were great arts teachers already here like Toni Turnquist and Mary Lou Jackson and Josh Austin working hard to create something important.”

Then-principal Joyce Christensen granted great autonomy and Eisenhardt ran with it.

“She encouraged people to do things that were innovative and making sure the kids had the best experience they could in high school. I would just forge ahead and do something, not necessarily checking with her for permission first, but she supported it. She knew I would never do anything to embarrass South High.

“Roni Huerta, my counterpart as the magnet coordinator for Information & Technology, was a big supporter of what we did in the arts. Because of her we got the dance classes to count as physical education credits.”

Eisenhardt said Jerry Bartee, another former South principal, also lent great support.

Many things make South an arts magnet. Start with the array of class options available and the fact these disciplines have different sections and levels. There are multiple music ensembles as well.

Before coming to South, Eisenhardt was at Omaha Tech, where he formed relationships with Opera Omaha’s Jane Hill and the Omaha Community Playhouse’s Charles Jones. Opera rehearsals were held at Tech. The Nebraska Theatre Caravan rehearsed A Christmas Carol there. When Tech closed, Eisenhardt invited these rehearsals to travel to South. The ties were eventually formalized as Adopt-a-School partnerships.

“Both of those had great impact on our success as a magnet school,” Eisenhardt said.

Omaha music director Hal France worked with Opera Omaha then.

“We had a home on the South High Auditorium stage rehearsing all our shows with international and national opera singers and directors. Despite putting on five shows a year of their own at South, Jim always made the schedule work for us. It was a dream. It was a relationship based on trust that emanated first and foremost from Jim, a magnificent, remarkable host.”

Opera Omaha even collaborated with South on three productions with staff-students. The last of these, Bloodlines, was a 2004 original with a libretto by Jane Hill and Eisenhardt and a score by Deb Teason,

“Jane and I worked with the kids to write a script based on their experiences as immigrants in Omaha,” Eisenhardt said. “The title came from the idea that these immigrants worked the bloodlines in the packinghouses and also the bloodlines of their families.

“That year the Omaha World-Herald named it one of the top ten cultural events in Omaha. It was quite a production and really an important part of the development of the magnet. By the time that was over, the magnet was in full swing.”

Riggs said with those kinds of collaborations, “we were able to create extra-value in the school experience, beyond the many required academic courses.”

Outside district and arts circles, South’s magnet identity is a best-kept-secret. The school’s inner-city location, working-class environment and low achievement scores may not fit some perceptions of what an arts magnet should look like.

“That’s all a big part of it,” Noble said. “It’s our challenge. One of the things we talk a lot about is that we have to continue to get more and more known in the community.”

Noble hopes others see South’s diversity as an asset.

“When we go to some competitions, most of the other schools are all white, but our kids represent what the world looks like.”

Senior arts major Jax Barkhouse, who lives in West Omaha and was expected to follow his friends to a suburban school, battled those perception issues.

“It was especially hard for me because people were like, ‘Why are you going to South?’ They think bad things about it. But I only tell them good things about it.”

South has traditionally been the main receiving school for immigrant, refugee and migrant populations. After a sharp enrollment decline, it’s experienced a renaissance. The rebirth has coincided with the boon of the South 24th business district it borders and the arrival of Latino and Sudanese families in the surrounding neighborhoods it serves.

The school’s home to a dense demographic of Latinos, Africans, Asians, African-Americans and Caucasians. South’s vast arts program and additional magnets in Information & Technology and Dual Language have made it the school of choice for the overwhelming majority of students in its home attendance area.

South also draws students from outside the area attracted to its focused offerings.

Madsen, Barkhouse and junior Ori Parks bypassed their home schools for South due to its arts concentration.

“It surpassed anything I had expected,” said Madsen. “I did a lot of things outside school.”

South funded most of her travel to Great Britain for a Playhouse-sponsored theater immersion. Since graduating in 2006, she’s performed at the Shelterbelt, The Rose and Iowa Western Community College.

“The opportunities afforded me at South allowed me to really identify what it was I loved about the arts and which track I wanted to follow. I had been classically trained up until my freshman year in high school, so the opportunity to do musical theater really allowed me to see what it was that I loved about theater performing,”

Barkhouse followed his heart to South.

“I was supposed to go to Burke, but I chose to come down here because of the performing arts. I’m so glad that I chose South. I love it.”

He plans majoring in musical theater in college.

Parks, who lives closer to Benson, was sold on South because of its rich arts options.

“I was like, whoa, they have all this stuff.”

“Having easy access to the arts here at South is really a great benefit,” said Jennifer Au, among the 80 percent of arts majors on the honor roll. “I think being involved in the arts really helps me with my schoolwork.”

Results like these help explain why there’s such energy and interest from students in going there.

“When I left South, we averaged 1,300 students and now its 2,500,” said Eisenhardt, “and a lot of that’s because of the success the kids have found in the arts, the teachers there supporting the arts and the work the kids do outside the normal classroom.”

It doesn’t hurt that South graduates are findings careers in the arts. Rachel McCutcheon stage managed The Book of Mormon on Broadway. Paul Coate performed with Nebraska Shakespeare, Nebraska Repertory Theatre, Opera Omaha and the Omaha Symphony. Since moving to Minneapolis, he’s acted with the Guthrie Theatre and sung with the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

“My experiences at South were the foundation on which I built my career as a performing artist,” Coate said. “The arts programming and faculty leadership were very strong. I feel very lucky to have been in such a good place at such a pivotal time in my life.

There’s real talent there, too. Just ask director Kevin Lawler, who’s helmed work nationally. He was at the Blue Barn when Hill asked him to direct Bloodlines. In his current post as Great Plains Theatre Conference artistic director, he’s made South an integral part of the annual Playfest series. Visiting L.A. playwright Michael John Garces wrote an original piece called South drawn in part from interviews with students that he and the show’s director, Scott Working, conducted.

“The staff work immensely hard to give the education, tools and positive creative channels to these, the next generation of great young creatives and artists of Omaha,” Lawler said. “There is so much talent and energy packed into South High each day that, with the proper support, the impact that it can have on our city in terms of our cultural life and our community will be immeasurable.”

South, with students as the mainstay performers, premiered at the conference in late May to a warm reception. In July, a joint South-SNAP! Productions mounting of In the Heights elicited raves and kicked off the “Art in the Heart of South Omaha” campaign for the new addition. South theater students worked the show, including Aimee Perez-Valentin, who ran tech. Alums participated as well, including Kate Myers Madsen in the role of Vanessa and Esmeralda Moreno Villanueva stage managing.

“It was very interesting being on the other side of it this time in this more mature role,” Madsen said. “”For me, it was very much coming home because that was my first stage where I stepped out as a musical theater performer. For a lot of these students, it was their first show. They were experiencing what I did the first time. I was blown away by their talent.

“We have a lot of talent, not only in Omaha but at this school specifically.”

Theater students have made the cut for the Playhouse’s apprentice program.

Senior Jax Barkhouse earned a role in the Playhouse’s production of Mamma Mia! opening September 15.

Grad Ja’Taun Markel Pratt is attending the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.

South’s 2016 production of Check Please was selected to perform at the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln. Three students recognized for Outstanding Performances over the last four years

The Show Choir made it to nationals last year.

“We have kids at the top levels of dance who are getting dual enrollment credit at UNO for dance and who are majoring in dance at UNL,” Noble said.

2013 grad and University of Nebraska at Omaha senior Maria Fernanda Reyes performs with UNO’s prestigious Moving Company dance troupe.

Noble said South instrumental music students get a firm foundation in music theory, ear training, sight reading, et cetera. Music tech grads are being prepared to enter audio engineering college studies and careers.

“It’s a pretty amazing curriculum and we have kids going off to college to major in piano performance. Any of our teachers can tell you about the rigor they include in their program. Everyone here understands you meet them where they are and you move them up.

“We want to equip them with whatever they need to go on and be successful at the next level. We want them to be good. We want them to have the right training.”

South’s collaborations with arts professionals continue. Earlier this year vocal students performed in concert with Grammy-recording artist Eric Church at Pinnacle Bank Arena and the CenturyLink Center. “Years ago our choir performed with Michael Buble. We have developed a nice relationship with the Grammy Foundation. We received their Community Award for our wide-ranging arts programs. They are the ones who recommended us for Eric Church, whose people seemed very pleased with our kids.”

Noble knows talent when she sees it.

“I’m obviously biased, but I’m also realistic, and if it wasn’t good, I’d know it.”

Noble is among several staffers with still active careers in the local arts scene. She’s sung with professional ensembles, was the owner-executive director of the Dundee Dinner Theatre and is founder-director of Cabaret Theatre. South theater director Kevin Barratt is a veteran of Omaha stages.

“We have a lot of people on our staff who do work as artists in the community and that’s important to us because that’s how our students learn.”

Guest artists bring additional expertise.

“That’s a big part of the reason why we did In the Heights and brought in some people from the community (including director Michael Simpson from SNAP!). The more people you work with and the more opportunities you have like that the better you get.

“I think a lot of our success has to do with people who are passionate about it and don’t back down. And we are fighters – we do fight for it.”

Eisenhardt said it’s always been this way: “We provided the kids with more opportunities than any other school. The normal school did a couple (theater) shows a year. We did five a year at South (still do). We did things beyond school. We developed Neon Theatre, an improv troupe that provides entertainment for schools and civic groups. Our show choir performs 50 or more times a years. Those kinds of opportunities are important to the development of the magnet.

“South continues to reach out and collaborate with the community. It’s not so insular that it just does its thing and that’s enough. It reaches out to theater groups and art groups and dance groups and music groups and allows the kids to see that there’s more than just school time that needs to be spent on creating great art.”

South hosts a district-wide One-Act-Play Festival. Community professionals do staged readings and judging of the work.

The Opera Omaha and Playhouse partnerships continue, though not as intense.

“I think it’s just a shift in focus on the part of schools and organizations,” Noble said. “Partnerships develop because of a specific project as opposed to just a general partnership. Great Plains and SNAP! are not official partners but we do lots of work with those groups. We enjoy a great relationship with the Omaha Performing Arts education department. They are very supportive of our programs and when touring arts groups come into town, we often have the opportunity for performances-workshops.”

At South, David Weisser teaches the only filmmaking classes offered by an OPS school and he serves on the Film Streams education committee. His students and Josh Austin’s music tech students often collaborate, as do music, theater and dance students.

Noble, who teaches vocal and choral, speaks for her colleagues in describing the charge educators and visiting artists get when things click for students.

“It’s exceptional to see their passion and how they realize that something is speaking to them. You can’t downplay what the arts teach you. You can’t downplay the creativity, the independent thinking, the ability to work together and collaborate and all those things that are the skills you need to succeed in life.”

Esmeralda Moreno Villanueva, a graduate of the Playhouse apprenticeship program, said her intersection with the arts at South “changed my whole life.”

She studied drama, stage craft, guitar, music tech, film, piano and dance all for the first time at South.

“I ended up falling in love with the theater. I had wanted to be a nurse or something and I ended up changing my whole career-life plan. I love where I am right now.”

She’s pursuing an associate’s degree and working shows – currently stage managing Bent for SNAP! at the Shelterbelt.

“I call it my life calling. Theater is my life and I want it to my career. There’s so many things that make this beautiful work of art and I want to help make that art.

“It’s the perfect place for me. It’s my dream job.”

Now, South just needs enhanced facilities to help make more students’ dreams a reality.

“The addition is essential to provide adequate space for the school to develop legitimate “artists-of-the-theater,” Barratt said. “Coupled with our music, dance and visual arts departments, we need the space to help students prepare for the professional world.”

For arts and campaign updates, visit south.ops.org.

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

Omaha School Board: In search of new normal after discord

September 22, 2017 Leave a comment

The Omaha School Board weathered a rough fall 2016 through spring 2017 patch that saw the elected Omaha Public Schools governing body repeatedly fail to reach consensus. Most visibly, the board couldn’t agree on a new superintendent even though the sitting super had announced his plans to retire and selecting his successor was the board’s overriding order of business. That coming to loggerheads over the search was part of a pattern in which strong divisions, in-fighting and intransigence among members resulted in long, drawn- out votes and open bickering. Since much of this went public last year, the board’s been trying to find a new normal after the discord and to move forward with the help of some training to improve communication. Mark Evans has stayed on as superintendent to provide stability as the board gears up for a new search amidst the many other matters before it and the district. This is my piece on what went down and where things are moving. The story’s mostly told through board members’ and the superintendent’s own words. The story appears in the September 2017 issue of The Reader.

Omaha School Board: In search of new normal after discord
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appears in the September 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)


Mark Evans

When the Omaha Public Schools board failed finding a new superintendent last spring, it marked the continuation of internal conflicts and district dirty laundry being aired.

Between the suspended search and the start of this new school year, holdover superintendent Mark Evans, who earlier announced his retirement, agreed to stay on an extra year. Some board members have openly championed him. Others have been at odds with him. In the wake of all this noise, Evans and board members say they’re moving past their sometimes fractious past.

A major order of business is reactivating the stalled search and reaching consensus on Evans’ successor. That decision, along with implementing a new student assignment plan, opening schools, a pending bond issue and resuming focus on a strategic plan Evans initiated, will be scrutinized by a wary community.

Things got messy enough that over the summer all nine board members participated in trainings conducted by Omaha-based consultant Marj Plumb centered around interpersonal communication and relationship building. More coaching sessions may follow.

Meanwhile, a Board Governance committee is forming to serve as a professional development-oversight body.


Lacy Merica, OPS School Board

Some history is necessary to understand how things got to this point. In January, the newly constituted board required 100-plus votes to elect a president – Lacey Merica. Many 5-4 decisions on district matters followed tense board meetings. When the search dragged on amid sharp division, the final three candidates withdrew from the process, citing dysfunction. Heated criticism from stakeholders peaked after the Omaha World-Herald published acrimonious emails between some board members. The sniping caused some observers to question members’ professionalism and focus.

Rifts have erupted over student achievement – where despite gains, gaps persist – response to disproportionate student suspensions and student transportation snafus.

District leadership has come under fire for not seeking enough educator-public input on instituting an extended school day, rolling out a new sex ed curriculum and calling off the superintendent search.


Bridget Donovan_President, Omaha Education Association_photo by Debra S. Kaplan

Omaha Education Association president Bridget Donovan said she wants leadership to invite principals, teachers and paras to be more involved in the new search “because I think that helps set up the success for the next superintendent.” Without more transparency, she said, “We don’t even know as a public or an employee what criteria they (the board) are using.”

With the new school year now underway, the clock’s ticking and the community’s watching to see how things are different this time around.

“I’m feeling a little bit hopeful they’re going to actually engage us in a meaningful way,” said Donovan, whose organization represents OPS educators. “I do believe the board is making an effort to do that,” though she questions if they’ve learned to constructively disagree.

Evans, Snow and Merica agree the board’s performance will be judged on how the school year proceeds and on the tenor of open meetings. They say since attending the training they note a discernible improvement in how they relate to each other and Evans.

Even with everything on the board’s plate, how members handle the new search will be the most telling marker for where they’ve arrived.

“With as big an issue as it was, I think they (the board) really have to get this right this time,” Donovan said. “They’re going to be under tremendous pressure.”

In August, a subcommittee devoted to the quest voted to cut ties with the previous search firm and to commission a new one. The goal is to move on a fast track and to hire a new superintendent by the end of December.

“We started the committee that will bring back recommendations to the board for what is the next step, what the timeline looks like and how the community’s going to have input in that,” Merica said.

She said it’s key “we get that community buy-in” after complaints OPS hasn’t been sufficiently transparent.

Evans and Co. downplayed any concerns that chaotic events of the past might dissuade qualified candidates from throwing their names in the ring.

“I think the new search firm will tell whoever those candidates are … that we learned from that experience, we’ve grown from that experience,” he said. “Actually, it’s a great time to come because we wound up finding a way to work together in a collective fashion.”

The board training provided insight into individual and interpersonal dynamics member now apply in practice.

“We talked a little bit about ourselves and our personalities,” Lacey Merica said. “It was really helpful to kind of get us all on the same page of hey, look at your (fellow) board members as human beings, too.”

If Snow’s learned anything, he said, It’s to “compromise and understand where people are coming from, and no matter if I disagree with their decision, respect them . . . Our objective is to make a decision as a unified board, not one individual.

Snow said the training was a lesson in swallowing pride.

“Everyone first has to acknowledge the fact that everyone has room to improve. And the fact that we were able to get every board member to show up proved that. The downfall about our board in the past and of most school boards across the country is they (members) only meet at board meetings. They only get the chance to talk about issues in the board meeting when a decision’s made, and if I don’t know you personally, I might take that personally.”

Mark Evans said the training wasn’t a mandate but a mutually agreed upon need.

“It was a discussion we all had. We wanted to send a message that we were going to try to live together and not have the controversies and conflict of the past and to try and get a feel for what caused some of the breakdown in communication and trust. It was just a desire to turn the page.”

“It’s going to be critical as we start the ‘sup’ search,” he said. “The student assignment plan is difficult, the busing issue is difficult. The bond issue – we’ve got board members that have different feelings there and that’s a big issue.

“Three years ago I don’t think we could have compromised on some of those issues. Today, I think we can. I think that’s part of the evolution of the process.”

Snow and Merica say there’s a new appreciation for the board speaking or acting as one.

“We all need to be unified when we are talking about putting up another bond for this school district,” said Snow. “We all need to be unified when we’re talking about launching a new student assignment plan. We all need to be on the same page.”

“I honestly think the Community Eligibility Provision is a good example,” Merica said of the free meal option for low income schools. “It was not a unanimous board vote to not expand the program and it’s something I and Amanda Ryan (fellow school board member) are really passionate about (expanding). Yeah, it’s upsetting, but it’s what’s best for the district. That was the board’s decision. So let’s keep working, let’s fix the problems identified, so that down the road we can expand it.”

No one’s under the allusion there won’t be disagreements, but maintaining decorum is a new emphasis, as is making an effort to have more face-to-face exchanges outside board meetings.


Marque A. Snow, Vice President of OPS School Barrd_Photo Courtesy of Omaha Public Schools

“If we disagree we’re going to sit down one-on-one and have that discussion,” Snow said.

“We have to communicate more with each other and ask questions and talk about issues,” Merica said.

“Chances are you’re going to have differences with different groups you come in contact with, but that doesn’t mean you stop the conversation,” OEA president Bridget Donovan said. “You have to be able to disagree appropriately with one another. It can’t become so personal when you disagree. It has to be worked out.”

The crucible the board underwent was perhaps unavoidable given its inexperience.

“I was hired in December 2012 by the 12-member board that in January, after I had been hired, got ousted,” said Evans. “So, these guys (current board) weren’t even a part of the selection committee for me.”

A new nine member board came on with seven new members.

“There was this whole sense of charge from the community at that point in time, and I think that was a part of the challenge, too,” Evans said. “Everybody had their own interpretation of the charge and I had my interpretation of what I was hired to do: to move student achievement in not only some schools but all schools, including schools that haven’t achieved in the past.”

Then the board underwent another makeover after the 2016 election. For many, it was their first elected public service post.

“I understood the dynamics of the political change,” Evans said. “That was tough on the board. There was not one board member that had a decade of service, for example. Usually when there’s a new board election there’s one or two that have been there a long time who can say to the new board member, ‘Well, this is why it’s this way.’ There wasn’t anyone that could do that. And I couldn’t do either because I was new, too, so I couldn’t give the whole history,”

Added to the challenge is the district’s complex profile.

“We are unique,” Merica said. “We are a large urban district. We have concentrations of poverty and not just poverty, it’s generational poverty, and that is different. We’ve got a large immigrant-refugee population.

“But we also have a community that’s more supportive of its public schools than a lot of other communities.”

Despite what Evans called “some bumps in the road,” he and the board say OPS remains a public education leader.

“When you look at all the things from 10,000 feet ,we are still educating kids, teachers are still showing up and working hard. Over 60 percent of our teachers have a masters degree or above. There are other school districts not even close to that level.”

Bridget Donovan is proud of the high caliber teachers and quality education found in OPS. She appreciates the difficult job the board has overseeing a large, diverse district. She doesn’t want a board that votes in lockstep since members represent different subdistricts and needs. But she also doesn’t want contention.

“We want thoughtful school board members who are voting what they believe is in the best interest. The more they can work together and communicate with one another, the better off they’ll be. I do think they’re working on it.”

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

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.

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)

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