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The healthcare war: Round and round it goes again, and where it stops, nobody knows

August 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The healthcare war:

Round and round it goes again, and where it stops, nobody knows

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

As we go to press with this issue, the Republican-led attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare struggles on..

One of the most controversial things the GOP plan broached was severely cutting Medicaid, the nation’s largest health care program. Critics see it as an entitlement grown far beyond its original scope. Most recipients are children, mothers, the disabled and the elderly. The proposed $770 billion cut – spread out over several years – would have impacted millions, particularly the working poor in rural regions, who account for many of those added to the rolls through the ACA’s Medicaid expansion.

One World Community Health Centers CEO Andrea Skolkin said far from an automatic hand-out, qualifying for Medicaid is actually “very difficult.” She added, “There’s a lot of myths about Medicaid and who’s eligible to be enrolled. If you’re an able-bodied adult, you’re not really eligible. You really have to be an advocate for yourself in getting enrolled with all the paperwork because you have to prove your income. It’s an arduous process.”

The program, said Skolkin, places severe limits on not only eligibility, but coverage for certain things. Any tightening of eligibility and reduction of spending, she said, would result in even less access to care.

“As Medicaid ratchets down what it pays to providers, providers are less likely to want to accept Medicaid and so this vulnerable population doesn’t have as much choice of provider of where to get care, and that’s a problem.”

Currently, one in five Americans is enrolled in the program. In Nebraska, which refused Medicaid expansion, one in eight or some 230,000 people are enrolled. Skolkin estimates about 70,000 Nebraskans fall in the gaps – either not eligible for the marketplace or not covered by a private plan or by Medicaid.

Nebraska Methodist Health System vice president and CFO Jeff Francis was most troubled that “draconian cuts” to Medicaid were even on the table for so long.

“The thing that still looms out there that bothers me is that there wasn’t much budge on that,” Francis said. “I  understand the partisan divisions on that, but at the end of the day that degree of cut to Medicaid is going to really impact individuals and individuals’ coverage. In Nebraska we get a bit of a double whammy, no matter what happens with the cuts because, one, we weren’t a Medicaid expansion state, so we’ve not benefited at all from some of the expanded coverage in federal dollars that went along with that. And, two, historically we’ve been lower on the Medicaid spending spectrum, and so as that translates into cuts and block grants for the states, Nebraska’s going to get hit pretty hard.”

Medicaid is crucial for millions getting treatment for maladies, and Skolkin said, “It also has an impact on long-term care in a tremendous way.”

Low weight new babies, infant mortality, STD and teen pregnancy rates are at crisis levels. The opioid epidemic got highlighted in the recent care plan debates. Mental illness is increasingly recognized as an acute public health problem. In the proposed Medicaid cut, some public schools would have lost funding for screenings and other care that students from low income families rely on.

In this high needs scenario, cutting access to care means some people will delay or defer treatment, and those with conditions that could be prevented or controlled will get sicker, while others will seek care in emergency rooms, all of which puts more pressure on providers. The system’s closely interwoven nature is such that pulling hard on one strand, like public health, will fray or undo other strands in this fragile crazy quilt.

“The tapestry doesn’t work without all the threads,” said One World pediatric nursing practitioner Sara Miller.

Nebraska Medicine CEO Dr. Daniel DeBehnke appreciates how those outside the industry often fail to see just what a tightly-knit fabric it is.

“I don’t know if it’s a disconnect or just a reflection of the complexity of it,” DeBehnke said.

In the event of cuts, he said, “low income individuals are going to need to make really tough choices about how to pay for a roof over their head and feed their family and pay for healthcare, and some may put off healthcare, and that has several domino effects. People become less healthy and when they do access healthcare, they require more services. Once they do require services, a lot of that financial burden gets shifted to the facilities caring for them, be it a local clinic, provider or large health system.”

Sara Miller envisions “life expectancy decreasing because you don’t have the opportunity to intervene in the early years, especially for kids to have healthy habits, and to do preventive medicine, so that folks don’t have diabetes or high cholesterol by the time they’re in their mid-20s.” She added, “My fear most is for the families that it affects and their deciding between food and electricity and healthcare. That’s a decision nobody should ever have to make.”

Exacerbating it all, DeBehnke said, is the “skyrocketing” cost of care.

“We should be focusing on that as well and not just in cutting the dollars that go for healthcare – but how can we decrease the cost of healthcare, the cost of prescription drugs driving a lot of the cost. How can we drive healthcare systems like ours and others to be more efficient and cost-conscious. We’re working on that every single day because we know that’s how we’re going to be paid in the future,” DeBehnke said. “But there are all those other things we should be working on as well so that we pay less for healthcare as opposed to just giving less money for healthcare.”

No matter where this all lands, he said, “When we talk about Nebraska Medicine and our mission, we’ll take care of anybody that walks in our door. That’s who we are and that’s what we do and we’re big enough to be able to do that.”

As a Federally Qualified Health Center, One World takes anyone, too, but it doesn’t have as deep of pockets as Nebraska Medicine.

“When we have increases in numbers like we have seen – we cared for over 18,000 patients last year who were uninsured, which is more than half of all of our patients – that’s an increasing burden as an organization in trying to leverage other funds so we can take care of all people,” Skolkin said. “If Medicaid reduces what it reimburses for certain services, again that’s a reduction to every provider, including us. So, whether you need an x-ray or some lab work. as things get reduced we get less payment for that and then it just has a ripple effect.

“So, cuts do impact us and at some point we won’t be able to provide the extent of care we provide. I would hate to see that happen, but at some point you have to be able to make your budget.”

DeBehnke said no matter what happens, “there’s going to be people left behind,” adding, “The idea that I hope legislators are thinking about is how do we leave the least amount behind.”

Jeff Francis said this is no time to be complacent even as Nebraska Methodist Health System is “operating well under the Affordable Care Act.” He added, “It took some time for us to be able to understand it. We’re now into the fourth year of the federal exchanges and the insurance aspects of it. Other parts of it we’ve been operating under for about six years. And so it’s going on. We’re seeing better outcomes because the focus is on quality and outcomes as opposed to just the fee for service or being paid for services.”

But just as the ACA was never meant to be a panacea for all the system’s faults, Francis said major cuts to public health would have negative consequences.

“To the extent there are less insured and so people are doing less preventive, that would be a step backwards from a public health standpoint. We still have the vulnerable populations – those with chronic conditions, in some cases multiple chronic conditions, those with mental health challenges, the working poor.”

Methodist Health and others are working to fill the gaps where they can.

“We’re reaching out to try and address that,” Francis said “by opening up a community health center in downtown Omaha to work with other entities-services to reach vulnerable populations. That center is going to have Lutheran Family Services associated with it to try to deal with that behavioral health component.”

The center is part of the Kountze Commons project on the former KETV site at 26th and Douglas. It’s an expansion of existing Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church health and food services.

Andy Hale, Vice President of Advocacy for the Nebraska Hospital Association, said his organization has been lobbying the state’s congressional delegation to “ensure all Americans can access the compassionate, patient-centered and affordable healthcare they deserve.”

“Nebraska’s hospitals serve as the safety net in each of their communities,” Hale said.

Hospital programs benefit the state, he said, by “providing free care to individuals unable to pay, absorbing the unpaid costs of public programs such as Medicare and Medicaid,” as well as “subsidizing health services reimbursed at amounts below the cost of providing the care … and incurring bad debt from individuals that choose not to pay their bills,” according to Hale.

Hale said hospitals serving more rural regions typically to treat “older, poorer, sicker populations” who tend to be on Medicare or Medicaid.

“Medicaid plays a critical role for Americans who live in small towns and rural areas,” Hale said. “Almost half of all children living in small towns and rural areas receive their health coverage through Medicaid. Research shows Medicaid provides families with access to necessary health services.”

He said any drastic cuts will be felt most in rural areas.

“Many hospital margins are already thin, but when you begin cutting reimbursement rates, it hits their bottom lines and drives those hospitals to significant losses.”

One World’s Andrea Skolkin said even in this repeal and replace mania, vital aspects of public care should not be lost in the shuffle.

“The expansion of Medicaid funding for children through CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) expires on September 30. All of these things are tied together.”

DeBehnke would like whatever process follows this latest effort to undo the ACA to be deliberate.

“President Trump said at the beginning of all this, ‘Who would have thought this was so complex?’ Well, we’ve all known it’s this complex and we’ve been trying to warn it’s this complex all along,” DeBehnke said. “As opposed to rushing to try to get something done because it was a campaign promise lawmakers made to their constituents, let’s take our time and try to figure it out and get it right. Obamacare wasn’t perfect either. There are good things we can pull from there that are in the right direction.”

Behind-the-scenes, executives like DeBehnke and Francis are bending elected officials’ ears.

“We’re wanting to make sure legislators and policymakers keep that longer view perspective. I think that’s coming out in some of the town halls the senators and congressman are hearing,” Francis said.

Meanwhile, the leadership of Nebraska Medicaid is in transition. Longtime director Calder Lynch left for a federal job in May. Former deputy director Rocky Thompson is serving as interim head until a permanent replacement is found.

Andrea Skolkin is unsettled, too, by the unknown but feels something like universal care will emerge and retain a public health haven.

“We are having those conversations – trying to make our representatives aware of the patient base we care for and what the impacts of cuts would be. Many of our patients, almost all of them, fall into this vulnerable bracket. If you cut too hard, then that social compact becomes less available for the people that need it most.

“I do believe there will be something for everyone. I think Medicaid is still going to be there. There’s a lot of argument-dialogue going around right now. It hasn’t been as productive as it could be. But I am hopeful it will end in the right place. Whether the Affordable Care Act is repealed or not, there has to be a safety net in place for people who are more vulnerable.”

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

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Roger Garcia: Servant Leader

August 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Garcia Makes Community Service his Life’s Work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Origiinally appeared in Omaha Magazne

 

Roger Garcia fits squarely in the mix of young professionals taking their turn at leading Omaha.

As a former special assistant to Mayor Jim Suttle on urban affairs and community engagement, Garcia kept close tabs on issues impacting Latinos. Today, he continues doing the same as a community volunteer and activist with his eyes set on earning a master’s degree in public administration to prepare for the non-profit leadership role he expects to assume one day.

His community focus right now extends to serving on the boards of Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska,the  Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Brown-Black Coalition of Greater Omaha. He also works with the Latino Academic Achievement Council and the South Omaha Violence Prevention-Intervention Initiative.

He chairs the Nebraska Democratic Party Latino Caucus, which actively addresses issues like redistricting and immigration.

He’s so busy he’s had to hand over the reins of the Omaha Metro Young Latinos Professional Association he founded and led.

His deep concern and involvement keep him attuned to what’s going on and to where he and the organizations he represents can help.

“I do need to know what’s going on in the community and to see where we can help out if at all possible,” he says.

Everywhere he looks, he sees young professional making a difference.

“It’s definitely a growing community that’s being sought after more and more. Lots of people are wanting to know where we stand and what our opinions are. They want us to get involved because we bring that new energy or new mind frame. Our technology-social media skills are in demand.

“I think it’s a population that will definitely gain in influence. Clearly, we’re the leaders of tomorrow.”

He’s glad the distraction of the mayoral recall election has passed and the city administration and the community can move forward as one.

“Luckily that’s over and we can focus on just bettering the community.”

For Garcia, there’s no higher calling than public service.

“I love working with people, I love trying to help people better themselves. It’s just something I truly enjoy doing. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to serve.”

Roger Garcia: A Young Man on the Move

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Roger Garcia is a young man in a hurry.

He took a job in Mayor Jim Suttle’s office last June at age 22, a full year short of graduating from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Now, eight months into his position as Community Liaison this dual psychology and Latino/Latin American Studies major is slated to earn his bachelor’s degree in May.

He can hardly wait. Next up is an Omaha Board of Education bid and then either law school or pursuing his master’s in psychology, an educational-career path he said he chose “because of my love of interacting with people, which ultimately leads to a love of helping people and serving people.”

Growing up, first in Los Angeles, then in Schuyler and Columbus, Neb., Garcia was precocious, alway excelling in school and involved in community activities. His parents’ split-up in L.A. precipitated his Honduran immigrant mother Margarita coming to Neb. with Roger and his two older brothers. His mother had a cousin living in Schuyler.

The culture shock was profound.

“It was completely different going from a humongous city to a tiny Midwestern town of about 6,000 at that point,” said Garcia. “I had never seen snow, I had never seen cows. The demographics were completely different. I was just one of about three maybe four Latinos in my class. Today, if you go to Schuyler it’s like 95 percent or more Latinos in the elementary school. It’s pretty interesting how it’s changed.

“It did require adjusting but ultimately I truly liked the Nebraska lifestyle, even the small town lifestyle.”

After two years in Schuyler, where his mother worked in a meatpacking plant, the family moved to Columbus. The Garcias again found themselves part of a small minority community.

“Being a Latino newcomer, especially to those small towns, there’s a lot of good experiences and there’s a lot of bad experiences as well,” he said. “I don’t like to dwell on the bad experiences but they did happen. Of course, there’s a lot of racism in smaller towns, going as far as violent acts I saw towards my friends. Luckily no physical violence was done to me but there were things like random yelling at me and my family.

“But there’s a lot of good things that came from living in those small towns. It’s a great peaceful atmosphere. Most of my friends were Caucasian and I learned a lot from them and their families. And I am bicultural as far as having that small town Nebraska experience and learning the cultures of my parents.”

His father’s from Mexico and his step-father’s from Guatemala. His dad’s been out of his life for some time, his mother only remarried a few years ago and his brothers don’t share his passion for education. His mom pushed him to achieve.

“She’s always promoted my getting an education and she’s been there for me through my process,” he said. “She always wanted me to get those straight As and that really influenced my desire for knowledge in general, something that’s very big in my life. I love to read — history, literature. I have a passion for knowledge and learning.”

His interest in politics and government was stoked by the events of 9/11. He became a news junkie fixated on U.S. policies, issues. Upon graduating high school and enrolling at UNO his interest shifted to events closer to home. Two important figures in his life became UNO’s Lourdes Gouveia and Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, who gave direction to his social justice bent.

“They got me involved in some political and voter mobilization campaigns. I learned a lot about policy that directly affects the Latino community. So they’ve definitely been mentors to me. I appreciate both of them.”

Garcia became an advocate and organizer with grassroots initiatives aimed at overturning anti-immigrant legislation. His role: educating the community about the impact of bills and encouraging people to participate by letting their voices be heard.

“I have a passion and a drive to just help people, stand up for them, in an educated and professional manner of course. I need to be informed on the topics.”

He worked with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies, the Anti-Defamation League and the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute. His interest and experience coalesced when he worked on the Suttle campaign doing bilingual phone calls, canvasing South 24th St. and connecting then-candidate Suttle with local Latino leaders.

After Suttle’s victory Garcia posed ideas to the new mayor and staff about interacting with the Latino community and they liked his ideas so much, he said, “they offered me a position.” He chairs the South Omaha Advisory Committee he created himself.

“One of my main objectives coming into this is just making sure people within the community have a direct line of communication to the mayor’s office,” said Garcia. “Some people feel detached from government, that it’s hard to get straight answers, so I wanted to make sure people felt they could contact us directly and they had a source that would reliably reply to them.

Since the mayor can’t be everywhere, as a community liaison I can go to meetings for him. That’s a big part of it, being in the community, seeing what the needs are, what the happenings are.

“That’s why it’s so important to meet so many organizations and people, so they can feel comfortable that if they have any question they can just call me and they will get an answer. Sometimes I’ll join a committee or a board just to be at the ground level in the community with some projects, helping out in whatever we can utilizing city services.”

There’s no where he’d rather be.

“Doing community service is just something I love to do, so to incorporate it into my job, that’s beautiful.”

Red tape, red flags – H-1B Visas pose real consequences

June 8, 2018 2 comments

Red tape, red flags – H-1B Visas pose real consequences

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in the May-June 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

 

“People need to understand [H-1B] is particularly vital for small states like ours where we’ve got low unemployment and a high need for STEM jobs,” says Amy Peck, an immigration attorney with Jackson Lewis, P.C.

One recent search on the popular monster.com job searching database revealed more than 30 software development jobs in Omaha posted within one month—jobs for a field where the overall unemployment rate is 1.6 percent.

That’s why many in IT or other STEM-related fields paid attention when, in July 2017, President Donald Trump signed the “Buy American-Hire American” executive order, which subjects already hard-to-obtain work visas to even greater scrutiny.

This was a blow to those employers recruiting skilled labor on H-1B visas. The visa allows for 65,000 employees to be hired from abroad and 20,000 to be hired from students enrolled in U.S. colleges (under the H-1B advanced degree exemption). More than 200,000 applications are expected for H-1B visas in 2018.The application process opens on April 3, and, if the trend continues as it has in the past several years, applications will only be accepted for five to seven days.

Unlike hiring an employee from the United States, when the start date is often two weeks from the acceptance of a job offer, the earliest an H-1 B-status employee could begin work is Oct. 1…if the application is accepted.

Fortunately, there are plenty of folks who can help navigate the legal system. On behalf of clients, Peck fields increasing government reviewer challenges.

One of the biggest impacts this executive order may make is that employees seeking an extension to an H-1B visa will now face the same scrutiny they faced to obtain the visa.

“When we file extensions on cases that got approved without challenge before, they now get challenged even though the facts have not changed,” Peck says.

That means an employee on an H-1B visa who has worked hard, innovated, and generated income for a company could be denied an extension and the company could lose an employee for no reason other than checking the wrong box
on the paperwork.

Each denied visa extension would cost a company a skilled, trained worker, filing fees, lawyer fees, and much more.

“This change is very disturbing to employers who want to keep a good employee but fear they may lose them during the extension process,” says Omaha immigration attorney Mark Curley. “Foreign workers feel less secure in their employment. They understand their H-1B extensions could be denied.

“Employers could lose a good employee after three years if [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] re-adjudicates the petition and determines the occupation or employee do not meet H-1B requirements…There is already a backlog in the employment-based green card process for applicants from India and China working high IT-related jobs in Omaha.”

“The H-1B is a specialty occupation visa with very specific requirements,” Peck says. “The job must require at least a bachelor’s degree in a specific field or related field. The government has certain wage levels you’re required to pay. A very sophisticated analysis goes into that.

“So, this is not something employers are eager to do. Often, it can be the last resort because they can’t get U.S. workers to do the job. As an economy we rely on this visa category in ways many people don’t want to admit and would like to deny.”

Vetting is done by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services center officers. Requests for evidence usually challenge specialty occupation designations.

“We spend a lot of time and effort with employers to describe what the job is,” Peck says. “We cross reference that with the government database. Then we look within the company sponsoring the H-1B to determine if others in that job have a similar degree and we use that to support our submission. The vast majority of our cases are getting approved, but we’re having to really fight. It’s taking all of our skills, tools, and resources to maneuver successfully in this environment.”

First Data is among several Nebraska employers using H-1B visas due to a shortage of skilled U.S.-born workers.

“There’s a myth employers are undercutting the U.S. labor market by hiring H-1Bs, and it really isn’t the case because with H-1B labor there is a cost involved not present with a U.S. worker,” Peck says. “The filing fee alone if you’re an employer with 25 or more employees is $2,460. If you want your case expedited you add another $1,225—and then attorney fees on top of that.”

Pending federal legislation aims to further scrutinize H-1B visas.

“The practical effect will be fewer petitions filed,” Curley says. “It will decrease the number of foreign students who enroll in U.S. colleges and universities.”

One thing is certain. H-1Bs are a hot item—as a topic of business and political discussion.

Amy Peck


This article was printed in the April/May 2018 edition of B2B.

To vote or not to vote

June 1, 2018 1 comment

To vote or not to vote

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Get out the vote (GOTV) efforts, whether partisan party-driven or community-based, are a staple of American politics. In this messy mosaic of interests, attitudes and demographics, you may regard voting as solemn civic duty or why-bother-it’s-rigged hassle.

Whether viewed as endorsement, protest, act of hope or futile gesture, your vote is coveted, if not always counted, as with some provisional ballots following a change of residence. With a prior felony, exercising the right to vote may be denied. Never assume anything though because regulations vary by county or state.

Omaha and Nebraska are no different than the rest of the nation’s red-blue map when it comes to voting trends and takes.

Douglas County Chief Deputy Election Commissioner Chris Carithers counters cynicism and apathy by referencing various local races decided by a few dozen votes.

“Every vote does matter,” he preaches. “It’s just convincing people of the power their votes can have.”

Issues make elections and candidates are the lightning rods that inspire or disturb the body politic. Primaries don’t entice the way general elections do, but it all comes down to who’s running for what offices. In the run-up to Nebraska’s May 15 mid-term primary, voter registration and education efforts have been in full-swing in areas of historically low voter turnout, such as predominantly black Ward 2 in North Omaha.

Politicos know 72nd Street is a boundary-line marker for voter turnout. On average, in general elections, about 75 percent of eligible West Omaha voters cast ballots compared to 45 percent in east Omaha. In Ward 2, the turnout reached 62 percent for the 2008 general election when Barack Obama won the White House. In the 2016 presidential election, that number dipped to 47 percent. Mid-term and municipal elections draw in the 30s and 20s. Given that, Carithers said, it’s only logical “who’s going to get attention” from elected officials, and thus, he emphasizes, it is in inner city voters best interests to have their say rather than stay away come election day.

Getting more urban core voter participation is a challenge. One reason is higher mobility rates, said Carithers. The more people change rental addresses, the harder it is reaching them with registration drives and with election date and polling place reminders.

Individuals without transportation or residing in shelters, half-way houses and nursing homes are tough to reach. Some may have been die-hard voters, but once out of the mainstream, it’s difficult recapturing them.

Many efforts target lapsed and new voters.

Omaha Black Votes Matter guru Preston Love Jr. was in his milieu evangelizing about the need to vote at the inaugural North Omaha Political Convention on April 14. The event drew some two hundred folks for candidate meet-and-greets, panel discussions on issues affecting North O and registration-voting information shares.

He liked what he saw.

“North Omaha in modern times has never had such a    grassroots effort to get our people activated,” he said.

Omaha NAACP president Vickie Young said the convention represented a coalition of community partners working together for a common cause.

“We all have the same goal. We want people to register. We want them to get to the polls. We want them to be educated on the issues and candidates. It was a great effort with great participation,” she said.

The event was organized by Voter Registration Education and Mobilization (VREM) – a collaborative of community, civic and social service organizations.”We’re trying to motivate attendees to go out and get people on their block to vote,” Love said. “We’re hoping the results of this will be record voting for a mid-term election.”

Love, a former national political campaign manager. vowed, “It will be built on. We have captured attention. We want to corral this energy. We’ve got to start getting our people involved. It is critical.”

He envisions Black lobbying efforts aimed at the state legislature growing out of the event.

Spurring participation, he said, is a desire to unseat the conservative Republican stranglehold.

“What I’m finding in the community is a renewed awareness of the need to vote. People are very dissatisfied in my community and so that’s activating people to get involved.”

Love hopes to mobilize more door-to-door GOTV campaigns. He welcomes smaller, informal efforts, too.

“If you can get your neighbor or someone in your family turned on to participating, they have ripples because they talk about the issues or the candidates and they may be really proactive in getting folks to register.”

That strategy is behind some Heartland Workers Center (HWC) voter engagement efforts in South Omaha.

Young is counting on the ripple effect from the NAACP’s April 21 candidate forum to carryover on election day.

Frontline voter advocates are generally satisfied that the need to vote is being messaged and received.

“We can educate as much as we want, but we have to give people a reason to want to get out to vote,” Young said. “We have to make today’s issues that much more relevant. That’s what our branch is trying to do with initiatives such as the forum –  to bring candidates in on a more intimate level to let residents ask them the questions they really want to ask and to get those answers. We can be that much more intentional with our questioning in regard to how candidates will handle racism, discrimination, education and increase diversity. We can then hold them accountable to those issues that affect people of color.”

North and South Omaha contain marginalized populations with low voter participation. In 2017, HWC partnered with Black Votes Matter on a Ward 2 canvassing campaign for the municipal election. Despite knocking on doors and making calls, voter turnout slightly decreased, said HWC senior organizer Lucia Pedroza-Estrada, although a similar campaign in South Omaha helped increase turnout there.

Many things contribute to low voter turnout.

“Poverty has a dynamic effect on community engagement because people are trying to survive on a daily basis and things like this go to the bottom of the list,” said Love, who feels “there’s not enough information given to the rank and file.”

Perhaps the toughest barrier to overcome, he said, is that “people don’t see the difference and feel the difference even though there are in many cases testimonies of what difference is being made.”  “If you ask many people how their lives are different, they tell you, ‘I was poor and trying to make it before Obama, and I’m in the same place.'”

The disenfranchised are potentially at greater risk of voter suppression, but it appears Omaha’s been spared such tampering.

“I can’t think of any instances where anyone has done   anything to intimidate voters,” Carithers said. “We were proactive in anticipating there could be some people challenging voters in the 2016 election and there were absolutely no issues.”

Omaha attorney Patty Zieg, a National Democratic Committee member and veteran poll watcher, said, “I haven’t seen intentional, official suppression. I also don’t remember any organized phone calls giving people the wrong election date like it happened in other states.”

Polling place consolidation implemented by former Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps in 2012 created an uproar in North Omaha.

“There was a perception we were trying to take these polling places away,” Carithers said.

Phipps was later replaced by Brian Kruse.

“Brian and I have gone out in the community to assure people we’re there to help them, not hurt them,” Carithers said. “We’ve made a concerted effort to make sure we’re in all the communities and giving information we think will be valuable to neighborhood groups. I think we do have a better relationship now than we did six years ago.”

“Chris and Brian have worked very hard at that. They’re very conscious of it,” Zieg said.

The nonpartisan commission intersects with many GOTV actors and advocates, including fraternities, sororities, church groups, the Empowerment Network, the Urban League of Nebraska, the NAACP and Black Votes Matter.

“We have a monthly meeting of what we call the GOTV stakeholders comprised of various groups interested in getting the vote out, ” Carithers said. “They run the political spectrum from right to left. We work with them to coordinate around what we can do to increase voter turnout so that people will participate.”

The League of Women Voters and Nebraska Appleseed are more players in this arena. Black Men United, Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray and the Empowerment Network host community forums.

“I think we each have a role,” Young said.

The Urban League’s Black and Brown Legislative Day schools participants on the legislative process as well as pressing issues and provides opportunities to meet elected officials. In partnership with Civic Nebraska, it holds Know Your Voting Rights trainings. Its Advocacy Task Force and Young Professionals auxiliary group work to reinstate voting rights for people with felony convictions, ensuring voter ID legislation is not passed, advocating for automatic voting registration and streamlining the registration and updating processes.

Bid to advance mandatory voter ID have failed in the Nebraska Unicameral. Carithers said his office sees no reason for special voter IDs since election fraud is a non-issue. It could also prove cost-prohibitive in this tight budget climate. Same-day registration and updating could create long lines and delays.

The Commission has switched voter verification (purge) programs after accuracy problems surfaced with the previous provider – CrossCheck.

Love is convinced education is the key to greater engagement. He’s organizing a summer “Walking in Black History” tour as a civics-history learning and leadership development opportunity for urban youth. Forty high school students from North Omaha will travel to 19 historic civil rights sites in Memphis, Birmingham, Montgomery, Tuskegee, Selma and Atlanta.

“I never saw a need to do a tour until I realized we’re taking some things for granted about the kids’ knowledge. The purpose is to try to plant seeds. My goal is they’ll come back wanting to participate in things like voting.”

He’s encouraged by a new, young crop of black leaders who’ve emerged as civic engagers and even candidates: Maurice Jones, Ean Mikale, Mike Hughes, Spencer Danner, Mina Davis, Tyler Davis. They are following the momentum of Black Lives Matter and other movements seeking change.

“There’s a lot of young people popping up. They’re all part of the future.”

Pedroza-Estrada is also buoyed by the dynamic young Latino leaders-engagers emerging in South Omaha. The immigration war is a catalyst for many.

Both she and Love want to help grow more social-civic-political volunteers and activists. It starts early.

“If we don’t show them the way or give them a reason why its important,” Love said, “then they wont vote and they wont become engaged in this process.”

Regardless of age, Vickie Young said, “We want to encourage more African-Americans to become involved in the political process, to run for office and get policies and bills passed that improve people’s lives.”

Love has found there’s no substitute for being “on the ground” rubbing shoulders with the constituency he seeks to energize. It’s why his office is on 24th and Lake and why he sends out door-to-door canvassers who mirror residents in that community.

The good fight is ongoing.

“It’s a full-time, year-round effort,” he said. “You have to build credibility – very important. You have to be a convener. You have to show you’ve invested in the community and what you’re telling people is right.”

Visit votedouglascounty.com or call 402-444-VOTE (8683).Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Heartland Dreamers have their say in nation’s capitol

March 24, 2018 1 comment

Heartland Dreamers have their say in nation’s capitol

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Self-described social justice warrior, activist and community organizer Amor Habbab-Mills cannot sit idly by while lawmakers decide her fate as a Dreamer and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient.

With President Donald Trump’s deadline for Congress to revamp DACA unmet last fall, she organized a September 10 rally in South Omaha. Dreamers and allies gathered to show solidarity. She then shared her story in a Lincoln Journal-Star op-ed and in the locally produced documentary and play We Are Dreamers.

“It was great because people got to know a little more about our struggle,” she said.

Two weeks ago, with the March 5 deadline looming and redoubled U.S. immigration enforcement efforts placing more undocumented residents in detention, awaiting possible deportation, tensions ran high. True to her “drive to speak up against injustice,” she led a group of Nebraska Dreamers to Washington D.C. to join United We Dream demonstrations demanding Congress act to pass protections and paths for citizenship. It did not.

Thus, those affected like her remain in limbo with DACA provisions slated to end pending a new program.

She’s in the process of obtaining her Green Card.

Before she and her fellow travelers could make the trip, they had to find funds to cover air fare. United We Dream picked-up meals. She donated the hotel tab.

“We raised $1,676,” she said. “It was nice to see our community had our backs and they wanted us to go to D.C. This trip was so important to me and the local movement.”

The Omaha contingent arrived Feb. 28 and returned March 6. They were joined by activists from Centro Hispano in Columbus, Nebraska. The groups coordinated schedule to walk in a planned march.

“My goal was to be there when the Dream Act passed. I had a lot of hope the government would act on March 5 or before,” she said. “I wanted to be there to witness history happen. It did not happen. It was sad. But it was good to be there with other Dreamers. We just get each other. We know exactly what each other has been through. We all share the same heartbreak, the same roadblocks, the same fears.

“The trip opened our eyes about what’s going on in our government and how the Trump administration is pushing its racist agenda on our community.’

She won’t soon forget the experience of rubbing shoulders with thousands of kindred spirits, voicing pro-DACA chants, carrying signs with slogans, and seeing some protesters engage in acts of civil disobedience that resulted in arrest. All unfolding in front of national symbols of power, including the White House.

“It was empowering. It was a breath of fresh air and a reminder we’re not alone in the fight. it made me feel not as afraid, not as worried. It put things into perspective.

“The march was really the highlight of the visit. That’s why we went there. We walked to Capitol Hill. We had an ‘artivism’ moment where we put some paper flowers on the ground that read: ‘We Rose Unafraid.’ We wanted to beautify the word undocumented to bring attention that we’re not afraid” (and not apologetic).

“It was a great experience. It opened my eyes to how much support we actually have,” trip participant David Dominguez-Lopez said.

The local group plead their case to Nebraska Republican Congressman Don Bacon.

“We did a (peaceful) office takeover of Rep. Bacon’s office,” Habbab-Mills said. “We went there because he’s said he supports Dreamers. We appreciate that. But we don’t appreciate him supporting bills, such as the Secure and Succeed Act, that will harm our community.”

The proposed legislation seeks to secure the border, end chain migration, cancel the visa lottery and find a permanent solution for DACA tied to building a wall.

“We were there sharing our stories, chanting and asking him to not vote for the Secure Act. It’s this horrible bill that would build a stupid wall, give more money to the Department of Homeland Security so they can do raids and put more agents on the street.”

Given the Republican majority’s anti-immigration stance, Habbab-Mills is leery of promises. Distrust intensified when leaked government memos revealed discussions to use the National Guard to maintain border security

She’s concerned “more families are going to be apart” in the wake of immigration crackdowns.

“On a personal level, if my mom were to get pulled over by a cop who does not like immigrants, she faces a good chance of being deported. The fact I cannot help her, breaks my heart. Under the current political climate, we need a way to protect family members under attack.”

Another goal of the trip was “to plant the seed of social justice with the Dreamers who went,” she said, “and that’s what’s happened,” adding, “Everyone’s ready to get things going back home to stop the Secure Act.”

“it inspired me to learn more and be active in my community and to work with Amor and the rest of the ‘D.C. gang,'” said Dominguez-Lopez.

Habbab-Mills traces her own social activism to seeing disparity growing up in Mexico City and to doing Inclusive Communities camps here. She earned high marks at Duchesne Academy and Creighton University. She founded the advocacy group Nebraska Dreamers. She works as a legal assistant at a law firm and is eying law school. She hopes to practice immigration and human rights law.

Meanwhile, she amplifies Dreamer’s voices for change.

“If we’re not the ones speaking up, who else will? We want people to know we are educated and even though we cannot vote, we have the power to influence people on how they vote. Social media is huge for us.

“Bringing awareness to the issues is a way of creating change. Planting that seed will bloom into a more just society one day. I think it’s a duty to speak up when something’s not right. If i don’t, I’m part of the problem.”

Follow Nebraska Dreamers on Facebook.

A series commemorating Black History Month – North Omaha stories Part II

February 8, 2018 Leave a comment

 
Commemorating Black History Month
Links to North Omaha stories from 1998 through 2018.
Articles on social justice, civil rights, race, history, faith, family, community, business, politics. education, art, music, theater, film, culture, et cetera
 
A weekly four-part series
This week: Part II –  Faith, family, community, business, politics

 

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/11/16/interfaith-journ…rfaith-walk-work/

Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and Churches Making a …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/the-shepherds-of-northomahaministers-and- churches-making-a-difference-in-area-of-great-need/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/30/two-blended-hous…houses-unidvided

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/11/14/small-but-mighty…idst-differences

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/16/everyones-welcom…g-bread-together/

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/02/02/upon-this-rock-h…trinity-lutheran/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/gimme-shelter-sa…en-for-searchers

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/01/09/an-open-invitati…-catholic-church

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/15/everything-old-i…-church-in-omaha/

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/10/the-sweet-sounds…ts-freedom-choir/

Sacred Heart Freedom Choir | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/sacred-heart-freedom-choir/‎

Salem’s Voices of Victory Gospel Choir Gets Justified with the Lord …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/salems-voices-of-victory-gospel-choir-gets- justified-with-the-lord/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/the-myers-legacy…ng-and-community/

A Homecoming Like No Other – The Reader

http://thereader.com/news/a-homecoming-like-no-other/

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/nativeomahadays-a-black-is-beautiful- celebration-now-and-all-the-days-gone-by/

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/11/back-in-the-day-…party-all-in-one

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/05/how-one-family-d…-during-the-days/

Bryant-Fisher | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/bryant-fisher/.

A Family Thing – The Reader | Omaha, Nebraska

http://thereader.com/news/a_family_thing/.

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/11/big-mama’s-keeps…ve-ins-and-dives/

Big Mama, Bigger Heart | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/big-mama-bigger-heart/

Entrepreneur and craftsman John Hargiss invests in North Omaha …

http://thereader.com/visual-art/entrepreneur_and_craftsman_john_hargiss_invests_in_north_omaha/

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/30/creative-to-the-…s-handmade-world/

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/09/27/minne-lusa-house…on-and-community/

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/10/22/a-culinary-horti…ommunity-college/

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/08/28/revival-of-benso…estination-place

A Mentoring We Will Go | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/a-mentoring-we-will-go

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/01/08/tech-maven-lasho…past-stereotypes/

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/08/22/omaha-small-busi…rs-entrepreneurs

Omaha Northwest Radial Hwy | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/omaha-northwest-radial-hwy/

Isabel Wilkerson | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/isabel-wilkerson/

The Great Migration comes home – The Reader

http://thereader.com/visual-art/the_great_migration_comes_home/.

Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop – Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/29/goodwins-spencer-street-barbershop-we-cut-heads-and-broaden-minds-too/.

Free Radical Ernie ChambersThe Reader

http://www.thereader.com/post/free_radical_ernie_chambers

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/03/15/deadeye-marcus-m…t-shooter-at-100/

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/01/15/north-omaha-cham…s-the-good-fight

North’s Star: Gene Haynes builds legacy as education leader with …

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

Brenda Council: A public servant’s life | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/brenda-council-a-public-servants-life/‎

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/17/carole-woods-har…ess-and-politics/

Radio One Queen Cathy Hughes Rules By Keeping It Real …

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/29/radio-one-queen-cathy-hughes…

Miss Leola Says Goodbye | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/01/miss-leola-says-goodbye/.

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/02/leola-keeps-the-…-side-music-shop/

Aisha Okudi’s story of inspiration and transformation …

http://thereader.com/news/aisha_okudis_story_of_inspiration_and_transformation/

Alesia Lester: A Conversation in the Gossip Salon | Leo …

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/03/09/alesia-lester-a-conversation-in…

Viv Ewing | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/viv-ewing/

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/02/11/sex-talk-comes-w…rri-nared-brooks/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/29/strong-smart-and…-girls-inc-story/

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/13/omaha-couple-exp…ica-in-many-ways

Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and …

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/11/25/parenting-the-second-time…

Pamela Jo Berry brings art fest to North Omaha – The Reader

http://thereader.com/visual-art/pamela_jo_berry_brings_art_fest_to_north_omaha/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/06/its-a-hoops-cult…asketball-league/

Tunette Powell | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/tunette-powell/

Finding Her Voice: Tunette Powell Comes Out of the Dark …

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/01/24/finding-her-voice-tunette..

Shonna Dorsey | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/shonna-dorsey/

Finding Normal: Schalisha Walker’s journey finding normal …

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/07/18/finding-normal-schalisha-walker..

Patique Collins | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/patique-collins/

Her mother’s daughter:  Charlene Butts Ligon carries on civil rights legacy of her late mother Evelyn Thomas Butts

January 28, 2018 2 comments

Her mother’s daughter: 

Charlene Butts Ligon carries on civil rights legacy of her late mother Evelyn Thomas Butts

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in February 2018 issue of the New Horizons

 

Chances are, you’ve never heard of the late Evelyn T. Butts. But you should know this grassroots warrior who made a difference at the height of the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow American South.

A new book, Fearless: How a poor Virginia seamstress took on Jim Crow, beat the poll tax and changed her city forever, written by her youngest daughter, Charlene Butts Ligon of Bellevue, Neb. preserves the legacy of this champion for the underserved and underrepresented.

Defying odds to become civil rights champion

Evelyn (Thomas) Butts grew up with few advantages in Depression Era Virginia. She lost her mother at 10. She didn’t finish high school. Her husband Charlie Butts came home from World War II one hundred percent disabled. To support their three daughters, Butts, a skilled seamstress, took in day work. She made most of her girls’ clothes.

When not cooking, cleaning, caring for the family, she volunteered her time fighting for equal rights, She became an unlikely force in Virginia politics wielding influence in her hometown of Norfolk and beyond. Both elected officials and candidates curried her favor.

She fought for integrated schools, equal city services and fair housing. Her biggest fight legally challenged the poll tax, a registration fee that posed enough of a financial burden to keep many poor blacks from  exercising their right to cast a ballot. The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had ruled poll taxes illegal in federal elections but the practice continued in southern state elections as a way to disenfranchise blacks. Butts’ case, combined with others. made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. in 1966, Thurgood Marshall argued for the plaintiffs. In a 6-3 decision, the court abolished the poll tax in state elections and Butts went right to work registering thousands of voters.

Devoted daughter documents mom’s legacy in book

More than 50 years since that decision and 25 years since her mother’ death in 1993, Ligon has written and published a book that chronicles Evelyn Butts’ life of public service that inspired her and countless others.

Ligon and her husband Robert are retired U.S. Air Force officers. The last station of their well-traveled military careers was at Offutt Air Force Base from 1992 to 1995. When they retired, the couple opted to make Nebraska their permanent home. They are parents to three grown children and five grandchildren.

By nature and nurture, Ligon, inherited her “mama’s” love of organized politics, community affairs and public service. She’s chair of the Sarpy County Democrats and secretary of the Nebraska State Democratic Party. As the party’s state caucus chair, she led a nationally recognized effort that set up caucuses in all 93 counties and developed an interactive voting info website.

Former Nebraska Democratic Party executive director Hadley Richters knows a good egg when she sees one.

“In politics, you learn quickly the people who will actually do the work are few, and even fewer are those who strive to do it even better than before. Charlene Ligon is definitely a part of that very few. I have also learned those few, like Charlene, are who truly uphold our democracy. Charlene works tirelessly to further participation in the process, selflessly driven by rare and deep understanding of what’s at stake. She is a champion for voices to be heard, and when it comes to protecting the democratic process, defending fairness, demanding access, and advocating for what is right, I can promise you Charlene will be present, consistent, hard-working and fearless.”

Ligon is a charter member of Black Women for Positive Change, a national policy-focused network whose goals are to strengthen and expand the American middle-working class and change the culture of violence.

Besides her mother, she counts as role models: Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm and Dorothy Height.

In addition to participating in lots of political rallies, she’s an annual Omaha Women’s March participant.

Like her mother before her. she’s been a Democratic National Convention delegate, she’s met party powerbrokers and she’s made voting rights her mission.

“It all goes back to that – access and fairness. That’s how I see it.”

Even today, measures such as redistricting and extreme voter ID requirements can be used to suppress votes. She still finds it shocking the lengths Virginia and other states went to in order to suppress the black vote.

“Virginia’s really shameful in the way it did voting,” she said. “At one time, they had what they called a blank sheet for registration. When you went to register to vote you had to know ahead of time what identifying information you needed to put on there. It wasn’t a literacy test. By law, the registrar could not help people, so people got disqualified. Well, the black community got together and started having classes to educate folks what they needed to know when they went to register.”

The blank sheet was on top of the poll tax. An unintended effect was the disqualification of poor and elderly whites, too. In a majority white state, that could not hold and so a referendum was organized and the practice discontinued.

“The history books tell you they did it because of white backlash, not because of black backlash,” Ligon said.

Virginia’s regerettable record of segregation extended to entire school districts postponing school and some schools closing rather than complying with integration

“It always amazes me they did that,” she said.

 

Speaking her mind and giving others a voice

As a Norfolk public housing commissioner, Butts broke ranks with fellow board members to publicly oppose private and public redevelopment plans whose resulting gentrification would threaten displacing black residents.

“She really gave them a fit because they weren’t doing what they should have been doing for poor neighborhoods and she told them about it. They weren’t really ready for her to bring this out,” Ligon said of her mother’s outspoken independence.

“Mama could be stubborn, too. She was authoritarian sometimes.”

Butts became the voice for people needing an advocate.

“They called her for all kinds of things. They called her when they needed a house, when they were having problems with their landlord. They called her and called her. They knew to call Mrs. Butts and that if you call Mrs. Butts, she’ll help you. Nine times out of ten she could get something for them. She had that reputation as a mover and shaker and they knew she wasn’t going to sell them out because it wasn’t about money for her.”

Ligon fights the good fight herself in a different climate than the one her mother operated in. It makes her appreciate even more how her mom took on social issues when it was dangerous for an African-American to speak out. She admires the courage her mother showed and the feminist spirit she embodied.

“My mama always spoke up. She didn’t cow. She talked kind of loud. I got that from her. She looked them in the eye and said, ‘Yeah, this is the way it needs to be.’ They didn’t always pay attention to her, but she just always was ready to say what needed to be said.  Of course, the establishment didn’t want to hear it. But she actually won most people’s respect.”

Growing up, Ligon realized having such a bigger-than-life mother was not the norm.

“She stood out in my life. I started to understand that my mom was different than most people’s moms. She was always doing something for the neighborhood. There were so many things going on in the 1950s through the early 1960s that really got her going.”

Her mother was at the famous 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Charlene wanted to go but her mother forbade it out of concern there might be violence. Being there marked a milestone for Evelyn – surpassed only by the later Supreme Court victory.

“It meant a lot to her. That was the movement. That was what she believed,” Ligon said. “And it was historic.”

Long before the march, Butts saw MLK speak in Petersburg, Virginia. He became her personal hero.

“She was already moving forward, but he inspired her to move further forward.”

Decades later, Ligon attended both of Obama’s presidential inaugurations. She has no doubt her mother would have been there if she’d been alive.

“I wish my mom could have been around to see that, although electing the nation’s first black president didn’t have the intended effect on America I thought it would. It gave me faith though when he was elected that the process works, that it could happen. He could not have won with just black votes, so we know a lot of white people voted for him. We should never forget that.

“It just really made me proud.”

Ligon shook hands with President Obama when he visited the metro. She’s met other notable Democrats, such as Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Jim Clybern, Doug Wilder, Ben Nelson and Bob Kerrey.

The day the Supreme Court struck down the poll tax, her mother got to meet Thurgood Marshall – the man who headed up the Brown vs. Board of Education legal team that successfully argued for school desegregation.

“She was really thrilled to meet him.”

Then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was in the courtroom for the poll tax ruling and Evelyn got to meet the future presidential candidate that day as well.

Butts was vociferous in her pursuit of justice but not everyone in the movement could afford to be like her.

“As I look back on the other prominent people in the movement,” Ligon said, “they had their ways of contributing but there were a lot of people who had what they considered something to lose. For instance, teachers just wouldn’t say a word because they were afraid for their jobs. There were lots of people that wouldn’t say anything.”

Her mother exuded charisma that drew people to her.

“People liked her. Mama was an organizer. She was the person that got them all together and she was inspirational to them, I’m sure. She had a group of ladies who followed her. They were like, “Okay. Mrs. Butts, what are we going to do today? Are we going to register voters? Are we going to picket?”

Evelyn Butts formed an organization called Concerned Citizens for Political Education that sought to empower blacks and their own self-determination. It achieved two key victories in the late 1960s with the election of Joseph A. Jordan as Norfolk’s first black city council member since Reconstruction and electing William P. Robinson as the city’s first African-American member of the state House of Delegates.

Charlene marveled at her mother’s energy and industriousness.

“I was always proud of her.”

Having such a high profile parent wasn’t a problem.

“I never felt uncomfortable or had a negative feeling about it.”

Even when telling others what she felt needed to be done, Ligon said her mother “treated everybody with respect,” adding “The Golden Rule has always been my thing and I’m sure my mom taught me the Golden Rule.”

Telling the story from archives and memories

As big a feat as it was to end the poll tax, Ligon felt her mother’s accomplishments went far beyond that and that only a book could do them justice. So, in 2007, she and her late sister Jeanette, embarked on the project.

“We thought people needed lo know the whole story.”

Ligon’s research led her to acclaimed journalist-author Earl Swift, a former Virginian Pilot reporter who wrote about her mother. He ended up editing the book. He insisted she make it more specific and full of descriptive details. Poring through archives, Ligon found much of her mother’s activities covered in print stories published by the Pilot as well as by Norfolk’s black newspaper, the New Journal and Guide. Ligon also interviewed several people who knew her mother or her work.

Writer Kietryn Zychal helped Ligon pen the book.

Much of the content is from Charlene and her sister’s vivid memories growing up with their mom’s activism. As a girl, Charlene often accompanied her to events.

“She took me a lot of places. I was exposed.”

Those experiences included picketing a local grocery store that didn’t hire blacks and a university whose athletics stadium restricted blacks to certain sections

“The first time i remember attending a political-social activism meeting with Mama was the Oakwood Civic League about 1955 during the same time the area was under annexation by the city of Norfolk. My next memory is attending the NAACP meeting at the church on the corner from our house concerning testing to attend integrated schools. I have vivid memories of attending the court proceedings of a school desegregation case. Mama took me to court every day. She was called to testify by the NAACP lawyers.”

Charlene joined other black teenage girls as campaign workers under the name the Jordanettes, for candidate Joe Jordan. Her mom made their matching outfits.

“We passed out literature, campaign buttons, bumper stickers at picnics, rallies and meetings. Hanging out with my mom and doing the campaign stuff definitely had an influence. I was always excited to tag along.”

At home, politics dominated family discussions.

“My mom did what she did all the time and she talked about it all the time, and so I always knew what was going on, She involved us. She would update my dad. We were always in earshot of the conversation. My sisters and I were expected to be aware of what was happening in our community. We were encouraged to read the newspaper. We participated in some picketing.”

Always having Evelyn’s back was the man of the house.

“He was behind her a hundred percent,” Ligon said of her father, who unlike Evelyn was quiet and reserved. He didn’t like the limelight but, Charlene said, “he never fussed about that – he was in her corner.”

“He might not have done that (activism) personally himself but yeah he was proud she was out there doing that. As long as she cooked his dinner.”

Because Evelyn Butts was churched, she saw part of her fighting the good fight as the Christian thing to do.

“We attended church but my mama wasn’t really a church lady. She just always believed in what the right thing to do would be. I guess that inner thing was in all of us as far as social justice.

“She taught me there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it. She taught me not to be afraid of people because I was different.”

When it came time for Ligon to title her book, the word fearless jumped out.

“That’s what she was.”

Where did that fearless spirit come from?

After her mother died, she was raised by her politically engaged aunt Roz. But headstrong Evelyn took her activism to a whole other level.

“I remember Roz telling mama to be careful. She said, ‘Evelyn, you better watch out, they’re going to kill you.'”

The threat of violence, whether implied or stated, was ever present.

“That’s just the way it was. In Virginia, we had some bad things happen, but it wasn’t like Mississippi and the civil rights workers getting killed. We had a few bombings and cross burnings. It still amazes me how she was able to put up with what she did. A lot of people were frightened. Not far from where we lived. racists were bombing houses near where she was picketing. She wasn’t frightened about that and she always made us feel comfortable that things were going to be okay.”

Butts drew the ire of those with whom she differed, white and black. For example, she called out the Virginia chapter of the NAACP for moving too slowly and timidly.

“My mom was considered militant back in the day, but she was also pragmatic about it. There was so much ground to cover. There’s still a lot of ground to cover.”

 

Progress won and lost in a never-ending struggle

Ligon rues that today’s youth may not appreciate how fragile civil rights are, especially with Donald Trump in office and the Republicans in control of Congress.

“I don’t think young people realize we’re losing ground. They aren’t paying attention. They take things for granted, I’m old enough to remember when everything was segregated and how restrictive it was. I may not want to go anywhere then someplace where all the people look like me, but I need to have that choice.

“We’ve lost almost all the ground we made when Barack Obama was president. People who wanted change said we don’t need the status quo and I would say, yes we do, we need to hold it a little bit.”

She’s upset Obama executive orders are under assail. Protections for DACA recipients are set to end pending a compromise plan. Obamacare is being undone. Sentences for nonviolent drug offenders are being toughened and lengthened.

Perhaps it’s only natural the nation’s eyes were taken off the prize once civil rights lost an identifiable movement or leader. But Ligon chose a Corretta Scott King quotation at the front of her book as a reminder that when it comes to preserving rights, vigilance is needed.

Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won –you earn it in every generation.

“I think the struggle is always going to be there for us minorities, specifically for African-Americans,” Ligon said. “It’s my belief we’re always going to have it. Each generation has to continue to move forward. You can’t just say, ‘We have it now.'”

She’s concerned some African-Americans have grown disillusioned by the overt racism that’s surfaced since Trump emerged as a serious presidential candidate and then won the White House.

“With the change that’s happened in the United States, I think a lot of them have lost faith. They seem to have given up. They say America is white people’s country. I remind them it’s our country. Do you know how much blood sweat and tears African-Americans have invested in America? Somewhere down the line we did not instill that this is our country. It’s okay to be patriotic and call them out every day. You can do both.”

How might America be different had MLK lived?

“Hopefully, we would be a little bit further along in having a more organized movement,” said Ligon.

She’s distressed a segment of whites feel the gains made by blacks have come at their expense.

“Some white people feel something has been taken from them and given to the minorities, which is sad, because it’s not really so. But they feel that way.”

She feels the election of Trump represented “a backlash” to the Obama presidency and his legacy as a progressive black man in power.

If her mother were around today, Charlene is sure she would be out registering voters and getting them to the polls to ensure Trump and those like him don’t get reelected or elected in the first place.

In her book’s epilogue, Charlene suggests people stay home from the polls because they believe politics is corrupt and dirty but she asserts Mama Butts would have something to say about that.

If my mother could, I know she’d say this: If you don’t vote, you can be assured that corrupt politicians will be elected.

“And that’s the truth,” Ligon said.

Drawing strength from a deep well

Just where did her mother get the strength to publicly resist oppression?

“It probably came from a long line of strong women. My grandmother’s sisters, including Roz, who raised my mom, and women from the generation before. The men, I suspect, were pretty strong too. You just had to know my mom and the other family ladies, and the conclusion would be something was in the genes that made them fighters. They were fighters, no doubt. They all were civic-minded, too.”

Going back even earlier in the family tree reveals a burning desire for freedom and justice.

“My great-great-grandfather Smallwood Ackiss was a slave who ran away from the plantation during the Civil War after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and went to Norfolk. He went on to fight for the Union for two years,” Ligon said. “In 1865, he came back to the plantation. John Ackiss II, who was the plantation owner and his owner, had been fighting for the Confederacy at the same time. We do know Smallwood was given 30 acres of land. He lost the property, but we still have a family cemetery there that’s now on a country club in a real exclusive area of Virginia Beach.”

From Smallwood right on down to her mother and herself, Charlene is part of a heritage that embraces freedom and full participation in the democratic process.

“I guess I was always interested and Mom always took me with her. I always saw it. Even in the military, when stationed in South Dakota, I chaired the NAACP Freedom Fund in Rapid City.

“It’s always been there.”

She feels her time in the service prepared her to take charge of things.

“The military strengthens leadership. It’s geared for you to get promoted to become a leader.”

Then there’s the fact she is her mother’s daughter.

Entering the service in the first place – as a 26-year-old single mother of two young children – illustrated her own strong-willed independence. It was 1975 and the newly initiated all-volunteer military was opening long-denied opportunities for women.

“I was divorced, had two kids and I needed child care and a regular salary. I didn’t want to have to depend on anyone else for it but me. It was difficult entering the military as a single parent, but I saw it as security for me and my kids. I was really fortunate I met a great guy whom I married and we managed to finish out our careers together.”

Ligon made master sergeant. She worked as a meteorologist.

“I didn’t want a traditional job. I didn’t want to be an administrative clerk in an office.”

She ended her career as a data base programmer and since her retirement she’s done web development work. She also had her own lingerie boutique, Intimate Creations, at Southroads Mall. Democratic Party business takes up most of her time these days.

Charlene’s military veteran father died in 1979. He supported her decision to serve her country.

Bittersweet end and redemption 

While off in the military, Charlene wasn’t around to witness her mother falling out of favor with a new regime of leaders who distanced themselves from her. Mama Butts lost bids for public office and was even voted out of the Concerned Citizens group she founded. This, after having received community service awards and being accorded much attention.

Personality conflicts and turf wars come with the territory in politics.

“For a long time, my mom didn’t let those things stop her.”

Then it got to be too much and Evelyn dropped out.

Upon her death, Earl Swift wrote:

Evelyn Butts’ life had become a Shakespearean tragedy. She’d dived from the heights of power to something very close to irrelevance. This is someone who should have finished life celebrated, rather than forgotten. History better be kind to this woman. Evelyn Butts was important.

The family agreed her important legacy needed rescue from the political power grabs that tarnished it.

“The Democratic Party really was not nice to my mom. That was another reason I wrote the book – because I wanted that to be known,” Charlene said. “I didn’t know all that had gone on until 1993 when she died. I wanted to present who she was. how she came to be that way and the lessons you can learn from her life. I think those lessons are really important for young people because we need to move forward, we need to stay focused and know that we can’t give up – the struggle is still there.

“People need to vote. That’s what they really need to do. They need to participate. Voting is their force and they don’t realize it, and that’s really disheartening. Even in Norfolk, my hometown, the registered voter numbers  and turnout for elections among blacks is horrible – just like it is here. In north and south Omaha, they don’t turn out the way they could – 10 to 15 percent less than the rest of the city. That should not be.

“When John Ewing ran for Congress he lost by one and a half points. A little bit of extra turnout in North Omaha would have put him over the top. The same thing happened when Brenda Council ran for mayor of the City of Omaha. If they had turned out for Brenda, Brenda would have been elected. That discourages me because they feel like they’re only a small percentage of the population. Yes, it’s true, but you can still make a difference and when you make that difference that gives you a voice. When you can swing an election, candidates and elected officials pay attention. When black voters say ‘they don’t care about us,’ well I guess not, if you don’t have a voice.”

If anything, the work of Evelyn Butts proved what a difference one person can make in building a collective of activated citizens to make positive change.

To Ligon’s delight, her mother is fondly remembered and people want to promote her legacy. A street and community center are named after her. A church houses a tribute display. Endorsements for the book came from former Virginia governor and senator Chuck Robb and current Norfolk mayor Kenneth Cooper Alexander, who wrote the foreword.

Ligon was back home in Norfolk in January for a book signing in conjunction with MLK Day. She’s back there again for more book signings in February for Black History Month.

In Omaha, Fearless is available at The Bookworm, other fine bookstores and select libraries.

Fittingly, the book has been warmly received by diverse audiences. Long before intersectionality became a thing, Ligon writes in her book, her mother practiced it.

She was black. She was a woman. She was poor. She had dropped out of high school. She was overweight and she spoke loudly with confidence in her opinions in a voice that disclosed her working-class, almost rural upbringing. But this large, black poor woman was in the room with politically powerful white people, making policy and advocating for the poor, and it drove some suit-wearing, educated, well-heeled, middle-class male ministers nuts. Some wanted her place. Or, they believed her place should be subservient to a man.

When her public career ended, my mother retreated to private life … She occupied her time by being a mother, a grandmother, a caregiver, a homemaker and a fantastic cook. To say that her post-political years were tragic is to miss how much strength and satisfaction she drew from those roles. She may have retreated, but she was not defeated.

We will never come to consensus on why Evelyn Butts lost her political power. There will always be people in Norfolk who thought her ‘style’ made her unelectable, that she brought about her own demise … Whatever her failings, her legacy is not in dispute. She will always exist in the pages of the U.S. Supreme Court case, in brick and mortar buildings that she helped to create, and in the memories of people …

For me, her last surviving daughter, Evelyn Butts will always be a great American hero.

If there’s a final lesson Charlene said she’s taken from her mother it’s that “there are things bigger than yourself to fight for – and so I do what I do for my kids and grandkids.”

She’s sure her mom would be proud she followed in her footsteps to become a much decorated Democratic Party stalwart and voting rights champion.

“I haven’t thought about a legacy for myself. I hope people will remember me as a hard worker and as a pragmatic, fair fighter for social justice and civil rights.”

Visit evelyntbutts.com or http://www.facebook.com/evelyntbutts.

 

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