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Heartland Dreamers have their say in nation’s capitol

March 24, 2018 Leave a 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.

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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 1 comment

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.

 

Krist to follow independent path in bid for governor

October 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Another fall, another election. That’s the fall of 2018, when Nebraskans will be at the polls deciding on the state’s next governor. State legislator Bob Krist of Omaha has shed his Republican cloak to stake himself a candidate for a race in which the heavy favorite will be the rich GOP incumbent, Pete Ricketts, who has deep wells of party and personal money to draw on. The conservative Ricketts and the progressive Krist don’t see eye to eye on much, Krist, who doesn’t back down from fights, doesn’t seem to mind being the decided underdog. But he’ll be hard-pressed to get his message heard and seen against the machine politics that will be extra focused on branding him a party traitor and flip-flopper. Whether he’s able to mount a serious challenge to Ricketts and whoever else winds up in the race remains to be seen, but Krist is working hard to share his platform. He also has a godo life story to tell. He’s a U.S. Air Force veteran and Jesuit-educated free thinker who votes and goes his own way. Read my profile of Krist in the October 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Krist to follow independent path in bid for governor
b©y Leo Adam Biga
Appears in the October 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha knows the steep climb ahead in his 2018 gubernatorial challenge. The moderate has left the Republican Party to run as an Independent against Nebraska’s deep-pocketed Trumpian incumbent, Pete Ricketts, in this Red state.

The GOP’s long viewed the vote-his-own-mind Krist as a rogue. The U.S. Air Force veteran entered the Unicameral as an appointee. He twice won election to his District 10 seat. Not towing the conservative line saw him clash with Gov. Dave Heineman over prenatal care for illegal immigrants. Krist advocates state juvenile justice and adult corrections reforms and takes Gov. Ricketts to task for inaction on these issues.

The state GOP crucified Krist for leaving the party and he fully expects an attack campaign. But bolting made sense for someone variously described as “passionate,” “fiery” “nonconformist,” “bulldog,” “hurricane,” “contrarian” and “vocal critic.”

“Yeah, I do own all those very easily,” said Krist, who’s married with two adult children. “I’ve been accused of running with my heart on my sleeve and I do sometimes, but still I remember who I represent. For me, staying on script, staying very to the letter is tough. It’s not the way I do business.”

He ascribed his maverick ways to “a family upbringing that taught me to question and rationalize through issues” and being “educated by the Jesuits at Creighton Prep.”

“Interestingly enough. my time in the military I was rewarded for thinking outside the box and solving problems. We used to say in Air Power, if you want to succeed you make a plan and that plan is something from which to deviate. So, it’s always been in my nature to look for the right answers. It’s never been what someone is going to tell me to do or what the party line or the dictate should be.”

Krist, 60, retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2000. He feels his military experience prepared him to lead.

“My last few years in the military my job culminated in being chief of plans and programs for the largest wing in Air Combat Command. A lot of detail, a lot of logistics. Being able to compartmentalize and working through problems and finding solutions.”

This mission-driven approach carried over into the Nebraska Unicameral.

“I like to define a problem and find a pathway to success. Sometimes you have to develop an overall strategic approach concerning your task and solving the problem to get mission success. Sometimes along the way you just have to stop, regroup and tactically change your direction.”

Working across the aisle is a must in his eyes.

“Understanding how people think and trying to build consensus is an art form and in order to get to that point you really have to understand the legislative process.

Learning when to speak up, when not to. When to file a motion. When to do those kinds of things.”

He’s critical of partisan politics.

“It’s not allowing us to succeed and that’s where I believe independent leadership is so needed. I believe people honestly want a change. If you look at the last few election cycles, I think it’s proven people want to cast their vote for something that counts.”

Krist wants to be evaluated on his record. he said, including “hundreds of individual bills and more I’ve spoken and voted on – you can measure, weigh and judge who I am and what I’ve done by my body of work.”

Besides his wife Peggy, Krist said he sought feedback to his governor’s run from “a pretty special guy I rely on who happens to be a Catholic priest.” His clergy counsel reminded him even if he should lose, he might spark dialogue about issues important to Nebraskans. Then there’s the possibility he could win, too.

“My friend ended by saying, ‘So, what have you got to lose?’ That was instrumental in solidifying my decision to run. The pathway to success for me is not relying on the Republican Party, which has been trying to kick me out since I got there, or the Democratic Party (whose pro-life stance is a non-starter for him).”

“The two party system has made it very difficult for an Independent to run and succeed in this state,” he said referring to a statute requiring 5,000 signatures. “But if the climate has ever been right. probably this is it. My biggest concern right now is raising enough money to make sure people can hear what I have to say so they can make a valid decision at the polls.

“It’s going to take about $3 million.”

He’s scheduled a statewide listening sessions circuit.

“We’ll talk to Nebraskans east to west, north to south, and see if we can’t get the message out there.”

The experienced pilot will fly himself to outstate stops.

A topic sure to surface is Nebraska Department of Correctional Services issues with officers’ overtime pay, inmate overcrowding. violent incidents and prisoner escapes.

“We have a director (Ricketts appointee Scott Frakes) saying it’s just going to take time. Well, we don’t have any more time, we need to do something about it. I don’t know any way to solve the problem than to change the leadership and declare an emergency. We’ve done everything we can within the system and we’re going in the wrong direction. We have a director who needs to resolve the issues.

“Overtime’s going up incredibly, exponentially. Mandatory overtime destroys lives and continuity because people quit. We have to keep people employed. We have to make it a profession with a merit system. I’m asking the director to negotiate again with our corrections officers. The safety of the officers and the inmates is in question. There’ve been people killed and hurt very badly, on both sides, and we know now almost every one of those issues involved someone under the influence of something.”

Krist said if the state can’t fix the mess, then a federal ACLU suit could compel the U.S. Department of Justice to step in and determine what inmates get released. A new corrections facility could be mandated.

“The last thing the people of Nebraska want is another $400 million penal institution locking people up.”

The corrections morass runs deep.

“I became really involved with this issue serving on the committee that started out just looking at Nikko Jenkins (committed spree killings after early release). Preventive action should have happened when he was bouncing from foster home to foster home and coming to school with a knife and a gun. At some point, you’ve got to break the chain, because if you don’t there’s going to be a tragedy. That’s why I’ve been so active in juvenile justice. We have cut detention of kids by 50 percent. We found alternatives to detention that work.

“The more testimony we heard, the more the onion was peeled back, we decided we needed to expand the investigation into all of corrections. There were too many things happening. The problem is out of control and something dramatic is going to have to happen or we’re going to have another incident, another riot, another person killed.”

Krist bemoaned a lost opportunity with a justice reinvestment initiative council that pushed reforms.

“We had a group of stakeholders around the table – senators, law enforcement officers, the attorney general, public defenders, judges – that worked very hard in conjunction with the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments trying to find solutions and looking forward to the kinds of changes that need to be made. When Heineman left office and Ricketts came in, there was a lack of attention to detail, lack of focus and no fidelity to where we were going.

“At a time when we most needed input from various levels, Ricketts disbanded the group, saying, ‘We don’t need you, we’ll just handle all this stuff internally.’ Well, he hasn’t done a very good job of that.”

In this heavily taxed state with lagging tax revenues, Krist proposes reforms.

“Business people don’t believe giving away tax base is the way to grow our economy – and you can’t keep giving things away and expect you’re going to build an economy. Look at what happened with Conagra. We gave them everything we could and as soon as that enticement was over, they left.

“Tax Incremental Financing is sometimes used effectively and sometimes misused. When you give away TIF and taxes, it affects the public education system. There are plenty of cities that have given their tax base away and seen their school districts go down.”

He and Rickets both champion property tax relief.

“As a state we’ve made decisions that have made us almost 100 percent reliant on property taxes to fund critical services, education. et cetera. We’ve got to stop that,” Krist said. “We’ve also got to stop the escalation of the property tax assessment.”

He said he advocates “controlling spending at the local level, controlling the levy process and most importantly the assessment process,” adding, “I believe by looking at income tzx, property tax, fees for services and corporate tax loopholes we can come to a consensus that’s good for the state. We have to.”

“We’re close to looking just like Kansas,” he said, referring to that state’s epic budget crisis following failed economic reforms, “and that’s not a model anybody wants to emulate.”

Is he ready for the rigors of an uphill race?

“Physically, I’m ready for it. Mentally, I’ve had great training being in state government 10 years and knowing the state and being involved in all the standing committees. What am I going to do different? I’m going to listen to people about what they think isn’t working. We’re going to have those discussions

“I know there are some long days ahead. I get it, I’m up for it. I just want people to give me a chance to represent them. I promise there will be results.”

Visit kristfornebraska.com.

Frank LaMere: A good man’s work is never done


Frank LaMere: A good man’s work is never done

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Frank LaMere, self-described as “one of the architects of the effort to shutdown Whiteclay,” does not gloat over recent rulings to deny beer sellers licenses in that forlorn Nebraska hamlet.

A handful of store owners, along with producers and suppliers, have profited millions at the expense of Oglala-Lakota from South Dakota’s nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, where alcohol is banned but alcoholism runs rampant. A disproportionate number of children suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Public drunkenness, panhandling, brawls and accidents, along with illicit services in exchange for alcohol, have been documented in and around Whiteclay. Since first seeing for himself in 1997 “the devastation” there, LaMere’s led the epic fight to end alcohol sales in the unincorporated Sheridan County border town.

“This is a man who, more than anyone else, is the face of Whiteclay,” said Lincoln-based journalist-author-educator Joe Starita, who’s student-led reporting project — http://www.woundsofwhiteclay.com — recently won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Journalism grand prize besting projects from New Yorker, National Geographic and HBO. “There is nobody who has fought longer and fought harder and appeared at more rallies and given more speeches and wept more tears in public over Whiteclay than Frank LaMere, period.”

LaMere, a native Winnebago, lifelong activist and veteran Nebraska Democratic Party official, knows the battle, decided for now pending appeal, continues. The case is expected to eventually land in the Nebraska Supreme Court. Being the political animal and spiritual man he is, he sees the Whiteclay morass from a long view perspective. As a frontline warrior, he also has the advantage of intimately knowing what adversaries and obstacles may appear.

His actions have gotten much press. He’s a key figure in two documentaries about Whiteclay, But his social justice work extends far beyond this specific matter.

“I’ve been involved in many issues in my life,” he said.

Indeed, he’s stood with farmers, immigrants, persons with disabilities, police misconduct victims, child welfare recipients. He’s opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline.

“I must have marched a hundred times in my life and not always on Native interests. If somebody’s being mistreated and I have time and they come ask me, I don’t care who it is, I’m going to go there. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what drives me in my work.”

LaMere’s fought the good fight over Whiteclay, where he sees a clear and present danger of public health and humanitarian crisis. As a Native person, it’s personal because Whiteclay exists to exploit alcohol intolerance among the Pine Ridge populace. He’s cautiously optimistic things will get better for residents, assuming the courts ultimately uphold the denial of the liquor licenses.

“We’ll see where things go from there,” he said, “but rest assured, things will never be the same at Whiteclay. The only thing I know is that the devastation will never be like it was. I truly believe that.”

Just don’t expect him to do a victory lap.

“There are no wins and losses at Whiteclay. Nobody won, nobody lost, but all of us decided maybe we should begin to respect one another and find a better way. I think we will after the dust settles.”

The state Liquor Control Commission, a district judge and the Nebraska attorney general oppose beer sales happening there again but LaMere knows powerful opposing forces are at work.

“I think Nebraskans have good sense. We know what’s right. But there’s money involved. Whoever controls alcohol at Pine Ridge-Whiteclay controls money, controls county government and until very recently even controls state government. I am unequivocal on that. I understand what’s going on here. You’re talking about tens of millions of dollars and we’re threatening that, and when you threaten that, you know, you get a reaction.”

He said he’s received threats. He and fellow Whiteclay advocate, Craig Brewer, went there the day after the sellers lost their licenses.

“There was a foreboding I had all that day I’ve never had in my life,” LaMere said. “It was strange to me. I’ve been dealing with things my whole life and never been afraid. But this time I was looking at different scenarios having to do with the volatility there and if things didn’t work right what could happen to me. Maybe it’s aging. Maybe it was the newness of the situation. I don’t know.

“We got up there very apprehensive about what we were going to encounter, maybe from the beer sellers or from those who support the sellers or maybe from their hired associates. We didn’t know what to expect, but we went up there because that’s what we do – and everything worked out. The right thing happened.”

The sellers did not open for business.

“I told a reporter we went up to look the devil in the eye and the devil wasn’t there, and I don’t think the devil’s coming back.”

He said attorney David Domina, who represents the interests opposed to alcohol, appeared the same day there in the event something amiss happened.

“It was no coincidence,” LaMere said. “We were to be there that day. A lot of prayers went with us.”

LaMere will maintain a wary watch. “I will continue there to be careful, to be apprehensive, but I’m still not afraid.”

He knows some contentious situations he steps into pose certain dangers.

“I’m a realist, I know how things are.”

He and his wife Cynthia made an unwritten pact years ago not to be at rallies or protests together to ensure they won’t both be in harm’s way.

“I do a lot of things in a lot of places and Cynthia grounds me. She critiques whatever approach I’m taking, always asking, ‘Do you have to do it?’ I’ve learned she’s protective of me. But I also hear from her on many of these issues, ‘Well, why didn’t you say that?’ because she knows Frank, what he’s committed to, and she never questions that.

“I can do something I feel good about and I’ll come home and she’ll tell me the downside that maybe I don’t always want to hear. She’ll give me a perspective I need to hear that sometimes other people won’t give me. She’ll tell me the brutal honest truth. Cynthia’s tough, engaged, committed.”

His admirers marvel at his own doggedness.

“He’s an indefatigable worker and once he latches onto an issue that he sees as a moral challenge, he does not let go, and Whiteclay is a case in point. He’s the most principled man I know,” said Nebraskans for Peace coordinator Tim Rinne.

Joe Starita said LaMere is “hard working for his causes to the point of physical and mental exhaustion.”

“He’s a man who shows up for allies when nobody else is looking,” Nebraska Democratic Party chairman Jane Kleeb said.

Setbacks and losses he’s endured have not deterred him, including a serious stroke that required extensive speech therapy, and the death of his daughter, Lexie Wakan, who was a Creighton University student.

“He’s a man who’s had hardship, yet still continues to get up and stand up,” Kleeb said. “For me, that’s what Frank’s all about – he always shows up.”

For LaMere, it’s a way of life.

“Every day’s a fight, and if you keep fighting you win because others watch that. The impact of Whiteclay will manifest itself hopefully with a win in the Supreme Court and perhaps in some young leader who cares about these things. I’ve been in a hundred struggles in my life, lost almost all of ’em, but I was never afraid, and that’s what I want people to understand.

“If you’re not afraid, people see that as a victory because you cause others to take heart, to persevere, to take action.”

He’s glad his resilience to keep agitating, even in the face of intransigence and tragedy, inspires others.

“I’ll accept that because that’s what it is – you just keep working.”

He likes to say Whiteclay’s implications are “bigger than we can ever fathom.”

“Years from now, we will understand it is way bigger than us. I got to be a bit player. The creator of all things, said, Frank, I’m going to have you see what you can do, and along the way I’m going to cause you to struggle. I’m going to knock you down, and I’m even going to take something from you, and if you keep going, maybe I’ll let you change something.

“That’s the greatest work we can do.”

Reflecting on Whiteclay, he said, “This was an emotional roller coaster for all Nebraskans.” He chalks up the recent breakthrough to divine intervention.

“There’s things happening that are so strange,” he said.

He recalled a hearing in Lincoln on LB 407 introduced by Neb. State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks to create the Whiteclay Public Health Emergency Task Force. LaMere testified. His son, Manape LaMear, sang a sun dance song. After finishing his sacred song, Manape asked if someone from Sheridan County was there to speak.

“A big guy got up and testified,” said LaMere. “He was asked, ‘Do you have enough law enforcement to take care of Whiteclay?’ and he answered, ‘Absolutely not.’”

“This man said some things absolutely nobody expected him, maybe not himself. to say. If you’re with those (monied) interests of Whiteclay, you’re not supposed to say that, you’re going to be ostracized. But for whatever reason, he told the truth. I attribute that to the powerful prayers said that day.

“You’re watching at Whiteclay a very spiritual journey. There’s something much bigger than us that has brought us to this point – that we would make such a great change for the Oglala Lakota people. I think it’s God’s work. From that I hope things will be better.”

He’s convinced “the greatest impact will not be felt for generations,” but added, “I’ve seen immediate impact right now.”

“I believe there’s a child whose mother and father were together at home and did not drink. I believe children are feeling very good Whiteclay is not open. I believe there’s been prayers by children that their parents be sober. I believe their prayers are very powerful. I think what we’re seeing may have to do with these children and their suffering and their prayers.”

LaMere has disdain for arguments that banning alcohol at Whiteclay will only move the problem elsewhere, thus increasing the danger of drunk drivers.

“Worrying about someone driving down Highway 87 who might get hurt by a drunk driver can’t be our greatest concern. Our greatest concern has to be the health and well-being of hundreds of children crippled in the womb by fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). I’ve called out many on this. Where are pro-life people? Where’s the church? Children are crippled in the womb tonight and nothing’s said about it because there’s money involved. That’s troubling to me.

“We’ve crippled hundreds of kids in the womb on Pine Ridge – all so somebody can get rich, wrap themselves in a flag, and talk about this model of free enterprise. We cherish that more than we cherish life. It’s ugly to hear that but that’s what we’ve done. But we’ve always been afraid to accept that.”

Attorney John Maisch, whose documentary Sober Indian, Dangerous Indian includes LaMere, said, “I would say Frank’s empathy is what drives him. Frank is in a perpetual state of mourning. Frank has lost many family members and friends to addiction. I think that is partially what drove him to tackle Whiteclay. Frank lost his daughter, Lexie, and I think that is why he’s particularly drawn to fighting for those children, whether Native children lost in our foster care system or suffering from FAS as a result of their mothers drinking on the streets of Whiteclay. He’s drawn to suffering of others because he has also suffered great loss.”

LaMere acknowledged he’s “redoubled” his efforts since losing his daughter.

“And it’s not in any way substitution,” he said. “I don’t see it that way. I look at it very simply that now I stand on the shoulders of my daughter. In all of the things I’m doing right now perhaps I’m as bold as ever, and there’s a reason for that, for that is what she would have me do. If I hedge, she’ll say, ‘Why are you doing that? That is not who you are.’ I even heard her say in her young life: ‘This is my father, this is who he is, and this is what he does, and he does this for the people.’

“All I do for the rest of my life will be done in remembrance of my daughter because she was so committed at a very young age to the things I’m still committed to.”

LaMere’s glad Nebraska may finally own up to its sins.

“At long last Nebraskans have said perhaps it’s time for us to look at this. For once I’m pleased Nebraskans are not going to merely beg the question, they’re going to look at the impact of Whiteclay and maybe we’re going to act and make some of it a little bit better.”

As LaMere sees it, the whole state’s culpable.

“We as Nebraskans are unwittingly, unknowingly responsible for it. We need to act and to mitigate some of those things we’ve helped to cause at Pine Ridge. Even after all this, I say Nebraskans are fair – fair to a fault. Sometimes it takes us so damn long to act.”

The real culprits, he said, are “those in Sheridan County” who’ve turned a blind eye.

“The beer sellers and the rest are going to have hell to pay, not from Frank LaMere, but from the Supreme Court, the Liquor Control Commission, the attorney general, all these other interests, because when they take a good, long hard look at what’s happened, there there’s no way you can reconcile that as being anything close to normal or acceptable.”

As watchdog and conscience, LaMere said he lives out a covenant he made with his creator to serve others.

“I’ve traveled a million miles, spent everything I have, taken time from my family, taken time from myself. At some point, there’s a moral authority you feel. Nobody can give it to you or bestow it on you. Once you acquire it, it means nothing unless there’s a moral imperative that goes with that. I’ve tried to achieve some moral authority and the moral imperative that goes with it.

“I hear every day in my work with different agencies the words ‘by the authority invested in me.’ Means absolutely nothing to me. Doesn’t impress me at all. I don’t care how much authority you have – if you do not use it and if there’s no moral imperative to make things better, it’s meaningless. I meet with those people all the time. They have the authority, but they don’t use it. I’m not being cynical. I have the truth on my side.”

Whiteclay offered duly elected and appointed officials decades of opportunities to act, but they didn’t. LaMere never left the issue or let authorities forget it.

“Sometimes I can go into a room with a hundred people and I have the least amount of authority-power-title, but they have to listen to Frank because he’s put time and energy into it and he’s acquired that moral authority and he uses it. He scares them. They wish he would go away. People have to listen to Frank because he never goes away and there’s nothing in it for him.

“That’s why we made some changes at Whiteclay and that’s how we’re going to make change in our society – gain that moral authority and act.”

LaMere said his greatest asset is the truth.

“Any issues of change, even Whiteclay, you stand with the truth. I’ve learned that over many years. Because once the press conferences, the conventions, the rallies are done, the arrests are made, the petition drives are over, the legislative efforts go by the wayside, the only thing that’s left is the truth. It’s very important you stand with the truth and be recognized having stood with it.

“That’s the only thing that keeps me going. I’m firm, forthright and respectful and always telling the truth. Of late, it has worked in some respects for me.”

If Whiteclay confirmed anything, he said, it’s that “nothing changes unless someone’s made to feel uncomfortable and you have to make yourself uncomfortable.” In dealing with Whiteclay, he said, he expressed his “healthy disrespect for authority.”

“Maybe it’s a character flaw,” he said, “but you can put me in a room with a hundred people and if there’s a bully, before the night’s over I’ll probably butt heads with him.”

As a young man he was active “on the periphery” of the American Indian Movement. Later in life he got close to AIM legends Russell Means and Vernon Bellacourt. The men became allies in many fights.

“I saw Native people and non-Native people be bullied simply because somebody felt they had a position of power over them and whenever I see that I naturally react to that. I don’t care what the issue is, I’ll ask, ‘Who do you think you are? Why are you doing that? Why are you treating him or her that way?’ I’ve said that. I’ve always grown up with that feeling that if somebody is being mistreated, I will always speak up for them.”

Whiteclay offered a microcosm of predatory behavior.

“When I first went to Whiteclay 20 years ago, I took one look and you could see the Natives who went there did not have a voice and were not held in high regard. The owners and residents paid little attention to them. The other thing I saw there was the lawlessness and the mistreatment of vulnerable people being taken advantage of. I saw it and so could everybody else. Then I saw how nobody acted, so I thought perhaps I should give some voice to them.”

The still unsolved murders there of Little John Means, Ronald Hard Heart and Wilson Black Elk weighed on him. The alcohol-related illness and death of others haunted him.

“The alcohol coming out of Whiteclay has killed scores of Lakotas and we’re still waiting for that one white man or white woman, God forbid, who dies on the road between Rushville and Whiteclay.’

The documentary The Battle for Whiteclay shows LaMere at a hearing railing against “the double standard” that overlooks Native deaths.

“It means we feel there’s two classes of citizens here in this state. Would we allow the things in Whiteclay in western Omaha or southeast Lincoln? I don’t think so. Scores of our people … victimized, orphaned, many of our people murdered. God forbid that one young white woman, one white man, die at Whiteclay tonight. We’d shut the damn thing down in the morning, and the pathetic thing about that is we all know that’s the truth.”

LaMere feels that double-standard still exists.

“We want everything at Whiteclay to be just right, but we cannot even take care of the clear and simple. There’s one thing you know you can do under the law – you can shut them down, and they’ve done that, and they’re having problems keeping them shut.”

He refuses to be patronized because he’s learned from experience that playing the game doesn’t get results.

“You’ll pat me on the head and say, Frank, you’re a great guy, I appreciate what you’re bringing to us, but I know in the back of your mind you don’t want to change anything. You’ll even give me a permit to march or picket. But I bet you won’t do that for 20 years. You can handle a year and then say – this damn guy never goes away, perhaps we should sit and listen to him.”

LaMere regrets the one time he took things for granted.

“I made a mistake many years ago. I raised the issue of Whiteclay. We got a lot initiated with then-Gov. (Ben) Nelson. He put together groups of officials from Sheridan County, Pine Ridge, state agencies, and we talked about the lawlessness issues up there. So we got something in the works a long time ago and I appreciated that process. I made the mistake though of thinking it’s a no-brainer. I thought all I have to do is bring this back to Lincoln and Nebraskans will change it.

“I was too hopeful. Many Nebraskans would change it but those in power did not. Where there’s money involved, nothing is a no-brainer. People are going to weigh the money and the impact. Those with influence and monied interests are probably going to win out. That’s what I watched. Whiteclay is perhaps the poster child for greed, not in Neb. but maybe in the whole nation. It ranks up there with Flint (Mich.).”

For too long, he said, the attitude about Whiteclay was, “We know what we’re doing but it’s going to cost us money, it’s going to cost me to do my job in the public trust. Just leave it the way it is.” Because the problem was allowed to persist, he said, “Whiteclay will go down in our history as something we tolerated and that we will forever be ashamed of, and we’re only going to understand that when the Supreme Court makes that final decision to shut ’em down. Then we’re going to take a look at what we’ve truly done.”

Meanwhile, LaMere won’t rest easy. When well-meaning people offer condolences about Lexie and lament her unfulfilled promise, he said he accepts their sympathy but corrects them, saying, “There’s no unfulfilled promise – it’s more for you to do, it’s more for me to do.

“That’s how it is. That keeps me going. That’s the way I’ll be until I’m not here anymore.”

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

Brenda Council: A public servant’s life

June 26, 2017 2 comments

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

Community. Service. Family. Home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She’s never denied what she did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Council understands what she did was improper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music impresario Paul Allen appreciated her spunk in catching shows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She thought she’d change the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She agonized over running for the City Council in 1993.

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

“Now, am I partisan? Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I was pleasingly surprised.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She does not plan to seek reinstatement of her license.

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

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

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

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

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

Of Dreamers and doers, and one nation indivisible under…

February 21, 2017 Leave a comment

Of Dreamers and doers, and one nation indivisible under…
DACA youth and supporters hope protections are retained

©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (wwwthereader.com)

With immigration reform caught in the gap of a divided U.S. Congress, the long-proposed DREAM Act never got passed. In 2012 President Barack Obama issued an executive order creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program as a temporary stop-gap giving young students who grew up here protections against removal and permits to work, allowing many to obtain drivers licenses and other basic privileges.

Conservative Nebraska officially opposed DACA. Then-Gov.Dave Heineman blocked issuing drivers licenses (Nebraska was the only state), welfare or other public benefits to DACA-eligible youth. Gov. Pete Ricketts continued the stand. But a broad coalition of rural and urban Nebraskans spanning party lines and ages, along with faith, law enforcement and business leaders – the Bible, Badge and Business coalition – along with such organizations as Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska, Heartland Workers Center and Nebraska Appleseed, successfully advocated for legislation granting DREAMers drivers licenses and professional-commercial licenses.

The state legislature twice overturned governor vetoes to preserve these bills as law.

While never a panacea, DACA provided DREAMers and supporters hope that real, permanent immigration reform might follow. However, President Donald Trump made campaign promises to repeal DACA and crack down on undocumented immigrants. With his administration only weeks old, no one knows if or when he’ll end DACA and thus undo everything attained.

DREAMer Alejandra Ayotitla Cortez, a senior psychology student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is one of about 3,275 DACA recipients in Nebraska. As more young people age into DACA, that number will grow as long as the program continues, She echoes other recipients in saying, “Right now we are facing a lot of uncertainty. As much as I wish I knew what was going to happen with the program, it’s very hard to predict, and that’s what makes it harder. We’re in this limbo place. Obviously, if it does end, that would have a lot of negative consequences. Right now we are trying to focus on working with our representatives at the federal level to try to draft legislation that would protect the program.”

She was part of a contingent of DREAMers who met with Nebraska Congressional leaders in the nation’s capitol in January.

A coalition of Nebraska supporters signed a public letter to Nebraska members of Congress urging them to endorse DACA’s continuation on the grounds it allows aspirational young people like Alejandra the ability to reach their potential. The argument is that the work they do, the commerce they create, the taxes they pay strengthen, not deplete America. Recently proposed federal legislation called the BRIDGE Act would provide some safeguards in the event DACA isn’t renewed or until more lasting immigration reform emerges.

Nebraska Restaurant Association executive director Jim Partington said at a recent press conference in Lincoln announcing the letter, “There is no logical objection to anything about supporting these youths who were brought here at a very young age, have been educated in our school systems, and are now ready to go out into the work force and contribute to our economy and our society.”

Ayotitla Cortez also spoke at the conference. She previously testified before state senators.

“It’s important for us to share our stories so that we can show that DREAMers are here, we’re contributing, we’re doing the best we can to serve our communities,” she said.

Former DREAMer Lucy Aguilar, a University of Nebraska at Omaha student, advocated for DREAMers’ rights through Young Nebraskans in Action (YNA), a program of Heartland Workers Center (HWC).

She’s since gained permanent residency status. She stands by what she said two years ago: “I don’t think DACA-recipients should be tied to immigration policies or immigration terminology because we’re a much different thing. I know my status and it’s definitely not breaking the law in any sense. I’m here just like everybody else trying to make something out of my life, trying to accomplish goals — in my case trying to open a business and be successful in that.”

She supports DREAMers retaining their DACA protections.

HWC Senior Organizer Lucia Pedroza, who supervises YNA, said the issue’s catalyzed young people to participate and raise their collective voice and take collective action. Coalescing support for the bills that gave DREAMers licenses was a case in point.

“Young people started organizing themselves after coming to meetings and learning more about the legislative process and the issues in their community,” Pedroza said. “They knew what they had to do. They started organizing students and teachers at South High School. They were able to speak up for the bills and proposals.

“I’ve seen some who were afraid to speak up and share their own stories a few years ago now speaking their truth and working with us at the center. I’ve seen them grow and want to share their interest and passion with other young people. It’s a cool thing. They’re not just wanting to stay on the sidelines and complain, they want to do something more. They understand it’s not going to be just about them, they can’t do it alone, they need to have community support.”

Pedroza said YNA’s grassroots work “impacted the effort statewide in support of DACA.”

She and others make a pragmatic, do-the-right-thing, make-good-policy case for DREAMers being given pathways to full participation. Ayotitla Cortez uses herself as an example of how DACA impacts lives.

“As soon as I enrolled at UNL I started working at a daycare center at the university thanks to the work permit DACA provides. That was the first job I ever had. It helped me to support myself and paid for my living expenses and some of my school expenses. That was a great opportunity. Then my sophomore year I got the opportunity to work as a service assistant in the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools.

“Now I work at El Centro de las Americas — a non-profit that serves mainly the Latino Community. I’m the coordinator of the Adult Education Program. Helping my community is my main way of giving back some of what has been given to me.”

She wishes opponents would look past fears and stereotypes.

“I guess some people have a hard time seeing the human side or the social contributions DACA has provided. We’re working and putting money into city, state, federal revenues.”

Then there are myths that need overturning.

“As DACA-recipients we have to pay $485 every two years to renew our work permit, so it is something we are paying for, we’re not just getting it for free. If you multiply that by the nation’s 700,000 DACA-recipients, then that is bringing in money and helping the economy of every state. It’s creating jobs because we’re working, spending and some of us are even starting businesses.”

Pedroza said, “It’s about families and the well-being of human beings and giving opportunities to people who work hard and contribute as equally as citizens of the United States.”

Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) Executive Director Emiliano Lerda feels the issue found enough support to buck the governor in the “very diverse coalition pushing for these changes,” adding, “you had strong, traditionally conservative and Republican-leaning organizations advocating side by side with what are traditionally known as more progressive organizations. This truly is a bipartisan issue that unfortunately has been utilized by politicians to galvanize a certain segment of the population for political support. But the vast aspects of this issue affect people across the aisles equally and the solutions will come from across the aisles from people who understand the economic impact and benefits of immigrants and the economic disaster we could face if we don’t have access to immigrant labor.”

Charles Shane Ellison, JFON deputy executive director-legal director, said it’s a win-win for everyone as employers benefit from DREAMers’ labor and DREAMers’ income boosts the economy. Then there’s the advanced degrees DREAMers earn, the expertise they practice, the services they provide, the products they produce, et cetera.

For Ellison, it’s also an issue of fairness and of undoing an overly broad application of law.

“Many of my clients who qualify for DACA came as babies. They don’t know any other country other than the United States. The law’s very unforgiving. It doesn’t make allowances for the fact they didn’t have any control over entering the country without status. These kids found themselves growing up blocked out of any opportunities to obtain work, to achieve dreams, so DACA was huge because it was this breakthrough, finally saying you can come out of the shadow and participate in the workforce towards your dreams in the only country you’ve known.

“Though inadequate and imperfect, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of what DACA’s meant to these young people.”

For St. Paul United Methodist Church (Lincoln) senior pastor David Lux, embracing DREAMers is about social justice.

“They live here and are part of our communities and have been for years. This is their home. Regardless of legal documentation they’re human beings worthy of fairness and a chance. They also contribute a lot to our communities and add to their richness.”

Besides, Pedroza said, with small population Nebraska struggling to retain young talent and America ever aging, the state and nation can’t afford to lose its best and brightest of child-rearing age.

Not everyone eligible for DACA applies for it.

Ellison said, “Nationally, 700,000 have been granted DACA since the program’s inception, I believe initial estimates of those eligible were well over a million. There’s a number of factors why only 700,000 applied. Some people are very risk averse, other people are not. Those who are risk averse, [do they] feel like paying fees to apply for a program soon to be done away with or potentially done away with, in addition to giving the government your private information they would need to apprehend you and seek your removal, [that] is not a very good bargain. So they’re not interested or willing to apply for it even if they qualify.

“A lot depends on the individual facts of the case. If a person’s already on immigration’s radar, they’re not really giving up much by applying.

“If they’re not on immigration’s radar, by applying with the potential the program will be done away with, they are taking some risk.

“I’ve actually been surprised by how many people want to apply, even post-election, who say, ‘I still want to renew my application because I feel like it’s worth a shot. If I don’t apply, I know I won’t get it. If I do apply, maybe President Trump will change his mind or something else will happen.’ It just shows how desperate folks were before DACA.”

Ellison added, “Certainly among my greatest concerns is that DACA will be done away and not be replaced with any kind of protection … that in addition to lack of compassion in immigration enforcement that tears families apart and disrupts communities.”

JFON urges recipients to prepare for DACA’s demise.

“We want folks to get plugged in with counsel so they can analyze what are their rights in any defenses they may have,” Ellison said. “If DACA is done away with, that’s going to be really important. We want people to know there are certain constitutional legal protections they may have and other forms of relief they may pursue that exist in law as opposed to policy. While the President can change immigration policy by doing away with the program, which is just an executive memoranda, he does not have the authority to unilaterally undue the law.

“There may be legal protections that exist for some DACA youth they don’t know about until they consult with an attorney. We provide referrals for the Nebraska Legal Immigration assistance hotline.”

Meanwhile, Pedroza, a Guatemalan immigrant, finds solace in the confederacy of common interests around the issue, such as the Bible, Badge and Business coalition that’s championed DACA. These coalitions signal to her America may not be as divided as the media portrays, but she concedes more consensus building is needed.

“What keeps me motivated is knowing for a fact we can do better to be a more welcoming community, state and nation and that we can work together to improve the quality of life for underserved people. Not everyone will see the same things I see, but we don’t have to have one way of doing things. The more collective and different perspectives we can add to the larger vision, the more impact we can have.”

With DACA up in the air and the path of immigration reform anybody’s guess, Pedroza hopes for bridges to dreams, not walls to exclusion.

“I have two children and I really care about their future. I want them to know there is something that can be done when you work with community members and elected officials. We can have dialogue. We don’t have to be on the defensive or offensive all the time. We need to have that space to negotiate in, and it’s possible. I think the national rhetoric doesn’t help. A lot of times, not everybody is open-minded or familiar with the other side of the story. That’s something we have to deal with. We’re not going to convince everybody. Not everybody’s going to see the issue the same way. But we can’t give up. We have to work with what we have and to do what we can do.”

She senses however things play out, DREAMers and supporters have started a movement that won’t go away.

“One thing we can do is help people empower themselves, so that they can continue to work for those solutions and look for other options. A lot of times as immigrant communities we feel powerless and so we don’t try to be a part of that change for our community.

“But that collective power really makes people feel they can do something. It can be like a domino effect where one thing leads to something bigger or we inspire people to get involved.”

Being seen and heard is a start.

Visit jfon-ne.org, http://www.heartlandworkerscenter.org, neappleseed.org.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The new administration issued its first immigration orders as we went to press. Local groups, especially the ones mentioned in this story, are organizing now to respond to changes in enforcement priorities that threaten to tear apart families and lives without any review process while diverting resources away from deporting the worst criminals. Stay tuned to them at the links at the end of this story and follow-up coverage in our sister publication El Perico and online at TheReader.com.

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

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