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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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Ben Kuroki: A distinguished military career by a most honorable man

March 17, 2018 1 comment

 

Ben Kuroki: A distinguished military career by a most honorable man

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons (2007)

Sergeant Ben Kuroki dreaded what awaited him.

It was 1994, World War II raged on, and the 27-year-old American serviceman was on special leave back in the States,  where he was ordered to make a speech about his wartime experiences. He felt ill-prepared to do so. After all, he grew up a poor Nebraska farm boy near Hershey. He’d had a spotty education. His school was often interrupted when his folks needed him to work the potato fields.

Kuroki had never done any public speaking unless you count a speech or two he gave in school. Now he was expected to address an audience of hundreds of well-heeled strangers, He was so intimidated, he tried getting out of it. But the U.S. War Department, which had arranged for Kuroki to speak, would not have it.

The crowd of movers and shakers belonged to San Francisco’s elite Commonwealth Club. Its members were used to hearing from power-brokers , including every U.S. president since Abraham Lincoln. Now they were about to hear from Kuroki, a skinny, young Japanese-American enlisted man at the height of America’s war with Japan. Skepticism ran high. For his part, Kuroki was plain scared and it took a lot to scare a man who has seen as much battle action as he had.

The B-24 Army Air Corps gunner had flown through the worst the German air defenses over North Africa and Europe could throw at Allied forces. A veteran of 30 bombing missions, including the famed Ploesti raid, Kuroki was already a hero. He went on to fly 28 more missions on B-29s over the Pacific.

On the eve of giving a talk before a group of fat-cats in San Francisco, he felt a new kind of fear. There was good reason for his unease. As a Japanese-American, Kuroki was widely viewed with suspicion or worse in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s ongoing bloody war with the Pacific island nation. Wartime hysteria, particularly on the west coast, resulted in hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans beige forcibly interned in “relocation” camps. Hostility toward anyone of Japanese ancestry was common.

Kuroki himself suffered insults and slights from the time he enlisted. Just being in the Air Corps was an anomaly. At the outset of the war, young men wanting to enlist like Ben and his kid brother, Fred, encountered roadblocks. Japanese-Americans already in uniform were kicked out. Those who got in were mustered out. denied combat assignments or shifted to the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment that earned distinction. Kuroki was desperate to prove his loyalty to America and persisted in the face of racism and red tape.

“I had to fight like hell just for the right to fight for my own country,” he said recently from his home in Camarillo, California where he and his wife, Shige, live.

Few have faced as much to risk their life for an ungrateful nation. None of his remarkable service record, including two Distinguished Flying Crosses, would have happened if Kuroki  didn’t press his case up the chain of command: once, all the way to the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. Stimson reversed U.S, policy that banned Japanese-Americans from seeing combat in the Pacific. As a result, Kuroki was the only Nisei to see such duty over mainland Japan.

His continuing inequality became Kuroki’s “59th mission.”

Kuroki’s singular story is told in a new documentary, Most Honorable Son, that premiered in Lincoln Aug. 1. The documentary is set to air on PBS (NET1) Sept. 17 at 8 p.m.

For filmmaker Bill Kubota, who grew up hearing his father tell of Kuroki’s visit to the camp at which he was interned, Kuroki’s story is unique.

“It’s very rare you can find one person that can carry a lot of different themes of the war with their own personal experience,” Kubota said. “He saw so many different things. It’s a remarkable story no matter who it is, but throw in the fact he’s basically the first Japanese-American war hero, and you have even more of a story.

“He’s more than a footnote in Japanese-American history. One that needs to be better understood and more heard from. It’s a unique, different story that not only Asian-Americans can relate to, but all Americans. That’s why I like this story.”

Even now, the 90-year-old Kuroki, a retired newspaper editor, asks, “Why the hell did I do it? I mean, why did I go to that extent? I was just young. I had no family, no children, or wife or anything like that. I was all gung-ho to prove my loyalty.”

One key to what Kuroki calls his “all guts, no brains” loyalty was his upbringing. His parents “pounded it into their children  to never bring shame to yourself or you family,” he says in the film. “I hated the fact I was born Japanese. I wanted to try and avenge what they (Japan) had done for causing what we considered shame.”

The tenor of the times was expressed in a newspaper headline that announced his speech as “Jap to Address S.F. Club.” That story ran next to another condemning Japanese atrocities on the Bataan Death March. Even the officer escorting Kuroki worried how the audience would react. Making the appearance even more dramatic, Kuroki was the first Japanese-American to return to the west coast since the mass evacuation.

“I realized I had a helluva responsibility,” he recalled.

Seeing the public relations windfall of a Japanese-American combat hero, the War Department put him to work winning hearts and minds by booking him on the public speaking circuit. By parading him around to civic groups and internment camps, it was hoped Kuroki’s example would reverse racist attitudes and boost Nisei recruits.

“Bivouacked” at a Santa Monica, California rest-rehab center, he gave interviews and met celebrities. Stories about him appeared in Time Magazine and the New York Times. Then came the Commonwealth gig in San Francisco. He was given a room at the Palace Hotel. An Army PR officer accompanied him. In preparation for the talk, Sgt. Bob Evans asked Kuroki to outline his experiences on paper., which Evans transformed into the moving speech Kuroki made.

“He did a terrific job,” Kuroki said of Evans’ work shaping his story.

The words Kuroki spoke that day and the heartfelt way he delivered them are said to have turned the tide of west coast public opinion on the Japanese-American question. Broadcast via radio in Calif., the speech got wide news coverage.

Here’s a sample of what he said on February 4, 1944:

“I learned more about democracy, for one thing, than you’ll find in all the books, because I saw it in action. When you live with men under combat conditions for 15 months, you begin to understand what brotherhood, equality, tolerance and unselfishness really mean. They’re no longer just words.”

He went on to recount how a crewmate caught a piece of flak in his head on a mission. The co-pilot left the cockpit to go back and give the injured man a morphine injection, but Kuroki waved him off, remembering training that taught morphine could be fatal to head injuries at high altitude. The wounded airman recovered.

“What difference did it make what a man’s ancestry was? We had a job to do and we did it with a kind of comradeship that was the finest thing.”

He described his “nearly continuous struggle” to be assigned a flight crew. How he “wanted to get into combat more than anything in the world, so I kept after it.” How he was “waging two battles, one against the Axis one against intolerance of my fellow Americans.” The prejudice he felt in basic training was so bad, he shared, “I would rather go through my bombing missions again than face it.”

Following the talk, reports refer to men crying and to a standing ovation that lasted 10 minutes. Kuroki confirmed this. Even his escort was in tears.

The reaction stunned Kuroki. He didn’t realize what it all meant until a letter from Club doyen Monroe Deutsch, a then University of California at Berkeley vice president, reached him overseas and reported what a difference the address made in tempering anti-Japanese sentiment.

Filmmaker Bill Kutoba’s research convinced him the address brought the matter “back to the forefront around the time it needed to be.”

“It helped people realize this is an issue they should think about and deal with.”

Kubota said the speech is little known to most Japanese-American scholars because the JA community was prevented from hearing the talk. Vital evidence for the profound effect is in Kuroki’s own files, not in public archives.

Before Kuroki went back overseas, he appeared at internment camps in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, where his visits drew mixed responses: enthusiasm from idealist young Nisei wanting his autograph; and hostility from bitter older factions.

Kuroki’s ardent American patriotism and virulent anti-Japam rhetoric elicited “hissing and booing from some of those dissidents,” he says.

“Some started calling me dirty names. It got pretty bad. I didn’t take it too well. I figured I’d risked my life for the good of Japanese-Americans.”

Among the young Nisei who idolized Kuroki was Kabota’s father, a then-teenager impressed with the dashing, highly decorated aerial gunner.

“My dad regards him as a hero, which is how pre-draft age Japanees-Americans also saw him,” Kubota said.

Because of the personal tie, the film “means more to me because it means more to my father than I had earlier realized,” Kubota added.

At one time, Kuroki’s story was widely reported in newspapers, magazines, newsreels and a 1946 book, Boy from Nebraska, by Ralph Martin. Outside of Audie Murphy, Kuroki may have ended the war as the best-known enlisted man to have served.

For years afterward, Kuroki kept silent about his exploits. The humble man, like most of his generation, did not want a fuss made about events long past. He married, raised a family and worked as a newspaper publisher and editor, first with the York (Nebraska) Republican and then the Williamston (Michigan) Enterprise. He later moved to California, where he worked as an editor with the Ventura Star-Free Press.

Kuroki’s story resurfaced with WWII 50th anniversary observances in the 1990s. At the invitation of the Nebraska State Historical Society, he cut the ribbon for a new war exhibit. On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he was the subject of a glowing New York Times editorial. More recently, he has been feted with honors by the Nebraska Press Association an his alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As a result of all the new-found attention, Kuroki and wife Shige have been invited guests to the White House on several occasions, most recently in May.

In 2005, Kuroki was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He was honored again last month when the new documentary was screened at a dinner hosted by Nebraska Gov. Dave Heinemann and First Lady Sally Ganem in Lincoln.

High distinction for a man from such humble beginnings. Always, he credits his Nebraska roots for preparing him for life and duty.

“I think in the long run, I have to thank my Nebraska upbringing, my Nebraska roots, for playing a real credible role in giving me a solid foundation for patriotism. It really was a way of life. Freedom was always something really I had the best of.”

Kuroki came from a poor family of 10 children. His parents emigrated from Japan with scant schooling and speaking no English. His father, Sam, arrived in San Francisco and worked his way east on Union Pacific Railroad section crews. The sight of fertile Nebraska land was enough to make the former sash salesman stay and become a farmer.

A small Japanese enclave formed in western Nebraska. Times were hard during the Great Depression and the years of draught, but Ben enjoyed a bucolic American youth, playing sports and hunting with friends, trucking potatoes down south and returning with fresh citrus.

Though accepted by the white majority, the newcomers were always aware they were different.

“But at the same time, I never encountered racial prejudice until after Pearl Harbor,” Kurokki said.

On Dec. 7, 1941, he was in a North Platte church basement for a meeting of the Japanese-American Citizens League, a patriotic group fighting for equality at a time of heightened tensions with Japan. Mike Masaoka from the JACL national office was chairing the meeting when two men entered the hall and, without explanation, said something to Masaoka and led him outside.

“Just like that, he was gone. We were just baffled, so we just sort of scattered, and by the time we got outside the church someone had a radio and said, ‘My God, Pearl Harbor has just been bombed by the Japanese.’ That was a helluva experience for us the way we found out. It really was a traumatic day.”

They soon learned that Masaoka had been arrested by the FBI and jailed in North Platte.

“I guess all suspects, so to speak, were taken into custody,” Kuroki said,

Masaoka was soon released, but his arrest presaged the coming restrictive measures imposed on all Japanese-Americans during the conflict. As part of the crackdown, their assets, including all bank accounts, were frozen. As hysteria built on the west coast, Executive Order 9066 forced the evacuation and relocation of individuals and entire families. Homes and jobs were lost. Lives disrupted. As the Kurokis lived in the Midwest, they were spared internment.

Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kuroki and his brother Fred were surprised when their father urged them to volunteer for the armed services. As Kuroki recalls in the film, their father said, “This is your country, go ahead and fight for it.”

They went to the induction center in North Platte 13 miles away. They passed all the tests but kept waiting for their names to be called.

“We knew were getting the runaround then because all our friends in Hershey were going in right and left,” Kuroki said.

The brothers left the facility in frustration.

“It was about two weeks later I heard this radio broadcast that the Air Corps was taking enlistments in Grand Island, so I immediately got on the phone and asked the recruiting sergeant if our nationality was any problem. He said, ‘Hell, no, I get two bucks for everybody I sign up. Come on down.’ So we drove 150 miles and gave our pledge of allegiance.”

The Omaha World-Herald ran a picture of the brothers taking their loyalty oath.

While on the train to Sheppard Field, Texas for recruit training, the brothers got a taste of things to come. Ben Kuroki recalled how “some smart aleck said, ‘What the hell are those damn Japs doing in the Army?'” “That was the first shocker.”

Things were tense in the barracks as well.

“I’ll never forget this one loudmouth yelled out, ‘I’m going to kill myself some Japs.’ I didn’t know whether he was talking about me or the enemy and I just felt like I wanted to crawl in a hole and hide.”

At least the brothers had each other’s back. Then, without warning, Fred was transferred to a ditch-digging engineers outfit.

“My god, i feared, for my life then,” Ben said.

As Kuroki learned, it was the rare Japanese-American who got in or stuck with the Air Corps. Almost all served in the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment that earned distinction.  The brothers corresponded a few times during the war. Fred ended up seeing action in the Battle of the Bulge.

From Sheppard Field, Ben Kuroki went to a clerical school in Logan, Colorado and then to Burksdale Field, Louisiana, where the 93rd Bomber Group made up of B-24s, was being formed. As a clerk, he got stuck on KP duty several days and nights.

“I knew damn well they were giving me the shaft, but I wasn’t about to complain because I was afraid that if I did the same thing would happen to me that happened to my brother. That I’d get kicked out of the Air Corps in a hurry.”

Kuroki took extra precautions.

“I wouldn’t dare go near one )B-24 bomber) because I was afraid somebody would think I’m going to sabotage. That’s the way it was for me for a whole year. I walked on egg shells worried if I made one wrong move, if I was right or wrong, that would be the end of my career.”

The his worst fear came to pass. Orders were cut for him to transfer out, which would ground him before he even got over enemy skies. That’s when Kuroki made the first of his pleas for a chance to serve his country in combat. He got a reprieve and went with his unit down to Fort Myers, Florida, the last stop before going to England. After three months of training, he once again faced a transfer.

“I figured if I didn’t go with them then, I’d be doing KP for the rest of my Army life. So I went in and begged with tears in my eyes to my squadron adjutant. Lt. Charles Brannan, and he said, ‘Kuroki, you’re going with us, and that’s that.’ All these decades later, I;m forever grateful because if it wasn’t for him I probably would never have gotten overseas.”

Kuroki made it to England – the great Allied staging area for the war in Europe – but he was still a long ways from getting to fly. He was still a clerk. But after the first bombing missions suffered heavy losses there were many openings on bomber crews for gunners. Not leaving it to chance, he took his cause directly to his officers.

“I begged them for a chance to become an aerial gunner and they sent me to a two-week English gunnery school. I didn’t even fire a found of ammunition.”

In late 1942, Kuroki got word his outfit was headed to North Africa and he was going with it. It took beseeching the 93rd’s commander, Ted Timberlake, whose unit came to be called “The Flying Circus,” before Kuroki got the final go-ahead. He was delighted, even though he “had practically no training.” As he would later tell an audience, “I really learned to shoot the hard way: in combat.”

Training or not, he finally felt the embrace of brother airmen around him.

“Once I got into flying missions with a regular crew and I was with my own guys, the whole world changed,” he said. “On my first mission I was just terrified by the enemy gunfire, but I suddenly found peace. I mean, for the first time I felt like I belonged. And by God we flew together as a family after that It was just unbelievable, the rapport. Of course, we all knew we’re risking our lives together and fighting to save each other’s lives.”

A crewmate dubbed Kurpki “The Most Honorable Son.” It became he nickname for their B-24.

At the time, Kuroki was reading accounts of extremists calling for all Japanese-Americans to be confined to concentration camps. Some nativists even suggested Japanese-Americans be deported to Japan after the war.

By then, Kuroki’s own battles were more with the enemy than with the military apparatus. His first action came on missions targeting the shipping lines of “The Desert Fox,” Erwin Rommel, whose Panther tank divisions had caused havoc in North Africa. Kuroki was on missions that hit multiple locations in North Africa and Italy.

Kuroki and his mates made it through more than a dozen missions without incident. Then, on a return flight in 1943, their plane ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing in Spanish Morocco. Armed Arab horsemen converged on them. The crew feared for their lives but Spanish cavalry rode to the rescue. The Spanish held the Americans more as reluctant guests than as prisoners. But Kuroki tried to escape.

“I just had to prove my loyalty,” he says in the film. He was caught. What ensued next was a limbo of bureaucratic haggling over what to do with the captured airmen. They were taken to Spain, where they were told they might sit out the rest of the war. For a time, it was welcome news for the crew, who stayed in luxurious quarters. But soon they felt they were missing out on the most momentous events of their lifetime.

Finally, the way was cleared for them to rejoin the 93rd, which soon moved to England for missions over Europe. Of all those bombing runs, the August 1, 1943 raid on Ploesti, Romania is forever burned in Kuroki’s memory. In a daylight mission, 177 B-24s came in at tree-top level against heavily fortified oil refineries deep in enemy territory. Nearly a third of the bombers failed to return. Hundreds of American lives were lost.

The legend of Kuroki grew when he reached he 25 mission rotation limit and volunteered to fly five more. His closest call came on his 30th trip, over Munster, Germany, when flak shattered he top of his plexiglass turret just as he ducked.

On an official leave home in early 1944, he was assigned a series of public appearances, including the Commonwealth Club speech that caused such a stir. The came his visits to internment camps. None of this sat too well with Kuroki.

“I felt very much used and I wasn’t cut out for that sort of thing. I got my belly full of it. I wanted to quit.”

Once back overseas, his bid for Pacific air cut was soon stalled. When Monroe Deutsch of the Commonwealth Club learned that a regulation stood in Kuroki’s way, he and others pressured top military brass to make an exception. Kuroki also prevailed upon U.S. Congressman Carl Curtis (Rep.–Neb.), who telegraphed Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Generals George Marshall and Hap Arnold. Stimson wrote a letter granting permission.

“They certainly were unusual people to go to bat for me at that time, when war hysteria was so high,” Kuroki said of the campaign waged on his behalf.

Stimson’s letter read in part: “I am now happy to inform you that by reason of his splendid record, it has been decided to except Sgt. Kuroki from the provisions of the policy.”

A fellow veteran and old friend of Kuroki’s, Carroll “Cal” Stewart, speculated it may have been the only time a GI “beat a War Department regulation during WWII.”

Even with his clearance, Kuroki still encountered resistance. Twice, federal agents tried to keep him from going on flights: once, at Kearney (Neb.) Air Base, and then again at Martha Field (Calif.), where the agents carried sidearms. Each time, he had to dig in his barracks bag to produce the Stimson letter.

“My pilot and bombardier were so damn mad because by this time they figured we were just getting harassed for nothing,” Kuroki said.

The B-29 he was assigned was dubbed “Honorable Sad Saki” in honor of Kuroki.

His crew flew out of Tinian Island, where their plane was parked next to the “Enola Gay” B-29 that would soon drop the first atomic bomb. Meanwhile, the fire bombings of Japanese cities left a horrible imprint.

While on Tinian, Kuroki could move safely about only in daylight and then only flanked by cremates, as “trigger-happy” sentries were liable to shoot anyone resembling the enemy.

After completing 58 missions unscathed, Kuroki was nearly murdered by a fellow American. When a drunken GI called him “a dirty Jap,” Kuroki started for him but was waylaid by a knife to the head. The severe cut landed him in the base hospital for the remainder of the war.

“Just a fraction of an inch deeper, and I wouldn’t be here talking,” he said. “And it probably would ever have happened if he hadn’t called me a Jap.”

As he says in the film, “That’s what my whole war was about. I didn’t want to be called a Jap. Not after all I had been through. The insults and all the things that hurt all the way back, even in recruiting.”

 

Gabriela Martinez: A heart for humanity and justice for all


Gabriela Martinez: A heart for humanity and justice for all

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in a February 2018 issue of El Perico ( http://el-perico.com/ )

 

Like many young Omaha professionals, Gabriela Martinez is torn between staying and spreading her wings elsewhere.

The 2015 Creighton University social work graduate recently left her position at Inclusive Communities to embark on an as yet undefined new path. This daughter of El Salvadoran immigrants once considered becoming an immigration lawyer and crafting new immigration policy. She still might pursue that ambition, but for now she’s looking to continue the diversity and inclusion work she’s already devoted much of her life to.

Unlike most 24-year-olds. Martinez has been a social justice advocate and activist since childhood. She grew up watching her parents assist the Salvadoran community, first in New York, where her family lived, and for the last two decades in Omaha.

Her parents escaped their native country’s repressive regime for the promise of America. They were inspired by the liberation theology of archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed for speaking out against injustice. Once her folks settled in America, she said, they saw a need to help Salvadoran emigres and refugees,

“That’s why they got involved. They wanted to make some changes, to try to make it easier for future generations and to make it easier for new immigrants coming into this country.”

She recalls attending marches and helping out at information fairs.

In Omaha, her folks founded Asociación Cívica Salvadoreña de Nebraska, which works with Salvadoran consulates and partners with the Legal immigrant Center (formerly Justice for Our Neighbors). A recent workshop covered preparing for TPS (Temporary Protected Status) ending in 2019.

“They work on getting people passports, putting people in communication with Salvadoran officials. If someone is incarcerated, they make sure they know their rights and they’re getting access to who they need to talk to.”

Martinez still helps with her parents’ efforts, which align closely with her own heart.

“I’m very proud of my roots,” she said. “My parents opened so many doors for me. They got me involved. They instilled some values in me that stuck with me. Seeing how hard they work makes me think I’m not doing enough. so I’m always striving to do more and to be the best version of myself that I can be because that’s what they’ve worked their entire lives for.”

Martinez has visited family in El Salvador, where living conditions and cultural norms are in stark contrast to the States.

She attended an Inclusive Communities camp at 15, then became a delegate and an intern, before being hired as a facilitator for the nonprofit’s Table Talk series around issues of racism and inequity. She enjoyed “planting seeds for future conversations” and “giving a voice to people who think they don’t have one.”

Inclusive Communities fostered personal growth.

“People I went to camp with are now on their way to becoming doctors and lawyers and now they’re giving back to the community. I’m most proud of the youth I got to work with because they taught me as much as I taught them and now I see them out doing the work and doing it a thousand times better than I do.

“I love seeing how far they’ve come. Individuals who were quiet when I first met them are now letting their voices be heard.”

Martinez feels she’s made a difference.

“I love seeing the impact I left on the community – how many individuals I got to facilitate in front of and programs I got to develop.”

She’s worked on Native American reservations, participated in social justice immersion trips and conferences and supported rallies.

“I’m most proud when I see other Latinos doing the work and how passionate they are in being true to themselves and what’s important to them. There’s a lot of strong women who have taken the time to invest in me. Someone I really look up to for her work in politics is Marta Nieves (Nebraska Democratic Party Latino Caucus Chair). I really appreciate Marta’s history working in this arena.”

Martinez is encouraged that Omaha-transplant Tony Vargas has made political inroads, first on the Omaha School Board, and now in the Nebraska Legislature.

As for her own plans, she said, “I’m being very intentional about making sure my next step is a good fit and that i’m wanting to do the work not because of the money but because it’s for a greater good.”

Though her immediate family is in Omaha, friends have pursued opportunities outside Nebraska and she may one day leave to do the same.

“I’d like to see what I can accomplish in Omaha, but I need a bigger city and I need to be around more diversity and people from different backgrounds and cultures that I can learn from. I think Omaha is too segregated.”

Like many millennials, she feels there are too many barriers to advancement for people of color here.

“This community is still heavily dominated by non-people of color.”

Wherever she resides, she said “empowering and advocating” for underserved people “to be heard in different spaces”.will be core to her work.

Despite gains made in diversity and inclusion, she feels America still has a long way to go. She’s seen too many workplaces let racism-sexism slide and too many environments where individuals reporting discrimination  are told they’re “overreacting” or “too ‘PC.'” That kind of dismissive attitude, she said, cannot stand and she intends to be a voice for those would be silenced.

Park Avenue Revitalization and Gentrification: InCommon Focuses on Urban Neighborhood

February 25, 2018 1 comment

 

Park Avenue Revitalization & Gentrification: InCommon Focuses on Urban Neighborhood

Appears in March-April 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photos by Bill Sitzmann

 

As revitalization has come to diverse, densely-packed, Park Avenue, a tale of two neighborhoods has emerged. The north end, near 30th and Leavenworth and Midtown, finds a millennial haven of developer-renovated historic properties and shiny new projects on once vacant lots.. The south end, bordering Hanscom Park, is plagued by remnants of drug activity and prostitution. In place of chic urban digs are public housing towers. Amid this transience, reinvestment lags.

Meanwhile, nonprofit InCommon Community Development bridges unchecked development and vulnerable immigrant and refugee populations. Its proactive, grassroots approach to alleviate poverty invests in residents. As a gentrification buffer, InCommon’s purchased two apartment buildings with below market rents to maintain affordable housing options to preserve a mixed-income neighborhood.

“It’s crucial to really involve people in their own work of transformation,” executive director Christian Gray says. “We have a very specific assets-based community development process for doing that. It’s a methodology or mindset that says, we’re not going to do for others, and residents themselves are the experts.

“It’s slower, patient but sustainable work because then you have people with buy-in and trust collaborating together for that change. The iron rule is never do for others what they can do for themselves. We made a commitment when we moved in the neighborhood to set the right first impression. We said, ‘We’re not here to save you or to give away stuff for free. We’re here to listen – to get to know you. We want to hear your ideas about change and be the facilitators of that.’ I think that’s made the difference.”

The faith-based organization “starts with the idea people want to be able to provide for themselves and their families,” he says. “We help them build their own capacity and then start building relationships. Then comes leadership development. As we get to know people, we identify their talents-gifts. We talk about how they can apply those into developing and strengthening the neighborhood. The ultimate goal is neighborhood transformation. We want them to see themselves as the neighborhood change agents.”

A hub for InCommon’s work is the Park Avenue Commons community center opened in 2013. It hosts GED, ESL, literacy, citizenship, job readiness and financial education classes, first-time home-buying workshops, community health programs and zumba.

“If someone walks out of there with their GED, better English proficiency or better able to provide for their family, we’re pleased,” Gray says.

The center’s also where InCommon hosts neighborhood meetings and an after-school drop-in space, conducts listening sessions, identifies neighborhood concerns and interests and activates residents’ civic engagement.

“One of our shining examples is Arturo Mejia. He’s super passionate about the neighborhood. He started getting involved with the organization and eventually became a staff member. He leads our ESL and GED programming. He also does community organizing.”

 

Mejia, a Mexican immigrant, says what he’s found with InCommon mirrors other residents’ experiences.

“InCommon’s invested in me in many ways,” he says. “It’s helped me to use my full potential in my work for the Latino community of this neighborhood. InCommon has found the goodness this neighborhood has. When shown the assets, instead of the negatives, residents find encouragement and empowerment enough to keep reaching their goals.”

The community center resulted from feedback gathered from residents like Mejla. The zumba class was initiated by a woman living there.

“Adults come through the workforce channel. Kids come through the after-school channel,” Gray says.

At an InCommon community visioning process last fall, a group of young men shared the need for a new neighborhood soccer field and with InCommon’s guidance they’re working with the city on getting one. InCommon’s gala last fall recognized area superheroes like them and Mejia.

Besides the center, InCommon’s imprints include a pocket park, a community garden and artist Watie White’s mural of neighborhood leaders.

The first wave of redevelopment there, Gray says, “saw “empty buildings activated and populated and it actually brought an infusion of new people, energy and resources – the positive elements of gentrification.”

“It’s certainly cleaned up – but a lot of the problems remain here – they’re just beneath the surface now.”

As more development occurs, the concern is the people InCommon serves “will be displaced.” That’s where the low income housing come in. The Bristol, fully occupied and awaiting renovation, features 64 studio apartments. The Georgia Row, currently closed and undergoing repairs, will feature 10 or 11 multi-family units.

InCommon is investing $10 million in refurbishmentd. Local and state historic tax credits and tax increment financing monies, plus expected low income housing tax credits, are making it possible.

“As a landlord we’re not only able to preserve affordable housing. but we can integrate individual capacity building services directly on-site with residents,” Gray says.

He looks to solidify InCommon’s work in this and other “opportunity neighborhoods” poised for redevelopment.

“Right now, redevelopment is like a tidal wave people get drowned in. We are interested in getting people to withstand and actually surf that wave and leverage it. People have to have some wherewithal to be able to make their own decisions and not be co-opted into other people’s plans. We’ve started looking at how do we get residents more involved in directing how they want their neighborhoods to grow, so none of this happens in ad hoc form. In this more thoughtful approach to creating neighborhoods, there’d be a vision for what residents want Park Avenue or Walnut Hill to look like.

“The goal isn’t to come up with a plan for them, it’s to facilitate the process so neighbors and stakeholders come up with the plan together.”

Visit incommoncd.org.

A series commemorating Black History Month: North Omaha stories

January 31, 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, family, community, faith, education, art, music, theater, film, culture, et cetera
 
A weekly four-part series
This week: Part I
Redevelopment, vision, advocacy. protest and empowerment
 
https://leoadambiga.com/…/when-omahas-north-24th-street-brought-together -jews-and-blacks-in-a-melting-pot-marketplace-that-is-no-more/‎
https://leoadambiga.com/…/art-as-revolution-brigitte-mcqueens-union-for- contemporary-art-reimagines-whats-possible-in-north-omaha/
https://leoadambiga.com/…/brigitte-mcqueen-shews-union-of-art-and- community-uses-new-blue-lion-digs-to-expand-community-engage…
https://leoadambiga.com/…/carver-building-rebirthed-as-arts-culture-haven- theaster-gates-rebuild-and-bemis-reimagine-north-omaha/‎
https://leoadambiga.com/…/artists-running-with-opportunity-to-go-to-the- next-level-carver-bank-resident-artists-bring-new-life-to-area/‎
https://leoadambiga.com/tag/the-rhythmboys-of-omaha-central/

 

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.

 

Re-entry prepares current and former incarcerated individuals for work and life success on the outside

January 10, 2018 1 comment

Re-entry prepares current and former incarcerated individuals for work and life success on the outside

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the December 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

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A growing community of re-entry pathways serve current and former incarcerated individuals needing work upon release.

Many re-entry programs are run by people who’ve been in the criminal justice system themselves.

“Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” said ReConnect Inc. founding director LaVon Stennis-Williams, a former civil rights attorney who served time in federal prison. “You have people like myself coming out of prison no longer waiting for others to remove barriers. There is a network of movements being led by formerly incarcerated individuals taking control of this whole effort to make reentry something more than just talk. We’re developing programs that try to ensure people coming out are successful and don’t go back to prison.”

Some area re-entry programs are formalized, others less so. Several are grantees through the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services’ administered Vocational and Life Skills grant stemming from 2014 state prison legislation (LB 907). Programs work with individuals inside and outside state prisons.

ReConnect provide services Stennis-Williams didn’t find upon her own release in 2010.

“When I came out of prison, many second chance programs started under the 2008 Second Chance initiative either did not get refunded or the funding dried up,” she said. “So when I came out there weren’t many out there – just kind of the residuals.”

What there were, she said, were disjointed and uncoordinated.

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“I wanted to create a program I wish would have been in existence when I was navigating re-entry. What I realized from my own personal experience – it did not matter how well educated you were, how much money you had, what connections you had, when you’re going through re-entry, you’re going to face barriers. I developed a program to fill service gaps and to be not so much a hand-out as an empowering thing to help overcome those barriers.”

Employment assistance is a major piece of ReConnect.

“We look beyond just helping them with creating a resume and building interview skills. We spoke with employers to find out what soft skills they’re looking for in people. In our employment readiness program Ready for Work we put a lot of emphasis on those core competencies employers want: dependable, reliable, strong work ethic, problem solvers.”

ReConnect’s Construction Toolbox Credentials Training workshops prepare participants for real jobs.

“We worked with construction companies to find out what they’re looking for in people and we developed a training program using industry professionals to come teach it. They issue industry recognized certificates.”

Metropolitan Community College has convened around re-entry for more than a decade. Today, it’s a sanctioned service provider with 180 Re-entry Assistance Program.

“The thing we constantly hear from employers is that the pool of potential employees they’re fishing in do not have employability skills,” said director Diane Good-Collins, who did a stretch in state prison. “They don’t know how to show up on time, how to communicate with their supervisor, how to be a team player. Those are the things we’re teaching clients while they’re still incarcerated, so when they come out of prison they’re on a level playing field with those without criminal histories they’re competing against for jobs.”

Programs like 180 and ReConnect build background friendly employer pipelines.

“We work now with over 80 employers,” Stennis-Williams said. “These employers are very receptive to hiring men and women who participate in our job readiness workshops. I think employers’ attitudes are changing, partly because of economics. Employers are realizing they cannot ignore this labor force anymore.

“That’s why I think they’re making an effort now to reach out to programs like ours.”

Metro’s 180 program sees a similar shift.

“We have worked hard talking to employers about the population and helping destigmatize them. Employers understand this is the hidden workforce. Individuals are coming out trained, ready to enter the workforce and have the support of MCC and others in the community as they transition. They are ready to do something different and really what they need is an opportunity,” said Good-Collins. “Statistics show those who get educated while incarcerated are many times less likely to go back to prison.”

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Good-Collins said MCC closely vets participants.

“We’re not just going to send employers 10 people we don’t know anything about. We prescreen them to make sure they’re ready to be a part of their organization.”

Despite rigorous standards and numerous success stories, she said, not all employers want in.

“Some of the barriers are nonnegotiable. Some employers say they absolutely will never hire somebody with a criminal history. Some companies are limited to who they can hire due to liability concerns. Some have no idea they aren’t willing to until we talk to them about it. People with particular criminal histories can’t get hired in certain jobs.”

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Good-Collins found a receptive audience at a Human Resources Association of the Midlands diversity forum she presented at in October.

“Several HR directors said they’d be willing to work with us and we’ve established relationships with their companies. I feel like the proverbial door was kicked open and destigmatizing took place.”

Metro’s credit offerings inside prison include business, entrepreneurship, trades and information technology.

“We chose to teach those four career pathways inside the correctional facilities because those are areas the population can find a job in when released.

“Employability Skills and Introduction to Micro-computer Technology are our foundation courses because they give you a foot in the door with an employer.”

Process and Power Operations is a manufacturing and distribution certification course. Upon completion, she said, “its national certification equals gainful employment upon release,” adding, “We’ve worked with guys who got this and are making very good money.”

“Manufacturing and construction are popular career fields and well-paying options,” she said. “With our forklift training, you can get a job almost immediately at one of our employer partners. Other graduates work in food service  – entry level to management level.”

More re-entry efforts that focus around employment readiness include Intro To The Trades and Urban Pre-Vocational Training programs offered by Black Men United.

Big Mama’s Restaurant and Catering owner Patricia Barron has a long history hiring wait and kitchen staff with criminal histories.

Comprehensive programs like Metro’s 180 and ReConnect offer wrap-around services to clients, including transition support, referral to community agencies, coaching-tutoring-mentoring and employment assistance.

“We serve as a liaison in case there’s an issue that comes up at work and if the employee has a barrier with transportation or child care,” Good-Collins said. “We basically stand as a support and advocate.

“If they’re not at a point in their education and training to be eligible to go into a career position, then we guide them to survival employment, so at least they get working. Meanwhile, they can pursue their educational-employment goal to get to where they want to.”

Teela Mickles has worked with returning citizens for three decades. Her Compassion in Action seeks to “embrace the person, rebuild the family and break the cycle of negativity and recidivism.” CIA’s Pre-Release-Education-Reentry Preparation focuses on the individual and the unresolved core issues that led to criminal acts.

Personal validation, self-exploration and personal development activities help clients change their thinking and behaviors, said Mickles. “This allows each individual to succeed in other services offered to this population: drug rehabilitation, advance education, employment readiness and gainful employment.”

CIA, ReConnect, 180 and other programs refer clients to mental or behavioral health counseling as needed.

There’s also a prevention aspect to e-entry work. Adult clients with kids learn parenting skills and strategies that can help keep their children from entering the system. ReConnect and CIA both have youth and family components.

Jasmine Harris is Post-Release Program manager for the area’s latest re-entry player: Defy Ventures, a national organization with regional chapters. its intensive six-month CEO of Your New Life program

explores character development, transformational education and employment readiness. Participants learn to transition their street hustle experiences, talents and skills into career applications. Clients develop a life plan.

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“Getting them to see that skill set and how to use it on  the positive side of things really turns on a light for them and they love it,” Harris said. “We bring in volunteers for business coaching days. The entrepreneurship part is the hallmark of our program. We call our participants EITs or Entrepreneurs in Training. They get one-on-one basic entrepreneurship.”

Volunteers assist clients in developing a business plan.

“Our curriculum is vetted by Baylor University,” Harris said. “and if participants pass they get a certificate of career readiness. We do a full cap and gown graduation. That’s when we have our business pitch competition. We bring in volunteers, business execs, entrepreneurs and do a shark tank style competition. Everyone graduating pitches their business idea.”

Cash prizes are awarded.

In terms of post-release, Harris deploys the same six month program on the outside that’s offered in prison.

“Anyone in the community with a criminal history, whether they were formally incarcerated or had a misdemeanor or a felony probation, can participate if they’re looking for another option.”

Harris also runs the program’s business incubator.

“Our Entrepreneur Incubator is an additional 12 to 15 months of training. We match clients up with executive mentors who’ve gone through the process of starting their own business. Mentors help walk them through the business start-up process.

“We have business coaching nights and workshops where we bring in subject matter experts who give more in-depth information.”

Harris connects clients with workforce development resources. help with resumes and two big barriers – affordable housing and access to transportation.

“We connect them to services in the community where it makes sense. Everybody doesn’t want to be an entrepreneur or go to school. We let them know there’s a program over here doing a trades piece or there’s another program doing the education piece.”

Re-entry experts agree there are more and better services today but Harris and others see a need for more collaboration among providers.

Good-Collins said no matter how one feels about reentering citizens, they’re here to stay.

“Maybe you can look at it from a dollars and cents perspective and realize it doesn’t make fiscal sense to do what we’ve been doing, which is paying to re-incarcerate people.”

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