Archive for the ‘Youth’ Category

Diana Acero heads county effort to get the lead out

March 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Diana Acero heads county effort to get the lead out

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico


Diana Acero is squarely focused on helping others as Douglas County Health Department‘s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program coordinator.

“Having this position has helped me realize how much I enjoy working with people and letting the community know we’re here to help you,” says Acera, who took the job in 2007 after working for One World Community Heath Centers.

Lowering children’s lead levels brings satisfaction. She says, “Then I’m like, Wow, the family really got the message, this child is going to get better, they’re going to be successful in life. We made a difference.”

Lead poisoning is directly linked to developmental and behavioral problems in children. The condition can be symptom-less until a child begins falling behind or acting out in school. It can only be diagnosed through testing.

Using various means Acero informs parents, educators and daycare providers about lead hazards and prevention resources. She also tests children, She, a fellow case manager and allied community health workers visit homes, schools, community centers, Head Start centers and health fairs. Acero finds it hard not personalizing the affected youths she meets.

“These are my children,” she says. “I call them my babies.”

Her passionate work earned her the Heartland Latino Leadership Conference Government Award in 2010.

“It’s nice to be recognized for what you do for the Latino community but it also means you have to do even more — to reach more people, to do more prevention,” she says.

She won’t rest until every child’s tested and childhood lead poisoning is eliminated.

“I’m working for a better Omaha, healthier children, a healthier community.”

Acero and her husband have lived in Omaha since 2000. She came here from her native Bogota, Colombia to learn English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

She worked in the University of Nebraska Medical Center microbiology department before joining One World as lab technician, Later, as lab coordinator, she grew aware of Omaha’s childhood lead poisoning problem through collaborations with the county lead prevention program, whose then coordinator recommended Acero as her replacement.

Acero’s lab background, bilingual abilities and community-based experience made her a natural choice. Her primary mission is education aimed at prevention. A major challenge is informing people about environmental dangers, whether lead-based house paint (prevalent in homes built prior to 1978) or car and house keys. Some cultural practices introduce additional risks. For example, ceramic bean pots many Hispanics cook with and popular Mexican candies are tainted with lead. Some African refugees eat dirt, risking exposure to lead contaminated soil.

Partnering her efforts is the Omaha Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control Program, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance. At-risk families that meet income guidelines may receive home lead abatement assistance from partnering agencies.

Children are referred to local Women and Infant Care or WIC programs for nutrition consultation. Increased calcium and Vitamin C can fight lead poisoning.

A common myth, says Acero, is that lead risks are an inner city issue. “It doesn’t matter where you live. If you let your child play with keys and your child goes to a pinata party where there’s Mexican candy, your child’s’ going to be exposed.” She adds that homes with lead-based paint aren’t confined to east Omaha. That’s why she says, “parents need to be concerned and they need to ask for a test.


Graciela Sharif’s mission is to empower parents

March 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Graciela Sharif’s mission is to empower parents

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico


When Graciela and Ayman Sharif’s son Nidal was born with Down Syndrome the couple didn’t know how to respond to having a special needs child.

Graciela, a native of Peru, now recognizes she and Ayman went through a cycle of guilt, sadness, anger and, she says, “the loss of dreams.” Little did she know it was the start of her journey as a special needs advocate. Today, as outreach coordinator for Parent Training and Information (PTI) Nebraska, she helps lost parents find their way.

“At first you feel like you’re navigating a foreign land in a foreign language,” she says.

She recalls the first time she and Ayman met with a caseworker they were so hungry for answers and hope they half-way expected a cure.

“This is how desperate parents are for information,” says Sharif. “But she guided us to resources, and from that point I realized we’re going to have to learn this new language. We kept reading books and navigating the Internet and asking questions and visiting other parents.”

While still a stay-at-home-mom she helped create a support group for parents of Down Syndrome children.

“Sharing experiences is the best way to overcome many of our obstacles and to feel better,” says Sharif.

She further educated herself at a PTI workshop. Armed with special needs protection laws, she forced a school district to accept her son at his neighborhood school.

While she and Ayman, a Middle Eastern native, are fluent in English — they met as international students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha — she says parents with minimal English language skills face more obstacles.

“This is why I joined the PTI staff,” she says. “They needed somebody bilngual — who spoke Spanish and English, and who was the parent of a child with a disability and had a college degree. I filled all three requirements.”

She likes the fact PTI services are free.

Additionally, she serves on the Nebraska Advocacy Services board and the Munroe Meyer Institute’s Consumer Advisory board. In her various roles, she says, “I always try to speak on behalf of the Spanish-speaking families. I am their voice.”

Her work earned her the 2010 Heartland Latino Leadership Conference Heath and Human Services award.

“It was an honor,” she says of the recognition. “It told me I’m doing a good job and to keep up the good work. I know the importance of supporting my community.”

She says a cultural stigma makes some Hispanics reluctant to reveal they have a special needs child or reticent to talk about the situation. Her job is identifying families and empowering them to get the help or take the action they need.

“The families and I really connect,” she says. “They trust me. Sometimes they just need to talk. It’s listening to them and crying with them. I know what they’re going through. I always tell parents, ‘We are the teachers. You need to talk about your child’s disability, you need to be involved. You have to get your kid in as many regular education classes as possible — the other kids need to learn from them. It’s for their future.’”

Sharif trained to be an architect, but she’s found a new calling with PTI.

“I love what I do. It enriches me. This is my project in life.”

Once Nidal and his brother Nader complete school, she might pursue a social work degree.

Unequal Justice: Juvenile detention numbers are down, but bias persists

Unequal Justice: Juvenile detention numbers are down, but bias persists

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appears in the March 2018 issue of The Reader ( )

Juvenile justice reform in Neb. has long been a hot topic of debate, study and legislation.

A labyrinth of statutes, jurisdictions, agencies and rules makes navigating the system difficult. Youth committing even minor offenses can face detention, probation or diversion depending on who they intersect with in the system. Child welfare professionals seek rehabilitation. Prosecutors push accountability.

Different philosophies, policies and competing interests can lead to unnecessary confinement, Lives get disrupted. Slow case processing can keep kids in an-in-system limbo awaiting adjudication.

A major Douglas County juvenile justice reform initiative, Operation Youth Success, uses a collective impact model to try and improve system coordination and communication for desired better youth outcomes. Its stakeholder players span law enforcement officials and judges to educators and service providers.

“A work group is working specifically trying to cut times kids are detained and the time it takes cases to get through court,” said OYS director Janee Pannkuk. “We’re collecting data on where are those bottlenecks.”

Extenuating circumstances aren’t always acknowledged.

“There’s so many things that influence why a kid makes a decision,” Pannkuk said. “We’ve had kids shop lift because they needed hygiene products or candy bars, so it was more a child welfare issue – but then it became a criminal justice issue. For it really to be effective it needs to work at an individual level. We’re talking about a macro system trying to operate at a micro level. A lot of times big systems don’t respond well to the individual piece.”

“It’s so easy for others to judge families,” Douglas County Youth Center director Mark LeFlore said. “I’m not saying families aren’t responsible but there’s shared responsibility. You just can’t put it all on the family. Families in a lot of cases are doing their best and they need to be recognized for their efforts, not minimized.”

“A youth makes a mistake and it has a ripple effect on families. In some cases that individual helps support the family by working or is directly responsible for younger siblings while the parent works. With that individual out of the house, it changes the dynamics and families struggle with those changes.”

When youth are detained without cause, said UNO Justice Center director Roger Spohn, “you’re probably going to make this kid worse rather than better.”

If that youth is an African-American male in Douglas County, then his contact with the system is on average longer and harsher than for his white counterparts.

Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) plagues the state’s juvenile justice system.

“If you’re on an unlawful absence warrant or if you’re a runaway you’re going to stay twice as long in detention as a non-minority for the same charge,” LeFlore said.

“It’s not working equally or equitably for all of our different youth,” Voices for Children in Nebraska analyst Juliet Summers said. “The best example of that is youth in detention. We’ve cut our detention numbers statewide almost in half but the disproportionality has gone dramatically up. We need to figure out what we’re doing systemically that is not supporting particular groups of youth in receiving the same positive outcomes.”

LeFlore agrees bias persists.

“We’re going to have to change the conversation, do a better job understanding how this is occurring and have some coming together of those involved in the decision-making process to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do differently?'”

“We’re finding we need to dig a lot deeper, especially when it comes to Disproportionate Minority Contact,” Pannkuk said. “We have to have the data to make sure it’s not assumptions or anecdotes but facts.”

Spohn said while OYS “has had some real wins – reducing arrests in Omaha schools and bringing good training to School Resource Officers” – they’ve had less success with DMC.

Observers applaud the recent hire of A’Jamal Byndon as Douglas County’s first DMC Coordinator.

“That’s a big accomplishment,” said LaVon Stennis-Williams, who with LeFlore co-chairs the DMC committee for Operation Youth Success.

But DMC issues extend statewide, said Juvenile Justice Institute director Anne Hobbs.

“Different parts of the state have different battles they’re fighting. In Douglas County, it’s African-American youth disadvantaged, but in other parts of the state it’s Native American youth and Hispanic youth.”

Another large effort charged with reform is the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative launched in 2011.

“We now have seven years of initiatives and we’re no closer to bringing a more compassionate, effective, fair system to our kids than when we first got started,” said Stennis-Williams.

No one system touch point is the answer.

“I was of the mindset that if we did everything better at the Youth Center it would effect the overall numbers in juvenile justice,” LeFlore said. “We added significant programming, levels of education, extra teachers, brought in community providers, surveyed the students, got recognized as a facility of excellence. Despite those efforts recidivism has gone up, minorities coming back into the system continues at a high rate. I see the same young people coming back over and over.

“The challenge is how do we address the needs ofyouth on a pathway into the juvenile justice system to systematically change that pathway. One thing for sure – it’s going to take more than the Youth Center. It’s clear not one segment alone is enough to change the numbers. It’s going to take all of the players.”

UNO’s Justice Center recently released a report recommending a needs assessment to work alongside the risk assessment adopted a few years ago.

“In Douglas County, I believe great strides have been made in proper assessment of youth to determine levels of risk to reoffend,” said center director Ryan Spohn. “These assessments are then used to prevent  the unnecessary juvenile justice filings or detentions of low and medium-risk youth.

“A lot of these youth are high needs youth, with problems in the home or at school. They may have come out as low or medium risk but there are needs that need to be addressed or the next time they come to the attention of authorities they may be higher risk. Alternatives to Detention providers don’t know youthneeds in the absence of an assessment, so they aren’t identified, at least not in an evidence-based fashion.

“Even if needs are identified, there’s not a funding source or formal entity or agency for addressing those needs. I think that’s a shortcoming of our system. Iowa has a Child in Need of Care program targeting high need status offenders. The idea is that this is a high needs youth, so let’s assess for needs and address them before they become a delinquent.”

The center also recommends training for any professionals involved in the system. Spohn said, “They’ll be better outcomes for youth if everybody’s on the same page and has the same definition of things.”

Similarly, he said, “sharing information across systems only makes sense, particularly if our goal is to help this youth and their family be better.”

“More information about their situation is a good thing, When we interview youth and family who’ve been through the system we often find nobody asked what they thought the causes were or what could be done about this. Youth Impact Initiative has been successful for Crossover Youth in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. The initiative brings that youth and family together with professionals from both sides. The prosecutor’s there, too, and with that information they’re able to find a better solution like diversion.”

Spohn believes JDAI has been less than successful in keeping some low and medium risk youth out of detention – which is the whole point of the thing,” adding, “We still probably do have youth that end up in detention that shouldn’t be there.”

“It’s really important we reserve incarceration for the kids who scare us, not for the kids who just make us angry or irritate us,” Summers said. “It in itself can be so harmful, especially to lower risk youth.”

“The success rate is much better if they’re at home with their family. It’s more cost effective, too,” Pannkuk said.

“Any funding that can go towards prevention and intervention rather than punishment and detention, which is incredibly expensive,. would be a smarter way to spend the dollars we have,” Spohn said.

LaVon Stennis-Williams, Executive Director of ReConnect, Inc.


Stennis-Williams witnesses the fallout through the Reconnect Success diversion program she runs.

“When I see kids come into my program, I see the system failure. When I go to the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility, I see the result of that failure.”

Equity is paramount.

“Every youth should be given every opportunity. It shouldn’t be because of where you live or the color of your skin or whether you’re poor or not,” LeFlore said.

Stennis-Williams and LeFlore want more diversity among juvenile justice professionals.

“A diverse staff allows you to learn from the beauty of diversity and understand the cultural issues and situations,” Stennis-Williams said.

She and LeFlore also advocate for legacy and current system families to have more voice and agency at the table. “Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” she said. “We have to create a genuinely inclusive environment that welcomes to hear the frustrations folks are having,” LeFlore said.

“You really can’t get systems change without community involvement and engagement and getting people around the tables and having honest conversations,” Summers said.

Pannkuk said OYS endeavors to move to “a customer service as opposed to system-driven approach.”

Though statutes require Douglas County youth be provided legal counsel, Summers said in much of Neb. “there can be incredible differences in the access kids get to this constitutional right for an advocate.”

LeFlore said minus counsel youth and families often lack the ability to make informed choices.

Wherever reforms happen, Spohn said, there’s a cascade effect.

“It’s not like if there’s a change in one level of juvenile justice it doesn’t impact the other levels. All these systems are interconnected. Any progress in one part may look like we’ve taken a step back in another part because the kids don’t just disappear – they’re just addressed by different stages of the system.”

“There’s been some small gains but not enough to make the impact we need to reform our system,” Stennis-Williams said. “These kids and families are suffering. It’s time for Douglas County to step in and take ownership of juvenile justice reform.”

She wants the county “to create an office of public advocacy to look at the numbers and then drill down to see what’s causing it and then make recommendations.”


Juvenile Justice Center’s Anne Hobbs said progress has been made but added, “It’s just hard to see because we’re in the middle of the stream.” She said more uniform best practices would net more progress.

“There’s a ton of diversion models and programs and every county attorney runs them just a little bit differently. We need to figure out what works in Nebraska. To do that you need all the programs to use the same definitions, agree to the same terminology and then enter data into a system and then you’ll get results from across the state on the same program types.”

Her center built, with the Nebraska Crime Commission, a statewide evaluation system that does just that.

“We’re able now to evaluate all those programs across the entire state using the same scoring mechanism. As a state we’re now counting things the same way and, as ridiculous as it sounds, in Douglas County there’s now agreement on certain race and ethnic categories.”

Spohn is cautiously hopeful but rues the system’s local, siloed nature makes it resistant to widespread change.

“One frustration is getting people to listen and learn as opposed to rebut,” Pannkuk said. “The bigger frustration is just the complete complexity of the system. The devil’s in the details. You’ve got multiple large entities trying to figure out how best to serve the uniqueness of one individual. But they’re trying, they’re all really trying.”

READ Cheril Lee’s companion piece “Juvenile Justice Advocacy working to help local youth at this link:…

Losing a son to the juvenile justice morass 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Eulice Washington speaks for many when she critiques the juvenile justice system. The Omaha mother of four has a 26 year-old son, Anthony Washington, serving time in adult corrections but his contact with the criminal justice system began at 14.

She feels she lost her son to the system despite her best efforts to keep him out of it. Her family’s “extremely torturous journey” started earlier, when Anthony began getting in trouble. Skipping school. Acting out. Hanging with a bad crowd. She was concerned enough to try and find prevention-intervention assistance.

“I reached out to get some help because I saw something was about to happen I was trying to prevent. I went to probation officers, police officers, different programs, his school. I asked what can we do so he doesn’t go this route. They told me to my face, ‘We can’t do anything unless he’s in trouble. We don’t have any of those resources.’ It was like a child can’t be helped until he’s already in the door with the law.”

Having worked in human services, she knows other parents with kids in the system share “the same story” and “as parents we’re judged for not doing our job.”

Anthony’s problems with the law stemmed from Illegal possession of firearms. robbery, making terroristic threats. He yo-yo’d between detention centers in Omaha and Kearney. Then he entered Boys Town, but he ran away. It became a revolving door in and out of facilities.

She lost faith in the system.

“We just have lockup and demeaning of our children. The kids land in the system and they get pushed through and they’re right back in the system again. It’s like a recycling bin. They don’t get the help they need. They don’t learn social-life skills. They get hardened.”

Worse yet, she feels the system dismisses parents.

“Your child gets locked up and it’s like you don’t have any information because the people aren’t communicating with you. That’s not going to work. We all have to work together for the best of the individual.”

Today, her son, who served time at Tecumseh, is on work release in Lincoln. His mindset is much improved.

“Very focused. He’s hungry for more and to do better. It’s like so much regret of a wasted childhood. He’s just ready to live a life .”

At his May parole hearing she hopes he gets paroled to Colorado Springs so he can make a fresh start there away from the negative environment he’s known here.

Washington doesn’t want other youth and parents to go through what her family’s endured. She said it’s vital youth and parents be given a voice in the system.

“We have to hear their needs and wants so we can figure out how to help them. As parents, you must be there every step of the way. Don’t let the system discount anything. Get the right answers, show up and use your voice to speak up.”

Whatever you do, she tells parents, don’t ignore signs of delinquency.. Demand community-based help. More support exists now, she said, than 12 years ago. She doesn’t wish any family experiences what she did.

“I have grandsons who don’t know their uncle. They just know him by the phone. ‘When you coming home, Uncle Tony?’ they ask. ‘Soon.'”

Hot Movie Takes – “Across the Universe”

Hot Movie Takes  – “Across the Universe”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”


Perhaps the best American dramatic film to deal with the 1960s since “Hair” came out a decade ago to some fanfare but it inextricably faded quickly despite being a distinctive marriage of words, images and music. I am referring to “Across the Universe.” the 2007 Julie Taymor-directed flick that uses the music of the Beatles and the content of their songs as narrative inspiration for its coming of age storylines and musical-dance flights of fancy.

It is a sometimes stunning, sometimes dubious pastiche of Taymor’s own Broadway (“The Lion King”) style, the frenetic Richard Lester Beatles’ movies of the ’60s, Golden Age Hollywood musical fantasy sequences and hopped-up psychedelia. At its best it captures the energy and spirit of the era in a visual and sonic feast that works on many levels. At its weakest, it’s not quite sure what it wants to be and lacks a driving core. In some scenes Taymor goes in for bold visual stylistics, going overboard in places, to boldly open up the story with great big sets or locations or visual effects, sometimes all at once. Other times she constricts scenes to intimate interior spaces. For my tastes anyway I thought sometimes she went big when she should have gone small and went in close when she should have pulled back and opened wide.

The love story at the heart of the film is actually quite good, even if we’ve seen variations of it in countless films. It’s strong enough though that the relationship engages us even apart from using the Beatles’ music variously as backdrop, context and exposition.




Brit Jim Sturgess is outstanding as Jude, a working stiff Libverpullian who crosses the pond to find the father he’s never met. He forms a best friend bond with Max, well played by Joe Anderson, and a romantic entanglement with Max’s sister, Lucy, portrayed with real depth by Evan Rachel Wood.

Pretty much every one of the principals was an unknown at the time. Dana Fuchs gives the showiest and grittiest performance as the Janis Joplin-like singer Sadie. Martin Luther brings the soul his Jimi Hendrix-like guitarist character demands. T.V. Caprio has just the right vulnerability as Prudence.

They’re all searchers eventually thrown together in the maelstrom of ’60s counterculture life in New York City. They meet or imagine a motley crew variously played by Joe Cocker. Eddie Izard, Bono and Salma Hyek, all of whom represent characters in Beatles songs or fictional versions of certain types found in that time and place.

The film touches on a great many of the currents that made the ’60s the ’60s, including civil rights, feminism, riots, protests, Vietnam, rock music, the drug culture, the sexual revolution and the generation gap.

There are some indelible images throughout. The Let It Be montage is an especially powerful melding of music and dramatic action.



The film plays like a series of related music videos and that gives it both its internal rhythmic strength and a disjointed self-limiting structure. The only thing holding the whole works together is the music and the boy meets girl plot. The songs are a series of set pieces unto their own though many of them are about love and searching. The thinly developed main characters’ moods and motivations get expressed through the music. When it all comes together, its thrilling stuff.  When it doesn’t mesh, it seems a bit forced.

That said, I really admire the imagination and heart that went into this film. For the most part Taymor and her creative collaboratives found striking and moving ways to have the music carry a love story that is both singular and universal. The music and the story remind us that  peace and love were counter-irritant strains in a decade of violence and hate. It’s also a reminder that love and life can endure no matter the tumult or conflict happening around us. Outside forces don’t have to keep us down or keep us apart.

This movie anticipated what was coming with movies like “La-La Land” and television shows like “Glee” and “The Get Down” and stands alone for capturing the vitality of an era when the whiff of anarchy and anything’s possible was in the air. And not surprisingly the music of the Beatles provided the soundtrack and narrative thread for decade that defined a new America.

Link to the film’s IMDB site at–

A book a day keeps the blues aways for avid reader and writer Ashley Xiques

If you’re like me, sitting down with a good book is a distinct pleasure and there have been times in my life when I would plow through a fair number of books in the course of a year. It’s been a long time since that was true. As a writer, I’m not proud of that. But even at the height of my reading habit I was never into books the way Ashley Xiques is. She’s not sure how many she’s read but she’s virtually never without without a new book to read, which means as soon as she finishes one, she’s onto another. She’s into young adult fantasy and other genres of fiction. She just can’t get enough. It’s been like this for her since her early teens. I wouldn’t be surprised that at age 20 she’s already surpassed my lifetime account of books read. Like most good readers she’s also a good writer. She’s shared her writng online via different platforms, including Odyssey. The twin passions of reading and writng merged a couple years ago when as an Elkhorn South student she won the national Letters About Literature contest for Nebraska for the letter she penned to author Leigh Bardugo. She’s now a sophomore at UNO. Since she works and attends school full-time, she doesn’t have much time to write these days, but she always makes time for reading. Still undecided on a major, she doesn’t plan to study writng but she does expect to write a novel one day. I don’t doubt she will and if she does I will add her work to my long neglected reading list.


Image result for Ashley Xiques odyssey

Ashley Xiques

Self-described “full-time book addict” who’s “overly enthusiastic about fictional people.”


A book a day keeps the blues aways for avid reader and writer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico


There are book lovers and then there’s Ashley Xiques, an Elkhorn South graduate and UNO sophomore.

The 20-year-old caught the bug after being swept away by a Young Readers fantasy series in her early teens. Countless books later, she’s now a self-described “full-time book addict.”

“I can’t go like even two days without reading a book – it drives me crazy,” she said.

Her habit’s filled several book shelves at home and finds her often hunting new reads at bookstores and in online reading communities.

“I go around taking pictures of books and post them and I talk to other people about books online. I’ve found so many recommendations on Goodreads through people from all across the United States and the world. It’s just a way of connecting through books.”

Her Facebook timeline, Pinterest page and Instagram page brim with book chatter.

“There’s so many ways of finding good books. I’m on those sites. too, for inspiration about characters and stories. Whenever I read new books I want other people to find out about them, especially if they’re not popular. I want people to find them so we can talk about them together.”

She’s also shares her literary musings with fellow bibliophiles on Odyssey.


The Perfect Books To Read This Fall


Her admiration for the Grisha series by New York Times best-selling author Leigh Bardugo led Xiques to enter the national Letters About Literature contest through a high school creative writing class. Ashley’s letter won her age category in Nebraska.

As soon as she came across her first Bardugo book, she was hooked.

“It was one of the very first fantasy books I read. Fantasy’s still my favorite genre.”

She calls herself “a fantasy nerd” online.

The Grisha trilogy captured her imagination.

“It was very addictive. Leigh’s a really good author. I like her writing style and her storytelling.”

Ashley’s letter draws parallels between themes in the series and her own life. For sample. the series deals with what it’s like to feel adrift. She related to that as her large family – she’s one of eight siblings – moved several times following her now retired Air Force father’s military base assignments.

“We moved around a lot. We moved all around Texas (where she was born), then to Virginia, back to Texas and then to Nebraska eight or nine years ago. I don’t mind moving – it’s nice to see new things and meet new people. But, yeah, it’s nice to be settled, stable and have a set group of friends and not have to leave them.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to readjust your life again.”

I need a home. Not a house, I’ve known a plethora of those.

-from Ashley’s letter

Like a series character, she doesn’t like being labeled things she’s not. She took offense at being called spoiled and selfish by other kids.

“I’ve never been like that. I’ve never been someone that things are just given to. I’ve always been a person who’s worked for what I want. My parents don’t buy me everything. I work for myself, I work for my grades, I work for my money. But people want to put labels and stereotypes on you. People judge before they understand the situation and the person and who they actually are.”

Before anyone actually knew the person I was, society had already placed a label on my shoulders. Time to prove them wrong. 

I could. I would. I did.

-from Ashely’s letter

Xiques also identified with an outsider character because she sometimes felt like the odd sibling out as the third oldest sibling and then having to try and fit in as the new kid on the block.

Writing the letter helped her express things she couldn’t always verbalize. She went through several drafts. Two days before the deadline, she rewrote it in a single sitting.

“I do good under pressure. I didn’t edit it or anything. I just said, ‘OK, this is what I’m feeling and that’s what it’s going to be.’ That’s why I was kind of shocked when it won. It’s cool though.

Ashley soon after winning the Letters About Literature contest

She’s an old hand at writing: reviews, essays, poems. She once started her own spy novel. Fifty thousand words worth. She sent friends each new chapter. Then she decided it wasn’t good enough and abandoned the project. She laid out the plot and characters for a new book before putting it aside, too, but she’s hatched new ideas for it.

“I’ve spinned the original idea into something completely different. If I were to do it now, I’d be torn between writing a fantasy book or a realistic modern fiction book. I think I will eventually write a book if I come up with a good (enough) idea.”

It will have to wait though. She’s too busy now working a job and carrying 17 credit hours at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. At her parents urging Xiques long ago set her sights on college. She credits reading with her excelling in school. She made the UNO Dean’s List.

“I know reading helped a lot with that. It boosted my comprehension skills in all different subjects.”

To The Book I'll Never Forget


As glad as she is to be settled, she anticipates one day returning to  Texas to live. Wherever she ends up, books will be part of her life.

Meanwhile, she’s cultivating new readers in her family.

“My two younger brothers like to read. They go with me to bookstores when I’m out looking for new titles. They view it as an adventure.”

Follow Ashley’s literary adventures at


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 (

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.


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

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at

Bright Lights: Teen Designer Ciara Fortun Mines Filipino Heritage in Omaha Fashion Week Collection

Omaha Fashion Week has a decided youth focus in its efforts to nurture and build the local fashion ecosystem and one of the latest prodigies getting showcased and supported is 16-year-old Ciara Fortun. Here is my profile of Ciara appearing in the August 2016 issue of The Reader  (


Ciara Fortun



Bright Lights

Teen Designer Ciara Fortun Mines Filipino Heritage in Omaha Fashion Week Collection

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the August 2016 issue of The Reader (


The private doodles Ciara Fortun used to make have evolved into working sketches for collections she now produces for Omaha Fashion Week shows.

After debuting at OFW with a formal women’s wear show last March, she’s unveiling a new collection of dresses inspired by her Filipino heritage in August.

The 16 year-old Elkhorn resident and junior at Concordia High School has been fascinated with style since early childhood. But it wasn’t until attending her first Fashion Week in 2015 she realized living in flyover country was no barrier to doing something in fashion.

She attended Omaha Fashion Camp and got inspired by industry professionals working as designers, models, creative directors, stylists and photographers. That led her to sketch out a collection. The designs variously drew on Audrey Hepburn, Old Hollywood and Art Deco. Fortun’s tastes run to refined and vintage in apparel and music. She often listens to classic jazz while working.

Regarding her personal sense of style, she said, “It evolves all the time. I may look completely different day to day. Today, I’m wearing overalls, but tomorrow I may be wearing heels and a pencil skirt. I’m kind of minimalistic with everything. I don’t like a bunch of patterns. It’s pretty clean, pretty simple,” she said from her second-story home workroom. The space is filled with sketches, magazine spreads, inspirational words, a tailors dummy draped by a tape measure, an electric sewing machine, clumps of fabric and a wardrobe rack filled with her handiwork.


Ciara Fortun

Photos by Heather and Jameson Hooton

Models by Develop Model Management


She waited until “the last day” to submit her designs and then only after her parents’ gentle prodding. Upon being selected to interview she faced a panel of five adults who critiqued her work and asked about aesthetics and aspirations. It was intimidating. She said she learned “you have to really know what your personal style is before you can make something because then you know what your foundation is with fashion.”

She waited two excruciating weeks before getting word she made the cut as an invited OFW designer. That’s when reality set in she next had to create a wearable, runway-ready collection in four months. The family project involved her parents and younger sister, but Ciara and her father Luis Fortun did most of it together. Though neither has formal training, they have genetics on their side. Ciara’s paternal grandmother is from the Philippines, where she sewed. An aunt was a master seamstress and a great-grandfather a master tailor. Ciara’s steeped in stories about her ancestral homeland.

Between calling on ancestral skills, watching YouTube how-to videos and “Project Runway” episodes and sounding out OFW staff, this father-daughter combo figured things out through “lot of trial and error,” Ciara said.

A GoFundMe campaign helped with buying materials.

She agonized getting every last detail right, but her dad reminded her, “They’re not looking for perfection, they’re looking for confidence.”

Ciara said the finished dresses ended up “a lot different than what we had on paper. We did a lot of tweaking.” “On the fly,” added Luis.

“I was unsure about a lot of stuff,” Ciara said, “but then we just went for. By rack check I was terrified. I was like, ‘What if they don’t like any of the stuff and the changes I made?’ But they were really good about that. They care more about what you feel was the right choice than what will sell. It turned out well,”

During the process, OFW consultants made suggestions and Luis said, “We took most of the suggestions but some we didn’t, and they were actually very complimentary about that, saying it shows Ciara”s OK standing by her own decisions. I  was very proud of Ciara.”

Dealing with adults has taught Ciara the importance “of being able to hold a conversation” and articulate her vision. “It’s caused me to step out of my comfort zone to share what my heart is,” she said. “It’s great to be pushed to share what you love. It all has a risk factor, but you just have to stick to what you know and love. It’s been a really good growing experience, especially in a supportive setting.”

“Watching her grow through the whole process has been very encouraging – just taking responsibility for all the things,” said her father.

Getting the collection done in time came down to the wire. It meant pulling some all-nighters.

The Fortuns were pleasantly surprised by how accessible OFW staff were answering questions and providing assistance.

“You can go talk to them if you need help with something,” Ciara said. “The thing about Omaha Fashion Week is that everyone there is really supportive of the younger generation. They want to bring you through this and show you different steps of making a collection and a brand.”

She’s found big sisters and kindred spirits in designers Buf Reynolds and Sabrina Jones.

“They’re really inspiring. I see them as mentors and people I can look up to.”

As a father pressed into duty as a dressmaking production director, Luis Futon appreciates the help OFW provides.

“They do a really good job of framing out major milestones you have to reach in terms of salon, music, model call, rack check. They just don’t say, okay, we’ll see you in four months. They give you guidance. It’s very structured. They kind of walk you through the whole thing and give a lot of pointers and insight.”

Ciara’s fall collection featured highly structured, muted dresses using neoprene. Her work was well received by patrons and judges at the Omaha Design Center. Her models walked to “Forever Mine” by Andra Day and “New York New York” by DJ Cam Quartet.

By winning her night, she earned a $500 prize. In true entrepreneurial spirit she plowed it right back intto buying fabric. She’s discovered what all fashion designers here learn – you must look outside Nebraska for the best fabric and pay a premium for it.

Her new collection, for spring-summer, is lighter, brighter and more flowing with its colored satins. Besides the accent on color, another nod to her Filipino lineage is the incorporation of capiz shells.

She may study art in college to keep her creative options open.

“I’m still trying to figure out things.”

If she pursues a fashion career, it helps that OFW has her back.

“It’s a really good community we’ve found. If we lived in New York, it wouldn’t be that way. It’s really cool being part of this unique group that get me.”

Fortun, who creates under her Noelle Designs label, is among 27 designers showing during the August 22-27 Fashion Week. Her collection hits the runway August 23.

For schedule and tickets, visit

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