I met the late Marcus “Mac” McGee shortly after he turned 100 years old. He was a small man in stature but he exuded high character in the way he conducted himself. He spoke with rhythmic charm and he dressed in classic style. He was a gentleman through and through. Having come out of the Deep South to make a life for himself and his family in Omaha, you knew that he had seen a few things. The more I talked to him and to others who knew him from back in the day, I learned he had built a thriving business in North Omaha, the Tuxedo Barber Shop, that made him a pillar in his community. He gave and commanded respect. He was also something of a legend in his own time for his deadeye marksmanship as a hunter and trapshooter. He and his shop and the role they played in the community when a village really did raise a child represented something treasured and lost. Here is a profile I wrote about this unforgettable personality.
Deadeye Marcus “Mac” McGee still a straight shooter at 100
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly
As Americans enjoy increasingly longer life spans, octogenarians and centenarians grow more commonplace. But as 100-year-old Marcus “Mac” McGee of Omaha proves, no one who has lived a century should be taken for granted. Start with the fact this lifelong boxing fan sounds uncannily like one of his favorite prizefighers from the past – Muhammad Ali. Right down to the soft, melifluous voice and braggadocio style. A fiercely proud and stubborn descendant of both African-American slaves and white slave owners, McGee can be a cantankerous sort these days. He is entitled to sone orneriness though after spending the better part of a century forging a life of substance against all odds.
It would be easy to ignore McGee or any of his fellow residents at the Maple-Crest Care Center in Benson. But that would be a mistake, for these ancient ones are reservoirs of rich life experiences. Take McGee, for example. Talk to him for awhile and you soon learn about the beloved Tuxedo Barber Shop he owned and operated for decades on the Near North Side. While strictly against nursing home rules, McGee still plies his barber skills now and then by giving his roommate a trim and shave. He fussily lays out the tools of his trade on a tray. Clippers, tweezers, brushes, combs, creams, tonics, lotions. His small hands are surprisngly steady and his nimble fingers move with well=practiced precision. You learn too this avid sportsman was a crack shot and expert small game hunter. In his late 80s he could still hit 100 of 100 targets at trapshooting ranges. Even now, he maintains the lean body of an athlete. One of his fondest memories is going to New York City to see his idol, the great heavyweight black boxer Jack Johnson fight at Madison Square Garden.
“I sat there live and watched Jack Johnson knock a man’s natural teeth out of his mouth. I saw him do that, yeah,” he said.
Unlike many Maple-Crest residents, who are bedridden or wheelchair-bound, he navigates the sprawling complex on his own two feet, albeit with the aid of a cane. And where most residents appear disshelved, his features always remain well-groomed and his dress nattily-attired. He entrusts his own smartly-trimmed hair to one of his barbering proteges. Last September McGee cut a dashing figure for a 100th birthday party held in his honor at the social hall of Clair Memorial United Methodist Church, 5544 Ames Avenue. A crowd of friends and family, including dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, gathered to pay tribute to this man of small stature but big deeds.
When he ponders what it means to have lived 100 years, he ponders a good long while. After all, considering a lifespan covering the entire 20th century means contemplating a whole lot of history, and that takes some doing. It is an especially daunting task for McGee, who, in his prime, buried three wives, raised five daughters, prospered as the owner of his own barber shop, served as the state’s first black barbershop inspector, earned people’s trust as a pillar of the North Omaha community and commanded respect as an expert marksman. Yes, it has been quite a journey so far for this survivor of Jim Crow and participant in the Great Migration.
One hundred years sure is a long time, someone suggested.
“It sure is,” McGee said in his sweet-as-molasses voice, his small bright face beaming at the thought of all the high times he has seen.
Escorted into the hall by his five daughters, his entrance sparked a rousing round of applause and cheers. Too bad he could not share it all with his wife of 53 years, LaVerne, who died in 1996. After two earlier marriages failed, McGee finally got it right with the former Laverne Lawson, who kept all the books at his shop. “They were quite a team,” said daughter Marcia Butler, an Omaha school teacher. As well-wishers offered congratulations or shared reminiscences, the party put in focus all that McGee once was and still is – a meticulous man of many roles and skills. While not as physically spry or mentally sharp as he would like, he remains a vibrant soul with a lifetime of stories to tell.
Born and raised along the Mississippi-Louisiana border in a period when the Ku Klux Klan still reigned, his family of ten escaped the worst of Jim Crow intolerance as landowners under the auspices of his white grandmother Kizzie McGee, the daughter of the former plantation’s owner. Kizzie, who lived nearby, maintained contact with the black side of the family. McGee’s people hacked out a largely self-sufficient life down on the Delta. The runt of the litter, McGee, toughened himself working on the livestock-laden farm. It was there he learned two skills that he would build his life around – shooting and barbering.
His father taught him how to handle a gun at a young age. Even though it was too much weapon for him at the time, he often used a single-barrel 12-gauge shot gun as a boy. He recalls an incident when the gun nearly got the better of him. “I was about 10 or 12 years old. A hog got out after the chickens. My mother ran out hollering at the hog. I got the gun. I dragged it outside by the barrel. My mother said, ‘What are you going to do with that?’ I said, ‘I’m going to kill that hog.’ I broke it (the gun) down, I put the shells in and I closed it up. I raised it up but the stock was too long for me. I looked down the barrel with my eyes open and I pulled the trigger, and the hog went one way and the gun went the other way and I went to the ground. My mother laughed. But from then on I could go out with my gun hunting and kill everything I shot at.”
He left school early to help provide for the family’s needs, variously bagging wild game for the dinner table with his deadeye marksmanship and cutting people’s hair for spare change with his dexterous mastery of scissors.
Just out of his teens he followed the path of many Southern blacks in what became the Great Migration to the North, where conditions were more hospitable and jobs more plentful. During his wanderings he picked up spending money by cutting heads, including those of railroad gang crewmen and field laborers he encountered out on the open road. Never one to back away from a challenge, he recalls how a large man in Falls City, Neb. teased him about his diminuitve size, whereupon McGee promptly threw him to the floor and pinned his shoulders down until the man begged for mercy.
He eventually made his way to Omaha in the early 1920s. Before the Great Depression hit the still new century was a fat time for most Americans, unless you happened to be black or Hispanic. “The hardest times I had was when I first got here. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have a job.” Like many new arrivals to the area he finally found employment in the Omaha packing plants. “I went to work in a packing house cleaning hog innards. I didn’t like working there. I said to myself, What am I doing here? I should be in a barber shop. So, after two or three weeks there, I quit. I walked out and I never went back. I started cutting heads.”
That decision changed his life, as did his earning a state barber’s license in 1928. “When I got that license, that’s all I needed,” he said. He eventually opened his own place and it was at the Tuexedo Barber Shop in the historic Jewell Building on North 24th Street that he became his own man.
“The best times for me was when I got that shop there. I got the business going really good. It was quite a shop. We had three chairs in there. New linoleum on the floor. There were two other barbers with me. We had a lot of customers. Sometimes we’d have 10-15 people people outside the door waiting for us to come in. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed working on them, and I worked on them, too. I’d give them good haircuts. I was quite a barber, Yes, sir, we used to lay some hair on the floor. We sure did.”
An abiding perfectionist. McGee has always been a sticler for doing things a certain way. His way. As a former barber under him said, “There may have been a better way, but his way stood.” For more than 50 years, McGee’s will prevailed. “I was particular about a lot of things,” he said. For one thing, no profanity was allowed in the shop. And no drinking or smoking on the job was tolerated. Obsessive about running a clean clip joint, McGee swept the floor incessantly and pressed his family into serve at night to wipe things down. “I didn’t let nothing get dirty,” he said. “I had it looking good.”
His fastidiousness no doubt led to him being appointed the state’s first black barber shop inspector, a post he held several years. Together with his longtime and equally bullheaded partner, the late James Bailey, the two made an indomitable pair.
Even into the 1970s the Tuxedo was strictly an old-school establishment – from the atmosphere to the discourse to the service. No fancy hair styles there. Just a neat, clean cut and a smooth, close shave. “If you didn’t see things the way Daddy and Mr. Bailey saw them, you might as well have gone to another shop. It was their way or no way, even down to the haircut,” said another daughter, Leanna Simmons. “If you said, ‘I’d like my hair this way,’ it was, ‘Nope,’ zip, zip, zip, okay, goodby. They cut it the way they wanted it cut.”
Leanna’s son and one of McGee’s many grandchildren, Anthony Lawrence Simmons, confirms that’s how it was. “Every grandchild would go down there to get their hair cut. Grandpa didn’t care what hair style you wanted. If it was the latest style out, you were not getting it. You only got what he wanted. He knew what was right. Yet his place was always busy, so everybody liked him. He gave a clean haircut. It may not have been what you wanted, but it looked good. He made sure you left his shop looking sharp.”
For proof of just how particular McGee and Bailey could be, the shop’s third chair sat vacant many years because the barbers they tried out turned out to be “loafers” in their eyes. Finally, an enterprising young clipper by the name of Clyde Deshazer measured up to their expectations and they took him on to stay. Except they couldn’t get used to his tongue-tripping name, so they nicknamed him Youngblood. The name stuck. Today, Youngblood’s Barber Shop is THE haircutting emporium in North O.
When McGee finally closed his own shop in the late ’70s, he went to cut at Youngblood’s, where he remained until 1988. It was a case of the master working under the former pupil. “He was set in his own ways,” Deshazer said, “He still wanted to charge like $2.50 for a haircut but we were charging $4 by then. I said, ‘When I worked for you, I went by your prices, now that you’re working for me, you go by my prices. Things have just changed a little bit.’ After that, we didn’t have any more problems. We got along fine. Like father and son.”
The Tuxedo was among dozens of thriving black-owned businesses in North Omaha before the expansion of the Interstate system and the explosion of the riots in the late ’60s resulted in disruption and decline. In its heyday the Tuxedo drew an eclectic mix of customers. Businessmen. Blue-collar workers. Squares. Hipsters. Pool sharks frequented a popular billiards hall adjacent to it. Jazz and blues musicians played the Dreamland Ballroom above it. In classic barber shop tradition, the Tuxedo was a hangout for guys to talk guns and sports, politics and women. McGee’s favorite topic, of course, was shooting.
“If you started talking about trapshooting you might be in that chair an hour, ” Deshazer said. “He loved that.”
For Keith A. Ross, who shined shoes there during the tumultous civil rights era, the shop was an awakening and an education rolled into one. “Besides learning to shoot pool at the pool hall next door, the shop was where I first learned about the NAACP and the Urban League. It was a friendly shop where people gathered and had conversations about different issues affecting the North Omaha community. It was grownup talk.”
John Butler, former head of the local chapter of the NAACP, recalls, “We talked about a lot of issues there. As a matter of fact, Mr. McGee was instrumetnal in helping us and molding our ways,” he said, referring to early Omaha activists like himself.
Beneath the hard core exterior of the proprietor resided a soft heart.
“As ornery as he and Bailey were, they were good people,” Leeana said. “I remember Momma saying Daddy would sometimes accept in lieu of payment for a haircut a watch or a ring. It was kind of like a little pawnshop. Adds Marcia, “People would come in and get loans from him if they lost their job and they needed to pay their rent or something like that.”
Ross recalls McGee as a stern but benevolent figure. “The first job I ever had was shining shoes in his barber shop. He really treated me well. He was very protective and very caring. In order to get to the shop I had to walk through an area where the boys on the corner, so to speak, were dealing. Theirs was a flashy life, but it was ugly. I could have been on that track, too, but I always kept his form of discipline in mind. He said, ‘Always be on time or otherwise you suffer the consequences.’ I never found out what those consequences were because I was never late. I really didn’t want to let him down. I still don’t. It’s why I think I’ve got such a healthy work ethic now.”
According to Ross, his mentor was part of a different breed then. “Mr. McGee and owners of the other small businesses there gave you a real sense of the history of the development of the area. They would come out on the street and interact with us. It was a community feeling. I don’t see where we have that now. He probably developed in me my sense of peoplehood.”
Back in the day, North O was a community within a community where everybody looked out for everybody else and where, decades before the Million Man March, strong black men took a hand in steering young black males. McGee and Bailey were among a gallery of mentors along North 24th Street.
Richard Nared recalls, “Oh, we had a bunch of role models. John Butler, who ran the YMCA. Josh Gibson. Bob Gibson. Bob Boozer. Curtis Evans, who ran the Tuxedo Billiards. Hardy “Beans” Meeks, who ran the shoe shine parlor. Mr. McGee and Mr. Bailey who ran the Tuxedo Barber Shop. All of these guys had influence in my life. All of ‘em. And it wasn’t just about sports. It was about developing me. Mr. Meenks gave a lot of us guys jobs. In the morning, when I’d come around the corner to go to school, these gentlemen would holler out the door, ‘You better go up there and learn something today.’ or ‘When you get done with school, come see me.’
“Let me give you an example. Curtis Evans, who ran the pool hall, would tell me to come by after school. ‘So, I’d…come by, and he’d have a pair of shoes to go to the shoe shine parlor and some shirts to go to the laundry, and he’d give me two dollars. Mr. Bailey used to give me free haircuts…just to talk. ‘How ya doin’ in school? You got some money in your pocket?’ I didn’t realize what they were doing until I got older. They were keeping me out of trouble. Giving me some lunch money so I could go to school and make something of myself. It was about developing young men. They took the time.”
McGee’s son-in-law Larry Simmons (Leanna’s husband) values the life lessons his elder taught him. Simmons said McGee instilled in him and his friends a respect for rules, manners and traditions. “It was a high standard he made for all of us. You did not walk into his house with a hat on your head or your shirt outside your pants. He’s always been a fanatic about that kind of stuff. Even with his own dress today, his tie is neat, his shoes are shined, his belt is in its proper place. He has everything down to a tee. He taught us all of that.”
The fussy McGee’s penchant for tidiness and exactness extended to other areas of his life. At home, for example, he operated a sewing machine to make and mend his own own shooting-hunting vests and related apparel items. Veteran trapshooter Dick Gradowski of Blair, Neb. said McGee was a veritable fashion plate even at the range. “He was always neatly dressed. I don’t think I ever saw him in a pair of blue jeans. He was always very particular about his appearance. ” McGee was just as finicky about the shells he used – fashioning his own with a special machine. Hr built his own shooting gallery in his dirt basement. He carefully cleaned his large collection of Browning rifles and kept them safely locked in a case. Brought up to be self-sufficient, he harvested fruits and vegetables from country fields and his own backyard gardens for canning and freezing.
Choosy about what he ate, he avoided pork and salt and he whipped up elixder-like brews of honey, hot water and milk and blended fruit and vegetable concoctions. He bagged pheasants, quail, squirrel and all manner of small game on hunting outings and he hooked fish by the stringer-full at area lakes and rivers. He was, by all accounts, a good cook, too.
He won countless turkeys and hams, in addition to trophies, at area trapshootung tournaments. He also pocketed cold, hard cash from the many side bets he won from shooting companions. A member of an amateur trapshooting hall of fame. McGee’s love of the sport is such he turns most any conversation over to the many guns he owned, many of which are now classics, and to the many shooting exploits he compiled.
“Oh, man, I loved to shoot. I’d go out every Sunday. I don’t know how many turkeys and hams I won, but I had to rent a locker at Bickel’s Meats to store all that meat in a freezer there. I don’t know how much money I made, but I’d come home with a potful sometimes. Maybe $200-$300. My wife would say, ‘What’d you bring home?’ I’d say, ‘I brought a little change home.’ And she’d go, ‘Well, let me have it then.'”
His reputation for dominating the field scared off some in shooting cirlces. Fewer and fewer challengers were willing to take him on.
“I would break that target so easy. I’d tear it up every time. I’d whip them fellas down to the bricks. They wouldn’t tackle me. Oh, man, I was tough,” he said.
Butler, Deshazer and Gradowksi all saw him in action and attest to the fact his skill could discourage others. Butler said, “He had an eye. When he went hunting he used to wait for everybody else to shoot and if you missed your quail he would get it.”
DeShazer said, “Oh, yeah, he was a marksman. He once killed 17 quail out of 18 shots. Not too many people beat him. If you neat him, he was going to try to figure out a way a way to beat you,”
Gradowski added. “He was a very, very good shooter in his time. you had to watch out for him.”
At age 88 McGee finally had to give up his two loves – shooting and barbering – following a motor vehicle accident in which he suffered a severe head injury. He lapsed into a coma but regained consciousness a few days later. He made a full recovery except for the loss of some motor skills. Through a rehabilitation program that included weight training he got back most of his motor functions, although his shooting days were over. Shooting is never far from his thoughts, however.
“I miss everything about shooting,” he said.
He said he sometimes dreams of being back on the range. There he is again, locking, loading, sighting the soaring trap and firing. Naturally, he never misses.
“Yeah, man, I was one tough shooter.”
North Omaha: Voices and Visions for Change
This is a compilation of stories I’ve written over the last six or seven years that address North Omaha and some of the many voices and visions for change that have surfaced.
Here’s a cover story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about a plan and a vision that may at last signal the start of significant turnaround for long stagnated North Omaha. To be more precise – Northeast Omaha, where the predominantly African-American community is located and has awaited meaningful change for going on half-a-century. If it doesn’t happen now, then when?
Overarching Plan for North Omaha Development Now in Place, Disinvested Community Hopeful Long Promised Change Follows
©by Leo Adam Biga
As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Recent adoption of the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan into the city master plan gives direction and impetus to energizing a stagnated, disinvested area never fully recovered from decades-ago civil disturbance and urban renewal.
Unanimous approval by the Omaha Planning Board and City Council sends a strong signal to public-private funders and developers the plan provides an officially endorsed blueprint for action. What happens next to realize its 30-year vision is up to stakeholders, entrepreneurs, elected officials, movers and shakers.
The Empowerment Network initiated plan, which drew input from residents, business concerns, philanthropists, planning consultants and others, envisions $1.43 billion in redevelopment along key corridors. The initiative puts the Northside in the crosshairs of major transformation as never before.
Some plan contributors and likely implementers recently spoke with The Reader about what this means for a section of the city that’s long awaited significant change.
“One reason it’s important is to show the people who participated, who live in the community, that we’re serious about a North Omaha that is a strong component of the overall city, one that shares in the successes and in the future of the whole city,” says Omaha Planning Director Rick Cunningham.
“It’s important because as the Planning Department this gives us then our marching orders. This is what we then work with with developers to compare their ideas and plans against. It gives people a clear understanding of what the vision is and where they can best take their dollars and invest them.”
Omaha Economic Development Corporation president Michael Maroney sees the plan as “absolutely essential” for addressing some sobering realities.
“I’ve been working in this community for over 40 years and over that period of time I’ve heard over and over again from the political leadership of this city, from the corporate-business community, why can’t North Omaha leadership get together and speak with a single voice in terms of what the needs are.
“And this whole effort going back five years in the creation of the Empowerment Network was really in part a response to that, because we recognized we had to start doing things differently.”
The need for a new approach became painfully obvious, he says, in the wake of a 2005 study. It showed that in every quality of life measure constituting a healthy community blacks “were either no better off or worse off compared to the majority community” than they were in 1977, he says.
“That basically said all the good work all of us thought we were doing wasn’t making a difference, not in the overall scheme of things. Something was missing.”
The community action coalition African American Empowerment Network was born.
“We sat around a table and said we’ve got to start working together, we’ve got to start collaborating, we’ve got to start connecting with each other, and bring all our combined talents together,” says Maroney. “That led to this village revitalization visioning we did.”
To those who might regard the resulting plan’s price tag as excessive, he says, “We cannot be afraid of reality. Now we’re not saying we’re going to go out and get a $1.43 billion commitment tomorrow. It’s a 30 year process, and it’s not going to come from any one entity or one source or one area. Government has a role in this, the private sector has a role in this, there’s going to be a lot of bank financing in this thing.”
“When $3 billion has been spent in downtown and midtown, what’s a billion dollars for North Omaha to make it a strong resource, a strong player, a big part of the tapestry for a sustainable Omaha?” asks Cunningham.
It’s no exaggeration to say the plan is a put-up or shut-up moment in Omaha history.
Maroney says, “For decades the greater community has said come together and the support will be there. Well, we’ve done that now, and I have to say we’ve had good vibes all along the way from those various entities. But the proof is going to be in the pudding. We now have a very solid process we’ve gone through that creates a long term vision for the community. We’ve done this in a collaborative way that engaged the city and the business and philanthropic community. Now the question becomes, Will you step up to the plate? We’ve got this down, we’ve got it in phases, we’ve got even the first couple projects identified. So we’re moving to that next level and we’ll see if what has been suggested and indicated for years will actually happen.”
Empowerment Network president Willie Barney says the plan’s “going to take focus and commitment from the community itself,” adding, “New businesses and venues will only be sustainable to the level they’re supported by the people who live here.”
For the area to thrive, says Maroney, “it’s more than just brick and mortar because we know if people don’t feel safe and secure, I don’t care how nice we make it, they’re not going to be there, they’re not going to come.”
Observers agree infrastructure needs like the sewer-separation project must proceed to lay the way for large scale development.
Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp. executive director Othello Meadows says whatever happens next, the Network deserves credit for making North O a priority.
“I’m encouraged by what the Empowerment Network is doing,” he says. “They’ve been consistent, they haven’t let the momentum fizzle out. They’ve been diligent. They’ve put together a really comprehensive plan. Anybody can quibble with aspects of it, but the fact they’ve put this together is a major accomplishment.
“They’ve kept the conversation going long enough to get the attention of the right people and it’s moved to a very concrete step being part of the master plan.”
He’s confident North O has the players it needs to drive the plan to fruition.
“I think there’s far more executors than they’re used to be. There’s more people who are used to being held accountable, to executing and getting things done and who are much less interested in talking about it and much more interested in doing it. That’s the single biggest component of what will make North Omaha successful.”
Another aspect of economic development the plan implicitly addresses is improving work skill readiness and creating more living wage to career job pathways.
“Omaha has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, yet we still have in North Omaha a very high unemployment rate,” says Barney. “We have not really bridged that gap yet. We really haven’t come to grips with job creation and development. I think more so now than ever the business community is alongside us in looking at how to solve this. There are training programs through the Urban League, Heartland Workforce Solutions, Metro Community College that I think will do a more effective job of getting people ready.”
The Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Solutions partners with local employers, Metro and Goodwill Industries to train skill deficient workers for entry level professional jobs. Meadows, who headed the Omaha Workforce Collaborative, says too many North Omaha residents still have “the steepest of hills to climb” to become proficient.
North Omaha is a much studied, social serviced area suffering disproportionately from poverty, unemployment, underemployment, educational-skill gaps and health problems. As Omaha as a whole has prospered, North O’s languished, cut off from the mainstream of commerce and affluence that ranks the city among the nation’s best places to live. For half a century its predominantly black population has seen their community cast as a crime-ridden danger zone and charitable mission district.
Branded as an undesirable place to live or do business in, major investment has bypassed it. Thus, it lacks goods and services, its population is down, its housing stock deteriorated, its vacant, condemned properties number in the thousands. Added to this is a sparse entrepreneurial class and scarcity of entertainment options-attractions.
Planning Director Cunningham says though efforts have “stabilized what was a declining part of town, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work to do,” adding. “To say we’ve stabilized is not great, but it does give us a platform upon which to move forward.”
“If North Omaha is to be a sustainable community, and that means it really takes care of itself and it doesn’t need to be a welfare community, we have to have a different mind set,” says Maroney. “That does not mean we forsake those in need, but we have to create the atmosphere by which we not only bring back people with higher incomes but we elevate those people within upward. We must create a community that is generating resources that turn around in the community by creating jobs, creating opportunity.”
“The whole idea is to make North Omaha a neighborhood of choice,” says Cunningham. “That not only people who live there now stay, because they can afford to stay, because of new jobs and opportunities, but people who moved away are invited-enticed to move back and people looking for a new place to raise their families move there.”
He says the plan mitigates against gentrification pricing out residents.
“The concept is to not have just one type of housing but a full range of housing types and income levels. I think that’s all through the plan.”
Facilitating mixed income housing projects is what Seventy Five North plans doing. The new nonprofit, in partnership with Purpose Building Communities, is quietly acquiring properties to infuse new life into neighborhoods.
Prospect Hill has recently seen the addition of new “green” homes to its stock of older homes courtesy of a collaborative venture between OEDC, Alliance Building Communities, Holy Name Housing, Wells Fargo Bank and Family Housing Advisory Services. More partnerships like this are needed, says OEDC’s Maroney.
Cunningham says if North Omaha is to be a prime development landscape the same way other parts of the city are, “we need to identify innovative and new ways we can invest. So we’re looking at the economic development tools we have to make it just as easy to develop and reinvest there. We’ve got to do that. We’ve got to utilize the resources of this city.” He says, “A plan like this is a catalyst that begins people thinking about, What if? Why not? and people are doing that already. There are partners (emerging) out there the public doesn’t know about at this point.”
Othello Meadows feels a serious attitude change is necessary.
“One of the things I see a lot is almost this antithetical attitude to people coming into North Omaha to make money,,” he says, “as if it’s almost a bad or exploitive thing, and I don’t understand that. The only way North Omaha grows in a sustainable way is if somebody sees an opportunity to go in there and make some money. That’s how North Omaha gets tied to the rest of the economic prosperity the city has enjoyed.”
Nurturing more entrepreneurs, says Maroney, “is absolutely key. It’s an area we’re working on. It needs a lot of help. A lot of it is access to credit and capital. A lot of its entrepreneurial development training. That’s critical because as we develop all this brick and mortar we need to have people ready to move in and create businesses and jobs and hopefully make a lot of money.”
The city and Chamber are actively recruiting black businesses outside Nebraska to open operations in North Omaha. Consultant Jim Beatty heads an Atlanta initiative that’s imported one business thus far, All(n)1 Security. He says aggressive, wide net efforts like these are needed to market the revitalization plan to entrepreneurs, philanthropists and developers. “I think we need to present North Omaha as an opportunity for investment, and we need to tell that story, not only locally but nationally,” says Beatty, who chairs the Black History Museum board.
The Chamber’s Ed Cochran, who heads the North Omaha Development Project, says, “There are several ways to grow business in a community. One is to grow it organically
through inspiring entrepreneurs with brand new businesses. Another is to strengthen and grow existing businesses. A third is to import businesses from other locations.” He says North Omaha needs all these approaches.
For too long, says Meadows, the Northside has been treated as a charity case.
“I feel like there’s almost a patriarchal type relationship that always leaves North Omaha in a secondary position. At this point North Omaha doesn’t have the capital, in a lot of ways it doesn’t have the personnel, kind of by way of brain drain, to transition itself organically without outside resources. At this point it needs help from philanthropy and individuals whose hearts are in the right place, who simply want to do the right thing.
“I think the compassion that exists in this city is rare, especially in the philanthropic community, but I think we have to have a little bit more analytical, clinical approach.”
While the adjacent downtown, riverfront and mid-town have bloomed, North O’s seen piecemeal, stop-gap change, with pockets of redevelopment surrounded by neglect.
“Historically what we’ve done, and I’ve been a part of that, is have a scattered gun approach toward development,” Maroney says. “A lot of good things have been done, but they’ve been done in isolation. We need to better coordinate and understand how these things relate to each other, and then how you build on top of those. We’re now trying to take a more deliberative and directed approach toward development.”
Backers of the revitalization plan see it as a guide and stimulus to making North O a destination to live, work and recreate in. Among the early focal points is developing 24th and Lake into a heavily trafficked, tourist-friendly arts-culture district.
“In North Omaha one of the real epicenters is 24th and Lake, where you have a really nice combination of history and communal feeling,” says Meadows. “It’s one of the hubs of the community. I think you could make a tremendous splash by focusing on that area. You can’t find somebody who grew up in North Omaha that hasn’t spent a lot of time in that area, whether they got their cut there or they went to church there. So to me it makes sense to start with an area that touches so much of North Omaha.
“If I were a developer I’d start right there. It’s close enough to downtown to draw from a lot of different nodes, which is important.”
Anticipated commercial development would build on existing anchors in strategic areas:
24th and Lake (Bryant Center, Jewell Building, Omaha Star, Family Housing Advisory Services, Blue Lion Centre, Loves Jazz & Arts Center, Omaha Business & Technology Center, Great Plains Black History Museum)
30th and Lake (Salem Baptist Church, Salem Village, Miami Heights, Urban League, Charles Drew Health Center)
Adams Park and the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation
Refinements to 16th and Cuming and the 24th and 30th St. corridors are meant to spur a “seamless transition” from north downtown to North Omaha. Cunningham says “development there would integrate with the downtown and begin to bring the flow of people, goods, enterprise and economic development over into and overlapping with what has been historically the North Side.”
He adds, “We’re working now with 24th Street and an existing building there housing an historic business to revamp their footprint so that it says this is a front door rather than a back door. We’re also working with Creighton (University) and their plans for 24th and Cuming. That’s an entry portal for them too. They’re a partner in this and they have a vision for what’s happening there, really from 30th to 16th Streets, in creating a Cuming that is not a barrier, not a border, but a strong component of activity.”
Asked if it’s vital the first projects find success, Cunningham says. “Absolutely, because that builds momentum. We have to have successes early because it will be easier for the next developer to come in.” Sources indicate government funded projects are likely to launch first to “prime the pump” for private investment to follow.
Sustainability will be critical.
“Each one of those projects, particularly ones in the initial stages, have to be able to stand on their own in the event nothing else happens so that 20 years from now that project will still be there, will still be functioning,” says Maroney. “Not only do we look at what is it going to cost to create that project, but what is it going to take to sustain it over time. We nee to make sure thats built in also.”
Meadows says, “The same kind of rigor, due diligence and economic models that went into determining the feasibility of midtown and downtown development projects needs to take place with each North Omaha project” to ensure their sustainability.
More than anything, Meadows just wants to see change.
“When my friends come to visit from out of town there’s very little positive to show them on the Northside, very little you can point out and say, ‘Wow!’ So I’m glad we potentially have some things to be proud about in our neighborhood, in my community.
“I think North Omaha is really poised. I think residents are getting ready to see actual movement, they’re getting ready to drive down certain streets and see real development, real improvement. I can’t remember when that’s happened here.”
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With the 2011 Native Omaha Days, July 27-August 1, just around the corner I am posting stories I’ve written about this every two years African American heritage and homecoming event and how it serves a kind of litmus test for the black community here to take stock of itself in terms of where it’s been, where it is today, and where it’s heading. The following story appeared just as the 2009 Native Omaha Days concluded. I spoke to a number of individuals for their take on the state of Black Omaha at a time when there is both much despair and much promise for the predominantly African American northeast Omaha community. I interviewed folks who grew up here and stayed here and those who left here but who retain deep ties here and come back for events like the Days in order to get a cross-section of perspectives on what the past, present, and future holds for North Omaha. This much discussed community, where generational problems of poverty and underachievement are rampant but where many success stories have also been launched, is finally getting the kind of attention it’s long required. Initiatives like the African American Empowerment Network are helping drive a planned revitalization that seems much closer to reality today than it did even two years ago. The role of Native Omaha Days shouldn’t be overlooked because it does bring together thousands of current and former Omaha residents whose individual and collective vision and energy are helping fuel what is about to be a major North Omaha revival. That doesn’t mean all the challenges that face that community will be eradicated overnight. It took decades for those problems and wounds to become embedded and it will take decades to heal them, and events like Native Omaha Days help give a purpose and focus to affecting change.
Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The 2009 African-American heritage celebration Native Omaha Days concluded Monday. Natives came from across America to indulge memories of this touchstone place. The biennial, week-long Days lends itself to gauging the African-American experience here — past, present, future.
Taking stock has added import with North Omaha at a tipping point. Ambitious new housing and commercial developments, job training programs, educational reform efforts and gang intervention initiatives are in the works. All in response to endemic problems of poverty and unemployment, low job readiness, poor academic performance, high dropout rates, epidemic-level STDs and ongoing drug traficking-gang violence. North O has a strong sense of identity and purpose yet struggles with scarce opportunities. The persistent challenges of segregation and inequality have led many natives over time to leave for better prospects elsewhere, but a sense of home and family keeps their ties to Omaha strong.
The Days brings thousands of natives back to meet up with friends and relatives for homecomings, large and small. Last week’s public events included: a mixer at the Native Omahans Club; a parade along North 30th Street; a dance at the Mid-America Center; appearances by NBA star Dwayne Wade and actress Gabrielle Union at North High School; and a picnic at Levi Carter Park.
Visitors helped swell the numbers at Jazz on the Green, at clubs and bars on the north side and at black church services. Celebrants were out in force too at school reunions. Then there were untold family reunions and block parties that unfolded in people’s homes and yards, in the streets, and in parks all over the city.
Northeast Omaha was jumping as visitors mixed with residents to sight-see or just kick it. Kountze Park, the Native Omahans Club, the Love’s Jazz & Arts Center, the Bryant Center, Skeets Barbecue and other haunts were popular gathering spots. Joe Tess on the south side was a popular stop. Streams of cars toured the black community’s historical corridors. Many made the rounds at post-card amenities like the riverfront, the Old Market, Lauritzen Gardend and Henry Doorly Zoo.
Nobody seems to know how many expatriates arrive for The Days. That’s a shame, as these visitors represent resources for a strapped city and state hurting from a brain drain and a small tax base. Many natives who come back are the same upwardly mobile blacks Omaha has trouble retaining, a costly decades-long trend. The city’s black population is small to begin with, so every talented native lost is felt acutely by a community with a paucity of black entrepreneurs and professionals for a city this size.
Hometown girl Felicia Webster has twice left for the East Coast but has since returned to live here with her young son. She wonders what would happen if residents collaborated with visitors on visioning new initiatives, ventures, projects, even start-up businesses aimed at reviving North Omaha.
“I feel Native Omaha Days right now is a good opportunity and a wonderful manifestation of African-American people coming together of one accord and building and talking and socializing. It would be nice to just have a really huge collective on what could actually happen with development here,” said Webster, a spoken word artist, “because, you know, people come from everywhere that are doing all kinds of things. They can bring their knowledge and tools with them to share something fresh, new and vital here. I personally would like to see that.”
What about The Days serving as a catalyst for brainstorming-networking forums that capitalize on the skill sets and entrepreneurial ideas and investment dollars of natives near and far? All geared toward building the kind of self-sufficiency that black leaders point to as the most sustainable path for black prosperity.
Nate Goldston III left Omaha as a young man and went on to found Gourmet Services in Atlanta, Ga., one of the nation’s largest food service companies. He’s doing just what Webster advocates by working with locals on stimulating new development. The self-made millionaire has been advising the Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the North Omaha Development Project on the landscape for new North O investment. He’s bullish on the prospects for that long depressed district.
“I think it’s going to grow, but you’ve got to plant the seeds first and that’s what were interested in helping do with some business development there in the food service area,” Goldston said by phone from Atlanta.
He’s close to finalizing plans for a brick-and-mortar Gourmet Services backed project here to provide entrepreneurial opportunities for local African Americans.
“If we can bring this business opportunity there and put some young people in place and let them have a little piece of the action and begin to develop a franchise type operation, and then allow them to go on and grow it themselves, manage and own at the same time, that’ll bring that missing link and fill that gap in the economic development portion. At least a small portion of it,” he said.
He said it’s the kind of grassroots development that’s required. “It’s not the Chamber’s job to develop North Omaha. North Omaha needs to be developed by people from or attached to North Omaha, and the kinds of things that need to go in need to be done from within as opposed to from without.” Goldston’s impressed with the “pro-business, pro-development, pro-North Omaha” focus of the Chamber and city. “They just need the right teammates, they need the right partners to help them do it, and that’s the first time I’ve ever noticed that collaborative attitude in Omaha. I think there’s a real chance there.”
New Omaha City Planning Director Rick Cunningham, who most recently lived on the East Coast, is a native who hopes to implement Mayor Jim Suttle’s vision for a revitalized north side. “His agenda includes a strong commitment to North Omaha,” Cunningham said of Suttle. “He has a goal for 24th and Lake Street to become a new Dundee for Omaha.”
Cunningham knows first-hand Northeast Omaha’s prolonged decline. He also knows “there have been pockets of success,” including the Blue Lion Center at 24th and Lake he served as project manager for under Omaha architect and mentor Ambrose Jackson. He said most North O redevelopment has come from “investments in new rooftops, in new housing,” and while that needs to continue he said there must be a focus on creating more employable residents and attracting businesses and services that generate new jobs and commerce. “To bring Omaha into a very livable community with an environment that all residents and visitors can enjoy we’ve got to make sure we’ve got a diverse economy.”
He looks forward to being part of solutions that “return North 24 to the vibrancy it had, when 24th and Lake was the heart and soul. We will be engaged in that effort.” He looks forward to meeting with community partners from the public and private sectors to “build synergy in accomplishing those goals.” He said the city cannot afford to let North Omaha wallow. “If there is an area that suffers in Omaha than the entire city suffers,” he said. “It’s important we revitalize the core area. Those communities that are alive and thriving have inner cities that are alive.”
Goldston vividly recalls when North O had a greater concentration of black-owned businesses than it does today, but he said even in its heyday Omaha’s black community had few major black entrepreneurs.
“Omaha’s African-American community has always been job-oriented as opposed to entrepreneurial-oriented,” he said. “I see great opportunity and I see opportunity that’s been missed only because I don’t know that we’ve been blessed with a lot of entrepreneurs that have had the path or the ability to develop businesses in the area. We had the model of the bars, the nightclubs, the pool halls.”
He could have added restaurants, barbershops, beauty salons, clothing stores and filling stations. There were also black professionals in private practice — doctors, dentists, attorneys, accountants, pharmacists, architects.
Their example “gave me inspiration and hope,” said attorney Vaughn Chatman, a native Omahan who made it back for The Days from Calif. North 24th Street was once a thriving hub of black and white-owned businesses. Few, however, survived the ‘60s riots and their aftermath. Urban renewal did in more. Once the packing house and railroad jobs that employed many blacks vanished, few good-paying employment options surfaced. “My friends and I had no desire to leave Omaha until opportunities for us began to disappear,” said Chatman . “Most, if not all my friends, faced with lack of opportunity have left Omaha. My friends and relatives (still) there tell me the quality of life for them and their generation has not gotten any better despite the best efforts of a number of individuals and organizations.”
Several new businesses have popped up but many have come and gone over time. Despite some redevelopment North 24th is largely barren today.
“That positive feeling of inspiration and hope is what I miss the most about the North Omaha I grew up in,” said Chatman.
An old-line exception is the Omaha Star, a black weekly now 70-plus years strong. Founder Mildred Brown was one of America’s few black women publishers. She earned a national reputation for her crusading work during the civil rights movement. Goldston learned valuable lessons working for the Star as a kid.
“The Omaha Star was my entree to entrepreneurship,” he said. “That’s what taught me to create a marketing sense, the ability to be able to develop a customer base and customer service and the whole nine yards.”
Cathy Hughes is another Star veteran who credits her experience there and at Omaha black-owned radio station KOWH with helping give her the impetus to be a broadcast owner and eventually build her Radio One empire.
“It encouraged me to go ahead and to try to own my own radio station because I saw some folks in Omaha do it,” she said by phone from her Maryland home. “You lead by example. When you do something, you never know who you’re touching. you never know who you’re having an impact on. I saw Bob Gibson and Rodney Wead and Bob Boozer and Gale Sayers come together and buy a radio station, so I knew it was possible, and now I’m the largest black-owned broadcast corporation in America and the only African-American woman to head a publicly traded corporation. None of that would have been possible if I hadn’t seen the examples I saw in Omaha, if I hadn’t seen Mildred Brown keeping her newspaper not only afloat but providing her with a very comfortable existence for that day and time.”
Hughes, like Goldston, is pleased by gains that have been made via new housing developments, streetscape improvements and the Love’s Center, but is dismayed there aren’t more Mildred Brown figures in Omaha by now. In Hughes’ estimation Omaha should be much further along than it is in black entrepreneurship.
“It has a long ways to go,” she said.
Hughes is also concerned that strong community leaders like North O developer Al Goodwin, educator Katherine Fletcher and job training director Bernice Dodd are no longer on the scene. She’s warily watching the new generation of local black leadership to assess their commitment to redevelopment.
Goldston said black businesses in Omaha are not as visible as they once were.
“Those things have all gone away,” he said, adding that Omaha “is miles apart” from the dynamic black business culture found in Atlanta. “I think other opportunities were just not there (in Omaha) at that time to start and build a business.”
All these years later, he said, few if any Omaha businesses have made the Black Enterprise 100 list of the largest African-American owned businesses.
Most black-owned Omaha businesses of any size are not located on the north side today. Out of sight, out of mind. Hard to emulate what you don’t see. “I think we flourish when we see reflections of ourselves in the community where we live,” said Webster. “And when you don’t see that, what do you have to strive for?”
Introducing students to Omaha black achievers via school curricula is something Vaughn Chatman, founder of the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, advocates.
Webster presents programs in schools that attempt to expand kids’ vision. “I want them to see a bigger picture, a bigger view of the world than what they normally see, and I hope that by my being African-American young boys and girls are seeing reflections of themselves in me of what they possibly could attain,” she said.
Hughes and Goldston are concerned about the education gap that finds black students on average lagging behind whites. The truancy and drop-out rates for blacks are higher. The two are alarmed by how far Omaha’s inner city schools trail their suburban counterparts. “We’re going to have to really cure that before anybody can make any progress,” said Goldston, who’s challenged a national organization he once led, 100 Black Men, with making a difference in schools.
Webster said she was fortunate to have parents who stressed education and showed her “the world was bigger than Omaha.” Omaha’s segregation meant she would often frequent places and be the only black person there. Cathy Hughes had the same experience coming of age here. “That’s challenging,” said Webster. The first time Webster left, for Philadelphia, in the early ‘90s, Omaha was viewed as a dull place by many young people — black and white.
“A lot of my close friends did end up leaving and going to more heavily populated cities, and I think a lot of that had to do with not only wanting to explore the world but what opportunities they saw. For some, it was a larger African-American presence. For others, it was bigger metropolitan areas where you felt like you were getting paid what you were worth and could fulfill what you desired.
“Coming back this time I can see Omaha is really growing but I think Omaha is still a work in progress. I have friends with degrees who are still making $12 an hour, and I think that’s a challenge. They can’t find jobs with livable wages. And I find I’m still the only person that looks like me when I go certain places.”
Webster likes that Omaha has far more going on now than even five years ago, but she said she misses Philly’s constant slate of cultural activities and larger base of African-Americans to share them with. The big city scene “reignites” her.
Author Carleen Brice (Orange Mint and Honey, Children of the Waters) is a native living in Denver, Colo. with mixed feelings about Omaha.
“It’s always complex being from a small city and having big dreams,” said Brice. “I can’t speak for others, but I felt I needed to leave Omaha to achieve what I wanted to achieve. Part of that had to do with my specific family background. When my parents divorced, we went through some bad times and so I associate Omaha with those negative memories as well as with the positive ones.
“What I sense the most in Omaha is a kind of small thinking, small dreaming. Strange since Omaha does have a lot going for it. But I also think every city is what you make of it. I live in Denver and think it’s great, but I have friends who grew up here and feel very much like it’s a tiny, backwards city. I’ve begun to think that if I moved back to Omaha I could experience it differently, without feeling so blinded by my past.”
Still, Brice said she senses North Omaha’s quality of life is worse today. “I know my grandmother is saddened by the decline of that part of the city. My friends don’t see much improvement in how people actually interact or how they are treated, which makes them feel depressed. Back to that word depressed again. It’s sad, but true, I think Omaha is depressed.”
Beaufield Berry is a playwright and actress who’s come and gone from her hometown several times. She’s here again. She feels a big part of what holds Omaha back is its “small town ideas” that don’t readily embrace diversity. She believes North Omaha will not reach its potential until the cycle of inequity and despair is broken.
“For Omaha’s black population to really thrive I think you’ve got to start at the poverty line. You have to start at where the people may not have the role models that other kids do. You have to make it so they can see a father figure or an older brother making the right decisions.”
But Berry sees much to be hopeful about, too. “On the flip side of that I see so many amazingly talented young people of all different races who are really working towards something, who can really make a difference, not only with their work but with their words, with their presence, and I want to see more of that. I think that’s how Omaha, black or white, will start to thrive citywide.”
Webster sees Omaha progressing but like many blacks she’d like to see more done.
“I think with a collective idea and voice from all kinds people that it could kind of put a faster spark into it happening. It could manifest into something where everybody that lives here really enjoys it. I think it would be amazing.”
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Art meets urban planning meets community engagement in the work of Theaster Gates. The Chicago-based artist and planner is the driving force and facilitator behind a collaborative between his own Rebuild Foundation, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, and the City of Omaha in giving new life to an abandoned building in the inner city. In an era when red lining practices confined blacks to certain areas the former Carver Savings and Loan Association helped them get into homes of their own, where they wanted to live, and now its old offices will be home to black artists from North Omaha as well as to an art gallery and a Big Mama’s sandwich shop. I write about the venture in the following piece appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com), and allude to how this project is one of several developments in North O that are laying the foundation for the envisioned arts-culture district in the 24th and Lake area. I will be revisiting this story over time.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The former Carver Savings and Loan Association at 2416 Lake St. was Omaha’s first black-owned financial institution. The lender helped black families avoid red lining practices to become home owners. The newly restored site now houses Carver Bank, a combined artists residency, gallery and Big Mama’s Sandwich Shop. In its new life Carver will once again provide “homes,” only this time studio work spaces for North Omaha minority artists. It also means an area once rich in jazz and blues players will again be a haven for creatives.
The endeavor is the brainchild of Chicago-based artist-developer Theaster Gates, who partnered with his own Rebuild Foundation and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha. Artist-craftsman Sean R. Ward led the construction. Volunteers from North High, Impact One and the FACT design lab at the Univerity of Nebraska-Lincoln assisted.
Gates repurposes vacant inner city spaces for new uses that support artists and engage community. He was brought to Omaha by the Bemis. The Carver Bank idea took shape after Town Hall listening sessions with stakeholders and city officials.
“On one level the city has a problem with vacant buildings and on another level there’s this tremendous need for space artists articulated,” says Gates.
Bemis chief curator Hesse McGraw says his organization’s artists residency history meshes well with what Gates does.
“The Bemis mission is to support artists,” McGraw says, “and Theaster’s ambition is to build up new infrastructures to support artists in places where artists had no support previously, specifically in black communities, in places disinvested or under-resourced.
“There’s so many places where capital has left but value still exists. I think North Omaha is such a place. If you look hard you find incredibly talented, creative visionary young artists that bring a lot of value to their surroundings but have no institutional support. We can support artists in a very focused and strategic way.”
Carver program coordinator Jessica Scheuerman says the project “discovers and recognizes emerging artists who maybe don’t have a platform or a space to present or produce their work.”
The venue’s seen as a harbinger of positive changes for a struggling inner city district poised for redevelopment. The hope is that Carver is a magnet for visitors.
The 24th and Lake intersection is ground zero for a projected arts-culture district. Players in the effort gathered for an Oct. 16 press conference at the adjacent Loves Jazz & Arts Center to announce the city’s $100,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Some of the monies support Carver and LJAC programming.
Carver’s the latest building block in what the Empowerment Network, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, the city and others envision as a revitalized 24th and Lake corridor. Loves Jazz is the anchor. The Union for Contemporary Art and its own artists residency program is a recent addition. The proposed centerpiece is Festival Square. Plans call for new Great Plains Black History Museum and John Beasley Theater facilities.
Gates described his role as “a catalyst or flux to help move things forward and to help deliver a product or opportunity,” adding, “We had to be really sensitive to the fact people made their own plans already for cultural life in the neighborhood and those plans have been approved.” He says he applied to Omaha “the body of knowledge we’ve gained from restoring buildings in Chicago and St. Louis” and a track record for getting buildings occupied and busy.
“Our mission is to be open, to be a beacon,” says Scheuerman. “We’re going to be a space people can reliably come to, where they can encounter the arts, get food from Big Mama’s and really count on us to be part of the social fabric of the neighborhood.
“The (artist) residents will have 24/7 access to their studios, so they’re going to be ambassadors of this project. They’re going to exhibit their work and be part of the community. We’re going to have programming that reflects and challenges and stretches the neighborhood. We’ll bring other elements of Omaha art here to have those cultural exchanges you wouldn’t necessarily imagine taking place on 24th and Lake.”
Gates says it’s all a result of identifying artists who need work spaces with small businesses wanting to grow into them. It required artists and the Bemis and the Empowerment Network and the Omaha Planning Commission to make this one modest intervention happen. But this modest intervention has the capacity to do all this other stuff.” He says he simply uncovered hidden potential and forged new partnerships.
“Sometimes I feel like the work I do is shining a light on the good things already there. It’s really about framing things. Then after a while the work doesn’t need me to do any light shining anymore. Other people will shine the light. I just kind of rang the alarm. Now I think the only thing I have to offer is encouragement.”
The linchpin for the whole project, Gates says, was getting Big Mama’s on board.
“I think having Big Mama’s on the block is going to be huge. People come from all over the city to Big Mama’s. I can envision a lot of people being present who are not currently present on 24th and Lake. I think people might hang out and hanging out is super cool and leads to new friendships and to people to getting hungry and needing to use the bathroom and wanting to know what’s happening next door to the thing they came to.
“People are going to be curious about what’s happening at the Union and Loves Jazz and Carver. People who give to Bemis will have other places to land their generosity.”
He can imagine a larger impact that “will effectively model what culture looks like in North Omaha and that will create a desire for other people to model cultural activity there, which is the part that feels like catalytic work.”
He and McGraw feel Carver adds another element to a growing mix of arts attractions to drive traffic to North O.
“What I often find is that people don’t come to a place because they ain’t been invited or they don’t know something’s happening in that place,” says Gates. “Having these spaces that will have the occasion for people to come – I’m really excited about what that does.”
“I think the synergies are there and all these activities will be stronger in concert with one another,” McGraw says.
Gates believes all the organizations will benefit from working together informally or via a planned North Omaha Arts Alliance. He and Scheuerman say the Bemis provides strong backing. “The Bemis has got reach, history, reputation,” says Scheuerman. “It’s a huge benefit to have that type of infrastructure.”
McGraw expects Carver and its companion attractions are just the start:
“It’s taken a long time to get there but maybe that is a metaphor or analogy to the neighborhood on a larger scale. There has been a lot of small conversations happening and a big vision produced and now is a moment when the city is starting to see aspects of that vision come to life in a tangible and exciting way. When the pieces start to come together in a coordinated way you really begin to see there are huge possibilities within this neighborhood. It’s very exciting for us to be centered around artists and culture, not even so much in a historic or nostalgic way, but in a contemporary and real time way.”
Scheuerman sees mentoring possibilities for aspiring artists and arts managers. Gates sees skilled wood and metalworkers training apprentices to fabricate interiors for new eateries as part of emerging “cultural economies.”
The Carver hosted a December 1 open house as part of the Christmas in the Village celebration. Gates is expected to partcipate in more Carver open house events this month leading up to the project’s anticipated January 2013 launch.
Change is coming to North Omaha and one of the change agents is Brigitte McQueen, one of those transplants to this place who brings a new energy and perspective that can help the community move in positive new directions. She’s just begun her work there with her fledgling Union for Contemporary Art but my bet is that she and her organization will wind up being long-term playera and change agents who make a difference.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Brigitte McQueen is hell-bent on revolution.
The entrepreneurial arts maven first made a splash with Pulp in Benson. Then she revived the Bemis Underground in the Old Market. Now she’s about to shake up North Omaha via The Union for Contemporary Art, which she could have located anywhere.
She chose North Omaha.
“It’s one of the only communities in Omaha that does not have a dedicated, consistent art presence, and it shows in the neighborhood. There’s very little public art, the kids are not getting it in their after school programs, it’s not in the schools,” she says. “Kids there can go for weeks without seeing a piece of art or anything beautiful.”
The Union is leasing two eyesore buildings on a mostly empty plot between Patrick Ave. and Burdette St., and 24th and 25th Sts. One structure housed the landmark Fair Deal Cafe, where Charles Hall served soul food and welcomed community activists. The other is the former St. Martin de Porres food pantry.
Former St. Martin de Porres Center is now home to the Union for Contemporary Art
A future capital campaign will attempt to raise the $400,000 to $500,000 she estimates renovations and repairs will cost. The cafe will be gutted, save for the tin ceiling, overhead fans, booths and lunch counter, and converted into a gallery. The bunker-like pantry will be opened up with more windows and reconfigured for artist studios, a classroom, a commons area and offices. Both buildings will be refaced. The design work is being donated by Leo A Daly, Alley Poyner Macchietto and BVH.
The Union will be home to artist residency and youth education programs. Visiting artists in the Studio Fellowship will receive a stipend for supplies and access to professional development and critique. At the end of their four to six-months stay participants will get an exhibition. During their immersion experience McQueen says artists “will have to be doing community service the entire time, whether teaching a class or curating a show or working with kids. They’ll be a part of the community and leave something tangible behind. It’s all about engaging the community in a constant dialogue about the arts.” McQueen says she has several artists lined up to teach upcoming youth art classes.
Board president Watie White, an Omaha artist, says, “The Union is working off the model of not-for-profit street-level arts activist organizations” that do community-based projects aimed at addressing real issues and transforming lives and neighborhoods. In return for the opportunities given, he says, the expectation is for “the creative generation we foster to pay it forward to the community they come from.”
Former Fair Deal Cafe slated to be Union for Contemporary Art exhibition gallery
The Stockyard Institute in Chicago will be sending Windy City artists here and The Union will reciprocate with Omaha artists there.
“Ideally I would like to have relationships like that built with organizations all across the country so that we’re constantly sending people out but having people come in,” says McQueen.
Her “arts campus” is to include finished green space. Perhaps a sculpture garden. In three to five years she’d like to erect a new building housing artist live-work spaces and retail art bays.
As a North O resident McQueen is making a statement that contemporary art shouldn’t bypass a community based on perceptions and is creating a reason for greater Omaha to visit the area.
“Omaha is my adopted city and ever since I’ve been here I’ve been really aware of the segregation that exists. You can see the lines. It’s horrible we’ve divided ourselves up that strongly. I want Omaha to be a truly open city.
“Why can’t we build something that would provide all of this support to Omaha’s arts community and put it in a neighborhood that so desperately needs to have that influx of people? It adds a level of vibrancy to this community.”
It’s about “building bridges and changing the way we think about Omaha and the lines we have made,” she says. “Nothing’s going to change until we start doing that and bringing people into the community. If I can open a small door and people from outside come to see stellar contemporary exhibitions, then maybe that’s how that migration north starts to happen.”
She says she’s doing something “dynamically different than what has been done before” to prove more than just social services or Afro-centric art-culture can flourish there.
After initial resistance she’s “overwhelmed” by the support The Union’s received from such stakeholders as the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, the Empowerment Network and the City of Omaha.
The Union is slated as the front door to a revitalized North 24’s mixed use arts- commercial-residential district.
“I think it makes perfect sense to have this place where creativity is celebrated as the entrance way and gateway,” she says.
The Union’s received grants from the Weitz Family Foundation and the Omaha Venture Group and will apply for funds to help underwrite programs and building makeovers.
Collaboration will be key. Last summer the Union partnered with Catholic Charities of Omaha on a kids art program at the Christ Child Center. It joined the Bellows Studio in bringing artist Lavie Raven here. Through Dec. 11 Birdhouse Interior Design and Birdhouse Collective is staging a Home exhibition at the Bancroft Street Market as a Union fundraiser. Early next year Union is collaborating with Peerless Gallery and Worksite on an art-in.
Until its own buildings are completely renovated some Union programming will occur off-site.
McQueen’s convinced the arts can make a difference in spurring North O’s renaissance.
“I want to make an impact. I want to change lives. It’s all about creating this cyclical process where The Union is supporting the arts and artists, the artists are encouraged to support the community and then hopefully the community feels a stronger connection and therefore wants to be more supportive of the arts.”
Up to six artists will begin using the former St. Martin de Porres space in January. A January community clean-up to get the building ready will be announced soon. Applications for the Studio Fellowship slots will be taken starting Dec. 16. Artists working in any contemporary art form are eligible to apply.
For application details and to follow Union developments visit http://www.u-ca.org.
North Omaha’s prospects are looking up, even as longstanding problems remain a drag on the largely African-American community, and a strong, established leadership base in place is a big part of the optimism for the area’s continued revival. These leaders are in fact driving the change going on. Working side by side or coming up right behind that veteran leadership cohort is a group of emerging leaders looking to put their own stamp on things. The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) takes a look at this next generation of North Omaha leaders and their take on opportunities and vehicles for being change agents.
Thomas Warren and Julia Parker
Next generation of North Omaha leaders eager for change: New crop of leaders emerging to keep momentum going
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
If redevelopment plans for northeast Omaha come to full fruition then that long depressed district will see progress at-scale after years of patchwork promises. Old and new leaders from largely African-American North Omaha will be the driving forces for change.
A few years and projects into the 30-year, $1.4 billion North Omaha Revitalization Village Plan, everyone agrees this massive revival is necessary for the area to be on the right side of the tipping point. The plan’s part of a mosaic of efforts addressing educational, economic, health care, housing, employment disparities. Behind these initiatives is a coalition from the private and public sectors working together to apply a focused, holistic approach for making a lasting difference.
Key contributors are African-American leaders who emerged in the last decade to assume top posts in organizations and bodies leading the charge. Empowerment Network Facilitator Willie Barney, Douglas Country Treasurer John Ewing, Urban League of Nebraska Executive Director Thomas Warren and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray are among the most visible. When they entered the scene they represented a new leadership class but individually and collectively they’ve become its well-established players.
More recently, Neb. State Senator Tanya Cook and Omaha 360 Director Jamie Anders-Kemp joined their ranks. Others, such as North Omaha Development Corporation Executive Director Michael Maroney and former Omaha City Councilwoman and Neb. State Sen. Brenda Council, have been doing this work for decades.
With so much yet to come and on the line, what happens when the current crop of leaders drops away? Who will be the new faces and voices of transformation? Are there clear pathways to leadership? Are there mechanisms to groom new leaders? Is there generational tension between older and younger leaders? What does the next generation want to see happen and where do they see things headed?
Some North Omaha leaders
The Reader asked veteran and emerging players for answers and they said talent is already in place or poised to assume next generation leadership. They express optimism about North O’s direction and a consensus for how to get there. They say leadership also comes in many forms. It’s Sharif Liwaru as executive director of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, which he hopes to turn into an international attraction. It’s his artist-educator wife Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru. Together, they’re a dynamic couple focused on community betterment. Union for Contemporary Arts founder-director Brigitte McQueen, Loves Jazz and Arts Center Executive Director Tim Clark and Great Plains Black History Museum Board Chairman Jim Beatty are embedded in the community leading endeavors that are part of North O’s revival.
Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. Executive Director Othello Meadows is a more behind-the-scenes leader. His nonprofit has acquired property and finished first-round financing for the Highlander mixed-used project, a key Village Plan component. The project will redevelop 40 acres into mixed income housing, green spaces and on-site support services for “a purpose-built” urban community.
Meadows says the opportunity to “work on a project of this magnitude in a city I care about is a chance of a lifetime.” He’s encouraged by the “burgeoning support for doing significant things in the community.” In his view, the best thing leaders can do is “execute and make projects a reality,” adding, “When things start to happen in a real concrete fashion then you start to peel back some of that hopelessness and woundedness. I think people are really tired of rhetoric, studies and statistics and want to see something come to life.” He says new housing in the Prospect Hill neighborhood is tangible positive activity.
Meadows doesn’t consider himself a traditional leader.
“I think leadership is first and foremost about service and humility. I try to think of myself as somebody who is a vessel for the hopes and desires of this neighborhood. True leadership is service and service for a cause, so if that’s the definition of leadership, then sure, I am one.”
He feels North O’s suffered from expecting leadership to come from charismatic saviors who lead great causes from on high.
“In my mind we have to have a different paradigm for the way we consider leadership. I think it happens on a much smaller scale. I think of people who are leaders on their block, people who serve their community by being good neighbors or citizens. That’s the kind of leadership that’s overlooked. I think it has to shift from we’ve got five or six people we look to for leadership to we’ve got 500 or 600 people who are all active leaders in their own community. It needs to shift to that more grassroots, bottom-up view.”
Where can aspiring North O leaders get their start?
“Wherever you are, lead,” John Ewing says. “Whatever opportunities come, seize them. Schools, places of worship, neighborhood and elected office all offer opportunities if we see the specific opportunity.”
“They need to get in where they fit in and grow from there,” says Dell Gines, senior community development advisor, Omaha Branch at Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
Empowerment Network board member and Douglas County Health Department health educator Aja Anderson says many people lead without recognition but that doesn’t make them any less leaders.
“There are individuals on our streets, in our classrooms, everywhere, every day guiding those around them to some greater destiny or outcome,” Anderson says.
Meadows feels the community has looked too often for leadership to come from outside.
“A community needs to guide its own destiny rather than say, ‘Who’s going to come in from outside and fix this?'”
He applauds the Empowerment Network for “trying to find ways to help people become their own change agents.”
Carver Bank Interim Director JoAnna LeFlore is someone often identified as an emerging leader. She in turn looks to some of her Next Gen colleagues for inspiration.
“I’m very inspired by Brigitte McQueen, Othello Meadows and Sharif Liwaru. They all have managed to chase their dreams, advocate for the well-being of North Omaha and maintain a professional career despite all of the obstacles in their way. You have to have a certain level of hunger in North Omaha in order to survive. What follows that drive is a certain level of humility once you become successful. This is why I look up to them.”
LeFlore is emboldened to continue serving her community by the progress she sees happening.
“I see more creative entrepreneurs and businesses. I see more community-wide events celebrating our heritage. I see more financial support for redevelopment. I feel my part in this is to continue to encourage others who share interest in the growth of North Omaha. I’ve built trusting relationships with people along the way. I am intentional about my commitments because those relationships and the missions are important to me. Simply being a genuine supporter, who also gets her hands dirty, is my biggest contribution.
“Moving forward, I will make an honest effort to offer my expertise to help build communication strategies, offer consultations for grassroots marketing and event planning and be an advocate for positive change. I am also not afraid to speak up about important issues.”
If LeFlore’s a Next Gen leader, then Omaha Small Business Network Executive Director Julia Parker is, too. Parker says, “There is certainly a changing of the guard taking place throughout Omaha and North O is not an exception. Over the next several years, I hope even more young professionals will continue to take high level positions in the community. I see several young leaders picking up the mic.” She’s among the new guard between her OSBN work and the Urban Collaborative: A Commitment to Community group she co-founded that she says “focuses on fostering meaningful conversation around how we can improve our neighborhoods and the entire city.”
Parker left her hometown for a time and she says, “Leaving Omaha changed my perspective and really prompted me to come home with a more critical eye and a yearning for change.”
Like Parker, Othello Meadows left here but moved back when he discerned he could make a “meaningful” impact on a community he found beset by despair. That bleak environment is what’s led many young, gifted and black to leave here. Old-line North O leader Thomas Warren says, “I am concerned about the brain drain we experience in Omaha, particularly of our best and brightest young African-Americans students who leave. We need to create an environment that is welcoming to the next generation where they can thrive and strive to reach their full potential.” Two more entrenched leaders, John Ewing and Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers, are also worried about losing North O’s promising talents. “We have to identify, retain and develop our talent pool in Omaha,” Ewing says.
Omaha Schools Board member Yolanda Williams says leadership doors have not always been open to young transplants like herself – she’s originally from Seattle – who lack built-in influence bases.
“I had to go knock on the door and I knocked and knocked, and then I started banging on the door until my mentor John Ewing and I sat down for lunch and I asked, ‘How do younger leaders get in these positions if you all are holding these positions for years? How do I get into a leadership role if nobody is willing to get out of the way?’ They need to step out of the way so we can move up.
“It’s nothing against our elder leadership because I think they do a great job but they need to reach out and find someone to mentor and groom because if not what happens when they leave those positions?”
Ewing acknowledges “There has been and will always be tension between the generations,” but he adds, “I believe this creative tension is a great thing. It keeps the so-called established leaders from becoming complacent and keeps the emerging leaders hungry for more success as a community. I believe most of the relationships are cordial and productive as well as collaborative. I believe everyone can always do more to listen. I believe the young professional networks are a great avenue. I also believe organizations like the Empowerment Network should reach out to emerging leaders to be inclusive.”
Author, motivational speaker and The Truth Hurts director Tunette Powell says, “It’s really amazing when you get those older leaders on board because they can champion you. They’ve allowed me to speak at so many different places.” Powell senses a change afoot among veteran leaders, “They have held down these neighborhoods for so long and I think they’re slowly handing over and allowing young people to have a platform. i see that bridge.” As a young leader, she says, “it’s not like I want to step on their toes. We need this team. It’s not just going to be one leader, it’s not going to be young versus old, it’s going to be old and young coming together.”
In her own case, Yolanda Williams says she simply wouldn’t be denied, “I got tired of waiting. I was diligent, I was purpose-driven. It was very much networking and being places and getting my name out there. I mean, I was here to stay, you were not just going to get rid of me.”
LeFlore agrees more can be done to let new blood in.
“I think some established leaders are ignoring the young professionals who have potential to do more.”
Despite progress, Powell says “there are not enough young people at the table.” She believes inviting their participation is incumbent on stakeholder organizations. She would also like to see Omaha 360 or another entity develop a formal mentoring program or process for older leaders “to show us that staircase.”
Some older leaders do push younger colleagues to enter the fray.
Shawntal Smith, statewide administrator for Community Services for Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska, says Brenda Council, Willie Barney and Ben Gray are some who’ve nudged her.
“I get lots of encouragement from many inside and outside of North Omaha to serve and it is a good feeling to know people trust you to represent them. It is also a great responsibility.”
Everyone has somebody who prods them along. For Tunette Powell, it’s Center for Holistic Development President-CEO Doris Moore. For Williams, it’s treasurer John Ewing. But at the end of the day anyone who wants to lead has to make it happen. Williams, who won her school board seat in a district-wide election, says she overcame certain disadvantages and a minuscule campaign budget through “conviction and passion,” adding, “The reality is if you want to do something you’ve got to put yourself out there.” She built a coalition of parent and educator constituents working as an artist-in-residence and Partnership 4 Kids resource in schools. Before that, Williams says she made herself known by volunteering. “That started my journey.”
Powell broke through volunteering as well. “I wasn’t from here, nobody knew me, so I volunteered and it’s transformed my life,” says the San Antonio native.
“The best experience, in my opinion, is board service,” OSBN’s Julia Parker says. “Young leaders have a unique opportunity to pull back the curtain and see how an organization actually functions or doesn’t. It’s a high level way to cut your teeth in the social sector.”
JoAnna LeFlore, ©omahamagazine.com
Chris Rodgers, director of community and government relations at Creighton University, agrees: “I think small non-profits looking for active, conscientious board members are a good start. Also volunteering for causes you feel deeply about and taking on some things that stretch you are always good.”
The Urban League’s Thomas Warren says, “We have to encourage the next generation of leaders to invest in their own professional growth and take advantage of leadership development opportunities. They should attend workshops and seminars to enhance their skills or go back to school and pursue advanced degrees. Acquiring credentials ensures you are prepared when opportunities present themselves.”
Gaining experience is vital but a fire-in-the-belly is a must, too. Yolanda Williams says she was driven to serve on the school board because “I felt like I could bring a voice, especially for North Omaha, that hadn’t yet been heard at the table as a younger single parent representing the concerns and struggles of a lot of other parents. And I’m a little bit outspoken I say what I need to say unapoligitically.”
Powell says young leaders like her and Williams have the advantage of “not being far removed from the hard times the people we’re trying to reach are experiencing.” She says she and her peers are the children of the war on drugs and its cycle of broken homes. “That’s a piece of what we are, so we get it. We can reach these young people because our generation reflects theirs. I see myself in so many young people.”
Just a few years ago Powell had quit college, was on food stamps and didn’t know what to do with her life. “People pulled me up, they elevated me, and I have to give that back,” she says. In her work with fatherless girls she says “what I find is you’ve got to meet them where they’re at. As younger leaders we’re not afraid to do that, we’re not afraid to take some risks and do some things differently. We’re seeing we need something fresh. Creativity is huge. When you look at young and old leaders, we all have that same passion, we all want the same thing, but how we go about it is completely different.”
Powell says the African-American Young Professionals group begun by fellow rising young star Symone Sanders is a powerful connecting point where “dynamic people doing great things” find a common ground of interests and a forum to network. “We respect each other because we know we’re all going in that direction of change.”
Sanders, who’s worked with the Empowerment Network and is now communications assistant for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chuck Hassebrook, says AAYP is designed to give like-minded young professionals an avenue “to come together and get to know one another and to be introduced in those rooms and at those tables” where policy and program decisions get made.
Aja Anderson believes Next Gen leaders “bridge the gap,” saying, “I think this generation of leaders is going to be influential and do exceptionally well at creating unity and collaboration among community leaders and members across generations. We’re fueled with new ideas, creativity and innovation. Having this group of individuals at the table will certainly make some nervous, others excited and re-ignite passion and ideas in our established group.”
County treasure John Ewing sees the benefit of new approaches. “I believe our emerging leaders have an entrepreneurial spirit that will be helpful in building an African-American business class in Omaha.”
While Williams sees things “opening up,” she says, “I think a lot of potential leaders have left here because that opportunity isn’t as open as it should be.”
Enough are staying to make a difference.
“It’s exciting to see people I’ve known a long time staying committed to where we grew up,” 75 North’s Othello Meadows says. “It’s good to see other people who at least for awhile are going to play their role and do their part.”
Shawntal Smith of Lutheran Family Services is bullish on the Next Gen.
“We are starting to come into our own. We are being appointed to boards and accepting high level positions of influence in our companies, firms, agencies and churches. We are highly educated and we are fighting the brain drain that usually takes place when young, gifted minorities leave this city for more diverse cities with better opportunities. We are remaining loyal to Omaha and we are trying to make it better through our visible efforts in the community.
“People are starting to recognize we are dedicated and our opinions, ideas and leadership matter.”
Old and young leaders feel more blacks are needed in policymaking capacities. Rodgers and Anderson are eager to see more representation in legislative chambers and corporate board rooms.
Warren says, “I do feel there needs to be more opportunities in the private sector for emerging leaders who are indigenous to this community.” He feels corporations should do more to identify and develop homegrown talent who are then more likely to stay.
Shawntal Smith describes an added benefit of locally grown leaders.
“North Omahans respect a young professional who grew up in North Omaha and continues to reside in North Omaha and contribute to making it better. Both my husband and I live, shop, work, volunteer and attend church in North Omaha. We believe strongly in the resiliency of our community and we love being a positive addition to North Omaha and leaders for our sons and others to model.”
With leadership comes scrutiny and criticism.
“You have to be willing to take a risk and nobody succeeds without failure along the way to grow from,” Rodgers says. “If you fail, fail quick and recover. Learn from the mistake and don’t make the same mistakes. You have to be comfortable with the fact that not everybody will like you.”
Tunette Powell isn’t afraid to stumble because like her Next Gen peers she’s too busy getting things done.
“As Maya Angelou said, ‘Nothing will work unless you do,’ I want people to say about me, ‘She gave everything she had.'”
_ _ _
With Native Omaha Days having just concluded, it’s a good time for reflection. Here’s a new story I wrote for the August issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) that sounds out some African-American residents for their take on old-new northeast Omaha challenges, opportunities and approaches to revitalize that area. Hard copies should now be out and about in North O, Benson, Midtown, Downtown and the Old Market.
I am presenting the story in this post in two layouts: the first is exclusively for my blog and the second is how the story appears in The Reader.
Change in North Omaha: It’s been a long time coming for northeast Omaha
African-American residents weigh in on old-new challenges, opportunities, approaches to revitalize the area
©BY LEO ADAM BIGA
NOW APPEARING IN THE READER (WWW.THEREADER.COM)
Quality-of-life metrics assessing the state of African-American northeast Omaha paint a stark picture. Pockets experience some of America’s worst poverty and gun violence. Disparities contradict Omaha’s high best-place-to-live rankings.
Riot-scarred landscapes remain untouched decades later. Urban renewal brought distrust and dislocation. Combined with education, employment, income, home-business ownership gaps, it’s a stuck-in-time place. Stalled economic growth and limited opportunity drive many away. Others stay out of conviction or concession.
While North Omaha is the focus of unprecedented education initiatives and redevelopment efforts driven by major public-private coalitions, key markers show little’s changed where people’s lives are concerned.
With ex-pats back for the biennial Native Omaha Days, there’s much nostalgia and lament. Seven community-engaged residents trying to remedy the challenges recently shared their take on the situation.
After being away, Omaha native Michelle Troxclair, 46, Nebraska Writers Collective deputy director, says upon returning she noted “North Omaha and the people who live there were stagnate in many ways.”
“They became comfortable with nothingness. Our leadership appeared, for the most part, to be spinning their wheels and more concerned with the scraps they were getting than a place at the table. Then they began fighting for those scraps amongst themselves. I thought I could make a difference, and I did, but in a very different community. Yeah, we got a Walmart and Aldi’s. North (High) is getting a new stadium. They tore down the Hilltop projects. I see some new housing. Again–scraps.”
When Angel Martin, 31, moved to Omaha from Milwaukee she saw abandoned, boarded-up properties here as seeds of potential. Now she views them as emblems of lost opportunity.
“If people see that every day you’re unfortunately going to believe it’s the norm,” says Martin, who directs the Katherine Fletcher Center at Girls Inc. “We should have took on that mindset of taking back our community. It starts with the homes. We should have pooled our resources together to buy these houses.”
Preston Love Jr., 73, hails from a North O legacy family led by his late father, musician Preston Love Sr. He left for a while–to work for IBM and to manage political campaigns. He says when he came back home, “my community was in shambles. I got motivated to get involved because of what I found.” He’s since been on a “soap box” about this once great community being brought down by “residual negatives.”
“When I was growing up, North Omaha was rich in culture, rich in commerce, rich in religion and church. We had our own everything. We had each other. We had neighborhoods. We had love for your neighbors and spankings if you didn’t act right. We had all that.”
Discrimination and racism still ruled, however.
“We didn’t have the ability to go places, we didn’t have the ability to go downtown to see a movie, we couldn’t swim at Peony Park, we couldn’t go inside Joe Tess. We didn’t have this, we didn’t have that, and some of it was a little deeper than some carp.”
Love believes blacks “made a catastrophic mistake” choosing integration over desegregation.
“If you integrate you lose half the things you did have because you begin to water down your culture. When you integrate Walmart into this culture, mom and pops close. We should have affirmed all the things we had and fought for desegregation to get what we didn’t have.”
Sundiata Menelik, 57, has returned after decades as a developer and real estate magnate in Minnesota. He recalls as a kid the flourishing North 24th Street business district: “It was alive.” By the time he went away, however, it died. Job prospects for blacks dried up.
“Everybody from my generation was trying to escape this the way you escaped apartheid South Africa or any place that is hell on Earth. For us, that’s what it was.”
In Menelik’s opinion, “nothing’s happened” to reverse the black brain drain and narrow opportunities. He deems this stalemated community “backwards” compared to more progressive sister communities.
“This is a reservation right here and the same ills on the reservation are here, it’s just not in your face. A lot of this is institutional.”
Menelik also says North O is a separate world from the majority of the world. Some blacks can freely step in and out of both worlds. Others can’t.
“When you can’t escape, there’s nothing, What you see is bleak.”
“People feel oppressed,” Martin says. I think poverty is what comes from being oppressed. If you don’t have opportunities to get good paying jobs, then it’s difficult to rise above.”
Ean Garrett, 29, came up in North O’s poverty zone.
“Three to four generations growing up in poverty have come to believe poverty is their place in life as opposed to understanding they should be able to work hard and gain the fruits of this system,” Garrett says.
Menelik says inclusion is an illusion here for many.
“We’re the best place for startups, the best place to raise a family, but it don’t have nothing to do with black people. Nebraska’s as segregated and racist as anywhere in the United States.”
He asserts blacks here are “not looked at as full citizens.”
Garrett says it’s not just blacks getting the shaft in North O.
‘There’s still a lot of white people living here and they’re being given the short end of the stick as well.”
“What we have left is an impoverished community,” Love says. “That doesn’t mean everybody in it. When you have serious poverty like it is here you have a (drug-gang) subculture that’s figured out there’s no future in the (mainstream) community. So they created their own community and it’s thriving. Money’s flowing, big time. Everything’s working just fine. They may have to die but that’s OK because they’re not expected to live and all that logic. That subculture is created by poverty and breeds total disconnect from lawfulness.”
Menelik has lost loved ones to gun violence, He’s doing prevention work as local Mad Dads chapter president. He is also on the board of the Bryant Center Association that serves at-risk young people.
He sees an urgent need to intervene in the hopelessness.
“The game is over, man. The kids, they’re hollering out silently. If it was a movie you’d see a bunch of black hands reaching up and saying, ‘Where are you and when are you coming?’
“We’re taking it upon ourselves to do for ourselves and to do it right now. It’s crucial.”
“The only major solution is economic inclusion, economic health for this community,” Love says. “If you lay on the table jobs and alternatives a lot more will take it than people realize. Do we need better education? Yes, we’ve got educational gaps that need filling. We’ve got a high drop-out rate that needs improving. We need to reduce STDs. All of those are more factors than potential solutions.”
He says North O should demand more autonomy and accountability from the nonprofit social sector set up to address its myriad needs.
“We have a lot of people pimping the community. They don’t live in the community, they work in the community receiving what benefits there are coming into a poverty-infected area and then they escape out of it, taking the benefits of the drops, the crumbs.”
Menelik says after ignoring North O the power elites “understand they’ve got to do something because we’re right on the doorstep of North Downtown development. They want to come off [as] multicultural.” Whatever happens, he says “we want to see results, we want performance-based, sustainable, social-economic development.”
Garrett says, “You have an entire middle class that lives outside the North Omaha community that benefit by way of employment from programs addressing the issues in North Omaha. So if the issues in North Omaha go away, then a lot of those jobs go away as well. Our destiny is intertwined with the destiny of those that have the resources. What happens if the philanthropic dollars dry up?
“The philanthropic industry here in Nebraska is not sustainable–throwing money into a community and 10, 15, 20 years later not seeing any outcomes. Let’s takes those funds and use them towards outcome-based investments and address these issues from a private sector approach. That is the type of mindset and vigor we need.”
Garrett’s Infinite 8 Institute poses social impact models. He says too often nonprofits don’t produce the social good their grant applications promise and that he favors outcome-based models.
“If you give them the money up front and you don’t make them work for it, there’s no incentive to get the outcome.”
Garrett’s partner Aledia Kartchner, 36, says they find innovative ways to handle “the huge lack in North Omaha.” One is via non-cognitive life skills and work force development classes they teach at Bryant Center. However, programming costs money and resources are scarce.
“If you’re only giving us enough funds to keep the lights on then we can’t bring resources and people in to prepare these young people,” Garrett says. “We have to be able to close the deal. That means people at the top being willing to open up the doors of opportunity in a way that’s sincere and not just talk.”
Kartchner says they’re seeking investments “in human capital.”
Garrett says North O’s human resources get overlooked.
“These kids have been through so many traumatic experiences they are better prepared than many who live in the outer community. As an employer I don’t want somebody who hasn’t dealt with a tough problem before. These kids are having to solve tough problems on a daily basis. Those skills are transferrable in this new knowledge-based economy, where soft skills–the ability to adapt and to be resilient–are things employers applaud.
“If you just look at it at face value, you see thugs with impoverished, destitute, sad stories. But if you turn that around you see potential human capital that can really add value.”
He says the skills he teaches “are all the intangibles that made the difference between myself and those peers who maybe fell victim to unfortunate circumstances.”
“We’re working with kids from early childhood through 12th grade. Local elders volunteer, so it’s very intergenerational. We have a pipeline all within that one structure to measure long-term outcomes.”
He says another key thing taught is “mindfulness meditation to ensure kids focus on peace of mind when they go back to their chaotic environment and the negative energy around them–you can’t control what’s happening around you but you can control how you react.”
Infinite 8 seeks to raise $1.5 million for a social impact bond for violence prevention.
“As an organization one of the things we focus on is creating social impact financing,” says Garrett, who sees it as a litmus test for how serious Omaha is in finding fresh ways to tackle persistent issues.
“Omaha has so much wealth and prosperity but then you wonder why is it not circulating into northeast Omaha. There are people in the city who singlehandedly could eradicate poverty here. It’s a question of whether or not the powers that be actually want that to happen. If you’re trying to do something like turn around the most deadly place to be black in America and integrate that with one of America’s most highly acclaimed places, then I think you have to look at what resources are necessary in order to accomplish that.”
The public sector also has a role to play.
“If we’re not electing elected officials willing to fight those battles for equal distribution of tax revenues and other funding streams, we lose. We’ve paralyzed most of our elected officials because of where they’re financed to get elected, so they’re not willing to stand up and try to act like Ernie,” Love says, referring to firebrand Neb. state senator Ernie Chambers. “They’re nice people but they’re not independent. When it comes time to fight for the community, we ain’t got nobody there.
“The net effect is we’ve become a community on the receiving end and almost on the beg. So you’ve got a community that has to sit down. There’s only a few of us that stand up. That’s a problem. The community doesn’t have enough leverage to fight these battles.”
Garrett agrees. “It’s time for North Omaha to become independent. For North Omaha to be able to do for people in North Omaha we need our own resources. If you want to see us do better, than empower us but don’t beholden us. We have to recognize what’s in our own community and that we have what it takes. We do believe there are people willing to do the right thing and we want to work with them.”
Kevin Lytle Jr. with the Leadership Institute for Urban Education in Omaha, says, “I believe our biggest resource in North Omaha is the people who live and struggle there. We have not found an effective way to develop, foster and encourage true community and camaraderie amongst African-Americans in Omaha.”
Kevin Lytle Jr.
Menelik says “It’s like we’re waiting for somebody to come in out of the sky to save us, when sometimes you’ve got to go within yourself.”
Troxclair says “In the arts community many are coming together and their voices are starting to be heard. In every other major city’s revitalization effort, there is a concentration on arts investment. Omaha did not do that. We are connecting with each other and artist-allies who know we need to work together. Omaha’s leadership is still focused on housing and jobs. We get that, but every artist has created his-her own job and is an entrepreneur. White folks get it. How many people do the Holland, Joslyn, Bemis, Kaneko, Omaha Community Playhouse, Rose employ? We let the John Beasley Theatre go to waste. We let our stagnate leadership dictate the artist landscape and they have ignored our young people completely.”
Meanwhile, Angel Martin has noted a “halt” in the movement by young African Americans to get involved.
“A lot of young people (including herself) ran for the school board or the city council. There were a lot of new faces and voices with a lot to say. That was a prime time to tap into that energy. A lot of those people have since said, ‘I’m out of here,” and that energy’s kind of gone I sense. That’s a concern. Where are we going next?
“Some people are choosing to move on to where things are thriving more and it’s more progressive.”
Everyone concedes North O loses many of its best and brightest.
Martin doesn’t begrudge the defectors.
“I can definitely see why people do not choose to stay here. Some of those who do choose to stay are looking for ways out. Some elders have told me, ‘You might want to look to move on.'”
She’s seriously considered it.
“We don’t have affirmative action. A lot of employers don’t look for faces that look like mine.”
Martin expresses another concern many share.
“I think there’s a lot of outsiders dictating which direction North Omaha should go. There’s a lot stirring. My concern is who’s doing the stirring and what are they mixing up. Was everybody invited to sit at this table? A lot of deals have been made relating to North Omaha’s future. My only hope is my great aunt in North Omaha was kept in mind when they talked about redevelopment. I hope as a people we understand it’s our right to question, to ask for details.”
“We have to stand up together and fight. We’ve gotta put your foot down and say we’re not taking this lack of economic inclusion anymore and be willing to take the heat,” Love says.
Love recently put himself on the line by advocating minority contractors get a share of the $2.3 billion in waste water and sewer separation construction happening. He pressed the mayor and others hard on it. He expected the corporate backlash he got but not the flak from his own community.
“They don’t want you messing with ‘Mr. Charlie.'”
Too, often, black advocates are left standing alone.
Garrett feels the millennial generation offers new hope.
“They’re a lot more informed. Millinials, regardless of color or shade, believe in social good and they’ll put their money behind products and services that have a positive impact on the community and the environment. I believe there needs to be more courage from the outer community to stand up and do what really needs to be done and to do it in a way that sits well with the indigenous people in North Omaha.”
He says Infinite 8 has piloted programs in Kansas City, Mo. and other cities but runs into “a barrier to entry” here he attributes to decision-makers “not being open to new paradigms, ideas, best practices.” He’s not waiting for approval. Bryant Center kids are introduced to Bitcoin, drone technology, green sustainability, 3D printing and mobile Web programming. “We’re really focusing on what sectors have the most promising outlooks. We’re preparing young people with these skills so when they go into the workforce they actually have a leg up.”
“Rote methods are outdated and we all know the world of technology has changed the landscape. Young people don’t want to be bothered with minutia. Applicability, immediacy are what they’re looking for. The arts must be used to stimulate interest and academic motivation.”
Lytle says, “A huge factor not being deeply addressed is how our children are being taught and who is teaching our children.” He wonders “how effective are the educational lessons being transmitted in relation to the culture African-American students” interact with.
Garrett and Co. decry how elements of this civil society demonize and dismiss a segment of the city they have no direct experience with.
“Is it civil to deny opportunity to your own citizens? Are we uncivil because we have violence going on in our community? Is a person who sits back and watches the violence and does nothing more civil?”
Aledia Kartchner echoes others in saying she’s tired of her people being depicted as “just savages killing each other – there’s many positive things going on but they don’t focus on that.”
North O’s good people, neighborhoods, anchors, programs and events get obscured by the actions of a few knuckleheads.
Martin says, “It’s an unfair perception that’s very disheartening. If you never highlight the positive things going on you’ll never know. If you’re not in the area, you won’t know. When we take back our community as a people we’ll take back those perceptions.”
Troxclair takes exception to media depictions of “us as nincompoops holding candlelight vigils waiting on Jesus.” She says, “When a murder occurs, a murder occurs. Report that a murder occurred. Report who the suspects according to the facts. Do we really need to know the criminal record of the entire family?”
Where controlling the message is concerned, Melenik says North O could benefit from more black-owned media outlets and Martin suggests more blacks are needed in newsrooms.
Lytle, 32, repeats a mantra many sound–leaders are doing what they can with what they have. But he says, “We are not getting the job done. The role of leadership is to warn a people of potential dangers and opportunities, educate a people on how to navigate through that and create avenues in which a people can effectively execute and implement the steps that will best serve them.”
Yet, he adds, “I am hopeful for the future of blacks in Omaha and for the area of North Omaha because I believe the up and coming leadership is learning from the choices and paths laid by current symbolic individuals and will dedicate their efforts towards going against the grain and truly establishing community and ownership.”
Martin feels the same. “We have a long way to go but I’m hopeful because I do think our people get it and we have a genuine love for each other and for North Omaha. I’m just hoping it’s not a day late and a dollar short.” She says even Native Omaha Days might be a catalyst for “capitalizing on connections, sharing ideas, holding roundtables, digging in and getting things moving. It takes all us all working together–those currently living here and those who used to live here.”
Love says The Days are not the pure fun they once were due to the specter of violence. The festival’s still a good time, “but when the dust settles we are still left with the new pure–poverty.”
Sundiata Menelik says all the community gatherings and dialogues are no substitute for “bootstrapping” grassroots action.
Despite much to be pessimistic about, Ean Garrett says, “We’re optimistic. We know there are people who are tired of the situation as it stands. I think there’s good people out there who do want to change some things and to do so in ways that empower people in the community to do it themselves.”
Visit http://www.infinite8institute.com/byinfinite8institute, http://www.bryantcenteromaha.org/ and nativeomahaclub.org.
NorthStar Foundation in Omaha is one of many organizations attempting to positively impact inner city youth there. Its boys-centric and experential approach sets it apart from many other after school and summer camp programs. Program director Jannette Taylor has a long track record serving her community. After some hard things happened at her previous organization, Impact One, she left Omaha before being recruited back to join the NorthStar mission by NorthStar founder and director, Scott Hazelrigg. Taylor and Hazelrigg lead a staff dedicated to making a difference in the lives of young people. NorthStar believes in the potential of these youth and doesn’t let real or perceived obstacles get in the way of their hopes and dreams. Taylor likes that the organization gives them the resources, experiences, and inspirational opportunities they need to cultvate visions for their lives and the tools to pursue those visions. This is a piece I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about NorthStar and why Taylor has found a home there to do the community and youth-based work she loves.
NorthStar encourages inner city kids to fly high
Boys-only after-school and summer camp put members through their paces
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
NorthStar Foundation nurtures the dreams of young inner city males.
The area’s lone boys-only after school program and summer camp at 4242 North 49th Avenue doen’t put limits on students regardless of socio-economic, family or environmental circumstances. It provides fifth to ninth graders academic and exploratory experiences designed to transition them to high school.
It helps when kids aspire to success and mentors reinforce their aspirations. For director of programming Jannette Taylor that anything’s possible attitude is a welcome change from the despair she encountered as founder-director of Impact One, which among other things does gang intervention work.
“Working with the young people there I knew they had potential but they had to believe it. They’d had so many people telling them they couldn’t do something they started to believe that instead of believing in themselves, and that was a challenge,” she recalls.
After a stint with Weed & Seed under Mayor Mike Fahey, the then-Creighton University law student launched Impact
One as her impassioned response to quell rampant gun violence.
“I was really ambitious and naive. I believed I could do anything.”
In five-years she lost several clients as well as two of her own relatives to violence. Those tragedies brought home the toxic, consequences of limited expectations, negative perceptions and devalued lives. Emotionally wasted, she left, not expecting to return anytime soon.
“You would have a kid fill out an individual development plan and it would be so short-term because they didn’t think into the future what they could do. You’d be working with a kid one day and they’d be dead the next.”
She reached her breaking point.
“It’s hard to lose family members. It’s hard to lose kids you work with and love. I put all this time, energy and effort into trying to help people onto the right path. It was pretty much game over for me. I was pretty much done. I had given all I could give and I didn’t have anything else to give.”
Then NorthStar founder-director Scott Hazelrigg, who’d collaborated with Taylor and used her as a consultant, asked her to join NorthStar. She accepted. Now she’s refocused on helping her community again. Trusting Hazelrigg’s vision helped her decide to return.
“I just believe in what he’s doing – I always have. I think that’s why I jumped on board.”
He saw her as the right fit.
“We recruited Jannette back to Omaha,” he says, “because she really gets it. She cares passionately about these kids and not only wants to see them succeed but passionately believes they will succeed. We just have to give them the structure and the opportunity to do so.”
He says she helped build the NorthStar “climate and culture” that provides many avenues to discover passions and to build skills for future success. The center’s interior features learning labs, homework areas, a rock climbing wall and a basketball court. The exterior includes a sports field and garden. The comprehensive, experiential-based offerings range from art immersion to healthy lifestyles to employment readiness to chess, robotics, computer coding, culinary arts, gardening and lacrosse.
STEM education is stressed.
Youth also make college tours, visit historic cites, attend cultural events, go on wilderness treks and test themselves on the adjacent Outward Bound ropes course.
“Parents are really excited their kids here are able to find what their strengths and talents are,” Taylor says. “We do have research on all of our programs. Everything’s based off of a best practice model.”
At NorthStar every kid’s encouraged to try new things. She says unlike the punitive measures some schools use to deny behaviorally-challenged students participation in things like robotics, NorthStar uses incentives and old-school remedies to motivate kids.
Members are encouraged to seize and own their future rather than have it dictated to them.
“When I talk about our boys, I say these are our new leaders. That’s how I see them. One of the worst things we do is we put limits on kids. At NorthStar we do things and get them to critically think and that’s good because they’re young, they have potential and they believe it. I know they believe in themselves because I see it and hear it every day. In order for that to grow we have to have people that will believe in them and push them forward.
“I want this to be a brotherhood of us believing in the kids and them believing they can do anything.”
Empowering kids “to think differently about their future and getting them to realize, Hey, we can make opportunities for ourselves, helps prepare them to make smarter choices,” she says.
Molding kids at an impressionable age helps.
“What I love about NorthStar is that the kids are young, they haven’t been jilted by life, they haven’t had people beat them down and tell them you can’t do this. We have them playing lacrosse for God’s sake. They believe they have this potential to go and do great things. When kids have that faith and that belief, you can’t kill that. It really makes me happy to see a kid always in trouble in school or getting kicked out of other programs come and be successful here because we’re not telling him what he can’t do, we’re telling him what he can do.”
She says NorthStar rejects “assumptions kids coming out of North Omaha won’t amount to anything, especially African-American boys.”
“We don’t care what neighborhood you come from or what you’ve been through. We all have a story. What’s more important is where do you think you can go and how can I help you get there. We remove barriers for our kids. It’s why we have seventh graders writing essays for college scholarships.”
With high expectations comes accountability.
“A big component of NorthStar is trying to get kids to stay on course, stay on grade level. The curriculum is based off of Neb. state standards. We have really clear communication with parents, teachers and counselors.”
Hazelrigg says getting kids grade-ready before their sophomore year is critical as that’s when a disproportionate number of African-American students drop out after falling far behind.
He and Taylor say the academically rigorous summer camp is meant to reduce summer learning loss. Then, as during the school year, kids are kept engaged by programming of NorthStar’s own design or of partners’ design.
“Anything we can build up in these kids as far as character and leadership, we do.,” she says “If it’s something that fits with our core areas that will enrich the kids then well do it.”
Thus, NorthStar invites partner organizations in or brings kids out to partners to experience everything from live theater to ballgames.
Hazelrigg says compared to many after school and summer programs “we have more structure,” adding, “When kids walk in the door it’s not three hours of playing basketball – there’s a sequence of things they’re going to do. It’s how we expose them to a broad band of things.”
Taylor says a sure sign the center’s a hit is that despite being only a year-old it’s added feeder schools due to demand by students and parents. “They are our biggest advocates.” She says kids who come there “take ownership over this space and they don’t want to leave.” She notes some school staff want their kids there bad enough that they pay students’ yearly dues.
The center’s a welcome addition to a neighborhood whose troubled Park Crest apartment complex was known as New Jack City for its drug-gang-gun activity. That blighted omplex was razed to make room for NorthStar. Hazelrigg says, “We’re intentionally in the neighborhood as essentially the neighborhood school. We want this to be the safe space for kids living in this area.”
Taylor says the Omaha Police Department’s North Precinct reports reduced crime in the area, which has seen a community garden flourish, a Walmart open and a Heartland Family Services building renovation.
“It just changes the entire community when you have people investing in the communitys.”
For Taylor, the Impact One scars remain, though she says, “There were some good things that happened with that” job,
“Everything you go through is either a blessing or a lesson.”
Now it’s a time for healing and hope.
_ _ _
The Empowerment Network in Omaha is a catalytic force for positive change in North Omaha not seen before in terms of the scale and scope of its vision and reach. This is a a two-part Reader cover story series I did several years ago about the Network.. The long version shared here was not published in the paper. The shorter version that was published is also available on my blog if you care to see it.
Part I: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking
©by Leo Adam Biga
Mark it down. 2007 may be when northeast Omaha’s depressed African-American community reached its limit. A demographic bound by race, history, circumstance and geography seemingly exhaled a collective sigh of exasperation to exclaim, Enough already. Longstanding discontent over inequities in income, housing, education, economic development and opportunity solidified into resolve by a people to take matters into their own hands.
Going on four years ago, a coalition of local blacks reached consensus to intentionally rebuild the community from within. As catalyst for this call to action, they formed the African-American Empowerment Network. The nonprofit community leadership organization uses advocacy, mobilization, engagement, collaboration and coordination as tools for enacting change.
The effort is inspired by a national movement of black empowerment laid-out by author and television/radio talk show host Tavis Smiley in his best selling 2006 book, The Covenant with Black America,. Borrowing from Smiley and other sources, Omaha’s Empowerment Network targeted 13 strategic covenant areas for improvement.
The disparities dogging segments of Omaha’s black community are long in the making. Efforts by the Network and partners to address these woes are the latest attempted remedies. In the 1940s and ‘50‘s the De Porres Club pressed the cause for civil rights. In the ‘60s the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties or 4CL, took up the banner. Well into the ‘70s federally funded programs and agencies spurred by the Great Society and its War on Poverty operated here. At various times the Urban League of Nebraska and the Omaha Chapter of the NAACP have led on social justice and community betterment issues. Other well-meaning efforts and groups have sprung up.
When the last in a series of major civil disturbances in the late ‘60s badly damaged the old North 24th St. business-entertainment hub, many business owners abandoned the area for good. Relatively few new businesses have opened since.
Northeast Omaha’s chronic gun violence has contributed to the perception of an unsafe environment in which to do business or raise families, exacerbating deeply entrenched negative attitudes about the area. While the rest of the city has thrived, North O has lagged behind. Stagnation has further isolated it and inhibited new development there.
This once self-sufficient area is regarded as a mission district dependent on government assistance, social services and philanthropy. Even as African-Americans try empowering themselves, limited capital, combined with enormous needs gone unmet or underserved, makes outside investment necessary. The difference this time is that the black community is taking the lead, in collaboration with the larger community, to transform northeast Omaha. Blacks are doing much of the visioning, crafting and implementing of plans. Rather than change imposed from without, it’s organically generated from within, a model not seen before here.
Innovations By Design president and chief consultant Tawanna Black, co-chair of the Network’s advocacy and justice strategy, said where some cities improved conditions for African-Americans via a black political or corporate base, Omaha did not. “In the absence of African-Americans in powerful political or economic positions to drive this,’ she said, “small changes have occurred but nothing major. The network really flips that theory on its head and says, Why are we waiting for the power to be given, let’s own the power that’s within. It’s an empowerment thing. It means more than just a name on a piece of paper. It’s really what it’s all about — empowering people to take control of themselves. A process committed to that is completely new in this community.”
For some, it’s a manifesto for long overdue self-determination.
“There’s been a lot of psychological damage done to us as a people. Historically we just allow things to happen to us and what we have to do is starting taking control of our own destiny and that means also having skin in the game,” said Omaha City Councilman and Network violence intervention-prevention chair Ben Gray.
Empower Omaha drafted a rising-tide-lifts-all-ships community covenant identifying quality of life indicators needing attention. Copies of the covenant went to north side businesses and churches. It can be glimpsed inside beauty and barber shops, stores, offices. Pastors distribute it to congregations, sometimes preaching on it.
Through monthly community meetings, periodic summits and activities like prayer walks, neighborhood cleanups, block parties and surveys the Network interfaces with residents, inviting them to share concerns and ideas. The organization works closely with neighborhood associations in forming a North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance.
“We keep the community engaged, we listen to the community, we write down what they say. I think that’s how we get the buy-in from the community,” said director of operations Vicki Quaites-Ferris. “Most things implemented actually come as a result of listening to the community. That’s why it’s so important to keep the community engaged because at some point the community may say, We’ve got to turn it around and now focus on this.”
Highlander Neighborhood Association president Kristina Carter said the Network’s “an integral part” of neighborhood cleanups. “There are a lot of (neighborhood) associations but alone they don’t have the capacity to have an impact and I think that’s what this Alliance is poised to do. It gives the area a single voice, it puts some teeth to it.
Network strategies encompass neighborhoods, housing, employment, education, family, faith, crime, et cetera. The strategies come from community leaders, residents and best practices in other cities. Not a direct service provider, the Network partners with others to support or facilitate programs and to link efforts in order to build synergy and capacity.
The backdrop for all this empowerment is profound want. The Network was already in place before a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series revealed black Omaha poverty rates as among the nation’s worst. What was already known is that many youths underachieve in school. Only half graduate. On top of that is an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, a preponderance of single parent homes and little economic development or opportunity.
Newly detailed were the area’s high joblessness rates and low household income levels. Northeast Omaha also suffers from a distressed infrastructure, Vacant lots, condemned structures and unkempt rental properties abound. There’s a paucity of black-owned businesses. The area’s endured a net population loss. Freeway construction disrupted, some say severed, a tight community. As restrictive housing practices waned, upwardly mobile blacks moved west. Others left the state for better prospects and larger, more progressive African-American communities elsewhere.
Network leaders say the series shone a light on conditions heretofore ignored. The result? Broad-based engagement from initiatives like the Chamber’s North Omaha Development Project and the privately funded Building Bright Futures. Many feel the city needs to make an It-stops-here pledge. “Omaha has yet to really stand up the way we do to other things and say we will not accept having the highest black poverty again,” said Black. “We haven’t done that. We’ve done some projects, we’ve announced some nice things, but we have not said we will not be here again.” Rev. Jeremiah McGhee doubts the larger community yet appreciates a revitalized north Omaha is good for all of Omaha, saying, “I don’t think they’re quite getting it.”
Combatting gun violence is one issue Omaha’s managed a united front on. The Network has endorsements from Mayor Jim Suttle, Omaha Police Chief Alex Hayes and some 100 public-private partners for the Omaha 360 anti-violence coalition. Asking hard questions about the violence problem spurred the development of the Empowerment Network in the first place. Why is this happening when Omaha as a whole prospers and some black communities thrive by comparison? Connecting the dots, it became clear the despair is rooted in certain realities: an entrenched gang and drug culture; fractured family units; a lack of positive role models for young people; barriers to educational, job, home ownership and business opportunities; a sense that nobody cares.
Douglas County Treasurer and Network chair John Ewing knows it from his former career as an Omaha cop and the Empowerment prayer walks and community meetings he joins. He said residents openly “complain about the violence, the lack of economic opportunities, the fact they feel abandoned, neglected, overlooked, forgotten. All this leads to a sense of hopelessness. That’s when people become demoralized, when they feel like they don’t matter to anybody else, when they see all the nice things Omaha’s doing but don’t feel they can participate in those things.”
Illegal gun and drug activity, violence, high drop-out and jobless rates, unskilled workers making minimum wages with no real future are all symptomatic of systemic, cyclical problems having gone unchecked or received piecemeal attention.
Making matters worse, northeast Omaha’s lost some 11,000 households over time. A diminished tax, voter, consumer base has deluded what little clout it had to hold the public and private sectors accountable for the economic and social ills.
“There’s been a lot of benign neglect thats gone on in north Omaha by the majority community and I don’t hesitate in saying that because it’s a fact,” said Gray. “But what we’ve got to do now is rather than point fingers and place blame put together the necessary mechanism to fix it. We’ve got so much work to do and we’ve got so many areas that we’re operating in.”
“Oh, mercy,” Black said in response to the task. One way or another, she said, “economics feed into all this. If you have money you have health insurance and you get screened, if you have money you can afford education to get a better job. It all ties back to that, and so we’re aiming to see measurable changes. Getting unemployment rates down and household income up to what it is in the rest of the city. Moving more folks off public assistance and public housing into being able to sustain their own families and afford market rate housing. Getting more people out of GED classrooms into college classrooms. Getting people into workforce development programs.”
She acknowledges the goals describe “a long-term process.”
Davis Companies CEO Dick Davis spearheads the economic covenant and the recently formed Economic Strategy Taskforce, an offshoot whose targeted outcomes speak to economic viability. He said the taskforce’s and covenant’s ambitious goals include preparing every African-American for a sustainable living wage job; moving persons from unemployment or underemployment to full employment and from jobs to careers; encouraging entrepreneurship by increasing access to credit and capital.
The Network endorses a from-birth-to-career strategy similar to Bright Futures.
Davis has been doing his part for years, from starting-up black businesses to providing college scholarships to black students. Entities like the African-American Academic Achievement Council, 100 Black Men, 100 Black Women, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, the Urban League of Nebraska, along with black churches, have done their part, too. Pockets of progress have appeared in some new home construction, a few business parks, a refurbished section of North 24th St. and new quarters for anchors Salem Baptist Church, the Urban League and Charles Drew Health Center. But nothing of real scale has been attempted.
Overall, northeast Omaha appears stuck in the same quagmire of decline and disenfranchisement that befell it in the late 1960s, A recent Pew Partnership for Civic Change report found that of 33,000 metro businesses, only 200 are black-owned — most single owner-operator endeavors.
It was in this bleak context the Network formed. Family Housing Advisory Services director Teresa Hunter, co-chair of the Network’s housing development covenant, said underpinning the effort was the shared “thought that we need to make a change, we need to do something.” From the start, she said, it’s been about avoiding duplication and instead building capacity for existing programs and services and filling gaps.
“We work within the framework of what’s already going on, trying to make it cooperative. We identify issues and who’s already addressing them and what’s missing. Why are people still falling through the cracks — what else do we need to do?” No one entity, she said, holds the whole answer. “We take who does this well and who does that well and we put them all together.”
Where most Network players are native Omahans like Hunter, the driving force is a transplant, Willie Barney, who until recently made his living as a strategic consultant. The Iowa native worked in media marketing for Lee Enterprises and moved here for an Omaha World-Herald post. He worked on Salem Baptist Church’s administrative team when he galvanized efforts to create the Network. He served as the Network’s unpaid president and facilitator, then as a consultant, and is now its second paid staff member.
What began as a loose association testing the waters is now an established, structured player in broad, multi-faceted initiatives that have gotten buy-ins from public and private stakeholders both within and outside the African-American community.
“In evolving over time we’ve stayed true to our mission,” said Barney. “We said we want to be positive and pro-active and to build partnerships…with the entire city. Those are some core values we have. Our goal is to bring individuals and organizations together to help facilitate positive, measurable change…It has to be bottom-up and top-down for it to be anywhere close to being successful — individuals, families, leaders at all levels working together collaboratively.
“We were asked early on, How are you going to look at jobs, violence, housing, education all at the same time? And our answer is, How can we not when only 50 percent of our kids graduate high school, certain census tracts have 30 to 50 percent unemployment and 38 percent home ownership and a majority of homicides occur in the same concentrated area. If anybody thinks you can only focus on one of those areas and get anything done…” he said incredulously. “It has to be comprehensive. There’s not one organization or segment that’s going to solve what we’re in right now.”
Recently, however, the Network’s consolidated things. Barney said, “The more we went forward we realized we would spread ourselves too thin trying to have initiatives and groups in every one of the 13 covenant areas, so we really started focusing on seven core areas: faith and community engagement; education and youth development; violence intervention and prevention; housing and neighborhood development; jobs, jobs training and business development; health and healthy families; arts, culture and media.”
Evidence of the Network’s wide reach was seen during its annual Harmony Week (May 21-29), when dozens of organizations and thousands of people across the Metro participated in expressions of unity and community engagement.
Black said turf wars “have been removed by a higher agenda. Everyone at the table realizes this agenda can’t happen through just one of the organizations or churches, it can’t happen with folks who want just one neighborhood or one part of the community or one business discipline. And yet everyone realizes there are opportunities for each of our organizations to play a significant role in this. It really takes all of us being at the table, title-less, organization-less, to make this happen. That’s huge.”
Barney officed the first two-plus years wherever he and his laptop were, although the Network’s regularly convened at three main sites: the Family Housing Advisory Services building.; North High School; and the former In Play, now Tip Top Ballroom. In 2009 the organization opened an office in the historic Jewell Building, right in the heart of North O, across from the Omaha Star.
After a low key start that shunned media attention the Network’s boosted its presence via an expanded web site, a Facebook page and Revive! Omaha Magazine, which Barney’s SMB Enterprises LLC publishes. A TV spot features Network leaders reciting, like a creed, the Empowerment credo:
“We can change Omaha. It’s time to rebuild the village. Family by family, block by block, school by school, church by church, business by business. Each person doing their part. Working together, let’s transform Omaha. Do your part. Live the covenant…”
After a slow start, an Adopt-a-Block initiative for pastors to lead their houses of worship in nurturing neighborhoods has taken off, with some 70-plus pastors attending training compared to 15 last year.
Barney said in line with moving from “a grassroots movement into a formal organization,” the Network hired its first full-time staffer in Quaites-Ferris. The former deputy assistant under former Mayor Mike Fahey said, “My role is to make sure all operations and covenants are remaining as active as can be.” She said some covenants are more active and self-sufficient then others.” In terms of collaboration, she said, “it’s not always about partners coming to us but sometimes it’s about us going to them and seeing how can we partner together.”
Three-and-a-half years in now, the Network has a track record.
Said Barney, “There’s a lot of powerful signals. I think people are beginning to see there’s more strength and we can get more done if we just simply sit down and talk. We may not agree on everything but we can talk through those differences and keep a common goal in mind of trying to help our kids and employ parents in sustainable jobs. That’s really what we’re all trying to do. We may have different ways of getting there but if we can sit down and talk we’ll have a better chance.”
He said whatever course the Network adopts, it relies on others to carry it out.
“At the end of the day it’s ENCAP, the Urban League, Omaha Economic Development Corporation that are doing the work. But I think because we’re here we’ve helped facilitate potentially more partnerships than would have happened before.”
Malcolm X Memorial Foundation president Sharif Liwaru said he feels the Network’s facilitator rather than direct service provider role “is still hard for people to grasp.” Barney acknowledges as much. While Liwaru and community activist Leo Louis feel the Network effectively engages established organizations and leaders, they advocate more outreach be done to new, more loosely organized groups as well as to youths.
“We’re doing more to really make sure it is an inclusive process,” said Barney. “If they don’t come, we’ll go to them, and we’re not perfect, we make mistakes, but we keep pushing forward.”
The Network doesn’t pretend to work with every organization. It puts time and money where it can make the most difference. Barney said many early initiatives were pilots that explored what works and what doesn’t. “Now,” he said, “we have a better feel for what truly makes a difference and for what organizations are committed and actually have the resources and infrastructure to implement programs.”
He can list many Network accomplishments, but the work being done with young people is closest to his heart.
Mid-2008 the Network noted workforce development gaps for at-risk young persons and launched a life skills and jobs program. No one wanted a summer like 2007, when there were 31 reported shootings in 31 days during one stretch. Program participants included kids failing in school and drop outs , ex and active gang members among their ranks. Barney and Ben Gray contacted employers to secure 150 paid internships. The program was repeated last summer, with enrollees split between returning and new participants. Barney said many “transitioned back into school, some went on to get GEDs and others got offers for full time work.” 2009 saw hundreds more jobs created by federal stimulus funds and private donors. The Urban League facilitated.
Minus any federal funds in 2010, the number of summer jobs provided at-risk youth this year will be closer to 500, rather than the 800 created last year.
“In a lot of instances we basically have to start from scratch — we have to teach people how to fill out an application, how to successfully interview, how to do some things we take for granted,” said Gray. “This is a big job because you’ve got to change attitudes as well as change behavior. Neither is easy, but you’ve got to get it done because the only other choice is to build more jails and at the end of the day that’s costing us three to four times as much money as to provide jobs and job training and proper schooling.”
Barney said feedback from community forums identified unemployment as an underlining cause of violence. The program’s one of several Network initiatives aimed at curbing violence, with Omaha 360 and Enough is Enough being the latest and largest.
“We launched a formal violence prevention collaboration where we have community groups, faith groups, law enforcement, the Urban League, employment agencies, health organizations, housing organizations meeting every week to focus on youth violence and how we can reduce it,” said Barney. “It’s not just telling folks, Don’t do this, now we’re providing options.”
Impact One Community Connection, formerly New World Youth Development, was formed to do gang intervention-prevention. The Network also collaborates with ENCAP, the Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership (formerly GOACA).
Barney said a Stop the Violence summit that tapped young people’s input included former and current gang members. Those sessions morphed into regular youth forums. “People have been sitting down with gang members and not just telling them stuff but listening to what’s on their mind. Why didn’t you stay in school? What are the supports you need? What do you think of attempts to rebuild the community and what issues do you see going on from your perspective?”
Teresa Hunter said she, Barney and others were impressed “a group of youths wanted to continue meeting and talking about the issues and the remedies. They wanted to keep coming back and to make a change.”
In turn, said Barney, participants “were amazed somebody cared enough to spend all that time one-on-one with them and to help them get a job. They will flat out tell you no one has ever given them these opportunities before. Even some of the kids on the street that everybody totally discounts and that people said there’s no way you’re going to reach, well, we reached them.”
Building trust with this population, said Barney, is key. “They’ve been hurt so many times, people have given up on them, people have ruined their trust.” Recruiting them, he said, was largely the work of the late Roy Davenport and of Gray. Both brought long gang intervention experience. “That’s kind of the bridge that was built,” said Barney. “The Network has been able to tap into those who’ve been doing the work of trying to get people to leave gangs, giving us a link to that segment, and giving the intervention workers the support, resources and organization they lacked before.”
The Network’s aligned itself with the Omaha Police Department, particularly the Northeast Precinct, and North Omaha Weed & Seed to do Safe Night Outs and other efforts for improving police-community relations. Ben Gray and the police report progress in residents providing information and tips that lead to arrests.
Gray, who leads an emergency response team, said street work is where it’s at in reaching past or present gangbangers.
“You got to meet them where they are. If you are not willing to get out in those blocks, in those neighborhoods, in those houses where they live, you are not going to reach those young people. You gotta be at the hospitals, you gotta be at the funerals, you gotta be constantly talking about not retaliating…about going in a different direction. That’s very time consuming, painstaking, difficult work and there are no set hours. We have ex-gang members employed through Impact One. They monitor the streets on a regular basis.”
Gray lauds the Network for “putting it’s neck on the line” to even do this outreach, saying it’s a microcosm for how a wounded community can heal. “We have people that have been disappointed so much they’re not willing to necessarily buy-in until they have seen some stability in you going down the road getting a few things accomplished, and then you’ll hopefully get that groundswell of people that will come on board with you.”
“That’s how it clicks there, it’s grassroots, it’s organization, it’s strategic planning, it’s building relationships,” said Barney. “The summer program crystalized for many of us what’s possible.”
Barney said the Network “has the opportunity to really make a tremendous difference. Some of it will be over time, some of it will be dramatic,” such as the 36 percent reduction in gun violence in July-August 2008. “Now we can’t take direct credit for that but police will tell you that has never happened before at that level. Some folks went from being on the street to being in the life skills program to having a stipend to do voter registration work to being fully employed. So the possibilities are there for reaching the kids. Now it’s having all the support services lined up so we can link them together.”
For Kristina Carter, the Network is a vehicle for change and a conduit for action.
“I love what they’re doing with getting the-powers-that-be to listen to the community and for voices to be heard and not just patronized. The Empowerment Network can be that central point, strategic center of command where you can branch out to all the different organizations that service this community. That’s what it represents to me.”
Leo Louis and Sharif Liwaru say there are grassroots segments of the community that fall outside the Network’s structure that need to be engaged more.
“We’re doing as much as we can pushing it in that direction,” said Barney. “But I’m sure there are people in the community who still feel it’s not open enough or they feel they don’t have a voice. I would ask anyone who feels that way to contact me directly. We’ll sit down and we’ll meet and we’ll listen and try the best we can to make adjustments.”
Barney said it’s important to remember rebuilding north Omaha will be a process. Embedded problems will not suddenly vanish.
“We are building a long-term foundation. We’re getting more and more people engaged, more people are stepping forward. That doesn’t meant the violence is going to stop today or next week. I keep saying to folks, ‘It did not happen overnight and it will not be solved overnight’. That message rarely gets printed or becomes a sound bite. We’re not getting our minds around how big this is — the depth of this, and how long it’s been going. It’s painful just to say this is going to be a long term situation. To be successful this has to be a citywide effort.
“At the end of the day what’s kept everybody together is that it’s bigger than us individually and bigger than us as an organization or a church or a business. It’s about young people that need to graduate, it’s about mothers and fathers taking care of their kids, it’s about people being able to start a business, it’s about economic redevelopment. And it’s not about waiting on someone else to do it for us…”
Guardedly optimistic, he said, “We’ve seen some things slowly move in the right direction.” He’s encouraged by the positive alliances and community spirit built but he knows residents are eager to touch brick-and-mortar change.
Geraldine Wesley with Long School Neighborhood Association embraces the Network “getting people’s hopes up to empower” North O, adding, “If they carry out all the things they intend to do, it would be good.” She’s cautiously expectant. “Well, right now it’s just ideas, there’s nothing concrete as far as I know. I am waiting for the results. It’s going to be a long process, I know that. I hope I’ll live to see it.”
The Empowerment Network in Omaha is a catalytic force for positive change in North Omaha not seen before in terms of the scale and scope of its vision and reach. This is Part II of the two-part Reader cover story series I did several years ago about the Network.. The long version shared here was not published in the paper. The shorter published version is also available on my blog if you care to see it.
Part II: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking
©by Leo Adam Biga
All along, African-American Empowerment Network leaders have known that in order to transform north Omaha, the nonprofit must partner.
A measure of just how wide the Network’s cast its reach since forming three-and-a-half years ago is its established ties with: philanthropists, CEOs, social service agency executive directors, pastors, neighborhood association leaders, current or ex-gang members, school administrators, law enforcement officials, city planning professionals, local, county and state elected officials.
From the start, the Network’s taken a systematic approach to build community-wide consensus around sustainable solutions. North Omaha Contractors Alliance president Preston Love Jr. began as a critic but now champions the Network’s methodical style in gaining broad-based input and support:
“My compliment to them is even bigger than most because they stayed by their guns. I highly commend them because they did it the right way in spite of people like myself. They’ve gained my respect for their process because they have done it the hard way. They developed a process which has involved every level, from leadership on down to grassroots, for people to participate. That is the key to me.
“What looks like the easy road now was the hard road. It’s harder to work a game plan than it is to just go ahead and shoot from the hip. They had some real strategic things they felt they needed to do before they sought press or went public. All of that made sense but for those of us who are activists there’s stress in that because we wanted things to happen right away. As this thing has evolved there has been tremendous credibility built within and outside the organization and the results are now beginning to show themselves.”
For Empowerment Network facilitator Willie Barney, it’s all about making connections.
“When we started there were not enough forums and venues for people to come together and share ideas and solutions in an an environment where you felt comfortable no matter who you were,” he said. “If we take it down to our core, we’re about connecting people, connecting organizations, then identifying where the strengths are and where the gaps are, and then building on the strengths and filling in the gaps.
“It’s encouraging we have so many more partnerships now, almost to the point where it’s overwhelming. We get calls, e-mails, people stop in quite often just saying they want to help, they want to be a part of something. We’ve launched a lot of activities, helped launch organizations, started initiatives. Now we’re to a point where we’re working with residents at planning meetings, trying to get as many people as we can involved to tell us what is their vision for the targeted areas — what does it look like in north Omaha, what does it look like for African-Americans in the city, what would they like to see. ”
He refers to North Omaha Village Zone meetings at North High that invite community members to weigh in on developing plans for the: 24th and Lake, 16th and Cuming, 30th and Parker/Lake and Adams Park, Malcolm X and Miami Heights neighborhoods. At the May 27 meeting some 100 residents turned out to be heard.
A homeowner who lives in the Adams Park area said she’s interested in how development will affect her home’s resale value and improve quality of life.
“I’m very concerned about my investment, so anything that’s going on we want to know because it will eventually impact us,” said Thalia McElroy, who was there with her husband Greg. “It’s totally positive,” she said of the Network’s community-building focus. “They’re trying to make an effort to level the playing field. You know, when your community doesn’t even have a movie theater, that’s ridiculous. I’m hoping the redevelopment will get more more diversity as far as recreation activities and shopping.”
Greg McElroy said he appreciates how the development process is allowing residents to have a say in helping shape plans at the front end rather than the back end.
Wallace Stokes, who just moved here from Waterloo, Iowa with his small construction business, likes what’s he’s seen and heard thus far. “They’re trying to get the best ideas to redevelop north Omaha. They’re trying to empower the neighborhood and create jobs and also make it better for everybody else. All of that’s what I believe in,” said Stokes.
“I can honestly say I’ve never seen this happen before. I think there is a sincere invitation for people to experience this and to be a part of it, and the invitation is actually coming from the Empowerment Network. This appears to be something that’s got the appropriate amount of focus. City government’s there, a lot of the commercial companies are involved as well.”
While confident the Network “will continue to push forward for change,” Williams said “the real key” to sustainability “is going to be the other parties at the table” and how the economy affects their budgets and bottom lines.
Gannie Clark adds a cautionary note by saying. “The plight we have as black people is bigger than the Empowerment Network. It’s not about any one entity, it’s about people coming together so that the city can move forward, it’s about what is the city going to do to revitalize this part of town, it’s about us as people getting representation.”
“People are passionate about it, they want to see things done,” Barney said. “As this whole thing transitions, more and more individuals in the neighborhoods are getting engaged in what is it going to take to rebuild north Omaha, and that’s really encouraging. I think people need to see their ideas being respected, they want to be a part of what’s going on, they want to be at the table when decisions are made, they want to be active, they don’t want to just go along for the ride.”
Barney’s aware the community’s trust has been hard won. “I think at one point people were kind of like, What is it? Is this going to be a top down deal? I think people who have actually sat down at the table have realized their ideas count as much as anybody else.” He’s aware, too, of perceptions the Network is elitist, composed of middle-aged, highly-educated, high-earning managers, directors, owners, but insists there’s participation by a broad range of ages, education levels and socio-economic groups.
A segment missing from the leadership is age 30-and-unders. That’s why Dennis Anderson and others created the Emerging Leaders Empowerment Network. “We want to be heard at the table as well,” said Anderson, who has his own real estate business. “We have our own ideas and our own solutions we want to bring forward.” He said ideas generated by Emerging Leaders are presented to the larger Network. “Now we are being heard. They have been extremely supportive of us,” he said.
The larger Network revolves around a self-empowerment covenant that challenges people to do their part to improve themselves and their community. There are targeted areas for improvement, each with its own strategy.
So what makes the Network different beyond its covenant calling for African-Americans to harness change through self-empowerment? What do residents and neighborhoods stand to gain and how does the organization interact with them? Who’s holding the Network accountable? Where could this feel-good train get derailed?
These are important questions for a community that’s heard much talk these past 40 years but seen meager action. Stakeholders want to know why this time around should be any different and what mechanisms the Network has in place to ensure it will outlast what were previously mercy missions?
For one, it appears this initiative is an unprecedented collective of black leaders working and speaking as one to address comprehensive change.
“I don’t see any other kind of a way and I don’t see any other time that this has happened,” said Family Housing Advisory Services director Teresa Hunter, co-chair of the Network’s housing development covenant..
“There has not been the kind of movement like this in our community in a very long time. There have been attempts at it, and I have been a part of those attempts to bring community together, but the structure currently in place is a structure that has not been there before,” said Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray, chair of the violence intervention-prevention strategy.
Davis Companies CEO Dick Davis, who heads the economics covenant and a newly formed Economic Strategy Taskforce, said the Network represents a departure from past initiatives programmatically and philosophically in its approach to economic development. “The principles we set up are a market-driven merit-based economic model as opposed to the social justice, social equity models Omaha has been doing.” This new business-like approach he said requires experienced business people like himself out front and behind the scenes to analyze, guide, refer, partner, support.
Proposed development projects up for review before the Taskforce or its eight sub-taskforces, he said, are held to a rigorous set of “expectations and outcomes” to select sustainable initiatives. He said the economics have to be there for a project to work, whether it’s a grocery store, a radio station or anything else.
The goal isn’t just to vet and endorse projects or programs, he said, but to improve the landscape for African-American commerce and progress.
He said Taskforce members, who include elected and appointed public officials, are working to change public policies to “open up more contract, procurement opportunities” for African-Americans. He added that members are also woking with institutions of higher learning to enroll more black students and with lending institutions and venture capitalists to create more accessible lines of credit and capital.
Buttressing the Taskforce’s and the Network’s economic models, said Davis, “are substantial amounts of dollars I’m committing.” He’s living the “do my part” mantra of the Empowerment covenant by, among other things, constructing a new headquarters building for the Davis Cos. in NoDo, investing $10,000 in seed money in each of 10 small black-owned businesses over a decade’s time. He’s on his third one now. His Chambers-Davis Scholarship Program and Foundation for Human Development are some of his other philanthropic efforts.
Davis uses his own generosity as calling card and challenge.
“I go to white folks and black folks and say, OK, here’s how I’m stepping up, tell me how you’re going to step up? How you going to do your part? That doesn’t mean necessarily just by money, it’s by expertise, it’s by commitment, it’s by whatever the case may be. But once you step up I want you to be accountable for it, I don’t want you to say it’s somebody else’s fault.”
The idea is that as others put up personal stakes, assume vested interests and make commitments, African-Americans gain leverage in the marketplace.
The economic initiatives add up to a new construct for building financial capacity in north Omaha. The empowerment aspect posits blacks having primary input in economic decision-making. Owing to exclusionary practices, Davis said, blacks “have always had more of a secondary input, meaning we could be part of the decision but the authority and the money were outside our input. What we’re saying is, let’s figure out what we can do within our resources. We have less than a handful of folks that are significant business people with a million dollars or more that could be invested. That’s horrible. The good news is we have at least 24 African-Americans that hold 28 positions of authority either as a public appointed or elected official or senior executive…There’s enough (critical) mass there…related to time, influence, authority and money.”
Urban League of Nebraska president and Network education-youth development co-chair Thomas Warren said a primary reason “why this initiative is different than past efforts” is the number of “individuals involved who are in decision-making roles within their respective organizations, agencies and institutions. They have influence over viable programs and ideas generated through the network and our discussions in getting these initiatives implemented.”
For Davis, the promise of the Network is its transformational potential. “If I’m going to dedicate the rest of my life to see if we can develop benefits for African-Americans in Omaha what I want to see is not another project, not another job, not another business. But what I want to see is a cultural change, a value change, a behavioral change of African-Americans’ psyche toward economics.”
He said a Network-sponsored 2009 economic summit brought segments together who normally do not cross paths, much less collaborate: “…at the last summit we did something that never happened in terms of black folks interacting with white folks. We have black leaders heading black banks and we have white leaders heading white banks. When will be able to have a black leader heading that one thing, whatever that thing is, for all the people? What I would like to see for keeping me motivated and inspired is an African-American heading the corporate community just because he’s the most qualified, capable, competent person.”
He will at least keep people talking. “One of my gifts is I can bring a group of people together that in most cases don’t talk to each other. The social justice advocates don’t talk to the pro business advocates, Republicans don’t talk to Democrats, white folks don’t talk to black folks, and we don’t get anything done.” If the Network’s done nothing else, he said, it’s brought diverse people together. “It’s called shared responsibility, shared accountability — that’s what makes it feel different.”
Apostle Vanessa Ward, whose gang intervention, community gardening and block party activities through her Afresh Anointing Church mesh with the Network, said, “This is the first time I’ve seen Omaha reach a place with this kind of solidarity.”
It may also be the most cohesive united front Black Omaha’s presented in a long time.
“A strength of the Network is that disagreements unfold in private, behind closed doors, not for public display,” said Rev. Jeremiah McGhee, co-chair of the faith covenant. “We’re only human, we’re going to disagree but we work hard at not airing our differences in public. If it happens it’s a fluke. The Network only speaks after a consensus is reached, so that it’s message is delivered with one voice.”
He said where past coalitions have been reactive to violent crime or allegations of police brutality, the Network takes a more considered, strategic approach to a multitude of persistent issues. Where the confrontational outcry of passionate citizens tends to “fizzle out,” he said the Network’s moderate, conciliatory approach is built for “the long haul. We’re not just a flash in the pan. We’re being very deliberate about this.”
That echoes the observations of Warren, who said, “We’ve been very methodical and incremental in terms of how these issues are identified and how strategies are developed to address these issues. It’s a very comprehensive strategy. I think we have a level of commitment from individuals who will stay the course.”
McGhee noted that past overarching responses like the Network’s have tended to be church-led and therefore limited by the skill sets of its pastors. “The difference is we’ve got our best and brightest, the experts, the professionals,” leading the Network, he said.
Salem Baptist Church Pastor Selwyn Bachus, the faith covenant co-chair, said, “I would say one of the identifiable, unique elements of the Empowerment Network is it brings to the forefront leaders who have expertise, exposure and experience in our covenants…and those leaders are willing to work together. It’s unique. I’ve lived in four different cities for fairly significant periods of time and have never seen the community unified in such a way. It’s a collaborative effort that allows us to do what we do even more effectively.”
As McGhee said, “We’ve got a lot of people who’ve come together. It’s a large group that’s pretty deep in its reach.”
Innovations By Design president and chief consultant Tawanna Black, the advocacy-social justice co-chair, said the organization’s careful to be inclusive, That includes collaborating with agencies who’ve been there doing the work. The overriding message, she said, “Is that we’re not here to replace you, we’re here to help you, we’re here to build your capacity, we’re here to inform the community about what you do so that you’re able to truly serve those you exist to serve. When you do that then there’s no need to have a tug of war.”
Warren said “the key is to connect services to clients” and a big part of what the Network does is communicating what services are available and linking people to them.
Then there’s what Warren and others describe as a new African-American leadership class that’s emerged on the political, financial, community, corporate scene who either lead the Network directly or are positioned to indirectly further its aims. Warren, Black, Davis and Gray are among this influential cadre. Network members say this confluence of new leadership seemed to make the time right for a concerted effort to improve the state of African-American Omaha.
“It was a formation, kind of a like a call to the troops to come together,” said Empowerment operations director Vicki Quaites-Ferris, who came from the Mayor’s Office. “Kind of an uprising of new leadership and new voices and younger voices, and that really was something that was near and dear to my heart.”
Adding a certain momentum and basis was a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series that delineated the stark realities for thousands of African-American residents whose impoverished living conditions rank among the most severe in America. Black Omaha has an almost nonexistent entrepreneurial base. With historically little visible or string-pulling presence in political and corporate circles, the community’s languished in a malaise that began more then four decades ago and has only become more engrained.
In 2009 a Pew Partnership for Civic Change assessment both confirmed the morass and recommended remedies that coalesced with Network strategic plans. Taken together, it was an indictment of a shameful status quo and a call to action.
“We don’t want to be known for having one of the highest rates of black poverty, we don’t want to have one of the highest gaps between black poverty and white affluence, we don’t want to be known as the worst place for STDs, we don’t want to have those things at the same time we’re in the Wall St. journal for having one of the best economic trends in the country,” said Black. “I think all those things put together make it a prime time for this to work and maybe the only time for it to work.”
Pastor Bachus believes “the dose of reality” these failings represent “awakened something in us.” With the context of this new sense of urgency, he said, “many of us have realized we’re at a crisis point, we’re at a crossroads, and if not now, never. There’s extreme possibilities for greatness in our community, but we have to do it now.”
McGhee said there’s a symbiosis between what the Network does and the work black churches do. After all, many church ministries and programs address the same issues as the Network, making churches natural partners for implementing strategies and engaging the community in shared covenant goals. He said the Network’s broad focus and many collaborations can help church projects build capacity but also relieve some of the burden. “We don’t have to be everything to everybody anymore,” he said. At the same time, he said the Network’s a unifying and stimulating force for getting churches to work together on things like safe night outs for youths.
McGhee said it helps that Network leaders Willie Barney and John Ewing are “people of faith” who set their egos aside. “Personality has a a lot to do with building coalitions and acceptance in the community and they’ve got a good reputation, they don’t offend people, they know how to facilitate.”
The Network’s been cautious to put itself in the media spotlight because it prefers a behind-the-scenes role and because it’s sensitive to past disappointments.
“There’s always been a hesitation,” said Willie Barney. “We see so many groups come before the camera and make grand announcements about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it and for whatever reason we don’t see them again, and the community gets really tired of that.”
A skeptical public must be convinced this time is different. “They’ve heard the great ideas before, they’ve heard the talk before, and they see things in the community as a whole remain the same if not worse than what they were before,” said Highlander Neighborhood Association president Kristina Carter. “I’ve talked to neighbors trying to get them involved and I’ve been told to my face, ‘It’s not going to do any good.’ Everybody thinks it’s a great thing but we’ve had great things before and people are waiting to see if this is not just more of the same.”
Getting neighborhoods and residents on board has taken time. At the start, Barney said, “We didn’t do as good of a job as reaching out as we could have.”
Quaites-Ferris said it’s been a challenge getting past the point of people asking, “Are you really here to stay?” Her answer: “We’ve been around three years and we’re just beginning, so we are around and we’re going to stay around.”
Barney said, “They’re seeing there’s consistency to it, that we’re not going away.” He also senses people are impatient to see visible progress.
Carter speaks for many when she says, “As a resident I should be able to see with my eyes physical change taking place. That’s what people I’ve spoken to are waiting to see.”
Preston Love Jr. said any commercial development that occurs should “involve north Omaha in the process from top to bottom or we’re missing the point of what development really is.” He wants African-Americans involved from planning to financing, bonding and insurance on through construction, ownership, management and staffing.
Community activist Leo Louis takes issue with something else. “If the idea is to empower the community then the community should be growing,” he said, “not the Network. What I’m seeing happening is the Network growing and the community falling further and further down with rising drop out, STD, homicide rates. Yes, there’s more people getting involved, more marketing, more funds going towards the Network and organizations affiliated with the Network, but the community’s not getting any better.”
Tangible change is envisioned in Network designated neighborhood-village strategy areas. The plan is to apply the strategic covenants within defined boundaries and chart the results for potential replication elsewhere. One strategic target area includes Carter’s Highlander Association, the Urban League, Salem Baptist Church and the Charles Drew Health Center. The strategy there started small, with prayer walks, block parties, neighborhood cleanups. It’s continued through discussions with neighborhood associations. Brick-and-mortar projects are on tap.
“We’ve received some financial support to take the strategy to the next level,” said Barney. “We’re really focused on housing development, working with residents to look at housing needs. We’re partnering with Habitat for Humanity, NCDC, OEDC, Holy Name, Family Housing Advisory Services. Our goal is that you’ll be able to drive through this 15-block area and begin to see physical transformation. That’s where we’re headed.”
The Network also works with Alliance Building Communities and the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority. Some major housing developments are ready to launch.
Teresa Hunter said enabling a new wave of homeowners is about creating “a community that people are moving to instead of away from.”
The goal, Barney said, is to “remove obstacles and create more pathways” for African-Americans to not only achieve home ownership but to start and grow businesses, become employable, continue in school. It’s about people reaching their potential. Some key stakeholders, such as Salem, have big projects in the works.
Another target area includes 24th and Lake. The Network’s plans for redevelopment there jive closely with those of a key partner, the North Omaha Development Project.
As the Network matures, its profile increases. Barney doesn’t care if people recognize the Network as a change agent so long as they participate. “They may not know what to call it but they know there’s something positive going on,” he said. “They know we get things done. The message is spreading. We’ve had a lot of opportunities to go and present. There’s definitely more interest. We can tell by the volume of calls we get and the number of visitors to our web site (www.empoweromaha.com).”
Quaites-Ferris said public feedback suggests the Network is winning hearts and minds by doing more “than just talking and strategizing, but by putting plans together and implementing those plans.”
In terms of accountability, Barney said, “the leaders hold the leaders accountable and we invite the community in every second Saturday to an open meeting. They can come in, look at what’s going on. There’s nothing hidden, it’s up on the (video) screen. They have the chance to redirect, ask questions. It’s an open environment.” McGhee said the leadership “is really holding our feet to the fire” for transparency and responsibility.
Where could it go wrong?
Preston Love cautions if the Network becomes “the gatekeeper” for major funds “that gives them power that, if wrongly used,” he said, “could work against the community.”
Carter said letting politics get in the way could sabotage efforts. McGhee said public “bickering” could turn people off. He said the leadership has talked about what-if scenarios, such as a scandal, and he said “there’s no question” anyone embroiled in “something counter-productive like that would need to step down.”
Former Omaha minister Rev. Larry Menyweather-Woods worries about history repeating itself and a community’s hopes being dashed should the effort fade away. “You’d go back to square one,” he said. He wonders what might happen if things go off course and the majority power base “turns against you.” “When all hell breaks loose,” he said, “who from the Network will go to the very powers they’ve made relationships with and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this isn’t right?’” He suggests only a pastor has “nerve enough to do that.”
And that may be the Network’s saving grace — that pastors and churches and congregations are part of this communal mission.
“The history of African-Americans has been founded on faith and the church, so it’s the primary thing and everything else kind of grows out of that,” said Pastor Bachus. “Faith is that hub and the covenants and the efforts really are spokes out of that hub, and that’s the thing that holds it together.”
In a relatively short time I have developed a fairly significant body of work about one Terence “Bud” Crawford, the two-time world boxing champion from Omaha. He and I share that city as hometown and residence. Here is the latest piece I have written about this young man who has taken the prizefighting world by storm, single-handedly resurrected the sport in Omaha, and will be making his Madison Square Garden debut on Feb. 27 against Hank Lundy. The piece appears online at http://reviveomahamagazine.com/. You will be hard-pressed to find a more well-rounded picture of him than what I give you in the stories in the aggregate of stories I have written about him. I have spent time in his Omaha gym, I have been to his grandmother’s house and I have met and interviewed most of his immediate family, I have gotten to know some of his closest advisors and primary coaches and trainers, I have traveled with him to Africa. I have charted his rise through the sport from his youth to the elite professional standng he’s arrived at today.
You can read my collection of stories about him on this blog. Link to those stories at-
TERENCE CRAWFORD STAMPS HIS PLACE AMONG OMAHA GREATS
©by Leo Adam Biga
Terence “Bud” Crawford, cemented his status as King of Omaha Sports Figures by dispatching Dierry Jean in a WBO super lightweight bout on October 24 before 11,000 hometown fans at the CenturyLink Center arena.
Crawford, who’s quickly become The People’s Champ, imposed his will on the game, but overmatched the contender from Canada. He dropped Jean three times and had him in serious trouble again when awarded a 10th round technical knockout. The Omaha native carried the fight from the opening bell, using superior boxing skills and decisive height and reach advantages to repeatedly back Jean against the ropes and in the corners, landing nearly at will when pressing the action. The few times Dierry managed an attack, Crawford countered with combination barrages that left the challenger bloodied and bruised.
The end was never in doubt because Crawford was never in trouble. It was just a matter of when Derry would go or when the referee would stop the scheduled 12-rounder.
The event marked another coronation for Crawford, who has gone from a hungry kid just looking for a shot, to a mature champion on the cusp of being one of his sport’s highest paid big names. Along the way he’s captured the hearts and minds of a city he is proud to call his own. From the moment this local hero entered the arena amidst entourage members holding aloft his two title belts, the fighter exuded the confidence and star quality associated with sports icons.In the days before the fight Jean and his manager called out Crawford, vowing to take his lightweight belt to Canada. When Jean trash talked during the bout, Crawford first let his fists do the talking before variously chirping back. Stomping the canvas and smiling at the crowd as if to say, “I’ve got this” and “He’s mine.”
During the HBO interview just after the fight’s conclusion Crawford taunted Jean and his manager in the ring with, “Did you get what you were looking for?” The crowd erupted in cheers. He also got a big response when he answered commentator Max Kellerman’s question about the source of his fierce fighting nature with, “Where I’m from…” and gestured to friends and family who share the same neighborhood he does. He also expressed love for all the support Omaha gives him. The way he handled everything, from the crowd, to the media, to Jean, and still took care of business showed a professional athlete with real poise and presence. The more the spotlight shines on him, the more the boxing world discovers he’s also a humanitarian with a deep commitment to his community.
At the post-fight press conference, where WBO head Bob Arum sat next to him and all but crowned him the fight organization’s next superstar, Crawford was the calm, confident picture of Boxing’s Next Big Thing. Crawford’s already the toast of this town.
Now he’s the toast of New York City, where he’s fighting challenger Hammerin Hank Lundy Feb. 27 at fabled Madison Square Garden. In the Big Apple for a press conference announcing the fight, Crawford was afforded star treatment. He got more of the same attending a Knicks game at the Garden, where he was pictured with the likes of Spike Lee, Ice Cube, Floyd Mayweather and Carmelo Anthony. It turns out those celebrities are fans and followers of The Champ.
Omaha’s African-American community has produced high achievers in many fields, but none more than in sports.
A small sampling of black athletic greats from Omaha include:
Eugene Skinner, Charles Bryant, Marion Hudson, Bob Boozer, Bob Gibson, Roger Sayers, Gale Sayers, Don Benning, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers, Mike McGee, Larry Station, Maurtice Ivy, Jessica Haynes, Andre Woolridge, Ahman Green, Peaches James, Ashley Carter, RaVaughn Perkins, Mayme Conroy, Niles Paul.
The list goes on and on.
An undisputed new entry to the list of great athletes from Omaha is Crawford. The North Omaha native is enjoying a ride few in sport or any endeavor ever experience. In less than two years he’s gone from being just another challenger, to the man nobody wants to face. Along the way singlehandedly reviving the city’s long dormant boxing scene.Everywhere he fights, he represents by wearing trunks emblazoned with Omaha and caps bearing University of Nebraska emblems.
The unbeaten fighter’s dramatic ascent began with him taking the WBO lightweight title from reigning champ Ricky Burns in Scotland.
Crawford then twice successfully defended that belt in his hometown before mega CenturyLink crowds, scoring a 9th round technical knockout against Yuriokis Gamboa and then tallying a unanimous 12-round decision over Raymundo Beltran.
Those three signature wins in 2014, all carried by HBO earned him the Fighter of the Year recognition from the Boxing Writers of America.
Crawford then went to Texas last April to capture the vacant WBO junior welterweight title by dismantling Thomas Dulorme via 6th round TKO. His dominance over Dierry back in Omaha this past fall was the latest in a string of convincing wins for the unbeaten (27-0) fighter.
It’s all in a day’s work for Crawford.
“I’ve always been confident,” he says. “I’ve never doubted myself.”
Not since Bob Gibson carried the St. Louis Cardinals in three World Series in the 1960s has a Neb.-born athlete dominated a sport in so many high-stakes settings.
Crawford’s work landed him on the cover of Ring Magazine and reinforced TopRank’s grooming of him to be prizefighting’s next king.
In addition to the BWA and Ring honors, he’s been:
- Inducted into the Omaha Sports Hall of Fame
- Inducted into the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame
- Added to the Omaha Press Club’s Face on the Barroom Floor roster
- Immortalized in a mobile mural by artist Aaryon Lau Rance Williams
- Nominated for an Espy as Fighter of the Year
That’s a heady rush of fame and adulation for a 28-year-old, yet he’s taken it all in stride. His cool-under-pressure comes from childhood, when he first dreamed of being a champion. He got steeled early on by countless scrapes and school suspensions, He often sparred guys older and bigger than him. He never gave in. He never gave up.
“I was one of those kids they said was never going to make it – I used that as an opportunity to prove them wrong.”
A wakeup call that nearly cost him his life happened just as his pro career was taking off when he caught a bullet in the back of his head after “hanging with the wrong crowd.” Since that 2008 incident he’s rededicated himself, staying away from bad elements and throwing himself into a grueling training regimen. His renowned mental and physical toughness, plus his well-studied approach, has thus far made him an unstoppable force in the ring.
Until Crawford, Omaha hadn’t seen a pro title fight since Ron Stander fought Joe Frazier in 1972. Thanks to Crawford, Omaha’s now hosted three in short order. He once again brought the focus of the fight world back home when he scored that TKO over Dierry Jean in October.
Crawford’s best performances and biggest paydays may yet be ahead, including possibly facing legend Manny Pacquiao in 2016.
Through it all, Crawford’s hometown rootedness remains strong. His community giveback saw him and co-manager Brian “BoMac” McIntyre open his own gym, the B&B Boxing Academy, in his old neighborhood. He sees the gym as a refuge for youth and young adults to escape the streets and engage in positive, supervised activities. It’s the same mission Carl Washington’s CW Boxing Club served for Crawford when he was growing up.
“I look at it as an outlet for the kids that are just hardcore and mad at the world because of their circumstances,” Crawford says. “They come to this gym and they feel loved and they feel a part of something. For some kids, feeling a part of something changes them around.
“It’s not just all about boxing. We’re trying to teach kids how to be young women and young men – to have respect and dignity. We’re teaching life skills. Boxing is a great way for kids to learn discipline.”
He knows from experience the difference caring adults make.
“If they feel like nobody cares, than they’re not going to care, but if they feel one person cares than they tend to listen to that person.”Among those to take an interest in him was boxing coach Midge Minor. He’s been with the fighter all through the amateur ranks and up the pro ladder and is still a vital Team Crawford member today.
“He’s got the wisdom,” Crawford says. “Every fight, he tells me what he thinks I should do, and we go from there. Midge is the brain. Everything goes through Midge before it’s all said and done. Without the brain we can’t do nothing. So it’s very important Midge is there.”
He says Minor saw his potential and convinced him he was special.
“Midge always instilled in me ‘can’t nobody beat you,’ especially if you work hard and put your heart into your training. The fight’s the easy part. Preparing for it, that’s the hard part.”
Crawford’s surrounded by figures influenced by Minor.
“Every person I turn to in my corner that’s giving me instructions came up under Midge,” he says.
The fighter’s allegiance to Omaha extends to his crew.
“Midge always told my manager, ‘Don’t let nobody get a hold of him.’ A lot of people were coming at me with deals, wanting me to move out of town, trying to get me to fight for them and sign with them, telling me I can’t make it from Omaha. They said I need new corner men – that they took me as far as they could.
“But I’m loyal and I think that’s what a lot of people didn’t understand. My coaches have faith in me and they trust I’m not going to do nothing to jeopardize our relationship. And I trust them and have faith in them.”
Some public school teachers have been instrumental in his life as well, including Jamie Fox Nollette, who taught him in fourth grade at Skinner Magnet School. The pair forged a bond then, but they lost touch with each other in the ensuing years. They only reconnected 2 years ago and in short order he was traveling with her to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa, where her Pipeline Worldwide nonprofit supports sustainability, self-sufficiency and empowerment programs for vulnerable populations.
He went with her again in June. They visited humanitarian organizations and met the people running programs and receiving services. They visited places benefiting from clean water wells and other places in need of resources. They ventured into crowded urban slums and small rural villages. They went on safari. They danced with locals. They shopped at outdoor markets.
Crawford and Nollette went every step of the way together. He helps raise awareness for her organization’s work and she helps do the same for his gym. She’s leading a $1.2 million building campaign to renovate and expand his B&B gym at 3034 Sprague Street.
The fighter and his former teacher have something special together.
“It’s a very close relationship,” he says. “She treats me like a son.”
“Terence is really family to me. He’s like this second son I feel responsibility for looking after,” Nollette confirms. “At the end of the day I care about him and what happens to him and his future. I just want to be there for him.”
Their friendship is largely why he’s twice gone to these developing nations wracked by poverty and the aftermath of violence. His girlfriend and the mother of his children, Alindra “Esha” Person, accompanied him the second journey.
He says “seeing the Motherland” always appealed to him and Nollette afforded the chance to show him things he might otherwise not see.
“You know you only live once and certain opportunities don’t come every day, so I just saw this as an opportunity to get out and see something new.”
Experiencing Third World conditions, he says, “just made me appreciate things more – it kind of humbled me in a way to where I don’t want to take anything for granted. Their way of living and our way of living is totally different. They appreciate everything that comes upon them, even if it’s just a hug, even if it’s a handshake, even if you give them a piece of paper.”
He returned a different man each time.
“It’s life-changing when you get to go over there and see people and help people. I had a great time with great people. I experienced some great things.”
Just like he wants to assist Uganda and Rwanda, he’s committed to North Omaha.
“This is my community, B & B is my gym, so I am in it for the long haul.
I could be anywhere, but my heart is with Omaha. We just want to help as many kids as we can. Everything is for the kids.”
The same message he delivered to African boxers, he delivers here:
“Work hard, stay dedicated, give your all every time you go in there and who knows maybe you can be the next champion of the world.”
Just as he will “never forget” the people in Africa, he will never forget the people in his hometown.
A Family of Creatives: Rudy Smith, Llana Smith, Q (Quiana) Smith
©by Leo Adam Biga
Creativity can certainly run in families and one of the most blessed and beloved Omaha families I know of in this regard is the Rudy and Llana Smith family. He’s a photographer. She’s a playwright. One of their adult children, Q (Quiana) Smith, is an actress. Here is a collection of stories I’ve done about them individually over the years.
Rudy Smith’s own life is as compelling as any story he ever covered as a photojournalist. Both as a photographer and as a citizen, he was caught up in momentous societal events in the 1960s. This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) examines some of the things he trained his eye and applied his intellect and gave his heart to — incidents and movements whose profound effects are still felt today. Rudy’s now retired, which only means he now has more time to work on a multitude of personal projects, including a book collaboration with his daughter Quiana, and to spend with his wife, Llana. This blog contains stories I did on Quiana and Llana. I have a feeling I will be writing about Rudy again before too long.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It was another August night in the newsroom when word came of a riot breaking out on Omaha’s near northside. If the report were true, it meant for the second time that summer of 1966 minority discontent was turning violent. Rudy Smith was the young Omaha World-Herald photojournalist who caught the story. His job at the newspaper was paying his way through then-Omaha University, where the Central High grad was an NAACP Youth Council and UNO student senate activist. Only three years before, he became the first black to join the Herald’s editorial staff. As a native north Omahan dedicated to his people’s struggle, Smith brought instant credibility to his assignments in the black community. In line with the paper’s unsympathetic civil rights stance at the time, he was often the only photographer sent to the near northside.
“And in many cases my colleagues didn’t want to go. They were fearful of the minority community, and so as a result I covered it. They would just send me,” said Smith, a mellow man whose soft voice disguises a fierce conviction. “As a result, the minority community that never had access to the World-Herald before began to gain access. More stories began to be written and more of the issues concerning north Omaha began to be reported, and from a more accurate perspective.”
It was all part of his efforts “to break down the barriers and the stereotypes.”
Archie Godfrey led the local NAACP Youth Council then. He said Smith’s media savvy made him “our underground railroad” and “bridge” to the system and the general public. “Without his leadership and guidance, we wouldn’t of had a ghost of an understanding of the ins and outs of how the media responds to struggles like ours,” said Godfrey, adding that Smith helped the group craft messages and organize protests for maximum coverage.
More than that, he said, Smith was sought out by fellow journalists for briefings on the state of black Omaha. “A lot of times, they didn’t understand the issues. And when splinter groups started appearing that had their own agendas and axes to grind, it became confusing. Reporters came to Rudy to sound him out and to get clarification. Rudy was familiar with the players. He informed people as to what was real and what was not. He didn’t play favorites. But he also never hid behind that journalistic neutrality. He was right out front. He had the pictures, too. This city will probably never know the balancing act he played in that.”
As a journalist and community catalyst, Smith has straddled two worlds. In one, he’s the objective observer from the mainstream press. In the other, he’s a black man committed to seeing his community’s needs are served. Somehow, he makes both roles work without being a sell out to either cause.
“My integrity has never been an issue,” he said. “As much as I’d like to be involved in the community, I can’t be, because sometimes there are things I have to report on and I don’t want to compromise my professionalism. My life is kind of hidden in plain view. I monitor what’s going on and I let my camera capture the significant things that go on — for a purpose. Those images are stored so that in the next year or two I can put them in book form. Because there are generations coming after me that will never know what really happened, how things changed and who was involved in changing the landscape of Omaha. I want them to have some kind of document that still lives and that they can point to with pride.”
For the deeply religious Smith, nothing’s more important than using “my God-given talents in service of humanity. I look at my life as one of an artist. An artist with a purpose and a mission. I’m driven. I’m working as a journalist on an unfinished masterpiece. My life is my canvas. And the people and the events I experience are the things that go onto my canvas. There is a lot of unfinished business still to be pursued in terms of diversity and opportunity. To me, my greatest contributions have yet to be made. It’s an ongoing process.”
The night of the riot, Smith didn’t know what awaited him, only that his own community was in trouble. He drove to The Hood, leaving behind the burnt orange hard hat a colleague gave him back at the office.
“I knew the area real well. I parked near 20th and Grace Streets and I walked through the alleys and back yards to 24th Street, and then back to 23rd.”
Most of the fires were concentrated on 24th. A restaurant, shoe shine parlor and clothing store were among the casualties. Then he came upon a church on fire. It was Paradise Baptist, where he attended as a kid.
“I cussed, repeating over and over, ‘My church, my church, my church,’ and I started taking pictures. Then I heard — ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ — and there were these two national guardsmen pointing their guns at me. ‘I’m with the World-Herald,’ I said. I kept snapping away. Then, totally disregarding what I said, they told me, ‘Come over here.’ This one said to the other, ‘Let’s shoot this nigger,’ and went to me, ‘C’mon,’ and put the nuzzle of his rifle to the back of my head and pushed me around to the back of the building. As we went around there, I heard that same one say, ‘There ain’t nobody back here. Let’s off him, he’s got no business being here anyway.’ I was scared and looking around for help.
That’s when I saw a National Guard officer, the mayor and some others about a half-block away. I called out, ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!’ ‘Who is it?’ ‘Rudy Smith, World-Herald.’ ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ ‘I’m taking pictures and these two guys are going to shoot me.’ The officer said, ‘C’mon over here.’ ‘Well, they aren’t going to let me.’ ‘Come here.’ So, I went…those two guys still behind me. I told the man again who I was and what I was doing, and he goes, ‘Well, you have no damn business being here. You know you could have been killed? You gotta get out of here.’ And I did. But I got a picture of the guardsmen standing in front of that burning church, silhouetted by the fire, their guns on their shoulders. The Herald printed it the next day.”
Seeing his community go up in flames, Smith said, “was devastating.” The riots precipitated the near northside’s decline. Over the years, he’s chronicled the fall of his community. In the riots’ aftermath, many merchants and residents left, with only a shell of the community remaining. Just as damaging was the later North Freeway construction that razed hundreds of homes and uprooted as many families. In on-camera comments for the UNO Television documentary Omaha Since World War II, Smith said, “How do you prepare for an Interstate system to come through and divide a community that for 60-70 years was cohesive? It was kind of like a big rupture or eruption that just destroyed the landscape.” He said in the aftermath of so much destruction, people “didn’t see hope alive in Omaha.”
Today, Smith is a veteran, much-honored photojournalist who does see a bright future for his community. “I’m beginning to see a revival and resurgence in north Omaha, and that’s encouraging. It may not come to fruition in my lifetime, but I’m beginning to see seeds being planted in the form of ideas, directions and new leaders that will eventually lead to the revitalization of north Omaha,” he said.
Rudy Smith, ©photo by Chris Machian, Omaha World-Herald
His optimism is based, in part, on redevelopment along North 24th. There are streetscape improvements underway, the soon-to-open Loves Jazz and Cultural Arts Center, a newly completed jazz park, a family life center under construction and a commercial strip mall going up. Then there’s the evolving riverfront and Creighton University expansion just to the south. Now that there’s momentum building, he said it’s vital north Omaha directly benefit from the progress. Too often, he feels that historically disenfranchised north Omaha is treated as an isolated district whose problems and needs are its own. The reality is that many cross-currents of commerce and interest flow between the near northside and wider (read: whiter) Omaha. Inner city residents work and shop outside the community just as residents from other parts of the city work in North O or own land and businesses there.
“What happens in north Omaha affects the entire city,” Smith said. “When you come down to it, it’s about economics. The north side is a vital player in the vitality and the health of the city, particularly downtown. If downtown is going to be healthy, you’ve got to have a healthy surrounding community. So, everybody has a vested interest in the well-being of north Omaha.”
It’s a community he has deep ties to. His involvement is multi-layered, ranging from the images he makes to the good works he does to the assorted projects he takes on. All of it, he said, is “an extension of my faith.” He and his wife of 37 years, Llana, have three grown children who, like their parents, have been immersed in activities at their place of worship, Salem Baptist Church. Church is just one avenue Smith uses to strengthen and celebrate his community and his people.
With friend Edgar Hicks he co-founded the minority investment club, Mite Multipliers. With Great Plains Black Museum founder Bertha Calloway and Smithsonian Institute historian Alonzo Smith he collaborated on the 1999 book, Visions of Freedom on the Great Plains: An Illustrated History of African Americans in Nebraska. Last summer, he helped bring a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum exhibit to the Western Heritage Museum. Then there’s the book of his own photos and commentary he’s preparing. He’s also planning a book with his New York theater actress daughter, Quiana, that will essay in words and images the stories of the American theater’s black divas. And then there’s the petition drive he’s heading to get Marlin Briscoe inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame.
Putting others first is a Smith trait. The second oldest of eight siblings, he helped provide for and raise his younger brothers and sisters. His father abandoned the family after he was conceived. Smith was born in Philadelphia and his mother moved the family west to Omaha, where her sister lived. His mother remarried. She was a domestic for well-to-do whites and a teenaged Rudy a servant for black Omaha physician W.W. Solomon. Times were hard. The Smiths lived in such squalor that Rudy called their early residence “a Southern-style shotgun house” whose holes they “stuffed with rags, papers, and socks. That’s what we call caulking today,” he joked. When, at 16, his step-father died in a construction accident, Rudy’s mother came to him and said, “‘You’re going to take over as head of the family.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ To me, it was just something that had to be done.”
Smith’s old friend from the The Movement, Archie Godfrey, recalled Rudy as “mature beyond his years. He had more responsibilities than the rest of us had and still took time to be involved. He’s like a rock. He’s just been consistent like that.”
“I think my hardships growing up prepared me for what I had to endure and for decisions I had to make,” Smith said. “I was always thrust into situations where somebody had to step up to the front…and I’ve never been afraid to do that.”
When issues arise, Smith’s approach is considered, not rash, and reflect an ideology influenced by the passive resistance philosophies and strategies of such diverse figures as Machiavelli, Gandhi and King as well as the more righteous fervor of Malcolm X. Smith said a publication that sprang from the black power movement, The Black Scholar, inspired he and fellow UNO student activists to agitate for change. Smith introduced legislation to create UNO’s black studies department, whose current chair, Robert Chrisman, is the Scholar’s founder and editor. Smith also campaigned for UNO’s merger with the University of Nebraska system. More recently, he advocated for change as a member of the Nebraska Affirmative Action Advisory Committee, which oversees state departmental compliance with federal mandates for enhanced hiring, promotion and retention of minorities and women.
The camera, though, remains his most expressive tool. Whether it’s a downtown demonstration brimming with indignation or the haunted face of an indigent man or an old woman working a field or Robert Kennedy stumping in North O, his images capture poignant truth. “For some reason, I always knew whatever I shot was for historical purposes,” he said. “When it’s history, that moment will never be revisited again. Words can describe it, but images live on forever. Just like freedom marches on.”
Rudy Smith was a lot of places where breaking news happened. That was his job as an Omaha World-Herald photojournalist. Early in his career he was there when riots broke out on the Near Northside, the largely African-American community he came from and lived in. He was there too when any number of civil rights events and figures came through town. Smith himself was active in social justice causes as a young man and sometimes the very events he covered he had an intimate connection with in his private life. The following story keys off an exhibition of his work from a few years ago that featured his civil rights-social protest photography from the 1960s. You’ll find more stories about Rudy, his wife Llana, and their daughter Quiana on this blog.
A Brief History of Omaha’s Civil Rights Struggle Distilled in Black and White By Photographer Rudy Smith
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Coursing down North 24th Street in his car one recent afternoon, Rudy Smith retraced the path of the 1969 summer riots that erupted on Omaha’s near northside. Smith was a young Omaha World-Herald photographer then.
The disturbance he was sent to cover was a reaction to pent up discontent among black residents. Earlier riots, in 1966 and 1968, set the stage. The flash point for the 1969 unrest was the fatal shooting of teenager Vivian Strong by Omaha police officer James Loder in the Logan Fontenelle Housing projects. As word of the incident spread, a crowd gathered and mob violence broke out.
Windows were broken and fires set in dozens of commercial buildings on and off Omaha’s 24th Street strip. The riot leapfrogged east to west, from 23rd to 24th Streets, and south to north, from Clark to Lake. Looting followed. Officials declared a state of martial law. Nebraska National Guardsmen were called in to help restore order. Some structures suffered minor damage but others went up entirely in flames, leaving only gutted shells whose charred remains smoldered for days.
Smith arrived at the scene of the breaking story with more than the usual journalistic curiosity. The politically aware African-American grew up in the black area ablaze around him. As an NAACP Youth and College Chapter leader, he’d toured the devastation of Watts, trained in nonviolent resistance and advocated for the formation of a black studies program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he was a student activist. But this was different. This was home.
On the night of July 1 he found his community under siege by some of its own. The places torched belonged to people he knew. At the corner of 23rd and Clark he came upon a fire consuming the wood frame St. Paul Baptist Church, once the site of Paradise Baptist, where he’d worshiped. As he snapped pics with his Nikon 35 millimeter camera, a pair of white National Guard troops spotted him, rifles drawn. In the unfolding chaos, he said, the troopers discussed offing him and began to escort him at gun point to around the back before others intervened.
Just as he was “transformed” by the wreckage of Watts, his eyes were “opened” by the crucible of witnessing his beloved neighborhood going up in flames and then coming close to his own demise. Aspects of his maturation, disillusionment and spirituality are evident in his work. A photo depicts the illuminated church inferno in the background as firemen and guardsmen stand silhouetted in the foreground.
The stark black and white ultrachrome prints Smith made of this and other burning moments from Omaha’s civil rights struggle are displayed in the exhibition Freedom Journeynow through December 23 at Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2512 North 24th Street. His photos of the incendiary riots and their bleak aftermath, of large marches and rallies, of vigilant Black Panthers, a fiery Ernie Chambers and a vibrant Robert F. Kennedy depict the city’s bumpy, still unfinished road to equality.
The Smith image promoting the exhibit is of a 1968 march down the center of North 24th. Omaha Star publisher and civil rights champion Mildred Brown is in the well-dressed contingent whose demeanor bears funereal solemnity and proud defiance. A man at the head of the procession holds aloft an American flag. For Smith, an image such as this one “portrays possibilities” in the “great solidarity among young, old, white, black, clergy, lay people, radicals and moderates” who marched as one,” he said. “They all represented Omaha or what potentially could be really good about Omaha. When I look at that I think, Why couldn’t the city of Omaha be like a march? All races, creeds, socioeconomic backgrounds together going in one direction for a common cause. I see all that in the picture.”
Images from the OWH archives and other sources reveal snatches of Omaha’s early civil rights experience, including actions by the Ministerial Alliance, Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties, De Porres Club, NAACP and Urban League. Polaroids by Pat Brown capture Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his only visit to Omaha, in 1958, for a conference. He’s seen relaxing at the Omaha home of Ed and Bertha Moore. Already a national figure as organizer of the Birmingham (Ala.) bus boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he’s the image of an ambitious young man with much ahead of him. Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Jr. joined him. Ten years later Smith photographed Robert F. Kennedy stumping for the 1968 Democratic presidential bid amid an adoring crowd at 24th and Erskine. Two weeks later RFK was shot and killed, joining MLK as a martyr for The Cause.
Omaha’s civil rights history is explored side by side with the nation’s in words and images that recreate the panels adorning the MLK Bridge on Omaha’s downtown riverfront. The exhibit is a powerful account of how Omaha was connected to and shaped by this Freedom Journey. How the demonstrations and sit-ins down south had their parallel here. So, too, the riots in places like Watts and Detroit.
Acts of arson and vandalism raged over four nights in Omaha the summer of ‘69. The monetary damage was high. The loss of hope higher. Glimpses of the fall out are seen in Smith’s images of damaged buildings like Ideal Hardware and Carter’s Cafe. On his recent drive-thru the riot’s path, he recited a long list of casualties — cleaners, grocery stores, gas stations, et cetera — on either side of 24th. Among the few unscathed spots was the Omaha Star, where Brown had a trio of Panthers, including David Poindexter, stand guard outside. Smith made a portrait of them in their berets, one, Eddie Bolden, cradling a rifle, a band of ammunition slung across his chest. “They served a valuable community service that night,” he said.
Most owners, black and white, never reopened there. Their handsome brick buildings had been home to businesses for decades. Their destruction left a physical and spiritual void. “It just kind of took the heart out of the community,” Smith said. “Nobody was going to come back here. I heard young people say so many times, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here.’ Many went away to college and never came back. That brain drain hurt. It took a toll on me watching that.”
Boarded-up ruins became a common site for blocks. For years, they stood as sad reminders of what had been lost. Only in the last decade did the city raze the last of these, often leaving only vacant lots and harsh memories in their place. “Some buildings stood like sentinels for years showing the devastation,” Smith said.
His portrait of Ernie Chambers shows an engaged leader who, in the post-riot wake, addresses a crowd begging to know, as Smith said, “Where do we go from here?’
Smith’s photos chart a community still searching for answers four decades later and provide a narrative for its scarred landscape. For him, documenting this history is all about answering questions about “the history of north Omaha and what really happened here. What was on these empty lots? Why are there no buildings there today? Who occupied them?” Minus this context, he said, “it’d be almost as if your history was whitewashed. If we’re left without our history, we perish and we’re doomed to repeat” past ills. “Those images challenge us. That was my whole purpose for shooting them…to challenge people, educate people so their history won’t be forgotten. I want these images to live beyond me to tell their own story, so that some day young people can be proud of what they see good out here because they know from whence it came.”
An in-progress oral history component of the exhibit will include Smith’s personal accounts of the civil rights struggle.
About a decade ago I became reacquainted with a former University of Nebraska at Omaha adjunct professor of photography, Rudy Smith, who was an award-winning photojournalist with the Omaha World-Herald. I was an abject failure as a photography student, but I have managed to fare somewhat better as a freelance writer-reporter. When I began covering aspects of Omaha‘s African-American community with some consistency, Rudy was someone I reached out to as a source and guide. We became friends along the way. I still call on him from time to time to offer me perspective and leads. I’ve gotten to know a bit of Rudy’s personal story, which includes coming out of poverty and making a life and career for himself as the first African-American employed in the Omaha World-Herald newsroom and agitating for social change on the UNO campus and in greater Omaha.
I have also come to know some members of his immediate family, including his wife Llana and their musical theater daughter Quiana or Q as she goes by professionally. Llana is a sweet woman who has her own story of survival and strength. She and and Rudy are devout Christians active in their church, Salem Baptist, where Llana continues a family legacy of writing-directing gospel dramas. She’s lately taken her craft outside Omaha as well. I have tried getting this story published in print publications to no avail. With no further adieu then, this is Llana’s story:
Gospel Playwright Llana Smith Enjoys Her Big Mama’s Time
©by Leo Adam Biga
When the spirit moves Llana Smith to write one of her gospel plays, she’s convinced she’s an instrument of the Lord in the burst of creative expression that follows. It’s her hand holding the pen and writing the words on a yellow note pad alright, but she believes a Higher Power guides her.
“I look at it as a gift. It’s not something I can just do. I’ve got to pray about it and kind of see where the Lord is leading me and then I can write,” said the former Llana Jones. “I’ll start writing and things just come. Without really praying about it I can write the messiest play you ever want to see.”
She said she can only be a vessel if she opens herself up “to be used.” It’s why she makes a distinction between an inspired gift and an innate talent. Her work, increasingly performed around the nation, is part of a legacy of faith and art that began with her late mother Pauline Beverly Jones Smith and that now extends to her daughter Quiana Smith.
The family’s long been a fixture at Salem Baptist Church in north Omaha. Pauline led the drama ministry program — writing-directing dramatic interpretations — before Llana succeeded her in the 1980s. For a time, their roles overlapped, with mom handling the adult drama programs and Llana the youth programs.
“My mother really was the one who started all this out,” Smith said. “She was gifted to do what she did and some of what she did she passed on to me.”
Married to photojournalist Rudy Smith, Llana and her mate’s three children grew up at Salem and she enlisted each to perform orations, sketches and songs. The youngest, Quiana, blossomed into a star vocalist/actress. She appeared on Broadway in a revival of Les Miserables. In 2004 Llana recruited Quiana, already a New York stage veteran by then, to take a featured role in an Easter production of her The Crucifixion: Through the Eyes of a Cross Maker at Salem.
Three generations of women expressing their faith. From one to the next to the other each has passed this gift on to her successor and grown it a bit more.
Pauline recognized it in Llana, who recalled her mother once remarked, “How do you come up with all this stuff? I could never have done that.” To which Llana replied, ‘Well, Mom, it just comes, it’s just a gift. You got it.” Pauline corrected her with, “No, I don’t have it like that. You really have the gift.”
“Them were some of the most important words she ever said to me,” Smith said.
Miss Pauline saw the calling in her granddaughter, too. “My mother would always say, ‘Quiana’s going to be the one to take this further — to take this higher.’ Well, sure enough, she has,” Smith said. “Quiana can write, she can direct, she can act and she can SING. She’s taken it all the way to New York. From my mother’s foundation all the way to what Quiana’s doing, it has just expanded to where we never could have imagined. It just went right on down the line.”
Whether writing a drama extracted from the gospels or lifted right from the streets, Smith is well-versed in the material and the territory. The conflict and redemption of gospel plays resonate with her own experience — from her chaotic childhood to the recent home invasion her family suffered.
Born in a Milford, Neb. home for young unwed mothers, Smith knew all about instability and poverty growing up in North O with her largely absentee, unemployed, single mom. Smith said years later Pauline admitted she wasn’t ready to be a mother then. For a long time Smith carried “a real resentment” about her childhood being stolen away. For example, she cared for her younger siblings while Pauline was off “running the streets.” “I did most of the cooking and cleaning and stuff,” Smith said. With so much on her shoulders she fared poorly in school.
She witnessed and endured physical abuse at the hands of her alcoholic step-father and discovered the man she thought was her daddy wasn’t at all. When her biological father entered her life she found out a school bully was actually her half-sister and a best friend was really her cousin.
It was only when the teenaged Llana married Rudy her mother did a “turnabout” and settled down, marrying a man with children she raised as her own. “She did a good job raising those kids. She became the church clerk. She was very well respected,” said Smith, who forgave her mother despite the abandonment she felt. “She ended up being my best friend. Nobody could have told me that.”
Until then, however, the only security Smith could count on was when her Aunt Annie and Uncle Bill gave her refuge or when she was at church. She’s sure what kept her from dropping out of school or getting hooked on drugs or turning tricks — some of the very things that befell classmates of hers — was her faith.
“Oh, definitely, no question about it, I could have went either way if it hadn’t really been for church.” she said. “It was the one basic foundation we had.”
In Rudy, she found a fellow believer. A few years older, he came from similar straits.
“I was poor and he was poor-poor,” she said. “We both knew we wanted more than what we had. We wanted out of this. We didn’t want it for our kids. To me, it was survival. I had to survive because I was looking at my sister and my brother and if they don’t have me well, then, sometimes they wouldn’t have nobody. I had to make it through. I never had any thought of giving up. I did wonder, Why me? But running away and leaving them, it never crossed my mind. We had to survive.”
Her personal journey gives her a real connection to the hard times and plaintive hopes that permeate black music and drama. She’s lived it. It’s why she feels a deep kinship with the black church and its tradition of using music and drama ministry to guide troubled souls from despair to joy.
Hilltop is a play she wrote about the driveby shootings and illicit drug activities plaguing the Hilltop-Pleasantview public housing project in Omaha. The drama looks at the real-life transformation some gangbangers made to leave it all behind.
Gospel plays use well-worn conventions, characters and situations to enact Biblical stories, to portray moments/figures in history or to examine modern social ills. Themes are interpreted through the prism of the black experience and the black church, lending the dramas an earthy yet moralistic tone. Even the more secular, contemporary allegories carry a scripturally-drawn message.
Not unlike an August Wilson play, you’ll find the hustler, the pimp, the addict, the loan shark, the Gs, the barber, the beauty salon operator, the mortician, the minister, the do-gooder, the gossip, the busy-body, the player, the slut, the gay guy, et cetera. Iconic settings are also popular. Smith’s Big Momma’s Prayer opens at a church, her These Walls Must Come Down switches between a beauty shop and a detail shop and her Against All Odds We Made It jumps back and forth from a nail shop to a hoops court.
The drama, typically infused with healthy doses of comedy, music, singing and dancing, revolves around the poor choices people make out of sheer willfulness. A breakup, an extramarital affair, a bad business investment, a drug habit or a resentment sets events in motion. There’s almost always a prodigal son or daughter that’s drifted away and become alienated from the family.
The wayward characters led astray come back into the fold of family and church only after some crucible. The end is almost always a celebration of their return, their atonement, their rebirth. It is affirmation raised to high praise and worship.
At the center of it all is the ubiquitous Big Mama figure who exists in many black families. This matriarch is the rock holding the entire works together.
“She’s just so real to a lot of us,” Smith said.
Aunt Annie was the Big Mama in Smith’s early life before her mother was finally ready to assume that role. Smith’s inherited the crown now.
If it all sounds familiar then it’s probably due to Tyler Perry, the actor-writer-director responsible for introducing Big Mama or Madea to white America through his popular plays and movies. His big screen successes are really just more sophisticated, secularized versions of the gospel plays that first made him a star. Where his plays originally found huge, albeit mostly black, audiences, his movies have found broad mainstream acceptance.
Madea is Perry’s signature character.
“When Madea talks she be talking stuff everybody can relate to,” Smith said. “Stuff that’s going on. Every day stuff. We can relate to any and everything she be saying. That character’s a trip. It’s the truth. One of my mother’s best friends was just like Madea. She smoked that cigarette, she talked from the corner of her mouth, she could cuss you out at the drop of a hat and she packed her knife in her bosom.”
Smith appreciates Perry’s groundbreaking work. “That is my idol…my icon. At the top of my list is to meet this man and to thank him for what he’s done,” she said. She also likes the fact “he attributes a lot of what he does to the Lord.”
Her own work shows gospel plays’ ever widening reach — with dramas produced at churches and at the Rose and Orpheum Theatres. She first made her mark with Black History Month presentations at Salem with actors portraying such figures as Medgar Evers, Harriet Tubman and Marian Anderson. Her mom once played Jean Pittman. A son played Martin Luther King Jr. She enjoys “bringing history to life.”
Her Easter-Christmas dramas grew ever grander. Much of that time she collaborated with Salem’s then-Minister of Music, Jay Terrell, and dance director, Shirley Terrell-Jordan. Smith’s recently stepped back from Salem to create plays outside Nebraska. That’s something not even her mother did, although Pauline’s Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God did tour the Midwest and South.
At the urging of Terrell, a Gospel Workshop of America presenter and gospel music composer now at Beulahland Bible Church in Macon, Ga., Smith’s taking her gift “outside the walls of the church.” In 2005 her Big Momma’s Prayer was scored and directed by Terrell for a production at a Macon dinner theater. The drama played to packed houses. A couple years later he provided the music for her These Walls, which Smith directed to overflow audiences at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Wichita, Kansas. In 2008 her Against All Odds was a hit at Oakridge Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan., where she, Terrell-Jordan and Jay Terrell worked with some 175 teens in dance-music-drama workshops.
Against All Odds took on new meaning for Smith when she wrote and staged the drama in the aftermath of a home invasion in which an intruder bound and gagged her, Rudy and a foster-daughter. Rudy suffered a concussion. A suspect in the incident was recently arrested and brought up on charges.
Smith’s work with Terrell is another way she continues the path her mother began. Doretha Wade was Salem’s music director when Pauline did her drama thing there. The two women collaborated on Your Arms Are Too Short, There’s a Stranger in Town and many other pieces. Wade brought the Salem Inspirational Choir its greatest triumph when she and gospel music legend Rev. James Cleveland directed the choir in recording the Grammy-nominated album My Arms Feel Noways Tired. Smith, an alto, sang in the choir, is on the album and went to the Grammys in L.A.
Terrell’s been a great encourager of Smith’s work and the two enjoy a collaboration similar to what Doretha and Pauline shared. “To see how Doretha and her worked to bring the music and the drama together was a big influence and, lo and behold, Jay and I have become the same,” she said.
Smith and Terrell have discussed holding gospel play workshops around the country. Meanwhile, she staged an elaborate production at Salem this past Easter. There’s talk of reviving a great big gospel show called Shout! that Llana wrote dramatic skits for and that packed The Rose Theatre. It’s all coming fast and furious for this Big Mama.
“This is like a whole new chapter in my life,” she said.
NOTE: I am reposting the following article because its subject, Quiana Smith, who goes by Q. Smith professionally, is back in our shared hometown of Omaha, Neb. with the national Broadway touring production of Mary Poppins. Quiana, recently promoted to the part of Miss Andrew, will perform as part of a 23-show run at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha, where loads of family and friends will be sure to cheer her on. This isn’t the first time she’s made a splash: she’s made waves off-Broadway (Fame) and on Broadway (Les Miserables) and in many regional theater productions. But this time she’s come home as part of a Broadway show. Sweet.
Quiana is a daughter of my good acquaintances Rudy and Llana Smith. She’s inherited their talent and drive and gone them one further by pursuing and realizing her dream of a musical theater career in New York. This profile of Quiana for The Reader (www.thereader.com) expresses this dynamic young woman’s heart and passion. It’s been a few years since I’ve spoken with her, and I’m eager to find out what she’s been up to lately, and how she and her father are coming along on a book project about African-American stage divas. Quiana is to write it and Rudy, a professional photographer, is to shoot it. Her mother, Llana, is a theater person, too — writing and directing gospel plays. My story on Llana Smith is posted on this site and I will soon be adding a story I did on Rudy Smith. They are a remarkable family.
Quiana Smith, aka Q. Smith in Mary Poppins
Quiana Smith’s Dream Time Takes Her to Regional, Off-Broadway and Great White Way Theater Success
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Once the dream took hold, Quiana Smith never let go. Coming up on Omaha’s north side she discovered a flair for dramatics and a talent for singing she hoped would lead to a musical theater career. On Broadway. After a steady climb up the ladder her dream comes true tomorrow when a revival of Les Miserables open at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Q. Smith, as her stage name reads, is listed right there in the program, as a swing covering five parts, a testament to her versatility.
Before Les Miz is over Smith will no doubt get a chance to display her big, bold, brassy, bodacious self, complete with her shaved head, soaring voice, infectious laugh and broad smile. Her Broadway debut follows featured roles in the off-Broadway Fame On 42nd Street at NY‘s Little Shubert Theater in 2004 and Abyssinia at the North Shore Theater (Connecticut) in 2005. Those shows followed years on the road touring with musical theater companies or doing regional theater.
Fame’s story about young performers’ big dreams resonated for Smith and her own Broadway-bound aspirations. As Mabel, an oversized dancer seeking name-in-lights glory, she inhabited a part close to her ample self, projecting a passion akin to her own bright spirit and radiating a faith not unlike her deep spirituality. In an Act II scene she belted out a gospel-inspired tune, Mabel’s Prayer, that highlighted her multi-octave voice, impassioned vibrato and sweet, sassy, soulful personality. In the throes of a sacred song like this, Smith retreats to a place inside herself she calls “my secret little box,” where she sings only “to God and to myself. It’s very, very personal.” Whether or not she gets on stage this weekend in Les Miz you can be sure the 28-year-old will be offering praise and thanksgiving to her higher power.
It all began for her at Salem Baptist Church, where her grandmother and mother, have written and directed gospel plays for the dramatic ministry program. At her mother Llana’s urging, Smith and her brothers sang and acted as children. “My brothers got really tired of it, but I loved the attention, so I stuck with it,” said Smith, who began making a name for herself singing gospel hymns, performing skits and reciting poetry at Salem and other venues. She got attention at home, too, where she’d crack open the bathroom window and wail away so loud and finethat neighborhood kids would gather outside and proclaim, “You sure can sing, Quiana” “We were just a real creative house,” said Quiana’s mother.
Quiana further honed her craft in classes at the then-Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre and, later, at North High School, where music/drama teacher Patrick Ribar recalls the impression Smith made on her. “The first thing I noticed about Quiana was her spark and flair for the stage. She was so creative…so diverse. She would do little things to make a part her own. I was amazed. She could hold an audience right away. She has such a warmth and she’s so fun that it’s hard not to like her.”
Still, performing was more a recreational activity than anything else. “Back then, I never knew I wanted to do this as a career,” Smith said. “I just liked doing it and I liked the great response I seemed to get from the audience. But as far as a career, I thought I was going to be an archaeologist.”
She was 15, and a junior at North, when her first brush with stardom came at the old Center Stage Theatre. She saw an audition notice and showed up, only to find no part for a black girl. She auditioned anyway, impressing executive directorLinda Runice enough to be invited back to tryout for a production of Dreamgirls. The pony-tailed hopeful arrived, in jeans and sweatshirt, sans any prepared music, yet director Michael Runice (Linda’s husband) cast her as an ensemble member.
Then, in classic a-star-is-born fashion, the leading lady phoned-in just before rehearsal the night before opening night to say she was bowing out due to a death-in-the-family. That’s when Mike Runice followed his instinct and plucked Smith from the obscurity of the chorus into a lead role she had less than 24 hours to master.
“It was like in a movie,” Smith said. “The director turned around and said to me, ‘It’s up to you, kid.’ I don’t know why he gave it to me to this day. You should have seen the cast. It was full of talented women. I was the youngest.” And greenest. Linda Runice said Smith got it because “she was so talented. She had been strongly considered for the role anyway, but she was so young and it’s such a demanding role. But she was one of those rare packages who could do it all. You saw the potential when she hit the stage, and she just blew them out of the theater.”
What began as a lark and segued into a misadventure, turned into a pressure-packed, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not only did an already excited and scared Smith have precious little time to steel herself for the rigorous part and for the burden of carrying a show on her young shoulders, there was still school to think about, including finals, not to mention her turning sweet 16.
“The director wrote me a note to let me out of school early and he came to pick me up and take me to the theater. From 12 to 8, I was getting fitted for all the costumes, I was learning all the choreography, I was going over all the line readings, I was singing all the songs, and it was just crazy. A crash course.”
Smith pushed so hard, so fast to nail the demanding music in time for the show that she, just as the Runices feared, strained her untrained voice, forcing her to speak many of the songs on stage. That opening night is one she both savors and abhors. “That was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “It was the best thing because if it wasn’t for that experience I’d probably be digging up fossils somewhere, which isn’t bad, but I wouldn’t be fulfilled. And it was the worst because I was so embarrassed.”
In true trouper tradition, Smith and the show went on. “What a responsiblity she carried for someone so young, and she carried it off with all the dignity and aplomb anyone could ever want,” Linda Runice said. Smith even kept the role the entire run. The confidence she gained via this baptism-by-fire fueled her ambition. “I told myself, If I can do this, I can do anything,” Smith said. Runice remembers her “as this bubbly, fresh teenager who was going to set the world on fire, and she has.”
To make her Broadway debut in Les Miz is poetic justice, as that show first inspired Smith’s stage aspirations. She heard songs from it in a North High music class and was really bit after seeing a Broadway touring production of it at the Orpheum.
“It was my introduction to musical theater. I fell in love with it,” she said. “I already had a double cassette of the cast album and I would listen to this song called ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ over and over. It was sung by Patti Lapone. I tried to teach myself to sing like that. When I finally met her last year I told her the story. That song is still in my audition book.”
Smith dreamed of doing Lez Miz in New York. Ribar recalls her telling him soon after they met, “‘One day I’m going to be on Broadway…’ She was bound and determined. Nothing was going to stop her. So, she goes there, and the next thing you know…she’s on Broadway. With her determination and talent, you just knew she was right on the edge of really brilliant things in her life. I brag about her to the kids as someone who’s pursued her dream,” he said. Stardom, he’s sure, isn’t far off. “Once the right role shows up, it’s a done deal.”
A scholarship led her to UNO, where she studied drama two years. All the while, she applied to prestigious theater arts programs back east to be closer to New York. Her plans nearly took a major detour when, after an audition in Chicago, she was accepted, on the spot, by the Mountview Conservatory in London to study opera. Possessing a fine mezzo soprano voice, her rendition of an Italian aria knocked school officials out. She visited the staid old institution, fell in love with London, but ultimately decided against it. “The opera world, to me, isn’t as exciting and as free as the musical theater world is,” she said. “Besides, it was a two or three-year conservatory program, and I really wanted the whole college experience to make me a whole person.”
©photo by David Wells
Her musical theater track resumed with a scholarship to Ithaca (NY) College, where she and a classmate became the first black female grads of the school’s small theater arts program. She also took private voice and speech training. At Ithaca, she ran into racial stereotyping. “When I first got there everybody expected you to sing gospel or things from black musicals,” she said. “Everything was black or white. And I was like, It doesn’t have to be like that. I can do more than gospel. I can do more than R&B. I can do legit. I really had to work hard to prove myself.”
Her experience inspired an idea for a book she and her father, Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith, are collaborating on. She interviews black female musical theater actresses to reveal how these women overturn biases, break down barriers and open doors. “We’re rare,” she said of this sisterhood. “These women are an inspiration to me. They don’t take anything from anybody. They’re divas, honey. Back in the day, you would take any part that came to you because it was a job, but this is a new age and we are allowed to say, No. In college, I would have loved to have been able to read about what contemporary black females are doing in musical theater.” Her father photographs the profile subjects.
She’s had few doubts about performing being her destiny. One time her certainty did falter was when she kept applying for and getting rejected by college theater arts programs. She sought her dad’s counsel. “I said, ‘Dad…how do I know this is for me?’ He was like, ‘Sweetheart, it’s what you breath, right?’ It’s what you go to bed and wake up in the morning thinking about, right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah…’ ‘OK, then, that’s what you should be doing.’ And, so, I never gave up. I kept on auditioning and I finally got accepted to Ithaca.”
Smith has worked steadily since moving to the Big Apple. Her credits include speaking-singing parts in productions of Hair at the Zachary Scott Theatre and The Who’s Tommy at the Greenwich St. Theatre and performing gigs in five touring road shows. Those road trips taught her a lot about her profession and about herself. On a months-long winter tour through Germany with the Black Gospel Singers, which often found her and her robed choir mates performing in magnificent but unheated cathedrals, she got in touch with her musical-cultural heritage. “Gospel is my roots and being part of the gospel singers just brought my roots back,” she said.
New York is clearly where Smith belongs. “I just feel like I’ve always known New York. I always dreamed about it. It was so easy and comfortable when I first came here,” she said. “Walking the streets alone at 1 a.m., I felt at home, like it was meant to be. It’s in my blood or something.”
Until Fame and now Les Miz, New York was where she lived between tours. Her first of two cross-country stints in Smokey Joe’s Cafe proved personally and professionally rewarding. She understudied roles that called for her to play up in age, not a stretch for “an old soul” like Smith. She also learned lessons from the show’s star, Gladys Knight. “She was definitely someone who gave it 100 percent every night, no matter if she was hoarse or sick, and she demanded that from us as well,” Smith said, “and I appreciated that. The nights I didn’t go on, I would go out into the audience and watch her numbers and she just blew the house down every single night. And I was like, I want to be just like that. I learned…about perseverance and about dedication to the gift God has given you.”
For a second Smokey stint, starring Rita Coolidge, Q. was a regular cast member. Then, she twice ventured to Central America with the revues Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber andBlues in the Night. “That’s an experience I’ll never forget,” she said. “We went to a lot of poor areas in Guatemala and El Salvador. People walk around barefoot. Cows are in the road. Guns are all around. We performed in ruins from the civil wars. And there we were, singing our hearts out for people who are hungry, and they just loved it. It was a life-changing experience.”
She loves travel but loves performing more in New York, where she thinks she’s on the cusp of something big. “It’s a dream come true and I truly believe this is just the beginning,” said Smith, who believes a higher power is at work. “I know it’s not me that’s doing all this stuff and opening all these doors so quickly, because it’s taken some people years and years to get to this point. It’s nothing but the Lord. I have so much faith. That’s what keeps me in New York pursuing this dream.”
Connecting with long time friend Jia Taylor
While not a headliner with her name emblazoned on marquees just yet, she’s sure she has what it takes to be a leading lady, something she feels is intrinsic in her, just waiting for the chance to bust on out. “I’m a leading lady now. I’m a leading lady every day. Yes, I say that with confidence, and not because I’m so talented,” she said. “It’s not about having a great voice. It’s not about being a star. It’s about how you carry yourself and connect with people. It’s about having a great aura and spirit and outlook on life… and I think I’ve got that”
Her busy career gives Smith few chances to get back home, where she said she enjoys “chilling with my family and eating all the good food,” but she makes a point of it when she can. She was back in September, doing a workshop for aspiring young performers at the Hope Center, an inner city non-profit close to her heart. She also sang for a cousin’s wedding at Salem. On some breaks, she finds time to perform here, as when featured in her mother’s Easter passion play at Salem in 2004. She’d like one day to start a school for performing arts on the north side, giving children of color a chance to follow their own dreams.
Occasionally, a regional theater commitment will bring her close to home, as when she appeared in a summer 2005 production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coatin Wichita. Despite lean times between acting-singing gigs, when she works with aspiring youth performers for the Camp Broadway company, Smith keeps auditioning and hoping for the break that lands her a lead or featured part on Broadway, in film or on television. She’s not shy about putting herself out there, either. She went up for a role opposite Beyonce in the film adaptation of Dreamgirls, the other show she dreams of doing on Broadway. She can see it now. “Q. Smith starring in…” She wants it all, a Tony, an Oscar, an Emmy. A career acting, singing, writing, directing, teaching and yes, even performing opera.
Smith’s contracted for the six-month run of Les Miz. Should it be extended, she may face a choice: stay with it or join the national touring company of The Color Purple, which she may be in line for after nearly being cast in the Broadway show.
That said, Smith is pursuing film/TV work in L.A. after the positive experience of her first screen work, a co-starring role in the Black Entertainment Network’s BETJ mini-series, A Royal Birthday. The Kim Fields-directed project, also being packaged as a film, has aired recently on BET and its Jazz off-shoot. A kind of romantic comedy infomercial for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the project also features Gary Dourdan from CSI and gospel artist David Hollister.
The Royal Birthday shoot, unfolding on two separate Caribbean cruises, whet her appetite for more screen work and revealed she has much to learn. “It was absolutely beautiful. We went horseback riding, para-sailing, jet-skiing. I had never done any of those things,” she said. “I learned a lot about acting for the camera, too. I’m very theatrical, very animated in it. It doesn’t need to be that big.”
Should fame allude her on screen or on stage, she’s fine with that, too, she said, because “I’m doing something I truly love.” Besides, she can always find solace in that “little secret box” inside her, where it’s just her and God listening to the power of her voice lifted on high. Sing in exaltation.