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Positively, no negativity: Nick Hernandez


 

Positively, no negativity: Nick Hernandez

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the July 5, 2018 issue of El Perico (el-perico.com)

Some call it bliss. Others, serenity. For Nick Hernandez of Lincoln, Nebraska, the study and practice of positive psychology is both way of life and career.

The 41-year-old couldn’t have imagined this two decades ago. Back then, the Olathe, Kansas native was a married post-graduate student who looked at people and life critically. Now he’s co-founder and evangelist for an organization called Posiivity Matters, He hosts Community Matters on KZUM 89.3 FM, conducts coaching-team building workshops, makes presentations and organizes activities – all around the notion that individuals and communities thrive when engaged in nurturing activities.

He’s convened regional and citywide summits (Happiness Lincoln) and contributed to events (Cameron Effect and Seeds of Kindness) on the subject.

Before finding his niche, he got divorced and entered recovery for a problem drinking habit. The seeds of his “community-building” were planted earlier through Hispanic leadership opportunity and Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership programs he completed in Kansas City, Missouri.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from liberal arts Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas and did graduate studies in economics at the University of Texas at Austin.

When he lost his job as an economist with the Texas Department of Labor, he found a matching job with the Nebraska Department of Labor in 2002. When his unit took the Gallup organization’s Strengths Finder test, he learned a new way of thinking and being. “It was a very meaningful experience,” he said. “I then  discovered there is a field called positive psychology.” In reading up on it, he became convinced he found the holistic pathway he’d been missing.

“It was a shift in mindset. I had a real critical mindset that wasn’t focused on strengths before. It opened up new territory for how how I saw myself and others.”

Newly aware he was by nature and nurture a convener, a leader, an affirmer and an appreciator, he embraced “hooking up with good in ourselves” and became “an encourager for others to grow into potential you see in them that they may not be aware of.”

“I found it really fulfilling to be in that role for others.”

Meanwhile, he sounded out experts who further encouraged his interest in the philosophy and science of positive psychology, well-being and human flourishing.

“That deepened my sense that maybe I’m onto something here.”

He then broadened his reach of influence.

“I started getting involved more in the community.”Nick

Nick Hernandez

 

Upon completing the Great Neighborhoods program offered by Neighbor Works Lincoln, he said, “I found myself feeling a sense of purpose to see if it could be put into action at the neighborhood association level.”

In 2007 he restarted the dormant Havelock Neighborhood Association and revived its fall festival.

“It was quite an enriching experience to create an occasion for people from different places in the neighborhood to get together. I enjoy coming up with activities that make mindfulness fun and accessible.”

He helped lead kindness campaigns in Lincoln that inspired participation by adults and youth.

“Kindness hopefully has a double effect. The stories we tell ourselves when we volunteer or do random acts of kindness are self-affirming. We think, ‘I’m the kind of person that practices generosity, kindness and compassion.’ That alters the story of who we are in our identity.’

Hernandez’s journey has been far more than academic.

“It was spurred by my own experiences in recovery and then getting involved in service work. What I found eventually was a profound sense of fulfillment by volunteering to take a recovery meeting into the Lancaster County adult detention center.

“That’s where I really felt I started taking this idea of practicing generosity as a way of life and really committed myself to doing it in a systematic way.”

His recovery has paralleled his well-being quest.

“Once I got into recovery I realized I felt a deep sense of loneliness. I know there were people around me who loved and cared for me, but for some reason I wasn’t letting it connect. Through being in recovery and getting in service, I finally felt that sense of connectedness.”

Since humans are genetically wired to be on high alert, he said, we must consciously choose positive thoughts. He’s convinced our basic desire and need for well-being is achieved “when we’re able to share our sense of self, our core ideas with others in a positive relationship, whether friendship or romantic, who really care about us growing into that.”

“That’s the direction I’m trying to take this habit of kindness and generosity. I am exploring if this can be something fostered through small group conversation grounded in the philosophy and science of well-being.”

He’s long organized discussion groups promoting positive psychology research and the benefits of practicing mindfulness. His 2015 Happiness Lincoln summit at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln featured scholars on the 15th anniversary of America’s first national positive psychology conference held in Lincoln, a community that ranks high in well-being measures.

His Community Matters radio show facilitates discussions with well-being experts from around world, including a recent guest he Skyped-in from Israel.

On May 20 he organized a community conversation on collaboration at Lincoln’s Constellation Studios with fiber artist Karen Kunc, a philosophy professor and a public health advocate.

His speaking, coaching, team building doesn’t pay all the bills, thus he makes money other ways, including teaching social dance – swing, salsa, tango, ballroom.

“That’s personally an extremely fun, positive psychology intervention – cognitive, social, physical well-being all in one.”

He’s now actively pursuing work in the human resources field.

Follow him on Facebook and YouTube. His show broadcasts Mondays from 11:30 a.m. to Noon and streams at http://kzum.org.

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

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North Omaha rupture at center of PlayFest drama

April 30, 2018 2 comments

 

North Omaha rupture at center of PlayFest drama

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

In her original one-act More Than Neighbors, playwright Denise Chapman examines a four-decades old rupture to Omaha’s African-American community still felt today.

North Freeway construction gouged Omaha’s Near North Side in the 1970s-1980s. Residents got displaced,homes and businesses razed, tight-knit neighborhoods separated. The concrete swath further depopulated and drained the life of a district already reeling from riots and the loss of meatpacking-railroading jobs. The disruptive freeway has remained both a tangible and figurative barrier to community continuity ever since.

Chapman’s socially-tinged piece about the changed nature of community makes its world premiere Thursday, May 31 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Great Plains Theatre Conference’s PlayFest.

The site of the performance, The Venue at The Highlander, 2112 North 30th Street, carries symbolic weight. The organization behind the purpose-built Highlander Village is 75 North. The nonprofit is named for U.S. Highway 75, whose North Freeway portion severed the area. The nonprofit’s mixed-use development overlooks it and is meant to restore the sense of community lost when the freeway went in.

The North Freeway and other Urban Renewal projects forced upon American inner cities only further isolated already marginalized communities.

“Historically, in city after city, you see the trend of civil unrest, red lining, white flight, ghettoizing of areas and freeway projects cutting right through the heart of these communities,” Chapman said.

Such transportation projects, she said, rammed through “disenfranchised neighborhoods lacking the political power and dollars” to halt or reroute roads in the face of federal-state power land grabs that effectively said, “We’re just going to move you out of the way.”

By designating the target areas “blighted” and promoting public good and economic development, eminent domain was used to clear the way.

“You had to get out,” said Chapman, adding, “I talked to some people who weren’t given adequate time to pack all their belongings. They had to leave behind a lot of things.” In at least one case, she was told an excavation crew ripped out an interior staircase of a home still occupied to force removal-compliance.

With each succeeding hit taken by North O, things were never the same again

“There was a shift of how we understand community as each of those things happened,” she said. “With the North Freeway, there was a physical separation. What happens when someone literally tears down your house and puts a freeway in the middle of a neighborhood and people who once had a physical connection no longer do? What does that do to the definition of community? It feels like it tears it apart.

“That’s really what the play explores.”

Dramatizing this where it all went down only adds to the intense feelings around it.

“As I learned about what 75 North was doing at the Highlander it just made perfect sense to do the play there. To share a story in a place working to revitalize and redefine community is really special. It’s the only way this work really works.”

Neighbors features an Omaha cast of veterans and newcomers directed by Chicagoan Carla Stillwell.

The African-American diaspora drama resonates with Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and August Wilson’s Jitney with its themes of family and community assailed by outside forces but resiliently holding on.

Three generations of family are at the heart of Chapman’s play, whose characters’ experiences are informed by stories she heard from individuals personally impacted by the freeway’s violent imposition.

Faithful Miss Essie keeps family and community together with love and food. Her bitter middle-class daughter Thelma, who left The Hood, now opposes her own daughter Alexandra, who’s eager to assert her blackness, moving there. David, raised by Essie as “claimed family,” and his buddy Teddy are conflicted about toiling on the freeway. David’s aspirational wife, Mae, is expecting.

Through it all – love, loss, hope, opportunity, despair, dislocation and reunion – family and home endure.

“I think it really goes back to black people in America coming out of slavery, which should have destroyed them, but it didn’t,” Chapman said. “Through our taking care of each other and understanding of community and coming together we continue to survive. We just keep on living. There are ups and downs in our community but at the end of the day we keep redefining communityhopefully in positive ways.”

“What makes Denise’s story so warm and beautiful is that it does end with hope,” director Carla Stillwell said.

Past and present commingle in the nonlinear narrative.

“One of the brilliant things about her piece is that memory works in the play in the way it works in life by triggering emotions. To get the audience to experience those feelings with the characters is my goal.”

Feelings run deep at PlayFest’s Neighborhood Tapestries series, which alternates productions about North and South Omaha.

“The response from the audience is unlike any response you see at just kind of a standard theater production,” GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler said, “because people are seeing their lives or their community’s lives up on stage. It’s very powerful and I don’t expect anything different this time.”

 

Neighbors is Chapman’s latest North O work after 2016’s Northside Carnation about the late community matriarch, Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown. That earlier play is set in the hours before the 1969 riot that undid North 24th Street. Just as Northside found a home close to Brown and her community at the Elk’s Lodge, Neighbors unfolds where bittersweet events are still fresh in people’s minds.

“The placement of the performance at the Highlander becomes so important,” said Chapman, “because it helps to strengthen that message that we as a community are more and greater than the sum of the travesties and the tragedies.

“Within the middle of all the chaos there are still flowers growing and a whole new community blossoming right there on 30th street in a place that used to not be a great place – partly because they put a freeway in the middle of it.”

Chapman sees clear resonance between what the characters in her play do and what 75 North is doing “to develop the concept of community holistically.”

“It’s housing, food, education and work opportunities and community spaces for people to come together block by block. It’s really exciting to be a part of that.”

ChapMan is sure that Neighbors will evoke memories the same way Northside did.

“For some folks it was like coming home and sharing their stories.”

Additional PlayFest shows feature a full-stage production of previous GPTC Playlab favorite In the City in the City in the City by guest playwright Matthew Capodicasa and a “homage collage” to the work of this year’s honored playwright, Sarah Ruhl, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient. Two of Ruhl’s plays have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

Capodicasa uses a couple’s visit to the mythical city-state of Mastavia as the prism for exploring what we take from a place.

“It’s about how when you’re traveling, you inevitably experience the place through the lens of the people you’re with and how that place is actually this other version of itself – one altered by your presence or curated for your tourist experience,” he said.

In the City gets its world premiere at the Blue Barn Theatre on Tuesday, May 29 at 7:30 p.m. Producing artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer said the piece is “a perfect engine” for the theater’s season-long theme of “connect” because of its own exploration of human connections.” She also appreciates theopen-ended nature of the script. “It’s evocative and compelling without being overly prescriptive. The play can be done in as many ways as there are cities and we are thrilled to bring it to life for the first time.”

You Want to Love Strangers: An Evening in Letters, Lullabies, Essays and Clear Soup celebrates what its director Amy Lane calls Ruhl’s “poetic, magical, lush” playwriting. “Her plays are often like stepping into a fairytale where the unexpected can and does happen. Her work is filled with theatre magic, a childlike sense of wonder, playfulness, mystery. We’ve put together a short collage that includes monologues, scenes and songs from some of her best known works.”

The Ruhl tribute will be staged at the 40th Street Theatre on Friday, June 1 at 7:30 p.m.

All PlayFest performances are free. For details and other festival info, visit http://www.gptcplays.com.

South Omaha takes center stage

May 5, 2017 1 comment

What would Omaha be without South Omaha? Well, for starters, the city would lose a whole lot of history, culture, character and vitality. Just like the murals springing up all over South Omaha, the area is a mash-up of races, ethnicities, cultures, neighborhoods, traditions, colorful characters and intriguing landmarks that express a diverse tapestry of work, family and social life that not only enriches the city’s livability but that helps make Omaha, well, Omaha. Sometimes though it takes an outsider to appreciate the personality of a place. Los Angeles playwright Michael John Garces has spent time in South Omaha the last couple years familiarizing himself with the area and its people in prepration for creating stage works that celebrate different aspects of South Omaha for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. In 2015 and again in 2017, the conference’s PlayFest is focusing on South Omaha as part of its Neighborhood Tapestries program and each time Garces has gone into the community to extract its essence. His process involves walking the streets, stopping in places to talk to people and formally collecting people’s stories through interviews and exercises he conducts. His resulting new play “South” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 31 during the free PlayFest at Omaha South High School. Some of that school’s students participated in story circles Garces conducted and will perform in the play. This is my story about the appeciation that Garces has gained for South Omaha. The piece appears in the May 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Image result for south omaha 24th street

 

South Omaha takes center stage

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com)

 

South.

When applied to Omaha, the word refers to a neighborhood and a school where cross-cultural intersections happen every day. South is also the working title and setting of a new play by Los Angeles playwright Michael John Garces. His original work is having its world premiere at South High on Wednesday, May 31 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the May 27-June 3 Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC).

South Omaha’s a landing spot for migrants, immigrants and refugees. South High’s a microcosm of the area and its range of social-racial-ethnic diversity. Garces spent time in South O researching his play. He visited there in 2015 for a similar project. His new drama expresses fears, aspirations, issues and traditions of the two primary populations comprising the area today – Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans. Other ethnicities are represented in the piece as well.

The GPTC production is part of the conference’s community-based PlayFest. The free show featuring South High students will be performed in the school auditorium. South High is at 4519 South 24th Street.

The annual conference hosted by Metropolitan Community College takes turns exploring aspects of inner city Omaha through its Neighborhood Tapestries. Last year’s focus was North Omaha. This year, it’s South Omaha. Garces visited last fall garnering the raw material for the play from story circles convened with people who variously live, work and attend school there or otherwise identify as South Omahans.

“Community-based work creates a story vibrantly alive in the truths of the specific community participating in it,” said GPTC artistic director Kevin Lawler. “It allows for the community to share stories directly, in-person, and with the depth theater provides. With the annual PlayFest Neighborhood Tapestries we are creating a living history of the local neighborhoods of Omaha that is unlike any other that exists for the city.”

For South, Garces created two fictional families. One, Lithuanian-American. The other, Mexican-American. The lives of Lina, younger sister Gabija and their parents are juxtaposed with the lives of Lupe, younger brother Diego and their parents. The two households contend with things universal across cultures but also singular to their own family and life situation.

 

 

 

Image result for michael john garces
Michael John Garces

 

 

Once Donald Trump got elected President, Garces returned for an extra story circle, this time with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, who expressed concerns about anti-immigrant stands.

“It just changed what it meant to write a play at this moment,” Garces said. “I appreciated how my colleagues at the conference stepped up to that and had me come back out to have more conversations with people, which was really necessary.”

The threat of DACA’s repeal, wholesale deportations and a border wall were among the concerns shared.

“There was definitely some trepidation expressed to me about what certain changes would mean for South Omaha, particularly for young people.”

In the play Lina’s intensely curious about the legal status of friends Lupe and Diego, who avoid the subject until something brings it to light. The two girls wind up protesting on behalf of immigration reform. Garces said, “I talked to people with a very wide range of relationships to activism, so I wanted to represent young people who were activists like Lina and Lupe, and others, like Diego, who aren’t so much.”

By play’s end, Diego’s run afoul of the law and he and Lina have grown apart. Lina and Lupe ponder their respective futures. Lina’s free to go and return as she pleases. Lupe and Diego don’t have that luxury.

“Lina is frustrated with some things happening in her community and for her to leave is a different choice then for Lupe to leave because Lina knows she can come back,” said Garces, whose play intentionally explores who America is home to and isn’t today.

“I think this notion of home is challenging and contested right now. What does it mean to live in the United States since you were 2 and be told you have to go back ‘home’ to a place you don’t have any memory of and whose language you may not speak and leave the place where you do speak the language and where everyone you know lives. There’s a high degree of precariousness and uncertainty for people.”

Questions about identity and home resonate for Garces.

“There’s definitely personal connections in the play for me of families being put under stress by political concerns and as a young person having to make those decisions. Some of the interpersonal stuff that happens both within the family and with friends resonates, too.

“My father’s Cuban, my mother’s Anglo-American, and I grew up in South America, which has its own series of complexities. But at the end of the day I have friends who can’t make the same choices I can make. Regardless of how complex my life and how hard the choices may be, regardless of my convictions, there is always the simple fact I have an American passport, which unless I do something very specific cannot be taken away from me. And so I have the option of certain choices some of my friends don’t. Me choosing to leave the United States or stay is a vastly different choice than it is for someone who’s not a citizen.”

In terms of how South Omahans view themselves, Garces sees a dynamic, healthy tension between permanency and transition. It’s a working-class place with rich history and strong cultural ties, yet always reinventing itself. The one constant is aspiration.

“When I talk to people in the taqueria or the school or the Lithuanian Bakery or wherever I go, there’s always this sense of people looking forward to what’s going to be possible for the next generation and what is the neighborhood going to be. It’s been so many things but what it’s going to be is always in question.

“The sense of excitement and possibility around that is very real. The food, the murals, the sense when you’re on the street that lives are being made and that it’s a place of possibility – that’s what I’ve really taken away with me from South Omaha.”

He said even apart from questions about how federal policies, laws or executive orders might crack down on illegal immigrants, currents of change fill the air.

“I hear this from young people, old people, people from a wide range of backgrounds talking very consistently about how the neighborhood is perceived to be changing. People talk about what they think is positive about that change but also express concern.”

He said he finds people there take a “great deal of pride in their origins. whether Lithuania or Mexico or other places, whether they’re first, second or third generation.” He added, “They’re very proud, too. of being from South Omaha. At the same time they feel South Omaha is not highly regarded by people not of South Omaha.”

GPTC associate artistic director Scott Working, who’s directing the play, admires what Garces has wrought.

“He artfully distills dozens of stories and hundreds of images into these beautiful collections of relatable moments. His characters absolutely feel like you ran into them on South 24th Street. Some of our younger cast were a part of the South High discussion and recognize moments in the play that were in that conversation.”

Garces was still tweaking the ending in mid-April. Though he also directs and heads L.A.-based Cornerstone Theater Company, he’s put the production in the hands of Working, co-designers Bill Van Deest and Carol Wisner and costumer Lindsay Pape.

“As a writer I tend to try to create a framework that’s pretty open for the designer and the director to interpret that physical world. I talked to Scott about how from my writer’s perspective I think the play needs to flow and there needs to be rhythm but beyond that I’m trusting in them to capture something sort of essential about what it means to be in South Omaha. I’m actually excited to see what they come up with.”

Garces has enjoyed the experience of representing the former Magic City in a dramatic structure.

“It’s been a really good process. I’ve felt really supported by the conference. I don’t mean to sound all Hallmark about it but you occasionally have those artistic experiences that just feel good and this has been one of them. This has felt really right.”

He’s also come to feel a kinship for South O. Though he’s learned much over two years, he considers himself “more informed guest” than honorary South Omahan.

For the complete PlayFest schedule, visit

http://www.gptcplays.com/.

Mural Man – Artist Mike Giron captures heart of South Omaha

May 2, 2017 1 comment

Murals are the great mash-up the art world. Their size and themes lend themselves to big, bold visions landing somewhere between paintings, posters and frozen film images characterized by dynamic swirls of figures, places, events and symobls. Mike Giron is one of Omaha’s busiest muralists and he’s the subject of an Omaha Magazine  (http://omahamagazine.comprofile I wrote that appears in the May-June 2017 issue. Giron’s work for the ongoing South Omaha Mural Project has taken him and his partner artists deep inside that district and its ethnic neighborhoods. But he does more than murals. He makes studio art and he also teaches art at Metropolitan Community College. And he helped design the exhibition spaces for the recently opened South Omaha Museum. 

 

 

Mural Man

Artist Mike Giron captures heart of South Omaha

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine  (http://omahamagazine.com

Visual artist Mike Giron’s creative life spans studio practice, teaching, and working with A Midsummer’s Mural and South Omaha Mural Project teams.

“In my studio work, I have no idea what’s going to happen—I just go. I’m not forcing or insisting on anything. The work creates itself in some crazy way,” Giron says. “When it comes to murals, it’s a lot more deliberate. You have to propose a design before you begin. So, I live in these two different worlds, and I think it’s keeping me balanced.”

The New Orleans native came to Omaha in the early 1990s by way of Colorado, where he met his ex-wife, an Omaha native. After her father died, the couple moved here with the intent of restoring her family home, selling it, and returning to Colorado. But Omaha proved a good place to raise their two children, so they stayed.

Giron, 45, taught art at Bellevue University and ran the campus gallery. Today, he’s a Metropolitan Community College adjunct instructor.

Without knowing it, he prepared to be a muralist through his experience painting Mardi Gras floats in New Orleans. Walls are not so different from float structures—they’re big and imperfect. And just as he used cut-out panels on floats, he does the same with murals.

“The Polish mural is the clearest example,” he says. “There was a downspout, a chimney, and a fence around an air conditioning unit, and we used cut-outs to hide those things. It gave a 3D pop-up look effect. It also breaks the frame to extend beyond the box of the building.”

Patience is a virtue for a muralist.

“Murals take a long time—maybe two months,” he says. “Unless you really practice your Zen, you’ve got to make it enjoyable to keep on doing it every day.”

The social contract of public art and the collaborative nature of murals means you’d better like people. He does. You’d better like working big, too.

“Once you experience large-scale production, it’s hard to go back to small paintings,” he says. “Although I still consider myself a studio painter, there’s also something about doing large work. You can’t help but see a wall and go, ‘Oh, that would be perfect for this statement.’ And then the physicality of the work feels good. You’re carrying stuff all the time; you’re up and down ladders. The brush strokes are not just a flick of the wrist.”

But Giron says the real reason he and his fellow muralists do it is because “we’re channeling the voices of people who can’t do this, and we take pride in that.” He says, “We feel good about delivering something that people feel does express them.”

The process for the South Omaha murals involves deep community immersion.

“The more you immerse and personally connect with the people on a street level, the more you’re going to be trusted by that community, and the more they’ll open up and allow you in,” he says.

The South O murals feature diverse looks.

“Some fall into naturalism, and others go into some other place,” he says, “That’s interesting to me because it’s not the same. Rather than a signature style, I would prefer they look like they were done by different people.”

They are. Giron works with Richard Harrison, Rebecca Van Orman, and Hugo Zamorano. Neighbors contribute stories and ideas at community meetings. Residents and students participate in paint days and attend unveiling celebrations.

The works are an extension of the new South Omaha Museum, whose director, historian Gary Kastrick, conceived the murals project. Giron serves on the museum board. He enjoys digging through Kastrick’s artifact collection and preparing exhibits, including a replica of an Omaha Stockyards pen.

The idea is for the museum, the murals, and Kastrick’s history tours to spark a South O renaissance keying off the district’s rich heritage and culture. Muralists like Giron share a bigger goal to “make Omaha a destination for public art.” He says murals are a great way to enhance the city’s visual aesthetic and to engage the community. Besides, he says, murals “demonstrate to the public there is an arts community here” in a visible way galleries cannot.

Giron is impressed by the Omaha arts explosion. “There’s so much going on and so many young artists hitting the scene making a big impact,” he says.

Meanwhile, he continues to create studio art. His series On the Brighter Side of Post-Apocalyptic Minimalism employed fire-singed materials to make their satirical marks.

“With the process-oriented stuff I’m doing now, there’s a huge amount of variety, even though I’m just using grids,” he says, explaining that his personal artworks have moved away from rules of perspective and representational dictates of realism.

“When you don’t use any of that, all you have is the process and the visual reality of things—line, shape, value, color, texture, and space,” he says. “When you start playing in that area, where there’s no limits in terms of defining what things should be or should look like, you find it’s actually inexhaustible.”

He intends to follow “the course of my curiosity,” adding, “If you are really free as an artist, then you just follow whatever’s interesting to you.”

New murals keep beckoning, though. “I get pulled into all this work. You set yourself up for a fall, but the fall is where all the good stuff happens,” he says.

Having completed Czech, Lithuanian, Polish, Mexican, Metropolitan Community College, and Magic City murals for the South O project, Giron and company are now working on a Croatian mural. Irish, Italian, African-American, and Stockyards murals are still to come.

Visit amidsummersmural.com for more information.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Mural project celebrates mosaic of South Omaha culture

July 19, 2016 2 comments

Historically, South Omaha is the city’s receiving community for new immigrants and refugees, though North Omaha plays some of that role, too. Blue collar jobs in the commerical, industrial labor sector have provided the livelihood for succeeding waves and generations of ethnic groups to have settled there. South O once had and to some extent still does have neighborhoods with distinct concentrations of ethnic groups. Traditionally, these ethnic enclaves become communities within the larger community. At one time, there were neighborhoods where Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians, Croats and other peoples of Eastern European origin established their own enclaves. There were also strong Italian, Irish and Mexican contingents. And the Great Migration brought many African Americans from the Deep South here as well. The railroads and packing houses were the main employers for many of these new arrivals. World War II-era manufacturing jobs were lures as well. The residents living in the various ethnic neighborhoods that took shape were bound by their shared birthplace, language, customs, religious affiliation and so on. They had their own churches and  community centers that reinfoced their tight-knit connections. Festivals celebrated their hertiage and traditions. Having long ago assimilated and with second-third generation descendants moving to other other sections of the city and with the wartime, railroad and packing house jobs disappearing, those once ethnic-centric areas in South Omaha became more homogenized over time. Today, only trace elements of their once ethnic identities remain. The last three decades have seen the emergence of new emigrees from Latin and Central America, Asia and Africa, thus repeating the patterns that happened with earlier groups in the late 19th century through the late 1920s. All of this is context for an art project now underway in South Omaha that celebrates the different heritages that have made it such a melting pot over time. The South Omaha Mural Project is creating a mural for each of the major ethnic groups that have populated the area. A future mural may also commemorate the stockyards-packing plant epoch that dominated the South Omaha landscape for decades with that industry’s acres of buildings and structures that emplpyed thousands of people and with all the ancilliary businesses that served those workers.

 

Mural project celebrates mosaic of South Omaha culture

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico

 

What began as a one-off neighborhood mural by Richard Harrison and his daughter Rebecca Van Ornam has morphed into a project with several artists depicting historical South Omaha ethnic groups and landmarks.

When historian Gary Kastrick saw the South 13th Street mural Harrison and Van Ornam did illustrating the area’s Czech heritage, it sparked an idea for a mural culture series celebrating South Omaha’s role as a gateway for ethnic immigrant and refugee assimilation.

More murals followed through the help of the South Omaha Business Association (SOBA), who secured grants for a history mural at the Metropolitan Community College south campus and a Magic City Mural at 24th and N. Thus, the South Omaha Mural Project was born.

Artist Hugo Zamorano joined the team for a Lithuanian mural on the Lithuanian Bakery at 5217 South 33rd Avenue. A Mexican mural in the Plaza de la Raza was unveiled July 10. New murals are planned for the Polish, Irish, Croatian, Italian, Jewish, African-American ethnic enclaves that traditionally called South Omaha home. The more recently arrived Honduran, Guatemalan and El Salvadoran communities will get murals, too. There’s talk of one celebrating South O’s stockyards-meatpacking legacy as well.

The Polish mural will adorn a wall of Dinker’s Bar at 2368 South 29th Street. The Irish mural will grace another popular hangout, Donohue’s Pub, at 3232 L Street.

“We’re looking for walls that have good visibility in relationship to the neighborhood,” Harrison said. “Size is a good thing.”

Every wall poses its own challenges.

“When a wall is rough and covered with obstacles like water meters and things we are coming up with solutions of putting up profile cut sign boards with characters and symbols on them, so the wall has sort of a pop-up book, three-dimensional feeling to it,” Harrison said.

Project funding comes from SOBA, the Nebraska Arts Council, the Mayor’s Neighborhood Grants Program, the City of Omaha’s Historical Grant initiative and various community sources.

David Catalan served as SOBA president when the organization decided to support the mural project. He said the project aligns well with SOBA’s mission of “preserving the diversity and heritage of South Omaha.”

Some ethnic organizations hold fundraisers to help underwrite their individual murals. The South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance is a new partner.

Harrison is a project facilitator and a supporting artist. Michael Giron and Zamorano trade-off as lead artist. Kastrick serves as the history consultant. Catalan is an advisor and liaison.

 

 

This labor of love entails extensive community engagement and input for each mural. Multiple public meetings elicit information and ideas. The public can view the final sketch projected on a wall and can join community paint days.

“We are connecting with a lot of people in each successive community we focus on,” Harrison said. “We’re happy how fast this connects with people and how much it matters to them. They come to the meetings and share their stories and memories. Everybody we talk to finds it meaningful to them.”

He believes the community taking ownership of the murals explains why none have suffered graffiti.

After the communal paint days, Harrison, Giron, Zamorano and other artists paint for a month or two – working in acrylics to sharpen images and to apply shading and highlights. A clear protective sealer is added at the end.

When a mural’s finished, a public celebration is held.

This community-based approach is much more involved than the private commissions Harrison does under his A Midsummer’s Mural business but he said it’s all worth it.

“What’s really special is bringing the community together to talk about what’s important to them and what memories they have.”

Kastrick, a retired Omaha South High history teacher who leads South Omaha history tours, hopes the murals educate and entertain about South O’s long, unfolding melting pot story.

“It’s about rekindling South Omaha roots in people who moved away and reestablishing those roots with their children and grandchildren. I envision people coming to see the murals and talking about the people and the history they see on them.”

He and Harrison believe the murals can be destination attraction urban maps for residents and visitors wanting to learn about the area’s cultural history.

None of the primary artists working on the project are originally from Omaha and for these transplants each mural is an education.

“There is a lot that I did not know before this project and still more to learn.,” said Zamorano.

The Mexican mural he took the lead on is a perfect example.

“Almost everything I learned was new information to me. I learned about some of the different waves of Mexicans that moved to Omaha, why they moved, and where they came from.  I never knew how much the Catholic church and Lutheran church were involved in the community helping people move forward in education and empowerment. The list goes on. I never knew how much history there is in South Omaha alone.”

Fostering appreciation for place is what the project team wants every mural to encourage. Zamorano said Mexican mural images represent “topics and themes about unity, struggle, education, work, identity, education and celebration.” A working couple eats dinner with their family. A “Dreamer” graduates high school. Community anchors, such as the American GI Forum and Chicano Awareness Center, loom large. “In the center,” he said “an ancient Aztec god and two children share a history book to symbolize the past and future.”

Follow the project’s progress at http://www.amidsummersmural.com/for-communities/south-omaha-mural-project/.

South Omaha stories on tap for free PlayFest show; Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries returns to south side

May 6, 2015 2 comments

Omaha’s various geographic segments feature distinct charecteristics all their own. South Omaha has a stockyards-packing plant heritage that lives on to this day and it continues its legacy as home to new arrivals, whether immigrants or refugees. The free May 27 Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayFest show South Omaha Stories at the Livestock Exchange Building is a collaboration between playwrights and residents that shares stories reflective of that district and the people who comprise it. What follows are two articles I did about the event. The first and most recent article is for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and it looks at South O through the prism of two young people interviewed by playwrights for the project. The second article looks at South O through the lens of three older people interviewed by playwrights for the same project. Together, my articles and participants’ stores provide a fair approximation of what makes South O, well, South O. Or in the vernacular (think South Side Chicago), Sou’d O.

 

South Omaha stories on tap for free PlayFest show

Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries returns to south side

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Perhaps more than any geographic quadrant of the city, South Omaha owns the richest legacy as a livestock-meatpacking industry hub and historic home to new arrivals fixated on the American Dream.

Everyone with South O ties has a story. When some playwrights sat down to interview four such folks, tales flowed. Using the subjects’ own words and drawing from research, the playwrights, together with New York director Josh Hecht, have crafted a night of theater for this year’s Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries.

Omaha’s M. Michele Phillips directs this collaborative patchwork of South Omaha Stories. The 7:30 p.m. show May 27 at the Livestock Exchange Building ballroom is part of GPTC’s free PlayFest slate celebrating different facets of Neb. history and culture. In the case of South O, each generation has distinct experiences but recurring themes of diversity and aspiration appear across eras.

Lucy Aguilar and Batula Hilowle are part of recent migration waves to bring immigrants and refugees here. Aguilar came as a child from Mexico with her undocumented mother and siblings in pursuit of a better life. Hilowle and her siblings were born and raised in a Kenya refugee camp. They relocated here with their Somali mother via humanitarian sponsors. In America, Batula and her family enjoy new found safety and stability.

Aguilar, 20, is a South High graduate attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha. GPTC associate artistic director and veteran Omaha playwright Scott Working interviewed her. Hilowle, 19, is a senior at South weighing her college options. Harlem playwright Kia Corthron interviewed her.

A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) work permit recipient, Aguilar is tired of living with a conditional status hanging over head. She feels she and fellow Dreamers should be treated as full citizens. State law has made it illegal for Dreamers to obtain drivers licenses.

“I’m here just like everybody else trying to make something out of my life, trying to accomplish goals, in my case trying to open a business,” and be successful in that,” Aguilar says.

She’s active in Young Nebraskans for Action that advocates restrictions be lifted for Dreamers. She follows her heart in social justice matters.

“Community service is something I’m really passionate about.”

She embraces South O as a landing spot for many peoples.

“There’s so much diversity and nobody has a problem with it.”

Hilowle appreciates the diversity, too.

“You see Africans like me, you see African Americans,, Asians, Latinos, whites all together. It’s something you don’t see when you go west.”

Both young women find it a friendly environment.

“It’s a very open, helpful community,” Aguilar says. “There are so many organizations that advocate to help people. If I’m having difficulties at home or school or work, I know I’ll have backup. I like that.”

“It’s definitely warm and welcoming,” Hilowle says. “It feels like we’re family. There’s no room for hate.”

Hilowle says playwright Kia Corthon was particularly curious about the transition from living in a refuge camp to living in America.

“She wanted to know what was different and what was familiar. I can tell you there was plenty of differences.”

Hilowle has found most people receptive to her story of struggle in Africa and somewhat surprised by her gratitude for the experience.

“Rather than try to make fun of me I think they want to get to know me. I’m not ashamed to say I grew up in a refugee camp or that we didn’t have our own place. It made me better, it made me who I am today. Being in America won’t change who I am. My kids are going to be just like me because I am just like my mom.”

She says the same fierce determination that drove her mother to save the family from war in Somalia is in her.

About the vast differences between life there and here, she says, “Sometimes different isn’t so bad.” She welcomes opportunities “to share something about where I come from or about my religion (Muslim) and why I cover my body with so many clothes.”

Aguilar, a business major seeking to open a South O juice shop, likes that her and Hilowle’s stories will be featured in the same program.

“We have very different backgrounds but I’m pretty sure our future goals are the same. We’re very motivated about what we want to do.”

Similar to Lucy, Batula likes helping people. She’s planning a pre-med track in college.

The young women think it’s important their stories will be presented alongside those of much older residents with a longer perspective.

Virgil Armendariz, 68, who wrote his own story, can attest South O has long been a melting pot. He recalls as a youth the international flavors and aromas coming from homes of different ethnicities he delivered papers to and his learning to say “collect” in several languages.

“You could travel the world by walking down 36th street on Sunday afternoon. From Q Street to just past Harrison you could smell those dinners cooking. The Irish lived up around Q Street, Czechs, Poles, and Lithuanians were mixed along the way. Then Bohemians’ with a scattering of Mexicans.”

He remembers the stockyards and Big Four packing plants and all the ancillary businesses that dominated a square mile right in the heart of the community. The stink of animal refuse permeating the Magic City was called the Smell of Money. Rough trade bars and whorehouses served a sea of men. The sheer volume of livestock meant cows and pigs occasionally broke loose to cause havoc. He recalls unionized packers striking for better wages and safer conditions.

Joseph Ramirez, 89, worked at Armour and Co. 15 years. He became a local union leader there and that work led him into a human services career. New York playwright Michael Garces interviewed Ramirez.

Ramirez and Armendariz both faced discrimination. They dealt with bias by either confronting it or shrugging it off. Both men found pathways to better themselves – Ramirez as a company man and Armendariz as an entrepreneur.

While their parents came from Mexico, South Omaha Stories participant, Dorothy Patach, 91, traces her ancestry to the former Czechoslovakia region. Like her contemporaries of a certain age, she recalls South O as a once booming place, then declining with the closure of the Big Four plants, before its redevelopment and immigrant-led business revival the last few decades.

Patach says people of varied backgrounds generally found ways to co-exist though she acknowledges illegal aliens were not always welcome.

New York playwright Ruth Margraff interviewed her.

She and the men agree what united people was a shared desire to get ahead. How families and individuals went about it differed, but hard work was the common denominator.

Scott Working says the details in the South O stories are where universal truths lay.
“It is in the specifics we recognize ourselves, our parents, our grandparents,” he says, “and we see they have similar dreams that we share. It’s a great experience.”

He says the district’s tradition of diversity “has kept it such a vibrant place.” He suspects the show will be “a reaffirmation for the people that live there and maybe an introduction to people from West Omaha or North Omaha.” He adds, “My hope is it will make people curious about where they’re from, too. It’s kind of what theater does – it gives us a connection to humanity and tells us stories we find value in and maybe we learn something and feel something.”

The Livestock Exchange Building is at 4920 South 30th Street.

Next year’s Neighborhood Tapestries event returns to North Omaha.

For PlayFest and conference details, visit http://www.mccneb.edu/gptc.

 

South Omaha stories to be basis for new theater piece at Great Plains Theatre Conference

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Historically, South Omaha is a melting pot where newcomers settle to claim a stake of the American Dream.

This hurly burly area’s blue-collar labor force was once largely Eastern European. The rich commerce of packing plants and stockyards filled brothels, bars and boardinghouses. The local economy flourished until the plants closed and the yards dwindled. Old-line residents and businesses moved out or died off. New arrivals from Mexico, Central America, South America and Africa have spurred a new boon. Repurposed industrial sites serve today’s community needs.

As a microcosm of the urban American experience it’s a ready-made tableaux for dramatists to explore. That’s what a stage director and playwrights will do in a Metropolitan Community College-Great Plains Theatre Conference project. The artists will interview residents to cultivate anecdotes. That material will inform short plays the artists develop for performance at the GPTC PlayFest’s community-based South Omaha Neighborhood Tapestries event in May.

Director Josh Hecht and two playwrights, Kia Corthron and Ruth Margraff, will discuss their process and preview what audiences can expect at a free Writing Workshop on Saturday, January 24 at 3 p.m. in MCC’s South Campus (24th and Q) Connector Building.

Participants Virgil Armendariz and Joseph Ramirez hail from Mexican immigrant clans that settled here when Hispanics were so few Armendariz says practically everybody knew each other. Their presence grew thanks to a few large families. Similarly, the Emma Early Bryant family grew a small but strong African-American enclave.

Each ethnic group “built their own little communities,” says Armendariz, who left school to join the Navy before working construction. “There were communities of Polish, Mexicans, Bohemians, Lithuanians, Italians, Irish. Those neighborhoods were like family and became kind of territorial. But it was interesting to see how they blended together because they all shared one thing – how hard they worked to make life better for themselves and their families. I still see that even now. A lot of people in South Omaha have inherited that entrepreneurial energy and inner strength. I feel like the blood, sweat and tears of generations of immigrants is in the soil of South Omaha.”

Armendariz, whose grandmother escaped the Mexican revolution and opened a popular pool hall here, became an entrepreneur himself. He says biases toward minorities and newcomers can’t be denied “but again there’s a common denominator everybody understands and that is people come here to build a future for their families, and that we can’t escape, no matter how invasive it might seem.”

 

 

He says recent immigrants and refugees practice more cultural traditions than he knew growing up. He and his wife, long active in the South Omaha Business Association, enjoy connecting to their own heritage through the Xiotal Ballet Folklorico troupe they support.

“These talented people present beautiful, colorful dance and music. When you put that face on the immigrant you see they are a rich part of our American past and a big contributor to our American future.”

Ramirez, whose parents fled the Cristero Revolt in Mexico, says he and his wife faced discrimination as a young working-class couple integrating an all-white neighborhood. But overall they found much opportunity. He became a bilingual notary public and union official while working at Armour and Co. He later served roles with the Urban League of Nebraska and the City of Omaha and directed the Chicano Awareness Center (now Latino Center of the Midlands). His activist-advocacy work included getting more construction contracts for minorities and summer jobs for youths. The devout Catholic lobbied the Omaha Archdiocese to offer its first Spanish-speaking Mass.

He’s still bullish about South Omaha, saying, “It’s a good place to live.”

Dorothy Patach came up in a white-collar middle-class Bohemian family, graduated South High, then college, and went on to a long career as a nursing care professional and educator. Later, she became Spring Lake Neighborhood Association president and activist, helping raise funds for Omaha’s first graffiti abatement wagon and filling in ravines used as dumping grounds. She says the South O neighborhood she lived in for seven decades was a mix of ethnicities and religions that found ways to coexist.

“Basically we lived by the Golden Rule – do unto others as you want them to do unto you – and we had no problems.”

She, too, is proud of her South O legacy and eager to share its rich history with artists and audiences.

MCC Theatre Program Coordinator Scott Working says, “The specifics of people’s lives can be universal and resonate with a wide audience. The South Omaha stories I’ve heard so far have been wonderful, and I can’t wait to help share them.”

Josh Hecht finds it fascinating South O’s “weathered the rise and fall of various industries” and absorbed “waves of different demographic populations.” “In both of these ways” he says, “the neighborhood seems archetypally American.” Hecht and Co. are working with local historian Gary Kastrick to mine more tidbits.

Hecht conceived the project when local residents put on “a kind of variety show ” for he and other visiting artists at South High in 2013.

“They performed everything from spoken word to dance to storytelling. They told stories about their lives and it was very clear how important it was for the community to share these stories with us.”

Hecht says he began “thinking of an interactive way where they share their lives and stories with us and we transform them into pieces of theater that we then reflect back to them.”

Working says, “This project will be a deeper exploration and more intimate exchange between members of the community and dramatic artists” than previous Tapestries.

The production is aptly slated for the Stockyards Exchange Building, the last existing remnant of South O’s vast packing-livestock empire.

Making Community: Apostle Vanessa Ward Raises Up Her North Omaha Neighborhood and Builds Community

August 13, 2013 4 comments

 It takes a village, the saying goes.  To raise a child, to raise a neighborhood, to raise a community.  That’s what Apostle Vanessa Ward does in North Omaha and that’s the story I tell in this week’s issue of The Reader that comes out Wednesday.   Saturday, Aug. 10 was the annual block party she organizes and it was as usual a peaceful, joyful gathering of hundreds in a neighborhood once known as Death Valley.  The block party is just one manifestation of all the work she puts into raising up her block and surrounding neighborhood.  For her, it’s all about building community.  It starts with transforming lives.  It’s her ministry and mission.  Job well done, soul sister, job well done.  But she’ll be the first to tell you that the work continues.  She’s heartened that her neighbors are beginning to do some of that good work themselves so that the gains that have been made will not be lost but be passed on.

 

 

 

Making Community: Apostle Vanessa Ward Builds Community and Strengthens Neighborhood in North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Nearly 600 folks turned out Saturday for the 16th Annual Community Block Party hosted by Apostle Vanessa Ward and her husband Keith Ward. As usual this multi-generational celebration of community in a northeast Omaha neighborhood once known as Death Valley went off without any trouble.

During this street festival-reunion-revival Apostle, cordless mic in hand, is everywhere preaching her grassroots doctrine of community togetherness. It’s praise and worship in the guise of kickin’ it.

“Do you feel it?” Apostle likes to say.”C’mon, community, let’s celebrate, let’s do it…” she implores the crowd.

“Let’s celebrate,” rejoins her daughter Va’Chona Graves, aka the Holy Ghost Girl, who emcees from a makeshift DJ booth under a tent. The music ranges from hip hop to contemporary gospel to old school R&B and soul. At various points a dance line forms and little girls to adult women move in unison with the beat.

The laid-back event is held on the very block that Apostle and her husband live on. It’s a poor, working class area dotted by boarded up houses and vacant lots. Their home and yard serve as the hub for the party, whose activities stretch up and down the long block.

 

 

Apostle’s book

 

 

That block, from Fowler to Grand Ave., is part of a stretch of 38th St. starting at Ames Ave. that bears her name in recognition of the work she’s done transforming the neighborhood. Her 2008 book Somebody Do Something tells the story. She’s writing a new book about the evolution of her community building work and her vision for the future.

That vision is much bigger than the block party, which is just one expression of year-round efforts to keep the neighborhood clean and safe. It’s a mission for this community matriarch, organizer, builder, evangelical activist minster. She pastors. mothers and advises her neighbors. She often picks up trash and cooks for them, too.

“I’m trying to teach by example. People respect you when they see that you’re not leading from behind,” she says.

She started two community gardens on nearby vacant lots. The Peace Garden sits atop a tall bank. It overlooks a curbside memorial to a drive-by shooting victim. A corner Hope Garden adjacent to her home is where she conducts Sunday morning services for her charismatic Afresh Anointing Church congregation. Boxed flower beds and a nativity scene adorn it. Her message there is consistent with her exhortations at the party.

 

 

Conestoga_25 anniversary

 

 

“Alright community, you have to be ready to fight for what you believe in, you have to battle for what’s right.”

This faith warrior and her holy roller faith friends conduct a two-hour call and response service that draws dozens. People walking or driving by take it slow and quiet. Some end up joining the service. The amplified preaching, singing and music can be heard for blocks.

“The neighbors are coming in greater numbers,” Apostle says. “People will wait to cut their grass till were done. The ice cream truck guy won’t even ring his bell. These are things that have evolved  – the respect.”

That same respect and unity infuse the block party

“It just becomes this wonderful place,” she says. “Everybody in the      neighborhood contributes. They manicure the block, they make sure every lot is clean. The young people set up and take down tables and chairs. People donate food.”

Many neighbors have been personally ministered to by her and that’s given her serious street cred with 21-year-old Andre “Right” Boyd.

“I really appreciate everything she does for the youth. Most of us have been raised up by her. I’ve been coming to her for awhile and she helps me out. i have that relationship with her that I can go to her for things. She’s like a mother, she’s like a helper…She means a lot.”

She’s an admired figure.

“I think everybody sees her as a icon. She’s definitely going to have a legend here,” says Tina Knight. “Everybody knows who she is, everybody knows what she’s about. She’s highly respected.”

During a recent neighborhood tour Apostle led she caught sight of some teen boys and, as is her habit, she chatted them up. After making intros one of the boys looked up at the street sign with her name on it and said, ‘Ain’t this your street?” “Well, that is my name up there, yes dear,” she said. “But it’s really our street.”

Getting people to take ownership of the neighborhood has been key.

Nettie Houston says she’s seen “big changes here,” adding, “There’s no problems, everybody trusts each other and we watch out for each other.” She credits Apostle with making the difference in getting “the neighborhood working together.”

Apostle says even little things like greeting people, picking up litter, cutting the grass, bringing homemade cookies to a new neighbor or decorating the street with balloons creates a sense of community.

“Keep Omaha Beautiful statistics show that when a neighborhood is clean crime is down. Are you feeling me? So what do you think happens when you take the time to decorate and serve food?”

The block party features plenty of decorations and food.

Balloon displays line both sides of the street, one in the shape of a cross. Young kids queue up for face painting, balloon animals and the bounce house. A portable basket attracts young fellas for spirited hoops minus the trash talking. Elders play dominos at a card table under shade trees. Grills fire the smoke for the pulled pork sandwiches and beans served at lunchtime.

The Marching Dragons drill team performs. A talent showcase gives kids and adults alike their neighborhood American Idol moments.

There’s no cursing, no drama. It all flows free and easy.

 

 

Apostle with Mayor Stothert and her husband

 

 

Bound up in this neighborhood’s story is her own saga of heeding the call to minister to an area “under siege” from open air dope dealers, gang members and drive-by shootings. A young man, Columbus Brown, was shot and killed in front of Apostle’s home. The mother of four feared for her own family’s safety.

A gang leader and his crew hung out up the street. “Their presence was very intimidating,” she says. “Corner boys on every corner sold drugs and you had to come through them like a gauntlet to get to your own home. They’d come right up to you and say, ‘You want some of this?’ When friends used to drive me home from church they’d say, ‘Hey, pastor, you sure enough live in the ghetto.'”

Raucous music blared from car speakers. Unkept abandoned rental properties and vacant lots became breeding grounds for negative activities. Then and now the area includes young single mothers and retirees struggling to get by. Some residents are unemployed or underemployed, lacking education or skills to move up. It’s a microcosm of the woes that beset segments of northeast Omaha.

Apostle’s seen it over and over and it stands in stark contrast to when she came up there a half-century ago.

“In these very impoverished, transitional situations people come and go. There’s a high risk element of crime, isolation and desperation. People are not interested in knowing each other. It’s very unfriendly.

“When I was a little girl I came up in community. My mom would have talent shows and leaf raking parties in the backyard. She was one of the main organizers of block parties. I saw something that it did – it brought people out, it brought people together and it just forced community. When I grew older and moved into neighborhood after      neighborhood that shared that heaviness, that separation I was never satisfied with it, although I found out you become very complacent to what you’re used to.”

 

 

Like her neighbors, she was conditioned by an urban code that says to look the other way and keep silent.

“I had been raised up with the main rules of living in the inner city – don’t get involved, mind your own business and don’t snitch.”

As things got worse she took her first action to address the chaos.

“I broke the rule that governs these neighborhoods and I called the police. That was big for me.”

But she wasn’t yet ready to take the next step.

“I was about to go out and give the facts of what I saw, what I heard but my husband wasn’t having it. We weren’t on the same page at that time for me to take a step that bold. So I backed down…”

A tragedy moved her farther down the path.

“When the young man was murdered in front of my house it just fired me on my journey. I just knew I was going to have to do something. But I didn’t know what.”

She faced an “inner struggle” living in that predatory environment.

“You become hard-hearted. You become angry. After a while you’re hating and hate can never change anything. I hated the gang members. I hated the loud noise. I hated the police helicopter hovering over me. I had become a victim of my own circumstances. The Lord began to show me how cold and callous I had become. Transformation starts inside yourself, so I had to go through a whole spiritual cleansing and healing because I was so hurt.”

That’s when the street became her church and its residents her flock as she intentionally went about softening hearts and reviving the community she knew growing up.

The memory of block parties from her childhood inspired her to recreate those times of “camaraderie and hope.” She’d come full circle.

The first block party she threw in 1995 marked the start of her neighborhood ministry. But to close off a street you must get everyone on the block to agree. That meant getting the gang leader’s OK. Before she could approach him she needed her husband’s approval.

“My husband was scared for my life.”

Keith Ward Sr. says while Vanessa went to talk to the gang’s top dog “I sat on the porch with my shotgun.”

Apostle recalls her anxious approach to the young man and his homies who ruled The Hood with fear.

“I said to him, ‘You know what guys, we’ve got a cloud of gloom hanging over us. Your homeboy’s dead. Everything is heavy. How about let’s have us a block party. We’ll do some dancing in the street and just move this heaviness.’ It got real silent and I waited and finally the answer came: ‘Cool.’ Then I said, ‘Three rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no violence.’ I waited again for his answer: ‘That’s fine.’ I was shaking all the way home i was so nervous.”

Then she went about making it happen.

“I called on different churches and friends. They gave what they could.”

From the start, the family friendly event has held a nostalgic feel.

“All I could see was old-fashioned fun. Hula hoops, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, relays, three-legged races, hopscotch, paper airplanes balloons. Kids running and playing. All the things that engage us.”

About 75 folks attended that first year. The no drugs, no alcohol, no violence mandate was abided by then and has been ever since.

She says, “It’s been made clear that is the standard.” “I know that everything was right because the gang leader came over and said, ‘What do we owe you for this?’ I told him nothing and he said, “Thank you for doing this for us.’ That took me some years to process. When does a person own something and believe it’s for him?”

As neighbors took ownership of the party the numbers grew. She estimates as many as 600 to 700 people have attended in peak years.

Apostle believes that buy-in speaks to how much people crave community.

“That’s what I found out it is. That’s why they come every year. That’s why nobody wants to leave. That’s why it’s been 16 times now and we’ve never had a violent outburst, not even a fight. We’ve never had to call the police to bring peace. How do you do that with that many people in the middle of a neighborhood that was called Death Valley if it’s not something we all hunger for and really want.

“What I see is that people want to get together in a safe environment, they want to connect in love, they yearn for that. That’s what it’s come to be. It’s kind of like a slice of heaven.”

When Apostle’s son, Keith Ward Jr., sees young adults at the party he’s reminded they were small children when his mother began this work. Many are now parents themselves and their babies are the next in line for this each one to teach one modeling.

“There isn’t hardly anyone here that hasn’t been touched by her or advised by her or grown up by her or looked out by her or prayed by her. Hopefully they’ll know there’s a better way for the future,” he says. “If there’s nobody out here like my mother to guide ’em or show ’em how we can come together as a community or what it is to be a community then we’re lost.”

He’s proud of her.

“It takes a special type of person to pull this off. It takes a lot of patience, it take a lot of love. She sees everything beautifully. She sees something better in you that you might not even see yourself.”

As the event grew and the area’s criminal activities subsided, her work there drew attention. Elected officials and community leaders have attended to sing her praises and to encourage neighbors to continue building community. Mayor Jean Stothert made an appearance on Saturday. Media covered the party.

Today, when you walk the block the tranquil setting is a far cry from what it used to be. Apostle can hardly believe the change herself.

“I can walk out here at 11 o’clock at night barefoot and go all the way up to the corner with no risk at all. Sometimes when I go out of my house at night I don’t want to slam my door because i don’t want to disturb the peace. This was not the case even 10 years ago. We have arrived and everybody knows i

Much of her best work there happened after she and her husband moved away for two years and then moved back.

“My husband’s health was failing. He had kidney failure. We were going through a time where we were just spiraling down. We got evicted from our house and ended up moving to the suburbs.”

But she still retained a presence on the block.

“I took time off only from living here because every Saturday I would come back to pray.”

She didn’t like what she found.

“It was like suspended animation. Houses were vacant, nothing was moving forward. I set up a microphone at the top of the hill and prayed. I reminded the neighbors of where we came from and what we’ve been through. I’d say, ‘C’mon, we can do this, let’s keep showing love.’ Then I would walk and pray up and down the block, keeping the pot stirred so to speak. I had to leave my comfort zone and think of strategic ways to approach people. That took a lot of work.”

Then she decided she needed to move back to The Hood. That took some convincing of Keith, who didn’t like the idea of leaving the comfortable burbs for “the trouble land.” When she told him her work there wasn’t done he relented. Once they returned to 38th she wasn’t sure she’d do the block party that first year back but neighbors kept asking when she was having it. So she held it. She’s faced doubts about doing it since then, too. It’s a major undertaking.

“It’s hard work,” says Apostle, who dips into her own pocket to cover what donations don’t. “Every year I feel like I don’t know why I do this but I’ve found out this thing has become bigger than me.”

Despite the stability she’s brought to the neighborhood challenges persist. Unsavory persons and activities try slipping back in. But she sees more neighbors being vigilant.

“Every now and then the element still comes back and tests,” she says.

“At one time I thought it was just up to me. There’s other people involved now that want to protect and hold onto it. I get so happy when someone else steps up to call the police. Yeah, it’s more than me. That’s the whole point.”

She feels there’s no reason what’s being done there can’t be replicated.

“Can you imagine a block party here, a block party there, all promoting that love and connectedness? Where could the negative element run? It would only have to succumb.”

While she believes outside individuals and agencies have a role to play in reviving North O she says change must come from within.

“I do believe there are bridges that need to be laid but I do not believe you can bring change from the outside. You cannot come into my neighborhood and bring about change and correction if you’re not part of it. When you live out west and you come down here to preach you’re not connected. What do you know about it and where have you earned the people’s trust? I had to earn their trust.”

She’s sure she’s where she needs to be and she knows what she wants to do next there.

“I think this area is in dire need of a church and a community development center.”

When she looks at the empty lots around her she sees opportunities to offer programs that help people get out of poverty and off welfare.

“On all these empty lots we should be able to have something to help us connect or bridge to the various agencies we have in North Omaha.

We need to get people built up and ready to take advantage of the wonderful things we have. We’ve got to give people the ability to dream. You’ve got to get people to see beyond their circumstances.”

She realizes she may not live to see all her dreams fulfilled but she’s hopeful her children and others will see them through.

“I won’t always live here but I’m raising it to be able to go on beyond me.”

Her best takeaway from the 2013 block party is that the neighborhood has taken it on as their own. “They’re doing it now. If I wasn’t to do another one, it would live on. They’ve grown into it. It’s so rewarding.”

 
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