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North Omaha: Where for art thou?


North Omaha: Where for art thou?

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Our fair city has a curious case of tunnel vision when it comes to North Omaha.

What constitutes North Omaha is different depending on who you talk to. Officially or technically speaking, it is one of four geographic quadrants. North O itself is made up of a diverse number of neighborhoods, many of which are not generally considered part of it. For example. most of us don’t include the Dundee business district and surrounding neighborhood around Underwood Avenue as North O when in fact it is. The same for Happy Hollow, Country Club, Benson, Cathedral, Gold Coast, Florence and many others well north of Dodge that have their own stand-alone names, designations, associations and identities. When North O is referenced by many individuals and organizations, what they’re really referring to is Northeast Omaha. For many, North O has come to mean one narrow set of characteristics and conditions when in reality it is much more diverse geographically, socio-economically, racially and every other way than any tunnel vision prism does justice to. Why does this happen so persistently to North O? Well, there are many agendas at work when defining or designating North O as one thing or another. When viewed in a racialized way, North O is suddenly a black-centric district. When viewed as prime development territory. North O’s either a distressed area or a great investment opportunit. When viewed in historical terms, North O’s variously a military outpost, a Mormon encampment, a bustling Street of Dreams or the site of riots and urban renewal disruption and the downward spiral that followed. When measured statistically and comparatively, North O often comes out as the epicenter of poverty, underemployment, educational disparity, STDs, gang violence and other disproportionately occuring ills when in fact in totality, taking into account all its neighborhoods, North O is doing well. When viewed in redevelopment terms, North O is s collection of revitalized commercial and residential areas and of pockets still in need of redos. How you see it doing and where you see it going, what you count as part it or not, the amount of monies that flow in or out and the types of projects, initatives and developments that happen and dont have to do with what people are predisposed to think about it and expect from it. When it comes to North O, your perception of it and engagement with it conforms to your own ideas, attitudes, beliefs, visions, plans, experiences. For some, it represents an avenue of opportunity and for others a plaee of stagnation. Some see it and treat it as a social services mission district, while others see it as a wellspring of commerce, entrepreneurship and possibility. People living there surely have very different takes on it as a community, even on what makes North O, North O. Certainly, people living outside the area have very different takes on it than the people residing there. If there is an essential North O identity it is one of diversity and aspiration, hard work, no frills and pride. North O never has been and never will be just one thing or another. You can reduce to it a tag or a headline and to a segment or a section if you want but that will never reflect the large, complex mosaic of cultures and influences, assets and resources that comprise it. North O ha for too long been stereotyped and compartmentalized, stigmatized and marginalized. It has too long been misunderstood. Instead of only seeing it in its parts, what if we began looking at it as a whole? Maybe if we started thinking in terms of how everything that happens in one neighborhood affects everything else, then perhaps future quality of life development can be more organic and inclusive.

 

St. Cecilia Cathedral - breath taking - 701 N. 40th St. - wonderful concerts held here including the annual Omaha Symphonic Chorus' Christmas in the Cathedral early to mid December.:

 

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"A Beauty Spot, Miller Park, Omaha, Neb."

 

North Omaha contains some of the metro’s oldest, most compelling history. Long established neighborhoods, parks, boulevards, buildings and other public spaces have roots in diverse peoples and events that helped shape the city. Despite this rich heritage, mass media depictions tend to emphasize a narrow, negative view of North O as a problematic place of despair and neglect.

Problems exist, but North O has been a place of great aspirations and successes. One of its historic main drags, North 24th Street, has inspired many names. Jews called it the Miracle Mile. African-Americans dubbed it the Street of Dreams. More informally, it went by the Deuce or the Deuce Four. Other districts within North O, such as Florence, Benson and Dundee, each have their own vibrant histories. These neighborhoods, along with the North 24th and North 30th Street corridors, are undergoing major revivals.

North O’s history extends way back:

A  Great Plains army installation, Fort Omaha, was the site of an historic ruling about the nature of man was rendered in the Trial of Chief Standing Bear. The fort’s grounds are now the main campus for Omaha’s fastest growing higher education institution, Metropolitan Community College, and for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. An annual pow wow is held there.

 

 

The Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition brought the nation and world to this once frontier outpost turned fledgling city. The Trans-Miss site is where Kountze Park and many stately homes stand.

Pioneering Mormon families trekked to and encamped in what is now North O. They later disembarked there for far western travels to the Great Salt Lake. Area Mormon artifacts and historic sites abound.

Diversity may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to North O, but it is a blend of many different peoples and places. A wide range of immigrants and migrants have settled there over time. Jews, Italians, Germans, Irish, Africa-Americans, Africans, Asians, Hispanics.

 

 

Its strong faith community includes a wide variety of Christian churches, Some of the churches have rich histories dating back to the early 20th century. Many older worship places have undergone restoration. Several buildings in North O own national historic preservation status, including the Webster Telephone Exchange that later saw use as a community center and the home of Greater Omaha Community Action until James and Bertha Calloway used grant money to convert it into the Great Plains Black History Museum.

Among the historic spots to visit in North O are Prospect Hill Cemetery where many city founders are buried, and the Malcolm X Memorial Birthsite where slain social activist Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little.

African-Americans built a strong community through their toil as railroad porters and packinghouse workers and through their education in all black schools. North O encompassed a leading vocational school, Technical High. The district continues to support quality public and private elementary schools and public secondary schools. It is home to one of the Midwest’s top post-secondary institutions in Creighton University and to a thriving community college in Metro.

 

 

 

North O is also home to some of the city’s oldest, most distinguished neighborhoods, including Dundee, Benson, Bemis, Gold Coast, Cathedral, Walnut Hill, Kountze Place, Minne Lusa and Florence. Blacks were denied the opportunity to live in many of those neighborhoods until discriminatory housing practices ended.

Bounded by the Missouri River on the east. 72nd Street on the west, Cuming-Dodge Streets on the south and Interstate 680 on the north, North O is a varied landscape of attractive flatlands, hills, woods, parks and tree-lined boulevards. There are promontories and overlooks with stunning views of the bluffs across the river and of downtown.

The area’s fertile soil has produced notables in film (Monty Ross), television (Gabrielle Union), theater (John Beasley), music (Buddy Miles), literature (Wallace Thurman, Tillie Olsen), media (Cathy Hughes), sports (Bob Gibson), finance (Warren Buffett), politics (George Wells Parker) and social activism (Malcolm X). It is where the interracial social action organization the De Porres Club made equality stands a decade before the civil rights movement. Black plaintiffs later forced school integration in the public schools.

North O hosts long-lived and proud chapters of the NAACP and the Urban League as well as dynamic local affiliates of the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, Campfire and Girl Inc.

The area does have high poverty pockets but it’s home to hard-working people, many with higher education and vocational training. It encompasses blue collar and white collar professionals, laborers, entrepreneurs and grassroots activists. It is a community of families, neighborhoods, small businesses and major manufacturers.

 

 

The ties that bind run deep there. For decades Native Omaha Days has brought together thousands from around the country for a week-long slate of events reuniting former and current residents who share North O as their birthplace and coming of age place.

The infrastructure of this inner city does have its challenges. There is still a disproportionate number of substandard houses, abandoned homes. vacant lots and food deserts. But an influx of projects is adding new residential units and commercial properties that are putting in place stable, sustainable improved quality of life features.

North O is the wellspring and nexus of strong community revitalization efforts such as those of the Empowerment Network, Omaha Economic Development Corporation, Family Housing Advisory Services and Omaha Small Business Network working to strengthen the community.

Redevelopment underway in northeast Omaha is in direct response to decades of economic inertia that set in after civil disturbances laid waste to the historic North 24th Street.hub. Urban renewal also severed the community, thus disrupting neighborhoods, creating isolated segments and diverting commercial development.

 

 

There was a time when North O possessed all the amenities it needed. Back in the day the dynamic entertainment scene acted as a launching pad for talented local musicians and a stopover for top touring artists. It was a destination place with its clubs, bars and restaurants featuring live music. Some of that same spirit and activity is being recaptured again. Harder to get back might be all the professional services that could be had within a few blocks but as more people move back to North O and set up shop, that could change, too.

Today’s revitalized North 24th mirrors similar community building endeavors on North 30th, North 16th, the Radial Highway, Ames Avenue, Hamilton Street, Lake Street, Maple Street and elsewhere. Business thoroughfares and residential blocks pockmarked by neglect are starting to sprout new roots and roofs.

An anchor through it all has been the Omaha Star. It continues a long legacy as a black woman owned and operated newspaper that gives African-Americans a platform for calling out wrongdoers in the face of injustice and celebrating positive events.

Decades before the Black Lives Matter movement, vital voices for self-determination were raised by North O leaders, including Mildred Brown, Whitney Young, Charlie Washington, Ray Metoyer, Dorothy Eure and Ernie Chambers. No one’s spoken out against injustice more than Chambers. He’s been a constant force in his role as a legislator and enduring watchdog for the underdog. His mantel is being taken up by dynamic new leaders such as Sharif Liwaru and Ean Mikale.

 

Fair Deal Village MarketPlace, N. 24th and Burdette Streets, North Omaha, Nebraska

Play considers Northside black history through eyes of Omaha Star publisher Mildred Bown

April 29, 2016 1 comment

Upcoming Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayFest productions at nontraditional sites examine North Omaha themes as part of this year’s Neighborhood Tapestries. On May 29 the one-woman play Northside Carnation, both written and performed by Denise Chapman, looks at a pivotal night through the eyes of Omaha Star icon Mildred Brown at the Elks Lidge. On May 31 Leftovers, by Josh Wilder and featuring a deep Omaha cast, explores the dynamics of inner city black family life outside the home of the late activist-journalist Charles B. Washington. Performances are free.

 

Play considers Northside black history through eyes of Omaha Star publisher Mildred Bown

Denise Chapman portrays the community advocate on pivotal night in 1969

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

 

 

As North Omaha Neighborhood Tapestries returns for the Great Plains Theatre Conference’s free PlayFest bill, two community icons take center stage as subject and setting.

En route to making her Omaha Star newspaper an institution in the African-American community, the late publisher Mildred Brown became one herself. Through the advocacy role she and her paper played, Brown intersected with every current affecting black life here from the 1930s on. That makes her an apt prism through which to view a slice of life in North Omaha in the new one-woman play Northside Carnation.

This work of historical fiction written by Omaha theater artist Denise Chapman will premiere Sunday, May 29 at the Elks Lodge, 2420 Lake Street. The private social club just north of the historic Star building was a familiar spot for Brown. It also has resonance for Chapman as two generations of her family have been members. Chapman will portray Brown in the piece.

Directing the 7:30 p.m. production will be Nebraska Theatre Caravan general manger Lara Marsh.

An exhibition of historic North Omaha images will be on display next door at the Carver Bank. A show featuring art by North Omaha youth will also be on view at the nearby Union for Contemporary Art.

Two nights later another play, Leftovers, by Josh Wilder of Philadelphia, explores the dynamics of an inner city black family in a outdoor production at the site of the home of the late Omaha activist journalist Charles B. Washington. The Tuesday, May 31 performance outside the vacant, soon-to-be-razed house, 2402 North 25th Street, will star locals D. Kevin Williams, Echelle Childers and others. Levy Lee Simon of Los Angeles will direct.

Just as Washington was a surrogate father and mentor to many in North O, Brown was that community’s symbolic matriarch.

 

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Denise Chapman

 

Chapman says she grew up with “an awareness” of Brown’s larger-than-life imprint and of the paper’s vital voice in the community but it was only until she researched the play she realized their full impact.

“She was definitely a very important figure. She had a very strong presence in North Omaha and on 24th Street. I was not aware of how strong that presence was and how deep that influence ran. She was really savvy and reserved all of her resources to hold space and to make space for people in her community – fighting for justice. insisting on basic human rights, providing jobs, putting people through school.

“She really was a force that could not be denied. The thing I most admire was her let’s-make-it-happen approach and her figuring out how to be a black woman in a very white, male-dominated world.”

Brown was one of only a few black female publishers in the nation.  Even after her 1989 death, the Star remained a black woman enterprise under her niece, Marguerita Washington, who succeeded her as publisher. Washington ran it until falling ill last year. She died in February. The paper continues printing with a mostly black female editorial and advertising staff.

Chapman’s play is set at a pivot point in North O history. The 1969 fatal police shooting of Vivian Strong sparked rioting that destroyed much of North’s 24th “Street of Dreams.” As civil unrest breaks out, Brown is torn over what to put on the front page of the next edition.

“She’s trying her best to find positive things to say even in times of toil,” Chapman says. “She speaks out reminders of what’s good to help reground and recenter when everything feels like it’s upside down. It’s this moment in time and it’s really about what happens when a community implodes but never fully heals.

“All the parallels between what was going on then and what we see happening now were so strong it felt like a compelling moment in time to tell this story. It’s scary and sad but also currently repeating itself. I feel like there are blocks of 24th Street with vacant lots and buildings irectly connected to that last implosion.”

 

Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star offices

 

The Omaha Star | by National Register

During the course of the evening, Chapman has Brown recall her support of the 1950s civil rights group the De Porres Club and a battle it waged for equal job opportunities. Chapman, as Brown, remembers touchstone figures and places from North O’s past, including Whitney Young, Preston Love Sr., Charles B. Washington, the Dreamland Ballroom and the once teeming North 24th Street corridor.

“There’s a thing she says in the play that questions all the work they did in the ’50s and yet in ’69 we’re still at this place of implosion,” Chapman says. “That’s the space that the play lives in.”

To facilitate this flood of memories Chapman hit upon the device of a fictional young woman with Brown that pivotal night.

“I have imagined a young lady with her this evening Mildred is finalizing the front page of the paper and their conversations take us to different points in time. The piece is really about using her life and her work as a lens and as a way to look at 24th Street and some of the cultural history and struggle the district has gone through.”

Chapman has been studying mannerisms of Brown. But she’s not as concerned with duplicating the way Brown spoke or walked, for instance, as she is capturing the essence of her impassioned nature.

“Her spirit, her drive, her energy and her tenacity are the things I’m tapping into as an actor to create this version of her. I think you will feel her force when I speak the actual words she said in support of the Omaha and Council Bluffs Railway and Bridge Company boycott. She did not pull punches.”

Chapman acknowledges taking on a character who represented so much to so many intimidated her until she found her way into Brown.

“When I first approached this piece I was a little hesitant because she was this strong figure whose work has a strong legacy in the community. I was almost a little afraid to dive in. But during the research and what-if process of sitting with her and in her I found this human being who had really big dreams and passions. But her efforts were never just about her. The work she did was always about uplifting her people and fighting for justice and making pathways for young people towards education and doing better and celebrating every beautiful accomplishment that happened along the way.”

Chapman found appealing Brown’s policy to not print crime news. “Because of that the Star has kept for us all of these beautiful every day moments of black life – from model families to young people getting their degrees and coming back home for jobs to social clubs. All of these every day kind of reminders that we’re just people.”

For the complete theater conference schedule, visit https://webapps.mccneb.edu/gptc/.

Shining Light: News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future

December 7, 2015 Leave a comment

Shining Light: News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

One of the things that makes North Omaha North Omaha is the Omaha Star, the historic black newspaper made famous by Mildred Brown. For the first time since Marguerita Washington took it over from her late aunt in 1989, the future of the 77-year-old newspaper is unclear as Washington battles cancer. But those close to the situation say under no circumstances will they let the paper fold because it means too much to the community it serves. Check out my Reader story about the legacy of the Star under Brown and Washington and how strongly people feel about it and what it’s meant to them. Read, too, about people’s admiration for what these black women did to give Black Omahans a voice.

News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future

December 4, 2015 4 comments

North Omaha is more than a geographic district.  It is a culture and a state of mind.  That is particularly true of African-American North Omaha.  For generations the voice of that community has been the Omaha Star, which started in 1938.  Flamboyant Mildred Brown made the Star an institution as its publisher, managing editor and gudiing spirit.  When she passed in 1989 her niece Marguerita Washington, who grew up around her bigger-than-life elder and the advocacy-minded paper, took it over.  Washington’s kept the paper’s vital voice alive and relevant all these years, even as print publications have become endangered in the digital age.  She’s reportedly put everything she has into keeping it afloat.  Now though Washington is facing an end of life scenario that for the first time in her tenure as publisher – Washington never married and has no children – leaves the future of the Star in question.  Phyllis Hicks has been acting publisher during Washington’s health crisis.  But those close to the situation say there is no way the Star is going to fold if they have anything to do wth it.  My story below for The Reader (www.thereader.com) assesses what the Star has meant and continues to mean to people and what may happen with it moving forward should certain events play out.  I called on several folks for their perspective on the Star, past, present and future, and on the legacy of the two black women who have made it such a resource all this time.  Some of the most interesting comments are from Cathy Hughes, the Radio One and TV One communications titan from Omaha who got her media start at the Star and at KOWH.  This is at least the third time I’ve written about Washington, Brown and the Star and you can find the earlier stories on Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com.

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News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

The Omaha Star has given African-Americans a voice for 77 years. The newspaper is not only a vital mouthpiece for locals, but a valued hometown connection for natives living elsewhere.

It became an institution under the late Mildred D. Brown, a force of nature who became an icon with her ever-present smile, carnation and salesmanship. She charmed and challenged movers and shakers, near and far, with her insistent calls for equality. Through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, the late 1960s riots, it never missed an issue. Upon Brown’s 1989 death, niece Marguerita Washington, who worked at the paper as a young woman, took over the helm. She reportedly used her own money to pay off debt her aunt accumulated. Despite financial shortfalls, this grassroots, advocacy, activist, community-minded paper has never missed a beat. Not through the 2008 economic collapse or the decline of print and concurrent rise of online media. While circulation’s dropped and the Star’s now published bi-weekly instead of weekly, its social conscience, watchdog, give-voice-to-the-voiceless roles remain intact.

For the first time though since Brown’s death, the Star’s future is unclear because Washington, the woman who’s carried the torch lit by her aunt, is now terminally ill. The 80-year-old Washington was diagnosed earlier this year with lung cancer. The cancer spread to her brain. Meanwhile, there’s no direct heir to inherit the Star because she never married and has no children. When Brown passed she divvied up shares to Washington and other family members. Washington is the majority share holder and out-of-town relatives who’ve never taken an active hand in its operations own the other shares.

Star advertising and marketing director Phyllis Hicks has been acting managing editor and publisher during Washington’s health crisis. Hicks began at the Star in 2005 and grew to be Washington’s closest colleague.

“It was a growing relationship that became more of a personal one than a business one,” Hicks says.

 

Phyllis Hicks

 

The two formed the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center as a vehicle for preserving the paper’ legacy and the Junior Journalists program to encourage youth to enter the field. The pair obtained historic status for the Star building at 2216 North 24th Street.

Brown’s brash, bigger-than-life style lent the paper panache and edge. By contrast, the quiet, unassuming Washington, an academic with a Ph.D., exhibits a “walk softly and carry a big stick” tone,” said Hicks, adding, “Marguerita is not one to be vocal and take the lead and sound off, but she’s going to support from the background to do what she can to make it happen.” For each woman, the Star became a labor of love. Washington’s never drawn a salary as publisher and maintainer of a historic line of female leadership that made it the longest continuously published black newspaper owned and operated by women.

“The role of the Omaha Star in the history of this community cannot be overstated,” says Gail Baker, dean of the School of Communication, Fine Arts and Media at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “The Star, like other black papers, is key to developing and maintaining the community. Under both Mildred Brown and Marguerita Washington, the Star’s voice has been loud, clear and critical. Whether championing the rights of African Americans, calling the community to action, covering the stories others did not see fit to print or just shining a light on what is important to its readers, the Star is that beacon of light leading the way. Its place in Omaha is without parallel.”

Chicago Crusader editor-publisher Dorothy Leavell writes in an email about Washington, “I appreciate all of her support of things I hold dear. I love her loyalty, sense of humor and dedication to the Black Press as well as the fighting spirit of Mildred Brown that we shared memories of. I know she is putting up the good fight…”

Hicks, who shares power of attorney for Washington, has watched her friend endure radiation and chemotherapy to try and arrest the cancer. She and other friends of the paper are weighing what might happen to the Star in the absence of Washington. Discussions have grown more urgent as doctors recently discontinued treatment.

Washington, who suffers from dementia, is cared for at a northwest Omaha assisted living facility.

Hicks and others close to the situation have been selling off some of Washington’s possessions and are looking for a buyer for her home.

“We’re dealing with her business, we’re dealing with her and her doctors and we’re trying to sell her things and her home so we can have money for her care,” Hicks says. “I guess at one time she was quite wealthy but with all the money going into the Star and her never taking a salary her wealth has dwindled. My goal is trying to make sure she’s safe for the remainder of her life.”

A means to continue the paper, including finding a buyer-publisher, is also being discussed.

For folks of a certain age the Star is part of what makes North Omaha, North Omaha. It’s a touchstone for those who reside here and for natives who left here. More than any other institution it holds fast the community memory of a people and a district. Those who grew up with the publication are bound and determined to do whatever it takes to keep it alive even as its leader nears the end.

“It’s my goal and her goal as well the paper remain in North Omaha and remain black owned if we can sell it,” Hicks says. “Some mention female owned. That’d be nice but I don’t have any desire to own and run a paper. Lots of folks have approached me and asked what’s going to happen, and it’s not up to me to make that determination. I’m power of attorney with one of her nieces in Kansas City.”

Asked if she sees any scenario in which the paper would close, she says, “I’m hoping that with the amount of people expressing interest and working towards its survival that that won’t happen. It’s my hope that somebody or somebodies will come forth.

“The officers of the Study Center are working on coming up with a plan. We’re looking at avenues and ways. We’re even looking at if the nonprofit Study Center could own the paper as a for-profit arm.”

Omaha Economic Development Corporation executive director Michael Maroney says, “A lot of people want to see it survive, that’s for sure, There will be a solution found, we just don’t know what it is yet. I’m quite confident it will survive in some form or fashion.”

“Now is a pivotal moment for the Omaha Star and the Near North Side community,” says Amy Forss, author of the biography, Black Print with a White Carnation: Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star. “I am emphatically stressing the need for a successor because if the Omaha Star ceases to exist, then the longest-running record no longer exists and neither does the regularly published voice of the black community and that would be a piece of history you cannot replace.”

Omaha native Cathy Hughes, a national media czar through her Radio One and TV One companies, has credited Mildred Brown and the Star, for whom she worked, as a direct influence on her own entrepreneurial communications career. She says much as Ernie Chambers has been its militant voice in recent years through his column, the late Star reporter Charlie Washington once served that “rabble rouser” role.

“Charlie and the Omaha Star actually showed me the true power of the communications industry,” she recalls. “The Star took the mute button off of the voice of the black community in Omaha. It was more than just advocacy, it was a safety net. It has fostered and nurtured and promoted progress. It glorifies the success and accomplishments of Africa Americans in that community, which says to our young people, ‘You too can do it.’ It has been a vehicle for inspiration and motivation.

“I think that’s why it’s been able to successfully survive all these years and I pray that it will continue for many decades more.”

Hughes admires what Washington’s done.

“She could have done a lot of things with her life,” she says of the publisher, “but instead she came home because. It’s in her blood.”

“I believe it was commendable of Marguerita to take up the banner. I think she understood and saw the need of what it meant to the community and she also had the desire to continue her aunt’s legacy,” OEDC’s Maroney offers.

Retired photojournalist Rudy Smith says, “To her credit she continued the legacy, integrity and mission of the Omaha Star. Mildred Brown was a pioneer and a trailblazer and it’s hard to follow a pioneer but Marguerita was able to do that..”

 

 

Marguerita Washington  Marguerita Washington

Mildred Brown

 

 

According to community activist Preston Love Jr., who pens a column for the Star, “There was pretty much a transparent and no wrinkle transition from Mildred to Marguerita. It happened without much of a blip in terms of the paper being published. I think Marguerita’s played several roles. To some degree early she played a caretaker role. Then she emerged to take more of an editor-in-chief role and she has moved into the role of publisher. So while the paper’s made a transition she has, too. She’s made some tough editorial decisions as well. All of that is a testament to her stewardship.”

Like her aunt before her, Washington’s been much honored for her work, including last summer by the Urban League of Nebraska. More recently, the City of Omaha proclaimed Tuesday, December 1 Marguerita Washington Day for her “commitment to the community and issues that have impacted African-American people” and for “her great sense of social justice and social responsibility.”

Her empowering marginalized people continued a long, unbroken line.

“The paper has been a staple to me and the community for generations.,” Love says. “Other African American newspapers have come and gone here over the years but the Omaha Star endured. In my generation it’s something we all grew up with and hold in very strong endearment.”

Love sold the paper as a boy and was Mildred Brown’s driver summers during college. His late father, musician-educator-author Preston Love, sold advertising for the Star. The son says it’s been a link for blacks here and who’ve moved away “like no other link – you can’t overstate how important that link is.”

If the Star should close, he says, “what would be lost is part of the personality of North Omaha. Embedded in that is history and culture.”

Hicks says blacks would lose a valuable platform for “telling it like it is in the community without having to always be politically correct.”

The Star may not have the readership or pull it once did, but that’s a function of these times.

“When I was growing up in Omaha the Star was all that we had,” Hughes recalls. “Now everyone is in the black lane competing for that black consumer market. When my company went into the cable industry 10 years ago there were two choices for black folks watching cable – BET or TV One. Now every cable and broadcast television station has some type of black programming, which makes it that much more difficult for us to secure advertising dollars.

“Well, Marguerita has really had that problem with the Omaha Star. When her aunt was running it Mildred could candidly say to the head of the electric company, ‘The only way you’re going to reach these black folks is through me.’ Well, that no longer is true, they can reach ’em in social media, in a whole host of other ways.”

It may not be the presence it once was but Hughes leaves no doubt it’s meaning for her.

“When I was on the front page of the Omaha Star I called up and ordered two dozen copies – I was sending my Omaha Star out to everybody. And I laughed at myself and said, ‘Boy, that’s the little girl still in you.’ It was like hometown approval. It’s more than just the hometown newspaper to me, it’s the approval of the folks in Omaha, it’s the cheering, it’s the you-did-good, we’re-proud-of-you vehicle

“It inspired me then and it still does today.”

She says she hasn’t been formally approached about how she might assist the Star but would entertain ideas.

Preston Love says such deep sentiments about the Star are not just based on its rich past but its vibrant life today.

“The contribution the paper is making today should not be overlooked.
So it is not just historical but the present and the future. What it does to provide a platform for columnists, churches, businesses, community organizations and individual accomplishments is all right now.”

He says he and other concerned observers “will fight tooth and nail” any transition not deemed in the best interests of North Omaha.

Having arrived at this each-one-to-teach one and it-takes-a-village juncture, the Star’s fate is in the people’s hands as never before.

Rudy Smith says the fact the Star is both a historical treasure and a still relevant and resonant voice bodes well for it continuing.

“Marguerita put in building blocks that will allow the Star to continue even after she’s gone.Years ago Marguerita and I had talks about the future of the Star and she told me, ‘My goal is for the Star to live beyond me.’ I know for a fact there are things in place now that will allow the Star to continue. Marguerita started preparing the community to embrace the Star years ago.

“I think the community is rallying around the Star more than it ever has
because the Star is a community institution and if it dies part of the fabric of the community dies. The community will not let it die. I’m familiar with some of the things going on now (behind the scenes) to ensure its survival and I’m encouraged.”

Somewhere, Mildred Brown is smiling that people care so much about the fate of the paper she and her niece devoted their lives to.

 

 

Mildred Brown met many dignitaries

 

The Omaha Star celebrates 75 years of black woman legacy

April 11, 2013 4 comments

If you’re not from Omaha or you don’t live here then you may be surprised to learn this nondescript Midwesten city is the home to a sizable African American community with a rich history.  It may further surprise you to know that a significant figure in the American black press of the mid to late 20th century was a transplanted Omahan and a woman to boot, Mildren Brown, who founded, published and edited the Omaha Star, which became the leading and eventually only black owned and operated newspaper serving the community.  As my story below for The Reader (www.thereader.com) reveals, Brown heavily influenced two black women who became media titans:  Chicago Crusader publisher-editor Dorothy Leavell and Radio One chairperson Cathy Hughes.  When Brown died in 1989 the paper passed onto to her niece Marguerita Washington, thus continuing the publication’s black woman legacy.

NOTE: The story posted here is a longer version than the story that appears in The Reader.

 

Mildred Brown

 

The Omaha Star celebrates 75 years of black woman legacy

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

In this fluid transmedia age an old warhorse of a newspaper, the Omaha Star, celebrates 75 years of continuous publication at an April 19 Scholarship Banquet benefiting the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center.

The Star may not be known for exceptional reporting but it does own a groundbreaking gender and activist lineage. Its late publisher, Mildred Brown, was among very few women, white or black, to run a newspaper of its size and reach. She and her first husband co-launched the Star in 1938 though Brown was the real driving force behind it. Within a few years she divorced and from that point on served as sole publisher and editor until her death in 1989.

A black woman at the head of a successful media enterprise inspired Chicago Crusader publisher-editor Dorothy Leavell, the featured speaker at the April gala, and Radio One chairperson Cathy Hughes.

Though several years younger, Leavell’s career paralleled Brown’s when her first husband, Balm Leavell Jr., who founded the Crusader, died and she took over as a young single mother. She expanded the Crusader empire to reach hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. Leavell’s also served as president of the National Newspapers Publishers Association, a trade organization representing hundreds of African American newspapers, and chairperson of Amalgamated Publishers, a company thats sells national advertising to black papers.

 

 

 

Dorothy Leavell

 

 

As a fledgling journalist Leavell pattered herself after the “strong black woman” she saw in Brown. She admired the way Brown handled herself amid their mostly male peer publisher colleagues.

“She had a profound affect on me because…the men would try to discount you but they couldn’t discount Mildred. She was a strong personality, She would stand her ground. I always say, Mildred put the ‘n’ in nerve. Mildred was no-nonsense with those guys.

“Seeing how she would not let them relegate her to a female role was certainly an influence on me and as a result when I became a publisher I insisted I be accorded the same courtesy and respect accorded the males. I would net let anyone take me lightly because they did not take Mildred lightly.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The history of the Star, located in a former mortuary at 2216 North 24th St., is bound up in the story of Brown. The dynamic entrepreneur became synonymous with the paper for her front page editorials, out-front activism, personal style and legendary salesmanship. She often sported a fresh carnation pinned to her shoulder, a hat crowning her head and fitted gloves over her hands,

The Alabama native and former educator migrated north with her then-husband, Shirl Edward Gilbert, a pharmacist. The couple started a newspaper, the Silent Messenger. in Sioux City, Iowa. In 1937 they were recruited to Omaha to work for the city’s then-black newspaper, The Guide, whose co-publisher, Charles Galloway, Brown remained friends with even after she quit to start the Star.

The Star chronicled black people’s lives through the Depression, World War II, the Great Migration, the civil rights movement and America‘s changing face post-Vietnam and Watergate. When North 24th St. burned in outbreaks of civil disobedience this militant who didn’t believe in “breaking glass” called for both calm and redress.

She filled her paper with aspirational stories and advocacy journalism that sought to uplift her community and expose injustice. Its banner motto reflected her own ideals:

“Dedicated to the service of the people that no good cause shall lack a champion and that evil shall not thrive unopposed.”

She printed the names of businesses that refused to hire or serve blacks. She carried guest editorials by then-Nebraska Urban League and future National Urban League head Whitney Young. She supported the Omaha civil rights groups the DePorres Club and the 4CL. She observed, “This paper broke down discrimination in this town. They called us troublemakers nothing bit troublemakers. Oh, I’m a militant, always have been.”

Upon her death her niece, former educator Marguerita Washington, assumed command of the Star and she’s still in charge today, giving the publication the distinction of being the nation’s longest running newspaper led exclusively by black women.

 

 

 

Marguerita Washington

 

 

Omaha native Cathy Hughes, who sold Star ads in the 1960s, appreciates the paper’s “black woman legacy.” Hughes built a media empire as a single woman. Her son Alfred C. Liggins III succeeded her as Radio One CEO but she wishes she also had a daughter to pass things onto.

“I love my son. I can’t tell you how much I thank God and appreciate the fact he embraced my vision and followed in my footsteps but my only regret is that I didn’t have a daughter to go along with him because I really would have liked to continue this legacy under the banner of female leadership.”

Hughes knew many sides of Brown. who was in her life from the time she was a little girl. Brown was a friend of her parents, William Alfred Woods and Helen Jones Woods. When her father graduated from Creighton University Brown let him office inside the Star.

Asked to assess the influence Brown and the Star had on her, Hughes said, “It’s why you have me on the phone now as the founder and chairperson of Radio One, which is the parent corporation for TV One, Interactive One, Reach Media, Distribution One. It’s why I have this media conglomerate. I went through a couple decades working on my career and my personal and professional growth and development before I realized the impact the Omaha Star had had on me.”

Seeing a smart, bold black woman totally in charge made an impression on the young Hughes, who says she naturally looked up to “this woman whose personality and physical presence were bigger than life,” adding, “I can still smell the carnations to this day. Every Monday a big box of carnations that went straight into the refrigerator was delivered because she wore a fresh carnation bouquet every day of the week. She wore absolutely beautiful hats, matching outfits, shoes to match the outfits, fresh flowers. She lived in a beautiful apartment behind her business.”

Drivers chauffeured her around in a big shiny sedan.

“She had a good looking husband (Brown’s common-law second husband Max Brownell), she had a wardrobe, she had all the trappings of a media mogul. To me the Star was a conglomerate. She was NBC, ABC, and CBS combined in my mind,” says Hughes.

“The Star was to Omaha what Jet and Ebony were to the black community nationwide. You had really made it when you made the cover of the Omaha Star. Remember, during these days there were no blacks on Omaha TV, there was no black radio, the (Omaha) World-Herald basically covered crime in North Omaha. There were no alternatives, there was no other place to turn for information about you and your organization, you and your family, you and your neighborhood, you and your existence in Omaha, Neb. other than the Omaha Star.”

Hughes, who’s built a corporate dynasty in the face of sexism and racism, was impressed by the way Brown’s force of nature personality smashed barriers. She recalls her “dogged determination,” adding, “When somebody told Mildred no, that they weren’t going to take an ad, she was going to write you up and that write-up would become public record. Mildred combined her activism with her marketing and salesmanship…When people said no to Mildred she saw it as an opportunity to change their mind, she never saw it as a rejection. She didn’t take no seriously. No to her meant, ‘Oh, they must not have enough information to come to the right conclusion because no is not the right conclusion.’

“Nothing stopped Mildred.

Marguerita Washington marveled at her aunt’s drive.

“She wouldn’t give up. She was very persistent. I went with her many times to a business place where she would be told the person in charge was not available. A lot of times the boss told their secretary, ‘Just tell her I’m not here.’ Of course, she knew he was, so she would say, ‘Well, I’ll wait on him,’ and she would sit there in the lobby until finally the guy would come out and say, ‘Oh, Mildred, what do you want?’ Nine chances out of 10 she got the sell.

“She was better at the game then they were.”

Star contributing writer Walter Brooks, the 2013 Omaha Star Legacy Award honoree, doubled as Brown’s driver. Going on sales calls with her he saw her operate at parties and meetings, working the room with everyone from small business owners to corporate. He notes in a video interview:

“Mildred Brown was liked by those people. They liked her style. They respected her because they knew quite honestly nobody else could have done what she did. When you think about starting that paper in 1938 and never quitting, never backing down, always moving forward, and then the role of course that the paper played during the civil rights era, and just the fact she was so smooth and tough.”

 

Cathy Hughes

 

Brooks saw an assertive woman supremely sure of herself. “Mrs. Brown was fearless. She was not intimidated. When she asked for an ad it wasn’t hat in hand, mealy-mouthed, please-Mr.-Charlie, it was her being received as an equal.”

Hughes says Brown was proud of leading a newspaper that at the time of her death was half a century old and she imagines if Brown were alive today she would be thrilled it’s still going strong.

“I think her crowning glory was the newspaper and its ability to continue – the longevity.”

The Star may not be the primary news source it once was for most readers but outside Revive! magazine it offers Omaha’s only black on black print perspective. It maintains a black press tradition emphasizing positive news, conveying black pride stories of individual accomplishments and informing readers of community events, as well as examining issues of inequity.

Brooks says before today’s multimedia platforms the Star was Omaha’s only reliable media source for what was happening in the black community.

“If it wasn’t in the Star in many ways it didn’t exist,” he says. “It’s primary value has always been as the one outlet we could count on to represent the black community.”

In a documentary tribute to Brown the late Omaha musician Preston Love Sr. articulated what her paper meant to its readership.

“She gave every little person on the street a shot at getting some recognition. Families were publicized for constructive things they did and successes. It’d have the picture of some young man or woman on the front page who’d got their master’s degree and that was important to people. Everybody likes publicity. If they tell you differently, they’re lying.

“People who never had their picture in the paper for anything else, there they were in the new dress they got for the dance or the affair, the new tuxedo for the guys. We were impoverished people and we had no other means of getting recognition, especially in this town.”

Its interest in the whole gamut of African American life provided fairly comprehensive coverage of goings-on in the black community.

“And because it goes back eight decades it is actually an historical repository because no one else was consistently capturing events and things taking place in the black community week after week,” notes Brooks.

Now that the Star’s archives are being digitized a new resource will soon be accessible online to anyone researching people, places and events covered by the paper over much of its history.

Today, the black owned and operated weekly remains a voice for a community not always well represented by traditional mainstream media. Subscriptions and advertisements are the lifeblood of any print publication and Brown scored ads like nobody else, sometimes using moral indignation to guilt whites into buying space.

“Especially with a tough customer or potential customer she would try to appeal to his or her conscience,” says Washington.

“She had a way of relating to business people to get them, sometimes with a little arm twisting, to advertise in her newspaper,” says Leavell.

Getting people to do the right thing, whether buying ads in her paper or giving blacks equal opportunity, extended beyond the office. Brown was part of a coterie of black professionals, including Cathy Hughes’ parents, who shared similar aspirational-activist values and put them into practice.

 

Mildred Brown, North Omaha, Nebraska

Mildred Brown

 

“It was less than a dozen of them and they really formed this close friendship and partnership in so many areas – business, education, civil rights – and in that mixture my father and Mildred became best friends,” says Hughes. “Mildred Brown was a member of an organization my parents were members of, the DePorres Club, that challenged Omaha institutions that practiced overt discrimination.”

The DePorres Club’s founder, the later Rev. John Markoe, a Jesuit priest at Creighton University, was befriended by Brown after his civil rights work made him persona non grata at the school. She allowed the interracial club to meet at the Star. The paper often printed the minutes of the club’s meetings along with listings of its social action activities.

As a girl Hughes joined her parents and Brown at demonstrations.

“I carried my first picket sign when I was around 4 or 5 years old. I grew up with community service and activism.”

She says her parents and Brown “imbued” her with the mandate “to improve the community” by standing up and speaking out for right.

Brown’s Star promoted aspirational pursuits. She often included news about herself, such as meeting visiting dignitaries or receiving some award, because she enjoyed the attention and the affirmation it provided.

Washington says, “There wasn’t a camera she didn’t like.” Some readers disapproved of Brown’s frequent appearances in the paper but Washington says, “she didn’t care.” Besides, she adds, “her being in there a lot of times was noteworthy, like when she met presidents and what have you. She hoped people would be inspired.”

Preston Love Sr. was Brown’s contemporary and sometime employee. He sold advertising off and on there for 26 years, His rise to prominence in music paralleled Brown’s in journalism. They maintained a mutual respect. After she passed he wrote, “It’s the end of an era. The paper was the center of the black community in many ways…Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star have been the most potent forces for the progress and advancement of blacks in Omaha and in this state.”

Though some felt she didn’t go far enough, others felt she did all she could.

“She was definitely considered a conservative by the Black Panther Party,” says Brooks, a one-time Panther member. He says she refrained from “the more radical hard push back approach” and instead focused on “collaboration and coalition.” Practical realities of the time constrained Brown from being too harsh in attacking racism.

Love said that “she was militant in that she was persistent in fighting for the cause” but “she wasn’t a firebrand,” adding, “What needed to be done she did it through the medium of this newspaper.”

Dorothy Leavell leaves no doubt about Brown’s activism.

“Milldred was just really an unusual woman. She was a very strong militant activist during the days when women were thought of as at home taking care of children. Mildred was a fighter who fought hard for the rights of blacks.”

Even near the end Brooks says Brown still “was totally hands on…totally in charge. Nothing went in that paper she didn’t sign off on. She was still much willing to say, ‘No, I don’t like that.’ Still very much focused on the political bent that she wanted the paper to be. She was like, ‘Yeah, I know it’s the 1980s now but this is what has worked, this is what the people want it to be, this is want the advertisers want to see.’ It was very much, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That was very much I feel her attitude.

“Not only was it hard to argue with that, but there’s the door, if you really just have a problem with this, hey, thank you for your service…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editorially, Brooks says he was given great freedom by her and is given even more by Washington, who’s serializing his new book about the state of black America. Outside of the late Charles B. Washington, who got his start in journalism under Brown, the Star’s not groomed any black journalists, though Washington says the Mildred B. Brown Memorial Study Center and its Junior Journalist Program is an attempt to do that.

Margeuerita Washington says that because “it’s a different day” than when her aunt ran the paper she’s given space to more militant voices her aunt would not have accommodated, including former Omaha activist Matthew Stelly and Neb. state senator Ernie Chambers.

The opinion pieces by Chambers can be particularly controversial and that’s why Brown shied away giving him a forum during her reign.

“She was afraid he might turn away some of her advertisers,” Washington says. “When I took over I felt like, ‘Well, give him a chance, and if he goes too far out on a limb. I can always tone him down some. It’s worked out fine. Only once have I had to tell him to cool it…to find another topic.”

She believes the Star remains a relevant voice today. “I think the main thing I’m proud of is this paper has really become the people’s paper. It is a sounding board. We have a number of local columnists. It’s the community’s paper with a diversity of voices.” Ad revenues and circulation numbers are way down from its heyday and took more hits during the recession but Washington says the paper is slowly “building back.”

Hughes says the Star has a vital role to play in the same way black magazines, radio stations, TV networks and websites do.

“Next to the black church black-owned media is the most important institution in our community. I think too often African Americans have looked to mainstream media to tell our story. Well, all stories go through a filter process based on the news deliverers’ experience and perception and so often our representation has not been accurate. But the reality is we have to be responsible for the dissemination of our own information because that’s the only time we can be reasonably assured it’s going to be from the right perspective, that it’s going to be from the right experience, and for the right reasons. I think the black community just intuitively understands that.

“Information is power. I think Mildred Brown understood that. It wasn’t just about a business for her, it was about a community service.”

The clout and wealth Brown earned put her in position to help others and she did.

“She was instrumental in helping St. Benedict the Moore Catholic Church build the Bryant Center,” says Hughes. “She was kind of a one woman social agency before social agencies became in vogue in indigenous communities. She helped a lot of people. If your husband was beating you, you ran to the Omaha Star. Mildred would give you some money, help you check into a hotel. Your child got arrested, it was Mildred people came to asking, ‘Can you loan me $150 to get my child out of jail?’

“Charlie Washington had a very troubled background and yet because of her he rose to being respected as one of the great journalists of his time in Omaha. Dignitaries would come and sit on Charlie’s stoop and talk to him about what was going on. He was considered iconic because of Mildred Brown.”

Hughes says Brown also assisted young people getting their education.

“She’d put them through school in a minute, go up to Creighton raising hell, going up to Duchesne (Academy) when my mother didn’t have the tuition and telling them, ‘You just wait, we’re going to get you your money, but don’t be threatening to put her out of school.'”

Washington says her aunt sponsored many college students. After her death a Creighton University journalism scholarship was established in her name. It goes to black students from Omaha area schools.

“She literally walked the walk as well as talked the talk,” says Hughes.

“She didn’t tell folks what they needed to do, she helped them do it.”

After her father died Hughes says Brown drew closer to her. “I think I was that connection for her. She continued to inspire and advise and mold me right up to the time she passed.”

The legacy of the Star is felt by Washington, who is childless and has no plans to hand it off to a relative. Her will dictates the paper will be sold upon her death. That is unless, she says, “some dashing young person comes along who I think this is just the right fit to carry it on.”

She holds out little hope someone will, in effect, endow the paper’s future operations.

“No Warren Buffett is going to come and help us,” she says, referring to the billionaire’s recent World-Herald purchase. “Unlikely.”

She intends continuing as publisher-editor for the forseeable future. “I’m in good health and I’ve still got some energy left.” A project she’d like to see happen is the renovation and expansion of the space-starved Star offices.

Tickets to the April 19 Star gala at the Downtown Hilton, 1001 Cass St., may be ordered at 402-346-4041, ext. 4 or 6.

 

Part II: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking

August 2, 2010 2 comments

Prominent figures of the African-American Civi...

Image via Wikipedia

 

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 a two-part Reader cover story series I did several years ago about the Network.. This long version shared here was not published. The shorter published version is also available on my blog if you care to see it.

Cover Photo

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.

Bankers Trust vice president Kraig Williams has lived and worked all over America. He said he’s impressed with how the Network coalesces community participation:

“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.”

Dick Davis

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.”

Thomas H Warren, Sr, MSWarren said, “Everyone realizes that in order to build capacity with limited resources you have to collaborate. There are very strong-willed individuals who speak candidly with one another.” Despite disagreements, in the end I believe there’s true consensus in terms of the strategy and the approach we take. This is not an ivory tower operation, this is a front line grassroots mobilization. The individuals involved are reputable, they’re credible, they have the highest level of integrity and they recognize the need for things to change. It’s a mindset more-so than anything else that in my opinion has led to this initiative being so far successful.”                   

 

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.”

Leo Louis

 

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.”

 

Part I: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking

August 2, 2010 Leave a comment

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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 I of a two-part Reader cover story series I did several years ago about the Network.. This long version shared here was not published. The shorter published version 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.

 

  • Willie Barney
  •  Vicki Quaites-Ferris
  •  Jami Anders-Kemp

 

 

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.

 

Cover Photo

 

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.

 

John Ewing

Ben Gray

 

 

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.”

 

Black Male Summit  9 10 2013

 

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.”

 

8th Annual State of African Americans and State of North Omaha 2014 Photo from Jason Fischer

 

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.”

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