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Putting it on the Line: Omaha’s Amber Ruffin making a name for herself in late-night TV

December 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Omaha’s Amber Ruffin has so much to say and so much going on that I couldn’t fit it all into one story. That’s why in addition to the recent Omaha Star cover story I did on her, I wrote a Reader feature on this writer-actress best known for “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” While she came to national attention with her work on that show, she’s no overnight sensation. She put many years into an improvisational comedy career before network TV gave her a mass media platform for her talents. Her performing start goes clear back to Omaha Benson High School and local theaters.

But first, here are some thoughts about Amber and her being part of a long legacy of African-Americans with Nebraska ties making their marks in the entertainment industry.

Amber Ruffin: A consideration

For the second year in a row Ruffin came home to headline the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving event.

There’s little doubt we will be hearing and seeing a lot more from this smart, engaging writer-performer who often skewers wrongdoers and haters with her subversive, silly, serious takes. Her humor, especially when it deals with race and other social justice issues, resonates strongly because it’s grounded in reality and truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if she proves herself a fine dramatic actress as well.

She’s part of an impressive contingent of black creatives from here to make their mark variously in music, theater, film, television, literature and media.

These talents include:
Noble and George Johnson
Lloyd Hunter
Preston Love Sr.
Wynonie Harris
Anna Mae Winburn
Mildred Brown
Helen Jones Woods
Ruth Norman
Buddy Miles
Arno Lucas
Calvin Keys
Victor Lewis
Cathy Hughes
Carol Rogers
Nole Jeanpierre
Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris
John Beasley
Monty Ross
Kevyn Morrow
Randy Goodwin
Camille Steed
Sandra Organ
Alfred Liggins Jr.
Jade Jenise Dixon
Gabrielle Union
Yolonda Ross
Q Smith
Carleen Brice
Kim Louise
Victoria Benning
Omowale Akintunde
Michael Beasley
Lafayette Reed Jr.
Tim Christian
Beaufield Berry
Symone Sanders
Chanelle Elaine

 

Putting it on the Line

Omaha’s Amber Ruffin making a name for herself in late-night TV

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Since joining NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” in 2014 as a writer-performer, Omaha native Amber Ruffin has made a name for herself. The gig made her the first black female writer in U.S. late-night network television.

Her strong Afro-centric takes on social issues are part of a disarming package. She can be sweet, silly, manic comedian or edgy commentator and provocateur.

In the recurring “Late Night” segments “Amber Says What” and “Amber’s One-Minute of Fury,” she skewers newsmakers and outs injustice. Her subversive bits play like funny truth sessions by a righteous sister reporting from the trenches of Being Black in America.

“That’s my goal,” Ruffin said. “You’ll never be wrong when you say police should stop murdering children in the street. That (racism) being a lot of my subject matter just gives me tremendous confidence because it’s never been more right and it’s never been more important.”

This fresh TV face and voice is steeped in a long, deep improv background that started here and took her to comedy capitals. Last month she came home to display her authentic, unvarnished self during an Inclusive Communities event at Slowdown. The audience got a taste of her formidable improv skills.

Replicating improv on TV is elusive.

“Oh, how I wish the feeling of improv translated to television. A lot of people have tried to get that feeling in a show, but it’s pretty difficult.”

Playing off a live audience is crucial.

“You’re constantly adjusting your tone, cadence because you have instant feedback and that allows you to give the best performance.”

Working in a corporate culture is still an adjustment.

“It is crazy for comedy to exist in an office. I’d never seen it before I was a part of it. I still find it shocking that it works.”

She’s learned to work within network TV boundaries.

“You can’t be crazy politically incorrect. When you’re on stage doing improv it only exists in that moment, so you can say whatever comes to mind, but on this show whatever you say exists forever. So you have to get it right so that 20 years from now when someone plays it you’ll still stand by it.”

Going out on a limb is a Ruffin trait.

“We are a little adventurous,” Ruffin said of her family. “My mom graduated high school at 16. Every summer she went to New York to find out what the world was about. My oldest sister lived in Panama. Another sister lived in Namibia. It’s just in our bones to see what’s out there.”

Her retired military parents are from the South. They met at Offutt Air Force Base. They later ran their own daycare business. Amber’s the youngest of their five children. Her sisters are also published writers.

Growing up, Ruffin used humor as escape.

“Humor WAS my way to survive. When kids make fun of you, it’s nice to give them something else to laugh at.”

That experience still informs her.

“My day-to-day humor stems from a need to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable and happy, which stems from getting made fun of so badly. It’s assumed people use comedy to put up walls, but I think in many cases the opposite is true. I can say exactly how I feel no matter how uncomfortable it makes you – if there’s a joke attached.”

Musically and dramatically inclined (she plays piano and sings), she developed an early passion for theater.

“I just love musicals.”

The movie The Wiz made a big impression for more than the music.

“It was rare to see a show with an all-black cast that has nothing to do with being black,” she said. “Often times, black people have to talk about their experience being black to be valued. But these people didn’t. It was just a story of joy. The movie, the live musical, every performance of it leaves so much room for you to express yourself. It reminds us the world wants us at our weirdest. When you pretend to fit in, you fade away.”

She contributed to the book of a new stage version of The Wiz that premiered in June at The Muny amphitheater in St. Louis. She hopes a national tour comes here on what could be a Broadway-bound path.

“What distinguishes our version is its timelessness. I wanted it to never have to be rewritten again.”

The stage bug bit while playing Princess Winnifred in an Omaha Benson High production of Once Upon a Mattress. The Benson grad honed her craft via Stages of Omaha at the Millennium Theatre. She did improv at the Shelterbelt and Blue Barn.

Encouraged to try it in Chi-Town, she caught on with Boom Chicago – working with Jordan Peele, Matt Jones and Jessica Lowe – and then Second City. In between, she did a stint with Boom’s company in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Within days of an unsuccessful “SNL” audition, she got hired by “SNL” and Boom alum Seth Meyers.

“I think it’s been a natural progression because I have always been writing my own black point of view. I haven’t found it (TV) to be too crazy because at Boom Chicago we would do short form, where the audience suggests the set-up and then you have to deliver punch lines. You have three or four seconds to come up with something. But on “Late Night” I have all day to come up with a punch line. It’s much more relaxed.”

She usually has a week to hone her “Late Night” routines.

“You write it up and you rewrite it a bunch and you show it to the audience and you get one last rewrite and then it has to go in the show.”

She believes she provides a good change-up.

“Because Seth is so grounded in his comedy there is room for an insane person like me.”

She doesn’t make a big deal about having been the first black female writer in the late-night lane.

“I am not sure if any of that matters. What matters is knowing that we exist and being able to see us. What matters is that everyone knows there’s room for them – because there is.”

She says she was long ready for the opportunity. “I could have done this job years ago, for sure.” But happening when it did kept her real. “Now that I’m in this environment, I’m still me. If I had got this job years ago, I would have bent to what the culture was, and it’s my not having done that has made my career what it is.”

Her go-to topic, racism. is informed by her travels.

“The racism in Omaha is different than anywhere else. We don’t have a huge history of lynchings, scary slavery and Confederate monuments, and so we feel we are above racism, which is what puts us so far beneath it. No one’s really angry because you’re a black woman. People don’t think of you as much as a threat. They just think you are kind of gross.

“Omaha’s pretty bad. It’s way less in Chicago. In Amsterdam, way less, but still there – just a different kind. In L.A., there’s less palpable racism. It’s all institutionalized instead of in your face. In New York, people say something the tiniest bit racist and everyone knows it and sees it. It has gone from me being gross to racism itself being the gross thing, which is a relief.

“Now racism is fixed and over, so we win. Just kidding.”

Coming of age here, she craved diversity.

“I remember being in Omaha and just wanting there to be more me and to have a place where you felt like you could belong, and there wasn’t. I still don’t have a lot of me. I just see how critically important it is, especially for young kids.”

Her diversity advocacy made her an apt choice as special guest for the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving fundraiser.

Meanwhile, she has an NBC development deal for a show, “Village Gazette,” on which she has co-writing and executive producer credits. It’s set in fictional Benson, Nebraska. The name is inspired by her real-life alma mater, Benson High, and the neighborhood that school is in.

She’s also writing feature film scripts. And she can be seen on Comedy Central’s “The Detroiters” and “Drunk History.”

“I shouldn’t be doing this many things, but I figure you only have so much time. I want to give it a shot.”

Follow Amber on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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Cathy Hughes: Forging a Media Empire by 
Disrupting the Status Quo

November 25, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Cathy Hughes has forged media empire by disrupting the status quo 

photo by Bill Sitzmann

story by Leo Adam Biga and Daisy Hutzell-Rodman

Originally published in B2B Omaha Magazine (omahamagazine.com/articles/cathyhughes)

Disruptors don’t ask permission. They refuse accepting no for an answer. Neither do they cow to tradition for tradition’s sake, nor let barriers deny realizing their goal.

Make no mistake, Omaha native media mogul Cathy Hughes built the first leg of her Urban One empire by being a disruptor. Doing it in the nation’s capital gave her a national platform. After running radio station WHUR at Howard University, where her innovative programming made waves, she made her move in ownership at WOL, which became the flagship for her Radio One broadcast network.

She developed a reputation as a sharp entrepreneur and tough negotiator. Her intuitive grasp of what the public wanted and her ability to provide it as both a programmer and an on-air host built a brand and a following. In 1999 she became the first African-American woman to chair a publicly traded company. This media magnate added a television network to her holdings when her son Alfred Liggins III launched TV One. Though Alfred now runs things on a day by day basis for a diverse portfolio of companies, including online and gaming divisions, she’s still very much involved and remains Urban One’s public face.

Hughes recently added movie producer to her credits.  She is second only to Oprah when it comes to individual black women wealth. None of it would have been possible, she says, without what she learned in her hometown of Omaha, where Alfred also grew up.

Mentors included civil rights champion priest John Markoe, Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown and advocate journalist Charles B. Washington. Her activist parents resisted racial inequality as members of the social action group the De Porres Club, Her mother Helen Jones Woods was a professional musician turned licensed practical nurse and social worker. Her father William Woods was an accountant. Her maternal grandfather, Lawrence C. Jones, was founder of Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi.

“My mother, father and grandfather were very committed to trying to improve the plight of our people, and I inherited that,” says Hughes.

Another influence informing her own independent spirit was a group of prominent African-Americans who bought local radio station KOWH.

“Their example inspired me to become a broadcast owner of what ultimately became the largest black media company in the world.”

Her sense of self-determination and aspiration as a single mother in North Omaha, where she worked at both the Star and KOWH and participated in demonstrations, carried her far.

Instead of making her single mother status a negative or barrier, she embraced it and used it as motivation to achieve. Her son was there for her entire struggle and ascent. She sometimes brought him to classes and to work.

National journalist Tony Brown was so impressed upon meeting the vivacious Hughes when he appeared in Omaha that he invited her to be a lecturer at Howard despite the fact she was not a college graduate herself.

“He saw that I was so hungry for the opportunity and that this was a passion for me.”

Brown was one of a string of illustrious mentors who saw her potential. Others included Susan Thompson Buffett, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and Johnson Publishing founded John H. Johnson.

Hughes parlayed the Howard opportunity to become D.C.’s first female general manager of a radio station when asked to take the reins at WHUR in 1973. She grew ad revenues and helped WHUR go national after creating the urban format “Quiet Storm,” which hundreds of stations across the country adopted.

Realizing she still had a lot to learn, Hughes studied psychographic programming at Harvard and took a programming seminar at the University of Chicago.

In 1980, she and then-husband Dewey Hughes purchased struggling WOL. She reversed the station’s fortunes by transforming it from R&B to a 24-hour-a-day news-talk format she dubbed “Information is Power.” She hosted an on-air morning show for 11 years, thus becoming the voice and face of black urban radio.

Hughes took cues from her Omaha mentors in remaining connected to her community while finding commercial success.

Years before in Omaha, she said Mildred Brown and Charles Washington “understood that information is power.” She learned from them and the folks who ran KOWH that black media isn’t just about a business, it’s about a community service.” That realization has informed everything she’s done with Urban One.

“Our commitment to our community is what has built brand loyalty. Investors and bankers respect that.  They’re interested in numbers and they understand the numbers will be there because the community responds positively to that loyalty.”

Building a radio network was her vision and ambition.

“I always wanted more than one station,” she says.

She sees opportunity where others don’t.

“We have been turnaround experts. That’s what our whole corporate strategy has been. We take under-performing stations and turn them around. Under-performing stations have practically called our name. That’s how we’ve approached broadcasting.

“We built Radio One with numerous formats, including some mainstream white formats.”

Hughes put together most of the funds for her initial purchase of WOL.

“I had $100,000 of my own personal money. That’s why when Dewey and I split there wasn’t a big hassle because it was his opportunity and my money.

“I raised an additional $100,000 from 10 investors – each putting in $10,000 a piece, and then I borrowed the rest. I needed a million dollars from a senior lender. I was turned down by 32 different banks. The 33rd presentation was to a Puerto Rican woman banker – and she said yes. She was the one that made the difference. I put together another $600,000 from black venture capitalists.”

Part of persevering and being resilient meant having to prove to skeptics that she could go it alone.

“The most perilous time in the history of my company was when I decided to divorce my husband. He was not making a contribution to the business. He was a drain. But that’s not how it was seen by my advertisers, by my lenders, by my creditors, by my listeners. They saw it from the perspective that I wouldn’t be able to survive with Dewey no longer in the picture.”

Survive and thrive she did by leaning into the example set by Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, whose “dogged determination” she admired.

“When somebody told Mildred no, 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.”

Like that earlier media matriarch, the charismatic Hughes brings “activism with marketing and salesmanship” to her personal art of persuasion.

Early in her Radio One ownership, when loans were hard to come by, she openly expressed doubts. She credits a male investor-advisor with getting her to speak into action her successful acquisition of capital, stations, listeners and advertisers.

“He told me to change my terminology, which changed my thinking, because I was the first person to hear it.

And guess what, one day it was no longer a lie, it became my truth.”

Even after her multi-billion dollar company went public, the ever-driven Hughes was anything but complacent.

“I don’t see it as success yet, I still see it as a work in progress.”

Being a woman in a male-centric industry hasn’t fazed her, she said, because “I never put woman first. I am black first and a woman second. Plus, I had my eyes on a prize. I didn’t see it as proving something to the old boys network. I was not intimidated by the fact I was the only female. I really thought because I was the first woman general manager there would be a whole proliferation of black women owning and managing radio stations. But women have made more progress in sports than they have in media.”

Her business rise took some aback as it didn’t follow expectations. For instance, when she found herself a single mother again after putting together the WOL deal, she and her son Alfred slept at the station until things improved. A black single mom with a penchant for telling it like it is disrupted the prototypical corporate culture.

“It’s not a role white women have enjoyed for too long and so it’s definitely still brand new for African-American women, especially for someone outspoken like me.”

Along the way, she says, she’s had to educate some folks that it was she who actually built Radio One and made it a success, not her ex-husband or her business partner son. Perhaps a sign of progress is that she now gets credit for forming TV One and taking the parent company public when it was her son Alfred’s doing.

She’s grateful that her son, a Wharton School of Business graduate, came to not only embrace her media vision and passion but to expand it to across platforms.

Things came full circle for the pair last May when Hughes was honored in Omaha for her achievements and Liggins joined others in singing her praises.

“I could always recognize and appreciate her drive, tenacity and lessons,” he says. “First and foremost, I respect her as a human being and as my mother. In terms of our business partnership, we don’t let any of the mother-son-family potential squabbles disintegrate that partnership. I guess we’ve always been a team since the day I was born.”

Hughes now has a boulevard named after her in North Omaha and she is a Face on the Barroom Floor at the Omaha Press Club.

“It doesn’t get any better than that,” she says.

Visit https://urban1.com.

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

This article was printed in the December 2018/January 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Funny, yet serious, to the core: The Amber Ruffin story

November 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Add Amber Ruffin to the roster of folks with Omaha roots to find success beyond here in stage-screen-media. The writer-performer got her start in theater and improvisation in her native Omaha. After years honing her craft with major improv troupes around he U.S. and abroad, she broke onto the national scene by joining the writing staff and cast of “Late Night with Seth Meyers” in 2014. She also has a presence on Comedy Central. She’s working on developing her own TV show and she recently co-wrote a new stage adaptation of “The Wiz.”

For the second year in a row Ruffin has come home to headline the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving event (this year’s iteration is today from Noon to 2 p.m. at Slowdown).

There’s little doubt we will be hearing and seeing a lot more from this smart, engaging writer-performer who often skewers wrongdoers and haters with her subversive, silly, serious takes. Her humor, especially when it deals with race and other social justice issues, resonates strongly because it’s grounded in reality and truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if she proves herself a fine dramatic actress as well.

She’s part of an impressive contingent of black creatives from here to make their mark variously in music, theater, film, television, literature and media.

These talents include:

Noble and George Johnson

Lloyd Hunter

Preston Love Sr.

Wynonie Harris

Anna Mae Winburn

Mildred Brown

Helen Jones Woods

Ruth Norman

Buddy Miles

Arno Lucas

Calvin Keys

Victor Lewis

Cathy Hughes

Carol Rogers

Nole Jeanpierre

Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris

John Beasley

Monty Ross

Kevyn Morrow

Randy Goodwin

Camille Steed

Sandra Organ

Alfred Liggins Jr.

Jade Jenise Dixon

Gabrielle Union

Yolonda Ross

Q Smith

Carleen Brice

Kim Louise

Victoria Benning

Omowale Akintunde

Michael Beasley

Lafayette Reed Jr.

Tim Christian

Beaufield Berry

Symone Sanders

Chanelle Elaine

Funny, yet serious, to the core: 

The Amber Ruffin story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Nov. 16, 2018 issue of The Omaha Star (https://theomahastar.com)

NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” gives more than lip service to diversity thanks to Omaha native Amber Ruffin, a writer-performer on the New York-based show.

She’s a singular presence for her strong Afro-centric takes on social issues. She became the first black female writer in U.S. late night network television when she joined the staff in 2014. It marked her national debut. But she’s no newcomer. She comes from a deep improv background that started here and took her to comedy capitals.

In the recurring “Late Night” segments “Amber Says What” and “Amber’s One-Minute of Fury” she calls out newsmakers for everything from their stupid attire to their ugly rhetoric to their heinous acts. Her subversive bits play like funny truth sessions by a righteous sister reporting from the trenches of Being Black in America.

“That’s my goal,” Ruffin said. “You’ll never be wrong when you say police should stop murdering children in the street. That (hate) being a lot of my subject matter just gives me tremendous confidence because it’s never been more right and it’s never been more important.”

The writer-actress headlines the Sunday, November 25 Inclusive Communities (IC) FriendsGiving at Slowdown.

Her high-energy performances sometimes find her flitting across stage as cameras try tracking her. While she can be serious when making a point, her default personality is sweet, silly, manic. She was voted Class Clown at Omaha Benson High School,

It seems this dynamo hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

“You think I’m a happy person, whoo-whee, my parents are really happy,” said Amber, whose mother was voted Class Clown at her high school in Savannah, Georgia.

As a kid, Amber used humor to deflect the hurtful things classmates said about her then-homely looks. Nobody thinks the vivacious Ruffin is homely anymore.

“Humor WAS my way to survive. When kids make fun of you, it’s nice to give them something else to laugh at.”

That experience still informs her.

“My day to day humor stems from a need to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable and happy, which stems from getting made fun of so badly. It’s assumed people use comedy to put up walls, but I think in many cases the opposite is true. I can say exactly how I feel no matter how uncomfortable it makes you – if there’s a joke attached.”

Her folks, Theresa and James Ruffin, are both from the South, They met at Offutt Air Fore Base while serving in the military. They later ran their own business, T and J Daycare Centers. Amber’s the youngest of their five children. She’ll be with family over the holiday when she comes home for the IC event. It’s her second year in a row doing it.

IC Executive Director Maggie Wood said Ruffin’s humor is appreciated by the organization.

“We know how heavy this work can be and the levity of laughter makes us a little more resilient to confront prejudice, bigotry and discrimination.”

Instead of a stand-up set or a speech, Ruffin will engage in conversation with the IC team on stage in response to some loosely scripted questions.

“Our donors, volunteers and supporters all know we need to face this work head on. That’s exactly what Amber does in her commentary. We’re so excited to have her back,” Wood said.

Growing up, Ruffin acutely felt Omaha’s lack of diversity.

“I remember just wanting there to be more me, and there wasn’t. I still don’t have a lot of me. I’ve seen how important it is to have a place where you feel like you can belong and I’m also quite jealous of it because I’ve never had just a place like that where you can be as you as you want to be.”

Theresa Ruffin said dealing with Omaha’s lack of diversity “was challenging to say the least.” When she worked at Peter Kiewit Corp. for a year, she said, “I was the only black person in the building.”

Though Amber didn’t have any immediate show business role models, she gravitated to performing. She played piano at Omaha Trinity Hope Foursquare Church. She also developed an early love of theater.

“I just love musicals,” she said.

She got the bug playing Princess Winnifred in a Benson High production of Once Upon a Mattress.

“I just spent so much time watching theater and doing a lot of theater that everything I love is theater-based.”

Going out on a limb is a Ruffin trait.

“We are a little adventurous,” Amber said. “My mom graduated high school at 16. Every summer she went to New York to find out what the world was about. My oldest sister lived in Panama. Another sister lived in Namibia. It’s just in our bones to see what’s out there.”

Her sisters are also published writers.

The movie The Wiz made a big impression on Amber.

“Many people believe The Wiz has the best music of any musical. I am one of those people. It was also rare to see a show with an all black cast that has nothing to be with being black. Often times, black people have to talk about their experience with being black to be valued. But these people didn’t. It was just a story of joy.”

She’s contributed to the book of a new stage version of The Wiz that premiered in June at the 11,000-seat Muny amphitheater in St. Louis.

“I rewrote the words with the original writer (William F. Brown) who is 91 in April. I have written a few musicals and my love of The Wiz is no secret. We’re going to take it on tour and see how close to Broadway we can get.

“One of the things that stands out to me about our version is that it is timeless. The original Wiz is very much of that era, like many rewrites since. I wanted our Wiz to never have to be rewritten again. It could be from this year, or 20 years ago or 20 years from now.”

Writing musicals has become a new niche.

“I just always assumed because it’s the funnest thing to write, everybody was writing musicals. But it turns out not a lot of people are. So, yeah, I’ll do it.”

Performing in a musical may be another matter.

“I can sing just fine, but I don’t know that I’d ever be in a musical, unless I wrote one for myself.”

 

 

She honed her craft via Stages of Omaha at the Millennium Theatre. She did improv at the Shelterbelt and Blue Barn.

“We had the best time. It’s how I learned that I love improv. To be a good improviser, you just have to trust whoever you’re improvising with. If you treat them like a genius, you’ll both end up looking good.”

Encouraged to try it in Chi-Town, she caught on with Boom Chicago – where she worked with Jordan Peele, Matt Jones and Jessica Lowe – and then Second City. In between, she did a stint with Boom’s company in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

“Boom Chicago was terrifying and it was bad for awhile and there was nothing I could do. I just had to keep trying to survive. I didn’t have a college degree. I didn’t have a lot of money. So there were times when I wanted to go home so bad, But I just had to stay. Thank God I did because it turned out great.”

Her parents encouraged her through the tough times.

“Because they think I’m great because they’re my parents, they were like, ‘You’re excellent and soon        everyone will be able to see that.’ That was very sweet of them.”

Ironically, she met her Dutch husband, Jan, in America. The couple struggled in L.A. for a period. She feels it only made them stronger.

“I did a lot of my own projects. I wrote musicals, made a bunch of funny videos and really did what I wanted to do. Financially, I struggled, but I also had a great time.”

An unsuccessful “SNL” audition was soon followed by “SNL” and Boom alum Seth Meyers hiring her.

“Those two things happened within days of each other,” Theresa Ruffin recalled. “Amber was very down about ‘SNL’ and over the moon when Seth called.”

Going from improv to “Late Night” has been seamless for Amber. “I think it’s been a natural progression because I have always been writing my own black point of view. “I vastly prefer a live audience to just being in front of a camera alone. Improvisers make a thousand corrections a minute every performance until they figure out what the audience likes. You can do that with scripted material, too.”

Being the designated comic who outs racism, narcissism and mendacity, she said, is “this odd space to exist in.”

“I kind of feel like if I don’t say it people might feel desperate and insane. I have to be like, Okay, the president said that, and that’s cuckoo, and you do not have to accept it  It sounds silly but it feels so good to have an adult say you’re a human being and you shouldn’t be treated like this. Until you hear it from someone you do not know and have never met,

it doesn’t carry the same weight.”

Theresa Ruffin loves that her daughter echoes what many black Americans feel. “She says most of the things we are already thinking.”

Every time Amber outs someone’s misbehavior, her mother said it’s cause to shout, “THAT’S OUR GIRL.”

As brutally honest as Amber is on “Late Night,” she must deal with network censors, which is why she feels she was “rowdier and took more chances” doing improv.

On her way up, she met one of her biggest influences, Whoopi Goldberg. “She’s great,” Ruffin said.

Amber’s close friend since childhood, Kristina Haecke of Omaha, said watching her bestie’s breakthrough has been “awesome and great but mostly it has been completely expected..” Haecke insists fame hasn’t changed Ruffin, calling her “very down to earth” and “almost too calm about it.”

Grounded, too. “Her on-screen is her off-screen, just with a platform,” said Haecke.

Fame hasn’t changed Ruffin’s lifestyle. Yet. “Maybe someone recognizes me on the street once a week. No one cares. So when someone says, ‘Hey, Amber.’ I still think it’s pretty neat.”

Her celebrity may grow should a new TV show she’s trying to get off the ground escapes the development hell that befell her previous attempts as a producer.

“I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say it, but I’m going to because I don’t know what the rules are. I have a show called ‘Village Gazette,’ which is the third show I’ve sold to NBC. The premise of it is I am the editor of a small town newspaper in Benson, Nebraska. The owner’s nephew is a big shot reporter fallen from grace after making up a story that people find out is false. He gets fired and this is the only job he can get and he doesn’t want to be in this small town. But then he realizes we’re not so bad.”

Her “boatload of other projects” includes movie scripts she’s’ writing. She also pulls duty on Comedy Central’s “The Detroiters” and “Drunk History.”

By now, she’s mostly over having cracked the glass ceiling in late night, though she feels she did strike a blow for inclusion.

“What matters is knowing that we exist and being able to see us. What matters is that everyone knows there’s room for them because there is.”

Follow Amber on Facebook and Twitter.

Tickets to FriendsGiving with Amber Ruffin are $25 and include one drink and heavy hors d’oeuvres..The event is from Noon to 2 p.m.

Visit http://www.inclusive-communities.org for more details and to purchase tickets.

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

Cheryl Logan settles into role as new Omaha Public Schools superintendent

November 21, 2018 Leave a comment

 

 

Logan settles into role as new OPS superintendent

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

New Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Cheryl Logan, 55, is the first woman to hold the position full-time and the first African-American filling it, period. That’s not what this East Coast native, mother of one and daughter of a career educator mother and law enforcement father wants the community focusing on.

“I hope when people in the district see me or visit with me they see themselves as being able to sit in this seat. I’m as ordinary as you can be. I did take advantage of some opportunities that allowed me to be in this chair,”

she said. “I think if you’re a person of color or a person raised by two middle-class parents or a woman or a parent, you can identify with me.

“I think any of those things are points of common ground. I always find when I meet people there’s a touch point. While my social identity can be very exciting to some folks, it is something probably less remarkable when we relate and just share our common humanity.”

More important to her then being the district’s first double-minority top leader is that her parents met at historically black Philander Smith College and made aspirational lives for themselves and their five children. Logan and her siblings have all achieved highly in their respective careers.

She’s part of a three-generational lineage of educators. Her daughter Cassie is a teacher just as Logan and her mother were before her.

“It is something that brings me great joy. It is very meaningful to me,” Logan said of this legacy.

Her 30-year journey from high school Spanish teacher to principal to assistant superintendent to chief academic officer – earning Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leader Award recognition – expresses her deep commitment to the education field.

“I just fundamentally believe in public education. It changes lives every day. There are children who come through our doors who will change the whole trajectory of their family based on the fact they became well educated. That’s what happened to me.”

In a recent tweet she referred to education as “the profession that makes all others possible.”

“Growing up in the Jim Crow South, my parents could have had a very different outcome,” she said.

Instead, education was a pathway to career success. They raised a family in a Maryland suburb outside Washington D.C., where they set high expectations for their children to do well in school.

“I know that that happened for me and it happens to children every day. Hopefully it happened to children I taught along the way. I know it’s happening every day in Omaha and in schools around the country.”

Logan vied for superintendencies across the country. Once this job came into view, she felt Omaha offered a desired slower pace and OPS mirrored the diverse urban district she came from in Philadelphia.

Being a superintendent appeals to her, she said, because “you have the opportunity to make impact across an entire community and be a role model.”

On visits here prior to starting her OPS post in July, she found a district and community brimming with humility, generosity, forward-thinking and caring.

“The district has very smart people working here,” she said. “All up and down the line I feel the staff’s committed. Arts are thriving, sports are thriving, academics are thriving, career-technical education is thriving. All of those things you think about wanting to lead are in place here.”

Budget and finance are priorities moving forward in a district that made cuts before her arrival.

“The fiscal challenges are part of the landscape of education no matter which district you go to,” she said.

A recently passed second bond issue secured OPS bricks and mortar needs for the next 15 years.

She likes Omahans’ buy-in with in the district.

“The community is deeply committed to OPS. Philanthropic, faith, community groups really believe OPS needs to thrive if Omaha’s going to thrive. I hear this from every person that I meet – OPS must do well.”

She’s grateful for the support she’s received.

“I think part of the support I’ve been given is that people want me to do well because they want OPS to do well. Part of it is having a well-educated community that understands schools are really an important barometer of the health of a city – and they support accordingly.”

A measure of people’s buy-in is the record 10,000-plus  respondents to a district survey.

“It’s incredible that many people wanted to give me their feedback to a survey specifically designed to baseline where we are as a district. It was sent to students,

parents, staff, community stakeholders. They were        overwhelmingly very positive about the district.”

Once the honeymoon of her hire ends, she’ll have a better gauge for how her “business-like, firm-and-fair, hard-on-the-problem-and-not-on-the-person, hands-on and distributive” leadership style’s going over.

“I think one of the things you have to do is delegate but not abdicate your responsibility. You have to have some sort of continuous or regular feedback group so that as people understand the vision or what needs to happen, you are mostly co-creating that and folks can see that their ideas are a part of it.

“I may go into a meeting with my head going in one way and be very convinced by a compelling argument or case that it should go in another direction. I think there’s a certain degree of openness that’s needed.”

Her job is keeping a big picture view while ensuring kids get the education they need.

“I do think having a bird’s eye view is helpful. You can be more objective, less defensive about things, and give critical feedback that will help us move forward. I’m always going to be super interested in anything curriculum or academics related. That’s the old chief academic officer in me.

“Because I was a principal for so long time I’m always real interested in all things about the principalship and building leadership. I know principals have a lot of influence and ability to make schools really special for kids. You see and feel when you walk in their schools their impact.”

An OPS value-add for her its many immigrant families.

“With deep appreciation I’ve enjoyed serving those communities knowing I was making a difference.”

She believes her Spanish fluency “removes a barrier and allows me to experience the world through eyes different from my own.”

“Resource deployment” can make delivering education “difficult” amid state budget constraints and teacher shortages, she said. “I really want to position the district well in all aspects of talent pool in ensuring we are going to have enough teachers and those teachers can meet the needs of our students. I hope that’s something I will have a long-term impact on. I’m deeply interested in it.”

“This job is really a lot about policy and what we’re going to do, but when it comes to implementation the devil is in the details. Implementation is typically going to be done by folks who don’t have regular contact with you. I stay connected in a lot of ways. First, by making myself accessible, open, listening to feedback and understanding from the perspective of others how they might be experiencing something.”

She likes the community’s-district’s sensible approach.

“There are places where people want to make policy and there are places where people want to make sense, and I think Omaha is a place where people want to make sense.””

Representing an entire district is new.

“This job is very different,” she said. “There’s a lot of public facing.”

She wants her constituencies to see her “urgency around the work” as well as her “commitment, compassion, strategic-thinking and longterm vision.”

“Those are the things I hope I convey.”

Perhaps the most vital relationship she get right is with the school board. Informed by the experience of recent district leaders coming under fire for opaque leadership and contentious relations, her 90-day entry plan emphasized transparency and communication.

“Our vision and mission have to be clear to everyone. Dealing with a board elected by the voting public is a careful balance, especially for a new superintendent. I think the board has been open. They want to understand my leadership style. I’m trying to get into that groove but it’s something that will take time. It is a work in progress.”

Making connections extends to students and parents. She held a town hall meeting with them in September.

She views public education as a compact with people who expect a return on investment.

“Just like any investment you’ve made, when people send their children to the school district, they’re making an investment. It’s property taxes, it’s time, it’s devotion and support for the school. At the end of the child’s K-12 experience they ought to be able to point to exactly the things they got as a result of that experience. If every one of them can fully articulate something that really prepared them for the next chapter or phase of their life, then we will have done a really good job.”

In another tweet, she revealed a philosophy for getting the most out of kids: “Positive relationships with students will yield amazing outcomes that intellect, technical skill and positional authority cannot.”

In addition to mentoring educators on the job, she’s taught graduate level courses to aspiring ed leaders.

The end of September marked the end of her first 90 days on the job.

“It’s actually been a smooth first 90 days. There’s been some bumps and hiccups and I’ve gotten a couple of surprises – and I do not like surprises.”

As she learns the nuances of leading a district in a new community and culture, she knows there will be missteps, and that’s hard for this perfectionist.

“I can be really hard on myself, I can internalize things. One of my friends used to say, ‘Okay, Cheryl, you’re in analysis paralysis.’ I also know I’m fallible. There are mistakes I’m going to make. I’m the first person who will admit if I’ve made a mistake and move on from there.”

As the face of the district, she said, “I am also somewhat hyper-aware I’m modeling behavior for others. Sometimes at board meetings I watch people looking at me because they see how I’m going to react in a stressful situation and it’s an opportunity for me to teach because I think a lot of this job is temperament.

“I do not like to go up and down. If I can be a steadying force, it helps my team. I’m like, we’re going to stay right here in the middle.”

For Logan, “the best days are when I know I made a difference.”

“My final school-based assignment was at Parkdale High School. It’s where I began and ended my career. I was a student teacher there and 23 years later I became its principal. It was so meaningful to start and end my career in that building in a community I grew up in. That was the most difficult job I have had, bar none, because the school needed to be turned around. But it was awesome serving those kids.”

At the end of the day, it’s all about the kids.

“Kids are delightful and delicious wherever you go, and they are here.”

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

Soccer Brings Bob Warming Home: Once a Bluejay, Now a Maverick

November 13, 2018 Leave a comment


Soccer Brings Bob Warming Home

Once a Bluejay, Now a Maverick

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in the Nov-Dec 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine

(http://omahamagazine.com/articles/soccer-brings-bob-warming-home/)

Bob Warming’s unexpected return to Omaha in 2018—this time to head the men’s soccer program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha—is the latest turn in a lifelong love affair with coaching.

Warming, 64, twice helmed the Creighton University program in town. He’s known as the architect of a Bluejay program he took from nothing to national prominence. During his first CU run (1990-1994), Omaha became home to him, his wife Cindy, and their four children. During his second CU tenure (2001-2009), his kids finished school and came of age.

His passion for the game is such that even though he’s one of collegiate soccer’s all-time winningest coaches at an age when most folks retire, he’s still hungry to lead young people. After eight highly successful seasons at his last stop, Penn State, he did retire, albeit for less than two months, before taking the UNO post in April.

Love for family changed best-laid plans. It started when he and Cindy visited Omaha in November to meet their new granddaughter. Their intense desire to see her grow up caused Warming to step down at Penn State and move to Omaha.

When then-UNO soccer coach Jason Mims decided to pursue new horizons (Mims had played and coached for Warming at Saint Louis University, and traveled with him to Creighton and Penn State before kickstarting the UNO program in 2011), Warming couldn’t resist continuing to build what his former assistant had started.

“I have come back with even more energy. There’s a lot of younger guys I’m running into the ground,” Warming says.

He also brought knowledge gained from legendary peers and best friends at Penn State: women’s volleyball coach Russ Rose, wrestling coach Cael Sanderson, and women’s soccer coach Erica Dambach.

“I learned more coaching at Penn State than I had in all my previous years,” he says. “It’s not even close. I grew tremendously. I got a lot of new ideas about things. I derive tremendous energy from being a continual learner. Even in the 59 days I retired, I continued to research better ways to teach and train people.”

His son, Grant, played for him in Happy Valley and now assists at UNO. Grant’s twin sister, Audrey, died in a 2012 auto accident. The family honors her legacy with Audrey’s Shoes for Kids, an annual event that gives away soccer shoes, shin guards, jerseys, and balls to disadvantaged children in Omaha. About 300 youths received gear in this summer’s giveback.

Warming first fell in love with coaching at age 14 in his native Berea, Kentucky. The multi-sport athlete was a tennis prodigy on the United States Lawn Tennis Association’s junior circuit when his coach taught him a lesson in humility by having him coach 9-year-olds. In the process, Warming found his life’s calling.

“I had been very into myself only,” he admits. “I was a selfish little brat. Then all of a sudden I realized it’s about helping other people. It’s a great lesson my coach taught me. He knew if I was ever going to go any place with my life, I had to give something to others.”

Warming’s outlook on life gradually shifted. “I derive the most pleasure out of watching young people improve,” he says.

Soccer supplied his next life-changing experience. Berea College, a private college in his hometown, has a long history of inclusion. In the early 1970s, it recruited world-class footballers from Ghana and Nigeria. Warming was the squad’s goalkeeper (and also a varsity letter-winner on the tennis, swimming, and golf teams); he honed his knowledge of soccer from these foreign players and gleaned insights into diversity.

“I’m playing soccer and hanging out all the time with these black guys in the South—not the most popular thing to do in a town where on Sunday nights every summer the KKK burned a cross,” he recalls. “That was the dark ages in a lot of ways. But I was fascinated interacting with these guys from Africa and finding out how they live and what their culture is like.

“I was able to play with these incredible guys from a young age, and the game is the best teacher,” he says. “For me, it was a remarkable time in my life. I learned a lot about a lot of different things.”

Years later at Penn State, he brought more student-athletes of color into the soccer program than it had ever seen before. “That was a cool part of the whole deal,” he says.

He appreciates what a mentor did in giving him a progressive outlook. “The guy who eventually became my college coach was the leader of all this,” Warming says.

His own collegiate coach at Berea, Bob Pearson, succeeded his protégé a few years later when Warming left his coaching post at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia, for a coaching position at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in the 1980s. Four decades later, the veteran Warming succeeded his own protégé, Mims, at UNO.

“I have all these crazy circles in coaching,” he says.

The kind of bond Warming has with Pearson, he has with Mims.

“Loyalty, trust, and respect are the basis for all relationships, and we have all three of those,” Warming says.

Pearson got Warming his first head coaching gigs in his 20s at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky (where Warming spent one season before heading to Berry University); he also coached tennis at both schools.

Warming was still only in his mid-30s when Creighton hired him the first time in 1990, poaching him from his brief tenure as director of athletics at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. At Creighton, he revived a dormant program that began winning and drawing fans.

He enjoyed the challenge of “building something from its inception and doing missionary work for our sport.” In exchange for free coaching clinics, he got local soccer clubs to turn out in droves.

“Thus, Creighton soccer was born. It came out of giving back to the community and coaching education,” Warming says.

He left CU in 1994 for Old Dominion. From there he went to Saint Louis University. The Rev. John Schlegel, then-CU president, lured him back in 2001 with the promise he could design a state-of-the-art soccer facility.

“Father Schlegel said, ‘Build me a soccer stadium. We want an iconic building to define the new eastern borders of our campus. I’ll pick the facade because I want it to reflect how the rest of the campus will look,’” Warming recalls. “Think about that. Where else has a soccer stadium determined what the rest of the campus would look like?”

The result, Morrison Stadium, has become a jewel of north downtown.

Warming’s CU and Penn State teams contended for conference and national titles. Now that he’s back in Omaha, he looks to take fledgling UNO soccer to its first NCAA playoff berth and create a powerhouse like the one he did down the street.

Back in Omaha again, he organized “the largest free coaching clinic in the country” at UNO in August. Some 200 coaches from around the nation attended, including 150 from Nebraska. Tweets about the event surpassed two million impressions.

“The selfish reason I did it was I want to kick-start this program into something, and to take soccer in Nebraska to the next level,” he says. “We have to get better.”

His methods today are different than when he last coached in Omaha.

“If you really want to train people, you have to get them in the mood to train using all the different modalities—texting, tweeting, playlists, video—available to us now,” he says. “You cannot coach, you cannot lead, you cannot do anything the way people did it years ago. You won’t be successful. The why is so important in terms of explaining things and building consensus and getting people involved to where they say, yeah, we want to do this together.”

In the full circle way his life runs, he feels right at home at UNO, where hundreds of students, including international students, get a free education. “We are the school of the people,” he says.

Meanwhile, he’s busily stocking his roster with players from around the globe—including France, Spain, and Trinidad and Tobago—with many more players from Omaha and around the Midwest.

Wherever he’s landed as a coach, it’s the new challenge that motivates him. No different at UNO. “One hundred percent,” he says. “I love it.”

Visit omavs.com for more information.

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazineclick here to subscribe.

The high price of juvenile justice Battle lines are drawn over cost, location of proposed youth detention center

November 13, 2018 Leave a comment

The high price of juvenile justice

Battle lines are drawn over cost, location of proposed youth detention center

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Nov. 2018 issue of The Reader

 

The Reader - November 2018

 

As Douglas County pushes for construction of a $120 million justice complex downtown, conflict and controversy have emerged over greater good and expediency versus accountability to stakeholders.

The 10-story tower courthouse annex would house a combination of county adult and juvenile courtrooms, judges’ chambers, public defender and probation offices and related facilities. The juvenile justice element is getting the most attention because a four-story youth detention center containing 48 to 64 beds would connect to the annex. Services and programs for juveniles and families would be onsite. A parking garage would also be built.

The Douglas County Board of Commissioners is charged with approving or denying the project. A majority of the seven-member board supports it. The project’s two vocal opponents, commissioners Jim Cavanaugh and Mike Boyle, take issue with its scale and location as well as the mechanism to pay for it and the private nonprofit created to oversee it. They’ve called for a reset to halt the project to review alternatives, including scaling it back.

Meanwhile, the county seeks to acquire a nearly century-old brick building at 420 South 18th Street, raze it and then build the complex. When owner Bob Perrin refused to sell last summer, the county began eminent domain proceedings, only to have a court order the county to back off pending further hearings.

“There are obstacles we’re going to have to overcome now and we’re working through those,” said commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson, who champions the project. “I hope in the end we’ll be able to come to a resolution. It (eminent domain) isn’t a popular thing to do or use, but we can’t go forth really without that (building).”

Cavanaugh sees things differently.

“With the court having stopped eminent domain for now it allows us that chance to step back and take a deep breath and look at alternatives that exist and that will work,” he said. “We have been proposing specific alternatives, which include construction of a juvenile justice center courthouse on land we own adjacent to the (current) courthouse and refurbishment of the (existing) youth center on 42nd Street. We would add a courtroom facility to the youth center to allow proximity.

“Kids will have access to outdoor activities on a campus that looks more like a school than a correctional center with numbers significantly lower than those proposed for the $120 million project.”

There’s broad agreement the current courthouse is past capacity and long overdue for expansion.

“We have been trying to jerry-rig judges into cubbyholes and all kinds of things to try and make this thing work   without having to do what we know we needed to do 20 years ago, which was to build an annex facility,” said Ben Gray. an Omaha City Council member who served on the city-county building commission driving the project and now chairs the nonprofit overseeing it. “So this was not fast-tracked or anything like that.”

“It’s nothing new,” Borgeson said. “What is new is that we actually have a conceptual plan that puts the center across the street from the existing courthouse-civic center.”

She said other locations, including the old Civic Auditorium site and MUD property, were considered.

There’s less agreement on the need for a new detention center and how many youth it should serve.

Proponents tout the efficiencies of a one-stop shop. The current center near 42nd and Woolworth would be replaced by the new one, thereby putting detainees in close proximity to the justice system and to services supporting their transition back into society.

“Hopefully, this one-stop shop being imagined will be built based on the input of what kids, families and community providers who work with them say they need,” said LaVon Stennis-Williams, a county Operation Youth Success initiative committee member. Her ReConnect Inc. serves families of current and former incarcerated. “Programs that can keep kids from being detained are underutilized. That has to be factored in.”

She said a proposed partnership among the county, University of Nebraska Medical Center and Creighton University to bring more psychologists and psychiatrists onsite “is going to be a game-changer in terms of getting the assessments done on children quicker.”

“Then we can look for services that will keep kids at home,” she said. “On any given day, most of the kids detained are there awaiting placement and professional assessment, not for their underlying offense. You’ll remove maybe two-thirds of your population with the right professionals engaged and looking for alternatives to detention. There are opportunities in the community to put those things in place.”

Gray, who has a long history working with at-risk youth, said the new center will utilize “best practice policies for getting kids in and out and served quickly and assessing what their real needs are.”

“We want to change the trajectory of how we’re doing things by enhancing service at the county level for our kids and families,” Borgeson said. “A lot of details are being worked out in terms of the internal guts of the buildings and how they’re going to look and operate.”

Some observers express concern the new detention center will house fewer youth (68 max) than the current average detainee population of 70 to 80 and less than half the existing capacity (144).

“It doesn’t make sense why we’re reducing capacity when the average daily population has been steady for years and the county has not produced any projections on how they will reduce the number of kids in detention,” community activist Brian Smith said.

“That is a valid concern,” Stennis-Williams said. “But if we’re moving towards juvenile justice reform we should applaud reducing the number of beds – just so long as we do not have any notion of shipping kids to other jurisdictions when we run out of bed space. We need to address why we’re detaining the number of kids we are and what we’re detaining them for.”

Opponents question another number – the price tag. It would be the largest capital construction project in Douglas County government history. Funding would come through bonds issued by the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission and likely require a county property tax rate increase. Mayor Jean Stothert said she wants no city taxpayer money used for its construction.

The 501C3 formed to develop and manage the project – Douglas County Unified Justice Center Development Corp. – is based on a model UNMC used to construct its Buffett Cancer Center. The nonprofit would have the ability to solicit private philanthropy to fund the project.

“We have some ideas, but we have to have a more concrete plan before private donors will jump on board,” Borgeson said, “and that’s what we’re trying to get at.”

Critics assert a lack of transparency and due diligence in the process that created the nonprofit, whose board is comprised of various elected and appointed officials.

 

Jim Cavanaugh

 

“We don’t need a private corporation to head up construction. We’re perfectly capable doing it ourselves,” Cavanaugh said. “There’s a better, cheaper, smarter way to go, and we’re doing that right now with the 2016 public safety bond $45 million construction project voters overwhelmingly approved after months of public hearings and discussions. It’s refurbishing a large county office building to consolidate some county services, including a new state-of-the-art 9/11 center, a satellite office for the Douglas County Treasurer to serve western Douglas County and West Omaha, headquarters for our emergency services and environmental services, plus the crime lab and sheriff’s department spaces.

“We are also refurbishing the county correction center downtown. We’re installing in all fire stations in the city new alert systems. All this new construction and equipment is administered by the public property division – on time, on budget and no tax increase.”

He dislikes the apparatus behind the juvenile justice project because, he said, “It’s not accountable to the people.”

“Handing to a private corporation concocted behind closed doors by private entities control over the expenditure of $120 million of tax dollars without any vote of the people, without public access, hearings or discussions, and without any public bidding process, is wrong. It’s a top-down, cart-before-the-horse approach to what should be a well-thought-out, strategic, decision-making plan in public,” Cavanaugh said.

“I’m calling for the process to result in a bond issue that would be voted on by the public.”

He suspects the slated downtown location is more about accommodating lawyers and judges than serving kids.

 

juvenile justice

 

County officials selected a troika of Omaha power players – Burlington Capital, Kiewit Construction Corp. and HDR – to manage and build the project without apparently other potential players considered or asked to submit bids. It strikes some as back-room, sweetheart deal-making and incestuous political maneuvering. The Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission is investigating a conflict-of-interest complaint brought against some officials sitting on multiple boards involved in the project’s governance.

“It seems like HDR, Kiewit and Burlington Capital have been preselected for this program with no competitive bids,” said watchdog Smith, whose Omaha Public Meetings has convened forums on the topic. “There’s no explanation of where that $120 million number came from and why this 501c3 is going to manage it using the Double A bond borrowing status versus the county’s Triple A bond status.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

Smith and others point out that HDR has pitched doing a mega-justice complex for more than a decade.

Cavanaugh sees “real estate development, sales and construction” interests as “the driving forces behind a lot of the private discussions by a lot of private players in the way the thing has been designed and put forward.”

“When they (the building commission) originally brought it to us in private,” Cavanaugh said, “I said we immediately should go public and have some discussion on this. But for months there was no public discussion. Finally, I started holding hearings in the Administrative Services Committee simply because it was clear something of this magnitude needed to be discussed in public. You can’t do a $120 million project like this without public discussion and a public vote really.”

 

By Ben Gray
By Ben Gray
By R Justice Braimah
By Elizabeth Lynn Welch

Project advocates concede it could have been a more open process.
By R Justice Braimah
By Elizabeth Lynn Welch

“I think some things could have easily been done in a public session,” Gray said, “but there were some concerns about prices going up and other things like that which made it more or less a better proposition to do it in executive session so as to try and preserve and not create any additional burden for taxpayers.

“So it was necessary in the beginning to start this effort in a sort of quiet way to get things started and get people on board and get things moving in the right direction. Now you can argue back and forth whether we should have done it sooner or not. We debate that among ourselves even. But at the end of the day it is what it is and we’re here now and we are telling the story that needs to be told.”

 

Said Borgeson, “We should have done a better job of coming out sooner with the conceptual plans, and what our thoughts are on that I can’t go back and change that, but what I can change going forward is what we’re doing and that is a monthly update at the board meeting of where we are – good and open conversation about the programs and gaps we have in the programs.”

 

Mary Ann Borgeson

 

She said she’s heard from constituents who support and oppose the plan, but she adds, “Once people really listen to what the end result is they may continue to disagree with how we got there but they’re supportive of what we’re trying to do because it’s such a need.”

ReConnect’s Stennis-Williams thinks what should be the main focus has been obscured by the conflict.

“I believe some of the arguments are mere distractions when what’s lacking are quality services for our kids.

The county needs to separate the issue of having a new courthouse, which is badly needed, from the issue of renovating, redesigning, reimagining youth detention,” she said.

“When you’re talking about formulating even the design of this detention center, parents’ voices need to be first, not secondary. I don’t care where it’s built, if we get it, how much it costs. My concern is what’s ultimately going to go inside the building. What is disturbing to me is that most of the people advocating for or against it have not sat down and talked with parents to see what they really do need. Most people on either side of the issue do not serve kids or represent that parent voice of having a system-involved child. Instead of reducing the argument to sticking points, talking points, we need to throw down deep enough to see how we keep kids from even getting system-involved. That is what needs to be upfront.”

 

 

The historic building owned by Bob Perrin that stands in the way of the proposed justice cener project

 

For Omaha architect Perrin, who owns the four-story, 40,000-square-foot, industrial-style building at 18th and Howard impeding the project, his property is no side issue. He rejected the county’s $900,000 offer for it, declaring it’s not for sale because he has plans to convert it into offices or condominiums.

His attorney, David Domina, filed suit against the county’s eminent domain attempt, and a judge enacted a temporary restraining order. The suit maintains the county lacks jurisdiction alone to obtain the property and contends the City Council and county building commission must also OK seizing the building.

Perrin has led various Omaha preservation efforts. He’s also previously challenged efforts to seize his holdings. He won a nearly $2 million settlement over land he owned coveted by the University of Nebraska Board of Regents for a University of Nebraska Medical Center expansion.

Gray openly suspects Perrin’s motives in bucking community progress interests. “He wants a better price for his property. That’s what this whole thing is about.” Perrin flatly refutes the assertion and says he simply wants the right to retain his property for what he deems a better public use. He added that he only broke even in his lawsuit against the university.

Gray questions the current structure’s historical integrity. “Because the building is old doesn’t make it historic.”

 

The area designated for the justice center.

 

The Omaha Planning Board has unanimously approved the 1920 building for local landmark status, on which the Council must vote. Landmark status would not guarantee the building from being taken by the county.

Several individuals and groups have expressed support for saving the building and criticized the city’s poor preservation track record.

Gray counters that two historic buildings – the courthouse and former downtown public library – are being preserved rather than razed for the project.

The county’s aggressive pursuit of the building became the public flashpoint for the project.

“The project had been behind the scenes with Cavanaugh the only one yelling and getting no attention at all until they started to take my building and I resisted,” Perrin said. “I feel like all the commissioners were in a dark room with their clothes off and I walked in and turned the lights on.”

He believes the industrial building, which housed early auto dealerships and more recently U.S. Corps of Engineers testing labs, is a diamond in the rough that should not be sacrificed for a project that could be built elsewhere.

“They’re disrespecting the history of our city. They’re wanting to demolish something that’s really important that we didn’t even know we had.”

He and other project detractors question placing a juvenile detention facility and justice center so close to the county’s adult prison.

Cavanaugh, who calls the planned center “a cellblock,” said, “It’s the wrong place to put children. Putting them   downtown within close proximity of the adult jail is exactly the wrong message we want to send these children.”

Critics say the project would impose a chilling effect on the area’s redevelopment.

“They’re wanting to do the wrong thing with the site by putting in things with uses that would degrade the value of neighboring properties,” Perrin said.

“It doesn’t make any sense why we would put a detention center in an already very fragile part of downtown,” Smith said.

Backers claim the project will revitalize the Flatiron District, though they don’t say how.

Lost in all of this, some assert, is what youth and parents say they want and need. Project advocates contend their actions are in the best interests of kids and families. Others call for more input from parents with youth in the system.

“It’s disturbing that the people most affected by this have the least voice,” Smith said.

 

ReConnect Inc.

Lavon Stennis-Williams

 

“We have gotten so comfortable excluding the voice of parents that we proceed as a matter of course now without getting them involved,” Stennis-Williams said. “There needs to be a direct effort to reach out to parents. We have to meet them where they’re at to intentionally get them involved in this conversation.

“We have not done a good job of getting them engaged. We’ve become comfortable speaking for parents using all these different surrogates. I’d like to have it come from a closer experience than from people looking at it from a policy standpoint. These families and kids are suffering. There are things we can do, that we can fix that we’re not putting proper attention on because we’re still arguing on issues that have nothing to do with what’s best.”

She wishes Perrin’s building fight never entered the fray.

“I think the effort to locate the center downtown and the fight to preserve the building standing in its way has become a polarizing situation keeping the parties from talking to each other. Instead, they’re talking at each other,” she said. “When you get engaged in that argument you lose sight of the kids and they need to be our foremost purpose.”

Smith is alternately a realist and idealist when projecting the outcome of this fight.

“The pessimist in me says the county is going to bulldoze their way through this first part of their plan, which is a real estate acquisition, and then maybe involve people in a meaningful way in the conversation about the actual design and programming of the facility. So the first part may be a loss. But the second part may highlight the fact people want engagement and explanation in the process.

“The optimist in me holds out hope the city, the mayor, the planning department, the city council will step in early enough in this process to prevent the demolition of the Perrin building and force some meaningful change in the way this process is planned out.”

Cavanaugh believes all is not lost.

“I think you’ve seen movement by some of my colleagues. Commissioner Boyle is now on board with stop eminent domain, right-size the project and put it on the ballot. I think others on the board are taking another look at this to maybe open it up to the robust public discussion that it needs.

“This is going to be a big issue going forward obviously because there’s so much money involved, and it’s now gotten people’s interest.”

Meanwhile, Borgeson, Gray and Co. are confident their plan will prevail in the end, with or without a vote of confidence or approval from the public.

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

Terence Crawford affirms his place as Nebraska’s unequivocal homegrown sports hero

October 15, 2018 1 comment

Terence Crawford affirms his place as Nebraska’s unequivocal homegrown sports hero

 

Terence Crawford, right, lands a punch against Jose Benavidez Jr. on Saturday. “It feels so good to shut somebody up who’s been talking for so long. I’m at ease,” Crawford said after his victory. AP Photo/Nati Harnik

 

It used to be that Husker football was the collective, unifying force in this state. Who would have ever thought Terence Crawford would be that force? He is though. Maybe not in the same way, of course, but his representing Nebraska is something we can all be proud of and get passionate about regardless of whether we’re urban or rural, black or white, blue or red, straight or gay or any other permutations that usually divide us. Crawford represents the very best of us in terms of hard work, perseverance, dedication, loyalty and guts. He is a picture of health and fitness, striving and ambition and the pursuit of excellence. When you are the very best at what you do as he is and you come from ordinary beginnings as he does, it is hard not to be inspired by his story. He is a testament to daring and dreaming. He may be the most powerful individual inspirational figure to come out of Nebraska in a very long time. Maybe ever.

Terence Crawford’s dismantling of Jose Benavidez Jr. last night before a record fight crowd at Omaha’s CHI Health Center to retain his welterweight boxing title only further cemented his pound-for-pound greatness status. He is doing his thing at a time when area sports fans are desperate for a positive local sports story of national significance but can find only frustration and disappointment wherever they cast their gaze with the exception of Husker and Creighton volleyball. His ring mastery and dominance is playing out during the worst run of Husker football in a half-century. Meanwhile. Nebraska men’s basketball is still an unknown, unreliable quantity until proven otherwise and Creighton men’s hoops is caught up in a scandal. The NU and CU baseball programs have not even come close to national relevance much less the College World Series in decades. UNO athletics is still riding the hockey bell cow in its transition to Division I, which is a move that may still prove unwise. The hockey program has yet to fully realize the lofty expectations set for it.

That is why Crawford’s brilliance has been a godsend to this state and to this city – giving  the public a whole new sports obsession to follow and support, rejuvenating boxing to a level never before seen here and shining more attention on Omaha than any other individual Nebraska-born and bred athlete. At 31, the unbeaten Crawford could keep at it another five to ten years if he really wanted. Now that his fights from here on out will be pay-per-view and his promoter Bob Arum seems serious to match him with world-class opponents he’s yet to have faced, Crawford’s capital could climb even higher. He’s already established himself one of the best fighters of his era and with a couple big wins over marquee foes he will add his name to the all-time greats list.

Should he retire undefeated, which very few pro boxers have ever done, he will have to be considered one of the greatest professional fighters to ever compete in The Sweet Science. His defensive and overall boxing skills are so high that he’s already regarded as one of the best ring tacticians the sport has ever seen. True greatness is measured over the long haul and his excellence is now demonstrable over a several year span. The scary thing for future opponents is that he actuallly seems to be getting better with age and may be just peaking right now in his early 30s.

There are still some out there who question his size and power but with each successive ass whipping he applies, it’s clear, as he says, that he’s big and powerful for his division and always way more than his foes can handle once they’re standing toe to toe and trading blows with him inside the square circle. We are all privileged to be watching him perform at this elevated level and to be able to call him one of our own. His like around here will not be seen for a long time to come. Maybe never again.

 

play
2:01

Crawford after win: ‘I want ’em all’

Terence Crawford reflects on his 12th-round TKO against Jose Benavidez and his future.

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