You wouldn’t necessarily think of Omaha, Neb. as a place for an interfaith collaborative involving the three Abrahamic faith groups but that’s exactly what it is thanks to the Tri-Faith Initiative, a non-profit moving ever closer to its plan for a church, a synagogue, and a mosque on a single campus. Like most Midwest cities Omaha’s a decidedly Christian stronghold with quite small Jewish and Muslim populations. It’s also a place where diversity hasn’t always been celebrated or embraced. Yet the Tri-Faith is an impossible to ignore reality here that’s making waves near and far. My story below, which is to appear in a future edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com), tries to get at how it is this partnership has been able to reach this point and find itself poised to realize something that perhaps has never been done before, anywhere. I’m proud it’s happening where I live. My blog contains a profile I did of Tri-Faith executive director Nancy Kirk, who like all the principals in this endeavor is a highly accomplished person of diverse interests. What unites them all is a sincere desire to do the right thing by moving past dialogue to action where interfaith relations are concerned. You’ll also find on this blog a story I did a few years ago on something called Project Interfaith and its director, Beth Katz, and a very long piece on the interfaith relationship forged by two famous figures, Rev. Edward Flangan, the founder of Boys Town, and his close friend and supporter, Henry Monsky. A smattering of other religious themed stories I’ve done are also on the blog.
©by Leo Adam Biga
To appear in a future edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha’s not always embraced diversity but the local Tri-Faith Initiative may be a history-making model of interfaith cooperation. It’s proceeding with an audacious plan to locate a church, a synagogue, a mosque and an ecumenical center on a combined 35-acre campus.
Organizers say they’ve not found an equivalent gathering of the three Abrahamic faith groups – Christianity, Judaism, Islam – in a single dedicated setting. Not surprisingly, the project’s drawing much attention from media and scholarly attention. Observers are struck by how this partnership between the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, Temple Israel and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture has gone from concept to dawning reality in only six years.
The initiative echoes local community engagement efforts from the past – Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties – and present – Ak-Sar-Ben, Omaha Community Foundation, Building Bright Futures, Empowerment Network – that coalesce various partners to tackle social-cultural needs.
The Reader met with four “pioneers” behind the Tri-Faith experiment for their take on how the initiative has managed sustaining itself. They say one reason why this alliance has gotten so far so fast is that mere dialogue was never the end goal. Rather, it was a means to realize a brick-and-mortar sanctuary for promoting ongoing interfaith relationships.
“There are many wonderful dialogues going on across the country and around the world, and I’ve been involved in some of those, where people come together for great meetings to talk about interfaith issues,” says Nebraska Episcopal Diocese Canon for Tri-Faith Ministries Timothy Anderson, who will lead the unnamed Episcopal church slated for the campus. “But then you go back to your hotel, pack your bag, get on a plane and fly home. The uniqueness of this is that we are home. The next day we wake up and my neighbor to the right is still Jewish and my neighbor to the left is still Muslim and I have to learn each day how to live in my faith to love my neighbor as myself.”
“I think Muslims are in a way in America the Jews of the past,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel. “I think there is a tendency from time to time to select a new scapegoat. Jews are extremely aware of the ‘game’ that was played with their lives. We paid a price for being a scapegoat for many, many years.
“There is a level of understanding on the part of the Jew when the game is being played with other minority groups. Until the Obama presidency there were many opportunities for Americans to denigrate or to view Muslims as The Other, the stranger, the one that is not welcome, similar in a way to how Jews were treated.”
Azriel says progress between peoples of different faiths or cultures can only occur “when you’re able to step away from where you are and go to uncomfortable places.” Getting past surface niceties to deep interpersonal connections, he says, is what’s made the Jewish-Muslim relationship work in Omaha. Years before the Tri-Faith, he notes, Temple reached out to invite the Muslim community to celebrate Thanksgiving at the synagogue. Muslims have reciprocated by inviting the Jewish community to their celebrations.
“It’s mainly about relationships. If you don’t visit each other’s home, if you’re not in relationship with people, the dialogue becomes completely nebulous and artificial after awhile,” says Azriel.
It’s why, for him, meaningful interfaith exchanges must go beyond talk and tolerance to practice collaborative good works, such as creating a neighborhood where three faith groups co-exist in harmony.
He acknowledges some Temple members resist the partnership. The other groups report similar reluctance or skepticism. It’s meant less than 100 percent buy-in. But that’s where Azriel says leadership can make a difference.
“I really think a clergy that doesn’t challenge his congregation, doesn’t comfort those that are challenged, but also doesn’t disturb those that are comfortable should not lead a congregation. Sometimes you need to be stubborn and continue with the dreaming. So we continue walking on the bridge, even though at times it doesn’t look completely solid and safe. So what? There is a price to pay for daring and a price to pay for stagnation.
“You don’t just wait for something to happen but you mobilize all the resources together to accomplish this. That’s what’s so unique about this combination. All of us know dreams can only be achieved after hard work.”
Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, Islamic Institute president and co-founder and chair of the Department of Medicine at Creighton University, says the relationships hinge on mutual respect and trust. “That’s where it starts.”
In late 2011 the partners backed their words with financial stakes by announcing the purchase of adjoining parcels of land at the site of the former Ironwood Country Club, on the southeast corner of 132nd and Pacific, now part of the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development. The Tri-Faith vision took another major step to fruition when Temple, which completed its $25 million building campaign, broke ground April 15 on its new synagogue. It’s expected to open in August 2013. The other two partners are in the planning and fund-raising stages of their own buildings. A $2.5 million anonymous matching gift kick-started the Islamic Institute’s fund drive.
A fourth structure, the Tri-Faith Center, will be a shared, nondenominational facility for educational-cultural events and activities. It’s also in the planning stage.
The level of support shown for this faith-based collaborative defies the tensions and conflicts that keep different religious traditions apart.
Rendering of the new Temple Israel synagogue
The feel good story of the project’s formation is already becoming lore.
As the oldest and largest synagogue in town, Temple long ago outgrew its present facility. Whereas the reform Jewish congregation traces its history back to 1872 and serves 750-plus families, the Islamic Institute formed only in 2006 and counts but a fraction of Temple’s members. Still, the Institute needs a permanent home of its own to accommodate a growing Muslim population. Each cast its gaze out west, where most members live.
Temple already had the experience of a Christian neighbor in First United Methodist Church to the north and of a shared parking lot with the Omaha Community Playhouse to the east. The Jewish and Islamic communities already enjoyed a rapport strengthened when, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Azriel led Temple members in a cordon around the local mosque as a show of solidarity. He and his Tri-Faith bretheren describe it as “a pivotal moment” that “forged” the relationship.
Temple’s search for a new home took a collaborative turn when member and Tri-Faith board chair Bob Freeman broached the possibility of building with a faith partner. Not only would there be cost savings from a joint site selection and shared amenities, but opportunities to do interfaith programming.
Azriel says the congregation has “a history of being on the cutting edge of justice work,” which is a theme in his own career. He initiated a Black/Jewish dialogue series at Temple and his justice work has earned him various honors. He insists he’s hardly alone in tackling social issues. “The leadership of this congregation has been deeply involved in the daily life of this town. So many of our people are on the cutting edge of philanthropy, sit on nonprofit boards and are basically the bloodline of what this city is all about.”
It wasn’t long before Azriel and Mohiuddin spoke about partnering. After consulting with their boards they decided to pursue an interfaith project with a Christian participant. After the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha rejected the idea the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska was approached. It just happened to be considering a new church in West O on land held in reserve. Then-bishop Joe Burnett asked Anderson to explore joining the two other faith groups in a joint venture. Anderson met Freeman over a game of golf to discuss the possibilities.
Ironwood proved a symbolic spot for the Tri-Faith. It was founded as Jewish-only Highland Country Club in 1924 in response to Jews being barred from other clubs. Owing to Omaha’s declining Jewish population and a desire to be inclusive, Highland eventually opened to all who could afford it. Tri-Faith partners now refer to Hell Creek, which runs through the property, as Heaven’s Bridge.
All of it plays well in the press. But as the founders take great pains explaining, none of it would have happened without the deliberate efforts of people committed to putting aside differences to make tangible an interfaith community built from the ground up.
Azriel says, “Here is something we are doing intentionally. This is not haphazard. this is not by coincidence. We decided those three communities have to be together and then you bring them to a neighborhood to create it. So there’s a deep intentionality that emerges as a result of the comfort level of the relationships. You can’t get there by coincidence.”
At the end of the day, says Freeman, it’s not platitudes or mission statements or white papers that drive the Tri-Faith.
“As is often the case in collaborative projects it’s the people that make it work and we’ve had a group of amazing people committed to working on this. They’ve sustained that enthusiasm and commitment over five-six years. When I look at the people who have been around the table every one of them is very successful in their own walk of life. These are people who when they take something on they don’t fail, they lead it to a successful conclusion.”
Freeman, who’s worked on several Omaha collaboratives, says the Tri-Faith has been “an unequivocally positive experience.” An attorney by trade, he’s quick to point out that “we’ve had interactions that have been less than perfect but that’s life.”
“But life is about overcoming challenges and obstacles and recognizing different perspectives and being accommodating and continuing to move forward when you’re doing the right thing,” he says, “and we’ve had an uncommon aggregation of really strong, successful, goal-oriented people who’ve just willed this thing forward and been really good at problem solving.”
The Tri-Faith posed many potentially intractable, deal-breaker issues but Freeman says great care was taken to mitigate and mediate these.
“We did some things early on that probably helped contribute to success. We immediately talked about some of the harder issues and had a consensus on how we would address them, so we were able to take them off the table.”
Azriel concedes that when there’s an international flashpoint in Jewish-Muslim relations, fears, insecurities and resentments surface.
“Of course this comes up always as part of the discussion, issues of trust, of loyalty, of what-if scenarios. So you have definitely some of the Israeli-Arab conflict penetrating the conversation and people asking questions or suggesting that maybe its not the right way.
“You talk a lot, you try to respond, you try to bring the person who is asking to a level of comfort but the most important part is to invite them to a meeting with Muslims and Episcopalians.”
It’s in breaking bread and participating in celebrations with each other, he and his colleagues say, that people of divergent backgrounds and beliefs find their common humanity. That’s why the Tri-Faith sponsors events that bring people of different faiths together.
The Tri-Faith made its first big public splash in 2009 with the communal Dinner in Abraham’s Tent. An annual picnic is held. More events have followed, including workshops, panels, a children’s camp and high school programs.
“We were able to establish positive momentum and credibility through programs and projects we pulled off very successfully,” Freeman says.
Events outside its control become teachable moments. For example, the organization used the 2008 Gaza conflict to present a unified voice. Mohiuddin says, “We were able to come together and wrote a joint editorial in the World-Herald which expressed the concerns we had without blaming anybody. I thought it was a remarkable accomplishment.”
“I think that was a crucial point in our relationships, that we could move through that and stay together and be of one voice against violence on any side,” says Anderson.
Freeman says the Tri-Faith was able to draft a statement because the partners had set a precedent for addressing the elephants in the room.
“If you’re going to put three houses of worship together in a neighborhood setting there’s some things about that that can be threatening to one another and we immediately got into that. We talked about how we’re not trying to influence each other in our intramural religious efforts.”
In other words, no prosleltyzing. A memorandum of understanding laid it all out.
“An understanding was reached not to go after each other’s congregations to recruit members,” Freeman says. “We recognized the need to be separate, the need to be autonomous. There has to be autonomy. If any of the three want to do something internally in their congregation, in their building, on their land they have to be able to do that and neither of the other two should have any say at all in what that is. Certainly there can be a sensitivity to the impact that might have on your neighbors but nobody should tell anybody else how to govern or operate within their congregational religious life.
“One of the byproducts of that was we don’t want anybody’s faith to be watered down. We’re not trying to make Judaism more Christian, we’re not trying to make Islam more Jewish. So the separateness has to make us independent and even stronger in our own faiths and we’ve seen how that can effectively work.”
Mohiuddin’s experience bears out Freeman’s words. “The most important thing we’re doing is expressing the beliefs we have and as a result we understand our own faith better than we did before because we have to explain it to people and that actually makes your faith stronger, it doesn’t weaken it,” Mohiuddin says.
“I think we’ve become better Christians, Jews, Muslims by entering into this and trying to live out what our faith really says it’s about, and it’s not about politics, it’s not about power,” says Anderson.
Freeman points to other things the Tri-Faith’s done to solidify itself.
“We incorporated and formed a 501c organization early on (2006) so we would have an identity. We were then able to do some fundraising and get some money in, which enabled us to hire professional help along the way and get good consulting input, so it wasn’t entirely a volunteer-sustained effort. I think a lot of us felt expanding beyond just a bunch volunteers who met for coffee lent it credibility.”
Two key professionals brought in were Nancy Kirk and Vic Gutman, Omahans with long experience in arts administration, communications and public event planning. Kirk came on as executive director in 2008 and Gutman as media relations director soon after.
Freeman believes the city deserves credit, too, as “a nurturing, incubator environment for multi-group, creative, collaborative initiatives and projects.” He adds, “I think there’s a willingness to try and work together in recognition that something can be greater than the sum of its parts. There are amazing public-private partnerships that develop here. These models exist all over town and result in people working together and trusting each other.”
“The high level of trust people were willing to have in the Tri-Faith Initiative early on,” he says, “is a byproduct of a community spirit that fosters these kinds of things.”
Mohiuddin, who came from his native India to complete his medical studies at Creighton University decades ago, says, “Omaha has been my home for over 40 years and I’ve gotten to know the city, its culture, its style, and it’s just very welcoming.”
Azriel, a native of Israel by way of Baltimore, says the Tri-Faith is comprised of partners “not only predisposed to welcoming The Other but whose religious faith told them this is the way. It will be very hard to create this same scenario in people who are faithless. I think the right moment came and the right people assembled around the table, and then life has never been the same.”
Mohiuddin says, “If you look at any of the wonderful things that happen in the world, you need a core, usually a spark, which acts as a nucleus around which everything turns. It just happens to be in Omaha, it just happens to be us.”
Like his fellow pioneers Mohiuddin says the Tri-Faith could have easily disbanded by now “if we had allowed ourselves to get discouraged by the dissenting voices, if we did not have the courage of our own convictions.” Indeed, he attributes its survival to “the conviction of the founding members to stay with it,” adding, “We had such a strong belief that what we were doing was necessary and that this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”
On a more practical level, says Freeman, the partners are motivated to see the project through because it means a new house of worship for each faith group, plus an interfaith center. It’s the prospect of bringing these “homes” to completion, strengthening all three faith communities in the process, that supersedes everything else.
The Tri-Faith pioneers welcome the attention the initiative is generating and hope their work provides a framework for more interfaith collaboratives. But Mohiuddin speaks for his colleagues when he says, “I can’t be distracted” from the work at hand.
The partners have come too far now to be sidetracked and lose sight of the prize. Not when the campus Mohiuddin calls “our dream land” is so close at hand.
Faith without action is dead and the Tri-Faith is nothing if not an action-oriented movement. One with a life all its own and a promised land to be filled.
- Omaha temple breaks ground on its tri-faith campus building (jta.org)
- Interfaith, 70 years on… (thejc.com)
- Brotherhood of Faith (drbones.typepad.com)
- Omaha Corpus Christi Procession Draws Hundreds (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Great American Comedy Festival Presents Lineup of Up-and-Comers with Legends Paula Poundstone, Dick Cavett, Jimmie “JJ” Walker
Nebraska and hilarity are not exactly synonomous but this nondescript fly-over state best known for its wide open horizons, abundant corn crops, tasty beef, and winning football has given the world more than its share of funny men and women. Start with silent comedian Harold Lloyd. Two of television’s best comic minds and most iconic talk show hosts, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, came from Nebraska. Comedic actresses Sandy Dennis and Swoosie Kurtz called Nebraska home. Cinema satirists par excellance Alexander Payne and Joan Micklin Silver are natives. Stand-up Skip Stephenson came from here. Comedy performer and writer Pat Hazell, too. Humorist and author Roger Welsch is a Nebraskan through and through. Author Richard Dooling and political cartoonist Jeffrey Koterba are Omaha natives known for their sharp wit. Once you know this comic progeny then the idea of a Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb. of all places no longer seems so strange, expecially when you consider it’s the hometown of the late great Johnny Carson and the festival is an annual homage to him held in, what else, the Johnny Carson Theater. Each year the festival, which is part competition, part workshop, and part roast, presents the Johnny Carson Comedy Legend Award. Up-and-coming stand-up comics from around the country compete for cash prizes. This year’s festival headliner is Paula Poundstone. The 2012 Legend recipient is Jimmie Walker, though dubbing him a legend seems like quite a stretch to me. Past Legend honoree Dick Cavett, who definitely meets that definition, is hosting a comedy magic show. It’s great having Cavett involved because of the close relationship he enjoyed with Carson. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) includes bits and pieces from recent interviews I did with Poundstone and Cavett, both of whom are very easy to talk to. I’ve done a lot of interviews with Cavett over the years and you can seen my resulting stories on this blog.
Great American Comedy Festival Presents Lineup of Up-and-Comers with Legends Paula Poundstone, Dick Cavett, Jimmie “JJ” Walker
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
This annual celebration of the funny side is equal parts competition, workshop and roast.
Its home base is the Johnny Carson Theatre at Norfolk Senior High, where the legendary Tonight Show host graduated. The event welcomes professional stand-ups from around the nation vying for cash prizes. Paula Poundstone is the headliner. Jimmie “JJ” Walker is the “legend” recipient. Past legend honoree Dick Cavett hosts a comedy magic show.
New this year is a June 14-15 Omaha showcase at the Holland Performing Arts Center featuring the fest’s standup contestants in 7:30 p.m. shows.
Poundstone and Cavett, long ago paid their comedy dues. They represent different generations in the craft but well identify with the vagaries of starting out.
She broke in during “the comedy renaissance” that saw clubs sprout in her native Boston and everywhere in the late 1970s-early 1980s. Open mic nights became her proving ground.
“They were just coming into being. I just lucked out in terms of time and place,” she says. “They had shows with guys who had no experience and they were awful but because there was no one else around nobody knew they were awful, and I got in on the awful train – when you could suck and it didn’t really matter. Now I think it’s a lot harder to get stage time.”
She was only 19 when she took the first of two cross-country Greyhound bus trips on an Ameripass, stopping to perform at open mics in places like Denver, living out of a backpack and catching zs on the road between gigs.
“Odd but genius. It was pretty bold. I mean, I look back on it now and think, Whoa, boy, that could have gone bad. It was my nineteeness that saved me. You think you’re invincible…That helped a lot.”
She knew she belonged as a stand-up when she got to the west coast.
“I kept getting day jobs of necessity for a while. At one point on my second Greyhound bus trip I ended up in San Francisco. It was such a great place to be. It was perfect for my age and my personality and for the type of stand-up comic I am.
The audiences were willing to allow the comic to experiment in a way I found nowhere else in the country.
“It was there I gave up my day job.”
The Other Comedy Club near the Haight Ashbury District became her favorite venue.
“A bizarrely unassuming place. I found the best audiences there. Also, the people that ran the place liked me and gave me opportunities. One of the best things I ever did was host the weekly open mic night. Your job is to introduce people but also to kind of keep the crowd, so you’ve got to do a little bit in between. I would run out of material and I got to think on my feet and interact with the crowd and do all the stuff that’s really the good stuff.
“I had some raggedy nights where it just didn’t work or the crowd was horrible. I have better odds now.”
She describes the high that is stand-up as “addictive,” adding, “otherwise why would you?” (subject yourself to it).
Meeting fans after shows holds its own high, especially when this adoptive mother of three finds she’s struck a chord with parents over one of her favorite topics – the impossibility of child-rearing. “When those moments occur it really makes me feel worthwhile,” says Poundstone, whose concerts, HBO specials, books and recurring panelist role on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me keep her busy.
Not surprisingly, Cavett admires Poundstone, who guested on one of his shows. “She may be one of four-five guests in all the years I did those shows who sent a thank-you note. It was a lovely, nice, handwritten note and it gave me a softer spot for her even than I already had. I was on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me a couple weeks ago but I was sorry she wasn’t there that day so I could thank her again.”
Now he gets the chance to tell her in person. She may share her admiration for an impromptu bit he once did with Benny Goodman. Noticing the jazz great’s fly was down and sensing a rare chance to both prevent embarrassment and score laughs, Cavett instructed Goodman “to do exactly as I do.” As Cavett stood up with his back to the audience, Goodman did the same. The gestures that followed were unmistakable and funny, yet gracefully didn’t reveal whose fly was undone.
“I can’t imagine thinking of that,” says Poundstone. “It’s brilliant, just brilliant.”
Unlike Poundstone, Cavett made his bones in the business writing for others. After graduating Yale he worked as a New York Times copy boy when he audaciously wrote a monologue on spec for Jack Paar and personally delivered it to the Tonight Show host at the RCA building. He lived the dream of seeing some of his jokes used that very night on air. He soon became a staff writer for Jack, then Johnny. On the side he did stand-up in clubs. He doesn’t exactly miss it.
“Thank God I’m not doing that anymore. Some nights were awful, some were exhilarating and made you think this is what I’ve always wanted. When you would top a heckler you’d get a big thrill out of that.”
Once he got his own ABC talk show he delivered a monologue every night.
“It’s a horrible burden for anybody doing a talk show.”
The closest he’s come to stand-up in recent years is narrating the Broadway production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“I treated it as a stand-up appearance, so I did stuff I had thought up that day or had worked the night before. I ad-libbed with the audience. I had a great time doing it. But those years at the Bitter End and the Village Gate and The Gaslight and Mr Kelly’s and The Hungry Eye all helped bring that about.”
His advice to aspiring comics is “get the best material you can, work as often as you can.”
Having Carson in his corner helped him survive the stand-up gauntlet.
“I would go back to work the next day for Johnny and he would ask me how it went the night before and we would laugh particularly hard when it went badly. He would be very helpful with joke wording. He’d say, ‘You’ve got a good premise there but you don’t go far enough with it.’ A lot of good advice.”
Cavett’s still touched by the affection Carson showed him and that he reciprocated.
They’re forever linked by their small town Nebraska roots (Cavett was born in Gibbon and raised in Grand Island and Lincoln) and similar career trajectories. They both performed magic as youths.
“We met over magic in the Westminster Church in Lincoln. As kids in junior high three of us went to see the magician and radio personality Johnny Carson from Omaha.”
That each went on to host his own network talk show still amazes Cavett. “Isn’t that funny – two magicians from Nebraska?” He promises to perform “my genius” rope trick at the comedy fest. Cavett, who pens a Times column and occasional books, regularly gets back here, He hopes to get in some time in his beloved Sand Hills.
Keenly aware he’ll be on Carson’s home turf, at an event paying homage to its most famous native son, his rope trick will be one more link in their shared legacy.
For schedule and ticket info, call 402-370-8004 or visit www2.greatamericancomedyfestival.com. Omaha Showcase details are at http://www.omahaperformingarts.org.
This is yet another story, the third by the way, that I wrote after my recent encounters with comedy legend Bill Cosby. Here, he tells it like he sees it about the state of education in America. Like many of us he has strong views on the topic and he isn’t afraid he will step on somebody’s toes from the weight of his celebrity when it comes to saying what he believes. Like what he says or not, he has a consistent message on the topic and has the courage of his convictions to keep right on talking even when there’s strong push-back from various quarters to some of what he states about schools, teachers, and parents. Most of the quotes from Cosby came out of phone interviews I did with him. The photos below came from a visit to his dressing room before his May 6 show in Omaha, where some visitors from Boys Town gave him another chance to sound-off on education and for me to record his comments and interaction with his guests. It was a privileged opportunity to glimpse an intimate, off-the-cuff Cosby speaking his heart and his mind on things he cares deeply about.
Bill Cosby Speaks His Mind on Education
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
By now America’s accustomed to King of Comedy Bill Cosby turning serious about topics he usually mines humor from. Expressing his celebrity opinions he sometimes touches a nerve, as when he asserted “parenting is not going on” in poor inner city black homes during a 2004 NAACP speech.
The Reader got three doses of Cosby opining before his May 6 Omaha concert. In each he revealed different facets of himself. In a phone interview he recalled in his avuncular storyteller way his slacker youth in Philadelphia public housing projects and schools. How it took “a rude awakening” for the high school drop-out to become motivated to learn. A “kickoff” moment convinced him “yes, you can do.”
“Had it not been for the positive influence of this professor, without him reading that out loud and my hearing the class laugh, who knows, I may be at this age a retired gym teacher, well loved by some of his students.”
Emboldened, Cosby left school short of graduating to pursue his stand-up career, certain, he says, “I was on track with what I wanted to do.” He famously returned to complete his bachelor’s degree and to earn his master’s and Ed.D in education.
He became “a born again, want-to-be-a-teacher.” No wonder then he’s made education a subject for his advocacy and critique. His strong views don’t make him an expert. He doesn’t claim to be one. And, to be fair, The Reader asked him to weigh-in on the topic for a second phone interview. He gladly did, too, only this time going off on a rail.
Two weeks later in his Orpheum Theater dressing room he addressed child rearing and education with a captive audience of fans, friends and media. When he gets on a roll like this he’s equal parts storyteller and lecturer, blustery one moment, nostalgic the next, probing and cajoling, his mischievous inner-child never far away.
To some, he’s a voice of old school wisdom and tough love. To others, an out-of-touch relic. No matter how you feel about his straight talk, it’s clear he’s concerned about education. His words carry weight because he’s fixed in the collective conscience as America’s father from The Cosby Show (1986-1994) and all the family routines he’s done in concerts, on albums, et cetera.
So when Cosby proclaims, as he did to The Reader, “In education, things are broken,” you listen. He believes the brokenness is systemic. “However,” he adds, “there are paradigms and they are not secrets. Paradigms meaning they work, they are accessible, you can look at them, and they don’t cost super extra money. Because it has been proven that to teach and to make interesting to the students all you need is a good teacher and all that teacher needs is a good principal and all that good principal needs is a good superintendent.”
“And they can work on a dirt floor, given students who every year come in perhaps disliking school, perhaps ill-mannered, and still get students to learn,” he says. “These people who can teach – and I don’t mean the ones who win awards, I mean teachers who can teach, who want to teach – are being held back on purpose by rules in the system. Many of these rules have to do with piling on what’s in the practicum, in the technical aspects of it, not giving the teacher enough time because there are sayings like, ‘If the student fails, then we fail.’
“In my eyes and ears there are too many people who don’t care and they need to go and the people who can work it need to teach…because this United States of America is being talked about in terms of not being what it used to be and that’s an embarrassment.”
Cosby was just getting started.
“Some people can’t teach and don’t know how, they don’t have an inventive bone in their body and they just need to get another job some place, and I won’t embarrass the people by saying what kind of jobs they should have.
“But if you care, if you care about these children and you want to be a teacher and you want to be a principal and you want to be an administrator, a superintendent, then I advise you go to college, get ready to demonstrate, get ready to call out every ill-positioned person…They can’t forever get away with this.
“I am appalled because I feel the grownups who are in charge really don’t understand how they’re ruining our future adults and they at times have not been taught well how to teach.”
Then he got around to youth not being supervised and supported at home. How many teachers are unprepared to deal with the issues kids present. Some of those same kids end up as truants, dropouts, functional illiterates, even criminals.
“Many times the teacher may represent the only reasonable thing in life this child will see or feel. Without an education we send more kids out to the street alone because many of them don’t have proper parenting at home. Education happens to be, along perhaps with the church and some programs, the difference between a kid committing a crime, hurting someone, and getting the idea that I would like to read, I would like to write, I would like to know how to figure things out, I would like to see more than just the neighborhood I live in.”
A failed education, he says, can be measured in lowered earnings, welfare payouts and the costs to incarcerate criminal offenders.
“It would seem to me taxpayers would be in arms to say, ‘We want better education, we demand better education for our children’” to help youth become productive, contributing citizens.
He admits he doesn’t have “remedies.” He does call for “activism” by parents, educators, private enterprise and public policymakers to give schools the resources they need and replicate what works.
Cut to his dressing room, where Boys Town family teachers Tony and Simone Jones brought nine youths in their charge, including their two sons. “You live with them?” asked Cosby. “Why? You were not drafted to look after these boys. OK, then tell me, why are you living there with them?”
“Because we feel it’s our responsibility to take care of the kids, not only our own youth but youth in society,” Simone said.
“But what made that a responsibility for you? They’re not your children,” he pressed.
Tony said, “Mr. Cosby I’ll answer just very simply: My mom passed when I was 12 years old, and I went to Boys Town to live…” Cosby erupted with, “Oh, really! Now you’re starting to tell me stories, you see what I’m talking about (to the boys), you guys understand me? Huh?” Several boys nodded yes. “The story is coming, huh? What did Boys Town do for him?” Cosby asked. One boy said, “Helped him out, gave him a place to stay.” Another said, “Gave him a second chance.”
“Well, more than a second chance,” Cosby replied. “it took care of him,” a boy offered. “And made him take care of himself…and that’s why he’s living with you now – he’s trying to build you.”
Noting “the hard knock life” these kids come from, he said youth today confront different challenges than what he faced as a kid.
“When I was coming up we didn’t have Omaha, Neb. ranked high in teenage boys murdering each other. Am I making sense? We didn’t have the guns being placed in our neighborhoods. We had guys who made guns…but now we have real guns and good ones too. It’s in the home.”
Where there are caring adults and good opportunities kids make good choices.
“The idea is where are these boys coming from and what places they may have to get to. We’ve got to do more with fellows like these for them to do shadowing…in hospitals, in factories, in businesses, so that these young males begin to understand what they can do.”
Cosby told Tony and Simone he can see “the joy of these boys knowing that you guys care.”
“It’s about showing them the possibilities,” Simone told him.
Cosby knows all about the difference a teacher’s encouragement can make.
Before seeing his guests out, Tony and Simone got a private moment with Cosby. She says, “He pulled us aside and told us, ‘You really need to push children hard to get them to do what they should do. You can’t let them slide. Sometimes you have to make a choice for them.’ We appreciated his words of advice and wisdom.”
Meeting the legend, she says, “was a remarkable experience,” adding, “He was really concerned with our kids and what we do. I know every kid that was there took away something that’s magical that they’ll hold with them for the rest of their lives.”
- Bill Cosby, On His Own Terms (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Bill Cosby Coming to Omaha to Perform Comedy Concert May 6 (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Outward Bound Omaha Uses Experiential Education to Challenge and Inspire Youth (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni Immerses Herself in Community Affairs (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Exhibits on Display for the College World Series; In Bringing the Shows to Omaha the Great Plains Black History Museum Announces it’s Back
Black baseball will get its due this spring in Omaha, the home of the College World Series and the Triple AAA Omaha Storm Chasers, when three exhibitions from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. show here. The presenting organization bringing the exhibits to town is Omaha’s own Great Plains Black History Museum, a long troubled institution that’s made a rebound under its new president and board and that with this coup is announcing that it’s back. If you’re interested in reading more about the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and its late co-founder and goodwill ambassador, Buck O’Neil, you’ll find stories I wrote about each on this blog. You’ll also find stories on the blog about the Great Plains Black History Museum, the College World Series, and the former CWS home venue, Rosenblatt Stadium.
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Exhibits on Display for the College World Series; In Bringing the Shows to Omaha the Great Plains Black History Museum Announces it’s Back
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Three traveling baseball exhibitions on view in the metro this spring chart a history with local overtones and signals a comeback for a local organization. The exhibits are courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Omaha’s own Great Plains Black History Museum is presenting the photo shows at family-friendly venues.
The exhibits are happening in the heat of the baseball season, too. The last few weeks of their run coincide with the College World Series.
The history of black baseball is told in Discover Greatness and the life and times of Kansas City Monarchs player-manager Buck O’Neil, who co-founded the Negro Leagues museum and served as its goodwill ambassador, is celebrated in Baseball’s Heart and Soul. Both exhibits show May 20 through June 26 at Conestoga Magnet School, 2115 Burdette Street, in the heart of Omaha’s black community.
Conestoga’s an apt host site as Negro leagues teams barnstormed through North Omaha, sometimes playing exhibitions with the Omaha Rockets, a semi-pro black independent club. The Monarchs and other Negro leagues teams stayed at black boarding and rooming houses in North O, including one operated by Von Trimble’s parents. Trimble says he has fond memories of meeting legends Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, playing catch with them in his yard, riding with them to the ballpark on the team bus, and sometimes sitting in the dugout during games.
Trimble’s expected to share his anecdotes on some future date at Conestoga.
Then, too, the school’s only a few blocks from the black museum’s long closed home, where artifacts from Omaha native and Cooperstown member Bob Gibson, who was offered by the Monarchs, were displayed.
A third exhibit, Times, Teams and Talent, offers an overview of the Negro leagues. It can be seen during eight Omaha Storm Chaser games May 17 through May 24 on the main concourse, behind section 114, at Werner Park, 12356 Ballpark Way in Papillion. That exhibit then moves to The Bullpen at the Omaha Baseball Village, adjacent to TD Ameritrade Park, for the June 15-26 CWS.
“We wanted to give our youth ambassadors some first hand knowledge about the exhibits and the museum,” says Beatty. “We wanted them to understand our level of commitment to them and the fact this is a serious effort They got to tour the museum, to hear directly from its president, Bob Kendrick, and to receive some training from staff there. As an added bonus they got to meet two players from the latter years of the Negro Leagues.”
As an Omaha Public Schools administrator and product himself (1966 Omaha Central graduate), Jerry Bartee is pleased the district is heavily involved in showcasing the exhibits. He says when Beatty asked him to be the organizing committee’s honorary chair he couldn’t resist because of his own deep connections to baseball: he was scouted by none other than Buck O’Neil and went on to a short career in the minors.
“Obviously I love the game of baseball. I appreciate all the pioneers but particularly the African-American players that paved the way for future generations, including my own,” Bartee says. “Negro Leagues baseball was really a rallying point for black America and brought a sense of pride to the black community.
“The historical value of it all is immeasurable. I am so pleased the Omaha Public Schools is a partner in this endeavor. What we hope to accomplish with all this is for parents and grandparents to talk about these times with their children and grandchildren.”
Conestoga long ago expressed interest in supporting the museum, so when Beatty asked the school to be a host site, principal David Milan quickly agreed. Milan says the museum serves an “important” function sharing the history of African-Americans in Omaha and beyond. Besides, he says, “the Negro leagues served a great purpose in history and the story needs to be told.”
The exhibits are in Omaha as the result of collaborations the Great Plains Black museum has undertaken with the Negro Leagues museum, OPS the Mayor’s Office, Douglas County and private enterprise. After a decade of well-publicized struggles the organization has a new board led by Beatty and new life that’s seeing it do programming after years of dormancy.
Beatty and Co. received grant funding and in-kind support from multiple sources to bring the exhibits here, including Werner Enterprises transporting the materials for free. It’s also a case of two black organizations helping each other, as the Kansas City museum endured its own struggles after O’Neil passed in 2006 and it’s only recently rebounded under Kendrick.
Kendrick and Beatty say they’ve struck a long-term agreement to bring Negro Leagues museum exhibits here annually around CWS time.
“This is a multi-year commitment,” Beaty says, adding, “We’re very excited about that.”
“It’s important for us to have these kinds of partnership relations and bridges with other cultural institutions,” says Kendrick. “It’s going to be great for the museum to have that exposure in Omaha. We’re excited about expanding this partnership. This is not a one-and-done thing. We’re looking forward to many years of working side- by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder with this great organization.
“I think one of the most important aspects of this whole collaboration is the intimate involvement of young people, empowering them not only to learn about Negro leagues history but employing them to share this history with the general public.”
“This is a growth opportunity for the kids,” says Beatty.
At a February press conference Beatty stood alongside Kendrick, Bartee, Mayor Jim Suttle, Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray and Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers in a show of solidarity Omaha’s black museum hasn’t enjoyed before.
“The museum is trying to reestablish and reassert itself and we wanted to make a statement to the community that the Great Plains Black History Museum is back and we’re serious about our mission. Being able to pull something like this off and gather the support needed is a clear signal to civic, community and business leaders that the museum board is serious about its role. This project is a significant and great example of the commitment.
“The museum has been a series of false starts and we’re trying to put that in the rear view mirror. There’s been too many words passed by the museum and not effort put forth of a substantial nature. Hopefully this will show the community one more effort we’re doing among others.”
Those efforts include organizing a History Harvest with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-sponsoring an April 12 talk by author Isabel Wilkerson. The museum had its collections stored and cataloged by the Nebraska State Historical Society. Consulting historians continue working with the collections. The museum’s commissioned J. Gregg Smith Inc. to do a strategic planning process that Beatty says “will give us the definition we need to go forth from an exhibit, programming and facility standpoint.”
Kendrick’s impressed the Omaha museum is doing programming despite not having a workable site of its own.
“Even though right now they don’t have a functioning building they are demonstrating their viability by creating this meaningful opportunity to expose the citizens of Omaha and visitors to the College World Series to the rich history of Negro leagues ball. I think it speaks volumes to their mindset as an institution, to the direction they want to go, and to the inherent value of what they represent.”
For exhibit days, hours and admission, call 402-572-9292 or visit http://www.gpblackmuseum.org.
- New Negro League Data-Base on Baseball-Reference.com (ondeckcircle.wordpress.com)
- Md.’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum To Hold Fundraiser (baltimore.cbslocal.com)
- Rawlings to honor Negro Leaguers (mlb.mlb.com)
- Museum trying to keep history alive (thestar.com)
- A Synergy in North Omaha Harkens a New Arts-Culture District for the City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Movie Maven Crawford Celebrates 20 Years of Classic Film Revivals that Bring Hollywood to Omaha, Special Guest Pat Boone to Appear at Screening of 'Journey to the Center of the Earth'
One of my favorite movies as a kid was the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth. I've seen it all the way through perhaps a handful of times but always on television, which is why I'm looking forward to an upcoming big screen revival of the Jules Verne sci fi adventure in Omaha, Neb. courtesy of film impresario and historian Bruce Crawford.
Omaha's Pitch Man: Entrepreneur Extraordinaire Willy Theisen is Back with His Next Big Business Venture
Willy Theisen's self-made success story is an American classic. I have known of him since the breakout success of his Godfather's Pizza chain in the 1970s but it wasn't until I was assigned the following profile that I finally met him. I interviewed him for the piece in early March and the story will appear in an upcoming issue of Omaha Magazine.
After seeing some high school students navigate the high ropes challenge course at the Outward Bound Omaha center site I understand why youths and adults, really anyone physically able to access and maneuver on the apparatus, could benefit from testing onself on it. I woulnd't mind trying it myself. I know I would be better for the challenge. The following story for a coming issue of Metro Magazine gives a sense for what Outward Bound Omaha tries to do and how it fits into the mission of the sponsoring North Star Foundation, which is bringing this and other community engagement and personal enrichment resources to northeast Omaha to address the crisis of disenfranchised youth there.
A Brief History of Omaha’s Civil Rights Struggle Distilled in Black and White By Photographer Rudy Smith
Rudy Smith was a lot of places where breaking news happened. That was his job as an Omaha World-Herald photojournalist. Early in his career he was there when riots broke out on the Near Northside, the largely African-American community he came from and lived in. He was there too when any number of civil rights events and figures came through town.
Omaha's Malcolm X Memorial Foundation Comes into its Own, As the Nonprofit Eyes Grand Plans it Weighs How Much Support Exists to Realize Them
African-Americans from the town where I live, Omaha, Neb., are often amused when they travel outside the state, especially to the coasts, and people they first meet discover where they are from and invariably express surprise that black people live in this Great Plains state. Yes, black people do live here, thank you very much. They have for as long as Nebraska's been a state and Omaha's been a city, and their presence extends back even before that, to when Nebraska was a territory and Omaha a settlement.
Bill Cosby with Bob Boozer, ©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net
UPDATE: It is with a heavy heart I report that hoops legend Bob Boozer, whose friendship with Bill Cosby is glimpsed in this story, passed away May 19. Photographer Marlon Wright and I were in Cosby's dressing room when Boozer appeared with a pie in hand for the comedian. As my story explains, the two went way back, as did the tradition of Boozer bringing his friend the pie.