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Aisha’s Adventures: A story of inspiration and transformation; homelessness didn’t stop entrepreneurial missionary Aisha Okudi from pursuing her goals

July 10, 2014 1 comment

If you’re looking for a pick-me-up story to lift you out of the self=pity blues or doldrums then you’d be hard-pressed to top the story of Aisha Okudi, an Omaha woman who has not let anything stop her, including homelessness, from pursuing her entrepreneurial missionary purpose and dream.  This is my new cover story about her for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I did a previous story about Aisha and her path of inspiration and transformation which you can find on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

Aisha’s Adventures:  A story of inspiration and transformation; homelessness didn’t stop entrepreneurial missionary Aisha Okudi from pursuing her goals

Her Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire line of beauty products serves African missions dream

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Entrepreneurial African missionary Aisha Okudi, 37, laid the foundation for her thriving business and ambitious humanitarian work during a period when she and her children were sometimes homeless. She’d been through worse.

Regardless of how bad things have gotten, she’s remained focused on her mission because she considers her story of transformation a testimony to her faith in a Higher Power she serves for the greater good. The Omaha visionary is proud of how far she’s come with her Sha Luminous line of organic shea butter skin rejuvenation and beauty products. Sha Luminous is available at HyVee supermarkets in six states as well as Akins Natural Food Stores, No Name Nutrition, Jane’s Health Market and select salons. She’s working to get in Whole Foods.

She’s humble about her success because she’s following a plan she feels called to. She views everything about her journey, even the dark side, as a conduit for the missionary work that is her real passion.

The base of her hand-crafted products is butter extracted from the shea nut, a natural plant indigenous to the same rural African provinces she serves. After years helping poor African children by sending supplies and making donations, she visited Niger in 2010 through the auspices of the international NGO, Children in Christ. She made connections with villagers, tribal leaders, fellow missionaries, government representatives and American embassy officials. She purchased a missionary house to accommodate more evangelists.

She says she’s tried getting Omaha churches on board with her work but has been rebuked. She suspects being a woman of little means and not having a church or title explains it. Undaunted, she works closely with CIC Niger national director, Festus Haba, who calls her work “a blessing.” In addition to Niger, where she once considered moving, she also visited Togo on that 2010 trip.

 

Cover Photo

Aisha, left end, middle row, in Africa and displays of her products

She visited Ghana in 2012. She’s returning to Africa in August, this time to Mali. With the help of Haba and CIC she’ll explore growing her business there to create import-export streams. At one time she weighed developing holistic herbal health clinics in West Africa.

“I want to create job opportunities for people because this business is about helping people who come out of poverty just like me.”

She wants more Africans enjoying the fruits of the shea nut grown there by employing locals in its production and sale and by making her products affordable so more locals can enjoy their health benefits.

It’s a far cry from the self-centered, destructive path she was on from the early-1990s through 2004. Growing up in Omaha and Des Moines she long headed for a hard fall. Her family often moved. Finances were always tight. She was a head-strong girl who didn’t listen to her restless mother and alcoholic father. She got in trouble at school.

“There were issues at home. I was always told no coming up and I got sick of hearing that. I felt I was a burden, so I was like, ‘I’m going to get out and get my own stuff.’”
At 15 she left home and began stripping. A year later she got pregnant. She gave birth to the first of her four children at 17.

“I found myself moving around a lot. I really didn’t know what stability was. I never had stability, whether having a stable home or just being stable, period, in life. I was young and doing my thing. My dad walked in the club where I was stripping. My sister told on me.”

The ensuing confrontation only drew her and her parents farther apart.

“I was trying to live that life. I wanted to have whatever I wanted to have. I danced, I sold my body and I made lots of money from it. I did it for about 12 years. I wanted to have it all, but it was not the right way.”

 

 

 

 

 

She got caught up in the alcohol, drug abuse and theft that accompany life on the streets.

“I was in and out of prison a lot. I used to steal to make money.”

In 1997 she served time in the Douglas Country Correctional Center for theft by receiving stolen property.

In 2004 she was crying in an Iowa jail cell after her second Operating While Intoxicated offense. Her arrest came after she left the strip club where she performed, bombed out of her head.

“I had to get drunk so I could let these men touch me all night,” says Okudi, who drove her car atop a railroad embankment, straddling the tracks, poised to head for a drop-off that led straight into a river.

That night in jail a decade ago is when it all came to a head. “I just sat there and I thought about my kids and what I just did,” she says. She felt sure she’d messed up one too many times and was going to lose her children and any chance of salvaging her life, “I was crying out and begging to God. I had begged before but this time it was a beg of mercy. I was at my bottom. I surrendered fully.”

To her relief the judge didn’t give her prison time at her sentencing hearing. “I told the judge, ‘I will never do this.’ He said, ‘If I ever see you in my courtroom again it will be the last time.’ I burnt my strip clothes when I got out, and I didn’t turn back. I got myself into treatment.” She’d been in treatment before but “this time,” she says, “it was serious, it wasn’t a game. I enrolled in school.”

Ten years later she has her own business and a higher calling and, she says, “I’m so proud that I write the judge and tell him how I’m doing.” Okudi’s learned how to live a healthy lifestyle and not surround herself with negative influences and enablers.

Her life has turned many more times yet since getting straight and sober. In 2006 she seemingly found her soulmate in George Okudi, an ordained Ugandan minister and award-winning gospel artist. They began a new life in Washington DC and had two children together. Then she discovered he was still married to another woman in Africa. The couple is separated, awaiting a divorce.

She’s learned to forgive, but she’s only human. “Even though I’ve grown sometimes it feels like, When is it going to end? But to much is given, much is required. You’ve just gotta consistently stay on track. No matter what it is, stay focused.”

Even as recently as 2012 and 2013 there were tests and setbacks, including bouts of homelessness. The difference then and now is that when adversity strikes she doesn’t get too high or too low, she doesn’t feel entitled to act out. She claims she experienced an epiphany in which God spoke to her and set her on her Esha Jewelfire mission.

“When I had that vision and dream I was pregnant with my youngest son. I was living with my grandmother. I was newly separated from my husband. I said to my grandmother, ‘I don’t know if I’m going crazy or what, but the Lord said I will build like King Solomon and go and help my people in Africa.’”

Since childhood this Africaphile has expressed a desire to help alleviate poverty overseas. Her visit to Niger and the overwhelming reception she received confirmed she’s meant to serve there.

“It was immediate. I was able to blend in wherever I went. I know that’s where my calling is. I cook African, my children are African, my friends are African. It’s just a natural thing for me.”

She even speaks some native dialects.

She’s long made a habit of sending clothes and other needed items to Africa. But a call to build was something else again.

“Where am I going to get the money from to help these people in Africa?” she asked her grandma. “I didn’t know.”

Then by accident or fate or divine providence a friend introduced her to shea butter, an oil used in countless bath and beauty products. “And that’s how the idea for my business came up,” Okudi says.

Shea is gritty in its natural state and only transforms with love. Sound familiar? “I researched it and found that it moisturizes, it cleanses, it refreshens, it heals, it brightens, it just makes you shine. It’s naturally rich in vitamins A, E and F. So I figured out what I needed to do with it.”

Her experiments led to lightly fragranced shea butter-based products, including lotions, creams and scrubs. She began marketing them.

She gets raw shea in big blocks she breaks down by chopping and melting. She incorporates into her products natural oats and grains as well as fruit and herb oils to lend pleasing textures and scents. The fresh fruit and herbs are pressed by hand. Nothing’s processed. “All this stuff comes from God’s green earth — oils, spices, herbs, organic cane sugar,” she says. Nothing’s written down either. “I have it all in my head. I know every ingredient in everything I make. Everything is made fresh to order and customized. Everything is hand-packaged, too.”

 

 

After trying mechanized mass manufacturing, she’s back to hand mass manufacturing her products
Mass production of the New Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire, LLC Body Lotion!! Do you have yours?
Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire, LLC's photo.
Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire, LLC's photo.
Aisha at a store display opening

Selling at trade shows, house parties, off the Internet, the small business “started really growing and taking off for me,” she says. With her products now in chain stores, she contracts workers to act as sales demo reps where her products are carried. She also has a contract with a hand-mass manufacturing firm in Nashville, Tenn. She’s in discussions with a majo beauty products manufacturer-distributor.

She says besides her line being “bomb diggity,” retailers and customers alike respond to “the mission purpose behind it,” adding, “It’s purposeful, its meaningful, there’s life to my company.”

Her business has been based at various sites, including the Omaha Small Business Network. Production’s unfolded in her mother’s kitchen, in a friend’s attic, in her house, wherever she can find usable space. “My business is simple, it doesn’t really need a big plant or office.”

Having a store of her own though was a dream. A few years ago “an angel” came into her life in the form of Robert Wolsmann, who within short order of meeting Okudi wrote her a check for $10,000 – as a loan – to help her open her own shop.

Wolsmann is not in the habit of lending such amounts to near total strangers but something in Okudi struck him. Besides, he says, “I could see she needed help. She showed me what she made and I was so impressed I presented her with that money. I couldn’t resist investing.”

“He’s an awesome person,” Aisha says of Wolsmann. “We’ve become great friends.”

She says her dynamic personality attracts people to her. She feels what Wolsmann did is evidence “things work in mysterious ways – you don’t know what’s going to happen, you’ve just got to be prepared.”

Her Organically Sweet Shea Butter Body Butter Store opened in 2010. The labor of love proved star-crossed when after two months her landlord evicted her. Okudi’s opened and closed two more stores to pursue new opportunities .

“Entrepreneurs go where they have to go to get things done.”

Evictions from two rental homes found to be uninhabitable took their toll. “I asked God, “What is going on? Why does this keep happening to me?’ I didn’t have nowhere to go. I was seeing myself back living from place to place like I’ve always been, still trying to take care of my kids and do my business.” Stripping’s fast money lured her back for a short time. She and her kids stayed at the transitional housing program, Restored Hope, but when things didn’t work out there they went back to couch surfing before finding stability at the Salvation Army Shelter.

“It kept me focused on my mission. I’ve been called to be that missionary, so I’m not so upset anymore about why I’ve been bounced around or why things have happened the way they have. There’s a way bigger purpose. If you just be really humble and wait and be patient to see what God’s doing, He’ll turn things around.”

 

 

It’s why she no longer dwells on the past or worries about what she doesn’t have right now.

“Nothing matters when it comes to material things. The only thing that matters to me is my health and just doing what I know is right in my heart to do. Even though I lived the way I lived, basically homeless, I realized I am very blessed and I remained grateful.

“God only gives you what you can handle. He obviously knew I was equipped to do it. You just do it, but there’s preparation to everything. Nothing goes to waste. Everything I’ve been through I’ve actually used as a powerful testimony to either encourage someone else or to inspire myself to move forward.”

For the past year she’s earned enough money to find stable living in her own downtown condo.

Often asked to share her story before church congregations and community groups, her message is simple:

“To persevere, period. I don’t care what your situation is you’ve got to keep going. The world doesn’t stop, time doesn’t stop, problems never cease. You have to go through them. I go through my trials and tribulations and I never ask God to remove me out of them because it builds character, strength and perseverance for you to move on. I always tell people, ‘Don’t stop, just keep going.’ The fight is not easy, the fight ain’t no joke, it’s a war, it’s a battle. You’ve got to put full armor on and fight. God don’t have punks in his army.

“You’ve got to be a soldier for everything you put hour hands to.”

She’s aware her success amid myriad struggles inspires others.

“It reminds me who I am and that when I don’t think people are watching me they are. I’ve always been a happy, giving, loving person. Even when going through something, I pick myself up. Even my father said, ‘If you can be changed from where you came from, I know there’s a God.’ Now, he’s stopped drinking. He’s reborn.”

 

Photo: Team Sha Luminous heading to Lincoln to knock out the HyVees there :-)!! Wish us luck and throw some prayers out there too! Thanks.
Aisha drives far and wide slinging her shea butter line

 

 

She realizes her own rebirth may be hard for some to swallow. “People who knew me in my past might say, ‘Oh no, not Aisha, with what she used to do?’” She acknowledges she couldn’t transform without help.

“When I got the call to start my business to support the Africa missions I had no business training or education, I just did it. I’ve learned as much as I can from experts and entrepreneurs who’ve already been there and done it. I’ve seen what not to do and what to do. I’ve learned to listen more, to be more patient, to look at all options instead of just what I know, because it’s not about what I know it’s about what I need to know. This has been a very humbling and hard faith thing for me.”

In 2011 she graduated from Creighton University’s Financial Success Program for low income single mothers.

“I learned how to be very resourceful working within my means, how to budget and how to cut out unnecessary costs.”

She was introduced to EcoScents owner Chad Kampschneider, who became a mentor and ended up picking up her product line.

After being accepted to tape an episode of Shark Tank she decided to pass on the opportunity rather than risk gaining partners who would wrest control of her vision.

“I’ve gotten this far with my mission and purpose and I don’t want to get detoured on another path. I figure one day I’ll be a shark myself helping people grow their businesses and realize their dreams. If I continue to follow the path I’ve been following I’ll get there. I see myself global helping in poverty areas through my company.”

 

 

Photo: Happy Birthday󾔑 Esha I love you enjoy your day!!!!󾦈󾠣󾆕󾠨󾓕󾁀
Her younger sister put together this montage of Aisha for her birthday

 

 

She’s determined to complete her mission.

“I just get up knowing I gotta do what I gotta do, and I live one day at a time. I don’t let my financial and emotional path haunt me. There’s nothing you can do but do what you need to do every day and be a part of hope. Too many people are hopeless. There’s no light in them. I’m not about that, I’m about life and living to the fullest and being happy with what I have and where I’m at because I know greatness will come some day for me. I’m a very favored woman in all things I do.

“I haven’t been at a standstill. I’ve come a long way and I continue to grow. I’m still transforming, I’m still moving forward. I still reach out for help in areas I need help in.”
She suspects she’s always had it in her to be the “apostolic entrepreneur” she brands herself today. “Sometimes you don’t discover it until things happen to you. I think I had it but I didn’t embrace it then. I heard so much negative in my life coming up that it turned me away…I said, ‘I’ll show you,’ and I made wrong decisions. What the devil meant for bad, God turned it for good.

“I’m a natural born hustler but I hustle in the right way now.”

This month Okudi will be at select Walmarts and No-Frills stores seeking donations for her African missions.

For more about her products, visit her Facebook page, Sha-Luminous-by-Esha-Jewelfire.

 

One of Aisha’s many different looks

Bud Rising: Terence “Bud” Crawford’s tight family has his back as he defends title in his own backyard


Historically, Omaha has never been a great fight town the way Detroit or Boston or Philadelphia or New York City or Las Vegas have been and in some instances still are.  Outside the local, hardcore boxing set, even a knowledable fight fan would be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of boxers, trainers, managers, and gyms here that ever made a real dent in the sport, amateur or professional.  But boxing did once command a loyal and sizable following here for the Golden Gloves and for some of the few pros who made names for themselves, such as the Hernandez brothers and Ron Stander.  That support may or may not come back with the emergence of Terence “Bud” Crawford, the recently crowned WBO lightweight champ who defends his title June 28 in his hometown of Omaha.  An indication of just how far off the tracks Omaha’s boxing scene went is that his June 28 title defense will be the first time in 24 pro fights Crawford has fought in his hometown.  There’s no question he’s already made history as the first world boxing titlist from here since the 1930s (Max Bear) and he’ll be the first from here to defend his title on his home turf. Boxing’s been close to dead here for 20 years and whether or not his bout with challenger Yuriorkis Gamboa will mean the dawn of a new era in boxing here nobody knows.  It’s unlikely given the sport’s overall decline in popularity and this city’s traditionally at-arm’s-length approach to the ring business.  Even if no boxing revival happens, Crawford’s shaken things up.  As one old-line boxing observer who attended the press conference for the Crawford-Gamboa fight told me, “When Bob Arum showed up in Omaha, Neb. I almost dropped my shorts.”  Not since Joe Frazier defended his heavyweight title against local Great White Hope Ron Stander in 1972 has there been anything of this magnitude boxing-wise here.  But as that same observer noted, Frazier was one of eight total world champs then whereas today there are many dozens of “champions” because of the alphabet soup proliferation of fight sanctioning bodies.  In other word, boxing has been dilluted.  It’s lost serious lustre and cred in this age of mixed martial arts fighting, whose elite practitioners tend to command as much or more interest and respect than do boxing’s elite.  The story that follows on Bud Crawford is my third about him (you can find the others on this blog). This one portrays him in the context of his tight family.  I recently enjoyed meeting his mother, grandmother, sisters, and girlfriend, who’s also the mother of his two sons, and their words, along with those of family friend and attorney Hugh Reefe, describe Bud as a family-first man who has come a long way from the immature boy who fell in love with boxing but too often wanted to fight the world.

 

Bud Rising; Terence “Bud” Crawford’s tight family has his back as he defends title in his own backyard                                                                                                                                          

Sometimes rocky journey for WBO lightweight champ from Omaha comes full circle

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing this week in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

When Terence “Bud” Crawford defends his WBO lightweight title June 28 at the CenturyLink Center, he’ll fight for himself, his tight-knit family and a boxing community that’s not seen anything like this since 1972.

Forty-two years ago heavyweight champion Joe Frazier came to town to battle local Great White Hope Ron Stander. Omaha was thrilled to host boxing’s ultimate event, but Stander never had more than a puncher’s chance. Predictably, he was outclassed and dismantled.

This is different. Crawford’s the hometown kid who realized his dream of being a world champ by unanimously decisioning Ricky Burns in Scotland March 1. He’s the title holder and Cuban opponent Yuriorkis Gamboa the contender. The champ and challenger enter this HBO main event with identical 23-0 (16 by KO) records. Crawford’s a skilled technician who’s never been dropped or hurt as a pro. By contrast, Stander was a slugger and bleeder who used brute force, not sweet science, in the ring. Though Stander didn’t hit the canvas much, he lost 21 bouts.

Another important difference is that while The Butcher fought in Omaha, he actually hailed from Council Bluffs. Crawford is Omaha through and through. When it was suggested the Bluffs and its casinos host Crawford’s title defense the fighter flatly refused, offended by the very notion he go across the river.

“I’m the type of person if I don’t want to do something I’m not going to do it,” he says. “I’m my own man. If I felt like they weren’t going to bring it to Omaha then we were going to go somewhere else and it wasn’t going to be Council Bluffs.”

Known for representing with trunks that read “Omaha,” he’s fiercely loyal to his Omaha-based boxing and biological families.

“They’re always going to be there for me, win or lose,” he says. “They’ve been with me the whole way.”

His peeps comprise Team Crawford. Most members of his training camp go back more than a decade when he was pegged a ring prodigy. His longtime trainer Midge Minor is like a father. His co-manager Brian “BoMac” McIntyre is one of his best buddies. They jointly opened the B & B Boxing Academy two years ago.

Omaha attorney Hugh Reefe, a former amateur boxer who now dispenses legal advice to the fighter, recalls seeing the young Crawford at the CW Boxing Club, where Bud got his start. The CW is the through-line that connects the champ’s boxing crew.

“Everybody knew who he was because he was different,” Reefe says. “He was outstanding. He really had all the skills. Everybody was talking about him. He just had a buzz around him. He’s got these cobra eyes that give him the peripheral vision to bob and weave but still have you locked in his sights.”

Victory Boxing coach John Determan, whose unbeaten son Johnny is on the June 28 undercard, says, “I’ve known Bud for a long time. The first time I saw him fight was early in his career in Joplin, Missouri. I remember driving home and telling my family ‘he’s going to be a great one.’ He is a true champion and not the type of guy who gets a big head. He’s worked hard for everything he’s done.”

Longtime boxing observer and historian Tom Lovgren says simply, “He’s the best that I’ve seen in Neb. He’s the Real McCoy.”

Crawford’s seemingly been called to his boxing ascension. His mother Debra Crawford says he came out of the womb “with his fists balled up,” as if ready to fight. He’s from a long line of pugilists: his grandfather, father and uncle all fought. Debra says Bud’s father “always said he’s going to be a million dollar baby boy.” Debra, who’s gone a round or two with her headstrong son and knows the difference between a jab and a cross, says, “God gave him a gift.”

Everyone confirms young Bud himself was convinced he was destined for greatness. “He’d always tell me, ‘Mom, I’m going to make it, I’m going to be something. I’m going to be a world champ,” Debra says.

Lots of kids say that, his friend Kevin notes, “but they ain’t got the same dedication as him,” adding, “He’s been after this for years.”

 

 

Crawford for Leo

 Terence “Bud” Crawford

 

 

Now that he’s done it, Reefe says, “It seems a little surreal.” Even Bud’s mom admits, “Sometimes it’s like a dream.” Especially dreamlike given all he’s overcome. Possessing a notorious temper as a youth, the stubborn Crawford had scores of verbal and physical run-ins.

“Bud used to get in trouble in the gym and they used to send him home,” Debra says. Sometimes, he wanted no part of it. “One time, he hid in his room when Midge came by to pick him up. He told me to tell Midge he ain’t home. I went out and told Midge, ‘He’s in here, come and get him.’ Bud said ‘Mom, you’re a snitch.’ Yeah, I had to keep him out of trouble. I’d rather him be in the gym than out in the street.”

Other times, says maternal grandma Velma Jones, sporting a Team Crawford T-shirt, he couldn’t stand to be away from the ring.

“I used to have him ride along with me when I had to go places and he’d be like, ‘I have to get to the gym…’ He loved that gym.”

 

Bud and the guys that comprise the coaching-training crew of Team Crawford

 

Cover Photo
The fighter with his father Terence Crawford and his sisters Latisha (far left) and Shawntay (far right)

Crawford came up in a Hood where street life claims many young men. He avoided the pitfalls but still found trouble. The youngest of three siblings, he sometimes got into scrapes with older, bigger kids and his two sisters would come to his rescue. You fight one Crawford, “you gotta fight us all,” his sister Shawntay says.

Debra recalls, “One day I saw Bud getting beat up by this older boy and I told those two (her daughters), ‘Y’all better get out there and help your brother.” They did and together with Bud dispatched the bully. Bud’s sister Latisha remembers, “The guy came back and apologized that he took that ass whuppin’ ” If any Crawfords ever got beat they’d be the ones apologizing for letting the family down.

Family, friends, coaches all attest to how competitive he is.

His girlfriend Iesha Person, with whom he has two sons, says, “He don’t like to lose at anything – darts, cards, basketball, pool. Everything is a competition with him, everything. He’s very determined to win in everything he does. Like he just learned how to play chess not too long ago and now he’s beating the people that taught him. So I can’t even picture him losing.”

Reefe, who’s been trounced by him in chess, says, “He likes to talk and rub it in, too, when he’s winning.”

 

Bud showing off his world championship belt, ©photo Chris Farina/Top Rank

 

Everyone agrees he’s always had a mouth on him. Insubordinate behavior earned Crawford school suspensions and expulsions. He caused his mom headaches.

“Yes, he did,” she says. “He went to a bunch of schools. He even went to a couple alternative schools. Yeah, he stayed in some trouble. One time he shot up the Edmonson (recreation) center with a BB gun. He was on probation for like three or four years.”

Few expected much of him.

“When he was young I know a lot of people told him, ‘Oh, you ain’t going to be nothing, you’ll probably end up in the penitentiary.’ But like I told him, ‘Don’t let them folks get you down talking about you won’t be nothing, you go ahead and do what you have to do.’ And he kept on with it,” his grandma says.

“I’m very proud of him because I told him he wasn’t going to be shit,” Debra says. “He tells me now, ‘Mom, remember what you said?’ We laugh about it.”

She says things really turned around for him at Bryan High School.

“The principal really helped him. He still keeps in touch with him, too. His teachers are surprised he’s made it this far. They’re proud of him. They didn’t think he was going to be able to make it but he made it.”

Debra marvels her once problem son has “put Omaha on the map as a black young man.” It’s been a journey with some stumbles. He was considered an Olympics prospect but fell out of grace with USA Boxing. He was a favorite to win the National Golden Gloves in Omaha but lost a close decision he felt was payback for his bad boy image.

 

98-12-2 boxer

98-16-25A:26 punching bagThis image and the one above are of a very young Bud at the CW Boxing Club, ©photos courtesy Jim Krantz

 

Early in his pro career he nearly lost his life in a shooting the week of a fight when he joined a dice game that went sour and as he left in a car someone fired a shot that hit his head. He went to the nearest hospital.

Debra recalls getting the news at home.

“I was asleep when my mom woke me up to tell me. ‘Bud just got shot.’ I waited a minute, got up and came downstairs. Then my sister and I went out there. They wouldn’t let me see him. When they finally called me in Bud was sitting on the edge of the bed laughing, saying, ‘I’m still going to fight on Friday.’ I said, ‘No, you’re not, they’ve got to stitch your head up.’ He was lucky because the bullet bounced off his head. The doctor told me, ‘He’s got a hard head.’”

As if the family needed proof.

Bud and everyone around him traces his new-found maturity to that incident and to becoming a father.

“He’s come a long ways,” grandma Jones says.

“He’s more focused,” Kevin says.

“He’s a great father,” says Iesha. “He took care of me and my daughter before we had a son together.”

Bud’s sister Lastisha says she gets emotional thinking about how far Bud’s come.

“I used to have bad dreams and then when he got shot one of the dreams kind of came true. When he went in that ring and won that championship I thought back to how he was when he was little, hot-headed, and just didn’t want to listen to nobody. And to see him now it’s like, Wow, my little brother for real is world champion. I’m like really, really proud of him.”

Velma says some of her grandson’s drive to excel is fueled by the decisions in the ring he feels he was robbed of as an amateur. It’s why as a pro he takes no chances and strives to dominate from start to finish, just as he did against Burns in taking all three judges’ cards.

“After that fight in Scotland he told me he was scared they were going to take some points away from him. He thought they’d use some kind of technicality to make him lose the fight. But he come on through. He showed ‘em y’all cant do no stealing from me, not tonight.’”

Co-manager BoMac says Crawford feeds off “always being the underdog and always having something against him – that lights his fire and makes him train harder.”

Bud’s boisterous family will be out in force come fight night just as they were in Glasgow. Only this time the Crawford contingent will be much larger, with relatives coming from both coasts and lots of points in between. He welcomes their presence, no matter their size.

“It’s not going to be a distraction or anything,” he says. “They’re there any other fight, so it’s just another day in the gym for me. When I was in Scotland…Dallas…Orlando…Vegas, they were there with me, so you know I’m used to having them cheering me on and not letting them interfere with what I’ve got to do in the ring. You’ve got to keep your mind focused on the task at hand.”

 

 

Bud training in Colorado Springs

 

Per his custom, he trained in Colorado Springs several weeks before returning June 22. Back home he’s fine-tuned his body and mind.

“I just chill and visualize what I’m going to do in there and then just go ahead and do it. You’ve got to see it to be able to do it. When I put my mind to it, it’s already done.”

Iesha, who saw him training six-plus hours a day in Colo., admires
that “he puts so much work into it.” “Hard work and dedication” has gotten him this far and he isn’t about to slack off now, Latishsa says.

Crawford’s unsure whether Omaha will ever fully embrace him as its champion. His family’s glad he’s getting his due after years toiling in obscurity. The Gamboa fight will be his first as a pro in his hometown.

“He’s finally getting noticed,” Debra says, adding people claiming to be cousins have been coming out of the woodwork since winning the title.

Hugh Reefe is impressed by how success, fame and big paydays have not changed Crawford’s lifestyle.

“He’s a pretty simple guy and I like that he’s kept everything the same. He’s handling it really well, he’s got really good instincts, He’s intuitive. He’s always concerned and thoughtful about how things affect his family.”

Those closest to him sense that after waiting so long for this stage he’s going to put on a show.

Iesha says, “I know he’s not giving up that belt.”

Everyone agrees Gamboa may regret saying at the press conference Bud hasn’t fought the caliber of fighters he has. Latisha says as soon as he uttered those words Bud vowed, “I’m going to kick your butt.”

Debra and her daughters predict Bud winning by knockout. “I pick the 6th round because Bud likes to figure him out. If Gamboa hits Bud, Bud’s going to angry and it’s going to be all over,” she says.

God forbid it comes down to a controversial decision that goes against Bud. “He’d probably go nuts if he feel he got cheated,” Latisha says.
“But he ain’t got to worry about that,” Shawntay says, “because he ain’t going to lose. We got this.”

Latisha can see he’s ready for Saturday. “I know when he’s serious, he’s got the eye of the tiger. There’s just something about his eyes that you just know that he’s about to go handle it.”

Reefe, who drove Iesha and the kids to see Bud in Colo., saw a fighter in peak condition. “I realized I was watching a world-class athlete. He was getting getting it on in a workmanlike, no-nonsense manner, going from one workout to the next, station to station, not being lazy about anything. He was in charge.”

BoMac confirms that Crawford “just looks at it like he’s got a job to go do,” adding, “He’s like, ‘Let me do my job, everyone else do their job, let’s go about our business and let’s go home.” He says Crawford’s “will and determination” separate him from the pack.

 

Bud at the press conference for the Gamboa fight, ©www.fightnews.com

 

That intensity is often masked by his laidback demeanor. “He likes to joke and play around, wrestle, he’s a kid, you know,” Reefe says. “He’s always been like that,” says Debra, fingering a stack of title fight posters. “He’s so easygoing you wouldn’t believe he’s got a big fight coming up,” adds grandma. Shawntay points out, “He don’t ever talk about the fight, he just goes in there and fights.”

As for the fighter himself, he’s using any real or perceived slight – from Gamboa’s words to what he sees as a lack of local corporate sponsors to the Bluffs controversy – as motivation to leave no doubts June 28.

“I’m still hungry to get better and to prove to the world that I belong here. This is just a stepping stone.”

The Crawford-Gamboa fight can be seen live on HBO Boxing After Dark starting at 9 p.m. (CST).

For tickets to the fight, visit http://www.ticketmaster.com.

 

Bud posing with Gamboa and Top Rank’s Bob Arum at the press conference, ©www.fightnews.com

UNO resident folk hero Dana Elsasser’s softball run coming to an end: Hard-throwing pitcher to leave legacy of overcoming obstacles

April 28, 2014 Leave a comment

No sooner did my profile of University of Nebraska at Omaha softball ace Dana Elsasser get posted and published than she went out and threw three straight shutouts, including a no-hitter, and she’ll go for a fourth in her final home appearance on Wednesday, April 30. Her great run as a collegiate pitcher is fast coming to an end and one has to wonder what might have been if UNO has remained Division II instead of transitioning to Division I during her career.  To what heights might she had lead the Mavericks?  The transition cost her and her teammates any chance to play in the postseason.  The move also made it difficult for UNO to schedule a full slate of regular season games.  All of that meant she made many fewer appearances than she would have otherwise.  On top of that, upon entering the program she largely had to sit her freshman year behind two returning All-America pitchers.  That cost her even more chances.  If she’d had those added opportunities her career stats, which are outstanding as is, would be even more impressive.  But that’s all beside the point because what makes her folk hero in my mind is how she seemingly came out of nowhere to become the face of a storied program and how she made herself into a great player despire all kinds of challenges that’s she never looked at as obstacles.

 

 

 

UNO resident folk hero Dana Elsasser’s softball run coming to an end

Hard-throwing pitcher to leave legacy of overcoming obstacles

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The University of Nebraska at Omaha has a veritable folk-hero in its midst in hard-throwing senior softball ace Dana Elsasser, who’s overcame serious challenges to become a pitching phenom. With her near legendary career fast nearing its end, fans have only a few chances left to catch her in action.

In her No. 1 pitcher role she’ill get the ball at least twice in this weekend’s (April 25-26) three-game home series against Summit League foe IUPUI. She enters the circle for the final time at home versus Drake on April 30. UNO, with an RPI in the 60s, concludes its season May 2-3 at Western Illinois. The team’s guaranteed to finish with a winning record and Elsasser should climb UNO’s career pitching charts.

Entering Tuesday’s doubleheader versus North Dakota she was 21-7 on the year and 65-24 in her career with a lifetime ERA of 1.44.

Though soon exhausting her eligibility, her legend’s sure to grow as a foundational figure in UNO’s transition from Division II to D-I.

Her departure’s coming too soon for head coach Jeanne Scarpello. She’s been enamored with Elsasser’s ability and character since first laying eyes on her in 2010.

“From day one you could tell she’s a different kid – just the drive and what she wanted to do and what she wanted to be. She’s never going to back down from a challenge. She gives 100 percent and expects the rest of us to do the same. She pushes us to be better.”

Scarpello’s admiration only grew upon learning the obstacles Elsasser faced en route to becoming a winner.

“She does have quite a story,” the coach says.

Born “a premie” in San Antonio, Texas to a teenage mother, Dana started life in foster care. After raising kids of their own Rick and Barb Elsasser of Hershey, Neb. were looking to adopt and the white couple got matched with Dana, an African-American, when she was a week old. She became the only black resident of Hershey until the Elsassers adopted more children of color.

Dana was an athletic prodigy, proving a natural at seemingly whatever she tried, including softball, basketball, volleyball and track.

“Dana’s balance, hand-eye coordination and kinesthetic sense have always been exceptional,” says her father, a principal and coach who worked with her on her fundamentals. especially her pitching mechanics. “Every time she was shown a new skill she would master it quickly. She has always hated to lose but she used to become discouraged easily when her team was behind and that affected her play. Experience in athletics has given her the tenacity to fight through disappointment. Her UNO coaches deserve a great deal of credit for instilling a fierce competitive spirit.”

 

 

 

 

Just as she was turning heads athletically as a teen she developed scoliosis, a severe curvature of the spine. She underwent fusion surgery at the Mayo Clinic. Pieces of her hip bone were fused to her spine with “rods, nuts and bolts to keep everything intact,” Dana says.

“The scoliosis thing was scary. Dana faced it all with great courage and determination,” Rick says.

Once cleared to resume athletics she and her dad left the hospital and drove around until they found a ball diamond and began playing catch.

“I was a little scared I wouldn’t be able to pitch again but I recovered relatively quickly from the back thing and it just gave me fuel to get stronger because I had to work two times as hard to get where other people were. I just did as much as I could. I ran a lot, I did sprints. I was in the weight room. I got really strong. I think strengthening my body is what helped me be prepared for college,” says Dana, who’s known to workout on game days and on off days following games.

“I feel I need to do to get in the mood of It’s go time. Otherwise, I feel tired and sluggish and just not ready to go.”

After opting to specialize in softball her pitching took off under her dad’s tutelage. Her high school didn’t field a team, She made a name for herself out west playing summers with the North Platte Sensations.

Typical of the upbeat Elsasser, she takes in stride everything that’s been put in front of her.

“Honestly, when I was growing up I really didn’t see much of the adversity I overcame as a disadvantage. I haven’t thought of it as things that set me back. When I tell people my story they’re like, ‘Wasn’t it weird being the only black person in town?’ I never thought of it like that. My parents did a really good job of just making things normal for me.”

Rick Elsasser says Dana has an innate sbility to adapt and persevere.

“Dana has always had tremendous resolve. I remember when she was about 5 or 6 years old, I spent about 15 minutes showing her how to shoot a basketball and then left her to practice. I went back outside about two hours later and found her still shooting. I had to make her stop and eat.”

Scarpello long ago gave up trying to get Elsasser to ease off. The coach still smiles at nearly missing on this model student-athlete who outworks everyone. After all, Dana was a-best-kept secret in the sticks, where her exploits four-hours away fell on deaf ears here.

Scarpello first heard of her via a letter Dana wrote her while a senior in high school. Dana mentioned she was (then) 5-foot-4 and threw 65. Scarpello didn’t buy it. She’d never heard of someone so short throwing so hard. It took corroboration from two coaches before she decided to see this little dynamo for herself.

Scarpello and pitching coach Cory Petermann drove to Hastings expecting to see Elsasser pitch in a game only to have it forfeited when the opposing club didn’t show. The coaches had Dana warm up with her father for a private audition. Rick had caught his daughter countless times in the yard of their home sitting on a bucket as she threw from a make-do mound. This was different. The stakes were higher, though that didn’t register with Dana until reminded of it.

“I was really nervous but actually I don’t think I even realized how important it was when they were watching me – that if I do good I’m going to have college paid for,” Dana says. “When I started out I wasn’t throwing my hardest. My dad told me, ‘Get it together, this is your time right here to do it.” Then I knew it was a big deal.’”

With a radar gun trained on her she consistently clocked 65 and Scarpello had seen enough to be convinced.

Rising to the occasion is something Scarpello and Co. have come to rely on from Elsasser, who acknowledges she thrives in such situations.

“I like it when I’m in pressure spots and everyone is looking to me. I just like how my team puts their trust in me and it just motivates me to do better. I like being in charge in that moment.”

 

 

 

 

Five years since discovering her, Elsasser will leave UNO as one of the storied program’s best pitchers. She’s proven herself against elite competition despite being lightly recruited and not looking the part of a mound master with her lithe frame and diminutive stature. Her long limbs, strong core and compact delivery allow her to average 68 miles an hour on her “go-to” pitch, the drop-ball. She’s hit 70. Her effortless appearing motion, honed over thousands of hours, makes it appear she’s not throwing as hard as she is.

Armed with her heater, a change-up and a rise-ball, plus pin-point control, she has enough stuff to hold her own with the best.

“She is a go-right-at-you kind of kid. She’s not a strikeout pitcher, though she’s getting a lot more strike outs this year, but she really just lets batters put the ball in play and lets the defense work behind her,” Scarpello says. “And she’s a great defender as a pitcher.”

Last year Elsasser one-hit perennial Big 12 power Oklahoma State iand three weeks ago she beat Big 10 heavyweight and in-state rival Nebraska 3-2 in Lincoln. She calls the victory over NU “the greatest moment I’ve ever had.” The win followed UNO coming up short against the Huskers several times and redeemed a 10-0 drubbing at their hands earlier this year that Elsasser blamed on herself.

“I means everything to me. I got that win for my dad. That was our goal when I made my commitment to UNO – beat the Huskers. I told myself I’m not going to let them make a fool of me on the mound again.”

Per usual, her folks were there to cheer her on and as always she heard her dad’s voice above everyone else.

“I could him during that game yelling at me from the stands. I looked up there and I saw him jumping around. It was really emotional.”

Scarpello says Elsasser has shown she “can play with the big dogs,” adding, “She could be playing at any of those programs.”

Elsasser says she and her teammates are often underestimated and use their underdog status as fuel to prove they belong.

“We always hear, ‘Who’s this Omaha team that keeps winning? Who are these people?’ But we know we’re capable of getting it done.”

Overturning doubters seems hard-wired in Elsasser.

She would have been UNO’s ace as a true freshman if not for two returning All-America pitchers. She made the most of her limited opportunities, going 10-1. Her pitching mates got most of the starts based on experience, not talent. She also struggled with illegal pitches due to a habit of lifting her foot off the mound during her delivery. She corrected the problem over the summer and prior to the following season Scarpello handed her “the torch to carry the program.” Elsasser ran with it to become “our identity” but she first had to make a tough decision. UNO went D-I, initiating a transition period that made it ineligible for the postseason. Scarpello gave her players permission to transfer and she feared Elsasser might move on.

“She knew she would not to get to play for championships and that’s what she came here to do,” Scarpello says, “and I knew that bothered her because she wanted to make a mark. We’ve tried in various ways to give her some great opportunities, to challenge her, so she could make her mark and have no regrets she stayed here. Those games against top teams have become a measuring stick for her and for us.”

Elsasser’s sure of her legacy as a program builder but she can’t imagine life without softball.

“What I’m going to miss the most is the relationships and being in the circle. The field feels like home to me. If I come to practice in a bad mood I always leave in a good mood. These girls are my best friends, we do everything together. We’re just like a big family. It’s kind of unsettling to know I won’t have that type of bond and closeness I’ve been used to every day for four years.”

Everyone says she’d make a great coach. “She’s a real student of the game,” says Scarpello, adding, “I’d hire her in a heartbeat.”

“Coaching could be my career,” says Elsasser. She”ll be coaching a younger sister this summer who’s showing great promise as, you guessed it, a pitcher. Clearly, this legacy has legs.

Nebraska’s Changing Face; UNO’s Changing Face

March 18, 2014 Leave a comment

I wrote the following  feature and sidebar exploring some trends about the changing face of Neb. and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, my alma mater.  Slowly but surely the state and some of its institutions are becoming more diverse.  Some of the changes can be readily seen already, others not so much, but in a few decades they will be more obvious.   It’s a healthy thing that’s happening, though diversity is still taking far too long to be fully felt and lived and embraced in all quarters, but that’s for another story.

 

 

 

 

Nebraska’s Changing Face

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Nebraska’s “Plain Jane” sameness has long extended to its racial makeup. Diversity hasn’t held much truck here. Even when the foreign-born population was at its peak in the state’s first half century, the newcomers were predominantly of European ancestry.

An African-American migration from the Deep South to Omaha in the early 1900s established the city’s black base. Until a new immigration wave in the 1990s brought an influx of Africans and Latinos-Hispanics to greater Neb., the composite face of this Great Plains state was decidedly monotone.

The perception of Flyover Country as a bastion of white farmers has never been completely accurate. The state’s two largest metropolitan areas, for example, have always boasted some heterogeneity. Urban areas like Omaha and urban institutions such as the University of Nebraska at Omaha express more racial-ethnic diversity because of longstanding minority settlement patterns and the university drawing heavily from the metro.

But it is true Neb.’s minority population has always been among the nation’s smallest, which only supported the stereotype.

Finally, though, its minority numbers are going up and its diversity broadening.

Still, if Nebraskans posed for a group portrait as recently as 1980 more than 9 of every 10 would have beeb white. Only 6 percent identified as African-Americans, Latino-Hispanics, Native Americans or Asians.

The lack of diversity extended virtually everywhere. The largest minority group then, blacks, was highly concentrated in Omaha. Despite slow, steady gains blacks still account for only 13 percent of the city’s population and 4 percent of the state’s population.

But as recently announced by UNO researchers, Neb. is changing and with it the face of the state. A group picture taken today would reveal a noticeable difference compared to a quarter century ago, with whites now accounting for 8 of every 10 residents. Indeed, the state’s minority population has more than doubled the past four decades, with by far the largest increase among Latinos-Hispanics, who now comprise the largest minority segment. Latinos-Hispanics are on a linear growth trajectory. They tend to be young and their women of childbearing age.

Minority growth has been even greater in select communities, such as Lexington, where meat processing attracted newcomers.

Celebrated native son filmmaker Alexander Payne’s new movie “Nebraska” – set and shot primarily in the northeast part of the state – accurately portrays a slice of Neb.’s past and present through a large ensemble of characters, all of whom but two are white. The exceptions are both Hispanic. The Oscar-winning writer-director may next make a partly Spanish-language feature about the impact of the immigrant population on Neb.’s towns and cities.

New UNO Center for Public Affairs Research projections posit that by 2050 the state’s portrait will dramatically change as a result of major demographic trends well under way. Within four decades minorities will account for about 40 percent of the entire population. Nearly a quarter of the projected 2050 population of 2.2 million, or some 500,000, will be Latino-Hispanic.

It’s a sea change for a state whose diversity was traditionally confined to a few enclaves of color. Immigration, migration and natural causes are driving this new minority surge.

Everything is relative though. So while CPAR Research Coordinator David Drzod says, “Our diversity will increase,” he adds, “Neb. is one of the less diverse places countrywide and other states are going to become more diverse as well.”

Still, the snapshot of Neb. is changing due to real demographic shifts with significant longterm consequences. Just as the majority white base is holding static or declining, non-whites are proliferating. The results can be seen in the ever more diverse profiles of some communities, neighborhoods, schools and other settings.

Thus, for the first time in Neb. diversity is becoming more lived reality than aspirational goal.

Economic conditions were the main driver for the sharp rise in Latinos-Hispanics migrating here. Plentiful jobs, a low cost of living, coupled with aggressive industry recruitment, lured people to move here from places with comparatively weak economies, high cost of living and job shortages. Neb. grew its Latino-Hispanic base from points of origin in California, Texas. Mexico, Central America and South America, The state also saw its African and Asian populations increase as refugees from Sudan and Bhutan, for example, resettled here.

Drozd says, “People are not coming as directly for new jobs like in the ’90s when the meat processors were expanding and recruiting. We expect to see some regional migration that Neb. has typically seen from smaller locations to more urban locations that tend to have a diverse pool of job opportunities within various industries.”

While migration has slowed from its peak waves it’s expected to continue in fits and starts. Migration, researchers agree is “a wildcard” that can’t be accurately forecast, but Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Research Associate Lissette Aliaga Linares notes an uptick in Latinos-Hispanics from Arizona, which OLLAS Director Lourdes Gouvia attributes to that state’s anti-immigrant policies.

Drozd says Neb.’s minority experience is consistent with some surrounding states and inconsistent with others.

“We are typical of the Great Plains in that we tend to suffer from outmigration especially of young college-aged whites, which is counteracted by in-migration and increase in the minority population groups. On the other hand Neb. is unique in that we are growing faster in some of our metropolitan areas and not holding our population as well as some of the more rural areas.”

 

 

 

 

 

The emergence of more minorities is perhaps most visible in urban inner city public schools, where student enrollment naturally reflects the heavily minority communities these schools serve. Minority enrollment in the Omaha Public Schools stands at 68 percent.

“The diversity of UNO will continue to grow and one only has to look at the demographics in the metro area to understand that traditional middle school and high school students will increasingly be students of color,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed.

Some outstate school districts are now majority Latino-Hispanic.

The impact of diversity in this small population state that suffers from brain drain cannot be overstated.

“There’s a large part of Neb. that would be having population decline if it were not for minority growth,” says Drozd. “There’s all sorts of implications with respect to aging, the workforce, health care, education. From a gerontology standpoint you have the possibility of seeing a younger, more diverse working-age population caring for a predominantly white non-Hispanic aging population and will there be any issues associated there. With programs like Social Security you’re going to be relying more and more on an immigrant population to support payments for predominantly white people collecting from the program. So there are potentials for tension there and of course political ramifications and all sorts of factors.”

Gouveia, a sociology professor, reminds that “Latinos are going to imitate some trends of the larger population the more urban and educated they become,” adding. “The more women are able to work outside the home fertility rates will drop and the population will begin to age. It’s the life cycle.”

As minorities grow they become a larger sector of the tax and voting base that elected officials and prospective candidates must recognize.

Drozd says communities must adapt, whether offering English-as-a-Second Language programs or multicultural competency classes, in order to best serve minorities and their particular needs.

As more minorities graduate high school educators and employers hope that many of these college-bound grads and working-age young adults will attend school and find jobs in-state.

“As people have become upwardly mobile in Neb.’s past that has led to outmigration out of the state,” says Drozd. “It’s going to be a very policy relevant factor because people born in the early ’90s are now hitting age 18. Even if they choose a Neb. college where are they going to go to work? Will there be jobs and associated positions for them here in the state or will they go out of state?”

Just as preparing students to succeed in school is critical, so is preparing a workforce for today’s service and skilled jobs.

“Let’s make no mistake about this, without immigration Nebraskans may have to rethink how they are going to have a viable economy that produces not only jobs but payrolls that produce taxes from which an aging population will benefit greatly,” says Gouveia. “Without this population there won’t be services this Boomer population and this aspiring mini-global city of Omaha depends on. These are increasingly service economies and that means it’s very important for the economy to increasingly be based on higher pay jobs likely to grow, such as information technology or biotechnology.

“That also means educational institutions need to be able to truly know how to train this generation of children of immigrants. The children may not be immigrants themselves but a large number have immigrant parents who endured very poor, disadvantageous conditions that tend to disadvantage the educational achievement of their children. We have to have multidimensional. multidisciplinary perspectives to understand who this population is. And that goes to our research also.”

She believes minorities will succeed to the extent opportunities allow.

“We haven’t addressed the serious barriers to education that would guarantee that new face of America and of Neb. becomes a face with equal opportunities to participate in the prosperity all of us will want to share.” She says if barriers to upward mobility aren’t removed “it may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that’s been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population were it not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and future.”

 

 

 

 

Daniel J. Shipp, UNO associate vice chancellor for student affairs, says schools must find ways to support minority students.

“When combined with the typical struggles of new college students the demographics of race-ethnicity will create even more difficult challenges in both access to and success in college. Not only must we continue to open our doors wider to traditionally under-served student populations but once on campus it is critical for all of us to see their success as a top institutional and community priority.”

UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs Pelema Morrice urges educators and employers to appreciate diversity’s many forms.

“We always focus on racial-ethnic diversity but I think intellectual diversity, geographic diversity, cultural diversity, all those different forms of diversity, really add a lot of value to everyone’s experience. There’s plenty of evidence that the more diverse environment we’re in the more we all have opportunities to learn from each other.

“So I think it’s incredibly important for an institution to be a welcoming and diverse environment where folks can learn from each other at a higher level. I think that adds to the educational experience and it provides students with really good training to go out and be productive citizens and to be successful in the workplace.”

Diversity is also the way of this flatter, interconnected world.

Reed from UNO’s Academic and Student Affairs office, says “Our students will grow up in a much more global environment requiring exposure to difference cultures and different experiences.”

Where diversity often must be programmed, Gouveia is heartened by students’ inherent embrace of it. “About this new Neb. mosaic, one thing I’m particularly hopeful about is the younger generation. I love our new students. From any background they are so much more prepared and so much more ahead of where we are as professors or department chairs or deans in terms of knowing how to do diversity. We are the ones who are often behind them.”

As Neb. becomes more multi-hued, UNO’s Morrice says representative stakeholders should discuss what diversity holds for the state.

“With these new demographics coming forward it means our student base will obviously be more diverse than it is now and that means the outcomes will be more diverse and so we’ll see more diverse workplaces and communities within the state. We’re just a piece of that puzzle but I think it’s a good collective conversation for everyone to have as the state continues to grow and it becomes clear that there will be different faces at the table.”

 

 

 

 

UNO’s Changing Face

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

The same demographic trends on pace to make the United States a minority majority population by 2050 and making Neb. a more racially-ethnically diverse place in the second decade of the new millennium, are increasingly being expressed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Roughly a quarter of UNO’s 2013-2014 freshman class is minority and just under 20 percent of the school’s entire undergraduate enrollment is minority. Both are record marks for the school. In 2000, for example, UNO’s minority enrollment stood at 9 percent. The minority numbers are even greater among graduate students.

The 11 percent rise in UNO minority enrollment from 2000 until now reflects in large measure the Latino-Hispanic boom that happened in-state from 1980 to 2010, when that segment increased from about 37,000 to 167,000. The Latino-Hispanic population is expected to add another 370,000 residents by 2050, according to UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research.

As a public institution with a state-wide reach, UNO’s a model for the changing face of Neb. Drawing principally from the Omaha metropolitan area, which as the state’s largest urban center has always been Neb.’s most racially-ethnically diverse spot, UNO is, as expected, one of the most diverse campuses in the University of Nebraska system.

At the University of Nebraska-Kearney minority undergraduate enrollment has nearly doubled since 1995. Today, nearly a quarter of its students are non-white or non-resident alien. Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reports the most diverse student body in its history. UNL’s  2,328 minority undergrads are about 12 percent of the undergraduate total, a 9 percent increase just from last year. Just as at UNO, the largest minority gains at each school are in the Latino-Hispanic and international students categories,

 

 

 

 

As minorities comprise a growing segment of the state’s mainstream and of its public schools’ enrollment, institutions are tasked with incorporating these populations and responding to their needs.

“The good news for Omaha is that UNO has a proud tradition of supporting minority students through various educational equity and learning community investments such as Goodrich, Project Achieve and the newer Thompson Learning Community,” says UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Daniel J. Shipp. “These programs provide student participants with a network of caring and concerned faculty, staff and peer mentors that help students to succeed and thrive in college. Moving forward, I expect we will continue to build on our national reputation for attracting and supporting the growing numbers of minority students and their families in the Omaha area and beyond.”

“Minority students are an important population but they are only one of an increasing mosaic of diversity at UNO, whether they are military, first generation, students of color or adult learners or transfer students,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed. “We are working every day to ensure that these students feel welcome at UNO and have the type of support services and environment that will make them want to be want to be here and to be successful. We do this for all our special populations of students. We have programs and learning communities as well as staff specifically directed at helping ease their transition to UNO and success in their academic goals.”

Reed says hiring faculty and staff who reflect the changing face of UNO “is a top priority,” adding, “We have made important strides in diversifying our staff but we lag behind where we want to be here and also with recruiting and retaining a more diverse faculty. We are working on reviewing existing policies and procedures and looking at incentives and support efforts to increase the diversity of faculty and staff to reflect the changing demographics of our student body.”

There’s wide agreement that diversity is a net sum experience for all involved.

“The benefits are substantial,” Reed says. “The workplace is becoming increasingly diverse and employers need and want an increasingly diverse group of employees. We cannot underestimate the shift occurring here. We need to provide a strong educational workforce for employers and UNO must be positioned to do that effectively.”

 

 

 

 

Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Director and Sociology Professor Lourdes Gouveia agrees that educators at UNO and elsewhere must increasingly consider diversity and its impact.

“We have to educate our professionals and student populations in ways that allow them to be skilled about global issues and diversity and to have multicultural competencies as the world is very connected,” she says. “But also we need to address structural barriers that may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that has been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population if not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and a future.”

Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald; Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego

March 12, 2014 1 comment

 

 

Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald

Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Ella, the dramatic musical revue of the life of American songbook diva Ella Fitzgerald at the Omaha Community Playhouse, reveals the anguish behind the legendary performer’s sweet voice and carefree persona.

Call it kismet or karma, but the woman portraying her is veteran Omaha chanteuse Kathy Tyree, whose ebullient, easy-going public face has similarly disguised her own torment.

The high points surely outweigh the low points in their respective lives but Tyree’s experienced, much as Ella did, her share of failed relationships, including two divorces, and myriad financial struggles.

“I’m in a much better place now,” Tyree says.

Known for her bright spirit and giving heart, Tyree’s usually worked a regular job to support her and her son. Currently, she’s program manager at Omaha Healthy Start. A few years ago she used all her savings and 401K to launch her own production company and after a rousing start one bad show broke the business.

The enigmatic Fitzgerald died in 1996 at age 79 with few outside her inner circle knowing her private travails because her handlers sanitized her regal image as the First Lady of Song.

As Tyree researched Fitzgerald’s life for the role, which director Susie Baer Collins offered without an audition, she identified with what Ella did to separate, if not always reconcile, her private and public sides.

“She was very weak and very strong at the same time,” Tyree says of Ella. “She had all these secrets and these hurts, all this internal pain, but she always held it together. She was at the top, she was international, she was the goddess of scat.”

Fitzgerald was respected for her dignified demeanor, the purity of her well-modulated voice and her perfect elocution, though some criticized her for being too precise, too pristine, too white. All of it helped to popularize jazz.

Tyree says the adoration that flowed Ella’s way was due to her talent but also to “how she carried herself as a black woman,” adding, “She wasn’t Lady Day (Billie Holiday), she wasn’t drinking and popping pills and going through all these changes publicly. That takes a lot.”

Before getting the role Tyree was lukewarm about the singer. Her favorite female artists were Diana Ross, Patti Labelle and Cher. After months listening to the Ella canon, Tyree says ,”I have a completely different appreciation for her. Now I am a fan. This woman was a walking instrument. She could do just amazing things with her voice.”

 

 

 

 

Because the script peels back the layers of myth around Fitzgerald’s antiseptic image, Tyree now feels connected to the real woman behind the silky voice and prim and proper mask

“There’s so much more to her than was allowed to be shared with the world. She definitely has a story, she definitely was singing from a place of pain. In rehearsals I began seeing a lot of the parallels between us.”

Both grew up fatherless and both lost a sister. By their mid-teens both were mixed up in the wrong crowd. Just as performing saved Fitzgerald, it gave the “rebellious” Tyree a purpose and discipline she’d lacked. She began singing in church, at Morningstar Baptist, where she still attends today, and at Omaha Technical High School. Outside of her faith, performing is Tyree’s spiritual sanctuary.

“For me theater and music are my therapy but from everything I’ve learned about Ella it was more like her drug. For me it takes me to another place and it gives me a peace and a calm. I leave everything outside. It’s like this is a whole other world.”

Just as performing helped Tyree cope with insecurities, she guesses it did so for Ella, whose character in the show says, “I’m always OK when I’m on the stage. When I’m not working, I turn off, I get lost.”

Tyree’s usual reticence about her own turmoil isn’t to protect a well-manufactured facade, but a personal credo she inherited.

“I shared with Susie (Baer Collins) in a read-through that in my family we have a rule – you never look like what you’re going through. Though I’ve been through a lot, I’ve had a lot of heartbreak and heartache, I never look like what I’m going through, and that was Ella.

“It’s a pride thing. I was raised by strong black women. These women had to work hard. Nobody had time for that crying and whining stuff.

It was, ‘Straighten your face up, get yourself together, keep it moving.’”

She says what she doesn’t like about Ella is “the very same thing I don’t like in myself,” adding, “Ella didn’t have enough respect for herself to know what she deserved. She didn’t have those examples, she didn’t have a father. People always say little boys need their fathers, well little girls need their fathers. too. They need somebody to tell them they’re beautiful. They deserve somebody in their life that isn’t going to abuse them. When you don’t have that you find yourself hittin’ and missin’, trying to figure it out, searching for that acceptance and that love. That’s very much our shared story.”

That potent back story infuses Tyree’s deeply felt interpretations of  Fitzgerald standards. Tyree’s singing doesn’t really sound anything like her stage alter ego but she does capture her heart and soul.

 

 

 

 

Tyree, a natural wailer, has found crooning ballad and scat-styles to conjure the spirit of Ella. Tyree makes up for no formal training and the inability to read music with perfect pitch and a highly adaptable voice.

“My voice is very versatile and my range is off the charts,” Tyree says matter-of-factly. “I can sing pretty much anything you put in front of me because it’s all in my ear. I’ve been blessed because they (music directors) can play it one time and I get it.”

She considers herself a singer first and an actress second, but in Ella she does both. She overcame initial doubts about the thick book she had to learn for the part.

“It’s a lot of lines and a lot of acting and a lot of transitions because I’m narrating her life from 15 years-old to 50.

But after months of rehearsal Tyree’s doing what she feels anointed to do in a space where she’s most at home.

“This is where I get to be lost and do what I do best, this is where I don’t miss. I think it’s because it’s coming from a sincere place. My number one goal is that everybody in the audience leaves blessed. I want to pour something out of me into them. I want ‘em to leave on a high. It’s not about me when I’m on stage. This is God-given and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it to deliver.”

This popular performer with a deep list of musical theater credits (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Beehive) feels she’s inhabiting the role of a lifetime and one that may finally motivate her to stretch herself outside Omaha.

“I’m still like blown away they asked me to come do this show. I still have goals and dreams and things I want to do. As you go through your journey in life there’s things that hinder those goals and dreams and they cause you to second guess and doubt yourself – that maybe I don’t have what it takes. I’m hoping this will instill in me the courage to just go for it and start knocking on some of those doors.”

Ella continues through March 30. For times and tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunity playhouse.com.

Color-blind love: Five interracial couples share their stories

February 6, 2014 3 comments

If you’ve noticed I write a lot about race, you’re right.  That is to say I do revisit the subject in various ways in assorted stories, though truthfully race makes up a very small percentage of what I write about.  But there are reasons why I keep returning to the topic and some of them are very personal to me.  The following  cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about interracial relationships will appear in that newspaper’s Valentine’s issue.  Why interracial relationships?  Well, I’ve been in three in a 14-year period.  Each with an African-American woman.  The first of these was of long duration, 12-plus years.  She died in October 2012.  The next was of very short duration.  The most recent is with my girlfriend of six months.  We intend to get married one day.  My interest in dating interracially can be traced in part to my growing up experience.  I was raised in a northeast Omaha neighborhood that was almost entirely white until I was 10 or 12.  I was born in 1958 and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that blacks could get homes as far “west” as 42nd Street in North Omaha because of restrictive covenants and red lining tactics.  We lived at 42nd and Maple.  As the landmark TV series All in the Family became a sensation in the very early 1970s my older brothers and I used to joke that our father was our family’s own Archie Bunker.  It was an exaggeration to call him that but he definitely had some bigoted attitudes.  For proof that God has a sense of humor the first black family on the block moved on one side of us, the second black family on the block moved on the other side of us, and for good measure a single black woman moved across the street.  My father and mother got along famously with our black neighbors.  My brothers were too old to be playmates or friends with the black neighbor kids but I wasn’t and so I spent a fair amount of time over their homes as they did over my home playing Army Man, ping pong, pool, and just exploring the neighborhood.  My folks and the black adults next door to us and the black woman across from us enjoyed amiable, cordial, even warm relationships.  While this was playing out on my home turf I had a very different experience when visiting my Italian-American and Polish-American relatives in South Omaha.  Many of them said racist things, freely using the “n” word and criticizing my parents for staying put as our neighborhood became increasingly integrated and within a few years predominantly black.  My uncles and aunts said things like, “How can you live with those people?  Why don’t you move?”  But my folks didn’t feel right joining the white flight bandwagon.  My mom actually worried about the message that would send to our black neighbors, who by the late ’70s were all around us.

By the time I became a journalist in the mid to late 1980s I had personally observed the transformation of my neighborhood from virtually all-white to nearly all-black.  I would remain in that neighborhood, in the house I grew up in, until 2005, my parents having long since moved out.  I saw a lot of things play out in The Hood that gave me a certain appreciation for and understanding of African-American life from a social justice, sociological, cultural, anthropological perspective.  By the mid 1990s I had begun interviewing and profiling African-Americans and reporting on black subjects, past and present, and that work began giving me additional perspective.  I’ve filed a few hundred stories by now related to various aspects of black culture.  It doesn’t make me an expert, but I am an interested and careful observer and I hope my work synthesises some of the complex history, issues, and context that inform these subjects.  My work in this area led me to develop many sources, acquaintances, and friends among blacks, male and female, young and old, from all walks of life.  I’ve long admired black women and I’ve found many attractive but I never acted on that interest or impulse until I was 42.  My first interracial dating experience ended up being a long-term committed relationship with a wonderful woman named Joslen whom I met at the same American Red Cross job we worked.  Twelve-plus years with her afforded me my most intimate window yet into Black America.  She passed away far too young at age 53.  I’m still very close with her family.  The next relationship only lasted four months but it gave me an intense immersion into the life of a talented singer, devout Christian, and outstanding mother.  Her name was Carole.  My current relationship, though only six months old, is quite serious and shows every indication of being for keeps.  Pam is a writer, photographer, mixed media artist, and community activist-advocate with a strong faith life.   She’s the mother of two adult children.  Through her I’m obviously getting a whole new exposure to the  journey of a woman who happens to be black and it’s only enriching me even more.  Of course, in the vast majority of my time spent with these partners race didn’t-doesn’t enter the picture.  We engaged-engage as a couple, as man and woman, as distinct personalities with both shared and divergent interests, not as racial tokens or archetypes.

Though the following story is not about me or my interracial datiing history, my background with regards to intermixing inevitably, inescapably infuses what I write and how I write about it.  I did quite intentionally choose to make black-white couples the focus of my piece because that has been my own lived experience in relationships these past 14 years.  Besides, the black-white dynamic is the core racial dynamic in America and I feel at least that any examination of racial relations, and in this case racial mixing, needs to begin and end there, even though I fully recognize there are many other interracial pairings beyond this that could very well and should be examined.  But I’m just one writer and this is just one story.  I chose to write this article because it’s closest to my heart and head.  Someone else will have to write that other story.

 

 

 

 

 

Color-blind love: Five interracial couples share their stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Two bodies in the mirror:
one’s me, the other’s you,
with two far different cultures
some say will bring just strife.
A DIFFERENT SHADE OF LOVING,
a different color of life.

Valentine’s Day is a reminder that though love comes naturally, it’s not without obstacles.

Given America’s apartheid legacy, interracial romance has historically been taboo, scandalous or confined to back-door liaisons. As recently as 1967 Southern anti-miscegenation laws criminalized having intimate relations with or marrying someone of another race.

If you think America’s beyond all this, consider that a Louisiana justice of the peace denied an interracial couple a marriage license in 2009. A Cheerios commercial depicting a black-white couple and their biracial child elicited complaints in 2013. Interracial love portrayals are still rare enough to make news. Hollywood treatments range from treacly (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) to melodramatic (Monster’s Ball) to sophomoric (Guess Who?) to banal (Something New).

Whether your interracial poster couple is Kim and Kanye or newly elected New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio with his black wife and their biracial children high profile images such as these reinforce the emerging mosaic. The phenomenon is real, not hype. In 2012 the Pew Research Center found interracial marriages in the U.S. reached a record 4.8 million or an all-time high of 8.4 percent of all U.S. marriages. More recent Pew studies find broad acceptance of interracial coupling among all major racial-ethnic groups and the increase of biracial children blurring color lines as never before.

This organic movement is a result of individuals pairing off according to the law of attraction, not social constraints.

Newly elected New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and family

 

 

Even when mixing risked not just gossip or indignation but danger and imprisonment, it still went on. Some couples openly defied convention and ostracism. Some challenged race laws in court. It seems human heart desires trump artificial efforts to keep different persuasions apart.

There’s also the intrigue of exploring the other side. Online adult sites promote interracial hookups that range from romantic dates to one-night-stands to paid sexual encounters.

When it comes to amour, anecdotal currents say race is not a driving factor for mixed couples though it can be for those around them.

 

 

Interracial marriage was and still is a civil rights issue

 

 

Five metro couples, all variations of black-white twosomes, recently shared their stories. None of the individuals involved went looking for a partner of another race, it just happened. While their relationships are not racialized, race is an undeniable factor in their lived experience.

Emily Pearce and Travis Mountain are 30-somethings who each dated interracially before getting together. He has two children from previous relationships, including a son whose mother is white. Emily, a fitness instructor and elementary school vocal instructor and Travis, a U.S. Marine veteran, personal trainer and rapper, are parents of a girl, Rebel Mountain.

They’re keenly aware being interracial matters to some.

“I do think it makes a difference to people,” Emily says. “I don’t think we’ll ever live in a post-racial world, honestly. Neither of us thinks of us as being in an interracial relationship but other people do, and it does bother me.”

“As far as interracial couples, like it or not it’s something popular now,” says Travis, aka Aso. “It’s just more accepted. If people do have a problem with it it’s more just kept to themselves.”

Not always.

“It does get thrown in your face ,” Emily says. “If you go somewhere    without a lot of diversity you do get looks.”

She says at some schools she’s taught at black women staffers became unfriendly when they discovered she was dating Travis.

“They treated me differently. They were nasty to me.”

“Her dating me has opened her eyes about how differently she’s treated by dating somebody that’s black,” Travis says. “Black women hate to see ‘a good black man’ date a white woman because they look at it like you’re taking that black man away from our community but I don’t look at it that way.

“People want to put you in a category and it’s so stupid.”

 

 

Travis Mountain and Emily Pearce

 

 

The two hail from widely divergent backgrounds. She’s from an intact middle class family in Enid, Oklahoma. He was the only male in a single mother-headed home in North Omaha projects. She says her educator parents brought her up to be color-blind and never had an issue with her dating outside her race. He says the matriarchs of his family disapproved of interracial dating but didn’t have a problem when he did it. Each feels accepted by the other’s family.

“It’s like homosexuality – you can have a problem with it if you want to but what happens if it’s your brother or your kid? So be careful what you’re really hating because it might just happen to you,” says Travis.

“Neither of us set out to be in an interracial relationship, we just liked each other and we really balance each other out and I think it is because of the totally different experiences we have,” says Emily.

Dell and Lena Gines are another 30-something couple. They too faced little family resistance. She’s white and he’s the product of interracial parents. Together 23 years, Dell and Lena have five children. They feel America’s moved forward on race but has far to go.

Lena, a fitness instructor, says Dell’s parents have “shared some of their struggles and we definitely didn’t have to go through the same struggles. I think their generation kind of paved the way a little bit. It’s come so much further from even when we were dating. Seeing that progress is encouraging but it’s very slow.”

“It’s going to take more time,” says Dell, senior community development director with the Omaha Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. “I’ve never met somebody that’s past the race thing but I know people who are comfortable with interracial relationships while acknowledging the race thing. I do think we’re more aware of race and are more willing to recognize people can get together and function in relationships regardless of race.”

Dell grew up in multicultural northeast Omaha, where he says he came up with “tons of mixed kids.” Self-identifyng as black, he and his biracial friends dated both black and white girls.

“It was a normal thing.”

Lena didn’t grow up around people of color. Her first interracial dating experience was with Dell, whom she took for Middle Eastern. When she discovered he was black, she says, “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”

For them, it’s never been about race. “We fit and that was it,” she says.

Dell says, “I think it’s very important to note our similarities outweigh our differences.”

“I didn’t even think about the racial thing until he came to my family’s Christmas party, where everybody else was white and I was like, ‘Oh, this looks different.’ Then he took me to an African-American church and it was like reversed,” says Lena.

 

 

Dell and Lena Gines

 

 

The couple intentionally reside in North O for the diversity it exposes their biracial children to.

One of the few times someone confronted her about being with a black man was when a woman at a hair salon called Lena a n_____-lover.

“It took me by surprise,” she says. “That’s when it kind of became real. I didn’t have any friends, black or white, who had any issues with it, but I had other black women say things to me like, ‘You’re taking one of ours’ and ‘Why don’t you leave him to us?’”

Dell says racial baiting is “past the tipping point” now that interracial relationships are trending up, adding. “East of 72nd it’s such a common sight. Maybe if I lived out west I would have a different experience. You’re rarely going to hear it from black guys anyway. You’re much more likely to hear it from black girls. I’ve never had anybody actually come up to me and challenge or question me on that. I would dare anybody to say anything about it to my face.”

He believes intermixing will create a new racial narrative in America.

“You’re going to have kids like me or my children identifying along lines that aren’t so clear anymore. It’s going to change the way people look at race and ethnicity. It has to. Once you can get past identifying people as a class or a group and you identify them as individuals then it’s hard to keep gross intolerance in play.

“The rise of interracial relationships is going to force change because it means families that probably haven’t intermixed now have to. When you meet people on that basis then you begin to see things other than ethnicity or race.”

Ron and Twany Dotzler make their 33-year mixed marriage and large rainbow family – they’re parents to 14  – a living symbol of inclusion and tolerance through their Abide Network and Bridge Church.

The mid-50ish couple met at now defunct Tarkio (Mo.) College, where both played basketball. He came from insular all-white rural Iowa. He was naive about his own prejudice and the plight of Black Americans. She came from an almost exclusively black Washington D.C. neighborhood and the discrimination her family endured made them wary of whites. Twany says she once couldn’t conceive of being with a white man because “I just couldn’t see what two people from different backgrounds would have in common.”

 

 

The Dotzlers, Twany and Ron (holding baby), 5th and 6th from left, back row

 

 

When they got together in the early 1980s his family had no problem with his choice of mate but many residents of his hometown did.

“A lot of people were outraged. A big uproar.”

Twany’s family opposed their union. It took time, but acceptance came.

Each partner also had to work on their own racial hangups, especially when they began having children.

The family’s encountered welcome and disdain. The first few years the Dotzlers were married they lived in Broken Bow, Neb. They moved to the burbs, where Ron says, “Everybody seemed to accept us.” After entering the ministry the pair committed themselves to mission work. North Omaha became their calling. Racial incidents began happening.

“We were at a restaurant in Fort Calhoun and this guy at the bar yells, ‘Hey, you n––––r, yeah, you n––––r, get out of here.’ At a church picnic one of my kids goes to kick a ball and another kid kicks it and says, ‘Aw, go get it n––––r.”

When the couple applied to have their kids attend a small Washington County school local residents turned out en mass at a school board meeting to oppose their admission.

“Other families had been accepted. Our family had been rejected. We were denied access to the school,” Ron says.

“That was a real blow,” Twany says. “They didn’t want us to come.”

Overturning fear-based perceptions is what the Dotzlers do through Abide sponsored home renovation projects, neighborhood cleanups and justice journeys that bring diverse people together.

“I think that’s why I love what we do,” says Twany. “We can be a bridge to expose people to those differences, to people who may not think like you do, act like you do, look like you do, yet if you can just be intentional about getting to know them through relationships you’ll see what we do have in common and what we can do together.

“It’s all relational – seeing a person different from you and being able to value them right where they’re at. We’ve been getting people together to build relationships, to break down those denominational walls, those racial walls, those economic walls, for a long time. When you have to be together for a long period of time you learn some things about yourself and about others.”

Somehow some folks are threatened
by what we represent,
Although to make a statement
was never our intent.

 

 

Michael and Cassandra Beacom

 

 

When Michael and Cassandra Beacom began dating in the ’80s he was not only a newbie at interracial romance but to people of color having grown up in white-centric Keystone and attending white Catholic schools. Moving with her father’s Union Pacific job, she was exposed to both integrated and segregated environs. She dated mostly black guys in college, though a white boyfriend did propose marriage.

The Beacoms fell head over heels upon first meeting at a party. When they became a couple not everybody approved.

“The girl that introduced us was not thrilled with us being together,” Cassandra, says, “so you find out who your friends are or at least their viewpoints anyway.”

“Some friends said we support you, we’re behind you all the way,” Michael says, “and some others cut and ran or had their thing about it.”

He says her parents were cool but while his folks liked her as his friend they were “definitely not prepared” for him to have a black girlfriend.

“They said horrendous, horrible, evil, terrible things, to the point where I understood I would have to be saying goodbye to my family.”

Nothing negative was said to her, an administrative assistant with the Omaha Public Schools, only to Michael, a senior agent at PayPal.

“They gave him all the grief, they didn’t give me the grief,” says Cassandra, who adds she only found out much later the extent of his family’s unease.

Rather than cause a scene, the couple eloped and kept their marriage secret. Michael says, “I was terrified.” When Cassandra got pregnant with their first child, the family embraced her. The big wedding the couple put off was finally held. She and her late father-in-law became close and she’s tight today with her mother-in-law.

Their biggest hurdles with race have been with institutions. They say racist assumptions forced their son into foster care before a court intervened. That separation trauma still hurts. As do double standards that have seen her treated one way because she’s black and him another way because he’s white. Then there’s the times people assumed they couldn’t possibly be a couple.

 

 

Tim Shew and Brigitte McQueen Shew

 

 

Union for Contemporary Art founder-executive director Brigitte McQueen Shew upsets expectations in northeast Omaha. Not only is she a mix of African-American and Iranian-Chaldean, she’s married to a younger white man, chef Tim Shew.

“I have run-ins with people who say I’m not black enough to understand the African-American crisis. I do feel because of my work here, my advocacy for North Omaha and the fact I live in this community there’s an element of surprise when people realize my husband is not African-American. This is nonsense. Could we stop doing this to each other?”

The couple’s experience differs from that of her parents, whose extended families wanted nothing to do with Brigitte and her siblings.

“We were the yellow kids with funny hair. We were different and were always treated as such.”

She says she’s glad things have progressed to where she and Tim don’t have to go through what her interracial parents “went through in the ’60s,” adding, “It’s interesting how much of a non-issue that factor is in our relationship.”

Brigitte, who grew up in Detroit, dated interracially from the jump.

“Race is not a criteria. It’s not something I think about, it’s more about personality and who the person is than what color they might be,” she says. “With my mom it never mattered. I had moments with my siblings where it was like, ‘Why is it you always seem to be dating white guys?’

It wasn’t an issue, it was more of an observation. I don’t think anybody would say that if you were dating someone who was blonde or brunette. I realize not everybody has that sort of blindness to it.”

Tim, who grew up in west Omaha, was curious about brown girls but never did anything about it until Brigitte. Their families have always been fine about their relationship. She says the only time her race has come up with them was at a birthday party for one of his nephews.

“I made a chocolate cake. We were all at the table and I was sitting across from this sweet little boy who said, ‘Why are you the same color as the cake?’ Some people were really embarrassed and Tim’s brother totally defused things with, ‘I’m glad somebody finally asked that question, I’ve been wondering that since you started coming around.’ It was just this perfect moment.”

The Shews plan to have children one day. Though aware biracial kids can have a tough time they take solace in the fact their families and friends don’t hold the prejudices earlier generations did.

“I’m excited for our child to be part of the family we’ve created,” she says. “It’s a brilliant thing.”

We sense their eyes upon us:
the glance, the stare, the gaze.
Some puzzled, some condemning,
some burn with inner rage.
With but a few accepting,
some hurl the jagged knife.
A DIFFERENT SHADE OF LOVING,
a different color of life.

Lyrics are from “A Different Shade of Loving” by Mick Terry.

Art Imitates Life for ‘Having Our Say’ Stars, Sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and Their Brother Ray Metoyer

February 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Americans are notorious for having short memories and that’s unfortunate when people and actions that merit rememberance are so quickly and easily forgotten.  A pair of Omaha sisters, Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moors, are starring in an Omaha Community Playhous production of the Emily Mann play Having Our Say that features the real-life experiences of  the Delany sisters, whose lives intersected with much of the African-American experience in the late 19th century and most of the 20th century.  The Metoyer sisters are struck by the close parallels between the high achieving, activist Delany family and their own.  In doing interviews to promote the play the Metoyers are getting the chance to educate the public about the important work their parents Ray and Lois Metoyer did in the civil rights movement here.  My story about this art  imitating life experience includes comments from the Metoyers’ brother, Ray.

 

 

Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten

 

Art Imitates Life for ‘Having Our Say’ Stars, Sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and Their Brother Ray Metoyer

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Art imitates life when siblings Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore evoke the Delany sisters in the African-American oral-history show Having Our Say at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Just as the play’s real-life Sadie and Bessie Delany followed their family’s barrier-breaking path the Metoyers hail from high achievers and activists. The black branch of the Delanys’ mixed race Southern lineage produced land owners and professionals. Their father was the first black bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. Sadie became a teacher. Bessie, a dentist. Similarly, the Metoyers trace the mixed heritage on their father’s side to the Melrose Plantation in La. where ancestors formed a black aristocracy, Their mother and her family made the black migration from Miss. to the North for a better life.

The Metoyers, both veteran Omaha theater performers, say they’ve never before played roles whose familial-cultural threads adhere so closely to their own lives. Like their counterparts, the Metoyers put much stock in faith and education. The play’s also giving the sisters and their brother Raymond Metoyer, an Atlanta, Ga. broadcast journalist whose news career started in Omaha, a platform to discuss the vital work done by their late parents, Ray and Lois Metoyer, in the struggle to secure equal rights here. The couple were involved in the Nebraska Urban League, which the senior Metoyer once headed, the local chapter of the NAACP and the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (4CL). They participated in marches. They had their family integrate a neighborhood. They sent their kids to white schools.

Their father was active in the 4CL’s predecessor, the De Porres Club.

“We knew our parents were trailblazers but we held a lot inside and this ([play) gives us a voice to be able to elevate them,” Lanette says.

“I’m really happy about this opportunity to bring to light all the things our parents did and worked so hard for,” Camille says.

“I’m very proud of my parents,” Raymond says. “They were very much strong foot soldiers in the civil rights movement in Omaha. They were part of a collective effort to improve housing, education and employment for minorities. They were more interested in the results than in individual glory, which seems to be something lost today. Working together to make things better was very much part of what they believed in and pushed for as a part of that collective.

“They instilled in us that same striving for being better.”

The siblings say their parents shared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that blacks “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Lanette says her kid brother, L.A. musician Louis Metoyer “became exactly what our parents wanted for all of us because he got to reap all the benefits of us moving into an all-white neighborhood. He was able to play with white kids and make lasting friendships.”

Camille says, “Out of all of us I think he is the one who sees no color.”

Raymond says his folks believed in “leading by example” and thus his aspirational father, a Boys Town senior counselor and owner of the family’s barbecue joint on North 24th Street, took great pains with his appearance and speech.

“It wasn’t just about getting there. it was about how you handled yourself when you got there that made a difference,” he says.. “Our father always carried himself with dignity and strength. He projected the image he wanted people to see African-Americans could portray. He was just trying to show he belonged, that he was a significant member of the community because he had a right to be. My mother had that same persona. Both our parents instilled that in us. too.”

 

 

Ray Metoyer

Ray Metoyer

 

Raymond’s continued this leadership legacy in the National Association for Black Journalists and in his civil rights documentaries (Who Killed Emmett Till?). He admires his sisters for continuing the legacy as well.

“I’m so proud of my sisters being in this play because they’re carrying   themselves with the same dignity they were brought up with.”

As kids the siblings got caught up in some of their folks’ activism.

Camille was 8 when she was taken out of school to accompany her parents in a 1963 4CL demonstration for open housing at City Hall.

The marchers proved well-schooled in nonviolent civil disobedience.

“We were walking around in a circle in the chambers carrying placards,” recalls Camille. “We were asked to disperse and of course we refused, and then they called the police in and we all sat down on the floor. I was with my dad in his lap when the police literally picked the two of us up and carried us out with me still on his lap.”

Before Metoyer, with Camille in tow, got transported to police headquarters officers let him down. As he carried Camille in his arms a news photographer snapped a picture of this dignified, loving black father comforting his adorable little girl, who sported braids and with tortoise shell frame eyeglasses. The photo made the wires.

The events made an impression on Camille.

“I remember being excited because there was so much energy. I knew what we were doing was something very important and I knew it was about fighting for our rights as black people. I remember being just a little bit scared by the police but my dad was there so I felt very safe with him.”

 

 

Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten

 

Social justice was discussed in the Metoyer home.

“We were the family that all sat down to dinner together,” says Camille, “and all the conversation was about what was going on.”

The Metoyer children often tagged along with their progressive parents to meetings and gatherings. It meant getting to hear and meet Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson, in 1964 and 1969, respectively. Between those events the Metoyers integrated the Maple Village neighborhood in northwest Omaha in 1966.

“We knew it was something kind of groundbreaking but we were prepared because all of our lives we’d been taught to be on the frontlines,” says Lanette.

Raymond recalls the angry stares the family got just while driving through all-white areas. A petition circulated to try and prevent them from moving in. On move-in day some neighbors gathered outside to glare. At night his armed father and grandfather stood guard inside. It reminded his mother of what she thought she’d left behind in Miss. The house only got egged and shamed neighbors hosed off the mess.

Camille and Lanette remember threatening phone calls, nails scattered in the driveway, strange cars pulling up at night to train headlights in the windows, tense looks, awkward exchanges. At their various schools the kids encountered racism. They followed the example and admonition of their parents, whom Camille says “always addressed discrimination from an educational standpoint,” adding, “They were like, ‘Don’t get mad, just be enlightened.’”

Little by little the Metoyers found acceptance if not always fairness.

The OCP production of the Tony-nominated Having Our Say by Emily Mann, a past Great Plains Theatre Conference guest playwright, is a catharsis for the sisters.

“Doing this play has helped us in our relationship as sisters,” says Lanette. “We love to laugh just like the Delanys do. We’re storytellers like them. That tie between us now is stronger, especially after going through what Camille went through this past year (breast cancer).”

On another personal note, the play honors figures like their parents who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.

“It’s like finally they’re having their say,” says Camille.

The play runs through Feb. 9. For show times-tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunityplayhouse.com.

Patique Collins Finds the Right Fit

January 3, 2014 Leave a comment

Patique Collins has got it going on.  She is a high achieving African American woman with an alluring combination of physical besuty, spiritual enlightenment, business savvy, and passion for her life’s calling.  The Omaha, Neb. fitness trainer loves empowering people to positively chnage their lives.  In the short time between leaving a successful corporate career to starting her own buisness, she’s expertly branded her Right Fit company to grow its client base and to garner media attention.  I discovered her through her heady, consistent use of Facebook as a social media marketing platform that gets her name and face and brand out there, not just through the usual promotional methods but through inspiring before and after pictorials and testimonials that demonstrate the difference that Right Fit workouts make and through affirmations she writes and shares to offer encouraging  life lessons.  My profile of Patique is for Omaha Magazine.

 

 

Photo: Excited and Humbled! Right Fit is featured in "Omaha Magazine" ... "Best of Omaha 2014" edition story by Leo Adam Biga! 2014 will bring some new changes, new strategies and new options for you ...Change is Good, GOD is Good and I am thankful!! #Thank YOU

Patique Collins Finds the Right Fit

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine

 

In 2011 Patique Collins left a two-decade corporate career to open a fitness gym. Two-and-a-half years later her Right Fit at 11067 West Maple Rd. jumps with clients.

Under her watchful eye and upbeat instruction, members do various aerobic and anaerobic exercises, kickboxing and Zumba included, all to pulsating music, sometimes supplied by DJ Mista Soul. She helps clients tone their bodies and build cardio, strength and flexibility.

The sculpted Omaha native is a longtime fitness convert. Nine years ago she added weight training to her running regimen and got serious about nutrition. She’d seen too many loved ones suffer health problems from poor diet and little exercise. The raw vegan describes her own workouts as “intense” and “extreme.”

She pushes clients hard.

“I really want to help every single person that comes in reach their maximum potential, and that is a big responsibility,” she says. “if you don’t give up on you, I won’t. I will do whatever I can to help you earn your goals if you’re ready to.”

 

 

 

 

She’s known to show up at your job if you skip class.

“There’s accountability here at Right Fit. I’m very passionate about my clients.”

She believes the relationships she builds with clients keeps them coming back.

“People will tend to stay if you develop a relationship and work towards results.”

Her gym. like her Facebook page, is filled with affirmations about following dreams. being persistent and never quitting.

“I think positivity is a part of my DNA.”

She keeps things fun with theme workouts, sometimes dressing as a superhero.

A huge influence in her life was her late maternal grandmother, Faye Jackson, who raised her after Collins and her siblings were thrown into the foster care system. “My grandmother told me I could be whatever I wanted to be and made me believe it.” Collins went on to attain multiple college degrees.

Motivated to help others, she made human resources her career. She and her then-husband Anthony Collins formed the Nothing But Foundation to assist at-risk youth. While working as a SilverStone Group senior consultant and as Human Resources Recruitment Administrator for the Omaha Public Schools she began “testing the waters” as a trainer conducting weekend fitness boot camps..

 

 

 

 

Stepping out from the corporate arena to open her own gym took a leap of faith for this now divorced mother of two small children..

“This is a lot of work. I am truly a one-woman show. Sometimes that can be challenging.

She’s proud to be a successful female African-American small business owner and humbled by awards she’s received for her business and community achievements.

Right Fit is her living but she works hard maintaining the right balance. Family and faith are er top priorities.

This former model, who’s emceed events and trained celebrities (Usher and LL Cool J), wants to franchise her business, produce workout videos and be a mind-body fitness national presenter.

She believes opportunities continue coming her way because of her genuine spirit.

“There’s some things you can’t fake and being authentic is one of them. I’m doing what I want to do, I think it’s my ministry. Everybody has their gifts, and this is mine.

I’m able to influence people not just physically but mentally.”

Wanda Ewing Exhibit: Bougie is as Bougie Does

December 8, 2013 2 comments

Omaha has lost one of its most respected and exibited artists, Wanda Ewing.  As a memoriam to her, I am posting for the first on this blog a story I did about an exhibition of hers some years ago.  When the assignment came I already knew her work and like most folks who experienced it I was quite impressed.  I very much wanted to do a full-blown profile of her but I only got the go-ahead to focus on the exhibit.  She was very gracious with her time in helping me understand where she was coming from in her work.  Her untimely death has taken most of us, even though who knew her far better than me, by complete surprise.  Facebook posts about her are filled with shock and admiration.

You can appreciate her work at http://www.wandaewing.com.  The Omaha World-Herald should have a notice in the next day or so.

 

 

 

Wanda Ewing Exhibit: Bougie is as Bougie Does

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

 

 

 

Wanda Ewing is at it again. The Omaha printmaker known for her provocative spin on African-American images has created a sardonic collection of reductive linocuts and acrylic paintings that considers aspects of beauty, race and social status. The work has been organized in the solo exhibition, Bougie, at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, where it continues through December 2.

The title comes from a slang term, derived from the French word bourgeois, used in the black community as a put down for anyone acting “uppity,” said Ewing, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It speaks to the level of acceptance due to your social and economic background, your physical appearance, all of it.”

She explores bougie through the template of popular magazine culture and its vacuous lifestyle advice. The heart of the show is 12 faux glossy covers, each a reductive linocut with vinyl lettering on acetate, depicting a slick monthly women’s mag of her imagination called Bougie. The garish covers are inspired by Essence and other Cosmo knockoffs whose content places style over substance.

Among the “bougie markers,” as Ewing calls them, are black cover girls with straight or long hair and “story tags” that embody those things compelling to bougie women — shopping, how to lose weight, money and getting a man. Some of the teasers get right to the point: “Not Hood enough? 25 ways to get ghetto fabulous.” Another reads, “It’s what’s on the outside that counts.” Among the many double entendres are, “Tom Tom Club, back on the scene” and “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”

“I wanted to achieve something that was funny to read, but had some grit to it,” she said.

Each “issue” is adorned by a head and shoulders illustration of a black glamazoid female, the features made just monstrous enough that it’s hard to recognize the real-life celebs Ewing based them on. One vixen is based on home girl Gabrielle Union. Other iconic models include Halle Berry, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Tyra Banks, Janet Jackson, Eve, Star Jones and Queen Latifah.

Ewing “distorted” the images, in part, she said, as “I didn’t want them to be necessarily commentary on the celebrity, because it’s not about that,”

These cover girls represent impossible beauty standards and thus, in Ewing’s hands, become primping, leering creatures for the fashionista industry. Like the figures in her popular Pinup suite, she said, bougie women “are not shrinking violets.”

Contrasted with the plastic mag images are big, bold, beautiful head portraits of more realistically rendered black women and their different hair styles — bald, straight, permed, afroed, cornrowed — executed in intense acrylic and latex on canvas. These are celebratory tributes of black womanhood. The figures-colors jump out in the manner of comic book or billboard art. “I’m still holding onto being influenced by Pop Art,” Ewing said. “I love color. I’m not afraid of color.” The Hair Dresser Dummy works, as she calls them, are a reaction to the stamped-out glam look of the old Barbie Dress Doll series. Ewing’s “dolls” embody the inner and outer beauty of black

 

women, distinct features and all. We’re talking serious soul, here.

 

 

There are also fetching portraits of women that play with the images of Aunt Jemima and Mammy and that refer to German half-doll figures Ewing ran across. Another painting, Cornucopia, is of a reposed woman’s opened legs amid a cascade of flowers — an ode to the source of life that a woman’s loins represent.

All these variations on the female form also comment on how “the art world likes to celebrate women,” she said, “especially if they’re naked and in pieces.”

Bougie
 examines women as objects and the whole “black is-black ain’t” debate that Ewing’s work often engages. Glam mags help inform the discussion. Ewing said black models were once shades darker and displayed kinkier hair than today, when they have a decidedly more European appearance. “I grew up looking at these images and felt bad because as hard as I tried, I couldn’t achieve what was being shown,” she said. At least before, she said, publications offered “a variety of the ways black women looked. Now, these magazines idealize the same type of woman with the same kind of features. I find that interesting and damaging on so many levels.”

Like the figures in her Pinup series, Bougie’s women are too self-possessed or confident to care what anyone thinks of them.

Leave it to a master satirist, Omaha author Timothy Schaffert, to put Ewing’s new work in relief. In an essay accompanying the show, he comments:

“The women…demonstrate a giddy indifference to their objectification, defying any interpretations other than the ones they choose to convey. See what you want to see, the women seem to be saying. You can’t change who I am, they taunt. Ewing portrays women in the act of posing, women possibly conscious of their degradation yet nonetheless seducing us with their self confidence. For Ewing’s women, the beauty myth becomes just another beauty mark…

“And yet the politics of fashion are what give Ewing’s work its sinister and satirical bent. Just beyond the coy winks and the toothpaste-peddling smiles and curve-hugging skirts of these fine black women is the sense that the images aren’t just about them” but about “the various co-conspirators in the invention of glamour. In Ewing’s work, black women assert themselves into the commercial, white-centric iconography of prettiness, and the result is at times funny, at times sad, at times grotesque, but often charming. Her women rise above the didactic, each one becoming a character in her own right, in full control of her lovely image.”

In the final analysis, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

“Although this work is coming from an artist who is black, it is not limited to just the black community,” Ewing said. “Ultimately, the work is about beauty. That’s a conversation everyone can contribute to.”

A conversation is exactly what her work will provoke.

The Sheldon Gallery is located at 12th & R Streets. Admission is free. For gallery hours, call 402.472.2461 or visit www.sheldonartgallery.org.

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

August 13, 2013 3 comments

 

 

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

 

 

Cover Photo

Apostle Vanessa Ward
Apostle Vanessa Ward

 

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Apostle’s book

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Hope Garden

 

 

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

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

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

That same respect and unity infuse the block party

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

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

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

She’s an admired figure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The block party features plenty of decorations and food.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 Sunday morning service

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tragedy moved her farther down the path.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My husband was scared for my life.”

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

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

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

Then she went about making it happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s proud of her.

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

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

 

 

 Apostle with Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert (holding a copy of Apostle’s book)

 

 

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

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

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

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

But she still retained a presence on the block.

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

She didn’t like what she found.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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