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Expect Plenty of Booms at Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival Finals; Friendly Tournament Makes Expressing Deepest Feelings Safe

April 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Boom!   That’s the sound of another slam poem being thrown down.  If you haven’t seen a youth slam poetry bout before than do yourself a favor and check it out.  No better time to start then at tonight’s (April 17) team finals of the Louder Than a Bomb Great Plains Youth Poetry Festival at the Holland Performing Arts Center.  What follows is my Reader story on the festival and the culture surrounding it.

 

 

Expect Plenty of Booms at Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival Finals

Friendly Tournament Makes Expressing Deepest Feelings Safe

BY LEO ADAM BIGA

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the hybrid realm of slam poetry, where free verse, theater, oral storytelling and forensics converge to make a verbal gumbo, personal expression rules.

Impassioned teen anguish stirs the pot to create a heady brew during the Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) Great Plains Youth Poetry Festival. After weeks of competition, the team finals throw down April 17 at 7 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

Teams competing in the finals are: Millard South, Lincoln North Star, defending champion Lincoln High and Waverly.

Individual finals take place April 26 in Lincoln.

The events are free but donations are accepted.

On the heels of nurturing the local adult slam poetry community and inspired by LTAB Chicago, the Nebraska Writers Collective (NWC) launched its youth festival in 2012. In that short span the fest’s found a niche at area schools, growing from 12 to 19 to 32 participating teams.

NWC director Matt Mason, who’s led Neb.’s team at the National Poetry Slam, says as more schools have gotten involved from urban and rural locations the work’s broadened.

“You have so many different people and voices and experiences. There is such a diversity of subject matter. You go to a bout and you see four high schools putting up teams, all with different experiences. Some have certain styles, some are kind of all over the place.

“You get poems talking about things in the news today as well as poems about dating, spurned love, successful love, conflicts, being bullied, racism, sexism. You get the universal themes brought in and wrapped up in very personal stories.”

Omaha Central High English teacher Deron Larson, who sponsors the Eagles’ LTAB team, says the work isn’t just about releasing angst or speaking to hard things.

A couple members on our team have gone out of their way to make people laugh,” he says. “At a recent bout one poet waxed poetic about her collection of socks. There’s a full gamut of things they write about.”

Diversity also shows up in the teams’ composition, where gays and straights, jocks and geeks, are respresented.

“It’s fantastic to see how these teams of very different students come together” to collaborate and communicate, Mason says.

Paid teaching artists hired by the Collective serve as coaches. Sponsoring classroom teachers recruit and facilitate and in some cases co-coach.

World champion adult slammer Chris August from Baltimore, Md. is NWC’s first resident teaching artist. He’s come to appreciate what makes the area poetry scene so vital and LTAB a hit here.

“The Omaha and Lincoln scenes have always been open and embracing and are among the places that put the most energy into fostering their youth poetry scenes. When I think about what an art form like slam poetry can bring to young people, the word I immediately think of is ‘permission.’ Twenty years ago I was a weird, artsy teenage boy in a rural high school with virtually no diversity. Back then, the idea of a safe and empowering outlet for voices of any kind speaking on any truth at all would have seemed impossible.”

Mason says, “I think this is a great outlet for anybody, especially for teenagers, to process what they’re going through and to give voice to it. They’re permitted to have a venue to get this across rather than just bottling it up and dealing with it.

“It’s about teaching these folks to write and to get this performance experience and to be comfortable in front of people and to vocalize what they’re feeling.”

Everyone associated with LTAB hails the supportive environment at practices and bouts. At the “friendly tournament” poets celebrate other poets, even those on opposing teams. The safe space created by LTAB is particularly important because students often expose their most intimate, vulnerable selves in the work.

Mason says the slam form lets students articulate personal issues weighing on them, including gender and sexual identity issues.

“It is maybe this more than any other element that allows slam poetry to so lovingly respond to a need so present among so many young people,” says August.

NWC education director Andrew Ek says the Collective has done “a lot of deliberate work making sure our students feel like their stories, ideas and experiences are being honored,” adding. “A lot of that involves letting them read and not getting in the way of that process.”

“It’s a very positive space,” says Bellevue West 10th grader Ari Di Bernardo, a first-year participant. “No one feels like an outcast because that’s not what LTAB is about. It’s about connecting through this very beautiful thing we do. For me it’s the feeling of belonging. Like I finally have a safe place to just open up and give up all the feelings I’d been harboring. I can be honest. I’m not afraid to say what I need to now.”

“It’s uplifting to have everybody there have your back,” says Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln senior Francisco Franco. “The feeling is just warmth and good vibes. It is a competition but everybody’s there to support you, nobody’s there to put you down. Of course, there’s scores but it’s your words, your poems, so you can listen to the scores or believe in yourself. I choose to go up there and to have as much fun as I can.”

“It’s good to be in a competitive environment where everybody roots for everybody instead of against everybody,” says Franco’s teammate, Chanel Zarate.

Matt Mason says it’s not just the high energy, communal love-in that gives LTAB a following but the work itself.

“Yeah, people are yelling and cheering for poets, but the poems are also interesting, funny, beautifully put together. It exceeds your expectations of teen poetry. These kids are smart, creative. It would not surprise me if a lot of these poems get published in magazines or eventually books.”

Central High teacher Deron Larson is impressed by how much work his students put into making poems as powerful as they can be, doing draft after draft, all under the guidance of teaching artist Greg Harries.

“They become invested in words in a way I don’t get to observe every day in the classroom. They make a commitment that goes beyond doing homework a teacher assigns. They make their own homework and just conquer it and take it 10 steps beyond where they thought they were going to go.

“The mentoring poets that duck into my classroom and share their love for words really touch the students in a way I can’t do. As much as I love words there’s a process over the course of the year where they get tired of hearing the same thing I have to say. If a 20something comes in they’re much closer to my students’ experience. The message carries differently and then the students just run with it.”

Larson’s pleased slam poetry has found a footing in schools but he’s not sure it would benefit from being a formal academic program.

“If we put it into a curriculum it almost feels like we might change it an elemental way. As an after school club and extra that definitely deserves our support it feels like it might work better. If we try to write it into lessons I think there’s a possibility we might kill something that’s so vibrant right now.”

NWC artists also work with youth at a Lincoln juvenile detention center. Audio recordings of these youths’ poems will play at the finals to allow “their voices to be heard,” Mason says.

For festival details, visit ltabomaha.org.

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.”

Ex-gonzo journalist-turned-filmmaker James Marshall Crotty resolved to celebrate debate in new films ‘Crotty’s Kids’ and ‘Master Debaters’


The longer I do this the more I happen upon folks from Neb. doing really interesting things.  The subject of the following story, James Marshall Crotty, is a good example. He created a career and brand for himself out of whole cloth when he co-conceived and executed a magazine and lifestyle, Monk, and authored city guides predicated on the freedom of the open road and the exploration of all things alternative, fringe, off-the-beaten path, iconoclastic, and, idiosyncratic.  After this gonzo period in his life he’s “gone straight” to report on education for Forbes and to weigh in on the cultural stream for the Huffington Post.  More recently he’s turned filmmaker by producing-directing two documentaries, Master Debaters and Crotty’s Kids, that marry his subculture leanings with his love for speech and debate, which he excelled in at Omaha Creighton Prep and coached at New York City high schools.  His experiences observing and coaching debate in inner city environments are captured in his films, both of which are playing the Omaha Film Festival.    See my companion story about the festival on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ex-gonzo journalist-turned-filmmaker James Marshall Crotty resolved to celebrate debate in new films ‘Crotty’s Kids’ and ‘Master Debaters’

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Omaha ex-pat James Marshall Crotty, co-creator of the underground Monk magazine and author of alternative city guides, gained a cult following for his irreverent dashboard reporting about America’s fringes. His arch leanings are on display in two documentaries he’s produced-directed showing at the March 5-9 Omaha Film Festival.

Both films focus on a subculture subject close to his heart, competitive debate. This once itinerant gonzo journalist now based in Los Angeles was a champion debater at Omaha Creighton Prep in the mid 1970s. This self-described “evangelist for debate” passionately portrays the hyper intense activity’s transformational power in his own life and in the lives of South Bronx kids of color.

Master Debaters shows March 6 in the 8:30-10:15 p.m. block of Neb. short docs. Crotty’s Kids shows March 8 at 12:30 p.m. in the feature-length doc block. He’ll do a Q&A after each.

He’s hoping his films inspire funding for an urban debate league he wants to start here as a way to motivate kids to excel in school.

Those familiar with Crotty may find his new gigs as Forbes.com education reporter and crusading debate advocate a departure. It’s actually a catharsis after tiring of the vagabond Kerouac thing, dealing with a protracted lawsuit and losing his intellectual guru and most influential debate mentor – his mother.

He says, Monk, “the National Geographic for freaks,” was as much a rebellion against his Catholic Republican upbringing as anything.

“I was Mr. Alternative hipster subculture guy with Monk and I had this nagging sense the whole time I was interviewing people like the founder of the school for boys who want to be girls to Kurt Cobain to just any kind of an eccentric person or place across the fruited plain that I did not grasp the dominant culture conversation.

“I just felt deep inside I was an uneducated man even though I’d gone to Northwestern. I felt like i was a fraud even though I was really good at spinning this alternative universe.”

He could no longer square his “out there” image with the Jesuit call to be a man for others instilled in him at Prep. He resolved to improve himself and to use debate – “the most profound education experience of my life” – as a means to serve kids from disadvantaged straits.

He felt the discipline of debate helped him and his Prep teammates, among them Alexander Payne (who appears in Crotty’s Kids), find success and he saw no reason it couldn’t do the same for others.

“We were this tribe of academic athletes that learned through debate the ability to speak on our feet, to persuade others about the rightness of our cause. It gives you incredible confidence to tackle any subject. When you’re at the top of your game you’re spending four to five hours a day on it in addition to your schoolwork. And you’re not just reading secondary sources you’re looking up primary sources, you’re going to law libraries, you’re reading studies, you’re really digging deep and you’re able to sort fact from fiction.

“When you have a finely-tuned debate brain the most innocuous statement can be broken apart and you’re able to see through poppycock almost instantly and it’s something really missing in the culture. People are easily bamboozled by false prophets who just because they have such a strong opinion people think they’re telling the truth. That is dangerous for Democracy.”

He says the research skills he learned have served him well.

“I’m able to look beneath the surface to find the truth. Doing Monk I was able to find these people and places that even locals didn’t know existed. That’s because debate trains you to be a geek researcher.”

 

 

 

 

 

The sudden death of his mother in 2002 set him on a “sea change” that led him to become a high school debate coach.

“I really felt the calling to help inner city kids.”

But first he needed to immerse himself in education.

“For years I really wanted to study the classics, the great books of civilization. I finally got the chance after we sued Tony Shalhoub and the producers of the Monk TV show in the late ’90s for stealing our brand. It took two years. In 2000 I decided to give up the Monk (mag) hat and go back to school and study the great books at a great little school called St. Johns College Santa Fe (N.M.).

“You sit around a table seminar-style and the tutors ask really good questions to help you dig deeper into the text. I really became a disciple of their method.”

He emerged from his mid-life crisis with a teaching certificate that allowed him to teach the classics and to coach debate. He began at two elite New York City schools to freshen his chops.

“I had been so long out of the game and I knew it had changed a lot. It’s like coming back to play any sport 25-30 years later. It had gotten so much faster.”

He says coaching proved emotional for him because “it gave me a way to give back during a difficult time in my life – I was mourning my mother through coaching these kids.”

After joining the newly formed Eagle Academy in the mid-2000s he made his experience there the basis for Crotty’s Kids.

 

 

 

 

 

 

He says the difference between a product of white privilege like himself and “a kid who grows up in the South Bronx is not as great as people might think,” adding, “The one thing that was really obvious to me is that a young man in the South Bronx does not just walk into a whole bunch of cultural capital just by osmosis.”

He says his growing up in a home filled with books and dinner-time conversations about current events is a far cry from what the kids he worked with experienced.

“These kids don’t have that by and large. As a result their vocabulary and basic reasoning powers are not being developed. So my job as a coach was to fill in that gap – the cultural capital piece – and the way I did that was to have adult, intellectual, fact-based conversations with them about whatever interested them. I also had my kids read the classics.”

He says the process of competitive speech and debate develops critical thinking skills in youths that have “an incredible trickle down effect that enables them to excel in school at a much higher level than their peers.” He adds, “It sort of feeds on itself. Young men and women at-risk are looking to compete and win. You get them to see it as a sport and they do whatever it takes. It becomes infectious.”

Sure enough, his kids became champions. One earned a full-ride.

Yet the central focus of Crotty’s Kids is Crotty, not the kids. He comes off as charismatic, quirky, caring, driven. He didn’t intend being the “star” but the footage or lack thereof dictated it.

“It’s not the Hoop Dreams of debate I wanted to make, it’s some other film,” he says.

He’s still in touch with some of his old students, several of whom are doing well in college.

“I’m a kind of surrogate father figure but I don’t push it. I had my chance to really impart as much as I could while I was with them but they need to figure things out on their own. They always know I’m there for them if they ever get in a jam.”

Culinary-Horticulture Marriage at Metropolitan Community College

October 22, 2013 1 comment

Food, wonderful food.  A food movement and subculture is well under way in America that finds urban dwellers growing their own organic produce, even tending chickens for fresh eggs and raising rabbits for fresh meat, in order to create healthy, sustainable, self-reliant food production and distribution models that bypass dependence on corporate, profit-driven systems with their higly processed, pre-packaged products and that provide relief for the food deserts found in many inner cities.  This trend towards fresh, locally produced ingredients is well-entrenched among the culinary set, where enligntened chefs and restaurants often grow much of their own produce or else get it from local farmers.  At Metroplitan Community College the Institute for Culinary Arts operates the Sage Student Bistro, a public eating venue whose gourmet meals are prepared by students under chef instructor supervision.  The Bistro works closely with the Horticulture program across the street to serve up menus thick with fresh ingredients grown in the campus gardens and greenhouses and aquaponic tanks.  My new cover story for Edible Omaha features this culinary-horticulure marriage.  You can find my related stories on this blog about the Omaha ventures No More Empty Pots and Minne Lusa House.

 

 

Photo: Good morning all you local food lovers...it is a spectacular morning to attend the last Omaha Farmers Market in the Old Market and if you haven't found a copy of the Harvest issue of Edible Omaha stop by the information booth and pick one up.  And get your final Farmers Market fix tomorrow at the Aksarben Village market and attend Food Day Omaha too!

 

 

Culinary-Horticulture Marriage at Metropolitan Community College

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the  Harvest issue of Edible Omaha

 

Culinary arts and horticulture studies are close, interdisciplinary tracks and next door neighbors at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus.

With the whole farm to table and sustainable movements in full bloom, it’s no surprise collaboration happens there to give students and diners at MCC’s Sage Student Bistro fresh, organic food grown by the horticulture team.

It’s all about working with and enjoying quality ingredients as close to the source and ground as possible.

Metro’s quarter-acre production garden is just a few hundred feet from the Bistro, which also has a cutting herb garden on its patio dining area. Locally sourced food “doesn’t get any closer than this,” says chef instructor Oystein Solberg.

“It’s hyper local,” says horticulture instructor and garden manager Patrick Duffy.

“It’s an incredible difference being able to talk to guests about it and point to where a lot of the vegetables grow,” says Solberg. “During the summer when we’ve got the herb garden going our guests can sit out there and smell the basil and mint and oregano we’re using to cook with.

“There’s few restaurants that do what we do, that are a learning environment teaching both our guests and our students.”

Solberg says this is only the third or fourth harvest season for the garden and the Bistro is making more and more use of it.

“It’s marvelous. By growing we’ve been able to use more local than we’ve ever done. Keeping it growing and evolving is excellent.”

 

 

Oystrein Solberg

 

He says having the school’s horticulture program be a key producer for its culinary program is “a little bit outside the box,” adding, “There’s not that many schools that have it, but there’s a lot of restaurants starting to have it. Like they maybe have a little garden up on the roof. When you go to Calif., really all along the west coast, there’s a lot of restaurants that have attached gardens, so it’s getting more common

“Our goal is not really to try and be as everybody else, we want to try and push the boundaries and see how far we can go with it.”

Institute for Culinary Arts dean Jim Trebbien says, “We have had people come to study our model from across the country. It is quite unusual because most culinary programs do not operate a restaurant such as ours and have the expertise we do and most horticulture programs have not adopted new sustainability methods into their curriculum as quickly as we have.” He says this integrated, collaborative resulted from discussions with local leaders in food sustainability, including MCC’s own Brian O’Malley, Jen Valandra and Todd Morrissey and No More Empty Pots’ Nancy Williams and Susan Whitfield.

Solberg oversees the Bistro. Under his and fellow instructors’ supervision culinary students prepare gourmet meals for paying customers and are graded on their performance. Solberg works closely with Duffy to determine what can be effectively grown and delivered to meet the Bistro’s schedule and end up on its menus. The garden is also a teaching tool for both horticulture and culinary students. The Food Cultivation course uses the garden as an outdoor laboratory.

“Patrick tells me what they want to do with their classes and then I write a menu of what I want to do with my classes. We met back in Jan.-Feb. and tried to figure out what they were going to plant, what was going to be done when, then we tried to make the menus out of that. With the greenhouses they have over there we can start growing fairly early because they keep the temperature and the soil fairly high.

“Then if I’ve got some changes, if i have other stuff I want to play with, to kind of fit in spots here and there, or I randomly think of something I haven’t worked with in a while, I’ll pitch it by him to see if it’s something he can grow. We’ve got to work within the timeline. Starting in Jan. we’ve got to have ready greens by June. We have to see what we’re able to get with the weather and climate. It’s a lot of stuff that has to match up. It’s kind of a never-ending process.”

 

 

Sage Student Bistro

 

Duffy says, “I’m getting better at timing things out. We need to make sure our peaks coincide with the school quarter, so we don’t have too much excess. It’s challenging. Down the road we’d love to do a farmer’s market where that excess would feed into, but that’s a couple years away. But it’s certainly like the next level where we would bleed off that excess. Right now it gets composted.”

For this summer’s menu Solberg’s arranged for Duffy to grow a long list of ingredients to be used in various ways and dishes:

rhubarb

currants

arugula

kale

leeks

radishes

beets

romaine lettuce

zucchini

bok choy

fennel

swiss chard

basil

saffron

onions

spinach

peas

mint

nasturtium

carrots

red sorrel

wheatgrass

“It’s an early summer menu, so there’s no tomatoes, and there’s more likely zucchini blossoms than zucchinis,” says Duffy. “Then when the Bistro opens again in Sept. there’ll be big sexy stuff like tomatoes. We’ll grow a lot of tomatoes. We do a pretty intense production. We do vertical trellising. We’ll focus more on red tomatoes this year and less colored tomatoes. We’ll play around a lot. We’ve done some grafting on tomatoes. To up the vigor of our hybrids we take an heirloom and graft it onto a hybrid root.

“We’ve backed off on things like pumpkins because they take up so much space and we don’t have that much use for them. When you go from being a backyard gardener to a production grower you need to start doing more lettuces and cabbages and lots of them and all these background things that go into salads.”

Duffy says young culinary students can particularly benefit from learning about the production side.

“The truth is they don’t know what’s available, they don’t know there are white tomatoes, white watermelons. One thing I do is walk them through everything and say, ‘These are your options.’ I tell them you’re only as good as what’s coming off the truck if that’s what you’re going off. Wholesale distributors are only delivering certain things. Once you know your options then you and your imagination as a chef is the limiting factor.

“So I try to push them.”

 

 

 

 

The more students understand the food chain, Solberg says, the better. “It just makes them respect the food in a whole different way. It makes them see what labor and blood, sweat and tears go into growing those things. It makes them think twice before throwing it away or using it carelessly.” Solberg also impresses upon students the varieties available to them. He uses tomatoes as an example.

“Some are better for roasting, some are better for stewing. You can use different tomatoes for different end products. Like the Striped Cavern has thick hearty walls great for scooping out and filling and roasting. There are differences in flavor and texture. The Nebraska Wedding and Amish Paste are sweet and delicious.”

He always advises to go with what’s fresh and best.

“Like getting tomatoes in Dec..Yes, you can do it but you really shouldn’t. You shouldn’t be doing BLTs and caprese salads in Dec. It just ties into menu-writing and the way you think. It ties into everything we should be about. If you’re writing a Christmas menu you use more winter hearty greens because the product will be at its best instead of getting cardboard tomatoes from wherever. It’s just wrong.”

Solberg says he’s learning all the time himself about varieties. “It’s awesome.”

Duffy’s also open to Oystein’s opinions. He recalls first meeting the chef, a native of Norway, at the Metro garden and Oystein asking, “Where are the currant bushes going to go?” Duffy says, “I had not even thought about putting currant bushes in but being from Norway he immediately went to berries and I went and bought 10 currant bushes and we’ve grown that. They’re a permanent part of the garden. It’s a commitment you make.” Duffy also added raspberries.

Additionally, Duffy grows apples and pears on the trellises  “Those are just now starting to come into their own,” he says.

Horticulture supplies more than just things that grow in the ground. Its aquaponics tank raises tilapia and its barnyard provides fresh eggs, rabbit, squab and honey.

As a result Metro is offering a small animal husbandry class and a small farming degree. “We’ve had a lot of interest already,” says Duffy. “It’s going to start this fall.”

The more the relationship between horticulture and culinary grows, says Duffy, “I’m learning what to bring – greens, root vegetables. We grew potatoes one year but those take up a lot of space. I bring catalogs and we go through them together. I usually start with what I call the Christmas List and have them say everything they want. I don’t want them to edit themselves on their side and then I see what I can do on my side and then we try to meet in the middle. It’s a back and forth.”

Duffy adds, “When I deliver things I try not to edit myself. I was at first. Like I was cutting off the radish tops before I brought the radishes but he (Solberg) wanted the radish tops too, so I have to make sure I don’t edit myself and just give them as raw and complete a product as I can because then they have more uses.” And when he sees something like bok choy on a menu plan he inquires what variety’s desired.

He says he occasionally pitches things to the chefs. One year he tried selling them on dandelions. “It didn’t really fly. Too bitter. I might try it again sometime.”

His goal is for the garden to receive USDA organic certification. He envisions more gardens around campus one day. The barnyard could one day also raise pigs and goats.

Both men agree the collaborative is a success.

Duffy says the burgeoning relationship “better then we ever could have imagined.”

“It’s been a joint effort really,” says Solberg. “Like I’ve always enjoyed cooking out of the garden and they’ve always enjoyed growing stuff for us to use. It just happened pretty organically. It didn’t ever have to be forced.”

And if some things don’t turn out, Solberg adds, “I’m flexible, I just work with whatever Patrick gives me.”

The Bistro is open for lunch and dinner this fall. For menus, hours and reservations, call 402-457-2328.

Charles Ahovissi and His African Culture Connection Enrich Nebraska Youth Through Performance and Teaching Programs

October 8, 2013 Leave a comment

Thousands of miles from his homeland, Charles Ahovissi is living a dream to share his culture with the world.  The native of Benin, West African resides in Omaha, Neb., where he fell in love while on tour and married and started a family here, and this acomplished dancer, choreographer, and drummer now exposes aspects of African cultures to student and adult audiences throughout this Midwest state under the auspices of his African Culture Connection.  His small but mighty nonprofit is still basking in the glow of a major national award it was recognized with last year.  It’s not the first significant recognition he and his performing and teaching troupe has received and it’s not likely to be the last either.  My story about Charles and the ACC is still looking for a publication home but for now you can read it right here on my blog.

 

 

African Culture Connection Founder, Charles Ahovissi joins Victoria Beaugard,  participant in African Culture Connection’s program at Girls Inc, in receiving the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on November 19th, 2012

 

 

 

Charles Ahovissi and His African Culture Connection Enrich Nebraska Youth Through Performance and Teaching Programs 

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Between the beating drums and the whirling dancers the energy rises to a fever pitch during African Culture Connection performances like the one Sept, 5 at the Westside Community Conference Center.

Led by Benin, West Africa native Charles Ahovissi, a professional dancer and choreographer, the Omaha-based ACC is dedicated to presenting the vibrant rhythms, movements, colors and costumes of African tribal tradition and culture.

ACC performances are always dynamic but last month’s by-invitation-only event carried even more vitality because it celebrated a milestone in the young organization’s life. In late 2012 ACC became one of only a dozen organizations in the U.S. and the first ever in Nebraska to receive the National Arts & Humanities Youth Arts Award. It’s a major honor for any group but particularly one as new as ACC, which formed only in 2006.

Ahovissi, ACC’s high-energy founder, president and artistic director, accepted the award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on Nov. 19. Accompanying him at the ceremony was Victoria Baeugard of Omaha Girls Inc., an organization that ACC ofter serves. Baeugard is part of a troupe of Girls Inc. members who’ve learned to perform African dances under Ahovissi’s tutelage. In addition to the award, ACC received a  $10.000 grant to support and expand its programming. This came on top of ACC winning the Nebraska Governor’s Arts Heritage Award.

All of it is more than enough reason to celebrate and so many of ACC’s board members, donors and supporters gathered for food, drink, conversation and congratulations last month. Even the beaming, ever-optimistic Ahovissi finds it hard to believe his little organization did what none of the state’s larger, more established arts programs managed doing.

“I just don’t know how we got here,” he says. “It was surprising.”

 

 

African danceAfrican danceAfrican drumming

African dance

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African storytelling

African drumming

African dance

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African dance

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African storytelling

African dance

 

 

Nebraska Arts Council director of programs Marty Skomal says “the award is given to an arts or humanities program for youth that takes place outside of the school day which also promotes youth development. No other arts group in Neb. has succeeded in demonstrating ACC’s masterful combination of high artistic quality with genuine and significant community engagement. Each time I see his troupe perform, I am impressed by the level of dedication, attention to detail and commitment. It becomes contagious. Kids can sense this authenticity, and they respond to it instantly. It is ACC’s unique way of inspiring youth by example that motivates kids to take pride in their own cultural heritage, whatever its origin. In brief, ACC is able to do what its name implies – make a connection.”

Ahvossi knows ACC is well thought of by the positive feedback he gets from teachers, administrators and program directors about the African immersion experience he provides. Ahovissi says the glowing evaluations and notes “confirm that after we work with kids they learn how to respect, they learn how to behave and some kids who were shy become engaged in the classroom,” adding, “All the teachers tell us thank you for making a big impact on kids’ lives.”

Then there’s the fact ACC offers programming that no one else does in this area.

“It is a very unique program,” he says. “You don’t see it in this state. You cannot get what we teach kids in a library. In schools kids barely get the cultural activities we provide them. That’s why it’s very unique, very special and engaging.”

Omaha Girls Inc. executive director Robera Wilhelm says Ahovissi “has helped girls learn about Africa in ways they simply never would in a classroom or from a textbook,” adding, “The girls connect to the lessons in a very visceral way. He and his team help the girls ‘feel’ Africa when they drum and dance. They prepare and taste African food, they create printed fabric to wear while they dance and they hear African stories. They also learn lessons about creativity, collaborative work, self-expression, delayed gratification, responsibility and pride of accomplishment.”

Ahovissi conducts residencies around the state through NAC. He brings not just the music and dance of Africa, but the stories behind them.

“I know all the cities and towns in Neb. I just pack my car with my costume and drum and travel one week, two weeks at a time. I cannot count how many places I’ve been to. I travel a lot through the Nebraska Arts Council. I’m grateful for that.  I do love teaching, performing and sharing my culture.”

He’s also trains a group of teaching and performing artists to join him at some venues to immerse participants in various elements of African culture.

“Every life aspect in Africa has a specific dance, rhythm, music and all that, so at the same time I’m teaching kids a dance I’m also teaching them the culture, the tradition, the story behind that dance and music. For example, farming is a big deal in Africa. Before farming there is preparation, during and after farming there’s a celebration. That is like story. The way we farm in Africa is not the same as it’s done in America. How we pick the fruit, why we pick that fruit, that is dance movement that has a story.

“There’s a reason why we do any traditional dance and drumming.

“Another example is the initiation of youths. When you reach a certain age you need to go see the elders. They will teach you life skills, what is right to do, what is wrong to do. During an initiation in a village we play certain music and do special dances. So when I’m teaching kids the initiation dance I’m also teaching them this story, this culture, the way we do things.”

The dances performed at the Sept. 5 celebration included the Sinte dance. He exp;lains, “Sinte comes from the Boke and Boffa area in the northwest of Guinea. The Landonma, Nalo, and Baga ethnic groups, who have been living together in this region for many years, play it before the initiation of the youth.” Another number ACC performed at the event was the Djole dance. “Djole is a dance organized to showcase different masks,” says Ahovissi. “Djole comes from the region in the southwest of Guinea and the northwest of Sierra Leone. The Temine, Mandenyi and Soussou ethnic groups share this rhythm.” Finally, he says the Kete dance executed by the Girls Inc. members is from the Allada Region of southern Benin, adding, “The music and dance can be heard on many occasions and festivals, particularly at funeral ceremonies.”

 

 

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Ahovissi says students who participate in his programs, including members of Girls Inc., learn rituals and lessons with deep, universal meaning.

“We say it takes a whole village to raise a child. That simple statement means a lot,. From generation to generation we pass on the culture. In Africa everything kind of ties together.”

He strongly feels that American children need to expand their knowledge of diverse cultures in this ever shrinking world.

“It is so important for them to learn about other cultures. They have to open their minds, they have to allow themselves to appreciate other cultures, they have to accept their friends who are not like them. Since Omaha is becoming more diverse we need to be more diverse, too. We all need to be together and move forward.”

He says as Omaha’s welcomed migrant populations from Sudan, Togo, Bhutan and several Central American countries “there is a need for global understanding in our community. It’s not just African culture. We need to be learning about all these different cultures.” He loves that America is still a melting pot. “You teach me about your culture, I teach you about mine, and we share it . That’s how we become   open-minded and free and live in a peaceful way.”

Growing up in Benin he absorbed dance and drumming through repeated exposure to it.

“My mom took me from village to village to the ceremonies,. I just picked it up from that,” he says.

In his early teens he joined a local arts group. “They taught me how to be more professional,” he says. He then won a competition that enabled him to perform with the National Ballet of Benin beginning in 1984 at age 16.

“That allowed me the opportunity to travel and perform with that company. I was very honored to be selected.”

Later he joined the Super Anges dance troupe. He was touring the U.S. with that company when he met the woman who is now his wife. The former Karen McCormick, an Omaha native, did a Peace Corps stint in Africa, including service in Ahovissi’s native country, Benin. In Omaha she volunteered with the La Belle Afrique presenting group that brought Ahovissi’s dance company to Omaha in 1999. The two met, fell in love and married. They have two children together. Ahovissi moved to Omaha in 2000 and became a Nebraska Arts Council touring artist in 2001.

Ahovissi sends money back home every month to his large family – he has 21 brothers and sisters living in Benin. “I’m they’re hope,” he says.

No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending North Omaha Food Desert

August 13, 2013 1 comment

A food movement is afoot in the U.S. and organizations like No More Empty Pots in Omaha are on the leading edge of efforts to get people to eat healthier by buying fresh, organic and local and growing their own produce in their own gardens or in community gardens.  My story about No More Empty Pots and the women who run it is in the new issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).  On this blog you can read my stories about related efforts, including pieces on Minne Lusa House, the documentary Growing Cities, and the marriage between the culinary and horitculture programs at Metropolitan Community College.

 

 

Nancy Williams

Susan Whitfield

 

 

 

 

No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending North Omaha Food Desert

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Addressing the food insecurity problems that nag poverty-stricken northeast Omaha, where access to fresh, organic produce, dairy and bread products is limited, are an array of individuals, organizations, projects and initiatives. Many efforts aim to educate residents on how to grow their own food, cook healthier and eat better. That’s part of the mission of a fairly new nonprofit player in the food mosaic, No More Empty Pots (NMEP).

“I want our community to be healthy, I want people to understand the importance of having healthy, nutritious food, I don’t want this community to not have what everybody else has. I also want us to learn we have a right to know how our food is grown, what is being put in it and how it impacts our body. That’s what drives me,” says NMEP program director Susan Whitfield,

Healthy ingredients are important in that designated food desert area whose residents consume mostly processed, packaged and fast foods and a scarcity of fresh, natural items. Unhealthy eating habits contribute to the disproportionately higher rates of diabetes and heart disease among that community’s African American population.

In a district with high unemployment and spotty education there’s also emphasis by NMEP and others on getting people to achieve economic self-sufficiency through their own food businesses, from urban agriculture and catering ventures to food trucks and small eateries.

Launched in 2010, NMEP is dedicated to supporting existing food systems and creating new ones that reach people where they live and given them tools to help themselves.

There are many moving parts in this landscape of needs and delivery systems but NMEP founder Nancy Williams tries keeping it simple.

“NMEP is a backbone organization in the collective impact process for local food systems development,” she says. “We serve as a conduit when needed and a catalyst when necessary. We are trying to help connect entities and fill gaps. We partner, connect, collaborate, initiate and contribute as needed. We try not to duplicate.

“Our neighbors struggling to survive the effects of poverty deserve to have all of us working together with contributions from everybody to develop and implement strategies that work and gets us to self-sufficiency and economic resiliency.”

Besides her scientific background, Williams draws on her experience growing up in Louisiana. Her family and countless others across America employed communal, sustainable food practices that largely fell by the wayside as people became increasingly dependent on mass production. NMEP is part of a continuum of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farm to table programs that seek to revive food activities once routinely engaged in.

Referring to her parents Jesse and Nancy Webber, Williams says, “They grew food because cash was short and family labor, plus land, was available. Cash was used for wealth creation – buying property, starting businesses, paying for education, et cetera. Their parents and other family members had bought land and property doing the same thing, so they did what they knew, improving what they could for us as they learned better. Nobody was rich but education was a priority and having your own stuff was important.”

WillIams worked the communal gardens her family planted, helping harvest a bounty shared with friends and neighbors. She applied her experience to 4H projects, once winning a national competition. The Louisiana State University science graduate earned her master’s in weed science and plant pathology at Cornell University. A job with Dupont brought her to Omaha, where she and her musician husband raised four children. The couple introduced their kids to gardening.

“It was important for us to garden when our children were younger so that they understand where food came from, how to grow it and harvest it and had access to the same good food I grew up with. Now we enjoy supporting local farmers and farmers markets.”

Her experience and expertise long ago planted the seed for the sustainable food work she does today.

“I actually wrote plans for elements of No More Empty Pots in 1999 before I knew any of the folks that helped to get it off the ground.”

Around that same time she directed Omaha’s City Sprouts program, whose mantra of “sustaining communities through gardens” fit her philosophy. Then she and a group of friends began talking about doing something to help alleviate the disparities plaguing northeast Omaha.

“Seeing little change in our neighborhoods and with residents as a result, we decided to take action.”

Informal meetings led to a food summit and monthly forums. NMEP was born from the discourse and partners with many like-minded organizations, including Tomato Tomato and Metropolitan Community College‘s Institute for Culinary Arts and horticulture program.

“Because we are a diverse community and alleviating poverty is complex, there is ample room for multiple strategies,” says Williams.

 

 

 

 

She says everyone comes to food issues from their own vantage point  “but I think maybe others detect a certain authenticity in me,” adding, “I can speak with authority about food and practices in this way because I have lived it and internalized it.”

“I’m passionate about this because I understand the power of good food,” Williams says. “When you have access to it, when you know how to provide it for yourself, when you consume it, when it becomes available on a wider scale for you and your neighbors, I know the overarching impact it can have in your life and the ripple effect it can have in your neighborhood and community from a self-sufficiency and sustenance standpoint, from a nutrition standpoint, from a brain development-child development standpoint, from an economic development standpoint.

“Because if you have access to good food you have more energy and better capacity to do those things well and you can invest those dollars you would have been spending on food on something else. You can also have income from providing that food to others or you can create a value-added product from the food that comes from someone else. So it is what I see as a perfect system for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education and micro enterprise development.”

NMEP or its partners provide everything from cooking demonstrations to food entrepreneurship programs and looks to expand these offerings and add new ones. Everything NMEP does is about education, collaboration and sustainability. Witness one of its new partner programs, Truck Farm Omaha. The mobile garden planted in the bed of a Chevy pickup educates area youth about sustainability. Truck Farm founders-directors Dan Susberg and Andrew Monbouquette, the makers of the new documentary Growing Cities, sees= their project as a perfect fit, just as NMEP sees Big Muddy Urban Farm or Minne Lusa House or Tomato Tomato as natural co-conspirators in this movement toward food security.

“More and more organizations and public entities are asking us to do cooking demonstrations,” says Whitfield. “People are amazed at how simple and easy it is to cook these foods. If you don’t see it, you don’t know.”

NMEP is located in a former Harvester Truck and Tractor sales and service center at 1127 North 20th St., in a mixed used tract of light industrial plants and single family housing units. There are plans to retrofit the 19,000 square foot facility to house The Eleven27 Project, an urban agriculture and food systems innovation zone that will feature shared commercial kitchens, event space, food production, aquaponics systems, workshops, classes and on the surrounding two acres outdoor urban agriculture, hoop houses, raised garden beds and composting.

Williams says 1127 will approach food “from production to processing to distribution to marketing to composting so that we have a full cycle for these products. We will extract the value along that food chain so that we’re maximizing the resources. We will make this sustainable by generating income to cover the education costs as well as the hands on training people are getting while going through the programs. It’s several different levels of sustainability built into this.”

By year’s end NMEP plans to initiate a $3 million-plus fundraising campaign for the renovation.

NMEP has picked a good time to have emerged.

“The universe is conspiring in our favor,” says Whitfield. “Evidence of that is community gardens and farmers markets. There’s been an explosion over the last few years. In supermarkets local foods are starting to take up more and more space. Stores want to reduce that carbon print, they want to know who their small farmers are, they want to know where their food is grown, they want to know what is put on that food.

“People are becoming more and more educated.”

Follow NMEP at nomoreemptypots.org.

 

Lessons in Transforming Lives – Omaha Home for Boys’ Bike Rebuild

July 2, 2013 1 comment

Non-profits are always looking for innovative ways to raise funds and thanks to a Mitchell, S.D. program that gets at-risk kids to work collectively to restore or repair motorcycles under the supervision of adults, the Omaha Home for Boys found a model for its 2013 fundraiser.  My story for Omaha Magazine talks about the inherent lessons that participating residents at the Home and its sister campus, Jacob’s Place, were exposed to in their bike rebuild experience this past spring.

 

 

 

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Lessons in Transforming Lives

Omaha Home for Boys’ Bike Rebuild

Photography by Ken Merchant
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

When a group of Omaha Home for Boys and Jacob’s Place residents helped put the finishing touches on a customized 1999 Harley Davidson motorcycle this May, they accomplished something bigger than themselves.

As participants in OHB’s Horsepower Bike Rebuild Program, the youth worked four months under the supervision of adults to outfit a bare-bones bike with all custom features. That bike, dubbed Mish Mash, is being raffled off this fall and will be awarded to a winner at Omaha Home for Boys’ September 26 fundraiser, Restoring Hearts with Bike Parts. Fittingly, the motivational speaker for the 6 p.m. Hilton Omaha event is actor-producer-director-author Henry Winkler, who earned fame playing the motorcycle-riding character The Fonz on the 1970s TV mega-hit, Happy Days.

Leading up to the event, the bike is being showcased at parades and shows to help boost raffle sales and raise awareness about Omaha Home for Boys’ and Jacob’s Place’s mission, serving youth. Founded in 1920, OHB is a residential program that provides at-risk boys and young men ages 10-18 with family structure, positive reinforcement, and educational support to help them become successful, independent adults. It’s sister program, Jacob’s Place, has a similar mission serving both young men and women ages 17-21.

OHB events manager Trish Haniszewski says the bike rebuild program, which originates out of Mitchell, S.D., is intended to empower youth through structured, hands-on work rebuilding old or damaged bikes.

She says the work the Omaha youth put into salvaging their bike “is symbolic of ‘refurbish a youth, refurbish a life.’” The person she recruited to be the program’s bike mechanic facilitator, Jeremy Colchin of Black Rose Machine Shop, found the experience more meaningful than he expected.

“I learned it’s not so much about getting this bike done…The time with the kids and teaching them something and working as a team and the pride in this they feel as a group is what’s important.” – Jeremy Colchin, Black Rose Machine Shop

“The joy I had after the first night of working with the kids was like nothing I ever experienced before,” says Colchin. “I didn’t expect to get attached to these kids.”

His father, Black Rose owner Mike Colchin, also mentored the youth.

Jeremy says the connection with some youth was immediate and with others, gradual. “You gotta pull them in…We seemed to pull them in in a good way, and that’s what matters. They were having fun when they were here,” says Colchin, who met with the youth Tuesday nights from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Howe Garage on campus. “Every single one of them has been extremely polite and fun to be around and easy to work with. It’s promising.

“I learned it’s not so much about getting this bike done; it’s about using [the process] as a tool for kids. In the big scheme of things, the bike’s the side note. The time with the kids and teaching them something and working as a team and the pride in this they feel as a group is what’s important.”

Colchin says the experience reminded him of when he began working under his father at age 16.

Getting the bike tricked out offered many teachable moments. “I thought it was a real interesting way to use what I know to work with these kids and teach them not just about motorcycles, but about how life works,” Colchin says. “That not everything is straightforward. You have to learn to work around problems, work with other people, and have fun doing it. If I can help someone [teaching them] that, that’s a great thing.”

 

 

 

 

The initial plan was to rebuild a beat-up bike. But when a junker couldn’t be found, the new emphasis became customizing a used one. Learning opportunities still presented themselves.

“When you customize a bike, you run into issues and problems you need to work through and take care of, and we’ve really done a good job accomplishing that,” says Colchin.

Ten to 12 youth participated each week in the bike build, including several girls. Besides taking ratchets, wrenches, and soldering irons to the bike, they came up with a new paint design. Flames on the gas tank include personalized names and sayings from the youth.

Program participant Tony, a Jacob’s Place transitional living resident, says, “It’s been a lot of fun. This was the first time I’ve actually worked on a motorcycle. I’ve always loved taking stuff apart and putting it together just for the heck of it—figuring out what makes stuff work. It’s been a very cool experience.” Tony, 18 and soon to enter the U.S. Marine Corps, says he and his teammates take pride in the work they did.

Of the lucky person who will win the bike in the raffle, Colchin says, “They’re going to be in possession of a Harley that’s customized in a way most guys wish they could afford to do.”

Raffle tickets for the motorcycle will be sold June 28-Sept. 26 and are available by calling Trish Haniszewski at 402-457-7000 or online at omahahomeforboys.org. Tickets to the Restoring Hearts fundraiser can also be purchased on the organizations’s website.

Getting Straight: Compassion in Action Expands Work Serving Men, Women and Children Touched by the Judicial and Penal System


 

Teela Mickles of Omaha has been doing the good work of prison ministry for a long time.  She doesn’t so much preach to offenders as provide them lifelines and guides for transforming themselves and breaking the cycles that landed them in prison in the first place and that led them back in prison after release.  Her Compassion in Action program is expanding to serve men, women, and children touched by the judicial and penal system.  I did an earlier profile of Teela that you can find on this blog.  And I extensively quoted in another piece about programs in Omaha that aid returning citizens.  This new story that follows below will soon appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

Getting Straight: Compassion in Action Expands Work Serving Men, Women and Children Touched by the Judicial and Penal System

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compassion in Action’s move to the former Wesley House campus at 2001 North 35th Street is symbolic for CIA founder-executive director Teela Mickles.

Her nonprofit serving men, women and children touched by the judicial and penal system will return community-based human services to a site that housed Nebraska’s oldest social service agency.

The Wesley House Community Center was a United Methodist Church mission for decades. Most recently, Paul Bryant operated a youth leadership academy there. When it closed in 2010 the Methodists pulled support and the two-building campus, which includes a church, was acquired by the Omaha Economic Development Corporation.

The buildings sat unoccupied until Mickles and OEDC president Michael Maroney reached an agreement for CIA to move operations into the main structure this spring. She’s subleased the church to a Native Assembly congregation pastored by Rev. James Bollinger. CIA and the church will offer a community food pantry.

She hopes to raise $300,000 through donations, grants and fundraisers to support operations the first year. Proceeds from a June 28 Performance for Peace event at the Kroc Center, 2825 Y Street, will go to CIA. The 6:30 p.m. event will feature live music performers, spoken word artists and dancers.

Mickles is also seeking donated materials and labor to address various building needs.

For Mickles. who’s added extensive youth services to the CIA mission, moving from her home to a building with multiple office, meeting and classroom spaces, made sense. But relocating to this northeast Omaha site is also personal. She grew up in a home where the center now sits.

Maroney, the man entrusting Mickles with the place’s legacy, has warm memories of Wesley House. He worked there on three separate occasions. The organization he runs today was birthed there, as were other black-run enterprises, including a bank and radio station.

“It had meant so much over the years, particularly back in the late ’60s and early-mid ’70s when it actually was doing things unprecedented in terms of creating those entities,” says Maroney. “That’s why we were careful to ensure we leased it to an organization that continues to add value to the community going forward.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mickles appreciates that past and intends on being a positive force in a community reeling from gang violence, truancy, dropouts, teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

“I think these things could be prevented if people were aware of the root causes and were willing to go after those root causes,” she says.

It’s why she’s partnering with a gang prevention program. Raw Dawgs Youth Corps, whose focus is boys, and with two programs, ICARE Youth Services and IMAGES, whose focus is girls. Kainette Jones runs ICARE and Helen Wakefield runs IMAGES. The women laud Mickles for her commitment to empower people to change their lives.

The LITE (Ladies in Training Everyday) Mentoring Partnership for at-risk girls is a collaborative between CIA, ICARE, IMAGES and the city.

“Kainette works with girls who are in the judicial system, Helen works with girls in the public schools system and I work with girls locked up –in detention. The girls can come out of my program and go into the other programs,” says Mickles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s akin to the human and social services once offered at Wesley.

“There’s a lot of history here,” Mickles notes. “Mike Maroney didn’t want to give it to just anyone, he wanted to keep it in the community, he wanted to keep it doing what it’s supposed to do with its history of serving families and reaching our little kids. And I have my own history with it because at age 10 my mother and father sold our home and two adjoining lots so the Wesley House could be built. There’s a tree my dad put a tire in so I could swing.

“So I’m coming back home. It’s amazing I’ve come full circle and am back where I started.”

She’s coming with an ambitious plan, too.

“This is a major opportunity for Compassion in Action to expand with all the organizations I partner with to keep our babies from going through that cycle. We’re going to break a whole lot of cycles.”

Mickles, a certified Assemblies of God minister and an addiction counselor, has worked with incarcerated folks for 30 years.

As part of her faith-based work she’s developed a curriculum to help inmates prepare for life on the outside. She also trains individuals and organizations dealing with offenders.

For inmates to buy into a program, she says, “it’s gotta be personal, it’s gotta be on their terms.” Her early work with women taught her that preparation before release is key.

“It dawned on me that we have to work with them before they get out — there’s too much pressure, not enough time. We have to connect with their kids. We have to get volunteer families to work with the children while mom’s incarcerated, let the kids know they are being brought into an environment of safety and education and help build some bridges prior to mom getting out. The women need practical things, like maybe job skills, education, a place to live, transportation. They need all these things in place before they get out.”

Many of the same things hold true for male offenders.

Much groundwork is laid with clients before they ever leave prison.

“We work with them three to six to nine months prior to their release. We’re able to determine how best to serve them, to connect with family members they want us to connect with, and to prepare a support team tailored to their development and interests. For example, if they’re in for a drug-related crime then we know we have to get a team together to address that piece.”

Family reconciliation can take time. The focus must first be on recovery.

Education is another emphasis. “The GED program is offered in prison but most people don’t take advantage of it,” she says.

For a time she operated CIA transitional homes where returning citizens stayed in preparation for “independent living.” That included making residents employable. Today, she refers ex-offenders to transitional living and employment programs.

Her work received a U.S. Department of Education Urban Community Service grant administered by the University of Nebraska at Omaha to provide parent education to women in prison.

“We had some really good results.”

In 2005 her work with men expanded when CIA became a partner with the Nebraska Department of Corrections providing services for the federally-mandated Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

She says, “A man has to feel some type of significance in order to continue his survival. These men are not dead. There’s a lot of intelligence, creativity behind those walls.You’d be surprised how a light comes on. But the problem is they’re not able to express that behind the walls.”

She believes men need encouragement and guidance from other men inside and outside the yard. “A man I think needs to take him down the journey.” Finding enough mentors is a challenge.

She’s proud that CIA’s become a trusted provider.

“Our specialty is prerelease education, reentry preparation. We know all the resources necessary for them to connect but we won’t send you someone who did not commit to working on themselves while they were still locked up. If they’re not willing to do that that means when they come out they’re going to continue to play games. We address all that on the inside. Their heart has to change.

“We let them know there are opportunities for them to make a change. There were things that happened to them when they were young. It was a process. So we help them look at that process. We work well with individuals who are committed to the discovery of their own purpose and own true personal worth. I believe validation breeds motivation for education to find their vocation.

“If you’re going to do that work, and it’s very difficult and meaningful, then you can come out here and be anything you want.”

In her experience those who make it follow a common path.

“When they stick to their plan, they will succeed and God is always at the core of that. Their gifts and plans had to be spiritually connected because they tried everything else and it didn’t work,” she says.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mickles has many success stories among CIA graduates. One, Tracie Ward, works as her program manager while pursuing a master’s degree in health and human services.

Ward, says Mickles, found herself “in the wrong place at the wrong time “and ended up incarcerated when her children were still young.

Ward says she’s come a long way with the help of Mickles and others.

“Her program is faith-based which I believe is foundational for a lot of people transforming from something old into something new,” says Ward. “I call myself living proof because I’m living proof of overcoming a lot of things. Although I may have made mistakes I am also an overcomer and an achiever.

“I was able to tap more into my spiritual beliefs and that’s what helped me get through a lot of what I was going through. Miss Teela believes in people, she believes in validation, she believes in inspiring a person, she never comes off judgmental.”

Ward says it’s essential returning citizens find individuals like Mickles “that will see past your past.” She adds, “My past does not define me. I am who I am today, Years of sobriety. An associate’s degree. Great accomplishments. I love being the grandmother I am today.”

During her incarceration her three sons were matched with a volunteer family Mickles recruited and trained to act as a support system.

“They were able to fill in in some of the areas my family needed some assistance in,” Ward says. “Being able to keep that bond while you’re away is a big part of transitioning back into society or into your family or into your role as a mother. It kind of makes or breaks the relationship.”

The family remained engaged with Ward and her sons until she was free and reunited with her children. Now Ward’s using her own experience to help young women facing similar challenges as she did.

Mickles increasingly sees her work as a continuum. The problems that land adults in prison, she says, start early in life and tend to repeat from generation to generation.

“The men that are locked up all say the same thing – that they joined the gang for a sense of belonging. That’s a mandate on society that young men will be OK with getting the crap beat out of them so they can belong and young girls will be OK with having the option of being gang-raped so they can belong. Shame on us.

“The gangs are out there taking our kids. We need to consider an option the boys can go to where they can belong that’s positive. That’s how CIA got into what we’re doing now. All the pieces started falling in place. We’ve got the whole spectrum covered.”

 

 

 

 

 

She recently began working with young men at the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility.

“The boys are just like the men, once you get to that little child inside they let you know everything,” she says. “And there’s a fear factor. They don’t like what they have done, they don’t like the choices they have made, but they don’t think they have options. They are looking to die before they’re 25 or to spend their life in prison. That’s what the path of life looks like to them.

“When these young men graduate from my class they’re asking, ‘What is your main fear about being free?’ They say, ‘My life.’ It all stems from having been engaged with gangs. If someone had a tiff with you from back in the day they will find you. So that gun thing comes into play here. These guys really are holding their piece because there’s somebody that might come after them. It’s dangerous.”

Mickles advocates Interrupting the cycle before it starts.

“What if we don’t let the kids get the guns in the first place? What if we gave them an option?”

That’s where Raw Dawgs comes in. The Atlanta, Ga.-based program’s founder, Joseph Jennings, expects to have it up and running here by the fall.

“The Raw Dawgs program will provide that alternative to gang membership for boys 7 to 18,” says Mickles. “It’s an incentive program. Tutors will work with kids to help with their academics. Mentors will help with their home life. Kids will be rewarded. It’s a youth corps, military-style program. The kids will be drilled.

“We’re hoping that within five years with all the operations and networks we have here that we will see a reduction in bullying and dropouts and incarceration of our young people. We don’t need another prison, we need more people working together to help our babies see another perspective so they can get out of this situation before they get into it.”

Mickles enlists male lifers in the state pen to write cautionary letters to incarcerated young men at NYCF to provide a dose of truth from those who’ve walked in their shoes. The author of one letter writes:

“Little homeys,

“It’s no help to stay bitter and angry…Yes, its easier to be that way because you don’t have to be strong enough to own up to your own bad actions…You don’t have to be strong enough to accept the help offered to you…Bitterness and anger make it easy to hide, I get it. I don’t have no magic words or cure to fix your situation, whatever it is. There’s no simple or fast resolution here…

“Ultimately I have learned no one else has the answer…we are the ones with the answer. If you want life to get better you have to be one who works for it and when you slip up you have to be the one who faces that and fixes things as you get back on track. Never give up on you. Just the fact you have someone who has handed or read to you this letter means there are others who haven’t given up on you. 

“I make you a promise, homey, you don’t give up on yourself and I wont give up on you, and one day we’ll look back on life and be thankful we chose to have all the courage to fight for our lives back and to make things better for everyone around us. That’s the power of the divine spirit in each of us, that’s the power of our humanity at its best. 

“Be strong.”

Mickles says the inmates who pen the letters “are real excited about having something to make their lives significant. They desperately want to be able to give back to the community in some way.”

She says the young men who receive the letters and complete her curriculum “have been changed – they’re excited about a new life they can have.” All of CIA’s work is about keeping offenders from recidivism and diverting young people from poor choices that result in doing time.

“It’s too expensive to keep people housed in prison when you can spend less money preparing them to become a taxpayer and a contributing member of the community,” she says. “Agencies are being forced to consider this population as individuals rather than as a number or a label and so there’s a lot of community awareness. The community is connecting to the fact these are people.”

She says the best deterrent to criminal behavior starts in childhood.

“If we validate our kids at a very early age and they feel they’re special they’re going to make the right choices.”

It’s a mixed bag in terms of how CIA participants do once they’re out of a correctional facility.

“For the most part I’ve learned not to have expectations,” says Mickles. “There have been times when I thought, OK, we did this and this and therefore this result should happen, and it didn’t happen. and it made me feel like I failed and it made me try to figure out what was missing, as if it depended upon me.” Now, she’s come to realize her job “is to plant seeds and treat everyone with respect and unconditional love, but it’s not up to me to fix them.

“You can present the same opportunities to people and some individuals will not only misuse and abuse that but they will end up back in prison. No matter what we do, no matter what we provide, it depends on their willingness to make it happen.”

For tickets to the June 28 event call 402-451-4500.

Keep up with CIA at compassioninaction.com.

Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Slam Poetry Festival: “the point is the poetry, the point is the people”

April 11, 2013 2 comments

 

If your usual reaction to poetry is along the lines of “Ugh” or “No thanks” than be prepared to undergo a conversion when you attend a slam poetry event.  It’s hard to imagine not being carried away by the sheer exuberance, courage, passion, and talent displayed at one of these celebrations of words and ideas.  The Louder Than a Bomb  Omaha Youth Poetry Festival is a prime example of all this and more at work.  My story about it in The Reader (www.thereader.com) is repurposed here.  Check out the team finals this Friday, April 12 at Creighton University.  The individual finals are April 21 at UNL.  Even if you think you don’t like poetry, you’ll find yourself getting hooked and cheering and applauding poets the way you do musicians or actors or athletes.

 

 

 

 

 

Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Slam Poetry Festival: “the point is the poetry, the point is the people”

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

As the Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival draws to a close after weeks of preliminary bouts and last Sunday’s semi-finals, it appears slam poetry is a new outlet for that rite-of-passage known as adolescence.

The 2013 team finals pitting defending champion Duchesne, Lincoln North Star, Lincoln High and Omaha Central are April 12 at 7 p. dm. in the Hixson-Lied Auditorium at Creighton University‘s Harper Center. The event is free and open to the public.

Poets serve as coaches of participating teams from public and private, inner city and suburban schools and community organizations.

“I love the mix of different schools and geography we have represented,” says Omaha poet and festival director Matt Mason.

He also loves how slam poetry brings together cool kids and nerds. “There’s the football player and the chess player and the golf kid, all lined up on the same team helping each other,” says Mason. “Teachers report this is an approach to poetry that reaches students not reached very much in classes. Asking them to write and perform and tell their stories really opens something up in them and makes them appreciate what’s happening at school rather than sitting there with a bad look on their face.”

Teams prime themselves for a season of poetry concentration.

“We treat this as if it were a sports activity at a school where teams start practicing, getting ready for competition, doing workshops and scrimmages in the fall, and then there’s the big tournament (festival) in the spring,” he says.

There are scores and standings but Mason says it’s more a celebration of creatively expessing ideas and feelings.

Duchesne team member Gina Keplinger repeats a festival slogan “the point is the poetry, the point is the people,” adding, “Poetry is bigger than stages and pages and microphones.”

The often achingly intimate poetic reveries explore love and loss, identity issues, social woes, and everything human. Westside team member Lia Hagen’s “Inappropriate” is a satirical critique of gayphobia. Lincoln North Star team member Shatice Archie’s “My Two Inch Thick Mattress” is about homelessness.

“The thing that continually impresses me is the way the students so directly and honestly address the most challenging issues in their lives…nothing is out-of-bounds or too personal for them,” says Westside and Central coach Greg Harries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fest is put on by the Mason-led Nebraska Writers Collective, which sends poets into area schools. When a documentary profiling a Chicago youth slam poetry competition caused a buzz here he rode that impetus to organize the first LTAB Omaha slam in 2012. Twelve teams competed then. The field grew to 19 teams this year, for him a signal of slam poetry’s growing popularity.

“I think more and more it is getting into the culture. It wasn’t just the movie that got kids onto slam poetry teams. YouTube made more people aware of it. What we did last year created a kind of momentum, so that we’ve got students trying to get LTAB teams into their schools because they’ve got friends on a LTAB team. So it’s spreading now from the kids themselves. They are the best advocates because they’re excited about it and their friends see how excited they are.”

Slam’s competitive aspects are real but not paramount. Judges award points for individual and team performances. Performers with the highest cumulative marks keep advancing. Audiences are encouraged to express their appreciation and do so with applause, finger snaps, cheers. Mason’s impressed that competitors don’t seem as caught up in the winning or losing as they do in the shared experience.

“What’s really exciting for me is to see how these students support each other and support other teams. They’re cheering for their own team because it’s a competition but when somebody from another team does something they like they’re the first ones on their feet.

“These kids just want to see good stuff and so they get excited when they see it.”

Keplinger says, “Being cheered on, complimented and genuinely congratulated by poets who were not members of my team was a welcome surprise.”

“There’s a competition but there’s also a recognition and acceptance of each other’s talents,” says Lincoln High English teacher Deborah McGinn. “The camaraderie is based on words and language. The energy is just sky high.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mason’s enthused the fest is growing the state’s poetry community.

“We’ve held poetry slams for students for years in the area and they’ve been decent, we’ve seen some good work, but it hasn’t had anywhere near this level of talent and just really polished work. I mean, the talent level is just through the roof. I think that goes back to our coaches working with schools for months, not just coming in and doing a one-off workshop.

“A fair amount of our coaches are coaching a team for the second time. I think the work shows that these kids are growing and really speaking about issues the audience responds to and doing it in a way that really brings them alive.”

The individual finals are April 21 at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, For details, visit ltabomaha.org or http://www.facebook.com/ltabomaha.

 

Ex-Reporter Eileen Wirth Pens Book on Nebraska Women in Journalism and their Leap from Society Page to Front Page

March 22, 2013 3 comments

Women journalists cover anything and everything today.  They work in all facets of media.  But there was a time, and not so long ago at that, when they were restricted to a narrow range of reporting topics and jobs.  There were always exceptions to that rule.  Here and there, pioneering women journalists defied conventions and overturned stereotypes to file assignments and fill roles traditionally prescribed for men only.  A new book by Eileen Wirth profiles some of the revolutionary figures among Nebraska women journalists over the last century.  Wirth is a pioneer or revolutionary herself.  She became one of the first modern women in city news at the Omaha World-Herald in the late 1960s-early 1970s, then she broke the gender barrier in the public relations at Union Paciific, before becoming the first female chair of the Journalism Department at Creighton University, where she oversees what’s now called the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing.  Her book, From Society Page to Front Page, is published by the University of Nebraska Press.  It’s officially out in May.  My story about Wirth and the female journalists she writes about whose lives and careers advanced the cause of women both inside and outside the media field will appear in the April 2013 New Horizons.  This blog contains several stories by me about journalists in print, radio, and television.

 

 

Eileen Wirth

 

 

Ex-Reporter Eileen Wirth Pens Book on Nebraska Women in Journalism and their Leap from Society Page to Front Page

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the New Horizons

 

Eileen Wirth doesn’t seem to fit the part of a revolutionary but that’s exactly what she’s been during her three careers. Wherever she’s worked, whether as a reporter or public relations practitioner or academic, she’s broken gender barriers.

As the women’s liberation movement played out from the 1960s through the 1980s she fought the good fight for equal rights, only not in the street or in the courtroom but by challenging male chauvinism, sexism and discrimination in newsrooms, offices and boardrooms. Her feminist predecessors fought similar battles as suffragists from the late 19th century through the immediate post-World War II era.

She says the struggles women endured to open new opportunities in the workplace is a story she feels deeply about, especially the stories of women in her own profession of journalism.

In the course of researching her new book, From Society Page to Front Page, Nebraska Women in Journalism, Wirth developed a deep appreciation for and kinship with maverick women who preceded her in the field she loves. She documents dozens of women of high achievement, many of whom she never previously knew about, and the obstacles they faced to work as publishers, editors, reporters. PR professionals and media moguls.

Some ran small weeklies, some made their names as columnists with local newspapers, others as reporters with national wire services and major metropolitan dailies. One woman covered the White House. Three women covered the Starkweather murder spree in great detail. Beverly Deepe became the longest serving American correspondent of the Vietnam War.

Mildred Brown became one of America’s only black newspaper publishers. Cathy Hughes is still running a media empire. Other women are still doing their thing as well.

“In writing the stories of these women it became a journey of self discovery,” says Wirth. “I identified so strongly with these women and with their struggles and their achievements. Both of my sisters had national level careers and I’ve always been in Omaha, but I realized we need to redefine what we mean by female achievement. We have too often downplayed the local, the personal, the balancing act of career and family. I don’t think our society values that enough. One of the things I hope this book does is really give recognition to women who juggled both.”

 

 

 

 

She also hopes the book gets some deserving women elected to the Nebraka Journalism Hall of Fame, where there are cases of men inducted there whose wives are not, even though the wives were co-editors and publishers and full partners of small weeklies.

Wirth says doing the book proved both an awakening and an education for her.

“What was amazing to me is that we had so many absolutely remarkable Nebraska women in journalism. Even as someone who has spent her entire life in journalism and more recently teaching journalism history, if you had asked me to name them I probably couldn’t have named five or six, until you get to the ’50s when I knew some of these people. But even then I was finding people right and left.”

The finding took considerable effort. “It took a lot of digging to find most of them,” she says.  “This book is nothing but a huge reporting process. I went to people and said, ‘Who do you know about, what am I missing?’ I went to sources and people would tell me stuff and I would follow up on leads.”

Elia Peattie, a popular Omaha World-Herald writer from the late 19th century into the and early 20th century, is a prime example of someone Wirth found..

“If I were going to pick one woman in the book I fell absolutely passionately in love with it was Elia Peattie. Hardly anybody has heard of her. I resonated to her. She wrote a column that in some ways is very similar to the Mike Kelly columns of today’s Omaha World-Herald. This was before they had social or women’s pages. She’s kind of the World-Herald’s entree into that.

“She came to Omaha in the 1880s. She had been a society girl on a Chicago paper. She got a woman’s column at the Herald. This is when women’s news was in its infancy and the reason why women’s news was created in the first place was for advertisers. Women could not vote and the headlines were mostly about politics and crime, and if you look at the lives of women in the 1880s this just wasn’t relevant to them. They were working incredibly long days, raising large families, taking in work. They had very hard lives.

“Advertisers pressured the papers to do something to attract women readers because women were the primary shoppers. This was in an age when advertising was exploding. And the Herald hired Elia Peattie to write a column about women and apparently they put almost no restrictions on her. It was up to her to define what would interest women. Well, what she thought would interest women was apparently anything that interested her, which was everything.”

 

 

Elia Peattie

 

 

Wirth admires Peattie’s range.

“A professor from the University of Nebraska-Kearney compiled her columns in a book and I was blown away because it was reading a social history of the city in the 1880s. I mean, she has everything from this wonderful description of a young Bohemian slaughtering cows down at the Cudahy plant to a nursing sister at St. Joseph Hospital to the people riding a streetcar to showgirls. She did a very sympathetic portrait of the African American community when racism was horrible.

“She did some hilarious satirical columns about Omaha society people and why did they have to go back East to buy finery when they could buy anything they wanted in Omaha.”

Peattie’s community service involvement also appeals to Wirth, who has a strong service bent herself.

“Peattie ran for the school board when that was the only office women could run for or vote for. She was also one of the founders of the Omaha Woman’s Club. It was a way of localizing the city’s upper class women to do social work stuff. Nationally the woman’s club movement got behind the needs of working women in factories.”

All these activities made Peattie a popular figure.

“She became a larger than life personality,” says Wirth.

Another reason to like Peattie, according to Wirth, is “the work she did to bring together the handful of women journalists in the state. She documented a great deal about fellow women journalists. A lot of my best material came from work she did and recorded for history. She gathered the names of women active in journalism in the 1880s and 1890s. That was invaluable.”

Peattie’s become something of a hero to Wirth.

“One of the other reasons I resonated to Elia Peattie is that while she was writing this column her husband got very ill and it was up to her to support the family. She was writing everything right and left to make money to keep the family going and as a former working mother raising two children I just totally identified with her.

“If she was alive today she’d be running half the city, she’d be writing a blog.”

She might be publishing her own newspaper or magazine, ala Arrianna Huffington.

Wirth also writes about the one certifiable superstar among Nebraska-bred women reporters – Bess Furman.

“If you were going to pick a single woman that was our state’s most distinguished contribution to journalism it would probably be Bess Furman Armstrong,” says Wirth. “She was remarkable and she spanned a lot of eras. She was once referred to as a flapper journalist for her work in Omaha in the ’20s. She was what we would now call a liberated young woman writing rather risque satirical stuff about Omaha. She covered bootleggers and weird crimes down in Little Italy. She wrote this saucy column about Omaha’s most eligible bachelors.”

 

 

Bess Furman Armstrong

 

 

Furman was a product of her post-Victorian emancipated times.

“The ’20s were a wonderful period for women,” notes Wirth. “They had gotten the vote, there were more economic and education opportunities. She loved Omaha and she probably would have stayed except she worked for the Omaha Bee and when it  was purchased by William Randolph Hearst she wanted out and when the opportunity came to leave she did.

“With women now having the vote the Bee needed somebody to write the women’s angle to politics. When Al Smith came to give a speech in Omaha in his 1928 campaign she got assigned to cover it and she wrote such a good story that she won a major journalism award for it and the head of the ;Associated Press who was in town with Al Smith offered her a job in Washington (DC) and she took it. Timing is everything.”

Furman made an immediate impression on Capitol Hill

Wirth says, “She was one of the first women to be allowed on the floor of the House of Representatives. She was assigned to cover First Lady Lou Hoover, who absolutely hated journalists. One time in order to write a story about what the Hoovers were doing for Christmas she dressed up like a Girl Scout” and infiltrated a troop visiting the White house. The ruse worked, too.

“When Hoover got beaten by FDR Eleanor Roosevelt started holding women’s only press conferences in order to force papers to give jobs to women,” says Wirth. “She and Eleanor Roosevelt hit it off wonderfully. Furman and her husband hit it off so well with the Roosevelts that they took home movies of the Roosevelts. When Bess became pregnant she decided she wanted her child to have a Neb. birth certificate, so she drove back here in the middle of the Dust Bowl to have her physician brother deliver what turned out to be twins. She brought with her a baby blanket Eleanor knitted her, and that got reported and went nationwide. Postmaster General (James) Farley sent her $10 worth of flowers and that was such a big order they had to send a special train.”

Furman later she did war information work during World War II and then joined the New York Times as one of its first female political reporters.

“She ended her career as the public information officer for the Department of Health Education and Welfare under Kennedy. Bess Furman may have gone to Washington but she was very deeply a Nebraska person and remained so for her whole life,” says Wirth.

Bringing to light women of distinction she feels connected to is satisfying to Wirth.

“Oh yeah, these are my people. We’re out of the same background, the same occupation. Yeah, I felt a very strong affinity with these women. I really found myself as I was writing about them feeling like I knew them and wishing I could actually have known them. I guess I felt especially this way with the women who wrote books, so you got a real feel for them, you weren’t just getting them second hand, you were getting their own take on the world.

“Their struggles were things I could totally identify with. You don’t have to be a journalist to feel this way about these women. Their humanity, their humor, the way they overcame obstacles with grace and courage and dignity, their persistence. To have careers like theirs was pretty daunting but they did it. I identified with the fact they juggled the personal and the professional and really probably never lost sight of either one.

“Culturally, anyone who has Neb. roots would identify with their style. Most of them let their work speak for them, which is what a journalist usually does.”

 

 

Mary McGrath

 

 

One that Wirth did get to know well is Mary McGrath, who preceded her at the Herald and labored 12 years in club news before becoming a highly respected health and medicine reporter. McGrath helped the green female reporters like Wirth negotiate the male-dominated newsroom.

“Mary McGrath was really the pioneer in city news at the Omaha World-Herald,” says Wirth. “She made a huge difference.”

Wirth recalls McGrath organizing potlucks for the paper’s women journalists and how these occasions became vital airing out and strategizing forums.

“It was a support system and an expression of solidarity. It was a safe place to bounce off ideas. If we would have said we were having a consciousness raising session the older women wouldn’t have gone, but to throw a potluck, how more Midwestern could you get? Mary knew the young women on staff were increasingly militant and she knew how smart and talented they were and she knew they were not writing about who was having who to coffee because they wanted to. She broke down the barrier between the two sections (city news and women’s news) by having those potlucks.

“The guys never had a clue what was going on.

Wirth says the Omaha Press Club served the same function for women in journalism across different media. “It was a great way to get to know other women journalists. You realized you were not alone.” Wirth adds, “A sociologist at Iowa State told me if you’re going to get social change made you have to have a cohort and in a sense you could look at the potlucks or the friendship ties that women journalists formed through the Press Club is how we had a cohort. There were enough of us who felt the same way to make a difference and it really made me feel for women of earlier eras who were one of a kind, out there on their own, whereas

I could go cry on Mary’s shoulder or vice versa .”

Each pioneering woman journalist in her own way contributed to the women’s rights cause and helped move their peers a little further along than before.

“There was a movement afoot. That was how this revolution was waged – one tiny step at a time.”

All those steps taken together made big changes, which is why Wirth was so offended when a feminist of high stature, former First Lady Hilary Clinton, was subjected to sexist coverage during her 2008 presidential campaign bid. The way Clinton was dismissed felt to Wirth like a slap in the face and a setback given how far women have come and what they’ve endured to get there.

“It was very disrespectful to women of our era,” says Wirth. It was like, Don’t they realize what we went through? Most of the Baby Boomers fought very quietly to infiltrate, to get a seat at the table, and nobody knew what it had taken to integrate the American workplace. That was my inspiration for writing the book.

“The women involved have kept silent about what they did because that’s how they were able to do it. We were a minority. The women were mostly just asking to practice the field they loved and were good at. They weren’t asking for special treatment.”

Much like the civil rights movement, the women’s movement gained its biggest victories through mass protests, the passage of new laws and court decisions, but there were many smaller, no less important victories won every day by ordinary women asserting their rights.

“When you look at coverage of the women’s movement it all focuses on things like lawsuits and militant demonstrations and you couldn’t do that in a city like Omaha if you intended to go on working in journalism. It wasn’t like you had a union that would protect you or a vast choice of employers, and for most of us that wasn’t our style anyway,” says Wirth.

Big, loud, public displays, she says, “weren’t the only way women made progress.”

Most of the change, she says, was the result of “the stealth revolution.” She adds that “KETV News Director Rose Ann Shannon said it very well when she told me, ‘I always felt I was dealing with reasonable people and we could work problems out.’ I too found that if you could have a reasonable conversation with somebody you could make progress. You were not going to change things overnight.”

She says there’s still work to be done, such as closing the pay gap between the sexes and shattering the glass ceiling that still limits women from advancing the way men do.

“But it’s sure better than what it was in 1970, and those changes were made nationwide by unsung young women quietly sticking their necks out on relatively small things over and over again.”

She says “it kind of boggles the mind” of her students to realize that as late as the 1970s women were still marginalized in journalism. “When you tell this to girls today they’re like, What? They can’t believe it, which I guess shows that we succeeded. They take it for granted.”

Wirth grew up in a large, high-achieving Nebraska City farm family whose parents set high academic standards and expectations for their children. Wirth loved reading and showed a knack for writing early on. She intended on being a history major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln until her father insisted she take a journalism course.

“What really made me into a journalist  besides Dad ordering me to take the class was working on the Daily Nebraskan and I still think of as ‘the rag.’ It was so much fun. I fell in love with journalism people. The women were strong, funny, delightful, intelligent people and the guys wouldn’t have had us be any order way. I had found myself.”

When Wirth went to work for the World-Herald in 1969 she became one of the paper’s few female news reporters and right up to leaving its employ in 1980 she and women colleagues there, along with women at t countless other workplaces, waged that “quiet revolution” to bring about change.

“When women said, No, I’m not going to get you coffee, that’s not part of my job description, they were part of this revolution,” she says.

So was Wirth when she brought to the attention of an editor the fact that some young males colleagues hired the same time she was had received new section assignments while she was still in the religion beat she began in three years before.

“I’m a contemporary of Steve Jordon and Mike Kelly and both of them had had a couple of assignment changes, and I thought I was as talented as they were and I certainly worked as hard as they did. I told my editor, ‘If you’re doing this for the guys then you should treat the two groups the same. There shouldn’t be a difference. You should give young women the same opportunities as young men.”

She got the assignment change she desired.

At a time when female journalists were confined to covering only certain subjects, such as religion or society news or women’s news, her work made the case that women were capable of covering anything.

“There was a lot of hesitancy about assigning women to cover cops, which was fine with me because I hated it, but I covered them every Saturday for years simply because I wanted to show that a woman could do it.

“There was a lot talk that women couldn’t cover politics because they couldn’t get stories in bars and nonsense like that. There was real hesitancy about sending women to certain places. The ironical thing is that my religion beat in the early ’70s was at a time when the churches were heavily involved in the civil rights movement, so under the guise of covering religion I was actually doing a tremendous amount of civil rights coverage.

“I never regretting spending those three years on religion but I felt like I wanted to grow, to expand, to try new things.”

She also had the opportunity to take on occasional stories that struck a blow for women’s rights by shining a light on gender inequities.

“Quite a few of the stories I did were aimed at showing this inequality.”

 

 

Connie Claussen

 

 

Take the time that former University of Nebraska at Omaha women’s coach and athletic director Connie Claussen called to say she was fed up with the unfair and unequal treatment she experienced at the beginning of her career there. Claussen, whom Wirth describes as “a force of nature, a great lady.” was an equal rights champion who served on the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women.

Claussen eventually built a much envied women’s athletic department at UNO featuring championship programs but that legacy almost ended before it started because of how frustrated she was with the short end of the stick offered her and her student-athletes. Before Title IX was passed women’s athletics were separate and unequal in every way.

Wirth recalls, “Connie called one Saturday and said, ‘I’ve had it, I’m not going to do it anymore, I’m not going to teach a full load of physical education classes and coach two or three sports for nothing extra.’” Wirth was sympathetic. “No male would ever coach a (college) sport for free. Women’s athletics were housed in a quonset hut with no showers. I thought, Well this is a sports story and I went over to the UNO beat reporter and he yelled at me, ‘Women sports are a joke, there’s no story here.’ He practically threw me out of the sports department. So I went over to the city desk and they said, Oh yeah, great story. I wrote it and they put it on page one of the Sunday paper. It stirred up enough indignation and attention that Connie ran with it and she got the support she needed to build an outstanding program.

“And I think that was one of the major things we did as women journalists – we were approachable, we were interested in the problems.”

Another story resulted when Doris Royal, a farm wife from Springfield, Neb., called Wirth and in her gravely voice asked, “Are you interested in stories on women?”

“She told me a lot of farm women were losing the family farm operation because of inheritance taxes. The IRS said farms belong to the husband. The only way a woman could escape paying inheritance taxes on a family farm or family small business if she became a widow was if she had worked in town, so she could show she made an economic contribution or if she had brought family inheritance into it.

“A lot of women on farms had worked side by side, they’d driven the tractor and milked the cows, they’d done all the farm work, plus kept the books, and of course that doesn’t account for all their work in the home. But the IRS in effect said, You have made no contribution. Well, that was driving women off the farm because they couldn’t afford it. Land prices had gone up. So Doris started a petition drive and she wanted me to cover a story on it, so I did, I looked into all this stuff. I grew up on a farm and I was horrified, I was shocked, I had no idea. I wrote the story and Doris leveraged my story in the World-Herald to get the Farm Journal, which is the nation’s largest farm magazine, to take up the crusade.

“Doris got petition signatures from every state, she testified before Congress. This woman’s amazing, and they got the law changed.”

Wirth did an entire series on inequitable credit practices that devalued and punished women. “If a woman got married and changed her name she immediately lost all of her credit history,” says Wirth. “Banks assumed the credit rating belonged to the husband even if the women worked full time and could document it.”

With stories like these to file, Wirth’s work was fulfilling enough but when she and her then-husband Ron Psota decided to start a family she knew the demands of her work and the inflexibility of her employer would make motherhood and reporting incompatible. Besides, she was ready for a change.

“It was still the era when women were fired if they got pregnant. My ex-husband and I had been approved to adopt a child and at the World Herald at that time there was no way you could be a reporter and a mother. You had to work 12 and 15 hour days at the drop of a hat if some story broke.”

Making it easier to leave, she says, was the fact that “after 11 years I was burned out on reporting. It was time.”

When hired as the first woman outside of secretaries or receptionists to work in the Union Pacific public relations department she broke down the doors of what had been an exclusive boys-only club. She didn’t appreciate it when one of the old gang complained that she was a token hire to conform with Equal Employment Opportunity and affirmative action policies.

“A crusty old guy who didn’t begin to have my educational credentials and who couldn’t write protested that they had had to hire a woman.”

The bosses set him straight, she says by stating, ‘We hired someone who could write.’ Period. End of story.

Then in 1991 she joined the teaching staff at Creighton University, where in addition to her professor’s role she later became that Jesuit institution’s first female chair of the Department of Journalism (now called the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing). Teaching college is something she always knew was in her future and making a difference in the lives of her students is what most satisfies her about academia.

She’s glad that her book gives students an appreciation for who came before them.

“I think it is very important for my students, especially my female students. You want to give them a sense of what went before so when they invariably face some challenges they will do so with grace and with confidence knowing that women like themselves have conquered similar challenges.”

Wirth’s book, published by the University of Nebraska Press, is available starting May 1.

 

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