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Big Mama, Bigger Heart: Serving Up Soul Food and Second Chances

October 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Patricia Givens Barron of Omaha has branded herself and her business under the Big Mama’s name and it’s working out well for her and her family.  Their soul food restaurant has been featured on the Food Network and other cable food shows, she’s been written up about a number of times, and the success has spawned a satellite sandwich shop.  She’s made her place a real community gathering spot, even hosting a monthly community forum called the Hungry Club.  In line with her heart for her African American community and its disproportionate numbers in and out of prison, she’smade a point of  hiring returning citizens when they leave prison.  It’s a personal mission for her because two of her daughers served time and she saw how much they struggled to find a second chance.  I wrote this proifile of Patricia for Omaha Magazine. You can find an earlier profile I wrote about her on this blog.

 

 

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Big Mama, Bigger Heart

Serving Up Soul Food and Second Chances

October 1, 2014 by 
Photography by Keith Binder

 

Patricia Givens Barron, the woman behind Big Mama’s Kitchen in North Omaha, is known for her soul food. And for giving folks who’ve run afoul of the law a second chance.

Her desire to give individuals reentering society a break is not some vague, do-gooder’s impulse; rather, it’s a deeply felt advocacy and activist calling borne of personal experience and heartache.

The North Omaha native grew up the daughter of popular band leader Basie Givens. After a four-year U.S. Navy hitch, then decades in the telecommunications industry, Barron, who did catering on the side, opened her restaurant in 2007. Her interest in giving a helping hand began long before—when two of her daughters went to prison.

“It was such a shock,” Big Mama says, “because they had been raised in a Christian home with a mother and a father.”

Even after serving time and turning their lives around, her daughters struggled finding societal acceptance.

“They finished college. One became a counselor and the other one a nurse, only you could not get a license if you were a felon. I watched them go through the process. It took them a couple years to get their record expunged. The thing I went through with my daughters gave me an awareness” about a problem in our community. “How many other people went wayward, and it will be held against them the rest of their lives so that they can’t get a job or can’t get into a certain profession? I decided whenever I opened my restaurant, I’m going to hire felons and give people a second chance.”

Barron knows first-hand the power of second chances. She experienced two failed marriages, including one involving abuse, before finding the love of her life. It was on an operating table that she underwent a pivotal spiritual experience. She was called to serve a larger purpose.

Through her church she became active in Crossroads Connection, a ministry outreach to inmates. She believes the barriers ex-offenders face are the root of many inner city ills. She and then-State Senator Brenda Council tried getting a bill passed banning the felony box on applications. The attempt failed, but Barron’s still doing her part.

“We’re promised the pursuit of happiness in this country,” she says. “One should be able to pursue their happiness even if they are a felon. I feel like I’ve lived a pretty decent life, and so now it’s time for me to give back and to help other people pursue that happiness. If it’s by offering jobs, by giving second chances, that’s what I’m going to do because I feel like that’s my purpose.”

One of the first people she helped was her granddaughter, Diondria Harrison, who was incarcerated several years ago. After her release Barron took her on. Today Harrison is the lead cook at Big Mama’s.

Right from the start Barron, whose place has been featured on The Food Network, made it known she cut ex-cons a break. She hosted job fairs for ex-offenders that attracted hundreds.

“When I opened my restaurant most of my help was on work release,” she adds. “They worked for me during the day and went back to jail at night.”

Her open hiring policy led her to partner with others on reentry employment efforts and to offer internships to at-risk youth.

People regularly show up looking for their second chance. A woman who served 14 years in military prison for killing her abusive husband heard about Big Mama’s and had her parole officer inquire about a job when she got out. Eager to learn the culinary trade, the woman didn’t wait for a reply. The day she arrived there was no job available, so  she eagerly shadowed kitchen staff before being hired as a waitress. Today, she’s working another job and nearing completion of her culinary degree at Metropolitan Community College.

“I understood where she was coming from,” Barron says. “Through all that she’s been through, she’s really kept it together. She loves to cook. Loves to bake. And that’s what I’m about, so she just fit in perfectly. She’s doing very well on her own now.”

Cornell Austin didn’t know about Barron’s big heart for felons when he appeared seeking a job after his release from prison. He’d caught her on television and, with years of food service experience behind him, he figured Big Mama’s would be a good place to start over—if its owner would get past his criminal background. She did.

“I had tried at a lot of places,” Austin says, “but I had that felony hanging over my head. When I interviewed with her I was apprehensive to tell the truth about my background, but I decided to put everything on the table. I told her what happened. She accepted it. And she didn’t judge me. She gave me a shot at a new beginning. She helped me change to be the man I am today. She gave me another chance to believe in myself—that I can make mistakes, but I can also achieve things in life as well.”

Austin now cooks at the Doubletree Hilton and still helps Big Mama on occasion. He’s only months from getting his culinary degree at Metro. He hopes to one day open his own catering business.

Barron’s happy for Austin. “Everything is going great for him. I am so proud of him. I’m glad to be a part of his life to help him get on track. He’s another black man that got on track, so I feel good about that.”

Not every ex-offender works out, she says.

“We’ve been burned by people who stole from us, lied to us, but that’s on them. I don’t let that stop me or discourage me. Most people really want to change their lives. They just need to be given a chance.

Barron, who estimates she’s employed some 200 ex-offenders, says offering folks a fresh start “makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something and that my purpose here is being fulfilled.”

Cornell Austin and countless others would agree.

 

Art and community meet-up in artist’s public projects; Watie White mines urban tales

September 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Omaha-based artist Watie White is making a name for himself in part through his public art projects that reflect the stories of urban neighborhoods and communities.  This is a Reader (www.thereader.com) piece I did about his 2014 public art projects in Omaha.  You can find on this blog a story I wrote last year about a similar project he did.

 

 

Watie White Exhibit

 

 

Art and community meet-up in artist’s public projects; Watie White mines urban tales

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

 

Omaha artist Watie White’s humanist public art projects reveal the narratives of transitional urban neighborhoods. The dynamics of locations and the people living there shape his site-specific works.

Three 2014 projects, one completed and the others in-progress, all connect to community organizations whose social justice missions “align” with his own.

“The kind of organizations I am most attracted to are the ones who make a splash with a handful of incredibly passionate people that affect the lives of many families,” he says.

His new All That Ever Was, Always Is exhibition at two abandoned homes slated for demolition in northeast Omaha continues his work with Habitat for Humanity. In 2013 he repurposed an empty home in the same area with original paintings symbolizing the family that lived there and the neighborhood it was part of. He installed prints in the window frames. After the exhibit came down, the condemned house was razed. A vacant lot sits in its place awaiting a new build.

Habitat executive director Amanda Brewer says White’s projects add depth to the agency’s blight remediation work: “They celebrate the rich history that comes with older homes and neighborhoods. The time and respectfulness he puts into getting to know the neighbors, the history of the neighborhood and involving neighbors in his project strengthens Habitat’s efforts to involve the entire neighborhood in our work.”

The house(s) Habitat loans him – for his new project he tackled side by side houses at 1468 and 1470 Grant St. – become cultural excavation sites and art canvasses. He insinuates and immerses himself by doing interviews with neighbors and, where possible, with folks who lived in the dwellings, combing through contents for artifacts and narrative clues, taking photos, using subjects as models.

All of it inspired 51 original paintings he made for the two current structures. Acrylic vinyl prints were installed since July 19 and remain up through year’s end. The houses will then be razed for new homes to go up in their place. His assistant Peter Cales salvaged materials to make benches and tables as communal gathering spots. White’s planning public dinners and conversations at the site.

Dialogue’s a hoped-for by-product of the The Wheels Keep Turning murals Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska commissioned him to create. The agency provides legal, education, advocacy services for immigrants. The murals will go in immigrant-rich areas in South Omaha, North Omaha, Benson and Little Italy. White describes the subjects as “inspirational people every day making a positive influence in their neighborhood.”

 

 

 

 

 

Elisha Novak. JFON program director and mural project coordinator, says the murals are intended to shine a positive light on immigrant contributions and to empower more immigrants to share their stories.

“We will also host a series of public meetings, discussions and lectures around the unveiling of the murals to engage the public in a constructive dialogue about immigration-related issues. Additionally, we hope to increase awareness of immigrants and their needs, while incorporating a path to services through JFON.”

Among the models are 78-year-old Mexican immigrant Ramona Silva Gonzales and South Sudan refugee Mary Aketa George, a program officer with the Southern Sudan Community Association. White’s drawing on Ramona’s recollections of her and her cousins picking flowers in the fields of the farm she grew up on and singing ranchera songs. He’s incorporating Mary’s memories of the harsh refugee camp life she endured and how the experience motivated her to help people.

White hopes his murals, including one up at JFON, 2414 E St., “shifts the perception of what the immigrant and new Nebraskan face is.”

He’s placing the murals near where the subjects’ live. Ramona’s will be at the Intercultural Senior Center she’s found a second home at.

White’s inCOMMON Community Development project, You Are Here, will feature Park Avenue district murals and prints along that mid-town drag, plus a 100-foot tall banner mural on the Park North public housing tower, 1601 Park Ave., all reflecting diverse residents’ lives. Jay’s an itinerant musician with dreams of his own nightclub. Anthony’s a street activist-poet spitting do-the-right-thing rants.

inCOMMON director Christian Gray says the art’s meant to reduce the “disconnection and marginalization” public housing residents often feel,” adding, “This goal connects closely with InCommon’s mission of uniting and strengthening vulnerable neighborhoods in its effort of including-incorporating public tower residents within the life of the surrounding community.”

 

 

 

White knows the banner mural will draw much attention.

“It’s a resident community and people walk that neighborhood and this thing is just going to be gigantic. It’s going to loom over that neighborhood. It will inevitably be what everyone takes out of that community. It’s going to be so much louder than anything else. It will be the largest thing I’ve done. It feels like a lot of responsibility.”

His challenge is finding the right aesthetic-content balance. He wants the banner to feel of the community, not imposed on it. Neither too rosy, nor too negative but a “powerful” evocation of “personal, lived experiences – I want it to have that feeling their voice is in it.”

Park Avenue’s similar to the North Omaha section he’s worked in. Both feature compromised, underserved neighborhoods. He came to do houses in North O when he couldn’t find suitable mural spaces there.

“I was wanting to work in that community but there aren’t traditional walls to work on.”

When Habitat offered him condemned homes, he says, “I was like, ‘Yes, that gets me there, I can do something with that.'”

Paintings in the studio become something different installed behind broken glass in the distressed neighborhoods they reflect and inhabit.

“There is no way to see them in the same way when you drive through the neighborhood to get there. You park, you maybe say hi to the people sitting across the street, maybe people come over. All that changes those paintings a lot.”

Once in place the images generate questions and conversations, For him, it’s about connecting to the neighborhood and adding benefit to it.

“There’s a distinct shift in the community that starts with the people that had something to do with it. They then kind of own that space and that neighborhood in a way they didn’t before. For the models there’s a certain self-esteem boost from having their head be five feet tall in some capital A art that ends up in the paper. Part of this process is getting people to tell me their stories they don’t think are important and then have me treat them as important.”

The resulting media coverage gives subjects, their stories and neighborhoods a new currency, he says.

“All those things I feel like make this project better.”

As a white affluent artist dropping in on black poverty, he relies on partner organizations with deep stakes there to open doors for him.

“It gives me legitimacy in a community that is not mine. it allows me to have conversations with these people.”

 

 

Watie White Studio's photo.
Watie White Studio's photo.
Watie White Studio's photo.

 

Still, it takes time to build trust and rapport.

“It took the people on that 1400 block of Emmett a little while to kind of warm up to me and tell me those more true and awkward stories. It was several interviews in before I heard about the Hell’s Angels on the block and the role they played. They provided a safe space, they threw these parties and events that built community. The people really liked them. There was never a problem or racial issue with them.”

A neighbor, Miss Maybel, was inspired enough to start her own motorcycle club.

White traced the 1468 house to the family that last lived there, the Tribbles, whose matriarch, Jessie Tribble, was a single mother with aspirational dreams for her children.

Not everything White uncovers is positive.

“In doing these I feel like as an artist I have an obligation to express as much of the truth as I can find. Inevitably that leads me having to figure out what to do with unpleasant things.”

A daughter, Oretha Walker, confided a brother’s in jail for murder. White expressed in images positive and negative things about him. InCOMMON’s Gray says White’s careful handling of personal narratives like this dovetails with its own community listening approach.

“We believe under-resourced neighborhoods are rich with people who have dreams, talents and stories that can be leveraged toward community change and transformation. Watie has a highly unique talent for calling out these dreams and stories from within the communities he works.”

White also put in images discoveries from the 1470 house. An absentee owner rented it out as a daycare, then it was abandoned, then gutted by fire. A 1918 playbill from the long defunct corner Grand Theatre shows up as cinema bathing beauties. A piece of wall paper with John White penciled-in – the artist’s father’s name – gave Watie White permission to integrate his father and son in images.

Follow the artist’s projects at watiewhite.com.

Omaha North superstar back Calvin Strong overcomes bigger obstacles than tacklers; Record-setting rusher poised to lead defending champion Vikings to another state title

August 29, 2014 Leave a comment

Omaha high school and greater Nebraska prep football programs have a tradition of producing running backs who go on to play in college, including a pipeline from Central High to the University of Nebraska, though in the last decade or so that tradition has been interrupted and that pipleline has dried up.  That may be changing.  The premier high school back in the state right now, at least in terms of the eye-popping numbers he puts up, is Omaha North senior Calvin Strong, the subject of this profile for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  He became the state’s first back to reach 3,000 yards in a season when he rushed for 3,008 yards and scored 43 touchdowns in leading his Vikings to the state Class A championship in 2013.   He is not alone.  Just the other night Central’s Tre Sanders exploded for 279 yards, including a handful of breakaway runs, in the Eagles opening game win over Lincoln North Star.  Sanders and Strong have size working against them.  The former is listed at 5’8, 160 pounds and the latter at 5’9, 175 pounds, neither measurement lines that would preclude them being recruited by FBS schools, but it just might put some off.  Sanders has a measurable advantage over Strong in that his 40 yard dash time is listed at 4.4 seconds while Strong, a notoriously poor tester in the 40, can only muster a 4.6 or 4.7.  While there’s some interest in Sanders to be sure and much more might be coming his way if he keeps producing the way he did in the opener, Strong has even more interest, but he surprised a lot of folks when he recently gave a verbal commit to South Dakota.  The Coyotes were on him a long time, yes, and they had extended the only outright offer to Strong, that’s true, but according to North Coach Larry Martin there was a lot of interest in the player from FBS and FCS schools, only they were waiting to see how Strong performed again on the field this season and more importantly how he performed in the classroom and on the ACT, because his academics have been a problem.  Strong could always change his mind, of course, and end up going to a football factory, but it might just be his comfort level was the deciding factor and he wanted to take a relatively sure thing rather than sweat out his grades and test scores and see what other offers came his way.  Whatever happens, it doesn’t appear that Strong or Sanders or any of the other in-state prep backs are likely to be D-I sensations the way Gale Sayers, Joe Orduna, Keith Jones, Calvin Jones, Ahman Green, Kenton Keith were.  But maybe, just maybe, Strong can be the next Danny Woodhead, who was snubbed by the big schools because of his small stature and less than electrifying speed and set small college records on his way to the NFL.  Of course, as my article goes into, Strong has even more serious things to worry about, like staying clear of the gang culture that surrounds him in his inner city neighborhood and that has claimed some of his friends.

Strong and his Vikings open their season tonight, Friday, August 29, at home against Millard West.

 

 

 

 

Omaha North superstar back Calvin Strong overcomes bigger obstacles than tacklers                                                                                                                               Record-setting rusher poised to lead defending champion Vikings to another state title

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha North running back sensation and recent South Dakota verbal commit Calvin Strong put up sick numbers last season leading his school to its first state football title in the playoff era. His 3,008 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns set state and metro single season Class A records, shattering anything done by past star Omaha prep backs such as Gale Sayers and Ahman Green.

Despite measuring 5’9, 175 pounds, he runs like his name, strong, right into the heart of defenses, where his uncanny vision and agility allow him to avoid big hits. Even when he does run into contact he breaks tackles thanks to his superb balance, low center of gravity and ample strength. With his legs churning forward and his head on a swivel, he probes for creases, then spins, darts. bounces, bursts through heavy traffic into open lanes for big gains.

Known for a positive attitude, ready smile and being a vocal, emotional team leader, he saves his best moves for the off-field. There he does a precarious dance to avoid the gang-banging culture around him.

Strong and his pre-season No. 1 Vikings play Friday night’s season opener at home versus Millard West. All eyes will be on the senior when he touches the ball, which figures to be a lot given his 27-plus carries per game average last year. His 3,000 yard season came on the heels of a nearly 1,900 yard sophomore campaign, when he led North to the title game only to fall just short. He’s a two-time first-team all-state selection.

For someone with his credits it’s unusual he only had one college offer – from South Dakota. It may be more unusual yet he accepted it with a resume-enhancing session before him. North Head Coach Larry Martin confirms “there was a ton of interest out there” from FBS and FCS schools. Programs held off because Strong’s struggled academically and he’s posted sub-par 40-yard dash times (4.6-4.7) at camps.

The South Dakota commitment took Martin by surprise, though he confirms the school showed the most consistent interest in Strong. Martin, who’s “extremely close” to Strong and his family, said only two weeks ago, “I know he’s on a lot of people’s boards and people are waiting to see where all the intangibles measure out. Everybody wants to know where he’s at academically. Right now he’s a non-qualifier. If he was a qualifier, he’d have more offers right now. Somebody’s going to take him and is going to get a helluva running back.”

The pressure to perform well in the classroom and on standardized tests has sometimes gotten the better of Strong, whose commitment eases one stressor.

“He’s broke down on me multiple times about it,” Martin says.

Then there was the out-of-school suspension Strong served earlier this year for unspecified reasons. Martin says Strong put it behind him.

“He handled what he had to work through like a man. He came back and went right to work and he had his best summer since he’s been here. I thought our teachers did a great job of getting him his homework. He’s a very genuine young man. If he tells you he’s going to do something he’s going to follow through and do it. His word means something to him. I feel real confident with what I’ve seen. He’s learned from his mistakes, been apologetic for it, and moved on.”

 

 

 

Strong’s a celebrity wherever he goes in North Omaha and Martin believes even though the player is humble, a sense of entitlement creeped in.

“Sometimes kids think they can get away with a little bit more because of their status and I think he got caught up in that. I think he’s understanding that consequences apply to everybody.”

Martin has been pleased with Strong’s progress in and out of school and feels he’s prepared himself for what comes next.

“He has the grades – we’ve just got to get the ACT score up and we’ve taken the measures to get that headed in the right direction. God bless he stays healthy he’s going to be one of the more decorated football players coming out of this state in quite a few years.”

There’s never been any doubt, barring injury, Strong would play somewhere on a big stage at the next level. He may have a chance of being an impact player there, too. Of course, it’s always possible Strong could de-commit from the Coyotes and go to a football factory. It that happens, it would make him the first local back in a while to breakthrough after decades of guys doing it.

His coach won’t venture to guess, but Strong may even follow the path of two recent North players, in Niles Paul and Philip Bates, who went D-I and landed in the NFL. The path to the NFL doesn’t need to go through a big program either. Just ask Bates (Ohio) and Danny Woodhead (Chadron State).

The fact that Strong is even in this position is an achievement worth celebrating if for no other reason than he’s escaped the fate of friends lost to guns and gangs.

That harsh street life co-exists with his sometimes storybook, folk hero saga.

His school is in a neighborhood – Strong lives just down the hill from North – beset by poverty and crime. Drug dealing and turf wars pose dangers. Minus boundaries, gang culture exerts a pull. Strong, like his name, has stood firm against the allure and trap of that lifestyle, one that cost at least six of his buddies’ their lives. He continues knowing people caught up in it. He’s flirted with it himself. But he’s made known he wants nothing to do with it. The Gs know he’s off-limits.

“I still have friends that are in the gang life or whatever but they know and I know where I need to be at. It’s really not hard to x that stuff out of my life because I know and they know what I got going for myself and what’s in store for me,” Strong says.

“My freshman year I was pulled to doing dumb things but I’ve matured throughout these years to know what’s right from wrong, so I’ve been keeping myself away. Basically this whole summer I’ve just been with my coaches and teammates. I really ain’t been focused on anything else but football and studies so I can get to college.”

Martin’s aware of the pressures Strong faces. The coach and his family offer a respite when Calvin needs it.

“There is a pull and you can’t ignore it but he’s got his outs and when things get a little bit tough he calls coach and he comes stays with us, sometimes for a couple nights. We’re more than happy to provide that for him because he is a high quality young man.

“It’s also just to help take the burden off the family.”

In Martin, Strong appreciates he has a mentor and advocate, saying, “The only pressure that’s on me right now is finishing what he’s helped me with. Me and him have always had a relationship outside football. I’ll go to his house, chill out, eat steak. I’m like one of his own kids. He’s like a second dad to me. He’s always been there for me through anything. He has my back and I have his.

“He’s a real special guy and I give my heart to him. He’s prepared us for life, not just football. His speeches, they really just get to you, they spark something in you.”

Martin sees Strong mostly doing the right things these days.

“He’s really worked hard in terms of making sure he’s doing everything he can to make the right decisions. We’re just here to help continue to support him, provide him more options. Our total pursuit is to get that college education.”

 

 

 

Strong lives at home with his father, Calvin Strong Sr., and his younger brother, Jordan Strong. As a 6’2, 250 pound sophomore nose guard, Strong’s 15-year-old “little brother” is already getting hard looks from colleges. Because of his size, Jordan’s always played a couple grade levels up from his age group and thus he and his superstar older brother have been teammates growing up. The siblings are cogs in what may be a dynasty for years to come given the talent-rich depth and winning habits Martin’s built-up.

Calvin himself is only 17, so he may be fill out some come college, though in today’s sprint offenses size isn’t the factor it used to be.

Martin has always said, “it’s going to be about finding the right fit for him. I think people want to see him one more year. He did what he needed to do this summer and then we’ll let the first three or four games take care of themselves.  We’ve got tough games right away – we open up with Millard West and Burke. If he does well in those games people are going to want to see that film.”

Among other things coaches will see, Martin says, is a dynamic back who’s “motivated and very competitive,” adding, “The one concern the bigger schools have is his top-end speed. Calvin just doesn’t test well in the 40. But I don’t know that top-end speed has to be the number one factor. He has so many other things he can do. Number one, he doesn’t turn the ball over. I mean, he just doesn’t fumble. He has taken extremely good care of the football. I think he has great vision. I think he anticipates where things are going to come open so well. He’s very durable. He’s elusive – he can make guys miss. He’s got great hips. His core and overall body strength is very good. His feet never stop moving, they’re constantly going.”

Strong has the ability to read defenses and anticipate where trouble lurks and then when things break down to change direction on a dime.
He says, “I see how everybody’s lined up. It’s really hard to tackle me unless the play gets all bunched up. I just keep my eyes focused and I shut everything else out, and once I break everything comes back loud again, all the screaming, and I can relax and have fun after I’ve gotten a first down or I’ve scored.

“Plus, I’m real small and my linemen are really big, so it’s good I can hide behind ‘em and just choose where I can break off. It makes it real difficult for the linebackers to read me.”

He acknowledges he’s also run behind an exceptional line anchored by Nebraska commit and fellow all-stater Michael Decker, who returns.

But not every defender’s blocked every play and Strong doesn’t back down from the one-on-one challenge of a backer trying to blow him up.

“I’m just a real strong small guy – I don’t take nothing from nobody. Playing against some of the biggest linebackers in the state I’ve always gone heads up with ‘em, I never try to fall down when they’re coming – I take it to ‘em. I’m a small back but I’m going to show you I have power. I’m not afraid of contact.”

The contact part is funny because Strong confirms he once hated even the idea of being tackled before playing organized football. His dad and uncle forced him to play to toughen him up. His first full year at running back for the Little Vikes, after a year wasted on the line, he’d curl up to avoid hits but after dominating the youth ranks he decided the contact was no big deal, though he rarely took a clean hit. When tackled today he takes it as a personal defeat, which only makes him come back harder the next time. At the end of the day his heart and will are what separate him from others.

“I feel like that’s what it is because I want it more than a lot of people. I’m always competitive. Everything is competition to me.”

 

 

 

 

 

As for his less than stellar 40 clocking, he discounts it with, “My speed and everything shows on the field.” Indeed, he’s rarely if ever caught from behind.  Martin, who coached current NFL players Phil Bates and Niles Paul, is waiting to see what Strong shows this year before comparing him to those elite athletes.

“I’ll know a lot more with him after our first couple games. You know, we tell our kids that the guys from North who’ve made it to the next level are the hardest working players every day. I will say Calvin’s work ethic has definitely increased. I think we’ve got him to the point where he understands if he wants to be the elite of the elite then he needs to continue to work harder.”

Besides what’s on the line for him personally, Strong’s dedicated himself to getting North back to the title game again.

“I worked very hard. I’m determined this year to come out with a real big bang. I really want that ring again. I really want that experience again.”

He’s aware no Omaha Public Schools team has made it to three straight finals games and he wants North to be the first to do it.

The North program’s come to the point where winning’s the expectation. Playing for the title two years ago and then winning the championship last year has meant a huge boost in confidence.

“It really set the bar for us,” Strong says. “Now nobody can really bring us down. Nobody can say they’re better than us. Nobody can say anything about us being an underdog team because we showed we’ve climbed all those obstacles. It was very heartwarming to me because we’d been talking about it since my freshman year and just to have it after we should have had it my sophomore year was really nice.”

Strong’s also keenly aware of his role model and celebrity status. He still finds all the attention, as in everyone from children to adults wanting his autograph or screaming his name, a bit surreal, saying, “It’s crazy.” He adds, “There’s not a lot of 17-year olds that can give little kids hope.”

The importance he attaches to his gift for football as his gateway out of The Hood is clearly reflected in a Tweet he made:

“If I didn’t have this I’d be nothing. That’s why thrive (sic) to be the best to do it.”

The way he sees it, realizing his dreams also honors the memory of his late friends who encouraged him to pursue football as far it would take him. Strong was en route to a game two years ago when he got word his friend Tyler had shot himself in the head playing Russian Roulette. He found out during the game Tyler died from his wounds.

In a Tweet, Strong wrote:

“Rip to my brother Tyler Brent Hickerson
When I die I want my BROTHERS walking my casket down …the ones who stood next to me when I once stood#cant get know Realer
If only u was here to see me shine … I miss u”

Strong’s grown up a Husker fan and Nebraska definitely has him on their radar. The only camp he attended this past summer was in Lincoln, where he’s got to know NU’s premier back, Ameer Abdullah, to whom he’s often compared. Before saying yes to South Dakota Strong hinted he’d like to reestablish the once continuous running back pipeline there from Omaha that’s gone dry the last decade-and-a-half.

He said, “I’d love to keep it in state just to show everybody how good North Omaha competition is. Playing for Nebraska would make a lot of people happy in Omaha.”

If Strong were to renege and select another school’s offer, assuming one’s proffered, there’s still those test scores. Martin felt the junior college route was a distinct possibility for Strong. His own son, Zach Martin, who quarterbacked North to the 2012 title game, is thriving at Iowa Western Community College, which sends many players to D-I.

Once Strong’s South Dakota decision sunk in, Martin understood it because the player’s developed a trust with the Coyote coaches that reminds him of what Strong has with him and his coaches at North.

“Calvin and his family mean so much to me, he’s almost like my own son. My message to Calvin has always been I will find a place that’s going to be the right fit for you. I’m just not going to turn you over to somebody that hasn’t invested that much time in you. We’re going to take care of you.”

He says for nearly every dream Strong wants to accomplish, South Dakota will be able to provide that for him. If not, Martin’s sure there are plenty of other places that will fit the bill.

Stay strong, Calvin, stay strong.

North hosts No. 3 Millard West this Friday at Kinnick Stadium on the Northwest High campus. Kickoff is for 7 p.m.

Next generation of North Omaha leaders eager for change: New crop of leaders emerging to keep momentum going

August 21, 2014 Leave a comment

North Omaha’s prospects are looking up, even as longstanding problems remain a drag on the largely African-American community, and a strong, established leadership base in place is a big part of the optimism for the area’s continued revival.  These leaders are in fact driving the change going on.  Working side by side or coming up right behind that veteran leadership cohort is a group of emerging leaders looking to put their own stamp on things.  The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) takes a look at this next generation of North Omaha leaders and their take on opportunities and vehicles for being change agents.

 

 

Thomas Warren and Julia Parker

 

Next generation of North Omaha leaders eager for change: New crop of leaders emerging to keep momentum going

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

 

If redevelopment plans for northeast Omaha come to full fruition then that long depressed district will see progress at-scale after years of patchwork promises. Old and new leaders from largely African-American North Omaha will be the driving forces for change.

A few years and projects into the 30-year, $1.4 billion North Omaha Revitalization Village Plan, everyone agrees this massive revival is necessary for the area to be on the right side of the tipping point. The plan’s part of a mosaic of efforts addressing educational, economic, health care, housing, employment disparities. Behind these initiatives is a coalition from the private and public sectors working together to apply a focused, holistic approach for making a lasting difference.

Key contributors are African-American leaders who emerged in the last decade to assume top posts in organizations and bodies leading the charge. Empowerment Network Facilitator Willie Barney, Douglas Country Treasurer John Ewing, Urban League of Nebraska Executive Director Thomas Warren and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray are among the most visible. When they entered the scene they represented a new leadership class but individually and collectively they’ve become its well-established players.

More recently, Neb. State Senator Tanya Cook and Omaha 360 Director Jamie Anders-Kemp joined their ranks. Others, such as North Omaha Development Corporation Executive Director Michael Maroney and former Omaha City Councilwoman and Neb. State Sen. Brenda Council, have been doing this work for decades.

With so much yet to come and on the line, what happens when the current crop of leaders drops away? Who will be the new faces and voices of transformation? Are there clear pathways to leadership? Are there mechanisms to groom new leaders? Is there generational tension between older and younger leaders? What does the next generation want to see happen and where do they see things headed?

 

 

 

Some North Omaha leaders

 

 

The Reader asked veteran and emerging players for answers and they said talent is already in place or poised to assume next generation leadership. They express optimism about North O’s direction and a consensus for how to get there. They say leadership also comes in many forms. It’s Sharif Liwaru as executive director of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, which he hopes to turn into an international attraction. It’s his artist-educator wife Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru. Together, they’re a dynamic couple focused on community betterment. Union for Contemporary Arts founder-director Brigitte McQueen, Loves Jazz and Arts Center Executive Director Tim Clark and Great Plains Black History Museum Board Chairman Jim Beatty are embedded in the community leading endeavors that are part of North O’s revival.

Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. Executive Director Othello Meadows is a more behind-the-scenes leader. His nonprofit has acquired property and finished first-round financing for the Highlander mixed-used project, a key Village Plan component. The project will redevelop 40 acres into mixed income housing, green spaces and on-site support services for “a purpose-built” urban community.

Meadows says the opportunity to “work on a project of this magnitude in a city I care about is a chance of a lifetime.” He’s encouraged by the “burgeoning support for doing significant things in the community.” In his view, the best thing leaders can do is “execute and make projects a reality,” adding, “When things start to happen in a real concrete fashion then you start to peel back some of that hopelessness and woundedness. I think people are really tired of rhetoric, studies and statistics and want to see something come to life.” He says new housing in the Prospect Hill neighborhood is tangible positive activity.

 

 

 

Othello Meadows

 

Meadows doesn’t consider himself a traditional leader.

“I think leadership is first and foremost about service and humility. I try to think of myself as somebody who is a vessel for the hopes and desires of this neighborhood. True leadership is service and service for a cause, so if that’s the definition of leadership, then sure, I am one.”

He feels North O’s suffered from expecting leadership to come from charismatic saviors who lead great causes from on high.

“In my mind we have to have a different paradigm for the way we consider leadership. I think it happens on a much smaller scale. I think of people who are leaders on their block, people who serve their community by being good neighbors or citizens. That’s the kind of leadership that’s overlooked. I think it has to shift from we’ve got five or six people we look to for leadership to we’ve got 500 or 600 people who are all active leaders in their own community. It needs to shift to that more grassroots, bottom-up view.”

Where can aspiring North O leaders get their start?

“Wherever you are, lead,” John Ewing says. “Whatever opportunities come, seize them. Schools, places of worship, neighborhood and elected office all offer opportunities if we see the specific opportunity.”

“They need to get in where they fit in and grow from there,” says Dell Gines, senior community development advisor, Omaha Branch at Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Empowerment Network board member and Douglas County Health Department health educator Aja Anderson says many people lead without recognition but that doesn’t make them any less leaders.

“There are individuals on our streets, in our classrooms, everywhere, every day guiding those around them to some greater destiny or outcome,” Anderson says.

Meadows feels the community has looked too often for leadership to come from outside.

“A community needs to guide its own destiny rather than say, ‘Who’s going to come in from outside and fix this?'”

He applauds the Empowerment Network for “trying to find ways to help people become their own change agents.”

 

 

 

 ©http://www.reviveomahamagazine.com

 

 

Carver Bank Interim Director JoAnna LeFlore is someone often identified as an emerging leader. She in turn looks to some of her Next Gen colleagues for inspiration.

“I’m very inspired by Brigitte McQueen, Othello Meadows and Sharif Liwaru. They all have managed to chase their dreams, advocate for the well-being of North Omaha and maintain a professional career despite all of the obstacles in their way. You have to have a certain level of hunger in North Omaha in order to survive. What follows that drive is a certain level of humility once you become successful. This is why I look up to them.”

LeFlore is emboldened to continue serving her community by the progress she sees happening.

“I see more creative entrepreneurs and businesses. I see more community-wide events celebrating our heritage. I see more financial support for redevelopment. I feel my part in this is to continue to encourage others who share interest in the growth of North Omaha. I’ve built trusting relationships with people along the way. I am intentional about my commitments because those relationships and the missions are important to me. Simply being a genuine supporter, who also gets her hands dirty, is my biggest contribution.

“Moving forward, I will make an honest effort to offer my expertise to help build communication strategies, offer consultations for grassroots marketing and event planning and be an advocate for positive change. I am also not afraid to speak up about important issues.”

If LeFlore’s a Next Gen leader, then Omaha Small Business Network Executive Director Julia Parker is, too. Parker says, “There is certainly a changing of the guard taking place throughout Omaha and North O is not an exception. Over the next several years, I hope even more young professionals will continue to take high level positions in the community. I see several young leaders picking up the mic.” She’s among the new guard between her OSBN work and the Urban Collaborative: A Commitment to Community group she co-founded that she says “focuses on fostering meaningful conversation around how we can improve our neighborhoods and the entire city.”

Parker left her hometown for a time and she says, “Leaving Omaha changed my perspective and really prompted me to come home with a more critical eye and a yearning for change.”

Like Parker, Othello Meadows left here but moved back when he discerned he could make a “meaningful” impact on a community he found beset by despair. That bleak environment is what’s led many young, gifted and black to leave here. Old-line North O leader Thomas Warren says, “I am concerned about the brain drain we experience in Omaha, particularly of our best and brightest young African-Americans students who leave. We need to create an environment that is welcoming to the next generation where they can thrive and strive to reach their full potential.” Two more entrenched leaders, John Ewing and Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers, are also worried about losing North O’s promising talents. “We have to identify, retain and develop our talent pool in Omaha,” Ewing says.

 

Tunette Powell

 

Omaha Schools Board member Yolanda Williams says leadership doors have not always been open to young transplants like herself – she’s originally from Seattle – who lack built-in influence bases.

“I had to go knock on the door and I knocked and knocked, and then I started banging on the door until my mentor John Ewing and I sat down for lunch and I asked, ‘How do younger leaders get in these positions if you all are holding these positions for years? How do I get into a leadership role if nobody is willing to get out of the way?’ They need to step out of the way so we can move up.

“It’s nothing against our elder leadership because I think they do a great job but they need to reach out and find someone to mentor and groom because if not what happens when they leave those positions?”

Ewing acknowledges “There has been and will always be tension between the generations,” but he adds, “I believe this creative tension is a great thing. It keeps the so-called established leaders from becoming complacent and keeps the emerging leaders hungry for more success as a community. I believe most of the relationships are cordial and productive as well as collaborative. I believe everyone can always do more to listen. I believe the young professional networks are a great avenue. I also believe organizations like the Empowerment Network should reach out to emerging leaders to be inclusive.”

Author, motivational speaker and The Truth Hurts director Tunette Powell says, “It’s really amazing when you get those older leaders on board because they can champion you. They’ve allowed me to speak at so many different places.” Powell senses a change afoot among veteran leaders, “They have held down these neighborhoods for so long and I think they’re slowly handing over and allowing young people to have a platform. i see that bridge.” As a young leader, she says, “it’s not like I want to step on their toes. We need this team. It’s not just going to be one leader, it’s not going to be young versus old, it’s going to be old and young coming together.”

 

Yolanda Williams

 

In her own case, Yolanda Williams says she simply wouldn’t be denied, “I got tired of waiting. I was diligent, I was purpose-driven. It was very much networking and being places and getting my name out there. I mean, I was here to stay, you were not just going to get rid of me.”

LeFlore agrees more can be done to let new blood in.

“I think some established leaders are ignoring the young professionals who have potential to do more.”

Despite progress, Powell says “there are not enough young people at the table.” She believes inviting their participation is incumbent on stakeholder organizations. She would also like to see Omaha 360 or another entity develop a formal mentoring program or process for older leaders “to show us that staircase.”

Some older leaders do push younger colleagues to enter the fray.

Shawntal Smith, statewide administrator for Community Services for Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska, says Brenda Council, Willie Barney and Ben Gray are some who’ve nudged her.

“I get lots of encouragement from many inside and outside of North Omaha to serve and it is a good feeling to know people trust you to represent them. It is also a great responsibility.”

Everyone has somebody who prods them along. For Tunette Powell, it’s Center for Holistic Development President-CEO Doris Moore. For Williams, it’s treasurer John Ewing. But at the end of the day anyone who wants to lead has to make it happen. Williams, who won her school board seat in a district-wide election, says she overcame certain disadvantages and a minuscule campaign budget through “conviction and passion,” adding, “The reality is if you want to do something you’ve got to put yourself out there.” She built a coalition of parent and educator constituents working as an artist-in-residence and Partnership 4 Kids resource in schools. Before that, Williams says she made herself known by volunteering. “That started my journey.”

Powell broke through volunteering as well. “I wasn’t from here, nobody knew me, so I volunteered and it’s transformed my life,” says the San Antonio native.

“The best experience, in my opinion, is board service,” OSBN’s Julia Parker says. “Young leaders have a unique opportunity to pull back the curtain and see how an organization actually functions or doesn’t. It’s a high level way to cut your teeth in the social sector.”

 

JoAnna LeFlore, ©omahamagazine.com

 

Chris Rodgers, director of community and government relations at Creighton University, agrees: “I think small non-profits looking for active, conscientious board members are a good start. Also volunteering for causes you feel deeply about and taking on some things that stretch you are always good.”

The Urban League’s Thomas Warren says, “We have to encourage the next generation of leaders to invest in their own professional growth and take advantage of leadership development opportunities. They should attend workshops and seminars to enhance their skills or go back to school and pursue advanced degrees. Acquiring credentials ensures you are prepared when opportunities present themselves.”

Gaining experience is vital but a fire-in-the-belly is a must, too. Yolanda Williams says she was driven to serve on the school board because “I felt like I could bring a voice, especially for North Omaha, that hadn’t yet been heard at the table as a younger single parent representing the concerns and struggles of a lot of other parents. And I’m a little bit outspoken I say what I need to say unapoligitically.”

Powell says young leaders like her and Williams have the advantage of “not being far removed from the hard times the people we’re trying to reach are experiencing.” She says she and her peers are the children of the war on drugs and its cycle of broken homes. “That’s a piece of what we are, so we get it. We can reach these young people because our generation reflects theirs. I see myself in so many young people.”

Just a few years ago Powell had quit college, was on food stamps and didn’t know what to do with her life. “People pulled me up, they elevated me, and I have to give that back,” she says. In her work with fatherless girls she says “what I find is you’ve got to meet them where they’re at. As younger leaders we’re not afraid to do that, we’re not afraid to take some risks and do some things differently. We’re seeing we need something fresh. Creativity is huge. When you look at young and old leaders, we all have that same passion, we all want the same thing, but how we go about it is completely different.”

Powell says the African-American Young Professionals group begun by fellow rising young star Symone Sanders is a powerful connecting point where “dynamic people doing great things” find a common ground of interests and a forum to network. “We respect each other because we know we’re all going in that direction of change.”

Sanders, who’s worked with the Empowerment Network and is now communications assistant for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chuck Hassebrook, says AAYP is designed to give like-minded young professionals an avenue “to come together and get to know one another and to be introduced in those rooms and at those tables” where policy and program decisions get made.

Aja Anderson believes Next Gen leaders “bridge the gap,” saying, “I think this generation of leaders is going to be influential and do exceptionally well at creating unity and collaboration among community leaders and members across generations. We’re fueled with new ideas, creativity and innovation. Having this group of individuals at the table will certainly make some nervous, others excited and re-ignite passion and ideas in our established group.”

 

John Ewing

 

County treasure John Ewing sees the benefit of new approaches. “I believe our emerging leaders have an entrepreneurial spirit that will be helpful in building an African-American business class in Omaha.”

While Williams sees things “opening up,” she says, “I think a lot of potential leaders have left here because that opportunity isn’t as open as it should be.”

Enough are staying to make a difference.

“It’s exciting to see people I’ve known a long time staying committed to where we grew up,” 75 North’s Othello Meadows says. “It’s good to see other people who at least for awhile are going to play their role and do their part.”

Shawntal Smith of Lutheran Family Services is bullish on the Next Gen.

“We are starting to come into our own. We are being appointed to boards and accepting high level positions of influence in our companies, firms, agencies and churches. We are highly educated and we are fighting the brain drain that usually takes place when young, gifted minorities leave this city for more diverse cities with better opportunities. We are remaining loyal to Omaha and we are trying to make it better through our visible efforts in the community.

“People are starting to recognize we are dedicated and our opinions, ideas and leadership matter.”

Old and young leaders feel more blacks are needed in policymaking capacities. Rodgers and Anderson are eager to see more representation in legislative chambers and corporate board rooms.
Warren says, “I do feel there needs to be more opportunities in the private sector for emerging leaders who are indigenous to this community.” He feels corporations should do more to identify and develop homegrown talent who are then more likely to stay.

Shawntal Smith describes an added benefit of locally grown leaders.

“North Omahans respect a young professional who grew up in North Omaha and continues to reside in North Omaha and contribute to making it better. Both my husband and I live, shop, work, volunteer and attend church in North Omaha. We believe strongly in the resiliency of our community and we love being a positive addition to North Omaha and leaders for our sons and others to model.”

With leadership comes scrutiny and criticism.

“You have to be willing to take a risk and nobody succeeds without failure along the way to grow from,” Rodgers says. “If you fail, fail quick and recover. Learn from the mistake and don’t make the same mistakes. You have to be comfortable with the fact that not everybody will like you.”

Tunette Powell isn’t afraid to stumble because like her Next Gen peers she’s too busy getting things done.

“As Maya Angelou said, ‘Nothing will work unless you do,’ I want people to say about me, ‘She gave everything she had.'”

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

Star-studded lineup of artists at North Omaha Summer Arts Crawl – Friday, August 8 from 6-9 pm

August 6, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s a star-studded lineup of artists at this Friday’s North Omaha Summer Arts Crawl. Stroll or drive to five venues (listed below) near and along North 30th Street. 6-9 pm. Food and beverages served at each site. It’s all free.

For details, visit www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts or check out the Facebook Events page for the Arts Crawl post.

 

Photo: Join us for the 4th annual Summer Arts crawl August 8th!!! We are seeking volunteers so if you'd like to participate please reach out here!

 

Participating artists include:

Artists from Metropolitan Community College
(various mediums)

Sam Herron
(photography)

Pamela Conyers-Hinson
(sculpture)

Richard Harrison
(painting-mural)

Mike Giron
(painting-mural

Paul Konchagulian
(sculpture)

Brett Henderson
(painting)

Edith Buis
(drawing)

Evance Soash
(quilter)

Ashley Spitsnogle
(painting)

Hanne Kruse
(sculpture)

Pamela Jo Berry
(mixed media)

Kenneth Be
(lute)

Kim Whiteside (Kim Louise)
(poetry)

 

The five Arts Crawl venues are:

Metropolitan Community College, Fort Omaha Campus, Mule Barn (Building 21)

Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd.

Trinity Lutheran Church, 6340 North 30th Street

Parkside Baptist Church, 3008 Newport Avenue

Heartland Family Service, 6720 North 30th Street

 

At some venues artists will be on hand to discuss their work. Free food and beverages will be available at each stop.

For more information, call 402-502-4669 or 402-445-4666.

Please share this info with family, friends and coworkers in support of this grassroots community event that enriches and engages North Omaha with art.

 

 

 

Linda Meigs Brings Agriculture, History and Art Together at Florence Mill

August 1, 2014 1 comment

Cover Photo

New Horizons Newspaper

 

If you ever doubt what difference an artist can make in a community, consider Linda Meigs.  The Omaha native has found a way to connect her love of history, art, and preservation in a labor of love project and site, the Historic Florence Mill in North Omaha, that is equal parts museum, gallery, installation, and gathering spot.  In so doing , she has gifted one of Omaha’s oldest neighborhoods with an attraction and resource that, were it not for her, would probably have never happened.  She saved the Mill, which has a rich history closely related to the Great Western Mormon Migration, from almost certain demolition and she’s lovingly preserved it as a landmark and transformed the site into a communal space that connects agriculture, history, and art.  It is a story of one woman’s passion and magnificent obsession, which if you read this blog you know by now is the kind of story I love to sink my teeth into.  You can find this story in the August 2014 New Horizons.

 

 

Linda Meigs, ©Allen Irwin blog

 

Linda Meigs Brings Agriculture, History and Art Together at Florence Mill

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

Artist, history buff, preservationist Linda Meigs didn’t set out to be the Mill Lady but that’s what she’s known as at the Historic Florence Mill, 9012 North 30th Street. It’s appropriate, too, because ever since saving this landmark from likely demolition it’s been her baby.

The wood structure dates back to the 1840s and boasts direct ties to the Great Mormon westward migration and to Church of Latter Day Saints leader Brigham Young. After near continuous use as a flour and lumber mill it was abandoned in the 1970s-1980s. Sitting vacant, the interior was exposed to the elements from a damaged roof and broken windows. Vandals released stored grain from the chutes. Heaps of matted oats and dried pigeon-rodent droppings covered the floors.

Meigs acquired the Mill in 1998 when no one else wanted it. She purchased the-then wreck for $63,000 and much more than that has gone Into its cleanup, repair and restoration. The Mill’s become her magnificent obsession and all-consuming art project.

Today, Meigs, 64, operates the site as a historical museum. Photographs, interpretive text panels, tools, implements, letters and posters tell the story of the Mill and the people behind it. Because she’s retained the historical character of the building, including original timber, the Mill also speaks for itself. The ArtLoft Gallery she created on the second floor is dedicated to her late son Connor Meigs, who followed her path to become an artist. He was a sophomore at her alma mater, the University of Kansas, when killed in a 2004 automobile accident. She was already six years into the project when he died and since then she’s only thrown herself more into it.

An outdoor farmer’s market happens Sundays on the grounds, which she leases from the Nebraska Department of Roads. She also hosts special events at the Mill. This full-fledged cultural attraction began as a cockeyed dream that nearly everyone but her architect husband John Meigs tried talking her out of. It’s turned into a life’s work endeavor that’s preserved history, created a new community space and spurred tourism in one of Omaha’s oldest sections. Her efforts have earned recognition from several quarters.

She’s owner, caretaker, curator and everything else there.

“I’m doing everything here the executive director of any historical society does, only they have paid staff,” she says. “I’m the executive director, docent, historian, janitor, public relations person, events programmer, grant writer, and it just goes on and on.”

She could have added market master. She “runs the show” at the Florence Farmers Market on Sundays in her gaudy market hat.

Those roles are in addition to being a wife, mother and rental property owner-manager. The Mill though requires most of her attention.

“I’m the unpaid slave of the Mill.”

She’s glad to be in service to it, saying, “This is my gift to the city – to keep it open to the public.” She adds, “I’ve always been interested in preservation. My husband John, too. He worked on the restoration of the Orpheum Theatre and Union Station. We have a hundred year-old apartment building, the West Farnam, at 3817 Dewey Avenue.

“I was an officer with Landmarks Inc.. It makes me sick when we tear our history down and go to Europe for history. The Mill is wonderful history. The building is really an encyclopedia of the grain industry. It has a unique niche as the only building in this region that bridges the eras of the overland pioneer trails and territorial settlement. I get a lot of visitors from outside Omaha, really from all across the country, who retrace the Mormon and Gold Rush trails.”

 

 

The Mill today

 

 

This intersection with history would probably have been razed if not for her passion and perseverance.

The Mill’s been endangered several times, first by the people who built it, the Mormon pioneers, when they left their winter quarters settlement to journey west to Utah. Brigham Young himself supervised the Mill’s construction. But after serving its purpose for that caravan of faithful it was left to the Indians and nature. Scottish emigre Alexander Hunter was on his way to the California Gold Rush when he saw an opportunity to rescue the Mill. He rebuilt it. An employee, Jacob Weber, later bought it. The Mill remained in the Weber family for more than a century, thus it’s often called the Weber Mill and Elevator.

A 1930s flood nearly claimed it. The threat of future floods motivated Jacob’s grandson, Lyman Weber, to move the building, intact, to higher ground. In 1964 the Webers sold out to Ernie and Ruthie Harpster. Interstate 680 construction in the 1970s was slated to run right through the property before Ernie Harpster secured historic status for the site, which necessitated the Interstate being re-routed around it.

Meigs first learned of the Mill when Haprster put it up for sale in 1997. Despite its awful condition Meigs saw potential where others saw ruin.

“My role was to have it make a career change from an obsolete mill and grain elevator into a cultural site. And it took me years to figure out what its theme was, and it was just in the last year or two I recognized the obvious – it connects agriculture, history and art. I never would have thought I’d be able to choreograph my life so that those very separate things would come together in anything as good as this building. It’s like they all tied together in this serendipity project.

“I feel I was the right person at the right time for this to steer it in a different direction – in an attraction direction.”

Indeed, it’s unlikely anyone else possessed the necessary skills and interests, plus will and vision, to take on the Mill and repurpose it.

The oldest of three siblings, Meigs is the only daughter of Francis and Pauline Sorensen. Her parents grew up on north-central Neb farms. Linda spent her early childhood in the Dundee neighborhood, where she and John have resided since 1975, before her family moved to southwest Omaha’s Sunset Hills.

Though she grew up in the city, Meigs gained an appreciation for agriculture visiting her maternal grandparents’ farm.

“My mother’s family farm was my second home. We went out there weekends and holidays. In fact. I’ve used it for my artwork quite a bit,” says the veteran visual artist who’s shown at the Artists Cooperative and Anderson O’Brien galleries.

In contrast to this bucolic idyll was her “Edgar Allan Poe childhood.” Her mother sang at funerals and Linda accompanied her to the dark Victorian gothic mansions where these somber services were held.

She’d sit on a red velvet settee outside the viewing room and wait for mom to finish “Danny Boy,” “In the Garden” and “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Meigs traces her love of old buildings to those times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Linda’s talent for art asserted itself early. As a girl she drew and colored on any paper she could lay her hands on, filling reams of notebooks with her Childcraft book-inspired designs,

“i won a Walt Disney coloring contest before kindergarten. I got free tickets to Westward Ho the Wagons at the Dundee Theater. That was the payoff. In grade school I got a scholarship to an art class at Joslyn Art Museum. The teachers were always reinforcing about my artwork.”

Westside High School art teachers Ken Heimbuch and Diane (Hansen) Murphy were particularly “encouraging.”

“I still keep in touch with them and they come to my art shows here at the mill. We have a nice relationship.”

Her talent netted a scholarship to the University of Kansas art camp, but her parents couldn’t afford to send her. Heartbroken though she was she still fixed her sights on studying art in college. She started at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before switching to KU.

“I went to UNL my first year but I wasn’t very happy there. The art department wasn’t as large then as it is now. (Landscape painter) Keith Jacobshagen was a graduate student at the time and he encouraged me to check out KU, where he’d gotten his bachelor’s degree.”

The state university in Lawrence proved a good fit.

“It turned out my current husband was down there. It all came together. I loved the campus – you’re on a hill and you can see the horizon from three directions. Aesthetically, it’s very beautiful.”

Her insurance adjustor father and homemaker mother never opposed her pursuing art.

“My parents were very accepting, they knew I had a gift in that area and we’re encouraging. They were proud of me – even to the day I graduated with a totally useless BFA in printmaking. My folks never pressured me about how I was going to make a living. I never worried about it because I always felt, and I raised my kids this way, that if you’re a creative person you could figure out what to do.”

She and John made a go of it after marrying in 1975. He worked as an architect for Leo A. Daly before going into the building supplies business. She worked in a design studio before going off on her own as a freelance illustrator. She’s taught art at Joslyn and Metropolitan Community College and more recently with Why Arts?

She kept her hand in art in other ways, too.

“I was the cultural arts chair of Washington Elementary School for nine years. I invented a theme every year. The first one was Artists in Our Midst and every month I brought in a different artist. Whether they did pottery or silkscreen or painting, there was an artist in residence in the hallway demonstrating their work. I leaned on my artist friends for that to make this program for the school.

“One year we did a history theme and we had an all-school quilting bee. Each class designed a different block for this school quilt that won two blue ribbons at the Douglas County Fair. All of that was practice for events at the Mill. I learned how to be an event producer.”

Her and John’s appreciation for history developed into a hobby of driving around to admire houses and buildings in the old parts of town.

When they had four kids in six years, including twins, they developed an extra income stream by buying older residential properties and renting them out. That led to her day job as “a landlady.”

 

 

 

Then in 1997 she saw an Omaha World-Herald article that changed her life. Headlined “History for Sale,” it detailed the Mill’s colorful past. Having come to the end of its commercial life, the Mill was for sale.

“When I read the article I had a sinking premonition it (the Mill) would be my job,” she says with a laugh.

When she and John toured the Mill for the first time it marked her first visit to Florence. The building was a mess.

“It was boarded up and pitch black inside. We used flashlights to see. It had 2,000 pounds of fermented grain in a bin. Another 12,000 pounds were on the floor. We shuffled through piles of grain, dirt, dead animals and pigeon poop. It was stinky, dark, scary and unhealthy in there.

“Another couple went through it. The woman was Mormon and wanted to do a restaurant there. She asked me, ‘Are you interested in it?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, it’s pretty rough,’ and I said, ‘Are you interested in it?’ and she said, ‘Oh, no, it’s too far gone for me.”

It wasn’t too far gone for Linda, though. Not by a long shot.

“I thought, I can do this. It was a commitment, sure, but I thought this was a gem. I wasn’t afraid of it. I was used to working with old buildings. I didn’t know why there weren’t hundreds of people that wanted to buy an 1800s building.”

Still, it was a huge decision. After weeks hemming and hawing about its potential she recalls, “On Valentine’s Day my husband came home with a loaf of my favorite bread, I set it out on the counter, and he said, ‘Well, aren’t you going to open it?’ So I opened it and underneath the bread was a purchase agreement that if I wanted to do this he would stand with me. That was lovely.”

If she hadn’t gone through with it, she says, “the Mill probably would have been bulldozed. It was falling on its own. There were letters to the editor asking why doesn’t somebody tear that ruin of a building down and others saying it needed to be fixed up. So there were two sides – there always is in preservation. There are those who think it’s served its purpose, and so let it go. Then there’s those who say it’s a link to our past and heritage that should be salvaged, and I’m in that camp.”

“The writer David Bristow may have best captured its magic when he said, ‘I feel like I’m standing inside of a tree with the rings of history around me.’ I love that – I think it’s such a perfect metaphor for this building. From the outside you don’t know what to expect from this industrial-looking building but the inside is very lovely and soulful.”

For Meigs, the Mill is a living history lesson.

“The wood in here tells a story if you know where to look.”

She says the original hand-hewn timbers felled and erected by the Mormons are intact, as are the timbers Alexander Hunter used in rebuilding it. The circular marks from Hunter’s saw are visible in the timbers. There are vintage signs, pay stubs and time cards about.

Getting things up to code meant addressing myriad problems, from fixing huge holes in the roof to replacing rotted windows to draining fetid water in the basement she called “a stinky swimming pool” to removing seven tons of gunk.

“It was a big project.”

 

 

 

 

Her first order of business was cleaning all the walls and floors and open surfaces – “I scrubbed the entire building with trisodium phosphate and a brush” – and repairing the leaking roof.

She got a pleasant surprise when she discovered all those strewn oats acted as a sealant that protected the wood floors. “So the bane of the building was its blessing,” she says.

The building today “is a lot more solid than it was,” she says thanks to the new roof, siding, windows and insulation. “We did the restoration on the outside to preserve the inside because it’s the inside of this building that’s historical. It’s just the opposite of most restoration projects, where they’ll keep the facade and gut the inside. We didn’t want to do that because it would ruin the building.”

It wasn’t long before she got a sense the Mill just might be the attraction she thought it could be.

“That first summer I was in here cleaning I had a thousand visitors and it wasn’t even open. Actually the Mill told me through all those visitors that it needed to be open as a historical site. I had very vague ideas what to do with it. It’s an odd building functionally. As an artist I thought there would be a good gallery space here.

“I decided to open it up to the public as a museum.”

Meigs may have come to Florence as an outsider but she soon established herself as a good neighbor dedicated to building community and boosting economic development.

“It bothered me the historic sites of Florence were closed most of the summer, the Mill included, except for the Mormon Trails Center,” she says. “Kiwanis was keeping the historic depot and bank open on summer Sundays. I got a grant from the Mammel Foundation to staff those sites every day during the summer. It was a three-year grant and we kept them open with paid staff from Kiwanis clubs. It was a lovely relationship of improving Omaha.”

When the grant ended the depot and bank went back to being open a few select days but she decided to keep the Mill open on a regular basis, she says, “because I could do it – I’m donating my time.”

The Mill’s open seasonally, May through October. It goes in hibernation for the winter as it’s without heat and indoor restrooms.

Although still a newcomer to Florence, she’s become one of its biggest champions and feels it’s often overlooked considering its rich history.

“This is an unknown part of town. I call it the forgotten fringe. When i got the Mill and I started doing the research I realized the depth of the history here and I got involved in the neighborhood.”

She chaired the group Florence Futures that developed the master redevelopment plan for the Florence neighborhood.

When the Mormon Winter Quarters Temple opened she organized a  Lunch in Historic Florence event that gave visitors to the Temple a button for a discounted lunch at area restaurants.

“It was the first time the community had done a project with the Temple,” she says, adding the promotion won a state tourism award.

Much sweat equity and money went into getting the Mill into its present restored state.

“It’s taken 17 years to do what we’ve done. It’s not been overnight.”

With no paid admission, the trickle of income from vendor rentals and gift shop sales isn’t nearly enough to keep the Mill open and maintained. She depends on grants and donations. She and John also “pitch in money to keep this afloat.” She estimates more than $300,000 has been invested in the building thus far from various sources.

“I have a Friends of the Mill group and people kindly donate to that. It fluctuates from year to year but the funds from that do not cover the operating costs.”

Some major donors have come through for pricy projects, such as automatic barn doors. The Peter Kiewit Foundation and the Lozier Corporation helped fund their purchase and installation.

“A Questers group won a grant from the statewide Questers to replace the basement windows. It’s not like that happens all the time but there’s enough that it helps. When the need arises, good things happen, angels appear.”

She’s proud of how she converted the mill’s loft into a rustic art gallery bathed in natural light.

“I put some things up there early on. The first show was a show of my farm photographs with fiber art by Dorothy Tuma.”

The space didn’t become a full-fledged gallery though until her son Connor’s death.

“Loss is hard. Losing a child is pretty unacceptable because it’s out of the order of things. He died from injuries in a car accident on Christmas Eve of 2004. He was 19.”

 

 

Two images above are of the ArtLoft Gallery

 

 

 

Connor was an award-winning editorial cartoonist with the Omaha Central High Register and the Daily Kansan. He was home for the holidays, driving with his twin brother Doug, when the collision happened near the south side of Elmwood Park.

“We were over at John’s parents’ house waiting for Doug and Connor to come over to play board games with us,” says Linda. “The roads turned to black ice. Both boys suffered injuries and lost consciousness.

“Doug came out of it and Connor did not.”

There was a huge outpouring of support, including $10,000 in memorial gifts to the Mill.

She also wanted to do something to commemorate his love for art.

“It was actually in the wilderness of British Columbia that the idea came to me to give an art award in his memory,” Meigs explains. “I had promised Connor a show at the gallery when he graduated. I decided to give one young person a year what I promised to give Connor.”

The Connor Meigs Art Award is a merit award to help launch a young artist’s career. It includes a month-long solo exhibit, mentoring, artist’s reception, lodging and $1,000 honorarium.

Because Connor was an organ donor his mother knew he helped give life to others and would live on through the recipients.

“I wrote a letter to the families of the transplant patients who received his organs about what kind of a young man he was. I wrote that he was a hockey player and an award-winning artist. It had been six months since his passing and I had not heard any response.”

Linda had been waiting for a letter but she got a personal visit instead.

“We were here working at the Mill on a Sunday cleaning pigeon poop when a couple drove up in a car with outstate license plates. The woman got out and said, ‘We’d like to see Connor’s work.’ I said, ‘How did you know there was an exhibit?’ She looked down and after a pause she looked up to say, ‘I have Connor’s liver.'”

There had been a recent article about the Mill’s renovation and Connor’s show. Maggie Steele of Norfolk, Neb. contacted the Nebraska Organ Donors Society saying she wanted to meet Connor’s family. She was told protocol requires a recipient correspond a year with the family before a meeting is set. Meigs says Steele persisted until the organization finally gave in and said, “follow your heart.”

“Maggie and her husband Phil stop by to visit the Mill nearly every summer,” Meigs says. “Though I wrote a letter to all the organ recipients, Maggie was the only one we heard from. We are grateful to have heard from her.”

 

Another view of the ArtLoft Gallery at the Mill

Plaque commemorating Linda’s late son Connor

Maggie Steele with Connor’s work in background, ©Dennis Meyer/Norfolk Daily News

 

Historically, the Mill’s always been a landmark for travelers. whether on foot, by wagon or motor vehicle, and it remains a magnet for all kinds of visitors and events.

“Its still a natural meeting place,” Meigs says. “It’s right next to the Interstate, it’s very easy access, it’s on the way to the airport.”

Warren Buffett’s been there. The grounds have accommodated campers following the Mormon Trail. it hosted a Great Plains Theatre Conference program in May that drew hundreds. Each fall it’s a site on the North Omaha Pottery Tour. The gallery hosts several exhibits annually. The farmers market features dozens of vendors on Sundays from June through September.

Meigs says the Mill gets 8,000 to 10,000 visitors each summer and the farmer’s market, begun in 2009, is a major draw. It’s an eclectic scene where you can listen to live bluegrass music and get a massage. Children can ride ponies and pet alpacas. Linda sometimes joins the circle jam of fiddle and dulcimer musicians to play the washboard.

The laid-back vibe is largely attributed to Meigs.

“I get a lot of thank yous and gratitude from some people for saving this building but it’s blessed me back. I’ve met so many wonderful friends in this part of town. It’s enriched my life.”

Two measures of how much her efforts are appreciated happened this summer. She went with her family on a Bucket List trip to British Columbia and artist friends ran the Mill in her absence. “I almost wept when people stepped forward to say, ‘I’ll help.'” Folks in Florence organized a Thank You for the Mill party. “What a nice thing for people to do,” she says. “It’s nice to be appreciated.”

She says fellow creatives “always understand the building itself is my art project – it is the creation, it is an art and history installation.”

She feels she’s part of a long lineage of people who have been entrusted with the Mill.

“All of the owners of the building have honored that pioneer heritage and have had a role to play in the building’s preservation”

Meigs doesn’t have a succession plan for handing-off the Mill when she retires or dies. She says the Douglas County Historical Society or the Nebraska State Historical Society may be possibilities. She even thinks there’s a chance the Mormon Church might have interest in it.

She’s not giving it up anytime soon, though. Besides, she’s become so identified with it that she and the Mill are synonymous.

“People want me to be here. When they come here and I’m not here they’re disappointed. I guess my personality’s ingrained in this thing.  I’m the Mill lady.”

It may not be exactly what she she had in mind as a young artist. Nevertheless, she says, “it’s my dream.”

For Mill hours and activities visit http://www.theflorencemill.org.

 

Arts Crawl Concludes North Omaha Summer Arts; Friday, August 8 from 6-9 p.m.

July 31, 2014 1 comment

Arts Crawl Concludes North Omaha Summer Arts – Friday, August 8 from 6-9 p.m.

Please join us for the conclusion of North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) at an Arts Crawl on Friday, August 8 from 6 to 9 p.m.  Take a leisurely stroll or drive to sample a wide variety of visual and performing art at venues up and down a stretch of the North 30th Street corridor.

NOSA founder and director Pamela Jo Berry, who resides in the area, saw a need for more art in her underserved community and formed the annual North Omaha Summer Arts as a response. The free, summer-long festival, now in its fourth year, held a women’s writing workshop and an outdoor gospel concert earlier this summer. The Arts Crawl is the festival’s traditional culminating event.

On Friday, August 8 enjoy the work of established and emerging artists at the following sites:

Metropolitan Community College, Fort Omaha Campus, Mule Barn (Building 21)

Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd.

Trinity Lutheran Church, 6340 North 30th Street

Parkside Baptist Church, 3008 Newport Avenue

Heartland Family Service, 6720 North 30th Street

At some venues artists will be on hand to discuss their work. Free food and beverages will be available at each stop.

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts or call 402-502-4669 or 402-445-4666.

Please share this info with family, friends and coworkers in support of this grassroots community event that enriches and engages North Omaha with art.

Details coming regarding the featured artists.

 

Photo: Join us for the 4th annual Summer Arts crawl August 8th!!! We are seeking volunteers so if you'd like to participate please reach out here!
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