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


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

 

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

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Crawford for Leo

 Terence “Bud” Crawford

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Few expected much of him.

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

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

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

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

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

 

98-12-2 boxer

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

 

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

Debra recalls getting the news at home.

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

As if the family needed proof.

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

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

“He’s more focused,” Kevin says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Bud training in Colorado Springs

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

North Omaha Summer Arts Presents: Gospel in the Park

June 17, 2014 2 comments

My beloved, Pamela Jo Berry, has a big heart for her community.  It’s what led her to found North Omaha Summer Arts, an annual festival that infuses different art forms into the underserved North Omaha community she grew up in and still resides in.  This is the festival’s fourth year.  Saturday, June 21 NOSA presents a gospel concert at Miller Park.  Like all NOSA events, it’s free and open to the public.  Details below.  Before Pam and I became a couple, I profiled her and her passion behind the festival for The Reader.  You can find that story, Matter of the Heart: Pamela Jo Berry’s Love for Her Community Brings Art Fest to North Omaha, on this blog.  The link to it is: http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/pamela-jo-berry-brings-art-fest-to-north-omaha-artist-and-friends-engage-community-in-diverse-work/

In addition to the concert, there is a women’s writing workshop in progress.  On Friday, August 8 from 6 to 9 p.m. there will be an Arts Crawl up and down a swath of the North 30th Street Corridor featuring works by some of Omaha’s leading artists. Venues to be announced.

 

North Omaha Summer Arts's photo.
North Omaha Summer Arts presents a joyous, music-filled occasion-
Gospel Concert 4

Saturday, June 21
5:30-7:30 pm
24th and Kansas Ave. (next to the old ballfield)
Free and open to the public

Bring a picnic dinner and blanket or enjoy free grilled hot dogs and cool refeshing lemonade courtesy of Trinity Lutheran Church for this family-friendly concert featuring some of Omaha’s most gifted performers.

Featuring-
Eric and Doriette Jordan
Trinity Lutheran Choir
Sudanese Worship Band
Cadence
New Bethel Church of God Choir
and more…

“…for the Lord is great and greatly to be praised.” Psalm 96:4

For more info, call NOSA founder Pamela Jo Berry at 402-502-4669.

 

Upon This Rock: Husband and Wife Pastors John and Liz Backus Forge Dynamic Ministry Team at Trinity Lutheran

February 2, 2014 Leave a comment

Northeast Omaha is often portrayed as an exclusively African-American district and while it’s true that it is the historical center of the city’s black community and it’s where a large number of the metro’s black population still resides, it has always been and continues to be a mixed race area that sees much interaction between black and white folks.  Increasingly, Asians and Hispanics are part of that blended dynamic.  Trinity Lutheran doesn’t have much diversity in its pews for its main Sunday services though it does host chapel services for a Sudanese congregation.  But its social justice conscious husband and wife ministry team of pastors John and Liz Backus take the lead in making sure the church actively engages with the diverse community around it.  They bring very different styles to the pulpit but at the end of the day they are all about love and welcome, service and community, faith and action.  My New Horizons profile that follows fleshes out these two very human servants of God and charts the paths they’ve taken to do the good work they do and to lead the exemplary lives they live, warts and struggles and all.

 

 

Cover Photo

 
New Horizons Newspaper

 

 

Upon This Rock: Husband and Wife Pastors John and Liz Backus Forge Dynamic Ministry Team at Trinity Lutheran

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

The husband and wife pastor team of John and Liz Backus minister to an old-line Swedish-American parish in Omaha, Trinity Lutheran, at 30th and Redick Streets. But their real mission is tending to the church’s impoverished mixed-race neighborhood beset by high rates of illiteracy, unemployment and sexually transmitted diseases.

Upon arriving in late 2008 they found a parish little engaged with its community and desperate to retain a shrinking membership. Under the couple’s leadership Trinity’s stabilized its numbers and added new members. The church adopted nearby Miller Park Elementary School and its predominantly African-American student body. John runs a reading program there for 2nd graders. Trinity conducts neighborhood cleanups, participates in Crossroad Connection Prison Ministry, supports the North Omaha Summer Arts Festival and partners with Omaha North High School.

The pastors continue the church’s hosting of the Ruth K. Solomon Summer Leadership and Arts Academy. They’ve deepened relations with the Blue Nile Sudanese congregation that worships in Trinity’s chapel. They’ve taken a personal interest in Trinity’s long partnership with a sister church in Tanzania the couple visited in 2010.

 

 

Children at the Solomon Summer Leadership and Arts Academy

 

Social justice and multicultural inclusion come natural to the couple, who are adoptive parents of children of color.They support lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender rights. Everyone’s welcome at Trinity.

They live three blocks from the church in an old California bungalow-style house they extensively restored. Their home is an extension of their ministry as they host garden parties and meetings there. They also embrace efforts like the Minne Lusa House across the street.

“We’re glad to be in partnership in caring for the neighborhood,” John says. “We’re doing amazing things at Trinity and now we’re getting the community to do amazing things with us. The first step in redevelopment is recognizing that if you’re not involved in the community you’re just a dead body that doesn’t know it’s dead yet. I’m determined to do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen to Trinity.

“Lutheran churches are often self-insular. But the building at 30th and Redick is not there just to hold services or to be a social organization for us. The church is to be a hospital in a sick place, to be a gathering place for God’s people to go out of the building and do God’s work. It’s not about how many more posteriors can we place in a pew, it’s about are we being faithful to the call of Christ when we walk out the door.”

The Backus’s are among few ordained spouses in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They say what makes them stand apart from other clergy couples is that they pastor together. Married in 1976, they’ve been co-pastors since 1982. Trinity is their third shared “call” after pastoring stints in Kansas City, Mo. and in Minnesota

“it’s really just a way of life,” says Liz. “We can play on our strengths and we have the other person to talk things over with. It’s been good for us because we can do what we want to do. I was senior pastor in Kansas City and I’m not now, and it’s John’s time to run with it, and that’s good, too.

“Why would you want two of the same people?”

Depending on who’s leading Trinity’s 10:45 a.m. Sunday service, worshipers will either get his high energy flamboyance or her subdued solemnity. His charismatic stage presence was honed during 10 years performing with the touring gospel quartet, The Fishermen.

Despite their differences they stand firm in solidarity about their shared passion to serve others.

“When we’re really wrong we’re really wrong together but when we’re right it strengthens us,” Liz says.

But there’s no getting around they do come from two markedly different backgrounds.

Ordained ministry was his goal from as far back as he can recall while Liz only felt the call after meeting him. Three years older, John entered the seminary while she was in college. Liz soon followed his path.

“I never wanted to do anything else,” he says. “When I was a little kid I would run up to grab the pastor’s leg when he was trying to preach, and my parents would usually catch me but not always, and I’d scream, ‘I want to do this, I want to do this.’”

He grew up outside Chicago. She grew up in rural Indiana. Both came from interfaith families. The only reason he became Lutheran is that his German-American father, who came from an abusive home, found refuge in that church as a boy and remained faithful to it.

“There was this Lutheran family down the street that would take my dad to church. Anything to get him out of the house was good. He loved the church. It was a place of safety for him. He loved his pastor and he wanted to be a pastor. There was no money for him to go to school so he left school in the 8th grade and went on to become a railroad machinist. But he always wished he’d been a pastor.”

John says things got so bad for his father as a boy that he “was kicked out of his house” at age 8. “He walked from Chicago to the suburb of Downer’s Grove and moved in with an aunt and uncle who raised him. That’s who I always knew as grandma and grandpa growing up.”

John was born in Chicago but his family moved to the suburbs when he was a child to escape the harsh legacy of his Italian-American mother’s gangland family and their link to infamy.

“My mother’s father was a driver for Al Capone in Chicago. I know that when Al Capone went to jail and my grandfather needed a job he voted for a certain mayoral candidate a number of times in one election and as a result got a job driving a garbage truck for the City of Chicago.”

He says the story goes that “when my grandfather died a gentleman came to the funeral and put an ice pick in the corpse’s shoulder to make sure he was dead.” Backus says quite a few older relatives on his mother’s side worked as mob functionaries. Some died in prison.

“My mother’s brother is either still in prison or he’s died now. He was a minor league leg-breaker.”

Dysfunction ran through his clan.

“You know in all of your good mafia dramas one person will turn to another and say, ‘You are dead to me,’ well, I watched that play out in my extended family over and over again. My maternal grandmother was angry my mother married someone who wasn’t Italian. That dismissing another human being doesn’t solve the problem because you just fight it out with someone else. That is something my beloved Elizabeth has taught me – that you need to just see things through.”

John’s grateful his folks survived the chaos and made a deliberate decision to move from that environment. Still, Backus is mindful he’s inherited a dark side that if he’s not careful can overtake him.

“That past is true and it’s woven into who I am. It’s so long ago now and yet when someone really angers me my first thought is, What do I need to do this person to get my way? How bad do I need to beat them? That’s horrible and I’m not afraid of confessing this. That’s not who I want to be and so that’s who i choose not to be.”

His love of singing is a byproduct of his parents, who moved the family to Neb., first to Lincoln and then to Elmwood, when he was a teen because of his dad’s railroad job,

“My father loved to sing hymns and my mom was a rook ‘n’ roller – Elvis Presley, roller skates, poodle skirts. She sang rock ‘n’ roll all the time. And I always liked to sing.”

At one point the man he most admired, his father, who taught him to fix anything, was ready to disown him. In 1972 the Vietnam War and military draft were still on. Backus, then 18, held genuine pacifist beliefs and had already applied to seminary, but the real reason he didn’t want to serve is that he feared the obesity he battled then – he weighed nearly 300 pounds – made him an easy target.

“I knew if I got sent over there I’d be dead. I knew some people who’d gone and died. At that time the deferments were all gone.”

 

 

Exterior and interior images of Trinity Lutheran

 

He joined other war opponents in a public protest that culminated in them burning their draft cards. He served a few days in jail for his action and was put on the military’s undesirable list. He’d considered more drastic action. “I was prepared to run. I figured I’d head north (to Canada).” He says his dad disapproved, telling him, ‘If you go you can never come back. But if you stay I will do everything I can to help you.”

Backus gets emotional explaining why his dad reacted so strongly.

“My father was an Army infantryman in the Second World War. He never talked about it but at the end of every month he woke up screaming. We found out later he was in the group that took Peleliu.”

The small Pacific coral island, now known as Palau, was occupied by Japanese forces embedded in trenches, caves and tunnels. Enemy positions could only be rooted out by men on the ground and by so-called “tunnel rats.”

“My father was a tunnel rat. The island was supposed to be occupied in a week but it took months. There were heavy casualties. So it was very difficult for him to see his son refuse to serve his country.”

Father and son reconciled and when John was ordained no one was any prouder than his old man.

“He loved it, he was so happy I stayed with it.”

By comparison, Liz says she comes from “a normal” background minus all the drama or rancor. When the liberal, long-haired John swept into her life it caused a rift between the young lovers and her parents. Her folks ran a printing company in Maryville, Indiana. They expected Liz to complete college and start a career before getting involved with someone, and then preferably with a well-off, buttoned-down fellow.

Spirituality fascinated her from the time her father took her to guitar masses at the Catholic church they attended during her childhood.

“I was always interested in church. I loved the liturgy, I loved a lot of things about it. But I knew I didn’t want to be a nun, so there wasn’t really a place for me I didn’t think.

“I was exploring all kinds of things.”

She aspired to a career in journalism but one year studying it at Indiana University convinced her she wasn’t cut out for it. She was still in high school when the singing group John was in came to town. She joined other area youths to campaign for a man running for congress, Floyd Fithian. The candidate’s nephew was The Fishermen’s lead singer and so the quartet, Backus included, drove to Indiana to lend their support. The youth volunteers were boarding a bus to go canvassing when Backus noticed a lovely coed.

He remembers, “I literally grabbed Floyd by the arm and said, ‘Do you see that girl who just got on the bus?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘That’s Liz Danko,’ and I said, ‘Put her with me.’ And 300-plus letters later, because we lived 500 miles apart, we moved into the same town, Dubuque Iowa, where she was in college and I was in seminary, and a year later we were married. I asked her to marry me the third time I saw her.”

“An unusual courtship,” says Liz. “Yeah, we do not recommend it,” John says, “because you look back and it’s romanticized but at the time it was really hard.”

Among the difficulties was gaining her parents’ approval.

“My father and John had a lot of arguments having to do with his pacifist leanings. The rest of my family loved John but you know parents have such a high stake in everything.”

Then there was their resistance to her being a pastor’s wife.

“My parents thought a pastor’s wife was too hard of a job, that you don’t get any notoriety, you’re not a person in your own light, you’re in somebody’s shadow, you’re on their coattails. They worried, ‘You’re going to marry this man, get pregnant and quit school.’”

John understood their misgivings. “Elizabeth has always been brilliant, an incredible student, great grades. Her dad and mom looked at it as she’s bound to do great things and I’m going to ruin it.”

“They were so upset,” says Liz,

It didn’t help matters, she adds, that “John was cocky and arrogant” and I was young.” Against her parents’ wishes the couple got married after her second year of college. “Not a real happy day but they were coming around.” All was forgiven when her parents saw none of their fears realized. Liz finished school as planned, then after embracing Lutheranism went on to seminary and got ordained. Instead of playing second fiddle to her husband she became his equal partner.

“John and my father got to be really good friends,” she says.

Women ministers were still a new reality in the Lutheran Church and thus Liz was one of only a few females in her seminary class. John’s father was delighted to have a second preacher in the fold.

“His respect for our profession was deep and he was very happy when Elizabeth entered ordination.”

They feel they made the right decision to enter ministry, though there have been doubts and struggles along the way.

“I think at first I was trying to save myself but I learned you can’t. What keeps me going is when the phone rings and somebody says, ‘I just had a baby,’ and they are so happy and they want to tell me. Or they call and they say, ‘My father is dying,’ and they are so sad and they want to tell me. I get to live the heights and the depths of people’s lives and just stand with them and be there with them through all of it.

“It’s an incredible joy and what tells me it’s right is that I’m 60 years-old and I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had. It’s great.”

Liz says, “I think at first I just was so drawn to the mystery. The call is such a challenge and it’s a privilege to be with people. I think I can make a difference sometimes. Like you can be in the right place at the right time and that’s really humbling and captivating.”

 

 

John, Liz and their granddaughter Presley

 

Their first assignment together was in Lanesboro, Minn. When they adopted children from Korea and Thailand they introduced the only people of color into an otherwise all-white community.

“Everybody loved them,” Liz says. “Being the pastors’ kids they were aware they were treated really nicely but increasingly they felt they were the only people of color. They were big fish in a little pond. Also we didn’t feel we could afford to stay. We couldn’t have sent them to college making what we did. That was really the only reason we moved. It was a wonderful way of life.”

It was there the couple began their advocacy for LGBT rights. The church sometimes moved more slowly then they wanted but they’re pleased by the progress it’s made.

“When we first started speaking out about this in church assemblies it was just a matter of we need to let gay and lesbian people in our churches,” John says. “It’s ended up in this wonderful place we are now where persons who are lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgendered can have life partners and be pastors in this church. It took a long time to get there.”

“Gay-lesbian rights has been very important to us,” says Liz, who was active in groups that lobbied to get women bishops.

In Kansas City the couple brought already progressive St. James Lutheran Church into the reconciling or affirming movement  It was a congregation in turmoil after the previous pastor resigned in the wake of accusations he had inappropriate sexual relations with members.

John says the unsavory situation “left the congregation divided and angry.” “Some of our predecessor’s strong supporters had left but some of stayed and that was part of what we dealt with,” Liz says. The couple set about healing the wounds and doing things the right way.

“One of the strengths of being a married couple is that we have good boundaries,” she says. “We were real intentional in what we did. We didn’t tell an off-color joke. The two of us were always present when somebody was in the office. We kept doors and windows open.”

Before their arrival in 1995 it was a church that talked social justice but they encouraged members to begin practicing it in their own backyard. The couple found a real home in that church community and in the neighborhood they resided in. But in 2007-2008 things changed.

“The work got more difficult,” says John. “Our leadership had always been greeted well. All of a sudden we realized things just weren’t going the way they should. We decided if we didn’t get good results at the next (parish council) meeting then it’s time to leave. The meeting went very badly. We would find out later a relatively small group of individuals had committed to having us removed. It’s much easier to get a pastor to quit then to get them removed.

“That group of people was making life difficult for us. I don’t know their reasons but I know they wanted us gone and worked very hard to make sure that happened. What was most painful for us is that no one came to us and said, Do you know what’s happening? We had the sense no one had our back.”

Feeling it was time to exit gracefully rather than subject the church to another upheaval, the pastors stepped down, though they hoped their self-imposed exile would be temporary.

“We thought, We’ll let them sort this out and let them get back on their feet,” says Liz.

But as time went by the severing became permanent. Stunned, John and Liz felt they were through with the ministry. They gave away all their theology books. That meant finding new jobs, only the timing couldn’t have been worse because of the economic collapse. John tried selling cars and digging ditches. Liz worked at a Panera’s.

“We just couldn’t make a living,” says Liz. “Things just did not work out.” “I applied for 200 jobs,” says John. “It was a very difficult year.”

They vacationed in Yellowstone to clear their heads and unburden theirs hearts. Upon returning home John announced: “I cannot be without a church.” So they searched for pastorships all over the nation. Omaha’s Trinity Lutheran, dedicated in 1922, proved the right fit for this pair with so much to give. They were just what was needed to awaken this somewhat sleeping, struggling urban parish.

 

 

John Backus and Matt Kong

Pastor John and Matt Kong talking social justice

 

He says the Lutheran Church recognizes “there are all these inner city ministry sites that have dwindled for 50 years and are incredibly important places for ministry to take place,” adding, “Often because of financial resources or not knowing what to do they’ll put someone there, a first year seminarian, who’s not ready to tackle the challenges that we as an experienced couple have tackled.” He says he believes “there are ways to make those congregations not just survive but thrive and we’ve already taken the first couple steps toward that at Trinity.”

They acknowledge the way they left K.C., where they expected to retire, hurt them, but they’re grateful to have their new ministry home.

“I think I’m broken now because of St. James,” Liz says. “Probably every other day we have a discussion about why things went wrong there. I mean, this is not over for us. I feel really bad about we were unable to take them to the next step.

“But I also think there is a call here (at Trinity) and that while all this has messed me up I’m not as afraid as I was. We have a steadiness and a wisdom and we’re not afraid of failing. And we have an energy and a drive that just may be what these people need.”

John says, “In eight more years it is our intention to have the parish so ingrained in missionary service that Trinity will be a teaching congregation. My passion and goal is that people can come out of seminary to Trinity and be taught how to do street ministry by a faith-filled congregation.”

The couple see a neighborhood and parish believing in themselves again and feeling good about the difference they can make, a sharp contrast to the hopelessness they found.

He’s encouraged by the generosity people are displaying and the progress beige made. A woman donated copies of The Littlest Lion to every 2nd grade student at Miller Park Elementary. An anonymous benefactor left an envelope with $500 and a note that read. “I like what you’re doing at Miller Park, use this.” Miller Park’s gone from one of Omaha’s lowest achieving public grade schools to one of its highest. Parishioners donated boots to prison inmates on work release.

“That’s God’s physical presence in our life today,” John says. “God doesn’t have to be anything more than that to me because God is alive and active in that gathering of people to love one another.”

Liz says, “We just abide and we keep doing it day after day.”

For a list of services and events, visit trinityomaha.org.

Minne Lusa House, a North Omaha Sanctuary for Canning, Conversation and Community

September 27, 2013 3 comments

Neighborhoods.  It used to be the norm not the exception that neighbors knew one another and did things together.  A yearning to return to that communal model inspired a pair of Omaha women, Sharon Olson and Beth Richards, to create a neighborhood space that encourages togetherness over a shared passion for people, canning, conversation and community.  Their Minne Lusa House in North Omaha has become a popular gathering spot for folks looking to connect and collaborate.  Read my New Horizons cover story about these ladies and their special house.

 

 

Sharon Olson and Beth Richards

 

 

Minne Lusa House, a North Omaha Sanctuary for Canning, Conversation and Community

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

Close friends Sharon Olson and Beth Richards are the neighborhood moms, porch ladies and activists behind a popular project in northeast Omaha, the Minne Lusa House, totally of their own making.

Without a grant or loan to assist them, they bought and restored an old, run down house in their Minne Lusa neighborhood for the express purpose of making it a place of social engagement. It’s an expression of their shared love for people, conversation, canning and community.

The tan, stucco structure at 2737 Mary St. is a kind of neighborhood clubhouse where folks come for private canning lessons, public workshops and the every Saturday Morning Brew open house. Groups hold meetings there. Writers, artists and others use it as a quiet sanctuary for creative inspiration and meditation.

The women fixed up the house with the sweat equity of friends, neighbors and local contractors, tearing down walls, gutting entire rooms, replacing the attic floor and making many major improvements.

They’ve done it all with their own money and without the aid of a church or community organization or government program. “And never will as far as I’m concerned,” says Olson, who believes in self-sufficiency. “Why wait until you die and give your money to somebody who doesn’t even care what happens when you can spend your money and do things in a neighborhood that maybe will make a change?”

The cozy home includes a pantry with metal shelving units filled with jars packed to the brim with canned tomatoes, bruschetta, spaghetti sauce, salsa, pickled peaches, sweet and dill pickles, relishes, jams and jellies. The pantry has two antique tools used during the canning process – a hanging scale and a pestle and mortar from her druggist grandfather. More shelving units store the pickling spices, flour and other ingredients used in the canning and baking that goes on there.

When truck loads of corn or bushelfuls of tomatoes come in from community gardens and local farms there’s a buzz of activity as folks gather to shuck, peel, chop, boil, spice and can the bounty. It’s a throwback to the canning parties and barn-raisings of yesteryear.

Right-hand gals Diane Franson-Krisor and Diana McIntosh, part of the crew that helped Olson and Richards rehab the house, are regulars at the Saturday brews that feature hot coffee and tea and assorted homemade toppings and spreads to garnish freshly baked biscuits, turnovers and bagels. Richards is the canner and Olson is the baker.

 

 

Cover Photo

 

 

Millard resident Betsy Scott has become a Saturday devotee.

“Instantly I felt welcomed,” she says. “I just felt at home with Sharon and Beth and Diane and Diana. Every week I kept coming back I got more and more excited to come up. It’s all about the apple turnovers and the fresh biscuits with the homemade jelly, it’s about ,’Here, try my tomato jam.’ It brings people together and that’s never a bad thing.”

Scott says the dozens of people who make it to those coffee klatches are attracted like she is to what Olson and Richards embody

“Their passion for community and for the house itself, their love of canning and their love of people. They make every single person feel welcome when they come in and by the time you leave you feel like you’ve known them forever. I think everyone walks away feeling like they’ve made some new friends. It’s kind of like Cheers but without the beer and without Norm.”

Franson-Krisor grew up in Minne Lusa and she cherishes what the project provides.

“I think it’s wonderful because every neighborhood needs a gathering place and they have really changed this area a lot. I’ve been here 52 years in a house on the corner and growing up was all about neighbors communing. That was the thing to do. All the mothers got together and the kids played. And this is bringing it back.

“Somebody referred to Beth and Sharon as the porch ladies, and that’s how it was when we were growing up. The women talked over coffee and the kids played, and that’s what’s coming back because of this place. It’s like we’re all one little family here.”

Because it’s neutral ground, elected officials and public servants come to hear concerns from their constituency. Everyone from Omaha City Council members to the police chief have visited there. It’s a safe house for children and adults escaping trouble at home. When there’s an issue in the neighborhood, whether illegal dumping or unkempt property or illicit drug dealing, residents view Olson and Richards as the go-to resources to contact the authorities. When there’s something that needs organizing, the “old ladies” at the Minne Lusa House are among the first ones people reach out to to get things done.

Richards says, “Some people who are afraid to call the police will call us and say, ‘This is going on on our block, can you help us out?’ Sharon is great politically. She’ll go to public hearings, listen and make her presence known. I’ll tell you right now when (Omaha City Council District 2 representative) Ben Gray sees Sharon he goes, Oh-oh.’ Sharon puts them to the task. They know her. That’s what it takes.”

“You have to be a tough person to be down here,” says Olson.

Both women are strong, assertive, plain-talking, live-out-loud types. Olson can be sarcastic. Richards is more diplomatic. Richards says they’re just enough different to “make it work because there is a balance between the yin and the yang.”

 

 

Minne Lusa House

Minne Lusa House

 

 

Friends say they personify the do-it-yourself independence, give-the-shirt-off-your-back generosity, puff-out-your-chest pride and glad-to-know-you warmth that characterizes Minne Lusa.

Situated between Miller Park and Florence in a tucked away sector east of North 30th Street, Minne Lusa was formed in 1916 by Charles Martin, who designed a neighborhood with California Bungalow-style homes of wood, stucco and brick. The homes were built in what was a cornfield. A pretty boulevard runs through the heart of the area. Many homes and yards are beautifully maintained. The area’s enjoying a resurgence of interest because its character-rich homes featuring natural wood floors, ample windows, fireplaces, generous porches and detached garages sell at highly affordable prices.

Richards says part of the motivation behind their project is “to get the name Minne Lusa out there because nobody before knew where Minne Lusa was. We’re not Florence, we’re Minne Lusa. We’re here to promote the neighborhood and to get people to know each other.”

The house has hosted an arts and crafts show and may host another this fall. It also organizes the annual Trick or Treat on the Boo-Levard during Halloween. Minne Lusa Blvd. is decorated for the occasion.

Efforts are underway to get Minne Lusa designated a National Register of Historic Places district. Olson and Richards support the initiative because they are so devoted to the neighborhood and generating appreciation for it and what makes it different.

These women of a certain age grew up in a time when tight-knit neighborhoods were the rule, not the exception. Olson, a retired phone company employee, resides in the same Minne Lusa house she was raised in and she does all she can to preserve the sense of neighborliness and community she’s valued there all her life.

Richards, who fell hard for Minne Lusa during 15 years as a mail carrier there, bought a house in the neighborhood and the retired U.S. Post office employee has made the area her home ever since. She’s flipped some homes there and she takes pains to only sell her properties to buyers with the same sense of community she has. Much as Olson did Richards too came of age knowing her neighbors, only not in Omaha but in the small town of Garwin, Iowa she grew up in. The friendly people of Minne Lusa made an impression on Richards because they reminded her of how the people in her hometown related to each other and she wanted to be part of that again.

“I really like the people,” says Richards. “There’s something about the people. I just fell in love with this neighborhood. It’s got a lot of promise, it’s got great homes. When I carried mail here for 15 years I knew everybody who lived between 30th and 24th, from Whitmore Street up to Sharon Drive, and I’d think, ‘Well. it’s too bad these people don’t know these people because they’d really get along.’ And so now I think we’re slowly getting those people to know each other.”

 

 

Photo: Thanks to Diane Franson Krisor and Diana Lynn McIntosh, we will be ready to pickle watermelon rind tomorrow!

 

 

Among those she got to know on her route was Olson.

“Sharon and I talked a lot and we became friends over time.”

Richards says they both joined the Minne Lusa Neighborhood Association about the same time.

Their idea for the Minne Lusa House was to create an open space that draws people together.

“Our goal always was just bringing the neighborhood together,” says Olson. “People don’t talk to each other the way they used to. When I grew up neighbors spoke to one another. You didn’t have to love them, you didn’t have to break bread with them, but you were nice to them and talked to them. We don’t do that anymore. Well, we do on my block. So the goal was always to bring that back somehow.”

For years Olson held a block party on the stretch of Martin Ave. she lives on.

“I thought that was a good way to get everybody to know everybody.”

Richards says it’s just one of many ways her friend “was working” on strengthening neighborhood and community before Minne Lusa House. For both women it’s a personal mission.

“The old neighborhoods are all fractured because we have issues with landlords that own properties that don’t take care of their places,” says Olson. “We have landlords that rent indiscriminately to anyone and then it just ruins a neighborhood.”

Richards says, “That’s one of the things that drew us together because we’re both angry about what the landlords are doing to older neighborhoods and to our neighborhood.”

They don’t take things lying down either. When renters in a neighborhood house were causing frequent disturbances with loud music and late night partying, Richards spring into action.

“I got the landlord’s name and when the neighbors were partying I’d call the landlord at midnight and leave messages, saying, ‘We’ve got a problem here on Mary, we can’t sleep, the cops have been here, and if we can’t sleep you can’t sleep.’ The landlord finally called me to say they were woking on it and finally those people moved out.”

Richards says the landlord promised to be more diligent about who she rents to.

“They’ve got nice people in there now,” she adds.

Olson says the problem of absentee landlords “isn’t just in our neighborhood, it’s anywhere east of 72nd. People can walk in and buy these houses for $20,000 or $10,000 and they do not put a dime into them and then they’ve got people renting that aren’t going to take care of anything. They don’t better your neighborhood, they destroy your    neighborhood.” She and Richards say that many inner city vacant lots and abandoned homes are owned by landlords who live out of state and wont let go of the properties except for exorbitant prices.

Meanwhile, taxpayers absorb the costs of cutting overgrown weeds or razing structures. Neighbors are left to deal with the blight, eyesores and dangers that come with empty or unattended properties

“It’s wrong, this whole system,” says Olson.

“We’ve talked to Ben Gray about it,” says Richards. “We’re working on it.”

Opened in 2011, Minne Lusa House has become the very gathering spot and conduit for action the women envisioned

“When this house became available it was primary for us to say, ‘Let’s try this and see if it will work,’ and the means to doing that was canning. Canning brought people in. And as you can see there is nothing here that distracts them,” Olson says, referring to the TV-less kitchen, dining room and living room. The office, pantry and finished attic and basement have no TVs either. “People have to speak to one another and when you’re canning you have to talk to each other or you wont have a very good product when you get done.”

“The canning is fun,” says Richards.”The best part is when somebody tries it and goes, ‘Oh my God, this is great.’ That’s reward.”

Franson-Krisor says she’s learned to can, garden and do home improvement projects from working alongside Richards.

 

 

Photo: Come on by this morning from 9 to noon for coffee and try out our new coffee mugs, compliments of Sue Bigsby. Thank you Sue, these are great!!

 

 

Olson fondly recalls a woman who learned to can at the house. “She sent the cucumber relish she made all over the country to her family and was the hit at Christmas, so she’s a memory to me.” Then there’s the mother and daughter team who come. The mother insists on sampling everything while the daughter busies herself canning. Upon leaving, the mother beams about how much “WE’VE canned.” The camaraderie is what she’s really after. A surprising number of young people, including families with small children, come to can.

Two more Saturday morning regulars are husband and wife ministers John and Liz Backus, who live across the street and pastor at nearby Trinity Lutheran Church. Lots of laughter and stories ensue.

“Those are things you just can’t put a price tag on,” says Olson.”I think we get more from this then maybe anybody else does. We get to meet all these fun, interesting people. We have a good time with them. We tell people, ‘Don’t come if you don’t want to have a good time.’”

“We’re going to have fun,” adds Richards.

The women didn’t expect all the attention their endeavor’s attracted, including an Omaha World-Herald feature that helped put the Minne Lusa House on the map. As a result the house has become a magnet both for folks in the neighborhood and from well beyond its borders.

“We’ve had people from Council Bluffs, Papillion, Ralston, Gretna come down here for canning lessons,” says Olson.

The way it’s caught on has taken the founders by surprise.

Richards says, “When we started this we didn’t know know where this was going to go. We had no clue. We didn’t see that coming. We were just going to be a little neighborhood house and then slowly spread it through the neighborhood.”

Minne Lusa House captures people’s imagination. Donated boxes of jars and other canning supplies regularly arrive on the front porch. Harvested produce is left for the women to can. Proceeds from the products they make go right back into the house. A Minne Lusa native living in Florida discovered the project and sent personalized coffee mugs.

Olson says, “We have wonderful support.”

 

 

Photo
Photo
Photo

 

 

She and Richards don’t believe in planning too far ahead or following a strict plan. They just ride the wave and take things as they come.

“Today if you asked us what we would do next year we cannot tell you that. It just falls,” says Olson. “We don’t set goals. I worked 30 years for the phone company. I’m not putting together any business plan. I’m done with that. We fly by the seat of our pants. Too many years of structure, Beth had structure with the post office for God’s sake. We don’t need that. Nobody needs to tell us what to do.”

They’re not sure what the house’s future may be when they’re gone or decide to step down.

If something happens and we have to shut it down, then we shut it down, there’s no pressure,” says Richards.

Olson can’t see it continuing in its present form or with the same name under someone else’s leadership. “I mean, it’s the Minne Lusa House, it’s unique. If we couldn’t do it anymore and somebody wanted to buy it it couldn’t be Minne Lusa House anymore, at least not for me.”

Richards says it’s possible the house could always return to being a private residence. “We set it up that if we failed we’d probably lose money but we could sell it as a home for somebody to live in.”

The 1918 built home was occupied by several families over its history, the longest period, 45 years, by the Joseph and Clella Frolio family, who resided there from 1961 to 2005. The Frolio children left some indelible marks in the home, such as a pattern of BB gun pellet holes in one basement wall and handprints in another basement wall. Here and there are personal touches by Olson and Richards, including a vintage rocking chair that belonged to Beth’s great-grandmother.

A plaque hanging in the home’s front room details the chronology and names of the various people who dwelled there.

The women hope to create a Minne Lusa museum in the attic to display the photographs and articles they’ve collected about the neighborhood they feel such a kinship with.

The pair don’t like the bad rap North Omaha gets and they see the Minne Lusa House as a touchstone where people’s negative attitudes and perceptions about the area can be overturned.

“It’s a concept you have to change and it doesn’t get changed overnight,” says Richards.

“People go, ‘Oh my God, it’s North Omaha, there’s shootings, I can’t come there,” bemoans Olson. “People will not come down here because they’re scared they’re going to be shot. So when we have big groups of people we always say, ‘Do you know where you are?’ This is The Hood.’ Then they see for themselves what a beautiful area it is.”

Richards says, “We’re bringing people from out of the community into the community, where they find out it’s kind of nice up here. It’s by word of mouth and it spreads.” More than anything, she says, “what we’ve accomplished is that every day neighbors are getting to know each other.”

Keep up with doings there at http://www.facebook.com/minne.house.

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

August 13, 2013 3 comments

 

 

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

 

 

Cover Photo

Apostle Vanessa Ward
Apostle Vanessa Ward

 

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Apostle’s book

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Hope Garden

 

 

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

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

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

That same respect and unity infuse the block party

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

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

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

She’s an admired figure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The block party features plenty of decorations and food.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 Sunday morning service

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tragedy moved her farther down the path.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My husband was scared for my life.”

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

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

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

Then she went about making it happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s proud of her.

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

But she still retained a presence on the block.

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

She didn’t like what she found.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Matter of the Heart: Pamela Jo Berry’s Love for Her Community Brings Art Fest to North Omaha

August 8, 2013 4 comments

When I first posted this, I wrote about the subject of this story, “Pamela Jo Berry is a photographer who doesn’t like her picture taken.”  I could have added that she also doesn’t allow her picture to be used without her permission.  That’s still true but she has since relented to let me post a self-portrait she created.  The fact that we’ve became a couple since I wrote this story may help account  for this change of mind.  She’s still very shy and particular about her image.  What you will see in this self-portrait, which is broken up into two images here, is her heart.  The mixed media artist displays her big, warm heart in everything she does, including the North Omaha Summer Arts festival she just dreamed up herself and has staged three consecutive years now out of her own pocket and with in-kind donations from friends, fellow artists, and supporters.  The grassroots event is very much an expression of her passion for art in all its many forms,  her deep spirituality, and her abiding love for her North Omaha community.  As always, this year’s featival culminates in an Arts Crawl up and down a section of North 30th Street that not coincidentally is also her neighborhood.  The crawl runs from 6 to 9 p.m. and Berry’s organized an eclectic roster of artists to show their work.  Berry’s done something here that should be a lesson to us all.  She saw a need for more public art in her community and instead of bemoaning its absence she went about creating a festival that brings art there.

 

 ©Pamela Jo Berry’s Change
PAM BERRY
Matter of the Heart: Pamela Jo Berry’s Love for Her Community Brings Art Fest to North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Pamela Jo Berry saw a need for more art offerings in the section of northeast Omaha where she resides and decided to do something about it.

With the help of friends and venues the photographer and mixed media artist created North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) in 2011 to serve the area north of Ames Ave. along the 30th Street corridor, The free public festival is a homespun hodgepodge of writing and quilting classes, a gospel concert and an arts crawl. She says all of it’s “open to anyone interested in participating.”

“It actually came about as wanting to put a taste of art in the area,” she says.

This year’s festival has already seen: a Creative Writing Journey for Women workshop series taught by best-selling romance novelist Kim Whiteside (who publishes under Kim Louise) of Omaha; and a Free Motion Quilting course taught by former Union for Contemporary Art resident Shea Wilkinson.

A free home-cooked dinner was served before each class.

The June 22 gospel concert at Miller Park featured the Cadence Ensemble, Highly Favored and Eric and Doriette Jordan.

That leaves the August 9 Arts Crawl, from 6 to 9 p.m., featuring artists, art talks and homemade food and refreshments at the following sites:

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

Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd. Work and art talk by sculptress Pamela Conyers-Hinson

Blessed Sacrament Church, 6316 North 30th St.

Trinity Lutheran Church, 6340 North 30th St.

Jehovah Shammah Church International, 3020 Huntington Ave.

Parkside Baptist Church, 3008 Newport Ave.

Solomon Girls Center/Heartland Family Service, 6720 North 30th St.

Other artists featured in the Arts Crawl include: Whiteside, Wilkerson, Peggy Jones, Linda Garcia, Reginald LeFlore III and Gerard Pefung.

Berry’s also showing her own work.

It’s only natural for Berry to utilize churches because she’s a deeply spiritual woman who sees the festival, like her own artwork, as a faith-led mission.

“It’s just an extension of who I am as a follower of Christ.”

 

PAM BERRY (2)opt

 

The normally shy Berry, whose extrovert daughter is local actress and playwright Beaufield Berry puts herself out there with NOSA because she feels called to it

“When you see something as a ministry you kind of go with it,” she says. “This gives me a chance to share. North Omaha Summer Arts is quite important to me.”

She sees NOSA as a much needed asset for an underserved community challenged by poverty, crime, scarce amenities and a perception problem.

“In the area of North Omaha where we live we could find no art,” she says. “We knew it was there, we just had to uncover it. We knew art would bring hope and peace and most of all community to our neighborhood. We’ve seen it grow, we’ve noticed the interest and the benefits…and we want it to continue to flourish.”

Nebraska Arts Council Heritage Arts Manager Deborah Bunting says NOSA is part of the new energy and sense of community being built in North O.

Berry, who works with Omaha Community Playhouse education director Denise Chapman in organizing the fest, says while the number of people who engage with NOSA is still small it positions North O as a place of beauty, creativity and potential.

“The impact of art in places deemed ‘artless’, the impact of music to create growth and connectedness, the impact of strangers coming together for a common goal of creativity, creating opportunity, is magical. We want the community of North Omaha, particularly the youth, to open themselves up to creativity, of what is possible and to be a part of.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Berry, who regularly attends Trinity Lutheran, says her pastors, Revs. John and Liz Backus, “have been very supportive” as have pastors at other churches she’s enlisted.

John Backus admires Berry’s efforts.

“Her open spirit is a challenge to everyone to make things better. She successfully combines her passion for her art with her passion for the world around her. Her contribution has been of unimaginable value in bringing one more hope to the North Omaha area, cultural opportunities, and the chance to meet neighbors in an atmosphere of elevation and inspiration.”

Berry says her decision to create NOSA was much like her decision 20-plus years ago as a young single mother to make art her life.

“I just made a choice one day to go ahead and try it and do it.”

She succeeded too with commissions, exhibitions, Nebraska Arts Council residencies and a Mid-America Arts Alllance fellowship. Just as her art career got in full swing a series of challenges, including a chronic illness, interrupted her plans. It’s taken time for her to learn to budget her energy.

“What you do is end up trying to work your life around it and try to make it work around your life, but you’ve got to take your time with it, so you step back and you slowly come back into it. It’s almost like I’m starting over again with creating.”

She’s producing and exhibiting again. She currently has a show of mixed media work in the Mulitcultural Affairs office at Creighton University’s Harper Building.

“Art opportunities keep popping up. I guess this is my time to be an artist again. I’m making things from found objects. In my last show I had older images shown along with the new images I’ve made. All of it’s an expression of the spiritual side of my life.”

She says a turning point in her artistic life came with photographing the homeless, “It helped me to understand that in order to tell a true story the subject needs to be a partner and shown the same respect I would want.”

Where she used to be consumed trying to make things perfect, she says she’s now fine keeping imperfections in her work. Her mixed media piece “Change” includes a torn photograph she views as a metaphor for the permutations life holds.

“Going through changes you realize your flaws,” she says. “I’m not perfect, nobody is. So now when I make the artwork I am not so set on making it perfect. I make it from the heart. It’s very liberating.”

That same easy attitude infuses NOSA. Berry appreciates that after a long lull the 24th and Lake Street hub is alive with arts activities again thanks to Loves Jazz and Arts Center, Carver Bank, the Union for Contemporary Art and the Great Plains Black History Museum. NOSA fills a gap further north and offers programs the others don’t. She likes that NOSA has a quirky, do-its-own-thing vibe.

“You can do that when you’re not paying attention to what everyone else is saying. You’re free to do whatever you want to.”

In putting NOSA together Berry calls on fellow African American female creatives.

“There are artists I admire and am friends with. I’m not walking this myself believe me.”

The artists feel a kinship with Berry, whose big heart and bright spirit they respond to. Peggy Jones says of Berry, “She is committed, passionate and has great love for both the arts and her community. Pam is a tireless advocate for helping people tell their own stories and create art because she is a true believer in the way the arts can be used for expression as well as heal and connect disparate groups.”

Berry likes that she and her “sisters” produce a festival that not only gets people to experience different forms of art but that gives them a chance to create art and to get it seen. Students in the creative writing class pen pieces published in an anthology and students in the quilting class get their work shown in the Arts Crawl.

For Berry, it’s all about giving North O its due.

“I love my community.”

For details visit http://www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts.

North Omaha Summer Arts Presents: Freelance Writing Academy Seminars with Leo Adam Biga

July 2, 2013 2 comments

Cover Photo
North Omaha Summer Arts

North Omaha Summer Arts

presents-

Freelance Writing Academy Seminars by author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga

Ideal for emerging and aspiring writers.

Tips on where to get your work published and how to write for a living from the award-winning Omaha writer. Biga’s well-reviewed new book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” is now available. He recently won Best Feature Story and Best in Show at the Omaha Press Club Excellence in Journalism Competition for his article on an Iraq War veteran’s battle with PTSD.

 

 

 

 

Two sessions:

Tuesday, July 9 & Tuesday, July 23

6:30-8:30 p.m.

Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd.

Session I will discuss the ins and outs of being a writer and what opportunities there are to get your work seen or published. Explore building your own blog or website as a vehicle for showcasing your work. Learn what publications and sites accept submissions and take the challenge of submitting your work.

Session II will examine your submission experience and offer advice on how to pitch yourself and your ideas and get your work noticed. Review the dos and don’ts of dealing with editors and publishers. Explore being your own publisher.

The seminars are free.

For reservations, call 402-455-7015 during normal business hours.

Or click the events tab on my Facebook page - https://www.facebook.com/leo.a.biga‎ – and sign up there.

 

Potash Twins Making Waves in Jazz: Teen Brothers Count Jazz Greats as Mentors

June 5, 2013 1 comment

 

Appearances can be deceiving.  Take the subjects of this story, for example.  On first blush who would be less likely to be positioned to lead a revival of Omaha’s once kickin’ but long dormant live jazz scene than a couple of Jewish kids from suburbia?  What’s more, you probably don’t think of privilged white boys as being promising proteges of contemporary black jazz greats.  But in each instance the Potash Twins, 19-year-old identical twin brothers from Omaha, are overturning assumptions, Their making waves in the world of jazz not just in their hometown but in places like New York City and New Orleans.  They count among their mentors Wynton Marsalis, Jon Faddis and Jonathan Batiste.  It’s anybody’s gues what they’ll end up doing in jazz but they’re riding a wave that at least for now shows no sign of slowing.  I have a feeling I’ll be writing about them for a long time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Potash Twins Making Waves in Jazz: Teen Brothers Count Jazz Greats as Mentors

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Identical twin brothers from Jewish suburbia, Ezra and Adeev Potash, are Omaha’s unlikely gift to the jazz world. Their soul and funk-infused horn playing has everyone from Big Sam Williams to Wynton Marsalis singing their praises.

Ezra plays trombone, tuba and sousaphone. Adeev plays trumpet. The Westside High School grads recorded their 2012 debut album, “Twintuition,” in Omaha as a New York City calling card. The 19-year-olds are elite music students there.

They’ve parlayed a gift for schmooze and chutzpah into private lessons and close personal relationships with jazz greats, notably trumpet master Marsalis.

“When we go to concerts we bring our instruments with us and for us that’s like a baseball fan bringing your glove to a game hoping to catch a foul ball. But for us the foul ball is the lesson, and we’ve caught a couple foul balls,” says Adeev.

They also have a knack for nabbing national attention. In March they performed at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where they led an impromptu New Orleans-style Second Line down Sixth Street that National Public Radio featured. A film crew following them for a proposed Reality TV series was there and at the May Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting the brothers performed at.

 

 

 

 

 

Currently back in Omaha on summer break they’re performing June 8 with their band The Potash Twins at LoessFest on the same bill as Don Vattie, a New Orleans legend Marsalis introduced them to. The free fest is at River’s Edge Park on the Bluffs end of the pedestrian bridge. The brothers’ group consists of players from the Westside jazz band they anchored along with other hometown friends. Following their 4 p.m. appearance Preservation Hall Jazz Band takes the stage at 7:30.

Ezra, who describes himself and Adeev as “musicians, entertainers and personalities,” says they realize how surreal a ride they’re on. It’s why they’re already writing their memoir.

“It’s been a fast transition and a huge transition for us,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe some of these things that happen to us. I have to write them down. Every time something happens we look at each other and say, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’

Like meeting jazz heavyweight Jonathan Batiste on the streets of New York and being invited to a Harlem church gig he was playing. They went to dinner with him and that led to playing with him at the famed Dizzy’s Club, where Marsalis and Bobby McFerrin were their rooting section. All that in their first week in the city.

Ezra and Adeev have since performed several times with Batiste.

“We can’t believe the way our lives have turned out. We were never that serious about being musicians until we met Wynton in 2008. The next thing we know we’re playing with all these people and invited to all these things, living in New York City,” says Ezra.

Their superstar mentor, Marsalis, opens doors for the twins to hang out and jam with major artists. Indeed, the brothers may have never emerged as promising jazz newcomers if not for Marsalis, who took them under his wing in a series of backstage encounters that changed the way they thought about music.

That first meeting in the green room of the Lied Performing Arts Center in Lincoln, Neb. turned into an extended private lesson.

“We talked for a really long time about what it means to be a musician. Wynton’s very about being humble and just representing the music like you’d represent yourself. It’s something he always talks about,”  says Ezra. “When Wynton told us ‘you guys should be learning this’ we had to learn it, especially if we wanted to continue a relationship with him. It was like, If we want to be musicians this is what we need to do. He handed us like a free pass almost.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The twins acknowledge their nonchalant attitude about music turned around once Marsalis entered their lives.

Ezra says, “That lesson really got us serious about being musicians. Everything changed from that point on.”

“We started practicing a lot more,” says Adeev.

After a Marsalis concert in Minneapolis the brothers attended Marsalis offered to help with their college admissions applications. They’re not entirely sure why he’s taken such an interest other than the fact “he knew we were eager,” says Ezra. “He gets it that we understand basically what he wants us to do.

“We’re apt students,” adds Adeev. “When we saw him the third or fourth time he said he had a huge connection to us because we were old souls. But I don’t know if that would describe us.”

They do acknowledge their deep appreciation for jazz is unusual for people their age. Their brazen approach to big names, usually sneaking or fast-talking their way backstage, “kind of takes artists by surprise,” says Adeev

“They can see we’re really interested,” says Ezra. “They don’t mind, especially because we’re eager to learn from them, and we’re respectful and we really appreciate their time. They see we’re more students than fans.”

“We think this is something jazz musicians have – a willingness to welcome eager younger musicians. It’s a jazz family,” says Adeev.

The twins attribute their rapid progress to hard work and good instruction more than prodigious talent.

“I wouldn’t say we have natural ability. I just think we’ve had really good music education,” says Adeev.

Ezra says, “I think we’re the poster children of Omaha or Westside music education. We learned how to play and we just continued.”

Then came the lessons from jazz greats. Today, Adeev studies under Dizzy Gillespie protege Jon Faddis and Ezrra with veteran sideman Dave Taylor. “We take what they give us and we kind of run with it,” says Adeev.

They know they have much to learn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The brothers are not only tight with Marsalis but with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, whom they first met in Omaha in 2009 “after worshiping their musicianship for a year,” says Adeev.

“We knew all of them by name. We had studied this band. It’s like people collect baseball cards, well we memorize everything about certain jazz musicians,” says Ezra. “We got such a connection with them the first time and we got like really good one-on-one advice from top New York musicians.

“They are like our adopted parents in New York City. It’s pretty special because Jazz at Lincoln Center is a huge organization. These guys are pretty famous. We feel so honored with that “

The twins are determined to get horn players respect across genres. They aspire being the horn section of a famous band.

They also want to revive Omaha’s live jazz scene. They recently played at Loves Jazz and Arts Center, where they learned about its namesake, local music legend Preston Love Sr. and North Omaha’s jazz hub legacy.

“We want to give back to Omaha specifically. We want to bring in these big artists we know. We really want to develop a New York City-Neb. jazz connection,” says Ezra, who confirmed that he and Adeev are LJAC’s new artistic directors.

He’s aware how strange it is he and Adeev are “the jazz representatives of Neb. in New York.” He’a aware too how ironic it would be if North O’s jazz scene is resurrected through the efforts of two white Jewish boys from the ‘burbs. But they’ve found a shared interest with Loves Jazz to recapture a music heritage.

“They have the passion for it, we have the passion too. We want to bring that back,” says Ezra, who imagines a packed jazz club and hot jam sessions there. “We really do have a love for the music and we’re trying to bring it to places where it’s not as accessible. A lot of people say jazz is dead. It’s definitely not at its peak but I think it’s something people can relate to if they put the effort in.”

Meanwhile, the bros have written original tunes for their second album, which they’ll record in New York this fall.

Follow the Potash Twins at http://www.facebook.com/PotashTwins.

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.

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