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Brad Ashford Reflects on Recent Omaha Mayoral Primary Loss and the Politics He Espouses

April 19, 2013 Leave a comment

 

Mayoral candidates come and go.  Some turn up, if not every election cycle, than most.  Others are one-trick ponies.  Some are real contenders, others are pretenders. Whatever the chemistry is that has the requiste magic to advance someone through a primary into a general election and to then propel that person onto winning the office is clearly something that some candidates have and others don’t.  It doesn’t mean you can’t acquire it, whether that’s more spending power or a more appealing brand or image.  Nebraska State Sen. Brad Ashford is a curious blend of being a longtime, well-known, and respected politcal figure in the state but one who steers away from stamping himself as this or that.  Voters tend to like clarity.  He’s been a Democrat and a Republican and he just ran in the April 2 Omaha mayoral primary as an independent.  And got creamed.   He’s a liberal or progressive on social issues and a conservative on other issues.  He’s definitely his own man.  And he’s still very much serving the state in the Nebraska Legislature.  He’s also not closed the door on future bids for elected office.  This story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) has Ashford reflecting on his poor showing and describing who he is as a politician, lawmaker, and public servant.

 

 

 

Brad Ashford

 

Brad Ashford Reflects on Recent Omaha Mayoral Primary Loss and the Politics He Espouses

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

State Sen. Brad Ashford‘s poor showing in the April 2 Omaha mayoral primary isn’t deterring him from future elected office bids.

The one-time Democrat and long-time Republican ignored advisors and ran as an independent against major party-backed opponents. He garnered 13 percent of the vote in a low turnout, off-cycle election. Though officially a nonpartisan race the two candidates who advanced as finalists to the May 14 general election, Omaha City Councilwoman Jean Stothert and Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle, are a registered Republican and Democrat, respectively.

Ashford also finished behind Republican Dave Nabity and barely ahead of another Republican, Dan Welch. He concedes his independent bid against a stacked deck was a miscalculation.

“I was warned, I didn’t believe it,” Ashford says. “With three Republicans in the race all spending over $300,000 in the campaign it drew a tremendous number of Republican voters to the polls. I think that was really it. The three candidates were really pushing. I didn’t see that, I saw them canceling each other out and in effect it increased the turnout. From a political strategy point of view we just didn’t anticipate the onslaught of Republican voters.”

He feels abysmal voter turnout east of 72nd Street hurt him. He criticizes off-year elections for city council and mayor as “inane,” adding, “What it does is give special interests and big contributors much more sway in what happens than is appropriate.” He intends introducing a bill in the Unicameral next year to place the city elections on the same cycle as county and presidential elections.

Despite the disappointing finish, he says, “I’m still very much interested in running for another office. I’m energized by the people. I think my interests at this point would be to run for some sort of statewide race. I’ll look at what options are available.”

Should he decide to test the waters he says, “I’ll again confront the question, ‘Can you run as an independent? George Norris (the legendary early 20th state senator) did it. That’s a long time ago. But I still think there are numbers of voters who are dissatisfied with partisan gridlock and so, yeah, I will look at a statewide race.”

Ashford, whose current legislative term concludes at the end of 2014, when term limits force him out, doesn’t like being bound by party politics.

“I don’t think party hardly at all. It never enters my mind and it never did when I was running as a Republican. I certainly didn’t think about the Republican platform, most of which I don’t agree with on social issues.

“I’m a social justice guy. I’m into inclusivity. I’m unabashed in that regard. I support gay rights. I’ve supported gay rights since the ’80s when I worked on hate crimes legislation. On immigration I’ve always supported a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are here.”

As head of the Omaha Housing Authority he supported efforts to get residents into their own homes. As a state senator he’s supported prenatal care for immigrant women. he changed his view from pro-death to anti-death penalty and he’s sought ways to limit illegal guns on the street. As a candidate he advocated for a career academy serving inner city youths. As a legislator he’s working on overhauling a juvenile justice and detention system he describes as “in the dark ages.”

He says he considers his views “more pro business” than liberal. “The more people that are part of the American Dream the better the country is, the more business that’s being done.”. He favors merging city-county government and building stronger relationships between the Omaha mayor’s office and the Legislature.

 

 

Ashford and Sen. Ernie Chambers conferring

 

This state representative from District 20 in Omaha hails from a legacy family that did well in business (Nebraska Clothing Company) and championed diversity. His grandfather Otto Swanson helped form the state chapter of the National Council of Christians and Jews (now Inclusive Communities). His grandfather’s example made an impression.

“I think he just instilled in me this whole sense that you’ve got to always be making sure people are not discriminated against and I think Omaha still has vestiges of discrimination. I think we’re a segregated city, certainly as it relates to African Americans. We’re paying the price for it.”

He says his campaigning showed him “people are excited about Omaha but they don’t understand why we have such restrictive laws on gay rights. I know the vast majority of people I talk to support much more progressive policies when it comes to immigration and gay rights and other things. I think people are more progressive on social issues than what politicians give them credit for.

“I think the more you stand up for those issues forthrightly the more people will follow you. The public is looking for people who are willing to take a tough stand. You can’t be wishy-washy. I think it’s incumbent upon someone like myself to continue the effort, to team up with other progressive people.”

He’s not looking for a political appointment from whomever wins the mayoral seat.

“I like both Jim Suttle and Jean Stothert. I wish them both well. But I would not be interested in any kind of appointment. i have to be out there mixing it up running for office and trying to get my ideas out there. I don’t want to be subsumed by somebody else’s ideas.”

 

Free Radical Ernie Chambers the Subject of New Biography by Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson

December 5, 2012 3 comments

 

 

 

Ernie Chambers.  His name variously polarizes, raises blood pressure, inspires, confounds, sparks discussion and debate, and generally elicits some kind of response .  If you’re a Nebraskan, past or present, than you not only know the name but the context for why the mere mention makes it virtually impossible to take a neurtral stand about this vociferous, independent, lone wolf figure who is an open book in some ways and an enigma in other ways.  His name’s traveled widely outside Nebraska as well.  He first gained local and national noteriety back in the 1960s for his stirring presence in the documentary A Time for Burning.  He parlayed the stage that gave him and his grassroots work as activist, advocate, guardian, and spokesperson for Omaha’s African-American community to win election to the Nebraska Legislature.  He served as that body’s only black representative for 38 years, finally leaving office because of term limits, but he’s just returned to his old District 11 seat after defeating incumbant Brenda Council in the Nov. 6 general election.  When he was in office before he took many controversial and brave stands and he never, ever backed down from a fight, often employing his sharp wit and procedural mastery to humble opponents and win concessions.  He’s back alright, armed with much the same rhetoric he’s used since the  height of the black power and civil rights movements, which begs the question:  What does the 75-year-old social justice warhorse have to offer his district in an era when many of his constituents need more education, relevant job skills, living wage jobs, and transportation solutions and want economic development in North Omaha that includes them, not excludes them?  Is he in touch with younger generation and professional blacks who perhaps see things differently than he does and want specific, tangible progress now?  This story doesn’t address those things but a future story I write just might.  Instead, the following piece for an upcoming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) looks at a new political biography about Chambers by Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson, who offers some insights and opinions about the man she’s long admired.  The book is aptly titled, Free Radical: Ermest Chambers, Black Power and the Politics of Race.

 

 

Ernie Chambers, ©photo courtesy the Nebraska Legislature

 

 

Free Radical Ernie Chambers the Subject of New Biography by Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

It’s fitting a new book taking the measure of Nebraska politico legend Ernie Chambers is out just as this old social justice warhorse has proven he still owns the people’s will.

In the Nov. 6 general election the 75-year-old Chambers demonstrated the pull he still maintains by decisively beating incumbent Brenda Council to regain his old state legislative seat. Public disclosure of Council’s misuse of campaign funds to support a gambling addiction undoubtedly hurt her. But she would likely have found Chambers a formidable opponent anyway.

Amid the struggle for racial equality in the 1960s, Chambers emerged as a black activist straight out of central casting. The longtime state senator was everything the white establishment feared or loathed: a young, brash, angry black man with an imposing physique, a rare eloquence, a brilliant mind, a devoted following and a dogged commitment. His goatee and muscle shirt effectively said, Fuck off.

When he saw a wrong he felt needed remedy he would not give in or remain silent, even in the face of surveillance, threat and arrest.

The Omaha native was forged from centuries of oppression and the black nationalist militancy of his times yet remained fiercely independent. He paid allegiance only to his grassroots, working poor base in northeast Omaha, whose District 11 residents elected him to nine terms in office. He stayed real cutting hair and holding court at Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop for many years. He was forced out of office in 2009 only because of term limits, a petition effort widely seen as targeting him specifically.

At a Nov. 3 Community Day rally in North Omaha Chambers said:

“I don’t come to these kind of gatherings regularly. It’s not easy for me, even though I enjoy being around my brothers and sisters. But I’m a solitary person. Basically, I am a loner, and experience has created that persona for me because I’m in situations where bad things can happen and if I’m relying on somebody else and they don’t come through – I know what I would do but I don’t know what somebody else would do. I can’t depend on anybody else.

“So if I see an issue that needs to be addressed it’s for me to address it. I don’t go to committees, I don’t go to organizations, I don’t ask anybody for anything, and it’s not that I’m ungrateful or unappreciative. I just have to survive and my survival depends ultimately on me. So that’s why I do what I do.”

Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson well captures his enigmatic essence in the main title of her political biography, Free Radical, as he’s been a singularly reactive yet stable force these many decades. The subtitle, Ernest Chambers, Black Power and the Politics of Race, refers to the context of his public service role.

Chambers was not the first black leader in Nebraska. Nor was he the first to hold public office. But he was the first to command wide respect and wield real power. During a 38-year run in the legislature that made him the longest-serving state senator in Unicameral history he mastered the art of statecraft. Trained as an attorney and possessing a facile mind even his critics admired, he adeptly manipulated legislative rules and procedures. Though he represented a small, poor constituency and uttered divisive rhetoric, fellow senators needed his support if they wanted their bills advanced. He couldn’t be ignored.

The arc of his political career is a major focus of Johnson, who at one point was in charge of his personal papers.

“She had access to information that other people didn’t have access to,” he says of his biographer.

Overall, he’s pleased with the final product and its depiction of his career.

“I don’t have any objection to what she did.”

In terms of fairly and accurately capturing his work as an elected official, he says it’s right on “as far as it went,” adding, “Many articles have been written that go into more depth on some things than Tekla wrote about in her book.” He says he understands “there are things someone will emphasize that I wouldn’t and there are things I would emphasize that they wouldn’t. But that’s the way it goes. No two people see a complex issue the same way. Even people called historians are really interpreters. They can’t write everything about everything, so they select what they think is important in order to convey the message they have in mind.”

He says he had little input into the manuscript.

“There may have been something when she got through that she sent and I dealt primarily with grammar and inconsequential things. I didn’t try to change the thrust of it or tell her what to write.”

Johnson confirms the same, saying she only sought his opinion on certain matters and even then they sometimes disagreed. In order to maintain her scholarly freedom she says she only began writing the book after she left his employ and then had little contact with him during the writing process.

In the end, he’s flattered his political life has been documented.

“I appreciate the fact that somebody thought enough of the work that I’ve done to compile material between two covers of a book and make that available to whomever may choose to read it.”

He says he’s doing interviews in support of the book “mainly because of Tekla, the amount of time and effort she put into the work, and I don’t want to say or do anything that would diminish in any respect what she has done or the value that I place on it.”

Perhaps the most telling vantage point of Chambers she gained came when she worked as his legislative aide.

“I actually got to see the day to day process,” she says of the experience.

 

 

Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson, ©wschronicle.com

 

 

The book began as Johnson’s history thesis at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She served as a consultant to the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha and helped catalog its collection. Today, she’s an assistant professor of history at Salem College (N.C.). Her Texas Tech University Press published book is available wherever books are sold.

Johnson says when she hit upon the idea of making Chambers her thesis study a professor told her, “That’d be great, except he won’t let you. He won’t let anybody that close to him.” She found a way in, however. “I decided to go to his office. I didn’t actually ask him. I talked to his legislative aide, Cynthia Grandberry, and said, ‘Look, I want to write my dissertation on Sen. Chambers,’ and she said, ‘Sure, if you help me clean up the office.'”

This was 2001.

“He produced such enormous volumes of materials that despite an excellent filing system he literally had overrun the file cabinets many years before. I actually spent the first two years of the project processing his papers,” says Johnson.

The project was a labor of love about a figure she idolized as a girl.

“I grew up knowing about Sen. Chambers. I’m from North Omaha and he was always sort of somewhere there in the background. As a young woman I would occasionally see him speaking at an event, especially if there was something dire that had happened in the community.”

Immersing herself in his vast collection she says she acquired a new appreciation for his advocacy and for how her own coming-of-age intersected with his work.

“One of the things I first noticed in working on the collection is that almost a third, but a full fourth for sure, of his papers are about police violence and killings, police harassment, complaints from citizens in North Omaha. It took up a large section of one of the four rooms his papers are housed in. It was enormous.

“I also found I traced back to myself. I came across police incidents that happened when I was young that I remembered Sen. Chambers speaking out against. One of those was when I was 10 years old and living in Lincoln (Neb.). On our corner Sherdell Lewis was shot (and killed). We knew him. My sister and I were his papergirls. He was shot on his doorway by Lincoln police. Shortly after the shooting the black community came to my mother’s house because they needed a place nearby (to mourn and vent).”

Johnson says many questioned whether the shooting was justified.

“I had totally forgotten about that. There’s a picture in the book of Sen. Chambers leading a protest march along with the victim’s mother.”

Similarly, she says Chambers was a vocal critic of the shooting of Vivian Strong that sparked urban unrest in Omaha in 1969 and of other cases where excessive force was used.

She says any understanding of him must start with “the deep dedication of North Omahans to Sen. Chambers because even at his own expense he would not back down when he felt like the community was endangered or when he felt there was no respect for the lives and the civil rights and human rights of people in the community.” She says coming from a bi-racial home (her father’s African American and her mother’s Caucasian) she “sort of got to peek” at how blacks and whites viewed Chambers from different lenses. She also got to know how he understood that his rails against police brutality played differently to different audiences.

“He knew it was hard to believe for whites who lived in west Omaha or small towns. because those things were so far out of their experiences.”

 

 

 

 

She admires how he never let go of what he deemed important. His response to allegations of extreme police misconduct is illustrative, she says.

“In most cases when there was a police killing in the community he would request an investigation by the city. If that wasn’t done, if it was deemed a no-fault killing, if nobody were to be held accountable, then he went to other authorities. There are several (incidents) documented in the book where he filed for federal investigations into killings with the Department of Justice.”

She says one of his lasting achievements was sponsoring and winning passage of legislation requiring a grand jury be convened and an investigation be done anytime someone dies in police custody or in jail.

“I remember him having said, “We’re tired of our people being killed.’ So this is definitely an important part of the book to me. What he says happened in North Omaha I know it happened. It was real.”

Bad things continue happening. He grieves for the gun violence plaguing his community today, much of it black on black. In too many cases innocent folks are caught in the crossfire.

“I can’t tell you all what it does to me when I see something horrible happen to a young person, to anybody,  but the helpless ones, the trusting ones, the ones who are trying for something better from us…they need help and we’re not there to offer it,” he said at the Nov. 3 rally.

In a public setting like the Community Day rally, the preacher’s son comes out in Chambers. the presumed agnostic, whose elocution has the melodic flair of the late jazz musician-radio host-lecturer Preston Love Sr. He holds an audience through his impassioned delivery and sheer magnetic presence. He sprinkles in metaphors and allegories from the Bible. It’s in settings like these the affinity between Chambers and the people becomes clear.

“He’s really in step with them. While Sen. Chambers didn’t form a group or join a group his ongoing dialogue with the community is the reason he maintained their trust and respect and why he actually was a liberating figure,” Johnson says. “To do that he insisted on passage of legislation that legislators could get collect calls, so he was able to get calls from all of his constituency. He also kept his job at the barbershop for years, in the summers and on the weekend, so people would have a place to come and talk with him personally.”

 

 

Ernie cutting heads and broadening minds in A Time for Burnng

Ernie acting as watchdog and martyr for his people

 

 

Chambers himself says that even when he lost his legislative seat he was still the person District 11 residents turned to for help, not black elected officials. That doesn’t surprise Johnson, who says he long ago earned people’s trust.

“He wasn’t the first person to take the role of leader in the community. Charlie Washington was a point person before him community members would go to.

But Sen. Chambers, because of his unusual ability intellectually, rhetorically, in terms of statecraft and the law and just his down to earth nature, earned an enormous following.”

Another of his greatest achievements, say Johnson and others, was getting district elections for the Omaha City Council, the Omaha School Board and the Douglas County Board of Commissioners. It’s resulted in many black elected officials for North Omaha. His open disdain for many of those representatives, whom he considers stooges for the white power structure, has distanced him from portions of the black elite class. Chambers being Chambers, he doesn’t much care.

“I think what has happened is they have been absorbed by the Democratic party and he chose to remain independent and I think that is probably the biggest divide,” says Johnson. “He was and is utterly completely free.”

Johnson believes he arrived at a point where he realized that as the lone black representative in the legislature representing a poor black constituency, the most he could do was to be their voice.

“All the legislators have to list their occupation and for a number of years he listed barber, but I think when he changed his written vocation to ‘Defender of the Downtrodden,’ it actually marked a change and a decision on his part that sort of is fatalistic. He decided that because of the politics and power lobbying that go on within the formal political parties and because of his own independence and insistence on speaking for the most disenfranchised, the poorest, and insisting government should haven in place support for their needs, he got to the point when he thought he would not be able to change the way that government in Neb. functions with respect to low income people.

“I think it was also the point when he was refused chairmanship again and again of the judiciary committee.”

In terms of legacy, she says, “he was at once respected but feared and unpopular among some of the senators. He would stop their bills if he didn’t get some of what he wanted and what he wanted was legislation or concessions that protected his people, that didn’t allow, for example, the Omaha Housing Authority to go into closed session and make decisions without public input. He did all kinds of things like that. He fought tooth and nail legislation to reduce allocations to people on aid to families with dependent children. He really fought those battles.”

“He’d get so frustrated, saying, ‘Y’all don’t know what it takes to make it on $320.’ Yes, it was rhetoric but it was heartfelt. He’s seen people struggling and he felt it was within the power of the state legislature to provide some relief. He felt at times they didn’t do it because of petty politics, because of western Neb. versus eastern Neb., because of racism, because of just indifference, and that made him angry.”

 

 

Ernie holding court at the barbershop today, ©danielj-v.tumblr.com

 

 

She says even though he often stood alone, he knew how to play politics.

“He never compromised his principles but he is a politician. He would come in on the weekends during the summer when session was out – this is what I gained from being able to actually observe – because he wanted to read up on all the other bills. He read up on what the interests of the other senators were. He knew their backgrounds, he knew everything about them. It’s not just the rules he employed, he played politics in terms of, ‘Look, if you want something from me, if you don’t want me to stop your bill or to filibuster, then you’re going to have to provide some concessions to things my constituents need.'”

Johnson says, “I don’t think he could have been more effective by doing it any other way. They dubbed him Dean of the Legislature because he was maximum effective for that base. I think the only way he could have been more effective is if those other senators had read as much about him and learned as much about the community he served and actually taken an interest, and I’m not saying a few didn’t, in how do we raise the standard for everybody in the state. If they had taken that position and cooperated with him more then he could have been more effective.”

Chambers operated much like his black peers in other states.

“African-American legislators across the country tended to be fairly effective just like Sen. Chambers in stopping legislation and not as effective at passing legislation. The ones who tend to be the most effective in working for the community tended to be on the out with the majority because they were battling all the time and they were always having to stand firm.”

Johnson wishes Chambers prepared the way for a successor.

“I do have a critique of him and it’s something I’ve openly talked to him about. He didn’t groom anybody (to replace him). It’s something I wish would have happened.”

As far as legacy, she feels his efforts in making Neb. the first state to pass any resolution for divestment of state funds from South Africa in protest of its apartheid practices “may be the thing he’s remembered for.”

Though serving 38 years in the legislature involved “self-sacrifice” on his part, she says it clearly hurt him when he could not run in 2008.

“I think he was not just disappointed because he had to leave for four years but the subtext for his career, besides trying to end police violence and confronting racism, was to gain political power for his constituency relative to other legislative districts in the state. His having to leave office made him feel that what he’d worked for had gone backwards because he felt the will of the people was being overridden by term limits. His constituency couldn’t elect him if they wanted to.”

She notes he ran unopposed several times and that he kept running because “I don’t think he saw anybody else as talented as he was who could really do the job as well as he did. That and the fact people let him know they wanted him to run again.” Now that he’s returning to the legislature she’s fascinated by how he and his new colleagues will work together.

“The body has changed because of term limits. The expertise that was there is no longer there. It hasn’t necessarily served Neb. well to have a constantly revolving, often times very young body at the helm. Who knows, maybe they’ll be more open to working with him. Maybe they’ll be less entrenched.”

An obvious advantage he’ll have, she says, is his vast experience.

Remarking on what people can expect from him, Chambers says, “For better or worse people have to see what it is that I am. They have to know what they’re getting if they come this way, and if they don’t like what it is I’m not the least offended. I probably wouldn’t like somebody like me. I would respect somebody like me. But likability is not an anything I cultivate because it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t achieve anything.”

He simply promises to be the same person he’s always been, which is to say someone “who never yields, never wavers, never accepts handouts from anybody, and whose only loyalty to a group is to this community.”

Freddie Gray Stands Fast on Her Handling of Sebring Scandal, OPS School Board President Survives Vote to Continue Her Mission

August 21, 2012 Leave a comment

By definition, news happens without warning, which can make it tough for media periodicals that only come out once a month or once week.  I recently wrote a dual profile of an Omaha power couple – Omaha School Board President Freddie Gray and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray – for the August issue of the New Horizons, a monthly newspaper I regularly contribute to.  That issue was put to bed when all hell broke loose concerning Freddie’s handling of the already controversial Nancy Sebring incident that saw Sebring resign shortly after being hired as Omaha Public Schools superintendent when sexually charged emails she exchanged with her lover came to light.  Newspaper reports revealed that Gray and school board counsel didn’t share some information they had about the emails with the rest of the board.  Gray suddenly found herself the target of allegations that she’d breached the public trust and some even called for her to resign or to be removed. Her side of the story is that she didn’t know the full extent of Sebring’s communications and, besides, this was a personnel issue that there’s a whole set of protocols for handling.  Also, Gray didn’t want to prejudice the board should they have had to convene a termination hearing over Sebring’s employment.  Sebring’s resignation saved herself and the district futther embarassment.  The timing of this brouhaha meant there was no chance to update or revise my story.  So be it.  But I did get the opportunity to do a new interview with Freddie after she was retained by the board in a special vote.  The result is this story for The Reader that tries to lay out what it was like for her to be on the receiving end of vitriol and rancor.  Through it all, she kept her composure and never engaged in the kind of name calling and reputation bashing that others subjected her to.  You can find my earlier, dual profile on Freddie and Ben Gray on this blog, under the title Gray Matters or in the Omaha Public Schools or Education categories.

Freddie Gray and her husband Ben Gray, ©kmtv.com

 

 

Freddie Gray Stands Fast on Her Handling of Sebring Scandal, OPS School Board President Survives Vote to Continue Her Mission

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Freddie Gray knows being second-guessed and scrutinized comes with the job of Omaha Public School Board President. But when she came under fire over her handling of the Nancy Sebring scandal she got more than she bargained for, including allegations she’d violated the public trust and calls for her resignation or removal.

Sebring is the former Des Moines Public Schools superintendent OPS hired in the spring only to resign after sexually charged emails she exchanged with her lover became public.

The controversy about what Gray did and didn’t do in response to the scandal culminated at an August 6 school board meeting where a special vote retained her by an 8 to 4 count.

Until the blow up Gray slipped under the radar as a veteran but low profile public servant. She certainly never found herself on the hot seat quite like this. Often overshadowed by her husband, Omaha city councilman and former television journalist Ben Gray, she endured a public referendum on her character despite a seven month record as board president even her detractors don’t fault.

Gray was appointed to the board in February 2008 to replace Karen Shepard and ran unopposed that fall to retain the seat. She serves on local, state and national education initiative boards. Her Omaha school board peers thought enough of her to name her president at the start of 2012. Amidst the recent storm that led to Gray facing removal she refused to say she erred and balked at apologizing.

“Whatever the pleasure of the board was going to be that night it was something I needed to live with,” she says, “but I was not going to compromise my integrity and myself and say I was wrong when that’s not true.

“You can’t buy me that way. I did the right thing, I know I did the right thing.”

©kvnonews.com

 

 

Gray asserts she and OPS board counsel Elizabeth Eynon-Korkda acted properly based on what they knew at the time about the nature of Sebring’s emails. Gray says she and Eynon-Korkda treated the matter as a personnel issue and therefore outside the board’s purview because Sebring was already a district employee when the emails surfaced as an issue.

“The personnel issue was the context of what was done and why it was done the way it was done,” says Gray, adding she “didn’t want to poison the well” and risk biasing the board should Sebring come before a termination hearing

When the full extent of the sexually charged emails came to light, Sebring stepped aside.

Gray can live with the “differing views” critics voice but she describes as “troubling” and “disturbing” the anonymous, expletive-filled postal letters and phone messages she says she’s received at home.

“There are people who took advantage of the situation. They didn’t talk about what the issue was, it was just name calling, ugliness. I have grandchildren that were exposed to language totally inappropriate for them to hear.

“I just find those people to be real cowards. You know, if you’ve got something to say to me then man up or woman up and say it to me.”

The negativity was counterbalanced by expressions of support, including her mate’s presence at the July 30 and August 6 school board meetings.

“I have a fabulous husband. He was very supportive. My family of course, not just my children but my sisters, my nieces and nephews. my extended family in Cleveland. The prayer chains people had going on. I had so many emails, phone messages, Facebook posts from people saying they had my back.”

She says her “trust and belief in a Supreme Being was never shaken” though “there was that question of why me and why now.”

Encouraging words too came, she says, from other school district leaders and from peers at the state and national levels. The morning that decided her school board presidency fate she spoke before an assembly of district principals who gave her a standing ovation upon her introduction.

“That blew my mind. I had no clue what to expect when I walked in that room. It was quite moving and a great way to start the day.”

She says perhaps the most hurtful thing in this episode was that her “very long line of public service,” including the Douglas County Board of Health, the African-American Achievement Council and years of mentoring, became obscured.

‘”In a very long history of being actively engaged with the community my detractors tried to define me by one thing. It was heartbreaking that people would do that. It was like everything else I had done in my life was valueless.”

She says she regrets the imbrogolio distracted from the “great progress the board’s been making” and to the “gains” the district’s made in graduation and truancy rates. Her overriding concern now, she says, is moving the district forward, something she expects to still be doing after this fall’s district elections. She’s running against fellow Democrat James M. English, a former OPS teacher and administrator .

Gray says no one can legitimately question her devotion to the district.

“My reason to be there is nothing more than pure academic success for all students . If you look at what I’ve done, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, the messages I’ve carried through the community, statewide and nationally you’ll see I’m working very hard for the children of Nebraska and specifically for children in my district.”

Gray oversaw the board’s recent hiring of interim superintendent Virginia Moon and will oversee its search to find a permanent replacement for the retiring John Mackiel. Though she concedes repair needs to be made to a divided board, particularly among members who wanted her out, she foresees no problem getting the work of the district done.

©watchdog.org

Norman Krivosha’s Life in Law

August 10, 2012 2 comments

 

I rarely do stories involving any aspect of law or justice and if I do it’s generally a profile like the following one I did a few years ago for the Jewish Press on Norman Krivosha, who at one time served as chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court.  As you might expect from someone who has enjoyed a distinguished career on the bench and as an attorney Krivosha is a thoughtful, well-spoken individual.  He’s well aware how fortunate he is to have found a profession and vocation that has engaged him for so long.  He’s one of those blessed persons who proves that attitude can be everything. He’s definitely of the glass half-full fraternity.

 

 

 

Norman Krivosha

 

 

 

Norman Krivosha’s Life in Law

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

Norman Krivosha’s life is a classic case of the adage that behind every great man is a woman. The noted attorney and one time Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice and corporate counsel may not have been any of those things if the Detroit, Mich. native had not met a certain woman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when he arrived as a brash but undisciplined undergrad in the early 1950s.

Krivosha came to UNL at the urging of a cousin who taught microbiology there. The professor saw his cousin’s potential. The young Krivosha was bright. He’d done well at a select college prepatory public school in Detroit. He’d shown industry as a top notch sales clerk for the Mary Jane Shoe Store. He’d displayed an avid interest in politics, handing out pamphlets on the street for a cousin running for public office.

Only when Krivosha got to Lincoln — having never been further west than Chicago  — he was the proverbial big city boy let loose in the sticks.

“I had to get out a map to see where Nebraska was. I vividly recall walking downtown the first Sunday I was there and I was the only person on the street. It was such a great transition for me coming from Detroit, but a very valuable one.”

Studying was not a priority. The former Helene Sherman changed all that. The studious young woman from a tradition-rich Lincoln family eventually became Mrs. Helene Krivosha, but long before marrying him she got him on track.

“The truth of the matter is had I not met my wife Helene when I did I would probably have retired as the general manager of the Mary Jane Shoe Store in Miami, Fla.” said Krivosha, who with his wife retired to Naples. Fla. three years ago.

“When I got to the university I was not very interested in worrying about studies.

But I met her and I’d go over to the library to take her for coffee and she’d say, ‘Well, we can go at 10 o’clock.’ And I’d say, ‘It’s 7 now — what do I do for three hours?’ She’d say, ‘Bring some books.’ So I started studying. Then I started taking some classes she was in so I could see her during the day. And before I knew it I got a Regent’s Scholarship and I was on my way to law school.”

There would be more mentors in his life. Before any of these guided him, however, his immigrant parents, neither of whom completed high school, stressed the importance of education to their only child. His mother was a homemaker and his father one in a long line of dry cleaners.

“Neither of them were well-educated.” Krivosha said. “Both of them were terribly literate. Going to college in my neighborhood was not a common sort of thing to do but my parents were determined that I should. We always talked about me going.”

The dutiful son attended Wayne University in Detroit but didn’t exactly buckle down. Between going to school by day and working for the post office at night, he said, “I was running with my friends.” That’s when he took up his egghead cousin’s offer to live with him in Lincoln and go to school there.

Krivosha carried his family’s hopes and dreams for a better life and finally aplied himself. With the help of Helene, some veteran lawyers and an ambitious newcomer to the political scene, Krivosha enjoyed a fast ride up the political-legal ladder. He readily acknowledges the aid he received along the way.

“I’m a great believer that nobody gets where they get on their own. That they all have help. Quite frankly, I resent when people seem to want to take claim for having made it ‘on their own.’”

From a macro perspective, he knows the opportunities given him resulted from the sacrifices and generosity of folks, some of whom he’ll never meet. He views his achievements as the return on an investment that others made in him.

“I did what I did because somebody in Scottsbluff, Nebraska got up at 4 o’clock in the morning and milked cows and paid his taxes so I could get a Regent Scholarship to go to law school. That’s what helped me become a lawyer and be successful.”

He believes fate has played a part in it all.

 

University of Nebraska

 

“Things work out the way they’re supposed to,” he said. “I was supposed to go to law school, I was supposed to be a lawyer, and that’s where I wound up.”

Funny thing is, he initially only studied law “because some friends were going to law school and that just seemed like something to do.” At some point law became more than a way to pass the time.

“I did well in law school. I finished high in my class. I started clerking in my second year in law school with a firm I ultimately became senior partner of.”

It was soon apparent he’d found his niche.

“I immediately enjoyed it. For me, law has always been a challenge — the ability to seek to analyze a situation, to design a solution. The practice of law was just something I loved to do. I never got up a single morning in my life not looking forward going to work.”

Past tense notwithstanding, he still practices law. This marks his 50th year in the profession. He cut his legal teeth with twin lawyers Herman and Joe Ginsburg in their Lincoln, Neb. firm. Krivosha had already clerked there three years by the time he finished law school. He became a lawyer with the firm as soon as he was admitted to the bar.

He said Herman Ginsburg “was extremely influential in my career. He was one of the best lawyers in the state if not the country — a fine, wonderful trial lawyer. He taught me a great deal.”

The Ginsburgs operated a general practice.

“In the late ‘50s-early ‘60s in Lincoln, Nebraska lawyers were probably what today would be described as country lawyers,” he said. “That is, we did everything. We did a great deal of trial litigation for other lawyers outstate who did not frequently go to court. We represented corporations, we probated estates, we did adoptions, we did divorces, we did personal injury cases. We did anything that came into the office. Our office was in Lincoln but we really practiced all over the state.”

That heavy, diverse case load made a good training ground.

“I think what it did was it made me a better lawyer and certainly made me a better judge ultimately because I had had all that experience.”

As a comparison of just how different his experience was from young lawyers starting out today, he used his daughter Terri Krivosha-Herring as an example.

“My oldest daughter is a lawyer in Minneapolis. A very fine, wonderful lawyer whose practice is limited to mergers and acquisitions. She’s great in her field but I don’t think lawyers today have the same broad background we used to have.”

Terri’s married to Rabbi Hayim Herring. Krivosha’s younger daughter, Rhonda Hauser, is married to lawyer Adam Hauser. “In our family you must either be a lawyer or marry a lawyer,” Krivosha joked. “If you’re smart you marry a lawyer, if you’re not so smart you become a lawyer.”

The Ginsburgs brought on a third partner, brother-in-law Hyman Rosenberg, before Krivosha became a partner with his name on the window. All the while he honed his legal skills he pursued a parallel interest in politics. His law partner Joe Ginsburg was active in Nebraska Democratic politics for years and became a political mentor.

“He sort of led me into it and it was sort of a natural for me. I’d been involved in Democratic politics all of my life and certainly all of my adult life in Lincoln. I was Lancaster Democratic Party County Chairman for a number of years. And I was state vice chairman. I was an alternate delegate for the 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago, although I never did wind up going. I was (Nebraska) campaign manager for Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson’s presidential bid.”

He also managed Clair Callan’s only successful Congressional bid — a rare instance of a Democrat being elected from the Republican stronghold 1st District.

Political engagement was another way Krivosha hoped to make a difference.

“I cared. I believed Democrats were providing the answers to the country’s needs. Being involved in Democratic politics was a way of trying to make things better. I was never interested myself in holding public office but in helping others.”

Krivosha’s political stock in the state grew when he befriended a newcomer to the arena named Jim Exon, a future governor and U.S. senator.

“I nominated him as national committee man at the state Democratic convention in Hastings (in the early ‘60s), and that was really sort of the beginning of his political career,” said Krivosha.

Exon was elected Nebraska governor in ‘71 and asked Krivosha to join his inner circle.

“When he became governor he asked me to come be his general counsel,” Krivosha explained. “I didn’t want to leave the practice. And so I made an agreement with him that I would be his general counsel at no pay and I would come to the capitol every morning, maybe till one-two o’clock, do whatever he needed done, and then I would go downtown and practice law for the rest of the day and evening. I did that for four years.

“And during all that time we (his firm) agreed not to take cases involving the state.”

No conflict of interest that way.

“I had really sort of gotten used to that because in 1969 I was loaned by my firm to be City Attorney of the City of Lincoln, and I did that for 20 months.”

By the time Krivosha’s general counsel duties for the governor ended his next entree into state government presented itself when then-Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul White “unexpectedly resigned” in 1978. Krivosha inquired if Exon would be OK if he submitted his name for the seat, which for the first time was to be appointed rather than elected.

Exon gave his blessing and Krivosha said just to avoid any hint of impropriety he didn’t speak with the governor from that moment until after he got the nod.

“There were 16 of us whose names were submitted and Jim (Exon) had an incredible way of advising you you’d been appointed. He sent a letter to everyone who had not been appointed, but you, telling them who had been appointed and thanking them for applying,” Krivosha recounted.

“I was in Judge Dale Fahrnbruch’s court on a Friday morning about to start trying a lawsuit before him. He and I had both been candidates for chief justice. He was opening his mail on the bench as we were getting ready to begin the case and he stopped suddenly and said, ‘I think we better take a recess.’ He called me into his chambers and said, ‘I suppose you’re not going to want to try your case today.’”

Krivosha didn’t know what the judge meant. It was left up to Fahrnbruch to inform him he was the state’s new chief justice. “That’s how I found put,” Krivosha said. He made it to the highest judicial seat without prior bench experience.

“Not unheard of,” he said. “You have to also remember I was the first appointed chief justice (of Nebraska). Up until then all the members of the Court had been elected and we had just recently changed to the merit selection system. It’s probably more common to have people come from the District Court to the Supreme Court, but not unheard of. There were people elected before and certainly there were people appointed later who had not been judges before.”

Not only was he serving his first judgeship on the state supreme court, he was perhaps the youngest member of that august and senior body.

“Some of the members of the court called me ‘Sonny,’ which they were entitled to. I mean, I was 44 years-old and some of them were in their 60s. But they were wonderful. It was a great experience.”

He’d argued many cases before the Nebraska Supreme Court prior to his appointment. After leaving the bench he argued cases before the court again, but only after all the members he’d served with had retired. from the court. While admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court he never argued before it.

He said his becoming chief justice was dependent on three key factors.

“You have to work very hard in law school and graduate at or near the top of your class. You then have to spend the next 20 years as a lawyer gaining a reputation of being a fine lawyer. And you need to become a close friend of a governor. And if you can’t do all of them, you must at least do the last one.

“The fact of the matter is I guess I can honestly say I did all three. I graduated well in my class, I think I had a reputation of being a good lawyer, and I was a close friend of Jim Exon.”

 

Jim Exon, ©ebay.com

 

 

 

What made he and Exon click?

“We were both committed Democrats. We both felt the same way about things. I think we got along so well because we shared the same views about family, about ethics, about integrity,” Krivosha said. “He would never ask you to do anything you’d be embarrassed to tell your mother…He always did what was ethically and morally right even if it wasn’t politically right, but for him it always turned out to be politically right.

“Jim Exon in my view was one of the world‘s greatest public figures.”

Krivosha was Exon’s last appointment before he left to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1979. For Krivosha, serving on the bench was another facet of a rich legal career.

“I’ve been a practitioner, I’ve been a trial lawyer, I’ve taught, I’ve been a judge and I’ve been a corporate counsel. All of it was satisfying. I enjoyed very much the collegiality with my colleagues on the bench. I disagreed with them occasionally but nonetheless had a very close relationship with them.”

A fellow Nebraska Supreme Court justice, Judge Nick Caporale, was a classmate of Krivosha’s at UNL and remains a good friend.

Being a judge suited Krivosha.

“I enjoyed looking at the cases, trying to conclude an appropriate legal answer, but even more than that I guess as executive head of the judicial branch of government I enjoyed the administration of the court system.”

He introduced some innovations.

“We made some changes along the way,” he said, “many of which still exist today. We did away with the municipal courts in Lincoln and Omaha — merging them into the County Court system. This was a more efficient way at a financial savings. We instituted type-written briefs in the Supreme Court — doing away with printing the briefs — which certainly was a savings to litigants.”

He also instituted measures to ease the volume of cases heard.

“There was no Court of Appeals then, so the Supreme Court was a court as a matter of right. You could appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court from Small Claims Court and we had to take the case,” he said. “So we appointed two district judges and we sat in divisions of five instead of a court of seven, which the statute allowed, in an effort to try to cut down the number of cases and to handle the volume in a more expeditious way.”

While presiding on the bench he wrote more than 600 opinions, meaning he decided far too many cases to single out just a few. Besides, he said, “once I finished a case I finished it. It’s done, it’s done. I didn’t have any second thoughts once I decided a case.”

He does take satisfaction, however, in knowing some of his dissents ultimately became the law. He was the lone dissenter when the court ruled a landowner with a ranch bisecting two states could not transfer water from Nebraska to Colorado to feed his cattle.

“I dissented on the basis it interfered with interstate commerce — that he had a perfect right to do that — and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. It was reversed based on my dissent”

He said it’s unusual the highest court in the land opted to hear this water rights case in the first place since the Nebraska Supreme Court is usually the last word.

He served eight years as Chief Justice, stepping down in 1987.

“I did not leave because of any unhappiness. I delighted in being Chief Justice. I was 53 years old, about to turn 54, and somebody made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

 

Nebraska Supreme Court

 

 

 

Bankers Life Nebraska in Lincoln hired him as senior vice president, administration, and chief counsel and when the company became Ameritas Life Insurance Company he was executive vice president, secretary and corporate general counsel. He later worked as general counsel for Kutak Rock.

He retired a couple years ago.

Reviewing his long legal career is not something that occupies much of his time.

“It’s not my style to look back,” he said.

Still, he said, “I’ve been fortunate enough to do almost everything a lawyer can do.” All his years trying and hearing cases did not sour him on the system but rather reaffirmed his faith in it.

“I’m just more convinced it’s as good a system as I always believed it to be. I believe that courts by and large do a good job. There are exceptions. The law is an art, it is not a science, and therefore the answer you get depends on the question you see. The job of the lawyer, for instance, is not to convince the court what the law is but to convince the court what the question is. Once that happens the answer becomes obvious.”

These days he does a bit of arbitration work and sometimes litigates cases. Mostly, though, he serves as an expert witness in insurance fraud suits. His keen political mind is attuned to the presidential race. He reads The New York Times and watches the Sunday public affairs programs. Barack Obama’s chances excite him.

“Obviously as a Democrat I’m a great believer that we need to move in a different direction,” he said.

Is he ever tempted to return to the bench?

“No…Remember, I never look back.”

UNO/OLLAS Resident Expert on Cuban and Latino Matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

July 18, 2012 3 comments

 

Sometimes it’s easy to assume that academics are cloistered away in their ivy towers, isolated from the real world.  That’s certainly not the case with Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado.  The University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor does his share of research but much of it takes him out of his office, off campus, and out into mainstream of life, whether to the barrios of South Omaha or Cuba, where he’s traveled many times for his research.  I was reminded to post this profile of him I wrote a couple years ago after reading a piece in the local daily about his latest trip to Cuba, this time leading a group of UNO students to help restore a theater there that he hopes becomes a conduit for future arts-cultural exhanges.  In his work he’s just as likely to meet with folks just trying to get by as he is with U.S. and Cuban diplomats and leaders.  He’s even met Castro.

 

 

 

Dr. Benjamin-Alvarado

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

 

 

 

UNO/OLLAS Resident Expert on Cuban and Latino Matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

For author, researcher, activist and University of Nebraska at Omaha associate professor of political science Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, political engagement is a birthright.

His mother Romelia marched with Cesar Chavez in the California migrant labor movement. Both his parents know first hand the migrant worker struggle. They also know the empowering change hard work and opportunity can bring.

Benjamin-Alvarado still marvels how his folks made “a hyper speed transition” from their vagabond life hand-picking crops wherever the next harvest was to achieving the American Dream within 20 years. “The day I was born my dad was picking lettuce and the day I graduated from high school he owned his own business and we lived in a really nice house in the suburbs.”

From his mother, who worked on behalf of women’s and Latino rights and as a political campaign volunteer, he learned activism. From his father he learned ambition and determination. As someone who grew up in The Burbs, never having to toil in the fields, Benjamin-Alvarado fully realizes how charmed he’s been to have role models like these.

“To this very day I’m reminded of the lessons and examples presented before me. These were people who prided themselves on what they did. They were people with an incredible sense of dignity and self respect,” he said. “I think what makes things like Cesar Chavez (or his mother) happen is they’re not willing to cede that one iota. They made it very clear that your abuse and subjugation of me will not define me.

“I shutter to think what my forbearers could have done had they had the opportunities I’ve been extended, especially given the incredible work ethic they had. They had no choice but to work hard. It’s only as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized what an incredible legacy and, in turn, responsibility I have to pay it forward. I’m very fortunate to have been able to live and travel all over the world and to be educated in incredible places. My whole thing now is what can I do to make sure others have these opportunities. I really do cherish what I have been granted and I feel an overriding sense of obligation.”

Despite comforts, life at home for he and his brother was unpleasant. Their father was an abusive partner to their mother. The siblings were also misfits in mostly Anglo schools and neighborhoods. To escape, the boys read voraciously. “That was our refuge from all the craziness in our lives. We were really just sponges,” said Jonathan. He did well in school and was enrolled in college when he abruptly left to join the U.S. Navy.

“I think everybody in my family was aghast but i really did it more for purposes of self-preservation and to establish some independence for myself. I needed to leave.”

His 1976-1980 Naval tour fit the bill.

“For me it was just four years of incredible discovery,” he said. “I met for the first time blacks from the northeast and Chicago, kids from the South and the Midwest, other Latinos.  All of that was very interesting to me. I came to appreciate them and their cultures in ways I couldn’t possibly have done so had I stayed sequestered in California, where it’s very insular and you think the world revolves around you.”

Back home he used the G.I. bill to attend ucla, where he said he went from doubting whether he belonged to believing “I’m competitive with the cream of the crop. That realization stunned me. There was no limit at that point. I was in a different world.”

Then an incident he doesn’t like discussing occurred. It took five years to recover from physical and emotional wounds. He eventually earned his bachelor’s degree and did stints at Stanford and Harvard. He earned his master’s at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. While working at its think tank, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, he began intensive research on Cuba. He’s traveled there 25 times, often spending months per visit. Cuba remains a major focus of his professional activity.

Recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency, he seriously entertained doing clandestine work before deciding he didn’t want to give up his academic freedom. Besides, he said, “I don’t and won’t keep secrets because it gets you into trouble.” Already married and with a child, he opted to complete his doctoral studies at the University of Georgia. He landed major grants for his Cuban research. Along the way he’s become a recognized expert on Cuban energy and foreign policy, authoring one book and editing another on that nation’s energy profile and what it bodes for future cooperation with the West.

A temporary teaching post at Georgia then set him on a new track.

“I had not given the idea of being a classroom instructor much thought prior to that,” he said. “I thought I was going to spend my life as a senior researcher — a wonk. But I got this bug (to teach). I realized almost immediately I like doing this, they like me, this is a good gig. It didn’t feel like I had to work real hard to do it, a lot of it just came naturally, and I had this reservoir to draw on.”

When grant funding dried up he sought a full-time teaching job and picked UNO over several offers, in part for it’s dynamic growth and emerging Latino community. He’s been at UNO 10 years. His Cuba work has continued but in a different way.

 

 

Benjamin-Alvarado with Castro

 

 

“The purposes of my visits have changed dramatically. Initially they were all for conducting basic research, doing lots of interviews on the ground. In the late 1990s I was involved in making some film documentaries for a PBS series. Then I spent five-six years taking students and faculty and people from the community to Cuba.”

Then the U.S. banned academic trips there. His last few visits he’s “been part of high level delegations with former Pentagon and State Department staff. This last one (in November) was with former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering.” In 2006 he met with senior government officials, including Fidel Castro, Raoul Castro, the president of the national assembly and ministers of other government bureaucracies. On these visits he’s there as “technical advisor-resident expert” for debriefings, analysis and reading beyond the rhetoric to decipher what’s really being said through interpreters.

He believes normalized relations only make sense for two nations with such an affinity for each other. Once restrictions are lifted he envisions a Cuban trip with area public and private sector leaders. He and a colleague plan to convene an international conference in Havana, of university presidents from North and South America “to discuss the trajectory of higher education in the 21st century for the Americas.”

His connections helped broker a deal for Nebraska selling ag products to Cuba. Closer to home, he advises government on Latino matters and is active in the Democratic Party. He’d like to see more Latinos active in local politics. A recipient of UNO’s Outstanding Teacher Award, he said the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies at UNO “has been a godsend for me. OLLAS has been central to helping me live out what I do in my community. There’s an element of it that is very personal. When we founded OLLAS we intentionally created something that would have a community base and make the community a part of what we do. We want our work to be not only politically but socially relevant. That’s been the basis for the outreach projects we’ve undertaken.”

Recent projects include reports on immigration and Latino voter mobilization.

Hundreds Attend OLLAS Conference Cumbre to Give and Get Diverse Perspectives on Migration Issues

July 17, 2012 5 comments

I am not normally crazy about covering events because I think of myself more as a writer than a reporter.  While spending several hours at an academic and community confab I was assigned to report on is not my idea of a good time I did mostly enjoy covering the 2010 Cumbre conference put on by the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The big topic under discussion was human mobility or migration and the political, social, economic, and personal fallout of populations in flux.  It’s interesting how things work because a year or so after the event I became aware of a great book about one of the most important and underdoumented migration experiences in U.S. history – the great migration of African-Americans from the South to all points North and West.  The book by Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, is one I eventually read and wrote about, interviewing Wilkerson at some length, then meeting her before a talk she gave in Omaha.  And that sparked my beginning to do research for a story or series of stories on African-Americans who migrated from the South to Nebraska.  I’ll write that story next year in conjunction with the big black heritage celebration here known as Native Omaha Days.  And I was to have undertaken a rather epic project all about human migration for a Catholic community of missionaries but it has been put on hold.  Finally, I may be making an individual and temporary migration this fall reporting on set of Alexander Payne’s upcoming feature production Nebraska, which would find me embedding myself among the crew as they traverse from eastern Montana across much of Nebraska for the making of this road movie.  So, you see, in the midst of overcoming my reluctance to cover a migration conference I found myself open to a pattern of migration subjects and opportunities that came my way.  Would they have otherwise?  Who knows?  I’m just glad they did.

 

 

 

 

Hundreds Attend OLLAS Conference Cumbre to Give and Get Diverse Perspectives on Migration Issues

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

A wide spectrum of Latino concerns, including the need for federal immigration reform, swirled around the May 14-15 Cumbre conference held at Omaha‘s Embassy Suites in the Old Market. The theme was Human Mobility, the Promise of Development and Political Engagement.

The every-few-years summit hosted by UNO’s Office of Latino and Latin American Studies is part I’ll-show-you-mine, if-you-show-me-yours research exchange, part old-fashioned networking event and part open mic forum.

More than 400 registrants from near and far came to share ideas. The perspectives ranged from star academics allied with major institutions to local grassroots organizers.

Adding urgency was the divisive new Arizona law targeting illegal immigrants. OLLAS director Lourdes Gouveia said when planning for this year’s summit began four years ago immigration was a hot topic. It was expected to remain so once Barack Obama won the White House, but the health care debate put it on the back burner.

“We began to think well maybe this was not the year when the national context about immigration was really going to provide the impetus,” she said, “and then along comes Arizona. All at once we had people like Jason Marczak (policy director with Americas Society/Council of the Americas) call and say, ‘I’d like to come, is it too late?’ We had vans of people coming from Colorado and Iowa. We had people showing up from all kinds of communities in the Great Plains, besides all the international scholars from Africa, India, Latin America, Europe.”

Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle and State Sen. Brenda Council kicked off the event. State Sen. Brad Ashford was a panelist and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray served as a moderator.

Beyond facilitating dialogue, Cumbre introduces new scholarship. Coordinators for the Woodrow Wilson Center Mexico Institute’s Latino Immigrant Civic Engagement Project chose Cumbre to unveil their report’s findings of Latino civic involvement in nine U.S. cities, including Omaha. The authors tied engagement levels to several factors. Generally, the more engaged immigrants are with their country of origin, the more engaged they are in their adopted homeland. High participation in church activities correlates with high participation in civic activities. Coalitions, whether community, church or work-based, such as the Heartland Workers Center in Omaha, act as gateways for increased engagement.

But each Latino immigrant community has its own dynamics that influence participation, thus authors titled their report “Context Matters.” Co-author Xochitl Bada, a University of Illinois at Chicago assistant professor, presented the findings.

OLLAS issued its own site report, “Migrant Civil Society Under Construction.” Investigators conducted roundtable discussions with local Latino immigrants, who said that fear, inadequate education and lack of information are barriers to engagement.

Bada said Omaha is rather unique in being both a new and old destination for Latino migration, a mix that may partly account for the moderate levels of civic-political participation by the emerging Latino immigrant community here.

Respondents in all nine cities regarded the 2006 immigration mobilization marches as a turning point in Latino engagement but expressed disappointment the movement did not  sustain itself.

Among other panels: UNO economist Christopher Decker outlined Latino immigrants’ substantial economic impact in state; and UNO languages professor Claudia Garcia detailed a project delivering education programs and restoring family connections to local Spanish-speaking immigrant prison detainees.

Cumbre’s hallmark is gathering under one roof different players. Speeches, panels, workshops, town hall meetings, Q & As and breakout sessions provide opportunities for these wonks, worker bees, policymakers and service providers to interact.

Princeton University scholar and Center for Migration and Development director Alejandro Portes has attended all four Cumbres. The Cuba native said he made his 2010 keynote address on Latino immigrant transnationalism accessible to Cumbre’s diverse audience. The Creighton University graduate said, “I think bringing the community and the scholars in the same room is one of the things I like about it. The organizers have great talent in bringing these different constituencies together.”

Another featured speaker, journalist, author and University of Southern California communication professor Roberto Suro, said what distinguishes Cumbre is “it attracts really A-list, blue-ribbon people from the academic world and at the same time a very broad swath of people who work on the ground. It’s the only conference I know of that does that. There’s a reason the room’s full.”

In his address Suro spoke about “reimagining” Latino migration policies in both the sending Central and Latin American countries and in the receiving United States.

“Through gatherings like this,” Suro said, “what you see is people broadening the horizons of policy discussion and starting to think about reformulating issues, adding to the agenda and starting to develop the kind of understandings and intellectual framework that might permit better policy in the future.”

Suro told the audience that researchers and activists like them are well ahead of policymakers and politicians on the issue and give him reason for optimism.

OLLAS assistant director Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado said some of what happens at Cumbre “is bound to be carried” to global forums,” adding, “and that to me is probably the highest compliment for what we try to do in bringing all these people together.”

Xochitl Bada, co-principal investigator of the Latino immigration Civic Engagement Project, said Cumbre “has a very important public aspect. Unlike most academic conferences, it’s conceived “as a report back to the community.” She said the fact the summit is free makes it inclusive. “That’s very unusual.” She said another mark of Cumbre’s open door approach is the simultaneous translation, from Spanish to English and from English to Spanish, it provides to ensure that “language is not a barrier.” She called Cumbre an important vehicle for “public discourse” and “public dissemination.”

Rev. Ernesto Medina, pastor of St. Martha Episcopal Church in Omaha, moderated a panel discussion on human rights, work and community membership. He said he appreciates the opportunity Cumbre presents “to see things holistically” and to put “different communities and different passions” in the same room to find common ground.

Though many differing views were voiced, some consensus emerged: immigration reform must happen but the current partisan climate makes it unlikely soon; criminalization of migrants is punitive, narrow-minded, counterproductive and damaging to families; today’s nativist anti-immigration arguments echo those of the past; lawmakers need good data about immigration to make good policy; Latino immigrants can be fully engaged in both their country of origin and American society; remittances made by Latino migrants to their native countries are crucial to those economies.

Roberto Suro said the full contributions of the recent Latino migrant wave can only be weighed when second generation children reach adulthood. He advocates Latino immigrants be viewed as more than merely a subsistence labor force.

National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Countries executive director Oscar Chacon called for more “robust” organizations like his that represent Latino immigrant interests and celebrate their cultural differences while working toward “common cause.”

Alejandro Portes warned if the rhetoric and actions of anti-migrant forces continue “it could usher in ethnic unrest, and there’s absolutely no reason for that. I don’t think it will get that bad because of Obama in the White House and the federal government at some point is going to enter the situation and bring some kind of immigration reform.”

Where Community, Neighborhood and Representative Democracy Meet

July 15, 2012 6 comments

The heartbeat of any strong neighborhood is committed residents taking positive action to improve conditions.  The South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance brings together the leaders of several neighborhood associations in the South O district, together with representatives of police, community, and political entities serving the area, to focus on doing what’s necessary to keep the neighborhoods safe, clean, and welcoming to residents, business and property owners, and visitors.  My story appeared a couple years ago in El Perico.

Where Community, Neighborhood and Representative Democracy Meet

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance (SONA) meetings at the Omaha Police Department’s Southeast Precinct bring together neighborhood association leaders with public servants for a Frank Capraesque community forum.

It’s classic American democracy in action. Dozens of participants at an August 5 meeting listened to reports from Southeast Precinct captain Kathy Gonzalez, mayoral liaison Roger Garcia, Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt and various SONA members. Anyone who wanted an opportunity to speak was afforded the chance.

Violent crime, graffiti, robberies, burglaries and drug-prostitution activity have been on the rise this summer, Gonzalez reported. Some neighborhood association presidents confirmed the same, posing specific questions about police response.

Frank, yet measured discussion ensued for two hours, even on hot button topics like Mayor Jim Suttle’s proposed tax hikes. Gernandt, who represents south Omaha’s District 4, addressed the city’s budget woes, fielding questions and recommendations. Neighborhood leaders also announced activities happening in their neighborhoods.

SONA serves as sounding board, network, organizer and catalyst for neighborhood residents and local government in addressing issues and sharing news.

“The advantage is anytime you bring people together to share information, best practices or activities then it can spur ideas that enhance neighborhoods” said Hanscom Park Neighborhood Association president Mike Battershell. He said SONA neighborhoods like his often “team up” to tackle cleanup and beautification projects.

SONA members are volunteer activists and advocates dedicated to making their community more livable. President Duane Brooks said, “It’s a labor of love.”

Battershell said he finds satisfaction in helping affect change in “my own backyard.”

For a neighborhood association, especially a small one, having its lone voice heard above the din is difficult. SONA amplifies things with its coalition of 45 neighborhood associations and community service organizations. Together, they raise the roof and speak as one unified voice to public-private partners and members.

“If you only have a hundred households, you don’t carry the same weight or clout with city hall or the state legislature that you do with more people, a larger constituency base,” said SONA member Don Preister. He should know. He served the interests of south Omaha in the Nebraska Legislature. He currently serves on the Bellevue City Council.

Back in the ‘90s Preister set in motion events that led to SONA.

“It was apparent we needed a greater area of south Omaha represented,” he said. “If one part of south Omaha had a problem then if we stood united we could bring more resources, more people, and we could get more city, county, state assistance. I invited all of the neighborhood association officers to a meeting and asked what they thought of the idea of us all banding together. It was unanimous, so we formed the organization.”

Originally called SONAR (South Omaha Neighborhood Action and Response), the group merged with the South Omaha Neighborhood Association to form SONA.

By whatever name it’s gone, Anita Rojas has seen the power of collective action. Her home looked out on the abandoned Wilson packing plant, a massive eye sore that posed safety problems and drove down property values. As Highland South Neighborhood Association president, she joined SONA’s efforts in getting the city to clear and abate the site. Today, it’s home to the $75 million Salvation Army Kroc Center.  She said SONA helped turn a once “hopeless” scenario into something “beautiful.”

Currently, SONA’s Preister and others are working with public and private interests in the search for a south Omaha lead staging area. SONA members contributed to the South Omaha Development Project master plan. Some, like Preister, are working on its implementation. SONA’s keeping a close eye on the project, all part of holding themselves, project leaders and elected representatives accountable.

“SONA’s been an excellent conduit for sharing information, for uniting and bringing additional resources together,” said Preister. “Prior to SONA it was rare that elected officials would be a part of these meetings and activities but since the forming we’ve had the mayor attend somewhat regularly. We have state senators and city councilmen attend nearly all the meetings. We have the ear of elected officials, we have the ear of business owners for cooperating and being good neighbors and working with neighborhoods. We’ve got action on code enforcement.

“It was largely through SONA the police decided they could do something about graffiti. We worked with the police, we worked with prosecutors, then we got the judges on board and they recognized this is a crime against our community and the neighborhoods. Now we’re getting prosecutions.”

Gernandt regards SONA as a vital collaborative between government and citizenry:

“What better place could an elected official go to get 30 leaders of various neighborhood groups and organizations in one room for information and feedback? It’s a very open forum. If there’s anything the alliance can do to help government and if there’s anything government can do to help the alliance, we have the ability to make that connection.”

It’s not about bashing elected officials or making complaints.

“One thing SONA has done exceptionally well is not focus only on the problems,” said Battershell. “We’re as much about solutions and responding to neighborhood needs and being a pro-active partner with the city rather than only calling when there’s problems.”

Gernandt appreciates SONA’s approach, saying, “This group has never played the blame game. It’s always had constructive criticism.”

 

Related articles

Gray Matters: Ben and Freddie Gray Fight the Good Fight Helping Young Men and Women Find Pathways to Success

July 13, 2012 6 comments

Omaha’s African-American community has some power couples in John and Viv Ewing; Willie and Yolanda Barney; Dick and Sharon Davis, among others, but the couple with the broadest reach may be Ben and Freddie Gray.  He serves on the Omaha City Council.  She’s president of the Omaha Public Schools Board of Education.  That’s really having your fingers on the pulse of Omaha. Ben is someone I use as a source from time to time for stories I write about North Omaha and he is the subject of an extensive profile you’ll find on this blog.  Freddie is someone I’ve just begun to know and I expect I’ll be interviewing and profiling her again before too long.  They both have compelling stories and individually and collectively they are dynamic people making a difference wherever they serve and it just so happens their passions allign in boosting urban, inner city North Omaha through a variety of community, youth, and education initiatives.

Ben Gray
Freddie Gray

 

 

Gray Matters: Ben and Freddie Gray Fight the Good Fight Helping Young Men and Women Find Pathways to Success

©by Leo Adam Biga

To appear in the August edition of the New Horizons

 

If you follow local news then you can’t help know the names Ben Gray and Freddie Gray. What you may not know is that they are married.

He’s instantly recognizable as a vocal Omaha City Councilman (District 2). He’s also a prominent player in the Empowerment Network, One Hundred Black Men and other community initiatives. He was a public figure long before that as a KETV photojournalist and the activist-advocate executive producer and host of the public affairs program Kaleidoscope, which weekly found him reeling against injustice.

Until recently his wife wasn’t nearly as well known, though in certain circles she was tabbed a rising star. She actually preceded Ben in public service when appointed to the Douglas County Board of Health. At the time she was office manager at NOVA, a mental health treatment facility. Along with Ben she co-chaired the African-American Achievement Council. She was also a paid administrator with the organization, which works closely with the Omaha Public Schools. It’s not the first time the couple worked in tandem. They have a video production business together, Project Impact. He produces-directs. She’s in charge of continuity.

She’s also worked as a strategic planning and management consultant.

Her longstanding interest in education led her to volunteer with the Omaha Schools Foundation and serve as a member of the student assignment plan accountability committee. The Grays were vocal proponents of the “one city, one school district” plan. Her public stature began to rise when she replaced Karen Shepard on the Omaha Public Schools Board of Education in 2008. She’s since become board president. The demands of the position leave little time for consulting work, which she misses, but she may have found her calling as a public servant leader.

“I like governance, I really do,” she says. “I have a strong feel for it.”

The size of responsibility she carries can be daunting.

“Sometimes I think about what a big job it is. The Omaha Public Schools district is one of the largest employers in the state and I’m the president of the board that’s in control of this entity. That’s kind of scary. I am not as confident as it comes across but I have a voice and I believe in using it for all these kids.”

Since assuming the presidency her public profile’s increased. In truth her private life was compromised as soon as she became Ben Gray’s wife in 1991. “It put me in the spotlight. There’s so many things that marrying somebody in the public eye does, and you don’t have a choice, you’re going to be public at that point.”

She suspects that sharing his notoriety has worked to her advantage. “There’s a lot of stuff Ben has afforded me the opportunity to do. Without him people wouldn’t know me from a can of paint and that’s probably how I would have lived my life and I would have been comfortable and OK with that.”

That each half of this pair holds a highly visible public service office makes them an Omaha power couple both inside and outside the African-American community.

Each represents hundreds of thousands of constituents and each deals with public scrutiny and pressure that gets turned up when controversy arises. That was the case last spring when he led the fight for the nondiscrimination ordinance the council eventually passed and Mayor Jim Suttle signed into law. In June Freddie found herself squarely in the media glare in the fallout of the scandal that erupted when sexually explicit emails OPS superintendent hire Nancy Sebring made came to light and she resigned under fire.

The couple makes sure to show their solidarity and support in crisis. Just as she turned out for city council hearings on the ordinance he attended the first school board meeting after the Sebring flap.

They act as sounding boards for each other when they feel they need to. “Sometimes we do,” he says, “but most of the time we don’t.” “If I want to bounce something off of him I can do that but I have my board members to do that with and he has his council members,” she says.

“If you’re married and you’re connected you know when it’s time to intervene and say let’s have a discussion about this,” he says. “Sometimes you just want to come home and veg out. The last thing you want is to talk about it. I don’t bring it home unless there’s a strategy, like when the Sebring thing happened we needed my expertise as a journalist, we needed legal counsel, we needed all of that, so that week was all about that.”

He’s proud of “how well she handled that situation, adding, “That was her defining moment.”

A lot of times the conversation is after the fact,” she says, “because I can’t wait to talk to him to respond to the media when they’re in my face. I know if i need to I can reach out and he’s going to respond. The other thing is, we don’t always agree with each other. There’s been times when we’ve been able to change each other’s opinion or stand but not real often. But we don’t fight about it.”

The Grays have been making a difference in their individual and shared pursuits for some time now. The seeds planted during their respective journeys have borne fruit in the public-community service work they do, much of it centered around youth and education.

“We believe in children, I can tell you that, we believe strongly in children,” says Ben. Freddie calls it “a passion.”

Their work has earned them many awards.

They have seven adult children from previous marriages. They mentor more. By all accounts, they’ve made their blended family work.

“One of the things we did was we started having family dinners, and we started that before we got married,” says Freddie, “I still had one daughter at home with me. My older daughter was away from home. His children were still at home with their mom. Both of us were smart enough to figure out that with this new young person, let alone me, in the picture spending time with him that could be difficult. So we started having family dinner on Sunday and all seven of the kids would come. And we still do family dinner today.

“It was a wonderful way to bring our families together. And when people talk about a blended family, if you’ve ever done something like that and made it a tradition of your house for everyone to come together, it really and truly does blend them.”

Two of their kids live out-of-state now, as does one of their 11 grandchildren (they also have a great grandchild), but that still leaves a houseful.

“So generally on Sunday it’s a zoo time,” she says. “He loves it. He’s like they could all move back tomorrow. I’m the one that says no they cannot move back here and they have to go home now. They’re so close.”

Though born and reared in Cleveland, Ben’s made Omaha his home ever since the U.S. Air Force brought him here in the early 1970s. He’s built a life and career for himself and raised a family in his adopted hometown.

She’s an Omaha native but her father’s own Air Force career uprooted her and her six sisters for a time so that she did part of her growing up in Bermuda and in Calif. She returned in the early 1960s. The Omaha Central High School graduate raised a family here while working.

Whether in vote deliberations or media interviews each seems so poised and at home in this milieu of politics. As accomplished as they are today each comes from hard times far removed from these circumstances.

For example, the man Omahans know as Ben Gray is called by his street name “Butch” in his old stomping grounds of East Cleveland, where after suffering the loss of his working class parents at age 13 he fell into a life of organized crime. Numbers running, pimping, drug dealing. His extended family was well-entrenched in the black criminal underworld there. Its pull was something he avoided as long as his parents were alive but once gone he succumbed to a life that he’s sure would have ended badly.

Ben’s older sister Mary Thompson, whom he calls “my guardian angel,” and her husband took Ben and his younger brother Doug in and raised the boys right, modeling a fierce work ethic. But the call of the streets won out.

“The guys that I was dealing with, the guys that I knew, were real life gangsters. They do stories about these guys. Shondor Birns. Don King.

Before he was a fight promoter Don King used to run Cleveland. He ran all the drugs. And then he stomped a guy to death and when he went to prison his territory was split up, primarily between three different individuals and one of them was my uncle.”

Gray was arrested and sentenced to a youth incarceration center. After graduating a year late and near the bottom of his class he entered the military. His life’s never been the same since. “The Air Force changed who I was,” he says. “The military was my way out. Had I not joined I don’t think I would be alive. I was headed down a pretty dark path.” He graduated from aerial photography with honors. “People ask, ‘What was different?’ My response is always the same – discipline and expectations.”

That training is so ingrained, he says, “I’m disciplined about everything,” whether the self-pressed clothes he wears, the tidy home he keeps, the legislation he advances or the youth outreach he does.

“The intention of the military is to complete the mission and I complete the mission. When it came to the equal employment ordinance I had to complete the mission. When it came to the budget I had to complete the mission.”

He says leaving his old environment behind was the best thing he could have done.

“My sister readily tells folks all the time that while she hated to see me go she was in a lot of ways glad to see me go because she didn’t think I was going to make it if I stayed there.”

“That’s what she told me once,” says Freddie. “She said, ‘We’d thought he’d be dead or in jail.’ But they’re so proud of who he is today.”

When he goes back to visit relatives and friends, as he did with Freddie in July, he’s clearly a different person than the one who ran the streets as a youth but to them he’s still Butch. Oh, they see he’s transformed alright, but he’s Butch just the same.

“When we’re in Cleveland I immediately go back to referring to him as Butch,” says Freddie. “That’s what everybody knows him as. I don’t think anybody knows him as Ben.”

“It’s interesting when you leave a place and you come back to it,” he says, “because when I visited the corners I used to be at – even though a lot of the same people were still there – it wasn’t the same for me. They knew it and I knew it. A friend of mine told me, ‘This is not your place anymore,’ and he was right, it wasn’t. I didn’t fit.

“When I was doing the things I was doing I fit right in, as a matter of fact I ran the show for the most part.”

On a plane ride the couple made 20 years ago to spend Thanksgiving with his family in Cleveland Ben revealed his past for the first time to Freddie.

“I said, ‘Babe, when we get to Cleveland you’re going to hear some stories about me.'”

Then he asked her to marry him.

“Yeah, that plane ride was interesting,” she says, “and I still said yes.”

Ben commands respect from many quarters, including young people
Freddie presiding over an Omaha Public Schools Board of Education meeting

 

 

She has her own past.

Living in the South Omaha public housing projects called the Southside Terrace Garden Apartments, near the packinghouse kill floors her father worked after his military service ended, the future Mrs. Ben Gray grew up as Freddie Jean Stearns.

Life’s not always been a garden party for her. She got pregnant at age 17 and missed graduating with her senior class. She struggled as a young single mother before mentors helped her get her life together.

“It was not all a fairy tale life. The personal feeling of disappointment, not just letting my parents down but all those sisters behind me. That humbled me for a really long time.”

Long before marrying a celebrity and entering the public eye or serving on the school board, she quietly made young people her focus as a mother and mentor. She calls the young people under her wing “my babies.” Just as women helped guide her she does the same today.

She can identify with young single moms “who think their lives are over,” telling them, “I thought that was going to be it, that I was going to be on welfare for the rest of my life. I looked around at where I was, the projects, and I saw a lot of it around me. Mothers who had never been married. I was on public assistance for awhile and didn’t like that at all. I didn’t like the fact welfare workers could just come over my place and go through my stuff.”

She shares her experience of learning to listen to the right advice and to make better choices.

“I talk to these young women now, and I’m very open about it. I don’t preach.”

But she tries to do for them what women did for her. “I was blessed to have those women in my life. A number of them became my mentors. One of them was LaFern Williams. I’ll never forget her and Miss Alyce Wilson, the director of the Woodson Center in South Omaha. I spent so much time there. My big sister Lola Averett was another. There was a time when anything and everything she did I would do. She still models everything I could ever hope to do and to be.”

She says women like her sister, who worked at GOCA (Greater Omaha Community Action), along with Carolyn Green, Juanita James, Phyllis Evans, Sharon Davis and Beverly Wead Blackburn, among others, encouraged and inspired her. When Gray attended GOCA meetings she says she was at first too shy to speak up at but Lola and Co. helped her find her voice and confidence.

“They honestly would make me stand up and ask my question.”

“I’ve been very blessed in my life to have great female role models,” she says. “They took special care of me and others. They took care of the community, too. They made it safe. They protected and loved. These women touched a lot of lives.”

Those that survive continue fighting the good fight into their 70s and 80s. “They haven’t stopped. I wouldn’t even say they’ve slowed down.” She says when she sees them “you can bet your bottom dollar I’m in their ear saying, ‘I’m making you proud, I’m doing the right thing.'” It’s what Freddie’s babies do when they’re around her. All of it in the each-one-to-teach-one tradition.

“I’ve always had the passion for those who are behind me, young people. I just collect them, I don’t know what else to say. Anyone who really knows me knows that I talk about my babies. And they know who they are and they know what I expect from them. I can’t tell you how they’re selected, I don’t know how. But there is that group and they are my babies and I love them with all my heart.

‘I’ve told them, ‘My expectations are you’ve got to take care of Miss Freddie when she’s old.’ They laugh at that. But I need them to take care of me. They’re going to be my doctor, my mechanic, my attorney. And then they get it, they understand what I’m telling them. That they’re going to take care of me because I can’t do it forever. So they’re going to have to do these things, they’re going to need to be on the board of health, on the school board, work at NOVA. They need to take care of the world. They know that’s my expectation.”

She is a wise elder and revered Big Mama figure in their lives.

“When they see me they call me Mama Freddie or say, ‘How you doin’ Mama Freddie?'”

She recently lost one of her “babies.” When she got the news, she says, “it knocked me to my knees and I’m not talking figuratively. I was walking down the hall looking at Facebook on my phone when I saw it. I was very thankful Ben was here because I dropped to the floor. And then the phone started ringing and it was some of the other babies calling to check on me and me needing to check on them.”

Just as Freddie’s been a force in the lives of young people for a long time, so has Ben, who’s made at-risk youth his mission. As part of his long-time gang prevention and intervention work he even founded an organization, Impact One, that supports young people in continuing their education and becoming employable.

Because he’s been where they are, he feels he can reach young men and women whose lives are teetering on the edge of oblivion.

“It’s amazing how quickly you can spiral down into some really deep stuff if you let yourself, so I understand,” he says.”When people ask me why I do i deal with gang members it’s because I know ‘em. I know how they think, I know what they think, I know most of ‘em don’t want to do what they’re doing because I didn’t.

“But you get to a point after awhile where it becomes a lifestyle that makes it very difficult for you to get out of and the only choice you have sometimes, and the only choice I see for a lot of these young men, I hate to say this, is to leave here. I don’t like the brain drain. A lot of these people are really smart. But they’ve cast such a bad shadow that I don’t know how you stay here. I mean, I think there has to be some time between they’re leaving and coming back.”

He says something missing from today’s street dynamic is a kind of mentoring that used to unfold on the corner.

“At that time we had older guys that were able to talk to the younger guys.”

Kind of like what Ben does today.

“Someone might say, ‘Stop, don’t do that, that’s crazy.’ Or, ‘If this is what you’re going to do, here’s how you do it.’ Those kinds of things.

These young men don’t have that. A lot of them don’t. I’m talking about across the country. There’s nobody on that corner anymore who’s older who can tell them…”

“It used to be the young guys on the corner and the wise guys that went back to the corner gave people words of wisdom, and that’s gone,” says Freddie, who’s known her share of hard corners.

“That’s lost,” says Ben.

He says what’s missing from too many of today’s homes and schools in the inner city and elsewhere is the kind of discipline he got from his parents and sister and the military.

“I think most of us want it, we just don’t know we want it. Discipline is a method of working with people and molding people into what they should be as adults. That’s what it is. And that’s what my father tried to do for me in the brief time he was on this Earth.”

Gray sees a disconnect between some of today’s African-American youth and schools.

“I think what’s missing from majority minority schools is a pathway to get young people to know who they are. Our African-American students don’t know why they are. They don’t know the background. In the classroom they get a real strong dose of European history but they don’t get much about who they are.

“When there’s little or no discussion about you then how do you sit there and maintain an interest in being there?”

OPS has struggled closing the achievement gap between African-American students and nonblack students. Gray says before any real progress can be made “you’ve got to get them to stay there and keep them interested,” an allusion to the high truancy and drop-out rates among African-American students.

The problem has thus far defied attempted remedies.

He says, “In spite of efforts by the Empowerment Network, Building Bright Futures and others to address core problems like truancy and drop-outs in the (North Omaha) Village Zone we’re losing kids, they’re not staying in school. And they’re not staying in school because the influence of the street is such a strong influence. I know it. Those streets call you, man, and you can be in that classroom six hours a day but damnit you’ve got to go home and when you dog home you go to an environment that’s primarily unhealthy.

“So in spite of all we’ve done in that Village Zone we’re not winning.”

He doesn’t pretend to have the answers. He knows the problem is complex and requires multiple responses. But he does offer an illustration of one approach he thinks works.

“Teachers are constantly amazed I can address a school assembly and keep kids’ attention. Staff don’t get it. Freddie gets it. I talk about where the kids came from, I talk about who they are, I talk about what their history has been. They listen because they don’t (usually) hear that. That’s part of the missing piece of why they don’t stay. They don’t feel there’s anything there for them.”

He doesn’t claim miraculous results either.

“Any of us who are involved in this effort who talk to these kids know they’re not going to hear everything we say right away. They’re waiting to hear if we’re genuine. I tell them, ‘I’m not here to get all of you, I’m not here to convince any of you of anything. One of you is going to hear what I say, respond and react to what I say by becoming a leading citizen in this community. So I’m just here to get my one.’

“That’s when they start listening. They want to be the one.”

Looking pensive at an Omaha City Council meeting
Engaging discussion at a school board meeting

 

 

Freddie appreciates better than most the challenge of educating children when so many factors bear on the results.

“We don’t produce widgets, we produce the citizens that are going to run this country. That’s exactly what we’re doing every single day. Every single one of these kids is an individual who deserves to have an individual touch them. It’s about that one-on-one relationship if we’re going to get kids to succeed, and if we don’t get this right then I think that says something about what the state of this country will be.

“Poverty is going to be the thing that kills us if we don’t take care of it and the only way I know to do that is to provide our children with the necessary skills to become employable.”

She’s keenly aware of criticism that the school board has ceded too much power to the superintendent.

“I understand people say that thing about the board being a rubber stamp but they don’t come and listen to the committee meetings and hear the board in dialogue. By the time theres a news sound bite we’ve already talked about it or figured it out or tabled it. Those things happen during the day (when the cameras aren’t on).

“But trust me we’ve got this. My job is to provide the superintendent with guidance in saying, ‘This is what you will do.’ There has to be parameters. We’ve got statutes to follow.”

In seeking solutions to bridge the achievement gap, she say, “I’m talking to other districts’ board presidents and members, not just when I’m on the Learning Community, but other times, too. That hasn’t happened much before.”

She says more collaboration is necessary because studies show that wherever kids live, whatever their race, if they live in poverty they underachieve.

“Poverty is a problem. If we’re not addressing poverty now than 20 years from now we’ll be having the same conversation.”

Breaking the cycle is a district goal.

“At the board level it’s looking at careers. We do kids a disservice when we say everybody’s going to college because that’s a lie and we all know it. But we do need to supply them with the necessary skill sets so they can be productive citizens.

“We’ve got to get these young people to the place where they can get jobs, where they can get out of poverty.”

She says OPS is finding success getting businesses to offer students internships that provide real life work experiences.  He’s been active in the Empowerment Network’s Step-Up Omaha program to provide young people summer training and employment towards careers.

As both of them see it, everyone has a stake in this and a part to play, including schools, parents, business.

“There’s room at the table for everybody and everybody has to have a foot in this and has to step up. The focus has to be on what can we do together,” she says.

Now that she’s solidly in the public eye in such a prominent job she hopes African-American women follow her.

“I have to say this for other women who find themselves feeling like they’re voiceless: If you can see it, you can be it. There’s a lot of young African-American females who are just sharper than sharp, that could run rings around me all day doing this, but they don’t feel like they have a voice.

“And so I really hope they are paying attention because again Miss Freddie is not going to be doing this for the rest of her life and some of them are going to need to be sitting on this board.”

Ben Gray feels the same way about the young men and women of color he wants to see follow him into television or politics or wherever their passion lies.

Both with his own children and those he’s “adopted,” he’s taken great pains exposing them to African-American history and culture and encouraging them to engage in critical thinking and discussion.

“I wanted them to be more aware, I wanted all of our children to be aware of what’s around them and what it takes to survive. And to know who they are and what their history is, and some of them can tell you a lot better than I can tell you now.

“We have two that are like our own who are former gang members. Both of these guys are brilliant young men, and given a different set of circumstances would be someplace else.”

Ben and Freddie Gray are living proof what a difference new circumstances and second chances can make.

From the Archives: Veterans Cast Watchful Eye on the VA Medical Center

July 8, 2012 1 comment

Very rarely do I write anything that even edges up on hard news.  This story from 2000 is one of those exceptions.  It had to do with complaints filed against the Omaha VA Medical Center and the watchdog role local veteran activists assumed in agitating for change and monitoring government responses and remedies.  The Department of Veterans Affairs has a spotty even inglorious and sometimes infamous track record in attending to the medical needs of servicemen, past and present, and horror stories abound of poor conditions and treament experiences in veterans’ facilities.  Of course, much good is done as well.  But given that problems persisted before the last solid decade or more of returning combat vets requiring care the problems have, from I gather, only mutiplied in the crush of patients overwhelming the system.

 

 

From the Archives: Veterans Cast Watchful Eye on the VA Medical Center                

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 
A Call for Action
Last September saw the release of a long-awaited federal report stemming from an investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General into complaints about the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) program at the Omaha VA Medical Center. The investigation followed requests by Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to examine complaints made to them, many in impassioned letters and phone calls, by veterans.

After the October 1999 investigation, nearly a year passed before the inspector general issued a 50-page report substantiating such concerns as insufficient staff, poorly coordinated services, long scheduling delays, inadequately administered drugs and a weak patient advocacy program. Other beefs, including allegations about negligent care, were not supported. Kerrey characterized the findings as showing “there are serious problems…inside an organization that is for the most part dedicated to high quality care.” The report made 16 recommendations for addressing the problems. Concurrent with the PTSD review the entire medical center was the subject of a routine comprehensive inspector general assessment, the timing of which may have been pushed up given the heat coming down from Washington, and its report surfaced more concerns and remedies amid overall good health care practices. In what was described as a coincidence, the center’s director and chief medical officer retired in June.

A hospital spokeswoman said the center has already implemented several changes and is on pace to complete others by target dates. Veterans who called for the initial study are pleased with some changes but assert old problems still persist. Todd Stubbendieck, legislative assistant in Kerrey’s Washington, D.C. office, said,
“Our understanding is everything is being implemented there. We’ve heard no additional patient complaints.”

Raising Hell
The reports, written in the cold, clinical language of bureaucratic Washington, mute the rage some veterans express at the insensitive and unresponsive manner in which they insist they’ve been treated. David Spry, vice president of the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, has become a mouthpiece and advocate for their discontent. His own experiences as a post traumatic stress disorder patient (in Lincoln), as a veterans legal custodial aide and as a past Veterans Advisory Committee member at the Omaha VA facility put him in a unique position to assess center practices and to glean feedback from the veterans community. Much of the discord has centered on a few key staff members and administrators and their perceived arrogance toward veterans. “They treated us with disrespect and that’s what a lot of the complaints are about,” Spry said. “It’s like, They’re the system, and we’re only veterans. What do we know? They thought we had no brain, no mouth, no nothing once we left their building, but we were comparing our notes about this place with other veterans groups.”

Spry turned veterans’ dissatisfaction into a cause that eventually got lawmakers and government oversight bodies to take action. For Spry, a Vietnam combat veteran, the process of getting officials to finally take seriously the red flags he and others originally raised more than three years ago has been an odyssey akin to battle. The role of whistle blower has taken its toll, too. “It hasn’t been easy. In 1997 we started to complain vigorously to VA management about this. We got nowhere. Our complaints never even got into the minutes of the meetings of the Veterans Advisory Committee. The things we were concerned about were problems we didn’t seem to be able to get corrected internally, so we went to a congressman,” he said, referring to former Rep. Jon Christensen (R-Neb.). Veterans aired grievances to Christensen and VA officials but, Spry said, little headway was made. “Then, when Christensen became a lame duck, we were kind of at a loss.”

 

 

 

 

Making the Case
That’s when, in 1998, Spry and fellow Vietnam Veterans of America service officers brought complaints, which grew in the wake of a national hospital accreditation survey, to the inspector general office, the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs and Kerrey. Spry said a year elapsed before Kerrey’s office took serious interest. Then, at the request of top Kerrey aides, Spry and his comrades were asked to gather veterans’ gripes and, once Kerrey saw the more than 100 letters of complaint, he asked the inspector general office to get involved. At the time, Kerrey said, “…this Vietnam Veterans post has made a persuasive case that something’s going on here that’s not good.” According to Spry, “This organization of ours really became quite passionate about this. We really pushed very hard. We had a lot of people looking into this and we finally got somebody to listen to us. It helped tip the scales when Sen. Kerrey came on board.”

Long before the inspector general weighed-in, the VA Medical Center followed-up its own internal program review by inviting the director of the VA system’s National Center for PTSD, Fred Gusman, to conduct an on-site assessment of the Omaha PTSD program in July 1999. Hospital spokeswoman Mary Velehradsky said, “We recognized we did have some systems problems as well as some patient care issues, and our inviting Mr. Gusman was a way to have another set of eyes look at that and to fix the problems and to make it a stronger program.”

Gusman’s findings of a “systemic problem” was confirmed by the inspector general, which included Gusman’s data in its report. He has made a follow-up visit to the hospital and, with inspector general staff, is overseeing program modifications.

 

 

A Thorn-in-the-Side
By the time the inspector general took a hard look at the Omaha facility, Spry said he was persona non grata with hospital officials. “I became a little too much of an irritant and they banned me from the facility except for medical treatment for my own service-connected disabilities. But that wasn’t good enough. They took away my freedom of speech, too. I am to have no contact with anyone or anyone with me. They’re doing anything they can to shut me up.” Veteran Tom Brady, who worked with Spry to document complaints about the center, said Spry has been singled-out: “Certainly, there are consequences to exposing practices that are subject to sanctions. He’s been one of the driving forces behind a lot of things and now they treat him like he’s a dangerous person.” Velehradsky confirmed the restrictions but added, “There are reasons people can be banned from a facility and I can guarantee you there was nothing connected to the IG (inspector general) incident.” She did not specify the reasons in this case.

As unofficial watchdogs, Spry and Brady chart the center’s progress in making changes. “We’re trying to monitor what’s going on, but we’re limited in going up there. From what we can tell, they have implemented a number of things that we’re really happy about. We’ve seen improvements in scheduling, in medications and in one-on-one therapy. We’ve seen a considerable difference in staff morale. The hospital is a lot happier.” But he and Brady remain critical of some program staff they feel lack expertise in working with PTSD patients. A psychologist whom the majority of complaints was filed against remains while a popular social worker has left. The two veterans also continue to be disenchanted with what they feel is the distant voice veterans have there. “We’re still not a cooperating partner — not because we don’t want to be,” Spry said.

According to Velehradsky the center has long had in place mechanisms for veterans to speak out with management and has recently increased these feedback avenues. She said the PTSD program has been strengthened with new procedures and the addition of specialized staff. She added recent patient surveys indicate high approval ratings and that veterans not wishing to be treated in the Omaha program have the option of being seen in a Lincoln clinic.

Standing Guard
It is perhaps inevitable disenfranchised veterans and entrenched VA Medical Center managers see things differently. Where Spry feels “it’s kind of a shame we had to go to this extent to push the bureaucracy around to get them to look at things,” Velehradsky said: “When you have an outside set of eyes look at your program and make recommendations it does make you stronger. We welcome it. It’s been very helpful and we continue to make improvements.”

While Kerrey has termed the VA episode a victory for veterans, the ever vigilant Spry remains wary and vows to carry on the fight if need be. His never-say-die attitude was formed as a Marine in Vietnam while under siege from overwhelming forces at Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive in 1968. “I kind of made a commitment to myself and to the 1,500 of us who died at Khe Sanh that I don’t ever want to lose another battle again. And that’s why I’ve fought this (VA) thing. Have I been tenacious about this? I certainly have. All I want to do is make things better.”

I Know It When I See It, Journalist-Social Critic Robert Jensen Finds Patriarchy and White Supremacy in Porn


 

Robert Jensen is one of those writers who challenges preconceived ideas we all have about things we think we already have figured out.  Among the many subjects he trains his keen intellect on are race, politics, misogny, and white supremacy and things really get interesting when he analyzes America’s and the world’s penchant for porn through the prism of those constructs.  I interviewed him a couple years ago on these matters in advance of a talk he gave in Omaha, and the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the result.

 

Robert Jensen

 

I Know It When I See It, Journalist-Political Actvisit-Social Critic Robert Jensen Finds Patriarchy and White Supremacy in Porn

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Journalist-political activist-social critic Robert Jensen is the prickly conscience for a narcissistic Addict Nation that lusts after ever more. More resources. More power. More money. More toys. More sex. The tenured University of Texas at Austin associate professor organizes, agitates, reports, gives talks, writes. Oh, does he write.

He’s the prolific author of books-articles challenging the status quo of privileged white males, of which he’s one. He believes white patriarchal systems of power and predatory capitalism do injury to minorities through racist, sexist, often violent attitudes and actions. His critiques point out the injustice of a white male domination matrix that dehumanizes black men and objectifies-subordinates women.

We’re talking serious oppression here.

As an academic trained in critical thinking and radical feminism, his work rings with polemical fervor but refrains from wild rant or didactic manifesto. Agree or not, it’s hard not to admire his precise, well-reasoned arguments that persuasively connect the dots of an elite ruling class and its assumed supremacy.

He’s presenting the keynote address at a Sept. 22 Center for Human Diversity workshop in Omaha. His topic, “The Pornographic Mirror: Facing the Ugly Realities of Patriarchy and White Supremacy,” is one he often takes up in print and at the podium. His analysis, he said, is based on years studying the porn industry, whose misogynistic, racist products express “men’s contempt and hatred of women.”

Porn, he said, routinely depicts such stereotypes as “the hot-blooded Latina, the demure Asian geisha girl, the animalistic black woman and the hypersexualized black male.” Racially-charged code words — ebony, ivory, nubian, booty, jungle, ghetto, mama, chica, spicy, exotic — market these materials.

He said most interracial porn features black men having sex with white women, which he considers odd given that historically the majority culture’s posited black males as threats to the purity of white women. Why then would an “overwhelmingly white” audience want to view these portrayals?

Jensen suggests what’s at work is an “intensification” of “the core dynamic of male domination and female subordination.” Thus, he said, “by ‘forcing’ white women to have sex with black men, the ultimate sort of demonized man in this culture, it’s intensifying the misogyny and racism” behind it all. “That’s why I talk about these two things together, and why pornography is an important cultural phenomenon to study. It tells us something about the world we live in that is very important.”

The mainstreaming of porn as legitimate pop culture is a trend he finds disturbing. The industry, not counting the corollary sex trade, is estimated at $10 billion annually, comparable to other major entertainment industries such as television, film and sports. Jensen said his own students’ acceptance of porn as “just part of the cultural landscape” reflects a generational shift. Porn’s gone from taboo, scandalous, underground to casual lifestyle choice easily accessed via print, video, TV and the Web, where adult fare’s limitless and its content increasingly extreme.

Strip joints, adult book stores, chat lines, hook-up clubs, escort services, porn sites and X-rated channels abound. Sex tourism is a booming business in Third World Nations, where white men exploit women of color. Homemade porn is on the rise. Porn star Jenna Jameson owns cultural capital. Reality TV, cable programs, movies and advertising are, in his estimation, increasingly pornographic. Although careful not to link porn use to behavior, Jensen sees dangers. Sex addiction is a widely recognized disorder whose various forms have porn as a component.

Recreational choice or addictive fix, end point or gateway to overt, criminal acting- out, Jensen makes the case it’s all fodder for an already dysfunctional society.

“This is helping shape a culture which is increasingly cruel and degrading to women, which we should be concerned about,” he said. “If we’re honest with ourselves, even those who want to defend the pornography industry or who use pornography, I think we have to acknowledge the patterns we’re seeing are cause for concern. I can’t imagine how anyone could come to any other conclusion.”

He said it’s an open question how much more pornographers can push the limits before the culture says a collective, “Enough.” Any outcry’s not likely to come as a see-the-light epiphany, he said, but rather in the course of a long-term public education and public policy campaign. Anti-obscenity legal restraints, he said, are difficult now due to vague, weak state and federal laws, The exception is child porn, where strict laws are easily enforced, he said.

He opposes censorship, insisting, “I’m a strong advocate of the First Amendment and Free Speech,” adding current laws could be enforced with sufficient mandate.

“Much of the material were talking about clearly could be prosecuted yet it isn’t,” he said, “which I think reflects that level of cultural acceptance.”

He suggests enough male stakeholders consume, condone or profit from porn/illicit sex that this old boys network gives winking approval behind faux condemnation.

Jensen supports strict local ordinances and aggressive civil actions against adult porn similar to what feminists proposed in the ‘80s. He feels with modifications this approach, which failed legal challenges then, could prove a useful vehicle.

As Jensen notes, concurrent with this-anything-goes era of on-demand porn and sex-for-hire are the repressive strains of Puritanical America that discourage sex ed and open discussion of sex issues. He’d argue that silence on these subjects in a patriarchal, misogynistic society contributes to America’s high incidence of rape, sexual assault, prostitution, STDs, HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy.

Overturning these trends, he said, begins with public critiques and forums. The Center for Diversity workshop at the Omaha Home for Boys is just such a forum. The 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. event features a wide-range of presenters on how to “Stay Alive” under the pervasive assault of sexism, racism, economic destabilization, domestic violence and pornography. The workshop’s recommended for health care professionals, therapists and social workers.

Check out Jensen’s work on the web site http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/-rjensen/index.html.

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