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One Helluva Broad: Mary Galligan Cornett

June 9, 2012 2 comments

I never met the late Mary Galligan Cornett during her long, legendary tenure as Omaha City Clerk, only when she’d been retired some years, but her reputation as a cantankerous, bigger-than-life personality preceded her and I was not disappointed when I finally did catch up with her.  Sheds lost none of her bite or her blunt, blue-streak manner of speaking.  She’s gone now but she’s definitely one of my most unforgettable characters.  My profile of her appeared in the New Horizons in 2002.

 

 

Mary Galligan Cornett, ©mossbrat.com


 

 

One Helluva Broad: Mary Galligan Cornett

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

For more than half-a-century, Mary Galligan Cornett gave as good as she got with the boys at City Hall.

In her colorful 53-year civil service career she saw hundreds of elected officials come and go. In a 1961 to 1997 reign as Omaha City Clerk she served 13 mayors (counting acting and interim chiefs) and dozens of council members. She saw Omaha transition from the commission form of government to the city charter home rule system to the present structure featuring district council elections. She was a stabilizing presence as Omaha endured scandals, bitter fights over equal rights and public works and abrupt changes in leadership. She helped Omaha retain its Triple AAA credit rating by selling bonds in New York’s financial district.

Along the way, she earned a reputation as a tough woman valued for the knowledge and history she brought to city business and as one not to be trifled with in the political wrangling game. This blunt, unadorned woman, who says of the wrinkles in her face — “I’ve earned every one” — is one helluva broad.

Unafraid to speak her mind and uncowed by the rough-and-tumble maneuvers of smoke-filled, back-room deliberating, Cornett was a trailblazer in the male fraternity called politics. For years, she was among only a handful of women city clerks in major U.S. metropolises. So, how did she survive under so many different regimes and surrounded by so many powerful men of often clashing politics and personalities? “Very simple, I became one of the good old boys. I made friends with their wives, their secretaries and their mistresses, and I got along just fine,” she said from her terraced antique and bric-a-brac-filled home on the busy Northwest Radial Highway. As former City Councilman Subby Anzaldo said, “Having Mary in a group of men was not uncomfortable. If a cross word flew out of someone’s mouth it wasn’t a situation where you had to worry about it. Mary understood and she could throw a few out herself if she had to. She was one of a kind. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

At her home, family photographs are prominently displayed in the living room, where the pet dog and cat roam freely. Most pictures are of Cornett’s only child, Irene A. Cornett (Stranglin), now a 10-year veteran with the Omaha police force and the new mother of twin girls. Cornett raised Irene alone after the death of her husband, surety executive Bob Cornett, in 1976. Slowed by a broken hip suffered last March, she has a nurse tech, Raissa Franklin, help at home. About her patient, Franklin said jokingly, “She’s ornery. She’s worse than the agitator in the washing machine.” Ever the politician, the chain-smoking Cornett recently had pictures of herself taken sans cigarettes. After the photo session Cornett called out, “Raissa, honey, could you hand me a pack of cigarettes now that the photographer is gone?”

As far as being a woman in a man’s world, Cornett had only to look at the domineering women in her own life for role models.

Both of her grandmothers worked outside the home in addition to raising families. Her maternal grandma came from sturdy ranch stock and went on to become a music teacher in towns across Nebraska. Her paternal matriarch was a railroad brakeman as well as a seamstress. Her mother was a political operative and helped run the family produce business.

“I grew up with the idea a woman could be anything she wanted to be,” said Cornett. That’s why when she started working at City Hall as a building clerk in 1945 she chafed at the resistance she met from the all-male contractors who had to go through her to obtain permits. “Well, the men contractors had a hard time with that because they didn’t think a woman could look at a set of blueprints and figure out anything. It was a whole new thing for them. They had a hard time accepting it and I had a hard time accepting their chauvinism. My attitude was, ‘The hell with it. I’m here. I’m the one that issues the permits. Show me your (expletive) blueprints. Take me or leave me.’ I think I’ve always felt that way.”

Armed with her sharp tongue, astute mind and vast experience, she had the ear of mayors and council members. According to her successor, current City Clerk Buster Brown, whom she trained, “If she had something to say, people listened. Yes, she influenced decisions behind-the-scenes. She was an institution. She knew the ins-and-outs.” Rather than challenge her “strong personality,” he said, officials would “back away.” Former City Councilman Robert Cunningham said, “She handled things with authority. She was respected.” In her capacity as clerk and confidante,  Cornett was the keeper of city records and secrets. She recalls how attorney Eddie Shaston, an associate of former Mayor A.V. Sorensen, “always said ‘I was the woman that knew and never talked.’”

Retired since 1997, Cornett is not telling tales out-of-school now, at least not on the record. If she did tell her story, the 77-year-old said she’d borrow the title from the Frank Sinatra anthem, “I Did It My Way.” The only trouble with that, she asked rhetorically, is “which of my lives would I be talking about? My private life? My political life? My life as a bondswoman?” To which Pat Wright, a friend and former assistant who popped over during a recent interview quipped, “Where does one stop and the other end? Sometimes you don’t even know,” which prompted Cornett to reply, “I know that.” Wright added, “Cornetts real. She tells it like it is.”

No doubt, Cornett thrived in the political arena because public service was, in a sense, a birthright by virtue of her family’s longtime involvement in the field. Her Irish-Scottish immigrant family’s political legacy extends back to the town’s wild-and-whooly beginnings to a pair of paternal grand uncles: former fire chief Jack J. Galligan and former police chief Michael Dempsey. Then there was her mother, Fairrie Irene Cameron Galligan, a wheel in the state and Midwest Democratic central committees. Mary often accompanied her to conventions, even meeting future president Harry S. Truman in Kansas City when he was still a ward leader for the Tom Pendergast machine. There was also a familial tie to the politically active Warners of Nebraska. “Everyone in my family, on both sides, was in politics,” Cornett said. “That’s been my whole life.”

 

 

Public service has been a passionate thing for the Cornett clan. “It was and it still is with me” she said. “My family at one time were all immigrants and this was the country that welcomed them. They felt they owed it something because of the freedom and the education and the employment they found here. And for all of that, there’s gotta be some payback. And, so, I think the whole family felt a personal responsibility to be part of government and to devote a lot of their lives to it. I devoted my entire life to it.” Politics also suited Cornett’s gregariousness. She said her capacity for getting along with people and putting aside personal differences for the public good is “an ability you have to have” to succeed in politics. Her skill at mixing with people from all walks of life and her hunger for being right in the thick of the action is why it all came naturally to her.

“I guess I’m a people person. I guess that’s why I picked this as my retirement house,” she said, referring to her residence. “It’s right on the street. Life goes on. There isn’t a time the rescue squad isn’t going that-a-way or a fire truck isn’t going this-a-way or a police car isn’t going another way. I can lay in bed and tell from the traffic what time it is.”

Cornett likes the neighborhood and its mix of young families and retirees. “I lived for many years in a big home at 61st and Decatur and I hated it. Everybody went to bed at like 8:30 or 9, and being a night owl, I’d be up till 1 or 2 in the morning. Also, I cannot imagine living in one of these retirement places where everybody’s old, where there’s no children, where there’s no dogs or cats. Why would you want to shut yourself off from the world? You’ve got to have some life going on around you,” she said above the din of rushing traffic and barking dogs outside.

For her, city government was where the action was. How apt then that this lifelong devotee of Italian grand opera found herself immersed in the drama and machinations of big city politics, with all its brokering, backstabbing and symbolic bloodletting. Because politics truly is in her blood, she still keeps close tabs on City Hall. Asked if leaders still come to her for counsel, she answered, “Let’s put it this way, I get a lot of telephone calls. I still have an excellent grapevine together. Remember, it’s been 53 years or so building it. I can tell you what’s going on in every (expletive) department down there. I keep track of things.”

After years directing the clerk’s office, which besides keeping records supports the functions and enforces the rules of the City Council, she has a rather proprietary feeling about that august body. The last council she worked with had a contentious relationship with former Mayor Hal Daub, whom she felt was not well served by some members, which makes her glad the present council, with its five new faces, is working so well with Mayor Mike Fahey. “I’m very proud of the new council. I think they’re doing a very good job. This council and the mayor are communicating. I think that’s a necessary part of good government. You can disagree, but you need to communicate at least your disagreements.”

In Cornett’s view the previous council “made life miserable for Mayor Daub,” adding: “I always felt very sorry for Daub. Did he make mistakes? Yes. Could he have maybe communicated with two or three of them better? Yes. But there were four of ‘em on that council that no matter what he would have done they would never have moved off what they wanted. And it wasn’t a matter of what was best for the city or what was good for the taxpayer. It was a matter of their own personal egos and their desire to stay in power. Well, you know what happened to most of ‘em? They were beaten out in the last election.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

In past administrations Cornett became a liaison or conduit between mayors and councils locked in stalemates. “When some mayors were not talking to certain council members they used me as a go-between,” she said. “They about wore my voice out, too.” She also frequently sat in on cabinet meetings.

One of Cornett’s closest cronies in city government was the late Herb Fitle, the longtime city attorney with whom she enjoyed a salty relationship that sometimes found them feuding. As years passed, Cornett and Fitle, along with officials George Ireland and S.P. Benson, became the wise old sages in city government. Cornett and Fitle were “the staunchest supporters and absolute protectors” of the city charter that came into effect in the late-1950s.

“We had a long, long tenure together,” she said. “If we stood together, all hell and high heaven could not have moved us — I don’t care if it was mayors, councils, outside influences, whatever. But our disagreements also were legend. He’d write his opinions and although I wasn’t an attorney I sometimes wouldn’t agree with his opinion and I wasn’t very amiss to tell him so.

“Once, we disagreed over some political or legal issue and we stopped talking to each other. I’d send my assistants up to his office for answers and he’d send his attorneys down to my office for answers. Well, the help got tired of that and came to me and said, ‘Look, you guys have got to stop this. We can’t take it anymore.’ I said, ‘OK, fine.’ It was near Christmas and we used to have this event called The Christmas Sing where we all gathered in the council chambers with an orchestra to sing carols, and so I asked someone to get peace doves. While this program was going on I said to Herb, ‘I think we should make up,’ and I let the birds go. They were scared as hell and flew all over the place. Well, it turned out they were pigeons and, you know, they pooped on everybody and everything…the musicians, the councilmen, the chairs, the desks. I think it took the night help two or three hours to clean up.”

Despite the mess, her goodwill gesture was accepted and The Great Cornett-Fitle feud ceased.

In her watchdog role with the council Cornett provided oversight to ensure proceedings followed protocol. She served as sergeant of arms, called roll, recorded results and supplied information requested by councilmen on resolutions, ordinances, liquor licenses, etc.. The job also involved training new council members in how municipal government operates. Not everyone comes prepared to govern. “You get newly elected officials that never saw a charter before,” she said. Former councilman Subby Anzaldo said her influence was felt. “She had input. We came to her for answers. She told it like it was. She was like the eighth council member.”

She provided continuity when, in 1981, the move from at-large to district elections brought seven new council members and a new mayor into office and then, in the late 1980s-early 1990s, when Omaha went through six mayors due to recall, death, defeat, election, resignation. At times like those, City Clerk Buster Brown said, “She was very vital to making sure city government ran smoothly.” The way she sees it, she helped by “just being there.”

Then there’s the delicate matter of sorting out potential conflicts of interest. As Cornett explained, “Everybody comes to government bringing their own baggage in terms of outside influences. There may be something in the charter that can favor an official in getting a contract” or a business advantage. “Will officials try to use their influence? Of course they will. In my downstairs office at home I have reams of settled rulings on certain sections of the charter where somebody tried to do something they couldn’t (legally) do.”

At the countless council meetings she oversaw, she heard everything from dissident voices to impassioned pleas to whimpers to cheers. Among those she had removed from the premises was a deputy sheriff who arrived with a warrant during a council session. When she informed the deputy it was not permissible to serve a sitting body but that he would instead have to wait until the meeting ended, he persisted, whereupon she called security, ordering police to “remove this man,” which they did, much to the deputy’s chagrin. Cornett said she was so upset that someone was “obstructing or interrupting MY council meeting” she never even “bothered to find out” who or what the warrant specified.

Another time, during the racially tense 1960s, Cornett recalls how marching civil rights demonstrators descending upon City Hall sent most officials scurrying for cover. Typical of Cornett, she stood her ground. As it turned out, the group included a large contingent of church-based elders whose intent was conciliatory. “With all the public officials having taken to the hills, I was the only one left, so the marchers came to my office. I called the switchboard and told them I didn’t want any calls and I told my staff to give these elderly ladies the cushions off their chairs to kneel on. That’s how I came to have a pray-in in my office.”

For the most part, however, Cornett plied her political savvy not in public view but behind-the-scenes. Of the many mayors she worked with, she said, “Almost every one of ‘em really cared about this city. I loved every one of ‘em, whether I fought with ‘em or not and whether they disliked me or not. Different mayors at different times had difficult personalities. I wouldn’t say who were my favorites, but I would say who taught me the most — A.V. Sorensen (1965-69). He made it a point to teach me…government, finances, investments, organization, management. He expected everything to be organized. He hated a messy desk.”

She said Sorensen was a model of efficiency who demanded subordinates follow suit. “If you couldn’t give him an answer in 5 minutes…forget it.” She recalls how when she and former City Council President Art Bradley questioned why he gave “both of us directives” to hunt up the same data, his honor replied — “‘Because you come back with different answers, and half way between the two of them is the truth.’ That was A.V.”

Sorensen restored faith in Omaha’s elected leadership in the wake of corruption at City Hall. His predecessor, the dashing young Jim Dworak (1961-65) was indicted but later acquitted on bribery and conspiracy charges involving rigged real estate zoning laws. Other city officials were convicted. While Cornett is convinced Dworak did not accept any bribes, she believes he was a victim of his own fast-living ways. “Wine, women and song were his problems. He just had too much too soon.”

Where Dworak was a free-wheeling playboy, Sorensen was a circumspect elder statesman. Tough facade aside, Cornett maintained a soft spot for old A.V. “I felt so close to him. He was one of the few people who hurt my feelings. He had been out of office a few months when he came to visit me. My office, for some reason, was all cluttered up. He didn’t say Hello or How are you? — no, he said, ‘I thought I taught you better than that,’ and walked out. Well, I sat there and cried.”

Another mayor whom Cornett says “taught me a great deal” was brash Hal Daub (1993-2001). She feels his greatest strength — a facile mind — often proved his undoing when combined with his impatience. “Hal is an extremely brilliant man,” she said. “He has almost a complete retentive memory for facts and figures. But he thinks so fast that he’s always jumping the gun on people.” The two respected each other enough that mere weeks after retiring from the clerk’ s office she accepted his request to assume an eight-month job researching issues related to city-county government merger, a subject she calls “near and dear to my heart.”

Over the years Cornett said she rejected notions of running for public office and spurned opportunities to enter the private sector. Life as an elected official held no interest, she said, because she “didn’t want to play the game” and disliked the idea of being beholden to “outside influences.” Besides, she added, elected officials don’t have the real control — civil service administrators do. The prospect of leaving City Hall altogether was equally unimaginable.

“I was offered two or three very good jobs paying twice what I made in city government, but I decided, no, that’s where I belonged.” It’s why she looked forward going to work every day and thought nothing of putting in overtime even though her post didn’t qualify her for extra pay.

“This sounds kind of corny, but I always felt the Lord put me in the right spot at the right time in my life,” she said. “Every day there were new problems. Every day there was something else. You never knew when you got there in the morning what was going to transpire. And, so, if you wanted an interesting life you couldn’t have had a better job. I loved every minute and I kept going as long as I could.”

Omaha’s Malcolm X Memorial Foundation Comes into its Own, As the Nonprofit Eyes Grand Plans it Weighs How Much Support Exists to Realize Them

May 4, 2012 10 comments

African-Americans from the town where I live, Omaha, Neb., are often amused when they travel outside the state, especially to the coasts, and people they first meet discover where they are from and invariably express surprise that black people live in this Great Plains state.  Yes, black people do live here, thank you very much.  They have for as long as Nebraska’s been a state and Omaha’s been a city, and their presence extends back even before that, to when Nebraska was a territory and Omaha a settlement.  Much more, some famous black Americans hail from here, including musicians Wynonie Harris, Buddy Miles, Preston Love Sr. and Laura Love, Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, the NFL’s first black quarterback Marlin Briscoe, actress Gabrielle Union, actor John Beasley, producer Monty Ross, Radio One-TV One magnate Cathy Hughes, and, wrap your mind around this one, Malcolm X. That’s right, one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century is from this placid, arch conservative and, yes, overwhelmingly white Midwestern city.  He was a small child when his family moved away but the circumstances that propelled them to leave here inform the story of his experience with intolerance and bigotry and help explain his eventual path to enlightenment and civic engagement in the fight to resist inequality and injustice.  Though the man who was born Malcolm Little and remade himself as Malcolm X had little to do with his birthplace after leaving here and going on to become a national and international presence because of his writings, speeches, and philosophies, some in Omaha have naturally made an effort to claim him as our own and to perpetuate his legacy and teachings.  Much of that commemorative and educational effort is centered in the work of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation based at the North Omaha birthsite of the slain civil rights activist.  The following story, soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com), gives an overview of the Foundation and recent progress it’s made.  Rowena Moore of Omaha had a dream to honor Malcolm X and she led the way acquiring and securing the birthsite and ensuring it was granted historic status.  After her death a number of elders maintained what she established.  Under Sharif Liwaru’s dynamic leadership the last eight years or so the organization has made serious strides in plugging MXMF into the mainstream and despite much more work to be done and money to be raised my guess is that it will someday realize its grand plans, and perhaps sooner than we think.

 

 

photo
Malcolm X Center

 

 

Omaha’s Malcolm X Memorial Foundation Comes into its Own,  As the Nonprofit Eyes Grand Plans it Weighs How Much Support Exists to Realize Them

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Self-determination by any means necessary.

The notorious sentiment is by Malcolm X, whose incongruous beginnings were in this conservative, white-bread city. Not where you’d expect a revolutionary to originate. Then again, his narrative would be incomplete if he didn’t come from oppression.

Born Malcolm Little, his family escaped persecution here when he was a child. His incendiary intellect and enlightenment were forged on a transformative path from hustler to Muslim to militant to husband, father and humanist black power leader.

As it does annually, the Omaha-based Malcolm X Memorial Foundation commemorates his birthday May 17-19. Thursday features a special Verbal Gumbo spoken word open mic at 7 p.m. hosted by Felicia Webster and Michelle Troxclair at the House of Loom.

Things then move to the Malcolm X Center and birthsite. Friday presents by the acclaimed spoken word artist and author Basheer Jones, plus The Wordsmiths, at 7 p.m.

On Saturday the African Renaissance Festival unfolds noon to 5 p.m. with drummers, native attire, storytelling, face painting and Malcolm X reflections. Artifacts from the recently discovered Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis collection of Malcolm X materials will be displayed. The late musician was a friend and criminal partner of Malcolm Little’s before the latter’s incarceration and conversion to Islam.

It’s a full weekend but hardly the kind of community-wide celebration, much less holiday, devoted to Martin Luther King Jr.

“I tell people, you may still not like Malcolm X, you may have a problem with a revolutionary. Martin was a revolutionary and maybe you came to love him. But I do want you to know brother Malcolm’s whole story and where he came from,” says MXMF president Sharif Liwaru.

“A big portion of what we do is about the legacy of Malcolm X. We go into communities, schools and other speaking environments and we educate people about Malcolm X, what he meant, what his impact was on society. Sometimes people walk away with a different level of respect for him. Sometimes they walk away having a better understanding.”

Sharif Liwaru

 

 

Using the tenets of Malcolm X, the foundation promotes civic engagement as a means foster social justice.

Nearly a half-century since Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination, he remains controversial. The Nebraska State Historical Society Commission has denied adding him to the Nebraska Hall of Fame despite petition campaigns nominating him. Few schools have curricula about the slain civil rights activist.

From its 1971 start MXMF has struggled overcoming the rhetoric around its namesake. The late activist Rowena Moore founded the grassroots nonprofit as a labor of love. She secured the North O lot where the razed Little home stood and where she once lived. Fueled by her dream to build a cultural-community center, MXMF acquired property around the birthplace. The site totals some 11 acres.

 

 

By the time she passed in 1998 the piecemeal effort had little to show save for a state historical marker. Later, a parking lot, walkway and plaza were added. Other than clearing the land of overgrowth and debris, the property was long on promise and short on fruition, awaiting funds to catch up with vision.

Without a building of its own, MXMF events were held alfresco on-site from spring through fall and at rotating venues in the winter. “We felt a little homeless,” says Liwaru. “We were very creative and did a whole lot without a building but we didn’t have a place to showcase and share that.” All those years of making do and staying the course have begun paying off. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in public-private grant monies have been awarded MXMF since 2009. Other support’s come from the Douglas County Visitors Improvement Fund, the Iowa West Foundation, the Sherwood Foundation, the Nebraska Arts Council and the Nebraska Humanities Council.

Malcolm X historical marker at the birthsite

 

 

Most notably a $200,000 North Omaha Historical grant allowed MXMF to acquire its first permanent indoor facility, an adjacent former Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall at 3463 Evans Street, in 2010. Now renamed the Malcolm X Center, it hosts everything from lectures, films, plays, community forums, receptions and fundraisers to a weekly Zumba class to a twice monthly social-cultural-history class. Annual Juneteenth and Kwanzaa celebrations occur there.

MXMF conducts some longstanding programs, including Camp Akili, a residential summer leadership program for youth ages 14-19, and Harambee African Cultural Organization, an outreach initiative for citizens returning to society from prison.

The center is a community gathering spot and bridge to the wider community. Liwaru says it gives the birth site a “public face” and “front door” it lacked before, thus attracting more visitors. Besides hosting MXMF activities the center’s also used by outside groups. For example, Bannister’s Leadership Academy classes and Sudanese cultural events are held there.

“We’re very proud to be a community resource. It legitimizes us as an organization to have that space available. It makes a difference with the confidence of the volunteers involved.””

 

 

A recent site development that’s proved popular is the Shabazz Community Garden, where a summer garden youth program operates.

The surge of support is not by accident. The birthsite’s pegged as an anchor-magnet in North Omaha Revitalization Village plans and Liwaru says, “We definitely see ourselves as a viable part of it.” North Omaha Development Project director Ed Cochran, Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray have helped steer resources its way.

Attitudes about Malcolm X have softened to the point even the prestigious Omaha Community Foundation awarded a $20,000 capacity building grant. Despite working on the margins, Liwaru says “investors could see our mission and work ethic and they supported that.”

Since obtaining its own facility, Liwaru says, “I find more people speaking as if our long-range plans are possible.” Those plans call for an amphitheater and a combined conference-cultural center.

For most of its life MXMF’s subsisted on small donations. When the building grant stipulated $50,000 in matching funds, says Liwaru, “”it was really the culmination of a lot of little gifts that made it happen.”

The all-volunteer organization depends on contributions of time, talent and treasure from rank-and-file supporters.

“We believe a little bit of money from a lot of people is beneficial,” says Liwaru. “Sometimes that meant we were probably working harder than the next organization that may be able to go to one or two people to get their funds, but it certainly makes us accountable to more people. We’re ultimately responsible to our community because we have so many community members contribute.

“Our organization belongs to the community. The people get the say.”

In tangible, brick-and-mortar terms, the foundation hasn’t come far in 40 years, but all things considered Liwaru’s pleased where it’s at.

“We’ve made a lot of progress. One of the things that makes me confident we’ve turned this corner is there’s still this strong commitment, there’s still passionate people involved.”

Aerial view of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation birthsite grounds

 

 

Veteran board members and community elders Marshall Taylor and Charles Parks Jr., among others, have carried the torch for decades. “They bring experience and wisdom,” says Liwaru. He adds, “We’ve added strong young people to our board like Kevin Lytle (aka Self Expression), and Lizabet Arellano, who bring a lot of new ideas and a passion for carrying out change in this urban environment.”

However, if MXMF is to become a major attraction a giant leap forward is necessary and Liwaru’s unsure if the support’s there right now.

“Everybody wants sustainability in terms of stable funding and revenue. We put out a lot of funding proposals at the end of last year. Few were approved. We got a lot of nos. Most funders don’t say why. We don’t know if it’s because they’re not wanting to be affiliated with Malcolm X or if it’s not understanding what we do as an organization or if they don’t think we can see projects through to the end.”

He can’t imagine it’s the latter, saying, “Anybody who knows us knows we’re persistent and that what we talk we follow through with.”

His gut tells him the organization still encounters patriarchal, political barriers.

“We always feel we have to come in proving ourselves. I always come in and explain we’re not a terrorist organization or a splinter cell. Most of what we get is a lot of encouragement but it’s a pat on the back and ‘I hope that you guys do really well with that’ versus, ‘I can help.’ I think one of the challenging things is we’re not sure what people think of us. There are many who aren’t sure which Malcolm we’re celebrating.

“If an organization is just completely not interested in covering anything related to Malcolm X it’d be nice to know. So the question from me to philanthropists out there is, ‘What do you think about the Malcolm X foundation and what we do? Do you see it as a worthy cause? What are we missing?”

Malcolm X

 

 

Answers are important as MXMF is S100,000 away from finishing its planning phase and millions away from realizing the site’s full build-out. It could all take years. None of this seems to discourage MXMF stalwarts.

“We are willing to sacrifice and work diligently for however long it takes,” says Lizabet Arellano. Fellow young blood board member Kevin Lytle takes hope from the momentum he sees,/ “There’s more and more people at events and rallies and different things we do. People are finally starting to recognize and take pride in the fact Malcolm X was born here,” he says. “We have to start somewhere, and that’s a start. People know that we’re here and that we’re representing something beneficial to the community.”

Liwaru sees a future when major donors ouside Nebraska help the MXMF site grow into a regional, national, even international mecca for anyone interested in Malcolm X.

Besides a House of Loom cover charge, the weekend MXMF events are free. For details, visit http://www.malcolmxfoundation.org or the foundation’s Facebook page.


Steve Rosenblatt, A Legacy of Community Service, Political Ambition and Baseball Adoration

April 27, 2012 6 comments

Rosenblatt is a magical name in Omaha because of the popular mayor who belonged to it, the late Johnny Rosenblatt, who in his day was quite a ballplayer, and because of the municipal stadium whose construction he speerheaded.  That stadium was named after him and became home to the College World Series.  The subject of this story is his son Steve Rosenblatt, who inherited his father’s love for the game and followed the old man into politics.  Fabled Rosenblatt Stadium is no more, replaced by TD Ameritrade Park as host of the CWS.  The stadium, the series, and his honor the mayor are more than just tangential memories to Steve, they are lifeblood and legacy.

 

 

At the first game, from left:  Steve Rosenblatt; Rex Barney; Bob Hall, owner of the Omaha Cardinals; Duce Belford, Brooklyn Dodgers scout and Creighton athletic director; Richie Ashburn, a native of Tilden, Neb.; Johnny Rosenblatt; and Johnny Hopp of Hastings, Neb.
©photo from the Steve Rosenblatt Collection

 

 

Steve Rosenblatt, A Legacy of Community Service, Political Ambition and Baseball Adoration

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press

 

Legacy plays a big part in Steve Rosenblatt’s life.

The Omaha native and his wife, the former Ann Hermen, live in Scottsdale, Ariz.

His late father, Johnny Rosenblatt, became an Omaha icon: first as a top amateur baseball player; than as a sponsor of youth athletic teams through the Roberts Dairy company he managed; and finally as a popular Omaha city councilman and mayor. The elder Rosenblatt, who served as mayor from 1954 to 1961, led efforts to build the south Omaha stadium that became the city’s home to professional baseball and to the College World Series.

The city he loved paid tribute to one of its greatest boosters when Omaha Municipal Stadium was renamed Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in 1964. The venue and the name have become synonymous with the NCAA college baseball championship played continuously at the stadium since 1950.

In a classic case of the apple not falling far from the tree, Steve Rosenblatt was a ballplayer in his own right and served on the Omaha Chamber of Commerce Sports Commission and the Omaha Royals Advisory Board. He followed his father’s footsteps into politics as well, serving two terms on the city council and three terms on the Douglas County Board of Commissioners.

The stadium that’s forever associated with his father played a key role in Steve’s early life. He was a bat boy for the inaugural Omaha Cardinals game played there, a duty he performed the first years the CWS took up residence. He regrets that the facility so closely tied to his family will be razed after the 2010 CWS in line with the planned construction of a new downtown palace slated to host the Series beginning in 2011. But the pragmatic Rosenblatt knows the decision is driven by the bottom line, which trumps nostalgia every time.

Sports and politics are inheritances for Rosenblatt, who is an only child. Just as his father used sports and charisma to forge a political career, the son used his own passion for athletics and way with people to become a player on the local political scene and to find success as an entrepreneur.

 

 

 Steve Rosenblatt

 

 

Bearing a name that has such major import in Omaha could have been an issue for Rosenblatt, but he didn’t let it be.

“You can take that and make it a burden,” Rosenblatt said, “or you can take it and have it be an asset, and I wished to take that route.”

Comparisons between he and his father were inevitable. “That’s fine, because we weren’t the same. First of all, he was a better ballplayer than me,” he said with his dry wit. “I was a better golfer than he was. Basketball might have been a toss-up, except he played college basketball — I didn’t.”

Growing up, Rosenblatt couldn’t help but notice what made his father a strong mayor and the sacrifices that job entailed.

“I was aware obviously of it and I learned as time went on how he operated and how he did things. Of course it was intriguing. He was a people-person who had an ability to communicate and to have relationships with his constituency and to make the tough decisions and still maintain a tremendous popularity. He had what I would call a broad-based support. He was well liked all over the community and one of the things that contributed to that — and it was what also helped me — was the background he had in athletics. That benefited him as I think it benefited me.

“He was well known as an athlete long before he was well known as a public official and his abilities as an athlete helped to project him into places.”

Rosenblatt said his father epitomized the “It” factor politicos possess. “All the people you see serve in the public sector as elected officials have in my opinion an attribute that goes beyond the norm,” he said, “in that they have the ability to speak and to be received in a fashion that projects themselves as leaders.”

Being an accessible mayor means never really having any down time.

“What was difficult about it was the fact you learned early on there’s a price to be paid as well,” Rosenblatt said, “because obviously with my dad doing what he did he was not going to be with you doing the things you might like to be doing all the time. He had public obligations to take care of as an elected official.”

The level of commitment required to be an effective, responsible public servant was not enough to dissuade Rosenblatt from seeking a seat on the city council and later on the county board. Even with the cachet of his name, his strong base in the business community and a groundswell of support to make a mayoral bid he never seriously considered running for that office. The same for a Congressional seat.

“I really was never interested in it. It was not aspiring to me. I’m as much a people- person as my dad was but at the same time I’m much more private. You cannot in my opinion be an elected official at that level and be as private as I would have liked to be. I want to do the job I was elected to do and when the day is over I want to go to the golf course, be with my family, watch a ballgame. You can’t do that in certain areas because you’ve given up that right and that time by your election to a particular office.”

He said it all comes with the territory.

“Make no mistake about it, when a person is elected to office, even at the city level, the county level, there’s a sacrifice to be made,” he said. “People may not realize it at the time they do get in but they will find out. I found out and I knew how much I wanted to give and how much I didn’t.

“People thought I should have run for mayor. The thing that used to scare me about that thought was I might get elected. Then I’d have to go do it and, you see, I knew too much about what a mayor had to give up and to do to be successful. I could have done it. I think I could have done a good job at it but it was not appealing to me because my (golf) handicap would have gone up.”

He never discussed with his father prospects for a public life nor went to him for political advice.

“Not really,” he said. “I first got elected in ‘73 and he was stricken with Parkinson’s disease in the latter part of the ‘50s, so he was really not able, but he didn’t have to because I learned from him when he was healthy, vigorous and in office, so I’d already got the lessons.”

Even though he never planned for it, Rosenblatt said he always assumed he would gravitate to public service.

“Well, I’d always thought that as a son of a former mayor and as somebody who had learned that life that perhaps some day I might get involved. I knew how to operate, so to speak. Actually, the way it happened is former Mayor Eugene Leahy said to me one day, ‘Steve, you need to run for the city council — we need to get some new blood in there.’ I guess he kind of triggered the desire.”

At the time he declared his candidacy in 1972 Rosenblatt was a salesman with Sterling Distributing Company, an alcoholic beverage distributor. He’d done some college work at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Only his mind was more on baseball than higher education.

“I was only interested in athletics and still am to this day as a matter of fact. I really did not have the kind of plan that I would hope my kids would have. I was not academically a good student but I think you could say I was more attuned to the practicalities of life. You might say I was street smart…”

A three-year varsity letter-winner at Omaha Central, he tried to play ball at UNL, he said, “but academically I wasn’t taking care of business and physically I was too young to have an opportunity to be successful.”

While school was hardly a home run, his experience trying to cobble together a college baseball career given him priceless insights. He also gained much from his friendship with two coaching legends — Eddie Sutton and the late Rod Dedeaux.

“I’m fortunate to have been very close to two of the greatest coaches in the history of sports.”

Rosenblatt got to know Sutton when the then-Creighton University head basketball coach and his family moved across the street from Steve and his folks. The families remain close to this day. He got to know Dedeaux when the University of Southern California head baseball coach led his powerhouse clubs at the CWS.

“If I’d have known then what I learned from Rod I would have had a chance to have been a better baseball player,” he said, “but at the time I didn’t have that coaching-mentoring.”

The ability to evaluate talent and to weigh options has made Rosenblatt a kind of scout and adviser for promising young athletes, especially Jewish athletes.

“I’m helping kids to try to get situated within athletics. I had a young Jewish kid and his father from Scottsdale, Ariz. go to Omaha to try to help him get set up collegiately. I’m making calls to some baseball people trying to help a young Jewish kid in Omaha who’s a good ballplayer. People call me. People know that I kind of understand. I try to offer guidance to both the parents and the youngsters as to what could be in their best interests. That, to me, is fun.”

 

 

 

 

Rosenblatt said it’s not an accident he’s drawn to strong, charismatic men like his father. After losing Johnny in 1979 Rosenblatt drew even closer to Dedeaux.

“He also was a people-person and a great communicator,” Rosenblatt said of Dedeaux. “He learned the baseball business from one of the smartest men in the history of the game, a fella named Casey Stengel. That was his mentor. The two games he played in the major leagues Casey Stengel was the manager.”

By the time Rosenblatt owned his own business — a sales and distribution outfit for corrugated package containers better known as boxes — Dedeaux and he were like father and son. They were also business associates.

“He was not only a good friend but one of my biggest customers. He had a trucking company with warehousing and distribution divisions. Multiple operations. It was really big. Make no mistake, he was a baseball person, but he was also a phenomenon in the world of business.”

Rosenblatt parlayed his background in athletics by serving on the Chamber’s Sports Commission, which had a similar agenda as today’s Omaha Sports Commission.

“It was a matter of trying to do the things that make Omaha an attraction for new athletic environments,” he said.

He described his work on the Omaha Royals Advisory Board as “an opportunity for the Royals management to hear from people that are looking at the franchise from perhaps a different standpoint.” He’s still tight with the Royals today. “The general manager of the Royals, Martie Cordaro, is a good friend. I meet with him literally every time I go back to Omaha to talk about what they’re doing and how we can help them be successful.”

Those enduring ties to the Royals keep Rosenblatt informed on the Triple AAA club’s uneasy status in town. Principal owner Alan Stein is in ongoing negotiations with the Omaha Sports Commission and the Metropolitan Entertainment Convention Authority that will determine if the Royals strike a deal to play in the new downtown stadium or go play ball somewhere else. La Vista and Sarpy County are among the Royals’ in-state suitors and Stein indicates out state communities are courting the team as well. Like any good businessman, he’s playing the field.

“Well, I think he has to have that attitude,” Rosenblatt said. “I’ve met with Alan and Martie. I know what they’re thinking is. I’ve offered them my opinion of the situation. It will be interesting to see what develops.”

Steve’s personal connection to Rosenblatt Stadium and to the pro and college baseball tenants that have occupied it rather uneasily in recent years have put him in a Solomon-like position. He loves the CWS and how it’s grown to become a huge event garnering national media coverage. His long association with the Series and his deep affection for the figures who made it special give him a unique perspective. He knows players, coaches, local CWS organizers and NCAA officials.

He sat in on negotiations between the city and the NCAA as a city councilman. “The city was a cooperative partner with the private sector in the production, basically, of the College World Series,” he said. He played a similar oversight role as a county board member.

On the other hand he appreciates what the Royals offer the community and the compromises they’ve made to placate the city and the NCAA and the proverbial 900-pound gorilla that is the CWS. Just as he still talks with Royals officials, he bends the ear of NCAA officials, acting as a kind of intermediary between the two.

It all came to a head when the political hot potato of the new stadium proposed by Mayor Mike Fahey, and subsequently approved by the city council, sealed the fate of Rosenblatt Stadium. The new downtown stadium is being built expressly for the NCAA and the CWS. If the Royals do play there they’d be the ugly step-child who has to accept the leftovers from the favorite son.

Rosenblatt equates a Royals move from Omaha a loss.

“Well, I would because the original concept of the stadium that has Johnny’s name on it was not initially for the College World Series, it was for professional baseball,” he said, “Because of what has transpired with the emergence of the College World Series, it’s now created what I would refer to as an unfriendly situation for professional baseball. There’s no other professional baseball team in America that has a competitor in town called the College World Series. So it’s awkward.”

Even though he now takes an indirect role in such matters, he’s keeping a wary eye on the downtown stadium project, whose estimated $140 million price tag he considers overly optimistic. He predicts it will end up costing $175-$200 million once all the dust settles.

Like many Omahans he’s concerned that if the Royals don’t play at the new stadium and no minor league franchise is secured in their place, the venue will sit empty 50 weeks a year and not be the economic catalyst or anchor for NoDo it’s intended to be. This longtime proponent of a CWS hall of fame said the stadium would be an apt home for it and an Omaha sports hall of fame.

A CWS hall would acknowledge those who’ve excelled as players or coaches or been responsible for the Series’ success. While he doesn’t feel that venue would be much of a year-round draw he sees an Omaha sports museum as a turnstyle magnet “because so many great athletes have come out of Omaha. That would be very interesting, and if you could incorporate the two, that’s a helluva an idea.”

He also has a vested interest in seeing his father’s name live on in the new stadium.

“In my opinion that would be wise and appropriate given the lengthy association that that name has had with college and professional baseball in Omaha. Hopefully the powers that be will have his name connected in some way,” he said.

The stakes are rarely as high as they are with the stadium issue but he makes a practice of using sports as an ice breaker with people.

“Almost everything I’ve done business-wise, athletics has been a tool of taking care of business. My involvement in athletics is an invitation. If I happen to be calling on new customers and if they’re knowledgeable in athletics, then I’m going to get their business, because I can talk it. If they’re interested in the opera and the theater, I’m in trouble. So athletics is a great tool in communicating.”

Athletics and business were not his only finishing schools for a political life. He gained valuable leadership experience as a Nebraska Air National Guardsman and as chairman of the Midlands Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

“That was a very rewarding opportunity,” he said. “Hopefully we did some good there. I had learned, of course, with my dad being afflicted with Parkinson’s and my mother being afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis how devastating that can be. Being associated with the Multiple Sclerosis Society gave me an opportunity to contribute and to try to help people…”

Community service motivated his entry into politics.

“You try to get elected in my opinion to help people who perhaps don’t have the ability to help themselves,” he said, “because everybody needs help. Having the ability to collectively help people is the thing that gives you the most pleasure.”

His political life has taught him some lessons. One is to be “leery” of any candidate who makes promises. “The fact of the matter is there’s very little individually they can do because it takes a collective effort to get something done,” he said. Any rhetoric about reducing taxes is just that. “That’s folly,” he said. “They’ll be lucky if they don’t have to raise taxes.”

His action on some issues elicits satisfaction all these years later. One involved the Orpheum Theatre. Omaha’s then-mayor, Ed Zorinsky, wanted it razed. Rosenblatt, a fellow Jew and key ally, went against Zorinsky to side with preservationists who wanted it restored. The conflict came down to a close city council vote.

“The Orpheum Theatre would not be around today if not for Steve Rosenblatt,” he said. “I felt an obligation to the people of the city of Omaha to ensure that it remained for the use down the road. I was the swing vote on that. If that vote goes the other way it’s gone.”

A controversial decision on his council-county board watch was demolishing Jobbers Canyon to make way for the downtown ConAgra campus. “It was an emotional issue,” he said. “I don’t make decisions based on much emotion. I try to make them based on what I think is right.” He said the project “was an absolute must because we as a community could not afford for ConAgra to go to Lincoln or somewhere out in the suburbs — one of the possibilities at the time. It needed to be downtown to be the initial thrust for the redevelopment of that area.”

He encouraged then-mayor Bernie Simon to have the city match a financial commitment the county was making for the project. The city did. He said, “One of the things I had going for me was having been on the city council I retained a great deal of working relationships with people at city hall. The ability to transcend the workings of city and county government was helpful on a variety of projects.”

He credits ex-mayors P.J. Morgan and Hal Daub with driving forward Omaha’s growth by continuing city-county cooperation and public-private sector synergy. Under current Mayor Mike Fahey Omaha’s makeover has been “phenomenal.”

If Rosenblatt and his wife have their way, they’ll eventually live in Omaha half the year. The Rosenblatt name could once again be center stage in the political arena.

Carole Woods Harris Makes a Habit of Breaking Barriers for Black Women in Business and Politics

April 17, 2012 5 comments

In the struggle African-Americans have waged to achieve equal footing in education, employment and housing as well as in leadership positions, elected or not, the progress made has not always made banner headlines. In fact many of the gains have happened quietly and largely under the radar.  That’s certainly the case with Carole Woods Harris, who achieved one first after another for black women in Omaha, Neb., where she became a leader in business and in local-county government by persistently moving through the ranks, networking, proving herself just as capable as her male counterparts, and along the way gaining a reputation for being a methodical and savvy operator who never lost touch with her roots.  This profile I wrote of Harris appeared about a decade ago.

 

 

 Carole Woods Harris

 

 

Carole Woods Harris Makes a Habit of Breaking Barriers for Black Women in Business and Politics

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

When former US West executive and current Douglas County Commissioner Carole Woods Harris first applied at the phone company in the late 1950s, the then-Technical High School honors student eagerly sought one of Ma Bell’s long distance operator openings. It was an era when women, regardless of ability, were limited to narrow roles in the workplace. Any job at the fat phone company was prized. A job there meant a steady paycheck and, if one stayed put, the promise of a pension at the end of a long career. There was even the possibility of advancing into a better paying spot. In reality, few women actually did.

Although the precocious Carole, then known by her maiden name Anders, was told by company officials she more than qualified for the job, she was denied it and, instead, got offered an elevator operator slot. The snub was the first bitter taste of racism in this young black woman’s life. A proud Carole rejected the offer on the spot. However, with the Civil Rights Movement beginning to open doors for blacks, she soon found herself called back by the company, which did an abrupt about-face and tendered her the same position she wanted in the first place. She accepted this offer because, one, she deserved it and, two, her family badly needed the money. Carole was the oldest of three children in a single-parent family (her mother and father were separated) and the Anders barely scraped by on what her mother made working as a maid and what the family received in welfare assistance. “Bear in mind,” she said during a recent interview from her northwest Omaha home, “this is the best job that anybody in my family had ever had.”

Omaha Technical High School

 

 

The same young woman who had enough moxie to say “No thanks” when treated unfairly and enough good sense to say “Thank you” when opportunity knocked, made this bottom-rung job her entry into the business world, where she blazed a trail for other minorities in climbing the corporate ladder over a 30-year career with the communications giant, much of it spent in management.

High achievement is something Harris, a Kellom Grade School and Tech High graduate, was brought up to expect despite growing up in poverty. Her self-confidence and lofty expectations came from the many stalwart women in her life. Chief among them were her mother, Frances, and maternal grandmother, Elizabeth. “I was raised and influenced, you might say, by a number of strong black women. My mother was a very intelligent woman who finished high school with the skills to be a secretary, which was probably the top of the ladder for women at that time. But that was something in Omaha she was not able to do because of her race. Many of the parents of her generation had that experience. My mother could only find work as a house maid all the time I was growing up. She ended up being able to get into a decent job when she got on at the Post Office, which began hiring blacks. But what I got from my mother was the belief that things were going to get better for us. My mother instilled the attitude that I could do whatever I wanted and the importance of being prepared to do it. So, she instilled a lot of hope.”

In her grandmother Elizabeth, Harris found an example of how to persevere and stay true to core beliefs through trying times. “My mother’s mother was a widow who raised nine children. By the time she was in her 40s she lost her sight (due to glaucoma). Yet, she helped to raise her grandchildren. I often consider my grandmother as the most saintly person I’ve known. She had a very strong faith.” The family, led by grandma, regularly attended Morningstar Baptist Church. Today, Harris worships at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church.

While establishing herself as a player in business circles, Harris began making her presence known as a community volunteer and board member. She is the past chair of the Eastern Nebraska Human Services Board of Governors. She still serves on the boards of numerous health and human service agencies, including the United Way of the Midlands. More recently, she has emerged as a savvy politico giving voice to minority concerns. Along the way to becoming a community leader, she raised a family. The twice-divorced Harris has three children from her first husband — sons Vernon and Michael and daughter Kimberly. She is a grandmother of four. Her only regret, she said, is not finishing her college education, something she put on the back-burner to take care of business.

 

 
photo

A black woman elevator operator in Virginia in the era Carole Woods Harris worked the same job in Omaha

 

 

Upon being the first black promoted into middle management from within then-Northwestern Bell in the 1970s, she became a figure of inspiration for a group of long-time employees who filled the very job the company tried steering her into more than a decade earlier. “There were several black women working as elevator operators then, and these beautiful, special women were so encouraging and supportive of me when I started. They mothered me. They just showed such a sense of pride in me,” she said, her voice breaking at the thought of how much she meant to them and how much they meant to her. Once she made her way into the halls of power, first as a district manager for directory publishing and eventually as director of strategic planning, she knew her double-minority status made her a closely watched symbol inside and outside the corporation. She knew there were those who suspected her rise into the management ranks was due to affirmative action quotas than her own merits. That others scrutinized her every move to see if she really belonged and carried her own weight. And that still others expected her presence to be a gateway for more blacks. All of which made her feel even more pressure then she already put on herself.

“It’s not unusual for people in that situation to always feel they’ve got to make an effort to be twice as good” as their white counterparts,” she said of the awkward position she was in. “So, I guess I pressured myself. I knew it was important that others have the opportunity to follow me, and if I didn’t do well it would adversely impact the opportunities for others and would be used as an excuse” to not hire more minorities. She acknowledges she did sometimes “wonder…if what was happening to me was because I’m black or because I’m a woman. I think my experiences were impacted by a combination of my race and my sex.”

In addition to having to prove herself, she faced the challenge of gaining access into the male-dominated executive suite, essentially a men’s club whose “suits” did a lot of business on the golf course or the local tavern, where women colleagues were unwelcome. “Well, I didn’t golf, so I started inviting myself to lunch with them,” she explained. “It hadn’t occurred to them. I looked for any ways to make myself part of the Old Boys Network.” By all measures, she succeeded, becoming a highly-admired manager who could stand her ground with the boys.

Frank Peterson, a former senior manager with US West, said her ascendancy at the company was “no window dressing,” adding: “She was no showcase. She was a very competent manager and a very well-respected leader that more than held her own in any position she was placed in, and I think that’s a real asset to her. The examples she set were excellent.”

Building containing offices for the Douglas County Board of Commissioners

 

 

For much of her time in management, Harris oversaw a group “responsible for publishing all of the directories for a five-state region.” She supervised staffs in Omaha, Des Moines and Minneapolis. Near the end of her career (she retired in 1990) her role as a strategic planner found her deeply involved in the merger of the so-called Baby Bells (Northwestern Bell, Pacific Bell and Mountain Bell) that created US West. That meant a lot of streamlining and downsizing to eliminate redundancies and to maximize efficiencies. “When you bring three companies together,” she said, “you have a lot of duplication. My job was basically working through that.” Her dedication to those cost-cutting measures was so complete she even phased-out her own role in the company. “As part of that process, one of the things I did was eliminate my own job. I was in a position to see it coming and as a result I was made less afraid of that change.”

She took early retirement at 50, leaving behind an accomplished legacy. Her old colleague, Peterson, said, “She brought a dignity to her role, whatever it was. She has the ability to say what’s necessary to be said, to say it well and to say it in an unemotional way. It’s a characteristic I witnessed many times. Also, she’s an excellent listener. As a team player she could adapt quickly to any situation. She could always see the big picture, not only her own responsibility, but that of the greater need. The telephone business was filled with a bunch of great people…and when you think about the people you cherished and the people you could count on, she ranks way up in that realm. Her path just leaves people feeling good.”

Once separated from the company she had come of age in, Harris made a frank self-assessment and, when the opportunity presented itself, pursued a life in public service. “If you’ve been with a company for 30 years that publishes directories and provides long distance service, it’s hard to see what value you have outside that context,” she said.”That started me to do a better job of identifying how the skills I gained were transferable to other venues.”

Her attraction to city-county government actually began several years before when, in the early 1980s, she was appointed by then-Mike Boyle to the Omaha Personnel Board. Her tenure on the Board coincided with a tumultuous turn of events when the incumbent Boyle, whom she serves with today on the Douglas County Board, was recalled, Councilman Steve Tomasek filled in as Acting Mayor and Councilman Bernie Simon was elected by the Council to serve out the deposed Mayor’s term. “I chaired one of those major hearings during all the turmoil,” she recalled. It was during that time she mentioned to fellow Democrats she “might be interested in serving in public office” and, sure enough, political operatives approached her a few years later about running against incumbent City Councilman Joe Friend. After some hesitation, she put her hat in the ring and challenged Friend in the 1989 election.

She lost, but valued the chance it gave her to surface issues, the primary one being “the need for the City and its elected officials to pay greater attention to all segments of the community. There were areas that were significantly under-served.” While she admits she “had a lot to learn” about the political process, she considered her failed bid “a very good experience.”

The call to service came again in 1992 when she ran for and was elected to the District 3 Douglas County Commissioner’s seat. Motivating her to seek office, she said, was her “interest in the health and human services areas the county is responsible for and an interest in understanding the budget process and being able to have that process be fair to all areas of the county being served.”

Her victory gave her the distinction of being the first black elected to the Douglas County Board. In a state that falls well behind the rest of the nation in funding services for disadvantaged populations, Harris has used her office as a forum for strengthening existing programs and creating “more community-based services for children-at-risk as well as for mental health and chemical dependency patients.” She sees many needs still going unmet. “In the youth area I see more need in the way of prevention-based services for at-risk youths and their families. We continue to be too heavily dependent on detention.” She also sees “huge gaps” in youth mental health services. “Because the slots aren’t available in Kearney (at the youth rehabilitation center there) and in other county facilities, we are sending too many young people out-of-state at a very high cost for services that we should be able to provide right here locally.” Harris chaired the Nebraska Juvenile Services Grant Committee and helped develop the county’s Community Juvenile Services Plan.

A black woman who shares much in common with Harris, former Omaha City Council member Brenda Council, admires the leadership qualities her friend embodies.

“I think she’s been not only a tremendous representative for her district, but for the county. She’s done a tremendous job on the County Board. Two words that describe her are — integrity and dignity. She makes decisions based on what she believes is right, but she does that after she considers everyone else’s opinion. She brings reason and rationality to her decisions. She’s just a calm-steady presence. That’s her style,” Council said.

 

 

Elected Democratic officials in Omaha today are more diverse than when Harris served

 

 

Fellow Douglas County Commissioner Clare Duda echoed Council’s observations about Harris. “Carole has a calmness and common sense unlike anybody else I’ve had the pleasure of serving with,” he said. “I can always count on her to not let politics or sensationalism cloud her vision. She’s hard-working, she does her homework and she’s well-connected in the community. She sticks to her guns when she knows what’s in the best interest for her constituents. I have just the utmost respect for her.”
Council, the first black president of the Omaha School Board and the second black to serve on the City Council, also appreciates the example Harris sets: “Carole Woods Harris is certainly someone that young people should look to as a model. She’s paved a path that others can follow.”

As one of two Democrats currently on the seven-member Douglas County Board, Harris carefully selects her battles, preferring to work quietly behind-the-scenes to forge alliances on issues she feels strongly about. “I guess I see myself more as a catalyst or facilitator. The main game that’s played” with a policy-making body like this “is counting votes and sometimes, given the makeup of the Board, it’s more helpful to work out a coalition and have someone else take the lead. If it’s most helpful for me to be out there running in front about something I care about it, I will, but often it’s better just to be a vote and to be less concerned about who gets credit for it.” Harris has been on the other side, too. When she joined the Board she was part of a Democratic majority. “You operate one way if you’re one of five versus if you’re one of two. So, you need to be flexible.”

Her lone Democratic colleague on the Board, Mike Boyle, sees Harris as a steadying influence and as a simpatico voice for the underdog. “She’s able to bring-on discussion of relatively controversial subjects without any acrimony or heated discussion, but she sure gets the point across. She gets right to the core of the problem. She’s a woman of very high standards. Her ethics are uncompromising. There are some fundamental things she believes that she will not yield on. Yet, she’s very easy to get along with. Carole and I do not always vote the same way but we do share some values, including the basic belief in the need for county government to serve its primary purpose — and that is to serve people who really need help. In many cases, we are the government of last resort.”

With 10 years on the Board, Harris, along with Duda, are the County Board’s senior Commissioners. She considers her duties “a fascinating challenge.” The best thing about it, she said, “is the good feeling you can have when you succeed at making a difference.” Among the most “frustrating” things, she said, is how hard it is to reach an accord. “I describe this Board as being like a seven-headed executive. All these executive decisions are dependent upon these seven people agreeing.” Then, there’s the intrusion it brings in her personal life. “I’m an awfully private person to have run for public office, and so the worst thing is how much you give up in privacy.” Last winter found her uncharacteristically sharing her private life when she spoke to the World-Herald about a trip to South Africa she made as part of a women’s service organization she belongs to, Links Inc., which helped build 32 schools there. Harris and fellow Links members attended dedication ceremonies for the schools and ushered in a South African Links chapter.

In South Africa she found a nation struggling to overcome an oppressive legacy of apartheid that resonates with America’s own racist legacy. In her understated way, Harris expresses some passionate views about the issue of race. She feels predominantly black northeast Omaha is still largely alienated from the majority white culture.

“I think the community is much more separated and divided than it should be,” she said. “I’ve had too many experiences where individuals who live in the western part of the community are afraid or unwilling to venture into the eastern part of the community, where I live, as though it’s a war zone. It’s not what people perceive it to be. The power structure would like to think there are no (racial) problems and in that regard I think they have a head-in-the-sand attitude. There’s been slow progress in building good relationships with the police. At times, I’ve seen that go backwards. There are some real educational challenges. There are way too many children in the disadvantaged areas of the community who’ve been allowed to fall through the cracks.”

In a positive vein, she acknowledges progress has been made on the job and housing fronts and that her own success story offers proof of that.

Not one to look back, Harris looks forward to completing her Commissioner’s term and then moving onto some new challenges. Always looking to improve herself, Harris, a graduate of leadership and management programs, an avid reader and a world traveler, may go back to college for that long-deferred degree. Whatever she does, she will doubtlessly bring her quiet strength and grace to the task.

Garry Gernandt’s Unexpected Swing Vote Wins Approval of Equal Employment Protection for LGBTs in Omaha; A Lifetime Serving Diverse Constituents Led Him to ‘We’re All in the Human Race’ Decision

March 27, 2012 4 comments

Omaha and progressive are usually not synonomous terms but a recent vote by the city council enacting equal employment protection and redress to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender residents from workplace discrimination marked a step forward in this rather conservative enclave that prefers playing it safe on controversial issues like this.  Most surprising to some was that the swing vote on the 4-3 decision approving the ordinance advanced by councilman Ben Gray was cast by Garry Gernandt, who up until the March 13 final deliberation had opposed the measure.  This piece tries to give some insight into what may have made the enigmatic military veteran and ex-cop keep an open mind and ultimately change his mind and his vote.  In an interview he says he didn’t do it so much to make Omaha a more progressive and welcoming and therefore attractive place to live and work in.  Instead, he keeps coming back to the point that it was simply the right thing to do because discrimiation in the workplace is wrong and “we’re all in the human race.”

 

 

Garry Gernandt

 

 

Garry Gernandt’s Unexpected Swing Vote Wins Approval of Equal Employment Protection for LGBTs in Omaha; A Lifetime Serving Diverse Constituents Led Him to ‘We’re All  in the Human Race’ Decision

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

After weeks of public testimony and closed door meetings on the hotly contested equal employment ordinance giving legal protection to gay and transgender residents, the Omaha City Council decided the issue March 13.

Three-term District 4 (South Omaha) representative Garry Gernandt surprised many when he reversed his position and cast the swing vote in favor. The Democrat had resisted the proposal, even broaching an amendment limiting protections to city employees, Then he withdrew the amendment and voted yes. The ordinance passed 4-3, straight down party lines. Mayor Jim Suttle signed it into law March 15. The new law took affect March 28.

As his turn to vote came Gernandt says he employed a favorite mental exercise to sort through the “dust storm of emotions” and arguments on both sides.

“I’ve trained myself to do a collage of things that go across my mind on very sensitive issues, and that’s what was happening on this one. Everything going across my mind all came back to the fact we’re all still part of the human race. That was pretty much the reasoning behind it.”

He insists “there was no arm twisting” from Suttle or party officials. “I’m telling you the bottom line on my vote on this thing is that we’re all in the human race. You don’t have to like the GLBT lifestyle, but what was before us was discrimination in the workplace based upon sexual identity and orientation.” He says giving citizens the right to file complaints with Omaha‘s Human Rights and Relations Department to seek redress for getting fired or suffering other workplace discrimination or being refused service due to their orientation “was just the right thing to do.”

“Let’s just realize that and move on,” he says, adding, “I’m sure I probably ticked off some people, and I have to live with that.”

Gernandt’s vote makes sense in the context of his life serving people. A moderate coalition-builder who shuns the spotlight, he grew up in the cultural melting pot of South O and saw yet more diversity as a U.S. Marine and career Omaha Police officer, retiring as a sergeant in 2000. He says while growing up in the 20th and Vinton Streets area his broad-minded parents encouraged him to sample the different ethnicities surrounding them.

“I think experiencing the diversity opened every corpuscle in my existence so that I became like a sponge and just soaked all these things up. I stayed open and learned.”

He says he followed the same mantra during his military and police careers, where he practiced his people and communication skills with a broad range of folks.

“I like people, I like being around people, I like helping people,” says Gernandt, who’s seen the immigrant base of South O change from European to Latin American and African.

For his first Council campaign he pledged to do a better job than incumbent Paul Koneck responding to constituent complaints and returning phone calls. “A couple very simple things I got very well-attuned to doing in the military and on the police department, where you thrive on information. You’ve got to pay attention, you’ve got to listen to people, you’ve got to get back in touch with them if they call you.

 

 

Decades of work with the Deer Park Neighborhood Association and 11 years on the Council have reinforced for him that politics is “the art of compromise.”

“If you’ve got a problem I try to get the solutions at the table and get the best possible result. If you’ve got arguing factions then let’s talk it out at a round table and see if we can come to some middle ground that everybody can live with.”

When District 2 City Councilman Ben Gray first floated the anti-bias ordinance in 2010 the debate turned ugly in the legislative chamber. Gernandt rejected it as too “thermal” to support then but he did promise to reconsider the matter should new data surface the next time.

Gernandt was turned off by the rancor two years ago.

“Both the proponents and the opponents came into the chamber barrels loaded, and in my opinion when you are that angry you should not be asking for something as far as major change,” he says.

Gernandt, often an ally of Gray’s, knew his colleague would bring the ordinance back and when he did the tenor of the deliberation was far different.

“Seventeen months went by and this thing came back to us in a more plausible, palatable way, very little emotion. Facts on both sides I think were eloquently stated. There may have been a little bit of fiction in there as well,” he says, referring to survey results purportedly showing broad support and scriptural passages offered as admonition against it.

“So I think the approach was a 180 degree turnaround from what it was.”

What turned him off this time were heavy-handed tactics by fundamentalist Christians denouncing the ordinance on moral grounds. For Gernandt this wasn’t about morality, it was about fairness, quality of life and equal protection. Period.

He expects the next hot button issue the Council will wrestle with is the police auditor. He’s opposed to it, but he’s willing to hear differing viewpoints and perhaps be swayed by another mental montage if and when it comes to a vote.

Nebraska Legislature Once Again Wrestles with the Film Tax Incentives Question; Alexander Payne and John Beasley Press the Case Home

February 18, 2012 3 comments

George Clooney in Up in the Air (some airport scenes shot at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield terminal)

 

 

Here we go again.  Nebraska media reported in mid-January that homegrown film stalwarts Alexander Payne and John Beasley appeared before the state legislature cajoling elected officials to adopt tax incentives for the film industry.  Nebraska is one of only 10 states without any film tax credits, which helps explain why so few features of any size or consequence are shot here.  Outside of Payne’s first three features made here, you can count on one two hands the number of feature-length, medium budget films shot in Nebraska since the mid-1990s.  The state actually used to see more features, TV movies, and mini-series work before because Nebraska’s right-to-work status gave it an advantage, but that advantage has been lost in the high stakes incentives market.  It’s not the first time prominent Nebraskans in Film have tried impressing upon legislators the fact that Nebraska is losing a potential income stream to other states, including neighboring states.  Three years ago Payne made obstensibly the same appeal he made four weeks ago.  Then, as now, he used his planned film Nebraska as a leverage point in telling state senators, “Gee, wouldn’t it be a shame if I had to make a film called Nebraska in Oklahoma.”  Only now he’s saying he might have to take the production to Kansas.  It’s not just politics either.  He reportedly told senators, “I’m being pressured to shoot in Kansas instead of Nebraska and I’m hard-pressed to offer resistance. What do our counterparts in Kansas see that we don’t see?”  Even conservative Kansas, he noted, has adopted a 30 percent film tax credit program, whereas he added, “We have zilch.  That goes over like a lead balloon.  We Nebraskans now enjoy sensational cultural opportunities in opera, symphony, ballet, theater and art.  Film remains the missing element.  It’s crucial to have something in place here – even something modest – or filmmaking both from outside and home-grown has no chance in Nebraska.”

Beasley laid out a similar scenario, saying that the $12.5 million film he’s developing on Omaha native son Marlin Briscoe may also shoot in Kansas instead of Nebraska for the same reasons. “The investors in question,” he said, “want to see their money to go as far as it can go.”

More or less the same cast of characters who pushed for tax credits here in 2009-2010, namely Sens. Heath Mello and Abby Cornett, are the same ones at it again. The same lobbyin group active then, the Nebraska Film Association headed by Mark Hoeger, is active again.  This time Lincoln Sen. Colby Cash is helping lead the charge in the legislature and advocate voices like Payne’s and Beasley’s are being pressed into service.  Cornett’s introduced Legislative Bill 863 to put incentives in place.  She has legislature allies in Mello, Cash, and others.  Previous efforts have not really gotten very far, presumably because the Unicameral is a highly conservative body.  This time, there seems to be more support for the proposition, no doubt due in large measure to record budget shortfalls and a lagging state economy that’s forcing lawmakers to find creative new ways to generate revenues.  How much an impact  Payne’s and Broscoe’s power plays make is anyone’s guess, but it would be awfully embarassing if Nebraska snubbed its collective nose at favorite sons like these and they ending up taking their projects to Kansas.  Why wouldn’t you do everything you can to court Payne, Beasley, and filmmakers like them in the same way the state courts Google or some other Fortune 500 company to do business here?

I wrote the following story more than two years ago, when the tax incentives push last had this kind of star power buzz behind it.  Nothing happened then in the way of credits being adopted.  I assume something will happen this time.  My story by the way was published in truncated form, and here I present it for the first time in its entirety.  The piece tries to get at why this has been such a tough nut to crack in Nebraska and lays out a vision for how it might finally happen.  It appears now as if the groundwork laid down then may be finally paying off.

 

 

Alexander Payne testifying before the Nebraska Legislature, ©photo by Chris Machian, Omaha World-Herald

 

 

Nebraska Legislature Once Again Wrestles with the Film Tax Incentives Question; Alexander Payne and John Beasley Press the Case Home

©by Leo Adam Biga

A much shorter version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Over the years Nebraska lawmakers have steadfastly refused to entertain adopting incentives for the film industry, leaving the state among only a handful not offering them.

Nebraska film incentives proponents are mounting their argument in what may be the worst possible climate for garnering political traction on the issue. That’s because many look at incentives as giveaways, not exactly what a group of mostly conservative legislators want to enact amidst a lingering recession, a mammoth deficit and the likely chilling effect of Iowa’s mismanaged, now suspended film incentives program right next door.

Incentivising other industries in Nebraska, meanwhile, is fairly common. Since going into effect in 1988, LB 775, later retooled under the Nebraska Advantage Act, has been a business incentives engine for many industries in the state. Nebraska Department of Economic Development director Richard Baier said the state targets certain industries with incentives, including Information Technology, data centers, insurance, transportation-logistics and advanced manufacturing.

Historically, lawmakers’ resistance to film incentives has centered around why filmmakers should be given special tax credits for products that are risky investments. State funding for the arts is not new, but America has a tradition of private arts funding. The murky thing with film is that it is both a business and an art. The vast majority of projects of any size are purely commercial enterprises, including feature films, documentaries, made-for-TV movies, episodic TV series, reality shows, music videos, commercials and industrials.

Then there are the micro-budget films that are so small they add little to the economy, much less stand any real chance of getting seen.

Skeptics wonder if film incentives are a revenue neutral or net gain proposition or whether states stand to lose money. The mismanagement of Iowa’s overly broad film incentives program, whose lack of restraints and oversights saw up to 50 percent in tax credits awarded some projects and some producers purchasing luxury vehicles on the state’s dime, recently led Gov. Chet Culver to suspend the program pending investigations. The Iowa fiasco illustrates states can give out more than they get back. Earlier, Michigan and Louisiana confronted their own incentives program failures that forced reviews and reorganizations, but Iowa’s problems resonate more as they’re more recent and closer to home.

Some ask why states would even put themselves in the position of being taken advantage of by film sharks. Other simply ask why shouldn’t filmmakers and their investors pay their own way and bear all their own risks.

There’s also a suggestion that a film incubator be created that coalesces film artists, crafts people, technicians and investors in a collaborative space that also provides training classes or workshops, all in the spirit of nurturing film activity.

The real debate centers around whether or not film production would generate enough economic development to justify the state offering a stimulus package. Even a leader in the pro-incentives movement here, Mark Hoeger, puts it this way: “The question is, is this a business Nebraska wants to attract here, and that’s not a simple answer.” Hoeger, a veteran Omaha filmmaker and co-president of Oberon Entertainment, heads the Nebraska Film Association. A nonprofit advocacy group formed earlier this year, the NFA includes representatives from segments with the most to gain from incentives — area producers, directors, Teamsters, et cetera.

 

 

Legislative Bill 863

©photo by Chris Machian, OWH

 

 

Under Hoeger, the NFA’s retained former Nebraska Department of Economic Development deputy officer Stu Miller to research the incentives issue. A well circulated report by Miller suggests a film tax credit formula of 20 percent will return a dollar eight cents on every dollar the state spends on incentives. He used the budgeted expenditures on Hoeger’s film, Full Ride, in devising his figures.

Proponents like Hoeger say that incentives would grow — from within and from without — the state’s nascent, somewhat scatter shot film community as it’s currently comprised into a sustainable industry.

Trouble is, no one really knows how many Nebraska residents work in film. There are some small production companies for whom filmmaking is their stock-in-trade. They range from one-person operations to minimal staffs. Rather than features, however, they produce TV commercials, industrials and documentaries. With the exception of those businesses and the documentary film units at Nebraska Educational Television and UNO Television, almost everyone that works in film in Nebraska does it as part-time, independent contractors. On film projects these freelancers fill such roles as grips, gaffers, makeup artists, costumers, set dressers, assistant directors and production assistants.

Then there are small firms that offer as an adjunct of their business film services, including casting agencies and sound recording studios.

As far as how many gainfully employed folks there are now and how many there might be, said Baier, “that’s not a number I can give you a feel for. That’s been part of our discussion with the film industry — and this is where it gets very complicated.” He said with a Pay Pal operation, for example, “you’re able to measure and quantify all of those things. In the film industry it’s much looser and much more difficult to get your arms around actual numbers.”

State Sen. Abbie Cornett, a film incentives advocate, chairs the Legislature’s Revenue Committee. She said “the film industry’s like any other industry that we incentivise in the state of Nebraska and that’s what we have to start looking at it as, as an industry, not as a one time event. We incentivised Yahoo to come here. It’s incentives, it’s giving a business reasons to locate here.” She concedes it will take “a long educational process” to cultivate the needed support for a film incentives measure to pass.

Baier said that what makes film incentives a tough sell here is that film is in fact unlike any other industry. When it comes to gauging hard economic impact, a brick and mortar call center is one thing, he said, and the traveling circus that blows into town with a film is another.

A call center has x number of employees earning salaries and wages. Those workers pay income tax and buy homes and everything else. The business pays property tax, purchases supplies, maybe invests in expansion and perhaps becomes a good corporate neighbor who gives charitably to community organizations.

The impact a film has when it comes to injecting new capital or creating jobs is debatable. That’s because there’s a wide spectrum of filmmaking in terms of budget, length of shooting schedule, cast-crew size, et cetera. Film budgets run the gamut from millions to thousands, production schedules vary from a few days to several weeks, cast-crew members number from a dozen to several dozen.

Only a portion of any budget is spent in any given locale. Payouts to on-screen talent, principal crew or department heads and to producers/directors/writers may or may not trickle to the local economy depending on where these individuals reside. Cast-crew size and the percentage of residents and nonresidents varies greatly and is a huge factor in determining how much lodging, eating, purchasing taxable dollars a film generates in-state. Even when shot principally or entirely in Nebraska, post-production aspects may be done elsewhere.

Said Baier, “The challenge with in-state crews is that many of them already have other kinds of film activities working with ad agencies and such, and so are you really creating new jobs or are you simply giving them more activity? Those are the kinds of things you would have to balance in that debate. If you’ve got somebody already doing it, should you give him an incentive to do one more project a year? That really lessens the economic benefit because from an economics perspective those folks already live here, they’re already working here, they’re already paying taxes here, all you’re doing is simply putting some icing on top of the cake.”

Payne and Beasley, ©photo by Chris Machian, OWH

 

 

All these considerations go into the incentives deliberation.

“There would have to be a lot of thought into how do we measure the long-term economic impact of the film industry to our state,” said Baier. “Are we creating jobs? Are we keeping people here? Are we raising the salaries? Are we creating capital investment and wealth in our state? We have to evaluate to make sure that we are providing an appropriate level of incentives to stimulate behavior without having a race to the bottom in terms of incentive policy from a state perspective. I would argue some of this has happened in other states, where the thinking became, Well, state x is doing this so we have to do what they’re doing, plus more, and that cycle continues until there’s no economic benefit to the state.

“And so as you look at these incentives programs there’s a real delicate balance between how do you impact behavior without giving away the store? We do that ongoing with all of our incentives and we’re very careful about how we administer our programs in Nebraska to make sure they are performance-based, which basically means we’ve gotta have jobs creation, significant capital investment, and if and only then if you do those things do you get any kind of incentive.”

Indeed, the state does recapture incentives from companies that do not meet performance goals. Those companies either forfeit or refund any incentives not earned. Some states with film inventives only cut checks to filmmakers once the project is complete and it’s been verified that the stipulated goals have been met.

The latest Nebraska legislator among a tiny but vocal contingent to take up the incentives bandwagon is District 5 representative, Sen. Heath Mello, who introduced LB 282 earlier this year with a proposed tax credit of up to 25 percent tied to Nebraska film crew hires. The bill, which didn’t reach the legislature’s floor for debate, also proposed a fiscal note or financial guarantee that is a major sticking point for opponents.

Mello, along with colleagues Cornett and Tom White, argue that incentives will equate to jobs and careers in a burgeoning industry.

Doubters express what might be termed a parochial attitude that says, Hey, this is Nebraska, who do we think we are to try and get Hollywood to come? The truth is, as incentives supporters point out, for years now states just like Nebraska, notably Iowa, have attracted scores of film projects, large and small, studio and indie, while Nebraska’s settled for the crumbs.

Cornett said, “If we do anything here we’re looking at something that would just make Nebraska competitive to draw some films here, we’re not trying to open our flood gates and say Hollwood come to Nebraska. But if you’re making a film set in Nebraska we’d sure like it to be filmed here.”

There is the occasional mid-major film by native sons: Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt); Andrew Robinson (April Showers); Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still). But their made-in-Nebraska works might be considered exceptions as these filmmakers have a special motivation to shoot here, incentives or not. There’s no question though that these artists’ indigenous projects do add to the area film culture, infrastructure and industry. Just as the Omaha Film Festival, the Nebraska Independent Film Project, the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, Film Streams and the University of Nebraska School of Theatre, Film and Television do.

Some proponents of incentives point to Omaha’s nationally prominent indie music scene as a model for the kind of industry-generating, image enhancement benefits a vibrant film scene might foster. They don’t mention that the major catalyst behind Omaha’s music indie phenomena, Saddle Creek Records, has energized things through entirely private means, without any props from tax credits.

Mark Hoeger

 

 

So why should film be treated differently than music? Proponents cite that film production costs generally far outstrip those for music and the number of artists and technicians attached to films generally exceed those on music projects. But what we’re really talking about is a feel-good, cool-quotient cultural amenity.

“Film is sexy,” said Hoeger. “Film is the kind of thing that is about glamour and excitement and all those intangible benefits that are greater than the direct economic benefits, and you know that’s not nothing. When you look at why Iowa’s justified doing what they have they saw one of their biggest challenges, as Nebraska’s is, is an aged population and trouble retaining young labor, especially talented, creative young labor.”

He said filmmaking would be another draw to keep people here and to attract new people here in the same way the Qwest Center, the new downtown ballpark, the Old Market, Lauritzen Gardens and the Henry Doorly Zoo do. It’s just that films are ephemeral things. They come, they go, the gypsies that work on them move on.

The idea of offering incentives to generate film production is nothing new. The allure of a film made in your own backyard has long been a powerful enticement. Filmmakers have long taken advantage of this vanity element to cut sweetheart deals with local-state government agencies, businesses and others eager to bask in the Hollywood limelight.

Several trends led filmmakers to ask for and get preferential treatment from state governments. Feature film production became increasingly untethered from its Hollywood base in the 1980s, in large part due to skyrocketing production costs. Filmmakers motivated to keep costs down headed to places like Canada, North Carolina and Texas, where film infrastructures took root. Once states realized the production pie was up for grabs, they began scrambling to offer more incentives. Bidding wars ensued. Together with these trends, independent cinema became the new model in the 1990s, leading to films being made wherever artists and investors could package financing and get the most bang for their buck.

The tech revolutions of cable and satellite television, VCRs, DVDs, personal computers cell phones, iPods, along with the phenomena of film festivals, social networking sites and services like Netflix, created new platforms for film/video viewing that expanded the demand for movies. A parallel revolution in home camcorders and digital editing put the tools of cinema production within the grasp of anyone, leading to an explosion in filmmaking. The age of garage films is upon us.

Even with all that, making the case for film incentives in Nebraska won’t be easy when elected officials must make hard social program cuts that affect people’s lives. On top of the budget woes, there’s the specter of Iowa’s film incentives scandal. The pro-incentives coalition acknowledges the Iowa situation hurts their chances to convince reluctant Nebraska lawmakers. Cornett called what happened in Iowa “a debacle” and “ridiculous.” “It’s going to negatively impact anything we do,” she said. “That’s something we’ll be battling.”

Hoeger and other incentives supporters believe Nebraska can learn from where Iowa and other states went wrong. One thing he and Cornett recommends is a deliberate program that ramps up slowly and carefully.

“If you’re just going to say, Here, come take whatever you want, we don’t care, then you’ll just be a sucker,” said Hoeger. “But if there’s a real strategy that says, Here’s what we’re trying to achieve and here’s what we’re willing to pay to get it, then I think it would be a smart move. Proper oversights are really important but I don’t think they’re the whole question either, although they’re an essential.

“The hope is and we shouldn’t proceed unless it’s more than a hope that you can show that we wrote a check for 20 percent  but we’re going to get back 25 percent, so you’re left with a net positive rather than a net negative out of this process. But if you can’t come up with a system that nets a return and achieves you’re objectives, then you walk away.”

He said any incentives would need to be tied to specific benchmarks, such as a minimum percentage of local crew used.

Iowa left the administration of an ever expanding and loophole-filled multi-million dollar incentives program in the hands of one overwhelmed film office employee. Nebraska Department of Economic Development director Richard Baier said Nebraska already has in place “a dedicated system” to administer incentives programs and this would be the logical mechanism to oversee film incentives.

“The Department of Revenue administers the actual auditing of our tax incentives programs for the State of Nebraska, which is great because that sort of puts a wall between what I would consider the sales team and the audit team,” he said. “Nebraska’s been very diligent and judicious about building a process in place to ensure compliance.”

Hoeger favors making any incentives program as transparent as possible, including a model like New Mexico’s that publishes on-line each film’s itemized budget.

Set of Nik Fackler’s Lovely, Still, a 2010 film shot in Omaha

 

 

Even though the Nebraska Film Office, which falls under Baier’s purview, would likely be only a liaison in the incentives process, it’s possible the office could be expanded. Presently, Lori Richards fills the film officer role on a contractural basis.

The Iowa program’s suspension has put several film projects in jeopardy or limbo, leading some producers to pull up stakes to shoot elsewhere. Nebraskans are prominently behind two of the affected projects. Writer-director-producer Steve Lustgarten’s feature My Own Blood was set to start shooting in Council Bluffs this fall when the plug was pulled on the Iowa program, forcing him to postpone the project, at least until the dust settles.

Alexander Payne is producing a film that was ready to roll when things blew up. Said Payne, “I’m involved in producing a film right now called Cedar Rapids, and where do you think that should be shooting? But its shooting in Michigan. We were all set to go in Des Moines and the incentives fell through, so we immediately high tailed it up to Michigan. There was something like a two or three million dollar difference” with Michigan incentives versus no incentives. The comedy starring Ed Helms (The Office) and John C. Reilly is directed by Miguel Arteta and is the first production of Payne’s company, Ad Hominem, which is also producing Payne’s adaptation of The Descendants, which begins shooting in February in Hawaii.

“As for my project,” said Lustgarten, “I’ll lose 100% of the funding without the Iowa deal. Will I sue? Wouldn’t want to tip my hand, though the Iowa attorney general says the state does have legal liability in regard to the contracts, so they’ll clearly be in breach.”

Incentives appear to be a Pandora’s Box that can’t be closed. They’re part of the film landscape now and all the wishful thinking or head-buried-in-the-sand grumbling will neither bring more films to Nebraska nor make incentives go away

Recently, Payne’s lent his clout to the NFA’s efforts. His public endorsement’s long been sought by advocates. This is the first time the writer-director of Sideways has participated. Where past film incentives efforts were reactionary, ad hoc blips, there’s now an ongoing apparatus to keep pressing home the message. All this made the filmmaker comfortable to put his name and his viewpoint out there.

“I think now they have a more concerted effort with a group and money behind it,” Payne said, referring to the NFA. Its president, Mark Hoeger, said the current pro-incentives camp is “by far” the most organized he’s seen it — “to the point that we’ve retained professional lobbyists to help us with getting organized and taking us through the (legislative) process.”

Payne directing Jack Nicholson on About Schmidt set in Omaha

 

 

Rich Lombardi is one of two lobbyists with Lincoln-based American Communications Group Inc. working with the NFA on what he calls “an uphill battle” in trying to persuade a majority of Nebraska legislators that film incentives are a good thing for the state. A longtime Nebraska legislature lobbyist, Lombardi said the question of film incentives “has been up and down the flag pole” before in the Unicameral and gotten nowhere. But he agrees with Hoeger that its supporters “never had this level of organization” in the past, adding they never “had a guy of Payne’s stature become like the unofficial cheerleader” for the cause.

On Oct. 12 Payne offered his perspective in meetings with Gov. Dave Heineman and other state lawmakers and policymakers. He also did a meet-and-greet with the film community at the elegant home of Thompson Rogers, a local film investor.

Admittedly “a show pony” in this effort, Payne neither exaggerates nor underestimates the value of his input. His pitch to the gov was short and sweet.

“I’m not a numbers guy, I’m not a film financier, I’m not a state economic development officer. I’m an artist,” said Payne. “So, Mark Hoeger was there to make part of the nuts and bolts case and lobbyist Rich Lombardi was also there to buttress the case and make points of his own, and I was there just to basically say two things:  ‘I make films in Nebraska, my next film after my Hawaii film is called Nebraska and I’m already getting pressured not to shoot it in Nebraska because there are no incentives here, and I would hate to have to retitle that film Iowa or Missouri or Kansas.”

Predictably, Nebraska incentives backers got a cool reception from Heineman, a fiscal conservative facing a huge state budget deficit in a tough economic climate.

“The governor has a lot on his plate and did not seem very interested at this point in pursuing it because it involves a certain degree of out of pocket expenses with the promise of some returned revenue in the future,” said Payne. “He just now can’t seem to justify anything out of pocket. But I’m confident and hopeful that he’ll start to understand more and not just the economic but the cultural benefits of doing such a thing.”

Payne said his argument for incentives is the same whoever he’s talking to.

“Look, I’m just there to say, I don’t know all the numbers but we have on our hands in Omaha, Neb. a blossoming cultural capital. It’s a world class city in miniature and fomenting film culture through such an act would be a super cool thing to do. I mean, the governor tends to look at just the numbers, which is his prerogative, but there are a whole host of cultural benefits to be had by doing such a thing. Sideways continues to unfurl millions of dollars into Santa Barbara county tourism. Granted that’s a very, very special case, but the economic benefits were not quantifiable at the time and they’ve been kind of infinite since then.”

Others use as examples Northern Exposure, Dances with Wolves, Field of Dreams and The Bridges of Madison County as shooting sites whose iconic locations have become popular tourist sites in states not generally thought of as meccas.

Hoeger said film “is the forum in which the world finds out who you are.” The inestimatable value of a state’s name or landmarks being featured in a film is something Stu Miller is trying to attach an advertising dollar equivalent to. Cornett calls it “a ripple effect.”

It should be noted Payne also got pressure not to shoot in Nebraska on his first three features but each time he managed to get his way. The state’s lack of financial incentives didn’t prevent those projects from being made here but he said a more competitive environment to attract the film industry has changed all the rules, and that’s another reason for him now speaking out.

“Yeah, it was different then, there weren’t that many (incentives programs). One of the only reasons I got to shoot Citizen Ruth here back in ‘95 was that it was a right to work state. That was the goal back then, there weren’t as many states with tax incentives back then, so back then you would think about Texas and North Carolina, they were states with some crew base where also you could shoot nonunion. Then it changed in the last eight years or so with these incentive programs that caught on.”

Hoeger conceded even without incentives Nebraska still “has some advantages and they’re some significant ones. For example, permits is a huge thing and Nebraska, permit-wise, scores highly. It’s very easy to get permission to shoot almost anywhere except Memorial Stadium. Even working with the highway patrol to close stretches of road or shooting in public places, you get a lot of cooperation.”

But, Hoeger added, “you can get a lot of that in places like Oklahoma and Iowa and get incentives, too, so if Nebraska wants to be in this game then it needs to do something, and if it doesn’t, if we cant put together a package that makes sense, then who cares, we just won’t have films get made here.” He said his own company, Oberon, is close to securing financing on two features, neither of which will be made here, in part because of a lack of incentives.

The fact is, films do continue to get made here. It’s just a question of how much is enough to stimulate something like a sustainable industry. Hoeger said where Payne “was able to get his Nebraska projects through on the labor part of it,” via largely nonunion shoots that kept the price down,” the trouble is now that, for better or worse, the incentives world has gotten so much more competitive that those advantages alone can’t get you over the hump.”

That’s not to say Payne still won’t or can’t make Nebraska here sans incentives. If he held out to shoot here, chances are someone with his standing — he’s an Oscar-winner, a critical darling and, most compellingly, a proven moneymaker — would get his way. He’s one of only a few filmmakers to enjoy final cut privileges.

It’s also important to note that in addition to or in lieu of tax credits, filmmakers use other ways to hold down costs, including getting talent to work for scale, eliminating perks and devising ultra tight shooting schedules. Also, producers routinely negotiate deals, such as reduced group rates at motels for cast-crew and volume discounts on transportation-equipment rental, supply purchases, catering services and other budget items.

But these are relatively nickel and dime considerations in comparison with the large savings, rebates, exemptions, even equity stakes, that filmmakers seek and get from taxpayer-fed, government-run incentives programs.

“There’s a lot of ways to bring the film industry here besides giving money and those I’m particularly researching,” said Cornett.

If and when Nebraska decides to enter the film incentives world, observers say you can expect a moderate, play-it-safe program that focuses on homegrown projects.

North Omaha Champion Frank Brown Fights the Good Fight

January 15, 2012 14 comments

I did this profile of then-Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown in 2004 for The Reader (www.thereader.com) at a time when he was entrenched in his elected position though a frequent target of controversy.  As the representative for the largely African-American District 2, a long economically depressed district with a myriad of challenges facing it, he saw himself cut from the same cloth as his idol, Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers.  As with any politician or public figure, some people liked him, some people didn’t.  Some thought he was doing an effective job focusing attention and resources on his district, some thought he wasn’t doing enough.  He had his loyal supporters and he had his outspoken detractors.  He was the third in a short line of black District 2 council members who were elected to office after Chambers got district elections instituted.  The first was Fred Conley.  Then came Brenda Council, who narrowly lost a mayoral bid.  For a time, it appeared Brown was untouchable in his seat on the council.  The former television reporter then faced a serious challenge in 2009 when another television professional, veteran photojournalist and public affairs host Ben Gray, took him on and squeaked out a win.  Brown went on to a position with an offshoot of the Omaha Housing Authority but was later forced to resign and now I’m not sure what he’s doing, though he remains a voice an dpresence in the community as host of his own public access TV show.

This blog features many of my stories about North Omaha and various African-American figures and institutions here, including a profile of Ben Gray.  In the coming months you can expect to see an extensive story on Ernie Chambers, the subject of a forthcoming biography by Tekla Johnson.

Frank Brown


 

North Omaha Champion Frank Brown Fights the Good Fight

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Given its predominantly African-American demographics, any black elected representative from northeast Omaha is naturally expected to carry the torch of the civil rights struggle in addressing inner city and minority issues. Those historically consistent issues run the gamut from inadequate housing to high unemployment to poor health care to unequal representation to depressed living conditions to alleged police abuse. Since the mid-1960s State Sen. Ernie Chambers has been the one constant if often strident voice among state lawmakers about the plight of north Omaha’s disadvantaged residents. Other politicos have paid lip service or given short thrift to the needs and problems confronting the community, not surprising since until the start of district elections in 1981, which Chambers fought for, Omaha had no black City Council members.

Since district elections began, northeast Omaha’s District 2 has had three black City Council representatives. Fred Conley, an affable businessman, and Brenda Council, an astute attorney, may have raised the profile of District 2 challenges but neither was considered the firebrand crusader many envisioned when district elections were instituted. Instead, the two were viewed as bland coalition builders with moderate agendas that steered away from controversy and confrontation.

By contrast, current office holder Frank Brown, a former television news reporter, is seen as a different breed. Observers say Brown, a council member since 1997seems unafraid to articulate the root causes of northeast Omaha’s problems and to challenge public and private leaders in seeking drastic remedies to longstanding ills.

In addition to his Council position, he serves on the Omaha Housing Authority and police union boards. A Democrat, he has been a driving force on several issues: the installation of an independent public safety auditor in the wake of several police shootings that raised the black community’s ire; speeding-up work on the long delayed sewer separation project to alleviate chronic street-house flooding from north Omaha’s antiquated sewer system; and bringing Old Omaha’s widespread lead contamination problem to the forefront and making its cleanup a priority.

Known for his tenacity, he’s pushed hard recently for more accountability by the quasi-public MECA board. While his attempt to require mandatory minority representation on that and similar boards failed, his insistence that MECA leaders disclose previously unnanounced salary bonuses succeeded, despite or because of his ruffling some feathers. MECA board member and former Mayor Hal Daub, with whom Brown had his share of battles, said, “I really have nothing to say about Councilman Brown, and you can quote me on that.” 

Brown’s adamant call for full disclosure by MECA, which had board members bristling, is characteristic of his probing approach. “He can be pretty forceful when it comes to items that are especially meaningful to him,” said District 7 Councilman Chuck Sigerson, Jr. “He has a no-holds-barred style of asking questions, and that can be very beneficial and that can also put people on the spot, and sometimes people take it wrong. He doesn’t like to let people try and evade the questions…and if someone wants to stonewall him, they’re going to get re-asked the questions even more forcefully…”

Perhaps his most public victory — the public safety auditor — is proving a major frustration. Since being formed in 2001, support for it has withered among a majority of council members who contend it’s made little impact. In the city budget battle Brown fought to keep the auditor position alive. When the Council submitted a budget to Mayor Mike Fahey calling for its elimination, Fahey vetoed the measure, but a subsequent 5 to 4 Council vote overrode the veto.

Brown, who echoes north Omaha sentiment that the oversight of an independent auditor is needed as a safeguard against potential police abuse, feels criticism of the auditor’s effectiveness is unfair because the office is woefully under funded and staffed. “The auditor is limited. Her hands are tied. And that’s unfortunate,” he said. “My colleagues won’t give her the people and resources she needs to conduct investigations, so it’s doomed to fail. I say, Give her a chance because what have you got to lose? We pour millions into Rosenblatt Stadium, which is projected to lose $1 million a year, but it’s not OK to pay $250,000 for an auditor? There’s got to be give and take on both sides.”

The auditor’s current $150,000 budget has been supported the past two years by private funds. Despite the City Council’s recent vote to ax the position, Mayor Fahey has pledged he will find outside funding to keep it running.

With his bold, outspoken approach, Brown is viewed much closer in philosophy, rhetoric and practice to the aggressive, volatile Chambers than to the more placid Conley and Council. “Frank has a kind of persistence and political savvy his predecessors did not approach,” said the Rev. Everett Reynolds, president of the local NAACP. “Here’s a guy that’s helping the cause and, I would say, responding with much more gusto on behalf of minority, disenfranchised and poor folks. I don’t know that his predecessors dealt with critical issues as Frank has done. He faces the issues. He went some rounds with then Mayor Hal Daub in trying to get the city to deal with the sewers. His dealing with police-community relations stands out.” Rev. Larry Menyweather-Woods, a UNO Black Studies professor and retired pastor of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, said, “He’s been quite a significant player in trying to bring back to life the near north side. And there are certain issues — I’m talking about social justice and things of that nature — where Frank has been a leader. He’s been right out there.”

 

 

Pressing the issue doesn’t guarantee victory. Brown is still at a loss for why his minority representation proposal was defeated but implies racism is at the core of the opposition. “Why are people afraid of diversity? I don’t know. People will accept money from women, minorities and poor folks, but when it comes to sitting at the same table they say no,” he said.

Brown’s hard-nosed reporting background may explain his unrelenting style. “Those of us that knew Frank when he was a reporter know that he has not changed much. He still has a very dogged approach in trying to get to the truth of issues,” said Omaha police officer Marlin McClarty, president of the Brothers of the Midwest Guardians, a black police association.  

Brown’s news career also gave him a ringside seat into the political process. “I watched what works and what doesn’t work and what to say and what not to say,” Brown said. “His experience was invaluable,” said the NAACP’s Reynolds. “Even though it was his first time in public office he had watched others perform, which was a tremendous asset for him. All his years in the news business gathering information, talking to people and working with people, taught him how to sift through that which is authentic from that which is not.”

As a trained journalist, Brown holds the news media to a high standard. He’s been known to chew out reporters and editors when he feels they’ve distorted his stance or somehow failed to measure up in his eyes. “It really hurts me to see when something as near and dear to me like reporting is not fair,” he said. 

He knocks the local news media for portraying his relationship with Councilman Franklin Thompson, the black Democrat from largely white District 6, as contentious. For his part, Brown said he has no enmity for Thompson. “I’m not at loggerheads with the guy at all. We may have some different views, but that’s not even a blip on my radar screen. The news media makes more of a perceived controversy than there really is. I’m not sitting at home saying, I bested Franklin Thompson today…I’m not even keeping a scorecard.”

The two most recently sparred over the naming of a walkway, with Thompson favoring Omaha’s Heisman Trophy heritage and Brown, who won, advocating Martin Luther King’s legacy. Brown faulted the Omaha World-Herald’s take on the so-called walkway “flap,” saying, “It wasn’t a flap at all, yet people were calling me at home saying the World-Herald reporter just had interviewed them and asked a bunch of negative questions and the first one was, ‘Why is Frank Brown doing this to Franklin Thompson?’ If I want to create a negative story, I’ll ask negative questions. Then, when I see an editorial cartoon in the paper that is tied to the ‘controversy,’ I know it’s a full-court press against me. People’s hatred comes out. They say, Oh, that Frank Brown is just all over the place and he hates white people, and they have no idea what’s in my heart and soul. If this is the tone the paper is taking, what else am I supposed to think?”  

Brown said his sometimes stormy relationship with the media has mellowed somewhat. “Oh, it’s still lumpy at times,” he said, “but it’s different now than what it was. They’ll come after me no matter what, and if I say something goofy I deserve it, but all I want is balance and fairness.” 

One thing he feels can’t be questioned is his dedication to north Omaha, where he grew up and still resides. However, he’s the first to say he cannot impact all the quandaries facing his district and minorities at large. To date, he’s won and lost his share of battles but even when a measure he backs is defeated or a motion he opposes is approved, his supporters admire the tenacity he shows in going down swinging.

“I feel Frank is willing to put himself out there — on the spot — for what he feels is right,” said Midwest Guardians president Marlin McClarty.

“You know, I try and fight the good fight,” said Brown, who knows well where northeast Omaha stands. “It’s neglected. It’s been neglected,” he said of his district. “The way government looks at impoverished areas is they blame the blight on the people who live there. They criticize north Omaha but what does government do — the government puts all the public housing projects practically…in one district. They place social service programs in one area. So, they create a poor district and they tell people, Well, you should lift yourself up by the bootstraps and join us. Well, how can you do that when you can’t achieve? I mean, you can, but when you remove people from Logan-Fontenelle (a large housing project razed in recent years) and you don’t improve the surrounding area where people live, than what expectations can you have? You’ve got to create a positive environment.”

Long regarded as the other side of the tracks, the northeast district lost whatever economic-political clout it had in the wake of two events. The late 1960s riots there caused property damage and engendered a perception of fear that drove out many business owners and residents. Perhaps even more disruptive, the North Freeway construction in the 1970s razed hundreds of homes, in the process driving out many more residents, and imposed a daunting physical-psychological barrier that drove a wedge through the heart of a formerly unified community.

“The North Freeway dispersed families and divided the area,” Brown said, “and we still haven’t recovered from it. It took out thousands of residents. How do you recover from that? It’s a slow process. Government doesn’t think about long term effects to a viable area.”

 

 

 Some of North Omaha’s desolation

 

The loss of people, spending power and cohesion led to the decline of North 24th Street, the traditional cultural-commercial strip that coursed with pedestrian-vehicular traffic day and night. As people moved out, businesses closed and pockets of blight took hold in the form of abandoned structures and vacant lots. Brown said if the area is to be made attractive again to investors, more households and amenities need to be in place. He feels the only way to attract more home buyers and business owners is to increase the stock of quality affordable houses, increase the pool of decent indigenous jobs and spruce up the community.

“Businesses will not come into north Omaha unless there are more rooftops and consumers and workers. That’s just basic economics,” he said. “People in the area want to work, but the lack of transportation is a major issue. If you don’t have jobs and businesses in the area, than how can people go to work in the first place?”

Thirty years or more have passed since the district’s decline took root and not a single comprehensive plan has surfaced to address the situation. Brown has no plan either, but he sees a need for one in an area that to date has seen sporadic redevelopment in isolated commercial-residential federal block grant-funded projects. Any assurances being made by city flaks and community leaders about the burgeoning riverfront development sparking a northeast Omaha revival is met with extreme skepticism by Brown, who demands proof he’s yet to see.

“Everyone’s waiting and waiting and waiting, but how long will we wait? I’d like them to show me how the future’s bright. I want someone to point out to me how the area northwest of the arena-convention center is improving because of the development going on. Has anyone shown you where it’s improved? The truth is there never was a plan to improve northwest of the riverfront development. There should have been a massive plan and time schedules and dollars.”

That is not to say no progress has been made. New housing developments, community centers and commercial properties have sprung up in recent years in a variety of neighborhoods that heretofore saw little change for decades. There is the Fontenelle View town home project just west of the intersection of Fontenelle Boulevard and Ames Avenue. The latest project, Miami Heights, is a 24-block mixed residential-commercial development going up in the Salem Baptist Church neighborhood. A number of southern style-soul food restaurants have opened along North 16th Street and surrounding areas. But until an overarching initiative is in place that ties various redevelopment efforts into a grand, sweeping design, Brown suspects many areas in need of revitalization will remain untouched because they fall outside any targeted development zone.

“Even if there was such a plan…the dollars were never there to complete it. Somehow or other we’ve got to thread the needle and bring these efforts together,” he said. To pull it off, he said, government entities and private investors need to collaborate. “It’s always been left up to government, but it’s also going to take private investors to take a look at the area and say, We’re going to make a commitment there. They should not be afraid of the poor people in the area because they’re great people and they’ll work. They just need a chance.”

Last year, Brown initiated a project in the heart of his district that he hopes spurs more urban renewal. Now under construction, the North Omaha Love’s Jazz Cultural Arts and Humanities Complex is slated to be a multi-use resource center promoting the richness of black culture — past and present — via arts appreciation, education and performance. The site of the complex, 24th and Lake, is significant as it sits in the hub of a once booming cultural scene that featured many clubs and bars, including the storied Dreamland Ballroom, where such black music greats as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Cab Calloway and Nat King Cole performed. The area is where Omaha’s own jazz and blues legend, Preston Love, for whom the complex is named, got his start. The strip is also where Brown’s late father co-owned and operated the popular M & M Lounge, a jumping joint for night owls and the first African-American owned bar in the state.

picture disc.
Precious Moore, right, with her mother, Yvonne Moore and Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown.

“Can North 24th Street revitalize itself? I can only hope so and I’m doing everything I can. The jazz center is a start. A lot of things have got to happen,” said Brown, who wants to see the community add to its popular Native Omaha Days homecoming celebration with an annual black expo patterned after one in Indianapolis.

His own attempts selling investors on North O have so far proven fruitless. “I’m constantly talking to businesses asking them to move in. I’ve brought developers into the area. They like what’s going on but they still roll up their plans and go home.” He said the area suffers from the lingering impression of being crime-ridden and, the assumption goes, unsafe to do business in. “There’s that perception, yes, but I think businesses that have been there and some new businesses that have moved in know that’s not the case. And that’s why I always ask developers to just give it a try here and to just work with me. But there is that perception.”
Chambers, now Brown’s vocal champion and powerful ally, came out against Brown when he ran for City Council in 1997. “I opposed him when he first ran because he had done a lot of reporting on the police and I thought that made him too close to them. He was also with that Jimmy Wilson Foundation (as executive director), and I thought that would skew his view,” he said. “But as he entered onto his work as a Councilman I developed a tremendous amount of respect for his knowledge, his integrity, his ability to work with others and, first and foremost, his skillful use of all those things to get things done. He shocked me.”

A longtime admirer of Chambers, who along with former State Sen. Gene Mahoney he regards as his political idols, Brown went to Chambers early on for advice.

“Oh, I remember it vividly,” Brown said, “and I took everything he said to heart, especially his comments about knowing the rules and reading everything, and I try and do that every day. You’ve got to read everything. Some things will pass by your desk and if you don’t pick it up and read it, it could affect a project in such a way that when you vote for it it will really hurt your district or the city. There’s so many nuances, twists and turns that you just have to read it and understand it.”

 

 

Ernie Chambers

 

 

The reservations Chambers had about Brown’s cozy relationship with the police and city hall were understandable, Brown said, and have “been a driving force to make me try and do some things to prove there was more to me than that.”

As the black community’s most visible torch bearer, Brown feels pressure doing the right thing for a constituency in great need and with little voice. No one agenda can take up his focus without him being accused of favoritism. “This is a lonely job,” he said. “It’s been a hot seat from day one and it gets hotter every day.”

From the start, Brown has put in long hours as a Councilman and he bristles at the notion he stretches what’s really a part-time job into a full-time gig. “I knew going into this there was a tremendous amount of issues in my district and that’s why I made the decision to put in 8 to 10 hours a day here down at city hall. I think you have to. Besides, my salary is probably higher than 50 percent of households in my family and so it would bother me to…work part-time for that amount.” Then there is his old-school attitude. “My dad was a great influence on me because he instilled my strong work ethic. He never missed a day of work and I’ve probably only missed two days of work my entire life. I’m down here reading and reading and reading…taking phone calls and meetings…and not taking vacations.”

Brown, who’s single, said being consumed by his work has extracted “a price. The job and the daily grind have taken their toll on me.” In holding an office many say is his for as long as he wants it, he said there is a danger of taking things for granted. “I’m going to be honest — it creeps into your mind, but you can’t think that way because if you let that distraction become a daily event then you become lax.” Politics can be an isolating experience. When everyone seemingly curries your favor, who can you trust? He’s recently lost some of his closet, most trusted advisors. “I lost a good friend of mine and then my father passed away. And then I lost my best friend, Vernon Breakfield. He was a person I would go to to bounce everything off of and he was brutally honest with me.”

Noncommittal as to how much longer he may want to serve on the City Council or what other political office he may seek, Brown said whatever he does “I’ll always have a fire to help people that’s burning inside me. Hopefully, I’ll be here for as long as people want me but if not the person that replaces me will have a big footprint to fill and will have to try to achieve a lot, and I think that’s good.”

“He’s done it in a way that pleases me and sets a very high standard and an example for anybody that will follow him,” Chambers said. “But I hope he stays there until at least I die.”

Cuba’s Illogical Temple the Subject of a Student Academy Award-Winning Film

January 14, 2012 2 comments

A fine Student Academy Award-winning documentary made several years ago by University of Nebraska-Lincoln students, Cuba: The Illogical Temple, is the focus of this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  If you get a chance to see the film on your local educational television or public access channels, I highly recommend it.

 

 

 

 

Cuba’s Illogical Temple the Subject of a Student Academy Award-Winning Film

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The illogical nature of Cuba is explored in a Student Academy Award-winning documentary made by area student journalists whose reporting odyssey there reveals a people in love with their country despite its oppression. The risk of practicing independent journalism in Cuba is dramatically discovered by the students, who find some sources are government spies and one reporter profiled is among many dissidents later jailed.

The documentary is the result of an ambitious in-depth reporting project that sent about a dozen University of Nebraska-Lincoln student journalists to Miami and Cuba last year. The film offers a micro-macro view of the small island nation that’s loomed so large in U.S. politics and in Cuban exiles’ hearts and minds. The reporting team conducted more than 180 interviews with a cross-section of laborers, journalists, politicos and business leaders for the honored film, Cuba: The Illogical Temple, and a Pulitzer-nominated magazine, Cuba: An Elusive Truth. The film also won the national Eric Sevareid Award.

The film is the first UNL entry to win an award in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ national competition. The hour-long film by Lindsey (Kealy) Gill and David Pittock is a complex meditation on the rich dichotomy of the last Communist hold-out in the Western Hemisphere. About the award-winning film, Gill said, “I guess I’m most proud of the sheer magnitude of what we took on in reporting on such an amazing, strange country.” She and Pittock were in the Los Angeles area last week for film industry-related activities culminating in the Student Oscar ceremonies on Sunday, June 13 at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. That night, the pair learned their film won a bronze medal in the documentary category and a corresponding cash prize of $2,000. The silver and gold medals (with cash prizes of $3,000 and $5,000) went to filmmakers from the University of California-Berkeley.

An award can create buzz in the industry. Already, such major film companies as Lion’s Gate and First Run Features have expressed interest in seeing the film. Gill and Pittock hope it’s selected to play a major festival, where it could get picked up for theatrical/video release. Some PBS stations have already acquired it.

As the Cuba project’s only broadcast majors, Gill and Pittock were its designated filmmakers. They collaborated in producing, directing, shooting, editing and writing the film. Gill, a UNL grad, is now a KMTV Channel 3 associate news producer, while UNL grad student Pittock is finishing up his master’s. Both want filmmaking in their future. “Travel the world and make documentaries. That would probably be my dream job. I love the fact it combines filmmaking and journalism,” Gill said.

“This experience makes me want to do more. To see the world and to document people, their lives and their personal stories. I would love to work on a narrative film. It’s opened up a lot of doors,” Pittock said.

The film explores Cuba from many perspectives, including that of rank and file Cuban nationals and government officials, Cuban exiles, U.S. officials and the students themselves. For most of the students, who studied the country’s history and culture prior to the trip, this was their first time in a nation with a state controlled media and where the penalty for crossing the party line can be grave.

The oppressive Castro regime is an ever-present character in the film. The high risk run by reporters daring to tell the truth is personally brought home when one of two independent journalists profiled turns out to be a spy. Upon their return home, the students discover the man posing as a journalist works for the government and is responsible for denouncing the other reporter as part of a large roundup of dissidents that occured after the UNL group left. The reporter who was betrayed by his supposed colleague is now serving a jail term of 20-plus years.

“That came as a huge shock,” said Gill. “It was appalling. Heartbreaking really, because the journalist now imprisoned was such a nice man. We were in his home. When we see people like him being persecuted for what we do on a daily basis, it’s sad. We take our freedom of speech so much for granted here.” Fellow student journalist Jill Zeman says in the film, “It was always in the back of my mind…if I use this person’s name or face, they could be thrown in jail. For once, I could see how my journalism would affect one person’s life. That’s a lot of pressure to have.”

Following their return, the students also uncover they were targets of Cuba’s insidious disinformation-agitprop campaign. Gill says in the film, “We thought we were getting the truth in Cuba and most of the time we did, but it was frustrating when we got back and found out that some people had outright lied to us. Even government officials. We knew the higher up government officials were feeding us a line. They told us a lot of the things they probably thought we wanted to hear.”

Much of the film focuses on Cuba’s stark contrasts. In one sequence, Cuban exile Felix Dominguez, now living in Norfolk, Neb., tells of the harrowing journey he made by boat in fleeing dictatorship for democracy. He saw many others who did not make it. His story is contrasted with that of his daughter, Jenny, whom he left behind. Now a single mother, Jenny lives in relative Havana squalor but fiercely defends her nation and lauds the free education and health care it provides. However, the film asserts nothing is really free in Cuba, where wages are so low that nearly everybody works scama, hustles or the black market on the side.

Despite crushing poverty, strict food rationing and pervasive material shortages made worse by the long-standing U.S. trade embargo, the film shows Cubans’ spirit and passion in their celebrations, warmth and wry wit. Then there’s the hypocrisy of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro criticizing the inequities of capitalism while welcoming North American-European tourist trade whose dollars create a cruel class system of tourist and non-tourist workers.

Everyday Cubans are seen and heard guardedly telling American visitors the harsh facts of life. The face of a disenchanted government worker is blurred to protect his identity. The palpable fear of speaking one’s mind is embodied in one man who, looking into the camera, says in hushed tones, “Your tourist guide was right behind you. Maybe I’m telling you things he don’t want you to know.”

The “guide” is among the functionaries assigned the Americans in restricting them to the official red carpet itinerary, complete with its press conferences and photo ops. Despite pressures to tow the line, Pittock says he and others managed to “go off and do our own thing” — interviewing people in the streets or in private homes.

The comments of an artist identified only as Gregorio inspire the film’s title and theme. “Cuba is an illogical temple,” he says. “You have to be Cuban to see it. It doesn’t make any sense, but I love my country.” Project participant Matthew Hansen, now a Lincoln Journal-Star reporter, says in the film that to grasp Cuba is “to be able to see the illogical temple. Things can be bad in a place… poor…its people oppressed. But that guy Gregorio still loved Cuba. He didn’t want to leave. He wouldn’t leave. In a sense, that’s illogical. Well, it’s not supposed to make sense. It’s about something deeper than logic or reason. It’s about loving Cuba.”

Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop, One Woman’s Remarkable Journey in the Free Soviet Jewry Movement

September 5, 2011 Leave a comment

In this extended, two-part Jewish Press story, I tell the remarkable journey of Omahan Shirley Goldstein in the Free Soviet Jewry movement and how this historic campaign changed her life and is remembered today. In Part One: The Education of Shirley Goldstein, the story of how this “typical” housewife became politicized and educated in the movement is explored. In, Part II: Activist, Humanitarian, Philanthropist, discover the lengths Goldstein went to in her human rights activist work and the generosity displayed, then and now, by her and her husband, Leonard “Buddy” Goldstein.

 

Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop, One Woman’s Remarkable Journey in the Free Soviet Jewry Movement

Part I: The Education of Shirley Goldstein

©by Leo Adam Biga


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Housewives and Students and…
They were housewives and students and teachers…They called America and many other Western nations home. Galvanized by the plight of Soviet Jews, this army of everyday citizens, together with activists inside the former Soviet Union, formed a grassroots human rights movement that began modestly enough but grew in force. Activists within the movement wanted nothing less than to make the USSR stop its systematic persecution of oppressed minorities. What made the task so daunting is that the target of this action was an authoritarian super power engaged in an ideological Cold War with the West. Nothing suggested this intractable juggernaut would ever bend.

But bend it did. Some say the freedom movement even contributed to the Soviet state’s eventual collapse. It’s one of the great triumphs over tyranny in human history. And Omaha’s own Shirley Goldstein played a part in this epoch. But she could only do it after she transformed herself from causalobserver to in-the-trenches activist. In a remarkable journey, she went from zero political involvement to fervent militant. Once caught up in themovement, she devoted much of her time to it, as she has to other causes since then. The experience changed her life.

“It opened up a whole new world,” Goldstein said.

Her diverse work on behalf of Soviet Jews found her, variously: meeting refuseniks and dissidents in Russian apartments or hotel suites; lobbying U.S. government leaders back home to voice criticism of Soviet human rights violations; discussing conditions and strategies with world statesmen and fellow activists at conferences in Washington, D.C. and overseas; and picketing on the streets, almost anywhere, the latest Soviet transgressions.

She saw and did so many things in the course of her involvement that her story provides a useful insider’s look at how the movement evolved and operated.

Like many who got involved in the fight, she found in it a higher purpose. As she put it recently, “What does one do with their life?” Serving others became a calling. “And I’ve loved every minute of it,” she said.

Her politicalization and activism mirrored that of others who came to the cause.

“Shirley was typical of the middle class women who normally would not take any part in politics as such. They were really concerned to do something to help the Soviet Jews. They felt it very deeply. I have a great deal of admiration for Shirley Goldstein. She was a leading light for giving morale and financial assistance to refuseniks and for helping them get out, and she did a great deal for those who managed to get out to resettle in Nebraska,” said Michael Sherbourne, a London-based activist who fed Goldstein information from his contacts in the Soviet Union.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Place to Be a Jew
Life behind the Iron Curtain was harsh for the mainstream populace, but even more intolerable for racial, ethnic and religious minorities. Long the target of anti-Semitic pogroms and policies, Soviet Jews were routinely denied such basic rights as the practice of their faith, employment in certain jobs, free travel within the country and emigration outside the USSR. An internal passport all Soviets carried was used to target Jews, whose documents, and whose documents alone, denoted their religion. Jews and sympathizers protesting such discriminatory practices could be arrested, interrogated, harassed or imprisoned.

By the mid-1960s the pleas of a few Jewish dissidents were heard — enough to coalesce the Free Soviet Jewry Movement. But much of the world remained unaware of or apathetic to just how bad things were and just how many Jews wanted out. Compared to the trickle allowed to leave each year, millions more wished to go but were refused. Once a visa was denied, the applicant was branded and blacklisted. Refuseniks automatically lost their jobs and what few privileges they enjoyed. Even more than before, they became outcasts in their own society.

From the mid-’60s through the early ‘90s, the movement — both within the Soviet Union and outside it — forged ahead despite political setbacks. Free Soviet Jewry committees organized. Under Goldstein’s leadership, Omaha had a particularly active one. Agitators like her from the West, both Jews and non-Jews, made pilgrimages to the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks and dissidents and activists. She and other Western visitors smuggled in banned materials, such as Judaica, along with items like Levi jeans and Marlboro cigarettes, which brought much on the black market. They also made audio recordings of individuals, whose messages — testifying to the tough conditions and rallying support for freedom — were snuck out and then disseminated to Western media outlets.

Defying initial opposition from the Jewish establishment and the Israeli government and flying in the face of official U.S.-Soviet diplomatic channels, the campaign eventually gained widespread support. The pressure applied by the campaign and by detente succeeded in doing exactly what it set out to. Faced with sanctions and growing world condemnations, the stubborn Soviets finally ended reprisals and eased restrictions. The sweeping changes ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev under Glasnost and the eventual dissolvement of the Soviet state, opened the borders for a flood of people to legally emigrate. In the end, 1.5 million Jews left, most for the U.S. and Israel. Some 200 families resettled in Omaha.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Becoming an Activist
Shirley Goldstein (formerly Gershun) seemed an unlikely candidate to make history. The Council Bluffs, Iowa native did part of her growing up in Schuyler, Neb., where her family moved, before returning to the Bluffs to complete her schooling. Upon graduation from Abraham Lincoln High School she did what any good Jewish girl did then — she worked (at the Martin bomber plant),  got married, bore kids (four) and stayed home raising them. Her husband, Leonard “Buddy” Goldstein, had his own transportation business.

An “ordinary” housewife, mother and grandmother, she only became politicized in middle-age. It was the early ‘70s when the Free Soviet Jewry movement overtook her and she morphed into an impassioned advocate. There was a precedent in her past. Her merchant father, Ben Gershun, led the Council Bluffs resettlement of Jewish refugees from post-World War II Europe. She recalls refugees at his general store and at her parents’ home. Much like she’s embraced diversity in her own home, her family’s home was “always open to everybody.”

She feels she may also have been prepared for her activist role by the many years she and Buddy hosted international students and dignitaries, many from Asia, at their place. The couple even sponsored a Cambodian refugee family. She said, “I’ve always been interested in other peoples and cultures.”

Not content with merely educating herself on the subject, she went to the USSR seven times, meeting with leaders and rank and file Jews alike. She took chances, brazenly ignoring U.S. State Department warnings and Soviet orders to steer clear of “troublemakers.” Indeed, she became a familiar figure to refuseniks in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Odessa and other cities. A benevolent angel from the West bearing contraband gifts. A tiny rebel with the brass of a cat burglar. She recorded testimonies and snapped pictures, concealing cassette tapes and film cartridges under her clothes. She sneaked things in and out with a kind of mischievous glee. A true believer unafraid to upset the Politburo or defy the KGB, who knew of her and tried discouraging her, she carried on anyway. She was on a mission.

“The world had to know what was happening. It was a priority. I would have rather done this than anything else,” she said.

As her involvement deepened, she made more contacts and increased the scope of her activities. She organized Omaha’s Free Soviet Jewry Committee and served on the board of the national Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. She led demonstrations (including ones outside the Orpheum Theatre and Joslyn Art Museum, using the appearances of Russian performing artists as the pretext or stage to protest Soviet policies), she walked in marches and she participated in vigils. She called on members of Congress. She attended meetings in Washington, D.C. and in Madrid, Spain (for the Helsinki Accords). She raised awareness and funds.

When not educating elected leaders herself, she recruited new blood, such as the late Ally Milder, to do so. In her role as an aide to U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (D-Iowa), Milder brought him on board with the movement. Goldstein also spearheaded letter writing campaigns that sent morale-boosting notes to refuseniks and that made appeals for support to public officials. She organized relief drives that collected goods and shipped them to families in the USSR.

“In the big picture of the Soviet Jewry movement, Shirley was a really great foot soldier and the leaders knew that,” said former Omahan Stephanie Howard (Seldin), co-producer of Let My People Go, a new documentary on the movement. “Shirley’s is a great story because she rallied a whole Jewish community and they did great things, and they’re recognized for it. You talk to people in New York or San Francisco or Chicago who were in the movement and everybody knows Shirley.”

Goldstein never strayed from the fight. When Soviet Jews began coming, she picked up the mantle again and immersed herself in all facets of the resettlement program.

Through it all, Buddy Goldstein, was by her side, just as he remains today. He didn’t always accompany her on her far-flung travels, but he supported her and underwrote her activism, sharing her concerns and encouraging her efforts, even when some friends questioned if she was going too far. In a recent interview at their home, the couple recounted her remarkable journey from uniformed innocent to well-traveled activist.

It all started when the two returned from a 1972 trip to the USSR frustrated by the limited access they’d had to the Jewish proletariat and their daily lives. “I’d been doing a lot of reading. I was interested. But I wasn’t able to see anybody — I didn’t know how to do it. Being tourists, it was all surface. It was definitely controlled. We only saw what the government wanted us to see,” she said. She itched for a way to bypass approved itineraries in order to connect, on a human level, with Jews and learn first-hand their struggles.

“I wanted to see the real Russia and visit with some refusenik families.”

Enter Glenn Richter. A veteran of the civil rights movement and a founder of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jews, Richter is a brother-in-law of Goldstein’s. He’s married to her cousin Lenore. The couple live in New York.

“Glenn and Lenore had been to Omaha (on a cross-country speaking tour) not too much before we took our trip talking about a lot of the things that were going on in the Soviet Union,” she recalled. “After we got back, I called Glenn and said, ‘I want to know more about what’s happening.’ But first I registered for a couple courses on Russia at the university (then Omaha U.-now UNO). The courses culminated in a 1973 trip to the USSR led by chancellor Ron Roskens. I decided I wanted to go. I called Glenn and said, ‘I want to know how to meet these people, by which I meant refuseniks. We spoke every Sunday morning for weeks. Then he outlined it all for me on a sheet of yellow paper (now in the archives of Remember and Save, an Israeli-based initiative documenting the Jewish Aliya Movement of the USSR). Glenn told me what to do, what items to take, who to visit, what things to tell them and what information to bring back. He gave very good directions.”

“Without Glenn’s help I never would have gotten into this as I did,” she said. “I did exactly as he told me and it was very successful. I met many people. Each time I went it made me hungry to learn more. And that was the beginning of it.”

Richter recalled Goldstein being an avid student.

“We were dealing at that time with what was largely a hardly-understood situation, with few appeals coming out from the USSR, relying basically on facts known to us at that point, rather than the personal contacts which we all developed. Shirley was quite interested. She’s a good listener — and a good questioner,” he said.

He added she and Buddy were well-positioned to serve the cause.

“One of the great strengths of Jews in smaller Jewish communities, such as Omaha or Denver, is the long-term friendships they may have with people who get into political power. Shirley and Buddy were excellent examples. Their Congressmen and Senators became their advocates. Shirley knew which political buttons to press, and did so on behalf of individual refuseniks and prisoners and of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment — the landmark legislation linking Jewish emigration with trade credits for the USSR.”

He admired her dedication.

“Dogged, committed, focused, interested would be understatements when it came to Shirley’s advocacy for Soviet Jews,” he said. “I see the same traits in my wife Lenore. Perhaps it’s family genes.”

Goldstein’s involvement in the movement came just as it was picking up steam. Or, as she likes to put it, “When I came into it, everything was already going on.”

“I don’t think anyone of us in the early 1970s knew where the Soviet Jewry movement would take us,” Richter said. “By ‘73-’74 we were in the big leagues, utilizing Congress to take on the Kremlin head-to-head over the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. Shirley was in the thick of things, using all the political connections she developed (with Sen. Jim Exxon, Rep. John Cavanaugh, etc.). It was crucial for Congress to see pressure not only from the traditionally large areas of Jewish population, but from a wide swath of communities with smaller Jewish populations, as in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado. Politicians will stick their necks out only if they believe their constituents are with them, and Shirley and her colleagues made sure of that.”

Richter said the famous Soviet dissident, Anatoly (now Natan) Sharansky, “often tells the story that his KGB interrogators tried to torment him by telling him he was only supported by Western ‘students and housewives.’ But that was the strength of the Soviet Jewry movement. We utterly believed in what we were doing. We didn’t let considerations that would sidetrack a ‘professional’ get in the way. From what I saw, Shirley was absolutely typical of the Jewish housewife who devoted the same focus and energy to Soviet Jews thousands of miles away as she did to her own family because, indeed, these Soviet Jews, became our family. I’d sit at meetings of the Union of Councils in Washington, DC and marvel at the truly diverse dozens of women and men who, for whatever personal reasons, simply decided that they had to get involved, and became heroines and heroes of the movement.”

“Most people watch history go by. Shirley and her colleagues simply decided, each on her/his own, that they were going to shape history. The core group of activists, like Shirley, seemed to utilize every waking hour to create new ways of advocating on behalf of our friends trapped in the USSR and to keep their spirits up,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Russia with Love
By the time she made that ‘73 UNO trip to the USSR, accompanied by her daughter Gail Raznick, she was well-read on the Soviet Jewry issue. She’d been briefed by Glenn Richter and other Union of Councils members and been given contact names.
But her real education began abroad, meeting Russian Jews whose lives were filled with hardships in the totalitarian and anti-Semitic regime. She met them in their homes or in her hotel suites. She visited their synagogues and schools. Despite little hope for change, Soviet Jews yearned and struggled for freedom. That’s when it all hit home. That’s when the cause got in her blood. Until then, the problems faced by Soviet Jews were still abstract and far removed.

“Then you meet people, like I did, who can’t get out and, well…Once I met this young family — Aba and Ida Taratuta — I became totally committed, not only to work for Soviet Jews but people in all the Iron Curtain countries.”

In an interview she gave during the height of the movement, Goldstein explained why she threw herself into the fray: “These people cannot speak out for themselves, so other people must do it for them. I feel like what I am doing is something important. It’s hard for people in the U.S. to grasp what all they have to give up just for wanting to leave and how much support they need just to survive. Seeing all they endure makes you want to help just one more case. You get hooked. It’s like an addiction.”

She and Buddy were also alarmed by how the world kept relatively silent as the repression went unchecked. It was an ugly reminder of what happened during the Holocaust. “People didn’t speak out then about the oppression,” he said. “Those were atrocities,” she interjected. “Atrocities, yes, but a lot of people felt anything could happen” in the Soviet Union. “That’s right,” she added, “because people were disappearing in Russia. They’d just be taken off the street…for no reason. And we thought if they can do that, they can do anything.”

Then there was the outrageous situation of a government holding hostage, in effect, some of its own people, preventing them from practicing their professions and thus depriving the country of their talents — all as punishment for wanting to leave. “I never understood why,” Shirley said. “The Soviets weren’t using them. It wasn’t as if the refuseniks kept their jobs and were still vital to the economy. They weren’t. They lost their jobs. They were having a hard time. They were wasting their lives sitting around waiting to get out.”

She was also dismayed by the travel strictures and identity tags foisted on Jews.

Refuseniks she met expressed their despair. Sensing she was someone they could trust to get the truth out, they confided in her. The fact-finding and reporting she and others did there helped the movement gain momentum. Through networking and communication, the Free Soviet Jewry issue was kept alive. Getting information out meant taking risks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Testing the Limits, Courting Danger
Just how far Goldstein was prepared to go would be tested on that ‘73 trip and on later trips. Refuseniks Aba and Ida Taratuta, whom she met in Leningrad, witnessed her resolve. She’d been given their names by Glenn Richter. They were soon impressed by her sincerity and tenacity.

“She was interested in our life, financial situation, the possibility to leave the country and what to do and how to help,” Aba Taratuta said. “She was ready to do everything to help us. And from that visit there was just a constant contact between our families. She wrote a lot of letters describing what she did to help us and other refuseniks. She became very active in the struggle on our behalf.”

Goldstein came bearing gifts.

“Shirley brought many items — books, records, tape recorders — that helped us in studying Hebrew or in supporting Zionist activities. The same with cameras, watches and jeans, which we sold. And every time she would bring something personally for us, for our family,” Aba Taratuta said.

Let My People Go producer Stephanie Howard said Ida Taratuta recounted how once Shirley “came with a suitcase full of embroidered towels, fine soaps and things, and Ida told her, ‘I can’t accept this,’ to which Shirley said, ‘But for a twist of fate, I could have been in your place and you could have been in mine. Wouldn’t you do the same for me?’ And Ida replied, ‘How can I argue with that? Of course’”

But the little Jewish woman from Omaha came with an agenda far beyond trinkets.

“Shirley visited us in Leningrad several times and she was interested in seeing more people, more refuseniks. And for a foreigner in Russia it was not so easy to do,” Aba Taratuta said. “So we tried to gather as many people in our apartment as possible. She was interested in every one and taped the story of everyone and smuggled the tapes out on her person. And it was really dangerous.”

In turn, Goldstein said Aba “was one of the main figures in Leningrad. Gail and I were the first Americans to ever visit him, but he was already well known in the West.” She said he’d “have so many activists come to his apartment…they crowded to get into the rooms. I kept coming back to hear their stories. I made tapes.”

The couple were classic refuseniks-turned-activists. Their situation symbolized the problem, Goldstein said.

“They’d applied to emigrate and were released from their jobs. They were well-educated people. Both spoke good English. He had been a professor. She was a translator. He was reduced to being a caretaker where they lived. She was doing some translating on the side. Their son was taunted at school. I think maybe they were receiving some packages from the West and selling things on the black market. Mail and phone service was compromised. That’s the way it was.”

Goldstein’s good friend, Miriam Simon accompanied Shirley and her daughter on the ‘73 trip. Simon well recalls what it was like as Shirley went off to attend “clandestine meetings late at night.” “She took a lot of risks. We didn’t know for sure, but we thought everything was bugged. We were very careful what we said to each other,” said Simon. When Goldstein made later trips to the Soviet Union, Simon added, “We always worried if she would come back. They (Soviet authorities) got to know her and didn’t like her.”

“Shirley often did dangerous things,” Aba Taratuta confirmed. “For example, on her first visit to us, she and her daughter Gail brought some very important books and hid them in Gail’s boots. These visits were very important for us refuseniks. We felt, ‘We are not forgotten…there are people who care and want to help.’ We felt If we were known abroad, it was our best defense from the Soviet government. Then they could not do with us what they wanted.”

Below, in Part II of Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop, One Woman’s Remarkable Journey in the Free Soviet Jewry Movement, you will read about how just far this Activist, Humanitarian, Philanthropist has gone for the cause of human rights.

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Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop, One Woman’s Remarkable Journey in the Free Soviet Jewry Movement

Part II: Activist, Humanitarian, Philanthropist

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Testing Limits, Courting Danger Continued: Contacts, Safe Houses and Spy Games
Once swept up in the Free Soviet Jewry movement, Shirley Goldstein set about indoctrinating herself in the tactics of an underground activist. She read, she discussed, she kavetched. She formed Omaha’s Free Soviet Jewry Committee and joined the Union of Council for Soviet Jews. She became a part of an international network whose advocacy and activism sought relief and release for Soviet Jews denied basic human rights. She learned who to contact among refusenkiks, activists and dissidents in the former Soviet Union. She learned where and when it was safe to meet them. In short, she became a secret operative there, much the way a spy is, sneaking information and materials in and out of that oppressive regime.

Back home, she made calls, wrote letters, collected and shipped goods, appealed to politicians, etc., all in an attempt to ease the burden and secure the freedom of Soviet Jews. For the few refugees who made it out at first and then for the flood that followed, she helped their resettlement here.

But nothing she did compares to the missions she conducted in the USSR under the guise of “tourist.” This little Jewish lady carried on her work there despite becoming a person of interest to the KGB. When they tried scaring her off, she simply snubbed her nose at the mighty Soviet state. On a 1973 trip there, Shirley and her daughter Gail Raznick went as part of a UNO-sponsored tour. As Part I explored, Leningrad residents Aba and Ida Taratuta were among the first refuseniks she met. The Taratutas opened their lives and their hearts to her, using their apartment as a meeting place for fellow refuseniks to come and share their stories with Shirley, who faithfully documented it all via tape recorder. These meetings built her circle of contacts and added to the testimonies she collected.

Another key early contact she made, Edward Sorokin, was not a refusenik at all, but sympathetic to Soviet Jews’ plight and to her humanitarian mission. Shirley and Gail met Sorokin by accident in Leningrad. For Goldstein, such contacts were invaluable as she didn’t speak Russian and didn’t yet know her way around.

“He wasn’t even Jewish,” Goldstein said. “Edward and I became very good friends. He helped me on all my trips during the next 15-20 years. He made sure I got places. He was a big source for me. He became friendly with some of my other friends there…helping me if something went wrong. He made phone calls for me. When I got home, I’d send packages and he would see to it they got delivered.”

In Moscow, Shirley and Gail were unsuccessful locating the prominent dissident Vladimir Slepak, but they did meet an English-speaking couple, Galina and Victor Faermark, who soon put them in touch with all the leading Moscow refuseniks and activists. Among these were Benjamin Levich, for whom Victor Faermark served as translator. Levich had been one of the USSR’s most highly decorated scientists before he applied to leave, whereupon he was dismissed from his position and stripped of his medals. “One of Levich’s boys had been kidnapped off the streets in Moscow and sent to Siberia, just for being Levich’s son,” Goldstein said. “We became very good friends with Levich. While we were in Moscow he kept giving my name out and it became known, and before I knew it we were meeting Vladimir Slepak. All of them were intertwined. While we were at Slepak’s, people came in and out, including a woman who was a legend, Ida Nudel.”

Once back home, Goldstein acceded to a request by Levich. She prepared and shipped care packages, filled with dried foods, for his imprisoned son. She also returned to the states with lists of names of other Soviet Jews in need of various things. She enlisted the help of Russian emigres in Omaha to box the goods “We shipped out a lot of supplies,” she said. The Goldsteins’ home became a storehouse for hot ticket items, especially, jeans, large quantities of which she got donated from suppliers she appealed to.

Her return home from that ‘73 UNO tour of the USSR was nearly delayed, however, when she was detained at customs in Leningrad. Authorities objected to some posters she carried. It was one of many attempts made to hassle her and discourage her actions. They soon discovered she couldn’t be intimidated.

“I had visited a Jewish day school, whose children made drawings for me to bring back to children here in Omaha. As I went through customs, I carried the posters under my arm when the agents said, ‘Hand it over — you’re taking out important artwork.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s children’s artwork.’ And they said, ‘No, you can’t take them out.’ I argued, ‘But it isn’t anything…’ They wanted my purse, and I said, ‘No,’ and I just held onto those things under my arm. I was angry with them.

“Well, the other people in the tour group were saying, ‘Just give it to them…’ But I said, ‘No, it’s not theirs. It has no monetary value. Nothing.’ Well, the Russians still wanted it. The plane was held up and I could see either the group was going to leave without me or be stuck there with me, so I said, ‘OK, here it is, and I unrolled the posters and tore them up, piece by piece, right in front of the agents. I said, ‘If I can’t have it, you can’t have it.’ And they said, ‘Pick it up,’ and I walked right by them. When I got on the plane, everybody clapped. ”

“She was defiant,” her daughter Gail said.

Ask Shirley Goldstein if she was afraid, and she tells you, “I was never afraid of them because I knew they wouldn’t touch me. They didn’t want an incident.” “They could harass you though,” Buddy said. To which Shirley adds, “Yeah, they wanted you to know they had the upper hand. But I really felt in command. I really did. Besides, it was ridiculous. All that fuss over nothing.”

Ask Buddy if Shirley’s someone not to trifle with, and he says, “Oh, boy…”

Still, it took some negotiating before she could board the plane with her American tour party. She said Roskens and company flashed enough money and threw around enough names to secure her release. “Roskens could talk his way out of almost anything,” she said. That’s the way things worked there. “All the way along, if you had the bribes, you could do anything. I’m convinced of that,” she added. “I took cartons of cigarettes with me. You could show a cab driver a pack and go any place. I learned lots of little tricks…”

To avoid hassles, she carried official credentials and letters of recommendation.

“Before leaving for the USSR each time, I’d go to my Congressmen and have them write letters of referral for the authorities that said I was seeing people I knew and that the U.S. government would appreciate it if I were not bothered. When KGB or customs agents wanted to see my papers, those letters always came out first.”

To the end, it was a war of wills between her and the apparatchiks. When Goldstein made her last visit to the Soviet Union in 1989 she went with her friend Ruth Potash and then Jewish Press editor Morris Maline. Potash recalled how customs agents confiscated Shirley’s wedgies, even unscrewing the bottoms “to make sure she wasn’t smuggling any tapes in the heels of her shoes. She was on their list. But she was fearless.”

Gail said she and her mother often got crank phone calls in the middle of the night. That didn’t stop Shirley from slipping out of hotels after midnight to meet people.

“It was very spy-like. It was like you knew you were being watched but you couldn’t see anybody. I’m amazed by how courageous she was,” Gail said.

“She’s a gutsy lady,” Buddy said of his wife.

In Odessa, another attempt to scare off Goldstein at first angered her and then only emboldened her, but not before she had a good laugh at her own expense.

“I was asleep in my hotel room when I woke up to find a strange man standing inside the door, looking at me. He didn’t say a word. He just wanted me to know somebody was there. Harassing me. I told him to get the hell out. He did. After that, every time I went out of the room I walked backwards and sprinkled baby powder on the floor so I’d know if anybody came in. And, you know what? I was the first person to walk in and mark my own tracks,” she said, laughing at the memory.

Her chutzpah could be inspiring, Laura Bialis, the director of a new documentary film about the movement, Let My People Go, said: “David Selikowitz tells a great story about that. In the ‘70s he was a young American living in Paris who’d come to Moscow to drop off some stuff for refuseniks. He and a friend got to the apartment building, but he was scared by all the KGB cars lining the street. He said, ‘I can’t do this.’ The friend said, ‘Well, we’ve come this far, let’s try it.’ So, they go inside and find the apartment, and there is Shirley Goldstein with Ally Milder…schlepping in all these contraband items.

“And David said to himself, ‘Oh my God, here’s this housewife-grandmother from Omaha, and if she’s not afraid, why should I be?’ She encouraged him to start a French arm of the movement, which he did, and he ended up sending all kinds of people into the Soviet Union. It’s a great image of Shirley,” Bialis said, “because she’s so unassuming and so modest, and yet she did such incredibly brave things.”

Goldstein’s most historic trip to the Soviet Union came in 1975. It was an Omaha World-Herald sponsored tour that, as usual, she used as cover for her activist work or, as she called it, “doing my own thing.” The tour’s hosts were Herald reporter Wally Provost and his wife Irene. Shirley informed Wally what she planned doing and he agreed to tag along with her to a meeting of refuseniks.

“Well, he came with me the first night in Moscow and after that he said, ‘Every time you go see somebody, I want to go.’” Provost found enough material to write a series of articles, one titled Shirley Goldstein Goes to Russia, about the movement and how tough life was for Soviet Jews. “Wally’s series brought the issue to the forefront. It made a lot of difference. I got lots of calls and letters from that. And he and Irene really became dedicated Soviet Jewry activists.”

Another journalist she brought to the movement is former Jewish Press editor Morris Maline, who traveled with her to the USSR. Under his watch, the Press closely covered the Soviet Jewry struggle and local efforts to address it. She even filed occasional reports for the Press from some of her travels.

Also in her own role as a reporter for the movement, she took still pictures of an incident outside a synagogue in which a gathering of Jews were rousted by police. “It opened your eyes as to how they took care of affairs they didn’t want shown to the general public,” she said. Her pics were published around the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sharansky
On that same ‘75 trip she was interviewing refuseniks one morning outside a Moscow synagogue closely watched by the KGB when someone asked her, Have you met Sharansky? “And I answered with the now famous words, ‘Sharansky, who’s he? Never heard of him.’ Well, Anatoly Sharansky was the voice, really, of all the refuseniks. I don’t know why I didn’t recognize his name. I wasn’t into it deep enough yet I guess. Slepak said, ‘We will be at your hotel at one o’clock. I’ll bring Sharansky.’ So, a group of them came. There must have been 15-16 people in the room. And there was Sharansky. He was a young guy. Very vocal in meeting with people. I said to him. ‘I want the names at the top of the list for being refused and what’s happening to these people.’ And he went in the bathroom with my tape recorder, closed the door and made a recording. That became the famous ‘bathroom tape.’ He named people, how long they’d been held back and many of the details that weren’t well known in the West.”

Naming names, she said, helped ensure refuseniks were afforded better treatment. “If your name became known, Soviet officials knew the West was watching out for you, and so you were likely to have you mail and phone calls go through.”

Sharansky’s words, widely circulated thanks to Goldstein secreting out the tape, were a kind state-of-the-union address and call to action for the movement’s followers. Despite painting a bleak picture of the fate of Soviet Jews who dared assert their rights, his message was somehow optimistic and appealed to the international community to apply pressure on the USSR to do the right thing. Goldstein’s proud to have helped made his voice heard.

“I was the first person to bring a tape by Sharansky out. When I returned home, I sent the tape to the Union of Councils headquarters. I didn’t even think to make a copy of it. Look how I trusted the U.S. mail. When it got out I’d carried the tape, I got phone calls from all over.”

By her third trip, she was an expert at bringing banned articles in and out. She knew which American items brought the most on the blackmarket. While she knew a pair of jeans could be sold for enough rubles or bartered for enough food to last a family weeks, she didn’t realize just how vital that exchange was for survival.

“A few years ago a gentleman called us from Canada saying he’s coming through Omaha. He wanted to see Shirley, whom he’d met in Russia,” Buddy said. “We met him and he said to Shirley, ‘I was at your hotel and you gave me two pair of jeans and those two pair of jeans helped me survive for three years.”

The chance to impact a person’s life this way is why she continued to help.

“Well, you never want to hear of people suffering. And then seeing them and seeing how it was…and finding out what to do to help them and then doing those things — it was satisfying. When you look back on it, it was a lot of fun.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fruits of Her Labor
Her last visit to the USSR came in 1989. She planned going once more, but by then she’d become such “a nuisance” to the Soviets they revoked her visa. Undaunted, she tried going in with a group of Catholic nuns before being rebuffed.

But by then the process she’d been part of to influence Soviet human rights reforms had merged with sweeping changes inside the USSR. “It was public pressure,” she said. “The Soviets hated a bad image and they had one.” She said when the U.S. and its allies tied future trade deals with the Soviets to their making human rights concessions, the USSR capitulated. For a time. Then tensions mounted and the borders re-closed. Pressure was applied again as Western leaders decried the USSR’s hard line. In the era of Glasnost, the Soviets finally relented. In the face of government and media denouncements, much of it fed by the movement, the borders reopened and Jews streamed out to stake their freedom.

Shirley Goldstein helped make it possible. She’s considered a hero in the struggle.So say her fellow activists in the movement and so say refugees whose freedom they feel is, at least in part, due to her work.

Glenn Richter, founder of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jews, considers her “the cream of the cream. We all marveled at her energy, devotion, focus and creativity. God gave her an opportunity to make up for American Jewry’s relative silence during the Holocaust. Shirley proved one didn’t need to be a political big shot, Hollywood star or billionaire to move mountains. She kept and kept at it — the mountains moved, and the Kremlin walls fell.”

“I love Shirley. I’m proud of her and I’m proud I’m among one of her friends. She’s an absolutely exceptional person. She did very much, not only for our family, but for every family wanting to come here. Shirley met with refuseniks and activists like us, people who believed in the right to be free. That’s why we fought for this. And finally, with her help, we won,” said Lydia Linde, who emigrated in 1990 with her husband Eugene thanks to the Goldsteins sponsoring them.

“If you think of the things she was able to do, she definitely could be considered a hero, because she was risking her well-being doing these things and getting the attention of people around the world to what was going on in Russia. Her work definitely helped people in Russia who wanted to be free. It rose a tremendous amount of awareness of how to help, how to fight, how to push governments to change their views,” said Anna Yuz-Mosenkis, who came to the U.S. with her husband Igor and their two children in 1991.

The story of the movement’s success endures in the lives and in the accounts of people like Richter, Goldstein, Linde and Yuz-Mosenkis. With each passing year, however, the number of surviving activists and refuseniks declines. Thus, there’s an urgency to recording this story for posterity. That’s what drives the makers of Let My People Go, the new film that tells the story of the movement through the experience of Goldstein and others. It’s also what drives the organizers of an archive, Remember and Save, dedicated to preserving the history of the movement with materials from activists like Goldstein.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exodus and Resettlement
Waging the campaign for the release of Soviet Jews was one thing. Helping sponsor refugees once they came here to start a new life was quite another. Yet Goldstein aided Miriam Simon in leading the Omaha resettlement effort.

From 1971 to 1980, the USSR let tens of thousands of Jews emigrate each year. When tensions with the West increased, the USSR made people pawns by closing emigration to Jews. It wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later that a mass exodus happened. During the migration of the ‘70s, when cities across the U.S. were accepting refugees, Goldstein said she and Simon decided, “If we’re going to get them out, we ought to get some here. Miriam was the organizer. I was the instigator. We were like the mothers of the thing.”

The two women secured the support of the Jewish Federation. Jewish Family Service pitched in. Private donations from individuals and businesses like Nebraska Furniture Mart and Borsheims helped. The first families came here in 1975.

“As many families as we said we could take, HIAS would send,” Simon said. “In the beginning, the families that came had no relatives here. They didn’t know a soul. They couldn’t find us on a map. Before they came, we got them furnished housing. We met each family at the airport with flowers, gifts and welcome signs. Once settled, we helped them get jobs and arranged for them to learn English. We did all the things you have to do to bring someone from a totally different culture and make them American. It was a very exciting time, and Shirley helped with all that. Then, as families made lives for themselves, they started bringing over relatives.”

“Anytime somebody came or anytime there was a problem, we had it. We did everything we could for them. We really worked hard. It was an exciting time. The Federation’s done a great job resettling them, too” Goldstein said. “We’ve had such good rapport with refugees. I’ve been to their weddings and funerals and birthdays and graduations…So many have been successful in their careers and in the community, and now their kids are winning scholarships. It’s been great.”

Simon said refuseniks hold Goldstein in high regard because she not only worked to free them but was always there for them after they arrived. She’s been called “an angel” to Omaha’s Soviet Jews. “Whatever happened to anybody here, Shirley came to help,” said Lydia Linde. “She was very good and friendly and helped us a lot,” said Anna Yuz-Mosenkis. Well known for doing special things, Shirley’s donated money for the Kripke Library’s Russian-language section that Linde heads and she ensured pianist Yuz-Mosenkis got a piano of her own after she and her family came.

“They needed help and she responded,” said Simon. “She was committed to doing what she believed was the right thing to do. She never got tired of doing it. She didn’t give up. She didn’t abandon it and go onto the next thing. And she’s that way with everything. If it’s important, well then it’s important. This became her life. At times some of her friends thought she got carried away, and she really didn’t give a darn what they thought.”

As more refugees began leaving the USSR, the resettlement effort needed more funding and the Operation Exodus drive led by Tom Fellman and Jay Lerner raised more than a million dollars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Giving Nature
Friends note Shirley and Buddy have continued taking up what Simon calls “wonderful causes,” adding, “She and Buddy are always sponsoring something.”

In 1999 the couple endowed the Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights series at UNO, which annually features presentations on emerging human rights issues. They provided seed money for the documentary Let My People Go. They’ve supported Israeli resettlement efforts. They support the Jewish Historical Society, the Kripke Library and countless other things.

Their contributions have been recognized. In the 1980s Shirley won the Jewish Federation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award. In 1996 she received an honorary doctor of humane letters from UNO “for her timeless efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry and the cause of human rights worldwide, for her conviction and example that one person can make a difference in the lives of others, and for her ability to inspire compassion and humanity, both near and far.” She’s also been honored by the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In 2005 the couple received the My Brother’s Keeper Award from Chabad of Nebraska.

“If you know somebody who needs help, you call Shirley and she figures out ways to help,” said Ruth Potash. “I teach English as a second language to adult immigrants. I called her with a problem one of my students was having trying to get his wife here from Syria. I asked Shirley, ‘What can I do?’ She said, ‘We’ll go see Congressman Lee Terry (R-Neb.)’ She’s willing to help with anything. She has all these contacts. And she’s very direct…She tells you exactly what’s on her mind and what she wants done. And she accomplishes it. She’s not namby-pamby. I think Buddy deserves a lot of praise, too. He supports her. They’re definitely a team.”

Goldstein acknowledges she couldn’t do all she’s done without the support of her husband Buddy and children. “It wasn’t just me doing this alone. I had a good family that stayed behind me. They’ve always been there for me.”

Her work for the movement and for other causes has been all about the journey.

“I’ve made wonderful friends I still have today,” she said. “It’s been a great period of my life. Everybody’s got their thing. This is my thing. I’m not a card player. I’m not a golfer. I’ve had a great time.”

Like any giver, her life’s been enriched for her generosity.

“I’ve traveled places I never would have gone to. I’ve seen how Washington works. I’ve seen how Israeli politics work. I have friends in Europe and Israel and here in the States I never would have otherwise. I can go anywhere in the world and see friends. I’ve seen the families brought in. I’ve seen them resettled. I’ve seen their children grow and their accomplishments. It’s been a wonderful part of my life and I can’t imagine having done anything else. I’m pleased I was a part of the movement and that I did not sit by and not do anything about it. I hope it doesn’t happen again to the Jewish people.”

She reminds us anyone can make a difference. It starts with taking an interest and then acting on it.

“Anybody that does any reading can always find something good to work on.”


Natan Sharanksy, Shirley Goldstein and Buddy Goldstein reunited at Shirely and Leonard Goldstein Lecture at the University of Nebraska at Omaha







War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horrors in Song and Dance that Make Plea for Peace

August 18, 2011 2 comments

Here is a story I did in 1996 in the flood of refugees coming to America from war-ravaged Bosnia and Serbia. I tell the story of two families from Saravejo whose lives were turned upside down when the city fell under siege. Rusmir and Hari stayed behind to fight, as their wives and children narrowly escaped, eventually to the West. The men were eventually reunited with their families and ended up starting new lives in America. In my hometown of Omaha no less.  I came across this story when I learned about a music and dance performance that a local choreographer organized as a way of commemorating the experience of these Bosnian refugees.  The cathartic performance served as a bridge between the war that changed everything and the peace they had to flee their homeland to find.

 

 

 

War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horror’s in Song and Dance that Make Plea for Peace

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Even with United States peacekeeping troops stationed in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the war-ravaged nation and troubled Balkan region remain a shrouded mystery to many Americans.

But on two successive nights in October, audiences packing a Creighton University theater came face-to-face with the tragic, ultimately triumphant odyssey of Omaha’s Bosnian war refugees.

The forum for this unusual intersection of cultures was the finale of an October 25-26 Omaha Modern Dance Collective concert. The closing piece, “Day of Forgiveness,” featured a melting pot of dancers and musicians, but most poignantly, local Bosnian refugees performing as a five-piece band

The work incorporated vigorous Bosnian folk dances and songs symbolizing the relative harmony in Bosnia before the war and the healing so sorely needed there now. Ironically, a dance whose context was an ethnic war, joined Croats, Muslims and Serbs in a unifying celebration.

The refugees are among a growing, diverse Bosnian colony that has sprung up in Omaha since 1993. They say the Bosnia they knew was free of ethnic and religious strife until Serb nationalism began rearing its ugly head. Many are natives of Sarajevo, where they enjoyed an upscale, Western European lifestyle. Since escaping the carnage to start over in America, they’ve forged a tranquil Little Sarajevo in Omaha.

“Bosnia was like a small United States, where many different cultures, many different religions lived together,” says the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist, Rusmir Hadzisulejmanovic, 41, formerly a marketing manager with a Sarajevo publishing firm. Today, he works as a handy man and attends Metropolitan Community College. “We prepared a good life in our country. We had nice jobs. We made good money. But somebody from outside tried to destroy that. And we lost everything in one day.”

Fellow refugee and musician Muharem “Hari” Sakic, 39, a friend of Rusmir’s from before the war, was an import-export executive and now works odd jobs while attending Metro. Hari says, “In Sarajevo we never cared what religion you were. And none of us care about that now. It doesn’t matter. We only care what kind of person you are.”

Both men are Muslim. Rusmir’s wife is Serb; Hari’s, Croation-Catholic. They say mixed marriages such as theirs were typical.

The two men fought side-by-side defending their beloved Sarajevo, the besieged Bosnian capital devastated by Serb aggressors. Talking with Rusmir and Hari today, surrounded by loved ones in their safe, comfortable southwest Omaha apartments, it’s hard to imagine them as fierce soldiers engaged in a life and death struggle with forces who outnumbered and outgunned them. But then Rusmir passes around snapshots of he and Hari in camouflage fatigues, armed to the teeth, outside the burned-out shell of a train station. A later photo shows Rusmir, usually a burly 240 pounds, looking pale, drawn and shrunken from the near-starvation war diet.

War Hits Home

Although Serbia invaded Croatia by late 1990, beginning the pattern of pogroms and atrocities it repeated elsewhere in the former Yugoslav Republic, most Bosnians never suspected the conflict would affect them. But it did, beginning, shockingly and viciously at noon, April 4, 1992, when Serb artillery units dug in atop the hills overlooking Saravejo launched an unprovoked, indiscriminate attack on the city’s homes, streets and businesses.

Rusmir was eating lunch in a cafeteria when the first explosions rocked the city. He was trapped there until morning. “I saw many, many damaged houses and cars and dead people in the streets. It was the first time in my life I saw something like that,” he recalls. It was the start of a three-year siege that killed thousands of civilians and soldiers.

 

 

 

 

At the family’s apartment he found his wife Zorana, 39, and their children Ida and Igor, then ages 8 and 2, respectively, unharmed, but “very scared.” He immediately set about finding a safe way out for them. Escape was essential, since Ida suffers from a serious kidney disease requiring frequent medical treatment, and his family’s Muslim surname made them targets for invading Serbs. As for himself, he had no choice but to stay – and fight.

The roads and fields leading out of town were killing zones, manned by roaming Serb militia. Air service was disrupted. With the help of Jewish friends he finally got his family approved for a flight to Belgrade, Serbia several days later. On the day of departure Zorana and the kids boarded a bus for the tense ride to the Serbian-held airport. As it was too dangerous to be seen together, Rusmir followed behind in a car.

The scene at the airport was chaotic. Hundreds of people milled about the tarmac, frantic not to be left behind. When a mad dash for the plane began, Zorana, carrying Igor in one arm, felt Ida being pulled away by the surging crowd. She grabbed hold of her daughter and hung on until they were aboard.

From a distance Rusmir watched the plane lift off safely, carrying his family to an uncertain fate. It was the last flight out for many months. Three-and-a-half years passed before he saw his family again.

While in Belgrade, Zorana and the kids stayed at a hotel. Zorana made Ida promise (Igor was too young) never to say their Muslim name aloud, but only her Serb maiden name, Vojnovic. Zorana says she felt “shame” at denying her true identity and “guilty” for what some Serbs were doing to Muslims. “It was very hard.”

“You had to say some Serb name to save your life,” notes Hari, whose family took similar precautions. Like Rusmir and Zorana, Hari and his wife Marina were desperate to get their daughter Lana out, as she has a kidney condition similar to Ida’s. Marina and Sakic’s kids eventually fled to Croatia.

In Belgrade Zorana often confronted Serb enmity, such as when a hospital denied Ida treatment fate learning her real name. From Belgrade, they fled to norther Croatia, staying with relatives and friends.

Life in Croatia had a semblance of normality until Croat-Muslim hostilities erupted. Then Zorana was denied work and Ida expelled from school and refused care. A human rights organization did fly Zorana and the kids to London, where her brother lived, but they were denied residency and returned to Croatia. Growing more desperate, she pleaded her family’s case at every embassy, to no avail.

With few resources and options left she heard about the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a humanitarian agency offering visas based on medical need. After her first entreaties were rejected she went to IOM’s offices “every morning for three months,” before finally getting the visa that eventually brought them to Omaha in October, 1993. Zorana was among the first group of Bosnian and Croatian refugees to arrive here.

Omaha – A New Home, A New Life

Why Omaha? Dr. Linda Ford, a local physician affiliated with IOM, was matched with the family as a medical caseworker and mentor. Zorana says Ford was her “main moral support” when she first arrived. “She showed me how to live on my own. She was a great help.”

Ford arranged for the family to live at the home of Dr. Dan Halm and at her urging Zorana, an attorney in Saravejo, earned a para-legal degree at UNO while working part-time jobs. Zorana now works full-time at Mutual of Omaha. Ford says the contacts Zorana made here as a result of her own refugee experience have aided other Bosnians in settling here, including Rusmir’s sister and brother-in-law. Since moving her family to the Woodcreek Apartments, Zorana has guided 12 other refugee families there.

Barbarism, Heroism and Sacrifice

Meanwhile, Rusmir, who as a young man served in the Yugoslav equivalent of the CIA, had joined Hari and others in mobilizing the local Bosnian Army, It was a civilian army comprised of Muslims, Croats and Serbs, They lacked even the most basic supplies. Uniforms were improvised from sleeping bags. Many soldiers fought in athletic shoes. Shelling and sniper fire continued day and night. The streets and outlying areas were a grim no-man’s land. The only respite was an occasional cease-fire or relief convoy.

 

 

 

 

As the siege progressed conditions worsened. Rusmir’s and Hari’s homes were destroyed. But life went on. “In war it’s not possible to keep a normal life, but we tried,” says Rusmir. For example, school-age kids who remained behind still attended classes, and Hari’s wife Marina gave birth to their son, Adi, on May 22, 1992.

“At that time the situation was terrible, especially for babies. No food, no water, no electricity , no nothing,” Hari recalls.

Somehow, they hung on. Marina and their two children got out as part of a Red Cross convoy that fall.

Hari and Rusmir fought in a special unit that took them behind enemy lines to wreak havoc, do reconnaissance, collect intelligence and capture prisoners. Miraculously, neither was wounded.

“I was many times in a very dangerous position,” says Rusmir. “I know how to use a gun and a knife. That helped me to survive. I’m lucky, you know? I survived.”

Two of his best friends did not – Dragan Postic and Zelicko Filipovic.

Rusmir witnessed acts of barbarism, heroism and sacrifice, An artillery shell landed amidst a group of school kids during recess, killing and maiming dozens. “That was very awful.” In the heat of battle, a comrade jumped on an enemy tank and dropped hand grenades inside the open turret, killing himself and the tank’s crew. Despite overwhelming odds and losses the city held. “We stopped them…we survived,” Rusmir says.

By the time a United States-brokered and NATO-enforced peace halted the war in 1995, Rusmir, who’d stayed gallantly (“Stubbornly,”says Zorana) on to protect his homeland and care for his ill father, felt very alone. Except for his father, there was nothing left – no home, no job, no family, no future. Hari was gone, too, escaping on 1994 on foot via a tunnel dug under the Saravejo airport, and then over the mountains into Croatia, where after a long search he was reunited with his family.

The Sakics emigrated here in January, 1995.

Music – Celebration and Mourning

Every refugee has a story. The Bosnians’ story is of suddenly being cast as warriors and wanderers in an ethnically-cleansed netherworld where borders and names suddenly meant the difference between freedom or imprisonment, between living or dying.

 

 

 

 

It all happened before – to their parents and grandparents in World War II. It’s a story burned in their memories and hearts and told in stirring words, music and dance.

Their music inspired choreographer Josie Metal-Corbin to create “Day of Forgiveness.” The professor of dance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha first heard the music when a former student and Bosnian emigre brought the band to her class. They played about 10 minutes and right away I knew I had to do something with this music,” Metal-Corbin recalls. “I was very taken by it, I’m part Italian and part Slovak, and this music really spoke to me. It’s very passionate.”

After months of working with the musicians and UNO’s resident dance troupe she directs, the Moving Company, Metal-Corbin grew close to the refugees and their families, particularly Rusmir, Zorana and their children, now ages 12 and 6. Zorana acted as the project’s interpreter and cultural guide.

During the Creighton concert, which marked the dance’s premiere, Rusmir and the other, all-male musicians exuberantly accompanied the rousing dance from a rear corner of the stage.

Rusmir, who grew up singing and playing the romantic tunes that accompanied the dance, says, “I feel the songs in my heart, in my soul, in my blood.” Song and dance are a big part of Bosnian celebrations, which can last from evening through dawn.

A Gypsy song – “Djurdjevdan” (“Day of the Flowers”) – was chosen by Metal-Corbin to give the dance its thematic design. The song, like the dance she adapted from it, tells of a holiday when people go to a river to cleanse themselves with water and flowers as an act of atonement and plea for forgiveness. According to Rusmir, the song and dance reflect Bosnians’ forgiving nature.

 

 

 

 

“What is very hard about the war is that we lost so many friends. We lost neighbors. We lost family members. And for what? Really for nothing. We tried to keep Bosnia in Bosnian borders. But I can forgive,” Rusmir says, “because my wife and kids are alive. My father is alive. It’s time for forgiveness, for one reason – the war must stop, always, I cannot live with hate. My people are not like that. You can kick me, you can beat me…I will always find a reason to forgive you. That is the Bosnian soul.”

Hari, though, cannot so easily let go of the memory of Marina and their two children barely escaping a direct artillery hit on their Sarajevo apartment. “Forgive, yes, but forget, no,” he says. “I must try never to forget.” Even now, the whine of a siren and the clap of thunder are nervous reminders of incoming artillery rounds. “That is the kind of sound you can never forget,” Hari says.

He still wakes up in a cold sweat at the thought of the three-finger sign used by Chetnik Serbs in carrying out their terror campaigns. “When they started to use that sign,” he says, “the poison came. It meant. ‘You are not with us.’ Then the killing started.”

As a haunting reminder of what the dance was about, an enlarged news photo in the background pictured the tearful reunion of a Bosnian refugee family. The image had special meaning for Rusmir and Hari, who had only recently reunited with their own families. For them, the dance was their own personal commemoration of loss, celebration of survival, offering of thanks and granting of forgiveness.

Adding further resonance, virtually the entire local Bosnian refugee colony attended out of a deep communal sense of pride in their rich culture, one they’re eager to share with the wider Omaha community they’ve felt so welcomed by.

 

 

Josie Metal-Corbin

 

 

Zorana was there. “I was real proud, but at the same time I was kind of sad,” she says. “It was the music of our country – but in a different country. I was real touched when I saw Americans feel the same we do. I wanted to cry.”

Zorana, whose journey with her children across the war-torn region took a year before she found safe passage to America, adds that forgiveness must never come at the price of wisdom. “I would not let anybody to that to us again. Yo can trick us one time, but just one time.”

Yes, these Bosnians, are remarkably free of bitterness, but they do feel betrayed by the European community’s delayed, timid intervention. Zorana says, “You cannot wait so long and be so passive. You cannot say, ‘Oh, this is not my war. I don’t want to be bothered – they’re not killing me.’ Because tomorrow they may come to your house and try to kill you.” Hari says, “All the time we waited for a miracle.”

Rusmir decries the Serbs’ targeting of civilians. Hari hopes “world justice catches the war criminals, so that they will never sleep good again.”

New Pioneers

With the aid of Neb.Republican U.S. House of Representatives member John Christensen Rusmir finally got permission to immigrate and was reunited with his family last November. Once here there were many adjustments to make. Igor didn’t remember him. Ida was slow to warm to a father she hadn’t seen for so long. Rusmir spoke no English. The family barely got by. But in classic immigrant tradition they’ve adapted and now call Omaha – a city they’d never heard of before – their home.

“It is hard. But step by step, day by day, we make connections, we make new friends we make a good life, too. We feel like Bosnian pioneers in Omaha and Nebraska,” says Rusmir, who hopes to start a construction business with Hari.

Zorana

The Bosnians like America and feel sure they’ll thrive here. Their children already have, with many earning top grades in school. Ida and Lana are both healthy and doing fine. The Bosnians are deeply grateful to America, which Hari calls “a dream country” for its warm reception.

Hari says, “In America I can once again live like a normal person. There’s no fear that somebody will knock on my door and ask, ‘Who are you?’ and say, ‘You’re guilty.’ We are safe here. Many Americans have helped to give us a chance. Thanks America. We are sure that we will be a success.”

Zorana downplays their heroic struggle, saying, “You need to go on if you think ou have some tomorrow. You need to believe in yourself. Then nothing is impossible.”

America is, after all, the land of opportunity.

“You give me a chance to be equal,” she says. “To work. To be a citizen. I wanted my children to be Bosnian, but now I want them to be American. Here, you can be proud of your last name. You don’t have to feel ashamed.”

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