I was honored to recently author two iBooks for the Omaha Public Schools‘ Making Invisible Histories Visible project. Both have to do with civil rights. One is on the Great Migration as seen through the eyes of some Omaha women who migrated here from the Deep South. The other is about discrimination as seen through the eyes of Omahans who integrated Peony Park. Omaha artists made wonderful illustrations for the books and OPS teachers devised curriculum around the books’ themes for use in classrooms.
You can download these and other iBooks as part of the project at-
You can link to a PDF of the Great Migration iBook at-
You can link to a PDF of the Peony Park iBook at-
- ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ author Leo Adam Biga doing book events Nov. 19, Nov. 23, Nov. 26, Dec. 3 and Dec. 11 (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Lit Fest Offers a Written Word Feast (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
New film ‘Growing Cities’ takes road trip look at urban farmers cultivating a healthy, sustainable food culture
Dirt, as in soil that you dig in with your hands, is becoming cool among a certain set of young people who are joining the multi-generational ranks of folks practicing urban farming as a response to the food deserts and unhealthy eating choices plaguing many American communities and the disconnect between Americans and the food they consume, most of which is highly processed, pre-packaged crap supplied by corporations that operate out of self-interest, not the public welfare. Two young men fresh out of college have produced a new documentary, Growing Cities, that takes a road trip look at the burgeoning urban farm movement and its cultivation of a healthy, sustainable food culture that aims to put the power of food back in the hands of the people. For their project filmmakers Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette traveled from our shared hometown of Omaha, Neb. across the country to both coasts and several stops in between before ending up back where they started. Growing Cities is playing festivals around the nation. It has a 7 p.m. Filmmakers Screening Oct. 29 at Film Streams in Omaha. Susman and Monbouquette will field questions from their hometown audience folliowing the show. My article about their new film will soon be appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com). For related stories, check out my pieces on this blog about three Omaha endeavors: No More Empty Pots, Minne Lusa House and the culinary-horticulture marriage at Metropolitan Community College.
New film ‘Growing Cities’ takes road trip look at urban farmers cultivating a healthy, sustainable food culture
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
With words like justice, security, healthy and sustainable increasingly attached to food in America, two Omaha filmmakers with an undisguised POV have plugged into the sustainable edibles culture with a new documentary.
In Growing Cities urban agriculture advocates Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette present farming operations around the nation as smart remedies to inner city food deserts. The doc’s. 7 p.m. Film Streams screening on Oct. 29 will be followed by a Q&A with the creators.
Writer-director Susman, cinematographer Monbouquette and production manager Brent Lubbert logged 13,500 miles in a Dodge Caravan van on a three-month road trip to 20 cities in 2011. They searched out the best, biggest, most innovative urban agriculture models and found farmers not just in trippy spots but everywhere and farming everything from front and backyards to lots to rooftops to windows.
The quest was fueled by their disenchantment with scant local urban farming initiatives, though they acknowledge great strides have been made through No More Empty Pots and Big Muddy Farms, for example. The pair run their own mobile program, Truck Farm, that intros youth to growing things.
The urban ag movement has emerged in response to an industrialized food system that leaves consumers disconnected from the sources of what they eat and therefore reliant on processed, pre-packaged products.
Studies show a lack of ready access to fresh, organic foods may contribute to such health problems as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.
Susman’s advocate-activist efforts got their start at Dartmouth College. The environmental studies major led a large outing club program, waged a sit-in at the president’s office and helped develop a Sustainable Living Center. He also co-directed a short film about the development of some pristine land.
The filmmakers obtained grants from Dartmouth to fund the Growing Cities road trip and raised $40,000-plus during a 2012 Kickstarter campaign. They’ve since found support among the same urban ag community they tout. Back home, they served as resident fellows at the Union for Contemporary Art and got free studio space there and at the Image Arts Building, whose owner, Dana Altman, became a producer.
The Central High grads lionize grassroots, community-based efforts that support natural, local food production.
Susman, a vegetarian who has a garden and chickens in his midtown backyard, feels they’ve caught a trend.
“What we tapped into is this intense support and desire by people to get involved. We made the film at the right time when I consider this wave because I know it’s only getting bigger,” he says.
“There’s so many different ways to get involved. You don’t have to be a farmer. You can grow a little bit. If you don’t like growing maybe you can cook or preserve or can. Or maybe volunteer at the local food bank. Eighty percent of our country lives in cities, so we have this huge population that could be doing this.”
The filmmakers contend there’s great interest in urban farming and that it can be practiced at some level by anyone, anywhere.
“There’s a lot of people who have never worked with a sustainable organization or who have never farmed but they’re super excited about it,” says Monbouquette. “It’s something everybody can do. The biggest thing for us is encouraging people to grow a little bit of something.”
Andrew Monbouquette and Dan Susman
“Grow where you are” is the mantra they’ve adopted
Monbouquette says, “I think our biggest goal was we wanted to inspire people to do something.”
He says warm receptions to the film at festivals indicate its message resonates widely. Susman says millennials are just as likely to recognize “it’s cool, fun, exciting and rewarding to grow your own food” as older folks.
Monbouquette suggests urban farming will scale up in direct proportion to the number of people who participate in it and the amount of resources devoted to it. He suggests the real question is, “How far can we really take all this positive energy around urban farming and solidify it in our culture and just make it one of the things that we do, so it’s not just for hippies and hipsters?”
“Nobody’s saying we’re going to grow everything we can ever eat in cities. We can grow a lot of things there though,” says Susman.
Urban farming has been popular in earlier eras before fading away.
“The closest thing we have to compare it to is the Victory Garden movement (of World War II).,” says Monbouquette. “The statistics from that are astounding. Urban farmers were growing 40 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed.” Will the phenomenon last this time? “It just needs people to embrace and try it,” he says, adding government could do more to promote it by offering incentives to property owners to enter land use agreements that transform vacant lots into gardens.
Susman says some cities go so far as to have urban ag directors.
Rather than take a critical approach about “how screwed up everything is with E.coli or Mad Cow or industrial farming,” Susman says the film is “a really positive” spin on what we can all do to make our communities healthier and more inclusive.
Monbouquette says he became a convert to the cause by working on the film.
“The food and social justice issues really stuck a chord with me. Growing food is such a simple act but it can transform into this hugely motivational, inspiring, positive, productive thing in communities that really need it. You know, everyone has to eat and I subscribe to the view that we’re all in this together.”
For tickets, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.
- A farmer’s journey from California to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (blogs.vancouversun.com)
- Growing Power: An urban farm that grew a million pounds of food on 3 acres (poorasfolk.wordpress.com)
- Agropolis – a transitional urban agriculture project in Christchurch’s city centre (thesolablog.wordpress.com)
- Lantzville hashes out urban farming options (nanaimobulletin.com)
- City-based rooftop farms could revolutionise urban food sustainability (blueandgreentomorrow.com)
- Urban agriculture is socio-economic beneficial (City Farmer News) (desertification.wordpress.com)
- Urban Farming (theecologist.org)
It takes a village, the saying goes. To raise a child, to raise a neighborhood, to raise a community. That’s what Apostle Vanessa Ward does in North Omaha and that’s the story I tell in this week’s issue of The Reader that comes out Wednesday. Saturday, Aug. 10 was the annual block party she organizes and it was as usual a peaceful, joyful gathering of hundreds in a neighborhood once known as Death Valley. The block party is just one manifestation of all the work she puts into raising up her block and surrounding neighborhood. For her, it’s all about building community. It starts with transforming lives. It’s her ministry and mission. Job well done, soul sister, job well done. But she’ll be the first to tell you that the work continues. She’s heartened that her neighbors are beginning to do some of that good work themselves so that the gains that have been made will not be lost but be passed on.
Making Community: Apostle Vanessa Ward Builds Community and Strengthens Neighborhood in North Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Nearly 600 folks turned out Saturday for the 16th Annual Community Block Party hosted by Apostle Vanessa Ward and her husband Keith Ward. As usual this multi-generational celebration of community in a northeast Omaha neighborhood once known as Death Valley went off without any trouble.
During this street festival-reunion-revival Apostle, cordless mic in hand, is everywhere preaching her grassroots doctrine of community togetherness. It’s praise and worship in the guise of kickin’ it.
“Do you feel it?” Apostle likes to say.”C’mon, community, let’s celebrate, let’s do it…” she implores the crowd.
“Let’s celebrate,” rejoins her daughter Va’Chona Graves, aka the Holy Ghost Girl, who emcees from a makeshift DJ booth under a tent. The music ranges from hip hop to contemporary gospel to old school R&B and soul. At various points a dance line forms and little girls to adult women move in unison with the beat.
The laid-back event is held on the very block that Apostle and her husband live on. It’s a poor, working class area dotted by boarded up houses and vacant lots. Their home and yard serve as the hub for the party, whose activities stretch up and down the long block.
That block, from Fowler to Grand Ave., is part of a stretch of 38th St. starting at Ames Ave. that bears her name in recognition of the work she’s done transforming the neighborhood. Her 2008 book Somebody Do Something tells the story. She’s writing a new book about the evolution of her community building work and her vision for the future.
That vision is much bigger than the block party, which is just one expression of year-round efforts to keep the neighborhood clean and safe. It’s a mission for this community matriarch, organizer, builder, evangelical activist minster. She pastors. mothers and advises her neighbors. She often picks up trash and cooks for them, too.
“I’m trying to teach by example. People respect you when they see that you’re not leading from behind,” she says.
She started two community gardens on nearby vacant lots. The Peace Garden sits atop a tall bank. It overlooks a curbside memorial to a drive-by shooting victim. A corner Hope Garden adjacent to her home is where she conducts Sunday morning services for her charismatic Afresh Anointing Church congregation. Boxed flower beds and a nativity scene adorn it. Her message there is consistent with her exhortations at the party.
The Hope Garden
“Alright community, you have to be ready to fight for what you believe in, you have to battle for what’s right.”
This faith warrior and her holy roller faith friends conduct a two-hour call and response service that draws dozens. People walking or driving by take it slow and quiet. Some end up joining the service. The amplified preaching, singing and music can be heard for blocks.
“The neighbors are coming in greater numbers,” Apostle says. “People will wait to cut their grass till were done. The ice cream truck guy won’t even ring his bell. These are things that have evolved – the respect.”
That same respect and unity infuse the block party
“It just becomes this wonderful place,” she says. “Everybody in the neighborhood contributes. They manicure the block, they make sure every lot is clean. The young people set up and take down tables and chairs. People donate food.”
Many neighbors have been personally ministered to by her and that’s given her serious street cred with 21-year-old Andre “Right” Boyd.
“I really appreciate everything she does for the youth. Most of us have been raised up by her. I’ve been coming to her for awhile and she helps me out. i have that relationship with her that I can go to her for things. She’s like a mother, she’s like a helper…She means a lot.”
She’s an admired figure.
“I think everybody sees her as a icon. She’s definitely going to have a legend here,” says Tina Knight. “Everybody knows who she is, everybody knows what she’s about. She’s highly respected.”
During a recent neighborhood tour Apostle led she caught sight of some teen boys and, as is her habit, she chatted them up. After making intros one of the boys looked up at the street sign with her name on it and said, ‘Ain’t this your street?” “Well, that is my name up there, yes dear,” she said. “But it’s really our street.”
Getting people to take ownership of the neighborhood has been key.
Nettie Houston says she’s seen “big changes here,” adding, “There’s no problems, everybody trusts each other and we watch out for each other.” She credits Apostle with making the difference in getting “the neighborhood working together.”
Apostle says even little things like greeting people, picking up litter, cutting the grass, bringing homemade cookies to a new neighbor or decorating the street with balloons creates a sense of community.
“Keep Omaha Beautiful statistics show that when a neighborhood is clean crime is down. Are you feeling me? So what do you think happens when you take the time to decorate and serve food?”
The block party features plenty of decorations and food.
Balloon displays line both sides of the street, one in the shape of a cross. Young kids queue up for face painting, balloon animals and the bounce house. A portable basket attracts young fellas for spirited hoops minus the trash talking. Elders play dominos at a card table under shade trees. Grills fire the smoke for the pulled pork sandwiches and beans served at lunchtime.
The Marching Dragons drill team performs. A talent showcase gives kids and adults alike their neighborhood American Idol moments.
There’s no cursing, no drama. It all flows free and
Bound up in this neighborhood’s story is her own saga of heeding the call to minister to an area “under siege” from open air dope dealers, gang members and drive-by shootings. A young man, Columbus Brown, was shot and killed in front of Apostle’s home. The mother of four feared for her own family’s safety.
A gang leader and his crew hung out up the street. “Their presence was very intimidating,” she says. “Corner boys on every corner sold drugs and you had to come through them like a gauntlet to get to your own home. They’d come right up to you and say, ‘You want some of this?’ When friends used to drive me home from church they’d say, ‘Hey, pastor, you sure enough live in the ghetto.’”
Raucous music blared from car speakers. Unkept abandoned rental properties and vacant lots became breeding grounds for negative activities. Then and now the area includes young single mothers and retirees struggling to get by. Some residents are unemployed or underemployed, lacking education or skills to move up. It’s a microcosm of the woes that beset segments of northeast Omaha.
Apostle’s seen it over and over and it stands in stark contrast to when she came up there a half-century ago.
“In these very impoverished, transitional situations people come and go. There’s a high risk element of crime, isolation and desperation. People are not interested in knowing each other. It’s very unfriendly.
“When I was a little girl I came up in community. My mom would have talent shows and leaf raking parties in the backyard. She was one of the main organizers of block parties. I saw something that it did – it brought people out, it brought people together and it just forced community. When I grew older and moved into neighborhood after neighborhood that shared that heaviness, that separation I was never satisfied with it, although I found out you become very complacent to what you’re used to.”
Like her neighbors, she was conditioned by an urban code that says to look the other way and keep silent.
“I had been raised up with the main rules of living in the inner city – don’t get involved, mind your own business and don’t snitch.”
As things got worse she took her first action to address the chaos.
“I broke the rule that governs these neighborhoods and I called the police. That was big for me.”
But she wasn’t yet ready to take the next step.
“I was about to go out and give the facts of what I saw, what I heard but my husband wasn’t having it. We weren’t on the same page at that time for me to take a step that bold. So I backed down…”
A tragedy moved her farther down the path.
“When the young man was murdered in front of my house it just fired me on my journey. I just knew I was going to have to do something. But I didn’t know what.”
She faced an “inner struggle” living in that predatory environment.
“You become hard-hearted. You become angry. After a while you’re hating and hate can never change anything. I hated the gang members. I hated the loud noise. I hated the police helicopter hovering over me. I had become a victim of my own circumstances. The Lord began to show me how cold and callous I had become. Transformation starts inside yourself, so I had to go through a whole spiritual cleansing and healing because I was so hurt.”
That’s when the street became her church and its residents her flock as she intentionally went about softening hearts and reviving the community she knew growing up.
The memory of block parties from her childhood inspired her to recreate those times of “camaraderie and hope.” She’d come full circle.
The first block party she threw in 1995 marked the start of her neighborhood ministry. But to close off a street you must get everyone on the block to agree. That meant getting the gang leader’s OK. Before she could approach him she needed her husband’s approval.
“My husband was scared for my life.”
Keith Ward Sr. says while Vanessa went to talk to the gang’s top dog “I sat on the porch with my shotgun.”
Apostle recalls her anxious approach to the young man and his homies who ruled The Hood with fear.
“I said to him, ‘You know what guys, we’ve got a cloud of gloom hanging over us. Your homeboy’s dead. Everything is heavy. How about let’s have us a block party. We’ll do some dancing in the street and just move this heaviness.’ It got real silent and I waited and finally the answer came: ‘Cool.’ Then I said, ‘Three rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no violence.’ I waited again for his answer: ‘That’s fine.’ I was shaking all the way home i was so nervous.”
Then she went about making it happen.
“I called on different churches and friends. They gave what they could.”
From the start, the family friendly event has held a nostalgic feel.
“All I could see was old-fashioned fun. Hula hoops, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, relays, three-legged races, hopscotch, paper airplanes balloons. Kids running and playing. All the things that engage us.”
About 75 folks attended that first year. The no drugs, no alcohol, no violence mandate was abided by then and has been ever since.
She says, “It’s been made clear that is the standard.” “I know that everything was right because the gang leader came over and said, ‘What do we owe you for this?’ I told him nothing and he said, “Thank you for doing this for us.’ That took me some years to process. When does a person own something and believe it’s for him?”
As neighbors took ownership of the party the numbers grew. She estimates as many as 600 to 700 people have attended in peak years.
Apostle believes that buy-in speaks to how much people crave community.
“That’s what I found out it is. That’s why they come every year. That’s why nobody wants to leave. That’s why it’s been 16 times now and we’ve never had a violent outburst, not even a fight. We’ve never had to call the police to bring peace. How do you do that with that many people in the middle of a neighborhood that was called Death Valley if it’s not something we all hunger for and really want.
“What I see is that people want to get together in a safe environment, they want to connect in love, they yearn for that. That’s what it’s come to be. It’s kind of like a slice of heaven.”
When Apostle’s son, Keith Ward Jr., sees young adults at the party he’s reminded they were small children when his mother began this work. Many are now parents themselves and their babies are the next in line for this each one to teach one modeling.
“There isn’t hardly anyone here that hasn’t been touched by her or advised by her or grown up by her or looked out by her or prayed by her. Hopefully they’ll know there’s a better way for the future,” he says. “If there’s nobody out here like my mother to guide ‘em or show ‘em how we can come together as a community or what it is to be a community then we’re lost.”
He’s proud of her.
“It takes a special type of person to pull this off. It takes a lot of patience, it take a lot of love. She sees everything beautifully. She sees something better in you that you might not even see yourself.”
As the event grew and the area’s criminal activities subsided, her work there drew attention. Elected officials and community leaders have attended to sing her praises and to encourage neighbors to continue building community. Mayor Jean Stothert made an appearance on Saturday. Media covered the party.
Today, when you walk the block the tranquil setting is a far cry from what it used to be. Apostle can hardly believe the change herself.
“I can walk out here at 11 o’clock at night barefoot and go all the way up to the corner with no risk at all. Sometimes when I go out of my house at night I don’t want to slam my door because i don’t want to disturb the peace. This was not the case even 10 years ago. We have arrived and everybody knows i
Much of her best work there happened after she and her husband moved away for two years and then moved back.
“My husband’s health was failing. He had kidney failure. We were going through a time where we were just spiraling down. We got evicted from our house and ended up moving to the suburbs.”
But she still retained a presence on the block.
“I took time off only from living here because every Saturday I would come back to pray.”
She didn’t like what she found.
“It was like suspended animation. Houses were vacant, nothing was moving forward. I set up a microphone at the top of the hill and prayed. I reminded the neighbors of where we came from and what we’ve been through. I’d say, ‘C’mon, we can do this, let’s keep showing love.’ Then I would walk and pray up and down the block, keeping the pot stirred so to speak. I had to leave my comfort zone and think of strategic ways to approach people. That took a lot of work.”
Then she decided she needed to move back to The Hood. That took some convincing of Keith, who didn’t like the idea of leaving the comfortable burbs for “the trouble land.” When she told him her work there wasn’t done he relented. Once they returned to 38th she wasn’t sure she’d do the block party that first year back but neighbors kept asking when she was having it. So she held it. She’s faced doubts about doing it since then, too. It’s a major undertaking.
“It’s hard work,” says Apostle, who dips into her own pocket to cover what donations don’t. “Every year I feel like I don’t know why I do this but I’ve found out this thing has become bigger than me.”
Despite the stability she’s brought to the neighborhood challenges persist. Unsavory persons and activities try slipping back in. But she sees more neighbors being vigilant.
“Every now and then the element still comes back and tests,” she says.
“At one time I thought it was just up to me. There’s other people involved now that want to protect and hold onto it. I get so happy when someone else steps up to call the police. Yeah, it’s more than me. That’s the whole point.”
She feels there’s no reason what’s being done there can’t be replicated.
“Can you imagine a block party here, a block party there, all promoting that love and connectedness? Where could the negative element run? It would only have to succumb.”
While she believes outside individuals and agencies have a role to play in reviving North O she says change must come from within.
“I do believe there are bridges that need to be laid but I do not believe you can bring change from the outside. You cannot come into my neighborhood and bring about change and correction if you’re not part of it. When you live out west and you come down here to preach you’re not connected. What do you know about it and where have you earned the people’s trust? I had to earn their trust.”
She’s sure she’s where she needs to be and she knows what she wants to do next there.
“I think this area is in dire need of a church and a community development center.”
When she looks at the empty lots around her she sees opportunities to offer programs that help people get out of poverty and off welfare.
“On all these empty lots we should be able to have something to help us connect or bridge to the various agencies we have in North Omaha.
We need to get people built up and ready to take advantage of the wonderful things we have. We’ve got to give people the ability to dream. You’ve got to get people to see beyond their circumstances.”
She realizes she may not live to see all her dreams fulfilled but she’s hopeful her children and others will see them through.
“I won’t always live here but I’m raising it to be able to go on beyond me.”
Her best takeaway from the 2013 block party is that the neighborhood has taken it on as their own. “They’re doing it now. If I wasn’t to do another one, it would live on. They’ve grown into it. It’s so rewarding.”
- Omaha’s Vinton Street Creativity Festival Celebrates a Diagonal Cultural Scene (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Block party brings neighbors together (triblive.com)
- Omaha neighborhoods celebrate National Night Out with block parties (omaha.com)
- Celebrate the Block to Build Community (bmecommunity.wordpress.com)
- Pamela Jo Berry Brings Art Fest to North Omaha, Artist and Friends Engage Community in Diverse Work (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending Food Desert in North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
A food movement is afoot in the U.S. and organizations like No More Empty Pots in Omaha are on the leading edge of efforts to get people to eat healthier by buying fresh, organic and local and growing their own produce in their own gardens or in community gardens. My story about No More Empty Pots and the women who run it is in the new issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com). On this blog you can read my stories about related efforts, including pieces on Minne Lusa House, the documentary Growing Cities, and the marriage between the culinary and horitculture programs at Metropolitan Community College.
No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending North Omaha Food Desert
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Addressing the food insecurity problems that nag poverty-stricken northeast Omaha, where access to fresh, organic produce, dairy and bread products is limited, are an array of individuals, organizations, projects and initiatives. Many efforts aim to educate residents on how to grow their own food, cook healthier and eat better. That’s part of the mission of a fairly new nonprofit player in the food mosaic, No More Empty Pots (NMEP).
“I want our community to be healthy, I want people to understand the importance of having healthy, nutritious food, I don’t want this community to not have what everybody else has. I also want us to learn we have a right to know how our food is grown, what is being put in it and how it impacts our body. That’s what drives me,” says NMEP program director Susan Whitfield,
Healthy ingredients are important in that designated food desert area whose residents consume mostly processed, packaged and fast foods and a scarcity of fresh, natural items. Unhealthy eating habits contribute to the disproportionately higher rates of diabetes and heart disease among that community’s African American population.
In a district with high unemployment and spotty education there’s also emphasis by NMEP and others on getting people to achieve economic self-sufficiency through their own food businesses, from urban agriculture and catering ventures to food trucks and small eateries.
Launched in 2010, NMEP is dedicated to supporting existing food systems and creating new ones that reach people where they live and given them tools to help themselves.
There are many moving parts in this landscape of needs and delivery systems but NMEP founder Nancy Williams tries keeping it simple.
“NMEP is a backbone organization in the collective impact process for local food systems development,” she says. “We serve as a conduit when needed and a catalyst when necessary. We are trying to help connect entities and fill gaps. We partner, connect, collaborate, initiate and contribute as needed. We try not to duplicate.
“Our neighbors struggling to survive the effects of poverty deserve to have all of us working together with contributions from everybody to develop and implement strategies that work and gets us to self-sufficiency and economic resiliency.”
Besides her scientific background, Williams draws on her experience growing up in Louisiana. Her family and countless others across America employed communal, sustainable food practices that largely fell by the wayside as people became increasingly dependent on mass production. NMEP is part of a continuum of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farm to table programs that seek to revive food activities once routinely engaged in.
Referring to her parents Jesse and Nancy Webber, Williams says, “They grew food because cash was short and family labor, plus land, was available. Cash was used for wealth creation – buying property, starting businesses, paying for education, et cetera. Their parents and other family members had bought land and property doing the same thing, so they did what they knew, improving what they could for us as they learned better. Nobody was rich but education was a priority and having your own stuff was important.”
WillIams worked the communal gardens her family planted, helping harvest a bounty shared with friends and neighbors. She applied her experience to 4H projects, once winning a national competition. The Louisiana State University science graduate earned her master’s in weed science and plant pathology at Cornell University. A job with Dupont brought her to Omaha, where she and her musician husband raised four children. The couple introduced their kids to gardening.
“It was important for us to garden when our children were younger so that they understand where food came from, how to grow it and harvest it and had access to the same good food I grew up with. Now we enjoy supporting local farmers and farmers markets.”
Her experience and expertise long ago planted the seed for the sustainable food work she does today.
“I actually wrote plans for elements of No More Empty Pots in 1999 before I knew any of the folks that helped to get it off the ground.”
Around that same time she directed Omaha’s City Sprouts program, whose mantra of “sustaining communities through gardens” fit her philosophy. Then she and a group of friends began talking about doing something to help alleviate the disparities plaguing northeast Omaha.
“Seeing little change in our neighborhoods and with residents as a result, we decided to take action.”
Informal meetings led to a food summit and monthly forums. NMEP was born from the discourse and partners with many like-minded organizations, including Tomato Tomato and Metropolitan Community College‘s Institute for Culinary Arts and horticulture program.
“Because we are a diverse community and alleviating poverty is complex, there is ample room for multiple strategies,” says Williams.
She says everyone comes to food issues from their own vantage point “but I think maybe others detect a certain authenticity in me,” adding, “I can speak with authority about food and practices in this way because I have lived it and internalized it.”
“I’m passionate about this because I understand the power of good food,” Williams says. “When you have access to it, when you know how to provide it for yourself, when you consume it, when it becomes available on a wider scale for you and your neighbors, I know the overarching impact it can have in your life and the ripple effect it can have in your neighborhood and community from a self-sufficiency and sustenance standpoint, from a nutrition standpoint, from a brain development-child development standpoint, from an economic development standpoint.
“Because if you have access to good food you have more energy and better capacity to do those things well and you can invest those dollars you would have been spending on food on something else. You can also have income from providing that food to others or you can create a value-added product from the food that comes from someone else. So it is what I see as a perfect system for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education and micro enterprise development.”
NMEP or its partners provide everything from cooking demonstrations to food entrepreneurship programs and looks to expand these offerings and add new ones. Everything NMEP does is about education, collaboration and sustainability. Witness one of its new partner programs, Truck Farm Omaha. The mobile garden planted in the bed of a Chevy pickup educates area youth about sustainability. Truck Farm founders-directors Dan Susberg and Andrew Monbouquette, the makers of the new documentary Growing Cities, sees= their project as a perfect fit, just as NMEP sees Big Muddy Urban Farm or Minne Lusa House or Tomato Tomato as natural co-conspirators in this movement toward food security.
“More and more organizations and public entities are asking us to do cooking demonstrations,” says Whitfield. “People are amazed at how simple and easy it is to cook these foods. If you don’t see it, you don’t know.”
NMEP is located in a former Harvester Truck and Tractor sales and service center at 1127 North 20th St., in a mixed used tract of light industrial plants and single family housing units. There are plans to retrofit the 19,000 square foot facility to house The Eleven27 Project, an urban agriculture and food systems innovation zone that will feature shared commercial kitchens, event space, food production, aquaponics systems, workshops, classes and on the surrounding two acres outdoor urban agriculture, hoop houses, raised garden beds and composting.
Williams says 1127 will approach food “from production to processing to distribution to marketing to composting so that we have a full cycle for these products. We will extract the value along that food chain so that we’re maximizing the resources. We will make this sustainable by generating income to cover the education costs as well as the hands on training people are getting while going through the programs. It’s several different levels of sustainability built into this.”
By year’s end NMEP plans to initiate a $3 million-plus fundraising campaign for the renovation.
NMEP has picked a good time to have emerged.
“The universe is conspiring in our favor,” says Whitfield. “Evidence of that is community gardens and farmers markets. There’s been an explosion over the last few years. In supermarkets local foods are starting to take up more and more space. Stores want to reduce that carbon print, they want to know who their small farmers are, they want to know where their food is grown, they want to know what is put on that food.
“People are becoming more and more educated.”
Follow NMEP at nomoreemptypots.org.
- In this truck farm, the truck IS the farm (omaha.com)
- Is The World’s Most Sustainable Restaurant In Omaha? (urbantimes.co)
- Pamela Jo Berry Brings Art Fest to North Omaha, Artist and Friends Engage Community in Diverse Work (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Migration Stories: For African Americans Who Left the South for Omaha, the Specter of Down Home is Never Far Away (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- New film ‘Growing Cities’ takes road trip look at urban farmers cultivating a healthy, sustainable food culture (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Culinary-Horticulture Marriage at Metropolitan Community College (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Great Migration Stories: For African Americans Who Left the South for Omaha, the Specter of Down Home is Never Far Away
No matter where African Americans live today there’s a very high probability that someone in their family tree and maybe even several someone got up and out of the South before the major Civil Rights protections took effect. Making the move north or west of east was all about pursuing a better life. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) offers a small window into a few migration stories.
And you can download these and other iBooks as part of the project at-
Great Migration Stories: For African Americans Who Left the South for Omaha, the Specter of Down Home is Never Far Away
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The July 31-August 5 Native Omaha Days will feature metro-wide black heritage celebrations that on the surface don’t seem to have much to do with the American South. But when local African American families gather for the biennial Days most can point to someone in their family tree who migrated from the South.
The same holds true for almost any black family gathering of any size here. Whatever the occasion, there’s likely a Southern strain rich in history, tradition and nostalgia.
The Great Migration saw millions of African Americans leave the oppressive pre-civil rights South for parts all over the nation from the 1920s through the 1960s. Everyone who participated in the movement has a story. That’s certainly the case with two Omaha women who made the migration during its waning years, Luriese Moore and Lorraine Jackson.
Moore, 72, came from Boligee, Ala. in 1959 in her late teens. Her family had been sharecroppers but eventually become land owners.
“My grandparents lived and worked on the white man’s land,” she says. “Most everything went to the white man. They didn’t have a chance to show anything for their labors. That’s why my daddy was so inspired to get something of his own. He made it reality, too, when he saved up enough to buy 98 acres of land. He farmed it on weekends when home from his steel mill job in Tuscaloosa.
“My brothers and I grew up working the land. You got up when the sun rose and you almost worked until the sun set.”
The family still retains the property today.
Lorraine Jackson, 66, migrated from Brookhaven, Miss. in 1964 at age 17. Her grandparents were sharecroppers but eventually bought the cotton-rich land they toiled on and handed the 53 acres down to Jackson’s parents. Picking cotton was a back-breaking, finger-cutting chore. Adding insult to injury, you got cheated at the end of the day.
“You were supposed to get $3 for picking a hundred pounds but it seemed like you could never get a hundred pounds because the scales were loaded. But if you wanted to make money you picked cotton. I saved my money,” says Jackson.
The land she sweated on is still in the family’s hands.
Jackson says by the time she graduated high school she couldn’t stand being a second-class citizen anymore. She and her friends wanted out.
“That was the thing to do, you got out, you left.”
When Mississipians who’d already made the migration wrote or called or came back with news of plentiful jobs and things to do, it acted as a recruitment pitch.
“They would tell you about all the bright lights in the big cities and all the places you could go. They told you can have a better life. It made an impression that I needed to get away. I thought it was right for me. Besides, I was kind of rambunctious. I wasn’t the type to just sit there and say nothing or do nothing.
“I remember about a month before I left threatening my mom that I was going to sit at the Woolworth’s counter in town and she about had a heart attack. I said, ‘Mama, all they’re going to do is ask me to leave.’ It was time for me and I said, ‘I’m outta here.’”
Jackson came by train eager to start her new life.
Moore came by Greyhound bus and she says on the way here she was filled with mixed emotions of excitement and fear.
Each woman was among the movement”s last generation.
Another Omaha woman, Emma Hart, 87, was born in rural Ark. in 1926 but raised here, making her a child of the Great Migration.
Many other Omahans are variously fathers and mothers, sons and daughters of the migration. Few first generation migrants survive. A large extended family in Omaha made their exodus here from Evergreen, Ala. over a generation’s time. A group of Christians from Brewton, Ala. migrated here in 1917 to found Pilgrim Baptist Church. Practically every black family, church, club or organization has its own migration connection and story.
The precise circumstances and motivations for leaving the South varied but the common denominator was a desire for “a better way of life,” says Hart. That’s what drove her parents to come in 1921. The Big Four packinghouses were booming then. The promise of steady work there was still a powerful lure decades later when Moore and Jackson’s generation made the move north.
Migrants may not have thought of it in these terms, but implicit in their pursuit of a better life was the search for self-determination. Only by leaving the South, they felt, could they fully engage with and benefit from all that America offered.
Moore’s parents could not exercise their right to vote in the South without courting danger. She says her father risked his anyway by driving black protestors to voting rights marches. He left her a legacy and bequest she couldn’t ignore.
“My dad sacrificed his life. He could’ve got killed doing what he was doing, just to get the vote. My mother was concerned about Daddy getting killed because if you had a lot of people in your car during that time when the protests were happening the Klan would think you were freedom riders coming from the North.
“Daddy always preached to us, ‘Hey, when y’all get the chance to vote you vote,’ and I’ve never missed voting. The people before us gave their lives so we could vote.”
Moore married in Ala. Her husband moved to Omaha ahead of her to find work and a place to live. After she joined him they started a family. She worked for a time in a packinghouse, then she got on at J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store downtown. Her three brothers all moved here for a time and worked packings jobs. Those jobs were vital for many black families getting a foothold here.
“That’s where we really got our start, my husband and I,” she says. “We ended up buying two homes. It was good paying money at the time compared to other jobs we could get.”
Always looking to better herself Moore attended a local beauty college and she eventually opened her own salon – something she likely would not have been able to do then down South. Her clientele here included white customers, which would have never happened there.
Jackson, who married and raised a family in Omaha, worked in he Blackstone Hotel kitchen before going to beauty school and opening her own shop. She catered to customers of all races. An older brother preceded her to Omaha and drove a city bus for 35 years.
Both women continue doing hair today.
Emma Hart married and raised a family in Omaha, where she was almost never without work. She and many of her relatives worked in the packinghouses. Her first job came in a military laundry during World War II. Then she got on at Cudahy and when it closed she performed an undisclosed job in a sensitive area at Strategic Air Command. Two first cousins, brothers William and Monroe Coleman, enjoyed long, distinguished careers as Omaha Police Department officers. They could not have managed equivalent careers in the South then and even if they could it’s doubtful Monroe could have reached the post of acting deputy director he achieved here.
Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Story of America’s Great Migration, says, “The only way blacks could be recognized (as citizens) was to leave one part of their own country for another part. That’s why they’re like immigrants but they’re not immigrants. To me, it makes the story even more poignant because they had to do what immigrants had to to do just to become (full) citizens.”
“It wasn’t a political movement in the formal sense of the word but it had the impact of seeking political asylum or defection, almost in comparison to the Cold War when people tried to get on the other side of the Iron Curtain and had to go to great lengths to do so. This is a similar kind of defection that occurred within the borders of our own country and yet the people who were part of it didn’t see themselves as part of any demographic wave, they saw themselves as making a decision for themselves and their families. Ultimately this was about a search for freedom.”
Life outside the South was hardly paradise. Blacks still encountered segregation and discrimination in employment, housing, education, recreation. The De Porres Club and the 4CL staged marches and demonstrations against inequities here. Late 1960s civil disturbances in northeast Omaha expressed rage over police misconduct. Moore and Jackson experienced first hand blacks’ confinement to a small swath of North Omaha by housing covenants and red lining. Public places were not always accommodating. Many local businesses and organizations used exclusionary practices to deny or discourage black employment and patronage.
“To a certain point there were no restrictions,” says Jackson, “but there were some undertones. You could go anywhere. There were no signs that said you couldn’t. But because I lived it I could feel it but nobody really could do anything about it. You know subtle things when you see them.”
She recalls being made to feel invisible by the way people ignored her or talked past her.
In terms of housing barriers, she says, “My goal was to move past 30th Street because I couldn’t for so long, and I did. Some goals you just had to accomplish.”
Still, restrictions here were nothing like what they were in places like Mississippi, where state-sanctioned apartheid was brutally enforced.
“MIssissippi didn’t play, It was like a foreign country,” says Jackson.
When a member of her own family got into a dispute with a white person he had to skip town in the dead of night and stay way for years before it was safe to return.
Many blacks saw no option but to pack up everything they owned and leave everything they knew to start all over in some strange new city.
“I think the fact they would go to such great lengths is an indication of the desire and desperation and hopefulness they had that this next place will be a good place for me,” says Wilkerson.
This epic internal movement of a people wasn’t an organized thing but an organic response to harsh social-economic conditions. Punitive Jim Crow laws severely curtailed the rights of blacks. Widespread drought and blight forced many blacks off the land they worked as sharecroppers or farmers. The prospect of better paying industrial jobs in places like Omaha and Chicago, where packinghouses and railroads hired minorities, was all the reason people needed to move.
“Ultimately a migration is about determining for one’s self how one’s life is going to be and merely by living they are fulfilling the destiny and imperatives of their migration,” says Wilkerson. “For those who decided they could no longer live with the repression, they opted to plot out a course of their own choosing, and that is what a migration truly is. By just leaving they are doing the very thing they’re seeking to achieve. The leaving itself is the act of self-determination and courage.”
Those who made the trek to forge new lives elsewhere encouraged others to follow. Thus, an uninterrupted stream of migrants flowed from the South to forever change the makeup and dynamic of cities in the East, the North and the West.
Some streams fed into receiving cities located on direct rail lines from the South. Where black enclaves from certain states got established up North, they became magnets that drew ever more blacks. While Omaha received migrants from all parts of the South it primarily drew transplants from Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Ironlcally, where Omaha once offered more opportunity than the South, the situation has reversed and countless Omaha blacks, many of them children and grandchildren of the Great Migration, have made a reverse migration.
But when Luriese Moore came in the late ’50s there was no doubt the Midwest was an improvement over the South. “I found it much better,” she says. For starters, there was nothing like the overt segregation she knew growing up.
“Everything was black and white just all over (there). It was just a way of life. We didn’t like it but it’s what was happening. They had one side of the street for colored and the other side for white. They had one water fountain for the black people and one for the white people. When you went into a store you just didn’t get in on the white side because you knew where you were supposed to be. We couldn’t go in some exclusive stores in my hometown that sold very fine clothes. They didn’t want us to try on hats and things.
“Up here the integration and everything was all new to me. It was just totally different from where we were. I didn’t see the signs we saw in Ala. for blacks only or whites only. You could just go to anywhere you wanted to here. You could go to any store you wanted to.”
Blacks were not immune from harassment, intimidation, threats, outright violence in places like Omaha – witness the 1919 lynching of Will Brown and resulting race riot – but the South was a much more treacherous landscape.
Lorraine Jackson says while she never laid eyes on the Ku Klux Klan during the time she lived in Miss., their presence was felt in incidents like cross burnings.
“They were there. They were killing people. We saw a lot of cross burnings in front of people’s houses. We knew those people, we went to church together. That was scary. You never get that fear out of your mind. It was a fear that you had because really you hadn’t done anything, you were just black and that’s all you had to be.”
She says blacks perceived to be too aspirational or ambitious by the white ruling class could be targets. A cross burning was a message to stay in you place.
“I mean, you really had to walk careful,” says Jackson. “You were expected to work in the fields and things like that.”
Moore recalls similar menace in Alabama.
“There was one town right out from Birmingham that was known to be very dangerous and to hang black people, You could not be on the highway too much at night either because they would end up shooting you or running you off the road. Oh, I don’t even want to think about it. I had kind of pushed it out of my mind.
“My parents were wonderful parents because we were sheltered from a lot of things going on down there, Those were very crucial times. Where I came from if you didn’t do what they told you to then then they would start going around your house and everything. If they wanted your property they made it awfully painful for you to keep it. They’d start doing things to your family, pestering you, messing with you, like running you off the road. People would say, so and so had an accident, well they wouldn’t have an accident, they would be run off the road. It was mean. It was not a pleasant thing. We saw a lot of that down there.”
Moore appreciates how far African Americans have come in her lifetime.
“We’ve come to a place where things are much better and I thank God for it. We have come a long ways. When we sing ‘we shall overcome,’ well, we have overcome. I’m glad we’ve moved past that. During the time it was happening it was a bitter feeling. I felt angry. i was looking at race as the human race and they were looking at color. I just couldn’t see how a person could treat another person like that .Sin causes people to lose sight of life and to do terrible things to each other.”
Jackson says the root of racism people’s “fear of what they don’t know.”
Emma Hart doesn’t recall her parents mentioning any specific fear they fled. The poor sharecroppers just went where the jobs were and when two relatives came and made a go of it here, Emma’s parents followed.
Where Emma’s relatives in the South attended all black country schools she attended integrated Omaha grade and high schools and where her relatives lived strictly segregated lives she lived in an integrated South Omaha neighborhood.
“Everything was mixed in South Omaha,” she says.
On one of only two visits she made to the South she experienced the hand of Jim Crow when the passenger train she was on left St. Louis for Ark. and blacks were forced to change cars for the segregated leg of the trip. That same racial protocol applied when Jackson took the train and Moore rode the bus in Jim Crow land.
Even when Moore made auto trips to the South she was reminded of what she’d left behind. “There were certain places they wouldn’t even sell us gas,” she says. “We couldn’t even get any food to eat, we had to pack up our own food to take south and to come back until we hit the St. Louis line.”
Hart may not have grown up in the South but she’s retained many Southern traditions she was brought up in, from fish fries to soul food feasts featuring recipes handed down over generations.
Lorraine Jackson keeps her Southern heritage close to her. “I brought my traditions – like Sunday dinners with the family. I raised my kids with the same culture and the same core values. There isn’t much I changed. I remained who I was – a daughter of the South. I’m very proud of it.”
Every now and then, she says, she just has to prepare “some fried chicken and biscuits from scratch” for that taste of home.
She’s sure the way she and her siblings were raised helps explain why they’ve all done well.
“All of us graduated from high school. Some of us went to college. A sister has a master’s degree. It’s amazing we’re successful. I think it was the upbringing. In that time we lived in we had to be strong, we had to be respectful. We had a work ethic – that was another good thing. Faith was a big factor, too.”
Jackson and Moore have made regular pilgrimages to the South since moving to Omaha. They marvel at its transformation.
Moore says she never dreamed her hometown of Boligee would have a black mayor, but it does. She’s also pleasantly surprised by all the open interracial relationships, blended church congregations and mixed gatherings she sees.
Jackson says, “When I go back to Mississippi it almost shocks me to see the change. Sometimes it catches me by surprise and I think, Where am I? It’s almost better than it is here.”
Both women say that when they gather with family or friends who share their past it’s the good times they recall, not the bad times. And whether their kids and grandkids know it or not, the family’s Southern roots get expressed in the food they eat and in the church they attend and in various other ways. These Daughters of the South may have left but their hearts still reside down home.
- The Jungle and The Great Migration (piperhuguley.com)
- 2013 Stroll Down Memory Lane: Native Omaha Days Celebration (yperspective.wordpress.com)
- To Remember the Great Northern Migration (local.answers.com)
- Following My Father’s Footsteps In A 2011 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe (automobilemag.com)
Getting Straight: Compassion in Action Expands Work Serving Men, Women and Children Touched by the Judicial and Penal System
Teela Mickles of Omaha has been doing the good work of prison ministry for a long time. She doesn’t so much preach to offenders as provide them lifelines and guides for transforming themselves and breaking the cycles that landed them in prison in the first place and that led them back in prison after release. Her Compassion in Action program is expanding to serve men, women, and children touched by the judicial and penal system. I did an earlier profile of Teela that you can find on this blog. And I extensively quoted in another piece about programs in Omaha that aid returning citizens. This new story that follows below will soon appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Getting Straight: Compassion in Action Expands Work Serving Men, Women and Children Touched by the Judicial and Penal System
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Her nonprofit serving men, women and children touched by the judicial and penal system will return community-based human services to a site that housed Nebraska’s oldest social service agency.
The Wesley House Community Center was a United Methodist Church mission for decades. Most recently, Paul Bryant operated a youth leadership academy there. When it closed in 2010 the Methodists pulled support and the two-building campus, which includes a church, was acquired by the Omaha Economic Development Corporation.
The buildings sat unoccupied until Mickles and OEDC president Michael Maroney reached an agreement for CIA to move operations into the main structure this spring. She’s subleased the church to a Native Assembly congregation pastored by Rev. James Bollinger. CIA and the church will offer a community food pantry.
She hopes to raise $300,000 through donations, grants and fundraisers to support operations the first year. Proceeds from a June 28 Performance for Peace event at the Kroc Center, 2825 Y Street, will go to CIA. The 6:30 p.m. event will feature live music performers, spoken word artists and dancers.
Mickles is also seeking donated materials and labor to address various building needs.
For Mickles. who’s added extensive youth services to the CIA mission, moving from her home to a building with multiple office, meeting and classroom spaces, made sense. But relocating to this northeast Omaha site is also personal. She grew up in a home where the center now sits.
Maroney, the man entrusting Mickles with the place’s legacy, has warm memories of Wesley House. He worked there on three separate occasions. The organization he runs today was birthed there, as were other black-run enterprises, including a bank and radio station.
“It had meant so much over the years, particularly back in the late ’60s and early-mid ’70s when it actually was doing things unprecedented in terms of creating those entities,” says Maroney. “That’s why we were careful to ensure we leased it to an organization that continues to add value to the community going forward.”
Mickles appreciates that past and intends on being a positive force in a community reeling from gang violence, truancy, dropouts, teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
“I think these things could be prevented if people were aware of the root causes and were willing to go after those root causes,” she says.
It’s why she’s partnering with a gang prevention program. Raw Dawgs Youth Corps, whose focus is boys, and with two programs, ICARE Youth Services and IMAGES, whose focus is girls. Kainette Jones runs ICARE and Helen Wakefield runs IMAGES. The women laud Mickles for her commitment to empower people to change their lives.
The LITE (Ladies in Training Everyday) Mentoring Partnership for at-risk girls is a collaborative between CIA, ICARE, IMAGES and the city.
“Kainette works with girls who are in the judicial system, Helen works with girls in the public schools system and I work with girls locked up –in detention. The girls can come out of my program and go into the other programs,” says Mickles.
It’s akin to the human and social services once offered at Wesley.
“There’s a lot of history here,” Mickles notes. “Mike Maroney didn’t want to give it to just anyone, he wanted to keep it in the community, he wanted to keep it doing what it’s supposed to do with its history of serving families and reaching our little kids. And I have my own history with it because at age 10 my mother and father sold our home and two adjoining lots so the Wesley House could be built. There’s a tree my dad put a tire in so I could swing.
“So I’m coming back home. It’s amazing I’ve come full circle and am back where I started.”
She’s coming with an ambitious plan, too.
“This is a major opportunity for Compassion in Action to expand with all the organizations I partner with to keep our babies from going through that cycle. We’re going to break a whole lot of cycles.”
Mickles, a certified Assemblies of God minister and an addiction counselor, has worked with incarcerated folks for 30 years.
As part of her faith-based work she’s developed a curriculum to help inmates prepare for life on the outside. She also trains individuals and organizations dealing with offenders.
For inmates to buy into a program, she says, “it’s gotta be personal, it’s gotta be on their terms.” Her early work with women taught her that preparation before release is key.
“It dawned on me that we have to work with them before they get out — there’s too much pressure, not enough time. We have to connect with their kids. We have to get volunteer families to work with the children while mom’s incarcerated, let the kids know they are being brought into an environment of safety and education and help build some bridges prior to mom getting out. The women need practical things, like maybe job skills, education, a place to live, transportation. They need all these things in place before they get out.”
Many of the same things hold true for male offenders.
Much groundwork is laid with clients before they ever leave prison.
“We work with them three to six to nine months prior to their release. We’re able to determine how best to serve them, to connect with family members they want us to connect with, and to prepare a support team tailored to their development and interests. For example, if they’re in for a drug-related crime then we know we have to get a team together to address that piece.”
Family reconciliation can take time. The focus must first be on recovery.
Education is another emphasis. “The GED program is offered in prison but most people don’t take advantage of it,” she says.
For a time she operated CIA transitional homes where returning citizens stayed in preparation for “independent living.” That included making residents employable. Today, she refers ex-offenders to transitional living and employment programs.
“We had some really good results.”
In 2005 her work with men expanded when CIA became a partner with the Nebraska Department of Corrections providing services for the federally-mandated Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative.
She says, “A man has to feel some type of significance in order to continue his survival. These men are not dead. There’s a lot of intelligence, creativity behind those walls.You’d be surprised how a light comes on. But the problem is they’re not able to express that behind the walls.”
She believes men need encouragement and guidance from other men inside and outside the yard. “A man I think needs to take him down the journey.” Finding enough mentors is a challenge.
She’s proud that CIA’s become a trusted provider.
“Our specialty is prerelease education, reentry preparation. We know all the resources necessary for them to connect but we won’t send you someone who did not commit to working on themselves while they were still locked up. If they’re not willing to do that that means when they come out they’re going to continue to play games. We address all that on the inside. Their heart has to change.
“We let them know there are opportunities for them to make a change. There were things that happened to them when they were young. It was a process. So we help them look at that process. We work well with individuals who are committed to the discovery of their own purpose and own true personal worth. I believe validation breeds motivation for education to find their vocation.
“If you’re going to do that work, and it’s very difficult and meaningful, then you can come out here and be anything you want.”
In her experience those who make it follow a common path.
“When they stick to their plan, they will succeed and God is always at the core of that. Their gifts and plans had to be spiritually connected because they tried everything else and it didn’t work,” she says.
Mickles has many success stories among CIA graduates. One, Tracie Ward, works as her program manager while pursuing a master’s degree in health and human services.
Ward, says Mickles, found herself “in the wrong place at the wrong time “and ended up incarcerated when her children were still young.
Ward says she’s come a long way with the help of Mickles and others.
“Her program is faith-based which I believe is foundational for a lot of people transforming from something old into something new,” says Ward. “I call myself living proof because I’m living proof of overcoming a lot of things. Although I may have made mistakes I am also an overcomer and an achiever.
“I was able to tap more into my spiritual beliefs and that’s what helped me get through a lot of what I was going through. Miss Teela believes in people, she believes in validation, she believes in inspiring a person, she never comes off judgmental.”
Ward says it’s essential returning citizens find individuals like Mickles “that will see past your past.” She adds, “My past does not define me. I am who I am today, Years of sobriety. An associate’s degree. Great accomplishments. I love being the grandmother I am today.”
During her incarceration her three sons were matched with a volunteer family Mickles recruited and trained to act as a support system.
“They were able to fill in in some of the areas my family needed some assistance in,” Ward says. “Being able to keep that bond while you’re away is a big part of transitioning back into society or into your family or into your role as a mother. It kind of makes or breaks the relationship.”
The family remained engaged with Ward and her sons until she was free and reunited with her children. Now Ward’s using her own experience to help young women facing similar challenges as she did.
Mickles increasingly sees her work as a continuum. The problems that land adults in prison, she says, start early in life and tend to repeat from generation to generation.
“The men that are locked up all say the same thing – that they joined the gang for a sense of belonging. That’s a mandate on society that young men will be OK with getting the crap beat out of them so they can belong and young girls will be OK with having the option of being gang-raped so they can belong. Shame on us.
“The gangs are out there taking our kids. We need to consider an option the boys can go to where they can belong that’s positive. That’s how CIA got into what we’re doing now. All the pieces started falling in place. We’ve got the whole spectrum covered.”
She recently began working with young men at the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility.
“The boys are just like the men, once you get to that little child inside they let you know everything,” she says. “And there’s a fear factor. They don’t like what they have done, they don’t like the choices they have made, but they don’t think they have options. They are looking to die before they’re 25 or to spend their life in prison. That’s what the path of life looks like to them.
“When these young men graduate from my class they’re asking, ‘What is your main fear about being free?’ They say, ‘My life.’ It all stems from having been engaged with gangs. If someone had a tiff with you from back in the day they will find you. So that gun thing comes into play here. These guys really are holding their piece because there’s somebody that might come after them. It’s dangerous.”
Mickles advocates Interrupting the cycle before it starts.
“What if we don’t let the kids get the guns in the first place? What if we gave them an option?”
That’s where Raw Dawgs comes in. The Atlanta, Ga.-based program’s founder, Joseph Jennings, expects to have it up and running here by the fall.
“The Raw Dawgs program will provide that alternative to gang membership for boys 7 to 18,” says Mickles. “It’s an incentive program. Tutors will work with kids to help with their academics. Mentors will help with their home life. Kids will be rewarded. It’s a youth corps, military-style program. The kids will be drilled.
“We’re hoping that within five years with all the operations and networks we have here that we will see a reduction in bullying and dropouts and incarceration of our young people. We don’t need another prison, we need more people working together to help our babies see another perspective so they can get out of this situation before they get into it.”
Mickles enlists male lifers in the state pen to write cautionary letters to incarcerated young men at NYCF to provide a dose of truth from those who’ve walked in their shoes. The author of one letter writes:
“It’s no help to stay bitter and angry…Yes, its easier to be that way because you don’t have to be strong enough to own up to your own bad actions…You don’t have to be strong enough to accept the help offered to you…Bitterness and anger make it easy to hide, I get it. I don’t have no magic words or cure to fix your situation, whatever it is. There’s no simple or fast resolution here…
“Ultimately I have learned no one else has the answer…we are the ones with the answer. If you want life to get better you have to be one who works for it and when you slip up you have to be the one who faces that and fixes things as you get back on track. Never give up on you. Just the fact you have someone who has handed or read to you this letter means there are others who haven’t given up on you.
“I make you a promise, homey, you don’t give up on yourself and I wont give up on you, and one day we’ll look back on life and be thankful we chose to have all the courage to fight for our lives back and to make things better for everyone around us. That’s the power of the divine spirit in each of us, that’s the power of our humanity at its best.
Mickles says the inmates who pen the letters “are real excited about having something to make their lives significant. They desperately want to be able to give back to the community in some way.”
She says the young men who receive the letters and complete her curriculum “have been changed – they’re excited about a new life they can have.” All of CIA’s work is about keeping offenders from recidivism and diverting young people from poor choices that result in doing time.
“It’s too expensive to keep people housed in prison when you can spend less money preparing them to become a taxpayer and a contributing member of the community,” she says. “Agencies are being forced to consider this population as individuals rather than as a number or a label and so there’s a lot of community awareness. The community is connecting to the fact these are people.”
She says the best deterrent to criminal behavior starts in childhood.
“If we validate our kids at a very early age and they feel they’re special they’re going to make the right choices.”
It’s a mixed bag in terms of how CIA participants do once they’re out of a correctional facility.
“For the most part I’ve learned not to have expectations,” says Mickles. “There have been times when I thought, OK, we did this and this and therefore this result should happen, and it didn’t happen. and it made me feel like I failed and it made me try to figure out what was missing, as if it depended upon me.” Now, she’s come to realize her job “is to plant seeds and treat everyone with respect and unconditional love, but it’s not up to me to fix them.
“You can present the same opportunities to people and some individuals will not only misuse and abuse that but they will end up back in prison. No matter what we do, no matter what we provide, it depends on their willingness to make it happen.”
For tickets to the June 28 event call 402-451-4500.
Keep up with CIA at compassioninaction.com.
Bro. Mike Wilmot saw the joy that a new home can bring people in Africa, where he did mission work. When he returned to the States to serve Omaha‘s inner city he set about building houses for the working poor as a way to build neighborhoods and community and to give families their first chance at home ownership. My new story about Wilmot and his Gesu Housing appears in Omaha Magazine. A previous story I did about him and his work can also be found on this blog.
Bro. Mike Wilmot and Gesu Housing: Building Neighborhoods and Community, One House at a Time
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Omaha Magazine
Jesuit brother Mike Wilmot prefers his actions to speak for him more than his words. Lately those actions have helped put several first-time home buyers in new houses.
After years coaching-teaching at Omaha Creighton Prep, then doing humanitarian missionary work in Sudan, Africa, he’s made North Omaha his ministry base. He helped build Jesuit Middle School and for more than a decade he’s directed Gesu Housing, a nonprofit he founded that builds affordable new homes in high poverty northeast Omaha.
Gesu helps him fulfill a Jesuit credo of finding God in all things. He gravitated to the Society of Jesus as a youth in his native Milwaukee.
“i got to know many Jesuits, who were very influential in my life,” he says. “They were friendly, they were happy, I admired them, and then I kind of said, ‘Well, maybe that’s what I should do.’ In anything that any of us do we want to make the world a better place to live in by spreading the kingdom of God and bringing that to all people, and housing-shelter is one of the ways you can do that.”
Wilmot’s work in the Sudan impressed upon him the difference a suitable dwelling can make in people’s lives. Back in America he realized many urban residents lack a home of their own.
“Everybody should have a decent place to live,” he says, “but it’s not the case, at least for a lot of people it isn’t. It’s proven that kids that grow up in a house their family owns are much better off.”
He says kids and families benefit from the stability home ownership provides.
Enter Gesu (Italian for Jesus) as a provider of quality, affordable houses in a working poor area beset by distressed homes and vacant lots. Gesu mostly does in-fill on empty lots, thus turning neighborhood eyesores into assets. Wilmot lives with fellow Jesuits in the Clifton Hills neighborhood Gesu builds in.
He’s recruited former Prep students as key team members. Dale Barr Jr. grew up in Clifton Hills and has gone from volunteer painter to board member to board president to paid general manager. Dan Hall, whose Hallmarq Homes is the general contractor for Gesu, played ball for Wilmot.
“It’s rewarding work,” says Barr, whose duties include promoting GESU and raising funds. A recent direct mail brochure he sent out netted new supporters. “It’s nice to find people who buy into brother’s vision,” he says.
“It’s a great thing we’re doing down here,” says Hall. “We’re changing the neighborhood one house at a time.”
Gesu works closely with the city to tap HUD dollars that subsidize half the purchase price of each home and make it possible for low income buyers to obtain low interest loans and to assume small mortgage payments, Omaha 100 helps buyers qualify and educates homeowners in maintaining their places.
Both the Peter Kiewit and Sherwood Foundations have supplied major matching grants. Kiewit recently awarded a second $250,000 grant but that means new funds must be found to match it. A fundraiser is in the works.
Barr says Gesu isn’t as well known as older nonprofit players in the field but what it offers is hard to beat. He says Gesu homes represent “a tremendous deal,” adding, “If you’ve got good credit, you’ve got a job and you qualify for a $70,000 loan you’re going to get into a brand new three-bedroom energy efficient house for $600 per month.” It’s why he hopes more people discover Gesu and support it.
“It’s not just people getting houses, it’s improving neighborhoods, it’s diverse people living together,” says Wilmot. “It’s been proven the best neighborhoods are diverse economically, culturally, ethnically. That’s the mission of Gesu Housing – to put people into houses and to make the neighborhoods better neighborhoods.
“We’ve got to rebuild the city from the inside out.”
Gesu’s doing its part with 17 homes completed and occupied, five underway and five new ones scheduled to start construction this spring. More support can help build more homes and assist more families to live the American Dream.
“We’ve gone from two houses a year to four and now our cycle’s five,” says Barr. “That’s gotten us in good graces with the city and HUD because we’re doing it, we’re building them and selling them. We don’t have inventory sitting around.
“We’re making our own footprint with these new houses. We try to be a part of the neighborhood. We ask neighbors what we can do better. We give away hams and turkeys to our homeowners and their neighbors at Christmas.”
Hall says the collective neighborhood is protective about Gesu homes because residents appreciate the investment they represent on their block.
“Neighbors that watch houses for me I give a gift card. It goes a long way you know in establishing a relationship. You get some security out of it. Once you get people involved if somebody isn’t supposed to be here they’ll run them off or they’ll call me .”
It’s all about building a community, says Wilmot. “We started on Grant Street, then we went to Burdette, now we’re going over to Erskine. Little by little…”
One house at a time.
For details about how to support Gesu, visit http://www.gesuhousing.com or call 402-614-4776.
- A Humble Man, A Jesuit, and a Pope…Is this the Start of a Joke? (soulsify.wordpress.com)
- Grace: For Jesuit priest in training, Rome is a place to visit, not a career destination (omaha.com)
Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in S.D. The name evokes many things to many people. First of all, it depends on which of the two most notorious episodes associated with Wounded Knee you’re referring to: the 1890 massacre of Native American men, women, and children by the U.S. 7th Calvary or the 1973 occupation of this small outpost and surrounding territory by American Indian Movement activists. Even when you fix on one of these dark events, there’s a mix of feelings aroused, including among the very people who experienced the occupation on one side or the other. Journalist-author Stew Magnuson’s new book Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding takes the measure of the wildly different interpretations of who bears culpability for what was supposed to be a peaceful protest turning ugly and violent. My story about Magnuson and his book is soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Wounded Knee Still a Battleground for Some Per New Book by Journalist-Author Stew Magnuson
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Journalist and author Stew Magnuson’s new book Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding finds virtually every survivor of that 71-day occupation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in S.D. sullied in some way.
The book by this Omaha native, who did a Peace Corps stint before a freelance correspondent career, explains how what began as a symbolic stand protesting historic wrongs to native peoples ended up a deadly siege. Its American Indian Movement organizers became heroes to some and criminals to others.
As the site of an 1890 atrocity committed by U.S. 7th Calvary troops against the Lakota Sioux, Wounded Knee was a powerful stage to send a message. But when the peaceful occupation turned violent confrontation between activists and authorities the symbology got lost amid the resulting deaths, injuries, property damage, theft and bitter feelings. The ensuing trials uncovered misdeeds on both sides but fell short of satisfying truth or justice.
Magnuson describes how everyone involved has very different interpretations of events that spring in 1973.
“Everyone’s got a piece of the puzzle and a legitimate point of view, but there’s a lot of b.s.,” he says. “There’s the possibility some very nefarious things happened inside there.”
A key figure in the occupation was the late AIM leader Russell Means, whom Magnuson says was “an endlessly fascinating character. All the world was a stage to him. He kept that angry young man persona up to the very end.”
Magnuson discovered how far apart the factions can be at an Augustana College (S.D) .conference last April that gathered AIM leaders and opponents together. His 2008 book The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder and its look at border town problems got him invited as a presenter. But he also went as a journalist.
“It was everything I thought it was going to be. Lots of fireworks, a lot of people yelling at each other and accusing each other of being liars. I’d never covered anything like that.”
He’s covered a lot too. Racial strife, cultures clashing.
He was visiting here between jobs in 1999 when he came upon a story that led him to Pine Ridge. He read about a recent riot in the border town of Whiteclay, Neb. and plans by AIM leaders to march there and by the state patrol to respond.
“This had all the elements of things I’d been covering,” says Magnuson. “I’d been told by some newspaper they didn’t think I could be a reporter in my own country, so I kind of took umbrage at that and called the Christian Science Monitor about covering this unfolding story.”
He got the assignment.
“A couple years later I decided to look more into Whiteclay and stumbled across the Yellow Thunder story.”
The Oglala Sioux was killed by a group of whites in a 1972 racially motivated attack in Gordon, Neb. That event and the trial that followed galvanized AIM and its Wounded Knee occupation the next year. Coming to the story three decades later, Magnuson saw the makings of a book.
“I just threw myself into the project. I went and worked in a salmon cannery in Alaska for the summer to raise money to go up to Sheridan County (Neb.) and live there as long as I could to do the research.”
His Yellow Thunder Book won high praise. When the Augustana conference came around he saw an opportunity for a piece of long form journalism or a short book timed with the 40th anniversary of the Wounded Knee occupation. He found a publisher in Now and Then Reader.
He says a comprehensive account of what happened still needs writing. In his book virtually every occupation figure has a self-serving ax to grind. An exception is Adrienne Fritze. As a 12-year old she was held captive with her family. She went to Augustana hoping for reconciliation and an apology. She got neither.
“There’s some people who want a kind of truth telling commission. Well, we really don’t have a mechanism for that in America. The main mystery that needs to be resolved is what happened to (civil rights activist) Ray Robinson. It’s very well established he was inside the occupied village and has not been seen since. He has a family asking about where he is. His widow was at the conference.”
He says “the bigger historical questions of what did the occupation mean and what were its implications” are matters “people will be debating for decades to come. Did it raise awareness to the very real grievances, like the abuse of border schools and terrible government policies that AIM wanted to bring attention to? I would argue yes it did. But it brought years of violence afterwards, It stopped the progression of the reservation. It was kind of devastating for Pine Ridge.”
He says if anyone’s to write the full story they need to hurry, “A lot of these participants are not going to be with us a whole lot longer.”
Meanwhile, Magnuson, whose day job is managing editor of National Defense Magazine based in Washington D.C., hopes to finish a book on Highway 83. His backroads adventures on it as a boy and young man sparked his wanderlust life.
He will sign copies of his Wounded Knee book starting at 12:30 p.m. on April 28 at The Bookworm.
He muses on Native American issues on his “View from a Washichu” (white guy) blog, http://www.stewmagnuson.blogspot.com.
During the occupation, ©framework.latimes.com
- Pine Ridge Liberation Day Event Turns Into Alcohol-Related Showdown in Whiteclay Nebraska, Says Alcohol Justice (prnewswire.com)
- A Sad Anniversary for Native Americans (earthfirstnews.wordpress.com)
- Gunfire, chants mark Wounded Knee anniversary (seattletimes.com)
- Tragedy, resistance, and hope (graybeardtrail.com)
Mayoral candidates come and go. Some turn up, if not every election cycle, than most. Others are one-trick ponies. Some are real contenders, others are pretenders. Whatever the chemistry is that has the requiste magic to advance someone through a primary into a general election and to then propel that person onto winning the office is clearly something that some candidates have and others don’t. It doesn’t mean you can’t acquire it, whether that’s more spending power or a more appealing brand or image. Nebraska State Sen. Brad Ashford is a curious blend of being a longtime, well-known, and respected politcal figure in the state but one who steers away from stamping himself as this or that. Voters tend to like clarity. He’s been a Democrat and a Republican and he just ran in the April 2 Omaha mayoral primary as an independent. And got creamed. He’s a liberal or progressive on social issues and a conservative on other issues. He’s definitely his own man. And he’s still very much serving the state in the Nebraska Legislature. He’s also not closed the door on future bids for elected office. This story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) has Ashford reflecting on his poor showing and describing who he is as a politician, lawmaker, and public servant.
Brad Ashford Reflects on Recent Omaha Mayoral Primary Loss and the Politics He Espouses
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
State Sen. Brad Ashford‘s poor showing in the April 2 Omaha mayoral primary isn’t deterring him from future elected office bids.
The one-time Democrat and long-time Republican ignored advisors and ran as an independent against major party-backed opponents. He garnered 13 percent of the vote in a low turnout, off-cycle election. Though officially a nonpartisan race the two candidates who advanced as finalists to the May 14 general election, Omaha City Councilwoman Jean Stothert and Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle, are a registered Republican and Democrat, respectively.
Ashford also finished behind Republican Dave Nabity and barely ahead of another Republican, Dan Welch. He concedes his independent bid against a stacked deck was a miscalculation.
“I was warned, I didn’t believe it,” Ashford says. “With three Republicans in the race all spending over $300,000 in the campaign it drew a tremendous number of Republican voters to the polls. I think that was really it. The three candidates were really pushing. I didn’t see that, I saw them canceling each other out and in effect it increased the turnout. From a political strategy point of view we just didn’t anticipate the onslaught of Republican voters.”
He feels abysmal voter turnout east of 72nd Street hurt him. He criticizes off-year elections for city council and mayor as “inane,” adding, “What it does is give special interests and big contributors much more sway in what happens than is appropriate.” He intends introducing a bill in the Unicameral next year to place the city elections on the same cycle as county and presidential elections.
Despite the disappointing finish, he says, “I’m still very much interested in running for another office. I’m energized by the people. I think my interests at this point would be to run for some sort of statewide race. I’ll look at what options are available.”
Should he decide to test the waters he says, “I’ll again confront the question, ‘Can you run as an independent? George Norris (the legendary early 20th state senator) did it. That’s a long time ago. But I still think there are numbers of voters who are dissatisfied with partisan gridlock and so, yeah, I will look at a statewide race.”
Ashford, whose current legislative term concludes at the end of 2014, when term limits force him out, doesn’t like being bound by party politics.
“I don’t think party hardly at all. It never enters my mind and it never did when I was running as a Republican. I certainly didn’t think about the Republican platform, most of which I don’t agree with on social issues.
“I’m a social justice guy. I’m into inclusivity. I’m unabashed in that regard. I support gay rights. I’ve supported gay rights since the ’80s when I worked on hate crimes legislation. On immigration I’ve always supported a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are here.”
As head of the Omaha Housing Authority he supported efforts to get residents into their own homes. As a state senator he’s supported prenatal care for immigrant women. he changed his view from pro-death to anti-death penalty and he’s sought ways to limit illegal guns on the street. As a candidate he advocated for a career academy serving inner city youths. As a legislator he’s working on overhauling a juvenile justice and detention system he describes as “in the dark ages.”
He says he considers his views “more pro business” than liberal. “The more people that are part of the American Dream the better the country is, the more business that’s being done.”. He favors merging city-county government and building stronger relationships between the Omaha mayor’s office and the Legislature.
Ashford and Sen. Ernie Chambers conferring
This state representative from District 20 in Omaha hails from a legacy family that did well in business (Nebraska Clothing Company) and championed diversity. His grandfather Otto Swanson helped form the state chapter of the National Council of Christians and Jews (now Inclusive Communities). His grandfather’s example made an impression.
“I think he just instilled in me this whole sense that you’ve got to always be making sure people are not discriminated against and I think Omaha still has vestiges of discrimination. I think we’re a segregated city, certainly as it relates to African Americans. We’re paying the price for it.”
He says his campaigning showed him “people are excited about Omaha but they don’t understand why we have such restrictive laws on gay rights. I know the vast majority of people I talk to support much more progressive policies when it comes to immigration and gay rights and other things. I think people are more progressive on social issues than what politicians give them credit for.
“I think the more you stand up for those issues forthrightly the more people will follow you. The public is looking for people who are willing to take a tough stand. You can’t be wishy-washy. I think it’s incumbent upon someone like myself to continue the effort, to team up with other progressive people.”
He’s not looking for a political appointment from whomever wins the mayoral seat.
“I like both Jim Suttle and Jean Stothert. I wish them both well. But I would not be interested in any kind of appointment. i have to be out there mixing it up running for office and trying to get my ideas out there. I don’t want to be subsumed by somebody else’s ideas.”
Ex-Reporter Eileen Wirth Pens Book on Nebraska Women in Journalism and their Leap from Society Page to Front Page
Women journalists cover anything and everything today. They work in all facets of media. But there was a time, and not so long ago at that, when they were restricted to a narrow range of reporting topics and jobs. There were always exceptions to that rule. Here and there, pioneering women journalists defied conventions and overturned stereotypes to file assignments and fill roles traditionally prescribed for men only. A new book by Eileen Wirth profiles some of the revolutionary figures among Nebraska women journalists over the last century. Wirth is a pioneer or revolutionary herself. She became one of the first modern women in city news at the Omaha World-Herald in the late 1960s-early 1970s, then she broke the gender barrier in the public relations at Union Paciific, before becoming the first female chair of the Journalism Department at Creighton University, where she oversees what’s now called the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing. Her book, From Society Page to Front Page, is published by the University of Nebraska Press. It’s officially out in May. My story about Wirth and the female journalists she writes about whose lives and careers advanced the cause of women both inside and outside the media field will appear in the April 2013 New Horizons. This blog contains several stories by me about journalists in print, radio, and television.
Ex-Reporter Eileen Wirth Pens Book on Nebraska Women in Journalism and their Leap from Society Page to Front Page
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in the New Horizons
Eileen Wirth doesn’t seem to fit the part of a revolutionary but that’s exactly what she’s been during her three careers. Wherever she’s worked, whether as a reporter or public relations practitioner or academic, she’s broken gender barriers.
As the women’s liberation movement played out from the 1960s through the 1980s she fought the good fight for equal rights, only not in the street or in the courtroom but by challenging male chauvinism, sexism and discrimination in newsrooms, offices and boardrooms. Her feminist predecessors fought similar battles as suffragists from the late 19th century through the immediate post-World War II era.
She says the struggles women endured to open new opportunities in the workplace is a story she feels deeply about, especially the stories of women in her own profession of journalism.
In the course of researching her new book, From Society Page to Front Page, Nebraska Women in Journalism, Wirth developed a deep appreciation for and kinship with maverick women who preceded her in the field she loves. She documents dozens of women of high achievement, many of whom she never previously knew about, and the obstacles they faced to work as publishers, editors, reporters. PR professionals and media moguls.
Some ran small weeklies, some made their names as columnists with local newspapers, others as reporters with national wire services and major metropolitan dailies. One woman covered the White House. Three women covered the Starkweather murder spree in great detail. Beverly Deepe became the longest serving American correspondent of the Vietnam War.
“In writing the stories of these women it became a journey of self discovery,” says Wirth. “I identified so strongly with these women and with their struggles and their achievements. Both of my sisters had national level careers and I’ve always been in Omaha, but I realized we need to redefine what we mean by female achievement. We have too often downplayed the local, the personal, the balancing act of career and family. I don’t think our society values that enough. One of the things I hope this book does is really give recognition to women who juggled both.”
She also hopes the book gets some deserving women elected to the Nebraka Journalism Hall of Fame, where there are cases of men inducted there whose wives are not, even though the wives were co-editors and publishers and full partners of small weeklies.
Wirth says doing the book proved both an awakening and an education for her.
“What was amazing to me is that we had so many absolutely remarkable Nebraska women in journalism. Even as someone who has spent her entire life in journalism and more recently teaching journalism history, if you had asked me to name them I probably couldn’t have named five or six, until you get to the ’50s when I knew some of these people. But even then I was finding people right and left.”
The finding took considerable effort. “It took a lot of digging to find most of them,” she says. “This book is nothing but a huge reporting process. I went to people and said, ‘Who do you know about, what am I missing?’ I went to sources and people would tell me stuff and I would follow up on leads.”
“If I were going to pick one woman in the book I fell absolutely passionately in love with it was Elia Peattie. Hardly anybody has heard of her. I resonated to her. She wrote a column that in some ways is very similar to the Mike Kelly columns of today’s Omaha World-Herald. This was before they had social or women’s pages. She’s kind of the World-Herald’s entree into that.
“She came to Omaha in the 1880s. She had been a society girl on a Chicago paper. She got a woman’s column at the Herald. This is when women’s news was in its infancy and the reason why women’s news was created in the first place was for advertisers. Women could not vote and the headlines were mostly about politics and crime, and if you look at the lives of women in the 1880s this just wasn’t relevant to them. They were working incredibly long days, raising large families, taking in work. They had very hard lives.
“Advertisers pressured the papers to do something to attract women readers because women were the primary shoppers. This was in an age when advertising was exploding. And the Herald hired Elia Peattie to write a column about women and apparently they put almost no restrictions on her. It was up to her to define what would interest women. Well, what she thought would interest women was apparently anything that interested her, which was everything.”
Wirth admires Peattie’s range.
“A professor from the University of Nebraska-Kearney compiled her columns in a book and I was blown away because it was reading a social history of the city in the 1880s. I mean, she has everything from this wonderful description of a young Bohemian slaughtering cows down at the Cudahy plant to a nursing sister at St. Joseph Hospital to the people riding a streetcar to showgirls. She did a very sympathetic portrait of the African American community when racism was horrible.
“She did some hilarious satirical columns about Omaha society people and why did they have to go back East to buy finery when they could buy anything they wanted in Omaha.”
Peattie’s community service involvement also appeals to Wirth, who has a strong service bent herself.
“Peattie ran for the school board when that was the only office women could run for or vote for. She was also one of the founders of the Omaha Woman’s Club. It was a way of localizing the city’s upper class women to do social work stuff. Nationally the woman’s club movement got behind the needs of working women in factories.”
All these activities made Peattie a popular figure.
“She became a larger than life personality,” says Wirth.
Another reason to like Peattie, according to Wirth, is “the work she did to bring together the handful of women journalists in the state. She documented a great deal about fellow women journalists. A lot of my best material came from work she did and recorded for history. She gathered the names of women active in journalism in the 1880s and 1890s. That was invaluable.”
Peattie’s become something of a hero to Wirth.
“One of the other reasons I resonated to Elia Peattie is that while she was writing this column her husband got very ill and it was up to her to support the family. She was writing everything right and left to make money to keep the family going and as a former working mother raising two children I just totally identified with her.
“If she was alive today she’d be running half the city, she’d be writing a blog.”
She might be publishing her own newspaper or magazine, ala Arrianna Huffington.
Wirth also writes about the one certifiable superstar among Nebraska-bred women reporters – Bess Furman.
“If you were going to pick a single woman that was our state’s most distinguished contribution to journalism it would probably be Bess Furman Armstrong,” says Wirth. “She was remarkable and she spanned a lot of eras. She was once referred to as a flapper journalist for her work in Omaha in the ’20s. She was what we would now call a liberated young woman writing rather risque satirical stuff about Omaha. She covered bootleggers and weird crimes down in Little Italy. She wrote this saucy column about Omaha’s most eligible bachelors.”
Bess Furman Armstrong
Furman was a product of her post-Victorian emancipated times.
“The ’20s were a wonderful period for women,” notes Wirth. “They had gotten the vote, there were more economic and education opportunities. She loved Omaha and she probably would have stayed except she worked for the Omaha Bee and when it was purchased by William Randolph Hearst she wanted out and when the opportunity came to leave she did.
“With women now having the vote the Bee needed somebody to write the women’s angle to politics. When Al Smith came to give a speech in Omaha in his 1928 campaign she got assigned to cover it and she wrote such a good story that she won a major journalism award for it and the head of the ;Associated Press who was in town with Al Smith offered her a job in Washington (DC) and she took it. Timing is everything.”
Furman made an immediate impression on Capitol Hill
Wirth says, “She was one of the first women to be allowed on the floor of the House of Representatives. She was assigned to cover First Lady Lou Hoover, who absolutely hated journalists. One time in order to write a story about what the Hoovers were doing for Christmas she dressed up like a Girl Scout” and infiltrated a troop visiting the White house. The ruse worked, too.
“When Hoover got beaten by FDR Eleanor Roosevelt started holding women’s only press conferences in order to force papers to give jobs to women,” says Wirth. “She and Eleanor Roosevelt hit it off wonderfully. Furman and her husband hit it off so well with the Roosevelts that they took home movies of the Roosevelts. When Bess became pregnant she decided she wanted her child to have a Neb. birth certificate, so she drove back here in the middle of the Dust Bowl to have her physician brother deliver what turned out to be twins. She brought with her a baby blanket Eleanor knitted her, and that got reported and went nationwide. Postmaster General (James) Farley sent her $10 worth of flowers and that was such a big order they had to send a special train.”
Furman later she did war information work during World War II and then joined the New York Times as one of its first female political reporters.
“She ended her career as the public information officer for the Department of Health Education and Welfare under Kennedy. Bess Furman may have gone to Washington but she was very deeply a Nebraska person and remained so for her whole life,” says Wirth.
Bringing to light women of distinction she feels connected to is satisfying to Wirth.
“Oh yeah, these are my people. We’re out of the same background, the same occupation. Yeah, I felt a very strong affinity with these women. I really found myself as I was writing about them feeling like I knew them and wishing I could actually have known them. I guess I felt especially this way with the women who wrote books, so you got a real feel for them, you weren’t just getting them second hand, you were getting their own take on the world.
“Their struggles were things I could totally identify with. You don’t have to be a journalist to feel this way about these women. Their humanity, their humor, the way they overcame obstacles with grace and courage and dignity, their persistence. To have careers like theirs was pretty daunting but they did it. I identified with the fact they juggled the personal and the professional and really probably never lost sight of either one.
“Culturally, anyone who has Neb. roots would identify with their style. Most of them let their work speak for them, which is what a journalist usually does.”
One that Wirth did get to know well is Mary McGrath, who preceded her at the Herald and labored 12 years in club news before becoming a highly respected health and medicine reporter. McGrath helped the green female reporters like Wirth negotiate the male-dominated newsroom.
“Mary McGrath was really the pioneer in city news at the Omaha World-Herald,” says Wirth. “She made a huge difference.”
Wirth recalls McGrath organizing potlucks for the paper’s women journalists and how these occasions became vital airing out and strategizing forums.
“It was a support system and an expression of solidarity. It was a safe place to bounce off ideas. If we would have said we were having a consciousness raising session the older women wouldn’t have gone, but to throw a potluck, how more Midwestern could you get? Mary knew the young women on staff were increasingly militant and she knew how smart and talented they were and she knew they were not writing about who was having who to coffee because they wanted to. She broke down the barrier between the two sections (city news and women’s news) by having those potlucks.
“The guys never had a clue what was going on.
Wirth says the Omaha Press Club served the same function for women in journalism across different media. “It was a great way to get to know other women journalists. You realized you were not alone.” Wirth adds, “A sociologist at Iowa State told me if you’re going to get social change made you have to have a cohort and in a sense you could look at the potlucks or the friendship ties that women journalists formed through the Press Club is how we had a cohort. There were enough of us who felt the same way to make a difference and it really made me feel for women of earlier eras who were one of a kind, out there on their own, whereas
I could go cry on Mary’s shoulder or vice versa .”
Each pioneering woman journalist in her own way contributed to the women’s rights cause and helped move their peers a little further along than before.
“There was a movement afoot. That was how this revolution was waged – one tiny step at a time.”
All those steps taken together made big changes, which is why Wirth was so offended when a feminist of high stature, former First Lady Hilary Clinton, was subjected to sexist coverage during her 2008 presidential campaign bid. The way Clinton was dismissed felt to Wirth like a slap in the face and a setback given how far women have come and what they’ve endured to get there.
“It was very disrespectful to women of our era,” says Wirth. It was like, Don’t they realize what we went through? Most of the Baby Boomers fought very quietly to infiltrate, to get a seat at the table, and nobody knew what it had taken to integrate the American workplace. That was my inspiration for writing the book.
“The women involved have kept silent about what they did because that’s how they were able to do it. We were a minority. The women were mostly just asking to practice the field they loved and were good at. They weren’t asking for special treatment.”
Much like the civil rights movement, the women’s movement gained its biggest victories through mass protests, the passage of new laws and court decisions, but there were many smaller, no less important victories won every day by ordinary women asserting their rights.
“When you look at coverage of the women’s movement it all focuses on things like lawsuits and militant demonstrations and you couldn’t do that in a city like Omaha if you intended to go on working in journalism. It wasn’t like you had a union that would protect you or a vast choice of employers, and for most of us that wasn’t our style anyway,” says Wirth.
Big, loud, public displays, she says, “weren’t the only way women made progress.”
Most of the change, she says, was the result of “the stealth revolution.” She adds that “KETV News Director Rose Ann Shannon said it very well when she told me, ‘I always felt I was dealing with reasonable people and we could work problems out.’ I too found that if you could have a reasonable conversation with somebody you could make progress. You were not going to change things overnight.”
She says there’s still work to be done, such as closing the pay gap between the sexes and shattering the glass ceiling that still limits women from advancing the way men do.
“But it’s sure better than what it was in 1970, and those changes were made nationwide by unsung young women quietly sticking their necks out on relatively small things over and over again.”
She says “it kind of boggles the mind” of her students to realize that as late as the 1970s women were still marginalized in journalism. “When you tell this to girls today they’re like, What? They can’t believe it, which I guess shows that we succeeded. They take it for granted.”
Wirth grew up in a large, high-achieving Nebraska City farm family whose parents set high academic standards and expectations for their children. Wirth loved reading and showed a knack for writing early on. She intended on being a history major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln until her father insisted she take a journalism course.
“What really made me into a journalist besides Dad ordering me to take the class was working on the Daily Nebraskan and I still think of as ‘the rag.’ It was so much fun. I fell in love with journalism people. The women were strong, funny, delightful, intelligent people and the guys wouldn’t have had us be any order way. I had found myself.”
When Wirth went to work for the World-Herald in 1969 she became one of the paper’s few female news reporters and right up to leaving its employ in 1980 she and women colleagues there, along with women at t countless other workplaces, waged that “quiet revolution” to bring about change.
“When women said, No, I’m not going to get you coffee, that’s not part of my job description, they were part of this revolution,” she says.
So was Wirth when she brought to the attention of an editor the fact that some young males colleagues hired the same time she was had received new section assignments while she was still in the religion beat she began in three years before.
“I’m a contemporary of Steve Jordon and Mike Kelly and both of them had had a couple of assignment changes, and I thought I was as talented as they were and I certainly worked as hard as they did. I told my editor, ‘If you’re doing this for the guys then you should treat the two groups the same. There shouldn’t be a difference. You should give young women the same opportunities as young men.”
She got the assignment change she desired.
At a time when female journalists were confined to covering only certain subjects, such as religion or society news or women’s news, her work made the case that women were capable of covering anything.
“There was a lot of hesitancy about assigning women to cover cops, which was fine with me because I hated it, but I covered them every Saturday for years simply because I wanted to show that a woman could do it.
“There was a lot talk that women couldn’t cover politics because they couldn’t get stories in bars and nonsense like that. There was real hesitancy about sending women to certain places. The ironical thing is that my religion beat in the early ’70s was at a time when the churches were heavily involved in the civil rights movement, so under the guise of covering religion I was actually doing a tremendous amount of civil rights coverage.
“I never regretting spending those three years on religion but I felt like I wanted to grow, to expand, to try new things.”
She also had the opportunity to take on occasional stories that struck a blow for women’s rights by shining a light on gender inequities.
“Quite a few of the stories I did were aimed at showing this inequality.”
Take the time that former University of Nebraska at Omaha women’s coach and athletic director Connie Claussen called to say she was fed up with the unfair and unequal treatment she experienced at the beginning of her career there. Claussen, whom Wirth describes as “a force of nature, a great lady.” was an equal rights champion who served on the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women.
Claussen eventually built a much envied women’s athletic department at UNO featuring championship programs but that legacy almost ended before it started because of how frustrated she was with the short end of the stick offered her and her student-athletes. Before Title IX was passed women’s athletics were separate and unequal in every way.
Wirth recalls, “Connie called one Saturday and said, ‘I’ve had it, I’m not going to do it anymore, I’m not going to teach a full load of physical education classes and coach two or three sports for nothing extra.’” Wirth was sympathetic. “No male would ever coach a (college) sport for free. Women’s athletics were housed in a quonset hut with no showers. I thought, Well this is a sports story and I went over to the UNO beat reporter and he yelled at me, ‘Women sports are a joke, there’s no story here.’ He practically threw me out of the sports department. So I went over to the city desk and they said, Oh yeah, great story. I wrote it and they put it on page one of the Sunday paper. It stirred up enough indignation and attention that Connie ran with it and she got the support she needed to build an outstanding program.
“And I think that was one of the major things we did as women journalists – we were approachable, we were interested in the problems.”
Another story resulted when Doris Royal, a farm wife from Springfield, Neb., called Wirth and in her gravely voice asked, “Are you interested in stories on women?”
“She told me a lot of farm women were losing the family farm operation because of inheritance taxes. The IRS said farms belong to the husband. The only way a woman could escape paying inheritance taxes on a family farm or family small business if she became a widow was if she had worked in town, so she could show she made an economic contribution or if she had brought family inheritance into it.
“A lot of women on farms had worked side by side, they’d driven the tractor and milked the cows, they’d done all the farm work, plus kept the books, and of course that doesn’t account for all their work in the home. But the IRS in effect said, You have made no contribution. Well, that was driving women off the farm because they couldn’t afford it. Land prices had gone up. So Doris started a petition drive and she wanted me to cover a story on it, so I did, I looked into all this stuff. I grew up on a farm and I was horrified, I was shocked, I had no idea. I wrote the story and Doris leveraged my story in the World-Herald to get the Farm Journal, which is the nation’s largest farm magazine, to take up the crusade.
“Doris got petition signatures from every state, she testified before Congress. This woman’s amazing, and they got the law changed.”
Wirth did an entire series on inequitable credit practices that devalued and punished women. “If a woman got married and changed her name she immediately lost all of her credit history,” says Wirth. “Banks assumed the credit rating belonged to the husband even if the women worked full time and could document it.”
With stories like these to file, Wirth’s work was fulfilling enough but when she and her then-husband Ron Psota decided to start a family she knew the demands of her work and the inflexibility of her employer would make motherhood and reporting incompatible. Besides, she was ready for a change.
“It was still the era when women were fired if they got pregnant. My ex-husband and I had been approved to adopt a child and at the World Herald at that time there was no way you could be a reporter and a mother. You had to work 12 and 15 hour days at the drop of a hat if some story broke.”
Making it easier to leave, she says, was the fact that “after 11 years I was burned out on reporting. It was time.”
When hired as the first woman outside of secretaries or receptionists to work in the Union Pacific public relations department she broke down the doors of what had been an exclusive boys-only club. She didn’t appreciate it when one of the old gang complained that she was a token hire to conform with Equal Employment Opportunity and affirmative action policies.
“A crusty old guy who didn’t begin to have my educational credentials and who couldn’t write protested that they had had to hire a woman.”
The bosses set him straight, she says by stating, ‘We hired someone who could write.’ Period. End of story.
Then in 1991 she joined the teaching staff at Creighton University, where in addition to her professor’s role she later became that Jesuit institution’s first female chair of the Department of Journalism (now called the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing). Teaching college is something she always knew was in her future and making a difference in the lives of her students is what most satisfies her about academia.
She’s glad that her book gives students an appreciation for who came before them.
“I think it is very important for my students, especially my female students. You want to give them a sense of what went before so when they invariably face some challenges they will do so with grace and with confidence knowing that women like themselves have conquered similar challenges.”
Wirth’s book, published by the University of Nebraska Press, is available starting May 1.
- More women are needed in investigative journalism (cjr.org)
- Bob Hoig’s Unintended Entree into Journalism is Six Decades Strong Now (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Journalism: Fellowships for female journalists (thenewstribe.com)
- Pakistani women journalists recognised (dawn.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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