Feeding the World, Nourishing Our Neighbors, Far and Near: Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Omaha Nonprofits Take On Hunger and Food Insecurity
Here is a collection of stories I wrote for the Winter 2014 issue of Metro Quarterly Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) that focus on the theme of how responding to a starving world is within our reach. The stories explore the efforts of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and of four Omaha nonprofits – Food Bank of the Heartland, Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue, City Sprouts and No More Empty Pots – in taking on hunger and food insecurity through various programs and activities.
Feeding the World, Nourishing Our Neighbors, Far and Near: Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Omaha Nonprofits Take On Hunger and Food Insecurity
Within Our Reach: A Starving World
40 Chances: Addressing Global Hunger
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Metro Quarterly Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
Father-son team bearing famous name pen book that calls people to action
Howard G. and Howard W. Buffett want people to know they can make a difference in a hungry world
Giving became synonymous with the Buffett name when Omaha billionaire investor Warren Buffett gave part of his immense wealth to his adult children’s foundations and pledged the remainder to philanthropy in the event of his death. Thus, one of history’s largest personal fortunes is now closely aligned to myriad efforts that address pressing human needs around the world.
The Wizard of Omaha’s eldest son, Howard Graham Buffett, heads a foundation focused on improving the standard of living and quality of life for the world’s most impoverished, marginalized populations. Food security is among the foundation’s top priorities, not surprising given that its namesake chairman-CEO is a farmer with strong roots in his agriculture-rich native Nebraska. He’s also a staunch conservationist and an accomplished photographer.
A former Douglas County Commissioner now living in Decatur, Illinois, where he farms, Howard G. traveled to developing nations as a youth. His late mother, Susie, cultivated a social justice bent in him and his siblings. Those experiences helped shape the work of his Howard G. Buffett Foundation. His travels and the foundation’s work, told through the prism of experiences lived, relationships built and lessons learned, highlight his new book, 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.
He co-authored the bestseller with his son and former foundation executive director Howard Warren Buffett, who has extensive experience dealing with international and domestic issues. As a U.S. Department of Defense official he.oversaw ag-based economic stabilization-redevelopment programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a White House policy advisor he co-wrote the President’s cross-sector partnership strategy. The Columbia University lecturer also worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Nations.
Growing up he made many trips with his father to challenging places. Like his old man he is a farmer, too, with a spread near Tekamah.
Now or never
The book by this father-son team calls readers to take action and do something good for the world, even if it’s in your own backyard. The authors proffer principles for doing and giving and making a lasting impact with the limited chances you’re granted in a lifetime.
“If there’s an overriding thought it’s that anybody can do something. It doesn’t matter how big or small it is, it’s just doing something” that counts,” says Howard G. He adds, “Don’t be afraid to take risks. Even going down to your local food pantry to volunteer might be a risk for somebody. Make a long-term commitment – don’t just do it to see what it’s like. That message is to NGOs and foundations and everybody who works in any kind of philanthropic area.
“Figure it out, focus on it and then stick with it.”
The Buffetts hope their book gives people a sense of urgency to act.
“The truth is most of us just go through life,” Howard G. says. “We don’t think about the fact that by time we get out of college and get a little experience we’ve probably got 40 years to really make a positive impact. That’s our prime. Just do it right. We cant take stuff back and eventually we do run out of time. That’s what the title is about.”
“That gets to the core of what 40 Chances is – about having a limited number of opportunities to do the best job we can in our life,” Howard W. says. “And that can be being the best mother or father, being the best mentor, being the best resident of a neighborhood or community. It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s just that you seize those opportunities.”
Much of the Buffetts’ work plays out overseas, where the West’s expectations or assumptions don’t hold much currency amid the developing world’s harsh realities. Howard G.’s seen many entities try to come up with First World solutions for Third World problems, but the metrics don’t always apply. The consequences of planting the wrong seed crop for a certain climate or soil in a vulnerable place like Eastern Congo, for example, can be disastrous.
“Everywhere we go and work in the world life is not predictable,” Howard G. says. “If you’re a small farmer struggling feed your family, if one thing goes wrong you can have a child die, so the consequences of what can happen are so significant and magnified.”
His foundation works in some tough environments, including Eastern Congo, Rwanda and Liberia, where food and water insecurity, poverty and conflict are constant threats.
He supports a research farm in South Africa, where the foundation does conservation work returning cheetahs to the wild and supporting anti-poaching measures. The farm grows cover crops, with the goal of making these crops available to several countries on the African continent. He makes a point of visiting wherever his foundation’s active, no matter how remote or unstable the site, in order to put his own eyes on a situation.
“Each trip leads to something,” he says. “I see something, I learn something. I would argue it is important to do it and I think other people need to do more of it. Anything I’ve ever learned that’s stuck with me has been in part because I’ve gone somewhere and experienced it. I think it has to do with my being a photographer. It makes you pay attention to the detailed scene of what’s happening. I absorb a lot of things by osmosis. As a photographer you have to be there to get the photograph. I think the same way with this, you have to be there.
“When you see a lot of pain and see death it’s very hard to deal with. I don’t care who you are, you internalize that somehow. What a camera allows you to do is to take pictures of that to show the world what’s happening. It gives you a whole new purpose of what you’re trying to do, so photography’s been a huge thing for me.”
This “journalist at heart” has published several books of photography featuring what he’s “seen and experienced” around the globe.
He’s learned the only way to truly appreciate the jeopardy people face is to go where they live and witness their peril.
“You can’t understand what people go through unless you see it for yourself. I can tell you what it’s like to go into a landfill where kids are living and dying because I’ve been to where people literally live in trash. When you walk in there your eyes burn and you can’t breathe. You have to experience that.”
Want is as near as our own backyard
The Buffetts say even if you can’t travel the world, opportunities to make a difference are as near as a local pantry or the Food Bank for the Heartland, where Howard W.’s volunteered. In the middle of America’s Breadbasket people face hunger and malnutrition daily.
“The numbers have grown so much in this country of people who are food insecure,” Howard G. says. “I think there are roughly 250,000 food insecure people in Neb. That’s right in the heart of America. You have to say to yourself, That’s not right, something’s totally wrong with that.”
Teaching people to grow their own food is part of building a secure, sustainable food culture. When Howard W. discovered all Omaha Public Schools’ designated career academies had been fulfilled except one – urban agriculture – he helped establish an Urban Ag and Natural Resources career academy at Bryan High School, where he also helped form a Future Farmers of America club. Both are thriving there.
“I’ve been able to mentor some of the students at Bryan and have an impact on their lives,” he says. “Those relationships and the gratification I get from being involved with very local things are extremely rewarding. It’s so enriching what takes place there.”
Father and son encourage folks to get out of their comfort zone and give time to worthy causes like these in their own community.
“I just think being there and showing up is so important,” Howard G. says. “You don’t have to have money to make a difference.”
He says America’s generosity and volunteerism stand it alone.
“Nobody volunteers like Americans. Americans are great volunteers, and they’re great volunteers right here in Omaha.”
If he’s learned anything, it’s that mitigating problems like chronic hunger, food insecurity and poor nutrition is gradual at best in places without America’s entrepreneurial-volunteer spirit.
“I’m very impatient and I’ve learned I have to be more patient. I’m a Type A personality, so I’m like, I’m going to go in there and figure it out when I get there. It doesn’t work that way. One of the things you learn is there’s no short-term fix or involvement. You have to be in this for the long haul. That changes how you do things. For us it means we have to stay very focused.”
He may not have the legendary focus of his father but he’s gotten better as he’s learned to say no and to accept he can’t do everything.
“I realized the consequences if I don’t stay focused – I get distracted, I’m wasting money, I’m not making impact. That’s just something I had to get better at. If I’m going to be focused and have impact I just have to say no to people, even very good friends. If I did all those things people come to me with I would get nothing done.”
His advice for organizations and individuals is the same.
“Figure out what you want to do and just do that and don’t get distracted, don’t get sidetracked, don’t try to save the world. If you’re going to try to save the world you’re going to save nobody. You’ve got to be focused. The more narrow you are the more impact you’ll have.”
Coming full circle
Doing the book brought many benefits.
“It helped the foundation itself gain additional focus and learn lessons from the past,” Howard W. says. “It allowed us to start honing in and narrowing down where we wanted to go from there, whether multi-year crop-based research on new varieties of corn or better ways to reduce soil erosion over a decade of no till with cover crops.”
Or building a new hydroelectric plant in Eastern Congo that will bring light to the masses to catalyze investment in agribusiness that will in turn create jobs for people whose only alternative is conflict. Or reducing poaching as a way to cut off funds (from the sale of elephant tusks and rhino horns) to rebels.
“For me personally this retrospective and introspective look was almost like going through a whole other undergraduate degree,” Howard W. says. “My dad and I hadn’t as much time to travel together the last couple years, so working on this book together was a new kind of journey of taking everything we had done together in person and then analyzing it. It’s been incredibly rewarding.”
The Howards were joined by family patriarch Warren, who wrote the book’s foreword, for the launch in New York City. The paperback version from Simon & Schuster is out this fall.
“That was fun. It brought us all together,” Howard G. says.
If there’s one thing Howard G. wants people to take away from the book, it’s for people to do something.
“I just feel like if we do these things it will make a difference. Even if it doesn’t make a difference, we tried and we might learn something from that failure. My dad talks about staying in your circle of confidence. I know what I’m good at, I know what I’m not good at, so I stick with that. But that’s a big enough circle for me to still step into things I’m not comfortable with.
“Like I tell young people, ‘Get uncomfortable, just go do some things that make you go, Holy crap.’ That’s what’s going to make you grow, that’s what’s going to make you want to do more because you’re going to gain some confidence. Some things might not work, but so what.”
Food Bank of the Heartland
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Metro Quarterly Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
Distribution key to getting food to where it’s most needed
Collective effort to reduce food insecurity includes Food Bank
It’s no secret that in the land of plenty, a resource gap exists for many folks, including right here in the metro, The problem with poverty is not just low income, it’s lack of education and access. Want often translates into people experiencing hunger and inadequate nutrition.
Every night, a segment of poor Nebraskans goes hungry. An estimated 250,000 in the state are chronically food insecure, a dramatic increase since the 2007-2008 recession. Most of the affected adults are the working poor. One in five area children are at-risk of hunger.
The mosaic of helping agencies and initiatives addressing the issue includes food pantries. community gardens. healthy cooking classes and nutrition education. A key player in that mix is the Omaha-based Food Bank for the Heartland. Established in 1981, FBFH is one of only two food banks in the state along with the Lincoln Food Bank.
Until five years ago FBFH served just Omaha and Council Bluffs but it now covers most of the state, plus western Iowa, for a total of 93 counties and 75,000 square miles. In what’s been a transformation for an organization that depends almost entirely on donations and fundraisers, a completely new leadership team and staff came on board in 2009 to scale the operations up. That’s meant a new, expanded facility at 10525 J Street, a fleet of big trucks and a tech-driven warehouse order and delivery tracking system.
“We have online ordering for our customers just like Amazon that tells us what they want, when they want it and reserves it in inventory,” says president-CEO Susan Ogborn. “We have Roadnet, the UPS software, to track our trucks and to route them efficiently. We have bar coding in the warehouse so that everything is tied to an item number. It tells you when to pick and how many to pick.”
All of it’s needed to distribute the estimated 16 million pounds of food FBFH will distribute this fiscal year.
“We can’t do this without being as efficient and effective as possible. We monitor everything we do and how we do it.”
Volunteers are critical for sorting and repackaging pallets of food.
In its mode shift the Food Bank’s gone from “order taker to business seeker,” she says. “Before, we waited for people to come to us. Now, I have two full-time food sourcing professionals who do nothing but look out for food and work with the people who give it to us.”
The organization’s increased the number of retail and processing vendors it contracts with to provide food, much of it perishable meat, dairy and produce, from fewer than a dozen to more than 200. Procuring enough edible resources for its many food partners, who include pantries run by the Heart Ministry Center, Together and Heartland Hope Mission in Omaha, has “changed our entire business model completely,” Ogborn says, adding. “We are first and foremost a distribution center now. We’ve got five people on the road all the time in rural Nebraska. We’re an entirely different business.”
Heart Ministry Center director John Levy says, “The Food Bank plays an absolutely critical role in us being able to serve people in need. We can access a much wider selection of food by using Food Bank and also keep our costs much lower. By having a wider selection of food, people are more likely to come back to our Center because they had a good experience. Because we are able to get the food for free or drastically reduced prices, we have more money to spend on helping clients with their underlying problems.”
Ogborn and her staff all came to their jobs with no previous food banking experience, which she says has worked to their advantage.
“We don’t know what we can’t do, so we just we just try anything and don’t let anything stop us.”
Most satisfying to Ogborn, she says, is “finding some creative way to serve people we haven’t served before,” For example. identifying the rural poor in the Sand Hills region was proving difficult until she thought of an outside-the-box way to reach them.
“I sent out a letter to the sheriffs in those counties that said, ‘You know who the people are in your community that are in need, I don’t, how about I send you some food boxes and you give it to them when they need it?’ I didn’t know if I’d hear back or not. Well, the sheriffs in those counties, especially Nance and Merrick counties, are now distributing food on a regular basis. They’re supporting mobile pantries and we’ve got all kinds of services going on there.”
Closer to home, FBFH operates programs that provide meals to at-risk children after school, on weekends and during the summer through such youth-serving organizations as Completely Kids.
“Where we identify a gap where people aren’t being served by anybody else we will start a program.”
The effects of hunger and poor nutrition are far-reaching, especially on children’s health and school performance. Often hunger or malnourishment results when people can’t afford or find fresh, local food near them. Those living with food insecurity and residing in food deserts often don’t know what eating healthy entails and need to be taught how to source and cook things that don’t come out of a box.
Growing your own food is an option for some. But for most folks a food pantry or the SNAP (food stamps) program is more realistic. Not everyone knows about or chooses to use these remedial options. Ogborn says as many as a third of those eligible to receive SNAP benefits in Neb. fail to do so, often, she suspects, out of embarrassment.
She agrees with colleagues that mediating hunger in the Heartland requires a collaborative effort to make the needed collective impact.
“In the food banking world we have a saying – you can’t food bank your way out of hunger. And you absolutely can’t. There is enough food to feed everybody in America but how we get it and people connected is very challenging. It’s a distribution challenge process. It’s also an issue around nutrition education, cooking healthy meals.”
That’s why the Food Bank partners with ConAgra Foods Foundation, Walmart and other mega food processors and purveyors to get healthy food to where it’s needed. “We could not do what we do without them.” It’s why it partners, too, with the Hunger Free Heartland coalition and the Hunger Collaborative to do the same on a more intimate scale.
Hunger Collaborative shared services coordinator Craig Howell says FBFH not only provides nutritious food to pantries that clients might otherwise not access but supplies hot meats for children outside of school they might miss at home. He says it also assists eligible clients get signed up for SNAP. “The ability for us to make sustainable changes cannot happen without the work of the Food Bank.”
Another part of the answer is fast food giants and school cafeterias offering healthy alternatives. Ogborn says reaching people where they live with their habits will make a profound difference in their nutritional levels over time.
Ogborn says the ultimate goal is for all Nebraskans to be self-sufficient in terms of secure, sustainable access to food. “We’d love to put ourselves of business.” Until that day arrives, fundraisers are needed to help support its work. In Sept. a city-wide spaghetti feed garnered thousands of dollars. Proceeds from the ConAgra Foods Ice Skating Rink during the annual Holiday Lights Festival will go to the Food Bank. On March 12 FBFH’s big annual fundraising dinner will feature celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian at the Embassy Suites in La Vista.
Money, food, volunteers and vendors are what keep the Food Bank going. Visit http://www.FoodBankHeartland to get involved.
More Organizations Working to overturn food Insecurity
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Metro Quarterly Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
Community response to hunger fosters collaboration
Different approaches come together to make collective impact
Organizations working to make at-risk populations food secure agree more can be done collectively than alone to combat hunger. Omaha’s replete with efforts that feature collaboration and cross-pollination. Some players, such as Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue or City Sprouts, have distinct niches. Others, such as No More Empty Pots, are more comprehensive in scope and thus all roads lead there.
One way or another, these organizations connect with coalitions like Hunger Free Heartland, a ConAgra Foods Foundation’s originated-initiative that’s evolved into the community-wide Child Hunger Ends Here-Omaha Plan. Members of the Hunger Collaborative – Food Bank for the Heartland and pantry operators Heart Ministry Center, Together and Heartland Hope Mission – collectively work to end food insecurity and to provide an array of human services.
New collaborations are always surfacing, including the Prospect Village Community Garden Program that finds City Sprouts, No More Empty and Big Garden, among others, promoting the benefits of engaged, cohesive neighborhoods through community gardening.
Three organizations among many making a difference in creating a secure, equitable food system are:
Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue
If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a communal effort to feed one. Experts agree no one source can solve food insecurity, Instead, ending hunger takes multiple approaches. One is capturing excess food otherwise thrown away and giving it to hungry folks. That’s just what Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue does.
Formed in late 2013 by Beth Ostdiek Smith, Saving Grace rescued more than 200,000 pounds of perishable food in its first 10 months of operation. Ostdiek says a pound of food equals one meal, meaning Saving Grace provided 200,000-plus meals to its recipient partners, who include nonprofits such as Table Grace, Heart Ministries and Open Door Mission that serve vulnerable youth, adults and families.
Smith, who’s long been concerned about the amount of food that gets wasted and the number of hungry people needing square meals, says she “found a niche that really wasn’t being fully addressed” in Omaha.
The response to her food rescue and delivery organization indicate’s she’s helping fill a gap.
“I can’t emphasize enough how excited our recipients are by what we’re bringing them. This is really healthy, nutritious food.”
Response from food vendors is equally positive.
“I think it’s because we’re offering this consistent, professional model that comes out to food vendors. We have refrigerated trucks and our drivers have food handling licenses. We keep it simple and seamless. We get food from here to there.”
Trader Joe’s, Akins Natural Foods, Greenberg Fruit and Attitude on Foods are a few of the biggest participating vendors.
“We just signed on CenturyLink Center’s Levy Restaurants, so we’re going to capture all the excess from the concessions and parties there.
QT has expressed interest in donating all the perishable excess from their convenience stores.”
She says she sells vendors on the give-away with a basic appeal. “Rather than throwing your excess food away in the trash we can rescue your food and get it to people that need it. It just makes sense. We like to say we’re feeding bellies rather than the landfills. It’s exciting to see how much people care and want to make this happen. We need to honor our donors who take and make time to donate.”
Part of Saving Grace’s mission is enhancing awareness and education on food waste and hunger. For example, the organization informs vendors and recipients it has the means to capture unsellable but still edible dairy, produce, proteins and grains that otherwise get thrown away.
“A unique thing we do is match the food to recipients’ needs because many times people have great hearts and take things down to food pantries the pantries can’t use. When we bring on a food recipient partner we interview them to see what their capacity is – whether they have refrigeration and freezers – how much they’re serving and what’s most in demand. Then we match our food to their needs.”
She wants to add more recipients but she says she won’t “until we get more food donors – I don’t want to make promises we can’t keep.” She says there are vast segments of the food industry ripe to be tapped, including corporate, school and hospital cafeterias, country clubs, caterers and arena-convention centers. She estimates more than 80 percent of perishable food goes uncaptured and therefore trashed. “There’s huge potential to procure more food,” she says.
Helping her with the logistics and food sourcing is Judy Rydberg, who brought 12 years experience with Waste Not Perishable Food Rescue and Delivery in Scottsdale, Arizona. Smith used that program as the model for her own. Smith feels she’s hitting a wave of interest in mitigating hunger. “I think we’re starting to see a movement, and if we can be a catalyst for the movement with our other food partners that would be a great thing.”
She also sees a need for more collaboration and communication so that food partners can identify how they best align. As for Saving Grace, she says, “what we need to have for this to be sustainable is more dollars and food donors,” adding, “We’re looking for Saving Grace Friends to help us get the word out, raise funds and open doors.
We’re just getting started. We’re a very small but mighty organization.”
Visit savinggracefoodrescue.org to see where you can make a difference.
In 1995 City Sprouts began as a small community garden meant to bring harmony to the then-violence plagued Orchard Hill neighborhood. The nonprofit’s evolved into a one-and-half acre campus from 40th and Seward to 40th and Decatur. Its education center, community garden and urban farm have a mission to enhance food security, promote healthy lifestyles, employ at-risk youth and build community.
The land produces fresh vegetables and eight hens in a chicken coop produce eggs for use by area residents, many of whom tend plots in the community garden. Youth from challenged backgrounds learn horticulture and life lessons in addition to earning money working on the farm, which includes a hoop house that extends the growing season from early spring through late fall. The fruit and vegetables interns grow from seed to table are sold at an on-site farmer’s market. Classes and workshops by horticulture and other experts cover nutrition, canning, dehydrating, cooking and non-food topics. Events such as potlucks, discussions and seasonal celebrations invite area residents to engage with staff, volunteers and visitors.
“We are part of a larger movement locally and nationally trying to foster a connection with your food, with your neighborhood. Our work is supported by this great resurgence of people going back to gardening, knowing where their food comes from and eating more locally, more seasonally,” says City Sprouts director Roxanne Williams.
A turning point for City Sprouts came in 2005 when a vacant house at 4002 Seward Street was donated as its education center.
“Getting the house was a huge asset,” Williams says. “That is one of the things that has enabled us to grow our organization. It changed the whole direction of City Sprouts and made so many more things possible.”
The house allows the organization to be engaged with the neighborhood year-round through classes and programs held there.
In addition to the interns who grow on the urban farm, young children are introduced to gardening on campus. Next spring children from two neighborhood elementary schools, Franklin and Walnut Hill, will learn gardening and nutrition in programs City Sprouts is planning with them, including developing a school garden with Franklin staff and students.
With northeast Omaha considered a food desert because residents have limited access to fresh, local, nutritious food within walking distance, the garden and farm take center stage in good weather. Williams says City Sprouts is one of many players trying to improve food options there and in other underserved metro neighborhoods.
“It’s not one answer, it takes a village, it takes so many people working together. There’s lots of groups making a difference. I think we’re making inroads. But there’s always going to be a need.”
Community gardeners, ranging from entire families to single moms to senior retirees, grow on 45 raised beds surrounded by fruit trees and perennials. In exchange for a nominal fee gardeners are assigned a bed and provided plants, seeds, water, education and encouragement. Gardeners are responsible for maintaining their own beds.
Getting buy-in from neighbors is taking time, especially in an area with many rental properties and therefore much turnover. But there are growers who return every year. Several young professionals and students living in the area who also happen to be backyard farmers and foodies are regulars at the community-building events.
Williams, a master gardener who comes from an education and fundraising background, came on board three years ago as the nonprofit’s first full-time, year-round director.
“It is my ideal job. I absolutely love what I do here because it encompasses all my interests and experience and weaves them together. I get to work with kids, teens, all the way up to, seniors, I garden, I fund-raise, I teach.”
City Sprouts partners with many organizations in carrying out its mission and depends on volunteers to maintain the campus.
“There’s always weeding and watering and harvesting to do,” Williams says.
Its big fund raisers are the spring Omaha Gives, the August Gala and an end-of-year campaign.
For donation, volunteer and event information, visit omahasprouts.org.
No More Empty Pots
It started with 2010 conversations, then a summit, around people’s passion for fresh, nutritious, local flood – growing it and getting it to where it’s most needed. Discussions about building food systems that tie together local producers and underserved consumers, that educate users, that support entrepreneurial opportunities and that do much more led to the creation of No More Empty Pots.
The catalyst organization is all about identifying needs in the local food ecosystem and partnering with others to address those needs. The hoped for collective impact aims to reduce food insecurity and to grow a sustainable, healthy food culture.
Co-founder Nancy Williams says while food deserts are lessening as there’s more access to fresh, local food, too many people remain disconnected from their food.
“There are a lot of people working on this,” she says, “and it’s going to take a lot of people putting forth effort, working together, securing resources and engaging folks to make that happen. I believe that will happen and I see evidence that we are on our way to getting there.”
The nonprofit does its part by convening stakeholders, hosting workshops and presenting gardening and cooking demonstrations. It partners with Truck Farm to send a garden on wheels to schools and other youth-serving organizations to educate students about how food grows. NMEP also supports things like Community Market Basket, an initiative through Tomato Tomato’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program that makes fresh, local food accessible to folks who might otherwise not get it.
Even with all this activity, she sees gaps that need filling.
“There are still some self-sufficiency issues we need to help people address so that they know how to produce their own food and to use seasonal food for proper nutrition at a reasonable cost.”
She says eating healthy within a budget, on a limited income, is doable when people are informed.
She sees much potential in food business development. She’s fundraising for renovations to new space NMEP recently acquired on North 30th Street. She envisions a food hub there focusing on the aggregation, processing, distribution and recovery of food waste to extract and add value within the food system.
“The problem is not that we don’t have enough food, but that we don’t have the logistics, people, resources to ensure it gets where it needs to be at the right time to be used by the right people for the right thing. America throws away more than 40 percent of the food we grow. There is so much that can be done with logistics and growing food people want to eat and know how to use.
“Restaurants can get more local food but they need a place where they can get it in the quantity they need it, so working with distributors to get more local food is an opportunity as well.”
Where there’s waste, she sees opportunity.
“There’s lots of room for aggregation and processing. There’s lots of farmers growing food but they don’t always have somewhere to take the food after the markets because people aren’t educated and encouraged about the benefits of buying local and may not be accustomed to paying market price. The hub will give farmers a place to take excess produce and create value-added products.
“There’s a lot of opportunities for incubating and developing food-based businesses. It’s why we’re looking at having an accelerator to help cultivate entrepreneurial ideas and to connect new entrepreneurs with people who can help make their ideas come to life.”
She envisions a bakery and bistro at the new site along with shared commercial kitchen spaces that food entrepreneurs can rent by the hour.
In order for NMEP and others to make a lasting difference, she says, collaboration is key. Her goal is to replicate best practices here and elsewhere. No matter who you are, she says, “there’s space at the table for everybody to contribute to make this better.”
To assist NMEP’s growth, human resources are needed, including volunteers to garden, cook and teach.
“We also need professional support with marketing, fundraising, design and community outreach. We’re recruiting board members to help guide the organization to realize the community-driven vision. We’re actively seeking to fill internships in marketing and project management. We plan to hire staff as more projects become active.”
Keep up with NMEP at http://www.nomoreemptypots.org.
Struggles of single moms subject of film and discussion; Local women can relate to living paycheck to paycheck
The set-up for the HBO documentary Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert sounds like the kind of heartache country music sagas that Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton or Tammy Wynette made famous with its single working mom protagonist living, as the title goes, paycheck to paycheck trying to make ends meet. But Gilbert ‘s situation mirrors that of millions of American women facing real struggles. This story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) riffs off the documentary, whose Oct. 28 Omaha Film Streams screening will be followed by a panel discussion, to look at what some local single mothers contend with in getting by.
Struggles of single moms subject of film and discussion; Local women can relate to living paycheck to paycheck
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In the Gloria Gaynor anthem “I Will Survive” a woman declares her personal autonomy. Not needing to find validation in another is a liberating thing worth celebrating in song.
Life imitates art whenever a poor single mother breaks free of the shackles of fear, self-doubt and shame that hold her back, say women who’ve been there and now help others out of that trap.
Ericka Guinan was a single mom trapped in a cycle of despair before finding the courage to seek guidance from women who’d been in her shoes. Today, she’s the self-sufficiency programs facilitator at Heart Ministry Center, 2222 Binney St., where she helps women like Aja Alfaro, a young single mom of two, find the confidence to move toward their dreams.
Since graduating from the center’s Pathway program Aja’s turned her life around. She works as a SNAP outreach specialist at Heart Ministry, assisting women apply for food stamps she needs herself. Guinan’s been there, too. Each woman’s gone through the wringer of bad relationships, no work, low pay, food and housing insecurity, unpaid bills, creditors and feeling like there’s no getting out from under.
The stress facing many single moms is the subject of the HBO documentary Paycheck to Paycheck showing at Film Streams Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. The film, executive produced by Maria Shriver, follows a year in the life of Katrina Gilbert, a Chattanooga, Tenn. certified nursing assistant and mother of three. Gilbert’s trouble making ends meet and finding financial stability are emblematic of many women.
The free screening is a collaboration between Film Streams, the public advocacy group Coalition for a Strong Nebraska and Women’s Fund of Omaha, a nonprofit focused on improving the lives of local women.
Guinan will be part of a post-show panel discussing issues raised in the film. Joining her will be Women’s Fund executive director Michelle Zych, Coalition director Tiffany Seibert Joekel and Neb. State Sen. Tanya Cook. Alfaro will be there, too.
Joekel says barriers to single parents, especially women, include difficulties affording high-quality child care, unfriendly workplace policies, inability to access high-quality, affordable health care and limited educational opportunities.
Zych says Women’s Fund studies find stark economic disparities among Omaha women, particularly single mothers of color.
“Katrina Gilbert’s story is just one example of how women often live paycheck to paycheck. We expect the audience to learn more about poverty in Omaha and what efforts are being made community and statewide to ease this burden for families,” Zych says.
“It’s not easy living paycheck to paycheck,” says Alfaro, who knows from first-hand experience. “It’s hard, it’s a struggle.”
Alfaro’s made progress toward independence.
“It’s still hard but I’m getting there. Things started changing a lot just this year, when I finally got my own place for the very first time at the end of January.”
Alfaro’s steady income though sometimes makes her ineligible for certain benefits even though her earnings are barely above poverty level and she hasn’t reached self-sufficiency. It’s called the Cliff Effect and it plays havoc with the working poor. Tanya Cook introduced a bill in the Nebraska Legislature that would help some working parents continue qualifying for child care subsidies well beyond current limits.
Despite roadblocks to aid, Alfaro’s hopeful for the first time about the future. She plans resuming nursing studies.
“There is hope if people can get connected to the right resources. Once people have hope they can do things they never thought they could,” says Julie Kalkowski, co-director of the Financial Success Program through Creighton University’s Financial Hope Collaborative. The program works with single mothers for a year to undo old habits.. “We ask our clients to do small, actionable steps – little changes that add up to real money. Once people start to feel like they are moving forward they are willing to do things they have been too intimidated or overwhelmed to do, like calling creditors. We also offer debt consolidation loans.”
Guinan agrees hope is essential before women buy into changing their lives. At Heart Ministry she says “we let each women define her own pathway to success,” adding, “We ask what are your dreams, where do you want your life to be and then we try to figure out what we can do to help her get on the path to that. We have a therapist that meets with them once a week. We have a lot of resources and relationships within the community they can access. “
She says setting boundaries, getting an education, budgeting, building healthy relationships and having a positive support network is key.
It’s all about removing obstacles and Guinan says “a lot of the obstacles are in our head because we have a big fear of doing something new or of failure or of success. We a lot of times don’t believe in ourselves.”
She says overcoming negative self-talk and taking responsibility for one’s life is necessary for success. Guinan lived it all out herself – the self-pity, the denial, the hitting bottom before asking for help.
“I was lucky enough to meet several strong, healthy women just far enough ahead of me to relate to my struggles yet offer solid solutions and advice. I think I trusted them because they were sharing their own person struggles with me. I related and saw myself in their stories yet they obviously had overcome so much.”
Aja Alfaro’s found a similar sisterhood at Heart Ministry. Its self-sufficiency programs help women navigate out of tough situations by matching them with mentors, enrolling them in classes that address financial planning, parenting and life skills and plugging them into school or training programs.
Women who’ve gotten their lives together like Guinan share their own stories – struggles, successes and all – with young women like Aja, who says Guinan and a mentor, Nancy, have taken her under their wing. “I needed to learn how to get on my own two feet to take care of my family and they’ve helped me to come pretty far. They helped me start college and get this job. I think the biggest thing was learning how to care about myself. I’m more focused now on me and my kids.”
Empowerment helps but working a low wage job won’t cut it. It’s why Cook supports a minimum wage hike and advocates women explore training programs for well-paying nontraditional jobs in high demand like welding and traditional career-track jobs in health care fields.
“A disproportionate number of women work at a wage level that could not support a family without public assistance. Nebraska’s behind the power curve in terms of offering a fair, living wage or the kinds of opportunities that allow families to work themselves out of poverty.”
Cook says financial literacy “is very important” for women who don’t know how to manage money. “The way many families are compelled to live whatever money comes in goes right out to some emergent or past-due need, so they don’t learn to save.”
Ericka Guinan calls for more services: “I believe we need more job training, quality childcare, affordable and safe housing options, mental health and mentoring for single mothers.” She says women’s voices must not be lost in the process. “In the Pathway Program we strongly believe each woman has valuable experience and feedback to offer.” She says lawmakers need to hear from more mothers about the tough choices they must often make, such as buying food versus meds.
Creighton’s Kalkowski says, “One of the things that has always amazed me is how brave so many working parents are to keep getting up every morning even though their situation is bleak. Most of us have no idea how desperate so many families are.”
Guinan says no matter how hard it gets, single moms have a knack for making do. “We’re survivors.”
Rabbi Azriel’s neighborhood welcomes all, unlike what he saw on recent Middle East trip; Social justice activist and interfaith advocate optimistic about Tri-Faith campus
I sometimes end up revisiting subjects. Usually a span of a year or more goes by before I do. In the case of Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha, I ended up profiling him twice in the space of a year and going back another year or so I extensively interviewed him at least two more times for additional projects No worries of overkill or reptition with this man though as he has enough of a compelling personal and professional story to warrant ten profiles and a hundred interviews. His leadership at Temple Israel Synagogue and his work with the Tri-Faith Initiative alone can fill many notebooks and would in fact make a good book. You can find my other stories featuring him and his work on this blog. Immediately below are comments about the rabbi I didn’t have a chance to use – because of space limitations – in my most recent story about him in The Reader (www.thereader.com), which is the story that follows below the comments. With each interview and story I get to know him a little better and I could second many of the things said about him by his admirers, but they know him far better yet and so I will let their words speak for me.
“I am a member of Temple Israel. While I’m not a particularly observant Jew, I belong to Temple because of its commitment to social justice. Rabbi Azriel has been an outspoken advocate for social justice, not only at Temple Israel, but in the community. Immediately after 911, Rabbi led a group of Temple members to the only mosque in Omaha (at that time) to help defend it should anyone threaten its members or property. In my opinion, the Tri Faith Initiative would not have been possible without his enthusiastic support and leadership.”
“Aryeh would have been hugely successful in any city in the world. It was a great match for him and Omaha that he ended up here and chose to stay. He was able to have an enormous impact on a vibrant congregation and growing community, becoming a dynamic leader in both the Jewish and the secular Omaha communities. In turn, he grew strong, confident and assured he was on the right path, along with his wife and 2 kids. This inner strength enabled him to shape the thoughts of important people who in turn make policy and shape our community and others. He’s done this consistently, day in and day out, for 25 years, making for enormous impact. And he has brought to Omaha an unending stream of national and even international leaders who come here as his friends and confidantes, to draw inspiration from spending time with him while drinking from the same fountains of strength, stability and perspective that Omaha offers.
“Aryeh has profoundly impacted countless individuals, families, an entire congregation, his community and a wide circle of colleagues and friends. His body of work in interfaith and ecumenical affairs has been legion, and provides a strong base of experience and credibility for him to launch the Tri-Faith Initiative, an effort unprecedented in its ambition to model collaborative interfaith relationships.
“It has been my profound blessing to have been close to Aryeh for these 25 years; I know he’s helped make me the person I am today.”
“Rabbi Azriel is a force for good. His positive spirit and unending energy allow him to connect with people. Relationships are the foundation of his rabbinate. He motivates his team to work for social change. Most common phrase, ‘Let’s do it!’”
“Rabbi Azriel is a man of prophetic vision combined with a clear grasp of the possible. From the earliest days of envisioning a new home for Temple Israel, he saw good neighbors as an essential element of the perfect location. Rabbi Azriel has a clear moral compass that guides his life and has guided the Tri-Faith Initiative. When life is complicated he has a special gift to see the clear center of the issue.”
Aryeh’s 25 years have flown by in literally the blink of an eye! He has challenged us, guided us, loved us, and helped to create a vibrant and exciting Temple Israel. He is a man of limitless energy and vision. Although his hair is grayer than it used to be, to me he seems unchanged by the passage of time – still passionate about Judaism, Temple Israel and social justice.
“For 25 years, Rabbi Azriel has been a blessed presence in our midst. He has led our congregation with wisdom, compassion, new ideas, and a delightful sense of humor ALWAYS challenging us to learn, to listen, to think, and to grow. He has made me and my family proud to be a members of Temple Israel. In brief, Rabbi Azriel is my friend, my Rabbi, and a perfect fit!”
Rabbi Azriel’s neighborhood welcomes all, unlike what he saw on recent Middle East trip
Social justice activist and interfaith advocate optimistic about Tri-Faith campus
BY LEO ADAM BIGA
Now apeparing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha’s Temple Israel Synagogue builds bridges between people of different backgrounds and persuasions. Take for example his driving force work with the Tri-Faith Initiative, the project that intends creating a local campus of Jewish, Muslim and Christian houses of worship around a shared communal space.
Recently returned from a two-month sabbatical to Turkey and his native Israel, Azriel was in Jerusalem when the current maelstrom in Gaza erupted. Always the rabbi, he attended the funeral of three Israeli boys kidnapped and killed by Hamas and paid respects to the father of an Arab boy burned alive by Israeli extremists.
Nearly everywhere he went Azriel spread the hope embodied by Tri-Faith and its efforts to build a harmonious faith-based community. The veteran social justice activist and ecumenical champion, whose work with Omaha Together One Community has seen him advocate for meatpackers and victims of police violence, leads this city’s reform synagogue. He is Tri-Faith’s most ardent supporter. He encouraged his progressive congregation to put stakes down in that project’s emerging blended neighborhood when Temple built its new home in the Sterling Ridge Development near 132nd and Pacific Streets.
Open just over a year, the Temple site will soon be joined by a mosque. If Countryside Community Church decides to be the Christian partner in this interfaith troika it would build a neighboring church there.
On his trip Azriel says people embraced Tri-Faith’s vision of unity but their experience with discord tells them its unattainable.
“They cannot understand because of their conditions how it is possible,” he says. “I mean, there’s such a level of futility in the midst of war in believing in and talking about dreams such as the dream of the Tri-Faith. But they were very eager to listen. I told them the story. I told them about the neighborhood we want to create here.
“They definitely all wished me good luck – being skeptical at the same time. I feel really privileged we can do it in Omaha. Of all the places in the world maybe this is the place one can actually make it work.”
It hurt the heart of this Tel Aviv native to be in his homeland when the simmering Israel-Palestine conflict boiled over into full-scale military actions in the Gaza Strip. Those hostilities continue today.
He stayed in Jerusalem, where he was among invited clergy for a Shalom Hartman Institute seminar on, ironically enough, war and peace. He and some colleagues went to the funeral of the three boys.
“I don’t remember ever such a large funeral because people came from all over the world. We heard the eulogies. It was devastating. I mean, those kids were our kids. It was similar to how I felt about the news of the Arab boy.”
Azriel joined colleagues to attend the youth’s memorial.
“We went to the suburb where the child’s home was. They built a big tent outside the house because there were so many visitors. The father and other family members were sitting there welcoming people. We shook hands and expressed sadness.”
Ever since the missiles began flying, Israel’s retaliated with massive air and ground strikes. Thousands of Palestinians have been killed or injured – thousands more, left homeless.
“I don’t know what will happen with Gaza,” Azriel laments. “I don’t what else there is to destroy. A terrible thing.”
Ceasefires brokered by the international community and peace negotiations led by Egypt and Arab nations have repeatedly broken down. Meanwhile, the nearby anti-Semitic states of Syria and Iraq are devolving in the face of Isis and Jihadists. The perpetually insecure Middle East has perhaps never been so unstable.
During his stay Azriel, whose parents still live in Israel, went through a range of emotions.
“I don’t remember those kinds of events happening in Israel growing up. I saw a level of racism and hate on the part of some Israelis after the three boys were kidnapped that I had never witnessed before.”
He decries Hamas for going too far as well.
“This time Hamas had the guts to fire on holy sites. It was something completely new for us. Usually the safest place to be in Israel during war is Jerusalem. This time they went a little bit crazy. They wanted to show how far the missiles can go.”
The blame goes in all directions: “The Middle East is filled with crazy people from all sides, all religions, all colors.”
The tranquil getaway Azriel expected didn’t materialize.
“It wasn’t the way I was planning it. You can’t have peace of mind in the middle of war. To see the funerals of Israeli soldiers and the death and destruction in Gaza – those are things no human being can stay ambivalent to. So many innocent people dead. It’s very hard.
“I know how it impacted my family. To wake up your parents at 2 o’clock in the morning – my father is 89, my mother is 84 – and to tell them to get dressed and go to a shelter. My father comes to me and says, ‘Are you out of your mind, why are you waking me up? I’m 89, I had a full life, I don’t care…’ Then I’m ready leave to go back to America and my father turns to me and says, ‘You know, it is possible this is the last time we’ll see each other,’ and then I fly home with this for 18 hours. Those things left a very heavy burden on me.”
Azriel expressed his heavy heart in a sermon at Temple upon his Omaha return to Omaha, saying he felt “hope, sadness, anger, guilt, loneliness, frustration, determination and despair.”
“On the one hand I am constantly reminded of the great Israeli phrase which translated, goes, ‘We got through Pharaoh, we can get through this.’ I do, however, also ask myself, will it ever end, and will it ever get better? Are we destined to live by the sword? Are we ever going to know peace? At times I feel really strong. At times I feel so weak…
“This is our home and even when it is tough at home, when our home is in danger, we do not walk away, we will not walk away.”
A new resolve by Israel’s pro-American Arab neighbors to help facilitate a lasting accord has Azriel optimistic.
“I actually look at this war still going on as an amazing opportunity to start a whole different order in the Middle East. There is such a different level of negotiation as a result of Egypt as well as Saudi Arabia,, Jordan and other Arab countries interested finally in brining it to an end. They’re the ones that can affect a better change. It has to be done in a genuine, original, authentic way with the people involved in the region.
They’re willing to put money for the first time for construction to rebuild Gaza and help with humanitarian need.
“I think before it gets better it gets worse even with America and the United Nations intervening. Then I think there’s a possibility for more seriousness in negotiating a two-state solution.”
He’s optimistic, too, the Tri-Faith campus will be realized.
“The excitement, the drive, the motivation is so alive, is so there. No one is giving up on any of this. It’s fantastic.”
“What is most remarkable about Rabbi Azriel, Areyh to his friends, is his passion for the people and the mission he cares for .His love for people knows no boundary. Race, relegion or status are foriegn to him,” says Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, president of the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture that’s building the mosque.
Fundraising for the mosque is being led by a Jew, Vic Gutman, and is nearly complete. Azriel expects Countryside members to vote yes to its church’s participation. The annual Tri-Faith picnic hosted by Temple Israel drew hundreds in August. This fall a Neighbor to Neighbor program will bring 30 families – 10 from each faith group – together for communal dinners to promote understanding among neighbors.
“It will be an opportunity to go deeper and deeper into why this is so important,” Azriel says.
Finding Normal: Schalisha Walker’s journey finding normal after foster care sheds light on service needs
After my Aisha Okudi story last week I promised another story of inspiration and transformation and here it is, my new Reader (www.thereader.com) cover story profiling Schaiisha Walker, a young woman whose journey finding normal after foster care led her to a Nebraska program called Project Everlast. It provides young people leaving or having already left foster care with much needed support. Schalisha had found herself on her own at 17, sometimes homeless, dropping out of school to support herself, working as many as four jobs at one point, going from couch to couch until she got a place of her own. It’s only by the grace of God she survived that experience. She’s now employed as a Project Everlast youth advisor. I came to do this story about her because I attended a performance by actor-spoken word artist Damiel Beaty last winter at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha and before he came on Schalisha appeared on stage to introduce him. Her heart-felt words as well as her poise and grace struck me to the core. She shared how deeply Beaty’s work, much of it drawn from his own harsh childhood, resonated with her, especially his message that one can rise above and overcome anything. She’s a model for that herself. You go, girl.
Finding Normal: Schalisha Walker’s journey finding normal after foster care sheds light on service needs
Project Everlast provides support for young people as they age-out of the system
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Before a Feb. 27 packed house at the Holland Performing Arts Center a woman strode on stage to introduce playwright-poet-performance artist Daniel Beaty.
Schalisha Walker, 25, was unknown to all but a few in the audience. She was there to not only introduce Beaty but to deliver a personal message about the hundreds of foster care youth who age or drop out of the system each year in Nebraska. These young people, she noted, can find themselves adrift without a helping hand. She knows because she was one of them, Walker was at the Holland representing Project Everlast, a statewide, youth-led initiative that assists current and former foster care youth to smooth their transition into adulthood.
This former ward of the state has successfully transitioned from life on the edge to the picture of achievement. Her story of perseverance is not unlike Beaty’s own saga. In his work he often refers to the crazy things his drug addict, in-and-out-of-prison father exposed him to. The performing arts saved Beaty by giving him a vehicle for his angst and a platform for expressing his credo that one can rise above anything.
Walker’s risen above a whole lot of chaos.
She says, “My mother was extremely young (15) when she had me and she was unable to care for me properly. I was about 2 when I went in the (foster care) system and I was 4 when I was adopted.”
Separated from her six siblings, things happened within her adoptive family that prompted her to leave and go off on her own at 17. She finally found a safe haven at Everlast, where she got the support she never had before. She served on the youth council that helps formulate the organization’s programs and policies and she shared her story with the public in speaking appearances.
She now works as a youth advisor with Everlast, a Nebraska Children and Families Foundation program. Introducing Beaty wasn’t the first time she’s been the face and voice of Everlast and the foster care community. She appeared in a documentary about the project and she’s been featured on its website.
“This is truly an organization with people committed to the work,” she says. “Our job doesn’t stop when we leave the office. It’s like a family, I really mean that.”
This fall she’s starting school at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she hopes to earn a social work degree.
“I’ve always wanted to help children in need. It’s really natural for me. I was fortunate to get a job here (Everlast). I love what I do and I do it with my heart.”
That night at the Holland she stood tall, black and beautiful invoking Beaty’s poetic testimony to share her own overcoming journey and the role she plays today as a mentor for otherwise forgotten young people.
Reading from Beaty’s poem “Knock, Knock” she exhorted, “‘We are our fathers’ sons and daughters but we are not their choices. For despite their absences we are still here, still alive, still breathing with the power to change this world one little boy and girl at a time.’ The words struck me to the core. They convey the passion I have for using my experience to help young people with a foster care background struggling and feeling alone as I did…
“For many years I let my past keep me from my future but now I use my past to help others. Let me be the voice for those that have not found theirs yet.”
Having walked in the shoes of the young people she engages, she understands the challenges they face and the needs they express. It’s almost like looking in the mirror and seeing herself five-six years ago.
“It’s a powerful identification. Struggling with unhealthy relationships, a feeling of being alone or having no one to turn to or looking for a job and not knowing what’s the best decision to make – I see that on a regular basis. I see myself in a lot of these young girls, especially when it comes to the unhealthy relationships. I see so many young people who just want to be loved and accepted. Unfortunately, a lot of times what happens is they get in the wrong crowd. Looking back, I was in some very scary situations.
“I’m glad I’m at a point now where I can offer advice from having been there and making the wrong decisions and now making better decisions. Now I can use my life experiences to say, ‘Hey, this is what happened to me, I don’t want this to happen to you, I want to help you.’ I feel I’m like an older sister or a mother to them.”
Just as she’s a mother to the kids she serves, Everlast associate vice president Jason Feldhaus is a father to her.
“He’s very much like a dad to me,” Walker says of him. “You might as well say he is my dad. I talk to him a lot. That’s a relationship that was built. He was in my position when I was in youth council – he was my youth advisor.”
Feldhaus says there “was just something different about Schalisha from the very beginning.” He explains, “She was very organized, very committed, very mature. Even early on she just always seemed dedicated to something bigger to help make things better for people. The young people she works with bond to her and so no matter where their life is in flux they still keep coming back to Project Everlast and I think a lot of that has to do with her ability to connect to them.”
Walker says the disruptions that can attend life in and out of foster care, such as moving from family to family or being separated from siblings, “can be very traumatic” and adversely affect one’s education and socialization. The more links to stability that are missing or broken, she says, “the more difficult it is to keep your life together.”
Everlast grew out of an Omaha Independent Living Plan initiated by Nebraska Children and Families Foundation to address resource needs and service gaps faced by foster youth. Foundation director of strategic relationships, Judy Dierkhising, who oversaw Everlast during a recent transition, estimates that of the 200 youth aging out of foster care in Douglas and Sarpy Counties each year 40 percent don’t have an adequate plan or support system in place. That’s not counting individuals who get lost in the system as Schalisha did. In Neb. youth age-out of the system at 19.
Until Everlast, Dierkhising says, “there were not a lot of services or programs dedicated to that transitional living piece that helped young folks look for housing, job and education opportunities.” The project bridges that gap by connecting young people to partner agencies, such as Youth Emergency Services, that offer needed resources.
We provide young people access to those services they need to live independently, to grow into adulthood, to have engagement with the community, to be successful educationally, to be connected to health care, et cetera. A number of young people we work with don’t have anybody else there for them. We help them to help themselves and hopefully to find some permanence in their life. We’re here to empower them, with whatever it takes, to know they can have an impact on the world and that the world isn’t doing it to them.
“We’re not trying to save them, we’re assisting them to be successful, just like Schalisha. She is a tremendous role model and advocate for how there is a way to survive this and to thrive.”
In the immediate years following the break from her adoptive family Walker had no one to formally guide or mentor her, which meant she had to figure out most things for herself.
“The experience with being adopted was very difficult and I ended up being on my own. It was very difficult, very lonely. I hadn’t even graduated high school yet. I had to drop out of school to work to support myself. I was working four jobs at one time. I had no choice because I didn’t have the support of a family like I should have. I didn’t have the support of friends because all my friends were still in high school.
“I ended up staying with some friends until I was able to have an apartment on my own.”
She says unstable housing is a major problem for foster youth once they leave the system.
“Homelessness is not uncommon. It is an ongoing issue. There’s a young man I work with who ever since he aged out was couch surfing. He now has a steady job and a safe place to live in. It’s very scary not having a safety net or a stable place to call home and that is a reality for many of these young people. It was a reality for me as well. In my case, I couldn’t go back to the home I was at. Just having a place to call your own where you feel safe and that you can go to every night can make a huge difference.”
Young people at at Project Everlast event were recognized for getting new jobs, moving into their own apartments, procuring scholarships and graduating high school. Schalisha served as an emcee for the program.
She says Everlast introduced her to youth and adults she could trust and count on to help her navigate life. Through its Opportunity Passport program she built her financial management skills, The dollars youth save are matched by donors. The program enabled her to retire the beater of a car she drove to buy a newer model vehicle.
“What I found was people that really cared about your success, people who really listened and wanted to be a support for you. It was like a relief finding people who had been through what I’d been through and I could share my story with. That was very powerful.”
Having that safety net is much healthier than going it alone, she says.
“That feeling of being alone and not being wanted can tear you apart. Having to make some of the decisions I did is something no child should have to go through. The experiences I had and some of the difficulties and struggles I dealt with is why I’m so passionate about making sure no other young person feels alone or feels they have no support and no one to turn to.”
She says the young people she works with all have different stories but they’re all trying to improve their life, whether going back to school or landing a job or finding a secure place to live or leaving an abusive relationship or getting treatment for drug or alcohol addiction.
“Any step forward is a success and makes my job worthwhile. That’s why it’s really important for me to be here doing this work.”
After dropping out of South High she earned her diploma through independent studies and lattended Metropolitan Community College.
Drawing on her own experience of never having her birthdays celebrated as a kid, which she says is common among foster youth, she created the No Youth Without a Birthday Treat initiative.
“What I like to focus on is giving them normal experiences they might not have had. It’s to make sure they have a cake or a pie or cookies or muffins, whatever they’d like, for their birthday because it’s a special day for them and I want them to feel special. To give that young person their first birthday cake and to see their joy is amazing.
“At Thanksgiving and Christmas we have a big event with a dinner and presents.”
She also makes sure young people experience arts and cultural events they may not otherwise get to enjoy. Until she was asked to introduce Daniel Beaty, Walker herself had never been to the Holland. Judy Dierkhising took her there a few days before the program and Walker was awed by the space. Though Schalisha had spoken to groups before, she’d never addressed an audience the size of the gathering that night for Beaty’s one-man show, Emergency. It was different, too, because this time she was communing with someone she regards as a kindred soul and whom she also considers “amazing.”
“Daniel Beaty is such a talent. His poetry is electrifying – it gives me chills to hear him speak and to watch him perform,” Walker says. “I’d never seen him in person, so to see him live was a whole other experience. I’d never seen anything like that before. It blew my mind. I’ll never forget that performance. It was such an honor to introduce him. It was so exciting and I was really nervous.”
Reiterating what she told the audience that evening, she says Beaty’s poem “Knock, Knock” deeply resonated with her.
“When I first heard that poem I cried. A lot of my passion comes from my experience. The reason I’m in the field I’m in and do the work I do is because of the experiences I had. His words that we are not our parents’ choices really touched me, really spoke to me. So did his story and the things he overcame and the struggles he went through.
“It made me believe that no matter what you come from you make your future. You don’t have to be a product of what you came from, you don’t have to be what people expect you to be, you can be so much greater. That is what is so amazing to me about him.”
Topping it all off, she says, “He was so nice to me. He’s so cool and laid-back and down-to-earth. He has this presence about him that screams awesomeness without him being cocky.”
One of the things she admires about Beaty – his resilience overcoming steep odds – is what she admires in the young people she serves.
“The resilience they have to overcome is amazing. They didn’t want to be in these difficult situations and they’re motivated to do what they need to in order to get out. So many of these young people are talented and smart. They have dreams and goals and aspirations.”
She recognizes the same drive in herself pushed her to excel.
“I wanted to show that despite the circumstances around me that I still could succeed. I just have a real fire and passion to not fail and to not become a statistic and to show other young people they can make it. It’s been a lot of work.”
When she takes stock of her journey, she says she sees “someone who’s overcome a lot,” adding, “I see someone I’m proud very, very proud of, but even now I still struggle accepting that and saying that because some of the emotional scars are still there.”
She’s motivated to pay forward what was given her, she says. “because young people are counting on me to be there for them.”
UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker is one of those hard to sum up subjects because he’s a man of so many interests and passions and accomplishments, all of which is a good thing for me as a storyteller but it’s also a real challenge trying to convey the totality of someone with such a rich life and career in a single article. As a storyteller I must pick and choose what to include, what to emphasize, what to leave out. My choices may not be what another writer would choose. That’s the way it goes. What I did with Walker was to make his back story the front story, which is to say I took an experience from his past – his serving as a Freedom Summer volunteer to try and register black voters in Mississippi at the peak of the civil rights movement – as the key pivot point that informs his life’s work and that bridges his past and present. That experience is also juxtaposed with him growing up in a less then enlightened household that saw him in major conflict with his father. My cover profile of Walker is now appearing in the New Horizons newspaper.
Justice Champion Sam Walker Calls It as He Sees It
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
And justice for all
You could do worse than label UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker a dyed-in-the-wool progressive liberal. He certainly doesn’t conceal his humanist-libertarian leanings in authoring books, published articles and blog posts that reflect a deep regard for individual rights and sharp criticism for their abridgment.
He’s especially sensitive when government and police exceed their authority to infringe upon personal freedoms. He’s authored a history of the American Ciivil Liberties Union. His most recent book examines the checkered civil liberties track records of U.S. Presidents. He’s also written several books on policing. His main specialization is police accountability and best practices, which makes him much in demand as a public speaker, courtroom expert witness and media source. A Los Angeles Times reporter recently interviewed him for his take on the Albuquerque, NM police’s high incidence of officer-involved shootings, including a homeless man shot to death in March.
“I did a 1997 report on Albuquerque. They were shooting too many people. It has not changed. There’s a huge uproar over it,” he says. “In this latest case there’s video of their shooting a homeless guy (who reportedly threatened police with knives) in the park. Officers approached this thing like a military operation and they were too quick to pull the trigger.”
As an activist police watchdog he’s chided the Omaha Police Department for what he considers a pattern of excessive use of force. That’s made him persona non grata with his adopted hometown’s law enforcement community. He’s a vocal member of the Omaha Alliance for Justice, on whose behalf he drafted a letter to the U.S. Justice Department seeking a federal investigation of Omaha police. No Justice Department review has followed.
The alliance formed after then-Omaha Pubic Safety Auditor Tristan Bonn was fired following the release of her report critical of local police conduct. Walker had a hand in creating the auditor post.
“Our principal demand was for her to be reinstated or for someone else to be in that position. We lobbied a couple mayors. We had rallies and public forums,” he says.
All to no avail.
“The auditor ordinance is still on the books but the city just hasn’t funded it. It’s been a real political struggle which is why I put my hopes in the civic leaders.”
After earning his Ph.D. in American history from Ohio State University in 1973, the Ohio native came to work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He met his life partner, Mary Ann Lamanna, a UNO professor emeritus of sociology, in a campus lunchroom. The couple, who’ve never married, have been together since 1981. They celebrated their 30th anniversary in Paris. They share a Dundee neighborhood home.
Though now officially retired, Walker still goes to his office every day and stays current with the latest criminal justice research, often updating his books for new editions. He’s often called away to consult cities and police departments.
He served as the “remedies expert” in a much publicized New York City civil trial last year centering around the police department’s controversial stop and frisk policy. Allegations of widespread abuse – of stops disproportionally targeting people of color – resulted in a lengthy courtroom case. Federal district judge Shira Scheindlin found NYPD engaged in unconstitutional actions in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In her decision, she quoted from Walker’s testimony about what went wrong and what reforms were needed.
Walker’s work is far more than an exercise in academic interest. It’s a deeply personal expression of beliefs and values formed by crucial events of the ’60s. The most momentous of these saw him serve as a Freedom Summer volunteer in the heart of the Jim Crow South at the height of the civil rights movement while a University of Michigan student. Spending time in Mississippi awakened him to an alternate world where an oppressive regime of apartheid ruled – one fully condoned by government and brutally enforced by police.
“There was a whole series of shocks – the kind of things that just turned your world upside down. The white community was the threat, the black community was your haven. I was taught differently. The police were not there to serve and protect you, they were a threat. There was also the shock of realizing our government was not there to protect people trying to exercise their right to vote.”
His decision to leave his comfortable middle class life to try and educate and register voters in a hostile environment ran true to his own belief of doing the right thing but ran afoul of his father’s bigotry. Raised in Cleveland Heights, Walker grew up in a conservative 1950s household that didn’t brook progressivism.
“Quite the reverse. My father was from Virginia. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute. He had all the worst of a Southern Presbyterian military education background. Deeply prejudiced. Made no bones about it. Hated everybody, Catholics especially. Very anti-Semitic. Later in life I’ve labeled him an equal opportunity bigot.
“My mother was from an old Philadelphia Quaker family. It was a mismatch, though they never divorced. She was very quiet. It was very much a ’50s marriage. You didn’t challenge the patriarch. I was the one in my family who did.”
Walker’s always indulged a natural curiosity, streak of rebelliousness and keen sense of social justice. Even as a boy he read a lot, asked questions and sought out what was on the other side of the fence.
As he likes to say, he not only delivered newspapers as a kid, “I read them.” Books, too.
“I was very knowledgeable about public affairs by high school, much more so than any of my friends. I could actually challenge my father at a dinner table discussion if he’d say something ridiculous. Well, he just couldn’t handle that, so we had conflict very much early on.”
He also went against his parents’ wishes by embracing rock and roll, whose name was coined by the legendary disc jockey, Alan Freed. The DJ first made a name for himself in Akron and then in Cleveland. In the late 1940s the owner of the Cleveland music store Record Rendezvous made Freed aware white kids were buying up records by black R&B artists. Walker became one of those kids himself as a result of Freed playing black records on the air and hosting concerts featuring these performers. Freed also appeared in several popular rock and roll movies and hosted his own national radio and television shows. His promotion contributed to rock’s explosion in the mainstream.
As soon as Walker got exposed to this cultural sea change, he was hooked.
“I’m very proud to have been there at the creation of rock and roll. My first album was Big Joe Turner on Atlantic Records. Of course, I just had to hear Little Richard. I loved it.”
Like all American cities, Cleveland was segregated when Walker came of age. In order to see the black music artists he lionized meant going to the other side of town.
“We were told by our parents you didn’t go down over the hill to 105th Street – the center of the black community – because it was dangerous. Well, we went anyway to hear Fats Domino at the 105th Street Theatre. We didn’t tell our parents.”
Then there was the 1958 Easter Sunday concert he caught featuring Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis headlining a Freed tour.
“My mother was horrified. I think my generation was the first for whom popular cultural idols – in music and baseball – were African- Americans.”
In addition to following black recording artists he cheered Cleveland Indians star outfielder Larry Doby (who broke the color barrier in the American League) and Cleveland Browns unning back Jim Brown.
More than anything, he was responding to a spirit of protest as black and white voices raised a clarion call for equal rights.
“Civil rights was in the air. It was what was happening certainly by 1960 when I went to college. The sit-ins and freedom rides. My big passion was for public interest. The institutionalized racism in the South struck us as being ludicrous. Now it involved a fair amount of conflict to go to Miss. in the summer of ’64 but what I learned early on at the most important point in my life is that you have to follow your instincts. If there is something you think is right or something you feel you should do and all sorts of people are telling you no then you have to do it.
“That has been very invaluable to me and I do not regret any of those choices. That’s what I learned and it guides me even today.”
Walker on far left of porch of a Freedom Summer headquarters shack in Gulfport, Miss.
He never planned being a Freedom Summer volunteer. He just happened to see an announcement in the student newspaper.
“It’s a fascinating story of how so much of our lives are matters of chance,” he says. “It was a Sunday evening and I didn’t want to study, I wanted to go to a movie. I was looking in the paper and there was no damn movie. Instead, I saw this notice that Bob Moses (Robert Parris Moses) was to speak on the Mississippi Summer Project. It sounded interesting. Moses was a legend in his own time. He really was the guiding spirit of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.”
Walker attended the March ’64 presentation and was spellbound by the charismatic and persuasive Moses, who also led the Council of Federated Organizations that organized the Freedom Summer effort.
“If you heard him speak for 10-15 minutes you were in, that was it, it was over. He was that eloquent. He was African-American, Northern, Harvard-educated, and he could speak in terms that white college students could relate to. It was just our language, our way of thinking.
So it was really just a matter of chance. If there had been a good movie that night my life would have been different.”
Walker applied to join the caravan of mostly white Northern college students enlisted to carry the torch of freedom in the South.
Applicants went to Oberlin (Ohio) College to be screened.
“They didn’t want any adventure seekers. We had to come up with $500 in reserve as bail money in case we got arrested. I had that, so I was accepted.”
He says his father “was absolutely furious” with his decision, adding, “We had fallen out the year before and so this was no surprise.” Meanwhile, he says his mother “was quietly supportive.”
Walker joined hundreds of other students for a one-week orientation at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio.
“The training was very intense.”
He learned about the very real risks involved. As Northerners intruding into a situation white Mississippians considered a sovereign state rights issue, the students were considered troublemakers, even enemies. Most whites there held deep resentment and contempt for outsiders attempting to interfere with their way of life and order of things.
“Intellectually we knew the danger, that was explained to us, and we had ample opportunity to bail out. There were some people who were accepted who apparently did not show up. I’m not sure I could have lived with myself if I chickened out.”
In June Walker and three others set out in a station wagon belonging to one of his Eastern compatriots.
“It had New York plates and of course that was a red flag we were outside agitators. We went down through Ala. and then crossed over…I have a vivid recollection of crossing the line into Miss. that morning on this clear soon-to-be hot June day. I was assigned to Gulf Port, next door to Biloxi. Gulf Port was the ‘safest’ area in the state. Not far from New Orleans. Tourism. There’s an U.S. Air force Base down there. So they were accustomed to having outsiders.”
Nothing Walker witnessed surprised him but seeing the strict segregation and incredible poverty first-hand did take him aback.
Volunteers stayed with host black families in humble shanties.
The men in the family he boarded with worked as longshoremen. There were separate white and black locals of the International Longshoremen’s Association and having a union voice gave the black workers some protections many other blacks lacked.
Walker variously went out alone or paired up with another volunteer.
“We would go up these unpaved roads to these shacks and try to convince people they should register to vote. Only 7 percent of potentially eligible African Americans were registered. I was going door to door talking to people and looking them in the eye and seeing the fear. They would say, ‘Yes sir, yes ma’am,’ and it was plenty evident they weren’t going to make any effort. They knew we could leave and they knew they were going to be there stuck with the consequences.
“It gave me a sense more than anything else of the human price of segregation and all the terror that supported it.”
While the stated objective was not achieved the initiative helped break some of the isolation blacks experienced in that totalitarian state.
“The goal was voter registration and we registered almost no one. It wasn’t until the Voter Rights Act a year later any progress was made. But we had to do it. The major accomplishment was we established our right to be there. It changed the political-legal climate of Mississippi.”
Temporary Freedom Schools were formed, convened in black churches, homes, even outdoors, as resources to teach literacy, basic math, black history and constitutional rights to youths and adults alike.
Walker personally witnessed no violence and never encountered any direct threat.
“I don’t remember being scared at any point.”
The one glint of intimidation came while going door to door when a white man in a pickup began cruising up and down the road. On another occasion, he says, “we did get some people to go down to the courthouse and march and some people were arrested.”
The danger was real though. Within days of his arrival three young civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner went missing. Goodman had been in one of Walker’s training sessions. The worst was feared and later confirmed: murder.
Walker says, “When we heard the news three people were missing it came as no surprise and we knew they were dead even though they didn’t find the bodies until 44 days later. We just knew.”
The terror campaign went far beyond The Mississippi Three to include beatings of residents and volunteers and the burnings of dozens of black homes, churches and businesses.
As disturbing as this was it didn’t give him any second thoughts.
“You couldn’t retreat in the face of death. They were not going to chase us out even at the cost of murder. We were there and we were going to stay and finish this.”
One of many public protests against NYPD’s stop and frisk policy
Walker was committed enough that he returned to Miss. early the next year and stayed through much of 1966. The experience was foundational to setting the course of his life’s work. “Absolutely, totally and completely. We began to see things through the prism of race.” It also made him aware of disparities in his own backyard. Even today, in the middle of a thriving Midwest economy, he says, “There are really two Omahas.” One of privilege and the other of poverty.
His activism resumed upon returning to Ann Arbor, where he participated in civil rights fundraisers and protests. He actively opposed the war in Vietnam. The military draft was in full swing to feed the war machine. He’d been classified 1-Y for medical reasons.
“On April 3, 1968 I turned in my draft card as part of a mass rally in Boston. Hundreds also did that day in Boston, and I think it was thousands across the country. The cards were all sent to the Justice Department. And that is how I acquired my FBI file.”
Like many activists, he accepts his FBI file as a badge of honor for fighting the good fight in the tumultuous ’60s.
By training he’s an expert in ethnic violence of the 19th century, and he thought he had an urban studies job lined up at UNO in the newly formed College of Public Affairs and Community Service only to discover the position disbanded. Then someone told him the university had received a big criminal justice grant. Walker talked with then criminal justice dean Vince Webb, who hired him.
“I got a job and the job became a career and I never looked back. Pure chance.”
Walker says his urban history expertise translated well to examining the urban racial violence of the 20th century.
“Once in policing my focus gravitated to police community relations.– this wasn’t too many years after the riots – and from there to citizen review of police and then to what I now define my field as – police accountability.
He says policing’s come a long way.
“The world of policing has changed. There’s been some genuine improvement. The composition of police forces is very different in terms of African-Americans, Latinos and women. Police thinking in the better departments is much more responsive to their local communities. The reform impulse has really come from the community, from the ground up, from people complaining about incidents, people lobbying city councils and mayors. Lawsuits, even if they don’t succeed, raise the issue and create a sense there’s a problem that needs correcting. At various points along the way the better police chiefs say, ‘Yeah, we have a problem here.’”
Walker says the control of deadly force is a good example.
“There were some police chiefs who said, ‘We can’t just send our people out there with guns and no instructions,’ which we used to do prior to ’72. They’d get hours and hours of training on how to clean the damn thing and no instructions on when you should shoot and when you should not shoot. It was, ‘Use good judgement.’ That was it. The fleeing felon rule was in effect, so if an officer saw someone he believed had committed a felony, a burglary let’s say, even though the person was unarmed, that officer could shoot to kill and could in fact kill that person within the law. There’s been a whole change there because of the community policing movement.”
In his work Walker says, “I’ve learned much more about how police departments work internally in terms of holding their officers accountable. That’s my expertise.”
In the case of the NYPD’s overly aggressive stop and frisk policy he says officers were required to have a reasonable suspicion someone had committed a crime or was about to. The overwhelming number of detentions were of people of color and Walker says “well over 80 percent of the time there was no arrest nor a ticket, so the officers guessed wrong. They had a heavy hand.” He says one of the main rationales officers put down in their reports was “high crime neighborhood,” which Walker found inexcusable. “A neighborhood is a place, not a behavior. It’s where you live, it’s not what you’re doing. They were making you a criminal suspect for living where you live.”
He says the most common reason given for stops was “furtive movement,” which he found far too ambiguous.
“It was a runaway profiling policy. This went on for 14 years and sparked several lawsuits. The police commissioner and the mayor did not listen to the complaints and protests. They dug their heels in and didn’t look at the evidence.”
He says his “fairly straight forward testimony” recommended a new policy on how to conduct stops. better training, a mid-management accountability system and a broader early intervention system with a computerized data base to track officer performance. He laid out remedies enacted in other police departments.
He believes the case could encourage legal challenges of profiling in other states but he cautions, “The difference is the NYPD turned it into a massive program, which is more easily challenged. In most departments, it is used, but not on a massive basis and a matter of official policy. This makes it far more difficult to challenge.”
(NOTE: Last fall a federal appeals court blocked the ruling that altered the NYPD astop and frisk policy and removed Judge Shira Scheindlin from the case.)
He says. “Theres a very real connection between Miss. in 1964 and being on the witness stand in New York in 2013 and race is the connection. It’s the lens through which I saw that and understood it.”
In this pervasive video and social media age police incidents are increasingly captured on camera and shared with the masses, as happened with some Omaha incidents. Walker says despite the prospect the whole world may be watching alleged police misconduct still occurs “because the habits are so deeply engrained that among some officers this is just second nature. Officers label someone a bad guy, so he’s not worthy of respect, and they do what they want.”
At its worst, he says, problematic attitudes and behaviors become systemic, accepted parts of police culture. The longer they go unchecked, without consequences, the more engrained they become.
“If it happens on the street, who’s to know,” he says. “Changing a large department after it has declined and certain habits have become engrained is a serious challenge. You need clear policies of all the critical incidents – deadly force, use of physical force, domestic violence, high speed pursuits. And then the training has to be very clear as to what those policies are. The supervision is really the critical thing. Everybody knows on the street supervision is where it’s at. A sergeant over 8 to 10 officers – that’s the heart and soul right there. When there’s some incident a sergeant has to say, ‘I don’t like the way you handled that, I don’t want to see it again.’”
He says no police department should feel itself immune from oversight.
“We know what the problems are, we know what to do. There are experts on particular subjects around the country and they can come in and help with things like use of force and domestic violence policies.”
He says police reform efforts should include public forums where all players can express their views. City governments, community groups and police departments can draw on best practices for policy guidance.
His work in words
The second edition of his book The New World of Police Accountability just came out in December. “I had to redo the whole thing, so much had changed in just a few years and my understanding of things had changed. It’s an exciting challenge to stay current.”
He says his his book The Police in America has been the best selling textbook on policing since it came in 1983. “I did a textbook on the police because there wasn’t a decent one.”
He did the book The Color of Justice with two colleagues. “It was really the first decent textbook on race, ethnicity and criminal justice. A lot of people wonder how is it there’s this huge racial disparity on who goes to prison. It’s a lot more complicated than people think. First, we’ve got some basic social inequalities. The short version of it is there’s a racial bias in policing. Then when you get to plea bargaining and sentencing and probation that’s accentuated a little further and so the end result is the accumulation of these incremental things .”
He says his book In Defense of American Civil Liberties is “probably the best thing I’ve done.” It took him five years. “I learned so much from it just about the history of this country. I knew some of the tent poles of major controversies – the Japanese American internment, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate – but it was a very rewarding experience and I still get inquiries from people based on it 24 years later.”
His new book Presidents and Civil Liberties reveals some surprises and contradictions in the records of Oval Officer holders.
With his national reputation Walker could have moved long ago to a bigger university but he says “being involved in the community is very much a part of my life and so that’s a reason for staying.” His involvement includes spending much of his free time seeing movies at the downtown art cinema Film Streams, where he annually curates a repertory series. Then there’s the extensive collection of vinyl records, album cover art, sheet music and political posters he’s accumulated. An exhibition of his jazz album covers by illustrator David Stone Martin showed at UNO, which also hosted a display of his political posters.
He’s a devoted fan of jazz, R&B and folk music Duke Ellington is a favorite. He and Mary Ann are also known to drop everything to go see Bruce Springsteen in concert.
Though the university and city he came to 40 years ago are “much transformed,” he’d like to its see leaders strive for higher standards.
As the events in Miss. 50 years ago are never far from his mind and inform so much of who he is and what he does, he’s proud to relive them. He attended a 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer in Jackson and a 40th anniversary of the orientation in Oxford, Ohio. In June he’ll return to Jackson for the 50th anniversary of when freedom rang.
Collaboration and Diversity Matter to Inclusive Communities: Nonprofit Teaches Tools and Skills for Valuing Human Differences
Lots of organizations are highly reactive when incidents of racial, gender and cultural insensitivity surface but few teach skills and tools for valuing human differences. One that does is the Omaha nonprofit Inclusive Communities and it’s been doing this kind of work for a long time. It not only responds to existing problems in businesses and schools, whether offensive language or bullying, but it offers training sessions and workshops yearround that provide people with the skills and tools to defuse situations and to educate others about the value of respecting diversity. My story about Inclusive Communities for Metro Magazine follows.
Nonprofit teaches tools and skills for valuing human differences
Since its 1938 founding in response to religious and racial bias, Inclusive Communities has embraced human diversity, tolerance and unity.
The good work of individuals and organizations in promoting equality and inclusivity will be celebrated May 22 at a Humanitarian Dinner featuring guest speaker Robert Edsel, author of The Monuments Men. One of Omaha’s longest-running philanthropic events, the dinner is “paramount for our organization because as our only fundraising event it provides more than 50 percent of our annual operating budget,” says executive director Beth Riley. She adds that it brings together board members, donors, volunteers, staff and community partners “who are very committed, active and engaged” in fulfilling the mission of breaking down barriers.
“People who most often need a voice aren’t represented and that’s where Inclusive Communities steps in and says, ‘We think it’s about all people and not just some people.’ That’s really our mantra we live by,” Riley says. “We work with businesses, schools and in the community to confront prejudice, bigotry and discrimination and we do that through educational programs and advocacy work.
“We provide people the tools to meet others where they are. A lot of times in businesses that means creating positive dialogue skills and diversity and inclusion programs that have a measurable impact, not just to check off a competency. In schools it means creating leadership development programs that take into account all different kinds of students.”
Education and advocacy
Inclusive Communities has worked with major companies and with every high school in the Omaha Public Schools.
The organization is also involved in drafting and advocating legislation that supports inclusion and makes exclusionary practices unlawful.
“The citywide equal employment ordinance is a great example,” Riley says. “We were an active partner with Equal Omaha on that. We’ve taken an active role with Equal Nebraska advocating for a statewide ordinance for protection of folks in the LGBTQ community who don’t have the kind of protection they need. We’re working with members of the state Judiciary Committee on that.”
Riley most readily sees her human relations organization’s impact in young people. At the nonprofit’s residential IncluCity program held at Carol Joy Holling Conference & Retreat Center near Ashland, Neb. delegate students from area schools gather for an immersive experience to learn constructive dialogue and empathy building skills. She says the intense activities stir emotions, change attitudes, promote self-reflection and encourage conversation. It’s so well received that graduates regularly show up at her office volunteering to be camp counselors or applying to be interns. Many graduates go on to lead diversity clubs and social justice awareness activities at their schools.
“Most students who complete the program write on their evaluation they would recommend it to anyone, it’s changed their life and they they want to come back to volunteer.”
Inclusive Communities program associate Emilio Herrera participated in IncluCity as a high school student. He later served as an intern and now he’s on staff while finishing his master’s in social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“Our programming had such a transformative effect on him that this has become his life’s work,” Riley says.
Herrera says the experience of Inclusive Communities has made him want “to become a beacon of hope in the Omaha metro area for those who feel misunderstood or misrepresented.”
A safe place
Riley says a Native American student from the Rosebud Reservation in S.D. has been similarly transformed. During a camp exercise called Culture Walk the student chose to identify himself as gay in front of peers, adult supervisors and community observers. He’s since become a diversity advocate in his school, a camp volunteer and the rare Native student pursuing a post-secondary educational path.
“The most gratifying thing to me is to know we’ve created a place where he feels safe and can feel supported in accomplishing all of his dreams,” Riley says. “It’s a meaningful thing to know you can impact a youth in that way. In return he’s created this amazing club within his school where other youth have felt safe coming out and being open about their own sexual orientation and gender identity. He’s also created a multicultural club and other safe spaces for youth in his own school. I’m very proud of what our staff and volunteers have done for him and of all the things he’s giving back to inspire youth.
“That’s the real power.”
Inclusive Communities is anything but abstract or theoretical.
“Our work is very human relations-based and focuses on how people interact with one another,” Riley says. “The conversations we promote are really much deeper than what is someone’s race or ethnicity or religion. We talk about systemic things that tie us together as a society and that make us who we are as a culture.”
Programming is tailored to clients’ needs.
“We get called by a lot of nonprofits and small businesses when they’re looking at starting a diversity and inclusion group,” she says. “The number one reason we get called to work with businesses is they need language and terminology. Businesses have a lot of issues with that. There may be one employee using language considered inflammatory that’s making an entire office or department feel uncomfortable.
“We promote doing daylong workshops where in a safe environment you give people the opportunity to engage in dialogue and learn to have meaningful conversations at work that can defuse situations. So when things do arise and somebody says something perceived as inflammatory by somebody else there is a foundation there for dealing with it. It’s getting everyone on the same page and helping people learn to be allies for one another and for themselves.”
With students she says the curriculum focuses on teaching youth “how to stand up for themselves and to learn dialogue tools to articulate their own identity and to meaningfully and peacefully resolve conflicts. It’s getting them to understand the difference between dialogue and debate. It’s helping them understand appropriate language skills.” She
says anti-bullying strategies are “a huge piece of what we do – we have an entire section on our website devoted to resources.”
She says her board has laid out a strategic plan to increase youth services and Inclusive Communities is well along in realizing that goal. The organization’s recently extended its reach into schools on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations in S.D. It’s also now working with schools in Lincoln, Bellevue and Ralston, Neb. and Council Bluffs, Iowa as well as with area private schools, including Omaha Creighton Prep and Duchesne Academy.
“We’ve doubled the size of our youth programming. It’s driven by the public’s need, by schools reaching out and asking for assistance. We’ve been an expert at this programming for a long time and it will always be really important to this organization because every time you impact a youth you get such a return on your investment.”
Last year’s record proceeds from the Humanitarian Dinner made possible increased youth and adult programming, additional staff and relocating to the Community Engagement Center at UNO. Inclusive Communities joins several nonprofits housed at the center, whose mission is to foster collaboration, something Riley’s organization is already well-versed in and is looking to do more of.
Cultivating collaborators and growing partnerships
“Some of our partners include Nebraskans for Civic Reform, Nebraska Appleseed and Greater Omaha Young Professionals. The more we collaborate with others the better opportunity we have for people to learn about the work we do. It’s planting a lot of seeds. That’s what this space is all about,” Riley says of the center. “We had outgrown our previous space and being here is such a great fit for us because of its central location, because many of the students we serve are students at UNO or go on to be students here and because of the opportunity to collaborate with the other nonprofits in the building and with faculty, staff and researchers at the university.
“We think there are great partnership opportunities on campus.”
Meanwhile, Inclusive Communities is launching its Building Blocks of Inclusion series at various businesses and doing a diversity series with Greater Omaha Young Professionals.
Riley says the organization has more capacity to grow and remains “very nimble” responding to emerging needs and issues. She adds Inclusive Communities may be old in years but remains ever relevant with its young staff, vibrant board and passionate volunteers.
Follow its work and get Humanitarian Dinner details at http://www.inclusive-communities.org.
~ BETH RILEY
Gravitas – Gravity Center for Contemplative Activism Founders Christopher and Phileena Heuertz Create Place of Healing for Healers
UPDATE: Pam and I participated in a weekend Grounding Retreat facilitated by the founders-directors of Gravity, A Center for Contemplative Activism and it lived up to everything that Christopher and Phileena Heuertz described to us when we met them several months ago. Here is a Metro Magazine story I wrote about the couple, their years of humanitarian work overseas and the mission of Gravity. The organization is based in Omaha, where they live and where Pam and I live. The Grounding Retreat was held at the St. Benedict Center near Schuyler, Neb., a lovely place to experience and connect to the truth that our Higher Power speaks in the scriptures:
Be still, and know that I am God.
I look forward to doing another retreat and to writing a new story one day about the work of this amazing couple, especially now that I have seen them in action.
OLD INTRO: The more I look around the more I appreciate just how many interesting stories are available to me right in my hometown of Omaha, Neb. if I just open my eyes and my heart to what’s here. As I expand my vision, I see more than I did before. There’s also a law of attraction thing going on whereby as my personal spiritual journey ramps up more and more stories of people’s own spiritual journeys and personal transformations present themselves to me. One such story is that of Gravity, A Center for Contemplative Activism, which I’ve posted here. This feature for Omaha’s Metro Magazine is really a profile of the married couple behind the center, Christopher and Phileena Heuertz, and a chronicle of the serious traveling they’ve done – physically, emotionally and spiritually – to arrive at the place of healing they operate for fellow healers like themselves.
Christopher and Phileena Heuertz
Gravity Center for Contemplative Activism Founders Christopher and Phileena Heuertz Create Place of Healing for Healers
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
After serving the poorest of the poor, an Omaha couple now helps heal fellow healers
Omaha is a world away from the slums of Calcutta, the killing fields of Sierra Leone or the red light districts of South America. But the human pain found there is never far from the hearts and minds of a spiritually enlightened local couple who worked among the suffering in these and similarly challenged places for nearly two decades.
Christopher and Phileena Heuertz are 40-something-year-olds who’ve devoted much of their adult lives to social justice activism with the poorest of the poor, all the while led by the scripture admonition “faith without works is dead.” Growing up – he’s from Omaha and she’s from Indiana – each had powerful do-the-right-thing examples of radical hospitality in their own lives. His parents took in foster care kids in crisis and adopted two at-risk children. Later, his folks founded and ran a local agency to help resettle Sudanese refugees. Her father is a Protestant pastor and the senior chaplain for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.
By the time the couple met at a small liberal arts Christian college in Kentucky Chis had already done service work on a Navajo reservation, in Cabrini Green Chicago and in South India and Southeast Asia. In love with him and their shared commitment to serve others, Phileena joined him overseas.
The many hard things they witnessed brought them to a crucible of faith that now has them dedicated to nurturing the spirits of people whose human service vocations align with their own.
A new path
In 2012 they founded the Omaha-based Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism. Officed in the Mastercraft Building in North Downtown, where kindred spirit creatives, entrepreneurs and social justice warriors (at Siena/Francis House) are their neighbors, the center is the arm for their new outreach focus. The couple’s new mission finds them leading prayer sits and pilgrimages and giving retreats and spiritual direction in support of people like themselves committed to humanitarian work. The Heuertzes know first-hand how draining that work can be and therefore how vital it is to have a discipline or method or sanctuary in order to get refreshed.
Chris says, “We’re trying to create this sort of pit stop for the activist soul to catch their breath, to be refueled, to find practices that will help sustain their vocations and journeys.”
Many of the practices are contemplative in nature, meaning they emphasize silent prayer, meditation and reflection which nurtures self-awareness or consciousness. Centering prayer is one such practice.
Gravity does some of this work right at its spacious office, such as the weekly prayer sits and spiritual direction. and holds retreats at the St. Benedict Center in Schuyler, Neb. and around the country. The husband and wife team leads pilgrimages to historic sacred spots around the world (Assisi, Italy) and to historic social justice locales around the world (Rwanda). In the U.S. pilgrmmage has focused on “21st Century Freedom Rides” revisiting civil rights sites in the South. The couple also does workshops and makes presentations for communities, churches and universities across the nation.
“Gravity is for people who care about their spirituality and want to make the world a better place,” says Phileena, who completed her certification as a spiritual director. “Since Gravity opened its doors we’re finding that people from all different walks of life are coming. Even if they’re not in formal social justice work many of these people want to make the world a better place and they’re doing that in their way through their unique vocation.”
The couple came to start Gravity after reaching a point where they needed their own reset. They intentionally took time off to minister to themselves, along the way finding some spiritual practices they found beneficial for their own peace of mind and spiritual growth and that they now share with others.
After years working in the trenches with the destitute, the desperate and the dying they took a sabbatical in 2007. For part of their time away from the fray they made a famed pilgrimage in Spain, the Camino de Santiago, that saw them walk almost 800 kilometers (500 miles) across southern France and northern Spain on a 33-day trek. There, under the stars, unplugged from modem life, they discovered some essential truths.
“Every night on the Camino we’d stop at a convent or monastery or pilgrim house,” says Chris. “For 1,100 years these folks have practiced hospitality. You’re so exhausted after walking 25 or 30 kilometers, carrying everything in your pack, and then these folks welcome you in, saying, ‘Here’s a hot meal, here’s the shower, you can wash your clothes, we’ll make you breakfast in the morning and send you on your way.’ And it just always refreshed our spirits, our souls, our bodies, and that’s what we want to do through the center. We want to offer these little glimpses of hope and tools of nourishment for the activist soul to keep going, to keep fighting for a better world and not give up.”
During that same sabbatical period the Heuertzes received a fellowship from the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.
“They hosted us,” says Chris,”and we found it such a great place for reflecting deeply on very difficult things in the world with a very diverse group of people.”
These experiences of taking time out for solitude, reflection, community and rejuvenation set this always searching couple on a new path, this time not directly tending to the suffering but to those who serve the suffering. Thus, their new mission is healing the healers.
In all the time Phileena and Chris served the oppressed, the exploited, the hungry, the sick and the dying, surrounded by a sea of want and hopelessness, they saw many of their colleagues lose their bearings.
“We worked all over the world and saw pretty messed up stuff and we saw a lot of great people burn out and walk away from their beliefs or faith or communities or vocations,” says Chris.
The couple came close to their own personal breaking points.
He says, “What we experienced in 19 years of really grassroots, gritty, on-the-streets, in-the-neighborhoods difficult work was that we gave a lot of ourselves. We saw lots and lots of terrible things that started to weigh on us. The work that we did impacted us and we absorbed a lot of that. What we saw in our own lives, in our own health and bodies, in our marriage were things that were hurt, that were wounded.
“It did take some emotional, spiritual, physical toll on us.”
While they were still wrapped up in that work though it was hard for them to see that damage. Only after being back home – Chris headed the North American office of Word Made Flesh from here – could they grasp just how much trauma they’d stuffed. There were the tragic figures at the Mother Teresa-founded House for the Dying, the maimed victims of the Blood Diamonds War, the Latina and Asian women recovering from being trafficked in the sex trade.
Phileena says the burden of it all came to a head for her one day.
“Back home a friend asked me after listening to what we had experienced, ‘Do you ever doubt the goodness of God?’ Immediately it was like a dam broke loose and the emotions took over and I just wept and wept and said, ‘Yes, I doubt the goodness of God.’ What I realize now is that in all my work social justice work up until that point I was operating in terms of finding someone to blame, someone who’s responsible for the state of the world and the suffering and injustice that is there.
“And certainly some of us are responsible and we need to take responsibility for our actions. But in Freetown, Sierra Leone everywhere I looked I found the person to blame was also victimized and so then I had nowhere to turn except to blame God for the state of the world and for the condition of my friends.
“I was in a crisis of faith.”
Just when things seemed bleakest a ray of hope shone through in the person of Father Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk and priest who is a leading proponent of the Christian contemplative prayer movement.
“Keating came to Omaha to speak at Creighton University and he introduced us to the contemplative tradition and centering prayer,” says Phileena. “That was really a lifesaver for me. It was immediate grace. There was a way for me to just be with the terrible suffering and trauma of the world, the human brutality, the questions, the doubts. There’s a way for me to be with my anger towards God and my questions and doubts about my faith. There’s a way to live faith without having all the answers.
“The answers I grew up with in church in mid-America were not connecting with the real problems of the world. Keating was just so helpful in providing a way for me to stay connected to faith, to God in a way that would allow me to deepen and grow.”
It should be no surprise then that Keating, the author of several books and the founder of the St. Benedict’s monastery in Snowmass, Colo., where he resides and teaches, is a founding board member of Gravity.
Keating’s oft-professed lesson that a test of faith is an opportunity for growth resonated with the couple.
“Keating teaches that if we stay on the spiritual journey long enough we’ll come to the point where the practices that have sustained us in our faith journey fall short, they no longer nourish us, and when that happens it can be completely disorienting,” says Phileena, who went through this dark night of the soul herself. “A lot of people walk away from their faith at that point but Keating says it’s actually an invitation to go deeper.”
She and Chris chose to plunge the depths.
The contemplative way and paying it forward
“What we found is there’s a real difference between faith and certainty,” she says..”Faith is being able find yourself being held by something bigger and greater than you and not having all these answers. Doubt can be contained within our faith. Certainty is the opposite of faith. I think a lot of spiritual or religious people put a lot of bank in our certainty, but that’s actually a barrier to faith. Certainity can be a disguise for pride and superiority and thinking we have all the answers and have figured it all out and can figure God out. But faith is something that carries us. It’s a grace that helps us to be a part of the mystery of life and God and any goodness that is in us and that can flow through us to heal and transform the world.
“It really gave us an understanding for what we had witnessed in Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in South India. Mother never talked about this but we saw in her this pure model of contemplative activism, where people were dying at her doorstep and she was disciplined to see that they were taken care of but also to see that she and the Missionaries of Charity would take regular time out to meditate and pray. They had these regular rhythms of withdrawal and engagement and getting connected to a source that is greater than them.”
Reflecting on their own and others’ service experiences, Chris says he and Phillena concluded that many “folks in social justice actually take better care of someone else than they do themselves,” adding, “Where’s the integrity in that? If we don’t really know how to love ourselves how well can we really love someone else? We also saw folks who had really beautiful compelling vocations were sometimes being very unpleasant, grumpy people. We did see a lot of people burn out and a lot of people perpetually teetering on the edge of burn out.”
He says he and his wife resolved they and their fellow social justice workers “don’t have to do this at our expense, we don’t have to do this in a way that ends poorly for us or that ends with people walking away from their work, their faith, their beliefs, their community.” That’s where Gravity comes in. “The idea is we want to accompany or journey with folks in this formation of helping ground our social engagement in a deep contemplative spirituality.”
They’re guided in their new mission by the wisdom and example of figures as diverse as Keating, Father Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Phileena says the monastic teachings of Keating, Rohr and Merton “have done a lot to bring contemplative spirituality out from the monastery and into the secular world. We’re a part of the next generation who are making it even more accessible and demystifying it. I think a big part of what we’re offering is accessibility to mysticism or contemplative spirituality. At the retreats the demystifying comes by practicing together and talking about our experiences.”
Gravity is a resource center whose programs, activities, books and videos help fulfill the mission statement tagline: “…do good better.” Both Chris and Phileena are published authors on matters of faith and spirituality.
The spiritual experiences that led them to Gravity, including all the insights gleaned from their teachers, colleagues, friends and role models, is their way of carrying the message.
Visit http://gravitycenter.com for a schedule of upcoming retreats and programs and links to materials.
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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