The following story was supposed to have appeared in The Reader (www.thereader) but human error resulted in a much shorter version being published. Fortunately I can publish it here and on the paper’s website and link it to Facebook and Twitter and all the rest of the social media universe. The piece explores one of the first intentional interracial housing developments in Omaha and perhaps anywhere in the Midwest or the nation as a whole. The suburban New Horizons addition was created in the 1960s as a sanctuary free of the red lining practices and restrictive housing covenants that relegated blacks to specific, designated, and confining areas to live. Blacks found no barriers to build or rent or move into New Horizons, where their neighbors might be black or white. This social action or experiment largely worked, too, though decades later the neighborhood has lost the diversity it once had and is now mostly white. The cruelest cut with what happened to the article not being published as it should have been in the paper is that this story is very personal to me. You see, my late life partner, Joslen Johnson Shaw, grew up in New Horizons. She was African American, Her parents, George and Juanita Johnson, built there in 1969 and were among the first residents in the neighborhood, black or white. The Johnsons were barrier breakers in more ways than this. They didn’t let racism or discrimination stand in the way of their aspirations. Before moving to New Horizons Joslen accoompanied her folks to open houses and saw with her own eyes as realtors and homeowners shunned and ignored them. As Joslen’s mother, Juanita, put it, “It was if we were invisible.” My primary source for the story is Juanita, who still lives in New Horizons. Joslen and I bought a home of our own in New Horizons six years ago. It’s just around the corner from Juanita’s place. I’m sitting in my office in that home as I type and post this. The other main source is Joslen’s brother, Marty. I wrote the story for them and in memory of Joslen and her late father, George. I wanted to make sure I got it right and that’s why it upset me when the story I cared so much about didn’t wind up in the paper as it should have. Well, here it is the way it was supposed to be there. This one’s for you, honey.
For The Reader
©by Leo Adam Biga
It took the civil rights movement to bring segregation in the United States into sharp relief. The South was the epicenter of the racial equality battle but American-style apartheid as well as attempts to dismantle it were everywhere, including Nebraska.
Omaha prides itself on hospitality yet African Americans here could not always live or or work or play or attend school where they wanted through the 1960s. In response to housing and work discrimination, for example, protest marches, sit-ins and other advocacy efforts organized.
With homeowners, realtors and banks discouraging blacks from white neighborhoods, it took extraordinary measures for blacks to integrate some sections of the city. One remedy was the creation of a new subdivision, appropriately named New Horizons, located on the then-western outskirts of the city, just off 108th Street between Dodge and Blondo and just north of Old Mill. The backs of the western-most homes abut 108th Street and the easternmost residences face 105th Street. Homes also extend from Nicholas Street on the north to Burt Street on the south. The interracial developers designed the new addition as an integrated neighborhood open to all. By all accounts their vision was fulfilled.
Situated in what was then-countryside New Horizons was established in 1965 and the first houses were built soon after on the tiered land. Corn fields stretched south, west and east of this built-from-the-ground-up neighborhood only a stone’s throw away from small working farms and stables. The two major east-west thoroughfares in the area, Dodge and Blondo, were two lanes each then.
New Horizons neighborhood
This story chronicles the experiences of some past and present residents of this mixed race community, including what precipitated their moving there. They don’t necessarily view New Horizons as having been a social action or social experiment but that’s exactly what it was. It was revolutionary for the time, especially by Omaha standards, where even hometown icon and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson was frustrated in his attempts to move into the neighborhood of his choice. If he couldn’t find satisfaction, then every day people like George and Juanita Johnson stood little chance.
In the mid-1960s the Johnsons were a college-educated, two-income married couple on an upwardly mobile track, but neither their names nor their positions gave them any influence to change that era’s prevailing discrimination. He was a Benson High art teacher. She was a North High math instructor and guidance counselor. They’d recently started a family and next sought buying a new, larger home near a park and good schools.
The North Omaha residents had built a house at 38th and Bedford but having outgrown it they set their sights on moving to wherever they could find their dream home. As African Americans, however, their aspirational pursuits, like those of countless other persons of color, were blocked.
It was a time when blacks were routinely subjected to unfair housing practices, some subtle, others blatant, that effectively confined them to living in a small geographic area. Regardless of means, if you were black in Omaha then you had little choice but to live, as the Johnsons did, in the area bounded by Cuming Street on the south, Ames Avenue on the north, 40th Street on the west and 16th Street on the east. The northeast inner city became the black “ghetto.” Getting out of it required a migration not alike that of blacks migrating from the Deep South.
In many ways Omaha’s de facto segregation was as pernicious and long lasting as any on the books in the South, resulting in a divided city that clearly demarcated the Near Northside as Black Omaha. Red lining real estate tactics, discriminatory banking practices, restrictive housing covenants and unfair hiring standards made it difficult if not impossible for blacks to live and work in many parts of their own city, denied and discouraged simply due to the color of their skin.
Though blacks live everywhere in the metro today, Omaha’s geographic segregation persists – with most blacks in Omaha still residing in North Omaha – in part due to the lasting imprint of the housing discrimination that once ruled the day.
Better opportunities in education, employment and housing slowly emerged in response to equal rights pleas, marches, mandates, laws and court rulings.
“Things were just beginning to open up with schools and jobs and activities in Omaha but you had to look for them. You know, you would see pictures in the paper of things happening, of activities that should have been open to everyone, but because of restrictive housing they really weren’t,” says Juanita Johnson.
She says an entire apparatus or conspiracy of bigoted hearts kept white areas off limits to blacks. Realtors and others acted as overseers in steering blacks to all black enclaves or to undesirable neighborhoods deemed ready for integration.
“We contacted some realtors and they showed us some places north. They told us we could be blockbusters and open up some new neighborhoods,” Johnson recalls. “The realtors decided which areas were going to integrate and which areas weren’t. They would watch the housing trends and determine, ‘We’ll let this block go now.” But the neighborhoods they were offering to us didn’t show much potential, they didn’t look like they were going to stay good working neighborhoods, they didn’t look like they were stable. There were several for rent signs on properties.”
She’s sure some realtors she and her late husband George dealt with were merely “going through the motions” to placate them. “They just showed us places that we would not have been interested in anyway – houses that were too small for what we wanted. We didn’t want a place that would have other houses six feet on either side. We wanted to find a house or build a house on a good-sized lot that had room for yard and play space for kids.”
Even though the Johnsons were eager and prepared to buy, it was as if their money was no good and their wishes didn’t matter. The more they looked for a home and were turned away the more incredulous they grew.
“We went to several open houses and at some of them it was as if we were invisible,” Johnson says. “I mean, they would greet people in front of us, they would greet people that were coming in behind us and it was just as if we weren’t there. I really can’t say there was anything (racial) said, it was more or less as if we were invisible walking through the places. We just thought they were stupid to behave in this way and we laughed at them.”
The Johnsons experienced the same frustration in their desire for a better life that the fictional Younger family encountered in Lorraine Hansberry‘s A Raisin in the Sun. Though the Youngers meet much resistance in the story, they eventually fulfill their goal of moving out of the inner city tenement they rent into a suburban home of their own. That play’s powerful dramatization, later adapted to the screen, made quite an impact on blacks facing the same issues in real life.
“I think that helped to motivate a lot of us in that it appeared to be possible and that this could happen to us as individuals,” says Johnson.
But there were societal-cultural roadblocks to achieving that dream. Being shunned, ignored and disrespected the way the Johnsons and so many of their black peers were elicited hard feelings in some, discouraged others and in the case of the Johnsons, motivated them even more.
The fact that we had been looking for a place and were just tired of running into barriers,” Johnson says, is what made the prospect of building a home in New Horizons “so attractive.” She says New Horizons represented a balancing-the-scales effort at “an integrated community of middle to upscale housing that was out far enough from the main part of the city that people wouldn’t say we were living in the ghetto – that we were in a suburban house just like anyone else.”
Moving to a racially blended suburb also promised a diversity fast disappearing in northeast Omaha, where white flight left the area predominantly African American. The suburbs also meant access to better performing schools.
“We wanted to be in a situation where we could have the best for our children, the best opportunities, and we wanted them to be exposed to the cultural advantages I knew other children were being exposed to,” she says. “We wanted our kids to have the opportunities to participate in whatever they were really interested in doing and not be kept out or let in because they were black. We knew we wanted an opportunity for the kids to have a really integrated education.”
Enter New Horizons. Its late developers were prominent Omaha veterinarian, Dr. A.B. Pittman, architect Golden Zenon and architect-civil engineer J.Z. Jizba. Pittman and Zenon were African American and Jizba was white.
For Pittman, New Horizons was an expression of a commitment to helping his own people realize their dreams and to bridging the divide between people of different races and creeds. He was president of the Omaha branches of the National Urban League and the National Council of Christians and Jews.
“My father was always concerned about getting people better housing,” says his daughter Antoinette “Toni” Pittman. “He was on the board of the Urban League Housing Foundation (now Family Housing Advisory Services), the Omaha Planning Board and the Omaha Housing Authority. Even before New Horizons he was involved in a housing development around 27th and Hamilton that the North Freeway took out. He was just concerned with people bettering themselves. He just did it, he didn’t talk about it.”
Pittman struck a personal blow for equal housing by buying a home at 97th and Dodge. In order to avoid potential obstacles or opposition he had a proxy buy it for him and then hand over the deed, explains his daughter, who grew up there. She says hers was the only black family there and fortunately they met no resistance.
The Johnsons were friends with the Pittmans through the northeast Omaha Episcopal church they both attended, St. Philip’s.
“Probably George and A.B. and Zinnon had been talking about this and it just seemed it was available at the right time and we were in the right position to make that decision and build there. We were looking at getting settled before any more time went by,” says Johnson.
The Johnsons moved into their newly built split-level home in the spring of 1969. Their late daughter, Joslen Johnson Shaw, was 9 at the time and their son Marty 4.
She says finally getting into the house they’d so long sought brought a mix of feelings, including relief.
“We were just real anxious to get settled in what we knew was going to be our permanent home.”
Another black family there with the same surname, though no relation, felt the same sense of accomplishment.
“I remember the day we moved in there my father standing in front of the house and being so proud,” says Glenda Johnson Moore, whose parents Walter and Bernice Johnson had weathered the same frustrations George and Juanita did in seeking a new home. “Who would have ever thought my father would have moved in that neighborhood? That was unheard of. It was great. I mean, it was a big thing.”
It was enough of a newsworthy event that the Omaha World-Herald did a story.
For the most part, New Horizons lived up to its promise, with a nearly 50-50 split of blacks and whites at the start. A Hispanic family also became early residents there.
“It worked out fine,” says Juanita Johnson, who adds that the neighborhood association and occasional neighborhood picnics enjoyed nearly even black and white participation. Her best friends there were black and white. She suspects most if not all the whites who moved into New Horizons were not looking to make any kind of social statement about diversity.
“I think they were people that really didn’t care, they were just looking for housing.”
That was true of Corinne Murphy and her late husband William, who built their home in 1970 directly north of George and Juanita’s. Though the Murphys knew about the open integration policy it didn’t factor one way or the other in their decision. “We were just looking for a place where they were building houses and this happened to be one of the places they were building them,” says Corrine. “I just liked the neighborhood. It had a nice park. There weren’t too many people yet.”
She says the idea of living in a racially mixed neighborhood “didn’t bother us” and that, if anything, she admired her new black neighbors, most of whom were professionals. “They were a lot smarter and better off than I was. They all had good paying jobs and were well educated. I got along with them all.”
She says her five kids became fast friends with the black kids in the neighborhood.
“Marty Johnson and my son Rory were very good friends. There was a time when they were walking home from school and kids were picking on Marty and my Rory just got right in the middle of that argument with those kids and made sure he got home OK. Yeah, they were best friends, they really liked each other. They still do.”
Marty says neither the white kids he befriended there nor their parents ever betrayed any hint of racism.
“I was always up at their houses playing and their parents were always very friendly and welcoming to me, and they’d always come down and play at our house.”
Whatever sport was in season, he says, neighborhood kids would join in playing it, older kids, young kids, black kids, white kids.
“Looking back on it now somebody driving by having no idea what this neighborhood was about would probably be really surprised to see all these kids of different colors playing together. It was probably very unique. I look back at it and I think, ‘Oh wow,’ it was probably pretty groundbreaking.”
Lee Valley, an adjacent neighborhood built around the same time as New Horizons, stood in sharp contrast because it lacked any diversity. The Horizons kids would occasionally challenge the Valley kids to a game of football or baseball and the marked difference in their makeup was hard to ignore.
“We were this totally mixed group of kids playing these white kids,” Marty says.
The area school Marty and Joslen attended, Edison, was all white until the Johnson siblings and some of their fellow black Horizons neighbors attended there. Marty says he never ran into racism in the neighborhood but did at school.
Glenda Johnson Moore also had a hard time adjusting to otherwise all white schools but her Horizons experience wasn’t all peaches and cream.
“The people that lived across the street from us were extremely racist,” she says. “We were called names. It got better eventually but you felt it, you absolutely you felt it. It was uncomfortable for a long time.”
Overall, she’s grateful to have grown up there.
“I’m glad I had the diversity. It’s made me a stronger person, it’s made me who I am today. I can communicate to anybody. It was a good place, it was a good thing.”
Juanita Johnson says she wanted her kids to have the enrichment that comes from diverse experiences because her “progressive” parents wanted the same for her. Her father Saybert Hanger was one of the area’s first black attorneys and a federal meat inspector. Her mother Ione Hanger was an elementary school teacher in the Omaha Public Schools and later taught at Creighton University. Johnson says her parents wanted full opportunities for all kids “and I was fortunate enough that they pushed and encouraged me to break barriers.”
At Omaha Central High, circa 1945, Juanita was the only black student on the year book and school newspaper staffs. She received her master’s from Creighton University at a time when few blacks attended there. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s International House she resided with students from around the world and she attended interracial camps that attracted students from the four corners.
Similarly, her husband cultivated black and white friends growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa and he integrated Wayne State (Neb.) College.
It’s not coincidental both Marty and Joslen involved themselves in activities, including her showing horses, that meant interacting mainly with whites. Joslen integrated Brownell-Talbot School. Many of their friends were white. Each ended up with a white life partner.
Marty says, “I think my well-rounded life is because my parents were always exposing me to different things. They really were pioneers in a lot of different things. This was the pattern of their life – breaking barriers. If there was a barrier they certainly eliminated it. They were groundbreaking and cool and somewhat courageous, too.”
His mother says all of it was meant to foster a time when “I didn’t want my children to have to look at the things they were doing as being barrier breakers. If they wanted to try out for something they could just go ahead and try and either be good enough to be accepted that every other child was accepted or refused because they weren’t good enough, but not because of their color.”
Juanita and George were also intentional about keeping their family’s ties to Omaha’s traditional African American community alive. For example, they continued attending their home parish, St. Philips, whose congregation was entirely black. Marty took music lessons from an instructor in northeast Omaha. Joslen was active in Jack and Jill, a social club designed to reconnect young blacks dispersed when their families moved from the Near Northside.
Marty says he appreciates “all that my parents exposed us to and always giving us opportunities. I feel very fortunate they made the choices they made. It’s pretty amazing to me how forward thinking they were.”
Juanita Johnson still lives in New Horizons and her next door neighbor is still Corinne Murphy. The neighborhood is not nearly as diverse as it once was and the homes show their age, but it’s held its own. Many old-line black residents have moved or died off and few new blacks have moved in. Johnson attributes the paucity of blacks there to the fact they have so many more options today. That was the whole point of New Horizons anyway – freedom to live where you want.
Now the metro’s replete with diverse neighborhoods just like New Horizons used to be and may be again.
- Carver Building Rebirthed as Arts-culture Haven; Theaster Gates, Rebuild and Bemis Reimagine North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Free Radical Ernie Chambers the Subject of New Biography by Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- American adoptee’s discovery of his birth parents reveals a story of interrupted romance and regal ancestry (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Ernie Chambers. His name variously polarizes, raises blood pressure, inspires, confounds, sparks discussion and debate, and generally elicits some kind of response . If you’re a Nebraskan, past or present, than you not only know the name but the context for why the mere mention makes it virtually impossible to take a neurtral stand about this vociferous, independent, lone wolf figure who is an open book in some ways and an enigma in other ways. His name’s traveled widely outside Nebraska as well. He first gained local and national noteriety back in the 1960s for his stirring presence in the documentary A Time for Burning. He parlayed the stage that gave him and his grassroots work as activist, advocate, guardian, and spokesperson for Omaha’s African-American community to win election to the Nebraska Legislature. He served as that body’s only black representative for 38 years, finally leaving office because of term limits, but he’s just returned to his old District 11 seat after defeating incumbant Brenda Council in the Nov. 6 general election. When he was in office before he took many controversial and brave stands and he never, ever backed down from a fight, often employing his sharp wit and procedural mastery to humble opponents and win concessions. He’s back alright, armed with much the same rhetoric he’s used since the height of the black power and civil rights movements, which begs the question: What does the 75-year-old social justice warhorse have to offer his district in an era when many of his constituents need more education, relevant job skills, living wage jobs, and transportation solutions and want economic development in North Omaha that includes them, not excludes them? Is he in touch with younger generation and professional blacks who perhaps see things differently than he does and want specific, tangible progress now? This story doesn’t address those things but a future story I write just might. Instead, the following piece for an upcoming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) looks at a new political biography about Chambers by Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson, who offers some insights and opinions about the man she’s long admired. The book is aptly titled, Free Radical: Ermest Chambers, Black Power and the Politics of Race.
Free Radical Ernie Chambers the Subject of New Biography by Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally apepared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It’s fitting a new book taking the measure of Nebraska politico legend Ernie Chambers is out just as this old social justice warhorse has proven he still owns the people’s will.
In the Nov. 6 general election the 75-year-old Chambers demonstrated the pull he still maintains by decisively beating incumbent Brenda Council to regain his old state legislative seat. Public disclosure of Council’s misuse of campaign funds to support a gambling addiction undoubtedly hurt her. But she would likely have found Chambers a formidable opponent anyway.
Amid the struggle for racial equality in the 1960s, Chambers emerged as a black activist straight out of central casting. The longtime state senator was everything the white establishment feared or loathed: a young, brash, angry black man with an imposing physique, a rare eloquence, a brilliant mind, a devoted following and a dogged commitment. His goatee and muscle shirt effectively said, Fuck off.
When he saw a wrong he felt needed remedy he would not give in or remain silent, even in the face of surveillance, threat and arrest.
The Omaha native was forged from centuries of oppression and the black nationalist militancy of his times yet remained fiercely independent. He paid allegiance only to his grassroots, working poor base in northeast Omaha, whose District 11 residents elected him to nine terms in office. He stayed real cutting hair and holding court at Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop for many years. He was forced out of office in 2009 only because of term limits, a petition effort widely seen as targeting him specifically.
At a Nov. 3 Community Day rally in North Omaha Chambers said:
“I don’t come to these kind of gatherings regularly. It’s not easy for me, even though I enjoy being around my brothers and sisters. But I’m a solitary person. Basically, I am a loner, and experience has created that persona for me because I’m in situations where bad things can happen and if I’m relying on somebody else and they don’t come through – I know what I would do but I don’t know what somebody else would do. I can’t depend on anybody else.
“So if I see an issue that needs to be addressed it’s for me to address it. I don’t go to committees, I don’t go to organizations, I don’t ask anybody for anything, and it’s not that I’m ungrateful or unappreciative. I just have to survive and my survival depends ultimately on me. So that’s why I do what I do.”
Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson well captures his enigmatic essence in the main title of her political biography, Free Radical, as he’s been a singularly reactive yet stable force these many decades. The subtitle, Ernest Chambers, Black Power and the Politics of Race, refers to the context of his public service role.
Chambers was not the first black leader in Nebraska. Nor was he the first to hold public office. But he was the first to command wide respect and wield real power. During a 38-year run in the legislature that made him the longest-serving state senator in Unicameral history he mastered the art of statecraft. Trained as an attorney and possessing a facile mind even his critics admired, he adeptly manipulated legislative rules and procedures. Though he represented a small, poor constituency and uttered divisive rhetoric, fellow senators needed his support if they wanted their bills advanced. He couldn’t be ignored.
The arc of his political career is a major focus of Johnson, who at one point was in charge of his personal papers.
“She had access to information that other people didn’t have access to,” he says of his biographer.
Overall, he’s pleased with the final product and its depiction of his career.
“I don’t have any objection to what she did.”
In terms of fairly and accurately capturing his work as an elected official, he says it’s right on “as far as it went,” adding, “Many articles have been written that go into more depth on some things than Tekla wrote about in her book.” He says he understands “there are things someone will emphasize that I wouldn’t and there are things I would emphasize that they wouldn’t. But that’s the way it goes. No two people see a complex issue the same way. Even people called historians are really interpreters. They can’t write everything about everything, so they select what they think is important in order to convey the message they have in mind.”
He says he had little input into the manuscript.
“There may have been something when she got through that she sent and I dealt primarily with grammar and inconsequential things. I didn’t try to change the thrust of it or tell her what to write.”
Johnson confirms the same, saying she only sought his opinion on certain matters and even then they sometimes disagreed. In order to maintain her scholarly freedom she says she only began writing the book after she left his employ and then had little contact with him during the writing process.
In the end, he’s flattered his political life has been documented.
“I appreciate the fact that somebody thought enough of the work that I’ve done to compile material between two covers of a book and make that available to whomever may choose to read it.”
He says he’s doing interviews in support of the book “mainly because of Tekla, the amount of time and effort she put into the work, and I don’t want to say or do anything that would diminish in any respect what she has done or the value that I place on it.”
Perhaps the most telling vantage point of Chambers she gained came when she worked as his legislative aide.
“I actually got to see the day to day process,” she says of the experience.
The book began as Johnson’s history thesis at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She served as a consultant to the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha and helped catalog its collection. Today, she’s an assistant professor of history at Salem College (N.C.). Her Texas Tech University Press published book is available wherever books are sold.
Johnson says when she hit upon the idea of making Chambers her thesis study a professor told her, “That’d be great, except he won’t let you. He won’t let anybody that close to him.” She found a way in, however. “I decided to go to his office. I didn’t actually ask him. I talked to his legislative aide, Cynthia Grandberry, and said, ‘Look, I want to write my dissertation on Sen. Chambers,’ and she said, ‘Sure, if you help me clean up the office.’”
This was 2001.
“He produced such enormous volumes of materials that despite an excellent filing system he literally had overrun the file cabinets many years before. I actually spent the first two years of the project processing his papers,” says Johnson.
The project was a labor of love about a figure she idolized as a girl.
“I grew up knowing about Sen. Chambers. I’m from North Omaha and he was always sort of somewhere there in the background. As a young woman I would occasionally see him speaking at an event, especially if there was something dire that had happened in the community.”
Immersing herself in his vast collection she says she acquired a new appreciation for his advocacy and for how her own coming-of-age intersected with his work.
“One of the things I first noticed in working on the collection is that almost a third, but a full fourth for sure, of his papers are about police violence and killings, police harassment, complaints from citizens in North Omaha. It took up a large section of one of the four rooms his papers are housed in. It was enormous.
“I also found I traced back to myself. I came across police incidents that happened when I was young that I remembered Sen. Chambers speaking out against. One of those was when I was 10 years old and living in Lincoln (Neb.). On our corner Sherdell Lewis was shot (and killed). We knew him. My sister and I were his papergirls. He was shot on his doorway by Lincoln police. Shortly after the shooting the black community came to my mother’s house because they needed a place nearby (to mourn and vent).”
Johnson says many questioned whether the shooting was justified.
“I had totally forgotten about that. There’s a picture in the book of Sen. Chambers leading a protest march along with the victim’s mother.”
Similarly, she says Chambers was a vocal critic of the shooting of Vivian Strong that sparked urban unrest in Omaha in 1969 and of other cases where excessive force was used.
She says any understanding of him must start with “the deep dedication of North Omahans to Sen. Chambers because even at his own expense he would not back down when he felt like the community was endangered or when he felt there was no respect for the lives and the civil rights and human rights of people in the community.” She says coming from a bi-racial home (her father’s African American and her mother’s Caucasian) she “sort of got to peek” at how blacks and whites viewed Chambers from different lenses. She also got to know how he understood that his rails against police brutality played differently to different audiences.
“He knew it was hard to believe for whites who lived in west Omaha or small towns. because those things were so far out of their experiences.”
She admires how he never let go of what he deemed important. His response to allegations of extreme police misconduct is illustrative, she says.
“In most cases when there was a police killing in the community he would request an investigation by the city. If that wasn’t done, if it was deemed a no-fault killing, if nobody were to be held accountable, then he went to other authorities. There are several (incidents) documented in the book where he filed for federal investigations into killings with the Department of Justice.”
She says one of his lasting achievements was sponsoring and winning passage of legislation requiring a grand jury be convened and an investigation be done anytime someone dies in police custody or in jail.
“I remember him having said, “We’re tired of our people being killed.’ So this is definitely an important part of the book to me. What he says happened in North Omaha I know it happened. It was real.”
Bad things continue happening. He grieves for the gun violence plaguing his community today, much of it black on black. In too many cases innocent folks are caught in the crossfire.
“I can’t tell you all what it does to me when I see something horrible happen to a young person, to anybody, but the helpless ones, the trusting ones, the ones who are trying for something better from us…they need help and we’re not there to offer it,” he said at the Nov. 3 rally.
In a public setting like the Community Day rally, the preacher’s son comes out in Chambers. the presumed agnostic, whose elocution has the melodic flair of the late jazz musician-radio host-lecturer Preston Love Sr. He holds an audience through his impassioned delivery and sheer magnetic presence. He sprinkles in metaphors and allegories from the Bible. It’s in settings like these the affinity between Chambers and the people becomes clear.
“He’s really in step with them. While Sen. Chambers didn’t form a group or join a group his ongoing dialogue with the community is the reason he maintained their trust and respect and why he actually was a liberating figure,” Johnson says. “To do that he insisted on passage of legislation that legislators could get collect calls, so he was able to get calls from all of his constituency. He also kept his job at the barbershop for years, in the summers and on the weekend, so people would have a place to come and talk with him personally.”
Chambers himself says that even when he lost his legislative seat he was still the person District 11 residents turned to for help, not black elected officials. That doesn’t surprise Johnson, who says he long ago earned people’s trust.
“He wasn’t the first person to take the role of leader in the community. Charlie Washington was a point person before him community members would go to.
But Sen. Chambers, because of his unusual ability intellectually, rhetorically, in terms of statecraft and the law and just his down to earth nature, earned an enormous following.”
Another of his greatest achievements, say Johnson and others, was getting district elections for the Omaha City Council, the Omaha School Board and the Douglas County Board of Commissioners. It’s resulted in many black elected officials for North Omaha. His open disdain for many of those representatives, whom he considers stooges for the white power structure, has distanced him from portions of the black elite class. Chambers being Chambers, he doesn’t much care.
“I think what has happened is they have been absorbed by the Democratic party and he chose to remain independent and I think that is probably the biggest divide,” says Johnson. “He was and is utterly completely free.”
Johnson believes he arrived at a point where he realized that as the lone black representative in the legislature representing a poor black constituency, the most he could do was to be their voice.
“All the legislators have to list their occupation and for a number of years he listed barber, but I think when he changed his written vocation to ‘Defender of the Downtrodden,’ it actually marked a change and a decision on his part that sort of is fatalistic. He decided that because of the politics and power lobbying that go on within the formal political parties and because of his own independence and insistence on speaking for the most disenfranchised, the poorest, and insisting government should haven in place support for their needs, he got to the point when he thought he would not be able to change the way that government in Neb. functions with respect to low income people.
“I think it was also the point when he was refused chairmanship again and again of the judiciary committee.”
In terms of legacy, she says, “he was at once respected but feared and unpopular among some of the senators. He would stop their bills if he didn’t get some of what he wanted and what he wanted was legislation or concessions that protected his people, that didn’t allow, for example, the Omaha Housing Authority to go into closed session and make decisions without public input. He did all kinds of things like that. He fought tooth and nail legislation to reduce allocations to people on aid to families with dependent children. He really fought those battles.”
“He’d get so frustrated, saying, ‘Y’all don’t know what it takes to make it on $320.’ Yes, it was rhetoric but it was heartfelt. He’s seen people struggling and he felt it was within the power of the state legislature to provide some relief. He felt at times they didn’t do it because of petty politics, because of western Neb. versus eastern Neb., because of racism, because of just indifference, and that made him angry.”
She says even though he often stood alone, he knew how to play politics.
“He never compromised his principles but he is a politician. He would come in on the weekends during the summer when session was out – this is what I gained from being able to actually observe – because he wanted to read up on all the other bills. He read up on what the interests of the other senators were. He knew their backgrounds, he knew everything about them. It’s not just the rules he employed, he played politics in terms of, ‘Look, if you want something from me, if you don’t want me to stop your bill or to filibuster, then you’re going to have to provide some concessions to things my constituents need.’”
Johnson says, “I don’t think he could have been more effective by doing it any other way. They dubbed him Dean of the Legislature because he was maximum effective for that base. I think the only way he could have been more effective is if those other senators had read as much about him and learned as much about the community he served and actually taken an interest, and I’m not saying a few didn’t, in how do we raise the standard for everybody in the state. If they had taken that position and cooperated with him more then he could have been more effective.”
Chambers operated much like his black peers in other states.
“African-American legislators across the country tended to be fairly effective just like Sen. Chambers in stopping legislation and not as effective at passing legislation. The ones who tend to be the most effective in working for the community tended to be on the out with the majority because they were battling all the time and they were always having to stand firm.”
Johnson wishes Chambers prepared the way for a successor.
“I do have a critique of him and it’s something I’ve openly talked to him about. He didn’t groom anybody (to replace him). It’s something I wish would have happened.”
As far as legacy, she feels his efforts in making Neb. the first state to pass any resolution for divestment of state funds from South Africa in protest of its apartheid practices “may be the thing he’s remembered for.”
Though serving 38 years in the legislature involved “self-sacrifice” on his part, she says it clearly hurt him when he could not run in 2008.
“I think he was not just disappointed because he had to leave for four years but the subtext for his career, besides trying to end police violence and confronting racism, was to gain political power for his constituency relative to other legislative districts in the state. His having to leave office made him feel that what he’d worked for had gone backwards because he felt the will of the people was being overridden by term limits. His constituency couldn’t elect him if they wanted to.”
She notes he ran unopposed several times and that he kept running because “I don’t think he saw anybody else as talented as he was who could really do the job as well as he did. That and the fact people let him know they wanted him to run again.” Now that he’s returning to the legislature she’s fascinated by how he and his new colleagues will work together.
“The body has changed because of term limits. The expertise that was there is no longer there. It hasn’t necessarily served Neb. well to have a constantly revolving, often times very young body at the helm. Who knows, maybe they’ll be more open to working with him. Maybe they’ll be less entrenched.”
An obvious advantage he’ll have, she says, is his vast experience.
Remarking on what people can expect from him, Chambers says, “For better or worse people have to see what it is that I am. They have to know what they’re getting if they come this way, and if they don’t like what it is I’m not the least offended. I probably wouldn’t like somebody like me. I would respect somebody like me. But likability is not an anything I cultivate because it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t achieve anything.”
He simply promises to be the same person he’s always been, which is to say someone “who never yields, never wavers, never accepts handouts from anybody, and whose only loyalty to a group is to this community.”
- Ernie Chambers, Brenda Council sharpen their barbs (omaha.com)
- Chambers returns to Legislature (omaha.com)
- Heineman welcomes Ernie back to the Chambers (AUDIO) (nebraskaradionetwork.com)
- Carver Building Rebirthed as Arts-culture Haven; Theaster Gates, Rebuild and Bemis Reimagine North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- 5 things to watch as the Nebraska legislative session begins (omaha.com)
No matter how you feel about the issue of illegal immigration in the U.S. you have to sympathize with parents whose only crime is living here without proper documentation who have the misfortune of being arrested and then detained in jail, all while awaiting deportation, and in the meantime finding themselves separated from family, including children. We’re not talking about identity theives. We’re talking about people holding down jobs and raising families and abiding by laws except for that murky no-man’s land called a border they breeched. For years the nation looked the other way at what was essentially an open border but now it’s intent on closing that border and throwing back over it anyone who’s managed to cross it illegally, even those who’ve made productive lives for themselves and their families in America. It’s cruel and unusual punishment that only adds to social disruption and incurs extra costs without really solving anything. It’s purely a power play by the haves against the have-nots. This is a story about a small program through the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha that offers Spanish-speaking detainees some educational support services during their incarceration and that tries to provide a platform for parents to connect with their children.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
With immigration enforcement a national priority, jails are filled with individuals whose only crime is being in the U.S. illegally.
Out of sight, out of mind behind bars these civil offenders risk being lumped in with the habitually criminalized. Advocates say it’s all too easy to forget many detainees have been law-abiding, gainfully-employed residents. Many are parents. Once arrested and jailed they face separation from loved ones and home.
Being severed from family while the legal process drags on poses challenges the criminal justice and penal system are not necessarily well prepared to address without expert intervention.
With no programs serving its growing population of Spanish-speaking detainees, Douglas County Department of Correction officials asked the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for help in early 2009. OLLAS met with staff and detainees as a first step in creating a detainee-centered program.
Claudia Garcia, a UNO assistant professor of foreign languages, says she and university colleagues attended jail orientation and conducted two focus-groups with detainees in spring 2009 in order to assess concerns and needs.
“The situation of women, many terribly depressed because of being separated from their young children, was especially pressing for some jail authorities, who were sympathetic to these detainees’ situation,” says Garcia.
Beginning in the summer of 2009 OLLAS faculty launched Project Improve as a community service initiative at the Douglas County Correctional Center, 710 South 17th Street. The effort is focused on helping detainees discuss their predicament, connect with family and become empowered through education. The intent is to provide clients a non-punitive advocacy and support outlet.
Faculty engage detainees in writing, reading and discussion activities designed to promote introspection and self-expression. Garcia says on average 16 men and 11 women participate per session.
“Personally, what strikes me the most about the Latino detainees, especially the women, is their strength and good attitude, and also their ability to give each other support,” Garcia says. “I think we provide a space that allows them to reflect, process and articulate their personal journeys.”
OLLAS director Lourdes Gouevia says, “The inmates express their stories through various media and record messages and stories for their children.” UNO assistant professor of education Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni says participants appreciate the opportunity to respectfully own their own experience: “This is a time for them to have an avenue to be themselves. They’ve told us we treat them with dignity, we treat them like human beings, we don’t look at them like they’re incarcerated.”
The experience has made an impression on the academics.
“It’s been a very intense and enriching learning process,” says Garcia, adding that it’s “one thing is to have an intellectual knowledge” of these issues “but it’s very different to talk, interact and become emotionally affected by the individuals going through these hard times. For me, the big eye-opener is the definition of criminal. Many detainees we work with have violated immigration law, but they are certainly not dangerous criminals. Most are just mothers and fathers who have tried their best to give their families a better life, and have been working without proper documentation.
“Most who come to our sessions are really engaged in a process of self-growth, using this time in jail to re-visit their own lives. They appreciate the opportunity to learn and be better people when they get out. It’s really a very moving experience.”
Brignoni says “it saddens us” that most of the detainees are presumably awaiting deportation. “We get a new group all the time because they don’t stay there.”
After a prolonged break, the project is presuming monthly sessions in December,
Garcia is impressed by DCDC’s embrace of Project Improve.
“It’s been a very welcoming institution. DCDC understands the importance of educational and support programs for their detainee population, and are very proud to have a diversity of volunteers go there and share time and knowledge with the detainees. The officers in charge of educational programs are very helpful and very clear.”
- Hundreds Attend OLLAS Conference Cumbre to Give and Get Diverse Perspectives on Migration Issues (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- UNO/OLLAS Resident Expert on Cuban and Latino Matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- New Sentencing Project report highlights for-profit detention in the federal system (sentencing.typepad.com)
- A Spiteful New Policy at Guantánamo Bay (nytimes.com)
- ACLU Sues ICE for Shackling Immigrants in Court (newamericamedia.org)
- Federal Government Increases Use of Private Detention Centers, Group Finds (acslaw.org)
As long as immigrants are viewed as The Other and thus seen as apart from rather than as a part of there will be a need for programs like Justice for Our Neighbors, a faith-based response to the extra challenges immigrants face in a nation that’s not always immigrant-friendly despite being built by immigrants. This is a story about some of the efforts of the Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska office led by Emiliano Lerda.
Justice for Our Neighbors: Treating the Immigrant as Neighbor
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published iin El Perico
Welcoming the stranger in our midst is the mandate of Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska, a small nonprofit that holds monthly clinics for low income immigrants in need of legal counsel. The organization’s largely new staff held a March 25 open house.
The clinics, offered in both Omaha and Columbus Neb., provide a friendly, safe haven for individuals, couples and families stressed by uncertain legal status. For some, it may be their only recourse to try and avoid deportation. Potential complications are many. Cases can drag on for years.
Situations in which there’s abuse, illness, or poverty present, for example, make the need for action more urgent.
JFON staff offer free legal services, education and advocacy to help guide clients through the complex immigration maze. Its in-house attorney and legal assistants provide consultation. Referrals are made to community service providers as needed to address health care or employment or economic issues, for example.
Volunteers facilitate the clinics and extend the welcome mat by variously conducting the intake process, acting as interpreters, supervising children and serving food.
The agency’s part of the national Justice for Our Neighbors network the United Methodist Church on Relief Committee launched in 1999 in response to ever more complicated and stringent immigration laws. JFON clinics operate cooperatively with local churches. The Omaha clinic’s held at Grace United Methodist Church, 2418 E St., next door to the JFON-Nebraska office, 2414 E St.
The Nebraska chapter’s recently undergone a major turnover. Emiliano Lerda came on as JFON-Nebraska executive director in January. Charles “Shane” Ellison joined as lead attorney in February. The other two full-time staffers are also relatively new — office manager/legal assistant Darling Handlos and paralegal Shaun Downey.
Originally from Argentina, Lerda, 30, knows the immigrant experience first-hand. Now a U.S, citizen, he was drawn to America’s Midwest because its agricultural environment reminded him of his native Cordoba province. At the University of Northern Iowa he became the first international student elected student body president. After obtaining his law degree from Drake Law School he worked as government relations manager for the Iowa Corn Growers Association.
“When I got here what really grabbed me is the fact this community here has very similar values to the community I grew up in,” he says. “I love working with farmers and I hope at some point in the future I will have the chance again to work with farmers.”
He says JFON-Nebraska allows him to remain in the Midwest while serving the community of newcomers he feels a deep connection to.
“I’m an immigrant myself. I went through the process. I know how difficult it is. I received a lot in life through people that helped me without any self-interest. For years now I have been passionate about giving back to the community. I could not ignore the needs of people that are here in similar shoes that I wore, that are new to this community, that are far away from their family and friends.
“God gave me the talents and skills and the background, and so I thought it was a great fit for me to continue to make a difference by helping people that want to be a part of this community, that want to contribute to this community but cannot because their illegal status is stopping them.”
At its core the JFON-Nebraska mission is to help undocumented immigrants comply with the law and become legal residents, says Lerda.
“Some people may be living in constant fear because their status is not legal,” he says.
Many are separated from family members.
Not everyone has a case though, Lerda stresses.
“Immigration provides very few doors for people to come through, and if you don’t fit within those doors, I don’t care how hard a worker you are or how much you want to do the right thing, you’re just not going to be able to.”
Limited staffing restricts the number of clients served per clinic to 10. Clients are seen on an appointment-only basis.
Lerda’s frustrated that the demand for immigration legal services far outstrips JFON resources. However, JFON does refer to two sister agencies — Catholic Charities and Lutheran Family Services — that provide similar services at a nominal fee.
He says his agency is currently cleaning out a large backlog of old cases to better focus on new cases. JFON annually handles 300 cases. By year’s end he hopes to pass the bar or receive accreditation as an immigration law attorney.
The polarizing issue of immigration, he says, is best addressed by education, including JFON-Nebraska workshops for service providers and others in the community. To him, educating people about the benefits of being legal is both practical and neighborly.
“If we don’t help people that can be helped to be here legally, so they can go to school and they can make a contribution economically or civically, then I think I’m failing to do my part. That’s why I feel like God gave me this opportunity and I have to do it.”
For a clinic appointment, call 402-898-1349 the first day of the month.
- Hundreds Attend OLLAS Conference Cumbre to Give and Get Diverse Perspectives on Migration Issues (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Turning Kids Away from Gangs and Toward Teams in South Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Fast Times at Omaha’s Liberty Elementary: The Evolution of a School (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Methodist conference puts focus on immigration (reporternews.com)
- Jose Antonio Vargas: What Does It Mean To Be An American? (huffingtonpost.com)
- Omaha Tri-Faith Pioneers Seeing the Fruits of Their Interfaith Collaborative Take Shape (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
When people refer to “the grassroots” in communities they are generally describing average men women busy living their lives, working jobs, raising families, and thus mostly disconnected from the official city apparatus, such as law enforcement, in place to protect and serve them. This is especially true of inner city neighborhoods with a high proportion of residents for whom English is a second language. There’s often a built-in distrust of The System. One attempt to bridge he divide in South Omaha’s barrios is El Puente, a joint effort by a local minister, Rev. Alberto Silva, and a local journalist, Ben Salazar, with deep ties to the Latino community there. This is their story.
El Puente: Attempting to Bridge the Divide Between Grassroots Community and The System
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
Experience has taught two longtime South Omaha community activists that a gulf exists between some residents and those assigned to protect and serve them.
Nuestro Mundo publisher Ben Salazar and Grace United Methodist Church pastor Alberto Silva recognize the need for a confidential, community-based advisory service that operates independently of police or government.
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out there is this fear on the part of many immigrants and Spanish speakers to come forward and speak to the police when an issue arises, so we know there’s a void there that we hope to bridge,” said Salazar.
That reality led Salazar and Rev. Silva to form El Puente or The Bridge as a conduit that links community members with professionals. A March 29 press conference at Grace announced the nonprofit, a companion project to the church’s Latino empowerment outreach program, La Casa Del Pueblo. Both are based at the church, 2418 E Street.
The men say many things explain why individuals remain silent rather than contact officials: a person’s illegal or undocumented status; fear/distrust of authority; language barriers; and unfamiliarity with the social service, law enforcement, justice systems.
Salazar and Silva say they and other volunteers staffing El Puente can directly assist inquirers or refer them to experts.
Already, Silva said El Puente’s fielded complaints of racial profiling, discrimination and domestic violence. Tips about criminal activity are welcome. Whenever possible, a person’s identity is kept private. As necessary, information is passed onto authorities or agencies. In many cases El Puente connects people to social and/or legal services.
Rev. Alberto Silva leading a prayer vigil, ©Omaha World-Herald
Journalists and ministers don’t often work together, but this newsman and preacher saw they could do more together than apart.
“Since we both worked almost exclusively with the Latino community in different ways we knew that if we merged our experiences together in this effort it would be beneficial to the community because we know the void exists,” said Salazar.
Both want the community and police to view each other as allies, not adversaries.
“The whole thing for me is I want to see collaboration between the police and the Latino community,” said Silva. “The domestic violence issue is very prevalent right now, but there’s such a fear.”
As illustration, he said a young Latina at the press conference testified she did not report her former partner’s domestic violence against her because he was a U.S. citizen and she was not. Rather than jeopardize her residency status, her abuse went unspoken. Silva said the woman went on to say she and others in such predicaments would welcome a resource like El Puente.
Silva has a sense there’s a big problem out there. “I have been dealing with a lot of domestic violence cases. People keep calling with these types of issues, especially immigrant women,” he said. Ideally, he said, El Puente can link men or women or families to counseling or shelters or other assistance they need.
The need for a discreet sounding board may be greater than ever because the anti-immigrant climate imposes a chilling effect on people volunteering or reporting things, say Salazar and Silva. They feel the recent “green card” incident targeting South High athletes and fans was a symptom of racist fervor that “gives license” to prejudice.
“My opinion is that discrimination has been holding on fast like Jim Crow for years, maybe just not as blatantly as now,” said Salazar.
“It just went underground for a little bit,” said Silva. “It wasn’t socially acceptable to display it or talk about it like it is now again.”
Silva said soon after El Puente’s launch, several people reported loved ones being detained after traffic stops. Those kinds of incidents, he and Salazar say, diminish trust and discourage some Latinos from expressing their concerns or asserting their rights.
“How are they going to have that trust to come forward when they hear that people are getting stopped on the Interstate and being taken directly to the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) office and held for deportation?” Silva asked. “People are disgusted with the graffiti problem. They would love to come forward but how are they going to go to the police when you have this immigration enforcement mentality permeating the thought of the immigrant community?”
The absence of an Omaha police auditor office is a barrier to people reporting possible law enforcement misconduct, say El Puente leaders.
Southeast precinct captain Kathy Gonzalez acknowledges that “sometimes people don’t feel comfortable coming directly to the police department.” She endorses El Puente, terming its bridge or mediator role “a huge asset” and “a working partnership between the police and the community. She added, “Sometimes people don’t know where to turn…so it’s just one more step that can assist us with community outreach and it’s one more place they can go to get connected to resources.”
Retired Omaha Police Department officer Virgil Patlan sees El Puente, which he volunteers with, as “an extension” of the community policing efforts of the Nebraska Latino Peace Officers Association he headed up. “We can work with people in ways the police can’t,” he said. “It’s just better to have someone not in uniform that the community may feel more comfortable with. He frees up the police also.”
Patlan, Silva and Salazar say they have ample street credibility but “building trust” is an ongoing process. Silva said it’s critical people know what they say will be held in strictest confidence. Patlan said he and his El Puente compadres each bring something unique to the task: “We’re not from the same mold and yet we all complement each other in certain ways. We just love the community, there’s no doubt about that.” Each boasts extensive community connections.
Despite not being immigrants themselves, Salazar said they don’t feel “completely removed” “because our parents and grandparents were a part of that experience. And it’s not purely an immigrant experience per se we’re responding to. It is a Latino experience of living in this country. Discrimination is not limited to legal status. Often times even Latinos who are second-third generation born here are treated as outsiders, as immigrants, as not fully a part of the Anglo society.”
El Puente contact numbers are: (Silva) 650-0848, (Salazar) 731-6210 and (La Casa) 614-2820.
- Turning Kids Away from Gangs and Toward Teams in South Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Trailblazing Grassroots Advocate for Latino Journalists CCNMA To Be Inducted Into the Hall of Fame (nahj.org)
- School sprouts from rundown nightclub (jsonline.com)
- Push to Transform Brooklyn Armories to Health Centers (theepochtimes.com)
- Latino Leaders Gather in Chicago Before NATO (chicagotalks.org)
The Buffetts are to Omaha what the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers and the Fords were to their home cities only the Buffetts don’t build brick and mortar edifices as expressions of their wealth they way those other mega-rich families did. No, the Buffetts are creatives, not industrialists, and therefore the contributions they make are in ledger books and programs and services and, in the case of Peter Buffett, in compositions. This is a story I did a few years ago for Metro Magazine about Peter and his passions for music, art, youth, and social justice. It also goes into the encouragement he received from his late mentor, the artist Kent Bellows of Omaha and his support for the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts in Omaha.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Metro Magazine
The sudden death in 2005 of American Realism master Kent Bellows reverberated throughout the art world. Among those affected by his passing was musician Peter Buffett, an Omaha native and youngest son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
Decades earlier Peter was befriended by Bellows, eight years his senior, when his parents became the artist’s patrons. Bellows, who had an affinity for young people, mentored Peter. Over time, the two remained close, a relationship that lasted until the artist’s death at age 56 from natural causes at his mid-town studio.
In the back of that studio, whose loft contained Bellows’ living quarters, the artist held court with a coterie of friends, creatives all. Buffett was a frequent visitor.
“I just really found his intellectual curiosity, coupled with his creativity, infectious,” Buffett said by phone from his New York City home. “He was just a very warm, open, likable person. He also played piano. I loved to hear him play. He had a very unique style.”
The widely collected and exhibited Bellows lived and worked in a century old structure overbrimming with the toils of his discipline. The building’s now home to the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts, 3303 Leavenworth St., where his tools, ephemera and backdrops are preserved the way he left them. The result is a tableaux-like, three-dimensional still life of the creative process.
The center, whose mission is to “ignite the create spark” in individuals and encourage their “potential through self-expression in the visual arts,” conducts a mentoring program pairing professional artists with area high school students.
Fulfilling potential is a theme of Buffett’s new book, Life is What You Make It (Harmony Books), a part memoir, part inspirational primer.
On April 30 he presented Life is What You Make It, A Concert and Conversation benefit for the nonprofit center. Performing before a packed house at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall, he sang and spoke about finding one’s bliss.
“I think self-reflection and responsibility is sometimes the missing piece for people. They’re not really willing to take a hard look at their own actions,” he said. “It’s much easier to blame something or someone else.”
He believes “a lot of people short change themselves. Our own minds can wreak havoc on our dreams for sure. It is too bad we get trapped by our own thinking that we’re not good enough.” He said he held himself back musically for years because of self-doubt. In his book he discusses some of his failures or missed opportunities. Recognizing those moments can help us seize the next day, he says.
He credits encouragement from his parents and from mentor figures like Bellows for preparing him to fulfill his own potential.
Event proceeds also supported a Bellows exhibition opening September 25 at Joslyn, the first major retrospective of the artist’s work since his death. A young Bellows studied masterworks in Joslyn’s galleries and some of his own early work showed there.
The Bellows center and exhibition are close to Buffett’s heart because they perpetuate the spirt of a man whose loss is still fresh for him and they complete the circle of life.
“Kent’s somebody I think about very often,” said Buffett. “When you know anybody well there’s certain things about them you remember. He had a great laugh, he had a great quality to his voice. So, viscerally you can feel and hear his presence. He’s definitely still around.”
Buffett’s built a life embodying the Bellows mantra of following one’s passion. Buffett’s parents modeled a similar philosophy: his father Warren as entrepreneur and philanthropist; his late mother Susie as community activist and singer. Peter suspects Susie saw Bellows as a kindred spirit who would nurture and guide him .
Bellows center executive director Anne Meysenburg said of Peter, “He’s a product of Kent’s mentoring.” Buffett agrees and often references the influence of his departed friend. As Kent did, Buffett’s carved out a creative niche for himself that expresses his deepest feelings. As a Kent Bellows Foundation founder and board member, he’s keenly aware of carrying on the generosity Bellows was famous for.
“As Kent was to me, the foundation is to the kids it’s mentoring and supporting. That was the brilliance I think of Kent’s sisters and Anne (Meysenburg) really saying, What was Kent’s role in the lives of the people he touched and how can that be extended to what the foundation does? They’ve really hit it, too. It really is that supporting, mentoring role.”
“The center gets to give that back to young people in perpetuity,” said Meysenburg.
In turn, mentors and students engage the communit in positive social action through public art projects. Meysenburg said Buffett is “a guiding force. He’s got a very holistic view. He comes from a funder’s perspective but he also understands the plight of the nonprofit. He provides a lot of insight. He has incredible passion for the organization. Peter is very focused on the two sides of our mission, which are honoring Kent’s legacy and creative development in the community.”
Giving back is a dimension of Buffett’s humanist ideals. He and his wife Jennifer’s NoVo Foundation works to empower girls in developing nations. He said this focus is predicated on the belief societies need to move “from domination and exploitation to collaboration and partnership” by valuing the disenfranchised.
“We talk about that in the context of girls and women because they’re certainly wildly misrepresented in the world compared to their numbers,” he said.
He believes supporting girls and women has a ripple effect through families and communities.
“The bottom-line for me is that only a girl will be the mother of every child and because of that if you can support, educate, provide health care and a livelihood to a girl she’s going to be a different kind of mother, and therefore everyone will be better off. It’s not unlike my father’s investment philosophy — you find something undervalued in the marketplace, you recognize its true value, you invest in it, support it, and wait until the market catches up and your investment pays off. And to me that’s a girl, she’s undervalued. That’s where we want to put our money.”
He said there’s no substitute for visiting a country to understand its challenges. “It’s invaluable to do. My line is, ‘You won’t know if you don’t go.’” Jennifer was recently in Uganda for the foundation. The couple log many miles together. The Uganda visit was the first major foundation trip he’s not been on.
Not long ago Buffett was best known as a composer-producer of New Age-style projects, but he’s fast-gained notoriety for personal recordings, some political, featuring his singing voice. The first social justice awakening in his music came with his Native American work (Spirit – The Seventh Fire) and a collaboration with Chief Hawk Pope. He’s lately collaborated with R&B artist/rapper Akon and Afropop artist Angelique Kidjo. He and Akon performed in the United Nations General Assembly in remembrance of slave trade victims.
He said his ever evolving career “is a testament to following what you love” as opposed to a rigid goal. “I’m much more into being than doing because I’m finding the more I follow this thing that’s inside of me I’m able to put these interior feelings in the music in a way that people respond to.” He never imagined himself a singer but he believes events opened him to the possibility.
“Kent’s death was a big piece of that, as was my mom dying the year before. Jennifer and I went through a very difficult time, so songs started coming out, and I really just wrote them for myself and my relationship. I was surprised by the fact they sounded OK. I still don’t think of myself as a singer. I’m still getting used to it frankly. But when you’re sitting in the General Assembly of the U.N. and Akon is singing with you and Nile Rodgers is backing you up on guitar, you think, How the hell did this happen? How cool is this?”
Buffett is the only male to perform on stage for V-Day, a movement to stamp out violence against females. By using music to speak out against social ills, such as his songs “Can We Love?” and “Bought and Sold,” he’s fulfilling a long-held desire. He said, “I always wanted the music to do something — to serve a higher purpose.”
In an era of diminishing resources and widening inequities, he’s a proponent of people in developed countries making do with less.
“We’re stuck in this world that tells us we need things to feel whole,” he said. “I think you can never fill whatever inside you that feels empty with stuff. Some brilliant ad man a long time ago figured out that you can make people think that they can. Now we’ve built an economy on it, and when it collapses what will we have? We won’t have the sense of community and connections we’ll need to really survive.”
He appreciates the irony of someone from privilege raising the question, “How much is enough?,” but points out that for all the Buffett’s riches they live frugally and do give back. His father’s famously earmarked his fortune to charitable causes, including foundations run by Peter and his siblings that address social problems.
Peter advocates social networking as a means to promote social justice and supports efforts like the social action web site, IsThereSomethingICanDo.com.
Meysenburg said the Bellows center’s community engagement piece aligns closely with Buffett’s interests. Students and mentors will participate in a graffiti abatement program this summer with juvenile offenders. Buffet’s involvement in the Bellows Foundation is a big reason why Meysenburg said the start-up’s grown quickly and formed multiple partnerships. His April concert was the second fund-raising gig he’s performed on its behalf.
Peter visits the Bellows center whenever in town. He enjoys seeing the student-mentor dynamic at work. He cannot help but think back to when he and Bellows filled those roles. It’s an interaction he finds almost sacred beauty in.
He’s seen the progress made in transforming the old Bellows work space into a contemporary gallery, offices, education wing and artistic playground. Work continues as funds allow. Renovations have necessitated the center’s classes meeting in the Bemis Underground in the Old Market. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts is a major partner of the Bellows program.
Buffett said he and fellow Bellows Foundation members are conscious of living up to the legacy of the man whose life exuded the nurturing, creative spark. He’s satisfied they’re on the right track.
“It makes us all feel good we’re doing something we know he would love. None of us forget that.”
Gang prevention-intervention efforts run the gamut. One that’s drawn lots of attention is Homeboy Industries, an East L.A. program founded and directed by Rev. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has serious cred on the mean streets there for helping gangbangers find pathways to employability. I wrote this article in advance of a talk Boyle gave in Omaha a couple years ago. His experiences working with gang members and getting many to give up that life are told in his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.
Community Trumps Gang in Fr. Greg Boyle‘s Homeboy Model
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
The gang intervention efforts of a Jesuit priest in East Los Angeles have grown into Homeboy Industries, which provides mostly Latino participants work and life skills training, counseling and, most importantly, opportunity for hope.
The much profiled program has many communities, including Omaha, looking to its founder, Rev. Greg Boyle, for guidance in dealing with their own gang issues. Boyle, an acknowledged expert in the field, will be in Omaha Feb. 24 to discuss the successful therapeutic and employability approach his nonprofit takes and how it may be a model for Omaha.
From 1 to 4 p.m. at Creighton University‘s Harper Center Boyle will consult with community leaders engaged in gang intervention, prevention and workforce development efforts. At 5 p.m. he meets with Mayor Jim Suttle and Omaha City Council members. At 7 Boyle will deliver a public lecture and sign copies of his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, at Metropolitan Community College‘s South Omaha campus, in Room 120 of the Industrial Training Center, 27th and Q Streets.
Rev. Howard Dotson, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Omaha, invited Boyle after hearing him speak last year in L.A., where Dotson also did gang intervention work. One thing Boyle says he’s learned from 20-plus years dealing with gang bangers is that “just like recovery in alcohol and drugs,” where “it takes what it takes to finally stop getting high,” it’s the same for gang members leaving The Life. “It can be the death of a friend, the birth of a son, a long stretch in prison. Like in recovery you don’t have to hit bottom, but maybe it will take that.”
He says gangs are not a crime issue but a community health issue like other social dilemmas (homelessness, addictions, prostitution).To address the complex problems gang members present he says Homeboy offers mental health services, along with employment opportunities, life coaching, “plus every imaginable curricular thing, from anger management to parenting — you name it, we have it.”
The program operates businesses that employ gang members, including a bakery, a cafe, a silkscreen shop, a merchandise store and a maintenance service. More than a job Boyle says Homeboy provides an avenue for “healing to take place.” Enemy gang members work side by side to break down barriers.
“Once they have a real palpable experience of community then it will shine light on the dark corners of gang life,” he says. “They realize how empty and hollow all that had been in the past. The community trumps gang.”
He says suspicion and animosity dwindle amid shared goals and cooperation.
“Their common interest is that they want to work. Before too long they become fast, wonderful friends. It’s one of those things you can actually take to the bank — it’s going to happen. They’re going to bond in a way they’ve never known in their family and they’ve never known in their gang certainly.”
Boyle says the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of Homeboy is why cities like Seattle and Wichita adopt some of its methods. Some observers credit Homeboy and community policing with helping dramatically reduce L.A.’s homicide rate.
“No nonprofit in L.A. County has a greater impact on the public safety than this place because we engage so many gang members,” says Boyle, who estimates “all 1,100 known gangs in the county have had somebody walk in here at some time or another.”
“I would say what makes us unique is this therapeutic model — attachment repair and a secure base is what we call it. We try to help people engage in their own healing so they can re-identify who they are in the world. Then they can go out in the world and the world will throw at them what it will but it won’t topple them because they’ve had this palpable experience of community and the chance to figure out who they are. It works.”
Dotson’s convinced Boyle and Homeboy have something to offer Omaha.
“To get jobs and to get rehabilitation for kids coming out of correction is the best way to stop the bullet.,” says Dotson. “You need to invest in these kids. If you give them a sense of hope and a sense of agency and some of that unconditional love many of them never got, then you reduce the gang problem.
“As church and community we have to meet people where they’re at and Fr. Greg and the people who support Homeboy understand that.”
South Omaha Boys and Girls Clubs gang prevention specialist Alberto Gonzales says the need for a Homeboy model here is greater than ever in light of recent cuts. Funding for anti-gang work he did in local schools has been eliminated. The Latino Center of the Midlands has disbanded its substance abuse counseling program.
“Where’s the Latino community going to turn to?” says Gonzales. “People need a place they can go to where they can cry out, ‘This is who I am, this is what I’ve done, I need help.’ These programs are definitely a must.”
- Turning Kids Away from Gangs and Toward Teams in South Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Ex-gang members work to stop gang violence in L.A. (cbsnews.com)
- Tomas Mournian: HOMEBOYS: Cholos, BiLatinMen, & Gay Gang Bangers @ OUTFest 2012 (huffingtonpost.com)
- Boundless Compassion (ehflaw.typepad.com)
- Gang members give warning signs, solutions to keep kids out (wcnc.com)
Activist attorney Rita Melgares was a divorced single mother of four from the Southwest when moved here to attend Creighton University Law School. She didn’t intend staying. But 35 years later she’s still here, still helping her people, doing legal work for newcomer families, handling juvenile justice cases and some criminal law.
This mother and grandmother is still raising kids. She shares a home in Benson with a son who is a single father. She helps rear his three youngest, whom she refers to as “my boys.” It’s the latest path on a journey that’s kept family at the center of things.
Mexico is where her ancestral lines extend. New Mexico is where both her parents came from. She can trace her genealogy back three centuries there. Southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley is where the former Lourdes Rita Martinez was born and raised. But Omaha is where her interest in law and social justice coalesced. Her parents Esquipula and Jose Martinez modeled service for Rita and her seven siblings.
She said her parents did not join groups or pull boycotts, but expressed a sense of grassroots social justice by helping people in need. She recalls her folks feeding the less fortunate and working with the police to make sure the neighborhood was safe.
The Martinez children fulfilled an expectation of achievement and service. “All eight of us have an undergraduate degree and several of us went on to advanced degrees,” she said. “Three of us are attorneys. My sister is a retired schools administrator.”
Growing up Latino meant dealing with racism. The experience of oppression provides context for her work in protecting people’s rights. “The racism against Latinos had its own flavor in the area i grew up in. You felt it, you knew it, and it continues,” she said.
Another vital experience was the social ferment of the 1960s.
“I’m a product of the ’60s. I was fascinated with the civil rights struggles and I wanted to march with the people, I wanted to be an active participant in those struggles. Two of my brothers were very active in the anti-war movement and the Chicano movement in the Southwest. When we came of age there was a movement of people you could join. It was both noble and exciting. I matured into that. It’s an interesting part of my life and I don’t think I’ve ever left it behind.”
Thrusting herself into the fray had to wait because she married right after high school and became a mom. Her invovlement came while earning a secondary education degree at Adams State College and then teaching English there.
“I challenged every course I could and I graduated with honors from college in three years and I became an activist. The Chicano movement was working very hard to democratize the campuses of the Southwest and so I was active in the student movement. César Chavez and the farm workers union was very strong in Colorado. I also had the background of northern New Mexico and the land grant issue. Those were the pressing issues in that environment.”
Feeling she could make more impact outside the classroom, she followed two of her brothers in the study of law. She was accepted by several schools but chose Creighton. Her experience there was bittersweet.
“Creighton prepared me very well as an attorney but it was one of the loneliest experiences in my life. I was far from home, the only Latino in the College of Law and there was no social activism. The dean pulled me aside very early in my freshman year and gave me the name of the director of the Chicano Awareness Center (now the Latino Center of the Midlands) and said, ‘I think you should go and meet those people.’ I think he had a sense that with the social activism I came from I wouldn’t last at Creighton if I didn’t have something that would anchor me in the community.”
Melgares said she “became a great friend” of the center. She took a leave from school to work with youth there, along the way reconnecting with her cultural and social activist roots. “A lot of the same issues we found everywhere existed in Omaha. I could participate in the people’s movement here and it was doing that when I really fell in love with South Omaha. I realized this was where the struggle was, this was where i could find the nexus to Omaha and to my soul and spirit, and so I’ve just always been close to south Omaha since then.” Her office is a converted duplex at 3927 So. 24th St.
She served on the center’s board, one of many south Omaha boards she’s served on.
Upon graduating from Creighton in 1979 she won a fellowship that placed her with the Omaha Legal Aid Society, where she worked nine years with the disenfranchised.
Following a stint with a downtown law firm she made the break and went on her own in 1994. Family law became her focus. “That’s where I saw you could make a difference in helping people pull their lives together. It’s been my privilege to work for the undocumented. It is not a popular community to work for. Immigration issues have a huge impact on family. Unfortunately it can be a very negative influence, a very sad outcome when you have families separated, when you have parents always looking over their shoulder because deportation is on their back, people afraid to move right or left because they have no documentation.”
The disruption is made worse by the recession. She said it’s hard enough for U.S. born or visa holding citizens to find a job in this climate, but even harder for those with no social security number, little schooling and limited English. She bristles at critics of immigrants, saying south Omaha’s rejuvenation is due to the newcomer population.
“They breathed life back into south Omaha. Nobody’s getting rich on South 24th St. but my gosh the economic wheel is being moved and it’s being moved on the backs of the immigrant community. It’s exciting. I think the watering of the cultural roots helps the entire community. Everything Latinos bring with them, from whatever their country of origin, they share with each other and with the larger community. I think they help Omaha and Nebraska in every which way. I understand the numbers overwhelm schools and health care, but the numbers also bring spirit and economic life.”
Her passion for her people has seen her throw herself into the life of the Latino community. “You don’t gain a community’s trust just because you want to or you’re a good person or you have a good heart. I think you have to work at the vineyard first, and I did that,” she said.
Battling to gain Latinos an equal place at the table “wasn’t easy,” she said, but she “kept knocking at the door, sometimes gently, sometimes pushing” herself in. “I think long after I’m gone we will still be trying to dialogue meaningfully about race.”
Being twice recognized with lifetime achievement awards for her work in the Latino community, she said, only “underscores” the fact that despite not being from Omaha “I have really matured here and worked hard here. Wow, lifetime achievement, I guess I have spent a lifetime in Omaha. And it’s been a very good life.”
- Turning Kids Away from Gangs and Toward Teams in South Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Where Community, Neighborhood and Representative Democracy Meet (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- UNO/OLLAS Resident Expert on Cuban and Latino Matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Hundreds Attend OLLAS Conference Cumbre to Give and Get Diverse Perspectives on Migration Issues (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Episcopal Priest Rev. Ernesto Medina Never Forgets His Latino Hertitage (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A South Omaha Renaissance (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Institute for Latin American Concern at Creighton has Dominican Focus (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Gray Matters: Ben and Freddie Gray Fight the Good Fight Helping Young Men and Women Find Pathways to Success (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Sometimes it’s easy to assume that academics are cloistered away in their ivy towers, isolated from the real world. That’s certainly not the case with Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado. The University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor does his share of research but much of it takes him out of his office, off campus, and out into mainstream of life, whether to the barrios of South Omaha or Cuba, where he’s traveled many times for his research. I was reminded to post this profile of him I wrote a couple years ago after reading a piece in the local daily about his latest trip to Cuba, this time leading a group of UNO students to help restore a theater there that he hopes becomes a conduit for future arts-cultural exhanges. In his work he’s just as likely to meet with folks just trying to get by as he is with U.S. and Cuban diplomats and leaders. He’s even met Castro.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
For author, researcher, activist and University of Nebraska at Omaha associate professor of political science Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, political engagement is a birthright.
His mother Romelia marched with Cesar Chavez in the California migrant labor movement. Both his parents know first hand the migrant worker struggle. They also know the empowering change hard work and opportunity can bring.
Benjamin-Alvarado still marvels how his folks made “a hyper speed transition” from their vagabond life hand-picking crops wherever the next harvest was to achieving the American Dream within 20 years. “The day I was born my dad was picking lettuce and the day I graduated from high school he owned his own business and we lived in a really nice house in the suburbs.”
From his mother, who worked on behalf of women’s and Latino rights and as a political campaign volunteer, he learned activism. From his father he learned ambition and determination. As someone who grew up in The Burbs, never having to toil in the fields, Benjamin-Alvarado fully realizes how charmed he’s been to have role models like these.
“To this very day I’m reminded of the lessons and examples presented before me. These were people who prided themselves on what they did. They were people with an incredible sense of dignity and self respect,” he said. “I think what makes things like Cesar Chavez (or his mother) happen is they’re not willing to cede that one iota. They made it very clear that your abuse and subjugation of me will not define me.
“I shutter to think what my forbearers could have done had they had the opportunities I’ve been extended, especially given the incredible work ethic they had. They had no choice but to work hard. It’s only as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized what an incredible legacy and, in turn, responsibility I have to pay it forward. I’m very fortunate to have been able to live and travel all over the world and to be educated in incredible places. My whole thing now is what can I do to make sure others have these opportunities. I really do cherish what I have been granted and I feel an overriding sense of obligation.”
Despite comforts, life at home for he and his brother was unpleasant. Their father was an abusive partner to their mother. The siblings were also misfits in mostly Anglo schools and neighborhoods. To escape, the boys read voraciously. “That was our refuge from all the craziness in our lives. We were really just sponges,” said Jonathan. He did well in school and was enrolled in college when he abruptly left to join the U.S. Navy.
“I think everybody in my family was aghast but i really did it more for purposes of self-preservation and to establish some independence for myself. I needed to leave.”
His 1976-1980 Naval tour fit the bill.
“For me it was just four years of incredible discovery,” he said. “I met for the first time blacks from the northeast and Chicago, kids from the South and the Midwest, other Latinos. All of that was very interesting to me. I came to appreciate them and their cultures in ways I couldn’t possibly have done so had I stayed sequestered in California, where it’s very insular and you think the world revolves around you.”
Back home he used the G.I. bill to attend ucla, where he said he went from doubting whether he belonged to believing “I’m competitive with the cream of the crop. That realization stunned me. There was no limit at that point. I was in a different world.”
Then an incident he doesn’t like discussing occurred. It took five years to recover from physical and emotional wounds. He eventually earned his bachelor’s degree and did stints at Stanford and Harvard. He earned his master’s at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. While working at its think tank, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, he began intensive research on Cuba. He’s traveled there 25 times, often spending months per visit. Cuba remains a major focus of his professional activity.
Recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency, he seriously entertained doing clandestine work before deciding he didn’t want to give up his academic freedom. Besides, he said, “I don’t and won’t keep secrets because it gets you into trouble.” Already married and with a child, he opted to complete his doctoral studies at the University of Georgia. He landed major grants for his Cuban research. Along the way he’s become a recognized expert on Cuban energy and foreign policy, authoring one book and editing another on that nation’s energy profile and what it bodes for future cooperation with the West.
A temporary teaching post at Georgia then set him on a new track.
“I had not given the idea of being a classroom instructor much thought prior to that,” he said. “I thought I was going to spend my life as a senior researcher — a wonk. But I got this bug (to teach). I realized almost immediately I like doing this, they like me, this is a good gig. It didn’t feel like I had to work real hard to do it, a lot of it just came naturally, and I had this reservoir to draw on.”
When grant funding dried up he sought a full-time teaching job and picked UNO over several offers, in part for it’s dynamic growth and emerging Latino community. He’s been at UNO 10 years. His Cuba work has continued but in a different way.
Benjamin-Alvarado with Castro
“The purposes of my visits have changed dramatically. Initially they were all for conducting basic research, doing lots of interviews on the ground. In the late 1990s I was involved in making some film documentaries for a PBS series. Then I spent five-six years taking students and faculty and people from the community to Cuba.”
Then the U.S. banned academic trips there. His last few visits he’s “been part of high level delegations with former Pentagon and State Department staff. This last one (in November) was with former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering.” In 2006 he met with senior government officials, including Fidel Castro, Raoul Castro, the president of the national assembly and ministers of other government bureaucracies. On these visits he’s there as “technical advisor-resident expert” for debriefings, analysis and reading beyond the rhetoric to decipher what’s really being said through interpreters.
He believes normalized relations only make sense for two nations with such an affinity for each other. Once restrictions are lifted he envisions a Cuban trip with area public and private sector leaders. He and a colleague plan to convene an international conference in Havana, of university presidents from North and South America “to discuss the trajectory of higher education in the 21st century for the Americas.”
His connections helped broker a deal for Nebraska selling ag products to Cuba. Closer to home, he advises government on Latino matters and is active in the Democratic Party. He’d like to see more Latinos active in local politics. A recipient of UNO’s Outstanding Teacher Award, he said the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies at UNO “has been a godsend for me. OLLAS has been central to helping me live out what I do in my community. There’s an element of it that is very personal. When we founded OLLAS we intentionally created something that would have a community base and make the community a part of what we do. We want our work to be not only politically but socially relevant. That’s been the basis for the outreach projects we’ve undertaken.”
Recent projects include reports on immigration and Latino voter mobilization.
- A huge leap forward for Cuban-American community (miamiherald.com)
- Economists Question Cuba’s Commitment to Privatizing Businesses (nytimes.com)
- New import fees to hammer Cuba’s small businesses (miamiherald.com)
As a cradle Catholic I knew little or nothing about the Episcopal Church until a dozen years ago when I began attending services at Church of the Ressurection in North Omaha. That particular church formed in the 1980s when the all white congregation and the all black congregation of two small, failing churches merged or blended together. While my knowledge remains fairly sketchy today I’ve come to feel warmly about the Episcopal faith and its great tolerance and acceptance of diversity. In the following piece I profile an Episcopal priest here, Rev. Ernesto Medina, who has made quite a splash since arriving from Los Angeles in 2007. His life and work embody much of what the Episcopal Church stands for.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
As a person of color and priest in the Episcopal Church, Rev. Ernesto Medina is a minority in a moderately diverse denomination.
The California native practices inclusion as a matter of conscience and as a consequence of being Latino in a white world. This self-described “edgy liturgist” is also a confirmed social justice activist.
The new rector at St. Martha‘s Episcopal Church in Papillion, Medina came to Omaha with his wife Susan in 2007 to serve as Dean for Urban Mission at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Omaha. That position entailed outreach with Hispanics and Latinos in south Omaha. He remains connected to that community as a Latino Center of the Midlands board member. Those ties help keep him grounded.
“I need that home base. I really feel good about it,” he said.
Though he shepherds a predominantly white congregation at St. Martha, Medina implements his heritage into services. He recently presided over a Day of the Dead ceremony in which he had members bring photos of deceased loved ones and place them around the altar. He led worshipers in prayer for the departed. He is happy his congregation’s welcomed an extended Latino family at the church.
Like many mainline Christian churches, the Episcopal Church has struggled with racial diversity, though there are pockets of Spanish-speaking members. “The challenge is they don’t have a voice,” he said. “There’s significant more voice than there used to be. My generation stepped up about 10 years ago. For the first time we produced liturgical material written in Spanish for translation into English.”
Clear back to growing up in San Diego Medina’s balanced being true to his ethnic roots while navigating white America. He was the first in his family to attend college. To his own people, he’s not Latino enough. To whites, he’s too ethnic.
“People don’t get me. I grew up as a Mexican in this culture, yet I’m excluded from both realities. The reality of being in both worlds is normal to me, that’s just who I am,” he said. “I preach in English, I dream in Spanish. I’m American educated, my blood is Mexican. American culture sees me as brown. Latino culture sees me as different because I don’t speak with an accent.
“There’s some real pain in it, but it’s OK, because there’s more joy. There’s certain things I do because of it — I will always seek inclusion for everyone.”
He’s on the board of the Tri-Faith Initiative. It promotes interfaith dialogue among Christian, Jewish and Islamic followers, with the goal of a shared campus.
He’s made waves for his candor. About the Episcopal Church, he said, “structurally it’s the most racist institution I know — at the same time it’s the most inclusive of any denomination I know.” He’s broken barriers, too. “In 2000 I became the first Latino in charge of a cathedral in the church’s history,” he said, when named Provost of the Cathedral Center of Saint Paul in Los Angeles. It put him on the front page of the L.A. Times Metro section.
“I understood what I became a steward of. I know as a priest and by virtue of who I am that I have a responsibility for people. My largest congregation was Spanish speaking and 90 percent of them were undocumented.”
Long before L.A. he became sensitized to the undocumented when as a seminarian he worked in a pear orchard with migrant workers.
“That summer we got them all legal and documented,” he recalled with glee.
At a reunion he was pleased to find the men and their families leading successful lives.
Fast forward to L.A. in the mid-2000s, when he found himself immersed in the immigration reform movement. “I got caught up in the fervor of it,” he said. Part of the machinery of “making it happen,” he was at meetings that organized the mass marches in L.A. He was also among a contingent of religious leaders who went to the nation’s capital to lobby elected leaders.
“We kicked butt in D.C.,” he said.
Medina earlier announced himself a maverick figure when, in 1995, he was named Missioner for Christian Education for the Diocese of Los Angeles.
“It’s what put me on the national map. I was part of that small group that married the two schools together in the Episcopal Church — the liturgists and the educators. It was very exciting.”
It was in that role he co-developed Authority of Generations, a widely adopted guide for church decision-making and program development that emphasizes inclusion of all ages, particularly the elderly and the very young.
Medina, whose love of travel has taken him all over the world, got to know a group of elders in remote Kivalina, Alaska, located above the Arctic Circle. They inspired him to embrace the doctrine that “elders are the gift of wisdom.” It’s a lesson that was also impressed upon him by his family elders and by a mentor priest.
Early in his own priesthood he served in a parish with a school, and it’s then, he said, he came to appreciate “religion in a pluralistic community and the gifts that children bring to community that go beyond innocence.” That experience led him to advocate for the leadership role children can play in various aspects of church life.
His impassioned interest in building bridges and inviting everyone to the table, he said, “is a continuation of a promise” he made his mother. He said she and her mother once went to a priest for help but were ignored in favor of a wealthy parishioner. After Medina announced his intention to be a priest, he said his mom made him swear he would never forget where he came from or snub anyone.
“That was the condition she placed on it,” he said, “which has been what I hope is a constant in what I do. I have a responsibility to give voice to the voiceless.”
He and Susan, parents to two adult children, have traveled far and wide but they feel they’re right where they need to be now.
“When we came to Omaha it felt like we moved home,” he said. “It’s very consistent with our values set.”
- The Episcopal Church ‘Takes a Flying Leap’ into Controversies Old and New (religiondispatches.org)
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.
- Omaha's #1 catfish/spaghetti dinner tomorrow Church of the Resurrection 3004 Belvedere Blvd. Good eats-Low prices-Supports kids 402-455-7015 4 weeks ago
- Brad Ashford Reflects on Recent Omaha Mayoral Primary Loss and the Politics He Espouses nblo.gs/KrZ7t 4 weeks ago
- The Omaha Star Celebrates 75 Years of Black Woman Legacy nblo.gs/Kbvhb 1 month ago
My Favorite Tags
My Favorite Categories
Calendar of Blog Posts
Categories from A to Z and # of Posts
- Flanagan-Monsky Example Of Social Justice and Interfaith Harmony Still Shows the Way 60 Years Later
- From the Archives: Monika Kelly Recalls her Late Father, the Beloved Clown and Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Legend, Emmett Kelly Sr.
- Brandeis Story: Great Plains Family-Owned Department Store Empire
- Click Westin, Back in the Screenwriting Game Again at Age 83
- What Happens to a Dream Deferred? John Beasley Theater Revisits Lorraine Hansberry's 'A Raisin in the Sun'
- Golf Shots: Pat Drickey Lives His Dream Photographing the World's Great Golf Courses
- Norman Krivosha's Life in Law
- Altman on Altman: A Look at the Late American Auteur Robert Altman Through the Eyes of His Grandson, Indie Omaha Filmmaker Dana Altman, and Other Cinephiles
- Native American Survival Strategies Shared Through Theater and Testimony
- Having Survived War in Sudan, Refugee Akoy Agau Discovered Hoops in America and the Major College Recruit is Now Poised to Lead Omaha Central to a Third Straight State Title
- One Day at a Time, A Recovering Alcoholic's Story
- Wright On, Adam Wright Has it All Figured Out Both On and Off the Football Field
- 265,286 hits