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Finding Normal: Schalisha Walker’s journey finding normal after foster care sheds light on service needs


After my Aisha Okudi story last week I promised another story of inspiration and transformation and here it is, my new Reader (www.thereader.com) cover story profiling Schaiisha Walker, a young woman whose journey finding normal after foster care led her to a Nebraska program called Project Everlast.  It provides young people leaving or having already left foster care with much needed support.  Schalisha had found herself on her own at 17, sometimes homeless, dropping out of school to support herself, working as many as four jobs at one point, going from couch to couch until she got a place of her own.  It’s only by the grace of God she survived that experience.  She’s now employed as a Project Everlast youth advisor.  I came to do this story about her because I attended a performance by actor-spoken word artist Damiel Beaty last winter at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha and before he came on Schalisha appeared on stage to introduce him.  Her heart-felt words as well as her poise and grace struck me to the core.  She shared how deeply Beaty’s work, much of it drawn from his own harsh childhood, resonated with her, especially his message that one can rise above and overcome anything.  She’s a model for that herself.  You go, girl.

 

 

 

 

Finding Normal: Schalisha Walker’s journey finding normal after foster care sheds light on service needs

Project Everlast provides support for young people as they age-out of the system

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Before a Feb. 27 packed house at the Holland Performing Arts Center a woman strode on stage to introduce playwright-poet-performance artist Daniel Beaty.

Schalisha Walker, 25, was unknown to all but a few in the audience. She was there to not only introduce Beaty but to deliver a personal message about the hundreds of foster care youth who age or drop out of the system each year in Nebraska. These young people, she noted, can find themselves adrift without a helping hand. She knows because she was one of them, Walker was at the Holland representing Project Everlast, a statewide, youth-led initiative that assists current and former foster care youth to smooth their transition into adulthood.

This former ward of the state has successfully transitioned from life on the edge to the picture of achievement. Her story of perseverance is not unlike Beaty’s own saga. In his work he often refers to the crazy things his drug addict, in-and-out-of-prison father exposed him to. The performing arts saved Beaty by giving him a vehicle for his angst and a platform for expressing his credo that one can rise above anything.

Walker’s risen above a whole lot of chaos.

She says, “My mother was extremely young (15) when she had me and she was unable to care for me properly. I was about 2 when I went in the (foster care) system and I was 4 when I was adopted.”

Separated from her six siblings, things happened within her adoptive family that prompted her to leave and go off on her own at 17. She finally found a safe haven at Everlast, where she got the support she never had before. She served on the youth council that helps formulate the organization’s programs and policies and she shared her story with the public in speaking appearances.

She now works as a youth advisor with Everlast, a Nebraska Children and Families Foundation program. Introducing Beaty wasn’t the first time she’s been the face and voice of Everlast and the foster care community. She appeared in a documentary about the project and she’s been featured on its website.

“This is truly an organization with people committed to the work,” she says. “Our job doesn’t stop when we leave the office. It’s like a family, I really mean that.”

This fall she’s starting school at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she hopes to earn a social work degree.

“I’ve always wanted to help children in need. It’s really natural for me. I was fortunate to get a job here (Everlast). I love what I do and I do it with my heart.”

That night at the Holland she stood tall, black and beautiful invoking Beaty’s poetic testimony to share her own overcoming journey and the role she plays today as a mentor for otherwise forgotten young people.

Reading from Beaty’s poem “Knock, Knock” she exhorted, “‘We are our fathers’ sons and daughters but we are not their choices. For despite their absences we are still here, still alive, still breathing with the power to change this world one little boy and girl at a time.’ The words struck me to the core. They convey the passion I have for using my experience to help young people with a foster care background struggling and feeling alone as I did…

“For many years I let my past keep me from my future but now I use my past to help others. Let me be the voice for those that have not found theirs yet.”

Having walked in the shoes of the young people she engages, she understands the challenges they face and the needs they express. It’s almost like looking in the mirror and seeing herself five-six years ago.

“It’s a powerful identification. Struggling with unhealthy relationships, a feeling of being alone or having no one to turn to or looking for a job and not knowing what’s the best decision to make – I see that on a regular basis. I see myself in a lot of these young girls, especially when it comes to the unhealthy relationships. I see so many young people who just want to be loved and accepted. Unfortunately, a lot of times what happens is they get in the wrong crowd. Looking back, I was in some very scary situations.

“I’m glad I’m at a point now where I can offer advice from having been there and making the wrong decisions and now making better decisions. Now I can use my life experiences to say, ‘Hey, this is what happened to me, I don’t want this to happen to you, I want to help you.’ I feel I’m like an older sister or a mother to them.”

 

Schalisha giving a homemade pecan pie, baked by a volunteer, to a young woman on her birthday.

Schalisha giving a homemade pecan pie, baked by a volunteer, to a young woman on her birthday.

 

 

 

Just as she’s a mother to the kids she serves, Everlast associate vice president Jason Feldhaus is a father to her.

“He’s very much like a dad to me,” Walker says of him. “You might as well say he is my dad. I talk to him a lot. That’s a relationship that was built. He was in my position when I was in youth council – he was my youth advisor.”

Feldhaus says there “was just something different about Schalisha from the very beginning.” He explains, “She was very organized, very committed, very mature. Even early on she just always seemed dedicated to something bigger to help make things better for people. The young people she works with bond to her and so no matter where their life is in flux they still keep coming back to Project Everlast and I think a lot of that has to do with her ability to connect to them.”

Walker says the disruptions that can attend life in and out of foster care, such as moving from family to family or being separated from siblings, “can be very traumatic” and adversely affect one’s education and socialization. The more links to stability that are missing or broken, she says, “the more difficult it is to keep your life together.”

Everlast grew out of an Omaha Independent Living Plan initiated by Nebraska Children and Families Foundation to address resource needs and service gaps faced by foster youth. Foundation director of strategic relationships, Judy Dierkhising, who oversaw Everlast during a recent transition, estimates that of the 200 youth aging out of foster care in Douglas and Sarpy Counties each year 40 percent don’t have an adequate plan or support system in place. That’s not counting individuals who get lost in the system as Schalisha did. In Neb. youth age-out of the system at 19.

Until Everlast, Dierkhising says, “there were not a lot of services or programs dedicated to that transitional living piece that helped young folks look for housing, job and education opportunities.” The project bridges that gap by connecting young people to partner agencies, such as Youth Emergency Services, that offer needed resources.

We provide young people access to those services they need to live independently, to grow into adulthood, to have engagement with the community, to be successful educationally, to be connected to health care, et cetera. A number of young people we work with don’t have anybody else there for them. We help them to help themselves and hopefully to find some permanence in their life. We’re here to empower them, with whatever it takes, to know they can have an impact on the world and that the world isn’t doing it to them.

“We’re not trying to save them, we’re assisting them to be successful, just like Schalisha. She is a tremendous role model and advocate for how there is a way to survive this and to thrive.”

In the immediate years following the break from her adoptive family Walker had no one to formally guide or mentor her, which meant she had to figure out most things for herself.

“The experience with being adopted was very difficult and I ended up being on my own. It was very difficult, very lonely. I hadn’t even graduated high school yet. I had to drop out of school to work to support myself. I was working four jobs at one time. I had no choice because I didn’t have the support of a family like I should have. I didn’t have the support of friends because all my friends were still in high school.

“I ended up staying with some friends until I was able to have an apartment on my own.”

She says unstable housing is a major problem for foster youth once they leave the system.

“Homelessness is not uncommon. It is an ongoing issue. There’s a young man I work with who ever since he aged out was couch surfing. He now has a steady job and a safe place to live in. It’s very scary not having a safety net or a stable place to call home and that is a reality for many of these young people. It was a reality for me as well. In my case, I couldn’t go back to the home I was at. Just having a place to call your own where you feel safe and that you can go to every night can make a huge difference.”

 

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 Young people at at Project Everlast event were recognized for getting new jobs, moving into their own apartments, procuring scholarships and graduating high school. Schalisha served as an emcee for the program.

She says Everlast introduced her to youth and adults she could trust and count on to help her navigate life. Through its Opportunity Passport program she built her financial management skills, The dollars youth save are matched by donors. The program enabled her to retire the beater of a car she drove to buy a newer model vehicle.

“What I found was people that really cared about your success, people who really listened and wanted to be a support for you. It was like a relief finding people who had been through what I’d been through and I could share my story with. That was very powerful.”

Having that safety net is much healthier than going it alone, she says.

“That feeling of being alone and not being wanted can tear you apart. Having to make some of the decisions I did is something no child should have to go through. The experiences I had and some of the difficulties and struggles I dealt with is why I’m so passionate about making sure no other young person feels alone or feels they have no support and no one to turn to.”

She says the young people she works with all have different stories but they’re all trying to improve their life, whether going back to school or landing a job or finding a secure place to live or leaving an abusive relationship or getting treatment for drug or alcohol addiction.

“Any step forward is a success and makes my job worthwhile. That’s why it’s really important for me to be here doing this work.”

After dropping out of South High she earned her diploma through independent studies and lattended Metropolitan Community College.

Drawing on her own experience of never having her birthdays celebrated as a kid, which she says is common among foster youth, she created the No Youth Without a Birthday Treat initiative.

“What I like to focus on is giving them normal experiences they might not have had. It’s to make sure they have a cake or a pie or cookies or muffins, whatever they’d like, for their birthday because it’s a special day for them and I want them to feel special. To give that young person their first birthday cake and to see their joy is amazing.

“At Thanksgiving and Christmas we have a big event with a dinner and presents.”

 

She also makes sure young people experience arts and cultural events they may not otherwise get to enjoy. Until she was asked to introduce Daniel Beaty, Walker herself had never been to the Holland. Judy Dierkhising took her there a few days before the program and Walker was awed by the space. Though Schalisha had spoken to groups before, she’d never addressed an audience the size of the gathering that night for Beaty’s one-man show, Emergency. It was different, too, because this time she was communing with someone she regards as a kindred soul and whom she also considers “amazing.”

“Daniel Beaty is such a talent. His poetry is electrifying – it gives me chills to hear him speak and to watch him perform,” Walker says. “I’d never seen him in person, so to see him live was a whole other experience. I’d never seen anything like that before. It blew my mind. I’ll never forget that performance. It was such an honor to introduce him. It was so exciting and I was really nervous.”

Reiterating what she told the audience that evening, she says Beaty’s poem “Knock, Knock” deeply resonated with her.

“When I first heard that poem I cried. A lot of my passion comes from my experience. The reason I’m in the field I’m in and do the work I do is because of the experiences I had. His words that we are not our parents’ choices really touched me, really spoke to me. So did his story and the things he overcame and the struggles he went through.

“It made me believe that no matter what you come from you make your future. You don’t have to be a product of what you came from, you don’t have to be what people expect you to be, you can be so much greater. That is what is so amazing to me about him.”

Topping it all off, she says, “He was so nice to me. He’s so cool and laid-back and down-to-earth. He has this presence about him that screams awesomeness without him being cocky.”

One of the things she admires about Beaty – his resilience overcoming steep odds – is what she admires in the young people she serves.

“The resilience they have to overcome is amazing. They didn’t want to be in these difficult situations and they’re motivated to do what they need to in order to get out. So many of these young people are talented and smart. They have dreams and goals and aspirations.”

She recognizes the same drive in herself pushed her to excel.

“I wanted to show that despite the circumstances around me that I still could succeed. I just have a real fire and passion to not fail and to not become a statistic and to show other young people they can make it. It’s been a lot of work.”

When she takes stock of her journey, she says she sees “someone who’s overcome a lot,” adding, “I see someone I’m proud very, very proud of, but even now I still struggle accepting that and saying that because some of the emotional scars are still there.”

She’s motivated to pay forward what was given her, she says. “because young people are counting on me to be there for them.”

Visit http://www.projecteverlast.org.

Omaha Songstress Mary Carrick Takes Flight in New CD

July 14, 2014 1 comment

I don’t know what it is, but I keep winding up doing stories about cabaret singers.  One of the latest I’ve profiled is Mary Carrick, whose new CD Let’s Fly is an interesting collaboration with J. Gawf, a pianist who serves as Opera Omaha resident music director and chorus master.  Carrick got to know Gawf while performing in the Opera Omaha Chorus. Impressed with her versatile voice, he began coaching her on the side.  Impressed with his musical acumen, she asked for advice about who could help her with a new CD she had in mind to do fresh takes on American Songbook standards and other tunes across the music spectrum.  He suggested himself and that’s how he became artistic producer and arranger for her Let’s Fly.  Here is my Omaha Encounter Magazine story on Carrick and her collaboration with Gawf on that CD project.  By the way, on this blog you can find my profiles of other Omaha cabret artists, including Camille Metoyer Moten and Anne Marie Kenny.

 

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Mary Carrick

Omaha Songstress Takes Flight in New CD

©Story by 
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

 

If the late soul master James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, then singer Mary Carrick is Omaha’s hardest working woman in entertainment.

When the Nebraska Arts Council touring artist isn’t performing her own cabaret act, she’s singing in the Opera Omaha chorus or acting in a musical theater production. She also does special events like the Omaha Press Club Show and Omaha Creative Institute Spring Fling.

In addition to her rehearsals and vocal exercises she attends cabaret workshops. All this comes on top of working a full-time marketing job, being married and raising two small children. Yet she’s made time to create her debut CD, Let’s Fly, with artistic producer and arranger J. Gawf, a pianist whose day job finds him serving as Opera Omaha resident music director and chorus master.

The album, available on iTunes. Amazon.com and CD Baby, showcases Carrick’s big voice, wide range, and eclectic tastes. The 10 tracks about love and desire include the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Cole Porter’s “So in Love,” the Hank Williams classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Barry Manilow’s bath-houser “Man Wanted,” and the Jon Mitchell hit “Both Sides Now.” There’s even Leonard Cohen’s edgy “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

The project’s an intriguing collaboration between a versatile singer deeply rooted in the Great American Songbook and a multifaceted musician immersed in opera. Carrick, who can sing anything, has a voice with operatic qualities, and Gawf, who can play anything, is well-versed in popular music. He’s also Carrick’s primary vocal coach and the two have developed an aesthetic kinship and personal friendship.

Gawf has worked with world-class singers and is a great admirer of Carrick’s vocal instrument.

“It’s crystalline clear, it’s shiny, it’s got shimmer,” he says. “She has such a range to go from the high register, which I think is a beautiful part of her voice, to the low register.”

Then there’s what Carrick can do with a song.

“Well, she’s a storyteller, number one,” he says. “She comes from a theater background and she can tell a story like nobody’s business.”

Carrick’s found a niche in cabaret performances that often find her teaming with pianist-vocalist Todd Brooks.

“There’s so much artistic freedom in cabaret,” she says. “There’s really no rules. I can program whatever I want. I can do songs that are traditionally sung by men and make them my own. I can infuse myself and my own experiences into the songs. There’s a very intimate connection with the audience that I love very much. I can talk and tell stories throughout my show. I love that audience-to-singer energy that happens in the room. It’s exhilarating.”

She’s been recognized by the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards and the Theatre Arts Guild for her cabaret shows as well as productions of her own Broadstreet Theatre Company.

When Carrick broached the concept of her album, Gawf wanted in and says the chance of “doing something I’d never done” appealed to him. “Mary gave me free license.”

The songs on “Let’s Fly” have been covered many times by other artists, but Gawf was intentional in taking a new slant.

“I pride myself on not listening to other artists before I tackle something because I don’t want to get preconceived ideas of how something should be. I like to take the song off the page and then re-imagine it. After we got our arrangements together I listened to what other people did to see where ours fit in, and we’ve got some unique things. Half the fun was coming up with what works for us.”

Carrick feels she’s in good hands with Gawf.

“I put my trust completely in him. It’s just been an awesome match. I think we work in tandem really well. He totally gets me. He can tell when I’m not giving as much as I need to. There was one session where he said, ‘I don’t feel like you’re giving you’re all to me,’ and he was right. I know where he’s at, he knows where I’m at. We can sort of feel where we’re going, where things aren’t working.”

Carrick says she most enjoys “the creative process,” and with the CD she’s pleased to have gone to “a real vulnerable place in being completely true to the material. It’s a scary place to go if you really want to be an honest singer, but I think we achieved that .”

For the album Gawf assembled musicians he’s worked with before, including three Omaha mainstays in percussionist J.B. Ferguson, bass player Mark Haar, and accordion player Kate Williams. Jazz pianist Eric Andries joined the ensemble from his home in Baton Rouge, La.

The CD marked the inaugural project for Dreamtree Recording, a new studio operated by Omaha musician and sound engineer extraordinaire Marty Bierman.

The recording sessions became Gawf’s playground to have the musicians try different rhythms and tempos – adding, subtracting, mixing, matching various sounds.

“It was true experimentation all the way around,” he says. “It was fun to be able to do that, to not take it straight from the page and to work with such great instrumentalists.”

Carrick says the CD was both “a fascinating” and “massive undertaking” that “organically developed.” Don’t be surprised if she and Gawf re-team for a new project.

Follow the singer at marycarrick.com.

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Aisha’s Adventures: A story of inspiration and transformation; homelessness didn’t stop entrepreneurial missionary Aisha Okudi from pursuing her goals

July 10, 2014 1 comment

If you’re looking for a pick-me-up story to lift you out of the self=pity blues or doldrums then you’d be hard-pressed to top the story of Aisha Okudi, an Omaha woman who has not let anything stop her, including homelessness, from pursuing her entrepreneurial missionary purpose and dream.  This is my new cover story about her for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I did a previous story about Aisha and her path of inspiration and transformation which you can find on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

Aisha’s Adventures:  A story of inspiration and transformation; homelessness didn’t stop entrepreneurial missionary Aisha Okudi from pursuing her goals

Her Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire line of beauty products serves African missions dream

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Entrepreneurial African missionary Aisha Okudi, 37, laid the foundation for her thriving business and ambitious humanitarian work during a period when she and her children were sometimes homeless. She’d been through worse.

Regardless of how bad things have gotten, she’s remained focused on her mission because she considers her story of transformation a testimony to her faith in a Higher Power she serves for the greater good. The Omaha visionary is proud of how far she’s come with her Sha Luminous line of organic shea butter skin rejuvenation and beauty products. Sha Luminous is available at HyVee supermarkets in six states as well as Akins Natural Food Stores, No Name Nutrition, Jane’s Health Market and select salons. She’s working to get in Whole Foods.

She’s humble about her success because she’s following a plan she feels called to. She views everything about her journey, even the dark side, as a conduit for the missionary work that is her real passion.

The base of her hand-crafted products is butter extracted from the shea nut, a natural plant indigenous to the same rural African provinces she serves. After years helping poor African children by sending supplies and making donations, she visited Niger in 2010 through the auspices of the international NGO, Children in Christ. She made connections with villagers, tribal leaders, fellow missionaries, government representatives and American embassy officials. She purchased a missionary house to accommodate more evangelists.

She says she’s tried getting Omaha churches on board with her work but has been rebuked. She suspects being a woman of little means and not having a church or title explains it. Undaunted, she works closely with CIC Niger national director, Festus Haba, who calls her work “a blessing.” In addition to Niger, where she once considered moving, she also visited Togo on that 2010 trip.

 

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Aisha, left end, middle row, in Africa and displays of her products

She visited Ghana in 2012. She’s returning to Africa in August, this time to Mali. With the help of Haba and CIC she’ll explore growing her business there to create import-export streams. At one time she weighed developing holistic herbal health clinics in West Africa.

“I want to create job opportunities for people because this business is about helping people who come out of poverty just like me.”

She wants more Africans enjoying the fruits of the shea nut grown there by employing locals in its production and sale and by making her products affordable so more locals can enjoy their health benefits.

It’s a far cry from the self-centered, destructive path she was on from the early-1990s through 2004. Growing up in Omaha and Des Moines she long headed for a hard fall. Her family often moved. Finances were always tight. She was a head-strong girl who didn’t listen to her restless mother and alcoholic father. She got in trouble at school.

“There were issues at home. I was always told no coming up and I got sick of hearing that. I felt I was a burden, so I was like, ‘I’m going to get out and get my own stuff.’”
At 15 she left home and began stripping. A year later she got pregnant. She gave birth to the first of her four children at 17.

“I found myself moving around a lot. I really didn’t know what stability was. I never had stability, whether having a stable home or just being stable, period, in life. I was young and doing my thing. My dad walked in the club where I was stripping. My sister told on me.”

The ensuing confrontation only drew her and her parents farther apart.

“I was trying to live that life. I wanted to have whatever I wanted to have. I danced, I sold my body and I made lots of money from it. I did it for about 12 years. I wanted to have it all, but it was not the right way.”

 

 

 

 

 

She got caught up in the alcohol, drug abuse and theft that accompany life on the streets.

“I was in and out of prison a lot. I used to steal to make money.”

In 1997 she served time in the Douglas Country Correctional Center for theft by receiving stolen property.

In 2004 she was crying in an Iowa jail cell after her second Operating While Intoxicated offense. Her arrest came after she left the strip club where she performed, bombed out of her head.

“I had to get drunk so I could let these men touch me all night,” says Okudi, who drove her car atop a railroad embankment, straddling the tracks, poised to head for a drop-off that led straight into a river.

That night in jail a decade ago is when it all came to a head. “I just sat there and I thought about my kids and what I just did,” she says. She felt sure she’d messed up one too many times and was going to lose her children and any chance of salvaging her life, “I was crying out and begging to God. I had begged before but this time it was a beg of mercy. I was at my bottom. I surrendered fully.”

To her relief the judge didn’t give her prison time at her sentencing hearing. “I told the judge, ‘I will never do this.’ He said, ‘If I ever see you in my courtroom again it will be the last time.’ I burnt my strip clothes when I got out, and I didn’t turn back. I got myself into treatment.” She’d been in treatment before but “this time,” she says, “it was serious, it wasn’t a game. I enrolled in school.”

Ten years later she has her own business and a higher calling and, she says, “I’m so proud that I write the judge and tell him how I’m doing.” Okudi’s learned how to live a healthy lifestyle and not surround herself with negative influences and enablers.

Her life has turned many more times yet since getting straight and sober. In 2006 she seemingly found her soulmate in George Okudi, an ordained Ugandan minister and award-winning gospel artist. They began a new life in Washington DC and had two children together. Then she discovered he was still married to another woman in Africa. The couple is separated, awaiting a divorce.

She’s learned to forgive, but she’s only human. “Even though I’ve grown sometimes it feels like, When is it going to end? But to much is given, much is required. You’ve just gotta consistently stay on track. No matter what it is, stay focused.”

Even as recently as 2012 and 2013 there were tests and setbacks, including bouts of homelessness. The difference then and now is that when adversity strikes she doesn’t get too high or too low, she doesn’t feel entitled to act out. She claims she experienced an epiphany in which God spoke to her and set her on her Esha Jewelfire mission.

“When I had that vision and dream I was pregnant with my youngest son. I was living with my grandmother. I was newly separated from my husband. I said to my grandmother, ‘I don’t know if I’m going crazy or what, but the Lord said I will build like King Solomon and go and help my people in Africa.’”

Since childhood this Africaphile has expressed a desire to help alleviate poverty overseas. Her visit to Niger and the overwhelming reception she received confirmed she’s meant to serve there.

“It was immediate. I was able to blend in wherever I went. I know that’s where my calling is. I cook African, my children are African, my friends are African. It’s just a natural thing for me.”

She even speaks some native dialects.

She’s long made a habit of sending clothes and other needed items to Africa. But a call to build was something else again.

“Where am I going to get the money from to help these people in Africa?” she asked her grandma. “I didn’t know.”

Then by accident or fate or divine providence a friend introduced her to shea butter, an oil used in countless bath and beauty products. “And that’s how the idea for my business came up,” Okudi says.

Shea is gritty in its natural state and only transforms with love. Sound familiar? “I researched it and found that it moisturizes, it cleanses, it refreshens, it heals, it brightens, it just makes you shine. It’s naturally rich in vitamins A, E and F. So I figured out what I needed to do with it.”

Her experiments led to lightly fragranced shea butter-based products, including lotions, creams and scrubs. She began marketing them.

She gets raw shea in big blocks she breaks down by chopping and melting. She incorporates into her products natural oats and grains as well as fruit and herb oils to lend pleasing textures and scents. The fresh fruit and herbs are pressed by hand. Nothing’s processed. “All this stuff comes from God’s green earth — oils, spices, herbs, organic cane sugar,” she says. Nothing’s written down either. “I have it all in my head. I know every ingredient in everything I make. Everything is made fresh to order and customized. Everything is hand-packaged, too.”

 

 

After trying mechanized mass manufacturing, she’s back to hand mass manufacturing her products
Mass production of the New Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire, LLC Body Lotion!! Do you have yours?
Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire, LLC's photo.
Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire, LLC's photo.
Aisha at a store display opening

Selling at trade shows, house parties, off the Internet, the small business “started really growing and taking off for me,” she says. With her products now in chain stores, she contracts workers to act as sales demo reps where her products are carried. She also has a contract with a hand-mass manufacturing firm in Nashville, Tenn. She’s in discussions with a majo beauty products manufacturer-distributor.

She says besides her line being “bomb diggity,” retailers and customers alike respond to “the mission purpose behind it,” adding, “It’s purposeful, its meaningful, there’s life to my company.”

Her business has been based at various sites, including the Omaha Small Business Network. Production’s unfolded in her mother’s kitchen, in a friend’s attic, in her house, wherever she can find usable space. “My business is simple, it doesn’t really need a big plant or office.”

Having a store of her own though was a dream. A few years ago “an angel” came into her life in the form of Robert Wolsmann, who within short order of meeting Okudi wrote her a check for $10,000 – as a loan – to help her open her own shop.

Wolsmann is not in the habit of lending such amounts to near total strangers but something in Okudi struck him. Besides, he says, “I could see she needed help. She showed me what she made and I was so impressed I presented her with that money. I couldn’t resist investing.”

“He’s an awesome person,” Aisha says of Wolsmann. “We’ve become great friends.”

She says her dynamic personality attracts people to her. She feels what Wolsmann did is evidence “things work in mysterious ways – you don’t know what’s going to happen, you’ve just got to be prepared.”

Her Organically Sweet Shea Butter Body Butter Store opened in 2010. The labor of love proved star-crossed when after two months her landlord evicted her. Okudi’s opened and closed two more stores to pursue new opportunities .

“Entrepreneurs go where they have to go to get things done.”

Evictions from two rental homes found to be uninhabitable took their toll. “I asked God, “What is going on? Why does this keep happening to me?’ I didn’t have nowhere to go. I was seeing myself back living from place to place like I’ve always been, still trying to take care of my kids and do my business.” Stripping’s fast money lured her back for a short time. She and her kids stayed at the transitional housing program, Restored Hope, but when things didn’t work out there they went back to couch surfing before finding stability at the Salvation Army Shelter.

“It kept me focused on my mission. I’ve been called to be that missionary, so I’m not so upset anymore about why I’ve been bounced around or why things have happened the way they have. There’s a way bigger purpose. If you just be really humble and wait and be patient to see what God’s doing, He’ll turn things around.”

 

 

It’s why she no longer dwells on the past or worries about what she doesn’t have right now.

“Nothing matters when it comes to material things. The only thing that matters to me is my health and just doing what I know is right in my heart to do. Even though I lived the way I lived, basically homeless, I realized I am very blessed and I remained grateful.

“God only gives you what you can handle. He obviously knew I was equipped to do it. You just do it, but there’s preparation to everything. Nothing goes to waste. Everything I’ve been through I’ve actually used as a powerful testimony to either encourage someone else or to inspire myself to move forward.”

For the past year she’s earned enough money to find stable living in her own downtown condo.

Often asked to share her story before church congregations and community groups, her message is simple:

“To persevere, period. I don’t care what your situation is you’ve got to keep going. The world doesn’t stop, time doesn’t stop, problems never cease. You have to go through them. I go through my trials and tribulations and I never ask God to remove me out of them because it builds character, strength and perseverance for you to move on. I always tell people, ‘Don’t stop, just keep going.’ The fight is not easy, the fight ain’t no joke, it’s a war, it’s a battle. You’ve got to put full armor on and fight. God don’t have punks in his army.

“You’ve got to be a soldier for everything you put hour hands to.”

She’s aware her success amid myriad struggles inspires others.

“It reminds me who I am and that when I don’t think people are watching me they are. I’ve always been a happy, giving, loving person. Even when going through something, I pick myself up. Even my father said, ‘If you can be changed from where you came from, I know there’s a God.’ Now, he’s stopped drinking. He’s reborn.”

 

Photo: Team Sha Luminous heading to Lincoln to knock out the HyVees there :-)!! Wish us luck and throw some prayers out there too! Thanks.
Aisha drives far and wide slinging her shea butter line

 

 

She realizes her own rebirth may be hard for some to swallow. “People who knew me in my past might say, ‘Oh no, not Aisha, with what she used to do?’” She acknowledges she couldn’t transform without help.

“When I got the call to start my business to support the Africa missions I had no business training or education, I just did it. I’ve learned as much as I can from experts and entrepreneurs who’ve already been there and done it. I’ve seen what not to do and what to do. I’ve learned to listen more, to be more patient, to look at all options instead of just what I know, because it’s not about what I know it’s about what I need to know. This has been a very humbling and hard faith thing for me.”

In 2011 she graduated from Creighton University’s Financial Success Program for low income single mothers.

“I learned how to be very resourceful working within my means, how to budget and how to cut out unnecessary costs.”

She was introduced to EcoScents owner Chad Kampschneider, who became a mentor and ended up picking up her product line.

After being accepted to tape an episode of Shark Tank she decided to pass on the opportunity rather than risk gaining partners who would wrest control of her vision.

“I’ve gotten this far with my mission and purpose and I don’t want to get detoured on another path. I figure one day I’ll be a shark myself helping people grow their businesses and realize their dreams. If I continue to follow the path I’ve been following I’ll get there. I see myself global helping in poverty areas through my company.”

 

 

Photo: Happy Birthday󾔑 Esha I love you enjoy your day!!!!󾦈󾠣󾆕󾠨󾓕󾁀
Her younger sister put together this montage of Aisha for her birthday

 

 

She’s determined to complete her mission.

“I just get up knowing I gotta do what I gotta do, and I live one day at a time. I don’t let my financial and emotional path haunt me. There’s nothing you can do but do what you need to do every day and be a part of hope. Too many people are hopeless. There’s no light in them. I’m not about that, I’m about life and living to the fullest and being happy with what I have and where I’m at because I know greatness will come some day for me. I’m a very favored woman in all things I do.

“I haven’t been at a standstill. I’ve come a long way and I continue to grow. I’m still transforming, I’m still moving forward. I still reach out for help in areas I need help in.”
She suspects she’s always had it in her to be the “apostolic entrepreneur” she brands herself today. “Sometimes you don’t discover it until things happen to you. I think I had it but I didn’t embrace it then. I heard so much negative in my life coming up that it turned me away…I said, ‘I’ll show you,’ and I made wrong decisions. What the devil meant for bad, God turned it for good.

“I’m a natural born hustler but I hustle in the right way now.”

This month Okudi will be at select Walmarts and No-Frills stores seeking donations for her African missions.

For more about her products, visit her Facebook page, Sha-Luminous-by-Esha-Jewelfire.

 

One of Aisha’s many different looks

Bud Rising: Terence “Bud” Crawford’s tight family has his back as he defends title in his own backyard


Historically, Omaha has never been a great fight town the way Detroit or Boston or Philadelphia or New York City or Las Vegas have been and in some instances still are.  Outside the local, hardcore boxing set, even a knowledable fight fan would be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of boxers, trainers, managers, and gyms here that ever made a real dent in the sport, amateur or professional.  But boxing did once command a loyal and sizable following here for the Golden Gloves and for some of the few pros who made names for themselves, such as the Hernandez brothers and Ron Stander.  That support may or may not come back with the emergence of Terence “Bud” Crawford, the recently crowned WBO lightweight champ who defends his title June 28 in his hometown of Omaha.  An indication of just how far off the tracks Omaha’s boxing scene went is that his June 28 title defense will be the first time in 24 pro fights Crawford has fought in his hometown.  There’s no question he’s already made history as the first world boxing titlist from here since the 1930s (Max Bear) and he’ll be the first from here to defend his title on his home turf. Boxing’s been close to dead here for 20 years and whether or not his bout with challenger Yuriorkis Gamboa will mean the dawn of a new era in boxing here nobody knows.  It’s unlikely given the sport’s overall decline in popularity and this city’s traditionally at-arm’s-length approach to the ring business.  Even if no boxing revival happens, Crawford’s shaken things up.  As one old-line boxing observer who attended the press conference for the Crawford-Gamboa fight told me, “When Bob Arum showed up in Omaha, Neb. I almost dropped my shorts.”  Not since Joe Frazier defended his heavyweight title against local Great White Hope Ron Stander in 1972 has there been anything of this magnitude boxing-wise here.  But as that same observer noted, Frazier was one of eight total world champs then whereas today there are many dozens of “champions” because of the alphabet soup proliferation of fight sanctioning bodies.  In other word, boxing has been dilluted.  It’s lost serious lustre and cred in this age of mixed martial arts fighting, whose elite practitioners tend to command as much or more interest and respect than do boxing’s elite.  The story that follows on Bud Crawford is my third about him (you can find the others on this blog). This one portrays him in the context of his tight family.  I recently enjoyed meeting his mother, grandmother, sisters, and girlfriend, who’s also the mother of his two sons, and their words, along with those of family friend and attorney Hugh Reefe, describe Bud as a family-first man who has come a long way from the immature boy who fell in love with boxing but too often wanted to fight the world.

 

Bud Rising; Terence “Bud” Crawford’s tight family has his back as he defends title in his own backyard                                                                                                                                          

Sometimes rocky journey for WBO lightweight champ from Omaha comes full circle

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing this week in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

When Terence “Bud” Crawford defends his WBO lightweight title June 28 at the CenturyLink Center, he’ll fight for himself, his tight-knit family and a boxing community that’s not seen anything like this since 1972.

Forty-two years ago heavyweight champion Joe Frazier came to town to battle local Great White Hope Ron Stander. Omaha was thrilled to host boxing’s ultimate event, but Stander never had more than a puncher’s chance. Predictably, he was outclassed and dismantled.

This is different. Crawford’s the hometown kid who realized his dream of being a world champ by unanimously decisioning Ricky Burns in Scotland March 1. He’s the title holder and Cuban opponent Yuriorkis Gamboa the contender. The champ and challenger enter this HBO main event with identical 23-0 (16 by KO) records. Crawford’s a skilled technician who’s never been dropped or hurt as a pro. By contrast, Stander was a slugger and bleeder who used brute force, not sweet science, in the ring. Though Stander didn’t hit the canvas much, he lost 21 bouts.

Another important difference is that while The Butcher fought in Omaha, he actually hailed from Council Bluffs. Crawford is Omaha through and through. When it was suggested the Bluffs and its casinos host Crawford’s title defense the fighter flatly refused, offended by the very notion he go across the river.

“I’m the type of person if I don’t want to do something I’m not going to do it,” he says. “I’m my own man. If I felt like they weren’t going to bring it to Omaha then we were going to go somewhere else and it wasn’t going to be Council Bluffs.”

Known for representing with trunks that read “Omaha,” he’s fiercely loyal to his Omaha-based boxing and biological families.

“They’re always going to be there for me, win or lose,” he says. “They’ve been with me the whole way.”

His peeps comprise Team Crawford. Most members of his training camp go back more than a decade when he was pegged a ring prodigy. His longtime trainer Midge Minor is like a father. His co-manager Brian “BoMac” McIntyre is one of his best buddies. They jointly opened the B & B Boxing Academy two years ago.

Omaha attorney Hugh Reefe, a former amateur boxer who now dispenses legal advice to the fighter, recalls seeing the young Crawford at the CW Boxing Club, where Bud got his start. The CW is the through-line that connects the champ’s boxing crew.

“Everybody knew who he was because he was different,” Reefe says. “He was outstanding. He really had all the skills. Everybody was talking about him. He just had a buzz around him. He’s got these cobra eyes that give him the peripheral vision to bob and weave but still have you locked in his sights.”

Victory Boxing coach John Determan, whose unbeaten son Johnny is on the June 28 undercard, says, “I’ve known Bud for a long time. The first time I saw him fight was early in his career in Joplin, Missouri. I remember driving home and telling my family ‘he’s going to be a great one.’ He is a true champion and not the type of guy who gets a big head. He’s worked hard for everything he’s done.”

Longtime boxing observer and historian Tom Lovgren says simply, “He’s the best that I’ve seen in Neb. He’s the Real McCoy.”

Crawford’s seemingly been called to his boxing ascension. His mother Debra Crawford says he came out of the womb “with his fists balled up,” as if ready to fight. He’s from a long line of pugilists: his grandfather, father and uncle all fought. Debra says Bud’s father “always said he’s going to be a million dollar baby boy.” Debra, who’s gone a round or two with her headstrong son and knows the difference between a jab and a cross, says, “God gave him a gift.”

Everyone confirms young Bud himself was convinced he was destined for greatness. “He’d always tell me, ‘Mom, I’m going to make it, I’m going to be something. I’m going to be a world champ,” Debra says.

Lots of kids say that, his friend Kevin notes, “but they ain’t got the same dedication as him,” adding, “He’s been after this for years.”

 

 

Crawford for Leo

 Terence “Bud” Crawford

 

 

Now that he’s done it, Reefe says, “It seems a little surreal.” Even Bud’s mom admits, “Sometimes it’s like a dream.” Especially dreamlike given all he’s overcome. Possessing a notorious temper as a youth, the stubborn Crawford had scores of verbal and physical run-ins.

“Bud used to get in trouble in the gym and they used to send him home,” Debra says. Sometimes, he wanted no part of it. “One time, he hid in his room when Midge came by to pick him up. He told me to tell Midge he ain’t home. I went out and told Midge, ‘He’s in here, come and get him.’ Bud said ‘Mom, you’re a snitch.’ Yeah, I had to keep him out of trouble. I’d rather him be in the gym than out in the street.”

Other times, says maternal grandma Velma Jones, sporting a Team Crawford T-shirt, he couldn’t stand to be away from the ring.

“I used to have him ride along with me when I had to go places and he’d be like, ‘I have to get to the gym…’ He loved that gym.”

 

Bud and the guys that comprise the coaching-training crew of Team Crawford

 

Cover Photo
The fighter with his father Terence Crawford and his sisters Latisha (far left) and Shawntay (far right)

Crawford came up in a Hood where street life claims many young men. He avoided the pitfalls but still found trouble. The youngest of three siblings, he sometimes got into scrapes with older, bigger kids and his two sisters would come to his rescue. You fight one Crawford, “you gotta fight us all,” his sister Shawntay says.

Debra recalls, “One day I saw Bud getting beat up by this older boy and I told those two (her daughters), ‘Y’all better get out there and help your brother.” They did and together with Bud dispatched the bully. Bud’s sister Latisha remembers, “The guy came back and apologized that he took that ass whuppin’ ” If any Crawfords ever got beat they’d be the ones apologizing for letting the family down.

Family, friends, coaches all attest to how competitive he is.

His girlfriend Iesha Person, with whom he has two sons, says, “He don’t like to lose at anything – darts, cards, basketball, pool. Everything is a competition with him, everything. He’s very determined to win in everything he does. Like he just learned how to play chess not too long ago and now he’s beating the people that taught him. So I can’t even picture him losing.”

Reefe, who’s been trounced by him in chess, says, “He likes to talk and rub it in, too, when he’s winning.”

 

Bud showing off his world championship belt, ©photo Chris Farina/Top Rank

 

Everyone agrees he’s always had a mouth on him. Insubordinate behavior earned Crawford school suspensions and expulsions. He caused his mom headaches.

“Yes, he did,” she says. “He went to a bunch of schools. He even went to a couple alternative schools. Yeah, he stayed in some trouble. One time he shot up the Edmonson (recreation) center with a BB gun. He was on probation for like three or four years.”

Few expected much of him.

“When he was young I know a lot of people told him, ‘Oh, you ain’t going to be nothing, you’ll probably end up in the penitentiary.’ But like I told him, ‘Don’t let them folks get you down talking about you won’t be nothing, you go ahead and do what you have to do.’ And he kept on with it,” his grandma says.

“I’m very proud of him because I told him he wasn’t going to be shit,” Debra says. “He tells me now, ‘Mom, remember what you said?’ We laugh about it.”

She says things really turned around for him at Bryan High School.

“The principal really helped him. He still keeps in touch with him, too. His teachers are surprised he’s made it this far. They’re proud of him. They didn’t think he was going to be able to make it but he made it.”

Debra marvels her once problem son has “put Omaha on the map as a black young man.” It’s been a journey with some stumbles. He was considered an Olympics prospect but fell out of grace with USA Boxing. He was a favorite to win the National Golden Gloves in Omaha but lost a close decision he felt was payback for his bad boy image.

 

98-12-2 boxer

98-16-25A:26 punching bagThis image and the one above are of a very young Bud at the CW Boxing Club, ©photos courtesy Jim Krantz

 

Early in his pro career he nearly lost his life in a shooting the week of a fight when he joined a dice game that went sour and as he left in a car someone fired a shot that hit his head. He went to the nearest hospital.

Debra recalls getting the news at home.

“I was asleep when my mom woke me up to tell me. ‘Bud just got shot.’ I waited a minute, got up and came downstairs. Then my sister and I went out there. They wouldn’t let me see him. When they finally called me in Bud was sitting on the edge of the bed laughing, saying, ‘I’m still going to fight on Friday.’ I said, ‘No, you’re not, they’ve got to stitch your head up.’ He was lucky because the bullet bounced off his head. The doctor told me, ‘He’s got a hard head.’”

As if the family needed proof.

Bud and everyone around him traces his new-found maturity to that incident and to becoming a father.

“He’s come a long ways,” grandma Jones says.

“He’s more focused,” Kevin says.

“He’s a great father,” says Iesha. “He took care of me and my daughter before we had a son together.”

Bud’s sister Lastisha says she gets emotional thinking about how far Bud’s come.

“I used to have bad dreams and then when he got shot one of the dreams kind of came true. When he went in that ring and won that championship I thought back to how he was when he was little, hot-headed, and just didn’t want to listen to nobody. And to see him now it’s like, Wow, my little brother for real is world champion. I’m like really, really proud of him.”

Velma says some of her grandson’s drive to excel is fueled by the decisions in the ring he feels he was robbed of as an amateur. It’s why as a pro he takes no chances and strives to dominate from start to finish, just as he did against Burns in taking all three judges’ cards.

“After that fight in Scotland he told me he was scared they were going to take some points away from him. He thought they’d use some kind of technicality to make him lose the fight. But he come on through. He showed ‘em y’all cant do no stealing from me, not tonight.’”

Co-manager BoMac says Crawford feeds off “always being the underdog and always having something against him – that lights his fire and makes him train harder.”

Bud’s boisterous family will be out in force come fight night just as they were in Glasgow. Only this time the Crawford contingent will be much larger, with relatives coming from both coasts and lots of points in between. He welcomes their presence, no matter their size.

“It’s not going to be a distraction or anything,” he says. “They’re there any other fight, so it’s just another day in the gym for me. When I was in Scotland…Dallas…Orlando…Vegas, they were there with me, so you know I’m used to having them cheering me on and not letting them interfere with what I’ve got to do in the ring. You’ve got to keep your mind focused on the task at hand.”

 

 

Bud training in Colorado Springs

 

Per his custom, he trained in Colorado Springs several weeks before returning June 22. Back home he’s fine-tuned his body and mind.

“I just chill and visualize what I’m going to do in there and then just go ahead and do it. You’ve got to see it to be able to do it. When I put my mind to it, it’s already done.”

Iesha, who saw him training six-plus hours a day in Colo., admires
that “he puts so much work into it.” “Hard work and dedication” has gotten him this far and he isn’t about to slack off now, Latishsa says.

Crawford’s unsure whether Omaha will ever fully embrace him as its champion. His family’s glad he’s getting his due after years toiling in obscurity. The Gamboa fight will be his first as a pro in his hometown.

“He’s finally getting noticed,” Debra says, adding people claiming to be cousins have been coming out of the woodwork since winning the title.

Hugh Reefe is impressed by how success, fame and big paydays have not changed Crawford’s lifestyle.

“He’s a pretty simple guy and I like that he’s kept everything the same. He’s handling it really well, he’s got really good instincts, He’s intuitive. He’s always concerned and thoughtful about how things affect his family.”

Those closest to him sense that after waiting so long for this stage he’s going to put on a show.

Iesha says, “I know he’s not giving up that belt.”

Everyone agrees Gamboa may regret saying at the press conference Bud hasn’t fought the caliber of fighters he has. Latisha says as soon as he uttered those words Bud vowed, “I’m going to kick your butt.”

Debra and her daughters predict Bud winning by knockout. “I pick the 6th round because Bud likes to figure him out. If Gamboa hits Bud, Bud’s going to angry and it’s going to be all over,” she says.

God forbid it comes down to a controversial decision that goes against Bud. “He’d probably go nuts if he feel he got cheated,” Latisha says.
“But he ain’t got to worry about that,” Shawntay says, “because he ain’t going to lose. We got this.”

Latisha can see he’s ready for Saturday. “I know when he’s serious, he’s got the eye of the tiger. There’s just something about his eyes that you just know that he’s about to go handle it.”

Reefe, who drove Iesha and the kids to see Bud in Colo., saw a fighter in peak condition. “I realized I was watching a world-class athlete. He was getting getting it on in a workmanlike, no-nonsense manner, going from one workout to the next, station to station, not being lazy about anything. He was in charge.”

BoMac confirms that Crawford “just looks at it like he’s got a job to go do,” adding, “He’s like, ‘Let me do my job, everyone else do their job, let’s go about our business and let’s go home.” He says Crawford’s “will and determination” separate him from the pack.

 

Bud at the press conference for the Gamboa fight, ©www.fightnews.com

 

That intensity is often masked by his laidback demeanor. “He likes to joke and play around, wrestle, he’s a kid, you know,” Reefe says. “He’s always been like that,” says Debra, fingering a stack of title fight posters. “He’s so easygoing you wouldn’t believe he’s got a big fight coming up,” adds grandma. Shawntay points out, “He don’t ever talk about the fight, he just goes in there and fights.”

As for the fighter himself, he’s using any real or perceived slight – from Gamboa’s words to what he sees as a lack of local corporate sponsors to the Bluffs controversy – as motivation to leave no doubts June 28.

“I’m still hungry to get better and to prove to the world that I belong here. This is just a stepping stone.”

The Crawford-Gamboa fight can be seen live on HBO Boxing After Dark starting at 9 p.m. (CST).

For tickets to the fight, visit http://www.ticketmaster.com.

 

Bud posing with Gamboa and Top Rank’s Bob Arum at the press conference, ©www.fightnews.com

North Omaha Summer Arts Presents: Gospel in the Park

June 17, 2014 2 comments

My beloved, Pamela Jo Berry, has a big heart for her community.  It’s what led her to found North Omaha Summer Arts, an annual festival that infuses different art forms into the underserved North Omaha community she grew up in and still resides in.  This is the festival’s fourth year.  Saturday, June 21 NOSA presents a gospel concert at Miller Park.  Like all NOSA events, it’s free and open to the public.  Details below.  Before Pam and I became a couple, I profiled her and her passion behind the festival for The Reader.  You can find that story, Matter of the Heart: Pamela Jo Berry’s Love for Her Community Brings Art Fest to North Omaha, on this blog.  The link to it is: http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/pamela-jo-berry-brings-art-fest-to-north-omaha-artist-and-friends-engage-community-in-diverse-work/

In addition to the concert, there is a women’s writing workshop in progress.  On Friday, August 8 from 6 to 9 p.m. there will be an Arts Crawl up and down a swath of the North 30th Street Corridor featuring works by some of Omaha’s leading artists. Venues to be announced.

 

North Omaha Summer Arts's photo.
North Omaha Summer Arts presents a joyous, music-filled occasion-
Gospel Concert 4

Saturday, June 21
5:30-7:30 pm
24th and Kansas Ave. (next to the old ballfield)
Free and open to the public

Bring a picnic dinner and blanket or enjoy free grilled hot dogs and cool refeshing lemonade courtesy of Trinity Lutheran Church for this family-friendly concert featuring some of Omaha’s most gifted performers.

Featuring-
Eric and Doriette Jordan
Trinity Lutheran Choir
Sudanese Worship Band
Cadence
New Bethel Church of God Choir
and more…

“…for the Lord is great and greatly to be praised.” Psalm 96:4

For more info, call NOSA founder Pamela Jo Berry at 402-502-4669.

 

Partnership 4 Kids – Building Bridges and Breaking Barriers


Omaha Metro Magazine asked me to write a special multi-page insert for its June 2014 issue all about a local nonprofit. Parternship 4 Kids, and its mission to give at-risk youth a pathway to educational success from Kindergarten through college.  Here are the stories.

 

 

 

 

metroMAGAZINE

 

BREAKING BARRIERS AND BUILDING BRIDGES

Transforming Communities…Fostering Life Beyond Limits

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Metro Magazine

 

Giving at-risk youth hope and a pathway to success is the core mission of the goal-setting and mentoring collaborative known as Partnership 4 Kids. Serving more than 4,700 K-9 students in 22 schools with the help of 400-plus volunteers, P4K sprang out of two small adopt-a-school programs initiated by Omaha entrepreneurs.

In 1989, local busInessman and philanthropIst Michael Yanney launched All Our Kids at then-McMIllan JunIor High School as away to capture and support the lost youth he saw beIng left behInd In North Omaha. He formed a contract with 20 at-risk youth that had high potential but displayed low achievement and he promised them a post-secondary education if they met a set of expectations. Volunteer mentors were assigned to each student to guide their progress. Mike and his wife Gail became personal mentors to several students. Over the next two decades the program expanded into more schools and touched the lives of more young people, many of whom have realized the dream of a college education and a career.

Business owners Jerry and Cookie Hoberman wanted to give back to the North Omaha community that patronized their firm and in 1996 they put in place an idea called Winners Circle at then-Belvedere Elementary School. At the time North Omaha public schools were lagging far behind in student achievement. Borrowing from the incentives-based program for employees used at the couple’s business, Winners Circle introduced motivational tools to help students set and achieve academic and citizenship goals. Adult volunteers called Goal Buddies encouraged students to succeed. Quarterly celebrations recognized student success. As student achievement rose, the program moved into additional schools.

Joining forces for greater collective impact, in 2007 All Our Kids and Winners Circle merged to create Partnership 4 Kids. By combining resources to provide support from early childhood through college, these efforts can now make a greater impact on participants.

“If you can make the difference in those kids where they start to believe they can succeed, you’re starting to make a huge indentation in the problems we have here in Omaha,”says P4K President Deb Denbeck. “That’s why we’re so passionate about what we do and that’s why we’re looking for more help. We have the groundwork set at the very time kids enter school and then it’s a continuum from Kindergarten through careers that we work with them.”

It’s about breaking generational poverty, which tends to persist with a lack of education.

“Education is at the core of everything we do with youth, but it is the relationship building and providing positive role models in their lives that makes the real difference,” Denbeck says.

Caring adult volunteers remain central to the P4K approach, whether as Goal Buddies, Group Mentors or Navigators.

“Sometimes parents need help. We have parents working three jobs just to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. Over 90 percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced lunch – the indicator of living at or below the federal poverty level. We have kids come through our program who are the first ones in their family to graduate high school, let alone college. That’s pretty startling.”

Gail Yanney says, “Today, young people have so much more to contend with. That’s where the mentor comes in. They have to have an adult that’s been there, that has common sense, that can perhaps guide them through these perilous waters. Youth are subject to all kinds of bad influences and we’d like to instill some good influences and give them an opportunity to see themselves as successes. Studies show that one meaningful person in a child’s life is the difference.”

Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Mark Evans says a mentor can be the difference between a child being hopeless and hopeful.

“If you start to believe you’re not going to get opportunities then you’re more apt to skip school, to have disciplinary problems, maybe even dropout,” he says, “but if you believe there’s hope and that light at the end of tunnel is close enough, you say, ‘I can do this, I can get through this and have opportunities.’ Partnership 4 Kids brings that positive adult in to bring that light at the end of the tunnel a little closer to students, where there’s a belief or hope that they can succeed.”

 

My son’s an honor roll student and he’s already looking at colleges around the country. I love the fact I have taught him the power of education. ~ MONIQUE CRIBBS

 

Monique Cribbs

 

Success Story
P4K Alum Monique Cribbs enjoying education-career success                                                                                                                                                                                                             P4K has many alums whose educational achievements and success illustrate the value of having mentors in their lives.

Monique Cribbs was a senior at Omaha North High with a strong desire to fulfill her and her parents’ dreams of going onto college but she didn’t see a way she could afford school, at least not right away. Then a classmate in All Our Kids introduced her to Mike Yanney and that meeting led to him telling her he saw great potential in her and promising he would pay for her college education. When her life took some unexpected turns in college and presented her with some hard challenges, such as becoming a young single mom, her grades suffered and she strongly considered leaving school. But enough caring people in her life encouraged her to carry on. One of those caring people was Mike Yanney.

“I view Mike as a father figure, a very caring, wise person,” Cribbs says. “I remember going to his house and just crying. I told him I thought I would be dropped from the program. He said, ‘No matter what you do, we support you. Monique, the scholarship will never leave you, we’re here for you.’ and that meant so much to me. I had my son in 1999 and went right back to school.”

She followed her bachelor’s degree in interpersonal communication from UNO with a master’s in human relations from Bellevue University and is now pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership and higher education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. After stints at the Omaha Home for Boys and Bellevue University she served as Trio Coordinator at Creighton University. Today, she’s Career Services Coordinator at Metropolitan Community College, where she’s also an adjunct instructor.

“There are days when it’s really hard for me, where I’m really overwhelmed and stressed out,” Cribbs says, “but I know when I walk across the stage this next time it will have all been worth it. Now the sky is the limit, there is nothing I cannot do and one day I would like to be a vice president or a president of a college.”

Today she’s doing for current students what was done for her.

“It’s always good to have that advocate in your life to be able to talk about all sorts of things. I always want to have the ability to have contact with students but have the power to make change in institutions. I feel I’m in my training ground right now.”

She’s grateful for what P4K and the mentors she met provided her and continue to provide her 20 years later.

“I’m so appreciative of the opportunities I’ve been given. These people truly are in your life, they truly care for you, and they’re also honest with you as well. It’s important to have someone to tell you, ‘You’re messing up right now,’ or, ‘You’re not making wise decisions but I know you have to live your life.’ As a mentee it’s critical you listen and also realize you do have to go through life making your own decisions while at the same time finding that balance between what your mentors are saying to you and what you want to do. That takes time.

“I think it’s amazing I met Mike (Yanney) when I was 17 and I turn 37 in May, and he’s still there and we still talk. I also still stay in contact with former All Our Kids President Julie Hefflinger. I think that means a lot because it went from being a mentoring relationship to being a friendship. I want them in my life. I appreciate them.”

Denbeck says the journey Cribbs has taken is one of “many compelling stories of people who have been in our program, graduated and are now very successful.” She says Cribbs epitomizes what happens when mentors enter a young person’s life and help pull them forward.

Denbeck says Cribbs does everything she can to give back to the program she credits with giving her so much.

“Monique spoke at last year’s Senior Banquet. Her message was,‘ It’s going to be hard, life isn’t always fair or easy, but don’t ever give up.’”

Indeed, Cribbs, who “was very honored to be the keynote speaker,” says, “I spoke from my heart about the power of education and my experiences in the program and in my life. I told the truth, saying not everyone in this room will make it through college but at the same time you all have people who are here to support you and you have to align yourself with those who want to see you do well.”

Her son Cayden participated in P4K as a 7th and 8th grader, one of several youth following in the footsteps of their parents in the program, and he’s preparing to enter Elkhorn Mount Michael in the fall.

“My son’s an honor roll student and he’s already looking at colleges around the country. I love the fact I have taught him the power of education and that his job is to go to school and do well and my job is to support him and be the role model of continuing my education so he can’t say to me, ‘Mom, I can’t do it,’  because I can say, ‘Baby, you can, because I did. There’s nothing you can’t do because I’m doing it.’“

 

Mike and Gail Yanney

 

A helping hand
When it comes to mentors, the biggest thing is showing up.

“Being a good mentor is about being there,” Denbeck says. “When you’re there consistently kids begin to get the sense that you care about them. That consistency is huge because some of these kids have had adults come and go in their lives all the time. The best thing a mentor can do is to care and to be consistent. Kids just want to know that you’ve got their back.

“When that happens as our Program Coordinators can tell you, you see better behavior and better grades because their mentors help them create hope that there’s a brighter future.”

At each participating school a paid P4K Program Coordinator serves as liaison, facilitator and resource for the school staff and volunteers.

“Our Program Coordinators are embedded more and more in the schools,” Denbeck notes. “That means they’re also doing some intensive case management with kids who need it the most. Our kids see our Program Coordinators at school every day. If we’re going to build relationships the more people see you the more they trust you.”

In some ways mentoring is as simple as giving students guideposts to follow and work towards.

“People growing up in poverty and facing very difficult situations really need a lot of help and it isn’t money they need, they need opportunities, they need people to put their arm around them and encourage them and motivate them,” Mike Yanney says. “It’s about instilling hope and there’s every reason to have hope because in this great nation there are all kinds of jobs available, even today, but young people have to be educated to do those jobs.”

 

Mark Evans

 

OPS endorsed                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        All of P4K’s work is done in step with its biggest partner, the Omaha Public Schools, whose students the program exclusively serves. Therefore P4K’s goals mirror OPS goals.

“As a school-based mentoring program we reinforce what the schools are doing,” Denbeck says. “We work in partnership with Omaha Public Schools and we’re a support group that’s giving these kids in-school and after-school support. We work with every kid in 12 elementary schools through our goal setting program and from there students are selected to go into our after-school group mentoring program in middle and high school. The carrot at the end is that we provide a college scholarship.

“We do whatever we can to be a good partner with the schools helping these young people and schools be successful. They have to believe in what we do and we have to bring something of value to the table. Having volunteers in your school is very healthy. It’s that co-connection of community and school.”

OPS head Mark Evans likes that P4K is in sync with his district.

“They are aligning student goals to school goals and district goals, which is really what we’re about right now with our whole strategic planning process,” he says.“We see Partnership 4 Kids aligning to what we’re trying to achieve, whether it’s NESA goals, attendance goals, graduation goals. This is just a great resource to help us see that alignment and keep that focus and to have a community member there helping our young people create those goals.”

Miller Park Elementary School Principal Lisa Utterback, whose school has seen academic achievement dramatically rise during her tenure and P4K’s immersion there, also likes that “the P4K program aligns strategically to what we’re doing,” adding,“We receive support from the Goal Buddies, the Program Coordinator and the P4K program by their presence in the building and their having positive communication with our students and encouraging them to stay the course.”

Similarly, Field Club Elementary School Principal Barb Wild has seen increased student achievement at her school. She says P4K “is a part of that because it’s part of our school culture,” adding,“ It’s integrated into what we’re doing with the acuity data and the state testing. It all connects. It’s not some vague just be good or just do better, it’s a very specific, laid-out thing students can attach to and take ownership of.”

Denbeck says,“We start early focusing on goal setting in math, reading and life skills. Those are real indicators of educational success and life success. The skill of goal setting directly correlates to education. It’s really important kids learn how to do this and the teachers are the ones developing those goals with the kids.”

 

Deb Debeck

 

P4K makes a big deal of students meeting goals at quarterly celebrations in the schools.

“The celebration each quarter is a culmination of their success,” Denbeck says. “They get to come up to the stage to get a medal and shake hands with the Goal Buddies. They’re recognized in front of the entire school. It’s really a school- wide celebration of the achievement of students. It’s directly related to creating that hope that there’s a brighter future.”

Evans applauds P4K for recognizing student achievement.

“I think the power of that is not that students are just getting an ‘attaboy’ or ‘attagirl’ but that it’s related to an accomplishment,” he says.“Giving support to young people, letting them know we care and celebrating their success is fine but the research says you need something worth celebrating – meeting a goal of some kind – and that’s where the core piece is. They’re tying it into recognition of an accomplishment. That’s when I think it really has value. The things you value most are the things you work hard for.”

 

The amount of people we touch and the lives we change and the results we have seen are pretty phenomenal. ~ DEB DENBECK, P4K PRESIDENT

 

Building blocks
P4K starts early getting kids to think about careers and college.

“In 5th grade we conduct career tours as part of career exploration,” says Denbeck. “We want kids to see all the different career options available. These trips are made possible through our partner corporations and sponsors. Our middle school program prepares kids for strengths-based leadership. Every one of our kids goes through the Strengths Quest program at Gallup to find out what their strengths are. Kids learn moral courage – how to stand up to bullying. They learn all those things that help build character and help in making good decisions. They learn financial vitality, they learn how to write a business plan and to sell a product. They learn both business skills and personal skills. We also begin taking our middle school students on several college visits. We want them to see college as a reality.”

Denbeck says one of the biggest indicators of whether a student will drop out of school is their experience in middle school.

“It’s a very changing and defining time in a young person’s life – physically, mentally, emotionally, socially. It’s that whole adolescent change. In our program we address specific issues and lessons in various areas that will help these kids have the skills to succeed and transition to high school. Then, when they get to 9th grade we really talk about what they need to do to graduate. We put a plan together of how they can succeed through high school. As our kids go into their freshman year we call our volunteer mentors, Navigators. They work with groups on those skills students need to succeed in high school. Students look more seriously at career exploration and shadow mentors at their workplaces. We’re always putting careers and college in front of them.”

Navigators meet with the same large group of 9th graders twice a month after school in a classroom setting and at least once per month outside of school.

“It takes some skill to get kids to trust and operate in a group setting,” Denbeck says.“ There’s always time set aside for mentor-mentee relationship building and conversation, which is combined in tandem with a structured curriculum. Outings are reflective of what’s taught in the classroom. We also have a lot of fun group activities. We try to broaden their cultural experience because some don’t get those opportunities very often.”

Although P4K programming strives to provide a comprehensive pathway to success for students room is also made for community collaboration.

“We use these other resources to help students get up that ladder,” Denbeck explains. “As a nonprofit you cannot be everything to every single person, so a year ago our board of directors asked two specific questions: ‘Who needs us the most?’ and‘ Where can we make the biggest impact?’ So we redesigned our program to be a K-9 program. Why K-9? That gets you through the two biggest hurdles a young person goes through – from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school. Those big transition years are so key.”

P4K’s added formal partnerships with College Possible Avenue Scholars and Teammates to aid in preparing students’ individual plans for life beyond high school and completing the continuum of care.

Even as students move on into college P4K remains in their lives because of the scholarships they receive from the organization. P4K continues to be an ongoing resource to help keep students on track.

“We’re now working on establishing college campus groups to provide peer-to-peer mentoring,” Denbeck says.

P4K also has informal partnerships with many other youth serving organizations, such as the Trio programs, Upward Bound and Urban League of Nebraska to give students more options for finding the right niche for where they’re at and what they need.

High school students are given college access support via act preparation, admissions application ins and outs, financial aid resources and scholarship opportunities.Sstudents are offered workshops in various professions, job readiness seminars and summer internship opportunities.

 

 

 

A proven model
Every student’s path to success includes someone who helped them along the way and Denbeck says she’s proud to lead a program with a 25-year history of helping kids follow their dreams.

“The amount of people we touch, the lives we change and the results we have are pretty phenomenal. Knowing that we graduate 100 percent of kids with 90 percent going on to college and seven of our schools exceeding standards in reading and math tells us we’re doing a lot of things right.

“We’ve grown and we want to continue to grow.”

More donors and volunteers are needed to implement that growth. Denbeck hopes that as more people volunteer with P4K and as more organizations partner with it the added support will follow.

Volunteer coordinator Tracy Wells says the majority of P4K Goal Buddies and Group Mentors come from the corporate community and many return year after year.

“I think the glue that keeps people coming back is that they feel like they’re making a difference and they are connecting to the relationships they build with youth.”

Earl Redrick, a Group Mentor for four youth at Norris Middle School, says, “It is about relationships and having impact on the lives of young folks. Having a mentor, whether both parents are in the home or not, is proven to have some remarkable and positive results on the development of kids.” He knows from personal experience the difference mentoring makes because of the direction he received as a youth at youth serving organizations in his native San Antonio, Texas.

An employee with the Omaha office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Redrick says he goes the extra mile with his mentees, including regular Saturday outings, “because I know the rewards these guys get will go a long ways in life.”

Wells says P4K could always use more volunteers from the professional ranks like Redrick. She’d also like to recruit more retirees like Patti Quinn-McGovern, who began as a Goal Buddy at Field C lub Elementary School while employed at Omaha Public Power District and she and two fellow OPPD retirees have kept right on volunteering.

“Being a mentor is very fulfilling and rewarding,” says Quinn-McGovern. “I can just be standing here and children will come up and give me some hugs. Who can turn that away?”

 

It was important having her in my life because my school wasn’t the best environment all the time and I kind of needed an extra push. ~ BRITTANY GOSSETT

 

Brittany Gossett
While a 7th grade student at McMIllan MIddle School BrIttany Gossett couldn’t escape a school counselor who wanted her to apply to one of the two forerunner programs that merged to form PartnershIp 4 KIds. Seemingly every time the counselor saw Gossett she was championing the mentoring and scholarship resources of All Our Kids (AOK) as a not-to-be-missed opportunity. Gossett didn’t know what to make of it all, little knowing the program would propel her on a path of success.

“She kept pestering me, ‘Did you fill out the application?’ Finally, I filled it out and the program’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had,” says Gossett, now 24. She learned a valuable lesson about seizing opportunities when they’re presented.

Today, Gossett, who with the guidance of a personal mentor went on to graduate from Omaha Central High School and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is employed by one of Partnership 4 Kids’ newest collaborators, College Possible. The mission of College Possible is to get students to college by helping them navigate admission, financial aid and scholarship applications. Once students make it there the organization assigns them a coach to support them through the post-secondary experience, on through graduation and into their career. Gossett conducts workshops for middle and high school students to encourage them to start thinking about and preparing for college. She sees her work as a way of giving back for what others did for her.

“I had a mentor in Marsha Marron. She met me when I was in 8th grade at Monroe Middle School and she stuck with me all through high school and college. She did a lot of things with me. We went out to eat. Every year she would let me go school shopping for supplies. She brought me gifts at Christmas. Most of all, she encouraged me. We would talk most every Monday. We do stay in touch even now. It was important having her in my life because my school wasn’t the best environment all the time and I kind of needed an extra push. When people around you are behaving badly you can get sucked into it and I needed somebody to give me guidance and structure and that’s what she provided. I always had my own mind but she was that extra push to say, ‘You need to stay on this path so that you can get to college and be successful in life.’ She was that extra help to give me a reason to be successful.”

In her current work Gossett plays a similar role for students starving for the same kind of encouragement and guidance she needed.

“The thing that keeps me motivated to help students is that I can relate to them. I want to help students because I know they have potential and sometimes they just need the extra push like I did. These students are very hard working but sometimes they get beat up by life. A lot of the students we work with come from homes where the parents are not supportive, where they’re talked down to. Some kids can’t even walk outside their house safely.

“You just have to give them a chance and look beyond what the situation around them is and see their heart and who they are as a person. We get to know them personally. These students sometimes just need somebody to be supportive of them and try to understand where they’re coming from. They just may need somebody to pat them on the back and say, ‘Great job.’”

 

 

When you have people in your corner who support you and encourage you even when you go through those different highs and lows they help to keep you motivated. ~ MONIQUE CRIBBS

 

Monique Cribbs
More than a decade earlIer, Monique Cribbs started her journey wIth the program near the end of her senIor year at North HIgh School. The only reason she came to it at all was that a classmate in the program suggested that she speak to its founder, Michael Yanney. Cribbs did and it changed her life.

“At the end of the conversation Mike said, ‘Monique, I see great potential in you and I want to help you and I will give you a full-ride scholarship to college,” Cribbs recalls. “So I became a part of the program. It was unorthodox because they were starting with kids in 5th or 6th grade and I came in at 12th grade. I had a mentor and I started doing all the same type of activities the other students were doing.

“We graduated that May and two weeks later my friend and I went to Bridge, a summer institute at UNL for promising scholars from across the state.”

The start of her college experience that fall was far from a smooth ride. She didn’t get along with her first mentor. She didn’t much like taking other people’s advice. Her grades slipped. Then after transferring from UNL to UNO, she got pregnant.

“There were a few bumps in the road. It was just a rocky time. I was young and I thought I knew everything.”

She feared she’d blown her chance. But even after those false starts and detours her education was paid for as promised. She’s gone onto great academic achievement and career success with AOK founder Mike Yanney and former director Julie Hefflinger as her mentors.

“When you have people in your corner who support you and encourage you even when you go through those different highs and lows they help to keep you motivated,” says Cribbs.

She says the power of P4K is that it puts people in your life who affirm that anything is possible.

“Having other like-minded people around you is very important because it’s very easy to say I can’t and so I won’t,” she says.

In a higher education career that has her helping students find their path in school and in life, she makes a point of using her own achievements to illustrate what perseverance and mentoring can do.

“Every time you pass a milestone it’s worth it to tell someone else about the process. It’s worth it to share your story with someone and to encourage someone to carry on as well.”

Today, Cribbs is a role model for her son Cayden, a P4K participant himself. She wants her example of being a high achieving woman of color from the inner city to inspire urban youth like her son to not be limited by stereotypes. Her desire is squarely in line with P4K’s premise that circumstances may make one’s road more challenging but they don’t have to define you or to curtail your expectations. She discovered what P4K professes is true – there are human and capital resources available to help you succeed no matter what your story.

“My son is another motivation for me,” she says. “I am a first generation college student from North Omaha and there are so many stereotypes about kids who grew up there and I always said. ‘I don’t want to be that stereotype.’ When I was pregnant I thought, I am that stereotype now, but I wanted to break out of that box and that’s why I continued to push. Yes, I am a product of North Omaha, I am a first generation college student, I have two degrees under my belt, I’m in graduate school, I have a son who’s an honor roll student who enjoys school and talks about going onto college.

“So you can break through people’s perceptions, you can do whatever it is you would like to do and there are people here to support you. You just have to continue to push.”

 

The guidance from these individuals is priceless. Although I am not exactly where I planned to be I have gone far in my goals and have not given up. ~ JEFF RUSSELL

 

Jeff Russell                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Twenty-fIve years ago Jeff Russell was a student at then-McMIllan JunIor High when school counselors and staff recommended hIm as a prospect for All Our KIds. Mike Yanney launched the program there because at the time his niece served as principal at the school. The idea was to give underachieving young people the mentoring support needed to get them through school and to pay their way to college.

The way the program worked at the beginning, Russell and his fellow mentees all met one-on-one with Yanney before he matched them with employees of his company, Burlington Capital Group. At a certain point Mike and his wife Gail began mentoring select participants in what came to be informally known as Yanney’s Kids.

“I was originally paired with Gary Thompson, then Dave Vana, but ultimately I had many more throughout as everyone in the program seemed to have a helping hand,” Russell recalls.
Having a mentor, Russell says, meant having “someone we could talk to, seek homework help from, establish goals with. They helped us along our journey through school. Staying with the program meant support all the way through college. I soon started a summer job at Mr. Yanney’s house working for my next informal mentor, Ned Kaup, who showed me the ropes and prepared me to manage the place while he moved on in his life.

“I would have to say though that in the years I was with the Yanneys they were mentoring me the most to become who I am today. They promoted me as a manager of their place, which showed me the leadership skills I didn’t know I possessed. We developed a strong relationship and I was able to see they are two of the most giving people I have ever met and genuinely love and care for the people they help and surround themselves with.”

He says P4K “showed me I have options – I can achieve what I put my mind to.” The combination of a strong home life and the program he says, mitigated against the “bad influences”around him growing up. Until he came to the program he says, “I did not think I had a chance for college.” He pursued but did not finish a horticulture degree.

Russell is married with two boys and works as a nuclear security officer at the Fort Calhoun (Neb.) Nuclear Generating Station. He’s pursuing an industrial electronics degree that he plans to use in becoming an electrician with OPPD.

The Yanneys, who still regard the people they mentored as “our kids,” take great satisfaction in seeing them succeed.

“Jeff had every opportunity to fall into a crack,” says Gail Yanney, “but he was willing to listen and he tried and he essentially has now a piece of the American Dream. He has a wonderful partner, he has a good job that he can advance in, he has wonderful children.

“Monique (Cribbs) has not only a fabulous education and career but she has raised a really beautiful young man who will go on to be a productive citizen.”

Cribbs, Russell and Brittany Gossett are the P4K promise fulfilled.

“They’ve got hope and they’re going where they want to go and they’re getting themselves there,” says Gail Yanney. “I guess that’s the stuff that makes you proud. Some of them still have hills to climb but they’re climbing them.”

“We’re very proud of them,” Mike Yanney says. “They’ve really done some great work. They had some adverse situations but they’ve really risen to the top.”

Perhaps Jeff Russell sums up best what it means to have mentors in your life with, “The guidance from these individuals is priceless. Although I am not exactly where I planned to be I have gone far in my goals and have not given up.”

 

 

Miller Park Elementary

 

P4K volunteers help students to set goals and local schools to thrive                                                                                                                                                                                           There’s something oddly perfect about a scene unfoldIng each quarter in the hallways at FIeld Club and MIller Park Elementary Schools. Outside the classrooms they’re assigned volunteer Goal Buddies squirm their way into school desks far too small for their adults bodies and hunch over to meet the eyes of the children they serve. One by one the students file outside the classroom into the hall to sit down and meet with their Goal Buddy. Not surprisingly, some children must be coaxed to speak while others must be urged to quiet down. A team of three Goal Buddies are assigned to each classroom. They work in tandem with teachers in encouraging students to set and meet school and district goals for reading, math and life skills. Each of these informal mentors provides another attentive, sympathetic set of eyes and ears and gives comforting hugs and words to students in need of some extra love and inspiration.

So it goes in this hallmark early education piece of Partnership 4 Kids, the Omaha nonprofit that sends the volunteers into the schools on visits designed to help kids achieve. The model’s working, too, because the schools, one in South Omaha and the other in North Omaha, are both seeing major gains in student achievement on standardized tests. The schools are among seven buildings P4K operates in that report rising student performance and the goal is to duplicate those results in the other schools where P4K’s active.

Patti Quinn-McGovern has been a Goal Buddy at Field Club for several years. She started when still employed at OPPD and she’s continued volunteering there since her retirement. OPPD is one of 29 organizations and companies that feed volunteers to the program. Where some schools have P4K volunteers from several sources, Field Club has a designated corporate sponsor in OPPD, which has more than 50 employees volunteering at the school for its 600-plus students.

“We are really fortunate to have OPPD as a partner in this collaboration with Partnership 4 Kids here,” says Field Club Principal Barb Wild. “They do an awesome job.”

Support System                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Each P4K school has a Program Coordinator to serve as a bridge between the program, the volunteers and the school. At Field Club it’s Neris France. At Miller Park it’s Kris Morgan.

Wild is a fan of how P4K emphasizes the same goals as the school.

“Every student makes a reading, math and life skills goal for each quarter. We have them connect those short-term goals to lifetime goals. Achieving those short-term goals gets them steps closer to long-term goals and success beyond middle school and high school.”

At Miller Park principal Lisa Utterback says P4K “has been very consistent and on point with supporting our school’s mission of success. We’ve taken their program and aligned it to what we’re doing and it’s an added support system and incentive program for our students.” She says, “We are all about goal setting and the importance of students understanding this is what I want to attain and this is the plan to get there. We have empowered our students to own their goals and to accept responsibility for their actions. We firmly believe one of our most important goals is creating a sense of hope and empowerment in our children – that if they set their goals and work hard to accomplish their goals great things can happen. We know it’s our duty to make sure kids understand that even though we’re faced with adversity and we have obstacles in our life we can overcome anything if we set goals, work hard and stay the course. Hope is the essential ingredient in everything we do.”

Wild says each Goal Buddy plays a valuable role because they’re “one more person that that child knows cares about them and is invested in their success. There’s a little bit of accountability to the Goal Buddies, too. That student knows they’re going to meet with and talk to that Goal Buddy about the progress they’re making or not making in that goal and the Goal Buddy is going to talk in a very loving, nurturing, caring way about being accountable to making your goals. It’s giving that consistent message from several different perspectives.”

Quinn-Mcgovern says she volunteers because “I believe strongly in the idea of goal setting and teaching kids this is what you can do and here’s the reward.” Academic goals aside, she says, “I think the life skills goal is really important. It’s common sense, it’s practical. We talk about setting various goals in life. It’s a way to talk about real life in a school situation that I think can be really effective over time. It’s personal, too, it’s not just let’s get down to business. We talk about them individually. We learn about their family situation. We’re just another person to listen to them and to support them.”

 

Lisa Utterback

 

Partnering up                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      The 17 Goal Buddies serving Miller Park’s nearly 400 students come from Lozier Corporation and Metropolitan Community College. Lisa Utterback joins with other educators in feeling fortunate to have dedicated volunteers at her school.

“Our Goal Buddies are consistent. Some have been working with our school for years and they’re invested in the success of this school. The kids know who they are and call them by name. I’m telling you it makes a difference in the life of a child especially when there is consistency. Some even come in outside their scheduled time to just to see how they’re doing . They come on field trips with the classes they’re assigned. They come and celebrate our goal achievements.”

Neris France says P4K is most effective where it’s most warmly embraced by principals and staff, such as at Miller Park and Field Club. Once a school is on board, she says, then it’s all about the volunteers.

“The volunteers are critical. They love what they do. They love that we give students hope and get to be role models who inspire them. I get inspired by the students every day. They inspire me and our volunteers to do our job because we want them to do good, we want them to succeed. We share a passion to get the kids to experience the opportunities we’ve been given in life.”

Earl Redrick sIgned up to be a PartnershIp 4 KIds group mentor last summer and after a full school year workIng wIth a quartet of males at NorrIs Middle School he’s eager to worK with them agaIn come the fall.

Group Mentors like Redrick make a two- year commitment to the program, pledging to mentor the same group of three or four students as they progress through 7th and 8th grade.
One of his mentees is Angel, a 12-year-old who learned about P4K from some schoolmates. He’s found the program’s emphasis on goal setting helpful.

“I’ve learned how to set goals and why achieving them will help me. When you meet your goals you get more confidence in yourself that you’ll do other things.”

The power of mentoring is well known to Redrick, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development employee who has experience being a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters in his native San Antonio, Texas and with other organizations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Growing up, Redrick benefited from being mentored himself.

“My dad worked a lot so my uncle was probably my first mentor but I was always involved in the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA. There were always mentors there. Then when I got into sports the coaches were always there to serve as role models and mentors.”

Redrick, who’s relatively new to Omaha, says a presentation he attended about P4K peaked his interest to become involved.

“What caught my attention was the data they’re recording and reporting back on. Some of the outcomes are pretty phenomenal.”

 

Earl Redrick

 

P4K is an outcomes-based program that utilizes research in designing its structured curriculum that parallels what the schools are teaching. Like every P4K volunteer Redrick filled out an application and a background check was done on him. Then he went through the two-hour training P4K conducts. He’s since attended some P4K workshops, including one on how poverty affects youth. Since August he’s been meeting regularly with Angel and his classmates after school and getting together for Saturday outings he leads them on to broaden and enrich their experiences.

“We’ve had some great times,” Redrick says. “These guys bring a lot of energy to the meetings. It’s really interactive. We talk about very useful topics around what’s important to kids at their age going forward. The Partnership does a great job of laying that out for us. The Program Coordinator sends us materials in advance so we can prepare ourselves. It’s a very structured program which really has a defined set of goals and objectives they want to get to with the kids by a certain point. That’s really impressive. It’s led by the mentors but these guys really drive the conversation.

“Some days they are really, really good and some days I have to twist and grind a little bit harder to get what we need out of them, but it’s good.”

As for the Saturday outings, he says, “they’re part educational, part recreational,” adding, “there’s a lot of fun incorporated but there’s other stuff we do that are teachable moments. For example, we went to an event in South Omaha celebrating various cultures. Probably the biggest teaching moment we did for these guys was go to the homeless shelter, where they served lunch. That was a big deal. Seeing those folks has an affect on the soul. We had some serious dialogue after that. It was really good.”

Redrick also accompanied the boys to a career fair. He makes the boys’participation in Saturday trips, whether going to the movies or exploring the Old Market, contingent on them doing what they’re supposed to be doing in school.

“These guys are really smart and any grade under ‘C’ to me is unacceptable. I told them at the start. ‘If you do your part I’ll do my part in showing you whatever you want to do.’ So they have to be accountable and get their grades. One of the kids didn’t go with us one weekend because his grades were not what they were supposed to be.”

Angel says he appreciates all that Earl does for him and his buddies, especially “helping us to meet our goals, pass our classes and keep ourselves together when bad things happen in school and things are going to be stressful, like when we take tests.” He adds ,“I consider him a teacher. When he comes to the school he teaches us things we didn’t know before and he encourages us. He’s helped me talk to my parents more. Instead of just saying yes or no, I’m being honest and trusting to tell them whenever I feel bad.” Angel, who has two older brothers, is being raised by his mother, who’s separated from his father. She works long hours at a greenhouse to support the family. Although Angel’s always liked school and gotten good grades, he says going to college has become a definite goal with affirming adults like Earl in his life helping to keep him focused and motivated. For someone who hopes one day to design and build things for a living, he’s getting the help he needs to build a successful life.

Weighing in                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Society’s shIftIng cultural compact wIth schools and school dIstrIcts asks them to provIde ever more services for an increasIng number of youth presentIng greater educatIonal and lIfe skIlls needs. The delivery of expanded services to districts like the Omaha Public Schools can only be realized with the help of community partners such as Partnership 4 Kids, says OPS Superintendent Mark Evans.

“With an enrollment of 51,000-plus and growing, not only is ours a big district, which creates some challenges, we have more and more free and reduced (lunch) students who qualify for the federal poverty line, and we know that brings with it some extra challenges,” Evans says. “We have an increasing number of English-as-Second Language learners. We have a growing number of refugee families. Four years ago there were 800 refugees in OPS from Somalia, Sudan, Burma, (Myanmar now), and today that number is 2,000. That’s 2,000 young people not only with language barriers but huge cultural barriers because a refugee camp in Sudan is nothing like Omaha, Neb.

“We also have more young people coming to us with neighborhood issues we need community input with. Partnering with community groups makes a big difference with those extra challenges a young person has. Increasing needs create extra challenges that task the school district and the community to respond to because we’re trying to fill in gaps in many situations. Community organizations like P4K are just critical because we’re filling in more gaps than we have before.”

Evans says schools are tasked to do more in this no-child-left-behind era when there’s no longer the economic safety net of plentiful jobs that don’t require a high school diploma, much less a college degree. “Back in the 1960s and ‘70s when kids had gaps like language skills they dropped out and no one worried about it. The dropout rate before then was 50 percent and greater but it wasn’t a problem because there was plenty of jobs for a high school dropout. You could go right to work at factories with good living wage jobs with health benefits, a pension program. But about the time of the ‘80s it changed. Ever since then you’re not getting a factory job without a high school diploma. In fact, now we expect a little college or a post-secondary certificate. Those manufacturing jobs of the past don’t exist anymore.”

At the same time, he says, youth in need of special language training either “didn’t go to school or dropped out because we didn’t have any services for them,” adding, “In today’s world we can’t do that – there’s no throwaway young people and they have to have an education. In our district right now we’re at a 77.8 percent graduation rate, and I credit P4K and other programs like it in helping us achieve that.”

 

Tracy Wells

Tracy Wells

 

Schools welcome community support                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Educating all youth to be prepared for today’s environment is a job bigger than any school district can handle alone. While Evans says the OPS graduation rate “is pretty high for an urban setting, the truth is we’ve got to be higher than that – we’ve got to be over 80 and be moving toward 90 because if they don’t have a high school diploma today the research abundantly shows the opportunities in life are so slim. It’s difficult.”

He says P4K’s continuum of care model that follows students from Kindergarten through college “is what you’re looking for,” though he adds, “I always say it doesn’t have to be college. I want them to have post-secondary training in something, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a certified electrician, for example.” That continuum of care is strengthened, he says, when community partners work in step with schools and school districts, just as P4K does with OPS, in delivering consistent expectations for youth educational attainment.

“If we’re all aligned, that’s where we get the power,” Evans says.

There’s nothing new about community resources flowing into schools but as student needs become more urgent and complex the informal adopt-a-school relationships of the past are evolving into more formalized, intensive collaborations.

Omaha Public Power District  Vice President for Customer Service and Public Affairs Tim Burke is a strong advocate for P4K’s work in the schools and for other community partners like OPPD doing their part in the mosaic of educating and inspiring youth to succeed. Burke knows first-hand the need for pairing caring adults with at-risk students from serving as a P4K Goal Buddy himself.

“In some of these young kids’situations this can be the only positive reinforcement they get about continuing school, about continuing education, continuing that pursuit of growth and development,” he says. “It could be the only positive reinforcer to continue down that path. Partnership 4 Kids gives these kids hope that they can pursue whatever they want to pursue.
I think we truly are making a difference. We are that light, that hope, that opportunity for that student.”

 

Tim Burke

Tim Burke

 

Mentors make a difference
Burke, who serves on the P4K board and chairs its development committee, says the Partnership fills an ever growing need, which is why he encourages adults to volunteer as mentors.

“We could always use more volunteers doing this. It’s not a shortage of kids needing assistance but there is a shortage of volunteers willing to make that commitment. The community went on a mentoring campaign last fall and it may be doing that again this year to grow these kinds of volunteers to do this work. There’s always an opportunity to serve more kids. Now’s the time to have this conversation around it in the community.”

Burke echoes Evans of OPS along with P4K President Deb Denbeck in championing the greater collective impact being made now that organizations like the Partnership and other community players are “aligning and doing more things together,” adding, “I think that’s great for the community.” Burke says P4K has been embraced at OPPD for a full decade and his colleagues tell him it’s because they believe in the difference they’re making.

“It has been one of those corporate initiatives that people get really excited about. You never really know what impact you make with these kids but every time there’s an opportunity to show it these kids will come up, give you a hug and show appreciation for what you’re trying to do to help them do the things they want to do. It’s incredibly rewarding to see their growth and development or the way somebody comes out of their shell to look you in the eye or shake your hand at the end of the school year where they didn’t do that before.

“It’s that kind of feedback that really engages our employees in the work of the Partnership in helping these kids move through the most critical time in their life. Our organization has a strong commitment to it. Our participation rates are very high in people coming back time after time after time.”

P4K Volunteer Coordinator Tracy Wells says the nonprofit has up to 70 percent retention of its overall volunteer base, “which is really good and something we don’t take for granted and always need to work on.”

OPS Superintendent Mark Evans says in those buildings where everything comes together in terms of administrative leadership, classroom teaching, youth serving organizations like P4K, volunteers from the community and parental involvement, student achievement soars. Two of several schools where P4K and its volunteers are contributing to verifiable student success are Miller Park and Field Club Elementary Schools.

P4K and growing needs
Evans says, “They’re high performing schools, both of them, with high quality leaders who lead schools showing significant gains in student achievement and success. Kids leave their doors ready for middle school and the next steps.” He says those schools are doing it despite having to respond to extra needs expressed by students and they’re making it happen by getting the community involved.

“We do need to reach out to our community because we’ve got increasing needs. The young people didn’t ask to be at the poverty level or to be a refugee, it’s just where they are.”

Being responsive to these needs requires a multifaceted approach.

“It’s not just us – it’s programmatic support, it’s us reaching out to our parents and families, but it’s also community members supporting our young people. We know the more parents are involved, the deeper investment they have, the program works even better,” says P4K President Deb Denbeck. “We invite parents to all our celebrations and special events. We want families to be even more involved.”

P4K mentoring model co-founder Gail Yanney, who has mentored many young people alongside her husband Mike Yanney, says, “When you consider the number of children who need a meaningful adult in their lives there are way too many of them for us not to be all working together. There’s plenty of this to go around. Everybody approaches it from kind of their own way of doing things but the ultimate thing is you’re giving a kid the opportunity to see the value in themselves and the value in becoming a useful citizen.”

Mike Yanney is grateful things have evolved from when he started the precursor of P4K, All Our Kids, 25 years ago, when it was nearly alone in its formal mentoring model. “One of the great things today is that there are a number of organizations really working aggressively to help these kids turn their lives around and they’re starting to collaborate with each other,” he says. “I think Omaha has a really good chance of making serious progress with a fairly large number of kids and frankly that’s part of our being a very good, caring community. You can look at all the work the Sherwood Foundation and Susie Buffett are doing and that the Loziers and the Weitz’s and the Scotts are doing. There are organizations very heavily involved in it – Girls Inc., Teammates, the Boys and Girls Club. It’s really incredible. All of this collaborating together is coalescing into a fine beautiful program and sooner or later we’ll start seeing some extensive changes in our community and I’m very hopeful for it.”

The origins of Partnership 4 Kids extends back to the late 1980s, a perIod when a societal sea change began posIng added challenges to inner cIty schools and communities. As social and educational disparities have grown over time, Omaha has become a microcosm for a nationwide phenomena that poses increasing challenges for young people and their families attempting to craft meaningful lives. Educators, elected representatives and community leaders have worked long and hard to offer programs and services that attempt to address these issues and needs. P4K has been at the forefront of efforts to provide mentoring and scholarship support to young people at risk of being left behind. Much progress has been made in closing gaps and affording opportunities.

By the numbers
Since 2012, 100 percent of P4K students have graduated high school. P4K leaders say that more than 90 percent of its graduates from 2012 and 2013 report being enrolled in college or post-secondary training for the 2014- 2015 school year. Of the 36 active seniors graduating in 2014, 33 will be attending a two-year or four-year college, with the other three graduates enlisting in the U.S. Army Reserves.

A pair of 2014 graduating seniors epitomize the continuum care model P4K delivers.

Serena Moore, who’s graduating from Omaha Central High School, has been involved in P4K since elementary school, when she was in the Winner’s Circle goal setting program. She’s been a group mentoring participant since 8th grade. She’s also been involved in the Upward Bound math and science program, Delta G.E.M.S and the UNMC High School Alliance. She’s volunteered for the American Red Cross, Open Door Mission, House of Hope and Project Seed. She plans to attend the University of Nebraska at Omaha and major in bioinformatics. She’s awaiting word on various scholarships.

Daisy Robeldo, who’s graduating from Omaha South High School, has been involved in P4K programming since middle school and has not missed a P4K meeting in two years, She’s also been active in various community service projects and volunteers at the Latino Center of the Midlands. The oldest of six children from a single mother, she will be a first generation college student when she attends UNO in the fall to pursue her intended major of computer engineering. Moore and Robledo will follow the trend of P4K students, the vast majority of whom go on to attend in-state colleges.

Over its 25-year history 83 recipients of P4K’s All Our Kids Foundation Scholarship have graduated college. Some have gone on to earn advanced degrees. Many other P4K students have also graduated college with the help of different funding and scholarship sources.

Doing and seeking more                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              What was once an arena of agencies, players and programs all doing their own thing has become a more collaborative sharing ground. P4K is the direct result of two programs, All Our Kids and Winners Circle, coming together to make a greater collective impact and now with its newest partners, College Possible, Avenue Scholars and Teammates, plus other informal partners, P4K is poised to impact more and more students along that continuum from Kindergarten through careers.

P4K President Deb Denbeck says with more volunteers and donors, “I know we could expand this program to greater heights” and into more schools, especially more middle schools.
She adds, “There will always be families and youth needing an extra boost or helping hand. Before we look at expansion we’re going to do a two-year review process to make sure our programs are the very best they can be and we’re going to learn where we need to go next. Growth in a mentoring organization means dollars and it means volunteers. Volunteers are the heart of our organization. They are like precious gems here. We’re not a mentoring organization unless we have them.they’re so needed. They’re the real difference-makers.”

I know we could expand this program to greater heights…. There will always be families and youth needing an extra boost or helping hand. ~ DEB DENBECK, P4K PRESIDENT

 

 

 

Justice Champion Samuel Walker Calls It as He Sees It


UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker is one of those hard to sum up subjects because he’s a man of so many interests and passions and accomplishments, all of which is a good thing for me as a storyteller but it’s also a real challenge trying to convey the totality of someone with such a rich life and career in a single article.  As a storyteller I must pick and choose what to include, what to emphasize, what to leave out.  My choices may not be what another writer would choose.  That’s the way it goes.  What I did with Walker was to make his back story the front story, which is to say I took an experience from his past – his serving as a Freedom Summer volunteer to try and register black voters in Mississippi at the peak of the civil rights movement – as the key pivot point that informs his life’s work and that bridges his past and present.  That experience is also juxtaposed with him growing up in a less then enlightened household that saw him in major conflict with his father.  My cover profile of Walker is now appearing in the New Horizons newspaper.

 

 

Samuel Walker

 

Justice Champion Sam Walker Calls It as He Sees It

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

And justice for all
You could do worse than label UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker a dyed-in-the-wool progressive liberal. He certainly doesn’t conceal his humanist-libertarian leanings in authoring books, published articles and blog posts that reflect a deep regard for individual rights and sharp criticism for their abridgment.

He’s especially sensitive when government and police exceed their authority to infringe upon personal freedoms. He’s authored a history of the American Ciivil Liberties Union. His most recent book examines the checkered civil liberties track records of U.S. Presidents. He’s also written several books on policing. His main specialization is police accountability and best practices, which makes him much in demand as a public speaker, courtroom expert witness and media source. A Los Angeles Times reporter recently interviewed him for his take on the Albuquerque, NM police’s high incidence of officer-involved shootings, including a homeless man shot to death in March.

“I did a 1997 report on Albuquerque. They were shooting too many people. It has not changed. There’s a huge uproar over it,” he says. “In this latest case there’s video of their shooting a homeless guy (who reportedly threatened police with knives) in the park. Officers approached this thing like a military operation and they were too quick to pull the trigger.”

As an activist police watchdog he’s chided the Omaha Police Department for what he considers a pattern of excessive use of force. That’s made him persona non grata with his adopted hometown’s law enforcement community. He’s a vocal member of the Omaha Alliance for Justice, on whose behalf he drafted a letter to the U.S. Justice Department seeking a federal investigation of Omaha police. No Justice Department review has followed.

The alliance formed after then-Omaha Pubic Safety Auditor Tristan Bonn was fired following the release of her report critical of local police conduct. Walker had a hand in creating the auditor post.

“Our principal demand was for her to be reinstated or for someone else to be in that position. We lobbied a couple mayors. We had rallies and public forums,” he says.

All to no avail.

“The auditor ordinance is still on the books but the city just hasn’t funded it. It’s been a real political struggle which is why I put my hopes in the civic leaders.”

After earning his Ph.D. in American history from Ohio State University in 1973, the Ohio native came to work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He met his life partner, Mary Ann Lamanna, a UNO professor emeritus of sociology, in a campus lunchroom. The couple, who’ve never married, have been together since 1981. They celebrated their 30th anniversary in Paris. They share a Dundee neighborhood home.

Though now officially retired, Walker still goes to his office every day and stays current with the latest criminal justice research, often updating his books for new editions. He’s often called away to consult cities and police departments.

He served as the “remedies expert” in a much publicized New York City civil trial last year centering around the police department’s controversial stop and frisk policy. Allegations of widespread abuse – of stops disproportionally targeting people of color – resulted in a lengthy courtroom case. Federal district judge Shira Scheindlin found NYPD engaged in unconstitutional actions in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In her decision, she quoted from Walker’s testimony about what went wrong and what reforms were needed.

 

 

Counter notes
Walker’s work is far more than an exercise in academic interest. It’s a deeply personal expression of beliefs and values formed by crucial events of the ’60s. The most momentous of these saw him serve as a Freedom Summer volunteer in the heart of the Jim Crow South at the height of the civil rights movement while a University of Michigan student. Spending time in Mississippi awakened him to an alternate world where an oppressive regime of apartheid ruled – one fully condoned by government and brutally enforced by police.

“There was a whole series of shocks – the kind of things that just turned your world upside down. The white community was the threat, the black community was your haven. I was taught differently. The police were not there to serve and protect you, they were a threat. There was also the shock of realizing our government was not there to protect people trying to exercise their right to vote.”

His decision to leave his comfortable middle class life to try and educate and register voters in a hostile environment ran true to his own belief of doing the right thing but ran afoul of his father’s bigotry. Raised in Cleveland Heights, Walker grew up in a conservative 1950s household that didn’t brook progressivism.

“Quite the reverse. My father was from Virginia. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute. He had all the worst of a Southern Presbyterian military education background. Deeply prejudiced. Made no bones about it. Hated everybody, Catholics especially. Very anti-Semitic. Later in life I’ve labeled him an equal opportunity bigot.

“My mother was from an old Philadelphia Quaker family. It was a mismatch, though they never divorced. She was very quiet. It was very much a ’50s marriage. You didn’t challenge the patriarch. I was the one in my family who did.”

Walker’s always indulged a natural curiosity, streak of rebelliousness and keen sense of social justice. Even as a boy he read a lot, asked questions and sought out what was on the other side of the fence.

As he likes to say, he not only delivered newspapers as a kid, “I read them.” Books, too.

“I was very knowledgeable about public affairs by high school, much more so than any of my friends. I could actually challenge my father at a dinner table discussion if he’d say something ridiculous. Well, he just couldn’t handle that, so we had conflict very much early on.”

He also went against his parents’ wishes by embracing rock and roll, whose name was coined by the legendary disc jockey, Alan Freed. The DJ first made a name for himself in Akron and then in Cleveland. In the late 1940s the owner of the Cleveland music store Record Rendezvous made Freed aware white kids were buying up records by black R&B artists. Walker became one of those kids himself as a result of Freed playing black records on the air and hosting concerts featuring these performers. Freed also appeared in several popular rock and roll movies and hosted his own national radio and television shows. His promotion contributed to rock’s explosion in the mainstream.

As soon as Walker got exposed to this cultural sea change, he was hooked.

“I’m very proud to have been there at the creation of rock and roll. My first album was Big Joe Turner on Atlantic Records. Of course, I just had to hear Little Richard. I loved it.”

Like all American cities, Cleveland was segregated when Walker came of age. In order to see the black music artists he lionized meant going to the other side of town.

“We were told by our parents you didn’t go down over the hill to 105th Street – the center of the black community – because it was dangerous. Well, we went anyway to hear Fats Domino at the 105th Street Theatre. We didn’t tell our parents.”

Then there was the 1958 Easter Sunday concert he caught featuring Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis headlining a Freed tour.

“My mother was horrified. I think my generation was the first for whom popular cultural idols – in music and baseball – were African- Americans.”

In addition to following black recording artists he cheered Cleveland Indians star outfielder Larry Doby (who broke the color barrier in the American League) and Cleveland Browns unning back Jim Brown.

More than anything, he was responding to a spirit of protest as black and white voices raised a clarion call for equal rights.

“Civil rights was in the air. It was what was happening certainly by 1960 when I went to college. The sit-ins and freedom rides. My big passion was for public interest. The institutionalized racism in the South struck us as being ludicrous. Now it involved a fair amount of conflict to go to Miss. in the summer of ’64 but what I learned early on at the most important point in my life is that you have to follow your instincts. If there is something you think is right or something you feel you should do and all sorts of people are telling you no then you have to do it.

“That has been very invaluable to me and I do not regret any of those choices. That’s what I learned and it guides me even today.”

[© Ellen Lake]

Photo caption:

Walker on far left of porch of a Freedom Summer headquarters shack in Gulfport, Miss.

 

Mississippi burning

He never planned being a Freedom Summer volunteer. He just happened to see an announcement in the student newspaper.

“It’s a fascinating story of how so much of our lives are matters of chance,” he says. “It was a Sunday evening and I didn’t want to study, I wanted to go to a movie. I was looking in the paper and there was no damn movie. Instead, I saw this notice that Bob Moses (Robert Parris Moses) was to speak on the Mississippi Summer Project. It sounded interesting. Moses was a legend in his own time. He really was the guiding spirit of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.”

Walker attended the March ’64 presentation and was spellbound by the charismatic and persuasive Moses, who also led the Council of Federated Organizations that organized the Freedom Summer effort.

“If you heard him speak for 10-15 minutes you were in, that was it, it was over. He was that eloquent. He was African-American, Northern, Harvard-educated, and he could speak in terms that white college students could relate to. It was just our language, our way of thinking.
So it was really just a matter of chance. If there had been a good movie that night my life would have been different.”

Walker applied to join the caravan of mostly white Northern college students enlisted to carry the torch of freedom in the South.

Applicants went to Oberlin (Ohio) College to be screened.

“They didn’t want any adventure seekers. We had to come up with $500 in reserve as bail money in case we got arrested. I had that, so I was accepted.”

He says his father “was absolutely furious” with his decision, adding, “We had fallen out the year before and so this was no surprise.” Meanwhile, he says his mother “was quietly supportive.”

Walker joined hundreds of other students for a one-week orientation at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio.

“The training was very intense.”

He learned about the very real risks involved. As Northerners intruding into a situation white Mississippians considered a sovereign state rights issue, the students were considered troublemakers, even enemies. Most whites there held deep resentment and contempt for outsiders attempting to interfere with their way of life and order of things.

“Intellectually we knew the danger, that was explained to us, and we had ample opportunity to bail out. There were some people who were accepted who apparently did not show up. I’m not sure I could have lived with myself if I chickened out.”

In June Walker and three others set out in a station wagon belonging to one of his Eastern compatriots.

“It had New York plates and of course that was a red flag we were outside agitators. We went down through Ala. and then crossed over…I have a vivid recollection of crossing the line into Miss. that morning on this clear soon-to-be hot June day. I was assigned to Gulf Port, next door to Biloxi. Gulf Port was the ‘safest’ area in the state. Not far from New Orleans. Tourism. There’s an U.S. Air force Base down there. So they were accustomed to having outsiders.”

Nothing Walker witnessed surprised him but seeing the strict segregation and incredible poverty first-hand did take him aback.
Volunteers stayed with host black families in humble shanties.

The men in the family he boarded with worked as longshoremen. There were separate white and black locals of the International Longshoremen’s Association and having a union voice gave the black workers some protections many other blacks lacked.

Walker variously went out alone or paired up with another volunteer.

“We would go up these unpaved roads to these shacks and try to convince people they should register to vote. Only 7 percent of potentially eligible African Americans were registered. I was going door to door talking to people and looking them in the eye and seeing the fear. They would say, ‘Yes sir, yes ma’am,’ and it was plenty evident they weren’t going to make any effort. They knew we could leave and they knew they were going to be there stuck with the consequences.

“It gave me a sense more than anything else of the human price of segregation and all the terror that supported it.”

While the stated objective was not achieved the initiative helped break some of the isolation blacks experienced in that totalitarian state.

“The goal was voter registration and we registered almost no one. It wasn’t until the Voter Rights Act a year later any progress was made. But we had to do it. The major accomplishment was we established our right to be there. It changed the political-legal climate of Mississippi.”

Temporary Freedom Schools were formed, convened in black churches, homes, even outdoors, as resources to teach literacy, basic math, black history and constitutional rights to youths and adults alike.

Walker personally witnessed no violence and never encountered any direct threat.

“I don’t remember being scared at any point.”

The one glint of intimidation came while going door to door when a white man in a pickup began cruising up and down the road. On another occasion, he says, “we did get some people to go down to the courthouse and march and some people were arrested.”

The danger was real though. Within days of his arrival three young civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner went missing. Goodman had been in one of Walker’s training sessions. The worst was feared and later confirmed: murder.

Walker says, “When we heard the news three people were missing it came as no surprise and we knew they were dead even though they didn’t find the bodies until 44 days later. We just knew.”

The terror campaign went far beyond The Mississippi Three to include beatings of residents and volunteers and the burnings of dozens of black homes, churches and businesses.

As disturbing as this was it didn’t give him any second thoughts.

“You couldn’t retreat in the face of death. They were not going to chase us out even at the cost of murder. We were there and we were going to stay and finish this.”

 

One of many public protests against NYPD’s stop and frisk policy

 

Police watchdog
Walker was committed enough that he returned to Miss. early the next year and stayed through much of 1966. The experience was foundational to setting the course of his life’s work. “Absolutely, totally and completely. We began to see things through the prism of race.” It also made him aware of disparities in his own backyard. Even today, in the middle of a thriving Midwest economy, he says, “There are really two Omahas.” One of privilege and the other of poverty.

His activism resumed upon returning to Ann Arbor, where he participated in civil rights fundraisers and protests. He actively opposed the war in Vietnam. The military draft was in full swing to feed the war machine. He’d been classified 1-Y for medical reasons.

“On April 3, 1968 I turned in my draft card as part of a mass rally in Boston. Hundreds also did that day in Boston, and I think it was thousands across the country. The cards were all sent to the Justice Department. And that is how I acquired my FBI file.”

Like many activists, he accepts his FBI file as a badge of honor for fighting the good fight in the tumultuous ’60s.

By training he’s an expert in ethnic violence of the 19th century, and he thought he had an urban studies job lined up at UNO in the newly formed College of Public Affairs and Community Service only to discover the position disbanded. Then someone told him the university had received a big criminal justice grant. Walker talked with then criminal justice dean Vince Webb, who hired him.

“I got a job and the job became a career and I never looked back. Pure chance.”

Walker says his urban history expertise translated well to examining the urban racial violence of the 20th century.

“Once in policing my focus gravitated to police community relations.– this wasn’t too many years after the riots – and from there to citizen review of police and then to what I now define my field as – police accountability.

He says policing’s come a long way.

“The world of policing has changed. There’s been some genuine improvement. The composition of police forces is very different in terms of African-Americans, Latinos and women. Police thinking in the better departments is much more responsive to their local communities. The reform impulse has really come from the community, from the ground up, from people complaining about incidents, people lobbying city councils and mayors. Lawsuits, even if they don’t succeed, raise the issue and create a sense there’s a problem that needs correcting. At various points along the way the better police chiefs say, ‘Yeah, we have a problem here.’”

Walker says the control of deadly force is a good example.

“There were some police chiefs who said, ‘We can’t just send our people out there with guns and no instructions,’ which we used to do prior to ’72. They’d get hours and hours of training on how to clean the damn thing and no instructions on when you should shoot and when you should not shoot. It was, ‘Use good judgement.’ That was it. The fleeing felon rule was in effect, so if an officer saw someone he believed had committed a felony, a burglary let’s say, even though the person was unarmed, that officer could shoot to kill and could in fact kill that person within the law. There’s been a whole change there because of the community policing movement.”

In his work Walker says, “I’ve learned much more about how police departments work internally in terms of holding their officers accountable. That’s my expertise.”

In the case of the NYPD’s overly aggressive stop and frisk policy he says officers were required to have a reasonable suspicion someone had committed a crime or was about to. The overwhelming number of detentions were of people of color and Walker says “well over 80 percent of the time there was no arrest nor a ticket, so the officers guessed wrong. They had a heavy hand.” He says one of the main rationales officers put down in their reports was “high crime neighborhood,” which Walker found inexcusable. “A neighborhood is a place, not a behavior. It’s where you live, it’s not what you’re doing. They were making you a criminal suspect for living where you live.”

He says the most common reason given for stops was “furtive movement,” which he found far too ambiguous.

“It was a runaway profiling policy. This went on for 14 years and sparked several lawsuits. The police commissioner and the mayor did not listen to the complaints and protests. They dug their heels in and didn’t look at the evidence.”

He says his “fairly straight forward testimony” recommended a new policy on how to conduct stops. better training, a mid-management accountability system and a broader early intervention system with a computerized data base to track officer performance. He laid out remedies enacted in other police departments.

 

 

He believes the case could encourage legal challenges of profiling in other states but he cautions, “The difference is the NYPD turned it into a massive program, which is more easily challenged. In most departments, it is used, but not on a massive basis and a matter of official policy. This makes it far more difficult to challenge.”

(NOTE: Last fall a federal appeals court blocked the ruling that altered the NYPD astop and frisk policy and removed Judge Shira Scheindlin from the case.)

He says. “Theres a very real connection between Miss. in 1964 and being on the witness stand in New York in 2013 and race is the connection. It’s the lens through which I saw that and understood it.”

In this pervasive video and social media age police incidents are increasingly captured on camera and shared with the masses, as happened with some Omaha incidents. Walker says despite the prospect the whole world may be watching alleged police misconduct still occurs “because the habits are so deeply engrained that among some officers this is just second nature. Officers label someone a bad guy, so he’s not worthy of respect, and they do what they want.”

At its worst, he says, problematic attitudes and behaviors become systemic, accepted parts of police culture. The longer they go unchecked, without consequences, the more engrained they become.

“If it happens on the street, who’s to know,” he says. “Changing a large department after it has declined and certain habits have become engrained is a serious challenge. You need clear policies of all the critical incidents – deadly force, use of physical force, domestic violence, high speed pursuits. And then the training has to be very clear as to what those policies are. The supervision is really the critical thing. Everybody knows on the street supervision is where it’s at. A sergeant over 8 to 10 officers – that’s the heart and soul right there. When there’s some incident a sergeant has to say, ‘I don’t like the way you handled that, I don’t want to see it again.’”

He says no police department should feel itself immune from oversight.

“We know what the problems are, we know what to do. There are experts on particular subjects around the country and they can come in and help with things like use of force and domestic violence policies.”

He says police reform efforts should include public forums where all players can express their views. City governments, community groups and police departments can draw on best practices for policy guidance.

 

 

 

His work in words
The second edition of his book The New World of Police Accountability just came out in December. “I had to redo the whole thing, so much had changed in just a few years and my understanding of things had changed. It’s an exciting challenge to stay current.”

He says his his book The Police in America has been the best selling textbook on policing since it came in 1983. “I did a textbook on the police because there wasn’t a decent one.”

He did the book The Color of Justice with two colleagues. “It was really the first decent textbook on race, ethnicity and criminal justice. A lot of people wonder how is it there’s this huge racial disparity on who goes to prison. It’s a lot more complicated than people think. First, we’ve got some basic social inequalities. The short version of it is there’s a racial bias in policing. Then when you get to plea bargaining and sentencing and probation that’s accentuated a little further and so the end result is the accumulation of these incremental things .”

He says his book In Defense of American Civil Liberties is “probably the best thing I’ve done.” It took him five years. “I learned so much from it just about the history of this country. I knew some of the tent poles of major controversies – the Japanese American internment, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate – but it was a very rewarding experience and I still get inquiries from people based on it 24 years later.”

His new book Presidents and Civil Liberties reveals some surprises and contradictions in the records of Oval Officer holders.

With his national reputation Walker could have moved long ago to a bigger university but he says “being involved in the community is very much a part of my life and so that’s a reason for staying.” His involvement includes spending much of his free time seeing movies at the downtown art cinema Film Streams, where he annually curates a repertory series. Then there’s the extensive collection of vinyl records, album cover art, sheet music and political posters he’s accumulated. An exhibition of his jazz album covers by illustrator David Stone Martin showed at UNO, which also hosted a display of his political posters.

He’s a devoted fan of jazz, R&B and folk music Duke Ellington is a favorite. He and Mary Ann are also known to drop everything to go see Bruce Springsteen in concert.

Though the university and city he came to 40 years ago are “much transformed,” he’d like to its see leaders strive for higher standards.

As the events in Miss. 50 years ago are never far from his mind and inform so much of who he is and what he does, he’s proud to relive them. He attended a 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer in Jackson and a 40th anniversary of the orientation in Oxford, Ohio. In June he’ll return to Jackson for the 50th anniversary of when freedom rang.

 

 

Temple Israel Omaha embraces new home and new era

May 26, 2014 1 comment

For the fall 2013 dedication of its new synagogue building, Temple Israel Omaha commissioned Omaha Publications to create a commemorative, magazine-style program.  I was asked to write four stories for that piece that reflect different dimensions of what that new space means to the leadership and liturgy and how it fits into the emerging Tri-Faith Initiative campus that will eventually find the synagogue joined by a neighborhing Islamic mosque, Episcopal church, and shared interfaith center.  My stories follow.

 

 

Temple Clergy Work as Religious Artists to Help Members Grow in Their Jewishness

©by Leo Adam Biga

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel is known to frankly speak his mind and fearlessly wade into trouble rather than stand silently, idly by. It’s his nature. He and the dynamic clergy team he leads make a good match for the lively reform congregation they serve.

“I refuse to sit on the fence in any relationship I encounter,” says Azriel. “I like to be part of life and to jump into dangerous, sometimes stormy waters. I definitely want to take a chance. I like those kinds of experiments.”

Temple Israel’s participation in the Tri-Faith Initiative and decision to build a new synagogue are just the latest expressions of Azriel and his team leading their flock to challenging new opportunities.

“There is definitely a spirit in this congregation that allows for those kinds of things to happen. This congregation is extremely courageous,” he says.

He feels fortunate havling clergy who enjoy the vital push and pull that characterizes life at Temple Israel.

“I’m very proud of the clergy surrounding me. They’re an amazing fit,” he says, referring to Rabbi Josh Brown and Cantor Wendy Shermet. “We’re not being a spectator. We’re about getting in, getting muddy, getting hurt, getting in all those amazing places and finding strong, creative ways of entering into people’s lives and relationships.”

“Aryeh, Josh and Wendy all bring different gifts to Temple. They complement and supplement each other and are very different from each other, but that is one of our congregation’s greatest strengths,” says member Jane Rips.

Brown says Azriel sets the bold course. “He does not like to sit still or slow down or sort of rest on any laurels. It’s always what needs to change next or what do we move towards next.”

Like their predecessors, Brown and Shermet speak their mind and think outside the box. Azriel wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We’ve selected some people that have provided challenges to me individually but also to the congregation. Free thinkers and innovators with the courage of their convictions.”

“We all challenge each other with no compunction about telling each other we’re wrong,” says Shermet.

There are no bruised egos.

Azriel says, “We are professionals and we have great respect for each other and I think the congregation definitely sees the loyalty between us. Trust and loyalty have to be at the core of not only staff but the congregation. It’s about knowing there is this group of people that can come together and dream together and challenge each other and have a vision and purpose and meaning to what we’re doing.”

The clergy team meets Tuesday mornings to plan their week but the trio confab informally most every day.

“I can’t tell you how many times during the day we are in each other’s offices because there are things that have to be discussed and some of them are urgent,” says Azriel.

The team divides hospital and nursing home visits. They take turns officiating at life cycle events.

“The clergy does not isolate itself. The acts of reaching out, teaching others about Judaism, welcoming questions and attending community events are part of their daily to-do lists,” says member Phyllis Glazer.

Brown works closely with new education director Debbie Messarano and confers with young families and other congregants without strong connections to clergy. Shermet manages the bamitzvah program and all of the worship music. Azriel ensures the team’s teachings and activities enhance Temple’s mission and vision.

“It’s not only listening to each other,” Azriel adds, “but listening to the heartbeat of the congregation is crucial, too. If we for a moment forget what the purpose of our work here is then our work will be in vain.”

The clergy are part of a much larger team.

“It’s more than just the clergy,” Azriel says. “You have to have the right youth group director, the right educator, the right executive director, the right program director, the right office staff, the right lay leadership.”

Still, as the father of this congregation for 25 years Azriel has left a huge imprint.

Rips says, “He has challenged us, guided us, loved us and helped to create a vibrant and exciting Temple Israel.”

“I find this place extremely caring and invigorating,” says Azriel. “It has embraced my family. It has been a wonderful experience.”

 

azriel web

brown web

 

 

 

 

 

cantor web

 

 

 

Making Judaism Relevant in Prayer-Life Cycle Rituals

©by Leo Adam Biga

Making Reform Judaism relevant to congregants is not an academic question for Temple’s clergy.

“It’s the central question of our work here,” says Cantor Wendy Shermet. “We spend a great deal of time talking about how are we and are we in fact relevant to people with very busy secular lives.”

Much focus is on making holiday observances and life cycle events intrinsic experiences that help members identify with Jewish life and what it means to be a Jew.

“It’s on so many levels, definitely on the intellectual level so they know what Reform Judaism stands for,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel. ‘It’s also important to recognize that Reform Judaism of 50 years ago is not the same Reform Judaism of today.

“With every life cycle event there is this question of how do we make it an integral part of the life of that family or that individual.”

Infusing new life into old rituals is one way of keeping things fresh.

Azriel says, “Many times we work on traditional vessels that maybe go back to antiquity and try to fill those old vessels with new meaning. That’s the reform tradition. So there is a tradition of immersion in the mikvah but we took this old vessel and brought a new meaning to people battling cancer and addiction and all those things.

“This is where the clergy get creative. We are constantly very vigilant about understanding the content and the meaning of the moment. That’s why we call ourselves religious artists. We talk about the drama we need to have in a ritual or celebration of a life cycle event. The moment we lose sight of the drama then we are not doing our job.”

In that creative process, he says, “we have upgraded everything, not only rituals, not only the celebration of holidays, but in line with the mission of looking at how we can make a better connection between the personal worshiper sitting in the pew and the experience of their relationship with God. Their spirituality. If we do not upgrade it in the way our people are worshiping they will not stay here.”

Member Phyliis Glazer says, “Rabbi Azriel, Rabbi Brown, Cantor Shermet and all who came before them have been with us at some of our most joyous moments. They have shared in those joys and helped us bear the burdens of the times of our greatest sorrow.”

Rabbi Josh Brown says the more members connect their lives to Temple the more opportunities they have to connect with their Jewishness. He says whenever members choose to participate in a celebration or ritual, it’s an opportunity to grow in their Jewish heritage and faith and to be part of a continuum.

“You’re connecting yourself not only to traditions that are generations, in some cases hundreds or thousands of years old, but you’re also connecting yourself to the future – to prayers your kids will say. There’s power in that connection.”

One of those traditions, Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, encourages believers to look inward in order to grow in faith.

“Shabbat is this ability to disengage from the week that just passed and to reenergize the holy inside us for the week ahead,” says Azriel. “Shabbat offers an opportunity to go a few notches up in the spiritual-emotional content of our lives and we can do it in the midst of family and friends or in a walk or opening a book or listening to music or coming here for a Shabbat service.”

Azriel says living out Judasim must be a daily thing.

“Judaism calls us to imitate God’s creation, compassion, caring every day. The high holidays are coming now and I think there are missed opportunities if we don’t use those days and those moments to discover who we are. Those are all places for individual fueling. The whole year is an invitation to learn to fuel and to fly high.”

As Temple Israel settles into its new home, Azriel reminds the congregation that “important as it is to build synagogues for Jews it is even more important to build Jews for the synagogues. Synagogues are empty only when Jews are empty.”

The building will fill with memories, emotions and stories with each ritual and celebration held there. On Sept. 28 Stacie Spies-Matz and Jay Matz have the honor and privilege of their daughter Samantha Matz being the first Bat Mitzvah in the new Temple.

“It is exciting and joyful to take those first steps into the future and into the new building,” says Spies-Matz. “We have observed many holidays, participated in religious school, developed great friendships and had our children’s baby naming at Temple. Temple contributes a big piece to how we raise our children.”

 

 

 

 

Art and Music in New Temple Reflect Spirit of Congregation

©by Leo Adam Biga

To enhance worship in the sacred spaces of its new synagogue, Temple charged five artists with creating symbolically-rich ritual objects embedded in Jewish faith and practice. Each artist met extensively with Temple clergy to discuss the religious significance of the ritual object they were commissioned to make.

An exhaustive process determined where art would be located and what it would convey before a jury identified and commissioned the appropriate artists to create the pieces. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts facilitated the process.

The idea was to make art integral to spaces, not mere adornments.

The central ritual object on the bimah (the altar or sanctuary) is the Ark (Aron Hakodesh), which is the repository of the Torah scrolls. Many synagogue arks are dramatic works of art or craftsmanship in wood or metal, filled with symbolic elements representing parts of the Jewish tradition.

At Temple’s request Israel resident Galya Rosenfeld created a doubled-layered ark curtain. Bemis Community Arts Program Manager Holly Olson describes it this way, “The front layer is an assemblage of laser-cut fabric pieced together in a repeating Star of David pattern using a color palette referencing Shivat Haminim (the Seven Species named in the Torah). Openings in the center front reveal the back shear curtain printed with holiday symbols.”

Rosenfeld says the two curtains create an “interplay” and “choreography” for displaying the ark. She adds that the colors inspired by “the ritual foods we eat and wines we drink” are meant “to connect people with familiar things from their experience of the holidays” and to “exalt our practice of Judaism.”

Another essential element of the sanctuary is the eternal light that symbolizes the fire that burned on the altar in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Temple selected James Woodfill of Kansas City, Mo. to design the eternal light for the sanctuary. His modular work seamlessly blends into the bimah wall. He says the design “lets the light simply emanate from that wall” as an ambient architectural immersion. Rather than imposing a narrative, Olson says the piece “allows for the symbolism to come from the experience.”

Woodfill says he intends for his piece to “instigate a new way of feeling or sensing” for worshipers and “to add a layer of potential optimism and reflection.”

The Temple’s chapel also has an eternal light and another Kansas City artist, Linda Lighton, was inspired by a word cloud congregants generated to express what they wanted the chapel’s eternal light to evoke. Working from that and motifs in the ark doors and stained glass windows she fashioned a translucent porcelain flower. She says, “I hope the members will enjoy and find comfort and solace and inspiration in this light for many years to come.”

In the spirit of Jewish prayer that inspires and instructs worshipers artist Lynne Avadenka of Huntington Woods, Mich. was tasked with bringing Hebrew passages from the Hashkiveinu prayer of peace to graphic life. She executed hand-drawn interpretations of excerpts selected by the worship committee. The prayer’s message of renewal, peace and community holds special meaning for the congregation. Her work is displayed in the wrap-around clerestory windows. A repeated passage – “Grant, O God, that we lie down in peace, and raise up, our Guardian, to life renewed. Spread over us the shelter of Your peace.” – can be read inside the sanctuary. Two other passages can be read from the outside, including one that reads: “For You, God, watch over us and deliver us. For You, God, are gracious and merciful.”

Olson says the soft flow of Avadenka’s hand-drawn work offers a pleasing contrast to the clean, sharp lines of the space’s other designs.

“The commission for the Temple comes with a sense of responsibility to make sure what I am doing is satisfying the members of the Temple and their sense of what their sanctuary should be, along with the aesthetic sensibility of the architect,” says Avadenka.

Nashville, Tenn.-based artist Mel Ziegler is preparing an outdoor sculptural piece for the entrance that will invite members and visitors to interact with the work and perhaps add onto it. He’s responding to a Hebrew passage viewable above the entrance that reads, “Guard our going and coming, to life and to peace, evermore.” Ziegler envisions his work integrated into new traditions at Temple and reflecting the congregation moving forward and embarking on a new path.

In one way or another the work of Ziegler and his fellow artists all express the vital, searching, engaging nature of Temple’s people.

Temple member Todd Simon, a noted art collector who helped lead the commission process, says “the progressiveness, inclusiveness and open-mindedness” of the congregation ensured that Temple didn’t “go with the safest choices but instead was willing to explore and push around the boundaries.” is pleased by the art that’s been cultivated. I think we’ve got a terrific balance between totally new art and artists for whom the artistic problem this presented to them was a brand new challenge to them.”

“I love those pieces,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, who consulted with each artist. “I feel very good about the selection.”

 

curtain web

Ark curtain

 

 

eternal light sanctuary web

Eternal light

 

hebrew windows web

Hebrew passage inscribed windows

 

stained glass web

Stained glass windows

 

On Simon’s recommendation the synagogue hired the Bemis Center to manage the process that selected and supported the artists.

“I sort of inserted my point of view that we ought to really be thinking about art from the very beginning and more importantly that the art is actually a great way to involve a broader group of the congregation in a conversation about what this place is supposed to be about. The process was designed so that the concepts really came from the community the art is supposed to serve. We tried to be as inclusive as we could.”

Between 80 and 100 congregants attended a 2011 workshop. “We asked the congregation to bring to life in words and stories the past present and future of Temple Israel. What it meant to them on a very personal level,” says Simon. “We noticed certain themes and ideas emerged. We knew where we wanted art to potentially touch the building.” The Bemis then assembled a jury of curators and experts who came up with the artists invited to submit an RFQ (Request for Qualifications). From dozens of submissions five were selected.

In addition to the art pieces Temple commissioned original music for the dedication by three composers.

Jonathan Comisar, music director at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY and on the faculty of his alma mater, Hebrew Union College School of Sacred Music, writes Jewish music for synagogues and other organizations all over the nation. Comisar was asked by Temple Israel Cantor Wendy Shermet to compose a piece of art music that draws on the Hashkiveinu prayer. His piece, “Hashkiveinu: A Shelter of Peace,” is scored for cantor and choir as well as for violin, cello, clarinet and flute.

“It was a wonderful, challenging task,” says Comisar.

The composer says his goal was to interpret the prayer with “integrity and authenticity – to make this not only fitting for a prayer but fitting for the grandeur of a new synagogue.” At the same time he says he needed to create a section children can sing along to and weave the instruments and cantor’s voice into “an organic whole. “It’s like a mini-scene from a play in a lovely and beautiful way with all the right intentions. It’s a moment which marks a milestone in the congregation’s life, so I was very mindful of the significance…”

Guest artists for the performance will feature Comisar at piano and select Omaha Symphony members.

The other original musical works for the dedication are by organist-composer Kurt Knecht from Lincoln, Neb. and songwriter-playwright Karen Sokolof Javitch from Omaha. He is music director at St. Mark’s on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus and artistic director and conductor of the Lincoln Lutheran Choir. She is a member of Temple Israel. Knecht’s piece, “Shalom Aleichem,” is for girls and women. Javitch’s piece, “Noah,” is for children.

 

Tri-Faith Initiative campus rendering

 

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Sterling Ridge Site Offers New Horizons to Carry on Old Traditions and to Build New Relationships

©by Leo Adam Biga

Temple Israel and the Tri-Faith Initiative grounds comprise a lovely but small corner of the 153-acre mixed-use Sterling Ridge development that’s 10 to 12 years from full build-out. Temple and its interfaith partners bring deep currents of history, memory and spirituality that stand apart from the development’s retail and business tenants.

Temple alone carries 142 years of traditions. Congregants will soon be neighbors with members of a mosque and a church and their own long faith traditions as well as with residents of an assisted living-memory care facility and with employees and customers of various commercial enterprises. All of it affords opportunities to put faith in action.

“It’s meaningful to have participated in the creation of a vehicle that can enable the fostering of more healthy human interpersonal relationships,” says Tri-Faith board chair and Temple member Bob Freeman. “Personally I can tell you I’m a better person and Jew for the journey. I’m more connected to God.”

There wouldn’t be a new Temple in the Tri-Faith venture without the building project leadership team.

Temple member Ted Zetzman is a builder by trade. He and John Waldbaum worked closely with Finegold Alexander Associates, Charles Vrana and Son Construction Company and Lockwood Development’s Chip James on delivery of the new synagogue.

“What made it have special meaning is that Temple came to me and said we need your help with this and it was something I really knew how to do and could help with,” says Zetzman.

He credits principal architect Maurice Finegold with conceiving the new Temple as a translucent lantern on the prairie. Project Advocates helped find the glass to realize that vision, along with the exterior Jerusalem stone and other materials.

Zetzman says fellow Temple member Harley Schrager, chair of the Building Council and co-chair of the capital and major donor campaigns, “was involved intimately in the concept and setting the standards or objectives for the design from a qualitative standpoint.”

Bound up in coming to the new building is honoring the old building’s rich past.

“The idea is to create an incredible opportunity to elevate people side by side, the new and the old, the inspirations and the challenges,” Rabbi Aryeh Azriel says. “How do you move the congregation? How do you provide the dignity? How do you recognize the departure, the sadness, the up, the down?”

He says Rabbi Josh Brown and Cantor Wendy Shermet “were involved in making sure people were engaged in conversations with the congregation about what exactly would happen with this transition.”

Temple long deliberated whether to move and once the decision was made it next had to decide where to relocate.

“It’s a huge risk this congregation took,” says Azriel. “I mean, how do you build something that satisfies everyone? How do you build a home for 800 families?”

Zetzman says the Temple project and Tri-Faith presence make a great fit for Sterling Ridge by giving it the high profile civic use it needed.

Azriel sees as providential and ironic Temple and Tri-Faith finding the spot of a former Jewish country club that formed in response to Jews being excluded elsewhere.

“I think the choice of the location for the synagogue is an amazing miracle. We went through 32 different locations before we got to this one, and we came to the right place. Once upon a time Jews were The Other but the Jewish community has grown up and been made to feel comfortable in America. So I think we landed in a wonderful moment in the life of a community. We created a location that responds beautifully to the needs of people both in creating connection and meaning with non-Jews and creating a comfortable haven to be able to celebrate rituals and the excitement of being neighbors.”

Brown imagines Temple serving a similar function Highland Country Club served.

“Jews wanted a place where they could sit down and be with the people they cared about and related to best and I think a lot of the design of our new building is to that same purpose. We want people to feel the synagogue is an extension of their home. We want to be a place where people will feel they’ll run into people they know.

“Just as Highland became a place where you could be fully yourself I hope Temple’s the same way.”

Azriel says the new site is the best opportunity to ensure the growth of Reform Judaism in Omaha with the building’s many sacred spaces and expanded social, educational and administrative facilities. The majority of members reside nearby, too.

Then there’s the interfaith engagement.

Azriel says, “The dream is to discover the image of God in all of us and to see how that image is actually the same. It’s not about symbols, it’s about being neighbors. We’re going to hopefully understand what is the meaning of walking into each other’s homes.

“It’s about interacting and placing ourselves together in our daily living. The reason why we went for this is because we wanted to feel real and authentic. The social justice piece is part of Reform Judaism. That’s part of the obligation of every Jew. It’s about constantly reinventing ourselves in areas of social justice and adult learning. That’s why in the new building we carry on the tradition of leaving a brick unfinished because there’s always work to be done. The dream is turning the bricks and mortar of that building into a living entity.”

The way Azriel sees it Temple’s participation in the Tri-Faith is “an outcome” of its longstanding inclusivity.

“I’m extremely happy about the relationship this congregation has with the non-Jewish community. I continued the tradition of rabbis who came before me in making sure solid bridges are built with those communities. This congregation has never been isolated. There was always a desire on my part and on the part of the congregation to continue those relationships.”

He’s thrilled about this new chapter in Temple’s story but he says “it’s never been about the building,” rather “It is about opening empty spaces and helping people become the best people they can be. There will be opportunities that lead people to something deeper. I think we are here as a community to explore the potential that’s available. The journey will be exciting.”

 

 
 
 
 

Considering Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’

May 24, 2014 1 comment

Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote to appear in an upcoming new edition of my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.  The essay sets up or introduces the multiple stories I wrote about his most recent film Nebraska.  My extensive Nebraska coverage will add a major chunk of material to my Payne book and to our understanding of him and his work.  The new edition will be out in June 2014.

 

 

Considering Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Excerpt from an essay to appear in an upcoming new edition of my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

 

Even though Alexander Payne demonstrates time and again that commercial considerations mean very little to him, following the breakaway success of The Descendants (2011) there was every reasonable expectation he might lean a bit more again in the direction of mainstream with his next film. I say again because I count The Descendants as a conventional, even mainstream work even though its protagonist rails against his comatose wife and sets out to wreck the life of the man she was cheating with, all the while trying not to lose it with his two grieving daughters in tow.

Payne soon quashed any notion of playing it safe when he announced the small, insular back roads comedy-drama Nebraska (2013) as his new feature project. It did not help its bottom line chances that the film is set in rural Nebraska, which for most filmgoers may as well be the dark side of the moon for its unfamiliarity, remoteness, and perceived barrenness. Indeed, if Nebraska conjures any image at all it is of endless cornfields, cows, and monotonously flat, uninspired scenery. When the story laid over such a setting features a confused, depressed old cuss alienated from family and friends and wandering around in a bleak wasteland made even bleaker by black and white photography and desolate late fall, post-harvest locations, it does not exactly engender excitement. The prospect of a dour, feel-bad experience devoid of life and color does not get tongues a-wagging to generate the all important buzz that sells tickets.

Of course, anyone who has seen Nebraska knows the film is not the downer it may appear to be from glimpsing a thirty-second trailer or hearing a fifteen-second sound bite, but that it is ultimately a sweet, deeply affecting film filled with familiar truths amid its very Nebraskaesque yet also quite universal archetypes.

Payne’s insistence on shooting in black and white was a completely legitimate aesthetic choice given the storyline and tone of this stark, autumnal mood piece about an old man having his last hurrah. But it also meant a definite disadvantage in appealing to average or general movie fans, many of whom automatically pass on any non-color film. Compounding the aversion that many moviegoers have with black and white is the fact that most studio executives, distributors, and theater bookers share this aversion, not on aesthetic grounds, but based on the long-held. much repeated argument that black and white films fare poorly at the box office. Of course, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here that starts with studio resistance and reluctance to greenlight black and white features and even when a studio does approve the rare black and white entry executives seem to half-heartedly market and release these pics. It is almost as if the bean counters are out to perversely prove a point, even at the risk of injuring the chances of one of their own pictures at finding a sizable audience. Then when the picture lags, it gives the powerbrokers the platform to say, I told you so. No wonder then – and this is assuming the argument is true – most black and white flicks don’t perform well compared with their color counterparts. Except, how does one arrive at anything like a fair comparison of films based on color versus black and white? Even if the films under review are of the same genre and released in the same period, each is individually, intrinsically its own experience and any comparison inevitably ends up being a futile apples and oranges debate. Besides, there are exceptions to the supposed rule that all black and white films struggle. From the 1970s on The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Young Frankenstein, Manhattan, Raging Bull, Schindler’s List, Ed Wood and The Artist are among the black and white films to have found wide success. It is admittedly a short list but it does prove black and white need not be a death sentence.

To no one’s surprise Paramount did what practically any studio would have done in the same situation, which was to fight Payne on the black and white decision. In no uncertain terms Payne wanted to make Nebraska in black and white and just as adamantly the studio wanted no part of it. He pushed and they pushed back. He would not compromise his vision because from the moment he first read Bob Nelson’s screenplay he clearly saw in his mind’s eye the world of this story play out in in shades of black and white. It just fit. It fit the characters and the settings and the emotions and as far as he was concerned that was that. No questions asked. No concessions made.

I do not claim to know all the details of this protracted dispute or should I say discussion but I do know from what Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have told me that the issue became a point of some contention. I do not know if it ever reached an impasse where Payne more or less indicated by word or action he was prepared to walk and take the project with him (his own Ad Hominem production company brought the property to Paramount). It certainly wouldn’t surprise me that he let it be known, subtly or not, that he was willing to make the project with another studio if it came to that. It is a moot point now since Paramount eventually acceded to his wishes, though not insignificantly the studio did cut some of the picture’s already small budget as a kind of hedge I suppose against the small business they expected the film to do. The smaller the budget, and in this case it was $12 million, the smaller the risk of not recouping its cost.

Given Payne’s even temperament and gentility, I doubt if things reached the level of shouting or angry exchanges, though he undoubtedly expressed displeasure with their interference and pettiness. I have to think he wore the execs down with his patience and persistence to win the black and white battle but at the end of the day he was willing to give up a couple million dollars in exchange for realizing his vision. I know he says that losing a million dollars is a huge loss when it comes to small-budgeted films like this one and I understand that in order to get the film made within those constraints he and others worked for scale in return for some points on the back end, but I have to believe those “sacrifices” were completely worth it in the long run. I would even argue that having to work on a bare bones budget and a tight schedule worked in favor of getting this simple story right. It required cast and crew to live frugally like the characters and the frugal shoot placed a premium on efficiency, ingenuity, and everyone pulling together to make the most of what they had to work with. In truth this esprit de corps is evident on all of Payne’s projects anyway because of the tight, loyal stock company he works with from film to film to film. They are a family and a team dedicated to one purpose: getting the film made to his specifications.

I asked Payne if it ever seems like a studio plays this game in order to gauge just how strongly the filmmaker is invested in a choice or preference as well as to what extent the filmmaker can be manipulated. He seems to believe there is some truth in that. Perhaps it really is the studio’s way of testing how firm the filmmaker’s convictions are and how much the filmmaker is willing to give up or to stand fast in terms of creative control. As Paramount surely knew going in and if they somehow didn’t know they surely soon discovered in the process of setting up the film, Payne is no push over and he brooks no fools. That is true at every juncture in the process, from making the deal to pre-production to the shoot and on through post-production. It is his film and he will not be budged from any creative choices he feels are necessary, which is to say he will not be pressured into doing something for the sake of added commercial appeal.

Because Payne is not about burning bridges, except for his public displeasure over the way his first two films (Citizen Ruth and Election) were handled by the studios and releasing companies behind them, he is not saying on the record what he thinks about the way Paramount handled Nebraska. I have to think he is not pleased with the extremely limited release they gave it. At no time during its release did the film ever play more than 968 theaters according to the website Boxoffice Mojo. That is anywhere from two-thirds to a half to a third the number of theaters its main awards competitors played at during their runs. It is hard to understand why the film was not given more opportunities to find a wider audience given the outstanding reception it received from critics (making most Top Ten lists), the foreign press (five Golden Globe nominations) and the Academy (six nominations).

Hampered as it was by the limited release, Nebraska still pulled in more than $18 million domestically by this edition’s summer 2014 printing and I am sure when all the figures are added up from North America and overseas, where I predict the film will fare well, especially in Europe, its total gross will be in excess of $20 million. By the time all the home viewing rentals and purchases are taken into account a year from now, I wager the film will have done some $25 million in business, which would approximately double its production costs. That is quite a return on a small film that did not get much studio support beyond the bare basics.

 

 

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Payne could have made things easier for himself and the studio by filming in color and securing a superstar. Nebraska marked quite a departure from the lush, color-filled canvas of Hawaii he captured in The Descendants and the equally verdant California wine country he committed to celluloid in Sideways. Never mind the fact the stories of those earlier films, despite the radical differences of their physical locations, actually share much in common tonally and thematically with Nebraska. The dark comic tone and theme of Payne’s films can threaten to be overshadowed when a star the magnitude of Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) or George Clooney (The Descendants) attaches himself to one of his projects. But as anyone who is familiar with the subdued star turns of those two actors in those particular films will tell you, Nicholson departed far from his trademark insouciance and braggadocio to totally inhabit his repressed, depressive title character in Schmidt just as Clooney left behind much of his breezy, cocksure charm to essay his neurotic somewhat desperate character in Descendants. Each star was eager to shed his well-practiced, bigger-than-life persona in service of scripts and parts that called for them to play against type. Instead of their usual live-out-loud, testosterone-high roles, they play quiet, wounded, vulnerable men in trouble. For that matter, the men-children Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church play in Sideways are seemingly complete opposites but in actuality are emotionally-stunted, damaged souls using oblivion, alcohol, and sex to medicate their pain and avoid reality. The beauty of the California and Hawaii locales work as contrast and counterpoint to the chaotic lives of these lost figures careening toward catharsis. In Schmidt Omaha is the perfect washed-out backdrop for a man undergoing a full-scale identity and spiritual crisis once he retires and his domineering wife dies.

That brings us to Woody Grant, the crotchety so-and-so at the center of Nebraska. When we meet him he is near the end of a largely misspent life. Facing his inevitable and nearing mortality he doesn’t much like what he sees when he reviews his life and where he has landed. He is dealing with many deficits in his old age. His body is falling apart. He walks stiffly, haltingly. His alcoholism has been unaddressed and it contributes to his foggy mind, mood swings, propensity to fall and hurt himself, and to utter hurtful things. He seems to derive no joy or satisfaction from his wife of many years and his two adult sons. He almost regards them as inconvenient reminders of his own failings as a husband and father. On top of all this, he is poor and in no position to leave his family anything like a tangible legacy.

This miserable wretch has seized upon what he believes to be his last chance at assuaging a deep well of shame, guilt, bitterness, and resentment. His mistaken belief there is a sweepstakes prize for him to redeem becomes a search for his own personal redemption or salvation. He desperately wants something, namely a truck, to leave his boys. The true meaning of the road trip he embarks on with his son David is only revealed to us and to his boy along the way and that gradual discovery adds layers of poignancy to the story.

When Woody arrives back in his hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska word spreads he is on his way to collect a $i million sweepstakes prize. For a few moments he becomes a person of substance in the eyes of his extended family and the town’s other residents. Some family members and one old friend turn vultures and demand they get a share of his windfall as compensation for favors they did or loans they made that were never returned. But there is another side to that story. We find out Woody has a kind heart beneath his gruff exterior, so much so that he’s been known to do favors and to give money away without ever expecting repayment. That has led him to be taken advantage of over the years. Then when the truth gets out Woody has not won anything but has misinterpreted a marketing piece for a confirmation letter of his supposed million in winnings, he is publicly humiliated and made out to be a fool.

For Nebraska I Payne went one step further in distancing himself from commercial considerations by casting as his two leads Bruce Dern and Will Forte, who at first glance form an unlikely combination but in fact play wonderfully off each other. Dern’s acclaimed performance as Woody Grant earned him a Best Actor prize at Cannes and nominations from the Golden Globes and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Saturday Night Live alumnus Forte is triumphant in his first dramatic role as the sympathetic son David. The next largest part belongs to June Squibb, who until this film was a somewhat familiar face if not a household name (she played Nicholson’s wife in Schmidt). Her stellar work in a colorful role as Woody’s piss-and-vinegar wife Kate has brought her the most attention she’s received in a very long and productive career. Arguably, the biggest name in the picture belongs to Stacy Keach, a veteran of film, television, and stage who has little screen time in the picture but makes the most of it in a powerfully indelible turn as the story’s heavy, Ed Pegram. As strong as these performances are Payne did not do his film any box office favors by choosing actors so far off the radar of moviegoers. That is not a criticism, it is simply a fact. At least a dozen more speaking parts are filled by no-name actors, nonprofessional actors, and nonactors, all of whom add great authenticity to the film but whose obscurity hurts rather than helps the marketing cause.

As you will read in the articles that follow Payne is most proud of the casting and locations in Nebraska. These are elements he always takes great care with in any of his films but with this particular film he went the extra mile yet in order to realize the very specific world of the story. Many of the small speaking parts are filled by regular folks – retired farmers and such – who populate the very towns or ones just like them where he shot. He and casting director John Jackson searched long and hard for just the right faces and voices. Similarly, the weatherbeaten, seen-better-times found locations look and feel so right as the homes and pit-stops of the characters that these real locations rather than constructed sets add another layer of verisimilitude.

The choice to populate the film with zero star power ultimately is not the reason the film failed to pull in more of an audience because there are plenty of films that do well with little known, non A-list names, and nonactor finds. No, the real problem with how Nebraska fared had more to do with the perception the marketing campaign for the film imposed on it. The film’s trailers did not communicate the heart and soul of the picture. None of the warmth or depth or populist appeal at its core registered in those clips. Instead, the film was represented as a cold, mean, depressive, rather flimsy sketch concept blown up to fill two hours. Anyone who has seen and appreciated Nebraska will tell you it is far more than that. It is a work replete with deep currents of regret, disappointment, melancholia, rage, nostalgia. and love. Alongside that run streams of humor, sweetness, irony, and slapstick. Then there is the sheer poetic evocation of hauntingly beautiful visuals that turn the wide open flyover terrain, roadside stops, and played-out small towns of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska into haunting fields of dreams and symbols of neglect. Not to mention centers of quirky, silly, sometimes surreal goings-on.

Plenty of small indie films about similarly unglamorous subject matter have struck a responsive chord with the masses. So what kept Nebraska from resonating the way, say, Juno did or Little Miss Sunshine? No one really knows. If the creatives who make the films and the suits who finance and sell them did, if there was some sure-fire magic formula at their disposal, then every film would be packaged into a box office winner. The truth is some films catch the wave and most don’t and there doesn’t seem to be any reliable rhyme or reason for why some hit and others miss that elusive, always moving wave everyone is after.

It may take a while, but I am quite confident Nebraska will eventually find the large audience it deserves. In my opinion it will be a much viewed and discussed stand-the-test of-time film for its many cinema art merits. As good as Payne’s earlier films have been I believe this to be his finest work to date because it is in my view the fullest expression of his filmmaking talents. Visually, it is a tone poem of the first order and on that basis alone it is a film to be reckoned with. Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have achieved an expressive black and white palette whose hues perfectly articulate the heavy heart of the story. But Payne also found unobtrusive ways to position the camera and, with editor Kevin Tent, to cut scenes so as to amplify its many moments of humor without ever detracting from its elegiac, soulful mood. Mark Orton’s original music, plus the incidental music used here and there, add more nuances of mood. Payne artfully composed images for the wide screen format he shot in to glean added depth and meaning from the action. Within the same frame he intentionally juxtaposed characters with the stark landscapes, townscapes, and homes they inhabit. Many of these scenes emphasize sadness, stillness and desolation. Irony infuses it all. The result is an ongoing dialogue between people and their environments. Each informs the other and by consequence us.

The filmmaker’s economy of style has never been more evident. He has reached the point of communicating so much with simple brush strokes. Take for instance the way Woody’s harsh childhood experience is encapsulated when the old man and his family visit the abandoned farm house he grew up in. Payne has the camera fluidly glide over the detritus of this once proud home turned wreck and to peak into rooms that carry so much psychic-emotional pain for Woody, who was beaten as a boy. Payne clearly indicates this is a private, anguished, cathartic return for Woody, who has avoided this place and its memories for years.

Or consider that gathering of taciturn men in Woody’s family at his brother’s home in town. Payne arranges the uncles, brothers, sons, nephews, cousins in an American Gothic pose around the TV set, where the men engage in the almost wordless ritualistic viewing of a football game. It is at once a funny and powerful expression of their tribal, tight-lipped bond. A bond more about association by blood than affinity.

Then there are the almost incidental shots of boarded up buildings in town that symbolize and speak to the economic hard times to have befallen so many small towns like the fictional Hawthorne. In a short scene Payne conveys an important way in which the times have changed there and in towns like it when he has Woody visit the auto service station he used to own and he finds the new owners are Spanish-speaking Hispanics. Woody thus personally encounters a demographic shift that has altered the face of his hometown and much of rural Nebraska. No more is made of it then that simple reality and the brief exchange between Woody and the “newcomers,” but it is enough to say that times have moved on and the Hawthorne he knew has evolved in some ways and remained unchanged in others.

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the best example of Payne distilling things down to their simplest, purest, most elemental form is the end sequence when David and Woody are in the truck David has purchased and registered in his father’s name. David, who is at the wheel with Woody beside him, stops the truck on the edge of town and invites Woody to take the wheel and drive down main street in his new rig. What follows is one of the most moving denouements in contemporary American cinema. Woody is granted a rare gift when he accepts the invitation to take a celebratory ride down main street. As the truck slowly passes through town he wins more than any prize money could provide when four people from his past catch sight of him and look at him with a combination of awe, admiration, and surprise. It is a perfect moment in the sun vindication for a beleaguered, bedraggled man who suddenly brims with a sense of confidence and purpose. Woody leaves town on his own terms, his dignity and pride intact, at least for this short interval of time.

What makes that valedictory ride so special is that his sympathetic son David is there to grant him it and to bask in it with him. These two who began the road trip not really knowing each other and often at odds with each other have traveled a journey together that has brought them a measure of acceptance, healing, and peace. David has finally come to understand why his father is the way he is. His fondest desire is realized when he gives Woody that movie-movie opportunity to prove he is not the loser or fool this day. As Woody sits high in the cab of the truck, with David lovingly looking on from the floor, and drives past the artifacts of his past and the denizens of that town, he may as well be a cowboy sitting tall in the saddle of his horse riding into the sunset. He graciously accepts the congratulations of town chatterbox Bernie Bowen. He stares down his former friend Ed Pegram, who now looks the shamed fool. Woody’s heart stirs again for old flame Peg Nagy, whose wistful expression wonders might have been. As he heads out of town Woody says a fond goodbye to Albert, the Grant brother whose favorite pastime is siting beside the road waving at the occupants of passing cars.

Outside of town the truck stops at the bottom of a hill and Woody and David once again exchange places. Doing this out of the view of onlookers preserves Woody’s glorious farewell and signals Woody now accepts his limitations and David’s love for him. With David back behind the wheel and Woody beside him father and son drive off to meet an uncertain future together. Consistent with the way Payne ends all his films, Woody’s last ride reverie does not promise any great turnaround in his life. His problems are still his problems. The fact that that sequence plays out wordlessly and still conveys so much meaning is a testament to the work of Payne and his collaborators in extracting the essence of these scenes through beautifully executed shots that give full weight to glances gestures, postures, and backdrops.

NOTE: To read the rest you’ll have to wait for my new edition to come out.

PlayFest broadens theater possibilities: Great Plains Theatre Conference events feature community-based, site-specific works


Much of theater is elitist without even intending to be.  It’s just the nature of what happens when art, academics, and economics collide.  There are of course counter strains to the theater of exclusion.  The Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha is an interesting study of something that started out as a kind of closed set endeavor hanging on the threads of the  New York City stage establishment but that has made a concerted effort in recent years to break out of its box to be more cutting-edge, community-based, and inclusive.  My story here for The Reader (www.thereader.com) details how the conference’s PlayFest series is leading the way to make theater more engaging and accessible while at the same time more experimental, including site-specific works that draw on multiple genres and that feature work and in some cases collaborations by artists from Omaha and New York that speak to events and concerns in this community.  In keeping with this more communal, democratic spirit of theater, PlayFest events are free and open to the public.  This year’s events are at Kaneko May 27, the Malcolm X Center May 28 and the historic Florence Mill on May 30.  A highlight will be readings by 2014 conference featured playwright Kia Corthron at the May 28 Voices at the Center program at the Malcolm X Center.  That program is a continuation of the Neighborhood Tapestries series the GPTC inaugurated a couple years ago to bring theater into the communtiy or more specifically into neighborhoods.

 

 

 

 

 

PlayFest broadens theater possibilities
Great Plains Theatre Conference events feature community-based, site-specific works

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The Great Plains Theatre Conference continues stretching beyond its hidebound beginnings by assuming an ever freer, more engaging public model. Where it was once top-heavy with crusty old lions of the conventional New York City stage, it’s now embracing more contemporary, cutting-edge, community-based artists. Where it often played like an exclusive party or lab for the drama circle set, it’s now a more inviting, inventive forum for artists and audiences alike.

GPTC artistic director Kevin Lawler, who’s acutely aware of theater’s challenge capturing audiences, has made the conference more accessible through PlayFest series offerings that take theater outside the box. Lawler entrusts PlayFest to artists from Omaha and New York, where he’s worked as a director, to create site-specific, free-form, multi-genre works that break barriers and embrace community.

“Theatre in the U.S. stagnated heavily in the last century with ticket prices climbing ever higher and content being generated by an overwhelmingly white, male, privileged, linear storytelling, playwright-director based system driven mainly by capitalist economics rather than community enrichment,” he says. “The idea behind PlayFest is to move theater out of the established ‘temples of art’ by experimenting with content, form, means of production and dissemination.

“On top of the spirit of experimentation and exploration we make a special effort to create a Neighborhood Tapestries project performance each year from the stories and history of our own community members. All these aspects combined with the fact PlayFest is free, open to everyone and performed in alternative sites across the city creates a wonderful new dynamic for theater in our community.”

 

Kevin Lawler

 

This year’s PlayFest features three distinct events over four days at venues that couldn’t be more different from one another.

On May 27 the artists of Omaha-based aetherplough present We’re Almost There – High Viscosity. This conceptual performance piece will inhabit the wide-open, light-filled second floor at Kaneko, 1111 Jones Street. The piece is directed by Susann Suprenant and Jeanette Plourde. Specifically designed for the show’s cavernous interior, the piece is also informed by the transformation of this former Fairmont Creamery warehouse space into a cultural oasis.

Lawler says he brought the two directors together because “Susann and Jeanette seem like sisters in the realm of creativity and thought,” adding, “With their heavy background of performance based in movement I knew they would complement each other wonderfully.”

“We both bring an intensity of focus, a trust in collaborative creation and a willingness to explore performance made with-for-in the space and with the body as the impetus, rather than narrative as the impetus. We trust in the ‘meaning-making’ abilities of the audience,” says Suprenant, dean of communications and humanities at Metropolitan Community College.

 

Susann Suprenant

 

“We’re kindred spirits with respect to the creation of performance and the creation of events to share with an audience,” says Plourde, a New York director. “We create performance, we create live events, we work with groups of artists we consider artist-creators. There isn’t a script.

We start with questions and territories of exploration and as directors we guide the exploration with a company to create what ultimately becomes a performance event.”

Each year the conference recognizes a playwright and celebrates their work. During the May 28 Voices at the Center 2014 honored playwright Kia Corthron will read from a selection of her politically charged plays and be joined by local spoken word artists, actors and musicians speaking their own truths. Set outdoors at the Malcolm X Center, 3448 Evans Street, this gathering of raised social consciousness at the birth-site of the slain activist born as Malcolm Little is curated by Omaha Community Playhouse Education Director Denise Chapman.

This Neighborhood Tapestries event will intersect with issues affecting inner city communities like North Omaha’s. The Harlem-based Corthorn will read from her new play Megastasis, which she says is “inspired” by the Michelle Alexander book The New Jim Crow in its look at “how the war on drugs has impacted the black community in such devastating ways.” Chapman will direct an excerpt from her adaptation of ancient Greek theater, Women of Troy, that substitutes modern urban women “left behind” as collateral damage in the war on drugs. TammyRa Jackson, Zedeka Poindexter and Monica Ghali portray the Trojan women.

 

Kia Corthron

 

Corthron, who’s written for television and has authored a novel, will read from at least two more of her plays: Trickle and Sam’s Coming.

She recently won a $150,000 Windham Campbell literary prize.

She says she strives to affect audiences emotinally as a way to engage them and therefore “make them think and maybe reconsider or for the first time consider issues they hadn’t thought about before.” She says as a black woman writing about the black experience whatever she chooses to address in her work is bound to be militant in someone’s eyes. “I feel like if you are part of a community that has been traditionally oppressed as the black community has been that…it’s hard to write anything without it being somewhat political.” In Corthron’s view, wearing one’s hair natural or not, having a light or dark skin tone and using slang or proper English all potentially become tense political-ideological points thrust upon and internalized by blacks.

 

Denise Chapman

 

When Corthron’s penning a play she says “‘I’m just really conscious of and true to the world of these characters and to the way these characters would speak. That’s sort of my driving force when I’m writing – their language.”

The playwright’s excited to have her characters’ voices mix with those of The Wordsmiths, led by Michelle Troxclair and Felicia Webster, the poets behind Verbal Gumbo at the House of Loom, along with Devel Crisp, Leo Louis II and Nate Scott. Adding to the stew will be hip hop artists Jonny Knogood and Lite Pole. Chapman looks forward to this “battle cry music that speaks truths about what’s going on in the community and offers platforms to start conversations for solutions.” Corthron and her fellow artists will do a talk back following the show.

Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru is creating original mural art for the evening.

On May 30 PlayFest moves to the historic Florence Mill, 9102 North 30th Street., for Wood Music, an immersive event created by the writers, directors and actors of the New York-based St. Fortune Collective. Omaha’s own Electric Chamber Music is composing original music. New Yorker Elena Araoz, is directing. Her husband Justin Townsend is designing the show with the conference’s Design Wing fellows.

Araoz says the 1860-set piece will have the audience walk through the mill to meet characters drawn from its past. That year is when the mill converted from water to steam energy. Around that time Florence lost a contentious bid for the state capitol. It all concludes with an outdoor celebration featuring mill-themed music, dance and secret burlesque.

“We’re trying to give the audience more of an experience than just a play,” says Araoz.

 

Enlarged View

Florence Mill

 

The theatrical party will be a direct through-line to the communal, festive life of the mill today as the home to a farmer’s market, an art gallery and live music performances.

St. Fortune writer Jack Frederick says the event will both “pay homage to and activate the mill’s rich history” and new reuse.

Frederick, Araoz and Co. have tapped mill director Linda Meigs, who led efforts to preserve the site and has made it into an arts-agriculture-history colony, for details about the structure’s Mormon settlement lineage. Brigham Young himself supervised its 1846 construction as a grist mill. After the Mormons abandoned their winter quarters the mill was rebuilt and a grain elevator added.

Each PlayFest event is free and starts at 7:30 p.m. For more details and for a schedule of conference events, visit http://www.mccneb.edu/gptc.

 

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