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Filmmaker explores a Latina whose story defies all conventions; Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latinoscreening of her film ‘Rebel’

September 19, 2014 Leave a comment

A hybrid documentary employing dramatic elements explores the fascinatiing story of Loreta Valezquez, a Cuban immigrant who posed as a man to fight and spy for both sides in the American Civil War.  Noted filmmaker Maria Agui Carter will discuss her film Rebel after a 7 p.m. screening at El Museo Latino in Omaha on Sept. 25.  This is my Reader (www.thereader.com) story about what drew Carter to the project and what she’s discoverd and surmised about Loreta, a woman she greatly admires.  The film has been airing on PBS.

NOTE: Filmmaker Maria Agui Carter is pictured in the second photogaph below.

 


 

 

 

Filmmaker explores a Latina whose story defies all conventions; Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latinoscreening of her film ‘Rebel’

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Award-winning filmmaker Maria Agui Carter has much to say about her new film Rebel, the story of a Latina who posed as a man to fight and spy in the American Civil War. Agui Carter will discuss the film, which recently aired as a PBS special, and its protagonist, Cuban immigrant Loreta Velazquez, following a 7 p.m. screening on September 25 at El Museo Latino, 4701 South 25th Street.

An immigrant herself, Agui Carter is an independent filmmaker based in Mass. and founder of Iguana Films, a film and new media company making Spanish and English language works. She’s a graduate of Harvard University, where she’s been a visiting artist-scholar.

In a director’s statement and answers provided via email, she details what led her to do the 12-years-in-the-making project.

“I’m a history buff, I look for interesting characters, especially women and Latinos, in American history,” she says. “I came across an original copy of Loreta’s 1876 memoir in Widener Library (Harvard).”

Agui Carter found powerful themes in those accounts that speak to her experience as a Latina storyteller, immigrant to the U.S. and feminist.

“I felt uniquely qualified to tell the story. I’m fascinated by the question of citizenship and national identity, having been brought here as a child undocumented and raised ‘underground’ by my mother. I felt growing up I was deeply American, but I did not have the citizenship status.”

Loreta’s story touches on issues of gender, race and self-determination Agui Carter identifies with.

“I identify with Loreta and sympathize with her painful struggle to find acceptance within her community. Loreta presents a Latina’s and a woman’s perspective on a time period and a war we usually think of as exclusively black and white. But this is less a story about the Civil War and more the story of a complex woman who reinvented herself to survive the impossible circumstances in which she found herself. And that reinvention of self is a quintessentially American experience that resonates with so many Americans – that idea we are not what we are born, but what we make of ourselves.”

Agui Carter’s fllm answers and asks questions prompted by the memoir. “My film is a detective story trying to understand the woman, the myth and the politics of how we understand our own past.”

From the time Loreta published her memoir until now, her story’s been marginalized and contested, even called a hoax.

“She was attacked as a liar and a fraud by an unreconstructed Ex-Confederate general. Jubal Early, who read her memoir and thought her story preposterous. He was quite powerful and publicly dismissed her story. Subsequent generations generally followed his lead.”

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To unravel the mystery, Agui Carter consulted historians, who informed her some 1,000 women disguised as men fought in the Civil War. They confirm Loreta fought under the name Harry T. Buford at First Bull Run and was wounded at Shiloh. At some point Loreta became a spy, first for the Confederacy, then for the Union. She went by many aliases, including Laura Williams and Loretea DeCaulp. Agui Carter’s hybrid documentary uses actors to dramatize certain scenes.

“We don’t know all the exact details of her service, nor that of the other documented women who fought disguised as men because they were hiding their tracks and identities,” she says.

As for why Loreta did what she did, Agui Carter says, “She had just lost her family and as a young girl she had dreamed of being a hero. it’s a complicated and deliciously twisted plot. “

The filmmaker admires what Loreta did in carving out an unexpected, emancipated life and sharing her journey with the world.

“Her book popularized her story of a woman who broke the rules and social boundaries that, post-war, so many were trying to reconstruct. By writing her memoirs, she allowed others to imagine that they, too, might choose their own fates and go against the grain. This was considered dangerous at a time when men were returning from war and expecting the women to go back to their old roles.

“She refused to be bounded by the strictures of her time. She imagined a world for herself and went out and created it, regardless of what people told her she couldn’t do. She made the impossible possible for herself.”

Agui Carter has authored a new play, 14 Freight Trains, about the first American soldier to die in Iraq – an undocumented Latino. It has reverberations with Rebel and her own family’s experience.

“My mother married a Vietnam veteran who applied for citizenship for my mother and myself. War is a terrible, painful, transformative thing and yet people believe in this country enough to put their lives on the line for it, including generation after generation of immigrants. This is a profound experience and I am drawn to these stories of people who would believe in something so much they would risk their lives for it.”

She’s working on turning Loreta’s story into a narrative action feature..

See Rebel free with museum admission. Due to limited space, reservations are advised. Call 402-731-1137.

For more about the film and Loreta’s story, visit http://rebeldocumentary.com.

Rock photographer Janette Beckman keeps it real;Her hip-hop and biker images are at Carver Bank in Omaha, where she’s doing a Bemis residency

September 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Here’s my Reader (www.thereader.com) cover story on famed rock photographer Janette Beckman, whose images of punk and hip-hop pioneers helped create the iconography around those music genres and the performing artists who drove those early scenes.  She’s been visiting Omaha for a residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, working on a portrait of the city.  An exhibition of her photos of hip-hop pioneers and Harlem bikers is showing at the Carver Bank here through the end of November.

 

Janette Beckman

 

 

Rock photographer Janette Beckman keeps it real;Her hip-hop and biker images are at Carver Bank in Omaha, where she’s doing a Bemis residency

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Photographer Janette Beckman made a name for herself in the 1970s and 1980s capturing the punk scene in her native London and the hip-hop scene in her adopted New York City.

Dubbed “the queen of rock photographers,” her images appeared in culture and style magazines here and abroad and adorned album covers for bands as diverse as Salt-N-Pepa and The Police. Weaned on Motown and R & B, this “music lover” was well-suited for what became her photography niche.

She still works with musicians today. She’s developing a book with famed jazz vocalist Jose James about his ascent as an artist.

Her photos of hip-hop pioneers along with pictures of the Harlem biker club Go Hard Boyz comprise the Rebel Culture exhibition at Carver Bank, 2416 Lake Street. Beckman, documenting facets of Omaha and greater Neb. for a Bemis residency, will give a 7 p.m. gallery talk on Friday during the show’s opening. The reception runs from 6 to 8.

The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts stint is her first residency.

“This is a new experience. It’s very refreshing. It’s kind of nice to get away from your life and open up your mind a little bit,” says Beckman, who describes her aesthetic as falling “between portrait and documentary.” “I truly believe taking a portrait of somebody is a collaboration between you and the person. I really like taking pictures on the street. I don’t want hair stylists and makeup artists. I don’t tell people what to do. I want to document that time and place – that’s really important to me. I want it to be about them and their lives, not about what I think their lives should be.”

Carver features a personal favorite among her work – a 1984 photo of Run DMC shot on location in Hollis, Queens for the British mag Face.

“They were just hanging out on this tree-lined street they lived on. I said, ‘Just stand a little closer,’ and they did. I love this picture because it expresses so much. It’s a real hangout picture and such a symbol of the times, style-wise. The Adidas with no laces, the snapback hats, the gazelle glasses, the track suits. It just expresses so much about that particular moment in time. And I love the dappled light on their faces.”

Salt-n-Pepa, ©Janette Beckman

 

 

She made the first press photo of LL Cool J, complete with him and his iconic boom box. She did the first photo shoot of Salt-N-Pepa while “knocking about” Alphabet City. In L.A. she shot N.W.A. posed around cops in a cruiser just as the group’s “Fuck tha Police” protest song hit.

She says her hip-hop shots “bring up happy memories for people because music is very evocative – it’s just like a little moment in time.”

The early hip-hop movement in America paralleled the punk explosion in England. Both were youthful reactions against oppression. In England – the rigid class system and awful economy. In the U.S. – inner-city poverty, violence and police abuse.

“Punk really gave a voice to kids who never really had a say. Working-class kids and art school kids all sort of banded together and started protesting, basically by being obnoxious and writing punk songs that were kind of like poetry, expressing what their lives were like. There was the shock factor of wearing bondage apparel and trash bags, putting safety pins in their noses. Really giving the finger to Queen and country and all that history. It was like, ‘Fuck you, it’s not that time, we’re fed up and we’re not going to take it anymore.'”

Her introduction to hip-hop came in London at the genre’s inaugural Europe revue tour.

“No one knew what hip-hop was. It was just the most amazing show. It had all the hip-hop disciplines. So much was going on on that stage – the break dancers and the Double Dutch and Fab 5 Freddy, scratching DJs, rapping, graffiti. All happening all at once. It blew me away.

“I met Afrika Bambaataa, who’s pretty much the father of hip-hop.”

Weeks later she visited NYC and “there it all was – the trains covered in graffiti, kids walking around with boom boxes, people selling mix tapes on the street. I got very involved in it.”

“New York was broke. Politically it was a mess. These kids had no future. Hip-hop gave this voice to the voiceless. They were singing ‘The Message’ (by the Furious Five). Where I was living there really were junkies in the alley with a baseball bat. It was no joke. You could see it unfolding in front of you and yet there was this vibrant art scene going on. Graffiti kids stealing paint from stores, breaking into train yards at night and painting trains in the pitch dark to make beautiful art that then traveled like a moving exhibition around New York. It was just fantastic. A real exciting time.”

She got so swept up, she never left. When big money moved in via the major record labels, she says. “everything changed.” She feels hip-hop performers “lost their artistic freedom and that almost punk aesthetic of making it up as you go along because you don’t really know what you’re doing. They were just experimenting. That’s why it was so fresh.” She expected hip-hop would run its course the way punk did. She never imagined it a world-wide phenomenon decades later.

“In the ’90s with Biggie and people like that it got massive. People are rapping in Africa and Australia. Breakancing is bigger than ever now..”

While capturing its roots she didn’t consider hip-hop’s influence then. “I was just in it doing it. I was just riding the wave.”

Portraying folks as she finds them has found her work deemed “too raw, too real, too rough” for high style mags that prefer photo-shopped perfection. “I don’t really believe in stereotypes and I don’t believe in ideals of beauty.” She’s even had editors-publishers complain her work contains too many black people.

 

 

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Go Hard Boyz biker club pic, ©Janette Beckman

 

Beckman’s surprised by Omaha’s diversity and intrigued by its contradictions. She’s shot North O barbershops, the downtown Labor Day parade, her first powwow, skateboarders doing tricks at an abandoned building and a South Omaha mural. She’s looking forward to taking pics at a rodeo and ranch.

She came for a site visit in July with one vision in mind and quickly had to shift gears when she began her residency in August.

“I wanted to photograph people on the street in North Omaha and I found there’s nobody on the street, so I had to try to wiggle into the community.”

Her curiosity, chattiness and British accent have given her access to events like the Heavy Rotation black biker club’s annual picnic at Benson Park. That group reminded her of the Ride Hard Boyz she shot last summer in New York.

“I was riding in the flatbed of an F-150 truck driven by one of the guys down this expressway with bikers doing wheelies alongside, All totally illegal. It was the most exciting thing I’ve done in years. Although it’s rebel in a way, the club keeps kids off the street and out of drugs and gangs. They’re the greatest guys – like a big family.”

The end of Sept. she returns to the NewYork “bubble.” An exhibit of her photos that leading artists painted on, JB Mashup, may go to Paris. She’s photographing a saxophonist. Otherwise, she’s taking things as they come.

“I try not to make too many plans because they tend to get diverted.”

Rebel Culture runs through Nov. 29.

View her Omaha and archived work at http://janettebeckman.com/blog.

 

 

 

 

 

Nebraska Cultural Endowment Livelihood blog features Leo Adam Biga – Omaha journalist/author writes about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions

September 15, 2014 Leave a comment

Honored to be featured on the Nebraska Cultural Endowment’s Livelihood Blog, where I share some of how and why writing became my passion. My beloved, artist Pamela Jo Berry, was featured earlier this year. I have the distinction of following the blog’s last featured subject, author Timothy Schaffert. If you haven’t visited the blog before, give it a look-see, and be sure to sample the past featured artists, creatives and culture enthusiasts.

I am sharing my Livelihood entry more or less just the way it’s presented on the NE Cultural Endowment site.

NOTE: The blog my entry links to is the very one you are on now. It also links to a Facebook page I manage that gets feeds from my blog.

 

 

What’s Your Livelihood?

Embrace the Arts and Humanities in Nebraska


Writing is my Livelihood

leo 3

 

My interest in wordplay began in childhood. Growing up in North Omaha I found myself attracted to the wonder of certain words, usually multi-syllabic tongue twisters I heard television talking-heads wittily brandish. I also fell under the near fatal spell of alliteration.

I believe my real fascination with language stemmed from seeing my late father working his crossword puzzles, reading the newspaper and occasionally immersing himself in a book. Then there was the colorful vernacular he used around the house and that my extended family, who lived in South Omaha, used. Sprinkled in with the cuss words were  idiomatic descriptives favored by my father’s white-collar clan, whose expressions were just different enough from those of my mother’s blue-collar bunch, to stand them apart. Further seasoning this verbal stew were stray Polish words from my father’s side and occasional Italian words from my mother’s side. It was a multicultural linguistics education. As our all-white inner-city neighborhood became mixed, African-Americans introduced me to another rich vein of language flavored by their Southern roots and urban Northern street culture.

“….the simple joy of playing with words is the main

appeal to me.”

Even with all those influences I do not believe I would have been drawn to writing were it not for the Marvel comic books and high school English lit books I inherited from my older brothers. These stimulating hand-me-downs were enhanced by the periodicals that came into our home, particularly Sports Illustrated. By the time my brother Dan started writing his own personal sports column, just for the sheer pleasure of it. I, too, discovered writing could be fun. Later I found out what hard work it is. As teachers encouraged my efforts, I stretched myself. In high school I was recruited to write for the school paper and that led me to study journalism in college.

Even now, as a journalist and author, the simple joy of playing with words is the main appeal to me. Follow my work telling the stories of people, their passions and magnificent obsessions at leoadambiga.wordpress.com or http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga.

 

About Leo

Leo Adam Biga is a working journalist who contributes articles to newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, a collectionleo of the writer’s extensive journalism about the Oscar-winning filmmaker. Additionally, Biga is the coeditor ifMemories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores and the author of two e-books for the Omaha Public Schools.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate worked in public relations (Joslyn Art Museum) before becoming a freelance writer. His published stories for dailies, weeklies, monthlies and quarterlies number well over a thousand. As a generalist he writes about a broad range of subjects, though most of his work is arts and culture-based.

He is finishing the biography of a retired Catholic priest who served marginalized populations around the world and he has plans for more nonfiction books. A new edition of his Payne book is in-progress.

Sample his eclectic work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com or http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga.

NOTE: His partner, artist Pamela Jo Berry, is a past Livelihood subject. Read more about Pamela Jo Berry here: http://bit.ly/YAt45c.

 

Rabbi Azriel’s neighborhood welcomes all, unlike what he saw on recent Middle East trip; Social justice activist and interfaith advocate optimistic about Tri-Faith campus

September 6, 2014 1 comment

I sometimes end up revisiting subjects.  Usually a span of a year or more goes by before I do.  In the case of Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha, I ended up profiling him twice in the space of a year and going back another year or so I extensively interviewed him at least two more times for additional projects  No worries of overkill or reptition with this man though as he has enough of a compelling personal and professional story to warrant ten profiles and a hundred interviews.  His leadership at Temple Israel Synagogue and his work with the Tri-Faith Initiative alone can fill many notebooks and would in fact make a good book.  You can find my other stories featuring him and his work on this blog.  Immediately below are comments about the rabbi I didn’t have a chance to use – because of space limitations – in my most recent story about him in The Reader (www.thereader.com), which is the story that follows below the comments.  With each interview and story I get to know him a little better and I could second many of the things said about him by his admirers, but they know him far better yet and so I will let their words speak for me.

 

Vic Gutman
“I am a member of Temple Israel. While I’m not a particularly observant Jew, I belong to Temple because of its commitment to social justice. Rabbi Azriel has been an outspoken advocate for social justice, not only at Temple Israel, but in the community. Immediately after 911, Rabbi led a group of Temple members to the only mosque in Omaha (at that time) to help defend it should anyone threaten its members or property. In my opinion, the Tri Faith Initiative would not have been possible without his enthusiastic support and leadership.”

Bob Freeman
“Aryeh would have been hugely successful in any city in the world. It was a great match for him and Omaha that he ended up here and chose to stay. He was able to have an enormous impact on a vibrant congregation and growing community, becoming a dynamic leader in both the Jewish and the secular Omaha communities. In turn, he grew strong, confident and assured he was on the right path, along with his wife and 2 kids. This inner strength enabled him to shape the thoughts of important people who in turn make policy and shape our community and others. He’s done this consistently, day in and day out, for 25 years, making for enormous impact. And he has brought to Omaha an unending stream of national and even international leaders who come here as his friends and confidantes, to draw inspiration from spending time with him while drinking from the same fountains of strength, stability and perspective that Omaha offers.

“Aryeh has profoundly impacted countless individuals, families, an entire congregation, his community and a wide circle of colleagues and friends. His body of work in interfaith and ecumenical affairs has been legion, and provides a strong base of experience and credibility for him to launch the Tri-Faith Initiative, an effort unprecedented in its ambition to model collaborative interfaith relationships.

“It has been my profound blessing to have been close to Aryeh for these 25 years; I know he’s helped make me the person I am today.”

Wendy Goldberg
“Rabbi Azriel is a force for good. His positive spirit and unending energy allow him to connect with people. Relationships are the foundation of his rabbinate. He motivates his team to work for social change. Most common phrase, ‘Let’s do it!'”

Nancy Kirk
“Rabbi Azriel is a man of prophetic vision combined with a clear grasp of the possible. From the earliest days of envisioning a new home for Temple Israel, he saw good neighbors as an essential element of the perfect location. Rabbi Azriel has a clear moral compass that guides his life and has guided the Tri-Faith Initiative. When life is complicated he has a special gift to see the clear center of the issue.”

Jane Rips
Aryeh’s 25 years have flown by in literally the blink of an eye! He has challenged us, guided us, loved us, and helped to create a vibrant and exciting Temple Israel. He is a man of limitless energy and vision. Although his hair is grayer than it used to be, to me he seems unchanged by the passage of time – still passionate about Judaism, Temple Israel and social justice.

Phyllis Glazer
“For 25 years, Rabbi Azriel has been a blessed presence in our midst. He has led our congregation with wisdom, compassion, new ideas, and a delightful sense of humor ALWAYS challenging us to learn, to listen, to think, and to grow. He has made me and my family proud to be a members of Temple Israel. In brief, Rabbi Azriel is my friend, my Rabbi, and a perfect fit!”

 

 

 
Rabbi Azriel’s neighborhood welcomes all, unlike what he saw on recent Middle East trip

Social justice activist and interfaith advocate optimistic about Tri-Faith campus
BY LEO ADAM BIGA

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

 

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha’s Temple Israel Synagogue builds bridges between people of different backgrounds and persuasions. Take for example his driving force work with the Tri-Faith Initiative, the project that intends creating a local campus of Jewish, Muslim and Christian houses of worship around a shared communal space.

Recently returned from a two-month sabbatical to Turkey and his native Israel, Azriel was in Jerusalem when the current maelstrom in Gaza erupted. Always the rabbi, he attended the funeral of three Israeli boys kidnapped and killed by Hamas and paid respects to the father of an Arab boy burned alive by Israeli extremists.

Nearly everywhere he went Azriel spread the hope embodied by Tri-Faith and its efforts to build a harmonious faith-based community. The veteran social justice activist and ecumenical champion, whose work with Omaha Together One Community has seen him advocate for meatpackers and victims of police violence, leads this city’s reform synagogue. He is Tri-Faith’s most ardent supporter. He encouraged his progressive congregation to put stakes down in that project’s emerging blended neighborhood when Temple built its new home in the Sterling Ridge Development near 132nd and Pacific Streets.

Open just over a year, the Temple site will soon be joined by a mosque. If Countryside Community Church decides to be the Christian partner in this interfaith troika it would build a neighboring church there.

On his trip Azriel says people embraced Tri-Faith’s vision of unity but their experience with discord tells them its unattainable.

“They cannot understand because of their conditions how it is possible,” he says. “I mean, there’s such a level of futility in the midst of war in believing in and talking about dreams such as the dream of the Tri-Faith. But they were very eager to listen. I told them the story. I told them about the neighborhood we want to create here.

“They definitely all wished me good luck – being skeptical at the same time. I feel really privileged we can do it in Omaha. Of all the places in the world maybe this is the place one can actually make it work.”

It hurt the heart of this Tel Aviv native to be in his homeland when the simmering Israel-Palestine conflict boiled over into full-scale military actions in the Gaza Strip. Those hostilities continue today.

He stayed in Jerusalem, where he was among invited clergy for a Shalom Hartman Institute seminar on, ironically enough, war and peace. He and some colleagues went to the funeral of the three boys.

“I don’t remember ever such a large funeral because people came from all over the world. We heard the eulogies. It was devastating. I mean, those kids were our kids. It was similar to how I felt about the news of the Arab boy.”

Azriel joined colleagues to attend the youth’s memorial.

“We went to the suburb where the child’s home was. They built a big tent outside the house because there were so many visitors. The father and other family members were sitting there welcoming people. We shook hands and expressed sadness.”

Ever since the missiles began flying, Israel’s retaliated with massive air and ground strikes. Thousands of Palestinians have been killed or injured – thousands more, left homeless.

“I don’t know what will happen with Gaza,” Azriel laments. “I don’t what else there is to destroy. A terrible thing.”

Ceasefires brokered by the international community and peace negotiations led by Egypt and Arab nations have repeatedly broken down. Meanwhile, the nearby anti-Semitic states of Syria and Iraq are devolving in the face of Isis and Jihadists. The perpetually insecure Middle East has perhaps never been so unstable.

During his stay Azriel, whose parents still live in Israel, went through a range of emotions.

“I don’t remember those kinds of events happening in Israel growing up. I saw a level of racism and hate on the part of some Israelis after the three boys were kidnapped that I had never witnessed before.”

He decries Hamas for going too far as well.

“This time Hamas had the guts to fire on holy sites. It was something completely new for us. Usually the safest place to be in Israel during war is Jerusalem. This time they went a little bit crazy. They wanted to show how far the missiles can go.”

The blame goes in all directions: “The Middle East is filled with crazy people from all sides, all religions, all colors.”

The tranquil getaway Azriel expected didn’t materialize.

“It wasn’t the way I was planning it. You can’t have peace of mind in the middle of war. To see the funerals of Israeli soldiers and the death and destruction in Gaza – those are things no human being can stay ambivalent to. So many innocent people dead. It’s very hard.

“I know how it impacted my family. To wake up your parents at 2 o’clock in the morning – my father is 89, my mother is 84 – and to tell them to get dressed and go to a shelter. My father comes to me and says, ‘Are you out of your mind, why are you waking me up? I’m 89, I had a full life, I don’t care…’ Then I’m ready leave to go back to America and my father turns to me and says, ‘You know, it is possible this is the last time we’ll see each other,’ and then I fly home with this for 18 hours. Those things left a very heavy burden on me.”

Azriel expressed his heavy heart in a sermon at Temple upon his Omaha return to Omaha, saying he felt “hope, sadness, anger, guilt, loneliness, frustration, determination and despair.”

“On the one hand I am constantly reminded of the great Israeli phrase which translated, goes, ‘We got through Pharaoh, we can get through this.’ I do, however, also ask myself, will it ever end, and will it ever get better? Are we destined to live by the sword? Are we ever going to know peace? At times I feel really strong. At times I feel so weak…

“This is our home and even when it is tough at home, when our home is in danger, we do not walk away, we will not walk away.”

A new resolve by Israel’s pro-American Arab neighbors to help facilitate a lasting accord has Azriel optimistic.

“I actually look at this war still going on as an amazing opportunity to start a whole different order in the Middle East. There is such a different level of negotiation as a result of Egypt as well as Saudi Arabia,, Jordan and other Arab countries interested finally in brining it to an end. They’re the ones that can affect a better change. It has to be done in a genuine, original, authentic way with the people involved in the region.

They’re willing to put money for the first time for construction to rebuild Gaza and help with humanitarian need.

“I think before it gets better it gets worse even with America and the United Nations intervening. Then I think there’s a possibility for more seriousness in negotiating a two-state solution.”

He’s optimistic, too, the Tri-Faith campus will be realized.

“The excitement, the drive, the motivation is so alive, is so there. No one is giving up on any of this. It’s fantastic.”

“What is most remarkable about Rabbi Azriel, Areyh to his friends, is his passion for the people and the mission he cares for .His love for people knows no boundary. Race, relegion or status are foriegn to him,” says Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, president of the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture that’s building the mosque.

Fundraising for the mosque is being led by a Jew, Vic Gutman, and is nearly complete. Azriel expects Countryside members to vote yes to its church’s participation. The annual Tri-Faith picnic hosted by Temple Israel drew hundreds in August. This fall a Neighbor to Neighbor program will bring 30 families – 10 from each faith group – together for communal dinners to promote understanding among neighbors.

“It will be an opportunity to go deeper and deeper into why this is so important,” Azriel says.

Visit http://trifaith.org.

Educator Ferial Pearson’s Secret Kindness Agents project now a book; Random acts of kindness prove healing and habit-forming

September 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Ferial Pearson is an award-winning educator  highly regarded for her work with students who can use some extra TLC.  An experiment in kindness she launched in a metro Omaha classroom proved healing and habit-forming.  Pearson challenged her Avenue Scholars at Ralston High School to become Secret Kindness Agents performing anonymous good deeds at therir school.  To her surprise the students ran with the idea, taking it well beyond what she imagined.  The experience is told in a new book, Secret Kiindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change the World.

 

 

 

 

 

Educator Ferial Pearson’s Secret Kindness Agents project now a book; Random acts of kindness prove healing and habit-forming

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared online at http://www.thereader.com

 

When the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy happened Ferial Pearson searched for answers and hope. Her bullied young son provided both when he revealed being comforted by her felt better than staying mad.

That got Pearson, an award-winning local educator, thinking bullying and violence might be avoided through kindness. On Pinterest she found an envelope labeled “random act of kindness assignment.” That led her in 2013 to propose a Secret Kindness Agents project to her junior class of Avenue Scholars at Ralston High School.

Doing character-building projects is old hat for Pearson, who went by Mama Beast to her students’ Baby Beasts. She didn’t know how the teens, who’ve since graduated, would respond. All came from challenging backgrounds. Several identified as gay or lesbian and were the target of bullies. She’d hand-out weekly assignments for students to anonymously complete at school – from sitting with someone they didn’t know to picking up trash to writing notes of appreciation.

To her delight the students embraced the idea, even expanding on it, though for some it meant overcoming doubt or embarrassment. The project took on a life of its own and helped students heal, develop confidence and become like family.

“When you’re a teacher you’re used to kids saying, ‘Well, how many points is this worth?’ or ‘Why should I do this if I’m not going to get a grade?’ but they didn’t have any of that kind of a response. It was, ‘We want to go further then what you want.’ They’re great kids.”

The story of how the project inspired and impacted participants is told in the new book, Secret Kindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change the World.
Pearson was joined by some former students – she now teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha – at an August 31 signing at The Tea Smith, 78th and Dodge.

 

 

 

 Ferial Pearson

 

 

 

For the students who took on this let’s-show-a little-kindness role, the experience went well beyond a class project.

“For me, being a Secret Kindness Agent was so much more then doing the assignments each week,” Alyssa Schimbeck says. “I went out of my way to do things for others.

Things as simple as grabbing the door or picking up things people dropped. After everything was over I still found myself being kind to others.”

When Pearson followed up a year later she found the kindness habit ingrained in many Agents, some saying they routinely performed random caring acts, with no expectation of recognition or reciprocation.

“And they’re still doing stuff,” Pearson notes proudly.

Schimbeck describes being at a bowling alley when fellow Agent Lance Otto retrieved a toy bull from a claw machine and gave it to her. Later, she noticed a little girl try but fail to win the same toy, whereupon Schimbeck gave the girl hers.

“It was extremely heartwarming to know the little girl would love that bull more then I would and it brought back all the good feelings from the project. Taking part in it reminded me even the simplest act of kindness can change someone’s life.”

Mackenzie Carlson began as a project detractor.

“I thought it was a terrible idea. My first assignment was to write a letter to an administrator, so I naturally picked the one no one liked, who I just happen to adore. I told her although she is not the most popular…she is doing a great job. I received a letter back saying how much she appreciated the note and how it helped her get through a bad day.

That it meant a lot to hear a student give her positive affirmation.

“At that moment my view on the whole project changed. It made me believe our own pride stops us from helping others. I still have that letter. I read it when I want to believe there is no good left in the world.”

What Pearson calls “the ripple effect” took hold while the project was still in its infancy. The students decided they needed an oath to recite and borrowing from the Green Lantern they crafted one:

I accept wholeheartedly
To fulfill my kindly duties in the most secret way
No good act, no kindness shall escape my sight
Beware our kindness; S.K.A.s’ might!

The class adopted code names to protect anonymity. The students didn’t stop there.

“They found YouTube videos on acts of kindness, they started bringing in social justice songs and stories all tying into kindness. All of it inspired me, too. I was noticing acts of kindness, making sure I was thanking people,” Pearson says.

An entire ritual formed around each week’s assignment.

Then Caslyn Lange asked Pearson’s help to fulfill an act of kindness outside the regular ones. She wanted to give a note of appreciation and $25 to a student who never gets noticed. When Pearson asked staff for nominations, she got several names and donations, resulting in nine students each receiving a note, $25 and Taco Bell coupons.

As Lange wanted her happiness “spread out” by seeing people’s reactions, Pearson enlisted staff to summon the unsuspecting recipients to report to the main office. She and Lange were there to witness the looks of surprise, joy and gratitude on students’ faces.

Other students initiated their own kindness acts as well.

“Even though they were drawing assignments every week they were doing stuff on their own in addition to that,” Pearson says admiringly of her kindness entrepreneurs.

When WriteLife.com publisher Cindy Grady saw Pearson’s posts about the project striking a chord with students she encouraged a book. Grady published an earlier book by Pearson and her then-class at Omaha South High School entitled In My Shoes. Pearson was hesitant but her Ralston students were not. When Pearson suggested proceeds go to a charity, the students elected the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation knowing one of their own, Triston Herring, is diabetic.

“It was really cool to see them vote for JDRF because he was the one who nominated it. They understood what it meant to him. It was a huge show of support.”
Soon after Ralston Public Schools officials found out about the book assistant superintendent Kristi Gibbs authorized 500 copies be purchased.

“We overwhelmingly were impressed with the work of our students and staff,” Gibbs says, “and we wanted to share the project with the entire district to showcase teachers and students from Ralston Public Schools. Our goal is to share wonderful ideas and practices …and the amazing lengths students and staff take to develop a sense of community and belonging.

“The response has been overwhelming.”

After a district event at which Pearson and two Agents spoke they “got hugs, kind words and wonderful notes.”

Gibbs says some Ralston teachers are planning their own SKA projects. Two teachers with close ties to Pearson are planning an SKA project in the Bryan Middle School homeroom they share. Pearson also hears about teachers doing similar programs around the country.

The project lives on in other ways, too.

“It keeps coming back to me,” Pearson says. “I keep thinking about it every time something horrible happens again. That’s what keeps me from spiraling to where I just want to hide and keep my kids with me and never let them go out into the world. It reminds me there are good people out there, there are good things, there is hope.

“My Agents realized it feels better to be kind when you’re in a bad mood than it does to lash out. They are out there now having that ripple effect to make somebody else feel better.”

The book’s available online and at select bookstores.

 

 

Omaha North superstar back Calvin Strong overcomes bigger obstacles than tacklers; Record-setting rusher poised to lead defending champion Vikings to another state title

August 29, 2014 Leave a comment

Omaha high school and greater Nebraska prep football programs have a tradition of producing running backs who go on to play in college, including a pipeline from Central High to the University of Nebraska, though in the last decade or so that tradition has been interrupted and that pipleline has dried up.  That may be changing.  The premier high school back in the state right now, at least in terms of the eye-popping numbers he puts up, is Omaha North senior Calvin Strong, the subject of this profile for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  He became the state’s first back to reach 3,000 yards in a season when he rushed for 3,008 yards and scored 43 touchdowns in leading his Vikings to the state Class A championship in 2013.   He is not alone.  Just the other night Central’s Tre Sanders exploded for 279 yards, including a handful of breakaway runs, in the Eagles opening game win over Lincoln North Star.  Sanders and Strong have size working against them.  The former is listed at 5’8, 160 pounds and the latter at 5’9, 175 pounds, neither measurement lines that would preclude them being recruited by FBS schools, but it just might put some off.  Sanders has a measurable advantage over Strong in that his 40 yard dash time is listed at 4.4 seconds while Strong, a notoriously poor tester in the 40, can only muster a 4.6 or 4.7.  While there’s some interest in Sanders to be sure and much more might be coming his way if he keeps producing the way he did in the opener, Strong has even more interest, but he surprised a lot of folks when he recently gave a verbal commit to South Dakota.  The Coyotes were on him a long time, yes, and they had extended the only outright offer to Strong, that’s true, but according to North Coach Larry Martin there was a lot of interest in the player from FBS and FCS schools, only they were waiting to see how Strong performed again on the field this season and more importantly how he performed in the classroom and on the ACT, because his academics have been a problem.  Strong could always change his mind, of course, and end up going to a football factory, but it might just be his comfort level was the deciding factor and he wanted to take a relatively sure thing rather than sweat out his grades and test scores and see what other offers came his way.  Whatever happens, it doesn’t appear that Strong or Sanders or any of the other in-state prep backs are likely to be D-I sensations the way Gale Sayers, Joe Orduna, Keith Jones, Calvin Jones, Ahman Green, Kenton Keith were.  But maybe, just maybe, Strong can be the next Danny Woodhead, who was snubbed by the big schools because of his small stature and less than electrifying speed and set small college records on his way to the NFL.  Of course, as my article goes into, Strong has even more serious things to worry about, like staying clear of the gang culture that surrounds him in his inner city neighborhood and that has claimed some of his friends.

Strong and his Vikings open their season tonight, Friday, August 29, at home against Millard West.

 

 

 

 

Omaha North superstar back Calvin Strong overcomes bigger obstacles than tacklers                                                                                                                               Record-setting rusher poised to lead defending champion Vikings to another state title

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha North running back sensation and recent South Dakota verbal commit Calvin Strong put up sick numbers last season leading his school to its first state football title in the playoff era. His 3,008 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns set state and metro single season Class A records, shattering anything done by past star Omaha prep backs such as Gale Sayers and Ahman Green.

Despite measuring 5’9, 175 pounds, he runs like his name, strong, right into the heart of defenses, where his uncanny vision and agility allow him to avoid big hits. Even when he does run into contact he breaks tackles thanks to his superb balance, low center of gravity and ample strength. With his legs churning forward and his head on a swivel, he probes for creases, then spins, darts. bounces, bursts through heavy traffic into open lanes for big gains.

Known for a positive attitude, ready smile and being a vocal, emotional team leader, he saves his best moves for the off-field. There he does a precarious dance to avoid the gang-banging culture around him.

Strong and his pre-season No. 1 Vikings play Friday night’s season opener at home versus Millard West. All eyes will be on the senior when he touches the ball, which figures to be a lot given his 27-plus carries per game average last year. His 3,000 yard season came on the heels of a nearly 1,900 yard sophomore campaign, when he led North to the title game only to fall just short. He’s a two-time first-team all-state selection.

For someone with his credits it’s unusual he only had one college offer – from South Dakota. It may be more unusual yet he accepted it with a resume-enhancing session before him. North Head Coach Larry Martin confirms “there was a ton of interest out there” from FBS and FCS schools. Programs held off because Strong’s struggled academically and he’s posted sub-par 40-yard dash times (4.6-4.7) at camps.

The South Dakota commitment took Martin by surprise, though he confirms the school showed the most consistent interest in Strong. Martin, who’s “extremely close” to Strong and his family, said only two weeks ago, “I know he’s on a lot of people’s boards and people are waiting to see where all the intangibles measure out. Everybody wants to know where he’s at academically. Right now he’s a non-qualifier. If he was a qualifier, he’d have more offers right now. Somebody’s going to take him and is going to get a helluva running back.”

The pressure to perform well in the classroom and on standardized tests has sometimes gotten the better of Strong, whose commitment eases one stressor.

“He’s broke down on me multiple times about it,” Martin says.

Then there was the out-of-school suspension Strong served earlier this year for unspecified reasons. Martin says Strong put it behind him.

“He handled what he had to work through like a man. He came back and went right to work and he had his best summer since he’s been here. I thought our teachers did a great job of getting him his homework. He’s a very genuine young man. If he tells you he’s going to do something he’s going to follow through and do it. His word means something to him. I feel real confident with what I’ve seen. He’s learned from his mistakes, been apologetic for it, and moved on.”

 

 

 

Strong’s a celebrity wherever he goes in North Omaha and Martin believes even though the player is humble, a sense of entitlement creeped in.

“Sometimes kids think they can get away with a little bit more because of their status and I think he got caught up in that. I think he’s understanding that consequences apply to everybody.”

Martin has been pleased with Strong’s progress in and out of school and feels he’s prepared himself for what comes next.

“He has the grades – we’ve just got to get the ACT score up and we’ve taken the measures to get that headed in the right direction. God bless he stays healthy he’s going to be one of the more decorated football players coming out of this state in quite a few years.”

There’s never been any doubt, barring injury, Strong would play somewhere on a big stage at the next level. He may have a chance of being an impact player there, too. Of course, it’s always possible Strong could de-commit from the Coyotes and go to a football factory. It that happens, it would make him the first local back in a while to breakthrough after decades of guys doing it.

His coach won’t venture to guess, but Strong may even follow the path of two recent North players, in Niles Paul and Philip Bates, who went D-I and landed in the NFL. The path to the NFL doesn’t need to go through a big program either. Just ask Bates (Ohio) and Danny Woodhead (Chadron State).

The fact that Strong is even in this position is an achievement worth celebrating if for no other reason than he’s escaped the fate of friends lost to guns and gangs.

That harsh street life co-exists with his sometimes storybook, folk hero saga.

His school is in a neighborhood – Strong lives just down the hill from North – beset by poverty and crime. Drug dealing and turf wars pose dangers. Minus boundaries, gang culture exerts a pull. Strong, like his name, has stood firm against the allure and trap of that lifestyle, one that cost at least six of his buddies’ their lives. He continues knowing people caught up in it. He’s flirted with it himself. But he’s made known he wants nothing to do with it. The Gs know he’s off-limits.

“I still have friends that are in the gang life or whatever but they know and I know where I need to be at. It’s really not hard to x that stuff out of my life because I know and they know what I got going for myself and what’s in store for me,” Strong says.

“My freshman year I was pulled to doing dumb things but I’ve matured throughout these years to know what’s right from wrong, so I’ve been keeping myself away. Basically this whole summer I’ve just been with my coaches and teammates. I really ain’t been focused on anything else but football and studies so I can get to college.”

Martin’s aware of the pressures Strong faces. The coach and his family offer a respite when Calvin needs it.

“There is a pull and you can’t ignore it but he’s got his outs and when things get a little bit tough he calls coach and he comes stays with us, sometimes for a couple nights. We’re more than happy to provide that for him because he is a high quality young man.

“It’s also just to help take the burden off the family.”

In Martin, Strong appreciates he has a mentor and advocate, saying, “The only pressure that’s on me right now is finishing what he’s helped me with. Me and him have always had a relationship outside football. I’ll go to his house, chill out, eat steak. I’m like one of his own kids. He’s like a second dad to me. He’s always been there for me through anything. He has my back and I have his.

“He’s a real special guy and I give my heart to him. He’s prepared us for life, not just football. His speeches, they really just get to you, they spark something in you.”

Martin sees Strong mostly doing the right things these days.

“He’s really worked hard in terms of making sure he’s doing everything he can to make the right decisions. We’re just here to help continue to support him, provide him more options. Our total pursuit is to get that college education.”

 

 

 

Strong lives at home with his father, Calvin Strong Sr., and his younger brother, Jordan Strong. As a 6’2, 250 pound sophomore nose guard, Strong’s 15-year-old “little brother” is already getting hard looks from colleges. Because of his size, Jordan’s always played a couple grade levels up from his age group and thus he and his superstar older brother have been teammates growing up. The siblings are cogs in what may be a dynasty for years to come given the talent-rich depth and winning habits Martin’s built-up.

Calvin himself is only 17, so he may be fill out some come college, though in today’s sprint offenses size isn’t the factor it used to be.

Martin has always said, “it’s going to be about finding the right fit for him. I think people want to see him one more year. He did what he needed to do this summer and then we’ll let the first three or four games take care of themselves.  We’ve got tough games right away – we open up with Millard West and Burke. If he does well in those games people are going to want to see that film.”

Among other things coaches will see, Martin says, is a dynamic back who’s “motivated and very competitive,” adding, “The one concern the bigger schools have is his top-end speed. Calvin just doesn’t test well in the 40. But I don’t know that top-end speed has to be the number one factor. He has so many other things he can do. Number one, he doesn’t turn the ball over. I mean, he just doesn’t fumble. He has taken extremely good care of the football. I think he has great vision. I think he anticipates where things are going to come open so well. He’s very durable. He’s elusive – he can make guys miss. He’s got great hips. His core and overall body strength is very good. His feet never stop moving, they’re constantly going.”

Strong has the ability to read defenses and anticipate where trouble lurks and then when things break down to change direction on a dime.
He says, “I see how everybody’s lined up. It’s really hard to tackle me unless the play gets all bunched up. I just keep my eyes focused and I shut everything else out, and once I break everything comes back loud again, all the screaming, and I can relax and have fun after I’ve gotten a first down or I’ve scored.

“Plus, I’m real small and my linemen are really big, so it’s good I can hide behind ‘em and just choose where I can break off. It makes it real difficult for the linebackers to read me.”

He acknowledges he’s also run behind an exceptional line anchored by Nebraska commit and fellow all-stater Michael Decker, who returns.

But not every defender’s blocked every play and Strong doesn’t back down from the one-on-one challenge of a backer trying to blow him up.

“I’m just a real strong small guy – I don’t take nothing from nobody. Playing against some of the biggest linebackers in the state I’ve always gone heads up with ‘em, I never try to fall down when they’re coming – I take it to ‘em. I’m a small back but I’m going to show you I have power. I’m not afraid of contact.”

The contact part is funny because Strong confirms he once hated even the idea of being tackled before playing organized football. His dad and uncle forced him to play to toughen him up. His first full year at running back for the Little Vikes, after a year wasted on the line, he’d curl up to avoid hits but after dominating the youth ranks he decided the contact was no big deal, though he rarely took a clean hit. When tackled today he takes it as a personal defeat, which only makes him come back harder the next time. At the end of the day his heart and will are what separate him from others.

“I feel like that’s what it is because I want it more than a lot of people. I’m always competitive. Everything is competition to me.”

 

 

 

 

 

As for his less than stellar 40 clocking, he discounts it with, “My speed and everything shows on the field.” Indeed, he’s rarely if ever caught from behind.  Martin, who coached current NFL players Phil Bates and Niles Paul, is waiting to see what Strong shows this year before comparing him to those elite athletes.

“I’ll know a lot more with him after our first couple games. You know, we tell our kids that the guys from North who’ve made it to the next level are the hardest working players every day. I will say Calvin’s work ethic has definitely increased. I think we’ve got him to the point where he understands if he wants to be the elite of the elite then he needs to continue to work harder.”

Besides what’s on the line for him personally, Strong’s dedicated himself to getting North back to the title game again.

“I worked very hard. I’m determined this year to come out with a real big bang. I really want that ring again. I really want that experience again.”

He’s aware no Omaha Public Schools team has made it to three straight finals games and he wants North to be the first to do it.

The North program’s come to the point where winning’s the expectation. Playing for the title two years ago and then winning the championship last year has meant a huge boost in confidence.

“It really set the bar for us,” Strong says. “Now nobody can really bring us down. Nobody can say they’re better than us. Nobody can say anything about us being an underdog team because we showed we’ve climbed all those obstacles. It was very heartwarming to me because we’d been talking about it since my freshman year and just to have it after we should have had it my sophomore year was really nice.”

Strong’s also keenly aware of his role model and celebrity status. He still finds all the attention, as in everyone from children to adults wanting his autograph or screaming his name, a bit surreal, saying, “It’s crazy.” He adds, “There’s not a lot of 17-year olds that can give little kids hope.”

The importance he attaches to his gift for football as his gateway out of The Hood is clearly reflected in a Tweet he made:

“If I didn’t have this I’d be nothing. That’s why thrive (sic) to be the best to do it.”

The way he sees it, realizing his dreams also honors the memory of his late friends who encouraged him to pursue football as far it would take him. Strong was en route to a game two years ago when he got word his friend Tyler had shot himself in the head playing Russian Roulette. He found out during the game Tyler died from his wounds.

In a Tweet, Strong wrote:

“Rip to my brother Tyler Brent Hickerson
When I die I want my BROTHERS walking my casket down …the ones who stood next to me when I once stood#cant get know Realer
If only u was here to see me shine … I miss u”

Strong’s grown up a Husker fan and Nebraska definitely has him on their radar. The only camp he attended this past summer was in Lincoln, where he’s got to know NU’s premier back, Ameer Abdullah, to whom he’s often compared. Before saying yes to South Dakota Strong hinted he’d like to reestablish the once continuous running back pipeline there from Omaha that’s gone dry the last decade-and-a-half.

He said, “I’d love to keep it in state just to show everybody how good North Omaha competition is. Playing for Nebraska would make a lot of people happy in Omaha.”

If Strong were to renege and select another school’s offer, assuming one’s proffered, there’s still those test scores. Martin felt the junior college route was a distinct possibility for Strong. His own son, Zach Martin, who quarterbacked North to the 2012 title game, is thriving at Iowa Western Community College, which sends many players to D-I.

Once Strong’s South Dakota decision sunk in, Martin understood it because the player’s developed a trust with the Coyote coaches that reminds him of what Strong has with him and his coaches at North.

“Calvin and his family mean so much to me, he’s almost like my own son. My message to Calvin has always been I will find a place that’s going to be the right fit for you. I’m just not going to turn you over to somebody that hasn’t invested that much time in you. We’re going to take care of you.”

He says for nearly every dream Strong wants to accomplish, South Dakota will be able to provide that for him. If not, Martin’s sure there are plenty of other places that will fit the bill.

Stay strong, Calvin, stay strong.

North hosts No. 3 Millard West this Friday at Kinnick Stadium on the Northwest High campus. Kickoff is for 7 p.m.

JOURNEYS: Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo calls African Grasslands Project the Metro’s Next Big Thing

August 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo is a big deal.  We’re talking one of America’s Top 100 attractions with annual attendance near two million and a large gallery of state of the art indoor exhibits to complement its outdoor viewing areas.  In the next year the zoo will introduce a huge new outdoor African Grasslands exhibit that should boost attendance to a whole new level.  As my new story for thr Metro Magazine describes, the grasslands project’s natural habitats, diverse species, intimate observation points, and built-in education components will give visitors an upclose experience with and appreciation for an African wilderness environment that comes as close as possible to the real thing.

JOURNEYS: African Safari

 

JOURNEYS: Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo calls African Grasslands Project The Next Big Thing

 

Who ARE these people? Susan Baer-Collins and Carl Beck retire

 

 

 

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium calls its coming African Grasslands project the next big thing for Omaha. It’s certainly that and then some in terms of the $70 million it will cost to transform 28 acres into an equatorial savannah experience in the Midwest.

The exhibit will open in two phases in 2016. Omaha-based Kiewit Construction, which realized the Zoo’s existing big ticket immersive exhibits, will lead construction. Work begins in earnest this fall.

The project’s the next big step for the Zoo in educating visitors about the conservation research work it does here and around the world. Ongoing education efforts include classes for youth ages 3 to 18, day camps, interpretive tours and safari-eco adventure trips.

The Zoo’s Jungle, Desert Dome and Aquarium exhibits are indoor immersive experiences that recreate ecosystems within four walls. The Grasslands will be a sprawling natural mosaic that puts you in an open-air expanse where elephants – slated to return after a long absence – rhinos, impalas, giraffe and other iconic African animals roam.

“For the first time we’re going to transport you outdoors to another world,” executive director and CEO Dennis Pate says. “What you’re going to see and feel is going to come closer to understanding what the savannah is like without us saying a word.”

Pate says the Grasslands will come as close as an urban zoo can get to replicating the experience of exotic mixed species inhabiting the wild.

 

OUT ON SAFARI

A group from Omaha recently returned from a two-week Zoo-organized safari to Botswana and Zambia, one way the institution tries building awareness and appreciation of endangered habitats and species.

Participants of the May safari, which featured former Zoo director Lee Simmons and his wife Marie as escorts, won’t soon forget the breathtaking scenes they witnessed.

“What I brought home is the sacred peace of sounds that come only from the inhabitants of Africa, the interconnectedness of all creatures for survival and seeing the variety of animals,” Ann Pape says.

The trip satisfied a Bucket List wish for Jean Bell, who says the experience impressed upon her “how very important” it is these wild environments and species “be preserved and that humans “are really the only ones who can make that happen.”

Ellen Wright says, “People often take for granted these majestic and remarkable creatures will always be with us but when you are exposed to the devastating toll of poaching and to the human effect on the land you realize all this beauty could disappear unless we act now.”

 

BRINGING IT ALL CLOSER

As most folks will never go on an actual African safari, the Zoo tries giving visitors increasingly authentic, intimate experiences in their own backyard. The goal is to display how these animals function in the wild as well as how they are cared for and protected. Interactive demonstration areas in the Grasslands exhibit will allow the public for the first time to observe staff conducting animal welfare maintenance, such as checking the condition of teeth and feet.

Interpreting the natural world indoors is one challenge but doing it outdoors, at scale, is a whole other challenge.

“It’s harder to do because you can’t control everything,” says Pate.

 

EVOLVING EXPANSION

Construction will move many tons of dirt to reconfigure hilly old grounds and contour them into the gradually sloped savannah. Buildings will be recessed behind trees and landforms to obscure them, with the exception of a new African game lodge-inspired structure. Overlooks will provide visitors with panoramic views.

It’s all part of the evolution of zoos.

“For the past 25 years what we’ve been doing as opposed to simply displaying animals in cages or pens is to try to present animals in their ecosystems and give people a chance to actually experience that ecosystem,” says Simmons, now chairman of the Zoo Foundation. During his long tenure as Zoo director he initiated the institution’s staggering growth that shows no signs of stopping. “Anytime you get people in the same environment with the animals it does make a difference. To see an animal from a distance through bars, a fence or glass is a lot different than being able to get up close and personal.

“What we’re really interested in is the experience and what people come away with.”

 

EVOLVING EXPERIENCE

Omaha Zoo Foundation director Tina Cherica says, “We’re trying to create an experience that will make people actually care about the realties these animals face in their natural habitats.”

“Zoos have become kind of giant classrooms,” Simmons says, “but we preach this two dollar Sunday sermon by osmosis. We want people to come in and have a really good experience, realize they suddenly know something more than they did, and come away feeling they need to support conservation of habitat.”

Simmons says the state of wildlife conservation is a mixed bag.

“The good thing about a lot of places in the world is that the locals on the ground have realized eco tourism has a very important economic and political impact. There are areas we go back to that are being managed significantly better than they were when we first started leading safaris 30 years ago. There are some that are not and we don’t go to those anymore.”

He says in addition to the destruction of habit by human encroachment, poaching of elephants and rhinos is “rampant.”

 

EVOLVING AWARENESS

Pate says zoos like Omaha’s are perhaps best positioned to educate the public about these challenges.

“On average 96 elephants a day are killed in Africa and one really large bull was just poached in a national park, and so it’s a huge problem. The decline in elephants has been pretty radical. Rhinos are in even worse shape. If we as zoos don’t bring this to the public then there’s very little likelihood they’re going to appreciate the diversity of species alive in the world today.

“I think these problems are being day-lighted through what zoos are doing. People learn that the zoo they support is playing a role in trying to stem some of those problems.”

Cherica says, “I think it brings it home to people. When you see a news story, you’re so far removed from that reality. When you come to your zoo and see these animals and learn about the work we’re doing, then all of a sudden there’s more of a personal connection. This is an opportunity to take a venue with 1.7 million visitors a year and use it as a learning experience to create that personal connection.”

“The new move is to not only show people these animals but to talk about their plight and what the local zoo is doing to assist them,” Pate says. “That makes us really unique. There’s a  lot of conservation organizations but very few have a place to be able to talk about it with the public. We have a place where we educate millions of people.”

Pate says the Omaha Zoo “has a strong record of conservation and we’re going to begin talking a lot more about what we do in the wild.” He adds, “A modern zoo does more than just take care of its own animals, it takes care of animals wherever they are in the world. That’s evolving and we’re going to be at the point of that sphere. It’s part of feeling a greater responsibility toward animals in general, whether they’re in zoos or in the wild.”

Simmons says, “We’ve been doing our bit, not just in Omaha. We’ve had a very active conservation program going for the last 30 years.”

The Center for Conservation Research based in Omaha employs several PhD scientists who spend months at a time in the field.

“We’ve had people actively in the field doing conservation in South Africa and East Africa and particularly in Madagascar,” he says. “We’ve got permanent and temporary establishments in Madagascar all focused on conservation, lemurs primarily, but also habitat, reforestation, turtles, frogs, bats and a whole lot of other things. We send people to many places. We’ve contributed a lot to the conservation of Siberian tigers and Amur leopards in far Eastern Russia, both by sending people to do training there and bringing Russian biologists to do training here. We’ve also brought Chinese and Vietnamese here. We have also trained scientists, researchers and interns from over 40 countries here.”

Pate says tying all the threads of this story together “starts with not necessarily the science or the slaughter, it starts with an emotional attachment to a living being – not ones you see on television or read about in a newspaper.” “That’s why it’s important for us to have kindergarten kids through here. It’s why we do day camps. It’s why we have a high school,” he says. “That emotional connection starts early. Then we can build on it with the science. It’s nice to go a little deeper with these animals and talk about what’s affecting them in the wild and how our zoo is helping them and their counterparts in the wild. That’s the exciting part – the whole interpretive story.”

A quarter million youth annually participate in Zoo education programs.

Ellen Wright, a longtime donor and Zoofari volunteer, says the need for conservation education cuts across all ages. “The African Grasslands project is crucial for engaging the widest possible audience and building awareness of the conservation challenges here and around the world.”

Her passion’s shared by many. Much of the work Cherica and Simmons do through the Omaha Zoo Foundation is to cultivate donors to make a wish-list of major projects possible. When pitching projects Simmons knows he’s struck a chord when “the donor’s eyes light up” and that’s happened enough to realize a string of multimillion dollar undertakings.

 

SHARED TRUST

Another indicator of people’s embrace of the Zoo is the mass of humanity that streams through its gates – enough to make it the top tourist destination in the region. It also boasts a membership of 72,000 households, which translates to about a third of the metro’s population.

“We’ve got way, way more zoo than you would remotely expect in a community this size,” Simmons says. “It’s because the community has been supportive. We have had the highest attendance and membership in North America (among zoos) as a percentage of our metro population base.”

Cherica says that same loyalty is born of trust.

“The community has a lot of confidence in us because we deliver on what we say we’re going to deliver, so over time that’s instilled not only community pride but donor confidence to continue reinvesting in what we’re doing here.”

Being a well-run venue helps.

“Since 1970 we’ve never run an operating deficit,” Simmons says. “We had our first positive year in 1970 and we’ve been positive ever since.
And we’ve brought every project in on time and on budget.”

No endeavor has been as big as the Grasslands project.

“We knew it was going to be a challenge,” Cherica says. “It’s twice as much as any project we’ve done to date but we’re confident in the donor community and in their ability to push this forward. We fully expect the project will be funded by the end of the year.”

“The community support here is unusual and it makes it a highly attractive place to work,” says Pate, who came to Omaha five years ago from the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. “The opportunity to affect that many millions of people is pretty incredible. There’s space, there’s money, there’s its place in the community, there’s the conservation research and welfare of animals. It all comes together.”

Follow Grasslands progress at http://www.omahazoo.com.

“A modern zoo does more than just take care of its own animals, it takes care of animals wherever they are in the world. That’s evolving and we’re going to be at the point of that sphere. It’s part of feeling a greater responsibility toward animals in general, whether they’re in zoos or in the wild.”

~ DENNIS PATE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AND CEO

Cover Photo

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