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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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
Change Agent: Mark Evans leads OPS on bold new course full of changes in his first year as Omaha Public Schools’ superintendent
The Omaha Public Schools District deals with the diversity, needs, and challenges that any large urban school distrect does but it has had more than its share of infighting, controversy, and push back in recent years, much of it revolving around an administration deemed distant and unresponsive. As the following profile of new OPS Superintendnet Mark Evans indicates, there’s a new approach at the top, starting with him, as he has ushered in sweeping changes, much of them having to do with the district being more transparent and inclusive. This change agent has led the development of a new strategic plan among many other transformative actions. My piece is now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Mark Evans, ©ketv.com
Change Agent: Mark Evans leads OPS on bold new course full of changes in his first year as Omaha Public Schools’ superintendent
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When Mark Evans accepted the job of Omaha Public Schools superintendent in December 2012, he knew the mission would be immense in this sprawling urban district facing myriad challenges.
With 51,000 students spread out over 86 schools located in divergent environments ranging from inner city poverty to suburban affluence, the district responds to a wide spectrum of needs and issues. In his due diligence before starting the job he found the district’s good work often overshadowed by controversy and conflict due to an embattled school board and an aloof administration and no clear, unified vision.
Besides struggling to close the achievement gap of its majority minority student population, many of whom attend overcrowded, poorly resourced schools, the district reeled from internal rancor and scandal. Longtime district head John Mackiel exited with a $1 million retirement payout many viewed as excessive. His replacement, Nancy Sebring, quit when it came to light she’d exchanged sexually explicit emails with her lover during office hours at her previous employer. The often divisive OPS Board of Education and its handling of the matter drew sharp criticism that resulted in its president’s resignation. The perception was of deep rifts among OPS leaders who spent more time putting out fires than making systemic changes,
District elections turned over an almost entirely new board when Evans, who came to OPS from Kan,, officially started in 2013. The board has navigated a flood of changes that Evans has introduced in fulfilling a promise to shake things up and to address identified weaknesses in Neb.’s largest school district.
One of his first orders of business was conducting a needs assessment that sought broad community input. Feedback from parents, teachers, administrators and stakeholders shaped a new strategic plan for the district. The plan outlines strategies for better communication, more transparency and accountability, closer alignment of goals and greater classroom rigor. He reorganized district staff and created new positions in response to an expressed need for better support of schools. He’s overseen a new student assignment plan, a new hiring policy and a facilities wish-list for $630 million in upgrades.
Evans wants to stem the tide of students OPS loses to other districts, saying that’s difficult “if you don’t have room for them and many of our schools are just packed to the gills.” He adds, “You can’t compete with other districts unless you have facilities of similar caliber and we’re a real inequitable district today. About half our schools are beautiful facilities. The other half there’s a whole list of things that need to be worked on.” The facilities plan may go before voters as a bond issue.
He compares the task of changing the district’s direction to turning around an aircraft carrier at sea. As captain, he plots the course but he relies on a vast team to implement the necessary maneuvers. Evans began the turnaround even before he started.
“I didn’t start officially until July 1 but once I accepted the job I started visiting, collecting information, studying, so that when I did walk in the door I didn’t walk in cold. I walked in running because I’d already met staff and community. I’d purposely reached out. I had a very clearly laid out entry plan that described the things we were going to do.
“You have to have a real clear plan of how you’re going to implement this kind of stuff or you’re going to get lost and lose the prioritization. You’ve still got to do what you’ve been doing but do it better while doing these major lifts. So a lot of it has to do with prioritization and focus. A lot of it has to do with 60-plus hour work weeks.”
Evans likes what he sees on the horizon now that OPS has aligned goals at every level.
“We’ve not had a clearly defined destination until today. What you had was some schools saying, ‘This is my destination, this is what I think is most urgent,’ and they just kind of did it on their own. The difference today is we’ve got clear alignment and we’re creating a system that creates support and accountability throughout. Everyone’s success is contingent upon someone else’s success.
“Accountability is now built in because it’s on paper, it’s in writing:
Here’s your goal for graduation rate, here’s your goal for NESA scores, here’s your goal for the achievement gap…”
He says strategies are being honed “to create that same level of accountability” at all 86 schools and in every classroom.
“That’s the whole restructure piece we created. Principals told us, ‘We want more help in our schools,’ so we shut down a department in the district office and put 30 people out in schools. Then we created four executive directors of school support positions. Each is directly responsible for 21 schools. We spent all summer training them. They’re former star principals who serve at the cabinet level with me and top level staff. They look at the alignment of the big picture goals to the school improvement plan and help principals improve that. Everyone is working towards the same goals.”
He says until the strategic plan there wasn’t a coherent, clearly expressed vision “of where we’re at, where we’re going and how we’re trying to get there,” adding, “I think what I feel best about is we’ve created more transparency and communication from the get go because we asked people what are the strengths and needs of our district. We did forums, we did surveys, we used different tools on our website. That was the start of our saying, ‘We’re going to ask you first and then we’re going to use what you tell us to help us see our critical needs.’ To be honest, I already knew we had critical needs but it can’t be my plan, it’s gotta be our plan, it can’t be my thoughts, it has to be our thoughts, and the truth is most of where we ended up at I would have ended up at, too.”
Engaging people in the process, he says, “is much more powerful” and staff take more ownership for “achieving specific targets.” The changes have been welcomed by some and met with push-back by others. He jokingly says response is “somewhere between embrace and fisticuffs.”
He’s well aware steering this unwieldy district in a new direction will take time given its sheer size.
“You just have to know it’s a big journey.”
He left a good thing at the Andover (Kan.) school district to make this journey.
“I had a great job, we were making progress and nationally recognized. I’d been there eight years and I could have finished my career there fairly easily.”
He declined OPS overtures before throwing his hat in the ring.
“I knew what it was going to take to do something like this, so I said no twice. The third time they asked me to call some people I knew up here and I did and I heard positive things from them. They said to look beyond the headlines because the headlines had been pretty devastating. In my initial research I saw a mess beyond repair but the further I looked, and I still feel this way a year later, the mess has been at the 10,000 foot level – with the superintendent and the board. It’s about getting rid of the noise and distraction and chaos there.
“It wasn’t easy moving but at the end of the day I thought I could make a difference here. I know how to systemically build schools. Everywhere I’ve gone we’ve been able to have progress with kids because I understand how to bring a system together and to build teams and create collaborative decision makers.”
Making it easier for him to take the plunge was the community support he found here he didn’t find in Wichita, Kan., where he spent 20 years working in that city’s largest public school district.
“I’d spent most of my career in Wichita in a very similar setting – from the size of the schools to the number of employees to the demographics of the kids. But there is one significant difference and this is part of the reason I said yes – the community here is more supportive than Wichita is. This community still cares. People want OPS to be successful. There’s philanthropic support. There’s several foundations and individuals that care about OPS.”
Along with the deep pockets of the Sherwood and Lozier Foundations, OPS has relationships with mentoring initiatives like Building Bright Futures, Partnership 4 Kids and Teammates. Recognizing that many of its students live in poverty and test below grade level, the district partners with organizations on pre-K programs in an effort to get more at-risk children ready for school. New early childhood centers modeled after Educare are in the works with the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.
Evans champions community-driven endeavors aimed at improving student achievement and supporting schools because no district can do it alone, especially one as large and diverse as OPS.
“Not only is it 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 which is why we need community support. We have an increasing number of English as Second Language learners because we have a growing number of refugee families. These young people not only have language barriers but huge cultural barriers.
“We also have more young people coming to us with life challenges and neighborhood issues. Partnering with community groups makes a big difference with those extra challenges. What we’re trying to do in many situations is fill in gaps. Organizations are critical because we’re filling in more gaps than we have before.”
Those gaps extend to resources, such as high speed Internet access. Some kids have it at home and school, others don’t because their parents and schools can’t afford it.
He says the efficiencies possible in a corporate, cookie-cutter world don’t fit public schools because no two suppliers, i.e. parents, and no two products, i.e. students, present the same specs.
“We take whoever walks in the door and wherever they’re at is where we take them, whether they have special needs, language arts deficiencies or advanced skill sets. So school A and school B might look different, in fact they’ll inherently look different even though the summative assessments are still going to look the same with standardized testing and those kinds of things. We do have these summative tools that tell us something about whether a school is progressing or not.
“On the other hand, school A may be quite a bit different than school B because school A has 20 percent refugees with some very specific skill gaps and so how we support them and the grade level assessments tied to that curriculum are going to be a little different than school B which has no refugees, no ELA-ELL (English Language Acquisition-English Language Learner) students. Students in school B are prepared and ready for something much different than what students at school A are prepared and ready for. And so we demand that each school and each staff differentiates based on the needs of the young people. You do formative tests to get those early indicators of where are the skill gaps and how are we going to bridge those skill gaps.”
Differences aside, the same overarching goal apply to all schools.
“No matter where they’re at, what you’re looking for is progress in both groups. It’s gotta be about growth and progress, wherever they came from, whether from a refugee camp or a single-parent family or a household where both parents are college graduates. The day they walk out they’ve gotta be better than the day they walked in.”
Closing the achievement gap, he says, “is not just resources,” adding, “There’s a lot of things we can do with existing resources – that’s what we’re trying to do with alignment. For example, if we know of a specific strategy to improve math or language arts skills for kids below level why wouldn’t we train all our staff in that methodology for all our schools? We’d never done that. Instead, school A and school B would pick out whatever strategy they wanted. Some would buy a compute-based piece and some would do a tutorial piece at the Teacher Administration Center.
“There was no collaborative where educators said, ‘Which one has the highest return on impacting those skills?’ That just doesn’t make any sense. So now we’re attempting to scale those things. Part of it is getting out of our silos and scaling the quality and part of it is helping people develop the skill sets to know how to implement that, because not everybody knows.”
Pam Cohn (Secondary)
Melissa Comine (Elementary)
Dwayne Chism (Elementary) Lisa Utterback, Elementary
His executive directors of school support, including Lisa Uttterback, were principals at high performing schools. Evans has charged them with helping principals adopt best practices at their own schools.
“Lisa had great success in a high needs school (Miller Park). The test scores look good, there’s community partnerships and parent involvement. Kids are walking out the door with pride, ready for middle school. I took grief for taking her out of there but my thinking is she can have more impact by scaling her capacities to 21 schools. I need her to develop her skill sets to these principals she supports and I need the other EDs to do that with the leaders they support.
“The whole concept is to find where it’s working and make decisions collaboratively on best practices and then support the implementation. It doesn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen overnight at Miller Park, but it did happen. So what happened? Well, you had good leadership. She (Utterback) figured out strategies that work.”
Other principals have done the same thing.
“We’ve got islands of excellence, we’ve got schools doing wonderful things, but then you’ve got other schools that for whatever reasons need more supports and until now there really wasn’t a methodology to try to recognize it and to provide that support.”
To achieve the greater classroom rigor district-wide the strategic plan calls for he says OPS is enhancing efforts started before he came to “retrain teachers on baseline skill sets for instructional practice.” He acknowledges “these are things they should have probably had in college but for whatever reason didn’t.”
In addition to raising performance, there’s a push to keep kids in school.
“In our district right now were at 77.8 percent graduation rate, which by the way is pretty high for an urban setting. But 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 slim.
“Were trying to move 13 percentage points over the next five years,
which doesn’t sound like a big deal but it kind of is a big deal.”
Moving forward, he feels good about the school board he answers to.
“I would say our relationship’s good. They’ve had an enormous learning curve. I think their hearts are really good. I think they’re still struggling with the learning curve – heck, I am. They’re trying to wrap their arms around big stuff, I mean, we’re talking big numbers here – a $600 million facilities plan. We’re talking big information – a strategic plan, a student assignment plan, a new hiring policy. I think they’ve done amazing for the amount of time they’ve had to try to capture this.”
He says minus drama and acrimony at the top, OPS can thrive.
“We have great schools doing really good things. I thought and I still think if we could get rid of that noise and distraction and have an aligned, coherent system we may have one of the only opportunities in America where a community still values urban education, and they do here. There are very few communities like this.”
He feels good, too, about he and the board having come in together to provide a restart for the district.
“I think this community wanted and desired a feeling of a fresh start. I think people feel like they are seeing something different today than what they saw the last five years. I know we are doing things different because OPS hadn’t done a strategic plan in 10 years, they hadn’t done a bond issue in 15 years, they haven’t done a student assignment plan in many years, they hadn’t done a reorganization with a focus of supporting schools.”
Evans likes where his ship of a district is headed.
“We’ve got the pieces in place to get it lined up. We’re already doing partnerships, we’re developing better classroom practices, we’re developing leadership for the schools and aligning them to very specific, collaboratively agreed upon goals. If we can pass this facilities plan we can give kids high speed internet access and safer, more secure environments.
“Without those kinds of pieces the ship’s going to go on the wrong course.”
Expect Plenty of Booms at Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival Finals; Friendly Tournament Makes Expressing Deepest Feelings Safe
Boom! That’s the sound of another slam poem being thrown down. If you haven’t seen a youth slam poetry bout before than do yourself a favor and check it out. No better time to start then at tonight’s (April 17) team finals of the Louder Than a Bomb Great Plains Youth Poetry Festival at the Holland Performing Arts Center. What follows is my Reader story on the festival and the culture surrounding it.
Expect Plenty of Booms at Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival Finals
Friendly Tournament Makes Expressing Deepest Feelings Safe
BY LEO ADAM BIGA
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In the hybrid realm of slam poetry, where free verse, theater, oral storytelling and forensics converge to make a verbal gumbo, personal expression rules.
Impassioned teen anguish stirs the pot to create a heady brew during the Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) Great Plains Youth Poetry Festival. After weeks of competition, the team finals throw down April 17 at 7 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center.
Teams competing in the finals are: Millard South, Lincoln North Star, defending champion Lincoln High and Waverly.
Individual finals take place April 26 in Lincoln.
The events are free but donations are accepted.
On the heels of nurturing the local adult slam poetry community and inspired by LTAB Chicago, the Nebraska Writers Collective (NWC) launched its youth festival in 2012. In that short span the fest’s found a niche at area schools, growing from 12 to 19 to 32 participating teams.
NWC director Matt Mason, who’s led Neb.’s team at the National Poetry Slam, says as more schools have gotten involved from urban and rural locations the work’s broadened.
“You have so many different people and voices and experiences. There is such a diversity of subject matter. You go to a bout and you see four high schools putting up teams, all with different experiences. Some have certain styles, some are kind of all over the place.
“You get poems talking about things in the news today as well as poems about dating, spurned love, successful love, conflicts, being bullied, racism, sexism. You get the universal themes brought in and wrapped up in very personal stories.”
Omaha Central High English teacher Deron Larson, who sponsors the Eagles’ LTAB team, says the work isn’t just about releasing angst or speaking to hard things.
A couple members on our team have gone out of their way to make people laugh,” he says. “At a recent bout one poet waxed poetic about her collection of socks. There’s a full gamut of things they write about.”
Diversity also shows up in the teams’ composition, where gays and straights, jocks and geeks, are respresented.
“It’s fantastic to see how these teams of very different students come together” to collaborate and communicate, Mason says.
Paid teaching artists hired by the Collective serve as coaches. Sponsoring classroom teachers recruit and facilitate and in some cases co-coach.
World champion adult slammer Chris August from Baltimore, Md. is NWC’s first resident teaching artist. He’s come to appreciate what makes the area poetry scene so vital and LTAB a hit here.
“The Omaha and Lincoln scenes have always been open and embracing and are among the places that put the most energy into fostering their youth poetry scenes. When I think about what an art form like slam poetry can bring to young people, the word I immediately think of is ‘permission.’ Twenty years ago I was a weird, artsy teenage boy in a rural high school with virtually no diversity. Back then, the idea of a safe and empowering outlet for voices of any kind speaking on any truth at all would have seemed impossible.”
Mason says, “I think this is a great outlet for anybody, especially for teenagers, to process what they’re going through and to give voice to it. They’re permitted to have a venue to get this across rather than just bottling it up and dealing with it.
“It’s about teaching these folks to write and to get this performance experience and to be comfortable in front of people and to vocalize what they’re feeling.”
Everyone associated with LTAB hails the supportive environment at practices and bouts. At the “friendly tournament” poets celebrate other poets, even those on opposing teams. The safe space created by LTAB is particularly important because students often expose their most intimate, vulnerable selves in the work.
Mason says the slam form lets students articulate personal issues weighing on them, including gender and sexual identity issues.
“It is maybe this more than any other element that allows slam poetry to so lovingly respond to a need so present among so many young people,” says August.
NWC education director Andrew Ek says the Collective has done “a lot of deliberate work making sure our students feel like their stories, ideas and experiences are being honored,” adding. “A lot of that involves letting them read and not getting in the way of that process.”
“It’s a very positive space,” says Bellevue West 10th grader Ari Di Bernardo, a first-year participant. “No one feels like an outcast because that’s not what LTAB is about. It’s about connecting through this very beautiful thing we do. For me it’s the feeling of belonging. Like I finally have a safe place to just open up and give up all the feelings I’d been harboring. I can be honest. I’m not afraid to say what I need to now.”
“It’s uplifting to have everybody there have your back,” says Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln senior Francisco Franco. “The feeling is just warmth and good vibes. It is a competition but everybody’s there to support you, nobody’s there to put you down. Of course, there’s scores but it’s your words, your poems, so you can listen to the scores or believe in yourself. I choose to go up there and to have as much fun as I can.”
“It’s good to be in a competitive environment where everybody roots for everybody instead of against everybody,” says Franco’s teammate, Chanel Zarate.
Matt Mason says it’s not just the high energy, communal love-in that gives LTAB a following but the work itself.
“Yeah, people are yelling and cheering for poets, but the poems are also interesting, funny, beautifully put together. It exceeds your expectations of teen poetry. These kids are smart, creative. It would not surprise me if a lot of these poems get published in magazines or eventually books.”
Central High teacher Deron Larson is impressed by how much work his students put into making poems as powerful as they can be, doing draft after draft, all under the guidance of teaching artist Greg Harries.
“They become invested in words in a way I don’t get to observe every day in the classroom. They make a commitment that goes beyond doing homework a teacher assigns. They make their own homework and just conquer it and take it 10 steps beyond where they thought they were going to go.
“The mentoring poets that duck into my classroom and share their love for words really touch the students in a way I can’t do. As much as I love words there’s a process over the course of the year where they get tired of hearing the same thing I have to say. If a 20something comes in they’re much closer to my students’ experience. The message carries differently and then the students just run with it.”
Larson’s pleased slam poetry has found a footing in schools but he’s not sure it would benefit from being a formal academic program.
“If we put it into a curriculum it almost feels like we might change it an elemental way. As an after school club and extra that definitely deserves our support it feels like it might work better. If we try to write it into lessons I think there’s a possibility we might kill something that’s so vibrant right now.”
NWC artists also work with youth at a Lincoln juvenile detention center. Audio recordings of these youths’ poems will play at the finals to allow “their voices to be heard,” Mason says.
For festival details, visit ltabomaha.org.
Changing One Life at a Time: Mentoring Takes Center Stage as Individuals and Organizations Make Mentoring Count
Mentoring stories are classic feel good stories that are easy to plug into as a writer and as a reader. For the following Metro Magazine story about Midlands Mentoring Partnership honorees, I describe the powerful one-on-one mentoring experience of Dakotah and Peggy and the difference that it’s making in their lives and I detail how the mentoring support offered by Mutual of Omaha is impacting organizations serving youth.
Changing One Life at a Time: Mentoring Takes Center Stage as Individuals and Organizations Make Mentoring Count
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine
“We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.”
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Dakotah and Peggy
Three quotes by successful people from different walks of life, all expressing something about the merits of giving to another. There’s lots of ways to aid others. Mentoring is a timeless one. Traditionally, mentoring involves guiding or encouraging someone less experienced than you to reach their potential. In the process, you grow as a person.
Midlands Mentoring Partnership honors mentoring in the metro
Mentoring happens every day around the metro in formal and informal ways. Usually, it’s a caring adult nurturing a youth.
Midlands Mentoring Partnership (MMP) is a local collective impact organization that provides area mentoring programs with strategies for achieving improved outcomes with at-risk youth and with approaches for reaching ever more young people in need.
Each year MMP recognizes individuals and organizations whose mentoring is making a difference in the community. The March 19 MMP Summit at the CenturyLink Center will honor the Mentor of the Year and Advocate of the Year and will present youth mentoring best practices.
Dakotah and Peggy: Mentor and mentee joined at the hip
First National Bank of Omaha employee Dakotah Taylor doesn’t mentor for any recognition it brings. Nevertheless, her work with the young woman she’s matched up with through Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Midlands has netted her MMP’s Mentor of the Year award. Her 16 year-old mentee, Peggy, nominated her in a heartfelt letter. The two have been matched for five-and-a-half years, a period that saw Peggy battle severe addiction and behavioral problems that tested everyone in her life, including Taylor.
Peggy’s letter describes why her “Big” is such an important figure in her life:
“She has showed me unconditional love and I couldn’t ask for anyone better. I’ve told her things I would never tell anyone. The most important thing to me though is she has NEVER given up on me. She helped me get off the ground and onto my feet again when I couldn’t do it myself. Not only am I blessed with another friend but she’s a friend I can call my sister and I love her with my complete heart.”
Taylor tears up when the letter’s read back to her, saying, “It’s incredible.” About the award, she adds, “I never in my wildest dreams thought I would get something like this. It’s so humbling, it’s so great.”
Peggy says, “Dakotah is really a blessing because I’m a handful. She deserves this.”
Taylor’s gone the distance with Peggy, a junior at alternative Millard Horizon High School, through thick and thin. Peggy became a substance abuser before her teens and eventually dealt illegal drugs. She got caught up in things that put her, her family and Taylor in danger. She’s been in the juvenile justice court system for six years. She spent time at the Douglas County Youth Center and at Boys Town.
Now the once troubled teen has found stability. She’s sober, she’s back home, she’s expected to graduate early from high school and she’s planning to get an early start on her associate degree in nursing at Metropolitan Community College in preparation for studying to become a registered nurse and ultimately a physician. She knows without question she always has a friend to turn to in the 30-year Taylor, who’s married with a pre-school child.
All the way down the line
“Through everything, even when I was at my worst, Dakotah still was there, writing me, giving me hugs, telling me she cared, and that’s all anybody going through something like that wants,” says Peggy. “They want someone to just reassure them that everything’s going to be OK. Whether you believe it or not it still gives you some hope and I didn’t have any hope. Dakotah’s messages were so happy they brought my spirits up that I can do this, I can get out of this.”
Taylor wasn’t about to go anywhere when the going got tough.
“There’s those times when it’s somewhat challenging and it could be very easy to walk away but sisters don’t walk away from each other. You’ve got to take the good with the bad and you’ve got to keep walking.”
MMP experts say Taylor embodies what it means for mentors to stay the course when matches prove difficult. Just to stay in contact took extra effort when Peggy was not living at home. Taylor acknowledges she wasn’t always sure what to do when Peggy acted out or relapsed.
“It’s been hard for me to understand what Peggy has gone through because I didn’t have to face those things. Any time we were together I would ask her questions and drill her about, OK, why did you do this?
I think I needed to somehow put myself in her shoes and understand her thought process. Unfortunately she did make some bad decisions but she’s rectified those and she’s a strong woman now.”
Taylor also knew she was not alone but part of a team helping Peggy.
“Her mom and dad and I had some very hard conversations. We cried on the phone together when they didn’t know how to handle her. Everybody felt so hopeless. There were times I reached out to Big Brothers Big Sisters when I didn’t know what to do. But I knew this young woman needed guidance, she needed someone to stick by her side no matter what, even if we didn’t get to see each other. She always knew I was only a phone call away.”
For Taylor, there’s nothing better than seeing how far Peggy’s come.
“She’s in great place now. She looks so great and all grown up. Seeing her smile makes my heart smile.”
She expects great things ahead for her Little.
“Everything – the moon, the stars, anything she wants. She’s so smart. Her true passion in life is to help other people. Once she puts her mind to something she’s going to do it and now i’ve seen that.”
Peggy finally turned the corner when she stopped resisting getting help and surrendered to her Higher Power and to caring adults in her life.
She’s shared her experience with peers, who often come to her for advice. “I love helping people,” Peggy says. “As long as I help one person it’s going to make a difference in the world.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters CEO Nichole Turgeon says Dakotah and Peggy embody what mentoring’s all about.
“They have faced incredible challenges together and Dakotah gave Peggy hope for her future which has allowed her to persevere. I am confident Peggy is on the path to becoming a successful and happy adult and I know Dakotah will be with her every step of the way.”
More than sisters in name, Dakotah and Peggy believe they’ve developed an unbreakable lifelong bond.
“I have no doubt it’s going to be a sisterhood for the rest of our lives. We’re sisters not by blood but by choice,” says Taylor.
Passing it on
Taylor encourages anyone wanting to make a positive difference in a youth’s life to become a mentor. Just be prepared to make a deep commitment and enduring connection the way Dakota did with Peggy.
Says Taylor, “Our paths would have never crossed if it wasn’t for Big Brothers Big Sisters. It has changed my life. It’s brought someone into my life I deeply care about. I would do anything for her and she would do anything for me.”
Peggy sees herself following Dakotah’s footsteps. “I probably will end up being a Big myself.” She advocates the benefits of mentoring, saying, “There is a match out there for someone, there is.”
Many employers encourage their employees to serve as mentors. Taylor says her employer, First National, supports her volunteering. Mentees like Peggy are the beneficiaries.
Mutual of Omaha and Mutual of Omaha Foundation: Mentor advocates
Mutual of Omaha is another employer that supports the Midlands Mentoring Partnership. More than 50 Mutual staffers serve as mentors with seven MMP partner organizations. Among its mentors is Mutual of Omaha Foundation Program Coordinator Kim Armstrong. Armstrong mentors two young women, including one through Youth Emergency Services (YES), on whose board Armstrong once served. Much like Dakotah’s relationship with Peggy, Armstrong’s been transformed by the experience of working with her mentees.
“At the end of the day, just having someone to turn to is the greatest benefit for them – at least that’s how I see it – and I’m honored to play that role,” Armstrong says of her matches. “Most mentors will say that they benefit more from mentoring than their mentees and I am no different. I have realized unexpected benefits. I feel I have become a better mother, a better employee and a better person.”
She says each of her mentees has “played a role in opening my eyes to so much, and for that I am eternally grateful.”
Mutual has been a champion of MMP’s efforts since the catalyst organization’s formation in 1999. The insurance giant’s ongoing work as a partner and advocate of Youth Emergency Services and other mentoring providers is being recognized this year at the summit.
Going the extra mile
MMP Executive Director Deborah Neary says, “the Advocate of the Year award honors a business or organization committed to helping young people achieve their potential through mentoring.”
Christine Johnson, president and CEO of the Mutual of Omaha Foundation, says she encourages mentoring in part because “it helps to build a cohesive, motivated, engaged workforce, which we know is shown to increase employee performance and productivity.”
In addition to their involvement with YES Mutual employees serve as board members for various mentoring organizations and encourage fellow employees to mentor. The Mutual of Omaha Foundation provides financial support for mentoring efforts.
YES Executive Director Mary Fraser Meints says anything that bolsters mentoring is a net gain for participants and for society.
“Youth who have a mentor have better attendance at school, a better chance of going on to higher education and better attitudes toward school,” she says. adding, “The leadership role Mutual of Omaha has taken with the mentoring program offered by YES has made a huge impact in helping our youth become more self-sufficient.”
Mutual sponsored a May party for eight college-bound YES youth. Each graduate received luggage and a laptop.
“Our youth were beyond thrilled to have their own laptop. That simple gesture alone will never be forgotten by our youth,” says Meints.
In 2013 Mutual employees volunteered beyond YES to support the Kent Bellows Mentoring Program, host engineering workshops for Girls Inc. of Omaha and participate in Kids Can Community Center’s Day of Caring. Community outreach is an important part of the Mutual culture, says Dan Neary, Mutual of Omaha chairman of the board and CEO, “Our youth are the future. One day, the community and even our company will be in their hands. So, mentoring is truly an investment in the future and it will provide returns we can’t even imagine.“
Foundation President Christine Johnson says, “We understand the importance of the quality and length of a mentoring match. We think it’s important to educate our employee volunteers about mentoring and the importance of that commitment. By providing time during the work day to grow their mentoring relationship, we hope we can help them succeed by being a positive and long-standing force in the lives of the children they mentor.
“It is a great honor for us to receive this recognition from MMP. We value their commitment to our community and have great respect for their work.”
For MMP Summit details and tickets, call 402-715-4175 or visit http://www.mmpomaha.org.
To inquire about becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister, call 402-330-2449 or visit http://www.bbbsomaha.org.