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Leola Keeps the Faith at Her North Side Music Shop

September 2, 2011 5 comments

 

 

Here is the promised cover profile I did on Leola McDonald, whose Leola’s Records and Tapes shop in North Omaha was an African American cultural bastion for years before she decided to close the operation. This piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared as business was appreciably slowing for her, and as the short follow up piece I posted earlier here reported, she eventually called it quits. It was no great surprise. The times were changing, and she wasn’t changing with them. She said so herself. The writing was on the wall and so it was just a matter of time.

 

 

 

 

Leola Keeps the Faith at Her North Side Music Shop

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (wwwthereader.com)

 

The iridescent, rainbow-palette mural splayed across the brick west wall spells LEOLA’S in big block letters. The name on the side of the Omaha music store formally known as Leola’s Records and Tapes belongs to founder/owner Leola McDonald. Both the handle and the woman are synonymous with music on the north side.

Her small shop at 56th and Ames Avenue is where today’s beat generation heads for the latest hip hop and rap tracks, including hard to find mixes and chopped and screwed versions of hit cuts.

Bright as the colors decorating that wall is Leola’s own passion for music.

“I love music. I always have. I used to play it all. At one point in my life I even sang. I sang in the church choir,” said the former Leola Ann Francis.

A 68-year-old church lady who prefers gospel may not be what you expect behind the counter of an urban music store carrying CDs and tapes with R-rated lyrics, but that’s exactly what you get. Her operation is pretty much a one-woman show. Oh, her grandkids come by to help some, but “mostly I do it by myself,” she said.

As its sole proprietor, she’s there seven days a week. Waiting on customers. Answering the phone. Registering sales. Bantering back and forth with whoever saunters on in, some just to “conversate” with her. Others to inquire after new releases. The door bell rings and it’s a young man, Eric Miller, who’s been shopping there since he was a boy.

“Hi, Miss Leola.” “What you want, babe?” “I’m lookin’ for that CD that got, uh, Slim Thug and, um, Young Zee-Zee on it…” She searches the shelves in back of her. Another young man comes in, hawking a box-full of high-end electronic gadgets. Leola tells him, “Honey, my money’s funny and my change is strange. I’m broke.”

Whatever brings them there, she greets all with — “Hey, sweetie” or “Hey, babe” or “How ya doin’?” or “What’s up, doc?” — in a musky voice that years of cigarette smoking ruined for singing. She used to love to sing. In the Sunday baptist church choir as a youth. In church-sponsored competitions. She once dreamed of performing professionally. That was a long time ago.

“I could sing once in my life…I won every contest I got into. But I messed up my own voice. I started smoking and drinking. I was grown. I could do what I wanted to do. But didn’t nobody suffer for it but me. Now, I can’t carry a tune across the street and bring it back in one piece,” she likes to say.

That doesn’t change her passion. That’s why she’s still at her store every day when most women her age are retired.

“I love music and I love people. So, it’s easy for me. And you really have to to deal with this because you can get some fools in here, and sometimes it’s more than one, and you have to deal with ‘em,” said the Omaha native, who divided her growing up between here and Cheyenne, Wyoming, where her mother moved after splitting up with her father.

Then there’s “that crap they call rap” she feels obliged to carry. It’s what sells these days. It doesn’t mean she has to like it, though. Still, she must be familiar with the artists and their work. Like it or not, it’s what customers want.

“Yeah, I pretty much have to be up on all of it now. I don’t particularly care for it, but hey, maybe if I was these kids’ age…But I don’t think I would go in for it. To me, it’s nothin’ but noise. But different strokes for different folks,” she said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eric Miller said despite the generation and taste gap, McDonald stocks what’s in vogue. “You can find things here you can’t find at a lot of places,” he said. Carmelette Snoddy said she prefers Leola’s for its “quality. Like with these mixed CDs,” she said, holding up a few, “you can buy them off the streets, but they’re not quality. They don’t play as good.”

Leola tries to ensure customers know what they’re getting.

“If they don’t know what something sounds like, I’ll play the music for them, so they’re not just buying something blind. I’ve always done that,” she said.

Long before rap, back when jazz, blues, R & B and soul ruled the charts, she was a respected black music source. Music buff Billy Melton of Omaha said he often relied on her opinion in compiling some of his extensive collection.

“She’s very studious. She knows music. She always had what I was looking for,” Melton said. “And she loves what she’s doing now, too. She’s been faithful to that music line. I just wish she would have stayed with the older music, but there’s no money in that. She knows I love music and she’s given me pictures and things of older artists over the years. She’s quite a gal.”

 

 

 

 

Her savvy got her a job at the Hutsut, a now defunct music store. Then an advertising salesperson with the Omaha Star, she called on the store one day. When she saw the clerks couldn’t answer customers’ questions about black music, she offered to help. The owner agreed and she so impressed him he hired her on the spot.

She and a partner soon opened their own store, Mystical Sounds. She then went solo. Leola’s followed. For a time, she ran both. For the last 30 years, just Leola’s.

While most of her store’s inventory is given over to current CDs or tapes, she reserves a few bins and racks for old-school vinyl recordings.

Her own personal collection of CDs, LPs, 45s and 8-tracks, drawn from four decades in the business, is all R & B and gospel.

Gospel music to me is like no other. I love it. Nothing compares…There’s just something about it.”

There’s another reason she opens the doors of her business daily. As a small independent, she’s squeezed by national chains and bled by music pirates. With so many under selling her, she can’t afford not to light up the neon Open sign.

“I don’t have a choice. I have to work. If I didn’t have to work, God knows at my age I wouldn’t be. I’m sure doing this for the love of it. Besides, I’m too old to go get a job. I can’t even think about it. But if push comes to shove and that’s what I have to do to survive…”

 

 

 

 

Profits are down as a result of black marketeers. Her no-return policy is aimed at pirates who buy CDs, copy for resell and bring back for a refund. “Like I tell ‘em, I wasn’t born yesterday. I was born the day before yesterday. You have too much competition from the bootleggers,” she said. “They stand on the street and they make more than I do sittin’ up here. Why, it’s not fair…I have sat up in here all day long and gone from open to close and walked out the door with $20. Before, it might have been $500-$600 in the drawer. So, there’s no comparison.”

That’s why she takes umbrage when some suggest she pack it in and rest easy on her supposed riches. “If I had the money people tell me I have I probably wouldn’t be here,” she said. “But I love to work.” It’s not as if she has a pension or retirement fund to fall back on. “No, when you work for yourself, unless you save or invest your own money, you don’t have any. And I had four kids to raise, so I didn’t do any saving,” said the twice-married, twice-divorced McDonald.

Single is something she never counted on being at 68. But things never quite worked out with the men in her life. Like any young woman coming of age in the 1950s, she bought into the happily-ever-after ideal.

“I never wanted to be (single). It just happened. Back then, you were to get married, have some kids and be happy. Well, I got married, had the kids, but damn if I was happy,” she said, laughing at herself. She takes it all in stride. “If you don’t have any regrets, you haven’t had any life,” she said.

Faith has a way of healing wounds and easing doubts. Church is where she renews herself. Mount Nebo Baptist Church is where she gives praise and worship.

“I’ve always liked church. It’s been a very short time I wasn’t in the church. Now, I go every Sunday and, if I can, Wednesdays, too. It’s just that I enjoy it so much.”

With that, she turns up the boombox on a cut from the William Murphy Project’s All Day CD. The rousing choir anthem fills the store, rising, rising…the spirit moving her to answer the call…“Oh, yes…He got it together. He got them together…”. As the words “I am trusting you, to bring me through” reverberate, she hums and sings along, swaying to the beat. Hearing the lyric — “So, all you’ve got to do is…” – she finishes it with “Be strong…”

Be strong, Miss Leola, be strong.

Miss Leola Says Goodbye

September 1, 2011 10 comments

As music stores went, it wasn’t  much, but it was a fixture in Omaha’s African-American North Omaha community, and when owner Leola McDonald decided to close her Leola’s Records and Tapes the decision was met by an outpouring of regret and fond memories. I did this short piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) in the wake of her announcement she was closing shop. It appeared not long after a cover profile I did on Leola for the same paper. I will soon be posting that cover. She and her store are missed.

 

 

 

 

Miss Leola Says Goodbye

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Miss Leola is moving on and the African-American community she served for decades at Leola’s Records and Tapes is treating her retirement as a loss akin to a death. Since Leola McDonald announced she’s closing her music store at 5625 Ames Avenue, mourners have filed in to pay their respects.

Felix Hall was among them last Friday. “What’s up, doc, how ya’ doin’?” Leola greeted the middle-aged man from behind the counter. “Oh, pretty good,” said Hall, before choking up to proclaim, “I saw in the news you were going out of business and I just had to come in to say goodbye.” “Well, thank you, that was nice of you,” a visibly moved Leola said.

It’s been like that now for weeks.

Attired in slacks and a T-shirt imprinted with aphorisms to motherhood, Leola, a mother and grandmother, has been a surrogate parent for neighborhood kids who “grew up” in her store. One of these, Marcus Roach, 18, said he and his posse have “been coming up here for years. A lot of people come up here. Yeah, everybody knows Miss Leola.”

Jason Fisher, 31, owner of the building housing Leola’s and his own multi-media company downstairs, can attest to the respect she holds.

“Miss Leola is known immensely throughout the north Omaha community. It’s unreal what kind of impact you can have on a community in 30 years. Just about everybody knows her like she’s the President,” he said.

“I think she’s kind of like the community’s grandma,” said granddaughter Mercedes Smith. “She’s always looked out for everybody that came to her…People having a bad day come in and talk to her because they know she’ll make them feel better about who they are. She’s a good person.”

Momma’s real…always lovin’ and always levelin’ with someone,” her son Seth Smith said. Mercedes feels her grandma’s personal stamp will make her missed. “This is not like Sam Goodies or any of the other (independent) music stores closing around the country. She’s the cornerstone of the community.” “I don’t understand it, she’s been here forever,” a young man in search of a CD said.

Leola doesn’t want to leave, but business has lagged. “In the last two years I’ve seen it go down, down, down…” she said. National chains hurt enough, but there’s no competing with music pirates. “It’s so much on the streets now,” she said. The cruelest rub is when black marketeers get source material from Leola’s to burn and then under sell her with it. “It’s just sad that somebody who always tried to be fair and right and correct in everything she did has to suffer,” Smith said.

 

Leoloa McDonald, ©photo by Jason Fischer

 

 

 

The woman who’s become an institution is pragmatic about it all. “I wanted it to last a little bit longer, but I guess my biggest problem is I haven’t moved with the times,” Leola said. “I’m still over there, while the times are over here. It happened and I didn’t even realize it. I’m saddened with it and I will miss it. I enjoyed what I was doing and if I was a little bit younger I’d still be doing it.

“I was young when I started and I ain’t young no more — no parts of it.”

Her legacy and her 70th birthday will be celebrated August 11 with a 6:30 p.m. reception at Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2510 N 24th Street.

But, as Fischer noted, “This isn’t the end of Leola’s, it’s a new beginning.” Soon after Leola closes shop around August 10, he plans to make renovations to the existing space and reopen as Leola’s Urban Avenue, a retail music store “with a singular focus on independent artists, underground music and diversified merchandising.” As for the friend Leola was to the community, he’ll try to represent. “We’ll try to keep it going,” he said.He’s keeping Leola’s in the title to play off her good name and “to carry that torch for her and her family.”

“It gives me a good feeling that somebody cares enough about me to keep the name. I appreciate it. He’s been great to me,” Leola said of Fischer.

Beyond the name, she’s sure a little piece of her will remain in the new store. “I think it will,” she said. She plans to move to Calif., where she has family.

Soon Come: Neville Murray’s Passion for the Loves Jazz & Arts Center and its Role in Rebirthing North Omaha

August 28, 2011 8 comments

The Loves Jazz & Arts Center in North Omaha is a symbol for the transition point that this largely African-American area is poised at – as decades of neglect are about to be impacted by a spate of major redevelopment. LJAC and some projects directly to the south of it along North 24th Street represented steps in the right direction but since then little else has happened in the way of renewal. Development efforts farther south, east, and west had little or no carryover effect. The subject of this story however is not so much the LJAC as it is its former director, Neville Murray, who was very much the director when I did this piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about three years ago. Murray expressed, just as his successor does today, the hope that the center would serve as anchor and catalyst for a boom in new activity in the area. The center never really realized that goal, but it still could. Murray is a passionate man, artist, and arts administrator with an interesting perspective on things since he’s not from Omaha originally. Indeed, he’s a native Jamaican. But as he explains right at the top of my story, he identifies closely with the African-American experience here and he’s committed to making a difference in the Omaha African-American community – one that’s been waiting a long time for change. If it’s up to him, it will soon come.

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Neville Murray with Linda Cunningham, center, coordinator for cultural competence, UNMC Community and Multicultural Affairs, and co-chair of Employee Diversity Network; and Susan Langdon, clinical coordinator, UNMC Medical Technology Education.

Soon Come: Neville Murray’s Passion for the Loves Jazz & Arts Center and its Role in Rebirthing North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Oriignally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

“I’m an artist, first and foremost. I think everything else is just kind of a reflection of the art,” said Neville Murray, director of the Loves Jazz & Arts Center (LJAC), 2510 North 24th Street in Omaha. He came to the States in 1975 from his native Jamaica on a track scholarship that saw him compete for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’s made America and Nebraska his second home, but  it is the north Omaha African American community the center serves where his heart lies.

“I consider myself African-American,” he said. “North Omaha is such a tremendous culture. There’s so much talent and there’s so much need. If we can just inspire kids to become artists or to becomeinvolved in the arts or to realize the role the arts can play in their lives…

“We’re really trying to change the dynamic by bringing world class arts programming to north Omaha and to bring in art one would not ordinarily see. Art is a catalyst for change. We’ve seen it downtown. And we think this can be a catalyst for change in our community.”

During a recent interview in the center conference room, which doubles as a storage space with stacks of art works leaning against the walls, he alluded to the year-and-a-half-old LJAC as trying to separate itself from “other organizations in the community” that have failed. The center’s “state of the art facility” is a big start. Another is his long track record as an administrator with the Nebraska Arts Council (NAC), where he worked prior to opening the center in 2005. Well-versed in grant writing and well-connected to the art world, he’s determined to avoid the pitfalls.

“We have to be at a different level in terms of our 501C3 meeting certain criteria with accountability (for programs and grants) and ownership of collections,” he said. “We have to set high standards. For me it’s critical we operate at a high level because of the history of some things.” When asked if he meant the troubled Great Plains Black History Museum a block to the east, he confirmed he did. He said that other venue’s long-standing problems of unarchived materials, unrealized repairs, unpolitic moves and unanswered questions stem from ineffective governance.

“It can’t be a hand-picked board. It needs to be a real board,” he said. “We have a great, pro-active, eight-member board.” The LJAC also has ongoing Peter Kiewit Foundation support. Even with that the center operates on the margin, with revenues coming chiefly from rental fees and grants rather than its light walk-in traffic. Murray was a one-man band for months after his only staffer resigned, leaving him doing everything from curating exhibits to cleaning floors. A Kiewit grant’s made possible the hiring of a new assistant. Still, he acknowledges problems — from the phone not always being manned to the doors not always being open during normal visiting hours to inadequate marketing and membership campaigns.

 

Loves Jazz & Arts Center

 

 

 

“I wear many different hats. There’s only so much you can do. It’s frustrating,” he said. “That has been an issue, you bet. I think that’s just part of our growing pains. Hopefully, that will resolve itself at some point in time. I’m not going to be here forever, but I want to make sure I put in place processes that can ensure the success of this institution into the future.”

Another barrier the center faces is one of identity and image. Some assume its solely focused on the legacy of Preston Love or a venture of the late musicians’s family. Neither is true. Others think it’s primarily a performance space when in fact it’s an exhibition/education space. Still others confuse it as a social service site. None of it deters him. “Ultimately, the goal for this institution is to be one of just a handful of accredited African American arts institutions” in America, he said.

The center grew out of many discussions Murray engaged in with members of the African American community. “We’d been meeting for years with a variety of folks about the need for an institution such as this in north Omaha,” he said.

Murray got to know greater Nebraska and north Omaha in particular as the NAC’s first multicultural coordinator in the 1990s. His work today at the LJAC is a natural extension of how his personal journey as an artist and arts administrator evolved to embrace his own Jamaican identity, the wider African American experience and the need to create more recognition and opportunities for fellow artists of color.

“It enriched me so much being able to travel all over Nebraska and work with indigenous folks to promote the arts,” he said. “To be able to work with different cultures, Latino and American Indian cultures, really inspired me, not just as an artist but in terms of my awareness. I began to realize the arts play a critical role in cultural development. A culture without art is dead. Art is what makes us human.”

Besides, he fell in love with the state’s wide open spaces, variable topography, classic seasons and Northern Hemispheric light. “Nebraska’s such a beautiful state. If you drive straight from here to Colorado you don’t see it. But if you go just a few miles north of I-80 you’re in the Sand Hills and the vistas are just magnificent,” said Murray, whose paintings reflect his “love of nature” in iconic earth-tone images of the Great Plains or pastel seascapes of his tropical homeland.

 

 

Alligator Pond Fish Market, ©Neville Murray

 

 

He came to the NAC at a crucible time. His newly formed post was a response to protests over inequitable funding for artists of color. Inequity extended to museums/galleries, where works about and by black artists were absent, and to academia, where, he said, art textbooks at UNL failed to mention one of its own, grad Aaron Douglas, famed “illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance.”

Murray’s experience working with Nebraska’s Ponca population in their effort to be reinstated within the greater Ponca Tribe reflected his own sense of dislocation from his roots and the severing African Americans feel from their heritage.

“The Ponca had to relearn their traditions, so the NAC helped them get the grant funding to network back with the Southern Ponca down in Oklahoma to rediscover their dances and cultural traditions,” he said. “If as a tribe you’re cut off you lose a sense of your identity. I can relate to that because there was a period in my life  when I can say I was kind of embarrassed at some of my rural upbringing. My grandmother used to walk five miles to market. People come from all over up in the mountains and bring their wares. Colors everywhere. Fruits of every ilk. Wonderful old stories. It took me a while to really appreciate all that. Now I look at it as a treasure and something we’re losing rapidly in the islands, I might add.”

“As black folks we’ve lost a sense of our identity. We’re confused. We don’t understand a lot of our traditions, even what tribes we come from. All of that was lost with slavery. Slavery’s had such a critical roles in our lives. It’s almost like we’re brand new,” he said. “Our whole life is a search, a journey for identity.”

Today, there’s more emphasis on black heritage and black art. “I think there’s much greater appreciation for art and artistic expression,” he said. “It’s not unusual to see artists of color in Art News now or other major art publications.”

Despite inroads, the place black artists hold in their own community and in the wider sphere of life is a work in progress. “It seems as black artists we’re always trying to validate ourselves. A few will come through. The flavor of the day, so to speak,” he said. “But as artists of color we we’re so often stigmatized. We have to get beyond that and recognize our art as an expression of our culture. We have a tendency in our community to look at arts as only recreation or extracurricular.”

His own ground breaking path reflects the possibilities for artists of color today. “I’ve kind of been doing a lot of things that hadn’t been done before,” he said. He was one of the first state multicultural coordinators in the nation. He pioneered the use of digital technology for Nebraska-curated shows. He organized the first comprehensive touring exhibit of contemporary Jamaican art with the 2000 Soon Come: The Art of Contemporary Jamaica. The project took him to parts of the island he’d never visited and introduced him to its diverse spectrum of artists.

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Neville Murray discusses his artwork with Angela Knowles, a clinical study assistant in the department of internal medicine-pulmonary.

He continues to celebrate art and to explore “what does it mean to be an artist of color?” at the LJAC, where he’s brought exhibits by renowned artists Frederick Brown, Faith Ringgold and Ibiyinka. In late November paintings from the Revival Series of noted artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes opens. The LJAC will publish its first catalogue for the show.

On display from time to time is work by local artists like Wanda Ewing, whose images deal with being a woman of color. It hosts regular art classes for adults/kids and occasional lectures/workshops. In keeping with its historic, symbol-laden location, the LJAC presents socially relevant programs, such as a History of Omaha Jazz panel held this year and the current Freedom Journey civil rights exhibit. All around the center, businesses flourished, streets teemed, marches proceeded, riots burned and hot jazz sessions played out. In a nod to political awareness, activist Angela Davis will appear there November 11.

Murray’s penchant for technology is evident in interactive stations/kiosks. An oral history project he’s doing with the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he also studied, documents, in high def video, the lives/stories of older African American residents. The materials will inform a documentary about the history of black Omaha and its music heritage. The archived interviews will be available to scholars. He looks forward to curating a new exhibit around a group of photos from a local collector that record some of the earliest images of local African American life. A selection from the LJAC permanent collection displays photos of early African American scenes and moments from the career of namesake Preston Love.

Murray’s also in discussions for the LJAC to be an outreach center for New York’s Lincoln Center. “I’m really excited about that,” he said. “That gives us an opportunity to bring in some coeducational programming and performances.” It’s all about his trying to engage people with art in news ways. He said, “I would hope I bring a certain creativity to this position as an artist.”

He knows he and the center will be judged by their longevity. “You have to have a period of time when people can see if you’re going to be here for a while,” he said.” “I think folks feel good about we’re doing. I think people realize my heart is in the right place. I have a love of this community and the culture. It’s a huge challenge. It’s a big responsibility. But it’s been a wonderful experience.”

After a Steep Decline, the Wesley House Rises Under Paul Bryant to Become a Youth Academy of Excellence in the Inner City

August 27, 2011 4 comments

The headline attached to this story is misleading, not because it’s untrue, but because it’s outdated. The headline reflected the facts when I wrote the story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) a few years ago, but since then Paul Bryant has left the Wesley House and the organization itself has disbanded. Indeed, there’s a story on this blog entitled “An Omaha Legacy Ends” and filed under the Paul Bryant and Wesley House categories that details the Wesley House’s closing after 139 years of service. Before that closure, Bryant led a revival of a once proud community center that had lost its way and its lustre. Bryant frequented the Wesley House as a youth, when it was a community force, but by the time he found success in the corporate world it had fallen on hard times. As this profile explains bryant left a corporate career to lead the nonprofit and to reinvent it as a youth academy of excellence. You will read about some of the great things he did there in a short time and about some of the dreams he had in store for down the line. In the end, the resources couldn’t match the vision. Paul is doing very much the same work he began at the Wesley House, only now through his own Leadership Institute for Urban Education. Paul is the author of the book, The Purpose Driven Leader.

NOTE: This blog also contains a story entitled “Artist Therman Statom Works with Children…” that profiles how the noted glass artist worked with youths from the Wesley House.

 

 

Paul Bryant

 

 

After a Steep Decline, the Wesley House Rises Under Paul Bryant to Become a Youth Academy of Excellence in the Inner City 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Founded as the Omaha City Mission by the Christian Workers Association in 1872, the United Methodist Community Centers-Wesley House is the oldest social service agency in Nebraska. Traditionally focused on the underprivileged, the agency’s adapted over the years to target different groups, trends and needs among the poor. The Wesley House itself has seen hard times, but nothing like the financial quagmire that closed its doors the end of 2004 and start of 2005.

Since executive director Paul Bryant took over in May of 2005– leaving behind a career in banking — the agency’s gained a new lease on life as the Wesley House Leadership Academy of Academic and Artistic Excellence. While trying to get its house in order, it’s embarked on year two of a program to nurture high achievement among inner city children through tutoring, academic and life skills training and enrichment activities. Students are taught everything from small business and stock market concepts to good manners. Kids greet visitors with a firm handshake, direct eye contact and the words “Welcome to the Wesley House.”

The ACADEMIC Summer Academy targets boys ages 7 to 12. An after school program works with boys and girls, ages 7 to 12, over the school year.

In the spare conference room where he teaches a Business in the Boardroom class to 3rd and 4th graders, Bryant fits the exec profile with his crisp attire, tall frame and on-point demeanor. The fact he sounds like a banker, a brother and a preacher bodes well for building the broad-based support the organization needs.

In the Wesley House’s brick and glass building at 2001 North 35th Street the hope stirred by the new program is expressed in the eager faces, urgent voices and insistent raised hands of children vying for coveted blue blazers. Both a prize and a symbol, the jackets are reserved for students who demonstrate a grasp of business principles usually taught in high school or college.

Bryant puts the boys, many from single-parent homes, through their paces. Most are too small to rest their elbows on the table. “What’s the calculation for a balance sheet?” In unison, they answer, “Assets minus liabilities equals net worth.” “What about an income statement?” “Revenues minus expenses equals net income.” “When an asset loses value, what’s that called?” “Depreciation.” “What is it when it gains value?” “Appreciation.”

What may seem too dry or advanced is fun. “It’s structured, it’s cerebral, and they like it. They’re not bouncing off the walls,” he said. “This is a ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you,’ ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, sir’ environment. There’s no sagging here. You’ve got to pull your pants up. There’s no cursing, no fighting. You can lose your privileges. That’s just the way it is, and we’re not apologetic about it.”

Holding kids to a higher plain is what it’s all about. Bryant feels so strongly about it that his son Paul (P.J.) attends the academy/after school.

“We’re changing lives,” he said. “I truly believe that. There’s a lot of programs that teach our kids how to score baskets and touchdowns and everything else, but we’re teaching them how to think and how to operate in the real world.”

A lifetime Omahan and a member of the storied Bryant-Fisher family that owns a long history of community service here, Bryant volunteered summers in an after school program operated by Wesley, located near where he grew up. He knew first-hand the positive activities offered there. When he heard about its problems, he felt “an obligation” to help rescue what’s been a community anchor.

 

 

 

 

“I said, ‘Not the Wesley House. Not another minority-managed organization going down the tubes on hard times. The Wesley House can’t go down’”

He applied for the job and soon left corporate America to head the troubled non-profit. “I was a leader looking for an organization and this is an organization that’s in dire need of some leadership,” he said. “My challenge is to bring this organization to its rightful place of prominence in this community.”

Eyebrows arched and tongues wagged when he left a Wells Fargo VP post to start from scratch with a tarnished agency whose vital signs read critical. He’s fine going from a sure thing to a long shot — and taking a pay cut — as long as kids succeed.

“My happiness really is not associated with money. Wealth isn’t the end all. It’s what you do. I’ve had dinner with President Clinton, I’ve had lunch with Colin Powell. I’ve had cocktails with Henry Kissinger. I’ve taken a seven-day cruise with Oprah Winfrey. I’ve been in Evander Holyfield’s house. My biggest client was Isaiah Thomas. I got no better feeling being in any of those circumstances than I do being with these kids here. When I see them get it. When I see them desire those blazers…I mean, they want ‘em. They want ‘em bad.”

Bryant, who holds master’s degrees in urban studies and urban education, is not an academic per se, but he professes to know what ails the community he calls home.

“I’m from this community. I’m a Bryant-Fisher. I don’t need to do scientific research to know what goes on. I see a culture floundering to find relevance in society post-Martin Luther King, Jr. How to fit into a society that really hasn’t found the value in who you are, and still be true to and proud of who you are.

“Somehow, we’ve got to a point in the inner city where black people think being smart is white behavior, and we’ve got to change that. This is a community that’s not identified by its talent. Ask anybody. Close your eyes and picture a junior high school African-American male. The mental picture you have isn’t going to be of a magna cum laude. But there is no correlation between intellect and income at birth. It’s a matter of what kids are exposed to. We’ve got to start identifying the success stories — the kids who like to read and write and learn science.”

 

 

 

 

He said the Gallup Organization surveyed the boys in last year’s academy and found some “have higher expectations than their parents. We want to raise standards, and we work with parents to do that.” He said post-testing revealed an increase in kids’ self-esteem. Anecdotally, the students seem to be doing better in school.

“What we want to do is expose inner city kids to cerebral activities and create an environment where it’s cool to be smart,” he said. “Our motto is, ‘Smart People Win.’ If you come here and pick up a book, nobody’s going to call you egghead and push you around and take your lunch money. If you want to write, we encourage you. We want the smart kids to know they’re not islands. We tell them, ‘If you stay in school and get good grades, you’re going to be at the top of your class and get a scholarship to college. And if you keep getting good grades, you’re going to get a good job. If you keep your nose to the grindstone, it’s really going to pay off.’”

Attitudes outside the inner city can get in the way, too, he said. “When I shared with a foundation president that I want these kids to aspire to Ivy-league schools, she told me, ‘Well, wouldn’t Metro (Metropolitan Community College) be more realistic?’” He knew he’d lost her, but he told her anyway that “kids at this age haven’t lost the game — they have the potential to succeed” anywhere.

His message has reached others. At a March 9 press conference he trotted out reps from many partnering organizations. Tutors from UNO, Creighton University, Metro and the Civil Air Patrol aid students with homework and “augment the educational process” with special training in math, reading, the arts, science, technology, etc. Kids display their handiwork in fairs and exhibits. They learn about different careers from professionals they meet on field trips or at Wesley. They track/trade stocks. Their summer garden project is also a small business venture.

A partnership with Mutual of Omaha has created the Technology Project, a pilot program to help bridge the digital divide. Mutual is to donate 60 computers annually to the Wesley House for use by kids in an on-site computer lab now under development and for ACADEMIC Summer Academy students to use at home.

If he can secure funding, Bryant envisions “keeping these kids together for 10 years. At that point, they’re going to be a group of smart young men that understand public and private sector finance and economics. They can truly help make north Omaha a vital part of the city’s growth and development, where we’re no longer the weakest link.” He has plans for early childhood and teen programs.

Opening an academy in an area associated with remedial and recreation programs is a bold move for an agency that appeared on its way out.

Before its recent change of course, Wesley House was providing services to youth in the state juvenile justice system. When juvenile justice staff expressed concerns over Wesley’s program outcomes and reporting methods, referrals made to the agency dropped. Soon, United Way raised its own questions about “the effectiveness” of Welsey programs and services. By 2003, all UW money was pulled. Wesley shifted to serving youth and families in the foster care system, but couldn’t bring in enough clients. With the loss of officials’ trust and of any steady revenue stream, Wesley exhausted $500,000 in reserves on operating expenses, saw its executive director resign and eventually let go all staff and shut down all programs.

 

 

 

 

Board chairman Dan Johnston confirmed closing the venerable institution was an option, but a decision was made “to give it one more good shot.”

By then, Wesley was decades removed from its days as a model community revitalization engine in the 1960s-early ‘70s War on Poverty. It was the agency’s shining hour. Money poured in and national recognition followed an array of initiatives to empower blacks. Then-executive director Rodney Wead led efforts that spawned a black owned radio station (KOWH), community bank (Community Bank of Nebraska), credit union (Franklin Federal Community Credit Union), minority scholarship program and an ethnic culture center. Later, north side redevelopment organizations led by Michael Maroney (New Community Development Corporation) and Alvin Goodwin (Omaha Economic Development Corporation) sprung up there.

Long before, the organization reached out to help youth, women and families living on the edge. One of 105 UMCC missions/institutions in the U.S., the agency began as a mission serving newly arrived immigrants then settling the Nebraska territory, one of many such shelters that grew out of the Progressive Area’s settlement house movement. Charged by a social reform agenda, these centers provided the types of programs and services then not being offered by government.

As the times dictated, the agency shifted its response. The early 20th century migration of rural families into the city, along with the growing Native American underclass and homeless population, became a prime focus. After years operating downtown, the local UMCC mission relocated to its present site in 1958, just a few blocks from Franklin Elementary School, and with the move made serving the area’s poor black residents a top priority. The neighborhood reflects north Omaha’s dual identity. While many low income families are stuck in a cycle of poverty and the area is run down by distressed houses and vacant lots, pockets of pricey new housing (Miami Heights) and resurgent business/service centers (the revitalized Lake Street corridor from 24th to 30th Streets) can be found.

Although Wesley receives some United Methodist church support, it’s long depended on most of its funding from the United Way and other public/private sources, leaving it vulnerable to the vicissitudes of donors.

Only 12 months into Bryant’s reign the center is still reeling from the aftermath of the United Way pull out. That severing meant the loss of not only hard-to-replace monies — some $300,000 worth annually — but the even more valuable endorsement that comes with UW support. Aware of how much stature Wesley lost in the eyes of the establishment, Bryant, a paradox of by-the-numbers-cruncher, deeply spiritual Christian and community-minded legacy-keeper, approaches his task to reinvent and redeem the agency as nothing less than a calling from above. To justify leaving behind a six-figure income with Wells Fargo (previous to that he was at Gallup and First National Bank), he’s put aside cold hard calculations and proceeded on faith.

“I am operating on faith every step of the way. My moves have not been thought out, studied and projected. When I accepted this job I didn’t have any staff. We had no revenues and a $40,000 debt I’d just found out about. I took a leap of faith. Quite frankly, I don’t have five-year projections. Right now, it’s a matter of survival for this organization. But, hey, I’m on a mission and I’m not too proud to beg,”

Bryant also felt it was time to give back. “I was at a point in my life when I was really looking for significance, and I felt this is what I’m supposed to do.” The agency’s bleak prospects gave him pause, but not enough to deter him. “I just felt pricked in my heart. Something’s got to be done, I thought.”

In short order, he introduced his new vision and set about restoring the agency’s good name. He promised to retire its $40,000 debt in a Biblically-inspired 40 days. He wiped out the deficit in 36 days. But getting there was never a sure thing.

“I can’t tell you how nervous I was. It wasn’t like I had some trump card up my sleeve. The fact is I didn’t have some big corporation in my hip pocket. I stepped out on faith and it happened. Just like this new direction we’re going. The largest contribution was $5,000. There was only one of those. There were several $1,000 donations. The rest was a whole lot of $500, $100, $25, $10 and $5 checks.”

The margin for error is still slim given the $20,000 in monthly operating expenses. “When I came, we had two weeks before our doors could be shut. Now, we’ve probably got a two-month cushion. We are not where we need to be but things are looking much better then they were this time last year,” he said. Another concern is the small number of children being served. Sixteen boys graduated last summer’s academy. Enrollment begins next week for this summer’s academy. A Summer Fun Club currently has 24 kids signed up. About 48 kids attended this past school year’s after school program. It’s not all about numbers, but as numbers go, monies flow. That’s why Bryant, who emphasizes recruitment is largely by word-of-mouth, hopes to see a spike in enrollees.

To bolster the financial footing, ensure continued operations and endow future growth, he hopes grant applications made to foundations and corporations pay off. Getting back in the UWs good graces is another goal. He’s also organized benefit events involving Omaha native and pro football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers and his wife Ardie, who are making Wesley House their official Omaha charitable cause. On April 28, a DVD big screen projection of the original 1971 made-for-television movie Brian’s Song was screened at Omaha Central High School’s auditorium. Bryant said the event raised about $2,000, enough for the agency to pay off a line of credit.

 

 

 

Gale Sayers

 

 

 

On June 19, the Gale Sayers Wesley House Classic is set for the Players Club at Deer Creek. Entries for the golf tournament sold out a month in advance. Among the celebrities expected to hit the links are National Baseball Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, Cornhusker quarterback legend Jerry Tagge, the NFL’s first black quarterback in Marlin Briscoe, former NBA All-Star Bob Boozer and Creighton University head basketball coach Dana Altman. Tee-off is at 10 a.m.

Bryant knows public events like this can only do so much. Bottom line, he and the Wesley House must prove the agency is back to stay and demonstrate they’ve found a sustainable niche that others buy into. One indication he is there to say, is the new house he and wife Robin are building in the nearby Miami Heights development.

“It’s about longevity. There’s a lot of people who’ve heard about the bad recent history and they want to see if this is a flash in the pan. Will it still be here? Will I still be here? I can’t see going anywhere. I want to be part of the solution. I want to be a bridge-builder.” To bridge the achievement gap. The desired end result is summed up in the academy creed the kids recite from memory. It ends with, “Through self-discipline we will grow into adults of honor and integrity. Our legacy will be a source of pride to our families and communities.”

Lifetime Friends, Native Sons, Entrepreneurs Michael Green and Dick Davis Lead Efforts to Revive North Omaha and to Empower its Black Citizenry

August 20, 2011 10 comments

Two well-connected players on the Omaha entrepreneurial scene and two stalwart figures in efforts to revitalize predominantly African-American North Omaha are Michael Green and Dick Davis. The Omaha natives go way back together and they share a deep understanding of what it will take to turn around a community that lags far behind the rest of the city in terms of income, commerce, jobs, education, housing starts, et cetera.

 

 

 

 

Lifetime Friends, Native Sons, Entrepreneurs Michael Green and Dick Davis Lead Efforts to Revive North Omaha and to Empower its Black Citizenry
©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

Growing up in the late 1940s-early 1950s, Michael Green and Dick Davis knew The Smell of Money from the pungent odors of the bustling packing plants and stockyards near the Southside Terrace apartments they lived in. Buddies from age 4, these now middle aged men began life in similar disadvantaged straits, yet each has gone on to make his fortune.

Instead of the old blue collar model they were exposed to as kids, they’ve achieved the Sweet Smell of Success associated with the fresh, squeaky clean halls of corporate office suites. Education got them there. Each man holds at least one post-graduate degree.

Along the way, there have been some detours. As kids they moved with their families to North O, where they became star athletes. They were teammates at Horace Mann Junior High before becoming opponents at rival high schools — Green at Tech and Davis at North. Both earned accolades for their gridiron exploits as running backs. Green, a sprint star in track, was a speed merchant, yet still rugged enough to play tackle, fullback and linebacker. Davis, a two-time unbeaten state wrestling champ, was a bruiser, yet still swift enough to outrun defenders.

The Division I football recruits reunited as teammates at Nebraska in the mid-’60s — excelling in the offensive backfield under head coach Bob Devaney and position coach Mike Corgan. They never saw action at the same time. Green, a halfback his first two years, co-captained the Huskers’ 1969 Sun Bowl championship team at fullback. Davis was in the mold of the classic blocking, short yardage fullback but he could also catch passes out of the backfield. Drafted a year apart by the NFL, they each pursued pro football careers, but not before getting their degrees — Green in economics and marketing and Davis in education. It wasn’t long before each opted to take a different route to success — one that involved brain, not brawn and three-piece-suits, not uniforms or helmets.

They ended up as executives with major Omaha companies. Today each is the owner of his own company. Green is founder, president and chief investment officer of Evergreen Capital Management, Nebraska’s only minority-owned registered investment advisor. Davis is CEO of Davis Cos., a holding company for firms providing insurance brokerage, financial consulting and contractor development services. Green handles hundreds of millions of dollars in managed assets for institutional clients. Davis Cos., with offices in multiple states, generates millions in revenues and is one of Omaha’s fastest growing firms.

The two men’s stories of entrepreneurial success are remarkable given that in the era they came up in there were few African American role models in business. Back in the day, blacks’ best hopes for good paying jobs were with the packing plants, the railroad or in construction. Few blacks made it past high school. One gateway out of the ghetto and into higher education was through athletics, and both Green and Davis were talented enough to earn scholarships to Nebraska. The opportunities and lessons NU afforded them — both in the classroom and on the field — opened up possibilities that otherwise may have eluded them.

Having come so far from such humble beginnings, neither man has lost sight of his people’s struggle. Both are immersed in efforts to address the problems and needs facing inner city African Americans. Green and Davis are leaders in a growing Omaha movement of educated and concerned blacks working together with broad private-public coalitions to make a difference in key quality of life categories. These initiatives are putting in place covenants, strategies, plans, programs and opportunities to help spur economic development, create jobs, provide scholarships and do whatever else is needed to help blacks help themselves.

Some efforts are community-driven, with Green and Davis serving as committee members/chairs. Others are spearheaded by the men themselves. For example, Davis is the driving force behind the North Omaha Foundation for Human Development, the Davis-Chambers Scholarship Endowment and Omaha 20/20, efforts aimed at community betterment, educational opportunities and economic development, respectively. Green has led a minority internship program that guides young black men and women into the financial services field. He helps direct the Ahman Green Foundation for Youth Development, which awards grants to youth organizations and holds a week-long football/academic camp. The foundation’s namesake, Husker legend Ahman Green, is his nephew.

Individually and collectively Green and Davis represent some high aspirations and achievements. They’re trying to give fellow blacks the tools to dream and reach those things for themselves. The two defied the long odds and low expectations society set for them and now actively work to improve the chances and raise the bar for others. The paths forged by these men offer a road to success. They’re putting in place guideposts for new generations to follow in their footsteps.

Recently, Green and Davis sat down with the New Horizons. In separate interviews they discussed their own journey and the road map for setting more blacks on the path to the American Dream.

Michael Green
Responsibility and leadership came early for Michael Green. As the oldest of five kids whose single mother worked outside the house, he was often charged with the task of looking after his younger siblings. His mom, Katherine Green, worked in the Douglas County Hospital kitchens before getting on with the U.S. Postal Service, where she retired after 30-plus years. Sundays meant getting dressed for services and bible school at Salem Baptist Church. He remains in awe of what his mom did to take care of the family.

“My mother raised us kids as a single working mom,” he said. “A very stable person. We didn’t know what poor was. I mean, she provided for us. We didn’t have the best of everything but we always had a place to live and food on the table. She was always home when she wasn’t working. On Saturday mornings she’d always get up and cook us a big breakfast with eggs and pancakes and everything and it conditioned me so much there’s hardly a Saturday morning I don’t crave eggs.”

 

 

Michael Green

 

It was an era of segregation and limited horizons for blacks but families and neighborhoods were tighter and in many ways, Green said, “it was really better times back then. Our parents worked. They provided for us. We didn’t even have the equivalent of cell phones or iPods and stuff like that, but we played, we improvised, we made our own skateboards and soap box derby carts and sling shots. If you were doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing bad news, as we’d say, would probably beat you home because neighbors knew who you were and knew who your parents were. They’d call and say, ‘Michael’s down the street doing this’ and by the time you got home you’d hear about it.”

His mother, he said, “had one mantra — get an education. I can remember in my childhood saying I wanted to play pro baseball. She said, ‘That’s fine, but make sure you know how to do something else.’ I had no clue what she was talking about. ‘What do you mean? I won’t have to. I’m going to play pro baseball. What else is there?’” Years passed before he knew how firmly her advice sunk in.

“It’s just funny how God works,” he said, “because it wasn’t until I walked across the stage to accept my (college) diploma that conversation popped into the front of my head. It just kind of stuck back there in my subconscious. I had made up my mind I was going to get my degree, so I knew I could do something else.”

Green didn’t get involved in organized athletics until junior high. Pickup games were common at Kountze Park, the YMCA and area schools. He and his kid brother David first flashed their speed at Horace Mann, where gym teacher/athletic coach Bob Rose saw their ability.

“He was a father on the field for many of us,” Green said of Rose. Green’s parents never married and his father was mostly out of the picture.

The Green brothers were not alone making their mark athletically on the north side. The area was then and is now a fertile ground for athletic excellence. A relatively small geographic area produced such standouts as Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer and Fred Hare. Before the Green brothers there were the Sayers brothers (Gale, Roger and Ron), the Nared boys (Rich and John) and the Boones (Ron and Co.). The same time the Greens were turning heads Dick Davis and his older brother Ricky Davis were doing the same. Leslie Webster starred. Joe Orduna, Phil Wise, Johnny Rodgers, John C. Johnson, Mike McGee and a host of others followed.

Green and his brother David ended up at Tech, rather than at North like his childhood friend Dick Davis, because it was where mom went to school.

“Tech, like a lot of the inner city schools, has a history where a lot of family generations went through that school,” he said. “My family’s a prime example. My mom graduated from Tech. My brother and I did. Cousins. It has a lot of emotional legacy for us Tech grads, primarily because Tech is closed now.”

The feeling runs so deep that Green chairs the Tech High Auditorium Restoration Project that’s raising funds for refurbishing the building’s 2,000-plus seat venue — one that hosted world class performing artists and public figures in its heyday.

“Professionals who have come and looked at it — from acoustics experts to engineers of various kinds — have said it’s in tremendous condition and just needs to be updated and restored,” he said.

Coming out of Tech to play for the “jovial” Devaney was not a hard sell.

“He and I hit it off right away. Very down to earth. He wasn’t like the Lombardi caricature of a coach. More of a father figure,” Green said.

 

Bob Devaney with 1969 co-captains Dana Stephenson and Mike Green, No. 34

 

Something Green didn’t appreciate until years later is how Devaney showed unusual sensitivity for the time by taking into account that except for a few athletes NU had markedly few black students. He said the Old Irishman even expressed interest in enrolling more blacks at Lincoln — athletes or not — in order to create a more comfortable environment for blacks.

Green said admiringly, “He was very concerned about the black experience we would have off the field.” It would be some years yet, he said, before the black population on campus increased appreciably.

When Green played, team captain honors always went to seniors. As a senior in ‘69 he was expecting the quarterback to get the offensive captain’s nod but halfway through fall scrimmage no vote had been taken yet to name anyone. He recalled being upset after “a particularly sloppy scrimmage” in preparation for the season opener against perennial power Southern Cal. “I started yelling at everybody on the sideline. I just went off on ‘em. Then we had a team meeting to elect the captains and somebody nominated me. They all voted and it was overwhelming they wanted me to be captain. I was just shocked.”

The experience taught him something he’s carried with him through life.

“I guess what I learned is that if you’re proactive about the way you go about things you don’t wait for something to happen, you don’t wait for somebody else to do something. You see something you want to do and you figure out how you want to get it done,” he said. Even if that means saying some hard things.

That motivated approach led him to get his degree before he left school for the NFL and to have a Plan B in place in case things didn’t work out with football.

The San Diego Chargers drafted him in the later rounds. He made the cut but this was a time before free agency. Players were property that could be bought, sold, traded with impunity. Seeing veterans traded overnight, their life and the lives of their loved ones disrupted, was a wake up call.

“What was sobering for me was the business end of pro ball where if you weren’t starting you could be living in San Diego today be shipped off to Cleveland tomorrow. That happened to a guy in training camp. You were strictly at the mercy of the team…There was no contract negotiation. You had to be a real star to have some leverage. Your only alternative was to hold out.”

If the NFL didn’t pan out he was going to have other options. He said athletics taught him not only how to compete but “how to grow from defeat,” he said. “It’s not some big epiphany but every single week after a game, win or lose, we’d go into film sessions and get critiqued on what we did right and wrong. Well, that kind of process conditions you to learn from mistakes automatically. It also conditions you to not be afraid to fail. You take a real, unemotional, objective look at what happened.” That same calculated analysis has served him well in life.

When he left the Chargers, his Plan B was already in motion due to some good fortune and foresight. He’d graduated from NU in the spring of ‘70 and was preparing for his shot at the NFL when he and Husker teammate Guy Ingles were invited to participate in a promotion at Omaha National Bank (now US Bank). At the gig Green said he met bank big wig Michael Yanney and “we took a liking to each other.” The next thing Green knew, he was offered a job.

When he saw the writing on the wall after that one season in San Diego, Green came back to Omaha knowing he had a job waiting for him.

“Talk about things happening for a reason,” Green said, still struck by the sequence of events that launched his financial services career.

By the time he worked his way up to the commercial lending area, Green knew banking was a good fit. The work introduced him to small local business owners, whose entrepreneurial spirit planted the seed of a dream in him.

“I was really impressed with these people — that they had their own destinies in their own hands. They weren’t like fabulously wealthy but they were doing quite well. And the thing that attracted me was they were their own boss. That experience made me say, I want to work for myself. It was more of a dream than a plan at that point.”

Harsh reality pushed his dream into action when he realized there was a glass ceiling at the bank for women and people of color.

“I learned after awhile there was a snowball’s chance in hell of a minority becoming a senior officer at the bank,” he said. “The irony is that this same institution paid for me to get my MBA (taking night classes at UNO). They paid for the whole thing and yet they allowed me to walk out the door two years later,” he said, referring to his taking a better offer from Northern Natural Gas Co. (part of Enron).

What convinced him to leave the bank was seeing less qualified individuals promoted or hired ahead of him.

“I was there eight years, working my way up through the organization and I saw people brought into the bank that didn’t have degrees. But they had worked in the agricultural divisions of small banks. Omaha National at that time did a lot of agricultural lending. These guys would be brought in and given titles and positions of authority much higher than mine.”

In some cases, he said, the new hires got the job only because they were the sons of rich cattle ranch owners. They were all white, of course.

“That was the first real dose of corporate racism,” said Green, adding, “I would have stayed had they just treated me like they treated everybody else — because I liked banking.”

Sadly, he said the experience of blacks being passed over for upper management is still common in corporate Omaha, a red flag for a city whose black population has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates and smallest middle classes.

“Even today…you don’t have a lot of blacks, women or other minorities reporting to CEOs or to the second in command. And Omaha’s different than a lot of other cities in that,” he said. “For some reason, the practice of inclusion and diversity has not completely permeated the corporate fabric. We haven’t gotten there yet  – even after all these years.

“In a perfect world, if you threw out all the opportunities on the table and everybody had an equal chance to grab at those…and do with them what they would, then Omaha would look very much the same as far as the buildings on the outside. But the makeup of people on the inside would look very different.”

Reversing the dearth of black executives and entrepreneurs and the small black middle class can’t be mandated, he said. “There’s no government legislation that’s going to change that. That’s a social and cultural phenomenon that has to be rectified in the corporate suites.”

In his opinion there’s a disconnect in Omaha between supporting affirmative action with words and implementing it with deeds.

“And regardless of what the corporate leaders in this town say they only need to look at their organizations,” he said.

He said no matter how much lip service is paid to diversity firms will struggle recruiting and retaining people of color as long as they only have white faces at the top. “You tell me you want to welcome me into an inclusive organization,” he said, “but the picture you’re showing me is totally opposite…”

He said racial division lines in Omaha extend to select neighborhoods, country clubs, social groups and high society events that are mostly if not exclusively white.

“When we go into a different or new environment the normal human response is to look for folks who are like us and have had similar experiences to start bonding and getting immersed…” he said. Absent that, you feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.

Omaha pays a heavy price for exclusion. Companies that practice diversity are less likely to locate here, he said, because they don’t see diversity in Omaha’s own executive ranks. And countless black Omahans have left here for more inclusive, more tolerant, more integrated communities that offer more opportunities.

In considering why Omaha’s not on board with diversity he said there “is one phenomenon it might be attributed to. With the exception of Union Pacific, most of the large corporations here — the Mutuals, the First Nationals. ConAgra — grew up here in this environment where there wasn’t that kind of diversity among their corporate brethren.”

After nine years in financial management at Enron Green found the corporate ladder once again only went up so high for minorities. Then the company moved to Houston. Offered a transfer, he instead opted for a buy out. This time, he didn’t have so much a Plan B in mind as he did a dream. To be his own boss. To reach it he struck a deal with Omaha investment banking firm Kirkpatrick Pettis, Smith, Polian Inc., which provided in-kind start-up help in the form of office space, clerical support and computer systems in exchange for half his revenues.

“It worked out pretty good and after three years I went out on my own,” he said.

He formed EverGreen Capital Management in 1989. Dream realized. As his business took off Green’s stature as a community leader grew with his stints on the Douglas County Board and, later, the Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority, where he oversaw construction of the $300 million Qwest Center. He’s on the board of the Omaha Sports Commission, which under his watch successfully bid for such major amateur sports events, as the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.

The value-investing strategy he uses to select stocks is consistent with his credo for life. “You don’t get involved with anything that is outside your sphere of intelligence or comprehension. If I don’t understand it, I don’t invest in it. In investing, you just keep it simple.”

That same philosophy applies to his community service, particularly the north Omaha revitalization efforts he’s involved in.

The grassroots African American Empowerment Network he’s a part of has held a series of meetings to craft covenants and strategies that give blacks the means to improve their economic well being and overall quality of life.

“The Empowerment Network has done a good job of bringing together concerned citizens from all over the community to identify issues that if addressed would have a positive impact on the community,” he said. “Instead of complaining about what’s wrong we’re trying to see what we can do to make things better.”

Fundamental to the network is blacks being empowered to take action themselves.
“It’s self-determination,” Green said.

So is the public-private North Omaha Development Project he’s active in. It has major corporate players working in concert with black community leaders on committees that identify needs — from employment to enterprise zones to housing — and formulate action plans for meeting those needs. Unlike previous North O studies-plans, this Chamber-backed initiative has delegated responsibilities, timelines, deadlines and goals. “We have very powerful, committed people leading these committees who have the freedom to explore whatever solutions or make whatever recommendations they deem appropriate,” Green said. “The thing that’s different is that it not only has the support but the involvement of people from the north Omaha community who will be affected by it.”

Why is this concerted, comprehensive effort happening now? “It happens when it happens,” he said. “There are now more educated African Americans than I’ve ever known in this community and that alone equips this community to really find some positive solutions.” It appears a critical mass has been reached to foster change.

Green said finding ways to spur economic development on the north side is crucial and long overdue but will take time: “This whole process will be evolutionary and not revolutionary. This could be a generational endeavor. Do I have hope? Hell, yes.” Macro and micro approaches are needed.

“What we want to do, just like the city and state do, is provide economic incentives for businesses to locate and do business and bring employment to that area of town,” he said.

He said commercial-residential development has flourished everywhere except in Noth O. “It’s the hole in the donut,” he said” He blames negative perceptions that the area is dangerous and its residents unemployable for slowing progress.

“The challenge is to overcome that pervasive fear. It’s nothing more than rooted in racism,” said Green, who doesn’t deny that problems with crime, violence, truancy and unskilled labor exist. “The condition is simply this — poverty, unemployment, undereducation all lead to the kind of social conditions that exist in north Omaha and to stop the wheel from spinning in that direction you’re going to have to put a stake in somewhere. My frustration is that what’s not being explored is the very economic vitality that alleviates those social conditions.”

He challenges corporations to locate plants or offices there to “start creating jobs.” He said, “If you want to deal with crime start giving people the means and reasons not to go out and commit crime. You will give people the means to be consumers and investors.” He points to the rebirth of south Omaha, which not  long ago was a depressed area and is now a vibrant commercial-residential-industrial district. He said the longer Omaha waits to act, North O’s ills will only spread.

Community service runs in the family, as his wife Carolyn Green is director of operations at Girls Inc. The couple’s only child, Angela Green, worked at Girls Inc. and is now a stay-at-home mom raising her two children.

Dick Davis
Hard times in pre-Civil Rights era Omaha did not get the late Mary Davis down and her keep-on-keeping-on attitude served her and her four children well. The single black working mom raised her kids — Ricky, Dicky, Vicky and Micky — to be confident, do-for-yourself individuals who always put family first. Her second oldest, Dick Davis, has taken this approach to unimagined heights — first as an athlete, than as an educator and more recently as a corporate and community leader. Family has played a large part in his success.

His mom worked at packing plants and all kinds of jobs to support the family while dad went AWOL. “My dad was out of the home for the vast majority of our childhood and came back into our lives when I was 34,” he said.

 

Dick Davis

 

Growing up in south Omaha and then north Omaha Davis moved several times with his family. In some cases the moves were to keep one step ahead of creditors. In other cases, mom was sick and out of work and the kids had to stay with grandma. It was all about “survival,” he said. “You try to find a home where you can.” He and Ricky both worked to help make ends meet. “Friday night was put your money on the table to see how we survive that week,” he said. All that moving around meant he attended four different elementary schools. As he learned first as a student and then as an educator in the inner city this high mobility pattern among disadvantaged kids puts them at risk for underachievement in the classroom.

As a youth he had “his challenges.” He was placed in the “slow” track in school. That affected his self-esteem, especially comparing himself to his big brother, Ricky, who excelled at everything. “I always thought I was a bit thick,” he said.

But his late brother, who died prematurely of pancreatic cancer at age 44, and his mother would not let him get down on himself. “He was unselfish in his commitment to make me as good as I could be,” he said of Ricky. “When you talk about sibling rivalry, there was none. He wanted the best for me.” Davis said he not only admired Ricky but had “strong love and affection” for him.

He recalled how a teacher once criticized in the presence of his mom, listing how he failed to measure up to Ricky. “Unmotivated, lazy, uninspired, dull. Every time he’d say something,” Davis said, “I shrunk in my seat a little bit more. When my mother and I left she said, ‘How do you feel?’ I said, ‘He was pretty tough.’ ‘Well, what do you think about yourself?’ I said, ‘I think I’m better than that.’ ‘Well, I think you are, too, son, so don’t worry about what other folks be thinking you gotta be doing. Worry about what you think you gotta be doing.’”

Davis was given the gift of unconditional love by his mother, who told him to not get caught up in comparisons. “She said, ‘I think every kid of mine has their unique talents and gifts, and Dick you just keep doing what you’re doing because your momma still loves you.’ And she had some very good, strong, capable kids.”

By the time he was 16, he said, “we had a stable family living situation.” He began doing better in school. Like his pal Mike Green, Davis’ athletic ability was spotted early onby Bob Rose at Horace Mann. Also by Don Benning, who coached at the north Y before coaching the wrestling team at then-Omaha U., where he developed champions. Benning saw Davis’ potential and worked with him to hone his raw talent. Once at North High Davis was dominant on the mat. For a good work out he’d go to UNO, where Benning had stiff competition for him in All-American George Crenshaw. Dick’s brother, Ricky, wrestled for Benning in college. Ricky also played football on the same teams Marlin Briscoe starred on and ran track at UNO.

Davis said his success in wrestling was the first time he got positive feedback from something he did. It told him, he said, “I am somebody. I’m a winner.” Those positive strokes prompted him “to try and get a little bit better” each day. He said the fact he was surrounded by so many great athletes in The Hood pushed him and others “to want to be better and better.” That ultra competitive environment, he said, may explain why North O owns such a rich history of sports legends.

But it was his attitude that made the difference in going from an average back to an All-American his senior year at North, when he rumbled for more than 10 yards a carry, and in going from a below par student to a high performer. Success, he’s learned, is a function of rigorous self-appraisal and self-motivation. It’s how he managed to make assistant principal at age 24 and principal before he was 30. It’s how he’s gone from one field of endeavor to another.

“It’s mindset, it’s expectations, it’s trying to figure out who you are and trying to do the best you can for who you are and not trying to be somebody else,” he said.
“There are some defining moments in your life. You need to assess who you are, what your abilities are and try to match those up the best you can to the opportunities out there.”

He said it’s vital to “recognize that where you come from doesn’t mean that’s where you’re going to end up.” He’s living proof, having come a long way from the projects and his early struggles in school to all his success. He’s done it by looking inward and applying what he’s learned to new situations.

“Knowledge and life experience is highly transferable,” he said. “Just think: I was an art guy, then a pro athlete, then an educator, then an administrator, then a corporate manager, and now an owner. The issue is there still are basic principles no matter what you do in life, so you just live by them.”

Academics and athletics became means to an end but, he said, if it hadn’t been for Nebraska giving him a football scholarship, he wouldn’t have been able to afford college. He’s sure he would have found a way to go anyway.

Always an independent thinker, Davis also has a creative side, so much so that he studied art in college, where he added a more practical major in education, which became his career once he was finished with pro football. He said he was “very analytical” in choosing education as something he could be successful at later. To ensure he graduated on time he loaded up on credits each summer.

“I was hugely focused,” he said. “I’ve always been an old soul in a young body. Now I’m finally caught up to myself.”

While at NU he supplied caricatures of Husker coaches for the 1968 football brochure. He was an All Big 8 performer on the field in ‘67, when he was also named to the all-conference and national scholastic squads. He graduated in ‘69.

Drafted by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, he also spent time with the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints. His pro career was no great shakes but he did satisfy himself he was “good enough to play at that level.” Like Mike Green, Davis was turned off by the cold, hard reality of seeint veterans who were “gifted athletes,” like ex-Huskers Wayne Meylan and Walt Barnes, ruthlessly cut. He began plotting his post-football life after doing some research and finding that, statistically, he was unlikely to last the minimum five years in the league to qualify for a pension. Even if he did, an NFL vet’s life expectancy then was 55 — the age the pension kicked in.

“The numbers didn’t add up,” he said.

Once he left the game he never looked back. Back home, he began his 10-year career with the Omaha Public Schools, first as an art teacher, than as assistant principal at his alma mater, North, and finally as principal at McMillan Junior High, where he and his mentor, Don Benning, would wrestle on their lunch break to saty in shape. At the time, McMillan was the largest junior high in Nebraska, with some 1,400 kids crammed into a building meant for 1,000. Adding to the tension that comes with overcrowding and the angst that attends adolescence was the school’s transition from a largely white student base to a predominantly black student base. Somehow Davis and his staff made it work.

“We were basically making a difference and you could see the difference. We affected change in terms of student achievement, the school culture, parental involvement. True results,” he said. “It absolutely turned me on to know we were impacting people’s lives.”

He said his success got him thinking, “If I can do this here, why can’t I do it district-wide?” He prepared by earning his master’s from UNO and his doctorate from NU. But when he made known his desire to one day be OPS superintendent he was paternalistically told he was best suited to stay at McMillan. Davis said institutions like OPS historically profile black employees as having “great people skills,” which usually confines them to teaching, principal, human resources, public relations, disciplinary positions but denies them access to the more technical finance-administrative posts required for the superintendent track.

Not seeing an opportunity to go that direction, he left to join Northern Plains Natural Gas Co. (Enron). He held out the possibility of returning but found his niche in business. “Well, life moves forward. I never went back,” he said. Still, he said, “education was the most challenging and rewarding of all the things I’ve done in my life. I’m still a teacher, just by nature, so I approach things in that way. If you look at my business-entrepreneurial career, you will see strong educational components to everything I do, because that’s my thing. Education is my thing.”

At Enron he did risk management and strategic planning but found the proverbial glass ceiling. “No question about that,” he said. But his not rising to the top, he said, had as much to do with his skills set not being the right fit for a company that was basically “nothing but accountants and engineers.” That was especially true when Enron decided “to just do piping,” which in their eyes made expendable several auxiliary companies that began as spinoffs from Northern Plains. Where Enron saw excess, Davis saw “a fabulous opportunity that could be grown.”

He went to the higher-ups to ask if he could take those auxiliary companies off their hands — scott free. To his surprise, he said, he was told yes. Davis got the suits to put it in writing and those businesses now form the core of his Davis Cos.

“Don’t you love America?” said Davis, letting loose his big booming laugh.

The Davis family has been integral to his company’s success. Wife Sharon served as president of Davis Insurance Co., which his brother Ricky founded and his mother and brother Micky joined. His daughter-in-law Lisa Davis is the Davis Cos. controller and soon-to-be CEO. Davis hopes his and his family’s success demonstrates how much is possible when we don’t place limits on ourselves.

“I believe I am an ordinary person doing extraordinary things,” he said.

The Davis story exemplifies a pay-it-forward philosophy that can work on a larger scal. He said the investment he and his wife have made in their children, Dick II and Shaynel, and in other loved ones is helping this next generation realize their dreams and control their destinies. He wants to see more black families move into financial independence and entrepreneurship so they too can invest in their future and in the future of their community.

He feels if he and other successful African Americans can get people to buy into that model than the resulting assets can accrue to the entire black community and pay dividends for generations.

“If by sharing my experiences I can inspire folks who do not believe to believe than I think that’s a good thing. That’s what we should be all about. If you can change the expectations of folks and allow them to dream, you’ve affected life very personally and that makes me feel good. If we can spread the spirit of don’t despair, I think we can move mountains.”

The slogan of the North Omaha Foundation for Human Development he founded in 1980 is, We believe in people. But Davis is about more than slogans. He’s about action. That’s why the foundation — a partnership with OPS — awards grants to youth programs and services. The Davis-Chambers Scholarship, named for Davis family members and for state Sen. Ernie Chambers, has been awarding minority students scholarships since 1989. To date, the public-private fund has given out more than $3 million for students’ higher education. He’s working on plans to grow the fund and the number of scholarships it offers.

 

 

$5 Million Joint Venture Mixed-use Facility

 

New North Downtown headquarters for Davis Cos.

 

His Omaha 20/20 initiative is an economic development catalyst aimed at helping blacks achieve full employment in jobs that lead to careers that, in turn, create  entrepreneurs and investors. The alliance partners with many of the same players in the African American Empowerment Network, whose economic and education committees he chairs, and shares the same self-empowering goals. He’s also participating in the North Omaha Development Project and Building Bright Futures. All these initiatives share a common goal of impacting the whole community.

“A rising tide raises all ships — that’s the approach we’re taking.”

Davis said everyone has a role in helping bring about needed change. “My gift is that I can bring people together that in most cases don’t talk to each other. I can also give some money, raise some funds, provide some scholarships and spur some economic development. I go to white folks and black folks and say, ‘Here’s how I’m stepping up. Tell me how you’re going to step up.’ That doesn’t mean necessarily just by money. But once you step up I want you to be accountable for it.” People are providing expertise and much more.

He said the fact that people from across the entire socioeconomic-racial-religious-political spectrum are stepping up to assume “shared responsibility and accountability is what makes it feel different” than past efforts.

Davis, who mentors youth, said that “in my first conversation with every young person I always say, ‘Do you truly understand that before you take your first step, you need to know what your 10th step is? Because if you don’t know…you’re going to have a problem getting there and you’re going to get there longer and your goal might not be there when you get there.’”

That same deliberate, forward-thinking vision is required, he said, if north Omaha and the black community are to seize this moment and this opportunity in history.

Dick Davis, like his good friend, Mike Green, said he intends to visualize and follow through those steps for success in order “to make a difference.”

A Family Thing, Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion

August 4, 2011 8 comments

Family. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. For the Bryant-Fisher extended family, who call home base Omaha, Neb. but have members scattered all over the nation, they keep things tight with a annual family reunion. Big deal, right?  Well, before you dismiss their get-together as routine, consider that this is a really big family, as in more than 2,200 direct descendants of family reunion founder Emma Early Bryant Fisher, by last count. Their Second Sunday in August reunion usually draws 500 or more folks, and for those milestone years it sees 700, 800, or more.  Eight generations worth come from near far. Then consider they’ve been doing this for 94 consecutive years.

 

 

 

 

A Family Thing, Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion

©by Leo Adam Biga

As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

With the “hot ghetto mess” of Native Omaha Days over, another traditional African-American summer gathering, the Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion, begins.

The biennial Native Omaha Days began in 1977. But it’s a newbie compared to the historic annual reunion that dates to 1917, when Emma Early Bryant Fisher inaugurated the event with a family picnic at Mandan Park near her South Omaha home. The picnic was held there for 30 years.

Sunday’s picnic at Levi Carter Park will mark its 94th consecutive year.

The Days and the reunion coincide only every other year. Just as NOD winds down, the reunion gears up, though there’s an extra week between them this time. NOD officially runs a week. The reunion, three days.

NOD boasts signature events attracting sizable crowds. The Bryant-Fisher reunion has one main event – the sprawling, all-day August 14 picnic. The picnic moved to Carter Lake in the early 1990s.

The picnic draws the biggest family throng.

“They’re going to be at the park. If they don’t do anything else for the whole weekend or the whole year, that Sunday they will be at the park,” says family historian Arlett Brooks. “You cook your food and you pitch your tent, and you may be there for an hour or you may be there for five hours, but you go.”

This mega extended family, whose population rivals that of many Nebraska towns, takes over a few acres at Carter Lake.

The Bryants and Fishers exert a considerable presence wherever they encamp. They comprise what’s believed to be the largest African-American family around, extending over 12 branches. They’re so large they conduct their own census. At last count they numbered more than 2,200 direct descendants.

If this year is like others, 500 to 800 souls will gather Sunday.

“People just don’t realize the magnitude of it until they get there,” says Brooks, whose sister Cheryl Secret and mother Patricia Moss are family stalwarts.

The enormity of the history and scope is a point of family pride.

“I think it’s associated with pride, it’s associated with tradition, respect for our elders. By continuing this we’re respecting our great-grandmother,” says Secret.

For milestone reunions like the 90th in 2007, when upwards of 1,000 or more gathered, the family throws its own Saturday parade on North 24th Street.

In this frantic age, the reunion expresses solidarity and consistency. The family likes to say no matter where you are in the world, you know the reunion will be held on the second Sunday in August ,come hell or high water. Neither storms nor floods will deter it.

“Nothing has ever stopped it,” says Secret. “You don’t even look at the weather, you just go.”

“We’ve been rained on a lot of times, but not rained out,” says Moss, who by her reckoning hasn’t missed a reunion during her 85 years.

Having something to count on helps this enormous family remain tight.

“It’s wonderful to have that bond, to have something that brings us together as opposed to separating us,” says Paul Bryant. “We need more things like that in society – showing love as opposed to hate or indifference.”

“We may not see each other every day, but if you need us we’re there. That’s how we are,” says Juanita Sutton.

Meeting and greeting at the picnic is an invitation for young and old to share where they fit on the vast family tree. “If someone says, ‘How are you related?’ it’s an honor to be able to go down the line as to how you belong in the family,” says Secret.

 

 

width:200 and height: 120 and picwidth: 200 and pciheight: 120

 

 

Arlett’s daughter, Makida Brooks, says, “It means a whole lot, just knowing I can go anywhere and not be alone. I can go anywhere by myself and be pretty sure I’m going to be in the same area as one of my relatives, so I’m going to be okay, wherever I go.”

On their Dozens of Cousins Facebook page, Makida says, “We send messages, ‘Do we have any cousins in Alabama? In Buffalo, New York.? In L.A.? Most places we do. On Facebook I have 500-600 friends and 90 percent of them are my relatives. I don’t accept you if I don’t know you, so you have to be related to me.”

Moss, whose grandmother was reunion founder Emma Early, does old school social networking at the picnic, where she seeks her closest cousins.

“When I could walk I used to walk from one end of Carter Lake all the way to the other to make sure I saw every one of my cousins, especially my first cousins,” says Moss, who as an elder now has relatives come and wait on her.

When she was still spry, her daughters shadowed her as she made the rounds. It ignited their interest in family lore.

“We got to visit and develop relationships with all 12 families because we were with her,” says Brooks.

Patricia’s daughters cherish their mother’s and other elders’ tales.

“She loves telling us stories,” says Secret. “She’ll tell stories about racial things that happened in South Omaha, where they kind of pushed the blacks out, and how her father’s family stayed put. Her uncle sat on the porch with a shotgun and said, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ They stood their ground.

“When we’re like this, just sitting around, all you gotta do is just give her a little hint of what direction you want to go, and she’ll just start sharing stories.”

As if on cue, Patricia recalls how long-ago customs were enforced at the picnic.

“I remember when we were kids my grandmother had all of the cousins sit at one table. The sisters (daughters, daughters-in-law) had to wait on everybody before they could eat. My grandmother would sit down with the men and she’d have her dinner and she’d make sure all the kids had theirs, and then the sisters could sit down and eat.”

Where a pavilion or large tent once accommodated the picnic, she says, “It’s got so big, now each family’s got their own tent.”

The Bryant-Fisher thing turns Carter Lake into a multi-colored tent city. Black folks of every shade and hue mingle. Eight generations worth. Some sport Bryant-Fisher T-shirts, complete with the family crest. Some “wear” the logo as body art. Jazz, blues and R&B mix with hip-hop.

One could mistake it all for Native Omaha Days. But don’t confuse the two. The family is protective of what they have and don’t like sharing the spotlight.

The reunion’s longevity and large turnout regularly attract media notice, even gaining Guinness Book of World Records mention. During election cycles the picnic’s known to bring out politicians in search of votes.

Party crashers are not unheard of.

“Oh, yeah, but they’re kind of welcome, as long as they’re not bringing trouble,” says Mary Alice Bryant. “To me, what’s great, with all the violence in Omaha, we’ve never had one incident, not one.”

Rev. Doyle Bryant, pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, says his family’s commitment to staying connected, and the reunion’s high profile, explain why it’s endured and why it’s coveted by outsiders.

“This family reunion is nationally known, that has a lot to do it. When you get that type of notoriety you don’t want it to die out. We have people coming from all over the country to participate.”

“I know some families struggle to keep the family together, but I grew up with us always having it. It’s just expected,” says Arlett Brooks. “I think a lot of people admire that we could have kept it going that long.”

“There’s not too many that have gone on this many years,” says Marcelyn Frezell. “I think it has encouraged other families to have family reunions.”

But there are posers, too.

“We’ve got a whole lot of wannabes,” says Patricia Moss.

With a family this size, it’s impossible to know everyone.

“I think it’s intimidating, especially for the people who come from out of town maybe only every five years,” says Secret. “You walk through the park and you know all these people are your relatives, but you just don’t have a clue who they all are.

“I think the more we go down in generations the less connection they seem to have with each other. That’s something we talk about, we really need to work on – the young people getting to know each other to maintain the closeness and bonds with one another.”

 

 

Paul Bryant says he had to overcome his own shyness to fully partake in the reunion.
“You just have to get a comfort zone being around that many people and realizing all these people are family. They’re here to represent family, and you are a part of the family. Whether you’re a Bryant or a Fisher, at every tent you’re welcome, and that’s the way I conduct myself now. I walk right up to another tent, ‘Hey, you guys got anything to drink over here?’ ‘Sure, help yourself.’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘Paul Bryant. I’m the son of Doyle Bryant, who was the son of….”

And the lineage beat goes on.

There have been countless occasions when two young people who are sweet on each other find out they’re cousins.

“I had six children and every last one of my kids, every last one of ‘em, brought        somebody home as their girlfriend or their boyfriend,” says Moss. “When I got through questioning them, they were cousins. And we all live right here in Omaha. That’s what I couldn’t understand – how they don’t know each other.”

Arlett and Cheryl had it happen to them, as did most of their cousins.

“I went all the way through high school with a guy and one year I seen him at the family picnic. He said, ‘This is my family,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, where have you been all of these years?’ Sometimes, they’ve been there and you’ve been there, you just haven’t seen each other,” says Arlett.

Someone she works with turned out to be a cousin. “We’re very close now.”

Cheryl began a family genealogy book 16 years ago. Arlett’s revised it every five years. The family consults it when there’s a question.

“I took the initiative to research and find out all of the generations underneath my mother’s generation,” says Secret. “If someone can’t go down that line and tell me who their grandmother was or who their great-grandmother was, then you know they’re a wannabe or they married in or they’re somebody’s friend.”

Not that friends aren’t welcome, they are. “I have two girlfriends I’ve been knowing all my life, and they don’t miss it,” says Mary Alice Bryant.

Coming on the heels of Native Omaha Days, it makes for two weeks of black pride heritage celebrations.

Emma Early Bryant Fisher
Thousands flocked back for the July 27-August 1 Days. They came from Georgia, Alabama, Texas, California, Back East and every which way. Hundreds will do the same for the reunion. Some stay for both.

Folks catch up with family and friends, revisit old haunts and make the rounds. The Days is a succession of reunions, picnics, barbecues and block parties. There’s music, dancing, card playing. Church. A parade down North 30th. A communal picnic at Elmwood Park. A Blue Monday at local watering holes to tie one on before parting-is-such-sweet-sorrow goodbyes.

The Bryants-Fishers turn out in force at The Days. A family matriarch, Bettie McDonald, co-founded the event and its sponsoring Native Omahans Club. Not surprisingly, the itinerary is patterned after that of the Bryant-Fisher bash.

Though the Dozens of Cousins picnic has changed, one thing that hasn’t is the dawn fish-fry breakfast, followed by a church service. Other activities include a talent contest, volleyball, foot races, fishing. Pokeno, gin and dominos are the favored card games.

There’s a formal dinner dance Friday night at the Lake Point Center, a Family Fun Day Saturday at Fun-Plex and various odds and ends.

When the family has a parade, Bryant-Fisher floats and drill teams pass by the Native Omahans Club on North 24th. The building doubles as the family clubhouse for Dozens of Cousins meetings and fish-fry dinners.

Just as The Days ends on a blue note, some relatives will ring out the reunion on Monday at the club or a bar – tilting back a few to bid each other farewell, till next year.

For Paul Bryant, the reunion’s been a given his whole life, and with it the realization his family is far from ordinary.

“Some of my earliest childhood memories are at family picnics at Mandan Park,” he says, “and of some of the same things still going on today. The dance contest, the races. We used to almost always go down to the bottom of the hill to play football.

“The little kids would watch the older kids. ‘Oh,he plays for Central! He’s my cousin?’ Then you become older and you become the one the little guys are watching. Then you get older still and admire someone like my cousin Galen Gullie, who made us all proud playing ball for Bryan (High). In my day, I was kind of doing that.”

Bryant sees the reunion as continuity. An each-one-to-teach-one opportunity for older generations to impart the family heritage and tradition.

“I always knew we have a big family,” says Bryant. “When I was 8 or 10 they’d hold a program with a dinner and the mayor or someone would speak. I was like, ‘Wow, there’s something special here.’ Politicians come to the picnic and press the flesh. I mean, there’s a lot of people there and a lot of them have done some things in the community.

“As a kid, you’d see that, you’d hear that, and you knew your family had something special. And you were proud to be inheriting all that legacy.”

 

 
photo
Paul Bryant

 

 

He enjoys discovering some notable is a relative. He’s a notable himself. He excelled in sports in high school and college, then embarked on a fast-track corporate career before assuming leadership of the Nebraska Urban League. He found a new mission as executive director of the Wesley House, where he formed an excellence academy. Today, he’s a presenter at schools with his purpose-driven leadership program.

Bryant, his wife Robin and their three kids are widely recognized for their community service. He says high achievers in the family, whether the late coach-educator Charles Bryant or current young hoops star Galen Gullie or the family’s bona fide celebrity, actress Gabrielle Union, serve to inspire.

Union gets back for The Days some years and for the reunion others. Her appearances, lately with NBA squeeze Dwyane Wade, cause a sensation in the black community every bit as electric as the buzz Lady Gaga generates among her Little Monster fans.

The family is unapologetically possessive in claiming “Gabby” as their own. Paul Bryant’s as starstruck as the rest, but he’d rather his kids view their elders as role models and their family history as cool.

“My son can tell you, ‘My dad’s Paul Bryant, whose dad was Doyle Bryant, whose dad was Marcy Bryant, whose dad was Thurston Bryant, who’s the son of Emma Early, who’s the daughter of Wesley Early, who’s the son of a plantation owner.

“For me, it’s important to pass that down. I want every one of my kids to know their lineage as far back as we can trace it. I think that’s part of what this whole Bryant-Fisher thing is. If you don’t know, if it’s just going to the picnic Sunday and you don’t feel connected with something bigger, you miss out, you’ve got nothing to pass on.”

Makida Brooks values the experiences her elders share. “Just knowing what they had to go through and what they had to do makes me appreciate what I have now. I understand I don’t have nearly the struggles they had.”

Ninety-four years since it’s start, the reunion appears set for the future.

“I’m not expecting anything different than what has happened in the past,” says Arlett Brooks. “People will step up and make sure it continues, just like I have for my generation, and I’m sure my daughters will for their generation. It’s just expected.”

“I think it’s embedded in so many of us we couldn’t stop this thing if we wanted,” says Cheryl Secret. “I think in each tribe there are children who will make this thing happen, no matter what.

“It will go on I think for generations.”

A Journey in Freelance Writing


For Omaha metro residents, the promotion below is a heads-up regarding a presentation I am making about freelance writing.  It’s free and hopefully not boring.  The presentation is open to anyone.  It’s part of the ongoing North Omaha Summer Arts Festival.  The fest’s website address is at the bottom of this post.  Check it out.

 

 

North Omaha Summer Arts 2011 presents:

A Journey in Freelance Writing

Veteran journalist and author Leo Adam Biga uses his own 27-year career to talk about what life as a freelance writer can look like.

 

Wednesday,  August 10, 6-8pm

Call 402.455.7015 Mon thru Fri, 9am – 4pm for registration

This class is free of charge

 

Topics to be covered include:

•real life experience

•learning your craft

•on the job education/training

•finding a niche

•writing about your interests

•just doing it

•daring to risk different fields & styles of writing

•building a client base

•managing multiple projects

•is there any money in this?

As a contributing writer to newspapers and magazines, he’s had thousands of articles published on a vast array of subjects, many of them arts, culture, sports, and history related. Other clients include for-profit corporations, nonprofit institutions, individuals, and families.

 

At Church Of the Resurrection

3004 Belvedere Boulevard

Omaha, Neb.

http://www.northomahasummerarts.com

Overarching Plan for North Omaha Development Now in Place, Disinvested Community Hopeful Long Promised Change Follows

July 29, 2011 17 comments

North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan and Empowerment Network leaders after 7-0 City Council vote approving plan

 

 

Here’s a cover story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about a plan and a vision that may at last signal the start of significant turnaround for long stagnated North Omaha. To be more precise – Northeast Omaha, where the predominantly African-American community is located and has awaited meaningful change for going on half-a-century. If it doesn’t happen now, then when?

Overarching Plan for North Omaha Development Now in Place, Disinvested Community Hopeful Long Promised Change Follows

©by Leo Adam Biga

As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Recent adoption of the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan into the city master plan gives direction and impetus to energizing a stagnated, disinvested area never fully recovered from decades-ago civil disturbance and urban renewal.

Unanimous approval by the Omaha Planning Board and City Council sends a strong signal to public-private funders and developers the plan provides an officially endorsed blueprint for action. What happens next to realize its 30-year vision is up to stakeholders, entrepreneurs, elected officials, movers and shakers.

The Empowerment Network initiated plan, which drew input from residents, business concerns, philanthropists, planning consultants and others, envisions $1.43 billion in redevelopment along key corridors. The initiative puts the Northside in the crosshairs of major transformation as never before.

Some plan contributors and likely implementers recently spoke with The Reader about what this means for a section of the city that’s long awaited significant change.

“One reason it’s important is to show the people who participated, who live in the community, that we’re serious about a North Omaha that is a strong component of the overall city, one that shares in the successes and in the future of the whole city,” says Omaha Planning Director Rick Cunningham.

“It’s important because as the Planning Department this gives us then our marching orders. This is what we then work with with developers to compare their ideas and plans against. It gives people a clear understanding of what the vision is and where they can best take their dollars and invest them.”

 

 

 

 

Omaha Economic Development Corporation president Michael Maroney sees the plan as “absolutely essential” for addressing some sobering realities.

“I’ve been working in this community for over 40 years and over that period of time I’ve heard over and over again from the political leadership of this city, from the corporate-business community, why can’t North Omaha leadership get together and speak with a single voice in terms of what the needs are.

“And this whole effort going back five years in the creation of the Empowerment Network was really in part a response to that, because we recognized we had to start doing things differently.”

The need for a new approach became painfully obvious, he says, in the wake of a 2005 study. It showed that in every quality of life measure constituting a healthy community blacks “were either no better off or worse off compared to the majority community” than they were in 1977, he says.

“That basically said all the good work all of us thought we were doing wasn’t making a difference, not in the overall scheme of things. Something was missing.”

The community action coalition African American Empowerment Network was born.

“We sat around a table and said we’ve got to start working together, we’ve got to start collaborating, we’ve got to start connecting with each other, and bring all our combined talents together,” says Maroney. “That led to this village revitalization visioning we did.”

 

 
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To those who might regard the resulting plan’s price tag as excessive, he says, “We cannot be afraid of reality. Now we’re not saying we’re going to go out and get a $1.43 billion commitment tomorrow. It’s a 30 year process, and it’s not going to come from any one entity or one source or one area. Government has a role in this, the private sector has a role in this, there’s going to be a lot of bank financing in this thing.”

“When $3 billion has been spent in downtown and midtown, what’s a billion dollars for North Omaha to make it a strong resource, a strong player, a big part of the tapestry for a sustainable Omaha?” asks Cunningham.

It’s no exaggeration to say the plan is a put-up or shut-up moment in Omaha history.

Maroney says, “For decades the greater community has said come together and the support will be there. Well, we’ve done that now, and I have to say we’ve had good vibes all along the way from those various entities. But the proof is going to be in the pudding. We now have a very solid process we’ve gone through that creates a long term vision for the community. We’ve done this in a collaborative way that engaged the city and the business and philanthropic community. Now the question becomes, Will you step up to the plate? We’ve got this down, we’ve got it in phases, we’ve got even the first couple projects identified. So we’re moving to that next level and we’ll see if what has been suggested and indicated for years will actually happen.”

 

 

Michael Maroney

 

 

Empowerment Network president Willie Barney says the plan’s “going to take focus and commitment from the community itself,” adding, “New businesses and venues will only be sustainable to the level they’re supported by the people who live here.”

For the area to thrive, says Maroney, “it’s more than just brick and mortar because we know if people don’t feel safe and secure, I don’t care how nice we make it, they’re not going to be there, they’re not going to come.”

Observers agree infrastructure needs like the sewer-separation project must proceed to lay the way for large scale development.

Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp. executive director Othello Meadows says whatever happens next, the Network deserves credit for making North O a priority.

“I’m encouraged by what the Empowerment Network is doing,” he says. “They’ve been consistent, they haven’t let the momentum fizzle out. They’ve been diligent. They’ve put together a really comprehensive plan. Anybody can quibble with aspects of it, but the fact they’ve put this together is a major accomplishment.

“They’ve kept the conversation going long enough to get the attention of the right people and it’s moved to a very concrete step being part of the master plan.”

He’s confident North O has the players it needs to drive the plan to fruition.

“I think there’s far more executors than they’re used to be. There’s more people who are used to being held accountable, to executing and getting things done and who are much less interested in talking about it and much more interested in doing it. That’s the single biggest component of what will make North Omaha successful.”

Another aspect of economic development the plan implicitly addresses is improving work skill readiness and creating more living wage to career job pathways.

“Omaha has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, yet we still have in North Omaha a very high unemployment rate,” says Barney. “We have not really bridged that gap yet. We really haven’t come to grips with job creation and development. I think more so now than ever the business community is alongside us in looking at how to solve this. There are training programs through the Urban League, Heartland Workforce Solutions, Metro Community College that I think will do a more effective job of getting people ready.”

The Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Solutions partners with local employers, Metro and Goodwill Industries to train skill deficient workers for entry level professional jobs. Meadows, who headed the Omaha Workforce Collaborative, says too many North Omaha residents still have “the steepest of hills to climb” to become proficient.

North Omaha is a much studied, social serviced area suffering disproportionately from poverty, unemployment, underemployment, educational-skill gaps and health problems. As Omaha as a whole has prospered, North O’s languished, cut off from the mainstream of commerce and affluence that ranks the city among the nation’s best places to live. For half a century its predominantly black population has seen their community cast as a crime-ridden danger zone and charitable mission district.

Branded as an undesirable place to live or do business in, major investment has bypassed it. Thus, it lacks goods and services, its population is down, its housing stock deteriorated, its vacant, condemned properties number in the thousands. Added to this is a sparse entrepreneurial class and scarcity of entertainment options-attractions.

 

 

 

 

Planning Director Cunningham says though efforts have “stabilized what was a declining part of town, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work to do,” adding. “To say we’ve stabilized is not great, but it does give us a platform upon which to move forward.”

“If North Omaha is to be a sustainable community, and that means it really takes care of itself and it doesn’t need to be a welfare community, we have to have a different mind set,” says Maroney. “That does not mean we forsake those in need, but we have to create the atmosphere by which we not only bring back people with higher incomes but we elevate those people within upward. We must create a community that is generating resources that turn around in the community by creating jobs, creating opportunity.”

“The whole idea is to make North Omaha a neighborhood of choice,” says Cunningham. “That not only people who live there now stay, because they can afford to stay, because of new jobs and opportunities, but people who moved away are invited-enticed to move back and people looking for a new place to raise their families move there.”

He says the plan mitigates against gentrification pricing out residents.

“The concept is to not have just one type of housing but a full range of housing types and income levels. I think that’s all through the plan.”

Facilitating mixed income housing projects is what Seventy Five North plans doing. The new nonprofit, in partnership with Purpose Building Communities, is quietly acquiring properties to infuse new life into neighborhoods.

Prospect Hill has recently seen the addition of new “green” homes to its stock of older homes courtesy of a collaborative venture between OEDC, Alliance Building Communities, Holy Name Housing, Wells Fargo Bank and Family Housing Advisory Services. More partnerships like this are needed, says OEDC’s Maroney.

Cunningham says if North Omaha is to be a prime development landscape the same way other parts of the city are, “we need to identify innovative and new ways we can invest. So we’re looking at the economic development tools we have to make it just as easy to develop and reinvest there. We’ve got to do that. We’ve got to utilize the resources of this city.” He says, “A plan like this is a catalyst that begins people thinking about, What if? Why not? and people are doing that already. There are partners (emerging) out there the public doesn’t know about at this point.”

Othello Meadows feels a serious attitude change is necessary.

“One of the things I see a lot is almost this antithetical attitude to people coming into North Omaha to make money,,” he says, “as if it’s almost a bad or exploitive thing, and I don’t understand that. The only way North Omaha grows in a sustainable way is if somebody sees an opportunity to go in there and make some money. That’s how North Omaha gets tied to the rest of the economic prosperity the city has enjoyed.”

 

 

Othello Meadows

 

 

Nurturing more entrepreneurs, says Maroney, “is absolutely key. It’s an area we’re working on. It needs a lot of help. A lot of it is access to credit and capital. A lot of its entrepreneurial development training. That’s critical because as we develop all this brick and mortar we need to have people ready to move in and create businesses and jobs and hopefully make a lot of money.”

The city and Chamber are actively recruiting black businesses outside Nebraska to open operations in North Omaha. Consultant Jim Beatty heads an Atlanta initiative that’s imported one business thus far, All(n)1 Security. He says aggressive, wide net efforts like these are needed to market the revitalization plan to entrepreneurs, philanthropists and developers. “I think we need to present North Omaha as an opportunity for investment, and we need to tell that story, not only locally but nationally,” says Beatty, who chairs the Black History Museum board.

The Chamber’s Ed Cochran, who heads the North Omaha Development Project, says, “There are several ways to grow business in a community. One is to grow it organically
through inspiring entrepreneurs with brand new businesses. Another is to strengthen and grow existing businesses. A third is to import businesses from other locations.” He says North Omaha needs all these approaches.

For too long, says Meadows, the Northside has been treated as a charity case.

“I feel like there’s almost a patriarchal type relationship that always leaves North Omaha in a secondary position. At this point North Omaha doesn’t have the capital, in a lot of ways it doesn’t have the personnel, kind of by way of brain drain, to transition itself organically without outside resources. At this point it needs help from philanthropy and individuals whose hearts are in the right place, who simply want to do the right thing.

“I think the compassion that exists in this city is rare, especially in the philanthropic community, but I think we have to have a little bit more analytical, clinical approach.”

While the adjacent downtown, riverfront and mid-town have bloomed, North O’s seen piecemeal, stop-gap change, with pockets of redevelopment surrounded by neglect.

“Historically what we’ve done, and I’ve been a part of that, is have a scattered gun approach toward development,” Maroney says. “A lot of good things have been done, but they’ve been done in isolation. We need to better coordinate and understand how these things relate to each other, and then how you build on top of those. We’re now trying to take a more deliberative and directed approach toward development.”

 

 

 

 

Backers of the revitalization plan see it as a guide and stimulus to making North O a destination to live, work and recreate in. Among the early focal points is developing 24th and Lake into a heavily trafficked, tourist-friendly arts-culture district.

“In North Omaha one of the real epicenters is 24th and Lake, where you have a really nice combination of history and communal feeling,” says Meadows. “It’s one of the hubs of the community. I think you could make a tremendous splash by focusing on that area. You can’t find somebody who grew up in North Omaha that hasn’t spent a lot of time in that area, whether they got their cut there or they went to church there. So to me it makes sense to start with an area that touches so much of North Omaha.

“If I were a developer I’d start right there. It’s close enough to downtown to draw from a lot of different nodes, which is important.”

Anticipated commercial development would build on existing anchors in strategic areas:

24th and Lake (Bryant Center, Jewell Building, Omaha Star, Family Housing Advisory Services, Blue Lion Centre, Loves Jazz & Arts Center, Omaha Business & Technology Center, Great Plains Black History Museum)

30th and Lake (Salem Baptist Church, Salem Village, Miami Heights, Urban League, Charles Drew Health Center)

Adams Park and the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation

Refinements to 16th and Cuming and the 24th and 30th St. corridors are meant to spur a “seamless transition” from north downtown to North Omaha. Cunningham says “development there would integrate with the downtown and begin to bring the flow of people, goods, enterprise and economic development over into and overlapping with what has been historically the North Side.”

He adds, “We’re working now with 24th Street and an existing building there housing an historic business to revamp their footprint so that it says this is a front door rather than a back door. We’re also working with Creighton (University) and their plans for 24th and Cuming. That’s an entry portal for them too. They’re a partner in this and they have a vision for what’s happening there, really from 30th to 16th Streets, in creating a Cuming that is not a barrier, not a border, but a strong component of activity.”

 

Rick Cunningham

 

 

 

Asked if it’s vital the first projects find success, Cunningham says. “Absolutely, because that builds momentum. We have to have successes early because it will be easier for the next developer to come in.” Sources indicate government funded projects are likely to launch first to “prime the pump” for private investment to follow.

Sustainability will be critical.

“Each one of those projects, particularly ones in the initial stages, have to be able to stand on their own in the event nothing else happens so that 20 years from now that project will still be there, will still be functioning,” says Maroney. “Not only do we look at what is it going to cost to create that project, but what is it going to take to sustain it over time. We nee to make sure thats built in also.”

Meadows says, “The same kind of rigor, due diligence and economic models that went into determining the feasibility of midtown and downtown development projects needs to take place with each North Omaha project” to ensure their sustainability.

More than anything, Meadows just wants to see change.

“When my friends come to visit from out of town there’s very little positive to show them on the Northside, very little you can point out and say, ‘Wow!’ So I’m glad we potentially have some things to be proud about in our neighborhood, in my community.

“I think North Omaha is really poised. I think residents are getting ready to see actual movement, they’re getting ready to drive down certain streets and see real development, real improvement. I can’t remember when that’s happened here.”

Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Millennium, ‘Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice

July 20, 2011 23 comments

Over the past 20 years I have had the opportunity of stumbling upon some filmmakers from my native Nebraska whose work has inspired me and many others. I first became aware of Alexander Payne back when I was programming art films in the late 1980s-early 1990s.  This was before he’d directed his first feature. I read something about him somewhere and I ended up booking his UCLA thesis film, The Passion of Martin, for screenings by the nonprofit New Cinema Cooperative. Hardly anyone came, but his work was unusually mature for someone just out of college. That lead to my interviewing him in the afterglow of his feature debut, Citizen Ruth, and his making Election. I’ve gone on to interview him dozens of times and to write extensively about his work.  I even spent a week on the set of Sideways. I almost made it to Hawaii for a couple days on the set of his film, The Descendants. I may be spending weeks on the set of his next film, Nebraska. It’s been an interesting ride to chart the career of someone who has become one of the world’s preeminent filmmakers.

More recently, I was fortunate enough to get in on the evolving young career of Nik Fackler, whose feature debut, Lovely, Still, shows him to be an artist of great promise.

More recently still I discovered Charles Fairbanks, a true original whose short works, including Irma and Wrestling with My Father, defy easy categorization. He is someone who will be heard from in a major way one day.

In between Fackler and Fairbanks I was introduced to Omowale Akintunde, an academic and artist whose short film Wigger became the basis for his feature of the same name. Akintunde and Wigger are the subjects of the following story, which appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com). The small indie film, made entirely in Omaha, is getting some theater exposure around the country.

This blog contains numerous stories about these filmmakers and others I’ve had the pleasure to interview and profile.

 

 

Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Millennium, ‘Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice 

©by Leo Adam Biga

As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Make no mistake about it, filmmaker Omowale Akintunde intends for his 2010 racially-charged Omaha-made feature, Wigger, to provoke a strong response.

After premiering here last year, and in limited theatrical release around the country, the dynamic looking and sounding film returns for a 7 p.m., July 28 red carpet screening at the Twin Creek Cinema. It’s back just in time for Native Omaha Days (July 27-August 1), the biennial African-American heritage celebration.

The film, definitively set in North Omaha, plays off a young white man, Brandon (David Oakes), so enamored with African-American culture he’s adopted its trappings. He pursues a R & B career amid skeptics, users and haters. His interracial relationships, both platonic and romantic, are tinged with undercurrents.

“He feels he has transcended whiteness,” says Akintunde, chair of the University of Nebraska at Omaha Department of Black Studies. “On the other hand, his father is a very overt racist who calls people nigger, talks about fags and Jews. He’s very open about his biases. So Brandon sees himself as disconnected from his father.”

Brandon’s best friend, Antoine, is black. As pressures build, the two have a falling out, each accusing the other of racism, unintentionally setting in motion a tragedy.

“There’s just some things you learn in a black household you don’t get in a white    household, and vice versa,” says Eric Harvey, who plays Antoine and co-produced the film, “so that line between them keeps them from being as close as they really want to be. They’re both in denial of self-conscious racism.

 

 

 

 

“It’s not a bad thing, it’s a reality. We do things without thinking about it. Seriously, it’s been embedded for so long it’s just the norm.”

This is the prism through which Akintunde, who produced, wrote and directed the film, examines polarizing attitudes. Nearly everyone in the film exhibits some prejudice or engages in some profiling. Race and privilege cards abound.

“I thought this story…was the perfect premise to get into some real deep stuff,” says Akintunde. “It’s about these two characters with this improbable dream. This white boy who loves black culture and wants to be accepted comes from a background that says, why would you want to be like THEM? And then them telling him you’re not one of US. And how does one make that fit?”

 

 

 

 

The film suggests a post-racial world is a fallacy short of some deep reckoning or ongoing discussion. It’s message is that not confronting or deconstructing our racial hangups has real consequences. Akintunde can spout rhetoric with the best, but his film never devolves into preaching.

He does something else in offering a raw, authentic slice of black inner city life here with glimpses of Native Omaha Days, the club scene, neighborhoods, church. He avoids the misrepresentations of another urban drama set here, Belly (1998).

“This is the first film that really deals with North Omaha and attempts to make icons of the things that have become emblematic of it,” says Akintunde. “I really did want to show this city and that community some big love. It was very intentional I made the location a character in this film.”

Rare for any small independent, even more so for a locally produced one, Wigger is managing theatrical bookings at commercial houses, albeit mostly one-night engagements, coast to coast. In classic roadshow fashion, the filmmaker is brokering screenings through his own Akintunde Productions. He pitches exhibitors and when he sells a theater or chain on the flick he often appears, film in hand, to help promote it. He often does a post-show Q & A.

 

 

Meshach Taylor

 

 

In May the film got national mention when co-star Meshach Taylor plugged it on The Wendy Williams Show.

The success is the latest affirmation for Akintunde, who has a solid reputation as a serious artist and scholar. His 2009 nonfiction film, An Inaugural Ride to Freedom, which charts the bus trek a group of Omahans made to the Obama presidential inauguration, won a regional Emmy as Best Cultural Documentary.

The Alabama native has heeded his creative and academic sides for as long as he can remember. “I always wanted to be a university professor and I always wanted to make films,” he says. “I wanted to make films because there are so many people who will never attend a university, who will never be involved in a high level ivory tower discussion, and movies reach everybody. What I always wanted to do is to meld those two worlds — to use film to teach academics.”

In a career that’s seen him widely published on issues like white privilege and diversity, he’s penned academic texts, short stories, a novel and a children’s book. He says he always conceives his stories cinematically. Well into his professional career though, the cinephile still hadn’t realized his dream of filmmaking.

“It was one of those things you always wanted to do but everyone discouraged you from because they felt you needed a real job,” he says. “No one ever thought that was a credible goal. I finally reached a point where I realized credibility was determined by me, and if I had a passion for filmmaking I needed to do what…makes me happy. That was one of the missing things in my life.”

During a sabbatical he attended the New York Film Academy‘s Conservatory Filmmaking Program. His thesis project was a short version of Wigger. Another of his shorts, Mama ‘n ‘Em, was selected for the Hollywood Black Film Festival.

An expanded Wigger script became his feature debut. He and producer Michael Murphy financed the film themselves. Akintunde imported principal cast and crew from outside Nebraska, including film-television actors Meshach Taylor (who was in the short) and Anna Maria Horsford, cinematographer Jean-Paul Bonneau and composers Andre Mieux and Chris Julian.

“I didn’t follow any of the traditional methodologies in terms of even making Wigger, much less how I promote it and get it out there.”

 

 

David Oakes

 

 

Kim de Patri (Kim Patrick), who plays Antoine’s girlfriend Shondra, says the script’s unvarnished truth grabbed her.

“It said every single thing most people think (about race) but would never actually say. It was the way it was said and the voice it was speaking from, these characters. It was so real and so honest and it came from a very genuine place.”

Taylor, a big advocate of Akintunde’s, says he likes how the film “challenges people’s concepts of what racism really is” by dealing with “the reality of institutionalization racism,” adding, “It’s not an overt thing, it’s really built into the system.” He says he and Akiintunde just click. “I like what he’s trying to do. It’s really wonderful to have someone who has an intellectual approach to filmmaking but still has the artistic sensibility to make it fun and interesting to watch.”

To date, Akintunde has arranged limited bookings in mid and major markets, ranging from Minneapolis and Birmingham to Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. It’s one continuous run was at the Edge 12 in Birmingham, the home of Tim Jennings, who has a supporting role. Akintunde says an Edge Theaters official “became a big fan and supporter” of the film and offered a one-week run.

Future screenings are scheduled in Chicago, Atlanta, Washington D.C. and New York City. He’s negotiating with Edge for new, multi-date runs.

 

 

Kim de Patri (Kim Patrick)

 

 

With Wigger, he’s taken a subject and set of conventions rife with stereotype and exploitation possibilities and dramatized them as an extension of his scholarship. His goal is as much to frame a dialogue as to make a profit.

“My biggest objective here was to really put a story out there that would compel people to talk about institutionalized bias in a way that I don’t think we’ve had. I really wanted to have a national conversation about this.”

In the tradition of Do the Right Thing and A Time for Burning, which was shot in Omaha 45 years ago, Wigger makes a full-frontal assault on our expectations.

“Obviously, I chose a very provocative and incendiary title because I want it to evoke a very strong, visceral response. I want to incite people. I want to grab America by the collar and just shake them,” he says. “The title itself is very problematic for people because we live in a society where we won’t even pronounce the word nigger. It becomes the “n word” in any context in which we use it.

“In many of the (Q & A) discussions we talk about why I gave the film such a provocative title — it’s because I want people to stop and think. Certain words are simple, symbolic representations of a much deeper social problem that we tend to mask by using silly euphemisms, as if we do not know what they mean, instead of looking at why the actual word bothers us.”

The film deftly handles topics usually glossed over or overdone without becoming pedantic or sensationalistic, though it does get melodramatic. As an “ethnic” genre pic, it draws largely black audiences, but enough of a mix that Akintunde is able to gauge how it plays to black and white viewers.

“There has not been a huge disparity in response and I think that’s because Wigger takes on multiple kinds of institutionalized biases. What I find is people see in a sense the mirror being held up to themselves.”

If nothing else, he hopes the film encourages viewers to see past the taboo or race.

“In our society we’re taught the way you demonstrate you’re not racist is to pretend you don’t know race exists. Because of this color blind mentality we’re all supposed to be adopting, we have come to a point where we can’t discuss the 600 pound gorilla in the room, and what Wigger does is give people an opportunity to discuss the 600 pound gorilla.

“But it goes beyond that — to our gender, our class, our sexuality, our religious beliefs. These are so interwoven and so inextricably bound that it is impossible to construct yourself in any of those domains without taking into consideration the others.”

 

 

 

 

Wigger shows how racism, sexism and other isms thrive in both white and black culture. Everyone is guilty of some kind of bias.

“I try not to make a compelling argument of black versus white,” says Akintunde, “but about what it means to be either and how we can transcend these boundaries, these ridiculous social constructions, these radicalized expectations that keep us divided. I believe we have the ability to cross these boundaries and truly become a society resolute in its solidarity.

“I think the reason people don’t leave that film feeling as if they’re more divided is because of the way the film is structured. I think you cant help but see how really alike we are. It’s hard to walk away from this movie seeing the world in, no pun intended, black and white.”

Relegating someone to a narrow category or box, he says, diminishes that person and in the process only widens the gulf between individuals and groups.

“I don’t think they are things that exist on their own. I don’t think people are born heterosexist or are racist or Christian. We are taught these positions, we are taught these ideologies, and we reinforce them in our social context in such discreet ways that we’re formed and shaped into opinions and ideas long before we understand that’s what has happened to us.

“Nobody can be plugged comfortably into one of these slots. It ain’t that damn simple. It never has been that simple. It’s a very complex thing.”

The film unabashedly “goes there” by unearthing the fear and anger alternative lifestyles generate, from gay revelations to interracial affairs to wigger mainfestations.

“Society paints a picture of what it wants to see and some people just don’t want to see certain things,” says de Patri (Patrick).

Overcoming these barriers, in Akintunde’s view, starts with recognizing them for what they are and how complicit we are in maintaining them.

“The thing I want to get across to people is that it’s all of our problem. Even if you think you’re just a victim, you’re not, you are a participant. It’s not a white problem, and it’s not a black problem, and it’s not a gay problem. It is a human problem.”

 

 

Omowale Akintunde reviews script with cast

 

 

Akintunde enjoys the canvass film provides for expressing multi-layered themes.

“I’m very attracted to film as a way of telling that story because I think it allows you more complexity.”

Wigger marks the beginning for what he hopes is a string of films, but for now, he says, “it’s the fruition of my life’s work.” He’s justifiably proud the film’s getting seen.

“For an independent filmmaker to even get a film to run continuously anywhere for any length of time is an extraordinary achievement, and I got that to happen.”

The exhibition schedule is being revised as new screening opportunities surface.

“I had this carefully laid out plan, man, with absolute linearity, and instead things are happening in the moment.”

 

 

Zaina Ark’Keenya

 

 

He says the film’s well received wherever it plays and is invited back in some cases for additional screenings, including Las Vegas and Birmingham.

“Obviously, I would love to see the movie in an even larger roll out and I think that that is happening,” he says. “I didn’t plan that Edge Theaters was going to pick up the movie. I didn’t plan these people in Vegas and Birmingham would want me to come back. I’m going to go with what happens in that moment and just enjoy it. I’m sort of like riding the wave.”

He says there’s been preliminary talk about Rave Theaters pickiing up Wigger. He’s also following up a lead about potential interest from BET in acquiring the film for network broadcast. Wigger will eventually go to Blu-Ray and DVD.

“I am still seeking a distribution deal.”

Considering its small marketing budget, he’s pleased with the film’s performance.

“We sell out the house wherever we play. I’m not making a killing, but certainly making back the money invested to bring the movie to these theaters. I have a real job, so for me it’s not so pressing my movie makes a lot of money, Of course, I want it to make money if for no other reason then to allow me to make more films.”

His unpublished novel, Waiting for the Sissy Killer, is the basis for a new feature he’s planning. The partly autobiographical story concerns a young black man trying to cope with identity issues in the 1960s South. Akintunde hopes to begin pre-production in the fall. He plans shooting the project in his native Alabama.

Omaha rapper ASO headlines the 6:30 p.m. Wigger pre-show at Twin Creek Cinema. Performing at the Blue Martini after-party is co-composer Andre Mieux.

Tickets are $20 for the screening, pre-show and party and available at http://www.WiggerThe Film.com, Youngblood’s Barber Shop, Loves Jazz & Arts Center and Twin Creek.

Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and Churches Making a Difference in Area of Great Need

July 4, 2011 1 comment

If you have visited the site a few times in the last week or two then you’ve probably noticed I’ve been changing things up even more than normal by posting stories that cover an unusually broad range of topics. That diversity of content is one of the things that I think distinguishes this site from a lot of others. The following long story is actually a package of profiles I did for The Reader (www.thereader) of ministers and churches serving predominantly African American northeast Omaha. These good shepherds are in some cases at the forefront of large community-based initiatives attempting to engineer a turnaround of the area, which has great needs, and in other cases leading smaller grassroots efforts focused on changing one block, one neighborhood at a time. The story tries to convey the role of black ministers and churches today and yesterday and where they fit into the fabric of community engagement and redevelopment.

 

 

photo
North 24th Street, photo by lachance (Andrew Lachance)

 

 

Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and Churches Making a Difference in Area of Great Need

©by Leo Adam Biga

A shorter version of the story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Church is universally the tie that binds and the salve that heals. Its significance in the black community is even more profound given African Americans’ historical disenfranchisement.

“Faith has always been the element that motivated us and allowed us to continue forward in perilous times,” says Salem Baptist Church pastor Selwyn Bachus. “When we didn’t have anything else the one thing we did have was faith and the one institution we had and still have is the African American church. Every major movement in the history of African Americans has been founded on faith and out of the church. It’s the primary thing and everything else kind of grows out of that.

“You can use the visual of a bicycle wheel. Faith is that hub and the other efforts are really spokes out of that hub, which is the thing that holds it together.”

He says church remains central but its “interaction with congregants is not as intense as it once was.” As blacks’ living patterns have grown more dispersed, many no longer live in the immediate area their church occupies. Bachus says Salem members come from all over. He reminds, however, Omaha remains segregated, thus blacks still predominately live on the north side of the inner city, where most black churches are located.

With worshipers’ lives more mobile, their time more pressed, the family structure more fractured and people’s needs more acute, he says church ministries have evolved to focus on youths, couples, families, seniors. Everything from financial to computer literacy to life skills training is offered. The church is meeting place, mobilization center, sanctuary, conscience, healer, forum, refuge. It’s where fellowship’s found, tradition preserved and ritual celebrated — where the cycle of life plays out.

The black minister is shepherd, counselor, confessor, educator, orator, leader, role model and, depending on who wears the collar and what the times call for, agitator, protester, witness, critic, community organizer and social activist.

Five preachers pastoring North O churches are profiled here. Each discusses ministering to their people in times that, if not perilous, are challenging.


Apostle Vanessa Ward
, Afresh Anointing Church, 4757 No. 24th St.
From the front porch of her northeast Omaha home, Apostle Vanessa Ward describes the transformation her block’s undergone in a decade. Situated in an area called Death Valley for its frequent, sometimes fatal gun violence, the Omaha native no sooner states, “This is a high risk neighborhood,” when the crackle of gunfire interrupts the mid-summer afternoon quiet.

“We gotta pray. That was not good,” Ward says solemnly, head bowed in prayer.

©photo by Eric Gregory, Lincoln Journal Star

 

 

An ugly reminder gang bangers still menace these streets. But not on her block. Not anymore. Not since this wife and mother of four began ministering right where she lives — not just from the Sunday isolation of the pulpit at the 75-member Afresh Anointing Church (Body of Christ) she pastors. She admits she was like everyone else. Too apathetic and afraid to do anything about the chaos around her.

“This neighborhood used to be so bad there was no way you and I could be sitting outside like this,” she says to a visitor, “without filth in the street, loud music, prostitution, corner boys, as we call them, selling drugs on every corner. Oh, 10 years ago, you never would have been able to do what we’re doing now.

“I remember watching a 7-year-old in the back of my house selling drugs.”

She remembers consoling the mother of a young man killed in a driveby right in front of her house.

A large, now abandoned home she points to just up the block was a gang den.

“They would sit right there and throw dice in the daytime. Shoot, argue or do whatever they want because when the neighborhood’s disconnected nobody cares as long as it doesn’t hit my house or affect my child. And that’s a mistake.”

She says she was part of the culture of silence that prevails in North O, where “the rules of this kind of community are, don’t get involved, don’t call the law, mind your own business, pull the shade down.” Her own blind eye to it all bothered her. It led her to do some serious soul searching.

“I was praying. My main question was this: How can I be so powerful in my pulpit and powerless on my block? Why isn’t anything changing around me? Because it first had to change within me.” That revelation, she says, “took me on a journey.” She charts that journey in her new book, Somebody Do Something.

She felt called to organize a block party with food, music, information booths set up by community agencies, a police presence. It meant talking to gang members.

“The rules for a block party are that everybody on the block has to give their consent, so that forced me to have to go and approach what most would call undesirables. It took a lot of courage. It took a lot of stamina. But I just knew it needed to be done.”

She asked them to abide by three rules — no drugs, no alcohol, no weapons — and “they agreed.” From that first party in 1996 through the most recent one last July, she says, not a single incident’s occurred.

“No violence, no drug charges, nothing at any of these events that get as big as 600 people,” she says with pride and thanksgiving.

 

 

 

 

The parties became the impetus for broader, long-term change or “healing.” She began doing cleanups — picking up litter. Others followed her lead. Pretty soon, homeowners were fixing up their properties and looking out for each other. It continues today. The negative elements faded away once residents interacted as concerned neighbors taking a collective stand in reclaiming their block.

“The neighbors started buying in,” she says “and now these neighbors do their own. The example was set.”

For Ward, being able to “bring a neighborhood together” is an expression of “signs and wonders” at work. That success, she says, validates what citizens can do “on a small ghetto block” and, she hopes, offers a model for doing it on a wider scale.

There’s much to emulate. Her leadership’s helped make the area’s Central Park Neighborhood Association a proactive force for positive change.

Neighbors maintain two community gardens on the block. The Peace Garden grows vegetables “that everybody in the neighborhood can glean,” she says, and the Hope Garden is a budding fruit-flower bed on one side of her house.

Ward envisions turning portions of the Hope Garden into a playground as well as a space for arts-craft activities, mentoring and job/trade training. She dreams of converting the vacant, former drug house into “a community center” for GED training, drug rehab and other services. She sees the home she now occupies one day being a mission house for those wishing to serve the neighborhood’s needs.

It’s all part of her belief that efforts to overturn social ills must be community-based, like her own “trench ministry.” Says Ward, “A lot of times if you don’t work it from the inside out what tends to happen is it doesn’t have longevity.” She realizes she needs to be right at ground zero to make the most impact. “The people need it,” she says. “They don’t know neighborhood, they don’t know community. We preach about it and we talk about it but people need to see a true evidence that Jesus is still alive. They need to touch it, it needs to be tangible.”

Just as Christ “met people where they were,” so does Ward, a highly visible figure in The Hood. Engaging people where they live, she says, requires change agents rid themselves of prejudices and resentments. She had to herself. Where before she wanted to tune out and cut off after a long day, she makes herself available 24/7. Her door always open — to anyone. She’s the block’s eyes, ears, voice, heart, soul.

“If you’re really looking to make a difference in people’s lives you’ve got to start with yourself,” she says. It’s about being authentic. “People can tell it. The street knows the street. They know if you’re faking, if you’re shaking, if you’re only going so far, if you don’t approve. It’s all over you.”

If we expect kids to leave gang life behind, she says, we need “to offer a better way.” Better options. Like real jobs. “That kind of encouragement is inclusive, it’s not exclusive.” She leads several youth ministries that attempt to do just that. The Omaha-based African American Empowerment Network she’s a part of has been working with gang members to get them to leave that life and placed in jobs. She co-chairs the Network’s crime prevention covenant with John Ewing.

Her outspoken Apostleship, she says, makes her “controversial.” Being a female minister, she says, makes her “unwelcome in some pulpits.” None of that stops her from proselytizing her concepts for building community as a speaker, panelist, trainer, facilitator and organizer. Her message is always the same: “Don’t just talk about it, don’t just preach about it, don’t just teach about it. Do something.”


Rev. Portia Cavitt
, Clair Memorial United Methodist Church, 5544 Ames Ave.
Newly installed Clair Memorial United Methodist Church pastor Rev. Portia Cavitt is still getting a feel for North Omaha. She was previously at Allen Chapel AME Church on the south side. She grew up in St. Louis and moved to Omaha for the first time in 2004 to pastor Allen. That followed years as “an itinerant Elder” serving churches in San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis and Hutchinson, Kan.

When Clair called on her this year, it meant changing denominations and geographic locales. She continues serving Allen until it finds a new pastor.

 

 

Pastor Portia Cavitt

 

 

She sees similarities between the two inner city sectors in terms of segregation, poverty, gang violence and education gaps. The needs in North O, she realizes, are even more pronounced. The STD-HIV/AIDS epidemic among African Americans is much on her mind. She’s active in efforts to raise awareness, promote testing and advocate safe sex. The high jobless rate found her asking employers at a Clair job fair tough questions — namely, why employers offer black applicants mostly entry level customer service-telemarketing posts that don’t pay a living wage.

Her first priority at Clair, an old-line church of 200 members atop an Ames Avenue hill, is getting to know her flock, one that’s old and weary. Members have drifted away. Her mantra to bring folks back is, “come get your hillside experience.” She wants Clair to be a “beacon of light” for an area beset by despair.

She wants believers to “come and hear a word that will encourage them, that will empower them to go out and make a difference.” That will give them a voice “to speak up and declare what is it that your community needs. I mean, is there a Neighborhood Association that would help you take pride back in your block, your home, your property, your community? That’s what I’m hoping to offer.”

For Clair or for any church to prosper, she says, there must be a multi-generational membership that includes intact families. The broken family syndrome in black culture puts a strain on community and church. Historically, she says, the black church has been an extension of the family.

Cavitt feels the black church is still the inspiration and anchor it’s always been but that as times have changed new leadership needs to emerge alongside the church.

“The people still hold their pastors in high esteem as a community leader, as a spokesman for them,” she says. “But I think people today have lost their own voice and need to find their voice. Back in the ‘60s, during the civil rights movement, yes, the black church was deemed being the center. That’s where the meetings or rallies were. The pastors spoke. But there were also community leaders. And they locked hands together and the people followed and participated.

“Now I think the people have gotten quiet and they want the leaders to do the leading. But I want my congregation to realize, yes, I might be your leader but I can only do so much as we lock hands together and go together. I’m not the only spokesperson. Some of you are more equipped and knowledgeable and outspoken than I am on some issues. We need to stand and support each other on all issues.”

 

 

Clair Memorial United Methodist Church

 

 

If the disparities are to be rectified, she believes the black church will be involved  – if for no other reason than that’s where the majority of African Americans gather. It’s where pledges are made and coalitions built. “Because we still view the church as that power source,” she says. “On Sundays or during mid-week service I know the people are listening and you have an opportunity to encourage them. We try to address our violence and our unemployment issues. We’ve got to. The Bible speaks to all of that and so I have to make that come alive.”

The black church is where hope springs eternal. It’s where, she says, people “have an opportunity to band together to make a difference — as long as people can see that change is on the way. Sometimes change is slow. But as long as you’re working toward a goal, it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get to it.”

Cavitt, like her friend Apostle Vanessa Ward, sees black churches beginning to work more collaboratively but still having a ways to go. “It can get better,” Cavitt says. “We are not as cohesive as we can be.”

Again, like Ward, she feels being a strong female minister poses problems for some  – making unity difficult. “We have to embrace each other and respect each other regardless if I’m a female or not. I don’t have time to play games. I won’t take a back seat to anyone. I mean, you don’t have to respect me for my sex but you should respect me for what I represent. I’m in a main line denomination at a major church. I can be a radical at times but after all of these years I have so much to offer that I can’t go backwards, I can only continue to move forward.”

The fact that Clair, which had a female minister once before, chose her is all the validation she needs. “For this church to lift my name and desire to have me says a lot about my ministry here in Omaha. They wanted a pastor like me.”

The single and childless Cavitt says “it would be nice to come home to someone who takes care of me but I don’t need that because my members are my family.”


Rev. Jeremiah McGhee
, Mt. Sinai Church, 4504 Bedford Ave.
The core needs of Omaha’s black community have changed little since the civil rights era. The black church has been there for the whole ride. Since the ‘70s Rev. Jeremiah McGhee’s worked the front lines to address inequities. He says churches play a vital role in this work but have their limitations. He notes, pastors can’t be experts in everything and seldom can a problem be tackled in isolation from others.

Thus, any serious discussion of community needs must encompass multiple factors from a broad range of informed perspectives.

“We gotta find jobs, we gotta help people get better educated, we gotta help people with their health problems, we gotta help right down the line,” he says.

 

Rev. Jeremiah McGhee

 

 

 

For churches or other organizations to face these matters alone, he says, “it gets overwhelming.” The best-intentioned efforts then tend to “fizzle out.” That’s why he’s encouraged by some new initiatives, especially the African American Empowerment Network, that target these issues through expert-based coalitions or covenants. “We’ve got our best and brightest leading,” he says. par

Ministers like himself and churches like his own, the non-denominational Mt. Sinai, a 70-member congregation he pastors, are part of the Network. The community-wide effort, he says, promotes public-private, religious-secular partnerships, thus taking the pressure off churches in an era when a shrinking social safety net finds churches offering services and programs far beyond what they once did.

Mt. Sinai’s typical of most churches today in providing things like an after-school program, a computer lab, a pantry or a homeless ministry, et cetera. It’s not like it was when he grew up, when “we were one big family — the neighborhood, the village. Because of that brokenness today, a lot more has fallen on the church.”

He says strengthening families is a must. He also says churches can be relieved of responses better suited to others as more community-based solutions develop.

“That makes it easy for us,” says McGhee, who’s married and a father of 10, “because we don’t have to be everything to everybody anymore.”

McGhee’s led Mt. Sinai to do “extensive outreach to the homeless.” It began with church volunteers feeding the homeless downtown. It expanded to sheltering people, first in members’ homes, then at the Colonial Hotel. It grew into New Creations, a five-building, 28-apartment complex converted to transitional housing for homeless men, women and families. New Creations operated from 1996 until earlier this year, when Mt. Sinai’s partnership with another non-profit failed. McGhee’s looking to restructure and reopen New Creations.

All along, he says, black churches “gave attention” to the very concerns the Empowerment Network focuses on “but we lacked experience, we lacked expertise.” Then there’s the question of time and resources and pastors spreading themselves or their churches too thin. Not to mention the resistance some put up to anything smacking of religion.

He says the black church’s traditional social justice mission has never wavered but is perhaps less visible or recognized now because its emissary may not wear a collar. “The church is there, it’s just not the pastor — it’s a member of the congregation that’s there,” he says. “As pastors we’re encouraging our people to get involved in politics, education, economics. We’ve got sophisticated, educated members of our congregations that go do those things.”

Wherever McGhee is involved he makes no bones where he’s coming from.

“We don’t want to be Bible-thumpers,” he says, “but I’m going to live my faith. You can’t expect me not to be who I am or to act the way I believe just because I’ve got a lot of people around me who maybe believe different or don’t believe at all.”

In the end, any coalition must put aside competing egos, agendas and philosophies and attend to what needs doing.

“The street’s dirty, let’s sweep. We need houses built, let’s build ‘em. We’ve got kids that are undereducated, what are going to do about that? And so as we approach those things in that way across the board we’re finding a greater acceptance,” McGhee says.

He said he and pastors of different faiths are getting better at “building relationships.” Fewer turf wars. More cooperation. More compromise.

“They listen to me, I listen to them, and we manage to work at it a lot stronger and to keep focused on the prize.”

He says it’s no accident the Network, for example, made faith the first of its 13 covenants or that members work hard at building alliances. Many steering committee-leadership team members “are very strong in faith,” he says. “They’re believers.” Some are clergy, some are not.

“We have decided we will be solutions-oriented. I have never been more impressed with African Americans that have come together who want to work together, who like each other,” he says.

All this partnering is bringing black churches in closer contact. His church was one of several on the north side to collaborate on a summer youth program at Adams Park Recreation Center. McGhee heads the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (IMA) and says that group and other black faith-based groups are increasingly “coming together. We’re talking about things regularly. We’re keeping each other informed. We’ve got good relationships and out of those grow commitments. Now when we hear anything about what’s going on, we’re connecting.”

“Before we’d seem to come together and we’d kind of spin our wheels awhile and in the end a little got done but not as hard-hitting as today,” he says. “We’re determined. This group of pastors is working together. We share the same interests. We live in the same community. We’re pastoring the same class of folk — that are struggling. Divided we fall. We can’t make it if we don’t begin to put our heads together and work smart and that’s what we’re doing now.”

He says it’s vital churches fulfill their historical leadership mission. If churches are to lead by example, he says, they must be open. The same with the IMA, which he acknowledges has been resistant to women members.

“We’re learning to get past that,” he says, because a welcoming church excludes no one. “It’s men, it’s women, it’s interracial, its intergenerational, its interdenominational. As pastors we need to lead the way. We need the congregations and the community to see us leading and taking charge in that.”


Rev. LeRoy Adams, Morning Star Baptist Church
, 2019 Burdette St.
Morning Star Baptist Church represents the dichotomy of Omaha’s black community. Its magnificent, multi-million dollar facility bespeaks a place of worship that’s well attended and supported. With 1,500 members and growing, Morning Star is a success story. Its pastor, Rev. LeRoy Adams, a rising star in the Baptist Church nationally, in demand as an inspirational speaker and leader.

The 83-year-old institution’s a neighborhood anchor flanked by two more community stalwarts — Conestoga Magnet Center and the Hope Center. Nice new homes on North 20th Street are nearby.

 

 

Morning Star Baptist Church

 

 

Like most of North O, the area’s basically safe. The normal rhythms of daily life unwind in well-kept neighborhoods with families, businesses, schools, churches. It’s also true that routine is interrupted at times by gun violence. An illicit drug-sex trade operates openly. The perception from the outside looking in is that all of North O’s a war zone or wasteland. Not so. However, the reality is that gun violence and other social ills are persistent problems. While not unique to that area they are predominantly centered there due to a high concentration of conditions  – poverty, unemployment, gang activity — that cultivate them.

Adams, a Buffalo, N.Y. native who’s married with two kids, dislikes how the media disproportionately highlights problems over success stories in his community.

“Sometimes I get very perturbed about that because we know what’s happening here. There’s the good and there’s the bad. But we get this stereotypical negative view that North Omaha is a place of reproach. That it’s a mission field for the churches in West Omaha to come. There’s no balance. There’s no appreciation for this being a very large area that’s also doing great things.”

Like it or not, shootings on the north side get reported. He and his church hardly ignore the violence there. He’s made the issue a priority of Concerned Clergy of North Omaha, which he heads. He advises Mayor Mike Fahey on ways to intervene in the gun culture. Morning Star provides youths positive alternatives to street life. His church organized the summer sleepover program at the Adams Park rec center. The rev leads prayer marches and vigils. It’s through efforts like these black churches act as stabilizing forces every day — a fact he feels gets overlooked.

As he’s well aware, solidarity and indignation only go so far. Public-private responses that give kids alternatives to gang-street life are needed.

He agrees with friend and fellow clergyman Rev. Jeremiah McGhee that the black church has much help in the social justice struggle today. “That particular burden is not just upon us anymore,” says Adams, “it is shared by many.” Rather than diminish the church, he contends sharing the load with other institutions enhances the church’s work and increases its reach.

He says collaboration’s healthy as long as “we don’t forget and ignore the influence of the church. Our history will remind us our church has always been the foundation of change in America.” Whether a local effort like the Empowerment Network or a national one, he adds, “it comes right back to the church. Our history has always been the church. Our hope has been inspired by the church.”

An institution the size of Morning Star can also afford to extend its reach in ways little imagined in the past. For example, Adams says his church is planning to build a family life or wellness center with a range of programs, activities and services for black seniors. Additionally, he says, Morning Star’s looking “to be a little bit more entrepreneurial by creating jobs in our community” through such church-owned businesses as a book store, a restaurant and a beauty/barbershop.

This kind of economic reinvestment in the community, he says, “provides us a foothold beyond the norm” for Omaha but common among large churches in other cities. “That’s kind of where we want to lead our congregation, so that we can be a dominant presence in our community. I’m kind of excited about it.”

Adams sees the black church enjoying a renaissance today. “Not only are we growing numerically but we’re seeing this diversity,” he says. Morning Star, which he describes as “progressive,” is an illustration of these trends. It’s more than doubled its rolls since he arrived nine years ago and attracts a mixed house of worshipers by race, ethnicity, income, affiliation — from a wide geographic area.

 

 

Pastor LeRoy Adams with wife Traci

 

 

The black church is also a model for other faith groups.

“We’re seeing many other denominations taking some of our culture” — gospel music, praise and worship, call-and-response — “and adopting it to their style of worship, and that’s gratifying to see that,” says Adams.

Omaha has many black churches but he feels the bigger ones like Morning Star and Salem Baptist Church too often overshadow their smaller counterparts.

“There are several others that are doing a great job. Every church and every minister that serves in some capacity is important.”

Unlike McGhee, he sees Omaha churches “yet divided” denominationally and geographically. “There is a splinterization that exists in many ways, in many forms, in many fashions and Omaha is too small of a city to be that way,” he says. “Whether it has to do with race, reconciliation or dealing with poverty we have the persons and resources here to invest in making Omaha what she can be.” Now it’s just a matter of getting those stakeholders “involved in changing Omaha.”


Selwyn Bachus
, Salem Baptist Church, 3131 Lake St.
Salem Baptist Church is a rock in northeast Omaha. The landmark owns the largest membership, more than 3,000, and most glorious worship center of any black church in the state. In a metaphorical sense African American leaders here hope to build upon its solid foundation and that of other institutions and organizations in the area by implementing strategies that, if successful there, will revive an area smack dab in the heart of the black community.

Rev. Selwyn Bachus has pastored Salem only since 2005 but he owns a long history with the 86-year-old church dating back to his childhood in Kansas City, Mo., where his minister father was a friend of then-Salem pastor J.C. Wade. Bachus accompanied his parents on visits to Omaha and Salem, which became like a second home. That background gives Bachus, who’s married with two children, a deep appreciation for Salem’s legacy.

 

 

Pastor Selwyn Bachus

 

 

He came here after stints in Virginia and Ohio. The challenges and opportunities posed by Omaha’s inner city are similar to those of urban black communities elsewhere. When the head of Omaha’s most prosperous, influential black institution talks, people listen, and what Bachus says bodes well for a community that’s struggled to find sustainable economic development. Decades of instability have marked the area since the late ‘60s. But Bachus sees a turnaround in the offing and attributes the promise of better times ahead to a confluence of shared interests.

“I’ve lived in four different cities for fairly significant periods of time and have never been able to see the community unified in such a way. And so that excites me to see that people can bring to the table their efforts and say clearly that we want to do what’s best for the community as a whole.”

He refers to Omaha’s African American Empowerment Network and to parallel initiatives underway here whose leaders “bring expertise and experience” to focused efforts aimed at raising the black community.

Bachus is active in the Network, whose Empower Omaha covenants encompass everything from improving educational achievement to spurring economic development to creating affordable homes to supporting black businesses. The Network looks to apply all 13 covenants to the area Salem resides in.

That section is slated as a target or test site because there are anchors in place in Salem and in the neighboring Urban League of Nebraska, Charles Drew Health Center, Salem Village senior residential community and Aframerican Book Store, among others, and in the stately Miami Heights homes. A planned redevelopment of the Pleasantview projects is on the drawing board.

Even with these stabilizers, residents experience poverty, unemployment, violence, health issues and a myriad of other problems in disproportionate numbers. The Network seeks to use existing anchors as building blocks to strengthen the area overall and impact those specific inequities. Success there could be replicated throughout the community to realize the larger revival of North O envisioned.

Salem’s already made huge commitments. In 2000 its $7.5 million worship-education center opened and that’s spurred added redevelopment in the neighborhood. Its multiple ministries reach out to people across the board. It’s planning a community development center. Still only in the conceptual stages, the facility may include an early childhood development program, a gym, a stage, classrooms and a pantry. Bachus is encouraged that fellow stakeholders in the community have expressed support for the center and the various programs and activities it can host.

The synergy Bachus sees is not a moment too soon in his opinion.

“African Americans in Omaha are at a crisis point,” he says. “We’re at a crossroads. There’s extreme possibilities. There’s great possibility for greatness in our community but we have to do it now.”

The World-Herald’s reporting on the extent of poverty in Omaha’s black community, he says, “gave us a dose of reality that was not very palatable. I think it really awakened something within us.” For Bachus it’s unconscionable “a city as wealthy as Omaha” can allow the hypocrisy of “five Fortune 500 companies almost literally within a stone’s throw of a poverty stricken community.”

He expresses dismay “at seeing some of the progress made over the past 40 years begin to erode.” He says that loss, too, has been a wake up call to action. “If not now, never,” is the mantra. The time for rhetoric, he says, is over. It’s time to act.

“No longer will we talk about the problem without seeking to alleviate the problem,” he says. “If we don’t fix the problem we’re a part of the problem itself. Don’t just talk about it, be about it. Don’t protest or criticize if you’re not part of the solution.”

 

 

Salem Baptist Church

 

 

Bachus says coming out of the civil rights experience blacks “looked for a leader to motivate us and give us a vision,” ala a King or Jackson, “and I think what we’ve come to realize is there’s no one leader at this point that’s going to be able to do that. And so as a result we’ve seen the effectiveness of collaborating as leaders.”

Barack Obama may prove a catalyst for sweeping change but there’s a sense African Americans are more diffused politically-socially-religiously than assumed. Even someone as dynamic as Obama may only get the support of a segment of blacks when it comes to social policies or programs.

The days when a single figure, elected or unelected, can marshal a nationwide movement may be over. The days when the black church can be out front leading the charge may be past. But Bachus echoes his colleagues in saying the church is still a bastion of black culture, it just operates in a more collegial, cooperative, community-oriented way. That’s why Bachus and his fellow ministers now partner with a broad coalition of public and private sector figures and entities.\par

“It’s a collaborative effort that brings persons and expertise to the table to allow us to do what we do even more effectively.”

He’s optimistic about progress being made behind the scenes by the Empowerment Network and other efforts. He says the strength of these approaches is that clergy, activists and social service professionals are working with strategically-placed public-private lay leaders in key  indicators like education, employment, economic development, housing. The church is not taking a back seat but walking hand in hand with change agents, many of whom are leaders at their churches.

Clergy or not, Bachus says the blacks taking the lead in Omaha “have a sense of calling, a sense of direction. It doesn’t come from the world, it comes from God.”

If the black community is to arise, he’s sure it will be a faith-inspired resurrection.

More Shepherds for the Faith and the Cause

©by Leo Adam Biga

Fr. Ken Vavrina, St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, 2423 Grant St.

African American Catholics comprise a minority within a minority. Historically. Omaha’s home base for this small but persistent segment has been St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, whose black namesake and gospel music-infused services reflect black culture.

After decades serving the poorest of the poor on Native American reservations, in India and in Africa, Father Ken Vavrina ministers to Omaha’s most disadvantaged residents as St. Benedict’s pastor. He knows The Hood well. He pastored at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s. He knew Black Panthers. He was on Nprth 24th Street when it burned during the riots.

“It has not come back since then,” he says.

After serving St. Richard Church he took over St. Ben’s in 2007 at his request. Before him, assigned priests lived off-site for years, leaving a void and disconnect with parishioners and neighbors. Vavrina, a Clarkson, Neb. native, insisted he reside at the rectory. “You gotta live here. You gotta live in your community,” he says.

 

 

A service at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church

 

 

His small parish today is at “ground zero.” Yes, there are pockets of stability and revitalization but this zone’s depressed by poverty, prostitution, drugs, gangs, gun violence and scant economic development. Within view of his rectory is an open market for crack cocaine and human trafficking. On one side you buy dope. On the other, sex. Whatever your fix, suppliers stand ready. Walking a visitor outside, Vavrina points to “the girls” working the streets down the block. Parish members counsel some of these young women in the hope they’ll make better choices.

“A lot of our young boys and some girls are being sucked into the street, and they’re good kids,” he says, “but they have to develop the discipline to make short-term sacrifices for long-term benefits. We need to be able to help these kids have that discipline.”

He’s sending a message that we “won’t be intimidated by the violence” and he’s putting in place mentoring programs that impact young people where they live.

An Adopt-a-Family program matches at-risk families headed by single mothers with volunteers from metro area churches. With the right advice and support, the goal is to turn clients’ lives around. The program grew out of St. Ben’s ongoing support of a neighborhood family impacted by gun violence. The church has also rededicated the Bryant Center, a once popular recreation facility on its grounds whose outdoor basketball courts had grown largely dormant and run down until recent efforts to refurbish them. A new summer/fall hoops league with coaches, referees, strict supervision and police security has taken off.

For projects like these to work Vavrina knows ecumenical partnerships are needed and therefore he’s formed broad alliances across the public-private-Christian spectrum. For example, he often works with clergy from area Protestant churches.


Fr. Tom Fangman
, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 2207 Wirt St.
The Sacred Heart Catholic Church congregation is marked by racial, ethnic, socioeconomic diversity. Like St. Ben’s, Sacred Heart embraces gospel music and black religious iconography to reflect the predominant culture it inhabits.

The church operates one of a dwindling number of inner city private schools. Sacred Heart Elementary School serves African American students from largely low income families. Few of the students are Catholic but their parents prize “a faith-based education,” says church pastor and school president Father Tom Fangman. The school’s much-copied Life Skills, Building Blocks for Success Program aims to prepare students for real world experiences.

Support comes from CUES or Christian Urban Education Services, a nonprofit whose board members of different races and faiths endorse the school’s mission and track record. Fangman says 98 percent of Sacred Heart grads complete high school compared to 72 percent of students on average from other area schools.

Sacred Heart Church

The church also serves the community via its Heart Ministry Center, which provides needy residents with clothes, household goods and food. Its pantry allows clients to self-select their own groceries. Education programs are also offered. Youth-adult ed classes cover everything from nutrition to early pregnancy to literacy.

“It’s a hub for outreach,” Fangman says. “I mean, things are just constantly happening there. We’re forming all these great relationships with the community. I would put this up with just about any social service agency in North Omaha.”

Partnerships abound, including cooperative ventures with other churches, Creighton University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Fangman says Sacred Heart provides a consistent presence in a neighborhood sorely lacking stability. “I believe we’re an anchor,” he says. “We’ve been here a long time and so we have a history. And the people in the community know the school’s making a big difference in lots of kids’ lives, which I think brings hope.”

The Omaha native’s exactly where he wants to be. “I always wanted to do inner city ministry,” he says. “It’s a ministry I find fulfilling every day.”


Rev. Johnice Orduna
, New Life Presbyterian Church, 4060 Pratt St.
“I’m one of those born-and-bred called-to people, because I never knew anything but the church,” says Rev. Johnice Orduna, an Omaha native whose life’s been one long faith journey.

Orduna, a licensed/certified missionary, started out a Baptist. She’s ministered in Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian churches on the north side. One of her Nebraska Synod assignments was at Omaha’s Augustana Lutheran Church, where she brought the perspective of “a crusader” and the reputation of “a dangerous black woman” to a congregation once resistant to interracial fellowship. She did formal anti-racism training for the Lutheran Church.

As a mission developer she formed a congregation that became Fontenelle Community Church. Her ministry reached out to youths and families in crisis.

Semi-retired today, she’s now filling a temporary post at New Life Presbyterian Church, which lost its pastor. She’s doing “supply preaching” until a new pastor’s found. New Life’s a blending of the former Calvin and Fairview Presbyterian Churches, whose congregations were all-black and all-white, respectively. When the inner city parishes faced closure due to declining membership they merged, and a mixed race church was born.

Racial diversity in the pews is a rarity. She says, “We gotta get past this business of Sunday being the most segregated day of the year. If we can put our barriers down and not operate in our little heresies that say, ‘My way’s the only way to get to God,’ then we really could enrich each other.

“We haven’t gotten there. It’s too safe to do it the other way.”

 

 

New Life Presbyterian Church

 

 

She admires New Life, saying it’s a congregation “where people just come in and be who they are. I mean, they have their tiffs. We all do. But it’s never a gamebreaker. These folks have made a decision — We’re going to be here and we’re going to be together doing this, regardless, and we’ll work through whatever it takes. If more congregations would do that then we wouldn’t have these rifts. There would be so much that we could empower ourselves to do.”

In her opinion, churches get bogged down in a survival mode of maintaining the status quo. She advocates getting outside the four walls to do evangelization.

“Our neighborhoods are lost. We’ve got kids killing each other in the street who have no clue what the inside of a church looks like,” she says. “That’s where you have to be — literally out on the streets. There’s a fearlessness required. You can’t go in your house and lock the door and keep yourself safe. You gotta be willing to go to the 7-Eleven parking lot where the kids are and greet them with dignity and respect and then begin to let them know who you are and who Jesus is.

“I think Jesus is as transforming as ever but it’s how you deliver the message. You cannot assume anymore that kids are going to have heard any of that.”

Orduna rues the loss of intimacy that once permeated the black community. She believes the black church is not as unified as it was in the civil rights struggle but remains critical for instilling or restoring a “sense of community” in neighborhoods.

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