Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Social Justice’

Collaboration and Diversity Matter to Inclusive Communities: Nonprofit Teaches Tools and Skills for Valuing Human Differences


Lots of organizations are highly reactive when incidents of racial, gender and cultural insensitivity surface but few teach skills and tools for valuing human differences.  One that does is the Omaha nonprofit Inclusive Communities and it’s been doing this kind of work for a long time.  It not only responds to existing problems in businesses and schools, whether offensive language or bullying, but it offers training sessions and workshops yearround that provide people with the skills and tools to defuse situations and to educate others about the value of respecting diversity.  My story about Inclusive Communities for Metro Magazine follows.

Nonprofit teaches tools and skills for valuing human differences

 

Diversity Matters to Inclusive Communities

Beth Riley

 

 

Since its 1938 founding in response to religious and racial bias, Inclusive Communities has embraced human diversity, tolerance and unity. 

The good work of individuals and organizations in promoting equality and inclusivity will be celebrated May 22 at a Humanitarian Dinner featuring guest speaker Robert Edsel, author of The Monuments Men. One of Omaha’s longest-running philanthropic events, the dinner is “paramount for our organization because as our only fundraising event it provides more than 50 percent of our annual operating budget,” says executive director Beth Riley. She adds that it brings together board members, donors, volunteers, staff and community partners “who are very committed, active and engaged” in fulfilling the mission of breaking down barriers.

“People who most often need a voice aren’t represented and that’s where Inclusive Communities steps in and says, ‘We think it’s about all people and not just some people.’ That’s really our mantra we live by,” Riley says. “We work with businesses, schools and in the community to confront prejudice, bigotry and discrimination and we do that through educational programs and advocacy work.

“We provide people the tools to meet others where they are. A lot of times in businesses that means creating positive dialogue skills and diversity and inclusion programs that have a measurable impact, not just to check off a competency. In schools it means creating leadership development programs that take into account all different kinds of students.”

Education and advocacy

Inclusive Communities has worked with major companies and with every high school in the Omaha Public Schools.

The organization is also involved in drafting and advocating legislation that supports inclusion and makes exclusionary practices unlawful.

“The citywide equal employment ordinance is a great example,” Riley says. “We were an active partner with Equal Omaha on that. We’ve taken an active role with Equal Nebraska advocating for a statewide ordinance for protection of folks in the LGBTQ community who don’t have the kind of protection they need. We’re working with members of the state Judiciary Committee on that.”

Riley most readily sees her human relations organization’s impact in young people. At the nonprofit’s residential IncluCity program held at Carol Joy Holling Conference & Retreat Center near Ashland, Neb. delegate students from area schools gather for an immersive experience to learn constructive dialogue and empathy building skills. She says the intense activities stir emotions, change attitudes, promote self-reflection and encourage conversation. It’s so well received that graduates regularly show up at her office volunteering to be camp counselors or applying to be interns. Many graduates go on to lead diversity clubs and social justice awareness activities at their schools.

“Most students who complete the program write on their evaluation they would recommend it to anyone, it’s changed their life and they they want to come back to volunteer.”

Inclusive Communities program associate Emilio Herrera participated in IncluCity as a high school student. He later served as an intern and now he’s on staff while finishing his master’s in social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“Our programming had such a transformative effect on him that this has become his life’s work,” Riley says.

Herrera says the experience of Inclusive Communities has made him want “to become a beacon of hope in the Omaha metro area for those who feel misunderstood or misrepresented.”

A safe place

Riley says a Native American student from the Rosebud Reservation in S.D. has been similarly transformed. During a camp exercise called Culture Walk the student chose to identify himself as gay in front of peers, adult supervisors and community observers. He’s since become a diversity advocate in his school, a camp volunteer and the rare Native student pursuing a post-secondary educational path.

“The most gratifying thing to me is to know we’ve created a place where he feels safe and can feel supported in accomplishing all of his dreams,” Riley says. “It’s a meaningful thing to know you can impact a youth in that way. In return he’s created this amazing club within his school where other youth have felt safe coming out and being open about their own sexual orientation and gender identity. He’s also created a multicultural club and other safe spaces for youth in his own school. I’m very proud of what our staff and volunteers have done for him and of all the things he’s giving back to inspire youth.

“That’s the real power.”

Inclusive Communities is anything but abstract or theoretical.

“Our work is very human relations-based and focuses on how people interact with one another,” Riley says. “The conversations we promote are really much deeper than what is someone’s race or ethnicity or religion. We talk about systemic things that tie us together as a society and that make us who we are as a culture.”

Programming is tailored to clients’ needs.

“We get called by a lot of nonprofits and small businesses when they’re looking at starting a diversity and inclusion group,” she says. “The number one reason we get called to work with businesses is they need language and terminology. Businesses have a lot of issues with that. There may be one employee using language considered inflammatory that’s making an entire office or department feel uncomfortable.

“We promote doing daylong workshops where in a safe environment you give people the opportunity to engage in dialogue and learn to have meaningful conversations at work that can defuse situations. So when things do arise and somebody says something perceived as inflammatory by somebody else there is a foundation there for dealing with it. It’s getting everyone on the same page and helping people learn to be allies for one another and for themselves.”

 

 

Youth focused

With students she says the curriculum focuses on teaching youth “how to stand up for themselves and to learn dialogue tools to articulate their own identity and to meaningfully and peacefully resolve conflicts. It’s getting them to understand the difference between dialogue and debate. It’s helping them understand appropriate language skills.” She
says anti-bullying strategies are “a huge piece of what we do – we have an entire section on our website devoted to resources.”

She says her board has laid out a strategic plan to increase youth services and Inclusive Communities is well along in realizing that goal. The organization’s recently extended its reach into schools on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations in S.D. It’s also now working with schools in Lincoln, Bellevue and Ralston, Neb. and Council Bluffs, Iowa as well as with area private schools, including Omaha Creighton Prep and Duchesne Academy.

“We’ve doubled the size of our youth programming. It’s driven by the public’s need, by schools reaching out and asking for assistance. We’ve been an expert at this programming for a long time and it will always be really important to this organization because every time you impact a youth you get such a return on your investment.”

Last year’s record proceeds from the Humanitarian Dinner made possible increased youth and adult programming, additional staff and relocating to the Community Engagement Center at UNO. Inclusive Communities joins several nonprofits housed at the center, whose mission is to foster collaboration, something Riley’s organization is already well-versed in and is looking to do more of.

Cultivating collaborators and growing partnerships

“Some of our partners include Nebraskans for Civic Reform, Nebraska Appleseed and Greater Omaha Young Professionals. The more we collaborate with others the better opportunity we have for people to learn about the work we do. It’s planting a lot of seeds. That’s what this space is all about,” Riley says of the center. “We had outgrown our previous space and being here is such a great fit for us because of its central location, because many of the students we serve are students at UNO or go on to be students here and because of the opportunity to collaborate with the other nonprofits in the building and with faculty, staff and researchers at the university.

“We think there are great partnership opportunities on campus.”

Meanwhile, Inclusive Communities is launching its Building Blocks of Inclusion series at various businesses and doing a diversity series with Greater Omaha Young Professionals.

Riley says the organization has more capacity to grow and remains “very nimble” responding to emerging needs and issues. She adds Inclusive Communities may be old in years but remains ever relevant with its young staff, vibrant board and passionate volunteers.

Follow its work and get Humanitarian Dinner details at http://www.inclusive-communities.org.

_______________________________________________________

 

“Our work is very human relations-based and focuses on how people interact with one another.”

 

Leo Adam Biga authors civil rights IBooks on the Great Migration and Peony Park

November 26, 2013 Leave a comment

I was honored to recently author two iBooks for the Omaha Public Schools‘ Making Invisible Histories Visible project. Both have to do with civil rights. One is on the Great Migration as seen through the eyes of some Omaha women who migrated here from the Deep South. The other is about discrimination as seen through the eyes of Omahans who integrated Peony Park. Omaha artists made wonderful illustrations for the books and OPS teachers devised curriculum around the books’ themes for use in classrooms.

You can download these and other iBooks as part of the project at-

http://www.education.ne.gov/nebooks/ebook_library.html

You can link to a PDF of the Great Migration iBook at-

http://www.education.ne.gov/nebooks/ebooks/great_migration.pdf

You can link to a PDF of the Peony Park iBook at-

http://www.education.ne.gov/nebooks/ebooks/peony_park.pdf

An Anti-Drug War Manifesto Documentary Frames Discussion: Cost of Criminalizing Nonviolent Drug Offenders Comes Home

February 1, 2013 1 comment

Until the documentary The House I Live In the best film I’d seen about drugs was the Steven Soderbergh drama, Traffic.  The director of the doc, Eugene Jarecki, does something very much akin to what Soderbergh did by taking a multi-perspective look at  the insidious grip the illegal drug culture and the so-called War on Durgs exerts upon every one caught up in this human chain of destruction.   My story below for The Reader is based on a recent screening and panel discussion of the film in Omaha.

 

 

 

An Anti-Drug War Manifesto Documentary Frames Discussion: Cost of Criminalizing Nonviolent Drug Offenders Comes Home

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The much-feted 2012 documentary The House I Live In provokes dialogue wherever it plays for its critique of America‘s domestic War on Drugs. Following a January 22 Film Streams screening before a full house a local panel discussed the film’s potent themes.

Director Eugene Jarecki’s (Why We Fight?) film indicts the war as failed public policy that’s wasteful, unjust and morally bankrupt for targeting nonviolent minority offenders. He suggests its true cost lies not only in the vast expenditures for arrest, prosecution and incarceration but in the disruption caused to families and communities. Every drug case has a spiral of consequences that can span generations.

The consensus of the experts and persons directly engaged in the war whom Jarecki enlists to comment on camera is that blacks are disproportionally targeted and punished. He explains he came to tackle the issue upon inquiring why a black family he knew from childhood struggled with poverty and crime. Its matriarch, Nannie Jeter, blames drugs for taking her late son James and leading other members down destructive paths.The film tells story after story of families impacted by addiction and imprisonment.

 

 

 

Eugene Jarecki

 

 

One observer notes, “We are engaged in a great experiment. What happens when you take large numbers of people, remove them from their neighborhoods, their families. What does this do to the broader community?”

Everyone from author Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) to a prison chief of security agree the prison industrial complex has superseded prevention-intervention by incentivizing arrest, conviction and confinement and thus making it a big business prone to corruption that puts profit before humanity.

David Simon, creator of The Wire and a former journalist who covered the drug war, says, “Think about all the money spent on drug enforcement, on prisons and probation officers, on judges, on narcotics agents, on interdiction and everything else. But to what end? We’re the jailingest nation on Earth, yet drugs are purer than ever before, they’re more available.”

America’s draconian approach, he said. doesn’t work.

During the panel Impact One Community Connection founder Jannette Taylor reiterated a theme in the film that the war is actually a campaign to “marginalize people” that leaves  havoc in its wake. “We need to look at the broader picture of the collateral damage from this fake war on drugs,” she said. “We need to be more realistic about what this fake war on drugs really is and how it affects poor communities and the people in it.”

She knows first-hand the personal fallout. The father of her daughter has served 17 1/2 years on drug charges. “My daughter has never had her father in her life. He was out only a short period of time before he resorted back to selling drugs and got caught up again and it’s basically because you become so marginalized. You can’t get a job, you can’t find a place to live, so you resort back to what you know – you resort to the economy that pays you.”

 

 

 

Jannette Taylor, ©Omaha World-Herald

 

 

Jarecki introduces us to individuals for whom using and dealing were all they saw growing up. Naturally, they followed suit. Picking up a point Simon makes in the film, Taylor said the drug trade may be “the only flourishing economy” in some inner city neighborhoods and “given the limited opportunities poor inner city residents have it’s a rational decision to deal drugs.” Similarly, she said drugs become a way to medicate “if you’re living in a constant state of poverty, in depressed living conditions.”

Taylor said despite never using, dealing or serving time “I’m dealing with the same things, just from a different perspective. My daughter is caught up in this drug war because she doesn’t have a dad, so she’s being raised by a single mom. It was very hard. Once somebody gets sentenced into the system because of drugs their family’s affected. It’s like a crazy avalanche. The kids no longer have both parents, the other parent is pressured into making more money and that takes them away…It’s a domino effect. It’s a cycle and it never ends.”

Scholar Richard Lawrence Miller draws comparisons in the film between the war and “the chain of destruction” he says the ruling class historically applies to minorities in order to target, control, demonize and isolate them. He and others point to profiling, mass incarceration and mandatory minimum sentences as its manifestations.

Simon terms the drug war “a Holocaust in slow motion.”

“This is basically slavery in a new form,” said Taylor, who with others cautions, “If someone else’s rights can be compromised and violated then yours can too.”

Panelist Rodney Prince, who served a federal drug sentence, said, “I believe this war on drugs is a means, a guise to deal with a segment of the population no longer needed in this transforming economy. The intention for me doesn’t really matter, this thing is happening to people.”

Taylor and others advocate America recast the war as a public health issue that gives nonviolent addict offenders treatment rather than jail time.

Prince said, “This is an economic issue. If we know our economy can’t absorb everyone now then we have to push our elected officials and business leaders to act responsibly and to make more room for people in the economy.”

Douglas County District Court Judge Marlon Polk said education is the best deterrent to being caught up in the drug culture. Nebraska Corrections Youth Facility director Marilyn Asher and other panelists suggest we all have a stake in giving people the support and skills they need to prosper.

Native American Survival Strategies Shared Through Theater and Testimony

July 18, 2011 7 comments

As a storyteller I have sought out the stories of African-Americans and, more recently, Latinos, and now I am feeling drawn to Native Americans, a population that all too often is unseen and unheard in the mainstream.  I intend for the following story I did for El Perico to serve as my entree into the Native American scene in Omaha. The story covered a program that featured a work of theater and a series of testimonies by elders, all providing a primer on Native American survivance strategies. I look forward to learning more about the struggles and triumphs of these indigenous people.

 

 

 

 

Native American Survival Strategies Shared Through Theater and Testimony

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

On Sunday, July 10 a two-part program offered glimpses inside Native American life, ranging from absurd to profound, joyful to despairing.

A mixed audience of about 150 at the Rose Theater‘s black box Hitchcock space witnessed the The Indigenous Collective of Theater & Art (TICOTA) and Red Ink magazine production. TICOTA founder Sheila Rocha directed. The spare stage adorned only with original artwork by Dakota artist Donel Keeler.

Leading things off was a Reader’s Theater presentation of the in-progress one-act play, Obscenities from a Toaster, by Valery Killscrow Copeland. It was followed by Speaking of the Elders — Intertribal Stories of Survivance, with four local elders testifying about being poor in possessions but rich in life.

Setting the mood was the hand drum rhythms, chant and song of Mike Valerio and the Lakota prayer offered by Steve Tobacco. Introductory remarks by Rocha promised a program impartiing lessons for “how to manage ourselves and to find our way into the future.”

In her intro, Copeland described Obscenities “as a mental health awareness play” that combines truth and fiction in its depiction of growing up with a schizophrenic mother. Copeland read the part of the touched mother, Betsy, whose magical talking toaster is the bedeviling Native American trickster figure.

Amid the farce are sober reminders of hard times. Betsy, like many Native women, is a single mother struggling to get by and always being let down by men. Family is her last bastion of security. The toaster, read by Richard Barea, tells her, “We’re good together, can’t you see that?” and in a flash of insight Betsy replies, “You’re not good for me.”

In a piece Rocha aptly calls “tender, gentle, witty and a lot of fun,” rationality and insanity are in the eye of the beholder and hard to distinguish. “Valery loves to work with the brutal realities and brutal truths,” says Rocha, “but she can very skillfully turn it into the funniest events.”

After the warmly received reading the elders appeared, the audience standing on cue, while Valerio performed an honor drum song in homage to the old ones’ resolute survival and simple wisdom. One by one, these proud “living libraries,” as Rocha terms them, recounted anecdotes of endurance.

Lester Killscrow, Oglala Sioux, Lakota Nation

Despite growing up poor on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Killscrow enjoyed a carefree childhood, though racist border towns and doctrinaire Catholic schools left their mark. Grateful for keeping his Indian ways, he’s fluent in the Lakota language and expert in beading, both of which he teaches. He also dances at powwows.

When the Vietnam War Army veteran was given less than a year to live, he embarked on a healing journey that got his mind-body-spirit “in good shape.” He maintains himself today through rigorous physical and spiritual exercise. He desires giving young Natives hope they can attain anything they want if they apply themselves. He closed with a Lakota saying: “In the spirit of Crazy Horse, today walk with a gentle spirit.”

Violet Gladfelter, Deer Clan, Omaha Nation

For Gladfelter, “my family, my friends, my tribe, my religion,” are foundational. She remains rooted to her culture as a traditional powwow dancer. She shares her culture in presentations at schools and community groups. Growing up, she joined her family in crop fields across Nebraska and Colorado to labor as a migrant worker. “That was how we survived,” she says.

She considers her fluency in her Native tongue “a gift that was given me.” She passes on her language and religion as tradition and legacy to her children and grandchildren. She regards all indigenous peoples as related. “We’re all one Indian,” she says.

 

 

 

 

Myrna Red Owl, Santee Sioux

As a urban Indian growing up in the North Omaha projects and then in South Omaha, Red Owl responded to taunts with fists. Her fighting didn’t end then, as she became a Native American activist and supporter of the American Indian Movement during and after the Wounded Knee siege. Her work to free imprisoned AIM leader Leonard Peltier continues. Another ongoing battle is with diabetes.

“I also fight with living,” says Red Owl, who’s worked for Native community organizations.

Cassie Rhodes, Cheyenne-Arapaho

A victim of “the split feather syndrome,” Rhodes was placed in an orphanage and adopted by a non-Indian family. Deprived of her culture, she was made to feel ashamed of being an Indian. As an adult she reconnected with her home and family and served Native community agencies. She often performs in Native productions and powwows.

“It’s so important to know who you are and where you come from, otherwise you’re lost.  Many of us were lost — we had an identity crisis,” she says, adding, “It’s never too late to find out who your real family is.”

Rocha says its vital sharing these stories and experiences before the elders pass.

Rev. Everett Reynolds Gave Voice to the Voiceless

July 18, 2011 6 comments

Another Omaha elder leader has passed.  The Rev. Everett Reynolds spent the better part of his life fighting the good fight against injustice. The following in memoriam piece I wrote appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Rev. Everett Reynolds leading a march, ©Lincoln Journal-Star photo

 

 

Rev. Everett Reynolds Gave Voice to the Voiceless

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Rev. Everett Reynolds was not from Nebraska but he’s remembered as someone who made a significant mark here.

The St. Louis, Mo. native passed earlier this week in Omaha at age 83.

As a United Methodist minister and community leader he led congregations, worked with parolees, headed the local chapter of the NAACP, founded Cox Cable television channel CTI-22 and advocated for civil rights.

His work followed that of his father and grandfather, who were preachers. But for a long time Reynolds resisted The Call.

As a youth, he moved with his family to Lincoln, Neb., where his father pastored a church. After his father took over at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church in Omaha, Reynolds attended Technical High School.

But school and church were far from his mind. He heeded another calling, music, to become a professional musician in touring dance bands. He sang ballads and blues and played bass violin. He sat in with such legends as Count Basie and Lionel Hampton. He also played for top Omaha Midwest touring bands led by Lloyd Hunter and Earl Graves.

It was a heady time, but as the years went by he got caught up in the night life. Women. Booze. His alcoholism made him a liability. Once, after a week-long bender, he woke up in Houston, unable to remember what happened. Exiled from the band, this Prodigal Son finally returned home.

In a 2004 interview he said after failing to kick his drinking habit, he asked for divine help, and this time he stayed dry. In 1950, he rejoined the church and married. He and his wife Shirley celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary last year. His fall from grace and his subsequent recovery and rebirth, he said, gave his ministry “a message” for anyone straying from The Word. “For I have been there.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He made his ministry an extension of his work as a Nebraska parole officer. In his duals roles he said he often shared with youth his own experiences.

Reynolds, who held a theology degree and a doctorate, eventually took over his father’s pulpit at Clair Methodist. A consistent theme he delivered as a preacher is that “we’re all created equal in the sight of God. One blood are we.” Black or white, he said, shouldn’t matter. “When we reduce our faith to race, we’ve reduced our faith. Each time we make an advance, it’s for all people, not one.”

“My father was against any kind of inequitable treatment of people, of any people,” says Trip Reynolds, one of the late pastor’s three sons. “That’s his hallmark. Some people talk it — my dad was frequently acknowledged for practicing what he preached.”

Rev. Reynolds went on to pastor Lefler United Methodist Church. During his tenure, he assumed leadership of the Omaha NAACP. It was a tough time for the organization, locally and nationally, with declining memberships and a flagging mission.

As a NAACP spokesman he made his voice heard on hot button incidents like alleged police brutality. He raised awareness. He advocated dialogue. He organized protests. He called press conferences. The cable channel he founded, which originated as Religious Telecast Inc. before changing names to Community Telecast Inc., was created as a forum for minority voices to be heard. Trip Reynolds ran the channel with his father and today is general manager.

The late minister is remembered as the conscience of a community.

“He was very strong and intense in what he believed in,” says Metropolitan Community College liaison Tommie Wilson.”Powerful, intelligent. He knew civil rights backwards and forwards, and he stepped out there and he did it — fighting for justice for everybody. He was a fine man and quite a leader.”

“He took on some really difficult and sometime controversial cases, and he did that knowing what the consequences were and being unafraid to address those consequences,” says Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray. “He also helped create alternative programming and an opportunity for different voices.”

Along the way, Reynolds made clear the NAACP’s watchdog mission is still relevant. “Our struggle continues. People are still hurting because of inequities in such areas as education, employment, voting and the criminal justice system,” he once told a reporter.

When Reynolds stepped down as Omaha NAACP president in 2004, he recommended Tommie Wilson succeed him.

“I feel Dr Reynolds is responsible for me appreciating my history and me wanting to follow those big shoes he wore,” says Wilson. “When he asked me to take over it intensified in me my desire to do all I could to do to make a difference.”

Clair United Methodist Church, 5544 Ames Ave., is hosting a Friday wake service from 6 to 8 p.m., and a Saturday funeral service at noon.

Omaha Address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega Sounds Hopeful Message that Repression in Cuba is Lifting

July 4, 2011 9 comments

The vast majority of my journalism is accomplished far away from other media, but once in a while I end up as part of the pack when reporting a story, as was the case when I covered a May address by Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana, Cuba during a visit he made to Creighton University in Omaha. Actually, there was just one other journalist there to my knowledge, but he was representing the local daily and so I needed to be on my game with tape recorder rolling and notepad and pen at the ready capturing Ortega’s remarks. As the leader of the Catholic Church in that island nation, he has navigated an uneasy relationship with the Communist regime. In recent years he’s presided over a revival of the church there and entered a dialogue with the hard line government, which has considerably softened in what can only be called a reform movement that’s transforming Cuba into a freer nation. Critics of Ortega contend he hasn’t pressed Cuban officials enough, but the evidence suggests a major change is underway and basic human rights are being respected in ways not see before under the revolutionary banner. My story appeared in El Perico, a weekly Spanish-English newspaper published in South Omaha.

 

 

Omaha Address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega Sounds Hopeful Message Repression in Cuba is Lifting

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

During a May 12 commencement address at Creighton University, Havana, Cuba archbishop Rev. Jaime Ortega described the uneasy journey the Catholic Church has navigated in the Communist island nation.

At a separate weekend event, Cardinal Ortega received an honorary law degree in recognition of his humanitarian work.

In introductory remarks last Thursday Creighton president Rev. John Schlegel, who’s visited Ortega in Cuba, praised the cardinal for “working relentlessly to mediate between the government of Raul Castro and the families of prisoners of conscience…Above all, Cardinal Ortega has proven to be a great pastor, a great leader, especially through challenging times, and a great priest.” Schlegel described Ortega as a “diplomat” seeking “the greater good, truth and justice.”

The estimated 125 attendees included Creighton faculty, Archdiocese of Omaha officials and members of Nebraska’s Cuban and greater Latino communities.

Speaking through a translator, Ortega charted the repression that followed the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Ortega sounded hopeful about the new, freer Cuba emerging. He referred to frank, cooperative exchanges between the church and government authorities that recently brought the release of 52 political prisoners.

This avowed son of Cuba proudly declared, “I am a Cuban who lives in Cuba. I never wanted to live outside Cuba. It is a country I love with all my heart.”

He drew parallels between early Christian religious leaders serving their flocks amid oppression and clergy and pro-Democracy dissidents finding their voices suppressed under Fidel. He said rather than take a militant tack, the Cuban church followed a pastoral, passive approach.

“The Cuban bishops have tried to be shepherds in this way in Cuba,” he said. “Its role is not to confront the established powers.”

However, he says “the church is always asking for religious liberty, so that its followers can live their lives in peace.”

He outlined where the church and Cuba are today in comparison with the post-revolutionary period. “Initially,” he said, “there was a great acceptance of the revolution because of finding so many points of value with it.”

Within two years though, he said “very strong confrontation” and persecution  distanced the church from the regime and the revolutionary fervor. He said priests were expelled from the country, Catholic schools closed, ministries and other expressions of religion curtailed and various “attacks” made on the church. He was among many young men in the church sent to labor camps.

The harsh measures, he said, “had a negative impact on the Catholic faithful” and “marked the memory” of older Cubans. He said, “This is a mark that is hard to erase.” While the bishops decried human rights violations, he said “the church as an organization was very diminished and had no means of communicating with its people.” He characterized the Cuban church then as “a church of silence,” adding, “The attitude of the church then was one of patience, perseverance, prudence.”

He said despite restrictions imposed on social, political, religious practices, fear of arrest and economic hardship, many Cuban Catholics remained faithful and risked much to speak out.

A turning point was a reflective, renewal process the Cuban Bishops Conference initiated in 1981, extending to every diocese, culminating with the 1986 National Ecclesial Encounter Cuba. “This constituted a very decisive moment for the history of the church in Cuba,” he said. It laid the groundwork for Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba. As a result, he said, “the church in Cuba let itself be known to the world and Cubans themselves realized there was in Cuba a church that was alive and dynamic.”

Since the conference and papal visit, he asserts the church has taken more of an active, public, missionary role and today is a church “that lives for its people,” rather than “wrapped up in itself,”” welcoming whoever comes to it.

 

 

Framing this empowerment, he said, is a new spirit of dialogue between the church and government, which he describes as “more fluid” under Raul Castro. In a Q & A after his address, Ortega said, “It has been much easier to find somebody with whom to dialogue. There seems to be a greater openness to changes.”

He’s encouraged by greater religious freedom, whose public manifestations include massive crowds for outdoor rites and a recently dedicated seminary.

On the activist front, he said an intentional process of “pastoral action” with authorities negotiated improved conditions for political prisoners, who were allowed to have contact with their families before finally gaining release. “Our humanitarian gesture was accepted,” Ortega said. He also alluded to recently announced Cuban social-political reforms.

With Cuba now thriving, he said its experience demonstrates “the human spirit should not be endangered or limited” and that liberation needs to come in both the spiritual and social life of people, adding, “It should never be necessary to negate God in order to enjoy human rights or to be active citizens.”

Ortega acknowledges that for victims of Cuban injustice “the baggage” and “suffering” remain. For “true reconciliation among all Cubans,” he said, there must be forgiveness and understanding — only then will the wounds inflicted under the old regime heal. Cuba, he insists, is moving on in acceptance and he suggests the rest of the world move on, too.

University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, who’s extensively studied Cuba, admires Ortega for “toeing the line for the purposes of advancing the church and its teachings and its ministry.”

Referring to criticism by some that Ortega’s been slow to press for more reforms, Benjamin-Alvarado says, “His approach perhaps wasn’t as quick as some would have liked, but the fact is it’s been successful. I think what he’s understood perhaps better than most was the limitations on what the church actually could do. He moved when he could and didn’t try to deal with issues he wasn’t able to have any answer or response to.”

Returning To Society: New community collaboration, research and federal funding fight to hold the costs of criminal recidivism down

July 2, 2011 3 comments

Having posted an awful lot of fluff or soft journalism stories lately, I thought it time to present something completely different, as in the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on reentry programs that work with offenders to prepare and guide them for what is hopefully their successful reintegration in society. I don’t tackle many serious or hard subjects like this, but I do enjoy the challenge. As freelancing for newspapers and magazines in Omaha does not pay well, I can never justify devoting the amount of research-reporting time such a story deserves. The compensation doesn’t come close as it is to compensating me for the time I invest, much less for the time I would like to invest.

 

 

 

 

Returning To SocietyNew community collaboration, research and federal funding fight to hold the costs of criminal recidivism down

©by Leo Adam Biga

A somewhat different version of the story appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

As the doors of America‘s overcrowded prisons swing ever wider, sending more ex-offenders back into society, reentry‘s become a major focus nationwide, including Nebraska.

America has 2.2 million individuals incarcerated in prison. That number’s expected to rise with the cost of housing inmates amid already strained resources.

Nationally, thousands enter and leave the corrections system every day. Hundreds of thousands every year. As community corrections, early parole releases and probation sentences send more offenders back into society, there’s new emphasis on preparing them for release and supporting their transition. Nebraska, like the rest of the U.S., is navigating this flood of returnees.

 

 

Ray Kyles, You Are Not Alone

 

 

Not surprisingly, corrections is better at confining folks than “fixing” them, which helps explain why prisons see so many repeat offenders. A 2011 Pew Center on the States study found more than four in ten offenders return to state prison within three years of release. Nebraska does better than the national average, at about three in ten, but there’s concern too many end up back in the system or struggle on the outside, thus becoming a drain or risk.

For veteran reentry worker Teela Mickles, the problem is crystal clear. “Even individuals who’ve been in prison will say, ‘If you don’t get us before we get out, it’s a waste of time.’ This cold turkey stuff won’t work,” says Mickles, who works with inmates and parolees through her nonprofit Compassion in Action.

Two ex-offenders now working with returning citizens confirm reentry is an inside game that must start early on.

“Turning your life is very hard, take it from me,” says Ray Kyles, adding it was “only when I finally took an inventory of myself and seen what I was worth that I started transforming.” That change only came during his third and last stint in prison. “I’ve come to the conclusion that in order for a man or woman to be successful once they come out of prison they must start working within the moment they hit the prison system. It’s a learning process.”

“Transition starts on the inside,” says Garry Kern, who was incarcerated 13 years and is now a caseworker for Goodwill Partnerships. “It’s a mindset. That’s where change comes.”

There’s growing recognition of the importance of pre-release preparation.

“By helping an inmate get a high school diploma or GED, help them address their substance abuse and mental health issues, and by helping them become a better parent or learn a vocation, we are giving them a better chance to return to the community as a successful citizen,” says Nebraska Department of Correctional Services programs administrator Layne Gissler.

Reentry programs are voluntary for prisoners. “If waiting lists occur, generally the inmates who are closest to release are given priority for programming,” he says.

 

 


Teela Mickles, Compassion in Action

 

 

Ideally, pre-release programs lead to changed attitudes and behaviors inside that persist on the outside. That’s the expressed goal of the UNO Transformation Project. Using The Autobiography of Malcolm X and motivational interviewing as talking points, facilitators encourage inmates to take stock and develop personal life plans. The program, largely funded by UNO grad John Morgan, works with inmates on addressing six stability domains:

housing

employment

education

substance abuse

mental health

social networks

“So, your family, your friends, your health, the people you hang out with,” says project manager Nicole Kennedy, who wrote the curriculum. “We picked those six areas because the research tells us for every one one of those areas you can help stabilize somebody in, you see a reduction in recidivism.”

She says project modules ask inmates to be self-reflective.

“We’re recognizing that until somebody has taken the time to sit down and actually think about who they are, what they value and what they want out of life, all that programming is not really being applied in the most productive manner. What we’re trying to do is get them to think a little more deeply about how do all these factors relate to what plan you’re going to have when you return to the community. We’re asking these guys to take a critical look at some personal and sensitive topics.

“I think a lot of prison programming is very narrowly skill based. What we’re trying to do is much more broad based. You can’t really think about your substance abuse in isolation of your employment or your housing or your social networks. All of these factors, while they have their own unique components, will be impacted by the others. So it’s going to be harder for you to stay sober and clean if you don’t have a job and you don’t have a place to live, because the life pressure that brings will eventually build up. Likewise, if you’re not managing your substance abuse it could be really hard to keep a job. If you’re dependent on your family to provide you housing and are couch surfing, that’s going to take its toll on family relationships.”

 

 

Nicole Kennedy, UNO Transformation Project

 

 

Kennedy credits Nebraska corrections officials for supporting a holistic model that serves inmates from the jump. She says there’s wide agreement the more inmates do to address their needs beforehand the more likely they are to make positive choices upon release.

“Corrections gives these guys a lot of tools and resources but this is kind of the mortar that holds those bricks together,” she says. “We’re really trying to get you to take all this information and apply it to yourself and your own unique circumstances.”

The Transformation Project refers its graduates to Ray Kyles and his You Are Not Alone program. Kyles is convinced accountability must first take root behind bars if an offender is to turn his or her life around.

“We need to start working with the choices you make in your life, We need to open your eyes up to what got you there. We need to get you to the point where you understand the trickle down effect of the crimes you may have committed — it’s not only hurting you, it’s hurting your family, it’s hurting the community. Until we understand the people we hurt we’ll still be wallowing in the world of that dumb shit of somebody owes me.”

Similarly, Teela Mickles says her reentry curriculum “is comprehensive and developmental in addressing the real issues in that individual for why drugs became an issue, for why crime became an issue. They have to understand, embrace and begin to work with the reasons why before they get out. That’s where job sustainability comes in, because an individual has to understand that there’s going to be a process of transition.”

Federal mandate and community advocacy are making reentry a priority in today’s more enlightened, research-based corrections field. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that involves law enforcement professionals, judges, lawyers, corrections officials, probation and parole officers, caseworkers and community-based service providers, both professional and volunteer.

The sheer volume of inmates has increased with get-tough policies in the war on drugs. Nebraska’s projected prison population for 2011 is 4,713, which is near where it’s hovered for several years. From 1995 to 2009 Nebraska’s overall incarceration rate per 100,000 adults increased from 185 to 245.

The cost of prosecuting and detaining individuals, most of whom are nonviolent, has become more of a burden in budget-strapped times. In line with national trends, Nebraska’s overall corrections spending has skyrocketed, from $72 million in 1995 to $181 million in 2010. Nationally, state corrections expenditures are an estimated $50 billion per year. Those costs don’t include what communities spend to house, train, educate, counsel, treat, employ and otherwise transition ex-offenders to law-abiding, productive lives. When a parent goes to prison there are “hidden” costs for welfare, foster care, legal services, family court.

In response to the unsustainability of mass incarceration and high recidivism rates public-private coalitions have pushed for more proactive reentry efforts both behind the wall and outside it.

The 2003 federal Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) and the 2008 Second Chance Act, both made hundreds of millions of dollars in grant monies available to reentry providers. Second Chance also established the National Reentry Resource Center, which offers education, training and technical assistance to providers, large and small.

These measures have brought new players onto the scene of a varied reentry landscape. In Nebraska, providers range in size, approach, scope and service area. Most are human-social service organizations or faith-based groups. The largest is Christian Heritage, a Lincoln, Neb. nonprofit that’s new to reentry yet has secured major Second Chance grants to fund programs that target reconnecting fathers with children and restoring families.

“The passing of the Second Chance Act has made some impact on our reentry efforts,” says Layne Gissler. For example, he says a new parenting program for incarcerated fathers administered by Christian Heritage “has been very beneficial.

“Outside of that,” he says, “our approach to reentry has remained the same. We utilize a multi-faceted approach that includes mental health and substance abuse programming, educational, vocational, parenting, life skills and other programs to address deficits. With the exception of the parenting program in our male facilities, these programs were in our facilities prior to passage of the Second Chance Act.”

The issue’s further come into focus through: a 2008 evaluation of Nebraska’s Serious and Violent Reentry Program by UNO’s School of Criminal Justice; the Douglas County Reentry Task Force, now reformed as the Reentry Initiatives Council; and the monthly Reentry Table Talk series at Metropolitan Community College.

Gissler said both the federal reentry initiative and the UNO study “helped educate, sharpen the focus and provide the necessary foundation for reentry in Nebraska,” adding, “There was a significant increase in the department’s long range commitment to reentry and the subsequent shift in emphasis based on risk.”

Increasingly, corrections works collaboratively with the community. The shared goal is reducing recidivism and improving quality of life outcomes. NDCS had fairly robust programs before, but is doing more with partners like UNO and Christian Heritage now that more dollars are available from Second Chance and other sources.

On the outside, ex-offenders encounter many hurdles piecing a life together in a fast-moving world that doesn’t cater to them. Jim Erwin of Christian Heritage advises inmates, their loved ones, sponsors and caseworkers work months in advance of release to line up leads on things like housing and employment. He and others working in the field say a safety plan and a support network is vital, The more on the margin someone lives, the greater the risk for recidivism. Substance abuse, family disputes or just being around negative influences can derail things.

“Folks can become very discouraged quickly if there’s not preparation,” says Mickles.

A big hurdle ex-offenders in Nebraska face is accessing vital records. There’s no central office to get a social security card, birth certificate, driver’s license, work permit. It presently takes days to obtain IDs from far-flung agencies. Support for a one-stop-shop is a hot topic and focus of the Douglas County Reentry Initiatives Council.

 

 

Douglas County Commissioner and UNO Transformation director Chris Rodgers

 

 

County Commissioner Chris Rodgers, who sits on the Council’s board, says Heartland Workforce Solutions in Omaha offers the framework for a one-stop-shop and the county’s seeking funds to help consolidate services for ex-offenders under the Heartland umbrella.

“There’s a need,” says Rodgers, who oversees the UNO Transformation Project. He says the Council looks at reentry in broad-based terms as well. “Our job is to identify issues and gaps and solve them within the system instead of reinventing the wheel.” If he’s learned anything it’s that successful reentry is up to the individual.

“It’s not magic, it’s hard work,” he says. “We’re not going to give you this yellow brick road outline to get there. What we do is lay you out a path with opportunity, but you have to put the work in.”

Ray Kyles of You Art Not Alone says, “Just like everything else, what you put in is what you get out. You become institutionalized the moment you get locked up by the police because from there on everything is given to you. Once you’re released from prison you still expect people to keep giving you. But what have you given yourself or what are you willing to give back to society? I’m not going to hold your hand, it just doesn’t work that way. I have a list of services gentlemen can go to for assistance. I get a hot jobs list every Monday.”

Christian Heritage’s Jim Erwin says, “remember to empower, not enable” ex-offenders.

To that end, Metro produces a reentry resources book it distributes to correctional facilities and community service providers to give inmates, ex-offenders, caseworkers and sponsors contacts for statewide programs and services.

“If an ex-inmate has a job, place to live and family-community support,” says Gissler, “the odds he or she will return to prison are much lower. A pro-social network is needed upon release and this has been provided in part by civic and faith-based groups. They have teams set up to assist ex-inmates with securing housing and employment.”

Providers who establish bonds behind the walls are better placed to help offenders once they’re on the outside, say reentry veterans. Consistently being there builds trust. “People need to understand the more they make themselves visible and empower the individuals inside in preparation to come out,” says Mickles, “the more effective their reentry programs on the outside will be.” Neither her program nor any others work in isolation. None has the capacity to address every need.

“We cant do it alone,” Mickles says. “That person coming out needs a job, a place to live. They may need drug rehabilitation. They may need legal assistance to get their kids back. Things like that. We have to work with all the entities to assist that individual with all the areas they need to experience a successful reentry.”

As Mickles does Compassion in Action by herself, she acts as a clearinghouse by referring ex-offenders to needed services she doesn’t provide. Kyles works much the same way.

Regardless of size or resources, reentry providers work collaboratively.

“We all need each other, there’s plenty of pain to go around, and we all have our areas of expertise, and the better we work together the better the population will be served,” says Mickles, who’s hopeful about the momentum surrounding reentry. “In doing reentry here for 30 years this is the first time Omaha is really on task as far as working together and helping each other do what we do best.”

Recently, some facilitator associations and forums have emerged to help bring reentry players at the same table for enhanced communication and coordination. The Reentry Alliance of Nebraska is one. The Reentry Initiatives Council is another. Omaha’s Northeast Weed & Seed program held a spring reentry workshop at Metro that included representatives from the Omaha Police Department, Heartland Workforce Solutions and the Douglas County Department of Corrections as well as ex-offenders and their advocates.

 

 

Tommie Wilson, Reentry Table Talk

 

 

Since 2009 Metro liaison Tommie Wilson has organized the Reentry Table Talk the third Wednesday of every month. At the May 18 forum 48 attendees represented some two dozen organizations, including Eastern Nebraska Action Community Partnership (ENCAP). Some state corrections officials were there. Mickles was present. Christian Heritage’s Jim Erwin was the featured speaker.

Erwin says he attends in order “to build relationships” with other providers. Diane Good-Collins, who with her husband Steve operates ReLeasT transition home for women in Nebraska City, says, “The relationships I’ve made in this room have helped people beyond this room. You never know who you’re going to meet and how that’s going to affect someone else.”

As an ex-felon, Good-Collins is among those who’ve “been there-done that” and now work with ex-offenders. Entrepreneur Rodney Prince is another, though his role is more as advocate and watchdog. His was among the few critical voices heard at the event as he challenged those present “to be coordinated and streamlined,” adding, “We need you to be on the same page.” Activist Eliga Ali and Black Men United president Willie Hamilton expressed concerns about the effects that mass incarceration of black males has on families and communities.

Wilson says some sessions can get rather heated. It’s all in the name of continued dialogue.

“We started out with four people talking about what we needed to do,” says Wilson, who has a grandson in prison, “and now the meetings average 45-50. I gather people here to talk about what’s going on with reentry, to bridge that connection to find out where resources are, to learn who’s doing what, to collaborate. I also bring to the table ex-offenders. If they’re having difficulties finding things they can connect with people and get into programs.”

Programs are one thing, reality is another. Because life happens, how an ex-offender responds to events or situations will ultimately determine his or her fate.

Rodgers cautions change is “not a one size fits all” proposition. “People transform in different stages.”

Mickles agrees, saying, “The term for each individual to experience success is quite different. Also, the definition for success is quite different. It may not be no recidivism. The person may need to reoffend in order to be successful. I’ve learned to redefine certain things.” She says a woman she worked with reoffended several times before going straight, “and she’s now giving back to the community in a major way” as a reentry provider.

Good-Collins, tells a similar story of a chronic reoffender who’s finally turned her life around. After hundreds of lock ups, then being homeless, Good-Collins says the client is now in a stable home environment and working. “She got her first paycheck in over 30 years. She’s doing awesome.”

“With that individual acceptance and lack of preconceived anything,” Mickles says, “individuals tend to find themselves. But society needs to know there is a cost.”

Jesuit Photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University Documents the Global Human Condition – One Person, One Image at a Time

June 23, 2011 6 comments

Supremely talented photojournalist Don Doll, a Jesuit at Creighton University in Omaha, has been documenting the human condition around the world for five decades, shooting assignments for national magazines and for the Society of Jesus. He’s also a highly respected educator and benevolent mentor. The handful of times I have communicated with him over the years invariably finds him just returned from or prepping for his next jaunt to some faraway spot for his work. Now in his 70s, he has more than kept up with the technological revolution, he’s been on the leading edge of it in his own field, where he long ago went all digital and began practicing the much buzzed about convergence journalism that now routinely sees him file assignments in stills and video and for print, broadcast, and Web applications. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is from a few years ago and is one of a few pieces I’ve done on him and his work that I’m posting on this blog.

 

Don Doll

 

 

Jesuit Photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University Documents the Global Human Condition – One Person, One Image at a Time

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

When noted photojournalist Don Doll leaves Omaha on assignment, he generally goes to document the travails of poor indigenous peoples in some Third World nation and what his fellow Jesuits do to help alleviate their misery. The all-digital artist shoots both stills and video. Last spring the Creighton University journalism professor, named 2006 “Artist of the Year” (in Nebraska) by the Governor’s Arts Awards, reported on peasant conditions in Ecuador and Colombia with writer-photographer Brad Reynolds, whom he’s collaborated with for National Geographic stories.

Always the teacher, Doll will share his expertise in a Saturday Joslyn Art Museum class from 9 a.m to noon in conjunction with the Edward Weston exhibit. His work can currently be seen at: the Boone County Bank in Albion, Neb., where photos he shot along the historic Lewis & Clark trail are on display; and the Sioux City (Iowa) Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, where his Vision Quest, 76 images of men, women and sacred sites of the Sioux Nation, shows now through August. His work is included in the permanent collection of the Joslyn, among other museums.

Many of the images he’s filed in recent years chronicle the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which ministers to exiles around the world. Doll’s traveled to many JRS sites. He’s captured the human toll exacted by land mines in Angola and Bosnia and the wrecked lives left behind by civil strife in Sri Lanka. He returned to Sri Lanka again last year to record the devastation of the tsunami and efforts by Jesuit Relief Service to aid families. He’s borne witness in Cambodia, Belize, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and other remote locales. In 2005 he went to Uganda, where his words and photos revealed the “terrible” atrocities visited upon the Night Commuters of Gulu by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Doll estimates 15 million people are displaced from their homes by the war and the LRA. The human rights crisis there is but a small sample of a global problem.

“We don’t even know how many refugees there are in the world,” he said. “There’s probably 20 million internally displaced people and another 20 million who have been forced to leave their countries. I go to these terrible places in the world and try to tell the stories of people who have no other way to have their stories told.”

Making images of hard realities has “an effect” on him. “What does it do to you to photograph in these situations? I think it does something irreparable,” he said. “I mean, you carry those people inside all the time. It makes you aware of how poor people are and what awful things they go through.”

 

 

Chad, refugee

 

 

Even amid the horror of lost limbs and lives, hunger, torture, fear, there’s hope. He recalled an El Salvadorian woman who recounted how gunmen killed her daughter and four sons, yet declared, “‘I have to forgive them because I want God to forgive me.’ Well, the tears started coming down my eyes,” he said. “Here’s this poor, unlettered woman who lost five of her children in the El Salvador war and she’s saying, ‘I forgive them.’ Oh, my God, the insights the poor have.”

Balance for him comes in the form of the humanitarian work he sees Jesuits do.

“I try to tell what Jesuits are doing around the world in their work with the poorest of the poor. Not many people know this story of Jesuits in 50 different countries helping refugees. I’m so proud of being a Jesuit. I’m so impressed by these men,” said Doll, who celebrated 50 years as a Jesuit in 2005.

 

 

 

 

Two colleagues exemplify the order’s missionary work. One, Fr. Tony Wach, is the former rector at Omaha Creighton Prep. Wach aids refugees in Uganda, where he hopes to start a primary school and a secondary school and provide campus ministry for a nearby university. Doll tells his story in a new Jesuit Journeys magazine article titled “Fr. Tony’s Dream.” “He’s amazing,” Doll said.

The other priest, the late Fr. Jon Cortina, built the refugee town of Guarjila in El Salvador and began a program, Pro-Busqueda, to reunite war-displaced children with their families. Doll profiled his friend and ex-classmate on a “Nightline” special. Cortina educated many, even Archbishop Oscar Romero, to the plight of the poor. “Jon used to say, ‘We have the privilege of working with the poorest of the poor to help them.’ That’s what he loved about working up in Guarjila,” Doll said. “He loved those people and they loved him. He really lived the idea of liberation theology.”

Doll came to photography in the late 1950s-early 1960s as a young priest on the Rosebud (South Dakota) Sioux reservation, “where,” he said, “I discovered how to teach.” He said the experience of living and working with Native Americans, whom he made the subjects of two photo books, Crying for a Vision and Vision Quest, “changed my life. There’s something wonderful about being in another culture, being a minority and experiencing the values. It gives you a different perspective on your own culture because it enables you to see in a kind of bas relief your own cultural values and you can either recommit to them or reject them.”

The new values he’s assimilated give him a new understanding of family. “The whole kinship is a really beautiful thing about the Lakota people and how they hold one another in a very close relationship. That’s what you don’t see when you drive through ‘a rez,’ past a tar paper shack surrounded by cars that won’t run — you don’t see the powerful, beautiful relationships inside.”

Doll, who owns a tribal name given him by the Lakota Sioux, maintains ties with Native Americans, photographing an annual Red Cloud Indian School calendar featuring tribal children in traditional dress and mentoring students off ‘the rez’ at Creighton, where he’s proud of the school’s significant native population. He’s proud, too, of native students who’ve gone on to win major awards and jobs.

As much as he enjoys teaching, the pull of far away is always there. “I love to travel. My passion is to make pictures and to document visually what’s going on in the world,” he said. There are many places yet to visit. “I haven’t been to Russia, nor China, nor Australia, but I’ll get there.” His rich Jesuit journey continues.

Check out Doll’s work on his website magis.creighton.edu.

‘Walking Behind to Freedom,’ A Musical Theater Examination of Race

June 21, 2011 36 comments

I don’t see a huge amount of live theater, but I attend more than enough shows to give me a good feel for what’s out there.  My hometown of Omaha has a strong theater scene and one of the more dynamic works I’ve seen here in recent years came and went without the attention I felt it deserved. It was called Walking Behind to Freedom, and it deal head-on with many persistent aspects of racism that tend to be trivialized or distorted. The fact that a fairly serious piece of theater dared to tackle the issue of race in a city that has long been divided along racial lines took courage and vision. Playwright Max Sparber, a former colleague and editor of mine at The Reader (www.thereader.com) based the play, which unfolds in a series of vignettes, on interviews he did with folks from all races around the community. He asked people to share experiences they’ve had with racism and how these encounters affected them. A local musical group called Nu Beginning wrote songs and music that expressed yet more layers of insight and emotion behind the dramatized experiences. A diverse group of cast and crew collaborated on a rousing, moving, thought-provoking night of musical theater.  I had a personal investment in the show, too, in that my partner in life played a couple different speaking parts.  She was quite good.  My story about the show appeared in The Reader.

 

 

Nu Beginning

 

 

‘Walking Behind to Freedom,’ A Musical Theater Examination of Race

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

The subject of race is like the elephant in the room. Everybody notices it, yet nobody breathes a word. The longer the silence, the more damage is done. Seen in another light, race is the label comprising the assumptions and perceptions others project on us, soley based on the shade of our skin or sound of our name. Seeing beyond labels sparks dialogue. Stopping there erects barriers to communication.

Race is as uncomfortable to discuss as sex. Yet, attitudes about race, like sex, permeate life. It’s right there, in your face, every day. You’re reminded of it whenever someone different from you enters your space or you’re the odd one out in a crowd or issues of profiling, preferences and quotas hit close to home.

It often seems Omaha’s predominantly white population wishes the topic would go away in a weary — Oh, didn’t-we-solve-racism-already? tone — or else makes limp liberal gestures toward more inclusion. Then there’s the majority reaction that pretends it’s not a problem. Take the Keystone neighborhood residents now opposing the Omaha Housing Authority’s planned Crown Creek public housing development. Opponents never mention race per se, but it’s implicit in their expressed concerns over property values being adversely affected by public housing whose occupants will include blacks. Nothing like rolling out the old welcome wagon for people trying to get ahead.

On the other side of the fence, militant minority views claim that race impacts everything, as well it might, but such sweeping indictments alienate people and chill discussion. How much an issue race is depends on who you are. If you have power, it’s not on your radar, unless it’s expedient to be. If you’re poor, it’s a factor you must account for because someone’s sure to make you aware of it.

If you doubt Omaha is beset by wide rifts along racial lines, you only need look at: its pronounced geographic segregation; its mainly white police presence in largely Latino south Omaha and African-American north Omaha; its rarely more than symbolic multicultural diversity at public-private gatherings; its few minority corporate heads and even fewer minority elected public officials. Then there’s the insidious every day racism that, intentionally or not, insults, demeans, excludes.

It’s in this climate that, last fall, Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) said: We need to talk. A faith-based community organizing group focusing on social justice issues, OTOC commissioned an original musical play, Walking Behind to Freedom, as a benefit forum for addressing the often ignored racial divide in Omaha and the need for more unity. It’s the second year in a row OTOC’s staged a play to frame issues and raise funds. In 2003, it presented a production of Working, the Broadway play based on the book of the same name by Studs Terkel.

With a book by Omaha playwright Max Sparber and music by the local quartet Nu Beginning, Walking Behind to Freedom premieres May 7 and 8 at First United Methodist Church. Performances run 7:30 p.m. each night at the church, 69th and Cass Street. Free-will donations of $10-plus are suggested. Proceeds go to underwrite OTOC operational expenses.

The play’s title is lifted from a famous quote by the late entertainer and Civil Rights activist, Hazel Scott, who posited, “Who ever walked behind anyone to freedom? If we can’t go hand in hand, I don’t want to go.” The show coincides with the 40th anniversary of Congress passing landmark Civil Rights legislation in 1964.

Max Sparber

 

 

As a foundation for the play, OTOC did what it does best: organize “house meetings” where citizens shared their anecdotes and perspectives on racial division. Sparber and Nu Beginning attended the meetings, held at OTOC-member churches city-wide, and the ensuing conversations informed the non-narrative play, which is structured as a series of thematic monologues, dialogues and songs.

“I built my script based on some of these interviews, along with some broader themes,” said Sparber, whose Minstrel Show dealt with an actual lynching in early Omaha. “We got some great stories out of it. The people who came to the meetings were very interested in the subject and I certainly got some stories that were invaluable. More than anything, we wanted this play to be specific to Omaha, and therefore we wanted its origins to be within Omahans’ own experiences.”

Surfacing prominently in those sessions was the theme of division and how by going unspoken it only deepens the divide. “This is a town that’s very separated geographically. The majority of blacks live in north Omaha. The majority of Latinos live in south Omaha. The majority of whites live in west Omaha. And, as a result, there’s not a lot of crossover,” Sparber said. “It’s really sad how closed up Omaha is,” said the play’s director, Don Nguyen, lately of the Shelterbelt Theater.

“Along with that, race is quickly becoming an undiscussed element in Omaha,” added Sparber. “I think a lot of whites believe we live in a post-racism world and, therefore, it’s not a subject that needs to be addressed. Whereas, black people experience this as not being a post-racism world at all and are kind of startled by this other viewpoint. So, there’s this disconnection based on understanding.”

 

 

Hazel Scott

 

 

Two lines in the play comment on this dichotomy: “I think a lot of white people feel that racism ended in the Sixties, with Martin Luther King. The only thing about racism that ended in the Sixties WAS Martin Luther King.

Any impression all the work is done alarms Betty Tipler, an OTOC leader. “A lot of us are in our comfortable spaces. We go inside our houses with our two garages and we think things are okay. Things are not okay. The issue of race has not been cured and, if we’re not careful, things will go backward,” she said. Despite the illusion all’s well, she added, the play reminds us people of color still contend with bias/discrimination in jobs, housing, policing. “We may as well face it.”

According to OTOC leader Margaret Gilmore, the process the play sprang from is at the core of how the organization works. “We’re about bringing different people in conversation with each other to talk about what’s in their hearts and minds,” she said. “It’s a process of learning to talk to each other and listen to each other and then seeing what we have in common to work together for change.” She said the meetings that laid the play’s groundwork crystallized the racial gulf that exists and the need to discuss it. “We don’t talk about this stuff enough. We don’t talk about it on a personal level and how it affects us, which is what I think this play gets to. When we ask the right questions and we’re willing to listen, then the experiences that people tell in their own words are dramatic and provocative.”

“It’s very important we listen to real people’s stories. The only way you can come up with the truth is to go to the people. We haven’t watered down or changed their stories, but literally portrayed them,” said OTOC’s Tipler, administrator at Mount Nebo Missionary Baptist Church, which hosted some of the house meetings.

Indeed, the vignettes carry the ring of reportorial truth to them. Most compelling are the monologues, which unfold in a rap-like stream-of-consciousness that is one part slam-poet-soliloquy and one part from-the-street-rant. Some stories resemble the bared soul testimony of people bearing witness, yet without ever droning on into didactic, pedantic sermons, lectures or diatribes. The language sounds like the real conversations you have inside your head or that spontaneously spring up among friends over a few drinks. Often, there’s a sense you’re listening in on the privileged, private exchanges of people from another culture as they describe what’s it like to be them, which is to say, apart from you.

 

 

Don Nguyen

 

 

For director Nguyen, the “real life testimonies” add a layer of truth that elevates the material to a “more powerful” plane. “I think it will definitely work for us that people know this is real. It’s not an overall work of fiction. This is real stuff.”

The misconceptions people have of each other are voiced throughout the work, often with satire. You’ve heard them before and perhaps been guilty yourself assigning these to people. You know, you see an Asian-American, like Nguyen, and you reflexively think he’s fluent in Vietmanese or expert in martial arts, some assumptions he’s endured himself. “Oh, yeah, my personal experiences definitely help me to relate,” he said. “Growing up in Lincoln I got in fights all the time. People making fun of me. Thinking I knew kung-fu or I only spoke Vietmanese, which is not true. But it’s not just the blatant racism. It’s the underlying stuff, too. Sometimes it’s not even intentional, but it’s just there. And it’s that gray stuff I think these pieces capture pretty well and that people need to hear more of.”

In the vignette Tricky, some women lay out the subtle nature of racism in Omaha. “…it’s like a fox. It’s tricky. It’s sly. You’ll be standing in line at a store, and the cashiers will be helping everybody except you…and you’re the only black person in line…and because it’s so sly, I think white people don’t notice it at all.

The play also looks at racism from different angles. One has a guilt-ridden realtor rationalizing the unethical practice of steering, which is another form of red lining. The other has a new generation bigot defending his right to espouse white pride in response to black heritage celebrations. The concept of reverse racism is explored in the real life case of students protesting their school’s special recognition of black achievers at the expense of other minorities. And the wider fallout of racism is examined in the confession offered by an insurance agent, who reveals rates for car-house coverage are higher for residents of largely black north Omaha, including whites, because of the district’s perceived high crime rate.

The vignettes touch on ways race factors into every day life, whether its the unwanted attention a black couple attracts while out shopping or the hassle African-American men face when driving while black, or DWB, which is all it takes to be stopped by the cops. The shopping piece uses humor to highlight the absurd fears that prompt people to act out racist views. Music is used as heightened counterpoint to the boiling frustration of the DWB victim, whose cries of injustice are accompanied by the soulful strains of doo-wop singers.

Bridging the play’s series of one-acts are songs by Nu Beginning, whose music is a melange of hip-hop, R & B, soul, pop and gospel. A little edgy and a lot inspirational, the music drives home the unity message with its uplifting melodies, which are sung by choruses comprised of diverse singers.

Some pieces are heavier or angrier than others. Some are downright funny. And some, like Mirrors, speak eloquently and wittily to the concept of how, despite our apparent differences, we are all reflections of each other. Here, Nguyen employs a diverse roster of performers to represent the mirror symbol. Perhaps the most telling piece is Function. This beautifully-rendered and thought-provoking discourse is delivered by an architect, who suggests racism has survived as both an ornament of the past, akin to a Roman column on a modern house, and as a still-functional device for those in power, as when a politician plays the race card.

 

 

First United Methodist Church

 

 

Whatever the context, there’s no dancing around the race card, which is just how Nguyen likes it, although when he first read the script he was surprised by how brazenly it took on taboo material, such as its use of the N-word.

“Typically, a script or show sugarcoats the issue of race. It’s a very cautious topic. You don’t want to offend or patronize people by saying the wrong stuff. But this piece is much different. All of its pretty much in your face,” Nguyen said. “What I mean is, it’s very direct. Max (Sparber) makes no bones what he’s writing about, which is great. It’s a big risk to take as a writer, but essentially it’s the most interesting path to take, too. And I’m all for stirring up trouble. I’m fine with that.”

OTOC’s Betty Tipler feels racial division is too important an issue to be coy about. “We’ve got to come out of the closet, so to speak, and talk about racism and differences” she said. “We tend to shy away from talking about it, but it won’t go away. We have got to come together, put it on the table, take a look at it and deal with it — no matter how much it hurts me or how much it hurts you. But before we can do that, we’ve gotta put it out there. We won’t get anywhere until we do. And I believe this play is a step toward doing that.”

Christy Woods, a singer/songwriter with Nu Beginning, said the play is about hope. “I believe if people are open to change, we can go hand-in-hand to freedom. Just because I’m this and you’re that, doesn’t mean I have to be one step behind you. Why can’t we go together? We want people to feel inspired to go out and make a change. We want to touch, but also to teach, and I believe this musical does that.”

Nguyen hopes the play attracts a mixed audience receptive to seeing race through the prism of different experiences. “That’s where I’m trying to aim the show. As we go through these vignettes, I want some people to identify with them and some people to be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ That’s what I want to create.”

What Happens to a Dream Deferred? John Beasley Theater Revisits Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’

June 14, 2011 15 comments

It’s only in the last few years I finally saw both a stage production and a television production of the classic play A Raisin in the Sun, and while I found each impressive, the thing that really turned me onto the work was reading Lorraine Hansberry’s famous work. Its intensity and truth burn on the page. After reading the play I knew I had to see a performance of it, and that motivation is what led me to write the following piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com). When I was still in the good graces of Omaha’s Beasley Theater’s I watched part of a rehearsal there and then saw a performance of the play in its entirety. Not too far removed from that experience I caught the TV version with Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan, Audra McDonald, and Sean Combs.  The themes of Raisin resonate with me on many levels, but it is its dramatic interpretation of the Langston Hughes line, “What happens to a dream deferred?” within the context of a man and family struggling to get their small piece of the American Dream that deeply affects and disturbs me.

 

 

Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier from the 1961 film adaptation of Hansberry’s play

 

 

What Happens to a Dream Deferred? John Beasley Theater Revisits Lorraine Hansberry‘s ‘A Raisin in the Sun‘      

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

After its 1959 opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, A Raisin in the Sun was the talk of Broadway and the play’s 28-year-old author, the late Lorraine Hansberry, was the toast of the theater world. Hansberry became the first black whose work was honored with the New York Drama Critics Circle’s best play award.

The Youngers, a poor, aspiring black Chicago tenement family, are the prism through which she looks at the experience of oppression in segregated USA. Her modern story of assimilationist pressures and deferred dreams offers a realistic slice of black life unseen till then. The politically-aware Hansberry, who studied under W.E.B. DuBois and wrote for Paul Roberson’s Freedom magazine, took the play’s title from a Langston Hughes poem that asks: “What happens to a dream deferred. Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore…Or does it explode?”

Lena is the stalwart, widowed matriarch holding her family intact. Ruth, the eldest daughter, is the beleaguered wife of Walter, a bitter chauffeur striving to move up in the world. Beneatha, Ruth’s younger sister, is a collegian who rejects God and embraces Africa. Her hopeful beau, George Murchison, is the bourgeois American counterpoint to her sweet-on admirer, Joseph Asagai, a politically-minded Nigerian.

When the prospects of a fat insurance check threaten tearing the family apart, Lena acts rashly and buys a house in a restricted white neighborhood. Then, just as Walter’s dreams of owning a business are crushed, the alarmed residents offer the Youngers a buy-out. What Walter will do next is at the crux of the family crisis.

With its successful Broadway revival in 2003-04, Raisin proves its themes are still relevant today and that’s one reason why the John Beasley Theater is staging it now through October 10. While not revolutionary, Raisin reveals some hard truths.

“What we have for the first time with Hansberry in the ‘50s is a dignified, realistic portrayal of the complexities of black life,” said poet and essayist Robert Chrisman, chair of the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and founding editor of The Black Scholar. “With Walter, you have the young black man who wants his chance. Mama (Lena) represents the stolid, powerful, tenacious will of black people to keep on keeping on. She is the moral center of the play. These are all realistic, engaging portraitures of black people. You don’t have any stereotyped servants. I think dignity is key in Raisin because it’s finally to assert his fundamental human dignity Walter turns down the buy out.”

For Chrisman, “the single strongest theme in Raisin is the tenet that if you have your dignity, you have the potential for everything and if you do not maintain and courageously uphold your dignity and freedom as a human being, you have nothing. And I think all of that was new in the portraiture of blacks in white theater. What preceded it up to the 1950s was usually something based on the minstrel-entertainment genre — the shuffling chauffeur, the maid, the bell hop, the clown. In black theater you had legitimate efforts at portraying blacks, but I think it’s with Hansberry you get the breakthrough. She sets the stage for the subsequent work of August Wilson and Charles Fuller, who deal with issues of generations, dreams and career aspirations and frustrations. In a way, she did for modern black drama the same thing that Richard Wright did for the modern black novel.”

 

 

Lorraine Hansberry

 

 

Directing the Beasley production is UNO dramatics arts professor Doug Paterson, who said the play “became the springboard for black theater” in the latter half of the 20th century. “Black theater exploded in all kinds of directions,” he said. He added that the militant dramatists who followed Hansberry, such as Amiri Baraka, were critical of her “drawing room kind of drama” when they “felt what was necessary was to be bold…different…experimental.” However, Chrisman reminds, “Baraka was writing at the cusp of the ‘60s and the movement of this more militant vision forward. I think what Hansberry is saying is that whether Walter goes down as a freedom rider or starts a riot is immaterial. Asserting his dignity is what matters.”

Although it stops short of radical redresses to racism and inequality, her work is full of red hot anger and indignation. Paterson said, “She revealed so much. She anticipated sort of everything that happened in civil rights, black power and integration.” He said the original production was also influential in terms of the contributions to American theater and film that its cast and crew have made. Among the lead actors, Sydney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Ivan Dixon and Louis Gossett are household names. Douglas Turner Ward is a co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Theater. Lonne Elder III is a major playwright. Director Lloyd Richards is perhaps Broadway’s most acclaimed dramatic interpreter. “It’s an extraordinary play for what it did historically. That’s why we study it,” said Paterson, who’s taught it for years. “I always wanted to give it a shot” directorially.

Chrisman well recalls the impact of the 1961 film version, whose adaptation Hansberry wrote. “There was a tremendous surge of pride and dignity in audiences,” especially black audiences, at the time. The concerns of Raisin, he said, still reverberate today. “I think in some ways it’s still very contemporary because you still have the same kind of interest in the African experience that Beneatha had in young folks today. And you still have, perhaps even more desperately, the need of the young black man to start a business of his own.”

The play ends with the Youngers deciding to move where they’ll clearly be unwelcome, but it doesn’t show the struggle of blacks living in a white enclave organized to oust them. As Chrisman said, “There should be a sequel to it, because it ends on the affirmative note…You could have another play that shows the ostracism, harassment, graffiti, coldness and so on that have been reported by first-generation integrating blacks.” And that’s ironic, as the playwright’s own family underwent that very trial by fire when she was a young girl. Her educated parents were social activists in Chicago and when their move into a white section met with resistance, they fought the injustice all the way to the Supreme Court.

For her next play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Hansberry disappointed some by telling a Jewish story. She died of cancer, at age 34, the day that play closed on Broadway. Other works were posthumously adapted into books and plays by her former husband, Robert Nemiroff, a writer and composer. In 1973, Nemiroff and Charlotte Zaltzberg adapted her first play into the Tony-winning musical Raisin.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 634 other followers