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War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horrors in Song and Dance that Make Plea for Peace

August 18, 2011 2 comments

Here is a story I did in 1996 in the flood of refugees coming to America from war-ravaged Bosnia and Serbia. I tell the story of two families from Saravejo whose lives were turned upside down when the city fell under siege. Rusmir and Hari stayed behind to fight, as their wives and children narrowly escaped, eventually to the West. The men were eventually reunited with their families and ended up starting new lives in America. In my hometown of Omaha no less.  I came across this story when I learned about a music and dance performance that a local choreographer organized as a way of commemorating the experience of these Bosnian refugees.  The cathartic performance served as a bridge between the war that changed everything and the peace they had to flee their homeland to find.

 

 

 

War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horror’s in Song and Dance that Make Plea for Peace

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Even with United States peacekeeping troops stationed in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the war-ravaged nation and troubled Balkan region remain a shrouded mystery to many Americans.

But on two successive nights in October, audiences packing a Creighton University theater came face-to-face with the tragic, ultimately triumphant odyssey of Omaha’s Bosnian war refugees.

The forum for this unusual intersection of cultures was the finale of an October 25-26 Omaha Modern Dance Collective concert. The closing piece, “Day of Forgiveness,” featured a melting pot of dancers and musicians, but most poignantly, local Bosnian refugees performing as a five-piece band

The work incorporated vigorous Bosnian folk dances and songs symbolizing the relative harmony in Bosnia before the war and the healing so sorely needed there now. Ironically, a dance whose context was an ethnic war, joined Croats, Muslims and Serbs in a unifying celebration.

The refugees are among a growing, diverse Bosnian colony that has sprung up in Omaha since 1993. They say the Bosnia they knew was free of ethnic and religious strife until Serb nationalism began rearing its ugly head. Many are natives of Sarajevo, where they enjoyed an upscale, Western European lifestyle. Since escaping the carnage to start over in America, they’ve forged a tranquil Little Sarajevo in Omaha.

“Bosnia was like a small United States, where many different cultures, many different religions lived together,” says the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist, Rusmir Hadzisulejmanovic, 41, formerly a marketing manager with a Sarajevo publishing firm. Today, he works as a handy man and attends Metropolitan Community College. “We prepared a good life in our country. We had nice jobs. We made good money. But somebody from outside tried to destroy that. And we lost everything in one day.”

Fellow refugee and musician Muharem “Hari” Sakic, 39, a friend of Rusmir’s from before the war, was an import-export executive and now works odd jobs while attending Metro. Hari says, “In Sarajevo we never cared what religion you were. And none of us care about that now. It doesn’t matter. We only care what kind of person you are.”

Both men are Muslim. Rusmir’s wife is Serb; Hari’s, Croation-Catholic. They say mixed marriages such as theirs were typical.

The two men fought side-by-side defending their beloved Sarajevo, the besieged Bosnian capital devastated by Serb aggressors. Talking with Rusmir and Hari today, surrounded by loved ones in their safe, comfortable southwest Omaha apartments, it’s hard to imagine them as fierce soldiers engaged in a life and death struggle with forces who outnumbered and outgunned them. But then Rusmir passes around snapshots of he and Hari in camouflage fatigues, armed to the teeth, outside the burned-out shell of a train station. A later photo shows Rusmir, usually a burly 240 pounds, looking pale, drawn and shrunken from the near-starvation war diet.

War Hits Home

Although Serbia invaded Croatia by late 1990, beginning the pattern of pogroms and atrocities it repeated elsewhere in the former Yugoslav Republic, most Bosnians never suspected the conflict would affect them. But it did, beginning, shockingly and viciously at noon, April 4, 1992, when Serb artillery units dug in atop the hills overlooking Saravejo launched an unprovoked, indiscriminate attack on the city’s homes, streets and businesses.

Rusmir was eating lunch in a cafeteria when the first explosions rocked the city. He was trapped there until morning. “I saw many, many damaged houses and cars and dead people in the streets. It was the first time in my life I saw something like that,” he recalls. It was the start of a three-year siege that killed thousands of civilians and soldiers.

 

 

 

 

At the family’s apartment he found his wife Zorana, 39, and their children Ida and Igor, then ages 8 and 2, respectively, unharmed, but “very scared.” He immediately set about finding a safe way out for them. Escape was essential, since Ida suffers from a serious kidney disease requiring frequent medical treatment, and his family’s Muslim surname made them targets for invading Serbs. As for himself, he had no choice but to stay – and fight.

The roads and fields leading out of town were killing zones, manned by roaming Serb militia. Air service was disrupted. With the help of Jewish friends he finally got his family approved for a flight to Belgrade, Serbia several days later. On the day of departure Zorana and the kids boarded a bus for the tense ride to the Serbian-held airport. As it was too dangerous to be seen together, Rusmir followed behind in a car.

The scene at the airport was chaotic. Hundreds of people milled about the tarmac, frantic not to be left behind. When a mad dash for the plane began, Zorana, carrying Igor in one arm, felt Ida being pulled away by the surging crowd. She grabbed hold of her daughter and hung on until they were aboard.

From a distance Rusmir watched the plane lift off safely, carrying his family to an uncertain fate. It was the last flight out for many months. Three-and-a-half years passed before he saw his family again.

While in Belgrade, Zorana and the kids stayed at a hotel. Zorana made Ida promise (Igor was too young) never to say their Muslim name aloud, but only her Serb maiden name, Vojnovic. Zorana says she felt “shame” at denying her true identity and “guilty” for what some Serbs were doing to Muslims. “It was very hard.”

“You had to say some Serb name to save your life,” notes Hari, whose family took similar precautions. Like Rusmir and Zorana, Hari and his wife Marina were desperate to get their daughter Lana out, as she has a kidney condition similar to Ida’s. Marina and Sakic’s kids eventually fled to Croatia.

In Belgrade Zorana often confronted Serb enmity, such as when a hospital denied Ida treatment fate learning her real name. From Belgrade, they fled to norther Croatia, staying with relatives and friends.

Life in Croatia had a semblance of normality until Croat-Muslim hostilities erupted. Then Zorana was denied work and Ida expelled from school and refused care. A human rights organization did fly Zorana and the kids to London, where her brother lived, but they were denied residency and returned to Croatia. Growing more desperate, she pleaded her family’s case at every embassy, to no avail.

With few resources and options left she heard about the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a humanitarian agency offering visas based on medical need. After her first entreaties were rejected she went to IOM’s offices “every morning for three months,” before finally getting the visa that eventually brought them to Omaha in October, 1993. Zorana was among the first group of Bosnian and Croatian refugees to arrive here.

Omaha – A New Home, A New Life

Why Omaha? Dr. Linda Ford, a local physician affiliated with IOM, was matched with the family as a medical caseworker and mentor. Zorana says Ford was her “main moral support” when she first arrived. “She showed me how to live on my own. She was a great help.”

Ford arranged for the family to live at the home of Dr. Dan Halm and at her urging Zorana, an attorney in Saravejo, earned a para-legal degree at UNO while working part-time jobs. Zorana now works full-time at Mutual of Omaha. Ford says the contacts Zorana made here as a result of her own refugee experience have aided other Bosnians in settling here, including Rusmir’s sister and brother-in-law. Since moving her family to the Woodcreek Apartments, Zorana has guided 12 other refugee families there.

Barbarism, Heroism and Sacrifice

Meanwhile, Rusmir, who as a young man served in the Yugoslav equivalent of the CIA, had joined Hari and others in mobilizing the local Bosnian Army, It was a civilian army comprised of Muslims, Croats and Serbs, They lacked even the most basic supplies. Uniforms were improvised from sleeping bags. Many soldiers fought in athletic shoes. Shelling and sniper fire continued day and night. The streets and outlying areas were a grim no-man’s land. The only respite was an occasional cease-fire or relief convoy.

 

 

 

 

As the siege progressed conditions worsened. Rusmir’s and Hari’s homes were destroyed. But life went on. “In war it’s not possible to keep a normal life, but we tried,” says Rusmir. For example, school-age kids who remained behind still attended classes, and Hari’s wife Marina gave birth to their son, Adi, on May 22, 1992.

“At that time the situation was terrible, especially for babies. No food, no water, no electricity , no nothing,” Hari recalls.

Somehow, they hung on. Marina and their two children got out as part of a Red Cross convoy that fall.

Hari and Rusmir fought in a special unit that took them behind enemy lines to wreak havoc, do reconnaissance, collect intelligence and capture prisoners. Miraculously, neither was wounded.

“I was many times in a very dangerous position,” says Rusmir. “I know how to use a gun and a knife. That helped me to survive. I’m lucky, you know? I survived.”

Two of his best friends did not – Dragan Postic and Zelicko Filipovic.

Rusmir witnessed acts of barbarism, heroism and sacrifice, An artillery shell landed amidst a group of school kids during recess, killing and maiming dozens. “That was very awful.” In the heat of battle, a comrade jumped on an enemy tank and dropped hand grenades inside the open turret, killing himself and the tank’s crew. Despite overwhelming odds and losses the city held. “We stopped them…we survived,” Rusmir says.

By the time a United States-brokered and NATO-enforced peace halted the war in 1995, Rusmir, who’d stayed gallantly (“Stubbornly,”says Zorana) on to protect his homeland and care for his ill father, felt very alone. Except for his father, there was nothing left – no home, no job, no family, no future. Hari was gone, too, escaping on 1994 on foot via a tunnel dug under the Saravejo airport, and then over the mountains into Croatia, where after a long search he was reunited with his family.

The Sakics emigrated here in January, 1995.

Music – Celebration and Mourning

Every refugee has a story. The Bosnians’ story is of suddenly being cast as warriors and wanderers in an ethnically-cleansed netherworld where borders and names suddenly meant the difference between freedom or imprisonment, between living or dying.

 

 

 

 

It all happened before – to their parents and grandparents in World War II. It’s a story burned in their memories and hearts and told in stirring words, music and dance.

Their music inspired choreographer Josie Metal-Corbin to create “Day of Forgiveness.” The professor of dance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha first heard the music when a former student and Bosnian emigre brought the band to her class. They played about 10 minutes and right away I knew I had to do something with this music,” Metal-Corbin recalls. “I was very taken by it, I’m part Italian and part Slovak, and this music really spoke to me. It’s very passionate.”

After months of working with the musicians and UNO’s resident dance troupe she directs, the Moving Company, Metal-Corbin grew close to the refugees and their families, particularly Rusmir, Zorana and their children, now ages 12 and 6. Zorana acted as the project’s interpreter and cultural guide.

During the Creighton concert, which marked the dance’s premiere, Rusmir and the other, all-male musicians exuberantly accompanied the rousing dance from a rear corner of the stage.

Rusmir, who grew up singing and playing the romantic tunes that accompanied the dance, says, “I feel the songs in my heart, in my soul, in my blood.” Song and dance are a big part of Bosnian celebrations, which can last from evening through dawn.

A Gypsy song – “Djurdjevdan” (“Day of the Flowers”) – was chosen by Metal-Corbin to give the dance its thematic design. The song, like the dance she adapted from it, tells of a holiday when people go to a river to cleanse themselves with water and flowers as an act of atonement and plea for forgiveness. According to Rusmir, the song and dance reflect Bosnians’ forgiving nature.

 

 

 

 

“What is very hard about the war is that we lost so many friends. We lost neighbors. We lost family members. And for what? Really for nothing. We tried to keep Bosnia in Bosnian borders. But I can forgive,” Rusmir says, “because my wife and kids are alive. My father is alive. It’s time for forgiveness, for one reason – the war must stop, always, I cannot live with hate. My people are not like that. You can kick me, you can beat me…I will always find a reason to forgive you. That is the Bosnian soul.”

Hari, though, cannot so easily let go of the memory of Marina and their two children barely escaping a direct artillery hit on their Sarajevo apartment. “Forgive, yes, but forget, no,” he says. “I must try never to forget.” Even now, the whine of a siren and the clap of thunder are nervous reminders of incoming artillery rounds. “That is the kind of sound you can never forget,” Hari says.

He still wakes up in a cold sweat at the thought of the three-finger sign used by Chetnik Serbs in carrying out their terror campaigns. “When they started to use that sign,” he says, “the poison came. It meant. ‘You are not with us.’ Then the killing started.”

As a haunting reminder of what the dance was about, an enlarged news photo in the background pictured the tearful reunion of a Bosnian refugee family. The image had special meaning for Rusmir and Hari, who had only recently reunited with their own families. For them, the dance was their own personal commemoration of loss, celebration of survival, offering of thanks and granting of forgiveness.

Adding further resonance, virtually the entire local Bosnian refugee colony attended out of a deep communal sense of pride in their rich culture, one they’re eager to share with the wider Omaha community they’ve felt so welcomed by.

 

 

Josie Metal-Corbin

 

 

Zorana was there. “I was real proud, but at the same time I was kind of sad,” she says. “It was the music of our country – but in a different country. I was real touched when I saw Americans feel the same we do. I wanted to cry.”

Zorana, whose journey with her children across the war-torn region took a year before she found safe passage to America, adds that forgiveness must never come at the price of wisdom. “I would not let anybody to that to us again. Yo can trick us one time, but just one time.”

Yes, these Bosnians, are remarkably free of bitterness, but they do feel betrayed by the European community’s delayed, timid intervention. Zorana says, “You cannot wait so long and be so passive. You cannot say, ‘Oh, this is not my war. I don’t want to be bothered – they’re not killing me.’ Because tomorrow they may come to your house and try to kill you.” Hari says, “All the time we waited for a miracle.”

Rusmir decries the Serbs’ targeting of civilians. Hari hopes “world justice catches the war criminals, so that they will never sleep good again.”

New Pioneers

With the aid of Neb.Republican U.S. House of Representatives member John Christensen Rusmir finally got permission to immigrate and was reunited with his family last November. Once here there were many adjustments to make. Igor didn’t remember him. Ida was slow to warm to a father she hadn’t seen for so long. Rusmir spoke no English. The family barely got by. But in classic immigrant tradition they’ve adapted and now call Omaha – a city they’d never heard of before – their home.

“It is hard. But step by step, day by day, we make connections, we make new friends we make a good life, too. We feel like Bosnian pioneers in Omaha and Nebraska,” says Rusmir, who hopes to start a construction business with Hari.

Zorana

The Bosnians like America and feel sure they’ll thrive here. Their children already have, with many earning top grades in school. Ida and Lana are both healthy and doing fine. The Bosnians are deeply grateful to America, which Hari calls “a dream country” for its warm reception.

Hari says, “In America I can once again live like a normal person. There’s no fear that somebody will knock on my door and ask, ‘Who are you?’ and say, ‘You’re guilty.’ We are safe here. Many Americans have helped to give us a chance. Thanks America. We are sure that we will be a success.”

Zorana downplays their heroic struggle, saying, “You need to go on if you think ou have some tomorrow. You need to believe in yourself. Then nothing is impossible.”

America is, after all, the land of opportunity.

“You give me a chance to be equal,” she says. “To work. To be a citizen. I wanted my children to be Bosnian, but now I want them to be American. Here, you can be proud of your last name. You don’t have to feel ashamed.”

Finding Forefathers: Lincoln Motion Picture Company Film Festival Gives Nod to Past and Offers Glimpse of Future

November 20, 2010 1 comment

Poster: The Realization of a Negro's Ambition ...

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I am always on the lookout for a good film story.  This one came to me out of left field, and I am grateful did.  My hometown of Omaha, Neb. is slow to pick up trends, which makes sense since it sits smack dab in the middle of the country.  While indigenous indie filmmaking caught on just about everywhere else 15 or 20 years ago, it’s only in the last decade really that the city has had anything like a filmmaking scene, and it’s still a small, sporadic community of filmmakers compared with, say, Austin, Texas.  What’s lagged even more behind is the development of an African-American film community here, although events in the last three years indicate that might finally be changing.  For Love of Amy and Wigger are two features shot here in 2008 and 2010, respectively. John Beasley is planning a film on the life of Marlin Briscoe.  Robert Franklin is a documentary filmmaker with a new project near completion about the 1919  lynching of Will Brown.  Vikki White is a promising new filmmaker.  And then the story that came my way recently announced a new film festival whose title is drawn from the nation’s first black filmmaking enterprise, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which got its start in Omaha, of all places, in the silent era. Brothers Noble and George Johnson were the founders and operators behind Lincoln, whose run was short but historic.  Videographer Jim Nelson of Omaha was inspired by the example of the Johnsons and has launched a film festival showing the wares of aspiring filmmakers he mentors.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) previewed the fest ,which unreeled Nov. 19.  He and I and the filmmakers showing their work hope it’s the start of something big.

Finding Forefathers: Lincoln Motion Picture Company Film Festival Gives Nod to Past and Offers Glimpse of Future

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The first annual Lincoln Motion Picture Company Film Festival, Nov. 19, is inspired by a historic Nebraska-based business that scholars call the nation’s first African-American film production company.

Brothers Noble and George Johnson founded the company in 1916 in Omaha and later opened a Los Angeles office. They produced five pictures. Their work actually predated that of the great black film pioneer Oscar Micheaux, who had contact with the Johnsons before launching his own film endeavors.

When Omaha television and video production veteran Jim Nelson learned of the Johnsons’ legacy, it hit him like a revelation. As an African-American videographer, he’s a rarity in the local industry. From the time the Lincoln company folded in 1921 until recently, black filmmaking largely lay dormant here. Discovering that black Omaha filmmakers made and owned their own images nearly a century ago moved Nelson.

“I thought, damn, I do come from someplace. It gives me a connection. You always hear about standing on the shoulders of giants, well, now I know whose they are,” says Nelson, who began his career at now defunct Omaha black owned and operated radio station KOWH.

 

Jim Nelson

 

The Texas native came to Omaha in the 1960s when his Air Force father transferred to Offutt Air Force Base. Except for leaving Nebraska a few times to try his fortunes elsewhere, the University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate has been based here, yet he somehow never heard about the Johnsons and their Lincoln efforts until a few years ago. He feels the story is not as widely celebrated in these parts as it should be.

“I say to people,’ Do you know the significance of this?’”

He says he’s sure many in Omaha’s African-American community don’t know this history, which he sees as part of a larger problem of not enough being done to promote achievements by black Nebraskans.

“The idea is there are people who grew up here who made contributions,” he says. “It’s about valuing not only what you have or had but using that value to help you grow,” he says. “People need to feel they are worth something.”

Nelson’s nonprofit Video Kool Skool and Sable Accent Media Experience are training grounds for minority youths and adults to learn the necessary skills to tell their stories in images. The programs, along with his for-profit Jim Nelson Media Services, are based at the Omaha Business & Technology Center, 2505 North 24th Street., where he has ample studio and production space.

With a bow to the Lincoln Company’s heritage, Nelson hit upon the idea of a showcase for aspiring black filmmakers. Making himself and his facilities available, he worked with newbies on five short films, all featuring aspects of the black experience. The collaborative projects include one Nelson directed, Rockin’ the Deuce Four, an appreciation of the jazz scene that once flourished in and around North 24th Street.

“This is about a community that has not had its story told on any regular basis,” he says. “Now there’s a platform (the festival). I want to catch these new voices when they’re small. They have to be encouraged, they have to be nurtured, they have to know there’s a place where, even on a part time basis, they can pursue it.

“What’s my role? Well this has always been a dream of mine because I never had a mentor. I didn’t get it, I wasn’t supposed to get it, I was supposed to help others get it. I find myself being more a catalyst I guess for those who really want to do it.”

In this “each one, teach one” capacity he worked with three adults — all students of his at Metro Community College, where he’s an adjunct broadcast media instructor. Their work comprises the festival.

Danye Echtinaw, an Army reservist who served a tour in Iraq, says her film If the Hair Ain’t Tight, Ain’t Nothin’ Right expresses “a very adamant attitude of reaffirmation” about black women” and their “crown of glory.” Eris Lamont Mackey, who made an anti-gang film that placed at the NAACP’s national ACT-SO competition, reflects on the importance of families sharing meals and conversations together in Left at the Table. Lisa Washington, who attended Grambling State University, examines African-American icons in The Beginning of a Positive Image.

Nelson doesn’t pretend there’s a budding Spike Lee or Kasi Lemmons in the queue…yet. He views the event and his mentoring as “a spark to ignite others.” He feels as more participate, it’s only a matter of time before a significant filmmaker emerges.

“The participation of minorities in the industry has always been a struggle. With today’s technology, the opportunity to make films is there,” he says. “There’s a wealth of stories, but we need storytellers. Just seeing yourself in that position is empowering. Once you learn to do it, it can’t be taken away. It’s just a matter of getting the tools to do it.”

The fest unreels from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Omaha Public Schools‘ TAC Building auditorium, 3015 Cuming Street. Admission is $10. Call 614-8202 for ticket locations.

Kent Bellows Legacy Lives On

October 13, 2010 Leave a comment

The following article appeared a few years ago in The Reader (www.thereader.com) announcing plans for the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts named in honor of the late great American realist visual artist. That artist’s work is the focus of a current exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, where Bellows made his home, and the studio center where Bellows created many of his pieces is now open to the public.  As my article mentions, Bellows was known for his generosity towards young people with a passion for art, and the studio center pays forward the encouragement he provided young people by offering a mentoring program for high school students with a penchant for making art or pursuing art studies.  Students are paired off with professional working artists in mentoring relationships that give young people an intimate, real-life experience in the art world.  Students and their mentors collaborate on some projects and students work independently on others, and now that the studio center is complete, this creative community expresses itself in the very digs where Bellows himself worked and mentored.  See more of my stories related to Bellows and the studio center on this blog site.

Kent Bellows Legacy Lives On

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

When renowned Omaha visual artist Kent Bellows died suddenly in 2005, his family didn’t know what to do with his studio, where remnants of his career and life were everywhere.

The studio was stuffed with his life: eclectic stashes of books and CDs, mosaics of cut-out images, wall scribbling, monster figures, art supplies and his signature parka hanging on a hook. After Bellows living and working there 16 years, the two-story studio, at 33rd and Leavenworth streets, became a multi-planed art piece in itself. It’s survived as tableaux of his stilled creativity, not unlike one of the wall sets he built for his hyper-realistic work.

Bellows’ family knew the circa-1915 brick building contained artifacts that should be preserved, not packed away or thrown out. The site, which used to be the Mermaid Lounge, was imbued with the legacy of someone who encouraged others, especially young visual artists and musicians. Family and friends deliberated how best to honor his memory.

Griess, her sister Debra Wesselmann and other Bellows family members formed The Kent Bellows Foundation in 2007 and envisioned the nonprofit as an arts education haven with a strong mentoring component. It will serve area youths, ages 14 to 18, grades 9 through 12, with artist-in-residence, studio thesis and gallery internship programs/classes. Board members include artist Keith Jacobshagen, designer Cedric Hartman, art educator Dan Siedell and composer Peter Buffett. Now, after two years of planning, the Leavenworth studio is due to become the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts. The Kent Bellows Foundation announced plans for the new arts organization on-site at a recent open house attended by friends of the late artist. If enough support is found, site renovations could begin this summer and the center could open by early 2009.

“We couldn’t make any rash decisions about it, it was just too important,” said his sister Robin Griess. “So fortunately we hesitated.”

$725,000 in renovations are needed to fix a leaky roof, replace mold-infested walls, make the structure handicap accessible, add a museum-grade HVAC system and construct multi-use gallery, studio, classroom and office spaces. The foundation is looking for public and private donors to help.

Working visual artists will act as mentors, offering students real life lessons on being a professional artist (did someone say this?) and helping them learn to create a studio space, network and market, build a portfolio and deal with galleries.

A close student-mentor ratio will ensure highly individualized instruction (who said this?). Bellows Education Coordinator Rebecca Herskovitz wants to create a comfortable, nurturing environment, she said, where students can be themselves and take ownership over these spaces.

“My goal is to create an art learning family,” Herskovitz said.

The Foundation has broad goals. Partnerships with local arts organizations will provide students more educational opportunities. Lesson plans and resources will be made available to art educators. A scholarship and stipend fund will assist students electing to study art in college.

“It’s a completely new take on arts education,” said Bellows Executive Director Anne Meysenburg.

Early on, the family determined art education as the focus. The specific mentoring mission evolved with input by Bluestem Interactive strategic planners. (We need some attribution in this paragraph, too. Who said these things?)

“When the mentorship idea came to us it made such sense because that’s who Kent was and to mesh that with his legacy and with this inspiring space was just the perfect idea,” Griess said. “We always kept in mind, ‘What would Kent want?’”

She said Bellows was “this wonderful big brother” to not only her and her sister but to many others.

“Whatever your thing was he would just celebrate it,” she said.

When he did break from his meticulous work, Griess said, the studio was a vibrant spot where he showed pieces, discussed ideas and jammed with musicians. Creativity was always in play. She hopes students can soon tap into the spirit bound there.

“To emulate that place of creativity and to inhabit it is absolutely contagious,” Herskovitz said. “You can just feel it’s a place where magic was happening. For kids to walk in there every day will be an enchanting thing.”

Randy Brown Architects’ design will alter and open up the studio, though portions will be preserved as Bellows left them; notably the south rear space where his easel still stands and his hand-sharpened pencils lay ready. The upper floor is home to undisturbed set pieces and backdrops. These expressions of Bellows will be conserved, pending funds, by the Ford Conservation Center in Omaha. (Who said this?)

“The ultimate goal,” Meysenburg said, “is to inspire and to ignite the creative spark in the artistic youth of this community.”

The job of documenting Bellows’ prolific original works continues. Researchers are working to create a comprehensive catalogue raisonne of Bellows’ work as Joslyn Art Museum prepares a fall 2009 Bellows retrospective.

Griess called the search a treasure hunt: some previously undiscovered works have turned up, and other notable pieces are still missing in action.

It’s all part of ensuring the Bellows legacy.

“We feel a heavy responsibility about doing this right,” Wesselmann said.

Mentoring programs start this September in yet-to-be-named art facilities, and the foundation has some potential site leads. The foundation is currently recruiting students and staff for its first 16-week semester.

St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey High, A School Where Dreams Matriculate

August 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Three years ago I did this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the first Cristo Rey high school in Omaha.  It’s a school where the students, mostly inner city Hispanic and African-American kids from families of little means, are required to work an office job to help defray the cost of tuition. The job is also an important learning avenue, exposing students to environments and experiences they would likely otherwise not see and helping them develop skills they likely otherwise wouldn’t feel compelled to cultivate. My story focuses on two students in the school’s inaugural freshman class, a Hispanic named Daniel and an African-American named Treasure. Although each tried to downplay it, their attending the school meant a great deal to them and their families.  I may revisit the story of these two young people and their school next spring, when Daniel and Treasure, both of whom are doing quite well in the classroom and at the work site I am told, are set to graduate.

 

 

 

 

 

UPDATE: As updates go, this one is decidedly sad:  In early February the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha announced that St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey High School will close at the end of the 2010-2011 school year due to the school incurring a $7 million deficit in its brief four-year history.  It seems the school was never really able to gain enough traction, in terms of numbers of students enrolled. There was a high turnover of students who could not or would not follow the school’s strict standards. Ultimately though the recession of the last three years may have dealt the biggest blow because the school could not find or maintain enough jobs with local employers for its students to work once the economy sagged, thus severely cutting into the revenues the school needed to operate.  Without those jobs, which defrayed the cost of tuition, some families simply could not afford what it cost for their children to attend.  The more financial burden the school and the archdiocese took on to cover the gap and the shorter the school came to meeting its enrollment projections the more untenable the situation became.  I will be filing a story in the spring that revisits the stories of Daniel and Treasure — who were part of the school’s first freshmen class and will now be part of its first and last senior class.  With the impending closing it becomes a poignant, bittersweet story for all concerned, but it doesn’t diminish the quality educational experience students experienced.

St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey, A School Where Dreams Matriculate

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Few school startups have attracted the attention of St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey. From the time plans for the new Catholic high school in south Omaha were first announced in 2005 through the end of its first academic year next week, the institution’s captured public imagination and media notice.

Claver’s housed in the former St. Mary’s school building at 36th and Q Streets, within walking distance of the historic stockyards site, Hispanic eateries and markets and Metropolitan Community College’s south campus. The Salvation Army‘s Kroc Center is going up down the road where the Wilson packing plant used to stand.

 

 

 

That the school’s elicited so much response is largely due to its membership in the national Cristo Rey Network, a branded nonprofit educational association based in Chicago. 60 Minutes profiled it. The private CR urban schools model gives disadvantaged inner city children a Catholic, college prepatory education and requires they work a paid internship in white collar Corporate America.

Wages earned help defray students’ tuition and provide schools a revenue stream. Member schools share 10 mission effectiveness standards. Staff from CR schools around the nation attend in-service workshops.

Cristo Rey’s pairing of high academics with real life work experiences is why the network’s grown from one to 19 schools in less than a decade. Three more will open their doors next fall. The model appeals to families who otherwise can’t afford a private school, much less expect their kids to work paid internships. Communities are also desperate for alternatives to America’s public education system, where resources for urban schools lag behind their suburban counterparts. Students of color in inner city public schools struggle, fail or drop out at higher than average rates. Relatively few go on to college, much less complete it, and most lack employability skills beyond low paying customer service jobs.

So when something new comes along to offer hope people jump at it. That’s what the Mayorgas and Andersons did. The Omaha working class families, one Hispanic and one African American, fit the demographic profile the school targets. Claver’s kids mostly come from poor Hispanic or black households qualifying for the federal free or reduced lunch program.

Some whites, black Africans and Native Americans also attend. CR schools typically serve small enrollments. Claver’s no exception with 67 students.

The Mayorgas and Andersons saw the school as a gateway they couldn’t pass up. After year one their views haven’t changed. Each family sends a child there. Daniel Mayorga and Treasure Anderson are both honor roll students.

Claver internship director Jim Pogge said it’s easy to see how much this means to families. “I participate in almost all of the application interviews and the hope in the parents’ eyes is evident.”

Families also find appealing the prospect of being in on the ground floor of a new kind of school, a theme embodied by the Claver team nickname, Trailblazers. A sign in front of the school reads, “Become a Trailblazer.” A symbol and legacy in one.

“We call ourselves Trailblazers for all kinds of different reasons,” Pogge said. “This is a trailblazing school, the students are trailblazers in their own lives.”

Daniel Mayorga said, “We’re kind of proud we’re the first class. I guess it makes us feel more special.” Among the downsides, he said, is that Claver “doesn’t offer all the classes I wanted.”

School president Rev. Jim Keiter said Claver’s expanding its courses and staff, hiring full-time music, art and reading teachers for next fall and adding CAD drafting, culinary arts and Microsoft certification classes as early as spring ’09.

 

 

Fr. Jim Keiter

 

 

Christopher Anderson made his daughter, Treasure, among Claver’s initial enrollees last summer. He liked the idea of her being in a school “totally different than what she’s been used to. The structure, the dress, the work ethic. I mean, I wish I could have gone to a school like this. And then you get to thinking she’s going to be part of the first class,” he said, beaming.

Each Claver student works a full-time shift once a week, plus one extra day per month. The school day runs from 7:50 a.m. to 3:55 p.m. Most students stay after school an hour or two. On work days, a student reports to school, is taken by cab to his/her 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. job and then returned to school. It might be 6 before they get home.

The curriculum includes a mandatory business class addressing office skills and etiquette. Students apply classroom lessons to the workplace. Back at school they share on-the-job experiences with fellow interns. Pogge works closely with the 22 employer partners in Claver’s Hire-4-Ed program. Student job performance is reviewed and graded. Pogge said, “It’s real. They can get fired.” That’s happened. In those cases students get retrained for new jobs.

“All of our students have to work in order to make this thing work. They have to be employable. The work component actually drives the school,” he said.

Claver sets the tone in the summer with a mandatory three-week long boot camp orientation that introduces students to school-workplace expectations.

When kids can’t or won’t meet expectations they’re asked to leave Claver. A number have been expelled.

“We have a very rigorous academic program. I mean, it’s college prep. There’s no deviation. It’s very linear in its focus. We also have this work component that’s very demanding. These kids have to perform but not everyone’s up to that task. Personally, I have kids this age and I wonder how they would do,” Pogge said.

On the whole, he said, the work study program’s met expectations. “We have had bumps, but we have had far more successes. As of February, 82 percent of our students received ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ job performance ratings.”

Students who do well on the job invariably gain confidence and maturity.

“We see it in changed behaviors here at school,” Pogge said. “They’re all of a sudden more focused, engaged. They communicate more effectively. They’re kind of coming out of their shell.”

Signs that Treasure’s growing up have surfaced since she started at Claver.

“She’s pretty mature. She missed a day of work, which they’re required to make up, and she made the arrangements without me asking her,” Anderson said.

Parents also like the strict dress code. Many students don’t. At Claver’s summer boot camp last August boys loosened or removed their required neck ties and girls pushed the envelope with revealing outfits. Staff reminders and reprimands were common.

Maria and Rodolfo Mayorga made Daniel, their youngest child, an early enrollee. A bright boy with a sweet, outgoing personality, he previously attended public schools in south Omaha, where he, his two older brothers and his folks live in a snug bungalow within sight of Rosenblatt Stadium.

His Mexican immigrant parents work blue collar jobs. Their formal education is limited, as is their English. Daniel serves as interpreter. Translating for his mom, he said: “She wanted me to go to a school that was a different environment, a whole new experience. She says the work I’m doing and the interactions I’m having and the skills I’m learning will be really helpful to me in the future.”

His mother’s noticed a change in him now that he comports himself like a little man. “She says I try to correct myself more. She sees me setting more goals for myself. She likes how the school is more disciplined.”

Daniel enjoys being in a brand new school with few students and much diversity.

“It’s like you’re starting all over with a clean slate. You get to know a whole new group of people. You probably get closer to people because you’re going through the same thing…you get stronger relationships,” he said. “In this school you get to know different types of people. You get diverse friends. We’re all scattered. We’re from north Omaha, south Omaha, southeast Omaha. Everybody’s got their own story — where they live, how they grew up.”

He finds Claver more taxing than what’s he’s used to. “I put a bunch more effort into this school,” he said. “It’s hard to keep up a B or A. I come home tired.”

Treasure also finds Claver challenging. She said, “It’s not always easy or fun to get good grades but you have to. I’ve had to learn how to balance school and work. I’ve got responsibilities both ways.”

She and Daniel are keenly aware that “it looks good on a resume” to have a college prep diploma and professional internship among their credits.

Treasure’s native Omaha Baptist family has a history of Catholic education. Her dad and aunts attended Blessed Sacrament. Her aunts then went on to Dominican High. Treasure went a year at Sacred Heart, where her two younger siblings now attend.

Although she mostly attended public schools Treasure’s one year at Sacred Heart gave her an inkling of what to expect at Claver, where weekly Mass and daily religious instruction are the rule. In the end, she said, “it’s still kids. We get along, we don’t get along. It’s high school.”

Most of her friends now attend Marian, a school too pricey for her dad to afford. “I surely couldn’t,” he said. All her Claver tuition’s paid by her job earnings.

A shy, inquisitive girl with a big spirit, Treasure lives with her two younger siblings, her father and his girl friend in a big house on Florence Boulevard in North O. Her older sisters live on their own. The family attends Morningstar Baptist Church.

Her dad is separated from her mom, whom she sees regularly. Chris works at Walgreens. He’s battled kidney disease for 14 years. Last summer both kidneys were removed. He’s now awaiting a transplant. A grown step-daughter may be a match.

Claver Admissions Director Anita Farwell said Treasure hasn’t let her father’s illness stand in her way.

“I love how she keeps her mind focused. She’s not distracted. No excuses. She loves her father. She wants to succeed not only for him but also for herself. He’s a terrific man and he’s built it in her as well.”

Treasure has strong role models. One of her half sisters is in college and another’s gone back. An aunt’s in the Army. Her parents both have some college. Now Treasure’s a model for her little brother and sister. Twelve-year-old Tera and 7-year-old Trey Christopher can’t wait to join her at Claver. Anderson’s already determined they’ll be future Trailblazers.

 

 

 

 

Reporting to a job adds a new dynamic for Treasure and Daniel. They work in guest services at Immanuel Medical Center, where several Claver students intern. They variously escort patients/family members, answer the phone and do clerical tasks.

“It can be boring but it’s preparing us and that’s what we need,” Treasure said. “We’re not always going to like it but it’s the real world. It does help me with my communication and organizational skills. It’s helped me open up a little to people.”

Pogge said students get to see new worlds.

“These kids are now going into buildings they normally just drive by. Now they’re part of the process,” he said. “They’re exposed to jobs, professions they may have never thought of before, and they can transfer skills from one job or industry to another. Communication skills, attention-to-detail, punctuality, stick-toitiveness.”

The work’s not always cut-and-dried, either. In Immanuel’s Diagnostics and Procedures areas the interns interact with strangers — adult patients or loved ones. Worry is etched on people’s faces. Daniel said many of those he escorts remark on how young he is and a conversation inevitably ensues about the school. Staff say having Claver kids in this role disarms people, putting them more at ease. Daniel views it as a life skills learning experience.

“As you talk to them you get to know them and to know a whole different story. You feel so sorry for them and you want to do everything to help them,” he said. “I really do like helping people. That’s probably the most satisfying.”

Once, a woman broke down and cried in the arms of Treasure, who consoled her.

“I had to be there for her, I guess,” she said. “I just couldn’t leave her there. She was going through some hard times. Her husband wasn’t going to live. I’m not the best people person but I did learn I have to suck it up and just be there for people in order to help them.”

The incident reminded her of her father’s precarious condition.

“If my dad just died one day who would be there for me? You gotta give in order to receive. So I try my best.”

“She doesn’t like to talk about it but I’m a realist, I know on any given day,” said Anderson, his voice trailing off. “So I always tell her, You know if something was to happen to me you would kind of be the glue to hold them together,” he said, referring to her younger siblings. “If your sister or brother were doing something wrong you’d say, What would Daddy say? I’ve raised her enough now that she knows what I expect of her and them. We talk about real things.”

Same for the Mayorgas. The family was due to make their next pilgrimage to Mexico this summer but tight finances postponed those plans. His parents don’t hide the fact it’s a struggle these days.

“When Mom’s right about to finish all the bills, to pay the school off, this off, that off, then all of a sudden something breaks down and we have something else to pay,” he said. “We always have this conversation. We feel we’re right about to hit the point when we’re living free and then something else happens. We’ll probably use the vacation money to pay off the truck so next year we’ll be a little more debt free.”

If the Mayorgas don’t make it across the border this year it’ll mark only the second time in Daniel’s memory they haven’t. Their faith sees them through hard times. On Sundays the family attends St. Agnes or Our Lady of Guadalupe churches, whose congregations are filled with aspiring, upwardly mobile young families just like them.

The Mayorgas’ hopes of moving up are pinned on Daniel’s shoulders, an academic star who envisions a medical career, perhaps as a doctor. He’s already found he far prefers office work to the roofing jobs he went on with his father and brothers.

“This is way better than that. I’d rather exhaust myself mentally,” he said.

Conversely, his brother Jesus was a less than stellar high school student who’s now looking for work. His other brother, Renne, a South High sophomore, is not excited by school but does plan on college. The brothers feel while Claver may not be for them, it’s right for Daniel.

“I think it’s good because it teaches the kids how to be responsible,” said Renne, who works at a Hy-Vee. “It gives them a taste of life — of how it’s going to be.”

Daniel said his mother often expresses her fondest desires for her boys.

“She wants us to become kind of independent, finish school, get good jobs, become better people. Even though both my parents work it’s still not enough to pay for everything. She wants us to do our part and to find our own way.”

Maria Mayorga said she dreams of the ranchero she grew up on in a small, isolated village in central Mexico. Life was simple but happy there. She loves visiting home. She sees then how far she’s come. She hopes once her boys move on they’ll return to the family’s Omaha home and appreciate how far they’ve progressed.

Rodolfo Mayorga’s poured his heart, soul and sweat into improving the small house. When his boys leave home they carry his and Maria’s dreams for better tomorrows.

Farwell admires how Daniel’s parents “have raised him to, ‘Do your best son.’ He loves them and he’s so thankful for what they’ve done for him. That is one of the motivating factors for him to do his best.”

Maria and Rodolfo Mayorga and Christopher Anderson harbor the classic dream that their children do better than them. Their dreams are bound up in the promise of a school whose Catholic priest namesake tended to black Africans taken off slave ships in Colombia, South America. Claver reaches out to at-risk kids with a step ladder to success. Students, though, must make the climb themselves.

“All we’re really doing here is cracking open the door. It’s up to them to walk through it, run through it, and many of them are sprinting through it,” Pogge said.

As symbols go, what could be more dramatic than a school, with all its promise for new life, situated next to a burial ground, where dreams go to die? The east and south sides of Claver look out over St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery. Just beyond the cemetery South O’s booming economy is evident.

It’s not only kids and families inspired by the opportunities the school affords but teachers, administrators and corporate internship partners as well. Pogge said businesses see the connection between profit and opportunity.

“The corporate response has been outstanding. These companies have a real need for this clerical work to be done. Why not give our students a chance to perform and develop?  Every decision maker I have met has told me they want to have a hand in developing the future workforce of this city,” he said. “These students will either be a part of that workforce or will fade away from it. If they fade away from it, then everybody loses. If they are actively engaged at a young age, then the future is very bright indeed.

“These companies believe these students have real and tremendous potential.”

Educators and employers want to be part of a journey that propels young people forward — past the traditional barriers in their path. As the Claver mantra says, “to serve those who desire it the most but can afford it the least.”

“It’s inspiring and humbling and exciting,” Pogge said, “It just makes absolute sense to give people a vision of what they can become, and that’s what this school is all about. It’s so tangible. It’s very real.”

“Our kids come from poverty and it’s really hard for them to see the consequences of getting an education or not getting an education and what it means to their future success or failure,” said Claver Principal Leigh McKeehan. “But when you expose them to careers then they can start putting two and two together and create a plan for their lives.”

 

Treasure and Daniel

 

 

 

The needs of Claver students are great. About half arrive below grade level, some two-three grades below in reading and math. While this first year was comprised solely of a freshmen class, some 16-17-year-olds were in the ranks of otherwise 14-year-olds. The older kids dropped out of schools at one time or another and desired what Keiter termed “a fresh start.”

Farwell said some kids come from single parent homes and others from homes where grandparents or guardians raise them. Kids may have moved several times.

“They’re 14 and they have gone through so much in life, they’ve seen so much,” she said, “and we’re trying to give them stability. We want them to know they can succeed. It doesn’t matter what their past has been. Go forward.”

“They can do it,” said Pogge, who refers to the entire staff as having “a calling” to this mission. Daniel said the staff’s dedication to “go the extra mile” is noticed.

Farwell said two of the school’s biggest selling points are its negotiated tuition and the transportation provided students to and from school (bus) and work (cab).

Interest is high. But the application-registration process can be daunting for Spanish speaking newcomers. Many parents work on hourly production lines and can’t easily arrange or afford missing work to fill out forms or go through school interviews. Claver’s simplified things by reducing the number of forms and expanding its hours — making admissions more of a one-stop process. Most Claver staffers speak some Spanish. A few, like Farwell and McKeehan, are fluent, which they say helps build trust.

Then there are the school’s high academic and accountability standards, which extend to students and parents signing a contract. Farwell said many parents expressing interest in the school the first year weren’t aware of its college prep rigor but adds that inquiries today seem more informed. That should mean fewer mismatches between the school and students and, thus, fewer expulsions.

As Keiter said he’s come to realize, “we can’t be the savior school for all students and families. Not every school is meant for every student.” He’s expelled 11 kids since August. Others withdrew after recognizing Claver was not for them. The attrition’s cut deep into the rolls of an already small student body.

When registration closed last summer Claver counted 106 students. Only 95 actually showed for the boot camp. By the time the school year began that number fell to 86. Enrollment now stands at 67.

Back in August Keiter already wrestled with “the savior complex.” One early morning he assembled the students at St. Mary’s Church across the parking lot and tearfully addressed them from the foot of the altar.

“Yesterday was probably one of the hardest days I’ve ever had. I removed four students from this school for behavior.”

He talked about the need to follow directions, make good choices and work together for the common good. Using the bad apple analogy, he said one or two rotten ones can spoil the whole bunch. Removing the students, he said, was “for the good of all of you.” He pledged he’d make more hard decisions as necessary.

“We have only one chance to set the bar and create the reputation of the school, and we want that reputation to be a school that is safe and a great learning environment preparing all our students for college and work,” he said.

Two of Daniel’s friends were expelled. “It was because of the dress code,” Daniel said. “I think for some of them it opened up their eyes. They’re going to come back next year hopefully. Their parents want to enroll them.” The dress code’s been enough of an issue that Claver’s introducing uniforms next year.

Casualties are inevitable.

“We are giving some second chances and they are excelling,” Keiter said. “That is what it is about, but for the whole to excel we will at times have to remove students who are not accepting or not wanting to accept this new way of learning at school and work. If they are disruptive, et cetera, it is not fair to those who are working hard to succeed.”

He said the school’s “being more diligent” about keeping standards high and not diluting them for the sake of “wanting to help or ‘save’ one. We have to be honest about who our school can serve best, not for our betterment but for each student’s betterment.”

Farwell’s actively recruiting freshmen and sophomores for next school year. Applications and acceptances are ahead of last year. June 12 and July 10 All Admissions days are planned. The boot camp’s being revamped to include a several nights retreat away from school that promotes relationship building.

Meanwhile, the school’s secured $5 million in its $7 million capital campaign and has renderings for a planned physical expansion. 

Keiter said the strength of CR schools is their “outside the box” approach of being neither tuition nor philanthropy driven but enrollment and jobs driven. Aside from that bottom line, dreams most drive what goes on there. The long hours and stringent rules are not popular with kids but the ones that stay, like Treasure and Daniel, sense a higher purpose at work. They know how much is riding on this for their folks.

When Treasure omplains how hard it is her dad reminds her, “That’s the reason we chose the school — you’re getting more out of it.” Chris Anderson added, “Me and a couple other parents talk all the time about what a great opportunity it is. I could not be any happier. She’s excelling. I have faith in her and in the school.”

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Timothy Schaffert Gets Down and Dirty with his New Novel ‘Devils in the Sugar Shop’

August 29, 2010 Leave a comment

The Panel in Bethlehem

Image by PalFest via Flickr

This is one of the latest stories I have written about author and literary maven Timothy Schaffert of Omaha, whose first three novels (The Hollow Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, and Devils in the Sugar Shop, which was just coming out when I wrote the piece, have all received high praise from reviewers.  He has a fourth novel, The Coffins of Little Hope, due out next spring, and I expect it will only add to his reputation as a first-rate talent.  His work is very funny and very insightful, and the literary festival he runs, the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, is a superb concentration on the written word. The 2010 event is September 10-11 and as usual features a strong lineup of guest authors and artists from all over America and representing many different kinds of literary work.  Schaffert also runs a summer writing workshop at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that also attracts top talent. He is at the forefront of a dynamic literary scene in Nebraska, a state that has produced an impressive list of literary icons (Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Wright Morris, John Neihardt, Loren Eiseley, Tillie Olsen, Ron Hansen, Richard Dooling, Kurt Andersen).  He’s a sweet person, too.  I look forward to attending the Omaha Lit Fest (a link for it is on this site) and to reading his new novel, and especially to seeing and talking to him again.

The story below originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  You’ll find more of my Schaffert and Omaha Lit Fest stories on this site, with more to come.

Timothy Schaffert Gets Down and Dirty with his New Novel ‘Devils in the Sugar Shop

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

An interview at the Papillion home he shares with his longtime partner found 38-year-old Omhaha author Timothy Schaffert in his usual no-fuss mode — bare feet, jeans, T-shirt, stubbled face, his two dogs panting for affection. Curled up on a sofa in the untidy, tiled, windowed sun room, his voice rose and fell with catty gossip and sober reflection, punctuated by a rat-a-tat-tat laugh. He’s one part John Waters and one part John Sayles, a duality expressed in his tabloid-literary roots.

Schaffert is hot-as-a-pistol these days. His much buzzed about new novel, Devils in the Sugar Shop (Unbridled Books), officially debuts in May. After the rural American Gothic goings-on of his first two books, Devils wryly explores an urban landscape of morally bankrupt subcultures. That the setting is Omaha makes it all the more delicious.

As the author of a third acclaimed novel in five years, the Omahan is a rising literary star. As founder/director of the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, he’s a tastemaker. As a creative writing, composition and literature teacher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he’s an academic wheel. Much in demand, he’s asked to do readings/residencies around the country. Closer to home, he’s been invited to conduct workshops at the Nebraska Summer Writer’s Conference.

On a lazy Saturday morning he discussed various aspects of his rich writing life.

Before the novels he made waves on the local alternative journalism scene, first with The Reader, then Pulp. His assured literary style, imbued with sharp wit and imaginative whimsy and full of exacting details, unexpected digressions and eclectic references, set him apart. Schaffert still freelances — witness a current piece in Poets and Writers — but his attention is now firmly on fiction writing.

Besides novels, he writes short stories. He adapted one story, The Young Widow of Barcelona, for a Blue Barn Witching Hour-Omaha Lit Fest collaboration, Short Fictions and Maledictions, that melds literature and theater. Schaffert helped workshop the script before giving it over to the WH troupe, whose work he finds “invigorating.” The show runs April 28 through May 12 at the Blue Barn.

His first two books, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters (2002) and The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (2005), brought him much recognition. Devils is doing the same. Often noted is the splendor he finds in his characters’ imperfections. Ordinary people sorting through the chaos of their dysfunctional, interconnected lives. Dreams run up hard against reality. Desires conflict. Relationships strain. In true American Gothic tradition, Twisted humor and heightened language create a raw poetry. Never has neurosis seemed such an emblem of Americana.

Sisters is being reissued next fall by Unbridled Books. Daughters was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick in 2006. Now a candidate for the Omaha Public Library’s Omaha Reads citywide book club, Daughters is also being adapted as a screenplay by Joseph Krings, a music video/short filmmaker from Nebraska.

Devils already boasts strong advance press courtesy of comments like these from Publishers Weekly: “…consistently surprising and vibrant…Schaffert walks an uneasy line between the amusingly sexy and the scabrous.”

As Schaffert says of the book on his web site, “I’d say it has undertones of Woody Allen, overtones of old-school soap opera, duotones of Pedro Almodovar, halftones of Robert Altman, and dulcet tones of Mrs. Dalloway.”

He considers Devils “a modernist novel” in keeping with his “sense of the world” as “funny and absurd.” It’s the antithesis of the kind of “formulaic or prescriptive” approach he abhors. “What will cause me to put a book down is if it’s just too insufferably clear-eyed and its characters too level-headed,” he said. “I don’t want to use the words sterility or banality, but…

“I think sometimes our sense of what is typically called realism in fiction is not real at all,” he said. “It’s a construct. When we actually look at our lives and the lives of people we know, there’s all kinds of strangeness. It’s definitely messier than some of the contemporary fiction you see now. And I think part of that is because contemporary fiction tries to avoid melodrama and soap opera. It’s all about understatement, whereas mine is overstatement — more clawing our way through this existence until the day we die.”

Devils’ seven point-of-view characters propel us through a farcical, fun house tour of Omaha in Heat. Via a cast of artists, dilettantes, slackers, Old Market types and suburbanites we careen from Sugar Shop, Inc. sex-toy parties to erotica writing workshops to provocative art works to swinger parties to illicit trysts to homophobic rants to a stalker’s threats to a “reformed” dwarf’s advances to some drag queens’ credos. The effect of all this acting out is not titillation but illumination.

“We have these deep psychological stews and yet we all appear we’re salt-of-the-earth,” Schaffert said. “We’re all convinced we’re doing the right thing all the time. We’re representing ourselves exactly the way we should represent ourselves, meanwhile we’re just flailing.”

He hones in on human desperation, setting in relief the conflicts that rage within and that separate us from others, whether it is, as he says, our “fear of getting hurt or being violated in some sense or having different expectations from other people. That’s the stuff that fascinates me…trying to puzzle all that out.”

For the naughty bits he drew on a sex-toy party he attended and on interviews he did with swinger couples for a Reader article. The thought of soccer moms and dads getting silly over vibrators and lubes is something Schaffert finds irresistible. “It’s so hilarious that it’s become so non-sordid. It is almost like having a Tupperware party.” In his research on swingers, he said, “what surprised me was how many couples are part of this subculture. The people I talked to were pretty frank about why they’re involved with it and very little of it had to do with sex.”

His book touches on the schizoid place sex holds in America. “It’s blatant and ubiquitous and yet we want to pretend we’re all virgins and that the multi-billion dollar porn industry doesn’t have anything to do with us,” he said.

Other taboos are dealt with, too. The overtly gay Lee sleeps with both his girlfriend and boyfriend, a reflection, Schaffert said, of how young people “see sexuality as more fluid and flexible” than past generations. “Who they sleep with today is not going to effect who they sleep with tomorrow, which is an interesting thing to witness. And it makes sense. It’s cool to see young people expressing themselves in this Puritanical society in a way that doesn’t fit explicitly with the social structure. It’s certainly a more imaginative way of pursuing your relationships and your self-identity.” That doesn’t mean people still don’t get hurt, he added.

Lee’s homosexuality distresses the women in his life. “That was an interesting thing to explore,” Schaffert said. “These women are so invested in his heterosexuality that his being gay ends up being kind of life altering for a couple characters.”
Sex may drive the story, but the actual act is never depicted. “As I was working my way towards this,” he said, “I was like, Well, what do I portray about this? Do I have to write sex scenes? I didn’t really want to because that’s been so overdone that it’s almost impossible to do it in any way that’s not obnoxious. I modeled my approach after Edward Gorey’s in his great novel The Curious Sofa, where everything takes place behind a screen or a sofa, so you see a leg or arm or something.”

Like any good writer, Schaffert doesn’t make moral judgments about his characters. He said as he exposes flaws he takes pains to not let his humor turn a cruelty at his characters’ expense. Even though some readers may interpret it that way, he doesn’t intend to make fun of the predicaments that befall his dear misfits. He can’t afford to, as he gets too close to them during the creative process. He said, “When I’m writing I’m inhabiting these characters’ lives like an actor getting into character, figuring out exactly what they would say and how they would react to certain situations based on what I know to be true about the world — that it’s funny and absurd.”

As Devils’ assundry subplots unfold, there’s the added fun of identifying real-life Omaha figures and places dressed up in fictional clothes. In the book the work of a black female painter named Viv, whose edgy art, Schaffert writes, “tends to make people nervous,” is a barely disguised reference to the effect Omaha artist Wanda Ewing’s racially and sexually-charged work evokes. Ewing is a friend of Schaffert’s, who borrowed some of her work for inspiration. The book store Mermaids Singing, Used & Rare run by twins Peach and Plum is clearly the Old Market fixture Jackson Street Booksellers, which he adores.

His swingers expose may end up in a new project he’s developing that he said charts, “in a kind of fictionalized memoir,” the vagaries “of working as an editor for an alternative news weekly in a conservative town.” He was with The Reader, first as a contributing writer, then as managing editor and then editor-in-chief, from 1999 through 2002. He left over creative differences and soon thereafter headed up Pulp, the short-lived but lively salon mag. For part of his Reader tenure the paper was owned by the late Alan Baer, an eccentric millionaire who turned a blind eye to certain irregularities. Beyond a memoir, what makes this a departure for Schaffert is that it’s designed as a comic book, one he’ll both write and illustrate. He’s only taken notes thus far, but he’s eager to explore the form.

“I grew up loving the Dick Tracy comic strip and Fantastic Four and Archie comics. My entree into writing was comic books,” he said.

He’s become “more and more interested” in the graphic novel, citing the work of Chris Ware, Alison Bechdal, Sophie Crumb and Ivan Brunetti. He said his project “might end up being a series of mini-comics that I eventually collect into a book.”

 

 

He’s also taking notes for a new novel that, he said, is “picking up on some of the themes I’ve explored before: relationships between parents and their children; faith and religion; strained marriage.” Another short story or two and he’ll have enough for a collection.

With so much breaking his way, Schaffert could be excused for playing the big shot, but he doesn’t. Like one of his bemused characters, he looks with incredulity at all the fuss being made about him. He undercuts the floss by self-deprecatingly dishing on himself and his success. He calls the Lit Fest an act of “arrogant self-promotion.” Imagine the gall it takes, he went on, “to create a literary festival to bring more attention to myself.” In truth the fest focuses on all aspects of the written word, drawing much attention to the strong literary scene here and to dozens of writers not named Timothy Schaffert.

Any mention of the warm embrace given his work is quickly deflected.

“It’s been mainly through my publisher and my editor. I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. As Unbridled only publishes a few books a year, Schaffert reaps the benefits of a pampered author with name-above-the-title pull. “The press I work with approaches their works with the same vigorous attitude commercial presses do for their best selling authors, and in that sense when you only publish eight or ten books a year, a lot of attention gets shoved my way. They’re kind of a boutique press, but they’ve been in the business for years and years and so they know their way around in the publishing industry.”

Co-publishers Fred Ramey and Greg Michalson formed Unbridled in 2003 after stints at MacMurray & Beck and BlueHen Books, then a literary imprint of Putnam Press. BlueHen published Schaffert’s first novel. From the start Unbridled has gained a rep for publishing new talent. For public relations and tax purposes, the press is based in Denver, Col., but it is in reality a virtual press whose administrative and creative team live and work in disparate spots.

Schaffert appreciates the extra mile Unbridled goes, including the late spring-early summer Devils book tour they’ve scheduled, which will find him going to all the usual places in the Midwest, but also New York, Chicago and Atlanta.

“It’s such a luxury to have a publisher get behind the book in that way,” he said.

Much like the home he’s found at Unbridled, Schaffert enjoys the comfort of working within the very writing community he sprang from at UNL.

He’s discovered he teaches as he was taught. “That’s exactly my approach,” he said. “My philosophy about writing in general  was really developed or helped along by professors I had in college — Gerry Shapiro and Judy Slater. My professors were very sensitive to this idea of there not being a right way or a wrong way to write fiction. Instead, you approach it on a story-by-story basis and examine what’s working within a particular piece to help it work better.

“It’s interesting to be going back to the university where I studied, you know. Every day I go to work it feels like a nostalgia trip a little bit. It feels like such a rare experience to be able to be mentored as a teacher by the same people who mentored me a writer. I mean, I talk to Gerry and Judy a lot about teaching, about students, about experiences in the classroom.”

Teaching was long in the back of his mind, but he couldn’t try it until he was ready. “You have to develop a body of work before you can be taken seriously as a teacher,” he said. Now that he’s doing it, he said, “I love it. You have a fair amount of freedom there in how you want to interpret the class, so I appreciate that.”

Having to articulate craft is instructive for a writer like himself. It’s not so different than “when I was a student in that studio workshop environment where you’re expected to read other students’ work and comment on it,” he said. “Obviously when it’s your work that’s up you benefit from the constructive criticism. But you also benefit from examining…and developing an aesthetic, really, of certain critical criteria that you discover as you’re talking about other people’s work.”

He said appraising his own work is something “I feel more adept at than I have in the past.” It’s vital, he said, “in order to seek out bad habits that I may have practiced in previous work and to see it happening now or to recognize it.” Besides the analytical discipline that informs his work, he said journalism makes him more discerning. “I think it comes from writing about dining and style, doing book and movie reviews, writing features about subjects you know nothing about. You develop insights into writing along those kinds of lines.”

All this work-for-hire’s left him undamaged. He said, “I have mostly made my career as a writer at some level and it seems like that can be potentially distracting when you’re trying to write fiction but you’re adapting another style. I think the fear is you could ruin yourself by writing work you don’t really care about, especially if you have to write in a particular kind of way that’s perhaps not good writing. I think it’s good for a writer to compartmentalize as much as possible. It’s a matter of figuring out those ways to slip back into the creative process.”

He’s found a way to protect himself from cross-contamination.

“Part of that is just the space I write in,” he said. “I have a home office where I do ‘paying work’ at a desk at a computer and I tend to write fiction in here,” he said, meaning the sun room. “I write on a laptop, with music going, pacing a lot.” The music he plays to induce a fugue-like state “depends on what I’m writing,” he said. “For Devils, I found myself listening to a lot of old pop and jazz standards. Typically, Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue’ is on constant rotation no matter what I’m writing. I also tend to listen to Rickie Lee Jones, Erik Satie and Joe Henry.

He doesn’t miss “the 2AMers” that came with being a news weekly editor, when he’d awaken in the middle of the night, panic-stricken over the status of that week’s cover story. The strain of putting out a paper with “no staff writers” and “no budget” grew tiresome. The saving grace, he said, was taking “a creative approach” to the work and always “wanting the story to be exactly what it needed to be. Editing is a creative act all by itself.”

Until his summer book tour he’s doing local readings and commuting to Lincoln for classes. Those I-80 hops allow ideas to seep in. Once, while en route to Hastings, the characters for The Young Widow of Barcelona came to him as a Neko Case CD played. “I’m always tossing around things,” he said. “I have to spend a fair amount of time to have an idea gestate before I can write anything down.”

Coloring History, A Long, Hard Road for UNO Black Studies

August 25, 2010 3 comments

Campus Unrest

Image by jen-the-librarian via Flickr

If you’re surprised that Omaha, Neb. boasts a sizable African-American community with a rich legacy of achievement, then you will no doubt be surprised to learn the University of Nebraska at Omaha formed one of the nation’s first Black Studies departments.  The UNO Department of Black Studies has operated continuously for more than 40 years. The following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) charts the long, hard path that led to the department‘s founding and that’s provided many twists and turns on the road to institutional acceptance and stability.  At the time I wrote this piece and that it appeared in print, the UNO Department of Black Studies was in an uneasy transition period. Since then, things have stabilized under new leadership at the university and within the department.

Coloring History, A Long, Hard Road for UNO Black Studies

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

When 54 black students staged a sit-in on Monday, Nov. 10, 1969 at the office of University of Nebraska at Omaha’s then-president Kirk Naylor, they meant their actions to spur change at a school where blacks had little voice. Change came with the start of the UNO department of black studies in 1971-72. A 35th anniversary celebration in April 2007 featured a dramatic re-enactment of the ’69 events that set the eventual development of UNO’s black studies department in motion.

Led by Black Liberators for Action on Campus (BLAC), the protesters occupied Naylor’s administration building suite when he refused to act on their demands. The group focused on black identity, pride and awareness. When they were escorted out by police, the demonstrators showed their defiant solidarity by raising their fists overhead and singing “We Shall Overcome,” which was then echoed by white and black student sympathizers alike.

The group’s demands included a black studies program. UNO, like many universities at the time, offered only one black history course. Amid the free speech and antiwar protests on campuses were calls for equal rights and inclusion for blacks.

 

 

 

 

Ron Estes, who was one of the sit-in participants in 1969, said, “We knew of the marches and sit-ins where people stood up for their rights, and we decided to make the same stand.” Joining Estes on that Monday almost 40 years ago was Michael Maroney who agreed, “We finally woke up and realized there was something wrong with this university and if we didn’t take action it wasn’t going to change.”

Well-known Omaha photojournalist Rudy Smith, who was then a student senator said, “We approached it from different perspectives, but the black students at the time were unified on a goal. We knew what the struggle was like, and we were prepared to struggle.”

The same unrest that was disrupting schools on the coasts, including clashes between students and authorities, never turned violent at UNO. The sit-in, and a march three days earlier, unfolded peacefully. Even the arrests went smoothly. Also proceeding without incident was a 1967 “teach-in”; Ernie Chambers, who was not yet a state senator but who was becoming a prominent leader in the community, and a group of students demonstrated by trying to teach the importance of black history to the administration, specifically the head of the history department.

The sit-in’s apparent failure turned victory when the jailed students were dubbed “the Omaha 54” and the community rallied to their cause. Media coverage put the issues addressed by their demands in the news. Black community leaders like Chambers, Charles Washington, Rodney Wead and Bertha Calloway continued to put pressure on the administration to act. Officials at the school, which had recently joined the University of Nebraska system, felt compelled to consider adding a formal black studies component. From UNO’s point-of-view, a black studies program only made sense in an urban community with tens of thousands African-Americans.

 

 

Rudy Smith

 

 

Within weeks of the sit-in and throughout the next couple of years, student-faculty committees were convened, studies were conducted, and proposals and resolutions were advanced. Despite resistance from entrenched old white quarters, support was widespread on campus in 1969-70. Once a consensus was reached, discussion centered on whether to form a program or a department.

The student-faculty senates came out in favor of it, as did the College of Arts and Sciences Dean Vic Blackwell, a key sympathizer. Even Naylor; he actually initiated the Black Studies Action Committee chaired by political science professor Orville Menard that approved creating the department. Much community input went into the deliberations. The University of Nebraska board of regents sealed the deal.

No one is sure of the impact that the Omaha 54 made, but they did spur change. UNO soon got new leadership at the top, a black studies department and more minority faculty. Its athletic teams dropped the “Indians” mascot/name. A women’s studies program, multicultural office and strategic diversity mission also came to pass.

“I think we helped the university change,” Maroney said. “I think we gave it that impetus to move this agenda forward.”

Before 1971, federally funded schools were not requireed to report ethnicity enrollment numbers. In 1972, 595 students, or about 4.7 percent of UNO’s 12,762 total students, were black. In 2006, 758, or about 5.2 percent of the school’s 14,693 total students were black.

Omaha 54 member and current UNO associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Supervision Karen Hayes said, “We were the pebble that went in the pond, and the ripples continued through the years for hopefully positive growth.”

During that formative process, the husband-wife team of Melvin and Margaret Wade were recruited to UNO in 1970 from the University of California at Santa Barbara’s black studies department. Wade came as acting director of what was still only an “on-paper black studies program.” His role was to help UNO gauge where interest and support lay and formulate a plan for what a department should look like. He said he and Margaret, now his ex-wife, did some 200 interviews with faculty, staff and students.

Speaking by phone from Rhode Island, Wade said the administration favored a program over a department, but advocacy fact-finding efforts turned the tide. That debate resurfaced in the 1980s in the wake of proposed budget cuts targeting black studies. In en era of tightened higher education budgets, according to then-department chair Julien Lafontant and retiring department associate professor Daniel Boamah-Wiafe, black studies seemed always singled out for cutbacks.

“Every year, the same problem,” Lafontant said. That’s when Lafontant did the unthinkable — he proposed his own department be downgraded to a program . Called a Judas and worse, he defended his position, saying a program would be insulated from future cuts whereas a department would remain exposed and, thus, vulnerable. A native of Haiti, Lafontant found himself in a losing battle with the politics of ethnicity that dictate “a black foreigner” cannot have the same appreciation of the black experience here as an African-American who is born in the United States.

Turmoil was not new to the department. Its first two leaders, Melvin Wade and Milton White, had brief tenures ending in disputes with administrators.

In times of crisis, the black community’s had the department’s back. Ex-Omahan A. B. “Buddy” Hogan, who rallied grassroots support in the ’80s, said from his home in California that rescues would be unnecessary if UNO had more than “paternalistic tolerance” of black studies.

“I don’t think the university ever really embraced the black studies department as a viable part,” Maroney said. “It was more a nuisance to them. But when they tried to get rid of it, the black community rose up and so it was just easier to keep it. I don’t think it’s ever had the kind of funding it really needs to be all it could be.”

UNO black studies Interim Chair Richard Breaux said given the historically tenuous hold of the department, perhaps it’s time to consider a School of Ethnic Studies at the university that includes black studies, Latino studies, etc.

Still Fighting

In recent interviews with persons close to the department, past and present, The Reader found: general distrust of the university’s commitment to black studies, despite administration proclamations that the school is fully invested in it; the perception that black studies is no more secure now than at its start; and the belief that its growth is hampered by being in a constant mode of survival.

After 35 years, the department should be, in the words of Boamah-Wiafe, “much stronger, much more consolidated than it is now.”

Years of constant struggle is debilitating. Lafontant, who still teaches a black studies course, said, “Being in a constant struggle to survive can eliminate so many things. You don’t have time to sit down and see what you need to do. Even now it’s the same thing. It’s still fighting. They have to put a stop to that and find a way to help the black studies department to not be so on guard all the time.”

Is there cause to celebrate a department that’s survived more than thrived?

“I think the fact it has endured for 35 years is itself a triumph of the teachers, the students, certainly the black community and to a certain extent elements of the university,” former UNO black studies Chair Robert Chrisman said by phone from Oakland, Calif. However he questions UNO’s commitment to black studies in an era when the school’s historic urban mission seems more suburban-focused, looking to populations and communities west of Omaha, and less focused on the urban community and its needs closer to home. It wasn’t until 1990 that UNO made black studies a core education requirement. College of Arts and Sciences Dean Shelton Hendricks has reiterated UNO’s commitment to black studies, but to critics it sounds like lip service.

Chrisman’s call for black studies in his prestigious Black Scholar journal in the late ’60s inspired UNO student activists, such as Rudy Smith, to mobilize for it. Smith said the department’s mere presence is “a living symbol of progress and hope.”

For Chrisman the endurance of black studies is tempered by “the fact the United States is governed by two major ideological forces. One is corporate capitalism and the other is racism, and that’s run through all of the nation’s institutions … . Now we tend to think colleges and universities are somehow exempt from these two forces, but they’re not … Colleges and universities are a manifestation of racism and corporatism and in some cases they’re training grounds for it.”

 

 

Robert Chrisman

 

 

He said the uncomfortable truth is that the “primary mission of black studies is to rectify the dominant corporate and racist values of the society in the university itself. You see a contradiction don’t you? And I think that’s one of the reasons why the resistance is so reflexive and so deeply ingrained.”

Smith said the movement for the discipline played out during “a time frame when if blacks were going to achieve anything they had to take the initiative and force the issue. Black studies is an outgrowth of the civil rights movement.”

Along these lines, Chrisman said, small college departments centered around western European thought, such as the classics, “are protected and maintained” in contrast with black studies. He said one must never forget black studies programs/departments arose out of agitation. “Almost all of them were instituted by one form of coercion or another. There was the strike at San Francisco State, the UNO demonstration, the siege at Cornell University, on and on. In the first four years of the black studies movement, something like 200 student strikes or incidents occurred on campuses, so the black studies movement was not welcomed with open arms … . It came in, in most instances, against resistance.”

In this light, Hogan said, “there’s a natural human tendency to oppose things imposed upon you. It’s understandable there’s been this opposition, but at some point you would have thought there would have been enough intellectual enlightenment for the administration to figure out this is a positive resource for this university, for this community and it should be supported.”

Organizing Studies

The program versus department argument is important given the racial-social-political dynamic from which black studies sprang. Boamah-Wiafe said opponents look upon the discipline “as something that doesn’t belong to academia.” Thus any attempt to restrict or reduce black studies is an ugly reminder of the onerous second-class status blacks have historically endured in America.

As Wade explained, “A program really means you have a kind of second-class status, and a department means you have the prerogative to propose the hire of faculty who are experts in black studies. In a department, theoretically, you have the power to award tenure. With a program, you generally have to have faculty housed in other departments, so faculty’s principal allegiances would be to those departments. So if you have a program, you are in many respects a step-child — always in subservience to those departments … ”

Then there’s the prestige that attends a department. That’s why any hint of messing with the department, whose 2006/2007 budget totaled $389,730, smacks some as racism and draws the ire of community watchdogs. When in 1984 Lafontant and then-UNO Chancellor Del Weber pushed the program option, Breaux said, “There was tremendous outcry from people like Charlie Washington [the late Omaha activist] and Buddy Hogan [who headed the local NAACP chapter]. They really came to bat for the department of black studies. A lot of people, like Michael Maroney — who were part of that Omaha 54 group that got arrested — said, ‘Now wait a minute, we didn’t do this for nothing.’” The issue went all the way to the board of regents, who by one vote preserved the department.

 

Michael Maroney

 

 

As recently as 2002, then-NAACP local chapter president Rev. Everett Reynolds sensed the university was retreating from its stated commitment to black studies. He took his concerns to then-chancellor Nancy Belck. In a joint press conference, she proclaimed UNO’s support for the department and he expressed satisfaction with her guarantees to keep it on solid footing. She promised UNO would maintain five full-time faculty members in black studies. Breaux said only three of those lines are filled. A fourth is filled by a special faculty development person. Breaux said black studies has fewer full-time faculty today than 30 years ago.

“So you ask me about progress and my answer is … not much. We’re talking 30 years, and there’s not really been an increase in faculty or faculty lines,” Breaux said.

Hendricks said he’s working on filling all five full-time faculty lines.

Sources say the department’s chronically small enrollment and few majors contribute to difficulty hiring/retaining faculty in a highly competitive marketplace and to the close scrutiny the department receives whenever talk of cutting funds surfaces.

Wade said black studies at UNO is hardly alone in its plight. He said the move to reduce the status of black studies on other campuses has led to cuts. “It has happened in enough cases to be noted,” Wade said. “I was affiliated with the black studies program at Vassar College, and that’s one whose status has been diminished over the years … . In other words, the struggle for black studies is being waged as we speak. It’s still not on the secure foundations it should be in the United States.”

Some observers say black studies must navigate a corporate-modeled university culture predisposed to oppose it. “That means at every level there’s always bargaining, conniving, chiseling, pressuring to get your goals. Every year the money is deposited in a pot to colleges, and it’s at the dean’s discretion … where and how the money’s distributed,” Chrisman said. Robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul machinations are endemic to academia, and critics will tell you black studies is on the short end of funding shell games that take from it to give to other units.

Chrisman feels an over-reliance on part-time, adjunct faculty impedes developing “a core to your department.” At UNO he questions why the College of Arts and Sciences has not devoted resources to secure more full-time faculty as a way to solidify and advance the program. It’s this kind of ad hoc approach that makes him feel “the administration really doesn’t quite respect the black experience totally.” He said it strikes him as a type of “getting-it-as-cheap-as-possible” shortcut. Hendricks said he believes the ratio of part-time to full-time faculty in the department is comparable to that in other departments in UNO’s College of Arts and Sciences. He also said part-time, adjunct faculty drawn from the community help fulfill the strong black studies mission to be anchored there.

Breaux’s successor as Interim UNO black studies chair, Peggy Jones, is a tenured track associate professor. Her specialty is not black studies but fine arts.

Boamah-Wiafe feels with the departures of Breaux and himself the department “will be the weakest, in terms of faculty” it has been in his 30 years there.

The Struggle Continues

Critics say UNO’s black studies can be a strong academic unit with the right support. The night of the Omaha 54 reenactment Michael Maroney, president/CEO of the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, made a plea for “greater collaboration and communication” between Omaha’s black community and the black studies department. “It’s a two-way street,” he said. Omaha photojournalist Rudy Smith said the incoming chair must work “proactively” with the community.

Chrisman, too, sees a need for partnering. He noted while the black community may lack large corporate players, “you can have an organized community board which helps make the same kind of influence. With that board, the black studies chair and teachers can work to really project plans and curriculum and articulate the needs of black people in that community. It’s one thing for a single teacher or a chair to pound on the dean’s door and say, ‘I need this,’ but if an entire community says to the chancellor, ‘This is what we perceive we need as a people,’ I think you have more pressure.

“That would be an important thing to institute as one of the continuing missions of black studies is direct community service because there’s so much need in the community. And I think black studies chairs can take the initiative on that.”

He said recent media reports about the extreme poverty levels among Omaha’s African-American populace “should have been a black studies project.”

Breaux said little if any serious scholarship has come out of the department on the state of black Omaha, not even on the city’s much-debated school-funding issue. Maroney sees the department as a source of “tremendous intellectual capital” the community can draw on. Smith said, “I’m not disappointed with the track record because they are still in existence. There’s still opportunity, there’s still hope to grow and to expand, to have an impact. It just needs more community and campus support.”

What happens with UNO black studies is an open question considering its highly charged past and the widely held perception the university merely tolerates it. That wary situation is likely to continue until the department, the community and the university truly communicate.

“The difference between potential and reality is sometimes a wide chasm,” Hogan said. “The University of Nebraska system is seemingly oblivious to the opportunities and potential for the black studies department at UNO. They don’t seem to have a clue. They’ve got this little jewel there and rather than polish it and mount it and promote it, they seem to want to return it to the state of coal. I don’t get it.” ,

Part II: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking

August 2, 2010 2 comments

Prominent figures of the African-American Civi...

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Recently, two related cover stories of mine were published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) under the main headline, “Power Players.”  The subject is the African-American Empowerment Network in Omaha.  I submitted the stories at a combined 9,250 words, and they ended up in print at about 4,400 words.  To put it mildly, that’s an unusually large amount of material to be excised. I was given no opportunity to participate in the editing process.  Because I don’t read my published work, I can’t offer an opinion on the stories as they appeared in print, I can only surmise that much depth and context and detail that went into the stories as I wrote them got lost in translation after such massive cuts.  As promised, I am now posting on this blog the articles as I prepared them. Part II follows immediately below.  Part I is already on the site .  I am making the Empowerment Network leadership and others in the community aware of what happened, as I spent a lot of time developing these stories, and I want the satisfaction of knowing that these pieces will at least now have a chance of being seen in the form in which they should have been published originally.  I may also contact the local African-American newspaper, the Omaha Star, about printing my versions.

If you care to share any comments about the different versions, I would be interested in any such feedback.  In the past, when something egregious like this happened with my work, I had little recourse.  The online world offers me a way to get my work out there the way it was meant to be seen.

Part II: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking

©by Leo Adam Biga

All along, African-American Empowerment Network leaders have known that in order to transform north Omaha, the nonprofit must partner.

A measure of just how wide the Network’s cast its reach since forming three-and-a-half years ago is its established ties with: philanthropists, CEOs, social service agency executive directors, pastors, neighborhood association leaders, current or ex-gang members, school administrators, law enforcement officials, city planning professionals, local, county and state elected officials.

From the start, the Network’s taken a systematic approach to build community-wide consensus around sustainable solutions. North Omaha Contractors Alliance president Preston Love Jr. began as a critic but now champions the Network’s methodical style in gaining broad-based input and support:

“My compliment to them is even bigger than most because they stayed by their guns. I highly commend them because they did it the right way in spite of people like myself. They’ve gained my respect for their process because they have done it the hard way. They developed a process which has involved every level, from leadership on down to grassroots, for people to participate. That is the key to me.

“What looks like the easy road now was the hard road. It’s harder to work a game plan than it is to just go ahead and shoot from the hip. They had some real strategic things they felt they needed to do before they sought press or went public. All of that made sense but for those of us who are activists there’s stress in that because we wanted things to happen right away. As this thing has evolved there has been tremendous credibility built within and outside the organization and the results are now beginning to show themselves.”

For Empowerment Network facilitator Willie Barney, it’s all about making connections.

“When we started there were not enough forums and venues for people to come together and share ideas and solutions in an an environment where you felt comfortable no matter who you were,” he said. “If we take it down to our core, we’re about connecting people, connecting organizations, then identifying where the strengths are and where the gaps are, and then building on the strengths and filling in the gaps.

“It’s encouraging we have so many more partnerships now, almost to the point where it’s overwhelming. We get calls, e-mails, people stop in quite often just saying they want to help, they want to be a part of something. We’ve launched a lot of activities, helped launch organizations, started initiatives. Now we’re to a point where we’re working with residents at planning meetings, trying to get as many people as we can involved to tell us what is their vision for the targeted areas — what does it look like in north Omaha, what does it look like for African-Americans in the city, what would they like to see. ”

He refers to North Omaha Village Zone meetings at North High that invite community members to weigh in on developing plans for the: 24th and Lake, 16th and Cuming, 30th and Parker/Lake and Adams Park, Malcolm X and Miami Heights neighborhoods. At the May 27 meeting some 100 residents turned out to be heard.

A homeowner who lives in the Adams Park area said she’s interested in how development will affect her home’s resale value and improve quality of life.

“I’m very concerned about my investment, so anything that’s going on we want to know because it will eventually impact us,” said Thalia McElroy, who was there with her husband Greg. “It’s totally positive,” she said of the Network’s community-building focus. “They’re trying to make an effort to level the playing field. You know, when your community doesn’t even have a movie theater, that’s ridiculous. I’m hoping the redevelopment will get more more diversity as far as recreation activities and shopping.”

Greg McElroy said he appreciates how the development process is allowing residents to have a say in helping shape plans at the front end rather than the back end.

Wallace Stokes, who just moved here from Waterloo, Iowa with his small construction business, likes what’s he’s seen and heard thus far. “They’re trying to get the best ideas to redevelop north Omaha. They’re trying to empower the neighborhood and create jobs and also make it better for everybody else. All of that’s what I believe in,” said Stokes.

Bankers Trust vice president Kraig Williams has lived and worked all over America. He said he’s impressed with how the Network coalesces community participation:

“I can honestly say I’ve never seen this happen before. I think there is a sincere invitation for people to experience this and to be a part of it, and the invitation is actually coming from the Empowerment Network. This appears to be something that’s got the appropriate amount of focus. City government’s there, a lot of the commercial companies are involved as well.”

While confident the Network “will continue to push forward for change,” Williams said “the real key” to sustainability “is going to be the other parties at the table” and how the economy affects their budgets and bottom lines.

Gannie Clark adds a cautionary note by saying. “The plight we have as black people is bigger than the Empowerment Network. It’s not about any one entity, it’s about people coming together so that the city can move forward, it’s about what is the city going to do to revitalize this part of town, it’s about us as people getting representation.”

“People are passionate about it, they want to see things done,” Barney said. “As this whole thing transitions, more and more individuals in the neighborhoods are getting engaged in what is it going to take to rebuild north Omaha, and that’s really encouraging. I think people need to see their ideas being respected, they want to be a part of what’s going on, they want to be at the table when decisions are made, they want to be active, they don’t want to just go along for the ride.”

Barney’s aware the community’s trust has been hard won. “I think at one point people were kind of like, What is it? Is this going to be a top down deal? I think people who have actually sat down at the table have realized their ideas count as much as anybody else.” He’s aware, too, of perceptions the Network is elitist, composed of middle-aged, highly-educated, high-earning managers, directors, owners, but insists there’s participation by a broad range of ages, education levels and socio-economic groups.

A segment missing from the leadership is age 30-and-unders. That’s why Dennis Anderson and others created the Emerging Leaders Empowerment Network. “We want to be heard at the table as well,” said Anderson, who has his own real estate business. “We have our own ideas and our own solutions we want to bring forward.” He said ideas generated by Emerging Leaders are presented to the larger Network. “Now we are being heard. They have been extremely supportive of us,” he said.

The larger Network revolves around a self-empowerment covenant that challenges people to do their part to improve themselves and their community. There are targeted areas for improvement, each with its own strategy.

So what makes the Network different beyond its covenant calling for African-Americans to harness change through self-empowerment? What do residents and neighborhoods stand to gain and how does the organization interact with them? Who’s holding the Network accountable? Where could this feel-good train get derailed?

These are important questions for a community that’s heard much talk these past 40 years but seen meager action. Stakeholders want to know why this time around should be any different and what mechanisms the Network has in place to ensure it will outlast what were previously mercy missions?

For one, it appears this initiative is an unprecedented collective of black leaders working and speaking as one to address comprehensive change.

“I don’t see any other kind of a way and I don’t see any other time that this has happened,” said Family Housing Advisory Services director Teresa Hunter, co-chair of the Network’s housing development covenant..

“There has not been the kind of movement like this in our community in a very long time. There have been attempts at it, and I have been a part of those attempts to bring community together, but the structure currently in place is a structure that has not been there before,” said Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray, chair of the violence intervention-prevention strategy.

Davis Companies CEO Dick Davis, who heads the economics covenant and a newly formed Economic Strategy Taskforce, said the Network represents a departure from past initiatives programmatically and philosophically in its approach to economic development. “The principles we set up are a market-driven merit-based economic model as opposed to the social justice, social equity models Omaha has been doing.” This new business-like approach he said requires experienced business people like himself out front and behind the scenes to analyze, guide, refer, partner, support.

Proposed development projects up for review before the Taskforce or its eight sub-taskforces, he said, are held to a rigorous set of “expectations and outcomes” to select sustainable initiatives. He said the economics have to be there for a project to work, whether it’s a grocery store, a radio station or anything else.

The goal isn’t just to vet and endorse projects or programs, he said, but to improve the landscape for African-American commerce and progress.

He said Taskforce members, who include elected and appointed public officials, are working to change public policies to “open up more contract, procurement opportunities” for African-Americans. He added that members are also woking with institutions of higher learning to enroll more black students and with lending institutions and venture capitalists to create more accessible lines of credit and capital.

Buttressing the Taskforce’s and the Network’s economic models, said Davis, “are substantial amounts of dollars I’m committing.” He’s living the “do my part” mantra of the Empowerment covenant by, among other things, constructing a new headquarters building for the Davis Cos. in NoDo, investing $10,000 in seed money in each of 10 small black-owned businesses over a decade’s time. He’s on his third one now. His Chambers-Davis Scholarship Program and Foundation for Human Development are some of his other philanthropic efforts.

Davis uses his own generosity as calling card and challenge.

“I go to white folks and black folks and say, OK, here’s how I’m stepping up, tell me how you’re going to step up? How you going to do your part? That doesn’t mean necessarily just by money, it’s by expertise, it’s by commitment, it’s by whatever the case may be. But once you step up I want you to be accountable for it, I don’t want you to say it’s somebody else’s fault.”

Dick Davis

The idea is that as others put up personal stakes, assume vested interests and make commitments, African-Americans gain leverage in the marketplace.

The economic initiatives add up to a new construct for building financial capacity in north Omaha. The empowerment aspect posits blacks having primary input in economic decision-making. Owing to exclusionary practices, Davis said, blacks “have always had more of a secondary input, meaning we could be part of the decision but the authority and the money were outside our input. What we’re saying is, let’s figure out what we can do within our resources. We have less than a handful of folks that are significant business people with a million dollars or more that could be invested. That’s horrible. The good news is we have at least 24 African-Americans that hold 28 positions of authority either as a public appointed or elected official or senior executive…There’s enough (critical) mass there…related to time, influence, authority and money.”

Urban League of Nebraska president and Network education-youth development co-chair Thomas Warren said a primary reason “why this initiative is different than past efforts” is the number of “individuals involved who are in decision-making roles within their respective organizations, agencies and institutions. They have influence over viable programs and ideas generated through the network and our discussions in getting these initiatives implemented.”

For Davis, the promise of the Network is its transformational potential. “If I’m going to dedicate the rest of my life to see if we can develop benefits for African-Americans in Omaha what I want to see is not another project, not another job, not another business. But what I want to see is a cultural change, a value change, a behavioral change of African-Americans’ psyche toward economics.”

He said a Network-sponsored 2009 economic summit brought segments together who normally do not cross paths, much less collaborate: “…at the last summit we did something that never happened in terms of black folks interacting with white folks. We have black leaders heading black banks and we have white leaders heading white banks. When will be able to have a black leader heading that one thing, whatever that thing is, for all the people? What I would like to see for keeping me motivated and inspired is an African-American heading the corporate community just because he’s the most qualified, capable, competent person.”

He will at least keep people talking. “One of my gifts is I can bring a group of people together that in most cases don’t talk to each other. The social justice advocates don’t talk to the pro business advocates, Republicans don’t talk to Democrats, white folks don’t talk to black folks, and we don’t get anything done.” If the Network’s done nothing else, he said, it’s brought diverse people together. “It’s called shared responsibility, shared accountability — that’s what makes it feel different.”

Thomas Warren

Warren said, “Everyone realizes that in order to build capacity with limited resources you have to collaborate. There are very strong-willed individuals who speak candidly with one another.” Despite disagreements, in the end I believe there’s true consensus in terms of the strategy and the approach we take. This is not an ivory tower operation, this is a front line grassroots mobilization. The individuals involved are reputable, they’re credible, they have the highest level of integrity and they recognize the need for things to change. It’s a mindset more-so than anything else that in my opinion has led to this initiative being so far successful.”

Apostle Vanessa Ward, whose gang intervention, community gardening and block party activities through her Afresh Anointing Church mesh with the Network, said, “This is the first time I’ve seen Omaha reach a place with this kind of solidarity.”

It may also be the most cohesive united front Black Omaha’s presented in a long time.

“A strength of the Network is that disagreements unfold in private, behind closed doors, not for public display,” said Rev. Jeremiah McGhee, co-chair of the faith covenant. “We’re only human, we’re going to disagree but we work hard at not airing our differences in public. If it happens it’s a fluke. The Network only speaks after a consensus is reached, so that it’s message is delivered with one voice.”

He said where past coalitions have been reactive to violent crime or allegations of police brutality, the Network takes a more considered, strategic approach to a multitude of persistent issues. Where the confrontational outcry of passionate citizens tends to “fizzle out,” he said the Network’s moderate, conciliatory approach is built for “the long haul. We’re not just a flash in the pan. We’re being very deliberate about this.”

That echoes the observations of Warren, who said, “We’ve been very methodical and incremental in terms of how these issues are identified and how strategies are developed to address these issues. It’s a very comprehensive strategy. I think we have a level of commitment from individuals who will stay the course.”

McGhee noted that past overarching responses like the Network’s have tended to be church-led and therefore limited by the skill sets of its pastors. “The difference is we’ve got our best and brightest, the experts, the professionals,” leading the Network, he said.

Salem Baptist Church Pastor Selwyn Bachus, the faith covenant co-chair, said, “I would say one of the identifiable, unique elements of the Empowerment Network is it brings to the forefront leaders who have expertise, exposure and experience in our covenants…and those leaders are willing to work together. It’s unique. I’ve lived in four different cities for fairly significant periods of time and have never seen the community unified in such a way. It’s a collaborative effort that allows us to do what we do even more effectively.”

As McGhee said, “We’ve got a lot of people who’ve come together. It’s a large group that’s pretty deep in its reach.”

Innovations By Design president and chief consultant Tawanna Black, the advocacy-social justice co-chair, said the organization’s careful to be inclusive, That includes collaborating with agencies who’ve been there doing the work. The overriding message, she said, “Is that we’re not here to replace you, we’re here to help you, we’re here to build your capacity, we’re here to inform the community about what you do so that you’re able to truly serve those you exist to serve. When you do that then there’s no need to have a tug of war.”

Warren said “the key is to connect services to clients” and a big part of what the Network does is communicating what services are available and linking people to them.

Then there’s what Warren and others describe as a new African-American leadership class that’s emerged on the political, financial, community, corporate scene who either lead the Network directly or are positioned to indirectly further its aims. Warren, Black, Davis and Gray are among this influential cadre. Network members say this confluence of new leadership seemed to make the time right for a concerted effort to improve the state of African-American Omaha.

It was a formation, kind of a like a call to the troops to come together,” said Empowerment operations director Vicki Quaites-Ferris, who came from the Mayor’s Office. “Kind of an uprising of new leadership and new voices and younger voices, and that really was something that was near and dear to my heart.”

Adding a certain momentum and basis was a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series that delineated the stark realities for thousands of African-American residents whose impoverished living conditions rank among the most severe in America. Black Omaha has an almost nonexistent entrepreneurial base. With historically little visible or string-pulling presence in political and corporate circles, the community’s languished in a malaise that began more then four decades ago and has only become more engrained.

In 2009 a Pew Partnership for Civic Change assessment both confirmed the morass and recommended remedies that coalesced with Network strategic plans. Taken together, it was an indictment of a shameful status quo and a call to action.

“We don’t want to be known for having one of the highest rates of black poverty, we don’t want to have one of the highest  gaps between black poverty and white affluence, we don’t want to be known as the worst place for STDs, we don’t want to have those things at the same time we’re in the Wall St. journal for having one of the best economic trends in the country,” said Black. “I think all those things put together make it a prime time for this to work and maybe the only time for it to work.”

Pastor Bachus believes “the dose of reality” these failings represent “awakened something in us.” With the context of this new sense of urgency, he said, “many of us have realized we’re at a crisis point, we’re at a crossroads, and if not now, never. There’s extreme possibilities for greatness in our community, but we have to do it now.”

McGhee said there’s a symbiosis between what the Network does and the work black churches do. After all, many church ministries and programs address the same issues as the Network, making churches natural partners for implementing strategies and engaging the community in shared covenant goals. He said the Network’s broad focus and many collaborations can help church projects build capacity but also relieve some of the burden. “We don’t have to be everything to everybody anymore,” he said. At the same time, he said the Network’s a unifying and stimulating force for getting churches to work together on things like safe night outs for youths.

McGhee said it helps that Network leaders Willie Barney and John Ewing are “people of faith” who set their egos aside. “Personality has a a lot to do with building coalitions and acceptance in the community and they’ve got a good reputation, they don’t offend people, they know how to facilitate.”

The Network’s been cautious to put itself in the media spotlight because it prefers a behind-the-scenes role and because it’s sensitive to past disappointments.

“There’s always been a hesitation,” said Willie Barney. “We see so many groups come before the camera and make grand announcements about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it and for whatever reason we don’t see them again, and the community gets really tired of that.”

A skeptical public must be convinced this time is different. “They’ve heard the great ideas before, they’ve heard the talk before, and they see things in the community as a whole remain the same if not worse than what they were before,” said Highlander Neighborhood Association president Kristina Carter. “I’ve talked to neighbors trying to get them involved and I’ve been told to my face, ‘It’s not going to do any good.’ Everybody thinks it’s a great thing but we’ve had great things before and people are waiting to see if this is not just more of the same.”

Getting neighborhoods and residents on board has taken time. At the start, Barney said, “We didn’t do as good of a job as reaching out as we could have.”

Quaites-Ferris said it’s been a challenge getting past the point of people asking, “Are you really here to stay?” Her answer: We’ve been around three years and we’re just beginning, so we are around and we’re going to stay around.”

Barney said, “They’re seeing there’s consistency to it, that we’re not going away.” He also senses people are impatient to see visible progress.

Carter speaks for many when she says, “As a resident I should be able to see with my eyes physical change taking place. That’s what people I’ve spoken to are waiting to see.”

Preston Love Jr. said any commercial development that occurs should “involve north Omaha in the process from top to bottom or we’re missing the point of what development really is.” He wants African-Americans involved from planning to financing, bonding and insurance on through construction, ownership, management and staffing.

Community activist Leo Louis takes issue with something else. “If the idea is to empower the community then the community should be growing,” he said, “not the Network. What I’m seeing happening is the Network growing and the community falling further and further down with rising drop out, STD, homicide rates. Yes, there’s more people getting involved, more marketing, more funds going towards the Network and organizations affiliated with the Network, but the community’s not getting any better.”

Leo Louis

Tangible change is envisioned in Network designated neighborhood-village strategy areas. The plan is to apply the strategic covenants within defined boundaries and chart the results for potential replication elsewhere. One strategic target area includes Carter’s Highlander Association, the Urban League, Salem Baptist Church and the Charles Drew Health Center. The strategy there started small, with prayer walks, block parties, neighborhood cleanups. It’s continued through discussions with neighborhood associations. Brick-and-mortar projects are on tap.

“We’ve received some financial support to take the strategy to the next level,” said Barney. “We’re really focused on housing development, working with residents to look at housing needs. We’re partnering with Habitat for Humanity, NCDC, OEDC, Holy Name, Family Housing Advisory Services. Our goal is that you’ll be able to drive through this 15-block area and begin to see physical transformation. That’s where we’re headed.”

The Network also works with Alliance Building Communities and the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority. Some major housing developments are ready to launch.

Teresa Hunter said enabling a new wave of homeowners is about creating “a community that people are moving to instead of away from.”

The goal, Barney said, is to “remove obstacles and create more pathways” for African-Americans to not only achieve home ownership but to start and grow businesses, become employable, continue in school. It’s about people reaching their potential. Some  key stakeholders, such as Salem, have big projects in the works.

Another target area includes 24th and Lake. The Network’s plans for redevelopment there jive closely with those of a key partner, the North Omaha Development Project.

As the Network matures, its profile increases. Barney doesn’t care if people recognize the Network as a change agent so long as they participate. “They may not know what to call it but they know there’s something positive going on,” he said. “They know we get things done. The message is spreading. We’ve had a lot of opportunities to go and present. There’s definitely more interest. We can tell by the volume of calls we get and the number of visitors to our web site (www.empoweromaha.com).”

Quaites-Ferris said public feedback suggests the Network is winning hearts and minds by doing more “than just talking and strategizing, but by putting plans together and implementing those plans.”

In terms of accountability, Barney said, “the leaders hold the leaders accountable and we invite the community in every second Saturday to an open meeting. They can come in, look at what’s going on. There’s nothing hidden, it’s up on the (video) screen. They  have the chance to redirect, ask questions. It’s an open environment.” McGhee said the leadership “is really holding our feet to the fire” for transparency and responsibility.

Where could it go wrong?

Preston Love cautions if the Network becomes “the gatekeeper” for major funds “that gives them power that, if wrongly used,” he said, “could work against the community.”

Carter said letting politics get in the way could sabotage efforts. McGhee said public “bickering” could turn people off. He said the leadership has talked about what-if scenarios, such as a scandal, and he said “there’s no question” anyone embroiled in “something counter-productive like that would need to step down.”

Former Omaha minister Rev. Larry Menyweather-Woods worries about history repeating itself and a community’s hopes being dashed should the effort fade away. “You’d go back to square one,” he said. He wonders what might happen if things go off course and the majority power base “turns against you.” “When all hell breaks loose,” he said, “who from the Network will go to the very powers they’ve made relationships with and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this isn’t right?’” He suggests only a pastor has “nerve enough to do that.”

And that may be the Network’s saving grace — that pastors and churches and congregations are part of this communal mission.

“The history of African-Americans has been founded on faith and the church, so it’s the primary thing and everything else kind of grows out of that,” said Pastor Bachus. “Faith is that hub and the covenants and the efforts really are spokes out of that hub, and that’s the thing that holds it together.”

Part I: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking

August 2, 2010 Leave a comment

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Recently, two related cover stories of mine were published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) under the main headline, “Power Players.”  The subject is the African-American Empowerment Network in Omaha.  I submitted the stories at a combined 9,250 words, and they ended up in print at about 4,400 words.  To put it mildly, that’s an unusually large amount of material to be excised. I was given no opportunity to participate in the editing process.  Because I don’t read my published work, I can’t offer an opinion on the stories as they appeared in print, I can only surmise that much depth and context and detail that went into the stories as I wrote them got lost in translation after such massive cuts.  As promised, I am now posting on this blog the articles as I prepared them. Part I follows immediately below. Part II will be on the site as well. I am making the Empowerment Network leadership and others in the community aware of what happened, as I spent a lot of time developing these stories, and I want the satisfaction of knowing that these pieces will at least now have a chance of being seen in the form in which they should have been published originally.  I may also contact the local African-American newspaper, the Omaha Star, about printing my versions.

If you care to share any comments about the different versions, I would be interested in any such feedback.  In the past, when something egregious like this happened with my work, I had little recourse.  The online world offers me a way to get my work out there the way it was meant to be seen.

Part I: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking

©by Leo Adam Biga

Mark it down. 2007 may be when northeast Omaha’s depressed African-American community reached its limit. A demographic bound by race, history, circumstance and geography seemingly exhaled a collective sigh of exasperation to exclaim, Enough already. Longstanding discontent over inequities in income, housing, education, economic development and opportunity solidified into resolve by a people to take matters into their own hands.

Going on four years ago, a coalition of local blacks reached consensus to intentionally rebuild the community from within. As catalyst for this call to action, they formed the African-American Empowerment Network. The nonprofit community leadership organization uses advocacy, mobilization, engagement, collaboration and coordination as tools for enacting change.

The effort is inspired by a national movement of black empowerment laid-out by author and television/radio talk show host Tavis Smiley in his best selling 2006 book, The Covenant with Black America,. Borrowing from Smiley and other sources, Omaha’s Empowerment Network targeted 13 strategic covenant areas for improvement.

The disparities dogging segments of Omaha’s black community are long in the making. Efforts by the Network and partners to address these woes are the latest attempted remedies. In the 1940s and ‘50‘s the De Porres Club pressed the cause for civil rights. In the ‘60s the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties or 4CL, took up the banner. Well into the ‘70s federally funded programs and agencies spurred by the Great Society and its War on Poverty operated here. At various times the Urban League of Nebraska and the Omaha Chapter of the NAACP have led on social justice and community betterment issues. Other well-meaning efforts and groups have sprung up.

When the last in a series of major civil disturbances in the late ‘60s badly damaged the old North 24th St. business-entertainment hub, many business owners abandoned the area for good. Relatively few new businesses have opened since.

Northeast Omaha’s chronic gun violence has contributed to the perception of an unsafe environment in which to do business or raise families, exacerbating deeply entrenched negative attitudes about the area. While the rest of the city has thrived, North O has lagged behind. Stagnation has further isolated it and inhibited new development there.

This once self-sufficient area is regarded as a mission district dependent on government assistance, social services and philanthropy. Even as African-Americans try empowering themselves, limited capital, combined with enormous needs gone unmet or underserved, makes outside investment necessary. The difference this time is that the black community is taking the lead, in collaboration with the larger community, to transform northeast Omaha. Blacks are doing much of the visioning, crafting and implementing of plans. Rather than change imposed from without, it’s organically generated from within, a model not seen before here.

Innovations By Design president and chief consultant Tawanna Black, co-chair of the Network’s advocacy and justice strategy, said where some cities improved conditions for African-Americans via a black political or corporate base, Omaha did not. “In the absence of African-Americans in powerful political or economic positions to drive this,’ she said, “small changes have occurred but nothing major. The network really flips that theory on its head and says, Why are we waiting for the power to be given, let’s own the power that’s within. It’s an empowerment thing. It means more than just a name on a piece of paper. It’s really what it’s all about — empowering people to take control of themselves. A process committed to that is completely new in this community.”

For some, it’s a manifesto for long overdue self-determination.

“There’s been a lot of psychological damage done to us as a people. Historically we just allow things to happen to us and what we have to do is starting taking control of our own destiny and that means also having skin in the game,” said Omaha City Councilman and Network violence intervention-prevention chair Ben Gray.

Empower Omaha drafted a rising-tide-lifts-all-ships community covenant identifying quality of life indicators needing attention. Copies of the covenant went to north side businesses and churches. It can be glimpsed inside beauty and barber shops, stores, offices. Pastors distribute it to congregations, sometimes preaching on it.

Through monthly community meetings, periodic summits and activities like prayer walks, neighborhood cleanups, block parties and surveys the Network interfaces with residents, inviting them to share concerns and ideas. The organization works closely with neighborhood associations in forming a North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance.

“We keep the community engaged, we listen to the community, we write down what they say. I think that’s how we get the buy-in from the community,” said director of operations Vicki Quaites-Ferris. “Most things implemented actually come as a result of listening to the community. That’s why it’s so important to keep the community engaged because at some point the community may say, We’ve got to turn it around and now focus on this.”

Highlander Neighborhood Association president Kristina Carter said the Network’s “an integral part” of neighborhood cleanups. “There are a lot of (neighborhood) associations but alone they don’t have the capacity to have an impact and I think that’s what this Alliance is poised to do. It gives the area a single voice, it puts some teeth to it.”

Network strategies encompass neighborhoods, housing, employment, education, family,  faith, crime, et cetera. The strategies come from community leaders, residents and best practices in other cities. Not a direct service provider, the Network partners with others to support or facilitate programs and to link efforts in order to build synergy and capacity.

The backdrop for all this empowerment is profound want. The Network was already in place before a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series revealed black Omaha poverty rates as among the nation’s worst. What was already known is that many youths underachieve in school. Only half graduate. On top of that is an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, a preponderance of single parent homes and little economic development or opportunity.

Newly detailed were the area’s high joblessness rates and low household income levels. Northeast Omaha also suffers from a distressed infrastructure, Vacant lots, condemned structures and unkempt rental properties abound. There’s a paucity of black-owned businesses. The area’s endured a net population loss. Freeway construction disrupted, some say severed, a tight community. As restrictive housing practices waned, upwardly mobile blacks moved west. Others left the state for better prospects and larger, more progressive African-American communities elsewhere.

Network leaders say the series shone a light on conditions heretofore ignored. The result? Broad-based engagement from initiatives like the Chamber’s North Omaha Development Project and the privately funded Building Bright Futures. Many feel the city needs to make an It-stops-here pledge. “Omaha has yet to really stand up the way we do to other things and say we will not accept having the highest black poverty again,” said Black. “We haven’t done that. We’ve done some projects, we’ve announced some nice things, but we have not said we will not be here again.” Rev. Jeremiah McGhee doubts the larger community yet appreciates a revitalized north Omaha is good for all of Omaha, saying, “I don’t think they’re quite getting it.”

Combatting gun violence is one issue Omaha’s managed a united front on. The Network has endorsements from Mayor Jim Suttle, Omaha Police Chief Alex Hayes and some 100 public-private partners for the Omaha 360 anti-violence coalition. Asking hard questions about the violence problem spurred the development of the Empowerment Network in the first place. Why is this happening when Omaha as a whole prospers and some black communities thrive by comparison? Connecting the dots, it became clear the despair is rooted in certain realities: an entrenched gang and drug culture; fractured family units; a lack of positive role models for young people; barriers to educational, job, home ownership and business opportunities; a sense that nobody cares.

Douglas County Treasurer and Network chair John Ewing knows it from his former career as an Omaha cop and the Empowerment prayer walks and community meetings he joins. He said residents openly “complain about the violence, the lack of economic opportunities, the fact they feel abandoned, neglected, overlooked, forgotten. All this leads to a sense of hopelessness. That’s when people become demoralized, when they feel like they don’t matter to anybody else, when they see all the nice things Omaha’s doing but don’t feel they can participate in those things.”

Illegal gun and drug activity, violence, high drop-out and jobless rates, unskilled workers making minimum wages with no real future are all symptomatic of systemic, cyclical problems having gone unchecked or received piecemeal attention.

Making matters worse, northeast Omaha’s lost some 11,000 households over time. A diminished tax, voter, consumer base has deluded what little clout it had to hold the public and private sectors accountable for the economic and social ills.

“There’s been a lot of benign neglect thats gone on in north Omaha by the majority community and I don’t hesitate in saying that because it’s a fact,” said Gray. “But what we’ve got to do now is rather than point fingers and place blame put together the necessary mechanism to fix it. We’ve got so much work to do and we’ve got so many areas that we’re operating in.”

“Oh, mercy,” Black said in response to the task. One way or another, she said, “economics feed into all this. If you have money you have health insurance and you get screened, if you have money you can afford education to get a better job. It all ties back to that, and so we’re aiming to see measurable changes. Getting unemployment rates down and household income up to what it is in the rest of the city. Moving more folks off public assistance and public housing into being able to sustain their own families and afford market rate housing. Getting more people out of GED classrooms into college classrooms. Getting people into workforce development programs.”

She acknowledges the goals describe “a long-term process.”

Davis Companies CEO Dick Davis spearheads the economic covenant and the recently formed Economic Strategy Taskforce, an offshoot whose targeted outcomes speak to economic viability. He said the taskforce’s and covenant’s ambitious goals include preparing every African-American for a sustainable living wage job; moving persons from unemployment or underemployment to full employment and from jobs to careers; encouraging entrepreneurship by increasing access to credit and capital.

The Network endorses a from-birth-to-career strategy similar to Bright Futures.

Davis has been doing his part for years, from starting-up black businesses to providing college scholarships to black students. Entities like the African-American Academic Achievement Council, 100 Black Men, 100 Black Women, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, the Urban League of Nebraska, along with black churches, have done their part, too. Pockets of progress have appeared in some new home construction, a few business parks, a refurbished section of North 24th St. and new quarters for anchors Salem Baptist Church, the Urban League and Charles Drew Health Center. But nothing of real scale has been attempted.

Overall, northeast Omaha appears stuck in the same quagmire of decline and disenfranchisement that befell it in the late 1960s, A recent Pew Partnership for Civic Change report found that of 33,000 metro businesses, only 200 are black-owned — most single owner-operator endeavors.

It was in this bleak context the Network formed. Family Housing Advisory Services director Teresa Hunter, co-chair of the Network’s housing development covenant, said underpinning the effort was the shared “thought that we need to make a change, we need to do something.” From the start, she said, it’s been about avoiding duplication and instead building capacity for existing programs and services and filling gaps.

We work within the framework of what’s already going on, trying to make it cooperative. We identify issues and who’s already addressing them and what’s missing. Why are people still falling through the cracks — what else do we need to do?” No one entity, she said, holds the whole answer. “We take who does this well and who does that well and we put them all together.”

Where most Network players are native Omahans like Hunter, the driving force is a transplant, Willie Barney, who until recently made his living as a strategic consultant. The Iowa native worked in media marketing for Lee Enterprises and moved here for an Omaha World-Herald post. He worked on Salem Baptist Church’s administrative team when he galvanized efforts to create the Network. He served as the Network’s unpaid president and facilitator, then as a consultant, and is now its second paid staff member.

What began as a loose association testing the waters is now an established, structured player in broad, multi-faceted initiatives that have gotten buy-ins from public and private stakeholders both within and outside the African-American community.

“In evolving over time we’ve stayed true to our mission,” said Barney. “We said we want to be positive and pro-active and to build partnerships…with the entire city. Those are some core values we have. Our goal is to bring individuals and organizations together to help facilitate positive, measurable change…It has to be bottom-up and top-down for it to be anywhere close to being successful – individuals, families, leaders at all levels working together collaboratively.

“We were asked early on, How are you going to look at jobs, violence, housing, education all at the same time? And our answer is, How can we not when only 50 percent of our kids graduate high school, certain census tracts have 30 to 50 percent unemployment and 38 percent home ownership and a majority of homicides occur in the same concentrated area. If anybody thinks you can only focus on one of those areas and get anything done…” he said incredulously. “It has to be comprehensive. There’s not one organization or segment that’s going to solve what we’re in right now.”

Recently, however, the Network’s consolidated things. Barney said, “The more we went forward we realized we would spread ourselves too thin trying to have initiatives and groups in every one of the 13 covenant areas, so we really started focusing on seven core areas: faith and community engagement; education and youth development; violence intervention and prevention; housing and neighborhood development; jobs, jobs training and business development; health and healthy families; arts, culture and media.”

Evidence of the Network’s wide reach was seen during its annual Harmony Week (May 21-29), when dozens of organizations and thousands of people across the Metro participated in expressions of unity and community engagement.

Black said turf wars “have been removed by a higher agenda. Everyone at the table realizes this agenda can’t happen through just one of the organizations or churches, it can’t happen with folks who want just one neighborhood or one part of the community or one business discipline. And yet everyone realizes there are opportunities for each of our organizations to play a significant role in this. It really takes all of us being at the table, title-less, organization-less, to make this happen. That’s huge.

Barney officed the first two-plus years wherever he and his laptop were, although the Network’s regularly convened at three main sites: the Family Housing Advisory Services building.; North High School; and the former In Play, now Tip Top Ballroom. In 2009 the organization opened an office in the historic Jewell Building, right in the heart of North O, across from the Omaha Star.

After a low key start that shunned media attention the Network’s boosted its presence via an expanded web site, a Facebook page and Revive! Omaha Magazine, which Barney’s SMB Enterprises LLC publishes. A TV spot features Network leaders reciting, like a creed, the Empowerment credo:

“We can change Omaha. It’s time to rebuild the village. Family by family, block by block, school by school, church by church, business by business. Each person doing their part. Working together, let’s transform Omaha. Do your part. Live the covenant…”

After a slow start, an Adopt-a-Block initiative for pastors to lead their houses of worship in nurturing neighborhoods has taken off, with some 70-plus pastors attending training compared to 15 last year.

Barney said in line with moving from “a grassroots movement into a formal organization,” the Network hired its first full-time staffer in Quaites-Ferris. The former deputy assistant under former Mayor Mike Fahey said, “My role is to make sure all operations and covenants are remaining as active as can be.” She said some covenants are more active and self-sufficient then others.” In terms of collaboration, she said, “it’s not always about partners coming to us but sometimes it’s about us going to them and seeing how can we partner together.”

Three-and-a-half years in now, the Network has a track record.

Said Barney, “There’s a lot of powerful signals. I think people are beginning to see there’s more strength and we can get more done if we just simply sit down and talk. We may not agree on everything but we can talk through those differences and keep a common goal in mind of trying to help our kids and employ parents in sustainable jobs. That’s really what we’re all trying to do. We may have different ways of getting there but if we can sit down and talk we’ll have a better chance.”

He said whatever course the Network adopts, it relies on others to carry it out.

“At the end of the day it’s ENCAP, the Urban League, Omaha Economic Development Corporation that are doing the work. But I think because we’re here we’ve helped facilitate potentially more partnerships than would have happened before.”

Malcolm X Memorial Foundation president Sharif Liwaru said he feels the Network’s facilitator rather than direct service provider role “is still hard for people to grasp.” Barney acknowledges as much. While Liwaru and community activist Leo Louis feel the Network effectively engages established organizations and leaders, they advocate more outreach be done to new, more loosely organized groups as well as to youths.

“We’re doing more to really make sure it is an inclusive process,” said Barney. “If they don’t come, we’ll go to them, and we’re not perfect, we make mistakes, but we keep pushing forward.”

The Network doesn’t pretend to work with every organization. It puts time and money where it can make the most difference. Barney said many early initiatives were pilots that explored what works and what doesn’t. “Now,” he said, “we have a better feel for what truly makes a difference and for what organizations are committed and actually have the resources and infrastructure to implement programs.”

He can list many Network accomplishments, but the work being done with young people is closest to his heart.

Mid-2008 the Network noted workforce development gaps for at-risk young persons and launched a life skills and jobs program. No one wanted a summer like 2007, when there were 31 reported shootings in 31 days during one stretch. Program participants included kids failing in school and drop outs , ex and active gang members among their ranks. Barney and Ben Gray contacted employers to secure 150 paid internships. The program was repeated last summer, with enrollees split between returning and new participants. Barney said many “transitioned back into school, some went on to get GEDs and others got offers for full time work.” 2009 saw hundreds more jobs created by federal stimulus funds and private donors. The Urban League facilitated.

Minus any federal funds in 2010, the number of summer jobs provided at-risk youth this year will be closer to 500, rather than the 800 created last year.

“In a lot of instances we basically have to start from scratch — we have to teach people how to fill out an application, how to successfully interview, how to do some things we take for granted,” said Gray. “This is a big job because you’ve got to change attitudes as well as change behavior. Neither is easy, but you’ve got to get it done because the only other choice is to build more jails and at the end of the day that’s costing us three to four times as much money as to provide jobs and job training and proper schooling.”

Barney said feedback from community forums identified unemployment as an underlining cause of violence. The program’s one of several Network initiatives aimed at curbing violence, with Omaha 360 and Enough is Enough being the latest and largest.

“We launched a formal violence prevention collaboration where we have community groups, faith groups, law enforcement, the Urban League, employment agencies, health organizations, housing organizations meeting every week to focus on youth violence and how we can reduce it,” said Barney. “It’s not just telling folks, Don’t do this, now we’re providing options.”

Impact One Community Connection, formerly New World Youth Development, was formed to do gang intervention-prevention. The Network also collaborates with ENCAP, the Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership (formerly GOACA).

Barney said a Stop the Violence summit that tapped young people’s input included former and current gang members. Those sessions morphed into regular youth forums. “People have been sitting down with gang members and not just telling them stuff but listening to what’s on their mind. Why didn’t you stay in school? What are the supports you need? What do you think of attempts to rebuild the community and what issues do you see going on from your perspective?”

Teresa Hunter said she, Barney and others were impressed “a group of youths wanted to continue meeting and talking about the issues and the remedies. They wanted to keep coming back and to make a change.”

In turn, said Barney, participants “were amazed somebody cared enough to spend all that time one-on-one with them and to help them get a job. They will flat out tell you no one has ever given them these opportunities before. Even some of the kids on the street that everybody totally discounts and that people said there’s no way you’re going to reach, well, we reached them.”

Building trust with this population, said Barney, is key. “They’ve been hurt so many times, people have given up on them, people have ruined their trust.” Recruiting them, he said, was largely the work of the late Roy Davenport and of Gray. Both brought long gang intervention experience. “That’s kind of the bridge that was built,” said Barney. “The Network has been able to tap into those who’ve been doing the work of trying to get people to leave gangs, giving us a link to that segment, and giving the intervention workers the support, resources and organization they lacked before.”

The Network’s aligned itself with the Omaha Police Department, particularly the Northeast Precinct, and North Omaha Weed & Seed to do Safe Night Outs and other efforts for improving police-community relations. Ben Gray and the police report progress in residents providing information and tips that lead to arrests.

Gray, who leads an emergency response team, said street work is where it’s at in reaching past or present gangbangers.

“You got to meet them where they are. If you are not willing to get out in those blocks, in those neighborhoods, in those houses where they live, you are not going to reach those young people. You gotta be at the hospitals, you gotta be at the funerals, you gotta be constantly talking about not retaliating…about going in a different direction. That’s very time consuming, painstaking, difficult work and there are no set hours. We have ex-gang members employed through Impact One. They monitor the streets on a regular basis.”

Gray lauds the Network for “putting it’s neck on the line” to even do this outreach, saying it’s a microcosm for how a wounded community can heal. “We have people that have been disappointed so much they’re not willing to necessarily buy-in until they have seen some stability in you going down the road getting a few things accomplished, and then you’ll hopefully get that groundswell of people that will come on board with you.”

“That’s how it clicks there, it’s grassroots, it’s organization, it’s strategic planning, it’s building relationships,” said Barney. “The summer program crystalized for many of us what’s possible.”

Barney said the Network “has the opportunity to really make a tremendous difference. Some of it will be over time, some of it will be dramatic,” such as the 36 percent reduction in gun violence in July-August 2008. “Now we can’t take direct credit for that but police will tell you that has never happened before at that level. Some folks went from being on the street to being in the life skills program to having a stipend to do voter registration work to being fully employed. So the possibilities are there for reaching the kids. Now it’s having all the support services lined up so we can link them together.”

For Kristina Carter, the Network is a vehicle for change and a conduit for action.

“I love what they’re doing with getting the-powers-that-be to listen to the community and for voices to be heard and not just patronized. The Empowerment Network can be that central point, strategic center of command where you can branch out to all the different organizations that service this community. That’s what it represents to me.”

Leo Louis and Sharif Liwaru say there are grassroots segments of the community that fall outside the Network’s structure that need to be engaged more.

“We’re doing as much as we can pushing it in that direction,” said Barney. “But I’m sure there are people in the community who still feel it’s not open enough or they feel they don’t have a voice. I would ask anyone who feels that way to contact me directly. We’ll sit down and we’ll meet and we’ll listen and try the best we can to make adjustments.”

Barney said it’s important to remember rebuilding north Omaha will be a process. Embedded problems will not suddenly vanish.

“We are building a long-term foundation. We’re getting more and more people engaged, more people are stepping forward. That doesn’t meant the violence is going to stop today or next week. I keep saying to folks, ‘It did not happen overnight and it will not be solved overnight’. That message rarely gets printed or becomes a sound bite. We’re not getting our minds around how big this is — the depth of this, and how long it’s been going. It’s painful just to say this is going to be a long term situation. To be successful this has to be a citywide effort.

“At the end of the day what’s kept everybody together is that it’s bigger than us individually and bigger than us as an organization or a church or a business. It’s about young people that need to graduate, it’s about mothers and fathers taking care of their kids, it’s about people being able to start a business, it’s about economic redevelopment. And it’s not about waiting on someone else to do it for us…”

Guardedly optimistic, he said, “We’ve seen some things slowly move in the right direction.” He’s encouraged by the positive alliances and community spirit built but he knows residents are eager to touch brick-and-mortar change.

Geraldine Wesley with Long School Neighborhood Association embraces the Network “getting people’s hopes up to empower” North O, adding, “If they carry out all the things they intend to do, it would be good.” She’s cautiously expectant. “Well, right now it’s just ideas, there’s nothing concrete as far as I know. I am waiting for the results. It’s going to be a long process, I know that. I hope I’ll live to see it.”

Men of Science

August 2, 2010 Leave a comment

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Once in a while I have an idea for a story that entails my doing a set of short profiles of individuals sharing some common characteristic.  In the case of this story, I profiled four senior men of science, all medical professionals and researchers of one kind or another in Omaha, Neb. I really enjoyed the challenge of trying to capture the essence of these men and their work in relatively few words.  The story originally appeared in the New Horizons, and I suspect you will be as impressed as I was by some of their groundbreaking and lifesaving activities and findings.

Men of Science

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

The Man Who Would Slow Aging
Denham Harman, professor emeritus and world-renowned researcher at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, humbly chalks up his work uncovering the mysteries of aging to a series of chance occurrences. Born in San Francisco and raised in Berkeley, Calif., he displayed an inquisitive mind early on, developing a passion for building model airplanes and setting his sights on studying aeronautical engineering. But then one day in the 1930s his father bumped into an oil executive at a Bay area tennis club where Harman’s brothers played and landed Denham a job as a lab assistant with Shell Development Co. “This was in the midst of the Depression — there were no jobs,” Harman said from the cubbyhole office he still works in every day at age 86. This chance encounter affording an opportunity he dare not refuse set him on a new course — “I got shifted, so to speak, and I was very lucky” — that within two decades found him posing a radical theory of aging now accepted by the scientific community.

Denham Harman

While working for Shell he earned his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, which, just happened to be one of the top chemistry schools in the nation. After working on lubricating oils he was transferred to the reaction kinetics department where, he said, “just by chance our primary concern was free radical reactions, which in those days was a very unusual focus. There was not that much known.” His research helped Shell gain 35 patents, including one for the Shell No-Pest strip. Then, in 1945, his wife Helen unwittingly planted the seed for Harman’s breakthrough postulation when she showed him a magazine article –Tomorrow You May Be Younger — about aging research in Russia. It got him so hooked on the idea of aging as a biochemical process he made the rash decision, at 33, to halt his career as an industrial chemist to enter medical school. When Cal-Berkeley flatly turned him down, telling him, ironically, “You’re too old,” he went to Stanford. Why change careers in mid-stream? “I just thought here’s a field that’s real interesting and which I know nothing about,” he said. Besides, the question of aging still dogged him enough he sought a broader knowledge base with which to tackle the enigma.

During a 1950s stint at Donner Laboratory in Berkeley where, he said, “I didn’t have anything to do but think, I figured it was a great time to look at this problem. So, I asked myself the question man has asked for a long, long time and still asks: What causes aging? What causes that transition? Everyone goes through it. We’re all familiar with it. We more or less accept it. There’s a lot of theories that try to account for that but no one theory is accepted. I looked at the problem from the premise there’s a single basic cause. Mother Nature uses the same things over and over again and this is what you would expect. Also, it was obvious genetics and environment were involved. So, what could cause this to take place? I thought of everything I could think of, but it just didn’t jive. I began to think maybe I had wasted my time getting on about aging — that maybe I didn’t know enough.”

Then, in one of those moments when a burst of inspiration arrives only after much deliberation, it came to him. He recalls, “I was sitting at my desk reading at the Donner Lab when all of a sudden it flashed in my mind — free radicals. I don’t know where it came from, but there it was. I looked at that problem and everything fitted — the chemistry-biology fitted.” The trouble is, initially almost no one else agreed with what he dubbed “the free-radical theory of aging.” He was all alone, out on a limb and his many detractors “were trying to chop it off,” he said. By the time he joined the UNMC staff in 1958, he was engaged in animal tests to support his theory. What kept him at it in the face of doubtful colleagues was, he said, his view the aging process is “a very important problem — it’s the thing that kills us” — and his belief that the theory is correct. That’s the reason I’m still at this problem. It works. Otherwise, as a chemist, I wouldn’t waste my time if it didn’t.”

So, what are free radicals and how do they impact aging? Free radicals are molecules with an unpaired electron. These lone wolf electrons create havoc in cells, setting off damaging chain reactions that account, he said, for the effects we experience as aging. Free radical production is stimulated by oxygen, which provides the energy we need to survive, and by environmental sources, but over time free radical reactions increase to a threshold the body cannot tolerate and we die. Harman contends an increase in antioxidant — vitamin E, vitamin C, beta carotene — consumption decreases free radical reactions, thereby slowing the aging process. “You’re putting in a preservative, in effect, that counteracts the deleterious effects.” The benefits of antioxidants — from increased life expectancy and reduced incidence of disease — have been shown in studies of rodents and birds. His efforts to promote antioxidant use — he’s long followed a daily regimen himself — has succeeded. “Americans spend around $4 or $5 billion a year on supplements, most of which are antioxidants, and even though I can’t prove it,” he said, “I’m sure a lot of those people will live longer then they would otherwise.”

Harman, whose research was long supported by a patroness, the late Mrs. Leon Millard, has in recent years seen funding dry up, a frustrating turn of events he ascribes to changing research priorities. Of more concern, he said, is the scant work being done on life prolongation and disease prevention using his theory’s tenets. “A great deal can be done, but we’re not doing it, and that’s disturbing.” As for himself, he continues writing articles, making presentations and giving interviews that lay out his ideas. Retirement doesn’t enter his mind. “I think you’re much better doing something,” he said. While he suspects his own life span may have been shortened due to recent health problems, he said time remains his main asset. “It’s what I have most of, but these are things you can’t predict.”

An Uncommon Man’s Search for Cancer’s Hereditary Links
As just one example of the uncommon life he’s led, Henry Lynch grew up a school drop-out and street fighter in a rough section of 1930s New York but persevered to become a medical doctor and noted cancer researcher. “I didn’t pick fights but, boy, the neighborhood I lived in it was a very common occurrence to meet bullies, and you had to defend yourself,” said Lynch, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine and president of the Hereditary Cancer Institute at Creighton University. Even though he never attended high school — a result of his wartime service and working to support his family — he cultivated his naturally brilliant mind by reading “voraciously,” saying, “I did it on my own. I spent every free moment I had looking up things in the library. I had no doubt in my intellectual abilities.” Or in his physical prowess, which he put to use as a stevedore, farm hand and prizefighter.

Henry Lynch

Still a hulk of a man at 75, Lynch enlisted in the Navy as an under-age, but over-sized 16 year-old seaman in 1944. Serving as a gunner on freighters and transports, his tour of duty took him from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean to the South Pacific. He boxed during his two-year hitch and once back stateside he resumed fighting as an amateur before turning pro. “I loved to fight,” he said, adding he boxed under assumed names in a 20-bout pro heavyweight career in order to retain amateur status in a hoped-for bid to play college football.

At first, it was as much his desire to play football at the University of Oklahoma under legendary coach Bud Wilkinson as it was his need to feed his hungry mind that led this then street-wise New York tough to enroll in college there in the late 1940s. By the time his failed tryout with the powerhouse Sooners ended his gridiron dreams, he was “consumed with studying.” He continued his studies at the University of Colorado and at Denver University and the University of Texas in Galveston. Trained in genetics, Lynch was serving an internal medicine residency at UNMC in 1961 when the course of his professional career changed. “I was called to see a family with multiple cases of colon cancer, but with no polyps. That was something I thought was quite unique. I studied that family. I went into great detail…not just studying the immediate relatives but extending it as far as I could to grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins,” he said. “And I collected pathology extensively and wrote up all the clinical histories so I could put together and really understand how this could be a syndrome, and ultimately it emerged as one.” For his pioneering work, the syndrome was named after him. That first case history led him to track more families with colorectal and other cancers and it “influenced my whole decision to become a medical oncologist,” he said. It was also the start of a massive hereditary cancer data base he manages at Creighton, whose staff he joined in 1967.

Like any new idea, Lynch’s assertion some cancers have a hereditary basis was dismissed those early years. “People thought I was crazy. They kind of laughed or said I must be dealing with a chance situation or with an environmental factor,” he recalls, adding he often paid for fact-gathering trips out of his own pocket in lieu of grant support. His faith in his findings did not waver, he said, because “with a background in genetics I saw what we call a segregated model in the way cancers were moving through families and I knew it had to be hereditary. Finally, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that people began taking me seriously.” Today, Lynch is an acknowledged leader in his field, the author of 12 books and hundreds medical journal articles and a keynote speaker at medical conferences around the world. Despite his lofty status, he still goes out in the field recording case histories. He said getting good data “is not just a matter of the history, it’s winning confidence from the family members and gaining rapport. You’ve got to really care and they can tell right away whether you care or not. And I care. I really do. I care about them not just as research subjects but as human beings and they appreciate that.”

He and his colleagues not only track but identify pathological genes that cause disease and they apply preventive methodologies, including prophylactic surgeries, that remove or reduce the risk of cancer in patients. Genetic engineering, he said, will one day allow physicians to manipulate mutant genes. “If we can figure out the chemistry we might be able to design drugs that are the antithesis to what that gene is making, so we can block it and we can cure cancer and other diseases. That’s on the horizon. No question about it.” Where does Lynch draw the line in genetic intervention? “I don’t think we can foresee specific boundaries to this at this moment,” he said. “But if used prudently with the cardinal feature being the interest of our patients and following the orthodoxy of do-no-harm, then I think it’s fair to progress and to use all the tools God gave us to help humanity.”

Still actively engaged in work at an age when most of his peers are retired, Lynch can’t imagine quitting his passion. “Well, I will never retire. I just love my work. Besides, I don’t have any hobbies. I don’t know what I would do. My whole life is in this direction and I see a whole lot of problems there and some of them we can  solve,” said Lynch, who has a wife, Jane, and three grown children. “It’s a joy knowing maybe I can help people.”

The King of Calcium
When Creighton University endocrinology expert Robert Heaney discusses the benefits of good nutrition in fighting the onset or progression of disease, he has a knack for making what could be a dry recitation of facts into an engaging discussion. For example, listen to his explanation of why our calorie-rich modern diets are actually nutritionally poor in comparison with our forbearers: Hunter-gatherers, he said, enjoyed an amazingly varied diet by foraging off the land and its bounty of nutritionally-rich nuts, roots, leaves and berries, whereas since the agricultural revolution our diets have been dominated by cultivated seed plant-derived foods — cereals, breads, legumes, wheat, rice, corn, millet — that provide high energy but low nutrition. “One of the issues modern nutrition is confronting,” he said, “is the role it may play in the chronic diseases that affect human kind today — cancer, degenerative cardiovascular disease and dementia. Does nutrition play a role there? Nobody knows. But there’s some evidence it does.”

Muddying the works, said Heaney, an Omaha native and Creighton grad who, with wife Barbara, has seven grown children, is the often spurious nutrition claims promoted by quacks and charlatans. “A lot of this stuff is just made up by people who don’t know anything about what they’re talking about,” he said. “I’m not going to sit here like a crank and say, It’s all nutrition — if you just ate right you wouldn’t have any problems. That’s not true. But I am convinced there is a role nutrition does play. The field I’ve worked in, osteoporosis, is an example.”  He said the high incidence of osteoporosis today is likely due to diets low in calcium and vitamin D, two essentials for keeping bones healthy and strong into old age. “If your calcium intake is low,” said Heaney, the author of the book Calcium and Common Sense, “you are constantly withdrawing calcium from your bone bank in order to meet the needs your body has today. The problem is that as that goes on day-after-day, year-after-year, 24-7, that revs up bone remodeling and leads to structural weaknesses. So…much of the damage associated with osteoporosis is due to this high level of remodeling, which makes the bone more fragile.” While some progress is being made in assessing who is at risk for osteoporosis, he said identification is complicated by the fact “we’re immersed in a society in which everybody has low calcium intake but not everybody gets osteoporosis because some are more sensitive to low calcium and others are more resistant.” He said factors that impact the equation are starting to be “worked out. For example, African-Americans have a bony apparatus that tends to protect them against low calcium intake whereas whites will tear down their skeleton much more readily.”

Robert Heaney

Research by Heaney and others clearly makes the case for calcium and vitamin D in reducing bone fracture rates in older patients. He said where he used to be asked by science writers if calcium is vital or not, “I don’t get those questions anymore. There’s a high awareness of the importance of calcium and I suspect that’s due to the media. What the general public doesn’t know is how much calcium they need and what amounts are contained in the foods they eat.”

According to Heaney, calcium is also a marker for a nutrition-poor diet. “We did a study at Creighton of 300 or 400 volunteers that found those who had low calcium intakes — meaning less than 70 percent of the recommended daily intake — tended to get less than 70 percent of the recommended intake of four other key nutrients. So, a low calcium intake tends to translate to having a poor overall diet low in lots of other nutrients.” He said the preferred way to get patients to increase calcium is through diet. “The best way to get the nutrients we need is from eating other organisms. We don’t know enough to put it all into pills. So, we stress food. If I can get you to eat calcium-rich foods then I know I’ll have a much better chance of your getting all the nutrients you need because dairy foods are such good sources of so many of these nutrients. We recommend fortified foods as a second or third line of defense and only recommend supplements as a last resort.” He is quick to note calcium is not the only nutrient crucial in osteoporosis and nutrition is not the only factor impacting the disease.

Even at 75 Heaney is still at the top of his game, evidence of which came with his being honored as the 2003 recipient of the E.V. McCollum Award from the American Society for Clinical Nutrition for his creative work as a clinical investigator in generating and testing new concepts in nutrition. For him, research is a never-ending exploration, journey and challenge. “It’s all those things. It’s always a question of why and how. Those are the interesting questions,” he said, adding he’s had a curiosity for how things work since he was a kid taking clocks apart. He said he “doesn’t waste a lot of time pondering” retirement, adding he’s too busy anyway between his research, writing and speaking commitments. Besides, the grant funds he secures for CU’s osteoporosis research center are what keep it open. “The day I stop, the work stops. That’s why I’m happy to keep doing it.”

High Flying, Straight Shooting Doc
University of Nebraska Medical Center otolaryngology physician-professor and  retired Air Force veteran Anthony Yonkers has applied his healing arts in a wide variety of settings. He’s served as flight surgeon aboard jets, provided medical advice to Stratcom leaders running nuclear scenarios in its underground command post, taught medical students and resident physicians in training, conducted research into new head-neck procedures and performed countless operations that improved patients’ lives. The Muskegon, Mich. native and University of Michigan grad came to Omaha in 1968 as an active duty Air Force major assigned to Erhling Bergquist Hospital at Offutt Air Force Base. As an ex-serviceman, Yonkers is widely respected in his role as an attending clinician at Omaha’s V.A. Medical Center.

While never an Air Force pilot, he learned to fly in the Offutt AeroClub and even got to take the stick of T-38 trainers on flights he accompanied. These days, he pilots his own single-engine Mooney to medical conferences, family get-togethers and relief efforts undertaken by the Order of St. Lazarus, a humanitarian organization he is active in that provides medical care to leper colonies around the world. He and his wife Mary have four grown children.

Anthony Yonkers

When Yonkers neared the end of his Air Force active duty in the late ‘60s, he was set to go back to Michigan when a position opened in the new Department of Otolaryngology at UNMC, where he’d volunteered. “I was only going to stay a year or two to see how this brand new department worked out…and lo and behold I’m still here 35 years later,” said Yonkers, who continued as a reservist, rising to the rank of brigadier general, until 1998. “It’s been kind of exciting to see the department develop as we’ve added more staff and areas of concentration,” including a center treating patients with head and neck cancers, a prosthetic division building radiation shielding devices to help save tissue and molding false ears and noses and a sleep institute addressing patients’ chronic sleep disorders.

Yonkers and his UNMC colleagues participate in studies looking at everything from sinus infections to breathing disturbances to cleft lip and palette repairs to the treatment of papillomas of the voice box. He said new insights into treating medical conditions often arise from clinical experiences that prompt questions that in turn spur quests for answers through “studies of what best proven methods or accepted techniques work best in a given set of circumstances.”

For Yonkers, one of the most pleasing aspects of his work comes in his role as a teacher. “It’s fun in that you’re seeing young people develop. You’re taking a medical student with maybe one year of general surgery training and in four years you’re turning him or her into a specialist that can go anywhere in the country and hold their own. That makes you feel good.” He said practicing medicine gives him great satisfaction. “It’s a fascinating area. It’s an opportunity to work with people and to do something to alleviate their discomfort and to make their lives better. It’s very satisfying.” At 65, his passion for his work remains undiminished. “That’s the reason I’m still here and not retired,” he said. While he knows there may come a time when it’s prudent to lay down his scalpel, he believes older docs like himself offer what cannot be taught or replaced. “Through the years you build a feel or sixth sense for things and it takes awhile to accumulate those assets and nuances. That kind of knowledge is hard to measure and is lost in a forced retirement.”

Power Players, Vicki Quaites-Ferris and Other Omaha African-American Community Leaders Try Improvement Through Self-Empowered Networking

July 19, 2010 1 comment

Here is part two of “my” two-part cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the African-American Empowerment Network.  I qualify the ownership of the story in quotation marks because this installment was cut even more severely than the first. again without my having any input into the editing process.  It’s all part for the course for how editors and publishers treat the work of freelancers in the Omaha market, some being more sensitive and inclusive to the writer having a part in the editing phase than others.  I do not read my published work, and so I cannot say with any certainty that the piece was damaged or mistakes were made in the winnowing, but I am comfortable saying that what was submitted as a 4,000 word story and then  having ended up in print at 2,000 words was a compromised piece of work.  When the writer has not made that kind of cut himself or herself, than the work is essentially no longer theirs but is the handiwork of the editors.  I will soon post my submitted versions of both installments and let you the reader decide which covered the subject more thoroughly.  I use the word thorough for a reason, and that’s because my assignment was to research and write a comprehensive story on the Network, and that’s exactly what I did and submitted.  Now mind you, like with any project, I only submitted the story (broken into two parts) after much self-editing.  But when 7,500 or 8,000 words are then reduced by others down to 4,500 words, well, I can only say that the printed work must bear only a slight resemblance to the original. 

Power Players, Vicki Quaites-Ferris and Other Omaha African-American Community Leaders Try Improvement Through Self-Empowered Networking

© by Leo Adam Biga

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

African-American Empowerment Network leaders know the nonprofit must have partners to transform North Omaha.

It has reached out to philanthropists, CEOs, social service agency executive directors, pastors, neighborhood association leaders, current or ex-gang members, school administrators, law enforcement officials, city planning professionals, local, county and state elected officials.

The Network’s taken a systematic approach to build community consensus around sustainable solutions. North Omaha Contractors Alliance president Preston Love Jr. began as a critic but now champions the Network’s methodical style in gaining broad-based input and support.

“My compliment to them is even bigger than most because they stayed by their guns. I highly commend them because they did it the right way in spite of people like myself … They developed a process which has involved every level, from leadership on down to grassroots, for people to participate. That is the key to me.”

For Empowerment Network facilitator Willie Barney, it’s all about making connections.

“When we started there were not enough forums and venues for people to come together and share ideas and solutions in an environment where you felt comfortable no matter who you were,” he said. “ …. Now we’re to a point where we’re working with residents at planning meetings, trying to get as many people as we can involved to tell us what is their vision for the targeted areas — what does it look like in north Omaha, what does it look like for African-Americans in the city, what would they like to see. ”

He refers to North Omaha Village Zone meetings at North High that invite community members to weigh in on developing plans for the: 24th and Lake, 16th and Cuming, 30th and Parker/Lake and Adams Park, Malcolm X and Miami Heights neighborhoods. Some 100 residents attended a May 27th meeting.

A homeowner who lives in the Adams Park area said she’s interested in how development will affect her home’s resale value and improve quality of life.

“I’m very concerned about my investment, so anything that’s going on we want to know because it will eventually impact us,” said Thalia McElroy, who was there with her husband Greg.

Greg McElroy said he appreciates residents having a say in plans at the front end rather than the back end.

Wallace Stokes, who just moved here from Waterloo, Iowa with his small construction business, likes what’s he’s seen and heard. “They’re trying to empower the neighborhood and create jobs and also make it better for everybody else. All of that’s what I believe in.”

Bankers Trust vice president Kraig Williams has lived and worked all over America. “I can honestly say I’ve never seen this happen before. I think there is a sincere invitation for people to experience this and to be a part of it, and the invitation is actually coming from the Empowerment Network. This appears to be something that’s got the appropriate amount of focus. City government’s there, a lot of the commercial companies are involved as well.”

While confident the Network “will continue to push forward for change,” Williams said sustainability depends on the “other parties at the table” and how the economy affects their budgets and bottom lines.

A segment missing from the leadership is age 30-and-unders. That’s why Dennis Anderson and others created the Emerging Leaders Empowerment Network. “We want to be heard at the table as well,” said Anderson, who has his own real estate business. “We have our own ideas and our own solutions we want to bring forward.” He said ideas generated by Emerging Leaders are presented to the larger Network. “Now we are being heard. They have been extremely supportive of us,” he said.

What makes the Network different beyond its covenant calling for African-Americans to harness change through self-empowerment?

“I don’t see any other kind of a way and I don’t see any other time that this has happened,” said Family Housing Advisory Services director Teresa Hunter, co-chair of the Network’s housing development covenant.

“There has not been the kind of movement like this in our community in a very long time. There have been attempts at it, and I have been a part of those attempts to bring community together, but the structure currently in place is a structure that has not been there before,” said Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray, chair of the violence intervention-prevention strategy.

Davis Companies CEO Dick Davis, who heads the economics covenant and a newly formed Economic Strategy Taskforce, said the Network represents a fresh approach to economic development. “The principles we set up are a market-driven merit-based economic model as opposed to the social justice, social equity models Omaha has been doing.”

Proposed development projects up for review before the Taskforce or its eight sub-taskforces, he said, are held to a rigorous set of “expectations and outcomes” to select sustainable initiatives.

He said Taskforce members, who include elected and appointed public officials, are working to change public policies to “open up more contract, procurement opportunities” for African-Americans. Buttressing the Taskforce’s and the Network’s economic models, said Davis, “are substantial amounts of dollars I’m committing.” He’s living the “do my part” mantra of the Empowerment covenant by, among other things, constructing a new headquarters building for the Davis Cos. in NoDo, investing $10,000 in seed money in each of 10 small black-owned businesses over a decade’s time. He’s on his third one. His Chambers-Davis Scholarship Program and Foundation for Human Development are some of his other philanthropic efforts.

Davis uses his own generosity as calling card and challenge.

“I go to white folks and black folks and say, ‘OK, here’s how I’m stepping up, tell me how you’re going to step up? How you going to do your part?’ That doesn’t mean necessarily just by money, it’s by expertise, it’s by commitment, it’s by whatever the case may be. But once you step up I want you to be accountable for it, I don’t want you to say it’s somebody else’s fault.”

The idea is that as others put up personal stakes, assume vested interests and make commitments, African-Americans gain leverage in the marketplace.

For Davis, the promise of the Network is its transformational potential. “If I’m going to dedicate the rest of my life to see if we can develop benefits for African-Americans in Omaha …. what I want to see is a cultural change, a value change, a behavioral change of African-Americans’ psyche toward economics.”

He will at least keep people talking. “One of my gifts is I can bring a group of people together that in most cases don’t talk to each other. The social justice advocates don’t talk to the pro business advocates, Republicans don’t talk to Democrats, white folks don’t talk to black folks, and we don’t get anything done.” If the Network’s done nothing else, he said, it’s brought diverse people together. “It’s called shared responsibility, shared accountability — that’s what makes it feel different.”

“A strength of the Network is that disagreements unfold in private, behind closed doors, not for public display,” said Rev. Jeremiah McGhee, co-chair of the faith covenant. Where the confrontational outcry of passionate citizens tends to “fizzle out,” he said the Network’s moderate, conciliatory approach is built for “the long haul. We’re not just a flash in the pan. We’re being very deliberate about this.”

Network members say a confluence of new leadership, including Gray, Davis and Black, seemed to make the time right for a concerted effort to improve the African-American Omaha.

“It was a formation, kind of a like a call to the troops to come together,” said Empowerment operations director Vicki Quaites-Ferris, who came from the Mayor’s Office

The Network’s been slow to put itself in the media spotlight because it prefers a behind-the-scenes role and because it’s sensitive to past disappointments.

“There’s always been a hesitation,” said Willie Barney. “We see so many groups come before the camera and make grand announcements about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it and for whatever reason we don’t see them again, and the community gets really tired of that.”

Preston Love Jr. wants African-Americans involved from planning to financing, bonding and insurance, through construction, ownership, management and staffing.

Leo Louis takes issue with something else. “If the idea is to empower the community then the community should be growing,” he said, “not the Network. What I’m seeing happening is the Network growing and the community falling further and further down with rising drop out, STD, homicide rates. Yes, there’s more people getting involved, more marketing, more funds going towards the Network and organizations affiliated with the Network, but the community’s not getting any better.”

Tangible change is envisioned in Network designated neighborhood-village strategy areas. The plan is to apply the strategic covenants within defined boundaries and chart the results for potential replication elsewhere. One strategic target area includes Carter’s Highlander Association, the Urban League, Salem Baptist Church and the Charles Drew Health Center. The strategy there started small, with prayer walks, block parties, neighborhood cleanups. It’s continued through discussions with neighborhood associations. Brick-and-mortar projects are on tap.

“We’ve received some financial support to take the strategy to the next level,” said Barney. “We’re really focused on housing development, working with residents to look at housing needs. We’re partnering with Habitat for Humanity, NCDC, OEDC, Holy Name, Family Housing Advisory Services. Our goal is that you’ll be able to drive through this 15-block area and begin to see physical transformation. That’s where we’re headed.”

The Network also works with Alliance Building Communities and the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority. Some major housing developments are ready to launch.

Another target area includes 24th and Lake. The Network’s plans for redevelopment there jive closely with those of a key partner, the North Omaha Development Project.

As the Network matures, its profile increases. Barney doesn’t care if people recognize the Network as a change agent so long as they participate. “They may not know what to call it but they know there’s something positive going on,” he said. “They know we get things done. The message is spreading. We’ve had a lot of opportunities to go and present.

There’s definitely more interest. We can tell by the volume of calls we get and the number of visitors to our web site (empoweromaha.com).”

In terms of accountability, Barney said, “the leaders hold the leaders accountable and we invite the community in every second Saturday to an open meeting. They can come in, look at what’s going on. There’s nothing hidden, it’s up on the (video) screen. They have the chance to redirect, ask questions. It’s an open environment.” McGhee said the leadership “is really holding our feet to the fire” for transparency and responsibility.

Where could it go wrong?

Preston Love cautions if the Network becomes “the gatekeeper” for major funds “that gives them power that, if wrongly used,” he said, “could work against the community.”

Carter said letting politics get in the way could sabotage efforts. McGhee said public “bickering” could turn people off. He said the leadership has talked about what-if scenarios, such as a scandal, and he said “there’s no question” anyone embroiled in “something counter-productive like that would need to step down.”

Former Omaha minister Rev. Larry Menyweather-Woods worries about history repeating itself and a community’s hopes being dashed should the effort fade away. “You’d go back to square one,” he said. He wonders what might happen if things go off course and the majority power base “turns against you.” “When all hell breaks loose,” he said, “who from the Network will go to the very powers they’ve made relationships with and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this isn’t right?’” He suggests only a pastor has “nerve enough to do that.”

And that may be the Network’s saving grace — that pastors and churches and congregations are part of this communal mission.

“The history of African-Americans has been founded on faith and the church, so it’s the primary thing and everything else kind of grows out of that,” said Pastor Bachus. “Faith is that hub and the covenants and the efforts really are spokes out of that hub, and that’s the thing that holds it together.”

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