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Finding Her Voice: Tunette Powell Comes Out of the Dark and into the Spotlight

January 24, 2013 3 comments

 

Remember the name Tunette Powell.  She’s come far already in her 26 years and she’s surely going places that will take her even beyond the personal transformation and accomplishment she’s achieved thus far.  My profile of her in The Reader (www.thereader.com) introduces you to someone you will hear about in the future because, as my story details, she is a survivor and a dynamo who’s recently found her voice as a speaker and as a writer and it’s a powerful voice infused with passion and hope.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she becomes a best selling author and major inspirational speaker, which is her goal by the way.  It’s well within her reach based on the national championship persuasive speech she made last year and the new memoir she’s written, The Other Woman, about life as the daughter of acrack addict father.  Her speech and book are critiques of the criminalization of addiction.  Her memoir is also her coming out of a dark place and into the light of her own recovery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Her Voice: Tunette Powell Comes Out of the Dark and into the Spotlight

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

When she dreamed of rap stardom back in her hometown of San Antonio, Texas Tunette Powell went by Short Stack. Today, Tunette will do. After years of search and struggle and a need for attention she fed with men, the 26-year-old Bellevue Neb. resident is more comfortable than she’s ever been in her own skin and with her real identity.

Recently married and the mother of two young children, Powell was not feeling Neb., where her military husband got stationed. Even though she did well in school she counted the days at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Then came her catharsis. In early 2011 she was on a three-way call with her brother and recovering addict father when she hung up, broke down crying and started writing.

Words flowed as if some Higher Power were writing-her-hand. An experienced journalist and blogger, it wasn’t unusual for Powell to get in a zone writing or even to tackle difficult subject matter but this was different. What poured out of her was intensely personal. For the first she found herself telling in detail her story of being a crack addict’s daughter. She relived emotional pain she’d largely stuffed from early childhood on – of her father’s repeated relapses and arrests.

“With each of his relapses I’d get hurt all over again,” she says.

Over the next year or so she kept working on her story, which is also her father’s story, and it evolved into a full-scale memoir. She ended up interviewing her father, mother and grandmother, who all reside in Texas, to fill in the gaps. When the Speech Communication major was recruited onto the UNO forensics team in mid-2011 she borrowed from her memoir to write a persuasive speech critiquing the criminalization of addiction and advocating for substance abuse rehabilitation.

“Now is the time to separate the war on drugs from the war on addiction. Today you’ve heard the problems, impacts and solutions of criminalizing addictions. Bruce Callis is 50 years old now. And he is still struggling with his addiction. While you all are sitting out there listening to this, I’m living it. Bruce Callis is my father and for my entire life, I have watched our misguided system destroy him.”

She brought a searing passion and gritty street savvy to the staid format that set her apart. It made her feel out of place but it also made competitors and judges take notice. Last April she became UNO’s first forensics national champion when she won for her “It’s Not the Addict, it’s the Drug: Redefining America’s War on Drugs” presentation at America’s oldest speech competition on the campus of Emerson College in Boston. She beat out competitors with years more experience than her.

 

 

 

 

Now her new memoir, The Other Woman, whose title borrows her father’s term for his drug of choice, has been published by WriteLife.com. She’s also a blogger with the Omaha World-Herald social networking site for moms, Momaha, a program director with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands and a sought-after motivational speaker, which she hopes to make her life’s work.

None of it seemed possible five years ago. Her mindset then was expressed in a rap she wrote about her father that featured the rhyme, “It’s gotta be a nightmare, it’s gotta be a dream.” But she was still acting out, still afraid to face the truth of what she carried inside.

“Five years ago I wasn’t with my husband yet. I was hanging with people that were OK with me just being where I was, kind of in a slump. I was in a relationship with someone that was already in a relationship. I was working at the San Antonio Express-News as an editorial assistant.

“Then I went two years to the University of Missouri. But college was nothing to me.  I never went to class, I just threw it all away. I was forced to move back to San Antonio. I enrolled in a community college but I never went.”

It wasn’t until she landed in the metro and reluctantly started at UNO she began to find herself again.

“I told myself I wasn’t going to be the student that stood out, I wasn’t going to be the student that got involved in anything, I was just going to fly under the radar and get my degree.”

Instead, she became a star by making the Dean’s List, winning that prestigious national title and being named Most Outstanding Speech Student.

UNO instructors encouraged the same potential they saw in her that high school teachers and San Antonio Express colleagues earlier noticed. She wrote obits, features and a blog for the paper while still in her teens. Then she lost her way. Though she settled down after marrying and having kids, the confidence and joy she once had was gone. Then she unexpectedly tapped something inside her.

“When I moved here I felt the most alone I ever felt in my life. I didn’t want to come to Omaha, I didn’t want to go to UNO. But I decided to just enroll, and it changed my life. Academically, I found I’m a lot smarter than I thought I was. I didn’t know I loved learning. I didn’t know there’s so much passion in me. And I learned I’m a survivor. I thought I was always a very weak person. But I’ve had to go through so many things. Being molested as a kid. Having two ‘C’ sections. Financial struggles.”

Not to mention the havoc her dad caused. He was behind bars most of her formative years. When he went on binges to get his fix he’d disappear for days at a time. One Christmas he sold all the presents under the tree so he could get high. She played caregiver and enabler to him. She endured it all.

“I didn’t see that I just kept getting back up. I’m a lot stronger then I gave myself credit for.”

UNO’s Rita Shaughnessy and Abbie Syrek pushed and nurtured her when she didn’t trust herself.

“I did see the talent in Tunette and in chatting with her I discovered that what she really wanted to be was a motivational speaker. My advice to her was to become a Speech Communication major, and if she wanted to someday go out there on the speaker circuit, she needed to author a book. She’s done both of those things and more. She’s doing everything right,” says Shaughnessy, who teaches Public Speaking Fundamentals.

“Tunette is a dynamo. She’s intelligent and industrious and passionate and driven, but add poetic to that and you’ve got something very special. I knew it when she gave her first speech. She’s using all that’s happened to her in her life to shed light on serious matters, and others will benefit. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Forensics coach Abbie Syrek says, “When I first saw her speak, my jaw dropped.

She was spectacular. My soul was so moved that I thought, I have to have this woman on the forensics team. So I approached her after class and she told me she was a senior who was married with two young kids. If there are three strikes against recruiting a student those are the three. I thought, Well, she’ll be the one that got away…’

“I told my husband if I had her four years she would be a national champion. But Tunette didn’t need four years, she only needed eight months. It’s all heart and hard work.”

And a rare talent.

“She wrote by far the best first draft I’ve ever read from any of my students. She has such a natural grasp for writing. I hear thousands of speeches a year and there are very few that stick with you or that can stir your soul,” says Syrek, who convinced Powell to join the team.

 

 

 

 

Powell’s expressive presentation style lends added power to her message.

“It’s poetic, it has a cadence to it, it has emotion to it,” says Syrek. “There’s something about the way she looks at you that brings you in and captivates you. I watch speeches for a living and I might go as far as to say Tunette Powell could very well be the most naturally gifted speaker I’ve ever seen, and I mean it.”

That she possessed such a powerful gift surprised Powell, who says, “I didn’t know I had that.” She’s grateful others recognized that ability in her, saying. “I needed somebody to believe in me just a little bit.”

To climb as high as she did in so short a time as a public speaker is even more impressive given where she started.

“I was intimidated,” she says. “Forensics is a different world. Predominantly white. Even the other black people spoke the same way the white people did. I stuck out like a sore thumb, and I didn’t think I could be successful because of that. My voice is a little raspy when I speak loud and my topic was different and the way it was written was different.”

The way she dressed was different too. She wore casual, thrown-together worn clothes in contrast to her speaking peers’ expensive new outfits.

Syrek says Powell struggled learning the conventions of forensics but after assuring her her self-doubts were misplaced the novice began excelling.

“I had to stand certain ways and do certain things. It was so much for me, it was the most challenging thing ever. I wanted to quit after my first tournament. But my coaches just kept telling me, ‘You need to continue because you’re going to change the program,’ which I took to mean that God placed me here to open the minds of people. I learned I really shouldn’t put myself in a box.”

As Powell advanced through state and national competitions Syrek says something unheard of happened: competitors gave the newcomer standing ovations that undoubtedly influenced judges. Syrek say’s this knack for engaging and touching audiences stems in part from the conviction with which she speaks.

 

 

 

 

“She made her father’s story matter to everybody and a lot of that was in the writing, in the way she set it up. It was very dramatic. And she was writing from life experience.”

Drawing on her own past, Powell taps personal feelings and incidents that deeply resonate with others.

“When I think about what I’ve been through I can reach people that others who haven’t been through the same thing can’t.”

Writing’s become her creative and therapeutic outlet.

“It’s in everything I do. I just bleed writing, I cant explain it. I feel it’s so healing, it’s medicine to me, it’s done so much for me, it keeps me going.”

She hardly believes what’s happened since last April. Winning the speech competition. Graduating UNO. Hired to write her Momaha blog. Getting her memoir published. Taking the job with the Omaha Boys and Girls Clubs

“It’s huge.”

Along the way, she’s discovered what she wants to do with the rest of her life – motivational speaking. “That’s what I’m going to do, that’s my calling – writing and speaking. It comes to me very easily. It’s a burdensome joy, it takes everything out of me, but once I’m done I need to do it again. My body replenishes itself and the thoughts come.”

She sees a through-line from her writing to her Christian faith.

“The book was the most spiritual thing I’ve ever done. I kid you not, it was one of these things where if I didn’t pray I couldn’t write. When I turned 22 I rededicated my life back to Christ. I started doing the right things. Like my dad wakes up every day and he has to choose to do the right thing, I have to wake up and choose to do the right thing. I’m a high self-monitor because I have to be. If I see myself looking for certain things or acting a certain way I pull myself back.”

She says it took the crucible of writing her book and finding her voice before “I finally started to see this is my purpose in life.” Her father, who’s on parole and strung together five months of sobriety until a New Year’s relapse, is her biggest supporter. “He always reminds me, ‘You’re a born storyteller, you have to do this.’ I think that’s what kept me going.”

He works in a culinary program and eyes opening his own bakery one day. Tunette wants to help him achieve it. Despite everything he did to her and the family she loves him,

“Me and my dad, we’ve got the closest relationship. I speak to my dad every day. It’s been heartbreaking for me because I am so close to him, so even when he had his recent relapse I was the one calling my grandma every hr to see if he came in, I was the one on the phone with his girlfriend, listening to her as she talked about how she’s tired of my dad and all this.

“I’m trying to still be there for my family and not show that I’m so hurt. I love my dad so much but I’m the one who could be hurt the most because I’m the one who’s put so much in.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

As she worked on her book her father fleshed out things she didn’t know before, including  just how unfaithful he was to her mother in the throes of his using. “It was so hard to hear that part,” she says.

“There’s some scenes in the book I couldn’t have written without him because I was not there and he allowed me to interview him, so I played reporter.”

She says she was saddened to learn his father and step-father were both raging alcoholics. She suspects some of what she had him dredge up and some of what she’s written about will sadden him, but in the end, she says, “I think he’s grown from this process. I could see him healing. I think when he reads the book it will make him really strong.”

Just as it’s brought her healing and strength. She can hardly believe where she’s come to. Things looked so bleak only a few years ago and now she’s on her way.

“My favorite quotation is, ‘Attitude is the thing that can change the color of any room.’ I mean, that’s just what I live by.”

She envisions a time, not long from now, when she and her father will present together.

“I think of my dad as a poor man’s Aristotle. Anything I need – a bible verse, a quote, a statistic – Ii call my dad and he’s got it. He has so much knowledge, he has so much to give the world. God let him go through so much so he’ll be able to reach people others can’t reach. He can really get on people’s level and really talk to them. He says he knows his calling is teaching.”

Her father even provided the tag line that ends her award-winning speech:

“The irony here is that we live in a society where we are told to recycle. We recycle paper, aluminum, and old electronics. But why don’t we ever consider recycling the most precious thing on earth – the human life.”

There’s a book release party for Powell’s memoir The Other Woman on Saturday, from 6 to 8 p.m., at the UNO Art Gallery in the Weber Fine Arts building.

Visit Powell’s website at http://www.tunettepowell.com. Her Momaha blog can be found at http://www.omaha.com/section/moms. Her book is available wherever books are sold.

Book Explores University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Rich History

August 2, 2012 2 comments

My alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, doesn’t possess the kind of larger-than-life, romantic tradition one associates with elite schools, which it most definitely is not.  But in its own humble way the school has accumulated a notable and rich enough history.  A modest book about that history was released a few years ago on the eve of UNO turning 100.  This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) more or less reviews the book and its impressionistic look at that school that’s seen much change over its lifetime and long ago left behind the West Dodge High moniker that many once attached to it.

 

 

 

 

Book Explores University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Rich History

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

With the UNO centennial nearing, a new book by two longtime historians at the university gives readers a primer on the events and persons that have shaped the school over its nearly 100-year existence. The book, simply titled “University of Nebraska at Omaha,” is part of Arcadia Publishing’s “Campus History Series.”

The text for the photo-rich work is mostly by Oliver Pollak, holder of the Martin Chair in History at UNO. He’s taught at the school since 1974. Pollak is the author of two previous books published by Arcadia — “Jewish Life in Omaha and Lincoln” and “Nebraska Courthouses.”

Selecting the 200-some images that illustrate the UNO volume’s 128-pages largely fell to Les Valentine, a UNO graduate (B.A. 1976, M.A. 1980) who has served as the university archivist since 1986. By virtue of his deep knowledge of UNO history and his intimate familiarity with the thousands of images and documents in the Dr. C.C. and Mabel L. Criss Library’s archives, Valentine was able to provide Pollak the context needed to flesh out the narratives and personalities behind the pictures.

Old acquaintances, the authors teamed up for the book in the spring of 2006 when Pollak suggested the idea to Valentine. The project marked the pair’s first collaboration. Pollak queried Arcadia with the proposal, a contract was signed and a December deadline set. The authors say they met the deadline on the dot.

As the subject is so close to them the men found the project a neat fit. “We’ve both been at UNO for years and years and years,” Valentine says, “and we have a good background on the history of the institution.” Pollak notes they have been at UNO for “a third of the lifetime of the school.”

The process of doing the book around normal duties proved relatively painless. “It was fun working with Les,” Pollak says. “We would get together on Saturday mornings and pull tables together on the lower level of the library and spread out these pictures and mess around with the order…what picture should be facing what picture. Les has been working the archives for so long he had stories and newspaper clippings to support the stories.”

Space issues meant only a small fraction of archival materials made the final cut. “It was a selection process,” Pollak says, adding he and Valentine chose from among digital images, prints, slides and negatives. “There was a variety. We managed to get high quality images and I think they got reproduced very well.” Some choices, he says, “are forced by technology and ratios of width to height.” Enough good photos had to be left out that he and Valentine have toyed with the idea of doing a presentation of them. “There’s still some good images out there,” Pollak says. Or, as Valentine put it, “There’s enough to do four or five photo-books, easy.”

Among their favorites to make it in is the cover image of a circa 1971 campus life scene. It pictures a diverse group of students gathered for a concert outside Arts and Sciences Hall — the then-administration building. The columned structure’s familiar cupola towers overhead. Pollak calls the photo “the iconic vision” of UNO. “It’s students spread out on the green, it’s 1971, it’s music, it’s diversity, it’s an urban university, it’s a school on a hill, it’s springtime. It was just a natural.”

Adding to its weight is the fact the 1938 building was the first structure built on the present north campus.

Valentine likes the background cover image, composed of smiling student faces, documenting a significant aspect of the school’s past. The picture is from a 1951 mill levy election victory party. In the institution’s municipal era, from 1938 to 1968, funding hikes were at the whim of city voters. Often as not, elections went against then-Omaha University. Some students actively campaigned in these elections.

The authors agree the milestone events in UNO’s history, each well documented, are the school’s 1938 move from its original north Omaha site to the current main campus and the move from the municipal model into the NU system. Just as the transition from municipal to state funding opened new horizons, including an expansion program that’s never really stopped, the university’s severing of ties to its Presbyterian Church roots ushered in new growth.

The physical move, Pollak said, was key to OU gaining accreditation by the North Central Association, another major event in the school’s life.

“You can’t live without accreditation. It’s important because it’s sort of like a seal of approval,” Pollak says. “You can’t live without a physical plant that’s attractive, just as you couldn’t live on Presbyterians alone.”He said that the school achieved three major defining goals in the 1930s — to municipalize, relocate and be accredited — amidst the constraints and struggles of the Great Depression “is an accomplishment.”

 

 

 

 

Change runs through UNO’s history, but the authors say its mission of providing a quality higher ed option to urban, working-class students has remained constant. What may surprise readers? One thing the authors point to is how the school welcomed women and racial minorities long before politically correct to do so.

UNO’s latest sea changes, they say, include the addition of dormitories, the development of the south campus and the embrace of information technology. Pollak says the way the university adapts to its times “is like a breeder-reactor” — putting out an ever exponentially greater return than what it takes in. UNO’s growth, while not always smooth, moves forward.

“Some hiccups, some burps, some setbacks, some waiting a little bit longer than you thought you would want to wait for innovation, and then crafting it in a way that fits Omaha,” he says. “Some people oppose it because it’s state funds, some because ‘they’re coming into my neighborhood,’ but it’s positively relentless.”

Leadership drives change and the figures at the top over this 100 years range from loyal soldier W. Gilbert James to tragic William Sealock to strong Milo Bail to embattled Leland Traywick to visionary Del Weber. The authors say the tenures of UNO presidents/chancellors tend to be placid or stormy. But the heartbeat of a university is its students, faculty and staff and the book is replete with examples of programs, activities, classes and rituals that express this human dimension.

From parades, athletic contests and commencements to groundbreaking ceremonies to visiting dignitaries to student protests to class/team photos to walks in Elmwood Park, it’s all charted. Even life in those awful annexes/Quonset huts.

Valentine says beyond alums, the book should appeal to a wide readership.

“Certainly people in Omaha should enjoy the book. It was their institution, for years and years and years, and in fact it’s still their institution,” he says. “We kind of grew up along with the city in many ways.”

The book is available online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or at fine bookstores.

Project Improve Aims to Make the Best of a Bad Situation with Illegal Immigrant Detainees

July 24, 2012 1 comment

 

No matter how you feel about the issue of illegal immigration in the U.S. you have to sympathize with parents whose only crime is living here without proper documentation who have the misfortune of being arrested and then detained in jail, all while awaiting deportation, and in the meantime finding themselves separated from family, including children.  We’re not talking about identity theives.  We’re talking about people holding down jobs and raising families and abiding by laws except for that murky no-man’s land called a border they breeched.  For years the nation looked the other way at what was essentially an open border but now it’s intent on closing that border and throwing back over it anyone who’s managed to cross it illegally, even those who’ve made productive lives for themselves and their families in America.  It’s cruel and unusual punishment that only adds to social disruption and incurs extra costs without really solving anything.  It’s purely a power play by the haves against the have-nots.  This is a story about a small program through the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha that offers Spanish-speaking detainees some educational support services during their incarceration and that tries to provide a platform for parents to connect with their children.

 

 

 

 

 

Project Improve Aims to Make the Best of a Bad Situation with Illegal Immigrant Detainees

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

With immigration enforcement a national priority, jails are filled with individuals whose only crime is being in the U.S. illegally.

Out of sight, out of mind behind bars these civil offenders risk being lumped in with the habitually criminalized. Advocates say it’s all too easy to forget many detainees have been law-abiding, gainfully-employed residents. Many are parents. Once arrested and jailed they face separation from loved ones and home.

Being severed from family while the legal process drags on poses challenges the criminal justice and penal system are not necessarily well prepared to address without expert intervention.

With no programs serving its growing population of Spanish-speaking detainees, Douglas County Department of Correction officials asked the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for help in early 2009. OLLAS met with staff and detainees as a first step in creating a detainee-centered program.

Claudia Garcia, a UNO assistant professor of foreign languages, says she and university colleagues attended jail orientation and conducted two focus-groups with detainees in spring 2009 in order to assess concerns and needs.

“The situation of women, many terribly depressed because of being separated from their young children, was especially pressing for some jail authorities, who were sympathetic to these detainees’ situation,” says Garcia.

Beginning in the summer of 2009 OLLAS faculty launched Project Improve as a community service initiative at the Douglas County Correctional Center, 710 South 17th Street. The effort is focused on helping detainees discuss their predicament, connect with family and become empowered through education. The intent is to provide clients a non-punitive advocacy and support outlet.

Faculty engage detainees in writing, reading and discussion activities designed to promote introspection and self-expression. Garcia says on average 16 men and 11 women participate per session.

“Personally, what strikes me the most about the Latino detainees, especially the women, is their strength and good attitude, and also their ability to give each other support,” Garcia says. “I think we provide a space that allows them to reflect, process and articulate their personal journeys.”

OLLAS director Lourdes Gouevia says, “The inmates express their stories through various media and record messages and stories for their children.” UNO assistant professor of education Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni  says participants appreciate the opportunity to respectfully own their own experience: “This is a time for them to have an avenue to be themselves. They’ve told us we treat them with dignity, we treat them like human beings, we don’t look at them like they’re incarcerated.”

The experience has made an impression on the academics.

“It’s been a very intense and enriching learning process,” says Garcia, adding that it’s “one thing is to have an intellectual knowledge” of these issues “but it’s very different to talk, interact and become emotionally affected by the individuals going through these hard times. For me, the big eye-opener is the definition of criminal. Many detainees we work with have violated immigration law, but they are certainly not dangerous criminals. Most are just mothers and fathers who have tried their best to give their families a better life, and have been working without proper documentation.

“Most who come to our sessions are really engaged in a process of self-growth, using this time in jail to re-visit their own lives. They appreciate the opportunity to learn and be better people when they get out. It’s really a very moving experience.”

Brignoni says “it saddens us” that most of the detainees are presumably awaiting deportation. “We get a new group all the time because they don’t stay there.”

After a prolonged break, the project is presuming monthly sessions in December,

Garcia is impressed by DCDC’s embrace of Project Improve.

“It’s been a very welcoming institution. DCDC understands the importance of educational and support programs for their detainee population, and are very proud to have a diversity of volunteers go there and share time and knowledge with the detainees. The officers in charge of educational programs are very helpful and very clear.”

UNO/OLLAS Resident Expert on Cuban and Latino Matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

July 18, 2012 3 comments

 

Sometimes it’s easy to assume that academics are cloistered away in their ivy towers, isolated from the real world.  That’s certainly not the case with Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado.  The University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor does his share of research but much of it takes him out of his office, off campus, and out into mainstream of life, whether to the barrios of South Omaha or Cuba, where he’s traveled many times for his research.  I was reminded to post this profile of him I wrote a couple years ago after reading a piece in the local daily about his latest trip to Cuba, this time leading a group of UNO students to help restore a theater there that he hopes becomes a conduit for future arts-cultural exhanges.  In his work he’s just as likely to meet with folks just trying to get by as he is with U.S. and Cuban diplomats and leaders.  He’s even met Castro.

 

 

 

Dr. Benjamin-Alvarado

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

 

 

 

UNO/OLLAS Resident Expert on Cuban and Latino Matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

For author, researcher, activist and University of Nebraska at Omaha associate professor of political science Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, political engagement is a birthright.

His mother Romelia marched with Cesar Chavez in the California migrant labor movement. Both his parents know first hand the migrant worker struggle. They also know the empowering change hard work and opportunity can bring.

Benjamin-Alvarado still marvels how his folks made “a hyper speed transition” from their vagabond life hand-picking crops wherever the next harvest was to achieving the American Dream within 20 years. “The day I was born my dad was picking lettuce and the day I graduated from high school he owned his own business and we lived in a really nice house in the suburbs.”

From his mother, who worked on behalf of women’s and Latino rights and as a political campaign volunteer, he learned activism. From his father he learned ambition and determination. As someone who grew up in The Burbs, never having to toil in the fields, Benjamin-Alvarado fully realizes how charmed he’s been to have role models like these.

“To this very day I’m reminded of the lessons and examples presented before me. These were people who prided themselves on what they did. They were people with an incredible sense of dignity and self respect,” he said. “I think what makes things like Cesar Chavez (or his mother) happen is they’re not willing to cede that one iota. They made it very clear that your abuse and subjugation of me will not define me.

“I shutter to think what my forbearers could have done had they had the opportunities I’ve been extended, especially given the incredible work ethic they had. They had no choice but to work hard. It’s only as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized what an incredible legacy and, in turn, responsibility I have to pay it forward. I’m very fortunate to have been able to live and travel all over the world and to be educated in incredible places. My whole thing now is what can I do to make sure others have these opportunities. I really do cherish what I have been granted and I feel an overriding sense of obligation.”

Despite comforts, life at home for he and his brother was unpleasant. Their father was an abusive partner to their mother. The siblings were also misfits in mostly Anglo schools and neighborhoods. To escape, the boys read voraciously. “That was our refuge from all the craziness in our lives. We were really just sponges,” said Jonathan. He did well in school and was enrolled in college when he abruptly left to join the U.S. Navy.

“I think everybody in my family was aghast but i really did it more for purposes of self-preservation and to establish some independence for myself. I needed to leave.”

His 1976-1980 Naval tour fit the bill.

“For me it was just four years of incredible discovery,” he said. “I met for the first time blacks from the northeast and Chicago, kids from the South and the Midwest, other Latinos.  All of that was very interesting to me. I came to appreciate them and their cultures in ways I couldn’t possibly have done so had I stayed sequestered in California, where it’s very insular and you think the world revolves around you.”

Back home he used the G.I. bill to attend ucla, where he said he went from doubting whether he belonged to believing “I’m competitive with the cream of the crop. That realization stunned me. There was no limit at that point. I was in a different world.”

Then an incident he doesn’t like discussing occurred. It took five years to recover from physical and emotional wounds. He eventually earned his bachelor’s degree and did stints at Stanford and Harvard. He earned his master’s at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. While working at its think tank, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, he began intensive research on Cuba. He’s traveled there 25 times, often spending months per visit. Cuba remains a major focus of his professional activity.

Recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency, he seriously entertained doing clandestine work before deciding he didn’t want to give up his academic freedom. Besides, he said, “I don’t and won’t keep secrets because it gets you into trouble.” Already married and with a child, he opted to complete his doctoral studies at the University of Georgia. He landed major grants for his Cuban research. Along the way he’s become a recognized expert on Cuban energy and foreign policy, authoring one book and editing another on that nation’s energy profile and what it bodes for future cooperation with the West.

A temporary teaching post at Georgia then set him on a new track.

“I had not given the idea of being a classroom instructor much thought prior to that,” he said. “I thought I was going to spend my life as a senior researcher — a wonk. But I got this bug (to teach). I realized almost immediately I like doing this, they like me, this is a good gig. It didn’t feel like I had to work real hard to do it, a lot of it just came naturally, and I had this reservoir to draw on.”

When grant funding dried up he sought a full-time teaching job and picked UNO over several offers, in part for it’s dynamic growth and emerging Latino community. He’s been at UNO 10 years. His Cuba work has continued but in a different way.

 

 

Benjamin-Alvarado with Castro

 

 

“The purposes of my visits have changed dramatically. Initially they were all for conducting basic research, doing lots of interviews on the ground. In the late 1990s I was involved in making some film documentaries for a PBS series. Then I spent five-six years taking students and faculty and people from the community to Cuba.”

Then the U.S. banned academic trips there. His last few visits he’s “been part of high level delegations with former Pentagon and State Department staff. This last one (in November) was with former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering.” In 2006 he met with senior government officials, including Fidel Castro, Raoul Castro, the president of the national assembly and ministers of other government bureaucracies. On these visits he’s there as “technical advisor-resident expert” for debriefings, analysis and reading beyond the rhetoric to decipher what’s really being said through interpreters.

He believes normalized relations only make sense for two nations with such an affinity for each other. Once restrictions are lifted he envisions a Cuban trip with area public and private sector leaders. He and a colleague plan to convene an international conference in Havana, of university presidents from North and South America “to discuss the trajectory of higher education in the 21st century for the Americas.”

His connections helped broker a deal for Nebraska selling ag products to Cuba. Closer to home, he advises government on Latino matters and is active in the Democratic Party. He’d like to see more Latinos active in local politics. A recipient of UNO’s Outstanding Teacher Award, he said the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies at UNO “has been a godsend for me. OLLAS has been central to helping me live out what I do in my community. There’s an element of it that is very personal. When we founded OLLAS we intentionally created something that would have a community base and make the community a part of what we do. We want our work to be not only politically but socially relevant. That’s been the basis for the outreach projects we’ve undertaken.”

Recent projects include reports on immigration and Latino voter mobilization.

Hundreds Attend OLLAS Conference Cumbre to Give and Get Diverse Perspectives on Migration Issues

July 17, 2012 5 comments

I am not normally crazy about covering events because I think of myself more as a writer than a reporter.  While spending several hours at an academic and community confab I was assigned to report on is not my idea of a good time I did mostly enjoy covering the 2010 Cumbre conference put on by the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The big topic under discussion was human mobility or migration and the political, social, economic, and personal fallout of populations in flux.  It’s interesting how things work because a year or so after the event I became aware of a great book about one of the most important and underdoumented migration experiences in U.S. history – the great migration of African-Americans from the South to all points North and West.  The book by Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, is one I eventually read and wrote about, interviewing Wilkerson at some length, then meeting her before a talk she gave in Omaha.  And that sparked my beginning to do research for a story or series of stories on African-Americans who migrated from the South to Nebraska.  I’ll write that story next year in conjunction with the big black heritage celebration here known as Native Omaha Days.  And I was to have undertaken a rather epic project all about human migration for a Catholic community of missionaries but it has been put on hold.  Finally, I may be making an individual and temporary migration this fall reporting on set of Alexander Payne’s upcoming feature production Nebraska, which would find me embedding myself among the crew as they traverse from eastern Montana across much of Nebraska for the making of this road movie.  So, you see, in the midst of overcoming my reluctance to cover a migration conference I found myself open to a pattern of migration subjects and opportunities that came my way.  Would they have otherwise?  Who knows?  I’m just glad they did.

 

 

 

 

Hundreds Attend OLLAS Conference Cumbre to Give and Get Diverse Perspectives on Migration Issues

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

A wide spectrum of Latino concerns, including the need for federal immigration reform, swirled around the May 14-15 Cumbre conference held at Omaha‘s Embassy Suites in the Old Market. The theme was Human Mobility, the Promise of Development and Political Engagement.

The every-few-years summit hosted by UNO’s Office of Latino and Latin American Studies is part I’ll-show-you-mine, if-you-show-me-yours research exchange, part old-fashioned networking event and part open mic forum.

More than 400 registrants from near and far came to share ideas. The perspectives ranged from star academics allied with major institutions to local grassroots organizers.

Adding urgency was the divisive new Arizona law targeting illegal immigrants. OLLAS director Lourdes Gouveia said when planning for this year’s summit began four years ago immigration was a hot topic. It was expected to remain so once Barack Obama won the White House, but the health care debate put it on the back burner.

“We began to think well maybe this was not the year when the national context about immigration was really going to provide the impetus,” she said, “and then along comes Arizona. All at once we had people like Jason Marczak (policy director with Americas Society/Council of the Americas) call and say, ‘I’d like to come, is it too late?’ We had vans of people coming from Colorado and Iowa. We had people showing up from all kinds of communities in the Great Plains, besides all the international scholars from Africa, India, Latin America, Europe.”

Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle and State Sen. Brenda Council kicked off the event. State Sen. Brad Ashford was a panelist and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray served as a moderator.

Beyond facilitating dialogue, Cumbre introduces new scholarship. Coordinators for the Woodrow Wilson Center Mexico Institute’s Latino Immigrant Civic Engagement Project chose Cumbre to unveil their report’s findings of Latino civic involvement in nine U.S. cities, including Omaha. The authors tied engagement levels to several factors. Generally, the more engaged immigrants are with their country of origin, the more engaged they are in their adopted homeland. High participation in church activities correlates with high participation in civic activities. Coalitions, whether community, church or work-based, such as the Heartland Workers Center in Omaha, act as gateways for increased engagement.

But each Latino immigrant community has its own dynamics that influence participation, thus authors titled their report “Context Matters.” Co-author Xochitl Bada, a University of Illinois at Chicago assistant professor, presented the findings.

OLLAS issued its own site report, “Migrant Civil Society Under Construction.” Investigators conducted roundtable discussions with local Latino immigrants, who said that fear, inadequate education and lack of information are barriers to engagement.

Bada said Omaha is rather unique in being both a new and old destination for Latino migration, a mix that may partly account for the moderate levels of civic-political participation by the emerging Latino immigrant community here.

Respondents in all nine cities regarded the 2006 immigration mobilization marches as a turning point in Latino engagement but expressed disappointment the movement did not  sustain itself.

Among other panels: UNO economist Christopher Decker outlined Latino immigrants’ substantial economic impact in state; and UNO languages professor Claudia Garcia detailed a project delivering education programs and restoring family connections to local Spanish-speaking immigrant prison detainees.

Cumbre’s hallmark is gathering under one roof different players. Speeches, panels, workshops, town hall meetings, Q & As and breakout sessions provide opportunities for these wonks, worker bees, policymakers and service providers to interact.

Princeton University scholar and Center for Migration and Development director Alejandro Portes has attended all four Cumbres. The Cuba native said he made his 2010 keynote address on Latino immigrant transnationalism accessible to Cumbre’s diverse audience. The Creighton University graduate said, “I think bringing the community and the scholars in the same room is one of the things I like about it. The organizers have great talent in bringing these different constituencies together.”

Another featured speaker, journalist, author and University of Southern California communication professor Roberto Suro, said what distinguishes Cumbre is “it attracts really A-list, blue-ribbon people from the academic world and at the same time a very broad swath of people who work on the ground. It’s the only conference I know of that does that. There’s a reason the room’s full.”

In his address Suro spoke about “reimagining” Latino migration policies in both the sending Central and Latin American countries and in the receiving United States.

“Through gatherings like this,” Suro said, “what you see is people broadening the horizons of policy discussion and starting to think about reformulating issues, adding to the agenda and starting to develop the kind of understandings and intellectual framework that might permit better policy in the future.”

Suro told the audience that researchers and activists like them are well ahead of policymakers and politicians on the issue and give him reason for optimism.

OLLAS assistant director Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado said some of what happens at Cumbre “is bound to be carried” to global forums,” adding, “and that to me is probably the highest compliment for what we try to do in bringing all these people together.”

Xochitl Bada, co-principal investigator of the Latino immigration Civic Engagement Project, said Cumbre “has a very important public aspect. Unlike most academic conferences, it’s conceived “as a report back to the community.” She said the fact the summit is free makes it inclusive. “That’s very unusual.” She said another mark of Cumbre’s open door approach is the simultaneous translation, from Spanish to English and from English to Spanish, it provides to ensure that “language is not a barrier.” She called Cumbre an important vehicle for “public discourse” and “public dissemination.”

Rev. Ernesto Medina, pastor of St. Martha Episcopal Church in Omaha, moderated a panel discussion on human rights, work and community membership. He said he appreciates the opportunity Cumbre presents “to see things holistically” and to put “different communities and different passions” in the same room to find common ground.

Though many differing views were voiced, some consensus emerged: immigration reform must happen but the current partisan climate makes it unlikely soon; criminalization of migrants is punitive, narrow-minded, counterproductive and damaging to families; today’s nativist anti-immigration arguments echo those of the past; lawmakers need good data about immigration to make good policy; Latino immigrants can be fully engaged in both their country of origin and American society; remittances made by Latino migrants to their native countries are crucial to those economies.

Roberto Suro said the full contributions of the recent Latino migrant wave can only be weighed when second generation children reach adulthood. He advocates Latino immigrants be viewed as more than merely a subsistence labor force.

National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Countries executive director Oscar Chacon called for more “robust” organizations like his that represent Latino immigrant interests and celebrate their cultural differences while working toward “common cause.”

Alejandro Portes warned if the rhetoric and actions of anti-migrant forces continue “it could usher in ethnic unrest, and there’s absolutely no reason for that. I don’t think it will get that bad because of Obama in the White House and the federal government at some point is going to enter the situation and bring some kind of immigration reform.”

A Homage to the Bootstrapper by the Grande Olde Players

July 9, 2012 2 comments

 

For a long time and even today the University of Nebraska at Omaha was best known for its large Bootstrapper program for military personnel.  The school is vastly different than it was when the program launched during the Cold War but it’s impact remains.  The following story from a half-dozen years ago or more is about an original play written by the Omaha husband and wife team of Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill that takes a nostalgic look at the program’s beginnings, and those beginnings involved two strong leaders, then-Omaha University president Milo Bail and Strategic Air Command head and hawk of hawks Gen. Curtis LeMay, who some suggest was the inspiration for the character of Gen. Buck Turgidson that George C. Scott plays in Dr. Strangelove.  A Midwest academic and a military reactionary may seem to have made strange bedfellows but then again it’s not hard to imagine that two powerful middle-aged white men should come together in right wing solidarity “for the boys.”

 

 

 

 

photo
©UNO Criss Library

 

 

 

A Homage to the Bootstrapper by the Grande Olde Players

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The Grande Olde Players Theatre pays homage to Omaha’s deep military ties with the new play Bootstrappers Christmas, now through December 17. Written by the theater’s Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill, the nostalgic 1954-set piece tells a fictional story amid the trappings of history. The relationship between then-Omaha University and the former Strategic Air Command in Bellevue, Neb. is at the center of this holiday-themed dramadie.

Early in his stint as commander of the newly formed SAC, Gen. Curtis LeMay, architect of U.S. bombing campaigns in Europe and the Pacific and overseer of the Berlin Airlift, identified the need for a more professional corps of college-educated personnel. After World War II the U.S. Air Force had a glut of officers. Many had some college prior to the service and once “on the line” accrued credits at schools near where they were based, but few ever got their degrees.

LeMay, an American hero whose reactionary, right-wing views later tarnished his reputation, broached Operation Bootstrap with his egg-head friend, the late Milo Bail, then-president of what’s now the University of Nebraska at Omaha. By helping commissioned officers finish their degrees, the program would aid their climb up the ladder as well as better prepare them for post-military life. The idea of men and women “lifting themselves by their bootstraps” gave the program its name.

Bail and fellow UNO officials recognized the school was well-poised to serve military folks by virtue of a large adult education unit and Bachelor of General Studies (BGS) program that allowed nontraditional students to individualized studies in subjects of interest or deficiency. “Omaha University was really the first school in the country to offer” the BGS, said William Utley, former UNO College of Continuing Studies dean. More appealing still, he said, were the “earned life credits” granted officers for experience gained in the field, which cut by a semester their degree track.

 

 

 

Milo Bail
Curtis LeMay

 

 

 

The school’s extensive night courses offered yet more flexibility. Besides the cache of this partnership, school officials craved the extra money derived from the higher non-resident tuition bootstrappers paid. Between Offutt’s close proximity and Omaha’s central location, the military could feed students there not just from Offutt but from bases all over the U.S. and the world.

That’s what happened, too, as an influx of mostly Air Force but also Army soldiers and Marines made UNO the nation’s largest on-campus education provider for bootstrappers. Officers rotated in on active duty or TDY. Utley, director of the UNO program, said at its 1960s peak 1,200 to 1,500 “boots” attended school there at any one time. “There were any number of commencement exercises when over half of the graduating class was bootstrappers,” he said.

Alumni officials estimate 13,000-plus active duty military personnel attended UNO from the early ‘50s to the ‘80s.

Utley said UNO prided itself on being responsive to officers’ needs and interests by “developing” a system to stay in “constant communication” with them, no matter where their assignments took them. He said both active and prospective students received “counseling and advising” services to facilitate their education.

The presence of so many boots changed the dynamic of the school, especially in those early years, when it was a small, financially strapped municipal university, not yet a part of the University of Nebraska system.

“The Bootstrap Program was a major factor for several years in keeping the university afloat with the revenue” it generated, Utley said. “It was a very important element in the survival of the university during that period, when the university was really hard up.”

UNO Alumni Association President Emeritus Jim Leslie said bootstrappers were “a tremendous boon” to UNO’s finances. For a while, he said, UNO enjoyed a near monopoly in serving the bootstrap population. “It was a big deal,” he said. “For a while we claimed we were second only to West Point in the number of general officers that had graduated from our institution.” Some were stars like Johnnie Wilson, a four-star general. Other schools eventually cut in on the action.

Utley said the infusion of so many “highly motivated” students changed the academic culture at UNO. “They were a very serious group. Very good students,” said Leslie, who had boots as classmates there in the early ‘60s. “They were here to gain an education and most of them were older and more mature. Professors loved those guys because they asked the best questions.”

 

 

 

 

photo
 ©UNO Criss Library

 

 

 

“A lot of students viewed them as ‘curve busters’ who made it harder to compete in the classroom or set a higher standard in the classroom. And no faculty member is going to complain about that,” said retired UNO professor Warren Francke, who had his share of boots. “And its true in general they were solid students because they were all business. They were there to do well in the classes.

“I thought they were certainly an asset. There were times when probably the undergraduates had a legitimate complaint that maybe they dominated things so much. But mostly,” Francke said, the boots “added a dimension to what” otherwise “was a commuter campus without a lot of people who had been all over the world…I thought their addition was sort of a valuable thing to have.”

While Bootstrappers Christmas is a slight, sentimental romp filled with a mix of ‘50s-era rock and traditional Christmas music, writer-director Mark Manhart does anchor the story in the real symbiosis between UNO and Offutt. The flamboyant Curtis LeMay and the non-nonsense Milo Bail are characters. The plot revolves around a boot who befriends a Cold War widow coed and other students in remodeling the campus Snack Shack in time for putting on a holiday show. The fun is tinged with the sadness of separation and loss, but hope prevails.

The play’s also about making new starts, something the bootstrap program epitomized. Ex-Air Force pilot Jim Hughes spoke for many boots when he said, “The university was the first milestone in my growth with the Air Force and I attribute any success and all successes I’ve had to that little development. I owe a debt of gratitude to the university…It introduced me to education oriented to my needs.”

The Iowa native and current Magnolia, Ark. resident said his general education degree catapulted him “up the ladder.” In 1973 he retired from active duty as a decorated colonel. He earned the Bronze Star, four distinguished Flying Crosses and five Airmedals. He received two Purple Hearts for injuries suffered as a POW.

NOTE: Operation Bootstrap supplanted Operation Midnight Oil. In 2002 the Air Force replaced the Bootstrap Program with the Educational Leave of Absence Program (ELA), although many in the service still refer to it by its old name.

Omaha’s KVNO 90.7 FM Turns 40: Commercial-Free Public Radio Station Serves the Community, All Classical Music and Local News Content Set it Apart

February 11, 2012 1 comment

 

 

Omaha’s KVNO Classical 90.7 FM Turns 40: 

Commercial-Free Public Radio Station Serves the CommunityAll Classical Music and Local News Content Set it Apart

©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in Metro Magazine

While the commercial radio menu leans to blow-hard hosts and pop heavy rotations, public radio’s soothing sounds and erudite musings cut through the clutter. KVNO 90.7 FM further stands out for its all-classical play lists and original local newscasts.

Music, public affairs, news mix by KVNO for Omaha

The UNO-based independent celebrates 40 years on-air in 2012, an impressive feat considering its niche appeal as a commercial-free operation dependent on donor support for survival. The professionally-staffed station maintains high quality. The news division particularly serves as a real-world training ground for students.

KVNO long ago opted to be the master of its own content.

“KVNO’s programming is indeed unique among independent classical stations across the country,” says general manager and mid-day-midnight host Dana Buckingham. “KVNO has developed our own blend of classical music programming format that works well for us and the market we serve.

“Many traditional classical stations stick to a rigid programming formula that rarely deviates from the standard playbook of the ‘tried and true’ classics. This homogenized classical programming format almost never crosses over into more contemporary classical, vocal or film music. At KVNO we cross that line almost every hour and our listeners love it.”

A KVNO Radio studio today

 

 

Michael Hilt, who as UNO Associate Dean for the College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media oversees KVNO, sees value in personally crafting the program day.

“I think more and more you’re seeing stations going to services that provide the music. They may program part of their broadcast day but not all of it. We have a music director who works with the general manager on programming the music 24/7.”

Audience feedback is considered in programming decisions, officials note.

Buckingham says a “renewed commitment” to news and public affairs has netted award-winning results. “I am very proud of the achievements our talented news team has made. News director Robyn Wisch is a true professional and a great resource and mentor for our students.”

He says where KVNO once “sought to distance itself” from the university, “no more,” adding, “We are the broadcasting voice of the University of Nebraska Omaha and proud of it.” Hilt says the station maintains autonomy though. “The university lets us do what we do. Sometimes there are things we do they love and then there are other times when they say,’ Gee, we wish you hadn’t done that.’ Is there any censorship or editorial control? No.”

A new partnership, strengthening local arts ties, staying relevant

In January KVNO embarked on a programming partnership with NET Radio that enables each to serve a larger statewide audience and to introduce listeners to new voices. Expanding KVNO’s reach, says Hilt, “is very important to us.” Buckingham terms it “a win-win.”

Public radio and the arts make a natural fit, thus KVNO, which once branded itself “fine arts public radio” and served as “the voice of the Summer Arts Festival,” is a dedicated arts advocate and programming outlet.

“Our affiliation with the local arts scene is very strong and we are always seeking ways to make these relationships even stronger,” says Buckingham. “We’re exploring the possibility of producing an expanded weekly broadcast series of the Omaha Symphony.” He sees possibilities for the series beyond Omaha. “It is my hope we may eventually offer this expanded series for nationwide distribution. We are also in the process of integrating more classical music selections featuring the Omaha Symphony into our regular daily playlist and rotation.”

KVNO broadcasts the UNO Music Department series “Sounds from Strauss” and Omaha Symphonic Chorus and Tuesday Musical Concert performances. The station recognizes youth musicians through its Classical Kids program. Aside from the performing arts, KVNO does its share of live UNO sports broadcasts.

To remain relevant in this new media age of cable, satellite and the Internet, Buckingham says, “we cannot afford to be just another classical music service provider, we must be connected to our community and involved in promoting and providing a forum for the talented musicians and artists in our community.”

Popular on-air hosts help the station build listener loyalty, an essential facet in such an intimate medium.

“I have been an on-air classical music host on KVNO for over a decade,” he says. “In fact, most of our on-air classical announcers have been here a long-time. Over that time, we have established a connection with our listeners that has helped us through the good times and the not so good times. Many regular listeners have established a ‘relationship’ with our local hosts. We are always that familiar and friendly voice in the morning, afternoon, evening or late at night.”

Doing more with less and reinventing itself

University budget cuts and pinched donor dollars have forced a frugal station to further stretch already thin resources.

“Believe me, we know how to do more with less,” he says. “We do it every day. We furnished our newsroom entirely with computers handed down from other departments on campus and office equipment from university surplus..”

That austerity harkens back to the station’s modest roots. When KVNO first went on the air in 1972 general manager Fritz Leigh was the lone full-time employee. At the start KVNO stayed on-air only a few hours a day, gradually expanding the schedule until reaching a 24-hour broadcast day in 1985. For its first 15 years the station called the Storz mansion home before moving to the Engineering Building in 1987.

 

 

photoA KVNO Radio studio in the early days at the Storz mansion, ©photo UNO Criss Library

 

 

When Omaha DJ Otis Twelve became the morning drive host in 2006 it was not the first time a media personality joined KVNO. Local TV-radio personalities Frank Bramhall and Dale Munson did so in the 1970s and 1990s, respectively.

It may surprise listeners KVNO once played an eclectic mix of classical, jazz, rock, big band and folk before going all classical in the ’90s. A show it once produced and distributed, Tom May’s “River City Folk,” went national. KVNO is no longer associated with the show. Ironically, the show now airs on KVNO’s local public radio competitor, KIOS.

With a little help from its friends

One thing that’s never changed is the importance of financial support. Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding only covers so much. The rest must come from donors, memberships and sponsors. The station has thousands of loyal fans and some very generous funders, but Buckingham says, “less than 10 percent of those who listen to KVNO on a regular basis actually take the initiative to pony-up and contribute financially. We are obviously not getting the message out effectively.”

Volunteering for pledge drives is another way to help.

He’s actively seeking prospective business sponsors with this pitch. “Underwriting on KVNO is a cost effective way to promote your business and raise your organization’s profile and image. We reach a very desirable demographic-audience.” It’s a more diverse audience than one might expect. “Our listeners are not just scholars, musicians, business leaders, writers, students, intellectuals and teachers. Our devoted listeners are also butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.”

Bottom line, he says KVNO adds to the city’s cultural fabric. It follows then that becoming a sponsor or member helps KVNO improve the quality of life, in turn making Omaha a more attractive place to live. The 2012 membership drive unfolds in March. To join or give, call 402-554-5866 or visit www.kvno.org.

UNO Afghanistan Teacher Education Project Trains Women Educators from the Embattled Nation

December 20, 2011 1 comment

The role the U.S. has played in Afghanistan and with visiting Afghans in this country is fraught with controversy.  The same holds true for what the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies has done and continues doing in terms of training and immersion opportunities offered to Afghan students and professionals who come here to participate in various programs. The controversy stems from the complex problems facing Afghanistan, economically, politically, culturally, and the strategic motivations by Americans to aid, occupy, and control that country. Whether you see controversy or not depends on your point of view.  Leaving politics and motivations aside, UNO’s programs have provided a link or bridge unlike few others in giving Afghans some of the tools they need to rebuild and restore their embattled and ravaged nation. This story from several years ago profiles a project that saw scores of Afghan women educators come here to further their professional development.  The story appeared in truncated form in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and here I’m able to present it in its entirety.  This blog contains other stories I’ve written about UNO’s deep ties to Afghanistan.

 

 

UNO Afghanistan Teacher Education Project Trains Women Educators from the Embattled Nation 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The latest cadre of teachers in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Afghanistan Teacher Education Project return home this weekend after a month of training and cultural exchange Nebraska. This is the third group from Afghanistan to come here in the last year-and-a-half. A new group is scheduled to arrive in the fall. The program, supported by a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs, is part of the UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies’ longtime efforts at repairing the war-ravaged Asian nation’s fractured education system.

Participants, all women, attend computer and intensive English language classes on the UNO campus and observe master teachers at two Omaha elementary schools. The women also visit schools and various attractions statewide, including the program’s satellite communities-schools in Oakland and Scottsbluff, Neb.

Once back in their homeland, the teachers share the skills and methodologies they acquired in the program with their peers. Each graduate is charged with training 10 colleagues from their school. That means the 37 graduates to date will soon have impacted some 370 teachers. Even more are reached via workshops and seminars the graduates present in conjunction with Ministry of Education officials. The women who completed the most training here were prepped for their American trip by their predecessors in the program. This trickle-down approach broadens the program’s reach, thus making a dent in the nation’s extreme teacher shortage.

The first group to come, in 2002, was an older, more tradition-bound bunch. The second, in 2003, were younger and more Westernized as would be expected from ESL teachers. This last cohort — all elementary school teachers — was further yet removed from the Taliban’s reach. Women are the focus of the program because their education was interrupted by prolonged fighting and then banned outright by the now deposed-Taliban. The radical fundamentalists made it a crime, punishable by beatings or reprisals, for females to teach and attend school. Some visiting teachers defied the ban and taught secretly under the repressive regime.

Aabidah, a teacher at Nazo Anaa Middle School in Kabul, is one of 12 women who attended the UNO program in April and May. She risked everything to practice her profession against Taliban edicts. “Yes, it was dangerous. I had six girls in my home. Daughters of friends and neighbors. It was done very secretly,” she said. Under the guise of teaching sewing, she instructed girls in Dari, Pashto and other subjects.

The teachers, ranging in age, experience and sophistication, have made an enduring impression on everyone they’ve met, including their host families and instructors. Robin Martens, who along with her husband, Gene, hosted Aabidah and another Afghan teacher, Lailumaa Popal, at their northwest Omaha home, is impressed with Aabidah’s fearlessness. “She seems to be a brave person. She has a strong personality and she kind of forges ahead even when she’s not sure about things. I like that about her,” Martens said. Regarding the quieter Lailumaa, a teacher at Lycee Zarghoonah in Qandahar, Martens observed, “She’s very caring and I think she must be a very good teacher because whenever I mispronounce a word in Dari, I laugh it off, but she insists I say it correctly.”

Barbara Davis, an Omaha Public Schools reading specialist, has hosted Afghan women in her Benson home. For Davis, they define what it is to be “courageous” under crisis. “If I were in the same situation I don’t know if I could have taught school in my home with the threat of my life. I really don’t know.”

In the capital city of Kabul, where most early training participants came from, women enjoy relative freedom to work and teach and go out on the streets sans chadri (or burqa), the traditional full-body veil. But even Kabul was a harsh place in the grip of the Taliban. “The Taliban was very bad. Very dangerous,” Aabidah said. “When they were in Kabul we don’t have jobs. We stay at home. We wear chadri. No, I don’t like chadri. It was very hot. I like the freedom. Now, we are free and happy. I like all of this in my country.” Things haven’t changed much in more provincial areas, where many recent participants reside and work. Women there must proceed with greater caution. “In Kabul, it’s OK. Outside Kabul, it’s bad,” Aabidah said referring to the current climate for women in Afghanistan.

Afghan teachers training at UNO met with First Lady Laura Bush

 

 

Lailumaa fled with members of her family to Pakistan during the struggle for power in Afghanistan that erupted in civil war in the 1990s. Coming from a family of educators that regards teaching as a higher calling, Lailumaa said she greatly missed her students and her craft. After combined U.S.-Afghan forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, she returned to her homeland to resume teaching.

In the wake of the Taliban’s fall, Lailumaa, Aabidah and other women educators teach openly again. It’s the one thing they can do to restore their country. Aabidah said she teaches because “I love my children, my students, my people. I want a good future for them.” Baiza, a 2002 program grad who taught geography-history in a Mazar Sharif school, said then, “Students are part of my life.”

Sandra Squires, a UNO professor of speech-language-communication disorders, feels a kinship with her Afghan counterparts: “I realize that except for all the trappings, we’re all teachers,” she said. “We’re all very much alike. We love kids and we want to be doing something that can better the world, and that’s universal.” Aabidah feels the same. “Yes, I feel the teachers here are like my sisters,” she said.

In 2002, Baiza described the responsibility she and her fellow teachers feel to transform education at home with the “new concepts and skills” they learn here.

The Afghans have been motivated to be change agents, according to Anne Ludwig, assistant director of the ILUNA, the intensive language program at UNO. “What I see is women who are prepared, enthusiastic and eager to go home and make a difference in their lives and in the lives of other women,” Ludwig said. “I think they learn what they come to learn. One of them said what she would take back more than anything else was the idea that in the American classroom we want the students to feel good and positive, whereas back home the teacher is the autocrat and students are made to feel inferior. She liked the idea of opening up the classroom to where students feel safe, free to communicate and achieve.”

Practicums presented by Howard Faber, an Omaha Dodge Elementary 6th grade teacher fluent in Farsi, demonstrate good teaching practices the Afghans can implement in their own classrooms. He introduced the most recent group to Teacher Expectation Student Achievement or TESA, a set of methods promoting fairness and equality in learning, an issue of great import in Afghanistan, where ethnic-religious differences run deep. As former refugees resettle the country, he said, classrooms are filling with students of widely varying backgrounds and ages.

Faber feels the women symbolize their country’s hoped-for healing. “They’re from different places and different ethnic groups, and I think it’s very positive you have these people of varied cultural backgrounds working together on this common project. I think it bodes well for what might happen in Afghanistan, which now is a little bit like the United States was after the Civil War. You have deep feelings that are going to die slowly. Part of the healing there has to be that these cultural groups that fought so long work together.”

He said TESA alerts teachers to biases they harbor and offers strategies for giving “all children an equal opportunity to participate and to learn and to feel valued and welcomed. I show them what I do in my own classroom. They’re very practical things you don’t need a computer to do.” Later, he and the women discuss what transpired. “They ask me things…they really immerse themselves in the classroom. They even teach children a bit of their language. The kids are especially curious about them writing from right to left. It’s connected well with our studies.”

©photo by Tim Fitzgerald, UNO

 

 

For Afghan teachers, seeing the bounty of American schools is both disheartening and inspiring. Baiza said, “Everywhere we went we saw the facilities, the machines, the technology, and I felt a kind of dismay that we are deprived of them. But I know these things are not dropped from the sky. There’s a lot of research, thinking and hard work that have gone into it…and this gave me a kind of hope that if our people work as hard, someday they will have these things, too.” Recent teacher participants were struck, too, by the disparity. “I’m very sad for the people of Afghanistan because our country’s very poor,” said Lailumaa. “I am upset we don’t have computers, books, notebooks, tables, chairs. We have blackboard and chalk,” said Aabidah. “We want computers. We need schools. That’s our hope.” Her students are “happy to learn” and “very intelligent,” but lack so much.

UNO’s Sandra Squires said the women’s devotion to teaching in the absence of basics makes her feel “very humbled. They’re doing things with absolutely nothing. I mean, they have to solve problems in ways I never had to dream about.” For their return trip, UNO gives each visiting teacher a laptop computer and a backpack filled with school supplies. But as UNO professor of education Carol Lloyd noted, “It still is barely a ripple in this ocean of need.”

Education is a mixed bag in Afghanistan. When schools reopened to great fanfare in 2002, far more students than expected flooded classrooms, which then, like now, were makeshift spaces amid rubble or cramped quarters. That surge has never let up as more refugees return home from camps in Iran and Pakistan. Overcrowded conditions and high student-teacher ratios continue to be a problem. Damaged schools are being rebuilt and new ones going up, but demand for classrooms far exceeds supply. For example, Aabidah’s school has 16 classrooms for its 3,000-plus students. Already scarce resources are siphoned off or entangled in red-tape.

“The schools are running by the enthusiasm of the parents and the commitment of the teachers, but there isn’t much government or international support for education,” said Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies. “Schools don’t get enough funds and when they do get funds, a project that is started then stops because the funds dry up or are misused.”

Tom Gouttierre, director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies, said education is hindered by the “piecemeal application” the U.S. is taking to that nation’s recovery. “We’re trying to do Afghanistan on the cheap, because we’re focusing so many of our dollars on Iraq. So, we wind up bringing in a lot of other participants in a kind of donor conference approach to reconstruction and development. It leaves Kabul overrun by all kinds of different aid organizations, but with no coordination and no real firm Marshall Plan approach. It’s very hard for the Ministry of Education to coordinate it into one central educational plan for the country. It’s frustrating.”

Tom Gouttierre

 

 

Of all the gaps and shortages, the most acute is women teachers in such outlying provinces as Herat, where the reach of president Hamid Karzai is weak and the pull of old, oppressive cultural norms is strong. Despite the suppression of the Taliban regime and the al-Qaida terror base, the ethnically and religiously diverse nation is still seething with tensions, not the least of which is the place of women in Afghan society. Tribal rulers enforce restrictive measures.

“There is a great need for women teachers in the provinces and the women want to go, but they cannot. First, their families will not let them go and, second, the families themselves will not go because warlords and local commandos control the areas. People are scared. Also, parents are hesitant to let their girls go to school because the extremism and fanaticism in these regions is threatening,” Yaseer said.

Such fears are part of larger safety issues that find land mines littering roads and fields and Taliban loyalists and rebels waging violence. “There are some obstacles on the way to progress and security is number one,” Yaseer said. Aabidah agrees, saying that even above resources, “We want security. That’s our big problem.”

The challenge, too, is training enough teachers to educate a rising student enrollment. “The paradox is there hasn’t been any real formal education for teacher trainers for a long time and yet there are more kids in school now than ever before, and so that means the gap between the training needed and the numbers of students in classes is great,” Gouttierre said. “Among Afghans there’s a realization of something having been lost for generations and a determination not to let it get away from them again.”

Gouttierre said the fact this most recent crop of visiting Afghan teachers came from underrepresented areas, reflects UNO’s attempts to extend teacher training “in places where we haven’t been.” Part of that training is being undertaken by past graduates of UNO’s Afghan Teacher Training Project in concert with the center’s on-site master teacher trainers. The project is just the most visible branch of a much larger UNO effort. For years, its center has been: holding workshops and conferences for Afghan professionals and leaders involved in its various reconstruction efforts; training more than 3,000 Afghan teachers in workshops staffed by teacher trainers in Kabul and Peshawar, Pakistan; and writing textbooks and printing and distributing them by the millions.

These far away efforts are personified by the visiting Afghan teachers, who represent the face and future of education in their country. The diverse women all share a passion for their people and for teaching. Although their stays here are relatively brief, their impact is great. After hosting two older Afghan women who called her “our daughter,” Charity Stahl said, “I will never be the same.” Stahl, assistant director of the Afghan Teacher Education Project, later visited the women in their homeland while volunteering for an NGO. Of their emotional reunion, she said, “I still can’t believe it.”

For Barbara Davis, hosting is a cultural awakening in which her guests call her “mother,” teach her to make Afghan meals or get her to perform native folk dances. Despite a language barrier, she felt the women revealed their true selves behind the veil. “We really got to know each other,” she said. “We talked just like sisters. These are some of the warmest, dearest women I’ve ever met.”

The experience is equally meaningful to the Afghans. Aabidah called the training program “very interesting and very good” and described America as “not like in the movies. The people are very kind and hospitable. When I go back to Afghanistan, I’ll miss our dear host family and our American friends. They’re like my family in Afghanistan.” Coming to America, she said, “is like a dream for me.”

Her hosts, the Martens, will cherish many things. The pleasure Aabidah and Lailumaa took in cooking native dishes for them or in wiling away nights sitting around and talking, Or, what sharp bargain shoppers the women proved to be. Or, how thrilled they were to drive, for the first time, as the couple watched nervously on. “They’re people just like us. They want the same things we do. For themselves. For their families. We have so much to share with each other,” said Gene Martens.

Josie’s Dance of Life: Dancer/Choreographer/Educator Josie Metal-Corbin Affirms Life Through Dance

December 18, 2011 2 comments

Energy.  That’s what I think of when I consider the subject of this profile, dancer, choreographer, educator Josie Metal-Corbin.  She advocates dance as a natural way of affirming life that is available to nearly all of us if we only choose to take advantage of it.  Her life and work in dance have covered much territory and she isn’t slowing down after six decades dedicated to the art form that she also touts as a superb fitness regimen and social engagement tool.  She’s done much work, and been widely recognized for it, in intergenerational dance.  This story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is from some years ago, and so she’s done much more work since the piece appeared.  If I’m not mistaken I first met her when she called me to suggest a story.  She’d become fast friends with a Bosnian family who had suffered through some of the horrors of the siege on Sarajevo and had resettled in Omaha.  Josie was enamored with the spirit of these people and of the beauty of their culture, particularly their music and dance.  She was working with a group of Bosnian refugees to stage a concert in music and dance that expressed forgiveness, mourning, and thanksgiving.  I ended up doing a cover story about the Bosnian family and the celebratory program, and you can find that story here on this blog.  It’s called, “War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horrors in Sing and Dance that Make Plea for Peace.”  Josie’s quoted in the story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Josie’s Dance of Life: Dancer/Choreographer/Educator Josie Metal-Corbin Affirms Life Through Dance

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

“Dance is the affirmation of life through movement.”
Martha Graham

For the longest time, University of Pittsburgh grad Josie Metal-Corbin could not concede the obvious: that she is a dancer. This, despite already being a noted performer, choreographer and teacher of modern dance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she is a professor in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation and director of the college’s resident dance troupe, The Moving Company. In 2000 the 61-year-old artist and educator was honored by the state of Nebraska with one of its prestigious Governor’s Arts Awards for her wide-ranging contributions as an advocate, instructor, performer and choreographer of dance.

It was not until well into her career, while first doing pioneering work integrating elders in modern dance performance, that she fully acknowledged dance as her passion and, not coincidentally, evolved an inclusive dance philosophy unbound by tradition or form or stereotype. A philosophy embracing all ages and abilities.

“It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I could say the words, ‘I am a dancer.’ Before then, saying that always meant in my head that I’m not good enough, I haven’t had enough formal studies, I haven’t studied with the right people, I’m not a fabulous technical dancer. For years, I bought into that,” she said. “But now that I’m mature and have been through a lot of life experiences, I know I am a dancer, and I can never separate that out of myself. So, whether I’m teaching or performing or choreographing or going out on an errand, it’s all kind of a dance. It’s about the rhythm of what I’m doing. It’s who I am. It’s the heartbeat of my passion.”

When she began introducing modern dance to older adults in the ballroom of Omaha’s Paxton Manor in the early ‘80s she was already sold on the physical, emotional and social benefits of dance for seniors, but doubted how much that age group could contribute to the realm of performance. A defining moment came at a rehearsal for one of her first intergenerational works.

She was agonizing how to get an 83-year-old woman she’d recruited for the piece, Marie Waite, to move from one corner of the stage to the other, short of carrying her when, before her very eyes, “there was Marie quickly running across the stage beside two young dancers, and I said, ‘Ah, so that’s what can be done?’” The more she worked with older dancers, most of whom came from ballet or tap or folk roots, the more she discovered their potential as viable interpretive performers of much grace and nuance.

“I saw very touching, poignant, beautiful, exciting expression in people I never thought of as being expressive dancers,” she said. “I realized then I had to stop putting my biases and stereotypes of what people can and cannot do on others.”

Josie Metal-Corbin

 

 

 

For someone who became an activist railing against ageism and an advocate celebrating older adults’ gifts, Metal-Corbin was, strangely enough, afraid to work with seniors at the start. Why? “I never knew my grandparents, so I never really had much contact with elders,” she said. “When my husband David, whom I met at a dance workshop, first suggested I do dance with elders, I said, ‘Well, I could never do dance with THEM. I don’t know what THEY do.’ He encouraged me…but I wasn’t confident enough yet to do it alone, so I took my students along to the Paxton Manor. It became an intergenerational experience. And, I came to see this beautiful expression in their movement, on their faces and in the interaction that took place between the generations.” The benefits, she saw, were many.

“Beyond the physical benefits, there are the social benefits. The real magic is in the interaction. Being able to tell your story to another person. To move with another person. To express yourself in a non-verbal way. The psychological benefits include increasing your self-worth because you’re doing something meaningful. It becomes a real sharing,” she said.

As she saw the “wonderful movement” of older bodies unfurling in space before her, she began recruiting seniors and integrating them into her work. Along the way, she earned a graduate certificate in gerontology from UNO.

Typical of her high-energy crusading style, she made the medium a forum for overturning aging myths. She worked with videographers to create a series of dance videos demonstrating the capabilities of seniors. Excerpts were presented as evidence before a U.S. Senate Special Committee On Aging that opened up funding for elder dance programs. She co-authored with hubby David, a fellow UNO professor, a well-reviewed handbook, Reach for It (now in its 3rd edition) on exercise and dance activities for seniors. She presented tapes, papers and workshops on elder dancing at national and international conferences. She went into the schools as a Nebraska Arts Council Artist in Residence, bringing along older adults to dance with children. She made dozens of intergenerational dance works.

The more she has delved into dance and all its permutations, the more she has come to believe it is a deep, natural expression of life for any of us who can and do choose to heed its rhythmic call.

She said, “Dance is not this special subject in life. Dance is a part of life. It is what we are, and we are the instruments of our dance of life.”

 

The reticence the normally vivacious Metal-Corbin once felt about her own dance pedigree may have stemmed from the blue-collar work ethic instilled in her as a youth. Growing up in Pittsburgh she toed the line at home and school. Crazy about dance from age 3, her lower middle-class parents — her father was a watchmaker, her mother a homemaker — paid for ballet lessons she attended every weekend. She was serious about dance all right, even forming her own dance studio in the unfinished basement of her family’s home, but a life in the arts seemed unlikely given her background.

“I really didn’t know much about the art world because my family didn’t go to museums or concerts. My dad hunted and fished. We went camping together.”

Then, at about age 12, she was selected to participate in a free youth arts program at the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh (now known as the Carnegie Museums), an experience she describes as “life-changing.”

“I got this fabulous opportunity there in the Tam O’Shanters (after the Robert Burns poem) program. I attended drawing classes every Saturday through my senior year in high school. This was part of a life I had never seen before. I had no other link to this world. It was wonderful,” she said. “I would walk through the Greek columns of the Institute’s architectural hall and go past the dinosaur hall and then into the auditorium where we had our art lesson. I remember seeing my first Henry Moore (sculpture). I was really enriched by the whole atmosphere. It’s what really linked me to art.”

Years later, she choreographed several dances based on Moore sculptures.

After graduating high school in 1963, she attended Slippery Rock, earning a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education in 1967. She was so immersed in her studies the decade’s counterculture movement largely passed her by. “

This is almost a joke in my family, but in the ‘60s, when all the disturbances were going on, I was oblivious to it,” she said. “I was in a small rural town getting my teaching degree and dancing. I was doing my thing and not caught up in the times. I am an obsessive-compulsive person and am extremely focused on whatever I am involved in. So, I was not politically active, I never smoked, I never drank, I was not a feminist. I did what I thought I was supposed to do. Besides, my parents would have killed me. I’ve changed since then.”

 

Her mind expanded in other ways. College was the first time she was exposed to dance “other than through studio dance teachers,” and it was while at Slippery Rock and later while pursuing her master’s degree in choreography at the University of Pittsburgh, that she first saw world-class dancers.

“Slippery Rock was only an hour-an-a-half away from downtown Pittsburgh and our whole modern dance club would drive down to concerts there,” she said. “We were exposed to artists like Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey. I saw Martha Graham at the Pitt studio. Alvin Ailey’s company was the most influential on me because I loved the kind of music he used. I loved the earthiness of the dance. That was such a profound experience that when I first started teaching dance his was the first company I took my classes to see.”

She attended evening master classes at Pitt after teaching P.E. and dance all day in the schools, studying with artists from New York and Wales, choreographing musical productions at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and learning modern, jazz, tap and theater dance. Summers found her serving as a dance counselor at a camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “I had a very eclectic background,” she said.

Of all the dance forms, modern most moved her. “When I found modern dance I knew this was really the idiom in which I would focus my choreography,” she said. “Why? I loved the expression of it. Barefooted and of the earth. There was something that just touched me deeply. It was a departure from the classical ballet I had had, which was a good foundation. But I loved that in modern dance you could move to poetry or move to people’s voices. You can do that in ballet now, but this was when the dance forms were somewhat isolated.”

After earning her master’s, she channeled her passion into education. Burned out after teaching three years in the public schools, she moved on to Robert Morris College in 1970, a small private business school, where she taught P.E., coached basketball and founded a dance company. “I really blossomed there and made dance more of a priority,” she said.

In 1980 she came to UNO, where modern dance had a rich history under the direction of Vera Lundahl. With UNO as her base the past 27 years, Metal-Corbin has reached out into the community to work with diverse groups, including Bosnian refugees and black gospel singers. She often works with the Omaha Modern Dance Collective and recently organized a collaborative of area dancers and choreographers to perform works by modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan.

“I love working with groups in the community that give me and the dancers in the Moving Company new knowledge and new experiences. I love the process. That’s why I enjoy teaching so much. It energizes me.”

 

Her multimedia works — often combining stills or video — accomodate a diversity of dancers, from kids to elders, in venues ranging from concert halls to such unconventional spaces as the zoo. “I try to make dances appropriate to the people and spaces I am working with. My joy is in seeing people discover dance.”

As ever, she is moving in “new directions” again by performing her own solo work and researching what she calls “vernacular dance.” Always pushing the envelope, she made her New York and international dance debuts — both after age 50 — just in the past decade. She finds choreographing for herself liberating. “I have found a new, natural movement vocabulary for myself. I don’t have to worry about framing the dance on other bodies. It’s been very freeing, because I’m making the dance just for me. When I’m dancing, I feed off the energy of the music and the movement. There’s no pain. It’s a definite natural high.” She said mature modern dancers like herself are finding more acceptance and opportunity as performers: “Those of us in our 50s and 60s still have something to say. We’re making a place for ourselves. We’re putting a different face on what it is to be older.”

One of her recent projects, Kitchen Dancing, is a video dance work capturing dance wherever it may be — in homes, in offices, in stores or on street corners. She views the project as the natural culmination of her efforts the past three decades and considers this “found” dance the new emphasis in her work.

“It is meant to capture the dance of life people do rhythmically, spontaneously in their every day living activities,” she said. “It’s in every dimension of life. Just look around, and you’ll see people dancing. It might just be someone swaying or just moving some body part. People want to move. It’s the joy of expression through dance.”

From the Archives: Hadley Heavin Sees No Incongruity in Being a Rodeo Cowboy, Classical Guitartist, Educator and Vietnam Combat Vet

October 17, 2011 4 comments

When I saw Hadely Heavin perform classical guitar at the Joslyn Art Museum in the late 1980s I knew I had to write about him one day, and in 1990 I sought him out as one of my first freelance profile subjects. I’ve culled that resuling story from my archives for you to read below. What I didn’t know when I interviewed him that first time is what a remarkable story he has. I mean, how many world-class classical guitarists are there that also compete in rodeo? How many are combat war veterans? What are the chances that an inexperienced American player (Heavin) would be selected by a Spanish master (Segundo Pastor) to become the maestro’s only student in Spain? I always knew I wanted to revisit Heavin’s story and nearly two decades later I did. That more recent and expansive portrait of Heavin can also be found on this blog, entitled, “Hadley Heavin’s Idiosyncratic Journey as a Real Rootin-Tootin, Classical Guitar Playing Cowboy.” When I wrote the original article posted here Heavin’s mentor, Segundo Pastor, was still alive. Pastor has since passed away but his influence will never leave the protege. Heavin was still doing some rodeoing as of three or four years ago, when I did the follow-up story, but even if he has completely given up the sport he’ll always do something with horses because his love for horses is just that deep in him. The same as music is. I hope you enjoy these pieces on this consumate artist and athlete.

 

 

Hadley Heavin

 

 

From the Archives: UNO Instructor Hadley Heavin Sees No Incongruity in Being a Rodeo Cowboy, Concert Classical Guitartist, Music Educator and Vietnam Combat Vet

©by Leo Adam Biga

Orignally published in the Omaha Metro Update

Hadley Heavin defies pigeonholing, The 41-year-old Omaha resident is an internationally renowned classical guitarist, but to ranchers in rural Nebraska he’s better known as a good rodeo hand. The University of Nebraska at Omaha instructor’s life has been full of such seeming incongruities from the very start.

Back in his native Kansas Heavin is as likely to be remembered for being a precocious child musician as an expert bareback bronc rider, star high school athlete and Vietnam War veteran. Today, despite lofty success as a touring performer, Heavin is perhaps proudest of being a husband and new father. He and his wife, Melanie, became first-time parents last year when their girl, Kaitlin, was born.

Music, though, has been the one unifying force in his life. His earliest memories of the Ozarks are filled with gospel harmonies and jazz, ragtime and country rhythms. Home for the Heavin clan was Baxter Springs, Kan., five miles froom the Oklahoma and Missouri borders.

“Basically I grew up with music and I’ve been playing it since I was 5. My father was a jazz guitarist and always had bands,” said Heavin. adding that his late father played a spell with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

Heavin hit the road with his old man at age 7, playing drums, trumpet and occasional guitar at dances and socials.

“I was a little freak because I could play really well. I loved it, but it got to be a chore. I remember about midnight I’d start falling asleep. My dad would start to feel the time dragging and see me nodding, then he’d flick me ont he head with his fingertip and wake me up, and I’d speed up again.

“Most of my fellow students at school didn’t know I was doing this. I didn’t think I was doing anything special because everyone in my family were musicians. I grew up in that environment thinking everybody was like this. I couldn’t believe it when a kid couldn’t sing or carry a tune or do something with music.”

When Heavin was all of 11 he started playing rock ‘n’ roll, an experience, he said, that left him burned out on music, especially rock.

“I’m glad I got burned out on that when I did because I’ve still got students in their 20s trying to study classical guitar and wanting to play rock ‘n’ roll. They want to have fun,” he said disparagingly. “They just don’t realize rock is not an art form in the same sense. Classical guitar requires a lot of work and soul searching.”

Heavin doesn’t mince words when it comes to music. Since he studied in Spain with maestro Segundo Pastor, he performs and teaches the traditional romantic repertorie that originated there. He feels the music is a deep. direct reflection of the Spanish people, with whom he feels a kinship.

“Spanish people are much warmer than Americans. We’re not brought up with the passion those people are brought up with. That’s why I prefer listening to European artists.”

He said classical guitar “demands” a passionate, expressive quality he finds lacking in most American guitarists with the exception of Christopher Parkening.

“Who a student studies with makes a big difference. I don’t think I ever would have played the way I do if I had never studied with Segundo.”

Heavin feels Pastor selected him as a student because he saw a hungry young musician with a burning passion.

“He wouldn’t have been interested if he didn’t see things in my playing that were like his. Frankly, he doesn’t like very many American guitarists. He thinks they’re very shallow performers.”

 

 

Segundo Pastor

 

 

The acolyte largely agrees, suggesting that part of the problem is most American musicians don’t face as many obstacles or endure as many sacrifices for their art as foreign musicians.

“My students are spoiled. How are they going to suffer for their art?” he asked rhetorically.

He said that when he turned to the classical guitar in the early ’70s, after seeing combat duty in Vietnam and having his father pass away, he knew what hard times were. “I suffered because by then my father was gone and my mother couldn’t support me. Somehow I played guitar and kept myself fed, but I didn’t have a penny, really, until I was 32. But I loved the guitar and I didn’t worry about those things. People are kind of unwilling to do that anymore.”

He dismissed the new guitarists who denigrate the traditional repertoire in favor of avant garde literature as mere technicians.

“I hate to say this but about all the concerts I’ve been to with the new guitarists have been very boring, driving audiences away from the guitar. It’s a real shame. They’re championing these avant garde works, which is fine, but they can’t play the Spanish and romantic repertoire at all. They just can’t phrase it. It’s not in them. They sound like they’re playing a typewriter.

“There’s a lot of great guitarists now, and they’re excellent technically, but there’s still only a handful of great musicians.”

He hopes artists like Parkening and Pastor help audiences “discern the guitarists from the musicians.”

It may surprise those who’ve seen Heavin perform with aplomb at Joslyn Art Museum’s Bagels and Bach series or some other concert venue that he as at ease on a horse as he is on a stage, as facile at roping a steer as he is at phrasing a chord, or as penetrating a critic of a rodeo hand’s technique as of a classical guitarist’s. But a look at his thick, powerful hands, deep chest and broad shoulders confrms this is rugged man. And he does work out to stay in trim, including working with horses.

“As a matter of fact this is the first year I haven’t rodeoed in many years,” he said. “The only reason I’m not this summer is that I’m in the middle of doing an album and my producer’s worried about my losing a finger. I team rope now because I’m too old to ride rough stock. If I do get out of roping to protect my hands I’m probably going to have to do cutting or something just to stay on a horse. It’s just that horses are in my blood. But it’s tough with this kind of career because it takes so much time.”

Heavin has competed on the professional rodeo circuit all over Nebraska. “It’s funny,” he said. “I draw good crowds at my concerts in western Nebraska because I know all the ranchers and rodeo people, and they’re curious to see this classical guitarist who rodeos, too. I was playing a concert in Kearney and there were some roping friends in the audience. After I was done I went up and said to them, ‘These other people think I’m a guitarist, so don’t be telling them I’m a cowboy.’ But it was too late. They already had. I try not to advertise it too much.”

Heavin took to the rodeo as a boy to escape the music world he’d run dry on. “I started riding bulls and bareback broncs. I wanted to be a world champ bronc rider,” he said.. He rodeoed through high school and for a time in college. He also participated in football, wrestling and track as a prep athlete, winning honors and an athletic scholarship to Kansas University along the way.

“I think my dad put pressure on me to be an athlete to some degree because he wanted me to be well-rounded.”

At KU Heavin played on the same freshman football team as future NFL great John Riggins, a free-spirit known for his rebel ways. “I’ve never seen a guy that trouble came to so quickly. We used to go to bars and there was always a fight and John usually started it. He had more John Wayne in him than John Wayne.”

Another classmate and friend who became famous was Don Johnson, the actor. Heavin hasn’t seen the Miami Vice star in years but stays in touch with his folks in Kansas.

It was the late ’60s and Heavin, like so many young people then, was torn in different directions. “I decided I really didn’t wamt to be in school but I had the draft hanging over my head. I took a chance anyway and dropped out…and I was drafted within two months.”

The U.S. Army made him an artillary fire officer and shipped him off to Vietnam before he knew what hit him. He shuttled from one LZ to another, wherever it was hot. “I was what they called a bastard. I was with the 1st Field Force. I was in the jungle the whole time. I saw base camp twice during a year in-country,” he said.

 

 

 

 

Heavin was shot in action and after recovering from his wounds sent back out to the war. Luckily, his tour of duty ended without further injury and he finished his Army hitch back home at Fort Riley, Kansas. While stationed there he began missing working with horses and on a whim one day entered the bareback at a nearby rodeo.

“I drew a pretty rank horse, plus I hadn’t ridden in years and I was still sore from my war injuries. I got hurt. When I got back to the base they were mad at me because I couldn’t pull my duty. They were going to court-martial me.”

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the incident was forgotten. “When I got out of the service my dad died shortly thereafter, and there was no music anymore.” Heavin had been working a job unloading trucks for two years when a friend suggested they see a classical guitarist perform. The experience rekindled his love for music.

“I was enthralled. And it just came over me like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “That’s how fast I made my deicison to play classical guitar.”

Until then Heavin said he had never really heard classical guitar, much less played it. He began by teaching himself.

“I worked really hard. As soon as my hands could take it I was practicing six to eight hours a day and working a full-time job — just so I could get into college.”

Heavin brashly convinced the chairman of the Southwest Missouri State University music department to start a degreed classical guitar program for him. “I said, ‘Look, I want to get a degree in guitar and I’m determined to do it. And I don’t know why nobody has a program in this part of the country.’ He said, ‘I agree, let’s try this and see what happens.’” As the pioneering first student hell-bent on finishing the program, Heavin graduated and he said the program has “grown into something really nice and become very popular.”

His chance meeting with his mentor-to-be, Segundo Pastor, occurred at a concert in Springfield, Mo., at which Heavin was playing and the maestro was attending on one of his rare American visits. Heavin was introduced to “this little old man who couldn’t speak English” and arranged to see him later. He played for Pastor in private and the master liked the young man’s musucianship. The two began a correspondence.

When Pastor returned the next year he asked to see Heavin. “I spent practically a whole day with him and I played everything I knew. Then he said, ‘If you come to Spain I’ll teach you for nothing.’ I didn’t realize then what this meant or how it was going to work out,” Heavin said. A university official aided Heavin’s overseas studies. But the student still had no inkling his apprenticeshup would turn out to be what he termed “one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.”

“When I arrive there was an apartment for me. The maestro’s wife was like my mom. His son was like my brother. And I realized only after I got there that I was his only student. He rarely takes them. There were Spanish boys waiting in line to study with him.”

Appropriately, the rodeoer lived a block from the Plaza de Toros, the bullfighting arena, and next door to the hospital for bullfighters.

“I lived in the culture. I wasn’t with Amreicans at all. My friends were all Spanish. I taught them English, they taught me Spanish. During the 10 months I was there I had a two-hour lesson from Segundo almost every day. He puts all of himself into that one student. That’s why he doesn’t take on many. It was really like a fairy-tale because the man literally gave me a career. The thing that’s odd about it is that I had only been playing about a year when the maestro invited me to Spain. It was confusing because there were Spanish boys who could play better than I.”

It was a question that nagged at Heavin for a long time. why me?

“The whole time I was in Spain I kept asking him, ‘Why did you pick me?’ and he would never answer it. The last night I was there he knocked on my door and we went to the university in Madrid. It was one of those romantic Spanish evenings. We were walking down a wet, cobblestone street and he put his arm on me and said, ‘Yeah, the Spanish boys are good guitarists but some day you’ll be a great guitarist,” recalled Heavin, still touched by the memory. “That gave me a lot of confidence to go on.”

 

 

Heavin often performs at Espana tapas bar  in Omaha

 

 

During his stay abroad Heavin toured with Pastor throughout Spain, When the apprenticeship ended they performed duo concerts across the U.S., including New York’s Carnegie Hall. Heavin’s career was launched.

While the two haven’t performed publicly since then, Heavin said they remain close. “Now that I’m in the States he comes more often. When he visits we just have fun and enjoy ourselves. Two years ago he came with Pedro, a friend from Spain, and they did a duo concert here.”

Asked if in some way Pastor replaced his father, with whom he was so close, and Heavin said, “Oh yes. He’s like my father, no doubt. He’s my mentor, too.”

After earning a master’s degree at the University of Denver Heavin came to UNO in 1982. He heads the school’s classical guitar program, which he said is a good one. “I’ve got some students who play very well.”

Besides teaching Heavin performs 25-30 concerts a year, a schedule he’s cut back in 1990 to work on his first album.

“I’ve just finished doing the research on the pieces I want to put on. Now I’m learning the pieces. I’ll probably go into the recording studio in October or November,” he said.

As with Pastor singling him out for the chance of a lifetime, a patron has discovered Heavin and is helping sponsor him. “Another fairy-tale happened. A stockbroker heard me play and thinks I should have lots more recognition. He wants to get involved in my career.”

The guitarist is looking forward to touring more once the album is done. He has been invited to perform in Australia and Pastor has asked him to do concerts in Spain.

“People ask me why I live in Omaha and not on the coast,” he said. “I dearly love Omaha. I love the Old Market. I don’t like huge cities.”

Heavin, who practices his art about five hours daily, said success has little to do with locale anyway. “It’s an attitude. To do anything well requires an aggressive attitude. You have to just want to, and I’ve always done well financially playing guitar and teaching.”

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