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Two Blended Houses of Worship Desegregate Sunday: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection and New Life Presbyterian are Houses Undivided

August 30, 2010 Leave a comment

This story is personal.  I occasionally attend an Episcopal church in north Omaha that was formed by a merger of two previous churches, one with an all-black congregation and one with an all-white congregation.  This blending had its ups and downs at first but the church has survived and a couple decades later it is a model of multicultural, interracial harmony. It’s called Church of the Resurrection.  A similar story resulted in the formation of New Life, a blending of two north Omaha Presbyterian congregations, one white and one black, and like Church of the Resurrection it remains an intact interracial house of worship.  The reason I attend Church of the Resurrection is that my girlfriend and her mother attend there.  The people are warm and welcoming to newcomers.  I am Catholic and I have never felt out of place there or pressured to be something I’m not.  When I discovered the history behind the church I knew I would one day want to write about how it came into being, and that’s what prompted the article here.  The piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

Two Blended Houses of Worship Desegregate Sunday: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection and New Life Presbyterian are Houses Undivided

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Martin Luther King Jr. scornfully observed that 11 o’clock Sunday morning “is the most segregated hour in this nation.” His indictment rings as true today in worship places as 50 years ago.

Organized, affiliated Christian churches are historically houses divided regardless of location or denomination. Witness Omaha, where defacto segregation is reinforced by geographic racial lines. With rare exceptions whites and blacks exclusively attend their own churches. That’s true even when a white congregation and black congregation of the same religious organizationare within close proximity.

The difficulty of achieving a racially mixed congregation is evident by the story of Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha. The documentary A Time for Burning portrayed the upset that even timid attempts at interracial outreach caused within white Augustana in the mid-1960s. The film and a CBS news special about it elicited national discussion. The congregation underwent a self-study to examine their hearts. Augustana responsed to its neighborhood’s increasing African-American presence through outreach programs. Despite all this, the church has had little or no success in attracting black members. Why that should be so there and at many other churches is hard to answer without looking at the past.

Given America’s racial history, whites could always attend black churches without repercussions. Few did. Blacks attending white churches were made to feel unwelcome. Manifestations of this exclusion were designated inner-city Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist churches set aside for blacks.

Anymore, it’s not about being banned, barred or shunned. There’s more inclusion today. Chalk it up to enlightenment or political correctness. Of course, anything smacking of racism may generate a lawsuit or a YouTube-Facebook-Twitter campaign. Independent, nondenominational churches are most likely to be mixed. Without a compelling reason to integrate, most churches remain segregated because it’s easier to remain in their comfort zone.

Circumstances can lead two racially-defined, old-line churches to unite as one. It happens when they fall on hard times. Rather than move or close, they merge. Often, these unions fail. Even when they work, it’s by no means a smooth ride. Two successful Omaha inner-city blendings are Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd., and New Life Presbyterian Church, 4060 Pratt Street.

Each was a marriage of convenience. When all white St. John’s and all black St. Philip the Deacon faced declining rolls in the ‘70s, members reviewed options and elected merger. It took effect in 1986 with Resurrection, housed in the former St. John’s building. The same scenario happened with Fairview and Calvin Memorial, only nominally white Fairview was already integrated and predominantly black Calvin resulted from a previous merger between black Hillside and white Bethany churches. New Life opened in 1991 in the former Fairview building. Calvin was one of two black churches that tried fellowship with Augustana.

By all accounts, New Life and Resurrection make multicultural diversity work. Challenges remain: each has only about 100 active members whose average is 60-plus; few members live in their church neighborhoods; the neighborhoods are rife with poverty and violence; physical plant needs persist; short budgets are stretched thin. But the journey of each church is a lesson in how we can heal the racial divide.

Sisters Johnice Orduna and Nola Jeanpierre share a unique perspective on both churches. Orduna, a licensed minister, attended Resurrection in the ‘90s and now serves as “a supply preacher” at New Life until a permanent pastor’s found. Jeanpierre grew up at Calvin, she experienced the birth of New Life, where she’s a member, and she’s now Resurrection’s choir director.

“I think the folks at New Life and Resurrection have made the decision, ‘We’re going to be here and we’re going to be together doing this regardless, and we’ll work through whatever it takes.’ If more congregations would do that then we wouldn’t have these rifts,” said Orduna. “We’ve gotta get past this business of Sunday being the most segregated day of the week. I think we have been convinced by society we can’t do it any differently, and it’s just not true. But we have to be intentional and we have to learn to respect that culturally we’re going to want to do some things differently, and that’s OK. I mean, it’s wonderful.”

 

 

 

Church of the Resurrection

 

 

 

A merger doesn’t just happen. “It’s a process,” said Orduna. “You have to be intentional, you have to be diligent, you have to commit.”

Member Pat Tooles said New Life “overturns the myth African-Americans and whites can’t worship together because they have two different worship styles.” Presbyterians, white or black, favor a sedate service light on emotional displays and heavy on orderly structure, although there’s some call-and-response at New Life.

Whether at the pulpit, in the pews, working on the building and grounds or breaking bread together, the people at New Life and Resurrection say they see how they are more alike than different. They view their differences as gifts not threats. They embrace their diversity as enriching, even branding their faith communities that way. Resurrection describes itself “…a culturally diverse family united in God’s love.” New Life’s mission statement begins, “We believe we are called to be a congregation of diverse backgrounds, ages and races…”

“I just think we have so much every day all the time to learn from each other,” said Orduna. “Sure, there are tiffs, but they’re not gamebreakers.”

Lesley Dean grew up in St. Philip’s at 26th and Binney. Her parents were active members. She moved away and once returned was “heartbroken” her beloved home parish was no more. In her absence the merger happened, She liked what she found at Resurrection.

“I immediately felt comfortable there. I felt like this was the next step of St. Philip’s, especially because of the blending of the two congregations. It just seemed natural. I think one of the things that made me be able to accept it and to go with the flow is because I lived in San Francisco for 20 years, so I had already experienced different cultures coming together and getting along. That wasn’t anything thing new to me. I thought it was great actually.”

She wasn’t there for the merger but knows it wasn’t all roses.

“I don’t think it was anything instantaneous,” she said. “That blending did not come along easily. It took a lot of work from my parents and all the other elders that came before me. They just worked very hard to build a sense of trust amongst the rest of the congregation. And I just think they all learned from that — from the bickering and whatever else was going on. When I came back it was just like, What was all that for? — let’s just start anew, we’re all human beings, we all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. They just kind of formed that alliance. Then the generations that came after, like me, have just taken it a step further.”

Deacon Juanita Johnson was there. Coming from St. Philip’s, she confirmed Resurrection’s first years saw conflict. Disputes arose over the racial composition of lay leadership roles. Any hint of favoritism took on a racial slant.

“At that time it was very important to keep everything racially balanced because there were people from St. Philip’s that weren’t completely on board with the merger,” she said, adding the same was true with some from St. John’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was also resentment from St. Philip folks over sacrificing their building for the move to St. John’s.

A black splinter group alleged racism against Resurrection’s first rector, Rev. John Nelson, who was white, and against the local Episcopal diocese’s all-white administration. A national consultant was brought in to get people talking. Some folks left — black and white — but the core remained. New membersof both races joined.

“The people that stayed wanted it to work,” said Johnson, whose experience told her it could. As a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student in the late ‘40s she and fellow black students were denied admittance to campus dormitories. They resided instead at International House, where they lived harmoniously with students from Europe, Asia, et cetera. She also did interracial outreach while a Fisk University student in Nashville, Tenn. with students from nearby white colleges.

“I had that background, so I knew it could work.”

Resurrection’s long past how many blacks-whites serve on the vestry. Those things work themselves out. St. Philip’s took a sense of ownership by incorporating elements from their old church, such as stained glass windows and candles, into the Resurrection sanctuary. A more vital music liturgy of gospel, spirituals, even jazz, was introduced. A popular fish fry St. Philip’s held was adopted.

Tim and Cheri Oelke got married at St. John’s. They left long before the merger.  Then they visited Resurrection and were hooked by the “inspirational” black hymns. The couple are the last St. John’s members left there. For Cheri, the spirit of the place is not an edifice, an icon or an event. “It’s not in the building as much as it is the people. I think the reason we want it to work now is that we all care about each other, and if we do it in this building or if we have to do it in another building we want to worship together. Bonds have been formed, friendships have been formed, and we feel like we’re all a family.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Helping ease the transition were shared Lenten worship services and other events St John’s and St. Philip’s hosted prior to merging. Still, old habits die hard.

“For a long time it was just the two churches worshiping at the same time in the same building but still two identities,” said Resurrection’s new rector, Rev. Jason Emerson, who previously served as an intern and curate there. Tim Oelke said, “It’s the Church of the Resurrection now, it’s not St. John’s. St. John’s was certainly special but that’s in the past.”

New Life’s tribulations were similar. Former Fairview member Janet Decker recalls a meeting where Bernard Grice voiced Calvin’s concerns. “He got up and said he hoped we didn’t do the same thing the whites did at Bethany, which was disappear.” She said Fairview’s integrated ranks avoided that. “We had only one family who decided not to continue to come — absolutely everyone else stayed. We didn’t have this feeling of giving up a thing. We were gaining. We knew if we were going to survive we needed to merge. We’re very comfortable with each other.”

Change was more traumatic at Calvin, not due to race but turf. “There were a lot of hard feelings. It was like giving up our church,” said Nola Jeanpierre. Calvin members like she and Michael Maroney did abandon their beautiful building at 24th and Wirt. “It was not an easy or smooth transition inside Calvin. There was a lot of contention in terms of how Calvin was actually dissolved,” said Maroney. “In hindsight, it probably went the way it had to go.” Those wounds healed.

Just as Resurrection eased into things pre-merger, New Life did. Joint worship services and soup suppers were held at Calvin and other events at Fairview “so the two congregations could be together and people could kind of get to know each other,” said Rick Rudiger, who belonged to Fairview. “You kind of have that courtship time. If you try to force it, you’ll probably fail.”

Carolyn Grice, whose father Bernard was a leader at Calvin, served with Rudiger on the merger committee. “We met weekly to start ironing out stuff. It pretty much started from scratch — what is it we want to see and then how are we going to get there. We had lots of disagreements but we’re all friends now,” said Grice. Rudiger said people tended to draw lines along Fairview or Calvin. “You had to reinforce it all the time of who we are — we’re New Life now, so let’s move on. Change is hard for everybody. Some accept it. For some it’s very difficult. The way you have to deal with change is you do things a little at a time.”

Jeanpierre said it’s imperative to “come in open-minded and ready to work together and not to exclude anyone, not to remove anyone from a post or role. You’re talking about a marriage, about one family meeting the in-laws and basically trying to make everything work for both in-laws, so that the family as a whole and on both sides can come together and find a common ground.”

After a few interims New Life’s first full-time pastor helped solidify things. “We had a strong female minister who kind of got us turned around and really focused on becoming New Life,” said Rudiger. “I would say overall we really have grown strong. I don’t think there’s too much thought even of what Fairview used to do or what Calvin used to do — it’s what’s New Life’s doing.”

Decker said there’s appreciation for what each faith community contributed. “There’s a lot of things we do now because that’s what they brought with them (from Calvin).” That includes spirituals. On a more practical level, she said, “they brought the numbers (more members) and we had the place.”

Ruth York, who came over from Calvin, said “those of us that have seen it through have been through quite a bit, financially and so forth,  but we’ve stayed strong and stuck together like a family, and we’re stronger for it.”

Just as New Life is on its second generation, Resurrection is, too. Lesley Dean feels a legacy calling.

“I have really worked hard to make sure some of the traditions of St. Philip’s continue on, like our Black History month celebration and the fish fry named after my dad. Myself and some others have tried to make sure our African-American culture was not lost in the merger. We still needed an identity and the St. John’s people were willing to embrace that.”

Dean said sensitivity makes all the difference.

“That’s how people get along. Ignorance is I believe why we have so much discrimination and racism in society because people don’t take the time to learn about each other. I just really feel Church of the Resurrection is a family. We are accepting and welcoming of every one and there’s a genuineness to that acceptance — it’s not just for show or not just for money.”

Richard Artison and his wife were St. Philip’s members and then moved away for his career. Once back, they went church shopping before settling on Resurrection.

“We’ve been to some churches that were very cold and impersonal and you feel like a number and we’ve gone to churches where nobody would speak to us. Just got ignored. This church has a lot of warmth and a lot of love. We like it,” he said.

Emerson’s proud his church is so inviting.

“The least worry I ever have at this congregation is that somebody new will walk through the door and not get spoken to. That just does not happen. They’re going to get spoken to. They’re going to get greeted, they’re going to get welcomed and I don’t have to do anything to make that happen. Other congregations, you have to work at that, it’s not as ingrained in their nature. It’s a problem in Episcopal churches churchwide, and that’s not the case here.”

He said Resurrection’s open mat, Sunday social hour/lunch and ministries targeting the underserved — including an after-school program, an emergency pantry, a transitional living site — reflect the church’s origins.

“I firmly believe this congregation’s history has led them uniquely to a high level of hospitality and I don’t know mean they just put on a good food spread, which they do. That attitude, that desire, that passion for outreach and justice comes from the two churches melding and the level of hospitality they had to practice to each other to come together and become one parish.”

He said Resurrection’s reputation for tolerance is why it’s a player in the Tri-Faith Initiative for a shared Episcopal-Jewish-Muslim campus.

Dean senses Resurrection’s come a long way in the eyes of a diocese that’s been slow to accept it. “For the longest time we felt they looked down on us, they didn’t want to participate in any activities we were doing, basically because we’re in north Omaha and the media portrays north Omaha as this horrible place. Our congregation has fought really hard to change that image, and it’s working. Some of the other diocesan churches are now participating in some of our ministries, so that’s a good feeling. We’ve got a lot further to go, but it’s a beginning.”

New Life’s at-risk kids mentoring program continues the legacy of the two socially conscious churches preceding it. Fairview ran Head Start and Project Embrace prpgrams. Calvin was active in youth job/leadership training and civil rights.

Orduna said the unity embodied by New Life and Resurrection “has the possibility to create a strong, trustworthy identity that could really be powerful force in bringing this whole neighborhood back to God.” Artison said, “I think church is the one place where we should come together. I think we’re an example for others.” Decker said churches that resist diversity “don’t know what they’re missing.”

Combat Sniper-Turned-Art Photographer Jim Hendrickson on His Vagabond Life and Enigmatic Work

August 30, 2010 2 comments

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Another of the unforgettable characters I have met in the course of my writing life is the subject of this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  Jim Hendrickson is a Vietnam combat vet who went from looking through the scope of a rifle as a sniper in-country to looking through the lens of a camera as an art photographer after the war. His story would make a good book or movie, which I can honestly say about a number of people I have profiled through the years.  But there is a visceral, cinematic quality to Jim’s story that I think sets it apart and will be readily apparent to you as you read it.

Combat Sniper-Turned-Art Photographer Jim Hendrickson on His Vagabond Life and Enigmatic Work

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson is one of those odd Omaha Old Market denizens worth knowing. The Vietnam War veteran bears a prosthetic device in place of the right arm that was blown-off in a 1968 rocket attack. His prosthetic ends in pincer-like hooks he uses to handle his camera, which he trains on subjects far removed from violence, including Japanese Butoh dancers. Known by some as “the one-armed photographer,” he is far more than that. He is a fine artist, a wry raconteur and a serious student in the ways of the warrior. Typical of his irreverent wit, he bills himself as — One Hand Clapping Productions.

The Purple Heart recipient well-appreciates the irony of having gone from using a high-powered rifle for delivering death to using a high-speed camera for affirming life. Perhaps it is sweet justice that the sharp eye he once trained on enemy prey is today applied in service of beauty. For Hendrickson, a draftee who hated the war but served his country when called, Vietnam was a crucible he survived and a counterpoint for the life he’s lived since. Although he would prefer forgetting the war, the California native knows the journey he’s taken from Nam to Nebraska has shaped him into a monument of pain and whimsy.

 

 

Jim Hendrickson

 

 

His pale white face resembles a plaster bust with the unfinished lines, ridges and scars impressed upon it. The right side — shattered by rocket fragments and rebuilt during many operations — has the irregularity of a melted wax figure. His collapsed right eye socket narrows into a slit from which his blue orb searches for a clear field of vision. His massive head, crowned by a blond crew cut, is a heavy, sculptured rectangle that juts above his thick torso ala a Mount Rushmore relief. Despite his appearance, he has a way of melding into the background (at least until his big bass voice erupts) that makes him more spectator than spectacle. This knack for insinuating himself into a scene is something he learned in the Army, first as a guard protecting VIPs and later as a sniper hunting enemy targets. He’s refined this skill of sizing-up and dissecting a subject via intense study of Japanese samurai-sword traditions, part of a fascination he has with Asian culture.

Because his wartime experience forever altered his looks and the way he looks at things, it’s no surprise the images he makes are concerned with revealing primal human emotions. One image captures the anxiety of a newly homeless young pregnant woman smoking a cigarette to ward off the chill and despair on a cold gray day. Another portrays the sadness of an AIDS-stricken gay man resigned to taking the train home to die with his family. Yet another frames the attentive compassion of an old priest adept at making those seeking his counsel feel like they have an unconditional friend.

The close observation demanded by his work is a carryover from Vietnam, where he served two tours of duty. “With sniping, you had to look at the lay of the land. You had to start looking from the widest spectrum and then slowly narrow it down to that one spot and one moment of the kill,” he said. “You got to the point where you forced yourself to look at every detail and now, of course, I’m doing that today when I photograph. I watch the person…how they move, how they hold themselves, how they talk, waiting for that moment to shoot.”

Shooting, of a photographic kind, has fascinated him from childhood, when he snapped pics with an old camera his Merchant Marine father gave him. He continued taking photos during his wartime tours. Classified a Specialist Four wireman attached to B-Battery, 1st Battalion, I-Corp, Hendrickson’s official service record makes no mention of his actual duty. He said the omission is due to the fact his unit participated in black-op incursions from the DMZ to the Delta and into Cambodia and Laos. Some operations, he said, were conducted alongside CIA field agents and amounted to assassinations of suspected Vietcong sympathizers.

As a sniper, he undertook two basic missions. On one, he would try spotting the enemy — usually a VC sniper — from a far-off, concealed position, whereupon he would make “a long bow” shot. “I was attached to field artillery units whose artillery pieces looked like over-sized tanks. The pieces had a telescope inside and what I would do is sit inside this glorified tank and I would rotate the turret looking through the telescope, looking for that one thing that would say where the Vietcong sniper was, whether it was sighting the sniper himself or some kind of movement or just something that didn’t belong there. I’d pop the top hatch off, stand up on a box and then fire my weapon — a bolt-action 30-ought-6 with a 4-power scope — at the object. Sometimes, I’d fire into a bunch of leaves and there’d be nothing there and sometimes there was somebody there.” When the target couldn’t be spotted from afar, he infiltrated the bush, camouflaged and crawling, to “hunt him down.” Finding his adversary before being found out himself meant playing a deadly cat-and-mouse game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“You look at where he’s firing from to get a fix on where he’s holed up and then you come around behind or from the side. You move through the bush as quietly as possible, knowing every step, and even the smell of the soap you wash with, can betray you. I remember at least three times when I thought I was going to die because the guy was too good. It’s kind of a like a chess match in some sense. At some point, somebody makes a mistake and they pay for it. I remember sitting in a concealed location for like three days straight because only a few yards away was my opponent, and he knew where I was. If I had gone out of that location, he would have shot me dead. So, for three days I skulked and sat and waited for a moonless night and then I slipped out, came around behind him — while he was still looking at where I was — and killed him.”

His first kill came on patrol when assigned as a replacement to an infantry unit. “I was the point man about 50 feet ahead of the unit. I heard firing behind me and, so, I turned to run back to where the others were when this figure suddenly popped up in front of me. I just reacted and fired my M-16 right from the hip. I got three shots into the figure as I ran by to rejoin the patrol. The fire fight only lasted two or three minutes, By then, the Vietcong had pulled back. The captain asked us to go out and look for papers on the dead bodies. That first kill turned out to be a young woman of around 16. It was kind of a shock to see that. It taught me something about the resolve the Vietcong had. I mean, they were willing to give up their children for this battle, where we had children trying to evade the draft.”

As unpopular as the war was at home, its controversial conduct in-country produced strife among U.S. ground forces.

“Officers were only in the field for six months,” Hendrickson said, “but enlisted men were stuck out there for a year. We knew more about what was happening in the field than they did. A lot of times you’d get a green guy just out of officers’ school and he’d make some dumb mistake that put you in harm’s way. We had an open rebellion within many units. There was officer’s country and then there was enlisted men’s country.”

In this climate, fragging — the killing of officers by grunts — was a well-known practice. “Oh, yes, fragging happened quite a lot,” he said. “You pulled a grenade pin, threw the grenade over to where the guy was and the fragments killed him.” Hendrickson admits to fragging two CIA agents, whom he claims he took-out in retribution for actions that resulted in the deaths of some buddies. The first time, he said, an agent’s incompetence gave away the position of two fellow snipers, who were picked-off by the enemy. He fragged the culprit with a grenade. The second time, he said, an agent called-in a B-52 strike on an enemy position even though a friendly was still in the area.

“I walked over to the agent’s hootch (bunker), I called him out and I shot three shots into his chest with a .45 automatic. He fell back into the hootch. And just to let everybody know I meant business I threw a grenade into the bunker and it incinerated him. Everybody in that unit just quietly stood and looked at me. I said, ‘If you ever mess with me, you’ll get this.’ Nobody ever made a report. It went down as a mysterious Vietcong action.”

He was early into his second tour when he found himself stationed with a 155-Howitzer artillery unit. “We were on the top of a gentle hill overlooking this valley. I was working the communications switchboard in a bunker. I was on duty at two or three in the morning when I started hearing these thumps outside. I put my head up and I saw explosions around our unit. Well, just then the switchboard starts lighting up.”

In what he said was “a metaphor” for how the war got bogged down in minutiae, officers engaged in absurd chain-of-command proprieties instead of repelling the attack. “Hell, these Albert Einsteins didn’t even know where their own rifles were,” he said, bellowing with laughter. What happened next was no laughing matter. In what was the last time he volunteered for anything, he snuck outside, crossed a clearing and extracted two wounded soldiers trapped inside a radio truck parked next to a burning fuel truck.

“First, I started up the fuel truck, put the self-throttle on, got it moving out of the unit and jumped out. Then I went back and helped the wounded out of their truck and got them back to where the medics were. Then, another guy and I were ‘volunteered’ to put a 60-caliber machine gun on the perimeter fence. We were on the perimeter’s edge…when I saw a great flash. A Russian-made 122-millimeter rocket exploded. The man behind me died instantly. The only thing I remember is the sense of flying.” Hendrickson’s right arm and much of the right side of his face was shredded off.

As he later learned, a battalion of Vietcong over-ran a company of Australians stationed on the other side of the hilltop and attacked his unit “in a human wave.” He said, “They ran right by me, thinking I was dead, probably because of all the blood on me.” The attack was knocked-back enough to allow for his rescue.

“I remember starting to come around as my sergeant yelled at me…I heard an extremely loud ringing noise in my ears. I knew something was extremely wrong with my right arm, but I didn’t know what. I couldn’t really see anything because my eyes were swollen shut from the fragments in my face. About that time the medic came along. They put me on a stretcher and pulled me back to a hold. That’s when I was told my right arm was blown off.

“I was just thankful to be alive at that point. Then, the rockets started coming in again and people were running around getting ready for the next human wave attack. I was lying there with the two guys I’d saved. Then I saw this big bright light in the pitch black. It was a chopper coming in to pick us up. The medics carried us up, threw us in and the pilot took off. As we lifted, I could hear bullets ripping through the chopper. We were taken to the nearest hospital, in Long Binh, about 50 miles away.”

While recuperating, Hendrickson was informed by his captain that of the 100-plus-man strong unit, there were only five survivors – the captain, Hendrickson, along with the two men he saved, plus one other man. “Apparently,” Hendrickson said, “the unit had been hit by a combination of rocket and human wave attacks that night and the day after and were eventually wiped off the earth. Years later, the historians said this was a ‘retreating action’ by the Vietcong. If this was a retreating action, I sure as heck would hate to see it when they were serious and advancing.” He said his fellow survivors are all dead now. “Those are four people whose names should be on that wall in Washington. Unfortunately, they’ll never be recognized as casualties of war, but yet they are casualties OF THE war.”

He spent the next several months in and out of hospitals, including facilities in Japan, before undergoing a series of operations at Letterman Hospital in the Presidio of San Francisco. Afterwards, he said, he entered “a wandering period…trying to find myself.” He made his home in Frisco, becoming a lost soul amid the psychedelic searchers of the Haight-Ashbury district. “I tried to resume a life of somewhat normalness, but it was like a whole separate reality.” He enrolled in City College-San Francisco, where he once again felt out of place.

Disillusioned and directionless, he then came under the guidance of a noted instructor and photographer — the late Morrie Camhi. “Morrie made that connection with me and started me on a pathway of using photography as a kind of therapy. It was a really great relationship that evolved…He became like a second father.” Years of self-discovery followed. Along the way, Hendrickson earned a master of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, married a woman with whom he got involved in the anti-war and black power movements and, following years of therapy in storefront VA counseling centers, overcame the alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered from after the war. While his marriage did not last, he found success, first as a commercial artist, doing Victoria’s Secret spreads, and later as an art photographer with a special emphasis on dance.

 

 

Morrie Camhi

 

 

Helping him find himself as an artist and as a man has been an individual he calls “my teacher” — Sensie Gene Takahachi, a Japanese sword master and calligrapher in the samurai tradition. Hendrickson, who has studied in Japan, said his explorations have been an attempt to “find a correlation or justification for what happened to me in Vietnam. I studied the art of war…from the samurai on up to the World War II Zero-pilot. I studied not only the sword, but the man behind the sword. In the Japanese philosophy of the sword it’s how you make the cut that defines the man you are and the man you’re up against.” He said this, along with the minimalist nature of Haiku poetry and calligraphy, has influenced his own work.

“I try to do the same thing in my photography. I try to strip down a subject to the most essential, emotional image I can project.” He has applied this approach to his enigmatic “Haiku” portraits, in which he overlays and transfers multiple Polaroid images of a subject on to rice paper to create a mysterious and ethereal mosaic. While there is a precision to his craft, he has also opened his work up to “more accidents, chaos and play” in order to tap “the child within him.” For him, the act of shooting is a regenerative process. “When I shoot — I empty myself, but everything keeps coming back in,” he said.

A self-described “vagabond” who’s traveled across the U.S. and Europe, he first came to Omaha in 1992 for a residency at the Bemis Center for the Contemporary Arts. A second Bemis residency followed. Finding he “kept always coming back here,” he finally moved to Omaha. An Old Market devotee, he can often be found hanging with the smart set at La Buvette. Feeling the itch to venture again, he recently traveled to Cuba and is planning late summer sojourns to Havana and Paris. Although he’s contemplating leaving Omaha, he’s sure he’ll return here one day. It is all part of his never-ending journey.

“I see photography as a constant journey and one that has no end until the day I can’t pick-up a camera anymore,” he said.

Hidden In Plain View, Rudy Smith’s Camera and Memory Fix on a Critical Time in Struggle for Equality

August 29, 2010 2 comments

Negro going in colored entrance of movie house...

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

Rudy Smith’s own life is as compelling as any story he ever covered as a photojournalist. Both as a photographer and as a citizen, he was caught up in momentous societal events in the 1960s.  This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) examines some of the things he trained his eye and applied his intellect and gave his heart to — incidents and movements whose profound effects are still felt today.  Rudy’s now retired, which only means he now has more time to work on a multitude of personal projects, including a book collaboration with his daughter Quiana, and to spend with his wife, Llana.  This blog contains stories I did on Quiana and Llana.  I have a feeling I will be writing about Rudy again before too long.

Hidden In Plain View, Rudy Smith’s Camera and Memory Fix on a Critical Time in Struggle for Equality

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

It was another August night in the newsroom when word came of a riot breaking out on Omaha’s near northside. If the report were true, it meant for the second time that summer of 1966 minority discontent was turning violent. Rudy Smith was the young Omaha World-Herald photojournalist who caught the story. His job at the newspaper was paying his way through then-Omaha University, where the Central High grad was an NAACP Youth Council and UNO student senate activist. Only three years before, he became the first black to join the Herald’s editorial staff. As a native north Omahan dedicated to his people’s struggle, Smith brought instant credibility to his assignments in the black community. In line with the paper’s unsympathetic civil rights stance at the time, he was often the only photographer sent to the near northside.

“And in many cases my colleagues didn’t want to go. They were fearful of the minority community, and so as a result I covered it. They would just send me,” said Smith, a mellow man whose soft voice disguises a fierce conviction. “As a result, the minority community that never had access to the World-Herald before began to gain access. More stories began to be written and more of the issues concerning north Omaha began to be reported, and from a more accurate perspective.”

It was all part of his efforts “to break down the barriers and the stereotypes.”

Archie Godfrey led the local NAACP Youth Council then. He said Smith’s media savvy made him “our underground railroad” and “bridge” to the system and the general public. “Without his leadership and guidance, we wouldn’t of had a ghost of an understanding of the ins and outs of how the media responds to struggles like ours,” said Godfrey, adding that Smith helped the group craft messages and organize protests for maximum coverage.

More than that, he said, Smith was sought out by fellow journalists for briefings on the state of black Omaha. “A lot of times, they didn’t understand the issues. And when splinter groups started appearing that had their own agendas and axes to grind, it became confusing. Reporters came to Rudy to sound him out and to get clarification. Rudy was familiar with the players. He informed people as to what was real and what was not. He didn’t play favorites. But he also never hid behind that journalistic neutrality. He was right out front. He had the pictures, too. This city will probably never know the balancing act he played in that.”

As a journalist and community catalyst, Smith has straddled two worlds. In one, he’s the objective observer from the mainstream press. In the other, he’s a black man committed to seeing his community’s needs are served. Somehow, he makes both roles work without being a sell out to either cause.

“My integrity has never been an issue,” he said. “As much as I’d like to be involved in the community, I can’t be, because sometimes there are things I have to report on and I don’t want to compromise my professionalism. My life is kind of hidden in plain view. I monitor what’s going on and I let my camera capture the significant things that go on — for a purpose. Those images are stored so that in the next year or two I can put them in book form. Because there are generations coming after me that will never know what really happened, how things changed and who was involved in changing the landscape of Omaha. I want them to have some kind of document that still lives and that they can point to with pride.”

For the deeply religious Smith, nothing’s more important than using “my God-given talents in service of humanity. I look at my life as one of an artist. An artist with a purpose and a mission. I’m driven. I’m working as a journalist on an unfinished masterpiece. My life is my canvas. And the people and the events I experience are the things that go onto my canvas. There is a lot of unfinished business still to be pursued in terms of diversity and opportunity. To me, my greatest contributions have yet to be made. It’s an ongoing process.”

The night of the riot, Smith didn’t know what awaited him, only that his own community was in trouble. He drove to The Hood, leaving behind the burnt orange hard hat a colleague gave him back at the office.

“I knew the area real well. I parked near 20th and Grace Streets and I walked through the alleys and back yards to 24th Street, and then back to 23rd.”

Most of the fires were concentrated on 24th. A restaurant, shoe shine parlor and clothing store were among the casualties. Then he came upon a church on fire. It was Paradise Baptist, where he attended as a kid.

“I cussed, repeating over and over, ‘My church, my church, my church,’ and I started taking pictures. Then I heard — ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ — and there were these two national guardsmen pointing their guns at me. ‘I’m with the World-Herald,’ I said. I kept snapping away. Then, totally disregarding what I said, they told me, ‘Come over here.’ This one said to the other, ‘Let’s shoot this nigger,’ and went to me, ‘C’mon,’ and put the nuzzle of his rifle to the back of my head and pushed me around to the back of the building. As we went around there, I heard that same one say, ‘There ain’t nobody back here. Let’s off him, he’s got no business being here anyway.’ I was scared and looking around for help.

That’s when I saw a National Guard officer, the mayor and some others about a half-block away. I called out, ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!’ ‘Who is it?’ ‘Rudy Smith, World-Herald.’ ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ ‘I’m taking pictures and these two guys are going to shoot me.’ The officer said, ‘C’mon over here.’ ‘Well, they aren’t going to let me.’ ‘Come here.’ So, I went…those two guys still behind me. I told the man again who I was and what I was doing, and he goes, ‘Well, you have no damn business being here. You know you could have been killed? You gotta get out of here.’ And I did. But I got a picture of the guardsmen standing in front of that burning church, silhouetted by the fire, their guns on their shoulders. The Herald printed it the next day.”

Seeing his community go up in flames, Smith said, “was devastating.” The riots precipitated the near northside’s decline. Over the years, he’s chronicled the fall of his community. In the riots’ aftermath, many merchants and residents left, with only a shell of the community remaining. Just as damaging was the later North Freeway construction that razed hundreds of homes and uprooted as many families. In on-camera comments for the UNO Television documentary Omaha Since World War II, Smith said, “How do you prepare for an Interstate system to come through and divide a community that for 60-70 years was cohesive? It was kind of like a big rupture or eruption that just destroyed the landscape.” He said in the aftermath of so much destruction, people “didn’t see hope alive in Omaha.”

Today, Smith is a veteran, much-honored photojournalist who does see a bright future for his community. “I’m beginning to see a revival and resurgence in north Omaha, and that’s encouraging. It may not come to fruition in my lifetime, but I’m beginning to see seeds being planted in the form of ideas, directions and new leaders that will eventually lead to the revitalization of north Omaha,” he said.

 

 

Rudy Smith

 

His optimism is based, in part, on redevelopment along North 24th. There are streetscape improvements underway, the soon-to-open Loves Jazz and Cultural Arts Center, a newly completed jazz park, a family life center under construction and a commercial strip mall going up. Then there’s the evolving riverfront and Creighton University expansion just to the south. Now that there’s momentum building, he said it’s vital north Omaha directly benefit from the progress. Too often, he feels that historically disenfranchised north Omaha is treated as an isolated district whose problems and needs are its own. The reality is that many cross-currents of commerce and interest flow between the near northside and wider (read: whiter) Omaha. Inner city residents work and shop outside the community just as residents from other parts of the city work in North O or own land and businesses there.

“What happens in north Omaha affects the entire city,” Smith said. “When you come down to it, it’s about economics. The north side is a vital player in the vitality and the health of the city, particularly downtown. If downtown is going to be healthy, you’ve got to have a healthy surrounding community. So, everybody has a vested interest in the well-being of north Omaha.”

It’s a community he has deep ties to. His involvement is multi-layered, ranging from the images he makes to the good works he does to the assorted projects he takes on. All of it, he said, is “an extension of my faith.” He and his wife of 37 years, Llana, have three grown children who, like their parents, have been immersed in activities at their place of worship, Salem Baptist Church. Church is just one avenue Smith uses to strengthen and celebrate his community and his people.

With friend Edgar Hicks he co-founded the minority investment club, Mite Multipliers. With Great Plains Black Museum founder Bertha Calloway and Smithsonian Institute historian Alonzo Smith he collaborated on the 1999 book, Visions of Freedom on the Great Plains: An Illustrated History of African Americans in Nebraska. Last summer, he helped bring a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum exhibit to the Western Heritage Museum. Then there’s the book of his own photos and commentary he’s preparing. He’s also planning a book with his New York theater actress daughter, Quiana, that will essay in words and images the stories of the American theater’s black divas. And then there’s the petition drive he’s heading to get Marlin Briscoe inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame.

Putting others first is a Smith trait. The second oldest of eight siblings, he helped provide for and raise his younger brothers and sisters. His father abandoned the family after he was conceived. Smith was born in Philadelphia and his mother moved the family west to Omaha, where her sister lived. His mother remarried. She was a domestic for well-to-do whites and a teenaged Rudy a servant for black Omaha physician W.W. Solomon. Times were hard. The Smiths lived in such squalor that Rudy called their early residence “a Southern-style shotgun house” whose holes they “stuffed with rags, papers, and socks. That’s what we call caulking today,” he joked. When, at 16, his step-father died in a construction accident, Rudy’s mother came to him and said, “‘You’re going to take over as head of the family.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ To me, it was just something that had to be done.”

Smith’s old friend from the The Movement, Archie Godfrey, recalled Rudy as “mature beyond his years. He had more responsibilities than the rest of us had and  still took time to be involved. He’s like a rock. He’s just been consistent like that.”

“I think my hardships growing up prepared me for what I had to endure and for decisions I had to make,” Smith said. “I was always thrust into situations where somebody had to step up to the front…and I’ve never been afraid to do that.”

When issues arise, Smith’s approach is considered, not rash, and reflect an ideology influenced by the passive resistance philosophies and strategies of such diverse figures as Machiavelli, Gandhi and King as well as the more righteous fervor of Malcolm X. Smith said a publication that sprang from the black power movement, The Black Scholar, inspired he and fellow UNO student activists to agitate for change. Smith introduced legislation to create UNO’s black studies department, whose current chair, Robert Chrisman, is the Scholar’s founder and editor. Smith also campaigned for UNO’s merger with the University of Nebraska system. More recently, he advocated for change as a member of the Nebraska Affirmative Action Advisory Committee, which oversees state departmental compliance with federal mandates for enhanced hiring, promotion and retention of minorities and women.

The camera, though, remains his most expressive tool. Whether it’s a downtown demonstration brimming with indignation or the haunted face of an indigent man or an old woman working a field or Robert Kennedy stumping in North O, his images capture poignant truth. “For some reason, I always knew whatever I shot was for historical purposes,” he said. “When it’s history, that moment will never be revisited again. Words can describe it, but images live on forever. Just like freedom marches on.”

Standing on Faith, Sadie Bankston Continues One-Woman Vigil for Homicide Victim Families

August 29, 2010 2 comments

Crime scene tape

Image by Ross Catrow via Flickr

For years I read about this Omaha woman who has dedicated her life to help the families of homicide victims since she losing her own son to a senseless act of violence and finding the support network for grieving loved ones to be wanting.  I finally met Sadie Bankston a couple years ago and this is her story.  It originally appeared in The Reader  (www.thereader.com), and I think you will find her as determined and compassionate as I did.  She goes to rather extraordinary lengths to help people, mostly women, who in a very real way become the secondary victims of homicides.  Her clients may have lost a son or a daughter or a mate, and without the help she and thankfully some others now provide, these hurting parents and spouses are in danger of being casualties themselves.  Sadie carries on her work through her own nonprofit, PULSE, and she can always use more donations and resources to help out families trying to cope with the trauma of losing someone dear and often having to relive it through criminal investigations and court proceedings.

Standing on Faith, Sadie Bankston Continues One-Woman Vigil for Homicide Victim Families

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Whenever Omahan Sadie Bankston hears of a new homicide her heart aches. Her son Wendell Grixby was shot and killed in 1989 in the Gene Leahy Mall. He was 19. A

n outpouring of support followed. Then Sadie was on her own. Paralyzed by pain. She sensed others expected her to move on with her life after a certain point. The rest of her adult kids had lives, families, careers of their own. She was single. There wasn’t anyone around to confide in who’d been in her place — another parent who’d suffered the same nightmare of a murdered son or daughter.

Violent crimes in Omaha only escalated. A growing number, gang-related. Others, domestic disputes or random acts turned deadly. Guns the main weapons of choice in the mounting homicide tallies. Sadie felt called to do something for others left adrift in the wake of such loss. She identified with their heartbreak.

Without a degree, she couldn’t provide formal mental health assistance, but she could reach out — mother to mother, heart to heart. Talking, praying, holding hands, preparing care packages, extending a lifeline for people to call day or night. Bearing witness for families at court hearings.

She’s been doing all this and more through the nonprofit organization she started in 1991 — PULSE or People United Lending Support and Encouragement.

Mary E. Lemon’s daughters Saundra and Renota Brown were stabbed to death last Christmas Eve in the basement of an Omaha home. The grieving mother has relied on Sadie to get through many long days and nights.

“Sadie has been a help,” said Lemon. “I call her and talk to her whenever I feel I need to talk to somebody, and that happens quite often. It helps to know that there is someone out there who cares — that you can talk to. And Sadie’s made me feel as if I could talk to her at anytime. She’s a friend worth having, I’ll tell you.”

PULSE began as a support group for mothers who’ve lost a child to homicide. The meetings “phase in and out” now due to funding limitations. Sadie hopes to start the sessions again. She knows how vital these unconditional forums can be.

“You hear their loneliness, their pain, their sleeplessness, their hopelessness. Will I ever stop crying? Those kinds of things. It’s just to come together with other parents who have lost. We have a common denominator there.”

Virgil Cook Jr. and his wife Patricia fell into a depression after their son, Little Virgil. was shot and killed in 1991. They thought they were alone in their grief until Sadie introduced the Native American couple to others suffering like them.

‘We found there are other people like us who’ve been through the same thing. White people, black people, Spanish people. We’re all in the same boat. We’ve become friends,” said Cook.

Sadie’s only guide in the beginning was her own experience. “Just the pain that I knew that I felt,” she said. “I knew other mothers were feeling the same, so I just wanted to help in some way to steer them in the right path as far as help and support.” She knew the most powerful thing she could offer was having walked the same painful journey they’re on. “When you can embrace someone and say, ‘I know how you feel.’ and really know it, it makes a difference,” said Sadie, whose eyes ooze empathy and mirror survival. “I always say, ‘The pain won’t go away, but it will get softer.’”

Lemon said she appreciates dealing with someone who’s walked in her shoes. Their conversations can be about anything or nothing at all. “I talk to Sadie at least once if not twice a week,” she said.

“We talk about my girls, we talk about old days, growing up in the old neighborhood, we talk about a lot of things. Just to kind of relieve my nerves, you know.”

Once Sadie enters a family’s life she sticks. Even years later, despite moves, remarriages, the bond remains.

“They’re not left alone with me around,” she said, “because I’m calling them.”

PULSE volunteer Denise Cousin got acquainted with Sadie while an Omaha police captain. Now retired, Cousin feels Sadie builds rapport by carrying no institutional agenda or baggage. She’s open, she’s real, she’s honest. She’s just Sadie.

‘“I think because she is not representing any type of governmental entity, there’s no concern the family’s going to be jeopardized as far as what they tell her. She does not have that attachment. And I think it is her personality. She is down to earth. She lets the family know she’s there for them. She kind of comes across as the mother figure. She comes across as family, and so she breaks that barrier of a professional I’m-here-to-tell-you-something.”

Cook said he and his wife regard Sadie “as an older sister” even though they have a few years on her. He credits her with getting them out of the deep funk they fell into after Little Virgil was killed.

“We didn’t want to work, we didn’t want to go anywhere, we didn’t want to do anything. Things got real bad. She helped us out of that ugly state. She’s been like an angel to us. Everybody needs a Sadie.”

With her warm, soulful, old-school way, it’s easy picturing Sadie as everyone’s auntie or big mama or sistah. A girlish, impish side shines when she laughs. She’s no pushover though. A steely, sassy righteousness shows through when describing disrespectful “bagging and sagging” young men, silly girls getting pregnant and senseless gun play taking lives and wrecking havoc on families and neighborhoods.

 

 

 

 

This woman of faith ascribes her own healing to her higher power. “My source, and still is my source of comfort and strength,” she said, casting her eyes heavenward. A hardness shows, too, when she bemoans PULSE’s chronic financial straits. PULSE grew beyond being merely a support group to a multi-faceted human services operation providing food, clothes and other support. Ambitious programs, including at-risk workshops, were drawn up.

But as a largely one-woman band, Sadie’s left to scratch for dollars and volunteers wherever she can find them. There’ve been many supporters. Churches, businesses, individuals. Lowes donated materials to renovate the house she resides-offices in. Sadie and fellow victim moms did all the labor. Lamar Advertising does billboards for Stop the Violence messages. Popeye’s Chicken donates dinners for We-Care packages PULSE delivers to families.

An annual Mother’s Day banquet she hosts relies on donated food and facilities. Lately though she’s cut back PULSE services.

All the begging, all the scrounging, all the promised donations that don’t come through, all the unrealized dreams get to be too much at times. “I’m just tired of constantly having to ask.” Then there’s her own well-being. She was 46 at PULSE’s start. She’s 63 now. Like many caregivers the last person she thinks of is herself. She realizes that has to change. “I figure I should be taking care of myself because I’m a senior citizen now. I’m just tired.”

A bad back prevents her from working. She’s on disability. Despite this hand-to-mouth existence the work of PULSE goes on, largely unheralded. Oh, she receives glowing endorsements.

Omaha Police Department Sgt. Patrick Rowland said, “What makes Sadie effective is she’s determined to make a difference even when it’s not the most pleasant of times. She gets out there and she still tries. She truly cares for people. She doesn’t judge them or the circumstances in which their loved ones lost their life. She sees the families as being victims also. She cares about the police, too. She wants them to do a good job. She understands the difficulty in trying to solve these things.”

Sadie’s declined Woman of the Year citations. She’s not looking for awards or pats on the back, but tangible support. The situation’s akin to the way parents feel when a child’s been murdered. Life must go on but until someone notices their pain, it’s hard to want to go forward. Attention must be paid. She said one of the hardest things in the aftermath of her son’s murder was the unpleasant realization the world was oblivious to her sorrow. Instead of validating her trauma, life ground on as usual. It made the void that much more cruel. In her outreach work Sadie’s found nearly everyone experiencing a loss feels a sense of emptiness and abandonment at their suffering being ignored or minimized. It’s as if society tells you, “they’re gone,” so get on with your life, she said.

“When I talk to mothers they explain it the same way. When my son was murdered I was driving somewhere and the street lights were still coming on and I wondered, Why is this going on just like nothing happened? People are still walking and laughing like nothing had happened. It’s a sad feeling, yeah. I wouldn’t say so much lonely. It’s just more, Here, feel my pain — recognize I’m hurting here. Instead of people still eating their ice cream like nothing has affected you, you want everybody to stop and acknowledge what you’re going through.”

She inaugurated the Forget Us Not Memorial Wall shortly after launching PULSE. The commemorative marker ensures victims like her son “will not be forgotten.” Resembling an opened Bible, the tall, custom-made wooden memorial has hinged panels that presently display 150 name plates, most accompanied by a likeness of the victim. The majority of victims are African-American. Two OPD officers slain in the line of duty — Jimmie Wilson Jr. and Jason Pratt — are among those memorialized. A small collection box next to the memorial accepts donations.

Sadie contacts families for permission to affix their loved ones’ names to the wall. The memorial’s had different homes. It’s now displayed at St. Benedict the Moor, 2423 Grant St. The church’s pastor, Rev. Ken Vavrina, champions Sadie’s work. “She has a good heart, she’s compassionate, and she’s been there,” he said. “And she’s worked now over the years with so many families who have a lost a child she really is good at it. She’s developed the expertise of being able to reach out and support these families who have had someone killed. It’s a great idea. I don’t know of any other organization that is doing what she’s doing — certainly not as consistently as she does. We’re honored to have it (the wall) here.”

He and Sadie admit the wall’s not up to date. So many killings. So hard to keep up. “I had no idea it was going to be filled up (so quickly) that we had to have two more extensions put on it. I was just thinking in the here and now,” she said.

In the years following Wendell’s death Omaha homicides exploded. There were 12 in 1990, 35 in 1991 and an average of 31 over the next 17 years, with the count reaching a record 42 last year. 2008 has already seen 40-plus homicides. With more frequency than ever killings happen in waves. This year alone has seen a handful of weeks with multiple fatalities each. “I just don’t know what to say or think about the recent rash of homicide that is plaguing our community,” Sadie said in response to a flurry of gun deaths in early November.

A problem once seen confined to northeast Omaha appears more widespread, including recent incidents in Dundee and south Omaha and, most starkly, the deadly spree at the Westroads Von Maur in 2007. Community responses to the problem are evident. Prayer vigils, anti-violence summits, stop-the-violence campaigns, sermons, editorials, articles, proposed ordinances to stiffen gun laws, public discussions on ways to stem the flow of guns and, ironically, increased gun sales/registrations as people arm themselves to feel safer.

Name after name graces the Forget Us Not wall but in no way is it all-inclusive. “That’s not the half of them. That wall would be filled and more,” Sadie said. PULSE omits the names of those engaged in culpable behavior at the time of their death. That leads to some hard feelings. “There’s a few families upset their loved ones do not go on the wall. There’s so much stuff I have to go through with family members. For instance, a man was coming out a house with a gun and the police shot and killed him. His widow was fussing, ‘Why can’t he be on the wall?’ And I said, ‘Well, he was coming out of the house with a gun — what were they supposed to do?’”

In rare cases, she said, a loved one declines a victim’s name adorning the wall. “The wife of one of the Von Maur victims called and said she didn’t want her husband’s name on the wall, because there’s too much media attention, and I understood. We’re presenting this to her at a later date,” said Sadie, holding up a plaque.

She doesn’t like turning anybody away. “I refer people PULSE cannot help to The Compassionate Friends (a national nonprofit grief assistance group with an Omaha chapter). I don’t let them just drown out there. I don’t say we can’t help you and let it go.” There’s not much she lets go of once she latches onto something.

“I have to say I admire Sadie’s persistence, because she has encountered numerous roadblocks and obstacles. Not getting paid a dime for this. Very little if any type of donation comes her way. This is strictly a heartfelt humanitarian effort that she continues to push on, day after day, year after year. I think most of us would say, ‘That’s it, I’m tired, I’m ready to go on to other things,’” said Denise Cousin. That’s why when Sadie reached a point of no return last summer, Cousin was sympathetic.

A March car accident left Sadie with severe injuries, including two torn rotator cuffs. “I’m in pain now. The accident had a lot to do with it. Then I have nerve damage from having two teeth pulled.” Bad enough. But when Sadie learned the office the Salvation Army let PULSE use starting a year ago would no longer be available, it was more than she could take. She’d talked about closing PULSE before but this was different. “This time I was really at my lowest,” she said. After all, a body can only take so much. It’s why on June 25 she called reporters and friends together to announce PULSE’s end. “I’m tired of the struggle,” she told the gathering. Among those in attendance were some of the parents she’s comforted over the years. They expressed appreciation for all PULSE has done.

 

 

 

 

Cousin let her know it was OK to walk away. “I was in her corner there saying, You have put in a sufficient amount of time. I can understand you being tired.” Vavrina empathized, too. “Sadie got discouraged and I can understand she gets discouraged, because she’s financially strapped all the time. She doesn’t get the support she needs,” he said. “We try to help her as much as we can.” “But then she called me and said she just couldn’t put it down. She still felt compelled to help families,” said Cousin.

Soon enough, the word got out — Sadie was back and recommitted to serving what’s become her life’s mission. What helped change her mind were messages from friends, associates and complete strangers. One, from a woman who identified herself as Eunice, stood out: “I’m calling you Miss Bankston because you were placed in that position for a reason. God put you there, sweetheart. Don’t get weary yet. I get weary at times, too. I know you’re tired. You become tired when you’re trying to do something all by yourself, baby, but you’re not by yourself. God doesn’t want you to get weary. He’ll lift you up. It seems nobody cares but we do care, because that’s our future out there dying daily. We see it. And it’s time for us as women to come together and stop it. Please don’t give up yet, Miss Bankston. I beg you in Jesus’ name.”

Buoyed by such words Sadie’s staying the course, even though she still battles health problems, still pleads for money, still gets frustrated fighting the good fight on little more than goodwill and prayer. But she can’t bear to turn her back on the truth: the killings go on unabated and each time a family’s left to pick up the pieces. “So I must go on. Life goes on. You know I must love what I’m doing or I wouldn’t be doing it for this long,” said Sadie. “I love what I do. You know it’s not for money. Anytime you can reach out and help people it is just so nice. That’s what we’re put here for — to love our brothers and sisters.”

Lemon wouldn’t have blamed her if she had quit but added, “I’m glad she didn’t. Sadie does a job that a lot of people probably wouldn’t even consider doing. Sadie is a special person, That job is meant for Sadie. She does such a good job.”

Sadie plans going about it smarter now though. For years she resisted advice that she should write grant applications for operating funds. Recently, she devised a budget for a year-long project grant. If she gets the monies PULSE will gain the financial stability it’s never enjoyed before. She needs it to ease her mind.

“I’m not going to overstress myself because if I’m no good for myself I’m no good for anyone else. I just can’t do it anymore. I’m not gong to do it anymore.”

Vavrina’s sure it’s a sound strategic move. “Now that she’s doing it the right way,” he said, “I think she can get funded.” He’s encouraged Sadie has a contingency plan “that would permit PULSE to continue without her.”

Her friends know she’s given so much of herself for so long she may not have much left to give. Crisis intervention takes a toll. What some don’t know is that she’s seen some hard things no one should see. “Well, why shouldn’t I see it? I mean, it happens,” she said. PULSE was part of a University of Nebraska Medical Center pilot program that trained folks like her to respond to homicide events. She was on call trauma nights. When the phone rang with a new assignment it meant going to hospitals at all hours to console loved ones. On at least one occasion, she said, “I had to tell the family their loved one was gone. I did. l mean, its really hard comforting people who’ve just lost a son or daughter. Sad, sad, sad.”

Her work at times meant going to crime scenes, where families lived amid fresh evidence of carnage. Even there, she tended to their needs. “There would be blood on the floor from shootings. There was so much it just glistened from the lights.”

She recalled the case of a young mother from Chicago. The woman’s husband kidnapped their baby and fled to Omaha. She followed, with her other kids in tow. After finding and confronting him here, he slit her throat in front of the kids. Sadie managed getting the kids released from the foster care system. Said Sadie, “Now you know how hard that is to do, don’t you? To get someone out of foster care once they’re in? I got ‘em out. I have a gift for gab when something needs to be done.” The victim’s family contacted Sadie asking her to retrieve items from the murder site. “We went into the apartment. It was all white, except where it was saturated with blood. Blood splattered all over. And we retrieved the kids’ clothes and the toys and I sent them back to Chicago. I still keep in contact with the grandma. The kids are grown now.”

Another time, Sadie observed how difficult it was for a family to be surrounded by the stain of murder in their Omaha Housing Authority unit. “Two young men were killed at home, and the blood — it was hard for the mother, for the family to see, so I contacted OHA and they came out and cleaned up everything.” Sadie had noticed a throw rug the mother avoided walking on. Sadie had trod over the same rug and it wasn’t until she got home, she said, “I realized that must have been where her son was murdered. So I called her back and I apologized, and she said, ‘That’s OK, Sadie.’”

In this conspiracy of broken hearts, Sadie said, “there’s that camaraderie” that makes explanations unnecessary. “They (OHA) had to take the carpet up because it soaked through,” Sadie said. She demonstrates she’s not just there for families once, never to be seen or heard from again. She’s there for the long haul. “If they ask for me to attend the funeral I will, and I do.” Celebrations, too. She’s cooked holiday dinners for families. She’s bought groceries, clothes. She even had a wheelchair ramp built for a family. Around her home are tokens of families’ appreciation for her going the extra mile.

Being a court advocate is another example of Sadie going beyond the call of duty. She understands the strain of seeking justice for a loved one. She attended every proceeding for her son’s assailant. To her other children’s dismay she forgave the young man, who was convicted of manslaughter and is now free. So she attends court with families — to be a pillar of strength, a shoulder to cry on. She knows the last thing a family under extreme emotional distress needs is to see her cry. “Normally I stifle my tears,” she said. She couldn’t once, she said, when it was read into evidence a female shooting victim’s “last words were, ‘It burns.’ I handed tissues to the family and I had to turn my head so they wouldn’t see my tears. It’s hard for me to find someone to go with me because I can’t have them crying.”

Sadie also treads a delicate line as a liaison between families and law enforcement officials investigating unsolved homicides. She’s well aware “snitching” is seriously frowned on by some in the African American community. “A lot of people don’t like the police and I try to be the mediator to keep an open line of communication with the police department,” she said. She said sometimes family members with information about a case tell her what they won’t disclose to police. With a family’s consent, she shares leads. “As a mother how would you feel if someone killed your child and no one came forward?”

OPD’s Sgt. Rowland, who worked with Sadie when he was in homicide, said, “She understands the situation that some of these families are put in, just by the nature of where they live and what their loved one, the homicide victim, was involved in. Sadie does what she can to get them to cooperate with the police. She’s very honest with us. Very blunt.” “She will continue to beat down a door until the information is laid at the footsteps of the police department,” said Cousin.

Sadie’s also known to put herself in harm’s way breaking up scuffles between kids before they escalate into something worse. “I try to intervene. Once, I got flung around and I landed on the hood of the car. But I got back up. I broke up the fight. The cops came. Everybody was OK,” she said. “All I’m trying to do is get ‘em to just think. When I say I lost my son some of them seem to have compassion or pity for me.” Once, a gun was pulled on her. The windows of her home have been shot out. She won’t be intimidated. Would she get involved in the middle of a dispute again? “Probably, and 100 percent if a woman we’re being hit by a man. There would be no doubt.”

She still has dreams for PULSE. She envisions youth life coaching classes. “Make them feel better about themselves, so they’ll make better choices and won’t settle for anything,” she said. “So, that’s a goal. My theory now is if we pay attention to the children maybe there’d be less grief support meetings we have to have.” Cousin suspects Sadie will go right on with PULSE till her dying days.

“As long as we continue to have homicides in this community and as long as there’s breath in her body Sadie will continue to help the families. She’s quite remarkable and definitely unforgettable.” Miss Sadie may not have everything to give she’d like but, she said, “I have my heart and my family. And I have hope. Keep hope alive. I guess I have to stand on faith.”

Note to Readers

August 29, 2010 Leave a comment

In case you read any new posts added earlier today (Sunday, August 29) on my blog and found that the stories ended rather abruptly or not at all, it’s because I thought I had copied and pasted these previously published print pieces in their entirety, only to find out that I hadn’t. Excuse the unfinished and interrupted work you came upon. I have since corrected the issue and the stories now read as they should. If you have no idea what I am referring to, then you obviously didn’t come upon those articles, in which case stop reading here and find a story or two on my blog to pass the time with.

Categories: Uncategorized

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

August 29, 2010 Leave a comment

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Fr. Jim Keiter

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

Pogge said students get to see new worlds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Treasure and Daniel

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casualties are inevitable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Strong, Smart and Bold, A Girls Inc. Success Story

August 29, 2010 2 comments

Shardea Gallion, ©photo Girls Inc. Omaha

The following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared as its go-getter subject was on the verge of womanhood, nearing her high school graduation and looking ahead to college. Shardea Gallion has lived up to the promise she showed as a star member of the Girls Inc. or Girls Incorporated club in Omaha, where she grew up and where she became the poster girl for the mentoring, youth development program’s Strong, Smart and Bold slogan.

I spoke with her last year and I’m pleased to report she’s well on her way to achieving her goal of a media career, studying film and television at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and working on video projects outside of class.  Like many of the girls served by the nationwide nonprofit Girls Inc., Shardea comes from a disadvantaged background, but with support and guidance she’s gone far to to position herself for a life and career that might have seen improbable a decade or so ago.  I have a feeling I will be writing about Shardea again some day, and this time she will be a professional film or television director/producer/writer.  You go, girl!

Shardea, ©photo bt Greg Nathan, UNL Communications photographer

Strong, Smart and Bold, a Girls Inc. Success Story

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

“Strong, smart and bold” is the Girls Inc motto but it may as well be the personal creed of Shardea Gallion, an Omaha girls club member since age 5. In a life full of tests, Gallion, 17, has shown a resilience, intelligence, moxie and what she calls “old spirit” that belie her age and make her dream of a broadcast journalism career plausible. Already the host of her own cable television show – Those in Power – on Cox Communication’s community access channel, this poised hip-hop teen from The Hood makes like a young Oprah conversing with local movers-and-shakers on topics ranging from police-community relations to reparations for black Americans.

Besides holding her own with adults, the devout black Baptist excels at mostly white, middle-class Catholic Marian High School, where she’s a senior honors student, features page editor for the school paper and leader on multicultural-diversity committees. She also volunteers for her church, the YMCA and Girls Inc. In 2002 she was one of eight recipients of the national Girls Inc $2,500 college scholarship award and in 2000 was among 40 school-age girls chosen from 1,000 applicants to participate in the Eleanor Roosevelt Girls Leadership Workshop in Val-Kill, NY. An upcoming issue of Black Enterprise Magazine will profile her.

Two recent stories she penned for her school paper, The Network, hint at her audaciousness. In one, she asked non-Catholic Marian students to reveal what it’s like being a minority there. In tackling the story she defied administrators, explaining, “I want them to understand that, yes, there are other voices at Marian and my voice as a Baptist is just as important as those other students’ who are Catholic.” The other story explored the implications of teens getting hitched. “I hear a lot of talk about girls designing their wedding dresses and picking out their rings and I’m like, ‘This is ridiculous — you don’t even have your college picked out.’ I just wanted to send a message to girls that maybe you should wait and think about it.” Gallion, who said she “doesn’t want to throw away my dreams” by starting a family right out of school is herself the product of a young union.

One of six kids born to a teenage single mother, she endured a chaotic first five years before she, her sister and four brothers were taken in by their maternal grandparents. Ultimately, she and her siblings were placed in foster homes. She is still troubled by the fact they were adopted by separate families. “That’s when I was kind of crushed forever,” said Gallion, who’s been in counseling over the severing. “I never understood why we were separated or why my sister couldn’t join me.” She’s tried putting it behind her. “I know I can’t dwell on being separated because that would have just bring me down.”

Regarding her mother, whom she’s seldom seen since the split, Gallion chooses her words carefully. “I didn’t always have that solid foundation…of someone that was going to be there no matter what. At school, everything was fine, but the thing that gave me the greatest trouble was home life. When things are not OK at home, you’re not OK inside. I guess I always had to rely on myself. My mother was rather young. She has regrets. She does wish things would have played out differently.”

Through it all, the one constant in Gallion’s life has been Girls Inc, a sanctuary and activity center for a largely poor black membership. Located in the former Clifton Hill School building at 45th and Maple, the club is where a young Gallion found the stability and direction she lacked outside its red brick walls. “Girls Inc takes into consideration that all parents don’t teach their children everything they should know, so it steps in and is another mother to the girls here, and that’s exactly what it’s been to me,” Gallion said. “It’s helped me through all the times in my life. When situations come along where I’m the only female or I’m the only minority, I am constantly reminded that I am strong, smart and bold — no matter what.”

The girls club is where Gallion found a flesh-and-blood parental figure in Angela Garland, Girls Inc program director. Better known as Miss Angie, this cool, posh black woman was a confidante and mentor to Gallion before assuming guardianship over her three years ago. In Gallion, Garland saw “a very talented” girl who had “to grow up fast” and “take on adult responsibilities” and who, without the right support, might go the wrong way. “There were a lot of things going on in her home — teenage angst and all the rest — and I just kept thinking, ‘Oh, surely somebody will step in,’ and when that didn’t happen I told her she could stay with me. I honestly thought it would be temporary…that things would kind of work out.” When no one else filled the void, Garland made it official by becoming her legal guardian. Living together has taken some adjustment on both their parts.

For Gallion, it meant the woman she never heard a cross word from and whom she idolized as “independent” and “gorgeous” was now Mom. “She’s someone I really looked up to, not that I don’t now, but since taking on a parental role for me I have to look at things a little bit differently,” Gallion said. “I know it was a transition for her to go from me being Miss Angie at Girls Inc to being the parent at home that had guidelines and expectations,” said Garland. “We would go round and round about, you know, ‘Get off the telephone’ or ‘Turn the television off — get your homework done.’ One time, I just had to say, ‘Look, this is my house, this is not Girls Inc — do it because I say so.’ These are things she had never heard before growing up.” Amen, Gallion said. “There were so many things that were so foreign to me. I never had to study. She helped me discipline myself.” When Gardner married, Gallion had to adapt again. “I’ve never been in a household where there was a mom and dad — a husband and wife — and so that’s been an eye-opener.”

Gallion felt self-imposed pressure “to be this perfect person” for Miss Angie. “For a long time I was discouraged,” she said, “because I was doing things for others. The only reason I kept going is because people invested a lot in me. But Miss Angie lightened my burden when she told me I really don’t owe her much except to be the best person I can be. That made things so much easier. I realize she’s taken on a huge role and I do not want to let her down, but now I do things for me first.”

Sometimes Gallion tried so hard to please her guardian that Garland finally told her, “‘Honey, just be a kid — you’ll be grown up soon enough.’” Garland’s only wish for her young charge is for to reach her potential. “All I want is for Shardea to be the best she can be. I always encourage her to dig deeper and to not limit her options.” The experience of shaping a young life has been transforming for the 20-something professional. “It was a tremendous shift for me because when Shardea first came to live with me I was in graduate school and it was like I was an instant parent. But she’s really been a blessing to me. I think she’s made me more passionate about my job and a true advocate for kids. She’s made me respect parenting and she’s helped to kind of give me a new perspective — that there’s more to life than going to work and having things. I realize how blessed I am to be able to pay it forward and say, ‘Now, you go do it.’”

Girls Inc. Omaha

Often taken for older than she is, Gallion has some mature goals. “I plan to get into journalism but, from there, branch out. My ultimate goal is to work with people.” Among the colleges she’s considering is the University of Missouri in Columbia and its prestigious journalism school. Those around Gallion fully expect her to reach her goals. “Her passion is going to get her where she wants to go,” said Marsha Kalkowski, a journalism instructor at Marian. “She’s one of the most enthusiastic student journalists we’ve had here. I see her in front of a camera and I see her making a positive difference in the community.”

Gallion began hosting Those in Power, a project of the Edmonson Youth Outreach YMCA, at the tender age of 14. “Well, at Girls Inc you learn you just gotta take chances and jump in, and so that’s what I did,” she said of her precocious TV debut. She views the program as part of her education. “Once I get involved in a topic I don’t want to learn it just for the show,” she said, “I want to actually know about it so I can carry on a conversation and sound half-way intelligent. I always feel I don’t know enough and I just keep striving to learn as much as I can.”

With college on the near horizon, Gallion is focusing now on her studies and on applying for various scholarships. When things are more settled, she plans reconnecting with her blood roots. “My biological family can never replace Miss Angies’s family — I feel like that’s my family now — but I just want to know who they are. I don’t want to close the door on that. You never know what could become of it. It’s just not a huge priority right now. I feel like I have to get on with my life.”

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

August 29, 2010 Leave a comment

The Panel in Bethlehem

Image by PalFest via Flickr

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

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

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

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 25, 2010 3 comments

Campus Unrest

Image by jen-the-librarian via Flickr

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

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

Rudy Smith

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still Fighting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Robert Chrisman

 

 

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

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

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

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

Organizing Studies

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

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

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

 

Michael Maroney

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Struggle Continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The X-Men Weigh-In on Designing a New Omaha

August 25, 2010 1 comment

Downtown Omaha Skyline

Image by shannonpatrick17 via Flickr

For years Omaha suffered from no image or, if it had one at all, an unflattering image that connoted a dusty prairie town and not the cosmo metropolitan center it has pretensions of being and is in fact becoming. Part of the city’s transformation on the image front is the dramatic remaking of its riverfront and downtown, and more recently, of some of its midtown and inner city districts.  A few years ago I sat down with three men who at one time or another held the title of Omaha City Planning Director to get their input on the emerging new Omaha taking shape, and the following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the result.

The X-Men Weight-In on Designing a New Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

As Omaha embarks on a series of lofty urban developments that promise transforming the city in the most dramatic fashion since the early 1900s boulevard system, The Reader caught up with the burg’s three most recent planning directors for a roundtable discussion on Omaha’s newly emerging face.

Former Omaha City Planning Directors Bob Peters, Marty Shukert and Alden Aust are friends and former colleagues. Meeting in the 11th floor Civic Center office of Peters on the very May afternoon he announced his retirement, Peters looked around at the men who held the same job before him and said, a little wistfully, “This is family.” He suggested the three of them be referred to as “the X-Men.” Aust, now 88, called Peters and Shukert “my two best hires.”

 

 

Marty Shukert

 

 

Peters helped oversee the Omaha By Design initiative whose progressive, uniform, community-based New Urbanism planning guidelines and standards have been adopted as master plan policies by the city. He also saw the fruition of long-held plans for redeveloping the riverfront that began with his predecessor and mentor, Aust. Peters and Shukert, another Aust protege, collaborated on 1980s near downtown projects — Town Terrace and Pierce Point — that incorporated features of the New Urbanist design movement. That movement, which advocates pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, integrated village concepts that make dense urban spaces inviting gathering spots and destination points, is at the core of what’s happening here and what’s happened in places like Portland, Ore. and Minneapolis, Minn., two cites that are models for Omaha’s renaissance.

Shukert, a principal and partner with local RDG Planning and Design, served on the Omaha By Design Advisory Committee. He’s contributed to plans for the Millard Town Center Project and prepared urban designs to many other communities.

Aust, whom Peters refers to as “the grandfather of the city.” is credited with making Omaha’s ‘60s-era Return to the River campaign more than a slogan. He pushed through, over much resistance, the creation of the Central Park Mall,  renamed in honor of the late Gene Leahy, one of six mayors he served under. Love it or hate it, the mall, which is slated for extensive renovations, reshaped and reenergized a decaying downtown and gave Omahans a new perspective on what their city could be. More importantly, the mall was the first conduit to what eventually became, thanks to additions that extended it eastward to 10th Street and later linked it to the Heartland of America Park, Omaha’s new public connection to the riverfront. As recently as a decade ago, the same riverfront that’s now home to Rick’s Boatyard Cafe, Louis and Clark Landing, Qwest Center-Hilton, the National Parks Division headquarters, the Gallup training complex and newly under-construction high-rise condos, was an industrial wasteland.

The X-Men have been involved in a decades-long process, whose latest and most dynamic chapter is the grassroots Omaha By Design effort, to reimagine and retrofit the city as a true urban center drawing people and activity together. Much of what the X-Men have worked towards is articulated in recently announced plans for multi-million dollar developments around Mutual of Omaha-Turner Park, the Ak-Sar-Ben property and north downtown or No-Do. Similar revitalization is being realized on the riverfront and the north-south sides of town.

They’ve seen Omaha stagnate and sprawl, aspire and achieve. They’ve been there for its missteps and inspirations. While not in the city’s direct employ anymore, the X-Men act as consultants. Each shares a personal and professional interest in what’s gone on before in urban design here and each is curious about the shape of things to come. Their strong views on what Omaha can be reflect their passion for the city. They’re optimistic about the prospects of Omaha finally metamorphosing into the cosmo cityscape it’s been haphazardly flirting with for generations. They feel its maturation, in aesthetic design terms, has the city poised to shake off the image problem that’s always dogged it. They say it’s a matter of confidence.

“Image is a very hard thing to change,” Shukert said. “You don’t have control over it. But it’s not impossible. There are places that have transformed their image. Baltimore, for example. Indianapolis. Frankly, our image is that we are a cow town. And there will be people in various parts of the country who will have a hard time thinking of us as anything different. Part of what’s important is our own image of ourselves. When we stop seeing ourselves as that way, but as a different and transforming place, then that image is going to be communicated to other places.”

“I think it’s happening now,” Peters said. “First of all, there’s a pride I’ve never seen exhibited so visibly in this community. It’s been a difficult romance, but residents have finally fallen in love with Omaha. Some of the events along the new riverfront have a big city atmosphere. That doesn’t happen except in those circumstances when things click. And things click for a reason. I mean, we’ve got new clothes. Great cities are defined by their cultural arts and the corporate leaders in this community recognized that quite some time ago, and what’s been developed here is significant and wonderful for visitors and residents. We have the Western Heritage, the botanical gardens, the zoo, the Joslyn, the Qwest Center, the new Holland Performing Arts, the riverfront. We’ve got great neighborhoods. We’ve got great bones to build on. They’re environments and experiences that are probably unexpected, and I think that’s what Urbanism is about.”

“I don’t know who it was that defined Urbanism as a place that provides a high probability of unplanned positive encounters,” Shukert said, “but that’s it.”

 

 

Alden Aust and Bob Peters

 

 

Historically, Omaha’s city-led design approach was an isolated process with no overarching, codified standards and little public input. That resulted in Omaha having some of the barest, “ugliest streets,”imaginable Peters said. Basic elements of good design were ignored. “City streets were put in” with no corresponding plan “to plant trees and to do median landscaping,” he said. “Simple, inexpensive measures that would make a world of difference.” That’s changed with Omaha By Design and the related Destination Midtown. These corporate-neighborhood association led-actions have opened the process up to dialog, review and goal-setting by everyone from small business merchants to CEOs to home owners in making things like streetscape improvements and green spaces a matter of policy.

“The sea change with Omaha By Design is that it’s privately funded. It is a buy-in by the private business and neighborhood community as opposed to a planning director saying, ‘Oh, I think we’ll put $100,000 in the budget this year and do an urban design plan.’ And here’s why that’s important: Not that many years ago the standards proposed in that process would have been dismissed as socialism or as unnecessary frills or maybe as good enough for the East Coast but not something we need in Omaha,” Shukert said. “Now, we’ve evolved to the point where it is the corporate community and not pointy-headed planners who are in fact demanding and enforcing those standards. And when that happens those standards actually become law and owned by the community.”

To Shukert’s dismay, not everyone embraces Urbanism. He said, “Some question spending $25 million on the proposed Missouri River pedestrian bridge, but spending $120 million on an elevated (West Dodge) expressway is no big deal.” “To get through two stop lights,” Peters said disdainfully. “That’s the most God-awful expenditure I’ve seen in this city in a long time,” added Aust.

“There are projects and features that do tend to drive us apart and be the enemy of Urbanism,” Shukert said, “and those things are obstacles. And sometimes they’re our own fault. We still in this city live very far apart. We have people who’d like to live further apart yet. Who’s image is very anti-urban — it’s an acreage out in the country. There are neighborhoods that believe a commercial development or a lower-priced home will depress property values, and so they build walls.”

Shukert said those that question “the need” for something like the pedestrian bridge to link Omaha and Council Bluffs just don’t get it.

“Chicago didn’t need the Millennium Park. New York didn’t need Central Park. The St. Louis Arch wasn’t necessary. But, in fact, those elements make a city great. We’re getting to the point where we’re realizing the value of making the place great as opposed to functional. One thing we’ve seen clearly is an elevation of community standards, expectations and acceptance. A critical point has been reached. We’re not all the way there yet, but we’re getting there,” he said.

What set the stage for this heightened design awareness here?

“For one thing, lifelong or long-term Omahans have traveled and seen places they like and wonder why those places don’t exist here,” Shukert said. “Then there’s the demand for a higher standard that people new to the city bring from other places they’ve lived. Finally, some of the major corporations, like First National Bank and the Omaha World-Herald, have made huge investments in top quality design. They, in effect, said, We’re establishing this standard that everybody else should live up to, and so they become standard-bearers.”

“I think it’s a reflection of what the community has always desired but there wasn’t  a discussion that became so public as to coalesce and congeal those desires,” Peters said. “The transformation of the riverfront was the linchpin of that. It focused everybody’s attention on a relatively few projects that changed the physical makeup of the city forever.”

Shukert described “three transformational projects, all related to Mr. Aust’s original vision of downtown Omaha,” that showed the way. “The first of those was the Gene Leahy Mall. You don’t know the struggle to get that thing done. When it was finished people said, ‘This doesn’t look like Omaha.’ It was the project that showed Omaha it could be something else. Project number two was the ConAgra campus. There are still those who argue whether it was the right design or the right use for that land or whatever, but it certainly changed the nature of the debate and, for the first time. it engaged the city with its river.

“The third project that really kicked things into high gear was the riverfront development north of the I-80 bridge — the Qwest Center, Hilton and everything else. It’s begun to make downtown Omaha a west Omaha-type development real estate market that is a self-sustaining market people invest equity in.”

The X-Men agree that proposed new developments, along with others envisioned around the 72nd Street corridor and a stretch of inner city Dodge, fit nicely into the new Urbanism scheme, which isn’t so new after all.

“New Urbanism is to some degree very skillful packaging of what always used to be,” Shukert said, “and that’s Urbanism. Neighborhoods like Dundee and Benson and some elements of Millard and Florence are in some ways a model for what New Urbanism is trying to recreate. There are certain patterns that describe an urban environment. They deal with public space, with connectedness, with scale and intimacy, with how people experience a neighborhood or district in its variety of social functions and interactions. And there are many ways to skin that cat.”

 

 

 

 

Being sensitive to and taking advantage of an area’s unique attributes, he said, is key. ”Different solutions are appropriate in different areas.” If there’s a unifying principal, however, it’s connectedness. “That involves having civic spaces where people meet each other as opposed to being compartmentalized in cars or having a mix of uses not cordoned off one from another,” Shukert said. “Ultimately what we want to try and be about is the creation of great places and experiences that are connected to one another.”

Shukert said a lack of design standards allowed the suburban strip mall scene to get out of hand here — in areas like 132nd and Center and 144th and Maple. “Despite tremendous investment, they developed in a sort of piecemeal, separated way. They never quite came together as a destination” He said a response to those mistakes is seen in projects like Village Pointe, Shadow Lake and Twin Creek. “While not perfect, they attempt to pull elements together. It’s a realization that some commercial developments really are activity centers and really need to function that way and should not just be individual, separated buildings that surround parking lots and that impose bewildering traffic patterns.”

Omaha missed an opportunity to create connections on an epic scale by never completing the original park and boulevard system designed by Horace Cleveland and by not building new linkages between neighborhoods and attractions. “It’s important we don’t make that mistake again,” said Shukert. “A characteristic of a great city is a progression of districts and features that make it a rich experience. That’s why things like the pedestrian bridge and trails are important, because they link things together.” Even “greening the streets,” he said, can give a sense for “being part of a greater whole” and “reinforcing” core aesthetic design elements.

While the park-boulevard system wasn’t fully realized, Peters said, what there is of it provides a “seamless” approach that anchors areas and give them identities. “The health and vibrancy of the neighborhoods north and south along that network is directly related to that system. It created interconnectedness and an image.”

Now on the drawing board is nothing short of a complete make-over of the city, including mammoth redevelopment plans, streetscape improvements and public works projects. Old neighborhoods and business districts are in line for rebirths. There’s no telling yet which projects will reach fruition. Developers and funding must be found for some.

“It’s never been done in any city on a comprehensive basis. Other cities have done a downtown plan or an open space plan or a riverfront plan, but no city has taken from the civic, neighborhood and green perspectives and remodeled and created what that city is going to be from that point forward,” Peters said.

“One of the only other purely privately funded planning efforts of this magnitude I can think of is the 1909 plan of Chicago,” Shukert said. “And what did that accomplish? It accomplished the city of Chicago as we know it today.”

The X-Men said developments and amenities in Omaha will still be in isolation from each other unless an organic linkage solution is found. Public transportation is one possibility. Alden Aust proposed an elevated rapid transit light rail system back in the ‘70s. It found scant support then and later attempts to revive such plans fizzled. Studies show the costs to build and maintain a system of that sort is prohibitive in a market where projected ridership numbers are deemed too low to sustain it. The most likely form a connecting public transit system will take, Peters said, is a trolley system like those floated in recent years.

“If it happens,” Peters said, “the first modeling of it will be to link destinations-attractions. Rosenblatt with the zoo with the botanical gardens with Western Heritage with Joslyn with the Old Market with the Qwest Center. By doing that, you’re creating the boulevard system of the 21st century. The old system connected pastoral locations that became a network of parks where eventually neighborhoods developed and linked to it. If the corporate leaders ever decide to support a transit system linking destinations, the neighborhoods adjacent to those attractions will explode. It will be a renaissance along those streets.”

Omahans may not have long to wait, Shukert said, if plans for No-Do come to life in the mix of restaurants, live music venues, movie theaters, shops and residential units that Blue Stone Development and other developers envision there. “It’s building a neighborhood that connects the Qwest Center and the riverfront with Creighton (University). It’s a linkage concept entirely. Pedestrian and transit facilities then become the spine that can create stronger neighborhoods.”

Peters acknowledges Omaha has moved slowly in reaching an urban design consensus that heralds reformation, but he said acting cautiously has let it study what similar-sized cities have done right and wrong. Now, he said, an Uber Omaha is primed to arise. “We’re going to surprise the hell out of people”

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