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Nebraska’s Changing Face; UNO’s Changing Face

March 18, 2014 Leave a comment

I wrote the following  feature and sidebar exploring some trends about the changing face of Neb. and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, my alma mater.  Slowly but surely the state and some of its institutions are becoming more diverse.  Some of the changes can be readily seen already, others not so much, but in a few decades they will be more obvious.   It’s a healthy thing that’s happening, though diversity is still taking far too long to be fully felt and lived and embraced in all quarters, but that’s for another story.

 

 

 

 

Nebraska’s Changing Face

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Nebraska’s “Plain Jane” sameness has long extended to its racial makeup. Diversity hasn’t held much truck here. Even when the foreign-born population was at its peak in the state’s first half century, the newcomers were predominantly of European ancestry.

An African-American migration from the Deep South to Omaha in the early 1900s established the city’s black base. Until a new immigration wave in the 1990s brought an influx of Africans and Latinos-Hispanics to greater Neb., the composite face of this Great Plains state was decidedly monotone.

The perception of Flyover Country as a bastion of white farmers has never been completely accurate. The state’s two largest metropolitan areas, for example, have always boasted some heterogeneity. Urban areas like Omaha and urban institutions such as the University of Nebraska at Omaha express more racial-ethnic diversity because of longstanding minority settlement patterns and the university drawing heavily from the metro.

But it is true Neb.’s minority population has always been among the nation’s smallest, which only supported the stereotype.

Finally, though, its minority numbers are going up and its diversity broadening.

Still, if Nebraskans posed for a group portrait as recently as 1980 more than 9 of every 10 would have beeb white. Only 6 percent identified as African-Americans, Latino-Hispanics, Native Americans or Asians.

The lack of diversity extended virtually everywhere. The largest minority group then, blacks, was highly concentrated in Omaha. Despite slow, steady gains blacks still account for only 13 percent of the city’s population and 4 percent of the state’s population.

But as recently announced by UNO researchers, Neb. is changing and with it the face of the state. A group picture taken today would reveal a noticeable difference compared to a quarter century ago, with whites now accounting for 8 of every 10 residents. Indeed, the state’s minority population has more than doubled the past four decades, with by far the largest increase among Latinos-Hispanics, who now comprise the largest minority segment. Latinos-Hispanics are on a linear growth trajectory. They tend to be young and their women of childbearing age.

Minority growth has been even greater in select communities, such as Lexington, where meat processing attracted newcomers.

Celebrated native son filmmaker Alexander Payne’s new movie “Nebraska” – set and shot primarily in the northeast part of the state – accurately portrays a slice of Neb.’s past and present through a large ensemble of characters, all of whom but two are white. The exceptions are both Hispanic. The Oscar-winning writer-director may next make a partly Spanish-language feature about the impact of the immigrant population on Neb.’s towns and cities.

New UNO Center for Public Affairs Research projections posit that by 2050 the state’s portrait will dramatically change as a result of major demographic trends well under way. Within four decades minorities will account for about 40 percent of the entire population. Nearly a quarter of the projected 2050 population of 2.2 million, or some 500,000, will be Latino-Hispanic.

It’s a sea change for a state whose diversity was traditionally confined to a few enclaves of color. Immigration, migration and natural causes are driving this new minority surge.

Everything is relative though. So while CPAR Research Coordinator David Drzod says, “Our diversity will increase,” he adds, “Neb. is one of the less diverse places countrywide and other states are going to become more diverse as well.”

Still, the snapshot of Neb. is changing due to real demographic shifts with significant longterm consequences. Just as the majority white base is holding static or declining, non-whites are proliferating. The results can be seen in the ever more diverse profiles of some communities, neighborhoods, schools and other settings.

Thus, for the first time in Neb. diversity is becoming more lived reality than aspirational goal.

Economic conditions were the main driver for the sharp rise in Latinos-Hispanics migrating here. Plentiful jobs, a low cost of living, coupled with aggressive industry recruitment, lured people to move here from places with comparatively weak economies, high cost of living and job shortages. Neb. grew its Latino-Hispanic base from points of origin in California, Texas. Mexico, Central America and South America, The state also saw its African and Asian populations increase as refugees from Sudan and Bhutan, for example, resettled here.

Drozd says, “People are not coming as directly for new jobs like in the ’90s when the meat processors were expanding and recruiting. We expect to see some regional migration that Neb. has typically seen from smaller locations to more urban locations that tend to have a diverse pool of job opportunities within various industries.”

While migration has slowed from its peak waves it’s expected to continue in fits and starts. Migration, researchers agree is “a wildcard” that can’t be accurately forecast, but Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Research Associate Lissette Aliaga Linares notes an uptick in Latinos-Hispanics from Arizona, which OLLAS Director Lourdes Gouvia attributes to that state’s anti-immigrant policies.

Drozd says Neb.’s minority experience is consistent with some surrounding states and inconsistent with others.

“We are typical of the Great Plains in that we tend to suffer from outmigration especially of young college-aged whites, which is counteracted by in-migration and increase in the minority population groups. On the other hand Neb. is unique in that we are growing faster in some of our metropolitan areas and not holding our population as well as some of the more rural areas.”

 

 

 

 

 

The emergence of more minorities is perhaps most visible in urban inner city public schools, where student enrollment naturally reflects the heavily minority communities these schools serve. Minority enrollment in the Omaha Public Schools stands at 68 percent.

“The diversity of UNO will continue to grow and one only has to look at the demographics in the metro area to understand that traditional middle school and high school students will increasingly be students of color,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed.

Some outstate school districts are now majority Latino-Hispanic.

The impact of diversity in this small population state that suffers from brain drain cannot be overstated.

“There’s a large part of Neb. that would be having population decline if it were not for minority growth,” says Drozd. “There’s all sorts of implications with respect to aging, the workforce, health care, education. From a gerontology standpoint you have the possibility of seeing a younger, more diverse working-age population caring for a predominantly white non-Hispanic aging population and will there be any issues associated there. With programs like Social Security you’re going to be relying more and more on an immigrant population to support payments for predominantly white people collecting from the program. So there are potentials for tension there and of course political ramifications and all sorts of factors.”

Gouveia, a sociology professor, reminds that “Latinos are going to imitate some trends of the larger population the more urban and educated they become,” adding. “The more women are able to work outside the home fertility rates will drop and the population will begin to age. It’s the life cycle.”

As minorities grow they become a larger sector of the tax and voting base that elected officials and prospective candidates must recognize.

Drozd says communities must adapt, whether offering English-as-a-Second Language programs or multicultural competency classes, in order to best serve minorities and their particular needs.

As more minorities graduate high school educators and employers hope that many of these college-bound grads and working-age young adults will attend school and find jobs in-state.

“As people have become upwardly mobile in Neb.’s past that has led to outmigration out of the state,” says Drozd. “It’s going to be a very policy relevant factor because people born in the early ’90s are now hitting age 18. Even if they choose a Neb. college where are they going to go to work? Will there be jobs and associated positions for them here in the state or will they go out of state?”

Just as preparing students to succeed in school is critical, so is preparing a workforce for today’s service and skilled jobs.

“Let’s make no mistake about this, without immigration Nebraskans may have to rethink how they are going to have a viable economy that produces not only jobs but payrolls that produce taxes from which an aging population will benefit greatly,” says Gouveia. “Without this population there won’t be services this Boomer population and this aspiring mini-global city of Omaha depends on. These are increasingly service economies and that means it’s very important for the economy to increasingly be based on higher pay jobs likely to grow, such as information technology or biotechnology.

“That also means educational institutions need to be able to truly know how to train this generation of children of immigrants. The children may not be immigrants themselves but a large number have immigrant parents who endured very poor, disadvantageous conditions that tend to disadvantage the educational achievement of their children. We have to have multidimensional. multidisciplinary perspectives to understand who this population is. And that goes to our research also.”

She believes minorities will succeed to the extent opportunities allow.

“We haven’t addressed the serious barriers to education that would guarantee that new face of America and of Neb. becomes a face with equal opportunities to participate in the prosperity all of us will want to share.” She says if barriers to upward mobility aren’t removed “it may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that’s been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population were it not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and future.”

 

 

 

 

Daniel J. Shipp, UNO associate vice chancellor for student affairs, says schools must find ways to support minority students.

“When combined with the typical struggles of new college students the demographics of race-ethnicity will create even more difficult challenges in both access to and success in college. Not only must we continue to open our doors wider to traditionally under-served student populations but once on campus it is critical for all of us to see their success as a top institutional and community priority.”

UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs Pelema Morrice urges educators and employers to appreciate diversity’s many forms.

“We always focus on racial-ethnic diversity but I think intellectual diversity, geographic diversity, cultural diversity, all those different forms of diversity, really add a lot of value to everyone’s experience. There’s plenty of evidence that the more diverse environment we’re in the more we all have opportunities to learn from each other.

“So I think it’s incredibly important for an institution to be a welcoming and diverse environment where folks can learn from each other at a higher level. I think that adds to the educational experience and it provides students with really good training to go out and be productive citizens and to be successful in the workplace.”

Diversity is also the way of this flatter, interconnected world.

Reed from UNO’s Academic and Student Affairs office, says “Our students will grow up in a much more global environment requiring exposure to difference cultures and different experiences.”

Where diversity often must be programmed, Gouveia is heartened by students’ inherent embrace of it. “About this new Neb. mosaic, one thing I’m particularly hopeful about is the younger generation. I love our new students. From any background they are so much more prepared and so much more ahead of where we are as professors or department chairs or deans in terms of knowing how to do diversity. We are the ones who are often behind them.”

As Neb. becomes more multi-hued, UNO’s Morrice says representative stakeholders should discuss what diversity holds for the state.

“With these new demographics coming forward it means our student base will obviously be more diverse than it is now and that means the outcomes will be more diverse and so we’ll see more diverse workplaces and communities within the state. We’re just a piece of that puzzle but I think it’s a good collective conversation for everyone to have as the state continues to grow and it becomes clear that there will be different faces at the table.”

 

 

 

 

UNO’s Changing Face

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

The same demographic trends on pace to make the United States a minority majority population by 2050 and making Neb. a more racially-ethnically diverse place in the second decade of the new millennium, are increasingly being expressed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Roughly a quarter of UNO’s 2013-2014 freshman class is minority and just under 20 percent of the school’s entire undergraduate enrollment is minority. Both are record marks for the school. In 2000, for example, UNO’s minority enrollment stood at 9 percent. The minority numbers are even greater among graduate students.

The 11 percent rise in UNO minority enrollment from 2000 until now reflects in large measure the Latino-Hispanic boom that happened in-state from 1980 to 2010, when that segment increased from about 37,000 to 167,000. The Latino-Hispanic population is expected to add another 370,000 residents by 2050, according to UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research.

As a public institution with a state-wide reach, UNO’s a model for the changing face of Neb. Drawing principally from the Omaha metropolitan area, which as the state’s largest urban center has always been Neb.’s most racially-ethnically diverse spot, UNO is, as expected, one of the most diverse campuses in the University of Nebraska system.

At the University of Nebraska-Kearney minority undergraduate enrollment has nearly doubled since 1995. Today, nearly a quarter of its students are non-white or non-resident alien. Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reports the most diverse student body in its history. UNL’s  2,328 minority undergrads are about 12 percent of the undergraduate total, a 9 percent increase just from last year. Just as at UNO, the largest minority gains at each school are in the Latino-Hispanic and international students categories,

 

 

 

 

As minorities comprise a growing segment of the state’s mainstream and of its public schools’ enrollment, institutions are tasked with incorporating these populations and responding to their needs.

“The good news for Omaha is that UNO has a proud tradition of supporting minority students through various educational equity and learning community investments such as Goodrich, Project Achieve and the newer Thompson Learning Community,” says UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Daniel J. Shipp. “These programs provide student participants with a network of caring and concerned faculty, staff and peer mentors that help students to succeed and thrive in college. Moving forward, I expect we will continue to build on our national reputation for attracting and supporting the growing numbers of minority students and their families in the Omaha area and beyond.”

“Minority students are an important population but they are only one of an increasing mosaic of diversity at UNO, whether they are military, first generation, students of color or adult learners or transfer students,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed. “We are working every day to ensure that these students feel welcome at UNO and have the type of support services and environment that will make them want to be want to be here and to be successful. We do this for all our special populations of students. We have programs and learning communities as well as staff specifically directed at helping ease their transition to UNO and success in their academic goals.”

Reed says hiring faculty and staff who reflect the changing face of UNO “is a top priority,” adding, “We have made important strides in diversifying our staff but we lag behind where we want to be here and also with recruiting and retaining a more diverse faculty. We are working on reviewing existing policies and procedures and looking at incentives and support efforts to increase the diversity of faculty and staff to reflect the changing demographics of our student body.”

There’s wide agreement that diversity is a net sum experience for all involved.

“The benefits are substantial,” Reed says. “The workplace is becoming increasingly diverse and employers need and want an increasingly diverse group of employees. We cannot underestimate the shift occurring here. We need to provide a strong educational workforce for employers and UNO must be positioned to do that effectively.”

 

 

 

 

Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Director and Sociology Professor Lourdes Gouveia agrees that educators at UNO and elsewhere must increasingly consider diversity and its impact.

“We have to educate our professionals and student populations in ways that allow them to be skilled about global issues and diversity and to have multicultural competencies as the world is very connected,” she says. “But also we need to address structural barriers that may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that has been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population if not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and a future.”

Omaha Black Sports Legends Featured in My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness

August 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Omaha Black Sports Legends Featured in My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness

I am now posting installments from a series I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Omaha Black Sports Legends entitled, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness.

The 13-part, 45,000 word series profiles the remarkable gallery of athletes who came out of essentially the same inner city neighborhoods during a brief period in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s:

Bob Gibson
Bob Boozer
Gale Sayers
Roger Sayers
Ron Boone
Marlin Briscoe
Johnny Rodgers

In addition to these well-known names, there are many more figures, including Marion Hudson, whose stories and feats deserve more recognition, and my series, originally published in 2004-2005, is an attempt to put all these athletes’ accomplishments in proper perspective. Athletes of more recent vintage are also profiled. I will be adding a few stories that didn’t officially appear as part of the series but that fit thematically within it and help to provide more context.

Some series posts are currently featured on my home page. You can find the series in the categories Omaha Black Sports Legends or Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. There’s half-a-dozen stories posted right now, but many more soon to come.

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

August 2, 2010 2 comments

Prominent figures of the African-American Civi...

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

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

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Davis uses his own generosity as calling card and challenge.

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

Dick Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Warren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leo Louis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where could it go wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 2, 2010 Leave a comment

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

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

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 19, 2010 1 comment

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

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

© by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Davis uses his own generosity as calling card and challenge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where could it go wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

African-American Empowerment Network Sets Course for Change

July 8, 2010 1 comment

Check out my new cover story in The Reader about Omaha’s African American Empowerment Network. It’s the first installment in a two-part cover series on this nonprofit, grassroots, community initiative to raise the educational, economic, quality of life prospects for a segment of the population that, on average, lags behind the majority population and other ethnic minority groups.

I will soon be adding the story to this blog site, but for now you can find it at The Reader-

http://www.thereader.com

Also, I will be using the two-parter as a case study for how I go about doing what I do. That look inside my process will be featured on my Notes from a Working Journalist
Squidoo lens page. Look for an announcement here about it. If you haven’t visited that site yet, you can access it at-

http://www.squidoo.com/notes-from-working-journalist

Santa Lucia Festival, Omaha Style

July 5, 2010 2 comments

Domenico Beccafumi, Saint Lucy. Pinacoteca Naz...

Image via Wikipedia

My heritage is half Polish-American and half Italian-American.  My late mother was Gemma Pietramale, and as you can guess from the name hers is the Italian side of my family.  She and her many siblings and friends from the old neighborhood, which still goes by Little Italy today, attended the annual Santa Lucia Festival.  By the time my brothers and I came along, we grew up on the other side of town and the festival never held much appeal to us, although my mom still went some years, if not to the festival itself, then attending the special Mass and procession that officially kicked off the event. That’s not to say I didn’t celebrate certain aspects of my Italian cultural heritage, for I did, particularly indulging its food, which I’ve always loved eating and cooking.  There were Italian grocers and bakeries I frequented and other Italian festivals I attended, but most of my Italian-American immersion came via interacting with my large extended family.

I finally attended a Santa Lucia Mass with my and its pageantry inspired me to do the following story on the festival.  The piece originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, a paper that is no longer around.

Santa Lucia Festival, Omaha Style

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly

As Omaha continues plowing under the old to make room for the new, the city leaves behind fewer and fewer remnants of its once distinct ethnic neighborhoods and traditions. Among the oldest surviving ethnic celebrations still observed here is the annual Santa Lucia Festival, a peasant-style street pageant honoring St. Lucy, a saint invoked for her healing powers. This year the tradition-laden festival unfolds June 22-25 in the heart of Omaha’s former Italian colony at 6th and Pierce Streets.

While the festival proceeds in an area that is no longer an Italian district per se, it attracts many former residents of Italian ancestry and stirs in them deep currents. “We grew up in the atmosphere of the festival, and it’s a tradition that’s in our blood. It’s a part of us. It’s a part of our life. It’s like a reunion. You gather with relatives and friends and follow through on what your ancestors from Sicily brought over,” said trumpet player Dominic Digiacomo, leader of the Santa Lucia Band.

Santa

The 77-year-old festival is a direct link to the Sicilian emigrants who settled in Omaha around the turn-of-the-century, when they established an enclave in the hilly area just south of downtown that became known as Little Italy. The Salerno family of Carlentini, Sicily is credited with making Omaha a destination for hundreds and eventually thousands of immigrants from that district of the Italian island. The Salernos acted as padrones or patrons to the new arrivals. Within the span of a generation the Italian American colony here was a large, predominately Catholic working class stronghold (many of the men toiled for the railroads) whose cultural heritage was centered around church, home, school and the large array of Italian-run businesses that catered to people’s every need. One tradition missing from the old country, however, was the festival honoring Carlentini’s patron saint, Lucia, a young visionary martyred for her beliefs in Syracuse, Sicily in 320 A.D. when a Roman soldier stabbed her to death. The festival, which continues in Sicily to this day, is a gala occasion highlighted by a decorative procession with an ornate float carrying a statue of the beloved saint. Traditionally, believers in the saint line the streets to make donations of money, jewelry, flowers and articles of clothing in hopes of obtaining her intercession and indulgence.

Feeling the time was ripe for Omaha’s Italian Americans to stage a Santa Lucia fest of their own, Carlentini native Grazia Buonafede Caniglia led a drive to start one in the early 1920s. The matriarch of the Caniglia family that went on to establish some of Omaha’s best loved restaurants, including Mr. C’s and the Venice Inn, Caniglia went door to door soliciting funds for putting on the event here and she ultimately enlisted the support of business leaders. A committed was formed and the festival launched. Since its 1925 start, the festival has come to represent the local Italian-American community’s most visible and enduring heritage celebration.

The festival, which has changed little since its beginning, features a carnival with rides and games, booths stocked with Italian foods (from sausage and peppers to meatballs to biscotti), a band playing traditional Italian music and a solemn Sunday mass at St. Frances Cabrini Church (which has been the site of the festival mass since the church was known as St. Philomena’s). A color guard comprised of uniformed and saber-carrying men from the Santa Lucia Society, each dressed in matching coat, cape, white gloves, bow tie and plumed hat, stands at attention beside the statue during portions of the service, which features the singing of the Santa Lucia song. The color guard accompanies the statue outside, where it is placed on the decorative float. The mass, which attracts an overflow crowd to the tiny church at 13th and William, is the festival centerpiece along with the procession and the crowning of the festival queen that follows it.

For old timers like Frank Marino, the mass and the procession are deeply affecting moments that hearken back to early memories of the festival and all it represents. “When I was a kid I can remember that it was probably the biggest event of the whole year,” he said. “Even though those were tough times, our folks would get my sisters and I new clothes and new shoes. We always dressed real fancy because we met all our friends and relatives down there. This was the big thing. And it was always the religious aspect that was stressed. We always went to the church to the mass. That was the great thing — going to mass and seeing all the people there dressed up and listening to the preaching. Then, when the statue came out of the church, you almost cried because it was such a beautiful sight.”

The statue, patterned after a Santa Lucia icon in Carlentini, was fashioned in Sicily not long before the inaugural 1925 Omaha festival. The float, bedecked with angel figures from Italy, was constructed in Omaha. Where the float used to be pulled by hand, it has in recent decades been rigged to a rolling jeep frame.

Band

Just like in Carlentini, devoted onlookers press in close to offer up money or personal items to the icon. Attendants accept the donations, pinning the money to ribbons and fabrics adorning the float, draping the jewelry about the statue and placing larger items below it. The Santa Lucia song is sung once more before the march through the neighborhood commences.

Nowadays, the post-mass procession is the only march of the four-day fest. In years past, a series of parades were held during the course of what was a seven or nine-day festival. And whereas today the march is a mere few blocks long, it used to wend through the narrow streets of Little Italy along a route covering some three or four square miles. “It started at 6th and Pierce and we would go up and around Little Italy, all the way down to 4th Street and then come all the way up to 12th and Center. It was quite a jaunt. We’d  start at 4 o’clock and we’d get back about 7 or 8 o’clock. We were dead tired after we got back. We used to call it the Italian Death March,” said Marino, a past Santa Lucia Festival committee president.

According to Marino, the festival has been pared down over the years in response to the changing makeup of the area. What used to be an almost exclusively Italian section tied together by a common belief and background is now a mishmash of nationalities, histories and interests. “It seemed like in every other house there was an Italian family living along the route, and they would come out and greet us and talk to us and donate money to the cause and ask for the Santa Lucia song to be played in front of their house,” he said. “Many times, in one block alone, we’d stop five or six times for that song to be played. The Italian people all understood the festival. Then, in later years, we’d go almost a whole block without anybody coming out to greet us. The new people didn’t understand the whole deal.”

Italian-Americans, like other ethnic groups, joined the great rush to suburbia in the 1960s and ‘70s — fleeing the old neighborhood in droves for the promised perks of ranch-style upward mobility. Historic Little Italy is home now to only a smattering of second and third generation Italian-American residents, merchants and institutions.

In the early 1980s the festival, faced with declining attendance, pulled up stakes from the old neighborhood and moved to the area around the then-new Central Park Mall. It proved to be the first in a series of moves for the festival, which gained bigger crowds but lost some of its authentic charm and historic surroundings in the process. After downtown construction impinged on the mall site, the event found its way to the Deer Park Boulevard area adjacent to the Henry Doorly Zoo and Rosenblatt Stadium. When parking problems surfaced there, the festival found a new if somewhat sterile home on the south side of Ak-Sar-Ben, where it remained until last year. With the south side Ak-Sar-Ben property’s future in doubt and old timers nostalgic for a return to the festival’s original turf, the  2000 event came back home after an absence of nearly two decades. Santa Lucia Festival Committee president Frank Distefano said, “We tried having it in different parts of the city…but it’s just not the same without having it in the neighborhood.” Except for two rain outs, the festival’s return to what some consider almost sacred ground was a hit. “All the people were talking about how great it was to be back in the old neighborhood and the festival’s original roots,” Marino said. For him, there is no doubt the event is back where it belongs. “Oh, yes, absolutely. That’s still Little Italy in my heart.”

Dominic Digiacomo feels the festival should never have left in the first place. “This is where it should have been,” he said from the kitchen of the Santa Lucia Hall at 7th and Pierce after a festival committee meeting there. “I really wasn’t for it when we moved. We were just kind of feeling our way around. We all wanted to be back here in the old neighborhood and now that we’re back we’re happy about it.”

Event Site

The religious meaning, ethnic pride and historic ties bound up in the long-running festival became an issue recently when a few detractors sought to prevent its taking place in the mixed residential-commercial district that has traditionally been its home base. Having failed to stop the festival from proceeding there, opponents then tried blocking the sale of beer at the fest, but lost out when organizers and supporters appeared before a City Council hearing to emphasize what an integral part of the Italian-American legacy in Omaha the event is and how vital concession sales are to its success. By a 5-1 vote, the Council granted the beer license. To backers like Frank Marino, the public flap over whether the festival is still a good fit given the area’s altered cultural landscape only helps bring into focus what a vital link it is to Omaha’s Italian-American past and what a revered tradition it continues being for descendants of the event’s originators.

“That’s the whole thing — the tradition behind it all,” said the white-aproned Marino from behind the refrigerated meat locker of his A. Marino Grocery store on South 13th Street. The cozy neighborhood market was started by his late father Andrew Marino in 1920. “And that’s what we keep going — the tradition. That’s what were all after. We don’t want to lose our tradition. It’s the highlight of our year, really. I want to continue it. My children want to continue it.”

Or, as former festival master of ceremonies Joe Carlentine put it, “It’s just a thing we were brought up with and believe in and that’s been part of our life all of our lives. It’s a family thing. It’s a tradition that brings back memories of old times.” Just as Carlentine said of Marino’s throwback store — “It never changes; it always stays the same; it’s part of the old times here” — the festival is one constant in this fast-changing era and one relic from the past preserved in all its glory.

For Yano Falcone, who like the others has been attending the festival for nearly its entire duration, it offers a connection to a time, a place, a people and a sentiment that is otherwise gone. “This is the way we were raised and this is our way of coming back to our home and to our roots. We’re trying to do the festival in the same manner as when our mothers and fathers around. We’re trying to keep the tradition flowing through.”

The event triggers such feelings of pride and reverence among the faithful that anyone describing it as a mere carnival should be prepared for a fight. As Joe Pattavina, who has been at virtually every festival since the early 1930s, explained, “To us, it’s a festival — it’s not a carnival. The festival is what we celebrate. We believe in the saint. We believe in our Catholic heritage. If we didn’t believe in it, I don’t think we’d be here all these years.”

Santa Lucia Festival president Frank Distefano, who is considerably younger than most of his fellow committee members, said, “Most of our members are in their 70s and as a younger member I feel a responsibility and a sense of pride and, actually, urgency to keep this tradition alive.” How far the festival continues into the new century will depend on how well it does financially. Things are tight right now due in large part to last year’s rain outs, which cost the festival $8,500 in projected revenue. “We had to go to the bank and borrow some money to put on this year’s festival,” Distefano said. “But we’re going to get it done. We’re going to spend close to $43,000 this year. That’s why we’re praying for good weather so we can generate enough money from the carnival and the sale of food and beer to cover our costs and to raise money for the charities we contribute to.” The festival donates proceeds to the Lions Club as well as various church and civic groups.

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