Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Reader’

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

August 25, 2010 3 comments

Campus Unrest

Image by jen-the-librarian via Flickr

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

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

Rudy Smith

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still Fighting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Robert Chrisman

 

 

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

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

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

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

Organizing Studies

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

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

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

 

Michael Maroney

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Struggle Continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

After a Whirlwind Tenure as Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser Goes Gently Back to the Prairie, to Where the Wild Plums Grow

June 19, 2010 1 comment

Blooming Wild Plum

Image by ShaharEvron via Flickr

This is the second story I wrote about poet Ted Kooser. It followed the first one I did on him by several months. That earlier story is also posted on this site.  This second profile appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and nearer the completion of his duties as U.S. Poet Laureate.  He’d enjoyed the position and the opportunities it afforded to spread the art of poetry around the nation, but as the article makes clear, he was also relieved he would soon be leaving that very public post and returning to his quiet, secluded life and the sanctuary of home.

After a Whirlwind Tenure as Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser Goes Gently Back to the Prairie, to Where the Wild Plums Grow

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Late spring in Seward County will find the wild plums Ted Kooser’s so fond of in full bloom again. If he has his way, the county’s most famous resident will be well ensconced in the quiet solitude he enjoys. Once his second term as U.S. Poet Laureate is over at the end of May, he returns to the country home he and his wife share just outside the south-central village of Garland, Neb., tucked away in his beloved “Bohemian Alps.” It’s served him well as a refuge. But as a historical personage now, he’s obscure no more, his hideaway not so isolated. It makes him wonder if he can ever go back again to just being the odd old duck who carefully observes and writes about “the holy ordinary.”

When named the nation’s 13th Poet Laureate, the first from the Great Plains states, his selection took many by surprise. He wasn’t a member of the Eastern literary elite. His accessible poems about every day lives and ordinary things lacked the cache of modern poetry’s trend toward the weird or the unwieldy.

“I knew in advance there would be a lot of discontent on the east coast that this had happened. I mean — Who’s he? — and all that sort of thing,” he said. “If it had been given to me and I had failed it would have really been hard. So I felt not necessarily I have to do it better than anyone else but that I really needed to work on working it. It’s really been seven-days-a-week for 20 months now. And I think I have had a remarkable tenure.”

The fact he pledged to do “a better job than anyone had ever done before” as Laureate, said partly out of a pique of regional pride, set him up for failure. By all accounts, though, he’s been a smashing success, taking The Word with him on an evangelical tour that’s brought him to hundreds of schools, libraries, museums, book clubs, writing conferences and educational conventions.

No less an observer than Librarian of Congress James Billington, Kooser said, told him he’s “probably been in front of more people than any other Laureate, at least during his tenure. So, that counts for something.”

Kooser wanted to connect with a public too long separated from the written word. To reverse the drift of poetry away from the literay elite and return it to The People. Swimming against the tide, he’s managed to do just that with the stoic reserve and grim resolve of a true Midwesterner. No figurehead Laureate, he’s a working man’s Poet, sticking to an itinerary that’s seen him on the road more than at home for nearly two years. “I can’t remember where I’ve been and when,” he said recently.

For a shy man who “really prefers to be at home,” the thought of coming out of his shell to make the rounds as Laureate seized him with panic.

“At first, I didn’t think I could do it. Looking down the line right after it happened I thought, No way are you going to be able to be that public a person. I’ve always been kind of an introvert and it’s always been very difficult for me to get up in front of groups of people,” he said. “But I decided I would throw myself into it and make myself do it. I learned how to do that and I’m much more comfortable now after doing hundreds of things, although I’m still nervous.”

He estimates he’s appeared before some 30,000 people as the Laureate.

Much as a post-Sideways Alexander Payne expressed a desire to immerse himself in the unseen depths of a new film, a process he likens to “scuba diving,” Kooser craves a time when he can once more lose himself on the road less traveled.

“Now of course my impulse is, as of the end of May, to start retreating back into that very comfortable introversion that I’ve always loved,” he said.

His 2004 Laureate appointment and 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry brought the world to his quiet country home, if not literally to the doorstep, then virtually there via requests for interviews, readings and appearances of one kind or another. He still gets them. The fact he’s obliged many of these entreaties says much about the man and his avowed mission to bring poetry to the masses.

“My principal goal is to show as many people as I can who are not now reading poetry that they’re missing out on something,” he’s said.

His honest, pinched, Presbyterian face, set in the detached, bemused gaze of a portrait subject, is familiar as a result of his weekly newspaper column, “My American Poetry.” The column, the primary vehicle he chose to promote poetry, appears in hundreds of papers with a combined readership of some 11 million. Not that the townies in and around Garland didn’t already recognize him. He’s only reminded of his celebrity when he puts on a tie for some fancy event or is spotted in a public place, which happens in Omaha, Lincoln or more distant spots, like Washington, D.C., the home of the Laureate’s seat, the Library of Congress, where a 3rd floor office is reserved for him. Not that he uses it much.

Besides the phone calls, e-mails and letters he wades through, there’s the more mundane perhaps but still necessary chores to be done around his acreage. Fallen branches to pick up. Dead trees to bring down. Repairs to make. Dogs to feed and water. Distractions aplenty. It’s why he must get away to get any writing done. Yes, there’s sweet irony in having to find an escape from his own would-be sanctuary.

“We have a lovely place and all that, but the problem’s always been that when I’m sitting there in my chair at home with my notebook I’m constantly noticing all the things that need to be done” he said. “So getting away from that is going to be nice. I’ve bought an old store building in Dwight (Neb.). It’s about 10 miles from where we live. It’s a thousand square feet. One story. It’s been a grocery store and various things and I’m fixing it up as a sort of office. In the front room I have a desk and bookshelves and in the second room I have a little painting studio set-up.

“Nobody in Dwight’s going to bother me. I’m really going to try and figure out having a work day where I would go up there at eight in the morning and stay till five and see what happens. Paint, write, read books. And then go back.”

The demands of his self-imposed strict Laureate schedule have seriously cut into his writing life. With a few weeks left before he can cut the strings to the office and its duties, he’s resigned to the fact his writing output will suffer “for awhile” yet, but confident his return to productivity “is gradually going to come about.”

He’s already whetting his appetite with the outlines of a new project in his head. “I’ve been thinking about a little prose book I might like to do in which I would go to my building in Dwight and sit there in the middle of that little town of 150 or 200 people and read travel literature and write about armchair travel all over the world from Dwight, Neb. It’d be a book like Local Wonders (his 2000 work of prose), but I’d be sitting there daydreaming about Andalusia, you know. I don’t like to travel, but that might be a sort of fun way of doing it…learning about the world.”

He may also keep busy as general editor of an anthology of poems about American folklore to be published by the Library of Congress. Kooser originally broached the project with the Library soon after being installed as Laureate.

Then there’s his ongoing column, which he’s arranged to have continue even after he’s out of office. The column, offered free to newspapers, supports his strong belief poetry should be inclusive, not exclusive. He hit upon the idea for it along with his wife, Lincoln Journal Star editor Kathleen Rutledge.

“Kathy and I talked for years and years about the fact poetry used to be in newspapers and how do you get it back,” he said.

A column made sense for a poet who describes himself as “an advocate for a kind of poetry newspaper readers could understand.” Making it a free feature got papers to sign on. He said the number of papers carrying “My American Poetry” is “always growing” and one paper that dropped it was pressured to resume it after readers complained. He’s most pleased that so many rural papers run the column and that perhaps schools there and elsewhere use the poems as teaching tools.

Besides the feedback he gets from readers, the poets whose work he features also get responses. “And, of course, the poets are tremendously excited. They’re in front of more readers than they’ve ever been in front of in their lives,” he said. It’s all part of breaking down barriers around poetry.

“The work that is most celebrated today is that work that needs explaining…that’s challenging. The poetry of the last century, the 20th century, was the first poetry ever that had to be taught. That had to be explained to people,” he said in an April 24 keynote address before the Magnet Schools of America conference at Qwest Center Omaha. It began “when the great Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs of contemporary poetry fell upon poetry in the persons of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.”

This drift toward a literary poetry of “ever-more difficulty” and “elitism” continues to this day, limiting its appeal to a select circle of poets, academics and intellectuals. “The public gets left out,” he said. He has a different audience in mind. “I’m more interested in reaching a broad, general audience. I’m in the train of those poets (in the tradition of William Carlos Williams) who always believed in wanting to write things that people could understand.” Rather than a focus on form, he said, “I believe in work that has social worth.”

As a missionary for a common poetry that really speaks to people, his newspaper column amounts to The Ted Kooser Primer for Poetry Appreciation. “I have felt like a teacher all through it,” said Kooser, a poetry instructor for select graduate students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Basically with the column I’m doing what a teacher would do. I’m trying to teach by example…what poetry can offer.”

He realizes his insistence on realism and clarity rankles the established order.

“I try pretty hard to make it understandable,” he’s said of his own work. “That sort of thing runs against the grain in poetry right now. I’m very interested in trying to convince people that poetry isn’t something we have to struggle with.”

Kooser harbors no allusions about making a sea change on the poetry scene.

“I think by the time I’m done at the end of May, when my term as Poet Laureate is over, I will have shifted American poetry about that far,” he said, his clamped hands moving ever so slightly to mimic those of a clock. “And the minute I’m out of office there’ll be a tremendous effort to get back where it was.”

Still, he feels emboldened by the response he gets. “Everywhere I go doing poetry readings throughout this country I run into people who have felt excluded from poetry almost all their adult lives,” he said. “Invariably after one of my readings a man who was drug there by his wife will come shambling up to me and say, ‘I had a pretty good time and I think I’m going to try this poetry stuff a little bit,’ which is wonderful for me. It’s exactly what I want to happen.”

It’s all about making converts. “Yeah, and, you know, they’re only one at a time. but for the one person that comes up there are others in the audience that are feeling the same way,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s my poetry that’s making the difference. This is not something I’m doing intentionally, but in looking at myself from over on the side I think have de-mystified the process. You know, it’s really about working hard and learning to write. There’s no magical thing I have that nobody else has. It’s just the fact I’ve been writing poetry for 50 years and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. And I think people like to hear there’s nothing really mysterious about it.”

Part of the exclusion people feel about poetry, he said, stems from how it’s taught in schools. It’s why soon after getting the Laureate he made a point of speaking at the National Conference of Teachers of English, “an organization on the front line for expanding the audience for poetry,” yet one ignored by his predecessors.

“I wanted to go there because I thought, Here are the people who have all the experience teaching poetry and usually where poetry goes wrong is in the public schools. It’s taught poorly. It discourages people, and so they never know to read it. And so I figured these teachers are really the prime teachers — any teacher who will pay his or her own way to a convention is pretty serious about teaching — and would have the really good ideas about how to teach poetry. And, as a matter of fact, there were a lot of ideas that came out of it. Mostly enthusiasm, really, and encouragement and that sort of thing.”

He never underestimates the power of “a great big dose of encouragement, no matter how bad the students’ work is, because I was one of those students,” he said. Growing up in his native Ames, Iowa, his earliest champion was his mother, the woman who taught him to see and to appreciate the world around him — the local wonders so to speak, and to not take these things for granted. Another early influence was an English teacher named Marian McNally. In college, teachers Will Jumper and Karl Shapiro, the noted poet, inspired him.

As Laureate Kooser’s embraced diversity in poetry. A 2005 program he organized in Kearney, Neb. saw him share the stage with an aspiring poet, a cowboy poet, a romantic poet, a performance poet and a fellow literary poet. Whatever the form or style, he said, poetry provides a framework for “expressing feelings,” for gaining “enlightenment,” for “celebrating life” and for “preserving the past.”

When he battled cancer eight years ago he didn’t much feel like celebrating anything. “And then…I remembered why I was a writer. That you can find some order and make some sense of a very chaotic world by writing a little poem. People need to be reminded there are these things out there that they can enjoy and learn from — and there might be something remarkable in their own backyard — if they would just slow down and look at them. To really look at things you have to shut out the thinking part and look and just see what’s there. It’s reseeing things”

True to his openness to new ideas, he’s agreed to let Opera Omaha commission a staged cantata based on his book The Blizzard Voices, a collection of poems inspired by real-life stories from the 1888 blizzard that killed hundreds of children in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas. Adapting his work is composer Paul Moravec, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer for Music. The March 2008 production will premiere at the Holland Performing Arts Center and then tour. Recording rights are being sought.

For Kooser, who once adapted his Blizzard poems for a Lincoln Community Playhouse show, the possibilities are exciting. “I met with him (Moravec) and I liked him immensely and so I decided I would trust him to do anything he wanted to do. I think the idea of a blizzard and the kind of noise you could associate with it could be really interesting.”

Music-poetry ties have long fascinated Kooser, who hosted a program with folk musician John Prine. The March 9, 2005 program “A Literary Evening with John Prine and Ted Kooser,” was presented by the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress in D.C.  The program included a lively discussion between the songwriter and the poet as they compared and contrasted the emotional appeal of the lyrics of popular songs with the appeal of contemporary poetry.

“I’ve been following John Prine’s music since his first album came out and have always been struck by his marvelous writing: its originality, its playful inventiveness, its poignancy, its ability to capture our times,” Kooser said. “For example, he did a better job of holding up the mirror of art to the ’60s and ’70s than any of our official literary poets. And none of our poets wrote anything better about Viet Nam than Prine’s ‘Sam Stone.’ If I could write a poem that somebody could sing and make better for being sung, that would be great.”

In anticipation of the Opera Omaha cantata, the University of Nebraska Press has reprinted Kooser’s Blizzard Voices in paperback.

Whoever’s named the next Laureate will get a letter from Kooser. If his successor asks for advice he will say to be sure to avoid talking politics. If Kooser had responded to a national reporter’s question two years ago about who he voted for in the presidential race, he’s sure he’d still be dogged by that admission now. “Instead,” he said, “I’ve gotten to talk about poetry…the job I was hired to do.”

A Mentoring We Will Go


Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Richmond &...

Image by rogercarr via Flickr

Mentoring programs, whether community or school-based , along with mentoring done more informally, on one’s own, offer effective ways for reaching at-risk youth. The following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about 10 or 12 years ago profiles some mentoring efforts in my hometown of Omaha.  I cannot recall much about the assignment other than the passion and commitment of the people involved as mentors to make a difference in young people‘s lives.

A Mentoring We Will Go

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

A sweltering June night in the inner city finds a rag-tag basketball game under way in the Adams Park Community Center gymnasium. Here, in this hot house of testosterone, a lone female watches from the sidelines, itching, like the men around her, for a chance to play.

Maurtice Ivy is a tall, poised woman of 31. She mingles easily with the crowd. A righteous sister perfectly accepted as one of the guys. And why not? She grew up a tomboy among them and is a bona fide player to boot.  The former Central High School all-state performer was a collegiate basketball star with the Lady Huskers and played professionally long before TV discovered the women’s game.

This night, like so many before, she’s brought along a young man she regards as a son, Rickey Loftin. The lean, hard-bodied 16-year-old harbors big-time hoop dreams of his own. The junior-to-be at South High School is anxious to strut his stuff. When the pair finally do take the court, she feeds him the rock again and again, highlighted by a slick one-handed bounce pass from the top of the key to a driving Rickey in the lane. Count it. These two anticipate each other’s moves and moods more than mere teammates do. More like soulmates.

It’s that way off the court, too, where Ivy mentors Rickey. In that capacity she serves as friend, counsel, guide, nag and personal coach.

After the gym clears out she “fusses at” him about his showboating and points out a flaw in his shooting technique. He listens good-naturedly and adjusts his shot. “That’s it,” she says approvingly.

Maurtice Ivy

The pair first met when she coached an Omaha Housing Authority team he played on. They hit it right off, and three years later they’re nearly inseparable. She attends all his athletic and school events. She helped pay for a black college tour he attended in May and is looking to enroll him in summer basketball camps where he’ll be exposed to better coaching and competition. She’s been there for him at every turn, including a tragedy.

“A couple years ago Rickey called me up one morning and asked me to come get him,” Ivy recalls. “I was wondering why he wasn’t in school and he said, ‘My dad was shot and killed last night. The only person I want to be around right now is you.’ I was speechless. It took everything in me not to break down and cry. At that point, I hadn’t realized how I had impacted him as a coach. And I just felt like that God was placing him in my life for a reason, and I needed to pick up the ball and be as positive as I could be.

“Rickey was hurting and he really didn’t know how to deal with that.  Since then, I’ve really played a role in his life. I just try to be a strong support system for him. Our relationship has truly grown over the years.”

Ivy is among thousands of adults in the Omaha metropolitan area who maintain a one-to-one mentoring relationship with an at-risk youth. What follows is an exploration of different mentoring relationships and how these relationships follow certain familiar patterns, yet retain their own individual dynamic. Of how mentoring brings adults, kids and resources together in often surprising ways. Of how good mentoring isn’t a magic elixer or quick fix, but an investment of time that pays off slowly but surely.

Who are mentors? They’re individuals lending the benefit of their experience to a younger person struggling to reach his/her potential. They can be parents, teachers, coaches, professionals, laborers or anyone with a commitment to making a difference in the life of a child.

Some, like Ivy, mentor on their own — as an extension of their life and work. Others do it through the growing number of formal mentoring programs offered by schools, community service agencies and corporations. For example, adults from all walks of life mentor students in Tom Osborne’s school-based Teammates program, currently serving the Lincoln Public Schools and now gearing to go statewide.

All Our Kids, Inc. of Omaha recruits and trains mentors from around the state, offers a scholarship pool and sponsors a mentoring program of its own that has grown from serving 19 youths in 1989 to 100 today. Since 1992 AOK has trained some 1,000 mentors from 60-plus organizations at 50 workshops and hopes to reach more through its new Mentoring Institute, says executive director Michael Hanson.

This surge in mentoring is part of a larger movement in which clearinghouse organizations like the National Mentoring Partnership provide training materials and funding referrals in support of local efforts. Several Omahans involved in mentoring, including Hanson, were delegates at a 1997 Presidential summit that examined the most effective ways adults can serve America’s youth. The summit launched the Colin Powell-led volunteer initiative, America’s Promise, a catalyst for linking adults with kids in positive, community-building ways like mentoring.

A Method to Mentoring

The needs of a specific community often dictate the shape mentoring takes. The Chicano Awareness Center’s Family Mentoring Project serves first-generation Hispanic-American families in south Omaha, meaning mentors like Maria Chavez must be a “big sister” to Diana Gonzalez, 12, as well as a bilingual liaison to the girl’s parents, Aman and Maria, as they deal with language, immigration, job, education and social service issues. Joe Edmonson’s Youth Outreach Program, housed in north Omaha’s Fontenelle Park Pavillion, gives kids the safety, discipline and nurturing the area’s gang-ridden streets do not. Edmonson builds kids’ minds and bodies via athletic, multi-media and recreation activities.

Programs generally try striking a balance between structure and spontaneity. The US West-sponsored Monarch Connection, matching employees with McMillan Magnet School students, awards achievement badges to kids completing community service projects with their mentors, and encourages participants to spend other leisure time together.

Some programs strive to be part of youths’ lives from elementary school through college, others target a shorter time frame. Scholarship and other financial aid is sometimes provided as an incentive for children to excel. To qualify for aid, kids must usually honor a signed agreement detailing certain standards of personal behavior and school performance.

Whatever its face, however, mentoring is seen by practitioners as one proven, prevention-based approach to the widespread problems facing America’s youth, although supporters agree it’s no panacea, much less substitute for quality parenting or professional counseling.

“I think in today’s society parents aren’t always there, and not necessarily because they don’t care or they’re bad. Economically, a lot of parents are put in positions where they have to work two or three jobs or opposite shifts. Part of the fabric of the family is missing. A lot of kids nowadays don’t learn at home about manners and etiquette, and about  consequences and encouragement and those kinds of things,” says AOK’s

Michael Hanson. “Often we hear from teachers or case workers that a kid’s parents are gone all day. The key is we need to do a better job of linking kids to the adult world in a way that makes sense to them.

“I think mentoring is being recognized as something that’s happened for a long time, but it just wasn’t called that, and now we’re formalizing it and trying to add some structure to it. That’s why I think its powerful. It’s the basis for everything we do as social animals. We form relationships, and a mentor is a special kind of relationship. If we look back in our own lives we all had someone who helped us see something in ourselves we couldn’t see or helped us make a decision we might not have made.”

Hanson says today’s mentoring efforts attempt “to artificially recreate something that happens naturally” for most youths, but that doesn’t for others. Without mentoring, he feels, kids fall through the cracks. That’s why programs like AOK work with school counselors and social service experts to identify youths who could most benefit from a mentor. Typically, it’s a bright student underachieving due to personal/family difficulties.

Doing the Right Thing

Mentoring is also a form of community activism. Of citizen helping citizen. Of giving back. Although Maurtice Ivy works in west Omaha (at Career Design), she still resides and takes an active role in the near north side community she grew up in, coaching youth athletic teams, sponsoring a 3-on-3 basketball tournament and mentoring kids like Rickey. “As a young community leader it’s my obligation to try and make a pathway to make things better,” she says. “It’s all about trying to do the right thing. And it’s just remarkable how receptive kids are when they know you’re sincere and doing everything you can do to try and help them.”

She has seen the difference mentoring’s made for Rickey. Thanks in part to her tutelage, he’s harnessed his mental and physical gifts and become a top scholar-athlete with lofty dreams for the future. He can’t imagine life without her.

“We have like a bond between each other,” he says. “She’s helped me not only with my physical skills on the basketball court, but mentally too by helping me keep my focus in the game and on school. She inspires me to keep getting good grades. She’s made me see how I can get a scholarship to college. I’d like maybe to be an engineer or an accountant. She’s like my second mom. I feel comfortable calling her my step-mom.”

Ivy, single and childless, doesn’t pretend to be Rickey’s mother.  Mentors sometimes tread a fine line between being a friend and usurping the parental role. When Ivy started working with Rickey, she sensed his mother, a single working parent of three, viewed her as a threat. “I can understand that,” Ivy says, “and I didn’t want it to be that way, so I would back off, but then I’d be there for him when he needed me. I told her basically, ‘View me as an extension of you.’ She’s done a wonderful job with him. His mom is now a lot more supportive of what I’m doing in his life. I just try to give him direction. I try to place him around individuals and resources that can give him the assistance he needs. I see the impact I’ve made in his life and that is truly the most rewarding thing. When I see him excelling, I feel joy. ‘There’s my boy!’”

In return, Rickey looks up to Ivy. “She’s a black independent woman.  No one can force her to do anything she doesn’t want to. She’s athletic. She’s working on graduate school now. She gives me advice on anything I need to talk about. I feel like I can always depend on her,” he says.

Reaching Out and Giving In

Trust must be present before a mentoring bond can be cemented. Getting there involves a feeling-out process. It can be a daunting task reaching sullen kids who are already wary of adults. According to Hanson, “A lot times mentors are more scared of the relationship than kids are because it’s a big responsibility. And if they feel they’re not doing a good enough job or don’t know what to expect in terms of working with a young person, they’ll give up.”

Jeff Russell had two AOK mentors give up on him in junior high before being paired with a third, David Vana. Already burned twice, Jeff held back. “I was really hesitant about getting involved with another because I figured he wasn’t going to stick around for very long anyway,” Jeff, now 20, says.

Vana, an Inacom business analyst, felt the young man’s reluctance. “He didn’t have a whole lot of faith in the program based on his experiences with his first two mentors, so I think he was a little cautious before he warmed up to me. I think the previous mentors tried to push him, and with Jeff it just didn’t work because he had a tendency to rebel. Before I started giving him advice and stuff, I wanted him to trust me and accept me. I didn’t want to come down too hard on him, so we started doing things together like going to hockey games and we got comfortable with each other.”

Before Vana came into his life, Jeff was a juvenile delinquent in the making. After the death of his mother upon entering 5th grade, Jeff, who never knew his father, was raised by an aunt and uncle. Things were fine at home, but he was failing high school and hanging with a bad crowd, so counselors recommended him for mentoring. “The friends I had were not exactly…going anywhere. In fact, they’re still not anywhere,” he says. “One of them is in jail for murder. Another one has many drug convictions. Another one can’t hold a job. I was very fortunate to get out of it when I did.”

Upon first meeting Jeff, Vana was struck by his fatalistic attitude. “When I asked about college, he said, and I’ll never forget it, ‘People like me don’t go to college.’ That’s when I focused on building his self-esteem and confidence. He made a lot of progress. Jeff definitely is a success story.”

Jeff credits Vana and Vana’s wife Noreen for helping him turn things around. “They’ve been very influential in my life. Whenever I’d have a question — school-related, work-related, anything — I’d call and we’d talk. They’ve been there for me a lot. They really took time out for me.” With their help he applied himself, raising his GPA from 0.32 to 3.20 and graduating on time. Currently taking a break from his studies at Metro Community College, where he’s working toward an associate’s degree in horticulture, Jeff oversees a gardening crew at a private estate and hopes to one day have his own landscaping business/nursery. AOK is paying his college tuition.

When he looks back to where he was headed — a likely drop-out — he sees how far he’s come and where he yet aspires to go. “I could have very easily followed that path. I still could revert back to that path, but I just have to remind myself of my goals. This program showed me that if I do what I should do, I can actually get someplace in my life.”

Trial and Error

Even when mentoring works, there are still power struggles, communication gaps, unrealistic expectations and bumpy spots along the way. “You can’t just pull two people’s names out of a hat — a mentor and a mentee — and expect their personalities to mesh perfectly,” says Vana. “It’s important to remember every kid is different. You can’t apply some mentoring template to every relationship. If it isn’t working, recognize that and make a new match.”

Bad matches do occur. They’re bound to, since aside from a screening/interview process, pairings are based on instinct and educated guesses. “With some, there’s no chemistry there. Others walk a fine line, with neither side willing to get real close or comfortable. But there’s been some extremely good matches too,” says Roz Moyer, US West manager of Community Affairs/ Employee Relations and Monarch Connection director. She says when things don’t click or mentors quit, affected youth are reassigned until a solid match takes hold. The challenge then becomes regaining the child’s trust. It can take time.

Moyer says mentors often have a sense of failure even when the match succeeds and the child thrives. “I think part of that is the kids don’t run up and say, ‘Thank you, you did such a good job.’ I tell the mentors not to expect them to do that. You’ll see it in other ways — in the success they have in school or by a good word every once in a while. You just have to know you’re doing a good job.”

Monarch mentor Linda Verner, a US West Finance executive, has at times doubted the job she’s done with former McMillan and current North High student Carrie Laney, 15, whom she’s mentored since 1996. Verner says, “I really wasn’t sure how much I had to contribute.”

Carrie, though, is certain of Verner’s impact. “I went through a lot of family and school problems the last couple years and Linda gave me a lot of good advice. I can talk about a lot more things with her than I can with my parents. She’s always told me she’s proud of me. She boosted my self-esteem so I would believe in myself and strive to get good grades, and I did.” Carrie plans attending college, with a goal of becoming a pediatrician.

Verner says if mentors just stick with it, good things happen. “I did not understand how much I would get out of it. Part of it is the enjoyment of setting goals with a young person and then getting them accomplished and feeling like you’ve contributed a little bit something.”

Because mentoring doesn’t follow a formula, sponsors offer support when things come a cropper. “Mentors can get discouraged,” Hanson says. “The challenge is tempering their expectations, but at the same time maintaining a level of enthusiasm that will help keep them there for the long haul. We can help prepare them for the fact kids are not going to fall down on their knees and thank you for saving them. They may not even acknowledge you at all. I mean, some of the kids we work with really need a lot of social skills. We have to teach kids how to look a person in the eye, shake their hand and greet them.”

Since mentoring only works if both parties are active participants,sponsors stress why each person shares responsibility for the relationship.

“Both the mentor and the mentee have to have a willingness to forge ahead. Neither one can give up on making that connection and forming that relationship. As a mentor you have got to be dedicated enough to overcome obstacles and focus on that kid. As a kid you’ve got to be as committed as the mentor in attending all the functions and doing all the things needed to make this thing go,” says Moyer. “We tell the kids right off, ‘We cannot change your life. You have to change your life. We can help you. We can guide you. We can open some doors. But you have to be the one who makes the changes.”

“We do group activities so that we can see kids and mentors interact,” Hanson says. “The kid may only say five words to his mentor, and you can see the adult is getting frustrated. The mentor may come to me and say, ‘Gee, I’m just not making any progress. This kid doesn’t like me. I don’t know what to do.’ Yet, if the mentor quits coming to the meetings, the first thing the kid will do is say, ‘Where’s my mentor?’ They’ll know when you’re gone.”

New Beginnings

Karnell Perkins felt betrayed after his first three mentors gave up on him. His family was in disarray. School was a bust. Things looked bleak for the black north Omaha native before he finally connected with AOK mentors Mike and Judy Thesing, a white suburban Omaha couple who practically adopted him. It all started when Thesing, president of America First Financial Advisors, was recruited by America First Cos. head, Michael Yanney, to mentor kids at McMillan Junior High (now McMillan Magnet School) in Yanney’s Kids (the forerunner of AOK). Eventually, Thesing was assigned Karnell, by then a struggling Burke High student reeling from an increasingly chaotic home life and three unsuccessful matches.

Michael Yanney

“Before I met them I was bounced around from mentor to mentor,” Karnell says. “When I finally got Mike and Judy, they were different than the average mentor who sees their kids every once in a while for lunch or a movie or helping with their homework. But Mike and Judy, for sure, go above and beyond. They’ve meant a lot to me.”

But as the problems in Karnell’s family deepened, he was in danger of flunking out of school. “His unwed mother was on the fringe of being in trouble with the law for numerous reasons. There was never any role modeling or anybody who really cared what he was doing or how he was doing. There was never any money or transportation. He was the oldest of three boys and he felt responsible for his brothers. He worked after school, so school was the last thing he focused on,” Thesing explains.

That’s when Karnell’s mentors dramatically intervened in his life. “My wife and I took him by the ears and made him live with us the latter part of his senior year. We put together a program he was to abide by in order to get through school. We made sure he had transportation and that his academic requirements were fulfilled before he could go do anything else. It was a disciplinary and structural change for him, but I think he realized at that point that we really cared and were willing to do whatever it took to make sure he had every opportunity to be successful.”

The change in environment was profound, and so were the changes in Karnell. “I went from one culture in north Omaha to a totally different culture in west Omaha, but race was never an issue. Mike and Judy let me know there’s a better way of life than what I had. They gave me stability. They kind of became like mom and dad.”

There was a period of adjustment, however. “At first things were a little chilly, but as time went on and we did stuff together and he got to know us, things just evolved,” Thesing says. There’ve been road bumps since, like the time Karnell, now a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, sloughed off in his studies and was placed on academic probation. He soon felt the wrath of the intense, goal-oriented Thesing. Karnell, who describes himself as “laidback,” says Thesing’s constant “do-it-now” prodding got old. “Sometimes I was like, ‘Hey dude, chill out.’ But I do know he’s trying to help me accomplish good things. If I didn’t have him I think I’d be a slacker.”

Thesing says working through such differences is worth the end result. “It can be pretty frustrating, but if you can get past those barriers and develop a real solid relationship, the reward is you’ll be making a difference in someone’s life.” He’s seen the change: “I’ve always been proud of Karnell, but I’ve seen him mature quite a lot. Now he realizes the value of an education, the value of hard work and the value of discipline. By most measures, especially given his background, he’s doing outstanding.”

Karnell, 21, pulled his grades up enough to not only graduate high school, but earn a full college scholarship — courtesy of AOK. The finance major is on pace to graduate from UNL next year, which will mark a family milestone. “No one in my family has ever graduated college,” he notes. “Now, it’s like I’ve set a standard for my brothers. William and Langston are planning to go too. That makes me feel really good.”

Having seen the ups and downs of mentoring, he feels an adult must first earn a child’s confidence before being called a friend: “You need a person who’s sincere. You can’t be fake. You have to sincerely care about kids and want to help out, even if you don’t have all the answers. You have to seriously lead by example. And you have to want to do it from the heart.”

Thesing agrees, adding: “These kids just need someone that cares about them. A lot of them have gone through their whole life without anyone really caring. Throwing money at these things is not really the answer. It’s got to be a genuine commitment of time. Kids need your time more than anything else, and the earlier you get involved the better.”

He expects to remain a part of Karnell’s life for as long as he’s around. “I see it as a lifetime commitment. I look at him as a son almost.” The Thesings have, in fact, gained partial custody of Karnell’s youngest brother, Langston, 10, who now lives with them.

“He really likes being there,” Karnell says. “Every night I go to sleep I thank God for Mike and Judy…and all the people who’ve helped us out.  Their hearts are so big.”

Nancy Duncan, Her Final Story

May 9, 2010 1 comment

PorDoSolRibeira

Image via Wikipedia

I got to know the late Nancy Duncan better than I do a lot of my profile subjects.  You might even say we became friends.  I had written about her and her work as a professional storyteller.  We hit it off.  When she developed cancer and began undergoing a regimen of treatments and surgeries, she began doing what came naturally to her — putting her experiences into stories.  When told she was terminal, she and I eventually arrived at the idea of her telling one last story, in effect, by sharing her odyssey with the public.  The piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com).  Not long after the article appeared Nancy died peacefully, having said all her goodbyes and having left the gift of her humor and intelligence and grace with thousands in the form of her stories, which will live on forever.

Nancy Duncan, Her Final Story

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Professional storyteller Nancy Duncan felt the tell-tale lump on her right breast in 2000. She recalled it being “about two digits long, as round as a pencil and as hard as a rock. I knew the minute I touched it what it was.” Doctors soon confirmed her suspicion. Cancer. “Somehow it had just sneaked through the mammograms.”

After a mastectomy and chemotherapy, her illness appeared under control. Then, in April 2002, she found “a little chip of a tumor” under her arm pit. “They told me it had recurred, and when they found it there they figured it was somewhere else. They did a CAT scan and there were these little specks everywhere in my liver — like from a shotgun blast,” she said. Her cancer had spread. “Metastasized. It’s a nasty word. Nobody wants to hear it. You never know where it’s going to go when it gets outside the breast,” she said. “It’ll go to your bones or to your lungs or somewhere else. Mine just happened to go to my liver.”

“Well, Nancy, you’re a terminal,” is what her doctor told her. Terminal. Aren’t we all? — Duncan wondered. The only difference between me and my doc, Duncan thought, “is that she thinks she knows what I’m going to die of.” That, and the fact the malignant tumors carrying Duncan’s death sentence play a cruel game with her. “They grow and then the chemo shrinks them. Enough so you can barely see them or they’re not visible. In about four or five months, they figure out how to get around that drug and then they come back. That routine is what I’ve been doing the past two years,” said Duncan, the Nebraska Arts Council’s Artist of the Year.

Her four-year “dance with cancer” has propelled the former theater maven into a journey of self-discovery that’s informed every aspect of her life and work. Her unfolding death is the subject of her final, most profound story.

“Storytelling is always a process of learning about yourself,” said Duncan. “The story transforms along with you and that’s exciting to realize that and to let that happen. It’s a dialogue you maintain with that story for the rest of your life.”

The most surprising thing to happen in the narrative of her evolving death, she said, is the tranquility she’s found. “It’s totally taken away the fear” she had of dying. Her late husband, Harry Duncan, an acclaimed poet and fine book printer, died at home under her watch. That experience is helping her prepare for her own death.

When she first got news of her terminal illness, she panicked. “Then, I remembered what Harry did. He just stopped eating and drinking and he was unconscious after three days and gone in a week. From the day he decided he didn’t want to live anymore, he went in this kind of graceful state. It wasn’t like he was a beaming idiot or anything. He just seemed totally at peace. Very relaxed. Loving. It was like he was teaching us all that when you’re ready, you don’t have to hang around and be tortured to death. So, I thought, I always have that option. My kids have agreed they’re not going to mess with that choice.”

The comfort Duncan gained in contemplating her own blissful exit carried over to a new freedom she felt on stage. “The interesting thing is I totally lost my fear in performing. I became completely relaxed,” she said. “It was such a gift to be able to perform two years without any fear. Yahoo! Because that is what your audience really wants. They want you embodied in that art form. They want to see you, the most they can possibly see you, broken open. And fear just gets in the way. It’s a barrier between you and the audience. It’s a good thing, because it tells you this is an important occasion and you need to be present for it. It helps you stay on your toes. But it’s also a bad thing because then you’re editing, and you don’t want to edit. What you want to do is listen to your audience and remember things and let them pop into the story. Why did I have to have cancer in order to lose that fear?”

She’s considered her cancer from every conceivable angle. She’s talked frankly about it in stories. In the published Losing and Getting, her cancer-ridden breast converses with her healthy left breast in a stream of bitterness, guilt and humor. She’s talked about losing her hair but gaining a new appreciation for life. She’s performed her cancer story for many audiences, but especially for women who are cancer survivors, patients and potential victims. She knows firsthand their fear.

“There’s also a lot of lessons you learn…” Like the harsh reality of health care in America. “If I didn’t have supplemental insurance I wouldn’t be alive today because I couldn’t afford all these chemo treatments. And a lot of people can’t afford them. They don’t have a choice. They’re not given the opportunity to have their lives extended like mine has been. Given the fact there’s so much money being made treating cancer and that cancer is growing exponentially in the world, there’s no incentive to find a cure…and definitely no incentive to prevent it. I think we don’t really want to prevent it because we don’t want to change our lives. We’re too lazy. We don’t want to give up our fossil fuels and our fatty foods. We’re so complacent. I’m as bad as anyone else. That makes me mad sometimes.”

Since finding she’s terminal, she’s tried maximizing the brief periods she feels well between her taxing treatments, stealing moments here and there to work and to spend time with the many friends and relatives who comprise her extended care team. She’s also managed performing occasionally and nurturing some of the storytelling festivals she’s helped found and grow, particularly the Nebraska Storytelling Festival in Omaha. She’s annually given 600-plus hours of volunteer time to Nebraska Story Arts, the organization that puts on the festival.

Even as her condition’s worsened, she’s continued being the state’s most visible and vocal advocate for storytelling. Omaha sculptor Catherine Ferguson called Duncan “one of Nebraska’s most treasured women. She has dedicated her professional life to connecting people to the arts and humanities. Nancy’s performances have always gone beyond entertainment to become educational.” Story Arts president Jim Marx said, “Her gift is to imagine possibilities, inspire others to join her vision and to will them into existence through tireless effort and encouragement.” Nancy’s daughter and fellow storyteller, Lucy Duncan, said, “She has a great generosity of spirit in her teaching of storytelling and wanting to spread the art form. Her support of my telling is a direct example. Instead of feeling, This is my territory, she says, Let’s share this. She’s done that with a lot of people — not just me. She’s also very beloved in the national storytelling community.”

Lately, Duncan’s good spells have grown fewer. The artist has been homebound since the end of May, when she gave her “last” performance at the Darkroom Gallery in the Old Market.

Her three grown children and several grandchildren are staying with her now in the big mid-town house she and Harry shared. It’s where he died of cancer in 1997. It’s where she intends dying, too. As the debilitating rounds of chemo have taken her longer and longer to recover from, she’s considered not undergoing them again, knowing full well stopping them will mean certain death.

“I have to pay such a huge price to feel good for about two months,” she said.

For now, at least, she tarries on, telling stories to her grandchildren or soaking up
the good vibes of her army of friends who flit in and out of her place all day long. Some come to do chores. Others bring her things. Some just come by to chat.

Reminders of her friends are everywhere, most poignantly in the paper, silk and rubber hands adorning the inside of her front door. Each “helping-healing hand” was sent or delivered to her and is adorned with a message that’s variously funny, outrageous, wise, enigmatic, just like the stories Duncan’s told since 1984, when she turned away from a career in the theater to pursue storytelling professionally.

Some visitors come to say goodbye, although few use that word, because even though Duncan is physically frail now and needs around-the-clock support, her effervescent spirit shines through, making it all the harder to imagine her gone. The light-up-the-room sparkle is still there in her eyes. So, is the ear-to-ear smile. And the cascading laugh. Ah, The Laugh. It’s an irrepressible cackle that starts in her chest, rolls up her giraffe neck and spills out her crescent mouth in a high-pitched sound that recalls the coyote-witch figures she portrays in tellings.

Then again, there’s a chronic fatigue that didn’t used to be there. Every now and then she catches her breath, swallowing hard to stem the pain from the stints in her liver. Her body, once as expressive an instrument as her animated face and voice, is gaunt and still, betraying the fight she wages to keep death at bay.

Her impending death is being recorded by Omaha videographer George Ferguson. The documentary she asked him to make is meant to help other dying individuals in their search for healing. It’s only natural that Duncan, who’s used stories as a way to interpret life, should use storytelling as a means of understanding her own end.

“I thought it might be useful to somebody else who’s dying the same way, but also to see how useful storytelling can be in helping you go through this process,” she said. “where grotesque things happen to you and people are poking your body here and there. And, where, in the middle of having stints put in your liver, people around you are talking while you’re drugged. And the craziness of discovering systems that you are either a victim of or you have to figure out how to defend yourself against. Not to mention a whole new vocabulary you learn.

“I’ve met people who, when diagnosed with cancer, kind of isolate themselves and live at home quietly and some who sadly get really angry and stay angry until they die. And to me dancing with cancer has not been like that. I was angry the first weekend before the biopsy results came back. That was the weekend when I fired God and hired HER back a couple times. But then I got over that because I’ve always believed that in every trauma there’s some kind of a grace at work and you just have to open yourself to it and figure out what it is. It doesn’t make you a better person, but it says, Wait, stop, who do you really want to be? And, so, cancer gives you some time, mostly, to do that and that’s a great privilege. I mean, I think it would be a great privilege to drop dead of a heart attack, but it wouldn’t be for your family because it’s so traumatic.”

Her decision to have her odyssey filmed was one she came to after much thought. “It took a long time to decide what my motives were here. Was I just doing this out of ego? Was it really a good idea? I talked to a lot of friends about it before I talked to my family. Most of my friends said, ‘Oh, yeah, you better do this because it will give you something to keep you busy.’ My kids in the beginning were thinking what it would be like to have somebody around filming during the last week of my life. I wasn’t thinking about that at all. I was thinking about talking about the things that happened to me in terms of my cancer, but also in terms of how the cancer affects my life and the stories. So, finally, I think my kids have all come around to it.”

Storytelling, she said, constitutes the way we make sense of things. The story of her cancer and dying, she said, is “no different. Every time you narratize your story to explain something to yourself, that’s healing, because then you’re no longer so confused or befuddled by it. Then, when you tell it to somebody, they give it their own meaning based on their lives.” This search for identity and meaning is one she thinks America suppresses in its instant gratification apparatus.

“I think all my work with storytelling has been trying to fight that tendency in our culture that does everything to avoid having people talking deeply to each other, especially about death or anything important. As a society, we want to be entertained and we avoid things that might make ask us to think or deal with situations going on in the world. Problems are not going to get solved until we sit down with somebody else and really listen to their stories, so we can get to understand each other rather than blowing each other up. The more we put labels on people, the more we’re destined not to know them. When you really know somebody’s else’s story, you can’t hate them anymore. It’s a wonderful tool for peace,” said Duncan, whose residencies in schools and other settings have used  storytelling to break down barriers, to build self-esteem and to promote diversity.

“But nobody trusts it (storytelling), partially because nobody has ever listened to our stories. We narrow ourselves so much by not knowing each other. Storytelling works against that. That’s why I keep working on storytelling.”

She said too many of us seek the cold isolation of mass media diversions as substitutes for interpersonal communication around the dinner table or fireplace, where gathering with friends to talk and tell stories is a communal event and a celebration of our shared humanity. “That’s what storytelling is all about.”

Her many tales, from the repertoire of “platform” stories she’s crafted for performance to the private stories she’s passed on to loved ones, are sure to live on through her family members, all of whom, she said, are born storytellers. That’s why her dying is more celebration than requiem. “Not only is it a celebration,” she said, “it’s a transition. It’s a very important transition from my versions of the stories to everybody else’s. Now, they’re all going to own these stories. I would love to someday eavesdrop on them, although that’s probably not possible.” Her performance stories are available on CD.

Duncan’s love for stories extends back to childhood. Born in Indiana to “depressed-alcoholic” parents, she did most of her growing up in Illinois and Georgia. A tomboy with a big imagination, Duncan roamed the woods in back of her Georgia house to act out the dramas in her mind. It was her pipe-smoking grandma, with whom she shared a room and found refuge with for eight years, that introduced literature and storytelling to her. “She read books to me until she dropped. She was not a big talker, but she told very well-honed stories all about her life. She was the unconditional loving parent in my life and my rock of stability,” Duncan said. “If I hadn’t of had my grandmother, I think I would have ended up in a booby hatch.”

Expressive by nature, Duncan first heeded her talents as a writer, earning a scholarship to the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1958. It was there, as a student, she met and married Harry, then a teacher and fine arts press director. Eventually, she and Harry moved to Omaha, where he ran the Abattoir Press at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She acted on area stages and served as associate director of the Omaha Community Playhouse and as artistic director and, later, executive director of the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater (now the Omaha Theater Company for Young People).

She applied drama techniques to her early storytelling. She built her signature story performances around Baba Yaga, a witch character adapted from Russian literature, and a chicken. “Baba Yaga was really the one who broke me open because she could say anything,” Duncan said. During the Fundamentalist Right’s rise to power, Baba Yaga got her in hot water with some area school districts that outright banned or picketed her shows. She was even spat at once.

Dissatisfied with her hybrid of theater and storytelling, Duncan began shedding makeup and costume to explore and expose more of herself on stage. Once she made herself more present in her increasingly personal stories, she found her voice as a teller. She never looked back at the theater, which she found limiting. “In the theater, you’re really not in charge of the material. The playwright or director is. In storytelling, there’s no separation of yourself from the story. You have to take total responsibility for it. You can’t blame it on the writer or director. It’s a different kind of bareness-nakedness, but also a different kind of responsibility.”

Speaking of responsibility, she hopes her militant views on cancer increase awareness. It’s why she doesn’t wear a wig or a prosthesis. “We need not hide the fact this is happening. If we hide the fact we have cancer…we’re denying who we are. We’re also making it easier for others to get it because we’re doing nothing to prevent it,” she said. “I hope my actions draw attention to the fact there is breast cancer in the world and that we need to do something to cure it. Moreover, we need to prevent it. Hiding it, to me, says the opposite. That it doesn’t exist. Instead, we need to let women know, You have a job to do.” She said many women don’t self-examine or are afraid to. Why? “They don’t want to know.”

Duncan’s curiosity, passion, concern and whimsy have made her a timeless teller  and, when she’s gone, her life and work will endure as a never-ending story.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 585 other followers