May’s city elections came and went in Omaha. Mayor Jean Stothert secured a third term with nearly two-thirds of the vote. Only one incumbent lost their seat on the Omaha City Council. After a year of protesting systemic racism, and witnessing a pandemic that exacerbated inequality, it seemed change had skipped over Omaha, Nebraska.
But elections are only half the story.
At July 13’s Omaha City Council meeting, dozens of people showed up to turn an otherwise routine appointment into a referendum on North Omaha’s future. A simple change to city park rules became a debate over mobility equity during June 15’s meeting. City Hall’s legislative chambers are filling up every week as citizens organize, and politicians are starting to notice.
“Gosh, who would’ve thought we’d have this discussion over a land bank appointment?” Omaha City Councilmember Vinny Palermo said during debate over former coucilmember Ben Gray’s appointment on July 13.
Instead of waiting for the next election, many Omahans are focused on getting their fellow citizens engaged now. But civic engagement isn’t easy; many working people can’t make it to Tuesday afternoon city council meetings, and information can be hard to find. Organizations and activists like Sarah Johnson are stepping up to fill the gap.
Johnson, a member of transit advocacy group Mode Shift Omaha, ran to represent District 1 on the Omaha City Council. In what she called “almost a protest campaign,” Johnson found that many people didn’t know what city council even was. After losing to Councilmember Pete Festersen, started Council Club to raise civic awareness.
Council Club is a group that meets every Thursday evening over Zoom to discuss the previous and upcoming city council meetings. Johnson said the group is still small, which helps it stay casual, but it’s open for anyone who signs up. The meeting videos are also posted on YouTube.
“We can all push for change more strategically as a unified voice,” Johnson said. “That is where Council Club came from, and also just to demystify what happens at city council.”
Gab Rima is another Omaha activist focused on information and accessibility. Last fall, Rima, along with communication coordinator Johnny Redd, started Strongly Worded Letters (SWL). SWL began in 2018 as a club for writing letters to elected officials. After last summer’s protests, Rima brought SWL back with a renewed focus on local issues.
In addition to helping people contact their representatives, Rima said they now prepare people to give testimony at city council meetings and provide educational resources via social media. Rima said the city elections brought in a lot of people looking for more information.
“People were really excited,” Rima said. “I think this was the most engagement we’ve seen for an election in Omaha.”
Rima interviewed multiple city council and mayoral candidates before the May elections, and SWL endorsed several progressive candidates. Although none of their endorsed candidates won, Rima said they’re still optimistic about change in Omaha.
“The city election was a blow for sure,” Rima said. “But it was only disappointing because there was so much momentum.”
That momentum has resulted in a citywide network of activists and advocacy groups. Rima said that although last summer’s protests are over, they have introduced a new normal for civic engagement in Omaha.
“Many of us who were involved in the protests continue to be involved in different organizations and for different causes,” said Jaden Perkins, member of the Revolutionary Action Party (RAP).
RAP grew out of last year’s explosion in activism and seeks to spread awareness and provide resources to the community that the city’s leaders don’t. Based in North Omaha, RAP distributes food and other essential items every Sunday to serve the community. Perkins said they’re “totally community funded,” and they’ve seen more and more people turning out, especially after the devastating storms that struck Omaha on July 10.
“It shows the community, they’re standing with us,” Perkins said. “They’re seeing the work that we’re putting in and they’ll continue to support us.”
RAP has received media attention for their community support, but also their protests against police brutality. A protest outside the Omaha Police Officers Association in May, which RAP called a “pig roast,” resulted in the arrest of 7 attendees after people displayed severed pig heads outside the Omaha Police Officers Association Hall in West Omaha.
Perkins said RAP is focused on positive interactions with the community, but that they’re prepared to face opposition. Police violence is RAP’s most pressing concern, as it disproportionately affects the predominantly Black North Omaha.
Activists like Ja Keen Fox, who led protests against Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, are used to conflict. Fox said it’s important to be proactive, rather than waiting for conflict to happen. People are stepping up and taking more ownership of the city, especially in North Omaha.
“From protests to engaging with city council,” Fox said. “There’s constant engagement.”
In May, Councilmember Juanita Johnson defeated the incumbent Ben Gray to represent District 2, which includes much of North Omaha. Gray had served on the city council for 12 years, but Fox said it was time for a change in leadership. Perkins said that Councilmember Johnson has shown more willingness to listen to the community, which has brought a “sense of hope” to District 2.
On July 13, dozens of people came to oppose Gray’s appointment to the Omaha Municipal Land Bank (OMLB) board of directors. Community members told the city council that they voted Gray out because he didn’t represent them. Perkins said Gray represented the “old status quo” that has failed North Omaha.
After over an hour of testimony, the council laid over the appointment to a future city council meeting, which Perkins said was an example of civic engagement working. Councilmembers Danny Begley and Vinny Palermo voted with Johnson against the appointment, which surprised Perkins and showed the two councilmembers’ integrity.
Fox said that a year ago, the average person wouldn’t even know who their city council member was. Now, North Omaha community members can be found at every city council meeting.
The North Omaha community hub Culxr House has been a catalyst for increased awareness and participation. Culxr House hosts civic engagement workshops to help community members find “meaningful ways to engage,” which Fox said have been successful.
Fox said that the focus has been on helping people navigate the various government entities. From issues like housing and economic development to police and criminal justice, people need to know which government bodies impact which issues.
“Even bodies as small as the city council are not hearing from people consistently,” Fox said. “They’re hearing from lobbyists and experts.”
In an email to The Reader, Council President Pete Festersen said the city council welcomes the increase in engagement that’s happened in the last year. Festersen said making government accessible and responsive to the community “must be a continuous effort.”
“Local government must continue to find ways to embrace this new energy to make sure it is listening to the needs of the community and addressing the many issues we need to work on together,” Festersen wrote in an email.
The city council has made recent changes to become more accessible. Since the pandemic started, meetings have been available for participation through Zoom. The council created a process for speakers to waive the requirement to state their address publicly at meetings. Festersen said they’re looking for more ways to increase accessibility, like live captioning at meetings.
Engaged Omahans are now looking ahead to Aug. 3’s public hearing over the proposed Omaha City Budget. Culxr House is hosting a “Funding Safety Beyond Police” event and SWL is holding a testimony workshop leading up to the meeting.
“We’re being strategic,” Fox said. “We’re working to create policy that best fits the community.”
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