After the great dumpster fire of 2020, we expected better things from 2021. That didn’t pan out.
Whether you look at the attempt to overtake the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 or the stubborn resilience of COVID-19, 2021 didn’t let up on the gas. In Omaha we had a heated election cycle, felt the squeeze of a tight labor market and heard debates about sex education and critical race theory. Did we move forward or regress deeper into our social/political corners? These journalists of a small alternative outfit smack dab in the middle of the heartland dare not wager a guess.
But there’s some good news — we’re still here and you’re still reading.
In this issue we’d like to take a glance back at some of those stories and why they matter.
Sickness and Death Runs Rampant in One of Nebraska’s Largest Industries
Despite two efforts to pass state legislation to protect those who slice our beef, pork, chicken and more, meatpacking workers got little help. Our story in February showed how the state’s only oversight consisted of a part-time worker who spent a fraction of her time overseeing one of Nebraska’s largest industries. A recent Congressional report showed COVID-19 deaths and cases in meatpacking plants were much higher than originally reported.
“At the onset of the pandemic, America’s largest meat companies failed to put adequate measures in place to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in their facilities,” a press release from a Congressional subcommittee on COVID-19 reads. “At the same time, the companies achieved record profits, with high prices burdening consumers already struggling under the impact of the pandemic.”
A Tense Election in Omaha
Omaha’s city elections in May 2021 were a referendum on the future of the city. It was time to see whether voters wanted radical change after social justice issues skyrocketed to the top of public consciousness in 2020, or to go along in the same direction.
Mayor Jean Stothert won a third term, and nearly every incumbent on the Omaha City Council kept their seat by comfortable margins. But while many of the faces stayed the same, momentum is shifting. People are more civically engaged, and city officials are taking up causes such as affordable housing and climate change. No significant changes seem to have come to the Omaha Police Department, however, so whether the crowds who took to the streets in the summer of 2020, and the many more influenced by the movement, will be satisfied remains to be seen.
Feeling the Squeeze of the Tight Labor Market
In 2021, an ongoing pandemic forced workers to confront serious questions about their rights, like those who striked at Omaha’s Kellogg’s plant.
Many other workers lost their jobs or saw their hours reduced as a result of the pandemic. But as soon as Nebraska returned to “normal,” there were more jobs available than people who wanted them, an issue we covered in a package about the tight labor market.
Going to War over Inclusive Sex Education
When we looked into the state’s proposed sex education standard suggestions (mouthful isn’t it?), we had no idea how big the story would become. What started as a search for national, peer-reviewed research, became a political firestorm — in no small part due to the progressive way the suggested standards addressed gender. The result: The state dropped it, and now a petition drive could allow voters to create a new education board that would report exclusively to the governor. Meanwhile, our feature on transgender students showed that Omaha is far behind where it needs to be to give equal and fair opportunities to all students.
The Tiff with TIF
If you’ve watched Dodge Street grow from a few dying commercial outposts to a wellspring of new businesses and development, you’ve probably wondered how it happened. One answer: tax-increment financing.
TIF is the city’s best tool to incentivize development, and the tax breaks are intended for “blighted” and “substandard” areas. Despite that, the city’s poorest areas see little investment. Our story about the tool examined how it’s been used and included a map we built from scratch that shows the density of how TIF dollars have been spent.
Latino Leaders Rising Up
When the late commissioner Mike Boyle passed away on Sept. 13, the Douglas County Board searched for a new candidate to fill the District 1 seat. Roger García — who lost to Boyle by three votes in the last election — won out, this time against 24 opponents, becoming the first Latino commissioner on the Douglas County Board.
Another leader who made headlines in 2021 was Paco Fuentes. His leadership runs deep in Omaha. When he announced his retirement from the Boys and Girls Club of the Midlands after more than 20 years of service, El Perico sat down with him at his favorite place, the Guaca Maya Restaurant.
Fuentes talked about his 20-year career as a military man, how his father came from Mexico, the memories he has from there and how his life in Omaha has shaped his values. His days serving the Omaha community aren’t over. Fuentes continues working in what he considers “a beautiful job” — helping young people as the community outreach director at Goodwill Omaha.
An Immigrants’ Guide to Omaha
In June 2021, El Perico welcomed Bridget Fogarty, a corps member of Report For America, to strengthen our reporting on Omaha’s immigrant communities.
Fogarty’s immigration guide includes information on accessing affordable food, connecting with free legal assistance, where to find free English classes, how to access day care, where to get help in an emergency and much more.
El Perico also highlighted organizations and individuals who help our immigrant communities thrive — from the South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance and neighborhood associations to those who organize celebrations of Cinco de Mayo and Día de los Muertos.
COVID-19: The Return
2021 was supposed to be the light at the end of the tunnel for COVID-19. It wasn’t. We covered doctors calling for more help as well as the implications of the state taking down its pandemic data.
In our print editions and The Reader and El Perico website, we wrote about how to get the vaccine and fact-checked rumors around vaccinations. We lost people, too, and covered their stories through our new “In Memoriam” section as well as a series about funeral directors, the last responders.
It feels like not much has changed since last year. While vaccines and booster shots are available, 34% of Nebraskans, or about 650,000 people, still haven’t gotten any kind of shot.
Anti-Racism, Critical Race Theory and Lies Your Social Studies Teacher Told You
When we started looking into how Nebraska teaches history in its public schools, critical race theory had not become a headline-making phrase. In retrospect that’s exactly what we were looking at with our award-winning story on the fight to change social studies standards. We talked with students and educators dissatisfied with Nebraska’s whitewashed curriculum. Notably we were denied access to teachers by the Omaha area’s biggest districts, but reporter Leah Cates was still able to get the story. The result was a widely read piece that pushed some textbook manufacturers to change the wording of some of their chapters. In November, Cates’ reporting was recognized as the best solutions journalism story in the Local Online Independent News Publishers awards.
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