Dozens of South Omaha advocates converged Monday at the Nebraska State Capitol to ask the government to stop sidestepping their community and invest now in job, housing and education programs that can lift it from pandemic “horrors.”
Marcos Mora, a Cinco de Mayo organizer, talked of how he interviewed a South 24th Street merchant who strived to keep his store open, but the man died soon after of COVID-19.
Karen Pesek, of Pesek Law Firm, said she’s heard time and time again from employees whose families have lost breadwinners due to the virus.
Armando Salgado of the Latino Economic Development Council laid out data showing the overrepresentation of Latinos hospitalized in local COVID wards.
And Cristian Dona-Reveco of the University of Nebraska at Omaha talked of the higher share of Latino students dropping out of college because of family pandemic-related demands.
“I call for equity. I call for inclusion,” said Diana Rogel, diversity outreach and engagement coordinator at Live On Nebraska: “Ignored is simply not just.”
About 25 testifiers
They represented just a sampling of about 25 people who testified in support of Legislative Bill 1238, which would direct $50 million of Nebraska’s COVID-related emergency relief dollars to a fund intended to fuel economic development in South Omaha.
The South Omaha Recovery Grant Program is an idea pushed by the new Latino Economic Development Council and outlined in the bill introduced by State Sens. Tony Vargas and Mike McDonnell of Omaha. The Appropriations Committee took no action Monday on the bill, which is co-sponsored by Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt.
Projects to be financed were not specified, but organizers have said they’d like to focus on revitalization of the area’s business district and the Plaza de la Raza, which is a gathering venue along that main commercial corridor.
Other ventures would support entrepreneurs, affordable housing, job training and a nonprofit youth recreation complex that would be financially accessible to families in the area.
Messages sprinkled with Spanish
In addition to those who spoke — many of them sprinkled Spanish into their messages — nine letters were received in support of the legislation. Backers also included a few leaders from North Omaha and a Lincoln housing advocate.
A common theme during the two-hour hearing was that South Omaha historically has not received an equitable amount of redevelopment assistance from local or state government, perhaps, many said, because businesses and families in recent decades have progressed on their own.
Some said Gov. Pete Ricketts’ recommendations for spending the state’s $1.04 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds left out South Omaha.
“Resilience can work against us,” Pesek said.
But now the area’s infrastructure has been consumed by the “horrors of the pandemic” and is on a scale “unseen in the history of our city,” said South Omaha historian Jose Garcia.
Andrea Skolkin of One World Community Health Centers said her clinics, especially those in South Omaha, have seen people in exhaustion and physical stress. She and others said the public health crisis has disproportionately hurt Omaha’s south side as workers continued to work on the front lines of meatpacking companies, restaurants, hospitality and other essential jobs.
“The good news is that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive,” Skolkin said. “The bad news is the economic impact from the pandemic has taken its toll, and the community needs your help.”
Personal challenges revealed
Earlier this month, North Omaha leaders, service providers and advocates appealed to a different legislative committee for $450 million in COVID emergency funds to help strengthen that community.
Itzel Lopez of the AIM Institute noted that the emergency funds to be dispersed by the state are supposed to be directed at the hardest hit. She said Latinos represent the core of South Omaha and in Douglas County represent 13% of the population, yet account for more than 21% of COVID cases.
Several other immigrant speakers who live, work or grew up in South Omaha told lawmakers details of their own personal challenges along the way to success.
Evelia Gutierrez, who lived in subsidized housing yet is about to get her bachelor’s degree, pointed to other advocates in the audience who invested time in her. She told the committee that the COVID funding would help those advocates and upcoming leaders to invest in others.
“Now it’s your turn to invest in other people like myself, to give back to the community,” she said.
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