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At the end of a wide swath of grass, tucked behind a small private pool in Florence, stands a thick wall of green leaves. A crude sign reading “Private Property. No Trespassing.” peeks from a small opening in the foliage — the start of a path leading deeper into the forest, lined with tangled branches and treelings cut, pulled and dragged out along the way.

At a clearing, orange and red leaves hang from tall branches reaching to the clear blue sky while the smell of dirt, fallen leaves and maybe a little sewage fills the air.

The eight acres may not seem like much from the outside. Bordered by Forest Lawn Avenue to the north, Weber Street to the south and 39th Street to the east, it appears to be an unkept nature refuge in the middle of a residential area in Florence. But to members of the Black Agenda Alliance, the woods look like hope.

Kids walk through land owned by the Black Agenda Alliance. Photo by Chris Bowling.

“I wanted to do something for the community, our people, our kids,” said Jamar Harris, who helped obtain the land and is a member of the Alliance, a grassroots organization advocating for Omaha’s Black community. 

In fall 2021, the organization bought this land to give their members, and any other interested people in the community, a place to call home. The Alliance wants to build a headquarters in the rugged terrain and allow kids to camp, hike, learn wilderness skills, take care of gardens and beehives and promote the organization’s other activities, which aim to strengthen Black autonomy in Omaha.

An aerial view of the Black Agenda Alliance’s land near 39th Street and Forest Lawn Avenue.

For Qasam Shabazz Asad , a co-founder and chair in the organization, it’s the realization of an important step. It’s something built by and for Black Omahans and anyone else who wants to be a part of it. And it’s something he and other organization members hope can have a positive effect on the community.

“It’s overwhelming — emotionally overwhelming,” Shabazz Asad said. “It’s something we never really seen ourselves experiencing. So now we have it. And it’s overwhelming in a good way. But it’s scary at the same time because you don’t want to fail.”

Finding space

The idea to find a space for the Black Agenda Alliance goes back to its inception. As protests against police brutality and racial inequity gripped the nation in 2020, the Black Agenda Alliance gained recognition among other organizations advocating for change. Part of that change involves political advocacy — among their members is state senator Terrell McKinney — but programs for kids are also viewed as a necessity.

That means free-to-join activities, such as a youth flag football league, paintball outings and a wilderness training program Shabazz Asad calls the “Urban Survival Club,” which officially launched Oct. 15. The program is open to all kids and adults of any background, although Shabazz Asad said it will likely serve mostly Black children given the group’s mission and the demographics in North Omaha. 

Qasim Shabazz Asad stands at Spaulding Park near 30th and Spaulding streets on July 16, 2021. Photo by Chris Bowling.

But the mission is bigger than just giving kids something to do. By engaging predominantly Black kids in activities organized and led by mostly Black adults, Shabazz Asad and other members hope it instills a positive message of community and togetherness. It’s also a gateway to other activities, such as the Black Agenda Alliance’s Black studies program, which teaches Black history and literature to kids. 

Janae Peak told The Reader in 2021 the organization’s flag football league made a huge impact on her son.

“They make sure my baby is motivated,” Peak said. “They make sure schoolwork is good. You know, they make sure at home he respects his mom.”

“It’s more than football,” said Whitney Jackson, another flag football parent. “They’re trying to make them brothers.”

The group as a whole has not avoided controversy, though. Shabazz Asad and other members stirred debate last summer by showing up to a North Omaha parade sporting firearms. Their rationale was that kids and the community should see Black people legally and responsibly arming themselves, especially when they see police officers do the same. 

Parade organizers asked police to stop the Alliance members, who also carried flags with their insignia. Later the confrontation was described as a misunderstanding by the NAACP president, according to WOWT.

Controversy aside, the programs have continued, as has the vision for a place to call their own. 

Freedom

Jamar Harris grew up bouncing around the foster care system. Along the way he said he met some good people and some bad. Occasionally, he ran away from home. Whenever he did that, he knew where he was going.

The woods south of Forest Lawn Avenue held a lot of complicated emotions for Harris. He said he experienced racism and some fights at the nearby High Point swimming pool as a kid, but the wilderness just to the north was a different story. When he needed to get away, he’d spend nights camping here, hiking through the trees and building bridges out of tires. The cinderblock skeleton of a long-abandoned home added to the woods’ mystery. By a small creek, Harris would write stories or song lyrics as he heard the gentle hum of cars passing beyond the tree line.

Simply put, he felt free here.

“It’s a lot of negative memories [tied up in this place], but it’s so fucking therapeutic,” Harris said. “I can’t even explain the joy that it brought me.”

Black Agenda Alliance member Jamar Harris on organization’s land. Photo by Chris Bowling.

As he grew older, Harris eventually found out these woods weren’t some random oasis — his family actually owned them. Originally, Harris’ relatives bought the land with hopes to develop it into a neighborhood, though those plans were abandoned as the woods became overgrown and mostly forgotten, save for kids like Harris who found liberation there. 

As his grandfather was dying, his family sold the property to Harris for a fraction of its appraised value, Harris said.

Now, as a man, Harris is back to walking the wooded hills and low-lying creeks he saw as a child. But now he’s helping cut back brush and overgrown trees to make it into the safe haven he and other Alliance members imagine it could be. He hopes it can give another generation the same refuge he found as a child.

“It was a place where I didn’t have to get hit no more,” Harris said. “I can be a kid and run wild through here. That’s what it gave me, and that’s what I wanted to give other kids.”

Passing it on

On a crisp Sunday morning in early October, Shabazz Asad and Harris got to work clearing the property. So far they’d cut, hacked, pulled and dragged debris to make the path that led into the forest.

James “Hard Jaw” Henley, a co-founder and chair of the Alliance, revved the engine of a chainsaw. “Hard Jaw,” a nickname he earned from his days as a boxer, sliced through thick woody trunks, clearing the way for walking paths and unobstructed views of the older, magnificent trees. Wesley Williams, an Alliance member, stood by a fire pit as they burned some of the long-dead brush.

Later, a team from Monkey Man Tree Care came through with bigger equipment, wood chippers and more, making a serious dent in the work ahead.

Shabazz Asad said anyone who wants to help is welcome to come — he and at least a few others plan to be there every Sunday morning until the first snow of the season. He’s already led a few hikes through the woods, and by next year he hopes they can start gardening or holding more activities, and eventually someday put some buildings on the property to serve as a headquarters.

The task is daunting, but all the men have to do is listen when they put down their weed spray or chain saws as Shabazz Asad’s daughter and a friend play in the woods. As Harris stepped out from the clearing, he saw they’d built a small hut out of long, thick branches.

It may be small, but watching their creativity and imagination at work shows Harris why all this work is worth it.

“I never really had a childhood,” Harris said. “But I feel like my child self here.”

It feels like he’s healing, Harris said, and watching plans for the future unfold is a big part of that.

“It’s a beautiful thing. That’s what I was doing,” Harris said of Shabazz Asad’s daughter. “That’s what I was able to do over here. Hopefully, we create that place where every kid [can be themselves].”

contact the writer at chris@thereader.com


Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to thereader.com and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

Chris Bowling

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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