Quality-of-life metrics assessing the state of African-American northeast Omaha paint a stark picture. Pockets experience some of America’s worst poverty and gun violence. Disparities contradict Omaha’s high best-place-to-live rankings.
Riot-scarred landscapes remain untouched decades later. Urban renewal brought distrust and dislocation. Combined with education, employment, income, home-business ownership gaps, it’s a stuck-in-time place. Stalled economic growth and limited opportunity drive many away. Others stay out of conviction or concession.
While North Omaha is the focus of unprecedented education initiatives and redevelopment efforts driven by major public-private coalitions, key markers show little’s changed where people’s lives are concerned.
With ex-pats back for the biennial Native Omaha Days, there’s much nostalgia and lament. Seven community-engaged residents trying to remedy the challenges recently shared their take on the situation.
After being away, Omaha native Michelle Troxclair, 46, Nebraska Writers Collective deputy director, says upon returning she noted “North Omaha and the people who live there were stagnate in many ways.”
“They became comfortable with nothingness. Our leadership appeared, for the most part, to be spinning their wheels and more concerned with the scraps they were getting than a place at the table. Then they began fighting for those scraps amongst themselves. I thought I could make a difference, and I did, but in a very different community. Yeah, we got a Walmart and Aldi’s. North (High) is getting a new stadium. They tore down the Hilltop projects. I see some new housing. Again–scraps.”
When Angel Martin, 31, moved to Omaha from Milwaukee she saw abandoned, boarded-up properties here as seeds of potential. Now she views them as emblems of lost opportunity.
“If people see that every day you’re unfortunately going to believe it’s the norm,” says Martin, who directs the Katherine Fletcher Center at Girls Inc. “We should have took on that mindset of taking back our community. It starts with the homes. We should have pooled our resources together to buy these houses.”
Preston Love Jr., 73, hails from a North O legacy family led by his late father, musician Preston Love Sr. He left for a while–to work for IBM and to manage political campaigns. He says when he came back home, “my community was in shambles. I got motivated to get involved because of what I found.” He’s since been on a “soap box” about this once great community being brought down by “residual negatives.”
“When I was growing up, North Omaha was rich in culture, rich in commerce, rich in religion and church. We had our own everything. We had each other. We had neighborhoods. We had love for your neighbors and spankings if you didn’t act right. We had all that.”
Discrimination and racism still ruled, however.
“We didn’t have the ability to go places, we didn’t have the ability to go downtown to see a movie, we couldn’t swim at Peony Park, we couldn’t go inside Joe Tess. We didn’t have this, we didn’t have that, and some of it was a little deeper than some carp.”
Love believes blacks “made a catastrophic mistake” choosing integration over desegregation.
“If you integrate you lose half the things you did have because you begin to water down your culture. When you integrate Walmart into this culture, mom and pops close. We should have affirmed all the things we had and fought for desegregation to get what we didn’t have.”
Sundiata Menelik, 57, has returned after decades as a developer and real estate magnate in Minnesota. He recalls as a kid the flourishing North 24th Street business district: “It was alive.” By the time he went away, however, it died. Job prospects for blacks dried up.
“Everybody from my generation was trying to escape this the way you escaped apartheid South Africa or any place that is hell on Earth. For us, that’s what it was.”
In Menelik’s opinion, “nothing’s happened” to reverse the black brain drain and narrow opportunities. He deems this stalemated community “backwards” compared to more progressive sister communities.
“This is a reservation right here and the same ills on the reservation are here, it’s just not in your face. A lot of this is institutional.”
Menelik also says North O is a separate world from the majority of the world. Some blacks can freely step in and out of both worlds. Others can’t.
“When you can’t escape, there’s nothing, What you see is bleak.”
“People feel oppressed,” Martin says. I think poverty is what comes from being oppressed. If you don’t have opportunities to get good paying jobs, then it’s difficult to rise above.”
Ean Garrett, 29, came up in North O’s poverty zone.
“Three to four generations growing up in poverty have come to believe poverty is their place in life as opposed to understanding they should be able to work hard and gain the fruits of this system,” Garrett says.
Menelik says inclusion is an illusion here for many.
“We’re the best place for startups, the best place to raise a family, but it don’t have nothing to do with black people. Nebraska’s as segregated and racist as anywhere in the United States.”
He asserts blacks here are “not looked at as full citizens.”
Garrett says it’s not just blacks getting the shaft in North O.
‘There’s still a lot of white people living here and they’re being given the short end of the stick as well.”
“What we have left is an impoverished community,” Love says. “That doesn’t mean everybody in it. When you have serious poverty like it is here you have a (drug-gang) subculture that’s figured out there’s no future in the (mainstream) community. So they created their own community and it’s thriving. Money’s flowing, big time. Everything’s working just fine. They may have to die but that’s OK because they’re not expected to live and all that logic. That subculture is created by poverty and breeds total disconnect from lawfulness.”
Menelik has lost loved ones to gun violence, He’s doing prevention work as local Mad Dads chapter president. He is also on the board of the Bryant Center Association that serves at-risk young people.
He sees an urgent need to intervene in the hopelessness.
“The game is over, man. The kids, they’re hollering out silently. If it was a movie you’d see a bunch of black hands reaching up and saying, ‘Where are you and when are you coming?’
“We’re taking it upon ourselves to do for ourselves and to do it right now. It’s crucial.”
“The only major solution is economic inclusion, economic health for this community,” Love says. “If you lay on the table jobs and alternatives a lot more will take it than people realize. Do we need better education? Yes, we’ve got educational gaps that need filling. We’ve got a high drop-out rate that needs improving. We need to reduce STDs. All of those are more factors than potential solutions.”
He says North O should demand more autonomy and accountability from the nonprofit social sector set up to address its myriad needs.
“We have a lot of people pimping the community. They don’t live in the community, they work in the community receiving what benefits there are coming into a poverty-infected area and then they escape out of it, taking the benefits of the drops, the crumbs.”
Menelik says after ignoring North O the power elites “understand they’ve got to do something because we’re right on the doorstep of North Downtown development. They want to come off [as] multicultural.” Whatever happens, he says “we want to see results, we want performance-based, sustainable, social-economic development.”
Garrett says, “You have an entire middle class that lives outside the North Omaha community that benefit by way of employment from programs addressing the issues in North Omaha. So if the issues in North Omaha go away, then a lot of those jobs go away as well. Our destiny is intertwined with the destiny of those that have the resources. What happens if the philanthropic dollars dry up?
“The philanthropic industry here in Nebraska is not sustainable–throwing money into a community and 10, 15, 20 years later not seeing any outcomes. Let’s takes those funds and use them towards outcome-based investments and address these issues from a private sector approach. That is the type of mindset and vigor we need.”
Garrett’s Infinite 8 Institute poses social impact models. He says too often nonprofits don’t produce the social good their grant applications promise and that he favors outcome-based models.
“If you give them the money up front and you don’t make them work for it, there’s no incentive to get the outcome.”
Garrett’s partner Aledia Kartchner, 36, says they find innovative ways to handle “the huge lack in North Omaha.” One is via non-cognitive life skills and work force development classes they teach at Bryant Center. However, programming costs money and resources are scarce.
“If you’re only giving us enough funds to keep the lights on then we can’t bring resources and people in to prepare these young people,” Garrett says. “We have to be able to close the deal. That means people at the top being willing to open up the doors of opportunity in a way that’s sincere and not just talk.”
Kartchner says they’re seeking investments “in human capital.”
Garrett says North O’s human resources get overlooked.
“These kids have been through so many traumatic experiences they are better prepared than many who live in the outer community. As an employer I don’t want somebody who hasn’t dealt with a tough problem before. These kids are having to solve tough problems on a daily basis. Those skills are transferrable in this new knowledge-based economy, where soft skills–the ability to adapt and to be resilient–are things employers applaud.
“If you just look at it at face value, you see thugs with impoverished, destitute, sad stories. But if you turn that around you see potential human capital that can really add value.”
He says the skills he teaches “are all the intangibles that made the difference between myself and those peers who maybe fell victim to unfortunate circumstances.”
“We’re working with kids from early childhood through 12th grade. Local elders volunteer, so it’s very intergenerational. We have a pipeline all within that one structure to measure long-term outcomes.”
He says another key thing taught is “mindfulness meditation to ensure kids focus on peace of mind when they go back to their chaotic environment and the negative energy around them–you can’t control what’s happening around you but you can control how you react.”
Infinite 8 seeks to raise $1.5 million for a social impact bond for violence prevention.
“As an organization one of the things we focus on is creating social impact financing,” says Garrett, who sees it as a litmus test for how serious Omaha is in finding fresh ways to tackle persistent issues.
“Omaha has so much wealth and prosperity but then you wonder why is it not circulating into northeast Omaha. There are people in the city who singlehandedly could eradicate poverty here. It’s a question of whether or not the powers that be actually want that to happen. If you’re trying to do something like turn around the most deadly place to be black in America and integrate that with one of America’s most highly acclaimed places, then I think you have to look at what resources are necessary in order to accomplish that.”
The public sector also has a role to play.
“If we’re not electing elected officials willing to fight those battles for equal distribution of tax revenues and other funding streams, we lose. We’ve paralyzed most of our elected officials because of where they’re financed to get elected, so they’re not willing to stand up and try to act like Ernie,” Love says, referring to firebrand Neb. state senator Ernie Chambers. “They’re nice people but they’re not independent. When it comes time to fight for the community, we ain’t got nobody there.
“The net effect is we’ve become a community on the receiving end and almost on the beg. So you’ve got a community that has to sit down. There’s only a few of us that stand up. That’s a problem. The community doesn’t have enough leverage to fight these battles.”
Garrett agrees. “It’s time for North Omaha to become independent. For North Omaha to be able to do for people in North Omaha we need our own resources. If you want to see us do better, than empower us but don’t beholden us. We have to recognize what’s in our own community and that we have what it takes. We do believe there are people willing to do the right thing and we want to work with them.”
Kevin Lytle Jr. with the Leadership Institute for Urban Education in Omaha, says, “I believe our biggest resource in North Omaha is the people who live and struggle there. We have not found an effective way to develop, foster and encourage true community and camaraderie amongst African-Americans in Omaha.”
Menelik says “It’s like we’re waiting for somebody to come in out of the sky to save us, when sometimes you’ve got to go within yourself.”
Troxclair says “In the arts community many are coming together and their voices are starting to be heard. In every other major city’s revitalization effort, there is a concentration on arts investment. Omaha did not do that. We are connecting with each other and artist-allies who know we need to work together. Omaha’s leadership is still focused on housing and jobs. We get that, but every artist has created his-her own job and is an entrepreneur. White folks get it. How many people do the Holland, Joslyn, Bemis, Kaneko, Omaha Community Playhouse, Rose employ? We let the John Beasley Theatre go to waste. We let our stagnate leadership dictate the artist landscape and they have ignored our young people completely.”
Meanwhile, Angel Martin has noted a “halt” in the movement by young African Americans to get involved.
“A lot of young people (including herself) ran for the school board or the city council. There were a lot of new faces and voices with a lot to say. That was a prime time to tap into that energy. A lot of those people have since said, ‘I’m out of here,” and that energy’s kind of gone I sense. That’s a concern. Where are we going next?
“Some people are choosing to move on to where things are thriving more and it’s more progressive.”
Everyone concedes North O loses many of its best and brightest.
Martin doesn’t begrudge the defectors.
“I can definitely see why people do not choose to stay here. Some of those who do choose to stay are looking for ways out. Some elders have told me, ‘You might want to look to move on.’”
She’s seriously considered it.
“We don’t have affirmative action. A lot of employers don’t look for faces that look like mine.”
Martin expresses another concern many share.
“I think there’s a lot of outsiders dictating which direction North Omaha should go. There’s a lot stirring. My concern is who’s doing the stirring and what are they mixing up. Was everybody invited to sit at this table? A lot of deals have been made relating to North Omaha’s future. My only hope is my great aunt in North Omaha was kept in mind when they talked about redevelopment. I hope as a people we understand it’s our right to question, to ask for details.”
“We have to stand up together and fight. We’ve gotta put your foot down and say we’re not taking this lack of economic inclusion anymore and be willing to take the heat,” Love says.
Love recently put himself on the line by advocating minority contractors get a share of the $2.3 billion in waste water and sewer separation construction happening. He pressed the mayor and others hard on it. He expected the corporate backlash he got but not the flak from his own community.
“They don’t want you messing with ‘Mr. Charlie.’”
Too, often, black advocates are left standing alone.
Garrett feels the millennial generation offers new hope.
“They’re a lot more informed. Millinials, regardless of color or shade, believe in social good and they’ll put their money behind products and services that have a positive impact on the community and the environment. I believe there needs to be more courage from the outer community to stand up and do what really needs to be done and to do it in a way that sits well with the indigenous people in North Omaha.”
He says Infinite 8 has piloted programs in Kansas City, Mo. and other cities but runs into “a barrier to entry” here he attributes to decision-makers “not being open to new paradigms, ideas, best practices.” He’s not waiting for approval. Bryant Center kids are introduced to Bitcoin, drone technology, green sustainability, 3D printing and mobile Web programming. “We’re really focusing on what sectors have the most promising outlooks. We’re preparing young people with these skills so when they go into the workforce they actually have a leg up.”
Troxclair is all for creative approaches.
“Rote methods are outdated and we all know the world of technology has changed the landscape. Young people don’t want to be bothered with minutia. Applicability, immediacy are what they’re looking for. The arts must be used to stimulate interest and academic motivation.”
Lytle says, “A huge factor not being deeply addressed is how our children are being taught and who is teaching our children.” He wonders “how effective are the educational lessons being transmitted in relation to the culture African-American students” interact with.
Garrett and Co. decry how elements of this civil society demonize and dismiss a segment of the city they have no direct experience with.
“Is it civil to deny opportunity to your own citizens? Are we uncivil because we have violence going on in our community? Is a person who sits back and watches the violence and does nothing more civil?”
Aledia Kartchner echoes others in saying she’s tired of her people being depicted as “just savages killing each other – there’s many positive things going on but they don’t focus on that.”
North O’s good people, neighborhoods, anchors, programs and events get obscured by the actions of a few knuckleheads.
Martin says, “It’s an unfair perception that’s very disheartening. If you never highlight the positive things going on you’ll never know. If you’re not in the area, you won’t know. When we take back our community as a people we’ll take back those perceptions.”
Troxclair takes exception to media depictions of “us as nincompoops holding candlelight vigils waiting on Jesus.” She says, “When a murder occurs, a murder occurs. Report that a murder occurred. Report who the suspects according to the facts. Do we really need to know the criminal record of the entire family?”
Where controlling the message is concerned, Melenik says North O could benefit from more black-owned media outlets and Martin suggests more blacks are needed in newsrooms.
Lytle, 32, repeats a mantra many sound–leaders are doing what they can with what they have. But he says, “We are not getting the job done. The role of leadership is to warn a people of potential dangers and opportunities, educate a people on how to navigate through that and create avenues in which a people can effectively execute and implement the steps that will best serve them.”
Yet, he adds, “I am hopeful for the future of blacks in Omaha and for the area of North Omaha because I believe the up and coming leadership is learning from the choices and paths laid by current symbolic individuals and will dedicate their efforts towards going against the grain and truly establishing community and ownership.”
Martin feels the same. “We have a long way to go but I’m hopeful because I do think our people get it and we have a genuine love for each other and for North Omaha. I’m just hoping it’s not a day late and a dollar short.” She says even Native Omaha Days might be a catalyst for “capitalizing on connections, sharing ideas, holding roundtables, digging in and getting things moving. It takes all us all working together–those currently living here and those who used to live here.”
Love says The Days are not the pure fun they once were due to the specter of violence. The festival’s still a good time, “but when the dust settles we are still left with the new pure–poverty.”
Sundiata Menelik says all the community gatherings and dialogues are no substitute for “bootstrapping” grassroots action.
Despite much to be pessimistic about, Ean Garrett says, “We’re optimistic. We know there are people who are tired of the situation as it stands. I think there’s good people out there who do want to change some things and to do so in ways that empower people in the community to do it themselves.”
Visit www.infinite8institute.com/byinfinite8institute, www.bryantcenteromaha.org/ and nativeomahaclub.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.