Omaha families enjoy SONA’s Night Out event

Every first Thursday of the month at 7 p.m., neighbors from all corners of South Omaha put on their masks at the Salvation Army Kroc Center, 2825 Y St., or turn on their Zoom cameras to join a meeting. The residents come from of upwards of 35 different neighborhood organizations, but collectively they are one force— the South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance, or SONA. 

“Knowing your neighbors brings safety, collaboration, communication and, to me, it brings a sense of empowerment,” said Kimara Snipes, the current president of SONA.

A neighborhood association brings together residents together to share ideas, organize around issues and mobilize to make their neighborhood a better place to live. Alliances extend that network of care, connecting residents from various associations under one umbrella.

In Omaha, over 135 active neighborhood associations organize under the collective of  a neighborhood alliance like SONA.

Each neighborhood association in SONA has at least one representative from their organization present at alliance meetings. SONA has a leadership team made up of members who work together to help create the vision for how the alliance works together as a group.

It’s also a time for state senators, city council persons and other elected officials to come and listen in on community discussion and desires.

“The strength of the neighborhood association is identifying what issues are impacting the community” and taking action on them, said Tim Pendrell, a staff person for Sen. Mike McDonnell who represents the 5th legislative district in the Nebraska legislature. 

As part of Pendrell’s role, he provides SONA with administrative office support by   taking notes in meetings and “doing enough to be helpful” without taking away from grassroots-level leadership  and community-led decisions, he said.

Having politicians come to residents in their communities to hear their needs first hand has been a priority since SONA’s inception, said Don Priester, a longtime SONA leader, a former state senator and a self-proclaimed “SOB” (South Omaha Boy).

Don Priester, founder and 14-year board member of SONA

While there is some collaboration outside of the actual meeting between SONA’s leadership team and the community’s elected officials, Preister said “the public needs to be fully aware of all those discussions, and the leadership team needs to have good communication between all of the groups.”

The true goal is to make elected officials more accessible to their citizens, according to Priester. Over the many years of his involvement, he’s witnessed residents take the chance to “speak truth to power” when elected officials are in the room.

Building SONA in the “Magic City”

In a dual-level glass building located in the heart of the Metropolitan Community College (MCC) South Omaha campus at 27th and Q Streets, the bolded words “SOUTH OMAHA PEOPLE” sit etched in silver on a black plaque. Words below that tell their story:

South Omaha 24th and L streets. Photo by Karlha Rivas

“People journeyed from many lands to this prairie village that grew so rapidly. It was called the Magic City. South Omaha’s stockyards and meat-packing plants were their destination for hope and opportunity… With good paying, unionized jobs, South Omaha’s immigrant communities raised children, developed churches and social clubs.

From 1955 to 1971 the Omaha Stockyards was the world’s largest– it was home to “the Big Four” meat packers of Armour, Swift, Cudahy and Wilson.”

But that thriving workforce didn’t last.

In 1965, the stockyards and meat packing plants had begun to fold, leaving behind derelict buildings and sometimes displacing families in a largely immigrant community whose had built their lives around those living-wage, unionized jobs that were once available. Many of those struggling were immigrants who did not speak English.

South Omaha residents Virginia Barajas, Homer Early and Sam Greenberg worked together to form the South Omaha Neighborhood Association. It was their hope to improve their community by addressing the issues burdening their neighbors in a time of transition for South Omaha.

“People didn’t have a voice or an organization to turn to in how they negotiated or dealt with labor negotiations,” said Priester. “SONA provided a voice for minorities to be able to feel empowered, to continue the transition of training new leaders and helping those neighborhood association leaders work within their individual neighborhoods so that (neighbors) could have a voice and express the concerns to elected officials, business leaders and community members who could make things change.”

By the 90’s, the stock yards were closing, and that need for collective neighborhood organizing became crucial, according to Priester.

He and a group who had built SONAR (South Omaha Neighborhood Action and Response) to address many similar issues, merged with SONA in 1996 to create the official alliance known today.

BUILDING A STRATEGIC PLAN

As with many other organizations, the pandemic put much of SONA’s plans on pause in March 2020. Now, SONA leadership plans to host facilitated conversations to organize their strategic plan by 2022.

Current SONA president Kimara Snipes

Though the plan will be built together with all members, a core priority will be to reintroduce neighborhood associations to South Omaha. This will include exploring how to make SONA’s membership multi-generational and how to reach South Omaha’s immigrant communities as Omaha grows to become “the most apparent immigration hub” of the American Heartland, according to a recent report by Heartland Forward.

“We want to make sure we’re reaching everybody, every single person,” said Snipes.

The strategic plan also comes at another transitional point in South Omaha. The Southside Terrace housing development, is set to go through a major redevelopment. The housing development resides within the only RECAP, or Racially and Ethnically Concentrated Area of Poverty, of South Omaha. RECAPs are defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as census tracts where the non-White population comprises the majority of the total population and a significant percentage of individuals living in incomes below the poverty rate.

The promises to reach the entire community come with cultural sensitivity and the hard work of deep door-to-door canvassing and personal relationship-building, according to Snipes. This type of meet-you-where-you-are outreach can start with groups already at the forefront of that work, Snipes said. Partnering with health workers at OneWorld, teachers at the Latino Center of the Midlands and other immigrant-serving agencies can be step one.

“Our challenge is to find more ways of helping people who are already struggling to have time and wherewithal to be engaged in something other than survival,” said Priester. “We want them to be thriving, not just surviving.”


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Bridget Fogarty, Report for America Corps Member

Bridget Fogarty is a Report for America Corps member reporting with The Reader and its billingual (Spanish/English) sister publication El Perico.

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