Tag Archives: Sacred Heart School

Nurturing Young Artists in North Omaha

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Within one year of establishing The Union of Contemporary Art in 2011, its founder and executive director, Brigitte McQueen Shew, noticed neighborhood kids arriving unexpectedly at the arts facility on North 24th Street.

The Union didn’t have formal weekend classes at the time. But the kids didn’t mind. They would show up, knock on the door, and ask: “Can we come in to make stuff?”

Union1McQueen Shew was happy to accommodate. “We just started letting them come in and do whatever they wanted,” she says.

The informal weekend sessions grew into the weekly “Art Club” in 2013, and the program continues to grow. Now, on any given Saturday, there are local artists helping out, teaching lessons, and serving as mentors.

“It really started organically, and the majority of the kids involved in the program still walk to the building,” McQueen Shew says of the free program for youths who are between the ages of 6 and 13, living in North Omaha. Art Club takes place every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

The focus of each Art Club session depends on the artist(s) leading the group. McQueen Shew says they try to have a ceramic artist instructor available, “because the kids love working with clay.”

Sometimes the artistic medium is painting or printmaking, and they have also done yoga with the kids. Meanwhile, urban agriculture is an important aspect of Art Club every week.

“We’re located in one of the largest food deserts in the state of Nebraska,” she says, referring to North Omaha’s dearth of affordable, fresh, and healthy food. “We have a garden that basically belongs to the community, but the kids are responsible for it. They help us plant, maintain it, and during the summer when they cook lunches for each other, a lot of the produce come from the garden.”

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Art and North Omaha

Within the past year, McQueen Shew has been trying to connect Art Club lessons with African-American art history. Her focus emerged from a guest lecture she gave at Sacred Heart School in North Omaha.

“I started the presentation by asking, ‘Who likes art?’” McQueen Shew says. “Everyone raised their hands. Then, I asked if anyone could name a famous artist, and I got lots of ‘Picassos.’ And then, I asked them they could name a famous African-American artist, and it was like crickets.”

During the next half hour of her presentation, she showed a steady stream of African-American artwork on the projector. At the end of her talk, she asked again, “How many of you can name an African-American artist?” All hands went up.

Union2Students were excited to learn about the important cultural and artistic contributions made by African-Americans. McQueen Shew says making the connection is important.

“It’s not really a conversation that we have in North Omaha,” she says. “Most after school programs focus on sports, which is why we really want to do this. There’s just no cultural outlet for kids living in the community. So, we work around a lot of art history ideas because I think it’s really important for the children and their families to connect themselves to the conversations.”

Art Club, and the rest of The Union’s youth outreach programming, strives to achieve The Union’s ultimate goal: to “unite artists and the community to inspire positive social change.” The youth outreach programs build on The Union’s other efforts to provide studio space and facilitate exhibitions for contemporary artists in Omaha.

Youth Outreach

The Union has gradually expanded its youth outreach over the past few years. Youth programs are free; however, most are directed at serving North Omaha residents living east of 72nd St., west of the Missouri River, south of Interstate 680, and north of Cuming Street or Northwest Radial Highway.

Over the summer, activities included a new family program on Thursday nights, various art workshops, and a summer camp for kids. The family night program could become a regular feature at The Union in the future.

For the past two years, The Union has offered “Teen Art Night” every Friday. Teen Art Night began as a collaboration with Catholic Charities for at-risk youth. The teen night is now geared towards all teens—ages 13 through 19—offering open access to The Union’s studio space, darkroom, print shop, ceramic studio, paints, drawing materials, and assorted art supplies every Friday from 5-8 p.m.

“We decided to open it up and let other teens come in, so that’s not open just for North Omaha, but also to everyone from the greater Omaha area,” McQueen Shew says. The summer family night was also open to residents of the larger metropolitan area.

Union4Changes are on the horizon for The Union. The non-profit space will relocate to the nearby Blue Lion building in the fall. The larger space will allow The Union to accommodate even more youths, instructors, and families. 

In January, The Union is planning to launch a new after-school arts program for North Omaha youth called “Union After School.” They are currently accepting participant registration for the program.

“We are also adding an element to the programs that we do with the kids when we move to the new building, and that’s theater,” McQueen Shew says, noting the hiring of Denis Chapman from Omaha Community Playhouse. “We’ll have a youth theater ensemble that will perform productions throughout the year.”

The Union’s move into the renovated Blue Lion building corresponds with a growing number of community developments in the vicinity of North 24th and 30th streets. McQueen Shew is excited to play her part in the area’s revitalization.

“There is so much happening in the community right now,” she says. “It’s a pretty amazing time.” 

Visit u-ca.org/youth-outreach for more information. FamilyGuideUnion5

Symone Sanders’ Iowa Odyssey

December 18, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Symone Sanders’ childhood dream never came true.

As a young girl Sanders created an alter ego, that of an intrepid news professional she named Donna Burns. She would grab a spoon as a microphone and report live (from the kitchen of her home) in covering breaking news all across the globe.

“I so wanted to be Donna Burns,” Sanders said. “I so wanted to be that person.”

Donna Burns never really left her, she’s just been just turned inside out. Now Sanders is the one having microphones thrust in her face.

Last August the 25-year-old (she turned 26 in December) was hired as Bernie Sanders’ national press secretary. At a time when many of her classmates from Creighton University’s class of 2013 were still clawing for that first entry-level position somewhere—anywhere—Sanders was taking the national stage in handling an army of “Donna Burns” for the Vermont Senator.

The Mercy High School graduate who had earlier attended Sacred Heart School is the daughter of Terri and Daniel Sanders. Her first taste of politics came as a 10-year-old through her involvement with Girls Inc. At 16 she would be selected by the organization to introduce President Bill Clinton when he spoke at a 2006 Girls Inc. event in Omaha.

Omaha Magazine caught up with her at Bernie Sanders’ state campaign headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, the day before the Nov. 14 National Democratic Debates at Drake University.

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“I feel like I was in the right place at the right time,” she demurred in describing her formative years in Omaha. “Things were pretty stagnant in this town at one time. Now Omaha is breeding superstars. This city set me up for everything I’ve done. It’s an amazing place for exposure, opportunity, and access, and there are so many efforts moving the needle in a good direction…Willie Barney at the Empowerment Network [where Sanders was once communications, events, and outreach manager], the folks at the Urban League, the NAACP, Heartland Workforce [Solutions], Inclusive Communities, Women’s Center for Advancement, and tons of others. There are so many great organizations guiding young people and kids in building better lives and a better city. They’re doing it right, and they’re doing it right there in Omaha.”

In 2014, only 11 months after graduating from college, Sanders would become deputy communications director for Nebraska Democrat Chuck Hassebrook’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.

“Symone is the kind of person that people just love to be around,” said Hassebrook, who spent his career at the Center for Rural Affairs, including 18 years as a University of Nebraska Regent. “She’s very smart, but it is her principles and ethics that I perhaps most admire. I’m a huge Symone fan. She’s a person that I hope will be running things someday.”

The day after votes were tallied in the 2014 election Sanders was on a plane to Washington, D.C. to begin a job with Global Trade Watch, an arm of Public Citizen, the nonprofit advocacy think tank founded by Ralph Nader in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress.

Also passionate about issues surrounding juvenile justice, Sanders has served on the board of the Nebraska Coalition for Juvenile Justice and recently stepped down as the national chair of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice Youth Committee.

“The system isn’t set up well for minority communities,” Sanders explained as staff and volunteers scurried throughout the campaign headquarters in Des Moines in the run-up to the debate. “Young people need to be involved in juvenile justice because this is so often a young person issue. My brother was incarcerated when he was young. I’ve been arrested myself—I told Bernie all about that right upfront—and this is an epidemic. Black and brown kids are being locked up at a disproportionate rate. It’s a school-to-prison pipeline. What so many of them need is help, jobs—not jail.”

Sanders is also aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, and it was through that relationship that the campaign team first came to know her. She was brought in to advise the candidate shortly after Black Lives Matter protesters had interrupted a campaign rally in Seattle.

She met with Bernie Sanders to help him better understand and connect with a voting bloc that skews toward Hillary Clinton. Two hours later she was his national press secretary.

“The original Civil Rights Movement,” Sanders said, “is a phrase that was coined so that everyday Americans could understand the issues…so they could wrap their heads around it. That’s what Black Lives Matter is. It’s the same movement, the same ideals, but now for a new generation. There’s nothing new about the movement. It’s the same struggle. It’s the same people shaking things up for social justice. Malcolm X, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King didn’t call themselves Civil Rights leaders. They were just…leaders.”

Sanders has a magnetic personality and speaks in a rapid-fire, staccato fashion. Trying to keep up with her words in transcribing the interview from a micro-recorder was a nightmare of stops and starts, pauses and rewinds. But just as she is known for her mile-a-minute delivery, Sanders also knows when to take it down a notch or three.

During the pre-debate walkthrough of the auditorium, spin room, and media center on the Drake campus later that day, she became a deliberate, finely modulated machine that spoke in an even, deliberate tone in asking questions and soaking up every detail of where, when, and how the candidate and campaign team would navigate the crucial debates in the state where America first goes to the polls in the process of nominating and electing the next occupant of the Oval Office.

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And a chance encounter in the spin room had her taking her foot completely off the gas in coasting into a warm, engaging exchange with Donna Brazile, the political strategist and analyst who ran Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and now acts as vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

Sanders demonstrates a razor-sharp grasp of issues, policy, facts, and figures, and only hesitates when the ever-focused media pro is tossed questions about her personal life that take her at least temporarily out of campaign mode.

It took her seemingly forever, for example, to be able to conjure up her Burlington, Vermont, mailing address when that information was requested so that she could be sent a copy of this magazine. And a query about how many nights she’s slept in her own bed since taking the press secretary gig drew—if only for a nanosecond—a blank stare.

And then she was instantly “on” again in flashing her broad, trademark, light-up-the-room smile in replying, “Bed? You mean my air mattress? I don’t have time to furnish a place. The only beds I sleep in these days are in hotels.”

Over the course of the campaign Sanders has spent a lot of time crisscrossing the nation with Dr. Cornel West. The activist, author, and philosopher is a major Bernie supporter and was again stumping with the candidate in Des Moines.

“Symone Sanders is a visionary,” West told Omaha Magazine the next evening moments before he was to take the microphone as the headliner at a pre-debate tailgate rally where, true to its name, he and other speakers addressed the crowd from the tailgate of a well-worn farm truck in the state where agriculture rules and corn is king. “She has the power to be the voice of her generation. She has the intellect, the moral compassion, and the energy to become a great leader.”

Also “Feeling the Bern” at the rally that night was Creighton senior Dawaune Hayes.

“Symone was always involved in everything on campus,” Hayes said. “She was involved in everything all over town. Everyone at Creighton knew she could change the world someday. Now she’s actually doing it.”

Sanders may already be well on her way to becoming a world-changer, but one thing she hopes remains the same is the secret recipe at Time Out Chicken on North 30th Street.

“The first job I ever had was at Time Out,” she said, “and I worked there all through high school and college when I could—even after college. I miss Omaha. I miss my family. I would kill for some Time Out Chicken right now. And I miss the girls at Girls Inc.”

“Symone was the epitome of a Girls Inc. girl,” said Roberta Wilhelm, the organization’s executive director. “She was heavily involved in our media literacy program called Girls Make the Message. That’s where the girls made their own public service announcements and created their own messages to the world. Not surprisingly, Symone took to that like a fish to water. Ironically, the theme was Girls for President, and now she’s working on a real presidential campaign. Symone is doing big things. She’s going to matter.”

And what message will Sanders deliver the next time she has a chance to visit her hometown Girls Inc.?

“Be smart. Be strong. Be bold,” she said in echoing the nonprofit’s tagline. “You can do anything you set your mind to. Anything. Omaha needs you. The world needs you.”

Donna Burns covered a lot of stories from that kitchen in north Omaha, but it looks like she missed the most important one. Now her creator would be the interview of a lifetime for the ace reporter.

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Damon Bell

June 15, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This story was published in the June 2015 edition of Her Family.

Damon Bell took one step onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge and heard silence. Real silence, the kind that made him pause and remember.

This was where 600 people marched 50 years earlier, hoping to complete the 54-mile journey from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. Instead, they were brutally assaulted by Alabama law enforcement officers, beaten with billy clubs, crushed by horses, and attacked by dogs in what would be known as “Bloody Sunday.” It would be the same path the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., would take in his dress shoes in second and third marches to the capitol.

Now, here was Damon trudging along in his gray and white Air Jordan sneakers. He could feel this in the silence—the weight of history heavy on his 12-year-old shoulders. His father, Jermaine, had tears in his eyes.

“They always say you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been, so I’m going
to get a chance to find out where I came from.” 
-Damon Bell

A white man sauntered up to Damon and his group near the middle of the bridge. He was holding a huge white sign that read simply, “I’m sorry.” He explained how he had lived in Selma when the marches happened and thought there was just nothing he could do to help.

“It was a sight I’ll never forget,” Jermaine recalls.

Damon wanted to explore the rich history of his people’s struggle. So, when the Omaha Housing Authority sponsored an essay contest in which students were asked to detail why they would like to make the trip to Selma, Damon just had to enter.

He wrote, “They always say you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been, so I’m going to get a chance to find out where I came from.”

OHA football coach Gannie Clark hosted the contest, wanting to share the experience of Selma with a younger generation. He agreed with the sentiments in Damon’s essay.

“We need to teach tolerance before we are doomed,” he says.

OHA wanted to offer a chance for young people to participate in events surrounding the 50th anniversary of the marches that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned racial discrimination for voters. Despite the thousands of people in attendance, Damon says, the entire day “was peace, a lot of peace.”

He saw influential black leaders such as President Barack Obama, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King III. And he talked with actor Chris Tucker, who gave Damon his autograph

At a museum in Selma, Jermaine noticed Damon on his phone as they observed the footage of what happened that fateful day on March 7, 1965. Damon just couldn’t stand to see people get hurt.

Jermaine told his son he needed to watch it even if it was tough.

“He needs to know what actually happened,” he says. “Our right to vote came with blood, sweat, and tears.”

Damon feels everyone should vote and even if someone believes it doesn’t really matter, it is important to take the chance.

Clark, who lived about 90 miles from the bridge, says the outing was good for Damon and the other kids to see a different perceptive. “Racism in Omaha is like racism in Selma,” Clark says. “I told the boys during the trip to use their anger to speak out, use their anger to fight against any kind of injustice. It isn’t a black/white thing. It is an American thing.”

Racism is getting worse, Jermaine believes. He doesn’t feel people are making progress. Damon knows it is still an issue, but feels like the world is changing.

He hopes the future will be full of peace. His goal is to someday be a professional football player or an engineer.

When Damon is not attending Scared Heart School as a sixth grader, his classroom is at Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop where his father has worked for the past 20 years. Damon is a fixture there almost every day, listening and learning from such men as owner Dan Goodwin and others. Goodwin marched on Washington and shook hands with Malcolm X. A shop window broken over 46 years ago—intentionally left unrepaired to this day—is a powerful reminder of racial tensions in Omaha. A bullet (Goodwin believes fired by police) smashed the pane during the 1969 riots that erupted after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed girl, 14-year-old Vivian Strong.

Jermaine says that is what makes his son a smart kid, learning both sides of the table.

Despite living in “the hood,” Jermaine will never leave. “I love North Omaha,” he says proudly.

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