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Leonard Pitts: Listening is the start to change; doing is the other step

We live in a microwave society. We want quick and easy and refuse to do anything that makes us feel uncomfortable.

That is how Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. sees it.

It’s a problem that prevents society from listening and making changes. It’s a problem that has polarized the country, he said.

Pitts visited Nebraska for a second time as keynote speaker at the Interfaith Peacemaking Coalition’s 36th annual workshop Sunday at Lincoln’s First United Methodist Church.

His speech, “When We Stand with Others,” brought 750 people together, filling the pews and the balcony of the church.

Pitts, a nationally syndicated columnist who has written extensively about issues concerning race, politics and culture, discussed how people can better communicate and stand with those facing racism and bigotry.

In today’s political climate, having a civil exchange with someone who has a different point of view seems impossible, but it all starts with listening, he said.

Following the speech, local panelists City Councilman Bennie Shobe, ACLU Director Danielle Conrad, Nebraska Wesleyan Assistant Vice President T.J. McDowell, Cultural Specialist and Coordinator for the Lincoln Public Schools Bilingual Liaison Program Oscar Rios Pohirieth and Lincoln Police Capt. Michon Morrow reflected on how to relate Pitts' observations to problems marginalized communities face in Lincoln.

During the presentation, Pitts took a historical look at Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Although this speech is among one of the most known, Pitts questioned whether people truly know the meaning of King's words.

The speech talks about committing to change and an obligation to work, he said. According to Pitts, people don’t commit to make changes.

“People look at issues and say, the problems are so big and I’m so small,” he said. “What’s missing is a will to do.”

To participate in change, Pitts emphasized two steps.

Listening and doing.

Pitts discussed how important it is to listen to people who are marginalized. Whether someone is being targeted because of their religious beliefs, race, heritage or sexual orientation, listening, standing up for them and becoming an ally is crucial, he said.

“It’s not easy,” Pitts said. “We think we know, but do we really have any sense of what it’s like?”

After the Charleston church shooting in 2015, when nine blacks were killed, hundreds marched in solidarity. White people were among the protesters who chanted “Black Lives Matter."

“People who speak on behalf of the issues of other people — their voice carries a different weight,” Pitts said.

To understand the present, Pitts suggested learning about the past. To listen and understand others, you can’t expect them to simply get over something when they have been scarred, he added.

“Instead this country chooses a policy of amnesia,” Pitts said.

When describing his own childhood, panelist McDowell took Pitts’ words to heart. His past, he said, reflects his present.

One of McDowell’s early childhood memories of growing up in Lincoln is someone telling him, “The only good African-American, is a dead African-American.”

McDowell, who never met his maternal grandparents, despite living in the same city, said he grew up angry. 

Shortly after 1967, when interracial marriage became legal in the United States, McDowell’s parents got married. His grandparents refused to accept it, and cut all ties.

“I don’t have the luxury to be angry and African-American,” he said.

McDowell, who is Nebraska Wesleyan alumni, said he never felt like he fit in. Today, he works with underrepresented students.

Morrow also reflected on her experience of being a woman in the police department.

The department has focused on listening to the needs of the community, Morrow said, and is making an effort to recruit minorities.

“The goal is that someday everyone can see themselves in our law enforcement,” she said.

Morrow also mentioned the racial disparities in the juveniles arrested in the United States, including the city of Lincoln.

She said the Lincoln police department has programs to address the problem.

“Our goal is to help them, and never see them in our system again,” Morrow said.

Pitts said it's important to not leave the problems of this generation for the next.

"We have the tendency to romanticize children. We expect them to grow up into better people, but they'll be just like us if we don't commit to change," he said.

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Lincoln Southeast student's dream comes true; Parkland student escorts her to prom

A Parkland, Florida, student made good on a promise to a Lincoln Southeast High School senior and took her to prom Saturday after she exceeded his goal of getting 5,000 retweets.

Fidan Ibrahimova was hanging out with friends at a Lincoln coffee shop on April 2 when she sent a message to Kyle Kashuv asking him how many retweets she would need to get him to be her prom date. He didn't respond. 

Two days later, she tried again. His response: 5,000.

She tweeted a screenshot of their exchange with the plea "PLEASE HELP ME OUT. A DREAM COME TRUE."

By the next morning she had 2,000 retweets. Then conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro, who has 1.2 million followers, retweeted her.

"I was like, oh yeah, I got this," she said. "All of a sudden my phone is getting blown up." As of Sunday, her retweets totaled 8,042. 

In his original response to Ibrahimova, Kashuv mentioned he didn't have a tux so some of the people who retweeted her suggested a Go Fund Me account to raise money.

Ibrahimova made one and within a couple of hours raised $1,700, which paid for Kashuv's flight, hotel, a limo and dinner at Blue Sushi.

She said Kashuv wore a really nice suit, rather than a tux, but "he did buy himself a new tie."

Following the Feb. 14 shooting at his Florida high school, where 17 people were killed, Kashuv received media attention for his views on gun rights. Unlike many of his classmates, Kashuv doesn't support more restrictive gun laws.

Ibrahimova said she'd been following the gun debate and other students who have gotten lots of media attention.

"Their voices were really loud." She felt the media covered their perspective and what they were doing, but "not so much the conservative side." 

She liked what Kashuv had to say and she felt "he never really had a chance to share his voice."

Ibrahimova said she thinks political views separate people.

She describes her own political views as moderate, slightly leaning conservative. But "I don't let that affect my relationship with anyone else." 

Ibrahimova said she and Kashuv went to prom with a group of her friends. While they did talk about his experiences — like meeting President Trump and first lady Melania Trump — there was no debate about differing opinions.

Kashuv left early Sunday morning. The junior had five advanced placement classes to study for. Ibrahimova said he probably shouldn't have come, but "he did make a promise." 

After flying in early Saturday to Omaha, Kashuv met with Gov. Pete Ricketts. 

Ibrahimova said Kashuv was super exhausted when he arrived, but the day improved.

"If you notice the picture at the airport he has no smile. With Ricketts he has a little smile. At prom, he had a big smile."

As for Ibrahimova, she was still smiling on Sunday. "It was a night I will remember forever."

But, she admitted, "I need to take a nap sometime today."

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Draft deal spells out details of proposed JPA for school resource officers, learning centers

Plans for Lincoln's Safe and Successful Kids Joint Public Agency would limit property taxation by the entity to 1 cent per $100 valuation and would create a voting structure that wouldn't allow either the City Council or school board to dominate decisions.

The draft of the JPA agreement, released publicly Monday morning, will be part of the discussion at two Monday meetings, though the document will not be part of City Council and Lincoln Board of Education meetings for several weeks.

And it's already stirring up controversy. At least one school board member and several City Council members have said there is no need to create a separate governing body to operate the city's community learning centers and pay for additional school resource officers, which is the intent of the proposed JPA.

The city and school district currently operate a school resource officer program in Lincoln's high schools and work jointly on the community learning centers through interlocal agreements.

Setting up the proposed six-member JPA board would ultimately require approval by the City Council and the Lincoln Public Schools board. The JPA board would include the mayor and two council members selected by the mayor, plus the three board members appointed by the board president.

All JPA actions would require approval by at least two city representatives and two school board representatives, assuring that neither group can dominate decisions under the agreement.

Most of the details covered in the draft agreement had been discussed in earlier news conferences, including funding for three specific cooperative areas.

The JPA and its $2 million in initial funding would help pay for six new school resource officers and a threat assessment officer (protective programs); an additional social worker for schools and funding for expanded therapy services to students (preventive programs); and funding for community learning center programs (proactive programs).

The agreement assures at least 40 percent of the JPA's funding would be used for proactive programming and up to 30 percent of the funding would be used for protective funding in the future.

There is no similar guarantee of funding for preventive programming.

While the joint public agency would be a partnership of the two governments -- the city and school district -- it would also allow for input from the nonprofit sector, which would benefit from funding for community learning centers, or CLCs.

Currently, many of the 26 CLCs in local schools are run by nonprofit agencies under contracts with the public schools.

The JPA agreement calls for the separate formation of a nonprofit organization, with a 12-member board of directors, with four from the city, four from LPS and four from community nonprofit agencies. That board would make budget recommendations to the JPA  and would coordinate funding for the CLC programs.

Creating the nonprofit is one of the things that makes the JPA unique, said John Neal, assistant to the LPS superintendent.

The lead agencies that run the after-school programs for the CLCs and some of the community funders have a big investment in the CLCs but can’t be on the JPA itself.

Instead, they will act in an advisory role, through the nonprofit board, he said. 

The JPA would use the city’s taxing authority. Allowing the JPA to use its authority would require the city to reduce its 50-cent levy limit by 1 cent. Currently, the city levy is $31.7 cents per $100 in valuation, far below the levy limit. 

Though it isn't specified in the agreement, the city and LPS board members have indicated their intent to make the JPA proposal levy neutral, so the two boards would have to reduce their current tax levies to offset a new tax levied by the JPA.

The agreement would continue the funding split for existing school resource officers, for which the school district pays about 35 percent of the costs.

Despite having a current program, city and school district leaders have privately discussed forming a JPA that would provide a long-term foundation for CLCs for several years.

"There’s been a pretty concerted effort to work on a JPA over a number of years,” said Neal.

“The issue is finding a time when it really fits, when there’s a confluence of issues that are very complex and require the school district and the city working incredibly closely.”

Some officials believe that time may have come with the recent concern over school safety, which both the city and schools need to address.

The JPA would provide funding to the programs, but would not actually run them. For example school resource officers would be part of the Lincoln police force and CLCs would continue to be operated by nonprofit agencies, with oversight by LPS administrators.

The JPA agreement is expected to be discussed at a Monday morning meeting of the Super Common, which consists of the City Council, mayor, Lancaster County Board and Lincoln Board of Education. It will also be part of an LPS board work session in the afternoon.