Ten-year old Ishma Valenti saw the swastikas scrawled on the walls of his school, Hartley Elementary.
Even in fourth grade, he understood them as symbols of hate.
To help her students, Mrs. Horne read a story of a young Jewish boy in Nazi Germany who hid in plain sight, protected from persecution by a gift from his grandfather — a Hitler Youth uniform.
The uniform was only a small part of a larger story, but Valenti, the son of a Black man and a white woman, never forgot it.
Later that year, he was knocking on doors in the Sheridan Elementary School neighborhood, raising money for a school project. A white woman came to the door at his first house. Before he could utter a sentence, she yelled, “Get off my doorstep,” followed by racial slurs. Young Valenti kept a composed smile as she slammed the door in his face.
In middle school, he was the team's star quarterback but only Black player. Teammates called him the n-word and turned off the lights while they banged on the lockerroom doors to scare him.
Over the years, the now 35-year-old Valenti developed strategies to cope with racial incidents. A few years ago, he started dressing every day in a suit and tie.
“When I started wearing a suit and realizing how different I was being treated,” Valenti says, “it reminded me of that story. And I was like, wow, is this like my Hitler Youth Group outfit?”
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Standing 6-foot-2 with long locks, Afro-centric suits and accessorized family heirlooms, large rings and necklaces, a Masai blanket and an occasional top hat, Valenti is hard to miss in a room.
He is a man of many interests and talents: entrepreneur, filmmaker, music producer, rapper, community servant, mover and shaker. To his family, and most importantly to himself, he is a father and husband.
He considers himself lucky, the product of a loving family. Although love was abundant, money often was not. When his parents struggled to make ends meet, young Ishma was welcomed into his grandparents' home.
His grandfather, Johnny “Papa John” Valenti, an Italian American who grew up in Oakland, California, was a diehard Muhammad Ali fan. As a student at San Jose State University, he became friends with many Black Panthers.
When Valenti was 11, his grandfather gave him his copy of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." Valenti says the book sparked his interest not only in being Black but being proud of it.
“Even though I lived an impoverished childhood, I got to meet amazing people and get amazing influences from a very young age and understand humanity at such a young age,” he said.
His father, Charles Dwayne Richardson, a member of the Nation of Islam, instilled in his young son the same confidence with which he carried himself. He taught his son about Black leaders, including Louis Farrakhan, whose talks and sermons were regularly played in his father’s household.
“If you knew Charles, you would know a lot about where Ishma’s character came from, because his dad was also very charismatic," said Renita Guyton, Valenti’s cousin. "People loved him and he loved people, and he was like a good soul, a good-hearted person. He’d do anything for anybody."
In February 2010, Valenti's father was shot and killed at a family gathering in Louisiana. Witnesses said the shooter was his brother-in-law. There was contradictory testimony at trial, however, and the man was acquitted.
His father’s death was heart-wrenching, but Valenti does not feel vengeful.
“Those Black daughters would not have had a dad if they had put him in jail,” Valenti said. “I hope that he's a great dad. I hope he’s a great family man.”
* * *
Ishma is a North African word that can mean “accepted by the community.”
In 2006, Valenti, then a 20-year-old University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, and his friend Angelo Stabler started the Guidance to Success Youth Club. What began as a basketball team developed into an educational program that provided opportunities for at-risk youth.
For eight years, the two friends changed the lives of hundreds of boys and young men, many of whom Valenti still keeps in touch with. Tut Kailech, now 28, started playing basketball in the seventh grade.
Once, Kailech recalls, a teammate was called for a foul and started to become angry. Valenti, seizing the moment, calmed the boy and told him, “There’s a lot of people that are going to try to get you off your footing and make you do something stupid. So, it’s very important that you don’t pay them any mind and continue on your path.”
From 2009 to 2018, Valenti worked for HopeSpoke as the coordinator for Extended Day Treatment, working closely with at-risk youth and creating programming to help them navigate the trauma they had endured.
Since 2018 as the director of teen programming and community engagement at the Malone Center, he has overseen a number of programs, including Take Pause, Holding Cops Accountable, the Young Women’s Business Leadership Academy and a counterpart for young men.
Launched in 2019, Take Pause unites local teenagers and Lincoln police officers on outings and movie nights.
These connections, Valenti says, can serve to de-escalate volatile situations on the street. A kid who’s gone to a pumpkin patch with a familiar cop may not be afraid.
Chassidy Jackson-Goodwin participated in Take Pause as a police officer. She valued the serious conversations with the kids, building trust and empathy, but also the lighter moments.
“It’s about enjoying each other and having a good time together as well,” she says. “To put the uniform aside and live in the moment of just having fun with kids in the community.”
On a gloomy Thursday afternoon in April, Valenti is at the Malone Center, bouncing back and forth among his Young Women’s Business Leadership Academy students. These high schoolers have been learning how to build their own businesses.
One customizes sneakers, another makes self-defense key chains, a third is designing a line of clothing. They sell their wares using social media. Today, they’re hard at work polishing short sales talks, called elevator pitches, for their products, hoping to win the $25 grand prize.
The judges, adults in the center, named Ka’Leis Winston and Kiki Medina the winners for their handmade soap, but all students received the judges’ praise.
When he isn’t helping kids pursue their passions, Valenti is pursuing his own. He and his son recorded an album together, his son laying down the beats while dad rapped. He currently has two films in circulation. One, a short film called “The Wisdom of China,” has won over a dozen awards in global competitions, including the Cannes Film Festival.
He and his friend Matthew Cries also are producing “On the Ridge,” a film that shines a positive light on South Dakota’s impoverished Pine Ridge Reservation. A still-untitled film, now in pre-production, explores the relationship between the indigenous people of Central and North America and Africans.
“We’re trying to show that tribal history, instead of a white man’s history,” says Cries, a member of the Lakota tribe who runs an outreach program for at-risk youth in Omaha.
Valenti, Cries and another friend and collaborator, Darwin Archie, are currently working on a multimedia project to promote positive minority role models in the community.
Archie, a career coach at the UNL College of Education and Human Sciences, first met Valenti in 2003 while both were Lincoln High students. Archie recalls Valenti as kind-hearted and supportive to friends and strangers alike.
“Ishma is a man of so many talents, and he tries to use every single one of them," Archie says. "And he does it very successfully.”
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In 2010, Valenti married his high school sweetheart, Megan. Their first child, Ishma Yusaf II, arrived when Valenti was 22.
“I didn’t know anxiety until she got pregnant,” he says.
He worried about her any time she left the house. Not long after, Najah Lynn joined the family, followed by NaLana Maali two years later.
Megan Caye Valenti, according to close friends, is a go-getter just like Ishma.
“She doesn’t need me to be successful,” Valenti says. “But what’s great about it is she recognizes the things in me that make her even better, and I recognize the things in her that make me even better.”
The Valentis home-school their children rather than enroll them in schools that he believes represent the structures of power upholding white supremacy and racism. Valenti wants his children to absorb the same knowledge and education that he received from his father and grandfather and to form their own opinions and thoughts and to make their own choices.
Archie believes Valenti cares for his children and his community in the same way.
“He’s a father first; he makes sure of that … and it’s not just his kids, it's this whole city," Archie says. "He wants to always instill all of his knowledge into this community. Where some people close the door after they walk through, he makes sure that it stays open.”
* * *
Valenti harbors a special place for the opportunities he’s been given — and created — to influence the lives of young Black people.
“I get so much when I do those things,” he says. “When I get in a room full of youth or a room full of community members and I’m able to give to them.”
The Malone Center, he says, is where he’s supposed to be. Director John Goodwin enthusiastically agrees.
“He has a big heart," Goodwin says. "He loves the community. He loves his people. He would be very difficult to replace.”
One of his regular Malone attendees best sums up Valenti’s impact on young people.
“Everything that we are is because of him,” says 16-year-old Ka’Leis Winston, a Lincoln High student. “He educates us. He’s taught us so many things. Things that I go home and can’t stop talking about.
"We’re in a group for three hours. It’s amazing because I’ve never been so intrigued to talk about politics or where we came from.”
Being Black in Lincoln: The series
More than 150 years after America’s slaves were freed and Nebraska gave birth to its capital, a UNL journalism class posed the question: What’s it like to be Black in Lincoln?
Students spent 15 weeks digging deep into the lives of a dozen residents representing a cross-section of Lincoln’s Black community: former basketball stars, BLM leaders, preachers, teachers, cops, convicts, businessmen, chefs, electricians and youth leaders. They discovered many had faced racial profiling, housing discrimination and police harassment, while others received ugly death threats, verbal abuse and hate-filled letters. The students also found that these Black citizens think Lincoln’s racial climate has improved overall but still has a ways to go. And most believed that it will get there.
The semester-long depth-reporting project was overseen by professors Joe Starita and Jennifer Sheppard and instructor Roger Holmes.
Other stories will be featured this summer at JournalStar.com.
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