NeighborFest & Concert for Change
White tents ran the length of Burdette Street where volunteers and vendors set tables.
The George Bryant Center basketball courts fenced the north, while the Fair Deal Village lined the south. The tents sheltered displays of items for sale including shea butter, rescue plants, and soaps, as well as resources for voter registration and community health. Groups of people perused the bounty as the joyous voices of Umoja Choir rang in the air.
A few feet away from the performance stage, people on bikes, some personal and others borrowed, gathered for a tour of nearby community gardens. Behind them, children scrawled images and words on the road with vibrant chalk.
A young girl with chalk in hand asked her father how to spell "success."
"S-U-C-C-E-S-S" he said cheerfully, as the smell of jerk chicken and fried catfish wafted through the streets. The inaugural NeighborFest: Activating People, Places, and Spaces was officially underway.
NeighborFest was devised by a team of neighbors with the hope to inspire participation in neighborhood growth through activities, commerce, and entertainment.
A Concert for Change, produced by Black Votes Matter and musician Roger Lewis, partnered with the Fest to present public officials and musicians, and encourage participation in the electoral races leading up to Election Day on Tuesday, November 6.
Planning for NeighborFest began in December 2017 after Janet Bonet of Spring Lake Park Team approached Julie Smith at One Omaha following the Neighborhoods USA Conference that May. "There was a lot of good energy after NUSA and Janet suggested we keep it going," said Smith. One Omaha contacted a list of people actively engaged in their communities and invited them to meet and brainstorm ideas for some kind of event.
Edward Quinn of Field Club Homeowner's Guild, Manuel Cook, an urban planner, and Dawaune Hayes of NOISE, met with Bonet, Smith, and the One Omaha team before the holidays to get acquainted and share motivations.
Bonet knew that the event had to be different from the rest, “People are tired of classrooms, we need to get folks out in the neighborhoods where the action is,” said the veteran activist. Through winter and spring, the committee toyed with words like active, engaged, fun, and informative to steer planning and decided on a festival format. The energy of the group moved ideas along quickly and enthusiasm was palpable, Bonet noted of a meeting, “It was really energizing synergy...otherwise known as activating! I really enjoyed it, that's the way meetings should be.”
The eager pace of the process, though, contributed to some miscommunication and a loss of focus at times. Contention arose when the festival was chosen to be on North 24th Street. Juanita Johnson, president of Longschool Neighborhood Association and chair of the 24th Street Corridor Alliance took issue with decisions made by the committee without thorough communication and collaboration. “I will not support an event that did not ensure that the main community impacted was truly involved,” said Johnson.
Johnson’s words were heeded and led to major changes in the how the organization of the event took place. The steering committee, with Johnson on board, connected with more community members from North Omaha, namely churches and local businesses, to build and mend relationships so that the mission of NeighborFest could be fulfilled. “It can't be NeighborFest without the neighbors,” said Johnson.
Determined and better equipped, the group enlisted the help of local organizers including Shar Shelton, Harold Monday, Preston Love Jr., Marcey Yates, Sundiata Menelick, and many others, to coordinate vendors, aid in promotion, and lead activities. “How well things came together was proof of how connected our group was,” said Julie Smith. Roger Lewis and Smith agreed to work together in June and after discussing the need for entertainment, agreed to combine NeighborFest with the Concert for Change. Lewis said he believed working together allowed the events to maximize resources and bring a variety of people out for a shared cause.
The day of the event came quickly once the team smoothed over their differences. People from all over Omaha came to 24th & Burdette streets to partake in the festivities. The Study, a creative cohort supported by the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, opened their space at 2205 N 24th Street to as event headquarters. Trés Johnson, a member of The Study and owner of Drips, served coffee and refreshments over the course of the day.
Bonet and Alajia McKizia, a Study member, hosted art projects that invited attendees to visualize themselves and their neighborhoods. “On the outside of the box, you write what you show to the world, on the inside you describe the inner you,” instructed McKizia. Bonet’s activity asked participants to illustrate what they loved about where they live. Images included trees, bikes, and words of encouragement like “family is the key to a good life.”
Manuel Cook organized bike tours along the 24th Street Corridor, a place he says is perfect for biking, “The roads are flat and wide in this part of Omaha making it pretty easy to get around by bike.” With the help of Heartland B-Cycle, attendees without bicycles of their own were able to participate.
The whole day was fueled by the music of local performers, kicking off with the high-energy stylings of the ToonZ Squad. The young trio danced and sang with enthusiasm, drawing spectators to the parking lot of the OEDC. Subsequent performances came from the Pleasant Green Baptist Marching Saints, Dana Murray, Buddi3 da Gawd, The Dilla Kids, Mesonjixx, and Umoja Choir, providing an eclectic range of genres.
Between music sets, political figures gave motivational statements to encourage attendees to vote. City Council president and District 2 representative, Ben Gray, shared rousing words calling for the end of hatred spouted by those in high office. Congressional hopeful and democrat, Kara Eastman also spoke, as did current congressman Don Bacon. Juanita Johnson said she appreciated that the citizens of North Omaha had a chance to hear from and meet those running for office.
Due to rain in the evening, a few artists did not perform, but the night drew to a comfortable close and concluded a valiant effort from community members to bring neighbors together. Quilting artist and attendee, Celeste Butler remarked, “This is so good. We need more events like this.”