The strength in the South Omaha vote

By Chris Bowling

This is the second story in a three-part series about efforts to raise voter turnout in East Omaha. Read the first story in English and Spanish. Read this story in Spanish on

The compact single-family ranch has a narrow veranda overlooking a small, green lawn. The street in front of the house slopes down to a park that his children are walking towards on skateboards.

Alberto Ruiz likes the house he and his family live in.

The 47-year-old Mexican immigrant bought the house in South Omaha in 2002 and moved in on the weekend of July 4th. Since then, he and his wife have worked, raised their children, and lived a good life in the southernmost corner of Douglas County’s neighborhood, which features shady streets of other squat single-family homes as well as Southside Terraces, the city’s largest residential community.

But Ruiz knows that there are differences between this area and others in the city.

“If you go up the street or west, you won’t see any sidewalks like this,” he said, looking down at the cracked sidewalks.

This area has felt neglected for a long time.

It is more racially diverse than most in the city. It has higher poverty rates, lower median incomes, and the lowest turnout in Douglas County in years. In the past area code, only 15% of the area’s registered voters cast a vote, less than half of the county’s median. In the past elections, the trend is even lower.

“They make you feel like you don’t count. If you’re Latino, put you on your side, ”said Ruiz, whose neighborhood is more than half Latino. “They only go for whites.”

But those numbers could change radically this year. While in the past it has been difficult to draw parallels to community needs and voting-based solutions, 2020 has provided immediate examples. More than 2,000 cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in the region, nearly double the number of cases in the next hardest-hit Douglas County zip code. And since protests against racial justice erupted in May, more people seem awake to social inequalities, said Kimara Snipe, president of the region’s neighborhood association and president of the South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance.

In 2020 a presidential election could depend on Omaha. A congressional rematch that was decided in 2018 with less than 5,000 votes will take place. Countless local offices are up for grabs. And the sleeping giant with hundreds of thousands of votes is east of 72nd Street.

“The voting rights in East Omaha are enough to change the entire political climate [Nebraska’s] 2nd Congressional District, ”said Snipe. “There is power in these communities and people just don’t know it.”

For a long time this neighborhood, like many around it, was a worker. Just a short drive from meat packers, most houses were built before 1939 and little developed after the 1960s. When the whites moved to the suburbs, Latino and other immigrants moved into Omaha and resumed their working class lifestyle.

Today, immigrants with various citizenship status, including refugees, make up a large part of this community. That brings with it more linguistic and cultural gaps than a typical neighborhood, and it’s a big reason why it was left out of typical voting efforts.

“Until now it has been completely ignored,” said Snipe.

In particular, the Heartland Workers Center targeted the area that was the worst in the county after the 2020 turnout. You have started using the campaign slogan “I vote for my family”. It is a call to action for those whose citizenship status allows the vote to be a voice for their loved ones.

“This is the main message as an organization,” said Lily Reyes, a senior organizer in South Omaha with the Heartland Workers Center. “Let your voice be heard. Don’t allow other people to choose you. If you want to see changes, make it happen. “

Due to the pandemic, the organization had to change its voting strategy. Usually volunteers and staff work across the state, but this year they’ve switched to more phone banking. This is difficult in an area like 4-10 where many people are harder to reach by phone or internet. On September 15, they set about physically painting the houses that were not remotely accessible – 252 houses, by far the largest number of any other district, organizers said.

Along the way, they met young college students who knew nothing about the candidates, homeowners who said they were telling all their neighbors to vote, and others who said they knew they should vote but didn’t know how.

As they walked through the streets wearing bright green vests, they also informed people about planned redevelopments in the area. The Southside Terrace complex is being demolished to make way for new homes and common areas, although the exact plans have not yet been finalized.

“One of the most important things we want to do is make change with the community,” said Penelope León, community organizer and trainer at Heartland Workers Center. “The community will say what it wants or [what their] Dream for the area could be. “

With social and health issues bringing people together and the promise of new development in the works, people are inspired, said Snipe. But change needs to be achieved through community organization, she added, because low-income, diverse communities like 4-10 need to amplify their voices.

“People are unable to come into their own power,” she said. “A lot of times we go to these poverty-stricken neighborhoods and we just make the wrong assumption that there are no positive outcomes. But we don’t look at the positives. “

Protests in 2020, particularly against police treatment of minorities, have ignited various communities. Snipe said social inequalities are a common topic today when speaking to her neighbors.

“There is power to be civic and knowledgeable,” said Snipe, who is also a board member of the Omaha Public Schools. “That’s why I was able to be in poverty and still be out here and be someone who is considered a leader and a decision maker,” she said. “You can be damn broke and still do your thing, but people don’t notice.”

Once the community is organized, voter turnout can increase. Hundreds of thousands of votes from here and neighborhoods like this could steer elections in a new direction. It could mean politicians courting voters or developing strategies to improve their communities.

When Snipe envisions this reality, she ponders the message it is sending to politicians.

“We are watching you.”

Increased political accountability could have helped limit the spread of COVID-19, Snipe said. State Senator Tony Vargas fought to protect against COVID-19 in this district, but legislative efforts in Nebraska’s unicameral have stalled.

Ruiz works as a forklift driver at a meat packing facility and has signed COVID-19. His family got the disease and his wife, who has asthma, spent time in the hospital. Ruiz said a man he knew who was retiring to work a few shifts at the plant and save some money died of the disease.

Increased political awareness and accountability could help in discussions such as policing or investing in community resources, which were briefly the focus of the Omaha City Council.

It could also have national implications. Experts in their election simulations keep returning to what could be the turning point in the election of the next President of the United States: Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District.

Nebraska could be the tiebreaker between President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden with its only vote (major capital “C”). With a high number of black and Latin American voters voting unfavorably against Trump, a district like 4-10 rules.

These are electrifying new starting points for organizers like the Heartland Workers Center. But it is just another opportunity to further strengthen electoral power in East Omaha.

“I’ve been doing this job for more than six years,” said León. “At first I was skeptical. I didn’t believe that we could change anything or make a difference. But after each election, we’ve seen rates go up in South Omaha. “

León said six years ago that she hadn’t seen any candidates in the South Omaha neighborhoods. Your ads did not appear on Spanish-speaking television or radio channels. Then more people started voting.

“Then we saw the candidates advertise in South Omaha,” she said. “We started hearing spot promotions in Spanish from candidates. So I know what we are doing is the right thing and we are going to increase the turnout. “

It’s the same with Snipe. There are more forces at work to get people to vote than ever before. And after years of organizing the work, she can envision a reality where 4-10 year olds realize they are in control of that choice and their community.

She doesn’t want to outdo herself. 2020 is a big election year, but the battle to get this community involved has been a long one. This is just another step in the process.

“The truth is we’re not going to fix that tonight,” said Snipe. “We have had this conversation since the 1960s, ever since. Let’s be honest We haven’t had this activation level yet. “

“It’s not just about what happens tomorrow or next week,” she continued, “it’s what happens 10 years from now.”

Take another look at the third part of the series: “Get the Voting Out: A Look Behind the Church.”

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