By Lynn Sanchez
From Aksarben Heights to Woodlyn Park, most Omaha neighborhoods have a grassroots group of volunteers working with one purpose: to watch out for their neighborhood. Year by year, block by block, they improve, advocate, maintain, protect and connect.
“Without neighborhoods, we don’t have a community,” said Precious McKesson, president of North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance (NONA) board. “They’re important because they are what keeps going. People leave their neighborhoods to go to their job, then they come home to their communities. So neighborhoods play a very, very big role in everyday life that goes into everyday policy-making from the state level to the city level.”
Rondae Hill has been president of the Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association for five years. (The neighborhood is also sometimes referred to as “Prospect Village.”)
“Number one, I think it’s important to know your neighbors,” she said. “If you know your neighbors, everybody has eyes out on the neighborhood.” The problems they need to tackle are easy to spot. “The same thing will come up over and over again. For us, it’s a lot of dumping. People dump in the abandoned lots. The spring cleanups that Keep Omaha Beautiful does help a lot. Another problem is the potholes, oh my goodness. But you will find out what is important when multiple people come together and they all address the same thing.”
She recalled an incident several years ago when the city wanted to remove a school crosswalk light in Dundee. “Because they had a strong neighborhood association, they spoke up and they saved the light,” she said. “If you have an active neighborhood association, you have a voice if something like that pops up in your neighborhood. Without an active neighborhood association, you don’t have a voice.”
There’s not a lot of glory in Neighborhood Association work. They don’t get paid. They spend lots of time posting to Facebook or the Nextdoor app (a private social network for neighbors.) They may endure long, tedious city meetings for a chance to speak on behalf of their neighbors. They deal with problems other neighbors cause. They may knock on your door to ask how you are doing. They organize the events that others are too busy working to help with. They get the word out about what’s going on. All these things contribute to keeping the neighborhood safer, cleaner and more peaceful.
Association leaders must get creative to entice neighbors to get involved. Hill said that her group slowed down over the past few years but she wants to try creating a newsletter in 2020. “I want to keep having meetings, because I think it’s important to sit down and talk to your neighbors, see what their issues are — is your trash getting picked up on time? Do you have weeds next door? What are your issues? But my ultimate dream to try to get to the point of doing quarterly newsletters. Because I still think there are a lot of older people that don’t have technology and we’re not reaching them unless there is something showing up at their door.”
In addition to her position with NONA, McKesson is on the One Omaha Advisory Committee. One Omaha works with neighborhood associations all over the city by offering community leader trainings, helping them access funding resources and assisting with engagement and outreach.
“We’re always trying to come up with good ideas to engage the neighborhood,” she says. “For instance, Forever North had a block party, so we did a survey asking people, ‘What do you want? What do you want to see in your neighborhood? What would bring you out?’ And by doing that, they all came together and had a big family fun day. We had a great turnout. It always comes back to canvassing, knocking on the doors and asking them what do they need? We noticed that it worked. It’s very hard, because people work different schedules. You’ve got to be able to connect, to let them know there’s something in it for their family. We’ve got to make it fun. By getting them in with the kids, it gets them in the door so we can have a conversation.”
When potentially dangerous problems arise in a neighborhood, there is help from the city. A “Good Neighbor” ordinance was adopted several years ago by the city to help address public nuisance issues.
“The Good Neighbor Ordinance was created through neighborhood associations,” says McKesson. “NONA had a stake in it, but neighborhood associations came together and (asked) — how do we continue to hold our neighbors accountable? If they’re having loud parties and that kind of thing, how do we do that? Neighborhoods came together and created the Good Neighbor Ordinance with Councilman Gray, and it’s been used.” For example, she says, the Miller Park/Minne Lusa Neighborhood Association had concerns about an incident at a local gas station. Neighborhood association leaders met with McKesson, Councilman Gray and another staff member and expressed their frustration. After the meeting, Gray told the business owners that if they did not take care of the problem, their occupancy license would be revoked. “So they got their act together,” McKesson says. “We have not had another meeting since then and it’s been almost two years ago.”
Hill encouraged those who are thinking about starting a group to reach out to One Omaha. “If (One Omaha) had been available when I was first starting, I would have had someone I could have contacted and say how do I do this? They are a huge asset for all of the neighborhood associations. If you have a question, you call them and they are willing to bend over backwards to help you figure it out. When you’re starting something from the ground up, it’s difficult. It can be tedious but it’s so well worth it because if something does happen in your neighborhood, then you have voices to speak.”