Vanessa Ward for Governor
Vanessa Loftin Ward was born March 24, 1953, which began her lifelong love affair with her North Omaha neighborhood, the State of Nebraska and her husband. She attended old Tech High and graduated in 1971. Not long after, she married her high school sweetheart, Keith Ward on September 29, 1973.And, together they raised four beautiful children – Keith Jr., Torrey, Juana and Va’Chona. They all continue to live near Mom.
That certainly sounds like the beginning of a very nice story, and for a candidate for governor, one might expect it to go on – while raising her family, she graduated with honors from UNO, completed graduate school at UNL and went on to found one of the most vibrant companies in Omaha operated by a woman of color. Unfortunately, in spite of being a bright and talented student, those opportunities never presented themselves to an African American woman struggling to survive in North Omaha. Instead, Vanessa got her street named after her by going to peace in a conflict that pitted her against some of the worst poverty and gang violence in the United States at the time. People died, a lot of people died and still she persevered.
It is difficult for most Nebraskans, whether living in the rural expanses of the state or even a few blocks away in Dundee, to understand what it was like – what it is still like.Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy all chose North Omaha to speak about civil rights during Vanessa’s childhood. The 4CL Ministers, the BANTUs, the Black Panthers and the Freedom Schools all rose from her neighborhood to fight injustice. Homes burned, riots engulfed thebusiness district, lives were lost and violence was perpetrated on neighbors. Throughout it all Vanessa bore witness.
As Vanessa raised her family, drug trafficking, intimidation, prostitution and murder were a way of life – a right on the doorstep kind of reality. And, in the midst of this unimaginable turmoil, Vanessa’s partner and love of her life, lost his legs to diabetes – owing mostly to a lack of health coverage. Without Keith’s job, they went from poor to fight for survival.
“I had to keep going,” said Vanessa. “It was too important. I had to keep Keith going. I had to keep my work going. He was literally dying before my eyes, and he was afraid for my life. Can you imagine? He was worried about me.”
What Vanessa did next is the stuff of legend. She talked to armed gang members. She talked to business and community leaders, and she talked to church leaders all over the state. She brought everyone together for an old fashion “Block Party.” She says in her book, Somebody Do Something, “I realized that hatred cannot be my motivator. If hatred is the only reason I want transformation, it will never succeed.”
She also put into action some basic tenets. First among these was truth. “You can’t accomplish anything without truth,” she said. “Truth builds trust, and you’re nowhere without it.”
Second, she decided it was counterproductive to find fault or blame. “You can’t choose sides,” she said. “You have to diveright into this unimaginable depth of deception, orchestrated by both sides, and find a better way.”
Third, she decided that promoting true transformation would require healing from within. “No one,” she said. “Can come into your community and produce effective change. You have to accomplish that from within.”
“In those days, North Omaha was a war zone,” said one neighbor who witnessed what happened. ”Vanessa was armed with nothing more than love and hope. She talked to everyone and got buy-in. She built trust and changed a prison into a community again. She turned “Death Valley” into “Hope Alley.”
Keith Ward died on June 21, 2015. He and Vanessa were married three times, even though they never parted: once as kids in a civil ceremony; once in a traditional church wedding just for the romance of it all; and once in the “Hope Garden” next to their home not long before he died.
For her efforts in bringing her community together, in addition to having her street named after her, she received a long list of honors, including: induction into the African American Hall of Fame; the American Red Cross “Hero in the Heartland” award; the Dorothy Richardson Award; NeighborWorks America’s Gold Volunteer of the Year Award presented by President Obama; two NAACP Awards for community service and the Omaha Key to the City presented by Mayor Jean Stothert.
Asked why she was running for Governor, Vanessa said, “I’ve spent my life watching people talk without listening – trying to build something without trust. I see the same thing happening today in Lincoln and Washington. You can’t solve a problem by just throwing money at it. You need to tell the truth, and you need to build trust. That’s what I do.”
Campaign Chair, Colleen Brennan, a white woman from the suburbs of Omaha who has observed and supported Vanessa for years suggests, that if given the chance Vanessa will change the world. “There’s a light shining over this woman,” she said. “She tells the truth, the whole truth. She holds people accountable. She makes good things happen.”
In Vanessa’s book written many years before she ever thought about seeking public office, she said, “How do I bring my family, neighbors, city, county, and world together to reduce hate? I must believe for the best.”
And, her block party – still going strong after twenty years…