feature

Learning the Dream

Long-form profile as part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri’s next generation in challenging times / 4063 words / The Columbia Missourian

As a boy, growing up and going to school in an African refugee camp, the only thing Ahmed Abdalla really knew about America was that he wanted to move there.

He was just a baby when his parents escaped genocide and famine in their native Somalia. They left family behind — some murdered, others simply refusing to budge. They fled on foot, finding their way to a series of temporary safe havens. Six years later and with as many more children, the Abdallas built the first home their children would know. They lived in Kakuma, a refugee camp in northwestern Kenya.

In Kakuma, America’s allure was as ubiquitous as heat. It came with no proof: Ahmed had never known a refugee to return to the camp; there were no newspapers or radios and little access to modern media. Still, this rumor of America saturated Ahmed’s childhood and the refugee culture. Dreaming of a new life in America wasn’t discussed. It was understood.

Ahmed was 13 and had spent seven years in Kakuma when his family was relocated to St. Louis. There, they began another winding journey through a series of apartments, jobs and the maze of laws, challenges, demands and possibilities that is the real America.

Seven more years after his dream of America came true, Ahmed — now 20 and a doorman at a posh downtown hotel — is still learning what it means to live here.

Ahmed’s story echoes both the enduring gratitude and steep learning curve that often follow refugee resettlement. All is new in this new world and not all as it seemed from afar. From what he knew to what he imagined to what he found, Ahmed discovered that dreams-made-real take some getting used to.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS: Sarah “Jonesey” Johnson

Interview as part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri’s next generation in challenging times / 3734 words / The Columbia Missourian

It’s a really odd little story. I realized when I was 34 that what I wanted to do with the rest of my life was to be a librarian. And I wanted to learn how to fix books. And I really wanted to do that in places like after Hurricane Katrina, and after the flood in Iowa. Libraries fall through a lot of monetary aid cracks, yet they are an incredibly important part of any community.

They’re part of the legitimacy of communities because they provide a sense of history when you get to books and records and the things that prove your right to exist in a place. Things like deeds, legal records, the original maps people drew to define the space you live in. And because our culture is so legalistic, we need the paper trail.

Humans express themselves visually, and one way of visually expressing yourself is in the written language. It also provides cultural legitimacy in the sense that other people like me have written books about the things I am experiencing. So that puts me on a spectrum. And if I’m on a spectrum, then I exist. If I can place myself somewhere measurable, then I have a history. If I have a history, then I have a present. If I have a present, then I have a future.

Hustle and dream

Work profile as part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri’s next generation in challenging times / 547 words / The Columbia Missourian

Eugene “EZ” Lacy assesses potential customers as they walk by his father’s flea market stall in a converted storage building in Jennings, a municipality in northeastern St. Louis County. A middle-aged woman with long hair, meticulously delicate eyebrows and frosted pink lips comments on the panther carpet hanging behind him.

“You like that?” Lacy asks. “You can take it home right now for $35.”

She stops. She’s already got one at home, she explains, and the mirror that goes with it. She points to the two black panthers on their haunches, facing each other almost in silhouette against a golden-yellow would-be sun on black background. The carpet hangs sideways next to one with a lion, and another with a big cat.

“You can take this one home to have in case something happens to the one you got now,” Lacy says.

She’s not buying it. He tries again.

Brooks Yang in front of book shelves at a bookstore reading

Finding the right space

Brief profile as part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri’s next generation in challenging times. /539 words / The Columbia Missourian

Brooks Yang may tell you that she’s “kind of doing nothing” these days. Don’t believe her.

Yes, the 23-year-old Princeton grad has moved back in with her parents after graduating last spring. No, she’s not working. And no, she doesn’t have plans to get a job in her field of study, architecture.

In fact, she wants to be a filmmaker — a writer/director, specifically. She’s waiting to hear back from graduate programs for directing and screenwriting. When I met her in February, she was helping two installation artists with box office venue design for the upcoming True/False Film Fest in Columbia. She was also organizing a reading list for herself and taking two classes at MU, in accounting and economics — “to try out thinking in those ways,” she said.

Yang is making plans — and decisions.

Services, growth and controversy: profile of a public agency

Four-part series on Boone County Family Resources, a local government agency that provides disability services / The Columbia Missourian

Columbia’s North Village neighborhood is a vestige of a time gone by. Many residents are fighting to keep it that way.

Susan Thompson knows firsthand how the families of people with disabilities benefit from community support. Thompson, a case manager for Boone County Family Resources, grew up with a mother who is blind.

Max Lewis is both a client and a member of the Boone County Family Resources Board of Directors. The 45-year-old lawyer survived a diving accident on June 12, 1986, but a spinal cord injury paralyzed him from the chest down.

Isaac Pasley had been driving with a learner’s permit for two years, but his mom was still uncertain about him taking the wheel on his own.

Night Shift: Midnight Country

“Not just radio. Community radio,” they say at KOPN, where volunteers have been keeping the frequency live since March 3, 1973. Part music and part talk, the station’s programming is diverse and sometimes controversial. There’s a waiting list for new DJs, whose first chance to get on the air is often in the middle of the night.

Woody Adkins, 48, started “Midnight Country” in 2000. He’ll play some current country music — but only if it sounds traditional.
radiostation(audio)

“Occupy the Hood” reinforces community action

Description of a local, grassroots community action meeting / 807 words / The Columbia Missourian

COLUMBIA, MO. — Defining “the hood” was nowhere near as important as identifying ways to make it better at Saturday’s “Occupy the Hood” event near Douglass Park.

Inspired by the national Occupy the Hood movement*, this was a casual gathering of six people plus its organizer, Tyree Byndom, a human resources manager, community activist and KOPN radio host. His goal was to generate specific action items that each attendee would walk away with.

Byndom had neatly laid throw pillows around the perimeter of his living room for people to make themselves comfortable, but conversation didn’t move far from the dining room table, surrounded by shelves of spiritual books and Byndom’s children’s art supplies.

Over bowls of spaghetti, the group’s conversation looped easily from each others’ personal lives to memories of the city from earlier years and their own observations about what created some of the city’s “hoods” today.

Columbia residents invited to ‘Occupy the Hood’ event

Preview of local, grassroots community action meeting / 414 words / The Columbia Missourian

COLUMBIA, MO. — Tyree Byndom wants everyone to know that while the “Occupy the Hood” gathering that will take place Saturday at his downtown home is about solidarity, it is even more so about action.

“It’s a little different from Occupy Wall Street,” said Byndom, a longtime Columbia resident and, increasingly, community activist. He said his three central questions for those who come to the open meeting will be: “What do you want to do? What do you need? And how do you want to get it done?”

Nationally, Occupy the Hood is an off-shoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement that has gone global in the two-plus months since it took root in New York. Generally speaking, Occupy the Hood’s aim is to integrate the burgeoning social movement with the faces and concerns of people of color, co-organizer Malik Rahsaan, a New York-based substance abuse counselor, told the Huffington Post.

To Byndom, “it means the empowerment of po’ folk.” He said he wants to help people escape their lethargy, entropy and disenfranchisement to become active participants in the community. He learned of the movement from Philip Jackson, executive director of the Black Star Project out of Chicago.

“Black people are used to suffering. So now that (other) people are stepping up to say, ‘We’re suffering,’ it’s a little different,” Byndom said.

Columbia’s glossy goes gourmet

In-class assignment for convergence reporting class: Grab your smart phone, go find a story, and report on it from the field in about an hour. It was hard to compose in the little box on my iPhone, but totally fun!

As Inside Columbia magazine moves to its new headquarters on West Broadway, the local glossy is changing a lot more than its address.

Redrawing Columbia’s wards proves puzzling for representatives, residents

Explanatory feature on reapportionment of the City of Columbia’s political districts / 1557 words / The Columbia Missourian

COLUMBIA, MO. — Louis Wilson occupies a rare place in Columbia. What makes him — and his neighbors — unusual is location, location, location.

Anecdotally, many people in Columbia don’t know which of the city’s six wards they live in. As communications director of the Historic West Broadway Association, however, Wilson knows his neighborhood is one of few in the city that straddle two wards, in his case the First and the Fourth.

Because each ward elects one representative to the Columbia City Council, Wilson and his neighbors have the benefit of being able to bend the ears of two council members.

“That may be a stupid type of political addition, but it seems to make sense,” Wilson said. He spoke as an individual citizen, not on behalf of his neighborhood association. “It’s nice to have access to two parties.”

The issues of access and representation are central to the debate over how to redraw the city’s ward boundaries. Equalizing ward populations was the primary goal of ward reapportionment, but the committee charged with the task was also directed by the council to avoid splitting neighborhoods. Aside from neighborhoods, any number of constituencies can be concentrated in one ward or spread among them.