César Garcia joined the Civic Nebraska Board of Directors in June. He is the executive director of Southside Redevelopment Corp., a new nonprofit organization in Omaha. César leads the revitalization in areas of South Omaha, focusing on a more healthy, sustainable, and mixed-income community. A native of Colombia who immigrated to the United States at 16, César is a licensed engineer and active community leader who holds bachelors’ and masters’ degrees in engineering from the University of Nebraska. He was previously a principal at the local design firm DLR Group. We caught up with César recently at South Omaha’s Zen Coffee Co. to learn more about him and his work.
Civic Nebraska: César, we’re so pleased that you’ve joined our board of directors. Your background and expertise were already a great fit for our organization, and now your community development role makes your insight especially valuable. How are things going with your new job?
César Garcia: Oh, we are dreaming big right now. This is an exciting stage to be in. It’s that period of time of listening, learning, and planning the work to be done. This is such an amazing personal opportunity, obviously, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to have more opportunity for our community. I always envisioned being part of something big in the nonprofit world and in the community – I just didn’t think it was going to be running something this ambitious and comprehensive. But everything I’ve done up until now with my engineering career and through the relationships I’ve made has prepared me for this. It really was an opportunity I couldn’t afford to pass up. I’m really enjoying it.
South Omaha is steeped in history, but like too many urban neighborhoods, it has any number of challenges. When you look out into your community, what do you see?
I see a strong, proud community. Investment and redevelopment – smart, efficient redevelopment – is something this area has been waiting for, to happen for some time. South Omaha has always been a gateway. European immigrants came partly because of the stockyards, but also because of places like Union Pacific. They came here as a first step and established their families. Some left, some stayed; there are several areas where families have lived for 80 years. In the late 1980s and ’90s, immigrants from Mexico and Central America found South Omaha, in large part because of the meatpacking industry – again, a way for them to make a living and establish their families. Today, new arrivals tend to be refugees, particularly from countries in Africa. For those new Omahans, everything is brand new and exciting, but it’s far from perfect. There are housing, assimilation, and language issues. They experience difficulty in so many aspects of daily life that many just take for granted.
That’s today. But what’s it going to be like tomorrow, or in 25 years? In so many ways, we have to be ready for that future. We want to be sure South Omaha remains that gateway while knowing that it is always evolving. We also believe we can attract long-time Omahans back to the area. That plays a role in assimilation and integration, for families of different generations, economic and ethnic backgrounds, and experiences to interact under one community.
Is there a blueprint that you are looking to for this project?
We’re following the Purpose Built Communities model, which started in Atlanta several years ago. Essentially, the model combines quality mixed-income housing, focuses on enriching education from early childhood to college, and committing to strong community wellness programs. It’s holistic: You can come into a neighborhood and put houses up for the marginalized. But what about social services? Who’s helping residents get better? Stay healthy and active? Or provide opportunities for higher education? A Purpose Built Communities model, executed by a lead agency like ours, guides this comprehensive development.
It’s great that you have the backing of the local philanthropic community on this project, and that they recognize it as an important initiative for Omaha.
The philanthropy in Omaha is absolutely great. They’re stepping up big-time. At the same time, we need to be very conscious of the fact that their financial support is a spark, not a long-term solution. Making this happen and making it sustainable will be the challenge. We emphasize this with every potential partner; though we’re in the “dreaming phase” right now, we know this needs to be done right, with the needs of this specific community in mind.
What specific challenges do you foresee?
Wealth creation is very important. That means when businesses are attracted to the area, good jobs come with it, and more money stays in the neighborhood. Also, we need to involve the community, listen to their needs and deliver a model that they can feel proud of. It is very important for us that the residents, businesses, and organizations in the area buy into the overall project before the first brick is erected. We want to honor the neighborhood and keep it affordable, but it still needs great amenities. It’s tough to thread that needle. Some people might leave, some new residents might come in. But if done right, the spirit and makeup of the community won’t change all that much at all.
Hearing you talk about community development, education, and other aspects of improving civic life makes it clear why you were such a great choice for Civic Nebraska’s board of directors. What drew you to our organization?
My first exposure to Civic Nebraska was with ONE Omaha (the local neighborhood-advocacy organization that is an ancillary of Civic Nebraska), and the work that they are doing to identify and create neighborhood leaders and connect people. That’s exciting to me and right in my area of interest. Second, voting rights for me have always been a big, big deal. I recognize how frustrating it is for immigrants that cannot vote before they become citizens. I never understood those who had the right to vote by birth and then took it for granted. They’d say, “Oh, my vote doesn’t matter, nothing changes.” Of course your vote matters!
Also, I love the fact Civic Nebraska has a nonpartisan approach. It’s difficult for me to comprehend that the United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world, and we only have two political parties. No matter how much you think you align with one, you’re rarely going to align 100 percent – maybe not even 80 or 90 percent. I consider myself an independent; I am very supportive of social justice, which I suppose aligns me with the left. But on fiscal responsibility, I am more traditionally aligned with the right. So being nonpartisan is important. I don’t want to be in a box, politically. I think it takes all of us to make a difference.
You took the words right out of our mouths. That’s exactly how we approach our work.
It’s a natural fit! I’m looking forward to working more closely with Civic Nebraska, and ONE Omaha specifically. (ONE Omaha Director) Alexis (Bromley) is formerly of 75 North, which is North Omaha’s version of our new organization, so she is very familiar with what we’re going to be doing here. It’s going to be a great partnership. I can see great things coming.