A neighborhood working together

A neighborhood working together

Text, Story and Video by Sydny Boyd, NewsNetNebraska

Someone who cares

Shawn Ryba, the Executive Director of the South of Downtown Community Development Organization, works on community development. He says that homelessness and the issues that the south of downtown part of Lincoln are facing, are intertwined. 

Shawn Ryba, the Executive Director at South of Downtown Community Development Organization

Back in February, Ryba was hired as the Executive Director of the South of Downtown Community Development Organization. Before that, he served as the Chief Operating Officer at NeighborWorks Lincoln. He also helped launch the Lincoln Policy Network, which unites neighborhood residents, business professionals, landlords and city representatives interested in implementing change in Lincoln’s neighborhoods. Now, his main task is community development.

“I’m originally from Columbus, Nebraska and I came here for college,” he said. “I went to Omaha for graduate school and then got a job and came right back here. I can’t get enough of the place. That was 15 years ago.”

Ryba talked about Lincoln for a while, including all the things he loves about it. The food, as it turns out, is one of those things.

“El Chaparro is the best Mexican food you’ll ever have and it is in the neighborhood.” he said.

The neighborhood

When he says “the neighborhood,” he’s referring to the 500-acre area south of downtown Lincoln from 17th Street to 6th Street, and from A Street to L Street. But Ryba doesn’t love the neighborhood for the Mexican food—that’s just a perk.

“We have beautiful, mature trees,” he said. “We have refugee and immigrant families that live there. It’s a very diverse area with at least 25 different languages being spoken. When it comes down to it, we have a lot of assets and that’s what I am hoping to expand on.”

Boots on the ground

Ryba works with his team to go door-to-door getting to know the people that live in the neighborhood.

“We need to look at what types of services are being provided and what ones are still needed,” he said.

Tough questions

It was inspiring to see Shawn get so excited about the Lincoln community, but I had a tough question to ask him.

“How can you, a white male, walk into such a diverse neighborhood and expect to make a difference? Why should they care what you have to say?”

It took him by surprise, and he was quiet for a minute.

“I am honored and privileged to serve this area and to meet and work with the people that live there,” he said, and paused for a moment.

“I also understand that this is going to be a huge challenge and require a lot of collaborating,” he said. “It’s forced me to deal with my own privilege. I don’t necessarily represent the neighborhood. It’s forcing me to think about my privileged space and my biases and how I grew up white, having every privilege you can possibly imagine,” he said, before pausing again.

“How can I come in and add value?” he asked, more to himself than to me. “How do I use my space to improve the quality of life for the folks living there, being as empathetic and humane as possible?”

He took a drink of his water and leaned forward.

“I’m grappling a lot with my space,” he said. “I am a white dude. I’m grappling with what that means and how I can best serve the community. So yes, it’s forcing me personally and professionally to really get into an uncomfortable space and have those hard conversations about inequities, racism and discrimination. It’s tough to have those conversations, but in order for us to move forward and come up with viable and sustainable solutions, we have to have them.”

We both took a deep breath. The interview had taken a heavy turn, but it was important. 

“What has been your best day since you were hired on February 7th?” I asked.     

“Every day is the best day,” he said. “Every day has been my favorite day because it’s brought a new challenge. It’s a new difficult conversation, it’s meeting a new person, it’s everything. It puts gasoline in my tank. But it’s not about me. It’s about listening and doing what we can for the community.”

The community

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is the principal Federal agency responsible for programs concerned with the Nation’s housing needs, fair housing opportunities and improvement and development of the Nation’s communities. HUD seeks to increase homeownership, support community development and increase access to affordable housing free from discrimination.

Nebraska’s HUD office is in Omaha. Ryba works closely with HUD and the work they do for the state. The office oversees the entire state of Nebraska and Iowa. Nebraska native, Jefferey Collins works with community development in the Omaha HUD office. He explained that while Nebraska only has one field office, each city or town has a representative that works closely with him to communication issues, data and progress. While Ryba isn’t the representative, he is involved in conversations about what’s best for Lincoln.

Homelessness and supportive housing

Homelessness is nondiscriminatory. It can affect anyone, anywhere. People become homeless for a variety of reasons. Economic factors such as poverty, unemployment and a lack of affordable housing are common causes. Social and medical factors such as domestic violence, lack of adequate, affordable health care, mental health issues and addictions can also contribute. 

In Lincoln, specifically, the data shows a variety of reasons. This graph measure the extent of homelessness in the community on a single day according to the Homeless Coalition of Lincoln and The City of Lincoln.

A change on the horizon

Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler (Taken from Lincoln Journal Star)

In November 2017, Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler and Community Action Partnership of Lancaster and Saunders Counties announced the award of a $460,000 grant to administer a Supportive Housing Program. This grant was made possible through HUD’s Continuum of Care Program and allowed Community Action to house 40 homeless families in Lincoln.

“Community Action has a strong history of housing homeless families,” said the Mayor. “Through this grant, families will be connected with a long-term home where they will be able to build strong relationships with schools, neighbors, and community organizations. The services to be provided are critical to the short-term and long-term prosperity of our city.”

Ryba and Mayor Beutler work closely on community projects to better the neighborhood, downtown and the homelessness that is impacting Lincoln.

A man on a mission

At this point, I’d taken up almost an hour of his time, but I had one final question.

“Why should people who live outside of the neighborhood care about what you’re doing?”

“We’re all Lincolnites, and we all live here,” he said. “When one area is struggling, we’re all struggling.”


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