Partnerships growing stronger across the Heartland

Float_ObamaBy Bobby Caina Calvan | The Heartland Project

SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. — Towns across America celebrated the Fourth of July with parades, much like the one in Norfolk that drew hundreds. Firetrucks streamed by sidewalks lined with spectators. Children scrambled for candy scattered by the floats.

The crowd cheered and laughed when one particular float appeared: A wooden outhouse emblazoned with the words “Obama Presidential Library.” A greenish, zombie-like figure clad in overalls stood in front of the outhouse. The float won an honorable mention from parade judges.

Amid the laughter and applause, there were also murmurs of concern. One woman along the parade route, Glory Kathurima, vocally objected. She called the float inappropriate for a Fourth-of-July parade. And she condemned it as racist.

Hear and read the story on NET News:

Float Controversy Prompts Race Discussions In Norfolk

I was in New York City when an email arrived from David Feingold, the assistant general manager of NET Nebraska, the Cornhusker State’s NPR station. He indicated that the image of the float was being spread across social media, and would I like to take a look into doing a story about the fallout.

That Feingold approached me was an important development for The Heartland Project. Our model is usually based on me reaching out to newsrooms to pitch stories, not the other way around.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, The Heartland Project depends on partnerships with newsrooms across Nebraska, and it’s been heartening that NET has welcomed our mission with such enthusiasm. They know the value of diverse and inclusive journalism in serving the communities across the state.

Because so many outlets had covered the story about the float, we wanted a story that examined the broader of issues of race.

We talked to city officials, including the mayor. We talked to an academic at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who could expound on the dynamics of race relations. Of course, we talked to Kathurima about why the float was so upsetting.

My most interesting conversation was with Dale Remmich, the 71-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran who designed the float and entered it into the annual parade.

I found him arriving back to his rural home, his pickup parked along the gravel road as he picked up the mail.

At first he declined to talk. He had already spoken to other news media, and he says he felt burned. He sounded angry.

When someone is taking the time to scold me, I bide my own time. I know that sooner or later they’ll calm down and eventually talk with me. When he relented, he allowed me to drive onto his property to see his float with my own eyes.

During our conversation – he remained testy, at times – he mentioned that his father served in the Philippines during World War II, and he spoke with fondness. That’s when I volunteered that I was born in the Philippines. He suddenly warmed.

We continued our conversation.

The following Friday morning, my phone rang me awake. It was Remmich. He just wanted to chat more about the Philippines. At the end of the brief conversation, he hoped that I had gotten a chance to get to know him better, that he wasn’t racist and that he was just misunderstood.

Could he blame folks for not understanding the intent of his float? He reiterated that those who sought to vilify his float had an agenda. But he conceded that his message got lost in translation. He acknowledged that the drama surrounding him and his flout was a learning moment.

One important lesson he learned? He needs to get out of the float-making business.

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Over the next 10 days, I will be in western Nebraska working with local newspapers in the area to expand coverage of their communities. Two of the stories I’ll be working on focus on Native Americans, including one piece on spirituality — Native and Christian. I’ll also be helping on stories focusing on Latinos, including one on civic engagement.

But there are already a few stories that I had not counted on finding here, but that could become stories. In this far-flung area of the state, I’m surprised to find a dwindling population of Japanese Americans — and I’d like to learn about their history here. And I’m looking into doing a profile of the teen who was the subject of controversy in the spring when organizers tried to keep him from reading an essay challenging stereotypes based on sexual orientation.