The darkness around Angelo Stabler extended in two directions. One shadow touched the Omaha Reservation where his grandfather was buried. Abject poverty. Alcoholism. Towering unemployment. A subsidized and comfortable hopelessness.
The other shadow hung closer to his home in Lincoln. Lincoln maintains a polished image of itself, Stabler said, “but things are happening here you don’t hear about.” Drug deals. Crime. Gangs. Fatherlessness. A disregard for the potential of minority and low-income children.
Stabler’s drive to do something about these problems in Lincoln was strong. It was so strong that, as a history major at Nebraska Wesleyan University taking classes full time, he and lifelong friend Ishma Valenti took it upon themselves to create their own youth group supporting at-risk middle and high school students. They called it the Guidance to Success (GTS) Youth Club.
Stabler knew the risks his club’s members were facing. He knew the dangers. He’d been in a gang in middle school. He’d seen deals. He’d watched crack being made. Seen it divvied and bagged in varied amounts for sale. Seen kids whose trajectories pointed to the penitentiary or, even worse, the cemetery.
Seeing that same trajectory in his own life, he had the fortitude to lean in a new direction. “None of my old friends are doing what Ishma and I are doing now,” he said.
He left the gang before high school. “It’s not like it is in LA or Chicago with gangs—blood in and blood out,” Stabler said. He had only to pay a social price for leaving. “Friends talk you down, say they want to fight you. [Leaving] just takes willpower.”
Stabler’s new direction was toward the best college education he could find near his home. Long before the funeral on the reservation, he’d promised his grandfather as much.
Fulfilling that promise led Stabler to Nebraska Wesleyan University. The support he received on campus enabled him to pass that support onto the young people of his community.
Attending NWU made it hard for Stabler to visit the reservation. But, ironically, NWU helped him learn more about his “Omaha ways” than he’d learned in his time at the reservation ditching powwows and chasing girls.
Professor of History Patrick Hayden-Roy connected Stabler with an internship with Ed Zimmer, a historic preservation planner with the Lincoln City/Lancaster County Planning Department. “The first time I sat down with him,” Stabler said of Zimmer, “he had in mind what he wanted me to do.”
Zimmer had Stabler research patterns in Native American settlement in Lincoln. “I’d done similar work on African American entry,” Zimmer said. This project “filled a gap” in Zimmer’s knowledge of the history of minority populations in Lincoln.
Zimmer praised his interest in history and community work, and said, “I hope he stays in our community.”
Stabler’s internship quickly became personal as he uncovered facts about his family. “I didn’t know my grandparents were significant pieces of the puzzle until I came to NWU and researched with Zimmer,” he said. “I didn’t know my grandfather blessed the Indian Center in town here. I didn’t know a nursing home here was named after my great-great grandmother,” he said in reference to Elizabeth Stabler Apartments on North 28th Street.
He learned how his grandfather had come to Lincoln from the reservation in 1941. He wasn’t allowed into school until 1947. “By then, he was too big,” Stabler said. “Imagine being 16 in a class of 10 year-olds.”
His grandfather told him to “learn whatever you can from that white man, because that’s one thing he can’t take back after he gives it.”
Stabler’s education was just as important to his grandmother, but she had different lessons in mind. “She told me, ‘If you don’t learn the Omaha ways, they’ll disappear.’”
His grandfather’s death changed the way Stabler saw the world. He didn’t want his grandmother to die believing that the Omaha traditions were dying, too. He didn’t want his mother to think she’d failed because her children weren’t successful. He saw himself “battling [to reconcile] the mainstream and the Omaha ways.”
Education took Stabler off a path that leads to violence. It showed him the value of his heritage in building a purposeful life. “So I’m trying to learn the language, the rituals, the ceremonies,” he said. And he’s working to make sure the kids of GTS Youth Club also value their education, their heritage.