Remembering Juneteenth: Nevadans reflect on significance of designating newest federal holiday

The declaration of Juneteenth as a new federal holiday last week has drawn excitement in Nevada, along with a determination to ensure that the history and purpose of the holiday — which marks the day that one of the last groups of enslaved people in the U.S. was informed of emancipation — are learned and valued.  

President Joe Biden’s announcement of the new federal holiday came after a decades-long push for greater recognition of Juneteenth. It also comes in the wake of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality last year, after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans at the hands of police. 

Some Nevadans are concerned that the new holiday may be used as an excuse to neglect remaining issues affecting the Black community, said Yvette Williams, chair of the Clark County Black Caucus.

“I think part of the problem that folks have ... [is] not necessarily that it’s a national holiday … The issue is, is it going to overshadow all the other work that’s necessary?” she explained. “In other words, are you going to give us a holiday so we can just … not make demands on the other things that need to [be done]?”

Tyler Parry, a professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at UNLV, said he is concerned that people may seek to commercialize Juneteenth without genuinely valuing the history and purpose behind the holiday. Both Williams and Parry said there is a lot of work to be done, but that they are hopeful the new federal holiday will help spur action. 

“I think that the holiday provides a platform for civil rights activists to actually talk about the ongoing struggle for freedom,” said Parry. 

Already, local activists and government officials are trying to leverage the attention being paid to the new holiday to improve race relations and promote real change in Nevada. 

Clark County Commissioner William McCurdy II told KNPR he wants to invest federal COVID relief dollars in the economically challenged and predominantly Black area of Westside Las Vegas in order to reduce food insecurity through the development of an urban agriculture industry. 

Phil Anthony Parker stands across the street in Westside where his family lived at in the early 1940s. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Juneteenth Nevada, the Nevada chapter of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF), has been trying to get the holiday more recognition for the past 28 years, said Deborah ‘Dee’ Evans, founder of Juneteenth Nevada and vice-chair of the NJOF. Evans credits Steve Williams, president of NJOF, for playing an integral role in getting the holiday recognized on the federal level by speaking to both Republican and Democratic representatives in Congress, as well as at local and state levels.

The NJOF has started multiple initiatives that have had an impact on the Black community in Nevada and other states, including Soul City Wifi, which provided residents of Westside Las Vegas with free wireless internet last year. The NJOF also has an education initiative that aims to promote better access to education and the inclusion of Juneteenth history in school curricula. 

“Twenty years ago, I didn’t even know about Juneteenth … but I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and I want them to grow up in a different world that I grew up in,” said Evans.

In particular, Evans expressed hope that the history of enslaved peoples before they were enslaved and the contributions of Black people throughout U.S. history – in science, academics, agriculture, wars and more – get more recognition in schools. 

President Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, declaring the freedom of all enslaved people in the Confederate states. Enslaved people working on plantations in Galveston, Texas did not receive word of their emancipation until June 19, 1865, marking a major step toward the emancipation of all enslaved people in the U.S. 

In addition, slavery existed in Deleware and Kentucky for nearly six months after the original Juneteenth because their state legislatures rejected the 13th Amendment after it was passed by Congress in January 1865. Enslaved people were not freed in Deleware and Kentucky until the 13th Amendment became federal law in December 1865. 

Even after 1865, there were still enslaved people of African descent in territories inhabited by indigenous peoples that were not under the jurisdiction of the federal government at the time, such as modern-day Oklahoma. 

However, Juneteenth – also sometimes referred to as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day – is still widely celebrated to commemorate the emancipation of Black Americans in the U.S. 

“[Lincoln] knew that [the Emancipation Proclamation] would have no actual effect upon these [Confederate] states in rebellion because they didn’t recognize him as their president,” said Parry. “However, what it [did] do is [declare] to all enslaved people that … the war [was] about them and that the Union [was] there to help them gain their freedom,“ said Parry.

As a result, there was a surge in the number of enslaved people who ran away from their owners to Union-occupied territories in the Confederate States, Parry explained. 

Federal lawmakers have debated whether one type of slavery is still legal by way of a loophole in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Democrats in the White House introduced a joint resolution referred to as the Abolition Amendment in December 2020 that would remove the “punishment” clause from the 13th Amendment, which allows prisoners to be used as “cheap and free labor,” NPR reported.

Well before the federal designation, states have been taking steps to recognize the holiday. 

In 2011, the Legislature passed a bill calling on the governor to issue an annual proclamation to mark the holiday, making Nevada the 39th state to do so. The bill was sponsored by then-Assemblywoman Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas) and former Assemblymen Harvey Munford (D-Las Vegas) and Joe Hogan (D-Las Vegas), and it is now enshrined in Nevada law

Democratic Assemblywoman Dina Neal at the Nevada Legislature on Feb. 4, 2019. Photo by David Calvert.

Hawaii and North Dakota approved measures to recognize the holiday earlier this year, making South Dakota the only state that has not done so.

Because the holiday fell on a weekend this year, most federal employees observed the holiday on Friday, June 18. Some states – Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Virginia and Washington – observed it as an official paid state holiday, according to The Associated Press

Nevada law does not allow the governor to unilaterally declare a statewide paid holiday on a weekday, according to a press release from Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office, but he signaled that could change in the future. His office added that “the Governor does look forward to working with state lawmakers to celebrate and observe Juneteenth as a weekday statewide holiday going forward.” 

Nevada is especially significant in the history of Juneteenth because it is a “battle-born state,” having secured statehood during the Civil War. In addition, Nevada has its own history of racism including rampant segregation that earned Nevada the moniker “Mississippi of the West.”

Although Juneteenth has been celebrated by African-Americans since the late 1800s, it was often overlooked in the last century and a half because “until very recently, Black voices simply haven’t been centered in the public discourse … You really don’t see Juneteenth becoming a much more recognized holiday until the civil rights [movement] … in the mid-20th century,” said Parry.

Both legal and de facto segregation have played a role in preventing Black voices from being highlighted in popular culture for much of U.S. history, he added. 

For Yvette Williams, the history, purpose and spirit of the holiday shape her identity and her hopes for the future of children in Nevada and around the nation. 

“For me, I live Juneteenth every day,” she said. “I think we should all seize the opportunity [to recognize the spirit of the holiday], including those who are … decision-makers around public policy. Here’s another opportunity for them to create policy in the spirit of freedom, equality, equity and access [to] opportunity for everybody.”

Update: This story was updated at 5:15 p.m. on 6/24/2021 to clarify that there were still enslaved people in Kentucky and Delaware after June 19, 1865.

‘We are making history right now:’ Winnemucca women on organizing town’s first Pride parade and festival

Shawn Dixon, a Winnemucca resident and owner of a local nail salon, said organizing a Pride parade celebrating members of the LGBTQ community in the rural Nevada town is something she’s “dreamed of for years and years,” but didn’t think she could accomplish. 

But receiving a cancer diagnosis in March 2020 spurred her to pursue her idea in earnest this year.

“I was sitting outside one night after being sick from chemo, and it just hit me that it had to be done. We have to have this, and I can do it, and I asked a few friends,” Dixon said during an interview with The Nevada Independent. 

Now, she is joined in her efforts by her daughter, Kat Dixon, preschool teacher Christina Basso and Misty Huff, who works at a local grocery store. Together, they are planning to host a Pride parade and festival on July 16 and 17 in the town with less than 8,000 people. What began as a plan to gather a small group to walk down a street in the center of Winnemucca waving a rainbow flag representing the LGBTQ community has evolved into a weekend full of events complete with parade floats, a drag queen show and a festival with vendors from local businesses and others as far as Carson City and Lake Tahoe.

“The significance is to show everybody that it's OK to be you and to be loved and love who you want,” Shawn Dixon said. “That's it right there — just love and acceptance and diversity and equality and all of those things that I think are human human rights.”

Shawn Dixon said she has been an out lesbian since 1991 and has been married to her wife for nearly 23 years, with whom she raised their daughter in Winnemucca. She is also the sole LGBTQ member in the Winnemucca Pride planning group. 

Christina Basso, Misty Huff, Shawn Dixon and Kat Dixon are planning Winnemucca's first Pride parade and festival. Photo courtesy of Christina Basso.

The group’s request to close Melarkey Street through Sixth Street for the parade was unanimously approved by Winnemucca city council members during a meeting on Tuesday. After receiving support from community members who are involved in the juvenile court system and county health services, the Winnemucca Pride group members expressed optimism prior to the meeting that their request would be accepted. 

Shawn Dixon said she was surprised by the outpouring of support the group received from local community members after bringing their idea forward on Facebook and during meetings open to the public at the library and a local coffee shop. The Facebook page for the group has more than 300 members and 11 people showed up to their last meeting. 

Basso said the support and response highlighted the need for a greater sense of community for people who identify as LGBTQ in Winnemucca. 

“What transpired from our public meetings has just been phenomenal,” Basso said. “Not just the support from the community, but individuals in the community expressing what they need and what they want. It’s kind of emotional.” 

Championing visibility 

Shawn Dixon said the experience of coming together to create a Pride event and receiving support has made her and the group feel grateful and humbled. 

But she and other group members also highlighted the need for the community celebration and support as a way to combat the invisibility many LGBTQ people feel. 

“Having the community and vendors and an actual parade, it is kind of shouting, ‘This is happening,’” Kat Dixon said. “We want to make it known that they are seen by other people. Visibility, it’s probably half the reason we're doing all of this.” 

Kat Dixon said she was bullied and teased throughout her time in school for growing up with two moms, which made it even more important to her to support the community as a heterosexual person. 

Basso added that the support the group has received from people and organizations in Elko, Reno and Las Vegas stretches the visibility for LGBTQ people beyond the borders of Winnemucca. 

“It's important that we feel like we can be seen and feel like we don't have to hide all the time,” Shawn Dixon said. “Because that in and of itself causes so many of us to go down into the dark place, and it's difficult to get out of.” 

Huff said that while the group is spreading a message of love and acceptance, they are also battling the effects of not being accepted into a community. 

“We're also battling depression, we're also battling suicide, those are the things that lead to downfall in not being accepted,” Huff said. “And knowing that it's OK really gives someone the freedom to live their life.” 

Huff and Kat Dixon said it can be difficult to come out as an LGBTQ person in the mostly conservative town, which Huff called “very red.” 

“I can't walk down the street and hold my wife's hand,” Shawn Dixon said. “Because that makes me extremely fearful. A lot of little things like that, that most people take for granted. We have to kind of hide, and I'm trying to stop that. I don't want to be afraid to walk down the street and put my hand on my wife's shoulder or elbow.” 

Last year, Nevadans voted in favor of a ballot question reversing a provision within the state constitution that banned marriage between couples of the same sex with 62 percent of voters in favor and 37 percent opposed. However, the measure did not receive the same support in Humboldt County, where Winnemucca is located, with 56 percent of voters there opposed to it and 43 percent in favor. 

Nevada voters opted to adopt the amendment that limited the state’s recognition of marriage between cisgender males and females through a different ballot question in 2002. The measure garnered support from more than 3,000 voters in Humboldt County, with a little more than 1,000 voters opposed to it. Statewide, 67 percent of voters were in favor of the amendment and 32 percent were opposed. 

Shawn Dixon noted that she’s never experienced any blatant or aggressive discrimination in Winnemucca based on her sexuality, but she’s still careful everywhere she goes. She said she had a few clients stop coming into her nail salon, called Get Nail’d, when they found out she is lesbian. 

Basso said that while the group has received little to no opposition in their efforts, it would not stop them even if they did.

“I know that in the future, there could be people that do not agree with what we are doing. However, that will not stop us. We will continue to stay positive, we will continue to spread love and light. And our message is clear — diversity is accepted and unique. And we are a safe space,” she said. 

Making history 

Aside from the goal of executing a successful Pride event in their town, the group has its sights set on future endeavors to help ensure the support and community built through the event is lasting, not fleeting. 

When the group reached out to the Winnemucca community regarding the parade and festival, they said community members asked for a center that could provide support and resources in the long term for LGBTQ members. 

“Obviously, that won't happen this year,” Shawn Dixon said. “But it is something that we've been discussing and that could potentially be in the future to have a support center and group here in Winnemucca for not only our kids, but for our adults too. It doesn't matter what age we are on our journey, we all need a little extra help and love.” 

Reflecting on what they hope to accomplish in the next month, group members said they feel like they are making history in their small town. 

“I think we actually had a little moment yesterday, a kind of emotional moment where we realized that we are making history right now,” Shawn Dixon said. “We have to add to the movement. We want to be a part of it.” 

She said establishing a tradition in a place such as Winnemucca can expand the possibilities for other small, rural towns. 

“If we can do it in a rural area, like Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Lovelock, I mean, imagine what can happen throughout the world,” Shawn Dixon said. 

Updated on 6/22/2021 at 2:27 p.m. to reflect the Winnemucca City Council decision to approve the Pride group's request to close streets for the parade.

IndieTalks: Advocate calls for engaging Latino voters by acknowledging their diversity

Although the 2020 election is in the rearview mirror, boosting voter turnout among different demographic groups — including those who are not registered with either major party — remains top of mind for some as candidates are gearing up for midterm elections next year.

The Latino vote was a topic of conversation at the IndieTalks event, hosted by The Nevada Independent on Tuesday, which focused on the rise of nonpartisan voters. Those voters could be decisive in contests such as the race for Nevada governor next year.

Despite the increase in Latino voters in last year’s election in Nevada and across the U.S., there remains much work to be done to truly invest in Latino voters, according to panelist Cecia Alvarado, state director for Mi Familia Vota, a Latino voter engagement organization.

Alvarado, who immigrated to the U.S. from Costa Rica, pointed to the wide diversity of Latinos across the country that American politicians fail to recognize. 

“You have immigrant Latino voters, you have first generation, you have Spanish speakers, and then you have maybe second or third generation that are primarily English-speaking Latinos — and we can’t go out and talk to them and give them one message,” she said. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 30 percent of households in Nevada speak a language other than English at home, with Spanish and Tagalog as the top languages after English. However, the Latino population in the U.S. is trending younger and pushing English proficiency among Latinos upward. According to the Pew Research Center, 89 percent of Latinos born in the U.S. spoke English proficiently in 2013, as compared to 72 percent in 1980.

Candidates running for elections too often use the same tired strategies to court Latino voters, Alvarado said, speaking to them in Spanish and focusing on immigration issues. 

“If they’re eligible voters, they’re U.S. citizens, and treat them just like it. Stop treating them like immigrants, stop treating them like they don't understand English, like they’re less educated,” she said, adding that other priority issues for Latino voters include the economy and health care.

The stereotyping can lead to Latino voters feeling disengaged by the political players and failing to feel represented by the ideals pushed by Democrats or Republicans. 

“People feeling like none of these parties represent me, far left or far right, none of these parties are listening to me,” she said. 

Candidates and Democratic and Republican Party organizers too often parachute into Latino communities during big election years, failing to invest more wholly in the population in the long term, Alvarado added. 

“I think they’re taking us for granted and they’re undermining our own ability to understand politics and this is how you’re losing them,” she said, referring to the Republican and Democratic parties. 

As for Latino immigrants, their political experiences are often shaped by their experiences with the governments in their home countries, Alvarado said. Although President Joe Biden scored highest among the Latino voting bloc in Nevada last year, the share of votes for Donald Trump also increased from 2016. 

“When it comes to Latinos and our experiences with politics, we bring our traumas from our countries and one of the reasons so many Latinos or immigrants migrate to the U.S. is taking not just better economical [opportunity], but also being able to live under a different government,” she said. 

To watch a video of the full forum, click here.

Rental assistance program reports slower than expected disbursements

Clark County’s CARES Housing Assistance Program (CHAP) has helped another 1,500 households pay rent and other bills in the past month, although it is falling short of the pace program administrators had projected in late March.

Between July of last year and April, CHAP assisted more than 24,000 households with rent, mortgage payments (when available) or utility bill assistance, distributing more than $97 million, county officials told The Nevada Independent on Monday. A month ago, when Gov. Steve Sisolak announced an extension of the eviction moratorium, county officials said the program had helped 22,500 households.

Assistant County Manager Kevin Schiller said in a March 30 press conference that CHAP would “anticipate, on a weekly basis, processing upwards of about 2,300 applications a week for approval, so that's the number we're shooting with in terms of those weekly averages." At that pace, the program should have approved about 9,200 applications in four weeks. 

County officials said the new documentation requirement for applicants has slowed down the program's application processing more than expected. CHAP is looking to hire additional staff to process assistance applications this month to "significantly increase the number of applications being processed," the statement read.

There are 9,000 applications for rental assistance pending, which is far fewer than the 23,500 pending applications the county reported a month ago. Officials say the decrease is because of changes in the program, which no longer provides mortgage assistance. The program also made changes to its eligibility requirements including lower household income limits and requiring additional documentation. 

“In March, about 23,000 applicants were notified of changes to the assistance program, and advised that they needed to provide additional documentation if they wanted their application to move forward,” county spokesman Dan Kulin said in a statement on Monday. “Among those who have decided not to continue, it is possible the changes to the program made them no longer eligible for the housing assistance.” 

The 9,000 eligible households in the queue have provided the additional required documentation and are being processed in the order they were originally received, Kulin said. The program has received a combined $161 million from federal and state allocations — enough to help 40,000 more households. 

Legislators have said they are working on crafting a bill that would help ensure all the federal assistance goes to good use. Asked about the processing pace, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) said she hadn’t yet seen the numbers.

“I think everyone's doing everything they can to help with rental assistance move along because we don't want to have a situation where people are being evicted — and in large numbers,” she told The Nevada Independent on Monday. “I think everybody remains committed to making sure we can get that process moving and keep people in their homes as much as possible.”

Students successful in petition to cash-strapped UNR to continue funding coordinator position key to supporting immigrant students

As the daughter of immigrants who were displaced from El Salvador during the 12-year civil war that ended in 1992, being the first to attend college and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in 2015, and then earn a master’s degree, were big accomplishments for Jahahi Mazariego. 

But her moment in the sun was clouded by a family member’s pending deportation. 

“Even graduating, it wasn't the happiest moment of my life. It was actually extremely hard,” Mazariego, 28, said during an interview with The Nevada Independent.

Social work degree in hand, Mazariego set out to work with and support the immigrant community in her new career. A year after graduating, she was hired as the first social services coordinator at her alma mater, UNR, working closely with students who were undocumented or protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. 

Jahahi Mazariego poses for a portrait in Reno, Nev. on Thursday, April 29, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Mazariego connected students to resources related to basic needs, such as food or housing assistance, financial aid and scholarship assistance, case management and mental health support. 

University officials created the position in response to petitions from students in 2016 demanding more support for immigrant and undocumented students amid then-President Donald Trump’s policies seeking to eliminate DACA and Temporary Protected Status (TPS). 

There are more than 12,000 DACA recipients and more than 160,000 undocumented immigrants living in Nevada. It’s unclear how many UNR students are protected by DACA or are undocumented. 

DACA survived through a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer, and a federal judge ordered full restoration of the program in December — but it continues to face legal threats. UNR students who were unable to apply for the special immigration status protection during the Trump Administration were eligible earlier this year for the first time since 2017. 

Now, five years since students called on UNR to protect its immigrant population, Mazariego’s position is vacant as she seeks to pursue the same goal she had to support the immigrant community — this time as a licensed therapist. She said that while it may take years of effort and work to change state or federal policy, she realized there’s an opportunity to facilitate change through therapy. 

“In speaking with these students, I learned that oftentimes, we don't have control over these bigger social issues — we don't,” Mazariego said. “But what can we control? We can control how we process and how we behave because of the barriers and the disparities that we face.”

Mazariego’s absence on the UNR campus creates a void for undocumented and DACA students, leading students to once again ask the university to continue funding the position amid budget cuts caused by the pandemic and find a successor. 

In March, UNR Student Senator Dionne Stanfill created a petition to keep the position alive that received more than 1,000 signatures, and she introduced a resolution to the student government body. 

“The academic success of undocumented students is simply just as vital and important as academic success for any other students,” Stanfill said during an interview with The Nevada Independent. “And this role is instrumental in accomplishing this mission.” 

In the fall of 2019, 22.4 percent of full-time undergraduate students enrolled at UNR were Latino, just shy of the 25 percent Latino enrollment requirement needed to designate it as a Hispanic Serving Institution. The designation would make UNR eligible to compete for grants through the federal government or private foundations specifically earmarked for minority-serving institutions.

Students persevere, again

A few weeks ago, UNR responded to the calls from students by posting the open job position online, solidifying efforts to continue providing resources and support to undocumented and DACA students. 

The move first had to be approved by the Nevada System of Higher Education chancellor’s office because universities and colleges are under a hiring freeze as a result of the budget cuts caused by the pandemic. 

“We look forward to filling this important position,” wrote a spokesperson for UNR President Brian Sandoval’s office in an email to The Nevada Independent.

Stanfill celebrated the university’s decision, and said it made her realize “that the student voice does matter.” 

Maria Doucettperry, director of the Equal Opportunity and Title IX office at UNR, said she is optimistic the office will have a new social services coordinator hired and trained by early summer. 

The Latino Research Center joined students in advocating for the position in 2016, and continues to stand by them. 

“As a University it is our job to identify talented individuals and foster that talent regardless of documentation status,” wrote Latino Research Center Coordinator in Education, Research and Outreach J. Diego Zarazúa in an email to The Nevada Independent.

Lessons learned and moving forward

In her four years as the first and only social services coordinator dedicated to undocumented and immigrant students at UNR, Mazariego blazed a trail for other Nevada higher education institutions, including UNLV and Truckee Meadows Ccommunity College in Reno, which also created positions dedicated to the same purpose in the last few years. 

Mazariego said that serving students and creating an infrastructure for other institutions to follow was rewarding, but it did not come without challenges. 

“When I first started as the social service coordinator, I knew it would impact me emotionally, mentally,” she said. “It was extremely harmful that I came into this role thinking that I was going to make the loss of my family member from the U.S. meaningful, like, not to see their deportation in vain.”

Her immediate family member, originally from El Salvador and also a UNR graduate, received bad legal advice from a notary as she attempted to apply for legal residency after marrying a U.S. citizen. Her petition was subsequently denied in 2015, and the U.S. barred her from coming back into the country for 10 years, splitting Mazariego’s family across the U.S.-Canada borders (her family member was granted dual citizenship in the northern country). 

Though she said she thinks the experience was generally detrimental to her mental health at the time, it also helped her to personally connect with what undocumented and DACA students were living through, too. For example, she said she could really empathize with students who would reach graduation and not have their parents or other loved ones by their side to see their accomplishments because they had been separated by deportation.

“That experience of like big life moments and graduations is something that I processed with students,” she said. “It's a common story. It happens a lot more than I think people know — that parents can't see their children graduate because of immigration policies.” 

But Mazariego said she loved being part of the students’ healing journeys and helping guide them as they learned to accept and even feel empowered in their diverse racial, cultural and sexual identities. 

“So I wasn't a therapist then, but the work that I did was therapeutic enough for people to understand their identities and their immigration status in this weird dynamic in being a student at UNR,” she said. 

For now, Mazariego is looking forward to continuing the work she’s done and expanding the ways and the people she can help as a therapist outside of the walls of UNR. 

“I really miss being in the community, I miss being back in the ‘hood, I miss being back with people that look like my mom and people that look like my abuelos and my abuelas,” said Mazariego, who grew up in Sparks in a predominantly Latino and immigrant community. 

She also thinks advocacy for support for undocumented and immigrant students shouldn’t stop with one position, but needs to continue with greater institutional and state policy changes. 

Mazariego pointed to AB213, a bill that would remove the requirement to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which requires a social security number, in order to obtain higher education scholarships, such as the Silver State Opportunity Grant. The measure would also provide in-state tuition rates to any graduate of a Nevada high school, regardless of citizenship. The bill was approved by the Assembly in early April and is pending evaluation in the Ways and Means Committee, which will review its fiscal impacts. 

“We can’t have clinical therapists, we can’t have more nurses and doctors, if we don't change this institution policy because it's so expensive to pay out-of-state tuition as a graduate student,” Mazariego said. “So, la lucha sigue, the fight still continues. And I'm hoping the next person is able to continue on with this work.” 

Advocates say families providing 'hidden foster care' deserve more guidance, support

Stacey Galka and Pamela Convertino have never met.

Galka lives east of the Las Vegas Strip in an apartment; Convertino’s house lies a half-hour drive south in a suburban neighborhood. But the two women share a common bond because of whom they have welcomed into their homes — their young granddaughters.

For Convertino, it was her son’s drug addiction that led to this second phase of parenthood. For Galka, it was her daughter’s mental health struggles. Now, Convertino goes by “mom” to her 7-year-old granddaughter, Mariah, while Galka has assumed the title “mom-mom” from her 6-year-old granddaughter, Aaniyah.

Despite the similarities, there’s one glaring difference: Galka is a licensed foster parent. Convertino is not. Both have legal custody of their granddaughters, underscoring the broad array of circumstances that fall under the umbrella in the child welfare system of “kinship care.”

Statewide, an estimated 28,000 children live with kin, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT data center. More than a third of Nevada’s foster care placements in 2020 involved either relatives or “fictive” kin, such as close family friends and neighbors. The majority of those caregivers were not licensed by the state, which in the Silver State means they are not entitled to payments foster parents receive.

There is another little-known dynamic in child welfare cases in Nevada and many other states. Sometimes referred to as “hidden foster care,” it occurs when child protection agencies come to informal, temporary arrangements with parents to avoid opening a case against them in court. In these instances, the physical custody of the child shifts to a willing relative or friend without social workers’ supervision, but the legal custody remains with the parent.

Recent data suggests that use of hidden foster care is prevalent in Nevada. Numbers obtained from the state indicate that such arrangements comprise roughly 20 percent of children separated from their parents.

Some child welfare advocates are concerned that while plenty of kin prefer an arrangement with fewer social workers in their lives, the opaque nature of hidden foster care obscures what we know about how many children have been removed from their parents and the justification for those removals, and the conditions of where those children are now living.

The lack of support and certainty of such an informal arrangement made Galka nervous about taking in her granddaughter; it was only later, when the child welfare agency offered to train and license her as a caregiver that she agreed. But the hidden foster care path worked just fine for Convertino, who didn’t want any formal ties to a government agency monitoring her household. She later gained legal guardianship of her granddaughter.

Alison Caliendo is executive director of Foster Kinship, a nonprofit that supports these families in Nevada. She said the complex and confusing nature of kinship care often bewilders caregivers. 

“We do a lot of basic information so you understand as the caregivers how the systems in Nevada view you,” Caliendo said. “So are you formal? Are you licensed? Are you informal? Are you considered fictive kin, right? We do a lot of just explaining how you can access resources based on your kinship family type.”

These days, the pandemic and related economic fallout have created ever-more need among struggling families. Caliendo said over the past year, her organization has served roughly the same number of families, but they have needed three times as many services as they did in 2019.

The current situation, she said, amplifies the need for more awareness about kinship care. Ultimately, more knowledge could drive more resources and support to families who need the help.

“Awareness is really important,” Caliendo said. “Right now I can't even ask for more financial support for a lot of our sort of hidden populations because nobody even knows they exist.”

An act of domestic violence forced Galka’s relocation to Las Vegas along with her daughter and baby granddaughter. Her daughter had been severely beaten by the infant’s father before they fled Colorado weeks later.

“He almost killed her,” Galka said. 

Las Vegas would be their fresh start, putting miles between them and the perpetrator, who was sentenced to prison for the crime. Galka chose the desert locale because of its proximity to California, where they have relatives. 

What she didn’t know but would soon find out is that Nevada has a high prevalence of mental illness and low rates of access to care. That quickly became problematic for her daughter, whose lifelong mental health struggles peaked after the attack by her ex-boyfriend.

Galka said her daughter began lashing out at her, making their one-bedroom apartment a hostile environment. Her daughter sought help at an outpatient mental health clinic with then -16-month-old Aaniyah in tow. At that point, child protective services intervened, Galka said, and deemed the pair homeless. 

It was then that social workers asked Galka if she would take in her granddaughter. 

But the question didn’t come with any explanation about the possibility of becoming a licensed foster parent, opening up doors for monetary support. So she declined, after the logistical and financial fears of raising a child flashed through her mind.

“How do I do it?” Galka said she wondered. “I was working two jobs. I just moved here. I have no friends here. We didn’t know any of the resources.”

Still, the current state of her family was not entirely unexpected. Galka had known even before Aaniyah was born that her daughter’s schizophrenia and bipolar disorder would make parenthood that much more difficult. The domestic abuse she suffered exacerbated those struggles. Galka said her daughter needed time to stabilize and heal. 

So Aainyah was sent to a foster family for six months. Her daughter briefly regained custody, but motherhood quickly overwhelmed her yet again. 

“We realized that the mental abuse she had (endured) was so severe that she was not going to be able to take care of this baby and get out of depression,” Galka said. 

Aaniyah returned to the same foster family but, shortly thereafter, Galka decided that wouldn’t do — she belonged at home with “mom-mom.” 

“I realized someone is not going to love her as much as I am,” she said.

By that time, Galka had established a rapport with Aaniyah’s case workers and felt more settled in Las Vegas. They told her about the option to become a licensed foster parent, assuaging her financial concerns. 

Aaniyah, then 2, moved in with Galka. She received as much as $695 per month from the state as a licensed foster parent. The case workers also connected her with Caliendo’s Foster Kinship program, which, over the years, has provided everything from respite care and a support group to parenting classes and first aid training. Galka also received some food boxes during the pandemic-related shutdowns last year.

Over the past year, Galka took on an additional role — a teacher of sorts — as she guided Aaniyah, who has autism, through distance education. The kindergartner attends a neighborhood public school that, up until recently, was fully virtual because of the pandemic.

“They encouraged me,” she said, referring to case workers with the county’s child welfare system. “They told me the resources I had that were available to me.”

Galka, however, said it’s difficult to say whether her decision to send Aaniyah to a foster family would have been different had the child welfare workers explained all the options and support when they originally called her. It was a turbulent time given her daughter’s mental health issues. Still, Galka said “they did nothing to encourage me to change my mind” during that initial interaction.

Ana Beltran, co-director of Generations United’s National Center on Grandfamilies, said Galka’s situation mirrors what countless others experience — a lack of information before relatives or kin must make a decision about taking a child into their homes. Her organization encourages child welfare agencies to provide transparent, easy-to-follow guides highlighting a potential caregiver’s options, including the financial assistance they would receive by becoming a licensed foster care provider.

“Child welfare agencies know that in a lot of instances families will do it without any kind of ongoing support, but that’s not necessarily the best thing for the child or the family,” she said.

Last week, a Las Vegas judge signed papers formalizing Galka’s adoption of Aaniyah. She considers it the final step in their journey, allowing them to proceed with no more oversight from child welfare workers. As a licensed foster care provider, even a weekend trip required permission from Aaniyah’s caseworkers. Because Galka’s income is limited to her Social Security benefits, she expects to receive a monthly state or federal subsidy post-adoption, allowing her to continue financially supporting Aaniyah.

Not all kinship caregivers want to go the route of becoming licensed foster care providers, though. Some make the informed calculation that they can afford to care for another child without state support, or the monitoring that comes with it. 

Convertino’s story starts in New England. That’s where her son and his girlfriend — both addicted to opioids — were living when their daughter, Mariah, was born. Convertino knew it wasn’t a good situation from the start. From her home in Las Vegas, she was ordering diapers and formula online and shipping it to the apartment where her son and his girlfriend were living in New Hampshire.

“They weren’t doing it,” she said.

Convertino knew her son had a warrant out for his arrest in Vermont. After several months, she persuaded her son to turn himself in to the police. In turn, she brought his girlfriend and her baby granddaughter to Las Vegas. Their tearful goodbyes inside a Vermont courthouse were captured by a 20/20 film crew documenting the United States’ opioid crisis in 2015.

Within a couple months of living in Las Vegas, her son’s girlfriend began disappearing for large portions of the day — sometimes with the baby. The explanation of a long walk didn’t add up to Convertino, who did some digging and discovered the young woman had fallen into prostitution. 

“When I found out, I said, “You are not leaving this house with that baby again, unless one of us (is) with you,’” she said. “So she threw a fit.”

Her son’s girlfriend showed up the next day with police at the door, but by that time, Convertino had made contact with Child Protective Services. The authorities granted Convertino temporary custody of the baby, while ordering the mother to take a drug test. She refused. 

In the meantime, Convertino’s son agreed to sign paperwork giving his mother legal guardianship of Mariah, then 6 months old. The baby’s mother eventually fled to the East Coast.

Since then, Convertino has raised Mariah, now a first-grader who attends a private school in Henderson. But as a pediatric nurse who once worked at Positively Kids, a nonprofit that serves medically fragile children in Las Vegas, she had insight into the child welfare system. 

She didn’t want to enter that system with Mariah, even if it meant forgoing monetary stipends.

“It’s sad. There are some really good caseworkers and there are some very terrible ones,” she said. “And I just did not want to be caught up in any of that. I knew that financially, we didn’t need their assistance, and I am very capable as a pediatric nurse to determine what is best for Mariah.”

Convertino also hopes to eventually adopt her granddaughter, a move that would provide peace of mind knowing there would be no looming court battles.

“Permanent (guardianship) means nothing here in Nevada,”  Convertino said. “I don’t want to keep going back to court. And as she is getting older and stuff, she doesn’t need that stress in her life.”

Every so often, Convertino comes across a Facebook post that mentions someone taking in grandchildren or other young relatives. She immediately types out a response listing agencies and organizations, such as Foster Kinship, that can provide resources and other support.

“Formula and diapers are expensive,” she said. “I know so many of them that have gone through their savings just to take care of it.”

That’s why she thinks a stipend should be offered to kinship caregivers, regardless of affiliation with the child welfare system. Galka agrees.  

Families who sign up to be traditional foster care parents — meaning they have no association with the child who winds up temporarily in their care — have time to prepare their homes and take classes before being added to the list of potential placements, Galka said. But kinship caregivers typically step up at a moment’s notice when something goes awry. They welcome the child into their homes, sometimes without fully grasping all that it entails.

“All of a sudden you’re stuck with you wanting to help but not having anything,” Galka said.

Caliendo, founder of Foster Kinship, is well aware of these concerns. Proposed legislation (SB158) wending its way through the Legislature would make it easier for kinship foster families to receive federal stipends through the Kinship Guardianship Assistance Program, known as “KinGAP.” It would be a positive step forward, Caliendo said, but it would only help kinship caregivers who are licensed foster care providers. 

“SB158 is great, but then the number of families that will affect is very, very small compared to the number of families who are really doing this work,” she said. “So lots more is needed.”

There may be hope for families with the federal stimulus money. Caliendo said she is working with state officials to create a pipeline — complete with case management done by her organization — that could yield direct payments to kinship families. It would essentially be another form of relief funding. “Fingers crossed, we can figure that out,” Caliendo said.

In 2012, Foster Kinship made its debut in Clark County and, six years later, the organization opened a second location in Reno. In many ways, it serves as a connector of dots for families involved in kinship care. The organization’s resource centers also provide diapers, formula, car seats, bedding and clothing to families in need.

Studies have shown kinship care provides a host of benefits, including more stability for the children and a connection to their families and cultural traditions. 

It’s something Galka and Convertino know firsthand. They’re navigating parenthood again while trying to help their granddaughters understand their family dynamics, too.

Galka’s daughter, whose mental health has improved in recent years, regularly visits Aaniyah. 

Convertino, meanwhile, has given Mariah a book filled with photos of her mother and father. It’s a way to keep those memories alive until they perhaps meet again one day.

This story has been co-published with The Imprint, an independent, nonprofit daily news publication dedicated to covering child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health and educational issues faced by vulnerable children and families.

Demolition of 70-year-old church adds to a history of vacant lots in the Historic Westside

On his way to a community meeting in December, businessman Kenny Blaque stumbled upon the Greater New Jerusalem Baptist Church half in ruins. The 70-year-old church he grew up with in the Historic Westside was partially torn down with the inside exposed.

Blaque said he saw the pulpit standing amid the wreckage and started to cry.

“My mom, my dad, my family went to this church. We visited this church,” said Blaque, 50. “What happened?”

After encountering high-cost repairs for the aging building, the congregation and their community services — including a food pantry — moved from their D Street sanctuary to a new location a few miles away. They sold the old property to the city in 2018. 

The city-led demolition of Greater New Jerusalem — one of the oldest buildings in the historically Black neighborhood and a short walk north from downtown — was completed in early February, using $232,600 of a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop low-income areas. 

For some Historic Westside community members, the demolition is only one example of a larger problem of the city tearing down buildings in their neighborhood, removing history and leaving vacant lots.

Though empty parcels and abandoned property characterize the area now, the neighborhood once brimmed with buildings strung together by a tight-knit community.  

When segregation excluded Black residents from the flourishing city on the other side of the tracks, they created their own Las Vegas. They built lively churches, bustling businesses, warm homes and even a Westside Strip lined with casinos, restaurants and bars on Jackson Avenue, more commonly known as Jackson Street.  

But now, that way of life has become folklore with fewer and fewer buildings left standing to tell the tale.

The long history of demolitions has only been worsened in the eyes of community members by the lack of development replacing what was lost.

“What they did was sit on all this property for 40, 50 years and did nothing,” said Blaque, who recently sold his family home in the neighborhood but still visits frequently. “My Westside look like shit.”

The City of Las Vegas owns almost 17 acres of vacant land across 40 plots in the roughly 500-acre Historic Westside, according to a document provided by city spokesperson Jace Radke. Radke said in an email that the city is "not aware" of any development agreements in place for its properties in the neighborhood, but there is an open request for proposals to build housing and businesses on the former site of Greater New Jerusalem.

Addressing the many vacant lots in the Historic Westside is one of the goals of the city’s 2016 HUNDRED (Historic Urban Neighborhood Redevelopment) Plan that guides revitalization efforts complicated by a history of mistrust. The first phase of that plan includes more specific ideas of how to fill the vacant lots that now permeate the Historic Westside, which has a median income less than half of that for the city. 

“We have this unique opportunity to partner and work together in ways that historically we haven't done,” said Kathi Thomas-Gibson, director of the Office of Community Services.

Despite the city’s plans churning in the background, seeing is believing for community members who have heard many hollow promises of development on the empty lots they have seen every day since the ‘80s.

From the infamous waves of demolitions of the Moulin Rouge Hotel and Casino, the first racially integrated casino in Las Vegas, to the quiet removal of less flashy community landmarks, seeing buildings that hold historic and emotional value to residents get reduced to dust have left many with feelings of resentment and skepticism toward the city. 

“They’re not interested in revitalizing, they’re not interested in reselling them, they’re interested in running the bulldozer,” said Samuel Carroll, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church around the corner of where Greater New Jerusalem stood. “They go in, they say, ‘Oh, we need to tear these down.’ Okay. They go in and tear them down, guess what they do? They leave the land!”

A “checkerboard” neighborhood

The vacancies in the Historic Westside have left Henry Thorns describing his neighborhood of 50 years as a “checkerboard” where vacant lots alternate with dilapidated buildings.

“They done tore down our pride and our respect … our community has lost its heart,” said Thorns, 60. “Yeah, you tore down buildings, but you done tore down families.”

On just the third of a mile of Jackson Street that was the Westside’s Strip, Carroll can list several properties he’s seen torn down during his lifetime.

“They tore down the Cove Hotel. They tore the Jackson Hotel. They tore down the service station that was right next to the hotel. They tore down the Johnson’s Malt Shop. They tore down the other service station. They tore down the El Morocco across the street,” said Carroll, 75. “So they never ever intended, to me, it look like, for … the Vegas westside of town to even ever be a part of the entertainment capital of the world.”

Though other parts of Las Vegas also have undeveloped land, Thomas-Gibson said, “it’s the social and historical context that make this community unique.”

A sign for a proposed development in the Historic Westside stating that construction was expected to be completed in spring of 2020 seen on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

That context has also contributed to a general sense of distrust of the city. 

Dana Rideout, an activist with the Historic Westside Revitalization community organization, said many residents he’s met while going door-to-door in the neighborhood fear that the city is trying to buy land and push residents out.

“This was a legally segregated city at one time. The Historic Westside is the only area that Blacks were allowed to own land. The development pattern on the Westside reflects decades of disinvestment,” she said. “The distrust is real, and it isn’t based on some nebulous conspiracy theory.”

Thomas-Gibson said she understands that it’s going to take time to build trust with community members. She pointed to the city’s HUNDRED Plan as a way to build relationships with the community and avoid gentrification.

But the city isn’t the only power behind demolitions and vacancies in the neighborhood. 

For example, the 2011 demolition of the popular eatery Hamburger Heaven, which had stood on E Street since 1955, happened at the hands of nearby Second Baptist Church. A trustee of the church told the Las Vegas Sun that the church was planning to build a community center on the lot, but 10 years later, that lot is still empty.

The mounting vacancies and their effects on the community drove Beatrice Turner, a lifelong Historic Westside resident, to move out of the neighborhood last year. 

Even though she still owns her mother’s Historic Westside home and her children still live in the neighborhood, Turner, 61, said she tries to go to the area as little as possible. She said it hurts her to see the community as it is when she knows how it used to be — so much so that when the time comes, she won’t be buried there.

“I went to make my funeral arrangements, and I told the man at the funeral home, I said, ‘No, don't even take my body back to a church over there, have it at the mortuary,'” Turner said. “He said, ‘you wouldn't want us to just ride your body through there?’ I said, ‘No, don’t even ride my body through there,’ 'cause it ain’t nothing to be seen.”

Defining “historic”

The Greater New Jerusalem building was the setting for many cherished memories.

Blaque’s mother, Wallean, was an evangelist who preached there. He remembers the church as being consistently packed with worshippers who enjoyed a soulful choir and a potent service. Like many churches in the area, it was a cultural hub on Sundays. Residents gathered after services ended, talking with friends and grabbing a bite to eat at Hamburger Heaven just a few blocks away.

“That's what New Jerusalem was to us,” Blaque said. “It was just a place where our family, our friends, we get to worship.”

For some community members, the demolition of the church and other buildings seems hypocritical to the city’s branding of the neighborhood.

“They have this big sign that says ‘Historic Westside,’ yet they won't preserve any buildings that have historic value,” said Rideout, who lived in the neighborhood during the 1970s but reconnected with the community through Carroll, his longtime friend.

A sight of new Historic Westside sign seen on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

A building is eligible for protection from the city — meaning that it is unable to be changed or torn down without the approval of the Las Vegas Historic Preservation Commission — when it’s older than 40 years and is “significant to an aspect of Las Vegas history or significant to an architectural design distinctive to when it was constructed,” according to Diane C. Siebrandt, the historic preservation officer for the city. The property owner must apply for the protection. 

Bishop James Rogers Sr., the senior pastor of Greater New Jerusalem since 1987, said he and church leaders didn’t think about applying for historic protections for the building amid the logistics of trying to sell the property and build their new church on Martin Luther King Boulevard. 

Only after the church’s real estate agent approached the city and sold the building in 2018 did other community members express a desire for historic protections, according to Rogers. He told those community members that he would support the effort, but that ultimately, the building and the decision belonged to the city.

“I would love to have that happen. I'm in the community, I'm not going anyplace,” he said. “But that's not my call right now to determine whether or not there's gonna be a historic site.”

Though he said he wasn’t aware of the city’s plan to tear down the building when he sold the property, Rogers said he didn’t sell with conditions.

Rideout said the city opting to demolish Greater New Jerusalem after having the opportunity to give it historical protection is a “prime example” of the city’s real intentions, and emphasized that revitalization doesn’t have to come at the cost of removing history. 

But the city disputes that it is tearing down history. Because the funding for the demolition came from HUD, the city had to compile a report evaluating whether the property was eligible for historic listing before tearing down the building.

“It was determined that the church was not eligible for historic listing as it was not associated with a person or event significant to the history of Las Vegas, and its design was not considered distinctive to its time period. It was therefore demolished,” Siebrandt said in an email through the city spokesperson.

The Nevada State Historic Preservation Office approved the demolition in 2019.

But Thomas-Gibson said the Historic Preservation Office’s finding does not have bearing on the value the building had in the community.

“That doesn’t mean it didn’t have value to people in the community,” Thomas-Gibson said. “It means that it was not historic, and it didn't meet that definition.” 

“Absolutely every effort”

Though the plans had been in motion for several years leading up to the demolition in December 2020, seeing bulldozers tearing down the church shocked many community members.

Thomas-Gibson said her office and the city made “absolutely every effort that we can humanly make” to ensure that stakeholders knew about the Greater New Jerusalem demolition. However, she added that she understands how community members might miss the city’s efforts in the throes of everyday life. 

“I often say to folks, ‘it's fine to say I wasn't aware,’ that’s an accurate statement,” she said. “It’s not an accurate statement to say the city didn't try to communicate with the community.”

Thomas-Gibson said the city did both formal outreach through workshops, emails and flyers as well as informal outreach through meetings with small groups, including the Historic Westside Neighborhood Association, over the past two years. The demolition also had two 30-day public comment periods in January 2019 and May 2020 mandated by HUD, and was discussed in several workshops for the HUNDRED Plan, according to the city.

All of the community members who spoke with The Nevada Independent said they thought the city did not properly notify the community that the church would be torn down. They said the city isn’t doing enough on-the-ground work to inform the neighborhood about news and meetings, especially because some residents do not have Wi-Fi to receive city emails.

In the 2019 demolition agreement for Greater New Jerusalem and three other buildings on nearby parcels, the city and the State Historic Preservation Office determined that the demolitions might have had adverse effects — potentially affecting characteristics that would qualify a building for a position on the honorary National Register of Historic Places — on seven properties. Two of the properties are eligible for a national historic designation, according to the agreement. 

Carroll, whose church was listed as one of the seven properties, said the city did not notify him about the potential for adverse effects. His church is eligible for the National Register. 

Another nearby property owner learned about the demolition of Greater New Jerusalem in the summer of 2020 during a conversation about revitalization efforts in the area, but said the city never directly informed them that the property might be adversely affected.

The other nearby property owners did not respond to requests for comment or could not be reached for comment. 

“In the name of progress”

As with other buildings that have been torn down, Carroll said he thinks the Greater New Jerusalem building could have been saved. 

The building’s spacious multipurpose room could have been used as a community center, he said, especially as the neighborhood doesn’t have another space suitable for large gatherings, such as weddings and community meetings.

“The community has so little to even operate with,” Carroll said. “[The demolition] just didn’t make a lot of sense to me. And I don’t think it made a lot of economic sense.”

Prior to selling the church to the city, Rogers said that the building “was in desperate need of repairs” and that the costly work that needed to be done would have required most of the structure to be torn down and built back up.

The new building for the Greater New Jerusalem Baptist Church seen on April 24, 2021. (Savanna Strott/ The Nevada Independent)

While sitting unused, the church had been vandalized and occupied by squatters, according to Thomas-Gibson. The air conditioning unit was taken from the roof and copper was ripped from the walls. 

Thomas-Gibson said that she has shared this information with residents and activists, but that “they don’t believe me.”

“I get why people wouldn't necessarily accept it as factual — if they don't trust the government — something that a government person says. I understand it. I respect it,” she said. “It doesn’t change the fact.”

But some community members challenged that claim and suggested that the city could and should have protected the building. 

Carroll said he supports redevelopment, but would have preferred the city develop on one of the already vacant lots instead of tearing down an existing building.

“I’m never against progress,” Carroll said. “But I just think to tear that all down in the name of progress, I thought it was wrong.” 

The city is requesting development proposals for a five-story building with businesses on the ground floor and mixed-income housing on higher floors for the site of the former Greater New Jerusalem. 

And though Thorns said he would like to see the land be used for economic development — specifically a Black-owned bank — Thorns said he is still going to miss having Greater New Jerusalem as a neighborhood landmark, one he said he would sometimes pass as many as five times a day.

“It hurts when you see a building tore down. It’s a part of your history disappearing that you'll probably never get back. Because when they build something there, you gonna forget,” Thorns said. “You gonna forget, ‘Oh. The New Jerusalem was there.’ The new peoples come here ain’t gonna never know there was a New Jerusalem there.”

The Callback: Closed venues face long road to recovery

An audio version of this installment of “The Callback” originally appeared on an episode of the IndyMatters podcast.


In March 2020, the manager of “Once on This Island,” a Tony award-winning Broadway show that was playing at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas, approached the venue’s president and CEO, Myron Martin, to say the cast was getting nervous. 

They had seen the reports about COVID-19 spreading, and Nevada had seen its first confirmed case of COVID-19 days earlier.

Soon after, The Smith Center canceled its scheduled performances through the end of March. And then on March 17, Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered the closure of all nonessential businesses.

“Little did we know when we canceled those shows, that would end up leading to furloughs in July. And those furloughs led to layoffs,” Martin told The Nevada Independent. “Yes, we're surviving, but… we've not sold any tickets. We've not done any shows.”

Myron Martin, president and CEO at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas, walks through a hallway of a quiet Reynolds Hall on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The months-long shutdown severely hampered the state’s hospitality and entertainment industries, as closed venues were unable to attract travelers, resulting in tens of millions fewer visitors to Las Vegas in 2020 than the year before. The loss of tourism, as well as local crowds spending on entertainment, led to thousands of lost jobs and millions in lost revenue.

Since going dark last March, The Smith Center has canceled or postponed more than 450 performances, resulting in more than $40 million in lost revenue and layoffs of more than 160 employees.

As the Las Vegas-based center operates with a skeleton crew awaiting reopening, the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Reno faces similar challenges. Dennyse Sewell, the executive director of the venue, explained that the statewide capacity limits on indoor gatherings led the center to completely shut down its operations during the pandemic.

The marquee in front of the Pioneer Center for The Performing Arts in Downtown Reno, on Saturday, May 9, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

“Our whole mission at the Pioneer Center is to bring large numbers of people together in an enclosed space for a shared experience,” she said. “It's the whole purpose of a performing arts center, and of course it's the thing you can't do in the pandemic.”

For months, the state has operated at capacity limits of, at most, 50 percent, and on April 14, Gov. Steve Sisolak announced a goal to open the state to 100 percent capacity by June. But as long as capacity caps remain below 100 percent, there will be an impact on performing arts venues. 

“Most Broadway shows, we have to have somewhere around 90 percent occupancy to break even,” Martin said. “And so the idea of saying, you know, when the governor says we can reopen at 50 percent that we should jump at it, the answer is we can't afford to.”

Myron Martin, president and CEO at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, walks on stage at Reynolds Hall on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Audience size is also an important factor in a viewer’s enjoyment of a performance. Martin called the 90 percent full mark the “secret sauce” to live theater, and Sewell explained the importance of the crowd, especially at large theater venues. The Smith Center can hold an audience of more than 2,000 people at a time, and the Pioneer Center brings in crowds of 1,500 people.

“There's something different about being together, with people in an audience for that temporary moment that you share together,” Sewell said. “And I think that's the sort of thing that our local arts groups are really trying to figure out — how can we replicate that same feeling of special without bringing audiences together?”

Both venues have tried new ways to connect with their audiences and support artists, including virtual performances and presentations. 

In one instance, The Smith Center hosted a virtual presentation from a National Geographic wildlife photographer. The Pioneer Center also held some limited virtual events with the Reno Philharmonic and the Sierra Nevada Ballet.

But holding virtual performances does not mean theater venues are able to earn enough money to stay afloat. Martin said The Smith Center earns 75 percent of its income from ticket sales, a revenue stream that has vanished in the past year.

A closed sign on the front doors of the Pioneer Center in Downtown Reno on Sunday, April 18, 2021. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

With those sales gone, donor income becomes more important, even for the Pioneer Center. 

“We had not previously done appeals to the community for donations. It wasn't really part of our business model as a nonprofit,” Sewell said. “Through the complete loss of earned revenue, we turned to these alternative models of nonprofits to try to fundraise. And we sent out some appeals to the community, and they have just been incredible. We've been overwhelmed with the support from people.”

The venues also have received significant support from federal COVID-19 relief programs, such as the Paycheck Protection Program and a grant program through the Small Business Administration called the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. The grant was part of the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits and Venues Act which was approved by Congress in late December. 

The $325 billion bill included more than $16 billion in grant funding for closed venues. Beneficiaries could receive up to 45 percent of their gross earned revenue, which maxed out at $10 million per venue.

“Venue grants are something that are actually going to help us get some of the work done during the dark period and bring people back to work,” Martin said. “I don't know how we would do it without this government support. It’s a big, big, big deal to The Smith Center, and it's a big deal to venues around the country.”

A sign posted in at a window at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

As venues await to reopen, they’ve had thousands of square feet to manage and lots of downtime. Sewell says that the Pioneer Center staff has been able to focus on building maintenance during the ongoing “dark time.”

“We never usually have this much [of] what we call dark time… to touch up the paint on the baseboards and the carpets,” she said. “When we're so busy, we don't usually have the opportunity to really kind of take it all apart and put it all back together.”

The Pioneer Center in Downtown Reno on Sunday, April 18, 2021. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

As businesses reopen and more Nevadans get vaccinated, venues still face a long road before it’s viable for them to operate the way that they used to.

“The whole industry is kind of holding its breath,” Sewell said. “Most venues like ours lost a tremendous portion of their staff. So before they can come back and full, they have to find new people to refill those positions ramp back up. So it isn't, it isn't just, you flip a light switch and we're back.”

But Sewell expressed confidence that when venues do reopen, audiences will be ready to return.

“I think once that time comes, there will be such hunger for those experiences,” she said. “People will be signing up, even for things they've never heard of, experiences they've never tried because once you're deprived of something for long enough, you realize how much it meant to you.”


Listen to the full audio version below or on our podcast page.

The Callback: Financial devastation fosters a sense of community within Nevada’s arts industry

An audio version of this installment of “The Callback” originally appeared on an episode of the IndyMatters podcast.


Ananda Bena-Weber, a ballerina based in Reno, offers a simple reason for why the arts industry and performing arts, in particular, were financially crushed by the pandemic. 

Those cancellations came as the state dealt with the shutdown of nonessential businesses, capacity limits on public and private gatherings and requirements for six feet of social distancing. Amidst the safety restrictions, the Entertainment Capital of the World went dark, with a shuttered arts industry contributing to record-breaking unemployment in Southern Nevada.

The Smith Center in Las Vegas turned out the lights for months, canceling or postponing hundreds of performances. The Life is Beautiful music festival that attracted more than 100,000 attendees in 2019 was canceled. Cirque du Soleil dancers were left with no work. Museums and art galleries were forced to scale back or shut down.

A performer walks into Caesars Palace Las Vegas Hotel & Casino after it reopened its doors at 10AM to the public on Thursday, June 4, 2020. (Mikayla Whitmore/The Nevada Independent)

An analysis from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that supports artists, found that from the third quarter of 2019 to the third quarter of 2020, the number of employed artists declined by nearly a quarter of a million people. In that same time period, the unemployment rate for musicians skyrocketed from 1.1 percent to 27.1 percent.

Tracey Oliver saw the devastation firsthand. She serves as the executive director for the Sierra Arts Foundation, a nonprofit based out of Reno focused on bringing the voices of the creative community together through programs including artist grants and youth arts initiatives.

“We received a lot of notices [that] there was no rent money, there's no food money,” Oliver said. “I personally know of artists that ended up living in their cars.”

Many artists turned to other work, said Bena-Weber, who is connected with the arts community in Northern Nevada in her roles as a principal dancer and the associate art director for the Sierra Nevada Ballet, a professional company based in Reno that also trains students through its ballet academy.

“March 17 last year, they have not worked a single day at their usual job since then,” Bena-Weber said. “They're doing things like driving Uber and delivering for FedEx … That kind of thing is really heartbreaking.”

On top of the financial struggles of the individual artists, the places that showcase their work have had to make significant adjustments.

Oliver said that Sierra Arts’ art galleries in downtown Reno and Sparks had to scale back by limiting the number of staff and guests allowed in the buildings. But she felt it was important to keep the spaces open in order to provide a pleasant place to visit during the pandemic.

“We felt strongly, being that we have a location downtown in both Reno and Sparks, that we wanted to keep our doors open and our lights on as much as we could just keep those areas vibrant and safe,” she said.

A woman posts a sign on the front doors of the Sierra Arts Foundation on Friday, April 9, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

But remaining open was not a possibility for every venue. The state limited gatherings to as few as 10 people at points during the pandemic, and now, venues are limited to 50 percent capacity. Though the state is expected to return to 100 percent capacity by June 1, the existing limits make it difficult to earn enough money to justify staying open. 

“People are always gonna want to come back. The issue is usually the [return on investment] for the producer,” said Sarah O’Connell, the founding director of Eat More Art Vegas, an online platform that allows artists in Southern Nevada to promote their art and connect with other artists. “Why is Broadway closed? Not because you can't socially distance in a Broadway house — you can have a very small audience, but how much would that cost you?”

Through all of the struggles, a limited amount of federal relief funding has been available, most notably through the CARES Act. The state has received $4.7 million to date in federal relief funds directed to the Arts & Culture sector, and local jurisdictions have also allocated relief funds for artists.

In Reno, those funds went through Sierra Arts. Oliver said that the organization distributed about $180,000 in grants of up to $1,000 per artist.

Sierra Arts Foundation on Friday, April 9, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

“Every possible scenario that you can think of was happening to artists at that time — loss of livelihood, loss of homes, real fear of not being able to put food on the table,” she said. “It happened to our artists, they're our neighbors and our friends, and it was absolutely Sierra Arts Foundation's commitment to assist.”

For advocates, such as O’Connell, those losses underscored the need for the public to view the arts as a vital part of the economy.

“This is an economic sector. It's 5 percent of the state's GDP,” O’Connell said. “We want people making policy to actually understand what we do, so they… can leverage our effort, as opposed to actually accidentally cutting us off, right as we're trying to come back.”

The challenges of the last year have also spurred a renewed sense of community among artists, Oliver says.

“What I've learned is that we have the ability to rally around one another,” she said. “It was really a moment of reflection on how really connected the arts and culture community is and the extent that each of us was willing to go to make sure that the others survived.”

Bena-Weber has also recognized the need for artists to adjust their work to help others, especially young people, to understand their experiences and emotions.

“I created a show that sort of dealt with some of the things that the kids have been telling me,” Bena-Weber said. “One of my characters who was the host of the show told the kids basically that she has a learning disability, and so it's hard for her to learn on Zoom… She had a little teddy bear with her, they were talking about how they cope with Zoom.”

Ananda Bena-Weber performing on stage (Ananda Bena-Weber/Courtesy)

The arts and entertainment industry is a lifeline for Nevada when it comes to attracting tourists, fueling jobs and helping establish the cultural footprint of the state. That industry is starting to come back after more than a year of being stifled, and artists are starting to express optimism about the future.

Oliver said she has already seen a greater appreciation for the arts in the past year, as people have recognized that certain activities, such as crafting or playing an instrument, can be soothing and can enable people to stay connected with one another. And Bena-Weber thinks all the negativity of the past year will be followed by a greater desire for art, as more people experience life outside of their homes once again.

“I've been feeling actually that craving for a richer day to day life,” Bena-Weber said. “I feel very optimistic that everything that's created, whether it's chefs getting back in the kitchen or bands getting back in the studio or dance clubs opening … everything is going to be tastier and groovier and more magical.”


Listen to the full audio version below or on our podcast page.

The eviction moratorium was extended. What should landlords and tenants be doing?

Leaders in the Legislature say they are considering a way to speed up the backlogged process of distributing hundreds of millions of dollars of federal rental assistance, but no bill has been introduced with 10 weeks left until a government eviction moratorium lifts.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) said lawmakers are working on a plan with the Supreme Court and the counties to make sure that rental assistance funds reach those in need, but did not offer details about what that would look like.

“We're trying to figure out the best way to help facilitate getting that money to pay for those tenants that have been unable to pay, get back to those landlords and help keep those tenants in their properties,” Cannizzaro told The Nevada Independent

So what could tenants and landlords experience during the three-month extension of the federal moratorium, which lifts June 30 (an additional layer of state protections were extended through May)? The Indy explains. 

Landlords can prepare to evict, but need to inform tenants of resources

Gov. Steve Sisolak said the recent two-month extension will be the last, but added that now, when homeowners send notices to tenants during this period, they must also include information on the assistance programs available and how to access them. 

In March, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a new extension to the federal moratorium until June 30 –  one month longer than Nevada's – Sisolak indicated that no one should be evicted while the federal moratorium is in place.

“They'll still be protected, they won't become homeless, won't lose their housing,” Sisolak said. “We want an opportunity for after the 60 days expires, some of the landlords can go in and start to file papers … It will get our process started while the clock runs off the CDC moratorium.” 

State leaders are fast-tracking urgent applications 

Shannon Chambers, president of Home Means Nevada, a state-affiliated nonprofit that develops assistance programs for homeowners, added during a late-March press conference that while the moratorium “does buy some more time, we have to be effective and efficient in how we process that time, and how we work through these issues.”

“Over the next 60 days, Home Means Nevada will be working with the other partners … to develop a plan that will prioritize rental assistance applications,” Chambers said. 

Tenants should update their rental assistance applications

During the March 30 press conference, Kevin Schiller, assistant county manager for Clark County, emphasized the importance of submitting and updating the documentation necessary as there are new requirements to receive assistance from the Clark County CARES Housing Assistance Program (CHAP). These include proof of COVID-19-related financial impact such as reduction of income or loss of employment, a W-9 form from the landlord and, if applicable, a response to any eviction notices received while the application is being processed.

“Documentation is a critical component of this… If you're in that queue and you update those within the next 30 days, you maintain your spot within that,” Schiller said. “If you are applying as a new applicant, you need to get on there as soon as possible to get that documentation and that completed application.”

Schiller added that in order to receive assistance from CHAP, applicants must live in Clark County — and undocumented people are still eligible. 

From July through March, the county has helped more than 22,500 households with rent or mortgage assistance through federally funded grant programs, according to county officials. There were still about 12,000 households with pending applications in December when the initial assistance program ran out of money. Now, about 23,500 applications are pending. With the most recent aid package, CHAP is expecting $161 million to serve up to 40,000 households. 

“We really want to get these dollars out over the next 60 days, and prioritize those needs,” Schiller said, adding that the county is also working on rehousing those who end up losing their home. “If you apply for assistance and you weren't eligible, we still have you in our queue to work on rehousing you and getting you into an apartment or into a residence so that you are not homeless.”

Tenants should file a response if they get an eviction notice

Christopher Storke, an attorney for the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, spoke with The Nevada Independent about what the moratorium means for Nevadans and what tenants need to know to protect themselves from an eviction, among other points.

Storke says he knows tenants wonder “What now? How is this going to protect us? What do we have to do moving forward?” He urges tenants to file a response to any eviction notices they receive to avoid being locked out through a rapid eviction process in Nevada called “summary eviction.”

“If you fail to file that tenant answer then unfortunately, the court will review based upon the documents and if they deem them to be sufficient, then they will issue the summary eviction order,” he said.

Advocates hope extension is enough time to distribute aid

With the CHAP program backlogged, Storke said the extension gives time for tenants’ applications to be processed and get the aid to pay landlords while keeping renters in their homes. 

“The protection in place is basically 60 days where they can't be evicted through a termination of tenancy eviction notification or for a non-payment notice, so long as it was within the terms that the CHAP program had paid,” Storke said. 

The extension of the CDC and state moratoriums allows the state to use the new federal funds that were approved in the COVID aid bill Congress approved in March to go toward rental assistance. Storke said that if tenant protections were to expire, then the state would be left with money that was intended for landlords and tenants that would not be distributed appropriately. 

“The intent was, at least from the perspective of all the advocacy that has occurred on behalf of housing advocates, is the simple fact that more time was needed to be able to distribute these funds,” Storke said. “At the end of the day, what would be the point if you got all this money for the state to be able to provide for rental assistance but then you end up with a boatload of individuals and tenants who are evicted during that time frame?”  

More than just an extension

Storke said he was very pleased when he heard of the extensions to the moratoriums to continue providing protection for the tenants, otherwise it would have disrupted progress toward more of a “normal life” prior to the pandemic.

“We're turning a corner here in the state of Nevada – the economy is picking up, people are going back to work, people are receiving the vaccine,” Storke said. “It's great to be able to have that extension in place to be able to provide an opportunity for Nevada and the citizens to be able to move forward and provide us with a chance at recovery.” 

Tenants can reach out for help 

Depending on their location in the state, tenants and landlords are able to get more information and assistance from the following entities: