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Omaha Magazine

Understanding the Power of Community: Arts Leaders Bring Omaha Together

Dec 01, 2021 12:40PM ● By Chris Hatch

 Lauren Martin, executive director of Maha Festival, thinks Omaha sounds like 15,000 people leaning back, tossing their inhibitions into the prairie breeze that swings low through her home city, and serenading Lizzo with a wild karaoke-echo of her greatest hits while the singer urges them to feel the love of those around them.

Cruz Cabrera, the first director of diversity and access at Omaha Children’s Museum, thinks Omaha sounds like the syncopated laughter, the rhythmic cacophony of youth in motion, and young minds being unlocked by the keys that are handed to them when they walk through the brightly colored doors of a place where all
are welcome.

Margaux Towne, owner and a producer/director at Digital Moxie Studios, believes Omaha is the soundtrack to the stories she tells, the noises from the people and places that fascinate her. More importantly, it sounds like women helping women in a space where men are often in the lead. Towne envisioned a place where women were on the tightrope and holding the safety net.

Martin and Cabrera started out in Western Nebraska, their humble beginnings serving as fuel for their career launches.

A Florida State University graduate, Towne got her start in front of the cameras about as far away from Nebraska as a future director/producer could be. “I worked at Universal Studios, so I spent many years in front of the camera on the talent side,” she said. But a stint as a local reporter—and one who also had to produce segments—gave her a new direction. “Once I got behind the camera, I found out I loved it so much better and I really haven’t gone back.”

Cabrera, the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants who first moved to Nebraska in search of work and a place to be given a fair shot at the life they had dreamed of, learned early how community wasn’t just where you were on a map.

“From a very young age, my siblings and I learned the importance of education and serving your community. I remember my father sitting with us at the dinner table to teach us how to read and write in Spanish. Even though he only attained up to a sixth grade education in Guatemala, he taught us the language skills he learned when in school,” she said. 

Cabrera continued, “He believed being fully bilingual would open more and better opportunities for us. Once we mastered both languages, he was quick to offer our translation and interpretation services to whoever needed English/Spanish help in our community. I learned that it is my duty to help and serve others using my skills and strengths.”

Martin moved to Omaha in her teens and has always had music as a part of her life, but she didn’t begin to see the career opportunities it could afford her until a bit later in life. 

“Music was woven throughout my upbringing in various ways,” she said. “But I didn’t get my ‘start’ with the music scene until college—that’s when I realized I could have a role in it that didn’t require amazing vocal or instrumental talent. I was able to play a part in coordinating concerts and performances for my University Program Council, and went on to work with Saddle Creek Records and Live Nation, which expanded my understanding of the music industry and opened my eyes to the opportunity available for me within it.”

Starting in 2009 as a volunteer at the Maha music festival, Martin has grown in tandem with the festival itself. She has climbed the ranks and been an integral part of its success, seeing her role expand like the crowds and stages of the events themselves.

“With every point of growth comes enormous investment in the form of time from volunteers, resources from vendors, support from sponsors, etc. The scope of everything grows,” she said. “But the event still only happens once a year, and that’s Maha’s one opportunity to apply the changes we’ve worked on throughout the prior year that might improve the experience and enhance the festival’s impact. It’s pretty wild to work on something for so long only to get a couple of days at most to understand what works and what doesn’t. Then it’s right back to work to apply the latest learnings in order to do it all again!”

Towne also understands that idea of “doing it all again.” Once she relocated to Omaha, back at square one after a job at a small video production company ended, Towne eschewed the 90 degree angles of that box and instead set about making her own, more inclusive, circle. 

“I said, ‘OK. Video production in Omaha. Who do I know?’” she said. “I just started searching and looking and looking. Everywhere I looked it was men, men, men, men, men-men-men-men-men. I found that shocking. Like, there’s talented women that can produce and direct. Where are they? It seems like Omaha is big enough for a female-owned production company.”

“I knew I made the right decision,” Towne said. “Because the next morning I woke up and I felt more alive than I had felt in years. And I still wake up in the morning excited about my opportunities and what I have to do and the stories that I get to tell.”

Cabrera’s role and title might be new, but her quest to foster a forward-thinking community is something that she has never taken her eyes off.

“I have always worked in the nonprofit sector, mainly in programs working directly with children and their families in a direct services type role,” she said. “I love working with and helping others so I believe that being a part of an established organization such as the museum allows me to directly serve others while working to make an impact in the wider community. I love the museum’s mission to engage the imagination and create excitement about learning. The museum is a great place for people of all ages, but especially for the youngest members of our community and their families.”

She started her new position in March 2021 as part of the museum’s three-year plan to increase their outreach to the community and drive their focus on diversity and access. After orienting herself to the new position, she is determined to be a driving force toward positive change. 

“This first year is really one of discovery and exploration,” she said. “I am learning about the museum world, especially what it means to be a children’s museum and how that differs from what I was traditionally used to thinking of as a nonprofit.” 

While she is currently a department of one, Cabrera relishes the highwire act that comes with learning on the job, and she is quick to credit her team members at the museum who are willing to help her with the balancing act.

“It really is a team effort as other departments have pitched in with resources [people power] to make the DEI objectives of the museum possible,” she said. “These are challenges that are helping me grow as a leader, and I look forward to working on these every day to reach the museum’s goals.”

Martin, too, is quick to share credit with those around her.

Building a community can take a community and she fosters that kind of team mentality with those around her as they try to make a once-a-year event something that resonates with the local music and culture scene for the other 363-364 days of
the calendar.

“While the big artists are Maha’s key to gathering crowds each year, what makes the event so special are the literally thousands of people that have given their time, energy, and talents over the years to make Maha such an engaging experience,” she said.

She has watched as Maha Festival grew from a scrappy underdog into a giant event that pulls in somewhere between 14,000-15,000 people during a given day. In spite of their recent large-scale successes, Martin still comes at the day-to-day operations of the festival with the tenacity of a true underdog.

“Many of the challenges the founders of Maha and those that were involved in the earliest stages faced are some of the challenges Maha still faces today, which come down to affording the big-name talent that allows all of the other dominos of Maha to fall into place,” Martin said.

She continued, “We’re a small nonprofit competing against some of the biggest for-profit festivals in the world to get artists to perform at our event, and that presents a variety of financial questions that aren’t easily answered.”

“One thing that I think is unique to Omaha is the support of the nonprofits in our community.” Towne said. “We work with a fair amount of nonprofits. We get to help them tell their stories. And it has been super well-received and
super appreciated.”

From long hours volunteering that led to a position at the forefront of the nonprofit, to trailblazing out front in a new role, to the constant innovations required of creators in the audio-visual medium, Cabrera, Towne, and Martin all seem to feel that constant, magnetic tug towards adaptation.

“When I was in college, this kind of job didn’t exist. The cameras were astronomically expensive, so if you weren’t a TV station or gigantic ad company, you couldn’t do this kind of thing,” Towne said. “But since the technology has changed, it has become more accessible, so people like me are able to do this.”

Accessibility for a trailblazer like Towne isn’t just about what one can hold, but who gets a chance to hold it.

Cabrera, similarly, is paving the road as she drives it, citing her ability to be both the engine and the conductor on this new journey. As she said, “An open mind, willingness to learn, initiative, and relationship building skills” are all things she knows have helped her to this point. 

“This being the first of its kind type of role at the museum leaves it open for creativity and flexibility and adaptability as the seasons change in the busy world of a children’s museum,” Cabrera said.

Martin, there from day one of the festival, has seen herself become the scaffolding for the growth of the event and, perhaps more importantly, many of the people and organizations involved with it, lifting them during the construction of what we see today and supporting them as it has continued to expand.

“As Maha has grown and evolved, I’ve had to find new ways to get comfortable outside of my comfort zone,” Martin said. “Learning new skills, accepting setbacks, and trying new things that have felt daunting. But I’ve grown a great deal as a result, and adapted with the help and partnership of all the incredible people I’ve worked alongside.”

The unmitigated neon joy of a child feeling that spark of learning to jump to a flame, the chorus of voices unifying to become a multitude of one as a singer and an audience prepare for liftoff as surely as a NASA countdown, and the perfectly unique and perfectly similar way that all humans can be captured in a moment by a filmmaker with a gift: none of these would be possible without the interconnected tissue that binds each of these women to the city of Omaha. They realize it as surely as they express their gratitude for it.

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This article originally appeared in the November/December  issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann