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Omaha Magazine

World Speaks Connects Communities Through Spoken Word

Mar 01, 2022 11:47AM ● By Chris Bowling
Leah Whitney Chavez in blue sweater in blue room

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

When protesters took to the streets in 2020, and police readied their riot gear, something clicked in millions of Americans. Whether they saw clashing violence or heard unified calls for ending inequity, people’s appetite for questioning American society seemed to spike.

Leah Whitney Chavez watched the blitzkrieg of social media posts and flurry of inclusivity commitments and only had one thought: finally.

“There’s diversity in the city,” Whitney Chavez said. “It’s here…but diversity doesn’t happen on accident. It’s a choice. Are you going to explore outside of yourself? Or are you going to stay comfortable?”

Whitney Chavez is executive director of World Speaks, a nonprofit started in 2016 to expand Omaha’s cultural cache by connecting people with language classes, interpretive services, and social justice platforms. For a long time, it felt like that message was falling on deaf ears. The group had a steady stream of people interested, but now she no longer feels alone in saying Omaha desperately needs to address its social and racial problems.

“[The year] 2020 was actually a really good year for World Speaks, because now everyone is like, ‘Oh, shoot diversity, inclusion,’” she said. “It’s like, we’ve been doing this work for the last five, six years. So we’re not just getting on the train.”

World Speaks started with a culture shock. When Whitney Chavez was 8 years old, her family moved from Bellevue, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, to Bellevue, Nebraska. Among the laundry list of differences between the two cities—weather, proximity to a major U.S. city, etc.—was a dramatic shift in her understanding of herself as a minority. Whitney Chavez went from a diverse set of friends to being one of the only Black girls at school. She heard weird comments (“You act pretty white for a Black girl.”), had people touch her hair, and heard the n-word on more than one occasion. Until recently she wouldn’t wear her hair naturally.

“It was bad,” she said. “Like when people say racism is over, I’m like, Yeah, I didn’t graduate even 10 years ago. So sorry, it’s still being taught to people.”

When she got to college at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Whitney Chavez wanted to be a veterinarian. When she lost interest in medicine, she pursued Spanish, a language she’d studied in school. Then she had an idea for a business that could connect people across language barriers, ideally manifesting into a brick-and-mortar language school. She shelved the idea, as she never considered herself an entrepreneur; but the further she got at UNO, the more it felt like something Omaha needed. And as far as she could tell, she was the only one who was going to do it.

The program started in 2015 with a few language classes at Bellevue West High School, where Whitney Chavez rented a classroom for people to practice a variety of languages with native speakers. In 2016 World Speaks became a nonprofit. Gradually they added more classes and staff with speakers from all over the world and started to contract interpreters and translators in up to 12 different languages. 

But in many ways growth has been slow. While she’s reached out to the city, businesses, and others to form partnerships, reception has been lukewarm. It’s often been a struggle to explain to people why we need to prioritize translation services, so that those who don’t speak English don’t feel left out in business or civic life. And though World Speaks is full-time work, Whitney Chavez has another job to pay the bills. 

“Even though we’ve been here for five years, a lot of people still don’t know who we are,” she said. “It’s a huge hurdle to get through.”

Then 2020 came. While she doesn’t have people busting down the door for language services, it feels like the nonprofit pivoted.

Justice Speaks, a World Speaks program, started in June 2020. Whitney Chavez wanted to give marginalized people a virtual platform to share their stories and hopefully educate Omahans, or whoever tuned in, about issues new to them. 

Emily Plagman never got to know her home country as a child. As soon as she was born in South Korea, she was flown across the world where a white family in Michigan waited to adopt her. As she bounced around the U.S., eventually landing in Boston, she didn’t know how to identify herself. She’d assimilated to a white culture but wasn’t white. But at the same time she didn’t grow up on Korean food or TV shows. She’d never hung out with many Asian Americans or heard her native tongue spoken.

“I think identifying, for me, was always quite confusing, which would make sense when you’re thrown into predominant culture, yet you’ve lost the heritage, language, all of that as you’re adopted,” Plagman said. “But you’re still different, and you’re still a person of color.”

Plagman has been on a decade-plus-long journey to reclaim her Korean heritage, forming relationships with other transracial adoptees and traveling to South Korea in 2011. In 2020 though, with the rise of COVID-19 and anti-Asian hate crimes, Plagman became more outspoken. Whitney Chavez, a friend of her husband’s whom he’d met while living in Omaha, asked if she wanted to share her story. 

Plagman’s story was one of several stories told through an online video series presented by World Speaks that received about 2,000 views last summer.

“It’s a way to have people connect in our community,” she said. “It’s a safe space. People come, they can feel represented, they can come [and] they can learn. We hope one day Justice Speaks will be a public event. People can come eat, they can ask questions, they can just dive deeper into the culture that surrounds us.”

One concern Whitney Chavez has is how these messages can reach the people they need to. This kind of programming is well intentioned, but it might only attract a certain kind of person. Reaching people who may have biases, or, at the very least, are in the middle on these issues is more challenging. Whitney Chavez hopes the more World Speaks appears in the community, the more their mission will spread through social osmosis. Once again, 2020 seemed to accelerate that.

Development Manager Cami Cavanaugh Rawlings enlisted World Speaks to help her staff at nonprofit The Big Garden learn Spanish. When COVID-19 shuttered businesses in the spring, The Big Garden partnered with The Latino Center of the Midlands and a team of 19 paid interns to provide 15,000 pounds of food to pantries and pay-what-you-can markets. As a next step, Cavanaugh Rawlings thought it would be beneficial and respectful for her staff to pick up Spanish. Not only was the nonprofit able to accommodate The Big Garden’s 12-member team, but also their instructor tailored the session to phrases centered around gardening. And the more Cavanaugh Rawlings learned about their other programs, the more shocked she was that World Speaks hadn’t been on her radar.

“Omaha may be located in the middle of the U.S., but we have so many immigrant and refugee friends that now live here,” Cavanaugh Rawlings wrote in an email. “It’s comforting to know that World Speaks offers language courses that will help [Americans] better communicate with those that have joined us here—this country was built on the backs of immigrants and we need to respect that.”

Those kinds of affirmations are validating for Whitney Chavez. Seeing her organization grow from an idea that seemed impossible to actualize, to something that’s growing every year, is exciting. Now she’s just thinking about how far it can go. The idea of a standalone language school in Omaha is still in her mind. She wants to take Justice Speaks to a wider audience. She wants to build partnerships with the big names in Omaha’s business and civic community. She wants to have programming across the country.

In short, the sky’s the limit for Whitney Chavez now that the world is waking up to the potential of organizations like hers.

“It’s like we’re getting out there,” she said. “So we’re getting more people trying to partner on things or collaborate. And so yeah, the need is only going to get bigger.” 

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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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