Dawaune Lamont Hayes (1/2): 2021 City Election Interview Series
Updated: Jan 11, 2021
We sat down to talk to Dawaune Lamont Hayes (@dawauneforomaha) about their upcoming bid for Mayor.
Watch part one to hear us chat about topics including accessibility, urban design, creativity, civic identity, and more!
Gab: First of all, welcome and thank you for doing this with me.
Hayes: Of course, glad to be here.
Gab: And can you first start off by telling us a little about your background and why you decided to run for mayor?
Hayes: So, my name is Dawaune Lamont Hayes, I’m 26 years old, I am born and raised here in Omaha, Nebraska, and I’m running for mayor because I want to see transformation in the city of Omaha for the better. Being born and raised here, growing up here, I’ve personally been able to benefit from some of the most incredible things that Omaha has to offer: education, community, low cost of living, accessibility to different parts of the region and the world, and then also the mix of cultures and intersection of history that founded this city, and as well as the indigenous culture that we have yet to acknowledge. And I’ve been able to come to know a lot more about, wow, Omaha’s a very powerful place. And in order for it to truly reach its best potential, I think we need to have visionary leadership that works with people and recognizes what it’s like to be human, and respects people, place, and planet and that they are not separate.
My background, I graduated with a degree in journalism and public relations in 2016. I’ve worked in communications, and I am the founder of NOISE: North Omaha Information Support Everyone, which is an online, hyper-local news publication that we actually are publishing zines, and we’re growing to really help address the information gaps and disparities, specifically in North Omaha, but what we’re finding is that we’re meeting a lot of need across the city. Focusing in the realms of civics, community and culture and really civics. Like, that understanding, and that awareness of what’s taking place in City Hall, and the County Commissioners, and how there are people making decisions about our daily lives on a regular basis… that many of us don’t know, nor do we know where they are, or how to affect their decision making. And in my work with NOISE being a journalist, I’ve spent a lot of time going to City Council meetings, and County Commissioner meetings, and reading agendas, and being in the space, and you start to recognize they’re just people like us. They are no smarter, like, they’re not some super-genius, or they’re not like the most anything, they’re just people who happened to show up that day. It just started to show me that if I choose to be here, if I were to say, “I wish to be here to say these things,” it can make a huge difference. So, in 2017, I started joining a number of boards including the Urban Design Review Board with the city. As the first, like, young, Black queer person to be on that board, in the history of the Urban Design Review Board. And this is a very powerful board, quite honestly. The Urban Design Review Board is like this volunteer, publicly-appointed board of an assortment of people. When I was there I was like, here I am, you know, like a 20-something who rides a bike and has more student loans than anything else, is just like, you know, “I care about the world, let me show up.” And I’m sitting next to architects and real estate agents and city planning, and I’m talking about things, just, that they’re not even aware of. When I saw that I was like “someone’s… I’ve gotta do something about this.” And it was really the work in learning about City Hall, about decision making in Omaha, writing about it, and then seeing the disconnect between what is happening there in the community and recognizing that there has to be someone who helps heal that divide. You know, journalism is an effective way to do that, but I also believe that a lot of these things that I’m seeing can be embedded in how our city communicates. Most of the need in Omaha is due to lack of awareness, meaningful connection, and once you can provide those things, in the heart of the city, City Hall, I think you can really start to address that… or at least model it and hope that other people adopt it.
Gab: Thank you for that very thoughtful answer. You answered my next question a bit already, um, but I do really admire your work with NOISE. Can you talk a little bit about how your background, specifically as a grassroots journalist will inform the decisions you make if you’re elected?
Hayes: Being on the ground, hearing people’s stories, gives you perspective like nothing else. When you just listen and you have to bear witness and be a steward of people’s stories and their livelihood, and they’re entrusting you with their words to represent them, and their actions as well as, you know, transmit the story of the change that they’re working toward. You have to be respectful and it’s… you have to humble yourself. You cannot go into a space assuming you already know what the story is, and then telling people what you’re going to write about. You go, you ask questions, you ask things like “why?” and then you show up and listen. And from there, you make an informed decision, whether to inform that article or video or how you write that copy that will otherwise go out into the world that people will engage with, and then share to their friends, and share to their friends. When you do that, you have to recognize that there is a responsibility to do something when you know something. And frankly, I’ve come to know too much. It’s… the amount of research that I’ve done, the people that I’ve seen, the words that I’ve heard, the stories that I’ve come across and then put together… I know too much! There’s just a point where you’re like “Ok, well, I wish someone would do something about this.” And the person who seems to know something and wants something to be done about it, is me! I guess I need to do something. When I can trace a lot of our ails to the management and, um, of our city administration at large that prompts me to think “Ok, well, I should run for Mayor, then!” Because this then creates a platform for what I’m talking about on a larger scale, because it’s not just about North Omaha. You know, NOISE is… North Omaha in the context, information is our service, support everyone is the goal. And, that is because that’s where I am, that’s what I know best, it’s where my family is, it’s what I’m rooted in, it’s what I’m responding to. But recognizing that like, North Omaha… if North Omaha does well, the whole city does well. Taking what I’ve come to learn here and seen here, and helping share that with the rest of the community, as well as uplift other organizations, and people, and neighborhoods, and cultures that are all over our city, but you don’t see them uplifted. You don’t see them centered. It’s very much like “oh, by the way, we’re doing this thing.” “But I’m hungry!” “There’s a hole in the roof!” “What about affordable housing?” “Can we have better transportation?” “We need healthcare!” “Our education is suffering!” “You know what we need? New children’s prison, more roads, uh, police.” And you’re like, “What? But didn’t you just hear? I just told you what I needed, and then you didn’t… you totally disregarded it and did something else! You’re supposed to be my representative!” No. You need to leave. And, as a journalist, it’s one of those things of like, if someone asks you to do something or shares their needs with you, you’re gonna do whatever you can to help them get that need met. And it often doesn’t even require you to do something for them. It’s just to listen. It’s a simple thing, but it’s extremely profound, especially when you’re talking about politics and government. Like, recognize people for who they are? “What, why would we do that? You are a taxpayer. You are a source of revenue. You are not seen as an integral part of the community who can be called upon and relied upon to improve. That’s our job and we do that for you.” That’s unsustainable. We’re all in this together. We need… leadership, representation to facilitate these things, and say “Hey, come be here.” That’s why our slogan is “Be Where You Are.”
Gab: That focus on listening is so important. You and I both know that… I feel like especially in Omaha, we often get the illusion of a discussion, where you’re invited to a room to talk about something, or to ask questions, but you know the people who are there have already made their mind. This is for show.
Hayes: I’ve been on a number of boards and organizations and committees and I’ve seen, more often than not, when it has to do with the city of Omaha, we’re there to talk about things and not get anything done. I’ve gotten more done in like the back room of a run-down coffee shop, than I have at City Hall, you know what I mean? Like, honestly, City Hall is not a place I wanna be. The building is ugly, it’s uncomfortable, the offices are boring and bland. The legislature is like out of the 70’s, if not older. Most people don’t even know where it is! It doesn’t say “City Hall” on the outside, it says like “City [inaudible] Building.” And it’s this, like, brutal… like not even modern thing. I go into these aesthetics because aesthetics in our built environment is a key focus of mine. We do not talk about urban design, architecture, community organizing, planning, communication strategies, infrastructure, as a city, as a people. It is a group of people who talk about it, listen to it passively while developers do what they want, and then let it happen. We don’t even have a definition of affordable housing, let alone a sustainability or regenerative plan to ultimately eliminate waste and be 100% renewable, and address all these other needs. We don’t have any of those benchmarks. That would be aspirational. And that’s what I’m going for! I call myself a regenerative candidate because frankly, I want clean air, I want clean water, I want good food, I want good [inaudible], I want best friends! Like I’m looking for… I really want the simple things in life. There are all these things happening that are actively destroying our planet, actively hindering us from doing something like living, and thriving that if we were to have discussions, vibrant discussions, active, forward-facing, inclusive discussions, about our needs we would realize that they’re really similar and then that we could do some really incredible things together, quite easily, in a very short period of time and enjoy it. It doesn’t have to be this, like, boring, arduous, arcane process that happens in some dimly lit room in City Hall somewhere with a bunch of old white guys scribbling on paper. Like, no! It could be all of us utilizing technology. I mean heck, you can do a quiz on Instagram and get more responses. There’s little things that we can do that activate and engage our community and make our city a better place without it being this separatist or elitist practice.
Gab: I like that you point out that most people don’t even know where City Hall is. Which is completely true! Our work with Strongly Worded Letters is to try to make local government more accessible to everyday people because it’s extremely difficult to find out what is a City Council meeting about, when is it, how can I speak at it, where is city hall. All these things should be easy things to answer, and they’re not.
Hayes: Well they’re on the city’s website but that’s the worst website. It’s like out of 2004. And it puts us in a place where we have an incredible design community, we have incredible creative communities and artists who can help make messages accessible. That’s something that as a visual performing artist myself, first and foremost, that’s what I’m really bringing to this, is using art through the campaign and to ultimately build culture. Omaha… when someone asks me why I stay, I tell them “the people.” My family’s here, but also I have incredible friends, and there’s just something about the really beautiful people that you meet here. But there’s also this massive connect between many of our people and the space that we’re in. Our environment doesn’t reflect how cool we are. And there’s a few of them like I love Benson and I love my friends at BFF, and Petshop and Vinton Street. And what we’ve seen in the last, you know, five years really is this incredible resurgence of arts and culture and DIY. And that’s really where I come from. You know, I’m one of the founders of Queerniverse. We’re a queer POC performance troupe. Being from a community where we just make from what we’ve got has shown me that like, hey, we’re really capable, we can do anything. And that’s what’s inspiring and I feel like if you center and bring that creativity into City Hall, and integrate it with communications and community, then suddenly you’ve got this Mecca that can really serve as the heart that can rejuvenate and restore Omaha and invigorate it. Like, it wants to be, like people are looking for something more, something better. We’re really coasting and yet “We Don’t Coast.” Let’s come up with an actual slogan. What’s Omaha’s mission statement? Do we have one? Every business has a mission statement or a purpose statement. Why don’t we? What do we unite behind, what is our identity? Who are we, what is our purpose, what is our goal, where is Omaha trying to go? And right now… I couldn’t tell you! Based off what I’m seeing, it’s cheap architecture, expensive property development, and…um…body cams? Surveillance, for sure. My house is constantly being flown over by the OPD helicopter, literally everyday, so, and that’s been most of my life. Especially living in North Omaha. That’s something that I know has long-term impacts because instead of communicating with a community and building that trust to otherwise mitigate crime, and violence and things in our communities we instead are surveilled.
Gab: Yeah, absolutely. What would you say are Omaha’s top issues?
Hayes: I think it’s our identity crisis, and I say that really acknowledging our history. Omaha is a city built on violence. All American cities are. But you can live your whole life here and not know what “Omaha” means. “Omaha” means the “people who move against the current.” It is a language, it is a tribe, it is a way of life, a people. And you can live here and never know. That very fact alone shows that we don’t know who we are. Let alone the geographic separation of North Omaha, South Omaha, West Omaha, that was very deliberate! We were redlined. It was in the 1930s with the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation of the New Deal, there was this massive, deliberate effort to draw maps that legally segregated our cities. They still exist today. Again, you can live your whole life and never know that. You can build your own perspective on North Omaha, South Omaha, West Omaha and never even set foot in that part of the city, based on just cultural perceptions of the space. No real understanding of the history, no understanding of the context, no understanding of the people, or how it got there or how you even got there. That makes for the situation we’re in right now. Where, you know, I’m running for office, I live in North Omaha, I don’t own a car. How am I supposed to run for office across the whole city. If you don’t have a vehicle, that’s a barrier to just participating.
Going into, I think our second, is transportation, our connectivity. Our lack of identity comes from our lack of connectivity. Because I can’t just simply get on a train or light rail or trackless tram or a van or anything that can just take me to 198th and W Center Rd. I don’t know why I’d wanna go there but I should be able to have the ability to go there, it’s in my city. I pay, we pay taxes. I should be able to get to any part of my city. My autonomy is infringed upon because this place is designed for cars. Streets are for people. And I say that very specifically, because people are like, “No, streets are for cars.” Okay, what are in cars? People. Who makes cars? People. Who makes streets? People. What are cars doing on the streets? Usually transporting people or things for people. Streets are for people. Our streets are avenues, these ways that we pay for, these paths in our community should be accessible to all people and all forms of transit and transportation and mobility. I am a proponent of mobility justice. I believe in everyone being able to practice their autonomy freely. Whether that is rolling, biking, crawling, hopping, skipping, jumping, whatever way you want to get somewhere, you should be able to get there in this city. That is really important if we want to see our community truly come together, come to recognize one another, to build the support we need in order to do the really challenging things that are ahead of us.
Third, I’m going to say creativity. If you looked at Omaha and just took screencaps of, or pictures of our buildings, and tried to use the buildings as like a descriptor for the people, it’s insanely inaccurate. They’re ugly, they’re drab, they’re unsustainable, they don’t even produce their own energy. Everything’s surrounded by parking, there’s nothing… you know people go to other cities because there’s fun, beautiful things to look at. We have very few of those. Anytime we do have something and it’s old we tear it down and replace it with a jail. Our community ends up saying they’re not creative, our community doesn’t put the energy behind solving the problems that are in front of us, and in turn we end up relying on a city who lacks the creativity as well. What I admire most about growing up here in North Omaha, and frankly growing up with not a lot of money was that if you wanted something you figured it out. You got creative! I tell this story all the time, I remember when I was a kid being like “we’re hungry” and my mom was like “Ok we’ve got shrimp flavored ramen noodles, and I’ve got $10. So we are gonna go get this cocktail shrimp that’s on sale, and we’re gonna get some onions, and we’re gonna get some soy sauce, and we’re gonna make a stir fry with the egg that we’ve got in the fridge. And that’s gonna be our meal.” And it was like, woah, we didn’t need a whole lot, but we’re resourceful, we thought about how we were going to improve our condition, and then we had the tools and the knowledge to do so. That’s the kind of thinking we need in City Hall. I’m not coming in saying I have every single answer. It’s not true. As a journalist, I’m committed to not lying to you. But I know how to do research, I know how to convene people, I understand history and communication strategies. And, I also like to have fun, and you have to be able to have fun while you’re doing all of this hard work.