Servant leader Ricardo Ariza has worked with area youth for five decades. Armed with two social work degrees, he’s filled roles at Boys Town (1988-1995) and Creighton University (1996-2016). Today, he teaches at the Omaha Nation high school in Macy, Nebraska and works for the Catholic Migrant Farmworker Network.
His South Omaha blue-collar, melting-pot background. saw his Mexican father work in packinghouses and construction and his Czech mother work in factories. Neither finished high school but they put a premium on their six children getting their diploma. They all did.
“I’m the only one who went on to higher education,” said Ariza, a University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate. “My dad encouraged me to not follow his footsteps. He would often have me feel the callouses on his hands and say that my hands should not feel like that. After I walked across that stage with my degree, my father felt my soft hands. It was a real strong message of validation and approval.”
Ariza counts as “a blessing “the different perspectives” of his “mixed heritage” that “taught good values and to always care about people.” When he strayed from those values, the South Omaha boys club straightened him out. “That organization taught me to get along with others, to be respectful, to be a good team player. That was my home away from home. It was a good place.”
Through the club he worked with disabled children at an Easter Seal camp (in Milford, Nebraska). “That really opened my eyes to the privilege I had in life and how others had it much harder. Caring for individuals with challenges led me into the field of social work.”
His acute social conscience has also developed in response to racism-bias he’s experienced. Where he used to confront offenders, he said, “I discipline myself to take the high road and to teach.”
“Great mentors” have influenced his life. “When I finished South High School I wasn’t on the path to higher education. A guardian angel by the name of Jim Ramirez convinced me college was a path I could take and be successful at.”
Years later, activist Cecilia Huerta came into his life when he was appointed to the state Mexican-American Commission she led to serve as an advocate for the Latino community in the area of policy. “The leadership and wisdom of Cecilia Huerta provided incredible insight into the importance of the growing voice of our community within government affairs.”
At UNO, the Goodrich Program became “very important to my success,” Ariza noted. “It provided guidance, mentoring, tutoring and encouragement. They always reminded me that I did belong. When I didn’t make the grade, they’d tell me to not give up – to try again.”
“When I transitioned to Creighton University to be the first director of Multicultural Affairs, the prototype I used was the Goodrich Program’s student-centered approach to overcome traditional and nontraditional barriers.”
Before landing at CU, he was a Nebraska Department of Corrections mental health counselor and hostage negotiator. “It was exciting, sometimes dangerous work, and truly a learning experience. But it began to change my outlook on humanity in a negative way. It was time to move on.” His next stop was Boys Town, where he and wife Patricia were family teachers. They made lasting relationships and gained enduring lessons. “The training we received truly helped us with our own children.” The couple are parents to a son and daughter.
Once at CU, Ariza drew on his own experience to help first-generation students of color overcome cultural hurdles, navigate college and deal with homesickness. He organized youth conferences for underrepresented students and hosted social justice scholars.
Higher ed politics stymied diversity progress, said Ariza, who has implicit bias training from the Kirwan Institute.
“There’s work to be done ensuring representation in the faculty and curriculum. We can’t take that for granted., Often times, harm is done not intentionally but due to misunderstandings. It takes a student advocate to make sure faculty-administration understand certain statements are biased or insensitive.”
He exposed conscious and unconscious bias.
Though he describes his 20-year CU tenure as “very successful,” he rues missed opportunities.
“It was taking two steps forward and three steps backwards, especially with administration changes. Some feel safe with a very superficial understanding of diversity, but when it comes time to understand the politics and issues of countries of origin people come from and still have ties to, it becomes very challenging.”
A Kellogg Foundation America Healing Initiative grant funded a racial healing assessment he did in Omaha. He became a facilitator in “the racial healing process” and convened “racial dialogues.”
He organized a Creighton conference of migrant leaders from across the U.S. to discuss the needs of migrant families, That led Atriza to work for the Catholic Migrant Farmworker Network. “It was life-changing for me,”
He created the Migrant Journey Service Learning
experience. “For nine years each spring break I took students to migrant camps, pairing them with migrant workers to learn their sacred stories of hopes and dreams and to be in their shoes. We would have prayer and reflection and examine our own shoes of privilege.” He’s pleased two of those students, Rose Godinez and Jessica Rangel, have pursued social justice careers.
He continues humanistic work today as an education specialist in Macy. Many students there are relatives of students he impacted in Omaha.
“There are so many familiar names it’s almost like a homecoming. It feels so incredibly right. It’s a great fit.”
Native American families face steep challenges of poverty, unemployment, chronic health issues and cultural disconnection. Ariza offers a voice of hope.
“I often explain to my students that each has very special gifts to share with the world. I encourage them to know how to dance in their own world but when they transition to the university to learn new ways of dancing. Maintaining their culture and language is critical, but going to college is also an opportunity to learn about new cultures and to become a global citizen.
“I tell them to step up to and accept the challenge. It’s going to help them to become a better person.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.