Photography by Daniel Muller.
For Omaha, Nebraska-based Shaun Ilahi, creating vibrant communities that celebrate the various cultures of the city and make the region more inclusive and engaging isn’t just a professional calling, it’s also a source of creative inspiration. Ilahi has spent much of his career in the non-profit world, and currently serves as chief compliance officer at Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp., which involves facilitating the revitalization of a healthy, sustainable, mixed-income community in the Highlander neighborhood. To accomplish this work, the organization collaborates and partners with various agencies in creating high-quality housing, thriving schools, recreational facilities, and other neighborhood enrichment amenities, focusing on a three-prong approach: a cradle-to-college education pipeline, mixed-income housing, and community health and wellness.
This notion of reimagining, and of what Ilahi describes as “the endless possibilities of looking at things in a different light,” informs his art as well. Drawn to the idea of giving voice to people and sharing ideas through storytelling, he uses various art mediums—including photography, painting, and the written word—to express his “perspective” pieces that demonstrate the concepts that inform his work in the community.
Recently, we followed along with Ilahi for 24 hours as he touched base with family abroad, discussed potential partnerships and sustainability plans, and brainstormed ideas for an upcoming photography project.
4:50 a.m.: I’m not normally a morning person, but I have been an early riser the last couple months because I got in the habit of waking up early to fast during the month of Ramadan. The routine has stuck for now. After drinking a glass of water, I lace up my running shoes and head out to jog the trail around the nearby lake. I enjoy the stillness and the smell of the air when I run. Some of my best epiphanies occur when I am in motion and sweating.
6:30 a.m.: When I get back home, I head to the kitchen to make a super-green smoothie with nuts and berries and do some yoga stretches. While replenishing myself I turn on one of my morning news podcasts and get a snapshot of the local and international world events. I also quickly check my emails to see if there is anything pressing that needs to be addressed.
8:00 a.m.: Before I head out, I FaceTime my parents who are living in Pakistan. They are ten hours ahead so when I chat with my mother she is busy cooking dinner and shows me what she is cooking. She is a big juicer so she shows me all the vegetables and fruits she is about to use.
8:40 a.m.: I arrive at the Highlander Accelerator building, where Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp. is located. But before heading towards my office, I stop at Hardy Coffee Co., which is located in the building, to grab some oatmeal and tea. I have been exploring the different tea blends from a local tea company, Artemis, and settle for the Einstein brew with some honey it.
9:00 a.m.: I attend a Zoom meeting with a bank representative to explore potential partnership opportunities in our community. An important aspect of promoting a healthy, vibrant community is for the community to have access to financial institutions and capital. We are excited with the development work in our neighborhood and believe that an institution would be a great addition to the area.
10:30 a.m.: I answer some more emails before hopping onto another Zoom meeting with a local architecture firm and non-profit. We discuss strategic plans to build affordable homes in the community that are innovative, incorporate sustainable features that reduce cost of construction maintenance, and more importantly reflect what the community wants.
11:40 a.m.: Our youngest high school intern, my niece, reminds me of our lunch meeting. After responding to a couple emails, I take her out on a driving tour to show her some of the work we are doing in the community and show her some of the effects of redlining and public policies that have shaped the trajectory and growth of our community.
“It is great to see how our youth are very engaged.”
12:00 p.m.: We grab lunch at a local diner in Florence called Harold’s Koffee House. It’s a family-owned restaurant with a sunken bar and retro-fitted booths from the 1960s. We discuss some of the projects we have her working on as an intern. It is great to see how our youth are very engaged, as our conversation shifts from questions she has on housing issues to non-profits to city planning.
2:00 p.m.: Our team has a meeting at the City of Omaha Planning Department. We meet the planning department and our owner’s rep to discuss our plans to build new homes in the Highlander neighborhood. We discuss our construction timeline and possible issues to be aware of regarding federal compliance issues. The meeting, although long, was very productive. I am not sure if that is because this is the first time we all are meeting in-person or if we are just happy it’s not a Zoom meeting. Either way, everybody was excited about the project moving forward.
5:30 p.m.: I return to the office to finish up some work. I grab some sweet potato pie ice cream from Big Mama’s Kitchen & Catering and stop by our event space where teachers at Howard Kennedy Elementary School are hosting a bike giveaway event for the students. There is something special about getting and learning to ride your bike for the very first time that brings me back to my childhood. The smiles on the students’ faces were priceless.
7:00 p.m.: I get home and eat dal (lentils) with some roti for dinner. Then, I head to my home office and do some journaling and brainstorming for a coffee table photo book project that will incorporate two pictures overlayed together to show the possibilities of a reimagined community. It is a work in progress but I am pretty excited with the whole process.
9:00 p.m.: I take a quick shower and get ready for bed, taking a quick look at my calendar. More importantly, I look at tomorrow’s weather and it’s going to be sunny and hot!