7th Annual Charles Hamilton Houston Institute
Creating Supportive Villages
|Mr. Willie Barney, the founder, president and facilitator of
empowerment for Empower Omaha-The
“We started with some initial meetings, not too much different than this,” Barney said. “At this time, it was African Americans coming together to say that we
need to develop a plan for ourselves. There have been plans developed for us. But this is one that we are going to develop for ourselves. We agreed to meet
on Saturday mornings. It started with just three of us. Then it was seven. And then it was 70. By the time we had a forum, there were 300 people who came
together and developed what we called The Empowerment Plan.”
There were four areas that the collaborative focused on: education, violence reduction, youth and adult employment, and youth entrepreneurialism. The first
step was improving the academic success for African American students.
“We developed a comprehensive community-based strategy that says we have to have resources in these schools,” Barney said. “We have to have family
engagement in these schools, early childhood investment, strong principals and on down the list. We had a comprehensive list of what needed to happen next.
Then working with the school district — not throwing stones at them, but sitting down at the table with them — we developed a comprehensive plan and the
school district then began to align their resources to those schools that had the highest needs with REACH reading facilitators, math facilitators and on down
the line. So when people said, ‘Too bad, we can’t do anything about it; it’s always been like that,’ if you put the resources in, you get families involved, you
work together collectively, we know that we can succeed in these schools. With all of these meetings and all of this collaboration, we’ve seen our graduation
rate go from 49 to 81 percent for African American students. We were below the national percent for African Americans with a college degree. We are now
above the average as far as percent of African Americans who have a college degree.”
Empower Omaha has the basic philosophy that the entire Omaha metropolitan area is connected and so that everyone must be a part of the solution. For the
reduction of youth violence, they again used a collaborative, comprehensive approach that was data driven. The strategy included the police department.
“We worked with the police department,” Barney said. “Some people in the community didn’t want to hear that. They didn’t even want to be in the same room.
The police department didn’t want to come to the meetings because they said when they come to the meetings, they get beat up. So I had to facilitate a
conversation between the chief and the neighborhood groups. That has grown from three people meeting every Wednesday to now over 70, sometimes 100
people. That’s every Wednesday. Just because you do it once or you have a plan, a strategy and strong relationships, you have to realize it is ongoing thing.
We have reduced gun violence by 80 percent in North Omaha.”
But that doesn’t mean everything is perfect. While Barney was in Madison, an incident between some police officers and neighborhood residents occurred at a
festival. When he got back, Barney was going to have to bring the different parties together with a tough conversation.
The third area they collaboration worked on was youth employment. Empower Omaha was going to wait around for others to offer the neighborhood youth jobs.
If necessary, they were going to create the jobs themselves.
“We in the African American community began to put our money together,” Barney said. “And over a couple of weekends, we raised individually $30,000. We
said, ‘If no one else will hire our kids, we’ll start hiring them.’ We created an employment program just for the summer. We hired 150 people that first year and I
can tell you that after a few years, the city saw what we were doing. They invested and now the city carves out one million dollars a year to help with this
program. The county has put $200,000 in. United Way put $210,000 in it. We’ve grown from the $30,000 that we invested ourselves to now having a program
that this year will be at $2.1 million, the largest youth employment program in the state of Nebraska. At one point, the unemployment rate for African Americans
was 20.7 percent in Omaha. It’s now below seven percent. We talking from 20.7 to seven percent unemployment.”
For Empower Omaha, it wasn’t okay just to have the youth employed. They also needed to be engaged and empowered in their community.
“As a part of a job, they learn about the city budget and the county budget,” Barney emphasized. “And then at the end of the summer, they come down and they
present to the city council their strategies to improve the community. It’s called a mock city council. They go to the mayor’s office. They interact with the mayor.
They discuss the budget with the mayor, what they would do differently and what streets they would pave and what housing needs to be improved. They are a
part of civic engagement and leadership. In addition to that, we want to make sure they understand robotics, IT, automotive and construction.”
And finally, they wanted the youth not just to see themselves as workers, being employed in other people’s jobs. They wanted them to be empowered to create
their own jobs, to create their own businesses so that their neighborhoods and the greater Omaha community is thriving.
“In addition to understanding careers, IT, construction and technology, we want them to be able to own their own businesses,” Barney said. “Four years ago,
we began to teach 400 of them about social entrepreneurship, doing business, but also giving back at the same time. And so what we did this year is we had
75 of them go through a concentrated program with a young man out of St. Louis, Jalen Bledsoe, who became a millionaire at age 14. He worked with them for
a week and then we had another person work with them. Ten of them decided to go ahead and start their business. They had four weeks to do this. Last week,
they came together and presented their ideas. They actually created products and generated $5,000 among those 10 14-15-year-olds by their own businesses.”
While North Omaha and the greater Omaha area hasn’t become heaven on earth, it has become an example that the African American community can
empower itself to actively and positively develop the African American community in collaboration with other community actors. The approach has to be big
picture and data driven and driven by community members who are committed to doing what is best for the community and its members and not concerned
about “empire building.”
Part 2 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
At the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute’s 7th Annual Awards Luncheon held August 8th
at the Best Western Premier Park Hotel, Willie Barney — the founder, president and
facilitator of empowerment for Empower Omaha-The Empowerment Network — spoke
about the network that he represents and the collaborative work that they have done to
uplift Omaha’s African American community — and the greater Omaha area as a whole.
Empower Omaha is a network of individuals and organizations who are committed to
uplifting the entire community, a movement where all boats rise together and not where
some large ships rise to the detriment of others.
The effort began simply enough with a few people coming together.