Rebuilding The Village: Empowerment Journey

by Willie Barney

Seven years ago, the question was “can we work together to make measurable, tangible change in our community?”

Seven years later, the resounding answer is, absolutely! The positive changes are gaining the attention of leaders and cities across the nation. This news may come as a surprise to some because most of the media’s attention is directed towards the negative aspects of our community. To be clear, there are major issues and significant gaps related to employment, education, housing and quality of life yet to be fully solved, but the collective results after seven years are promising and encouraging.

To put things in perspective, it is important to remember what was happening eight years ago. In 2006, the graduation rate for African-American young men was less than 50%. Gun violence was moving towards a record high. After a peak of 3,000 jobs in the 80’s and 90’s, there were only 30 organized summer jobs for at-risk youth. There were very few positive events and activities in the 24th and Lake St. area and the Malcolm X Foundation did not have a building or many activities on the site. 30th and Parker was identified as one of the most violent corners and neighborhoods in the entire city. A 2005 study by the Omaha Economic Development Corporation revealed that North Omaha was the same or worse off since the original studies in the late 70’s. And, to cap it all off, the World-Herald, using 2006 data showed that African-American child poverty was the highest in the country.

On April 27, 2007, the Empowerment Network publically launched the Empower Omaha! initiative and the Empowerment Covenant under the theme of “Do Your Part! Rise Up and Rebuild the Village.” The group had been meeting for nearly a year in small groups which eventually led to large summits and forums attracting hundreds of residents. With George Fraser as the keynote speaker, a nationally known business executive and networking expert, 150 leaders came together to officially launch the Empowerment strategies for individuals and leaders. There was excitement, but the big question was, “how long would it last and would it make much of a difference?”

At the heart of the message were three key principles, personal responsibility, leadership accountability and comprehensive collaboration. The Empowerment Network set out to “connect, communicate, coordinate, collaborate, create and celebrate.” Every meeting started with individuals reviewing their own commitment and actions. Leaders were convened to review the trends and develop specific plans of action. And, there was a strong realization that no individual organization, church, business or single governmental agency could accomplish everything that was necessary to change the trajectory for African-Americans and the North Omaha community.

So, what about the “measurable, tangible results?” Seven years later because of collaboration, alignment and initial investments, progress has indeed occurred. Graduation rates have increased from 55% to 75%. Reading and math scores are on the rise, up as much as 15% over the past four years. The gun violence rate is down -43% in Northeast Omaha and -26% citywide since the launch of the Empowerment Network’s Omaha 360 Collaboration. Over 2,400 summer jobs for at-risk youth have been created since the launch of the Great Summer Jobs Program and Step-Up Omaha. Hundreds of housing units have been developed. 30th and Parker is the heart of the 75 North Revitalization efforts and Prospect Village plan. An art, culture, business and entertainment district is emerging at 24th and Lake St. and Malcolm X has its own center. 13,000 plus North Omaha residents have been registered to vote. Over 30 important pieces of legislation have been passed. Major cultural events like MLK Week, Stroll Down Memory Lane and Christmas in the Village have been launched with thousands attending. Healthier foods and more preventative health care are more accessible in North Omaha. Well over $200 million in revitalization projects has occurred, with $200 million more currently underway.

African-Americans and North Omaha residents are actively engaged and involved in the design, development, implementation and evaluation of large and small initiatives that directly impact our community. A key part of the success; the plans at the heart of the Empowerment Network are the direct result of surveying, polling and gathering feedback and recommendations from over 3,000 residents and 1,000+ youth and young adults. This plan was created and developed by African-Americans, North Omaha residents and partners from throughout the city.

With the support and involvement of hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals, African-Americans, North Omaha residents and the citizens of Greater Omaha have experienced positive changes on many fronts. While there’s still much work ahead and the level of improvements aren’t typically well covered by the media, some truly amazing things are happening in Omaha. Some negative long-term trends have been reversed; progress has been accelerated and built on the momentum of a 10 year strategic plan, referred to as the Transformation 2025 Initiative.

The Empowerment Network Collaboration has been one of the catalysts, but many efforts, initiatives and projects are contributing to the overall changes. New collaborations, organizations and projects in the areas of employment, entrepreneurship, education, housing, transportation, faith, violence prevention, health, healthy families, media and the arts have been created.

Along the way, many organizations, initiatives and both large and small scale efforts have been launched. The launch of the Empowerment Network happened at nearly the same time as the creation of other large scale collaborations including; Building Bright Futures, the Chamber’s North Omaha Development Project, Learning Community and substantial increased investments in education and other initiatives by the Sherwood Foundation, Weitz Family Foundation, Lozier Foundation, Holland Foundation, William and Ruth Scott Foundation and other philanthropic organizations. City, county and state elected officials have started to make more targeted investments in North Omaha. In addition, the Omaha Public Schools District has launched and implemented significant education reforms. Both the previous board and the new board have made significant changes to improve outcomes for all students. With a new strategic plan now approved and in place with key goals, there are high expectations across the community. The reality is, and history will reveal that there were plenty of times where leaders of the various initiatives were at odds. But, the results speak for themselves. Collectively, Omaha is in a much better position than it was seven years ago.

Originally designed and created by African-Americans and North Omaha residents, the Empowerment Network has grown to include participants of all races from throughout the region and nation. With some measurable successes now in the rear view mirror and significant issues still at hand, the community is setting much larger and more aggressive goals of becoming number one in the nation for employment, entrepreneurship, education and quality of life through the Transformation 2025 Initiative. With strategic collaboration, alignment and targeted investments, Omaha will be the first city in the country to close long-standing gaps which have traditionally been based on racial and geographic segregation. Omaha will be transformed into a great city, thriving and prosperous, in every zip code and neighborhood.