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Published:  June 15, 2020

By:  Willie Barney, Co-Publisher Revive Omaha

Beyond the Flames:  Why I Believe 2020 is a Turning Point

Where Do We Go From Here?

Harlem.  Watts.  Newark.  Detroit.  Omaha.  Los Angeles.  Ferguson.  Baltimore. Minneapolis.

“If we don’t learn from history, we are destined to repeat it.”
– Philosopher George Santanya and Winston Churchill

In 2014, as I watched the fires burning in Ferguson, Missouri, I wrote a piece entitled “Beyond the Flames:  Will We Get It Right This Time?”  Ferguson was burning in response to the devastating scenes following the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer.  I was so impacted and moved that I had to write down on paper what became a speech I gave at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

This followed the 2012 vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin and preceded the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody which ignited the flames in Baltimore.   The frustrating and devastating list goes on and on and continues today.

There have been other shootings of unarmed black men and black women when police officers received no repercussions from their crime.  This list also includes Omaha after the officer-involved shooting of Vivian Strong in 1969 that resulted in the destruction of North 24th Street.  The once thriving corridor is just now in the process of being rebuilt.

No justice for Eric Garner, New York, 2014.  No justice for Sandra Bland, 2015, southeast Texas.  No justice for Philando Castile 2016, suburban Minnesota.   No justice.

African-Americans have tried to send a message for decades that we are suffering.  Suffering from the lingering impacts of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation effects that were never fully addressed.  Suffering from unemployment, lack of investment, neglect, poor educational outcomes, low access to capital, over policing, poor housing conditions and so much more.  There have been small attempts to fix the situation, but nothing substantial and sustained.

A temporary reconstruction period followed the abolishment of slavery where some progress was made, but abandoned just at the time when freed slaves were finally starting to become integrated into American life.  No Justice.

There were promises made beyond the elimination of slavery.  Promises for land, property and finances for the freed slaves to get a new start at becoming full citizens.    Policies were changed to finally recognize African-Americans as being 100% human, correcting the Constitution which had declared us as 3/5ths of a man.

The original constitutional declaration allowed America to benefit economically for over 250 years from free labor through inhumane conditions.  It is referred to as the worst form of enslavement in modern history.  African-Americans helped build this country and were paid nothing for it.  No Justice.

What’s happening today is not new.  Racial tensions have raged before. There has always been a spark which kindled the flames.

These flames have come as city after city and community after community across the nation have been destroyed.

Before Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 on the promise to be a law and order president, President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) commissioned a group to find out why the cities across the country were burning.  The commission produced a document which became known as the Kerner Report.

Rather than identifying African-Americans as the cause, the report shined the light on white America.  The Kerner Commission presented the case that the blame for the riots should be placed squarely on the shoulders of underlying conditions of injustice, neglect, disinvestment, unequal treatment and systematic racism.

The report clearly states the priorities that must be addressed:  1. Unemployment and low wages.  2.  Poor educational systems.  3.  Poor housing conditions.  4. Bad relationships between police and the community.  5. Lack of services for those in poverty and the structure of welfare system.

The most important conclusion to address the injustice?  America needed to make a significant investment to right the wrongs of the past.

Little did I know until recently that the former Mayor of Omaha, A. V. Sorensen, had reached the same conclusion in 1968.  He said then that Omaha needed to bring together people from all sectors to form a coalition that would oversee a massive investment to address African-American poverty.  Nothing was done.

He left office realizing the city did not have the will or appetite to fully address the issue.  The city and nation continued redlining and driving interstates through the heart of black communities under the guise of urban redevelopment.

America chose to make small investments to address the injustice, but with a costly Vietnam War occurring at the same time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that the nation had given black America a blank check.  He said the easy part of the Civil Rights Movement was getting legislation passed for voting rights; the hard part was securing the funds to address the economic issues.  This was going to cost the nation money, King said.

For a time, mostly through programs enacted by President Johnson, some investments were made through the so-called War on Poverty.  The investments were not sustained and were not implemented anywhere near the level required.

One of the most significant statements and conclusions from the Kerner Commission was “to mount programs on the scale equal to the dimension of the problems.”  “These programs will require unprecedented levels of funding and performance…”

The report emphasized that if America didn’t respond on a large scale, we would see the creation of two America’s.  One black. One white.  Separate. Unequal.

Across the nation, we have inherited the promise.  Two Americas.  One white.  The other, everyone else (black and brown).

I wrote in the speech, after watching the flames in Ferguson, that in 1968, the nation had a decision to make.  Do we finally invest in helping African Americans become economically sound and full citizens or do we invest more in police, expanding the criminal justice system and building more prisons?

President Richard Nixon answered the question for America.  Law and order.  No Justice.

For decades, African-Americans have asked for additional investments to address employment, education, housing, health and other needs.  Funding was never available at the scale of the problem.  Communities were not rebuilt.

African-Americans asked for the promised 40 acres and a mule.  African-Americans presented plans such as the Freedom Agenda under Dr. King which proposed to end poverty in 10 years. African-Americans asked for reparations.

It is important to note reparations have been granted across the world after a specific race, ethnic group or nation was on the wrong end of injustice. The answer to these requests for African-Americans?  No funds available.  No justice.

Where would America ever come up with trillions of dollars to right this wrong?  We were always told, it would be absolutely impossible. We were told there is absolutely no way America could ever come up with trillions of dollars to address its original sin.  It’s been over 400 years since enslaved Africans were brought to these shores.

But, no recompense.  No Justice.

Instead we are told, pick yourself up by your bootstraps and help yourself.  Instead we are told, forget about slavery.  Instead we are told, you’ve had a black President.  Instead we are told, it’s a post-racial society and racism doesn’t exist.  Help yourselves, we are told.  There will be no hand up, we are told.

Cue the Coronavirus.

The virus may not be racist, but the impact surely is disproportionately destructive to African Americans and other people of color.  Health and economic inequities have been laid bare. Consequently, the virus called for a critical response.  A national response.

What does COVID-19 have to do with this justice and systemic racism?  As soon as the nation began to experience the negative economic and health impacts of the virus, immediate legislation was drafted and approved by Congress.  The Treasury Department rewrote the rules.  Trillions of dollars were miraculously found and infused into the economy to address suffering corporations, small businesses and most U.S. citizens.

In a moment of crisis, leaders can find the money.

The message this sends is that it matters who is suffering.  African-Americans have been suffering for centuries. Native Americans have been suffering for centuries.  However, when the unemployment rate for white Americans hit the same level as the African-American unemployment rate which has languished for decades, Congress and the Treasury department have taken actions to produce what is estimated at seven trillion dollars of economic activity.

The question is where did the money come from in this instance?  It’s been made abundantly clear that the nation could have made the right decision in 1865.  We could have made the right decision in 1918.  We could have made the right decision in 1968. We could have made the right decision in 1992 after Los Angeles and Rodney King.  We could have made the right decision after Ferguson in 2014.  We could have made the right decision after Baltimore in 2015.

No justice.   No peace.   Fast forward.

Cue the final spark.

Watching an unarmed black man, George Floyd, die a horrific death with the knee of a white police officer on his neck, and 2 other officers on his prone body behind the car, the image was finally too much. African-Americans have experienced police brutality and violence for decades, but this was filmed, became a viral moment on social media, and impossible to ignore, deny or cover up.  Breaking point.

In the midst of a pandemic which has killed over 100,000 Americans and disproportionately impacted African Americans and people of color, we once again are face to face with injustice and racism.

After being locked away in their homes for nearly three months and watching the video from Minneapolis and dozens of other racial events within a few weeks, cities across the country and internationally have erupted with protests and flames are once again burning in America.

What to do now?  Where’s the hope?

We know what needs to be done.  We have known for decades.  Case study after case study, commission after commission and book after book, have boiled down to economics, education, housing, equal access to health care and people working together to address poverty and systemic racism.

 

Part II:  Moving to Solutions

Omaha might not be in flames now, but we have a playbook.  George Fraser has called Omaha the Montgomery of the economic rights movement.  Pastor Freddie Haynes calls it the Selma of the next great movement.  They and others believe there are answers in Omaha.

On a personal level, after years of reading, researching and studying solutions, we embarked nearly fifteen years ago on a journey to move the dial and change the trajectory of our community.  Hundreds of organizations and thousands of residents, both youth and adults, have participated.  Both black and white.  Both civilian and police.   North, South, East and West.

I’m hopeful because through collaboration, we have made measurable progress in 8 of 10 key areas.

Through the collective efforts of hundreds of organizations and thousands of residents:

  • Gun violence was decreased by 74%
  • African-American high school graduation rates increased from 64% to 81%.
  • The percentage of African-Americans with a bachelor’s degree increased from 16% to 22%.
  • African-American unemployment was reduced from nearly 21% to 7.5%.
  • Employment for youth increased from 30 summer jobs to over 1,000.
  • The African-American poverty rate was reduced from 33% to 24%.
  • A new grocery store was built, some neighborhood stores were converted and fresh fruit and vegetables were brought to the community.
  • The Affordable HealthCare Act reduced the percentage of uninsured and did not penalize for pre-existing conditions.
  • Major revitalization efforts were launched, securing hundreds of millions of dollars in public/private investments.
  • A new wave of innovative black entrepreneurs is emerging.

One of the most significant areas of progress is the work we’ve done collectively to build stronger partnerships between police and community and begin addressing justice issues.  Body cameras, diversity training, open communication, police diversity and reductions of use of force have resulted from collaboration.  In Omaha, a city of 460,000, there has been one officer involved shooting in the past eighteen months.  Cities across the nation are looking to replicate the Omaha 360, a nationally recognized model.

To be sure, we never thought the work was done.  We know significant gaps still exist. Yet, we also know that it is possible to move the dial.

In 2014, partly fueled by the flames of Ferguson, we made a proposal to accelerate the progress of African-Americans and North Omaha and identified the level of investment it would require. The plan became known as Transformation 2025 Initiative.  It was based on the input of over 8,000 people, implementation of successful projects and aligned with the findings of the Kerner Report and Freedom Agenda.

We secured some initial investments.  We aligned efforts.  We built effective collaborations.  We pushed for large scale investments with specific goals, strategies, initiatives, programs and policies identified.

The areas where we secured funds we have been able to produce tangible, measurable results.  But when it came to the larger proposals, we were told there are no additional funds.

“Where would we ever find that level of funding?”

Omaha can find the funds when it becomes a priority.   Hundreds of millions of dollars for downtown redevelopment.  $140 million for the TD Ameritrade baseball stadium. Hundreds of millions for a new Buffett Cancer Center.  $200 million just approved by citizens to improve streets and the list goes on.  To be clear, these are all great investments for the City of Omaha.  I stand in full support.  They are all needed and benefit the city and region.  However, these investments prove the point: Omaha and other cities can move the dial and we can find the resources to do what we prioritize.

As described by Obama Foundation officials who visited our community, “Omaha is a get it done city.”

We are now faced with the same decision that the nation and city confronted in 1968.

Invest in people or invest in prisons?   Invest in residents or invest in buildings.  Invest in prevention or invest in penalties.  Invest in proactive solutions or civil unrest.

In 2020, what decision will we make?  This is our turning point.

We know how to put out the fire.  I believe that collectively, with the fires raging and in the midst of a pandemic, we will make the right decision.  In the words of Dr. King, “We will finally make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

As African-Americans, we must unite and do our part.  Support black businesses and businesses in North Omaha.  Vote.  Create generational wealth. Continue reinforcing the importance of education.  Take care of our health.  Work together to address justice and reform.  Engage with the community to address race relations and inequities.  Use all of our gifts and assets.  Partner with allies.

Omaha.  America.  You must do your part.  Listen.  Allow African-Americans and residents from neighborhoods most impacted to lead. Partner and support.  Be an ally.  Implement new policies to reform the justice system.  It is time to invest at the scale of the problem.

Invest in entrepreneurship and access to credit and capital.  Invest in employment, diversity and higher wages.  Invest in safe, affordable housing and mixed income neighborhoods.  Invest in education and high performing school models.  Invest in prevention, intervention, community policing and reentry programs.  Invest to make healthcare accessible and affordable for all.

We can all win.  Let’s design a society and democracy that works for all of its citizens.  The rest of the world is watching.  Will this grand experiment finally and fully become what it can be?  A place where all citizens are spiritually, economically and socially thriving, healthy and prosperous.

In Omaha, the early indications from all sectors is that it will be different this time.  We have the will and the appetite to make this the turning point.  We can put the flames out for good this time.

______________________________________________

Two additional thoughts.  There are other plans that have been developed and numerous individuals and groups who are working diligently on their initiatives, projects, programs and policies.  Our goal is to create a combined plan that we can all work on together and do our part in a collaborative way.

In addition, many individuals, organizations, foundations, businesses and ministries have invested tremendous amounts of time, talent and treasure into various initiatives generating measurable outcomes.  We should pause and recognize these committed partners.  Now, together, we will focus more intensely on wealth, health and ownership.

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Careers

LIVE from 24th and Lake (Virtual) and Launch of First Fridays

Published:  December 4, 2020

Revive Omaha is excited to partner with Omaha African-American Employee Resource Groups, Black Employee Networks, the Empowerment Network and 30+ corporations, businesses and organizations, to announce the launch of:

LIVE! from The Village at 24th & Lake
A Virtual Event for African-American Professionals to Gather & Celebrate Black Culture


FRIDAY, DECEMBER 11, 2020

6 pm to 9 pm (ish)

The event is presented by Omaha African-American Employee Resource Groups, Black Employee Networks, African-American Professionals Networks, Empowerment Network, Revive Black Business Network and others.

Please register and join us for the introduction of First Fridays Omaha at 24th and Lake!  On Friday, December 11, we will gather virtually for a one of kind social event geared to African-American professionals.

We will also provide more information on First Fridays Omaha which will start in January 2021.  The events will begin virtually and evolve into in person events at 24th and Lake and other locations throughout the city.

Register here:  https://firstfridaysomaha.com/

The event will feature three musical artists (Dani Cleveland, Big Wade and the Black Swan Theory and Maurisa Mansaray), a DJ, spoken word artist Felicia Webster, and interactive activities including games, art/painting, networking and much more.  (and maybe a bit of virtual dancing)

Register free for the event.  Order food from a black restaurant.  Then, join us for this amazing virtual event on Friday, Dec. 11th.

The event builds on the success of the Empowerment Network’s African-American Leadership Conference, African-American Professionals Network, Redefine the Game and partnership with AAERG’s, BEN’s and Diversity & Inclusion Groups from corporations and organizations in Omaha.

Live from 24th and Lake is sponsored by OPPD, the Chief Human Resources Officers Leadership Council and Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Roundtable.

The first thing to do is to register.

Register here:  https://firstfridaysomaha.com/

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NEWS

Virtual Shopping: Christmas in the Village Special Edition Business Directory

The 10th Annual Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake will be a DRIVE THRU event this year.  There will be no foot traffic, but you can still support North 24th Street Businesses, North Omaha businesses and African-American businesses virtually.

Access the 2020 Christmas in the Village Special Edition here:  https://reviveomahamagazine.com/business-directory/

 

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Community News

Over 300 leaders gathered virtually for 9th Annual AALC

Published:  September 27, 2020

The Empowerment Network’s 9th Annual African-American Leadership Conference was held virtually on Thursday and Friday, Sept 24th and 25th.  

Hundreds of leaders and influencers convened with the understanding that the economic progress of African-Americans has a direct and positive impact on people of all races and ethnicities.

Research conducted by MAPA shows that in the Omaha/Council Bluffs region, the area would experience an increase of $4 billion in economic activity by addressing racial inequities and maximizing its diversity.    

The AALC event has grown into one of the largest gatherings of African-American leaders in the nation focused on economic progress and closing wealth, health and educational gaps.

The theme this year was “The Turning Point and a New Path Forward.”

“After an unprecedented year of addressing what can be considered as four pandemics, including health, economics, police/community tensions and racial justice, African-American leaders and allies from across the country gathered virtually for two days of inspiring and results-oriented discussion, strategy and action,” said Willie Barney, President of the Empowerment Network.

“We believe this year, even with all of its challenges, can be a year of transformation for African-Americans and others.”

“We really focused attention on ownership, wealth and career advancement,” said Vicki Quaites-Ferris, Director of Operations for the Empowerment Network.  “This was one of the best groups of national, regional and local speakers we’ve ever had for the conference.”

National strategist and thought leaders joined local and regional experts to focus on solutions including career advancement, entrepreneurship, home ownership, revitalization, reducing violence, educating and preparing our youth, improving access to health and healthy foods and building stronger communities.

Thursday night kicked off with a powerful presentation by Dr. Randal Pinkett, CEO of BCT Partners, on the benefits of racial equity and diversity.  And, for the first time, the conference featured a special regional panel.

Leaders from Minneapolis, Ferguson/St. Louis, Kansas City, Madison, Quad-Cities and Cleveland discussed the racial disparities faced by African-Americans in the Midwest and the innovative solutions being implemented on the ground in those cities to address the gaps.

Mayor Melvin Carter, the first African-American mayor of Saint Paul, Minnesota participated in a lively and informative session focused on public policy to directly address poverty and building wealth.

Teresa Hunter, CEO of Family Housing Advisory Services and John Ewing, Douglas County Treasurer, shared briefly about the collective and collaborative strategies that resulted in measurable outcomes for African-Americans in Omaha, pre-Covid, and new recommendations to maintain and accelerate progress during and beyond the crisis.   Cities from across the nation have expressed an interest in replicating models developed and implemented in Omaha to reduce unemployment, decrease gun violence, improve educational outcomes and catalyze large scale revitalization.

Hall of Fame business leader, George Fraser, CEO of FraserNet along with Dr. Pamela Jolly, CEO of Torch Enterprises and Jaylen Bledsoe, 22 year old CEO of Bledsoe Collective, closed out the evening with a national panel examining how the simultaneous pandemics are impacting African-Americans across the country and outlining strategies to transform this moment into a turning point.

Friday was a full day of large group keynote presentations from the main auditorium and interactive breakout sessions featuring national and local speakers focused on addressing poverty and closing gaps by building wealth.  The virtual conference web-site was designed by Michael Young of Technology Consulting Solutions and Jonathan Chapman of the Empowerment Network and Church on Purpose.  Chapman also managed the production of the two days of interactive media and speakers.

The day started with a historical look at how policies and systems have impacted African-Americans and created some of the issues faced today including tension between police and black communities and the large and growing wealth gap.

Barry Thomas, Director of Equity and Inclusion at Omaha Public Schools and former Director of Social Studies, gave a compelling presentation on the history of African-Americans in the state including the parents of Malcolm X.  Thomas pointed out that the state of Nebraska came in to existence partly because of the Haitian revolution which caused France to sell land to the United States known as the Louisiana Purchase.

Morning presentations and panels followed focused on building wealth, scaling black-owned businesses, advancing careers, and implementing effective equity and diversity plans.

Dr. Pamela Jolly delivered an insightful piece on key aspects for building wealth and announced the launch of 2nd cohort of the Omaha Legacy Wealth Initiative.  David Stevens, Senior Financial Consultant and Certified Financial Planner at TD Ameritrade provided an insightful overview of key considerations for making strategic investments.

Pastor Martin Williams, pastor of Ambassador Worship Center and CEO of Barak II, LLC, a real estate development and investment company, provided attendees with the ACCESS code for scaling black businesses.  BC Clark, manager at Nebraska Enterprise Fund, gave 12 key elements and secrets to help black businesses create jobs.  Candice Price, owner of two businesses including HomeTeam Auto, highlighted important solutions to help black business with growth.

Dr. Randal Pinkett and three members of the Redefine the Game cohort gave a stirring, challenging and empowering presentation on the topic bringing our authentic selves into the work environment.  Pinkett played a video clip featuring the late Chadwick Boseman as he played one of his most memorable roles, Jackie Robinson in 42.  “God made me to last,” Robinson replied after being challenged by racists as he broke the color barrier in the major leagues.

Dr. Strong, Director of Inclusion at UNMC, sent a special message for women in the audience in recognition of the decision regarding Breonna Taylor.  Dr. Chris Whitt, Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion at Creighton University, reminded attendees that they cannot leave their identity and who they are at home.  And, LaKeisha Gatson-Dunham shared wisdom about advancing in the corporate Omaha while still being authentic.  All said the Redefine the Game Institute was a great place to network, build a cohort of strength and helped them to confirm their purpose.

For the fourth year in a row, a panel of local CEOs highlighted their personal and professional commitments to support African-American led initiatives and strategies.

The conference included announcements of Big and Bold Commitments and Actions from CEO’s and other leaders as part of the next phase of the Transformation 2025 plan.

One CEO gave a preliminary report of partnering with the Network and others to bring as many as 200 jobs to North Omaha.  A formal announcement is coming soon.

Another CEO provided an updated on the innovative partnership with the Carver Legacy Center and a commitment to assist with community revitalization efforts.

The final CEO on the panel gave an overview of his companies commitment to do more business with black-owned and minority-owned businesses.

These are just a few examples from three of 15 CEO’s that have made Big & Bold Commitments.  More announcements are coming in the next few months.

Participants were encouraged to purchase lunch from black owned restaurants.  In addition, throughout the day attendees participated in online networking sessions, interacted with speakers and attended a virtual black business expo.  A number of businesses presented their products and services in a virtual environment.

John Beasley, a North Omaha native, was recognized with the African-American Legends Award for his international work and success in the areas of acting, directing and producing.  

The afternoon featured well-attended sessions on:   addressing racial unrest and the health pandemic; preparing youth to lead; creating new models for black-led revitalization; developing districts and spaces where African-Americans and others can gather socially for arts, culture and entertainment; and mobilizing voters to impact policy.

National leaders and Strategic Advisors included:  George Fraser, CEO – FraserNet; Dr. Randal Pinkett, CEO –BCT Partners; Dr. Pamela Jolly, CEO – Torch Enterprises; Marshawn Evans-Daniels, CEO – FaithPreneur; Jaylen Bledsoe, CEO – Bledsoe Collective; Shawn Dove, CEO – Black Male Achievement and Mayor Melvin Carter, first African-American mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Regional speakers and panelists included:  Tawanna Black, CEO and Founder – Center for Economic Inclusion; Dr. John Odom, Founder of Charles Hamilton Houston Institute; Dr. Lance McCarthy, Founder – Ferguson 1000; Klassie Alcine – Executive Director – KC Common Good; and Tracy Singleton, Director Quad-City Empowerment Network.

Local leaders included:  Dr. Cheryl Logan –Superintendent-Omaha Public Schools; John Ewing, Jr. – Douglas County Treasurer; Ben Gray – City Councilman – District 2; Richard Webb – CEO – 100 Black Men of Omaha; and 30+ speakers and panelists.

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