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Step-Up Omaha Alumnus, Elijah Mitchell, Meets with President Barack Obama

Step-Up Omaha Alumnus, Elijah Mitchell, Meets with President Barack Obama and Steph Curry at MBK Rising!

All eyes were on Elijah Mitchell as 2000 attendees were looking at him on stage.

“Did I really just meet and speak with President Obama and Steph Curry? Unbelievable. It’s all starting to sink in,” Mitchell said after the experience.

He posted images and videos of himself and President Obama on social media. His Facebook page and Snapchat lit up with hundreds of likes and shares. Mitchell, a Step Up alumnus joined an Omaha contingency on the trip to Oakland, California to attend the Obama Foundation’s first MBK Rising! national conference. The event marked and celebrated the five year anniversary of the launch of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Movement (MBK) after the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin. The movement focuses on the success of boys and young men of color.

Photo: ©2019 Revive! Omaha

Thousands of young men, mentors, non-profit executives, local and national leaders, and celebrities from across the globe came together for an inspiring, challenging and power-packed three-day event. In addition to President Obama and Golden State Warrior’s Steph Curry, internationally known figures including John Legend, Michael B. Jordan, Susan Taylor, and many others participated in the groundbreaking gathering.

Every aspect of the conference was full of energy and incredibly moving. It started with a day of service at local schools and included a town hall, music, food, main stage interviews, and informative breakout sessions. Topics focused on equity, policy, mentoring, violence prevention and story-telling. The entire conference was intentionally inclusive, featuring Native American, African-American, Hispanic and Asian youth.

Photo: ©2019 Obama Foundation

Mitchell joined Willie Barney, President of the Empowerment Network; Shelley Henderson, MBK of the Heartland Leader; Moniki Cannon, Step-Up Omaha Employment Director for the Empowerment Network; Deborah Neary, Executive Director for MentorNebraska; and, Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers.

Mitchell and twenty three other young men were selected to share the stage with President Obama and Golden State Warriors Steph Curry in a town hall format. Obama and Curry took questions from the young men and provided insights based on their own life experiences. Mitchell was also provided the exciting opportunity to pose a question directly to President Obama. He was also able to take photos and spend time with President Obama and the other young men, including new found friends from across the U.S.

Photo: ©2019 Revive! Omaha

“How many 17-year-olds have this type of experience or even adults for that matter?” asked Moniki Cannon. “To have the chance to meet, talk with, shake hands and even dap up the 44th President of the United States. This reinforces our vision. There are no limits to where Step-Up Omaha can take you.”

Mitchell started as an intern with Step-Up and worked at American National Bank for the summer. He did such an exceptional job and was offered a year-round position while completing his senior year at Central High School and has become a lead teller.

“We are so excited for Elijah,” said Wende Kotouc, Executive Co-Chairman for American National Bank. “He is an outstanding young man and we are honored to have him on our team.” Kotouc and American National Bank were the first business sponsors of Step-Up Omaha and have hired over 50 interns since the inception of the program. Like Mitchell, a number of them have become full-time employees.

Photo: ©2019 Revive! Omaha

Obama Foundation Selects Empowerment Network and MBK of the Heartland

In November 2018, Omaha, represented by The Empowerment Network and MBK of the Heartland was selected by the Obama Foundation as one of 15 cities to receive an Impact or Seed Award after a nationwide community challenge. Over 200 applicants submitted detailed applications with the Empowerment Network receiving a SEED grant of $50,000 to help grow Step-Up Omaha!

The goals are to serve a more diverse group of participants, connect them to mentors and expand STEM opportunities. Step-Up Omaha has helped to connect 5,000 youth and young adults to career exploration, jobs, and careers over the past 12 years.

Photo: ©2019 Obama Foundation

“Our goal is to build a long-term partnership with the Obama Foundation to accelerate the pace of progress in Omaha,” said Barney. “We are thankful for the amazing partners that have worked with us the past 12 years and look forward to even greater things ahead as we work with the Obama Foundation and MBK Alliance. It’s great to be part of this national movement.”

Barney was also invited by the Obama Foundation to serve as a speaker during a breakout session at the MBK first national convening. The session was facilitated by Michael McAfee, President, and CEO of the PolicyLink.

“We are honored to be a part of this collaboration,” said Deb Neary, Executive Director of MentorNebraska and Nebraska Board of Education member. “This is an amazing opportunity for Omaha.” It was Neary who notified the team and recommended that the Empowerment Network become the lead applicant for the Community Challenge.

Photo: ©2019 Obama Foundation

Based on its collaborative work and twelve years of collective success, the Obama Foundation has also identified the Empowerment Network as a model that should be expanded and replicated across the United States. Another key aspect of submitting a strong application was the Network’s experience with leading the Omaha African-American Male Achievement Collaborative in partnership with the National League of Cities, PolicyLink, City of Omaha, Omaha Public Schools and forty plus community partners.

Representatives from the Obama Foundation visited Omaha last year to make the final selections. They were impressed with the extensive collaboration, partnerships, and results generated in Omaha. The Obama Foundation will work with the Empowerment Network and MBK of the Heartland for the next two years to advance and expand their local models focused on the success of boys and men of color. An executive from the Obama Foundation will visit Omaha in the spring of 2019.

Photo: ©2019 Obama Foundation

“It was obvious to us that the team in Omaha is working together consistently to make a positive impact,” said Burnell Holland, Obama Foundation representative. “They didn’t just come into a room to impress us, it was obvious they have established powerful and productive partnerships.”

Omaha and the Empowerment Network would not have had the opportunity to apply for the community challenge grant if not for the efforts of Shelly Henderson, Earl Redrick, Regional HUD Director, and Commissioner Chris Rodgers. They along with 200 other cities took up the challenge offered by President Obama before he left office. Henderson led efforts to host a series of events and facilitated the development of a local action plan.

“I’m glad that we were able to bring together a regional collaboration of groups representing African-American, Native American, Hispanic/Latino and Asian communities,” said Henderson. “Creating the MBK action plan allowed us to keep the door open for the transition to the Obama Foundation.”

Commissioner Rodgers had this to say, “This is an extreme honor and should be seen as a high vote of confidence that Douglas County and the City of Omaha were selected to be a part of this gathering. We have done some trend-setting work, and it renewed me personally.  I hope it renewed all of us to dig in to go to the next level to address the specific issues of young boys and girls of color over the next five years.”

The goal for the team is to help more Omaha boys and young men of color to connect with their purpose, establish big goals and experience high levels of success in school, life, careers, and entrepreneurial endeavors. Young men, just like Elijah Mitchell.

Photo: ©2019 Obama Foundation

Mitchell, along with other Step-Up Omaha alumni, was a part of the team that presented to the Obama Foundation when they visited Omaha. He is excited to be a part of the next phase. As he prepares to enter college next year to study finance, Mitchell is reaching out to other students to share his once in a lifetime experience and get more youth engaged with Step-Up and other community initiatives.

As Moniki Cannon, Employment Director for Step-Up Omaha says, “There are no limits.”

To learn more about MBK Rising! visit

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Community Features

1,200+ attend Rebuilding the Village Conference featuring Eric Thomas

OMAHA, Neb. – June 11, 2024 – On Friday, June 7, more than 1,200 attendees walked through the doors of  the CHI Health Center Omaha & Hilton Omaha Downtown to listen to captivating speakers during the 17th Annual Rebuilding the Village Conference and Luncheon. Hosted by the Empowerment Network, the event also featured the Revive Omaha Black Business Expo, as well as a powerful and energizing speech delivered by keynote speaker Eric Thomas, Ph.D., a New York Times best-selling author, educator and motivational guru.

“Think Big and Take Action! The Rebuilding the Village Conference was a tremendous success, bringing together local and national leaders, visionaries and community members who are committed to making a tangible difference,” said Willie Barney, CEO and founder, Empowerment Network. “We were able to convene over 1,200 participants including 600 youth from our Step-Up Omaha program.  This conference is more than an event; it’s a movement that empowers teamwork to revitalize our communities. Together, we are forging a path towards sustainable growth and collective prosperity.”

Timothy Christian, Board Chair, Empowerment Network and CEO Night Fox Entertainment, Eric Thomas ET and Willie Barney, CEO and Founder, Empowerment Network.  Photo Credit Nehemiah Barney

The Rebuilding the Village Conference and Luncheon brought together community leaders, activists, entrepreneurs and stakeholders to address critical issues facing underserved communities. With a strong focus on professional and community development, this year’s conference was centered around career advancement, DEI, entrepreneurship, leadership development and wealth building. Sessions were designed to enhance collaboration and strengthen the economic impact in Omaha and beyond.

As keynote speaker, Thomas talked about the importance of inclusive leadership strategies, purpose with emphasis on working collectively. “As a leader, you have to stop ambushing, as a leader, you have to stop doing the one-on-one, as the leader, you have to stop being in isolation,” said Thomas. “You’ve got to understand why [purpose] is so significant; it’s so significant because whoever you are, whatever assignment you’re on, you have to fulfill that assignment.  You are better when you move together.”

Supported in part by the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a program of The Obama Foundation, the Empowerment Network is dedicated to building safe and thriving communities through economic, educational and social success. Programs like Omaha 360 and Step-Up Omaha exemplify these efforts. My Brother’s Keeper Alliance promotes supportive communities for boys and young men of color, ensuring they feel valued and have clear pathways to opportunity.

With representation from New Orleans, Kansas City, Lansing, Tulsa, Pittsburgh, Memphis, St. Louis and other national cities, attendees came far and wide to network, build community and grow professionally and personally during this year’s conference.

This year’s agenda also included special sessions just for Step-Up youth which aligns with the mission of My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.  Breakout sessions focused on driving change, community investment and connecting students with their gifts and strengths.

“There’s always more work ahead, but we have seen a measurable impact through our collective work and collaboration with hundreds of organizations and the engagement of thousands,” said Barney. “Step-Up students are graduating from high school, going to college and entering the workforce.  Graduates of Legacy Wealth are buying homes, launching and scaling businesses, saving and investing.  Alumni of Redefine the Game are receiving promotions, advancing their careers and moving into leadership. We are launching the next round of these cohorts and two others focused on fund development and leadership.”

In the coming months, the Empowerment Network is working with partners to launch the next phase of transformation this summer – pathway to careers, wealth and ownership. Additional growth opportunities including:

  • Connecting 200 more youth per year to the Step-Up youth employment and entrepreneurship programs, to grow to 1,000 students per summer within three years
  • Expanding STEAM programming including drones, robotics, music production, entrepreneurship and culinary.
  • Launching Skill Up! and EmPower Up! for hundreds of North Omaha adult residents to increase wages by providing wrap around and certified educational services
  • Investing in small businesses, entrepreneurship, tourism and job creation
  • Expanding efforts to reduce gun violence by an additional 50%
  • Assisting 250 organizations, small businesses, neighborhoods and churches with capacity-building

As an effort to invest back into Omaha’s Black-owned businesses, the conference featured entrepreneurs during the Black Business Expo, in addition to three breakout sessions specifically for small business owners.

More than 20 panel discussions and interactive workshops led by industry experts and community leaders were also held.

“We greatly appreciate all the attendees, sponsors, speakers, volunteers and all engaged.  We encourage you to support small businesses and stay engaged,” said Barney.

To learn more about the Rebuilding the Village Conference visit To stay connected with the Empowerment Network and learn about upcoming events, visit Follow Empowerment Network on Facebook at


About the Empowerment Network

The Empowerment Network is a nonprofit organization committed to advancing economic, social, and civic progress within Omaha’s African American community, North Omaha and the region. Through collaborative efforts and innovative initiatives, the Empowerment Network strives to create opportunities for empowerment and transformation in every zip code and neighborhood in Omaha and beyond.


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Community Features

2024 Revive Omaha Black Business Guide

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Community Features

New cohorts prepare to launch…Leadership, Fund Development, Wealth Building & Career Advancement


Great News!  After announcing four cohorts late last year, the Empowerment Network decided to delay the launch of the initiatives as they ran into the holiday season, received formal notice of their award of $10 million through the North and South Omaha Recovery Plan and continued the national collaboration with their partner cities introduced at last year’s African-American Leadership Summit.

The Network is now prepared to move forward with the four capacity-building cohort opportunities with their national strategic partners and advisors Dr. Pamela Jolly, Dr. Randal Pinkett, Dr. Jeffery Robinson, Suzan Hart and Anna Barber.

Keys to Fund Development to Make Your Vision a Reality & Intro to Cohort

Anna Barber, fundraising expert that has helped to raise hundreds of millions of dollars including for the Smithsonian’s National Black History Museum in Washington D.C., will lead a six-month cohort on Fund Development:  building a donor base to make your vision a reality.

Barber will share insights gained through her work with major universities, the Museum, Obama Foundation and other national clients.  Participants will develop a comprehensive step by step plan to build and maintain a strong, diversified donor base.

Complete this form to express interest in the Fund Development Cohort with Anna Barber.


Collaborative, Transformation Leadership and Powerful Storytelling & Intro to Cohort

Suzan Hart, one of world’s top storytellers and presenters, will launch a Collaborative Leadership and Storytelling cohort:  Maximize Opportunities with the Power of Your Story.

Participants will learn more about the transformational power of collaboration and enhance their presentation skills by defining purpose, understanding their value, and releasing the power of their story.

Complete this form to express interest in the Transformational Leadership and Storytelling Cohort with Suzan Hart.


Advancing Your Career with Key Principles from Redefine the Game & Intro to Cohort

Dr. Jefferey Robinson of BCT Partners will return to Omaha to help launch the 5th Cohort of the Redefine the Game Institute, an innovative career advancement and leadership development program. Over 150 have participated with most receiving promotions and increased compensation, expanded career opportunities or leadership positions within new organizations.

Complete this form to express interest in the Redefine the Game Institute cohort with Dr. Randal Pinkett and Dr. Jeffrey Robinson.


Understanding Your Wealth Building Code and Developing Your Plan & Intro to Cohort

Dr. Pamela Jolly a nationally recognized wealth-building strategist returns to launch the third cohort of the Legacy Wealth Initiative.  Graduates of Legacy Wealth have developed wealth plans, saved thousands of dollars, become homeowners, launched and purchased businesses, invested individually and collectively and made contributions to their community.

Complete this form to express interest in the Legacy Wealth Cohort with Dr. Pamela Jolly.


Stay connected to the Empowerment Network website for the next steps.   

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