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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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 www.obama.org/mbka/rising.
Thousands attend 12th Annual Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake
The sun made it better, but it was cold!
With weather making it feel as low as 0 degrees in the morning, thousands still made their way to historic 24th and Lake in North Omaha for the Empowerment Network’s 12th annual Christmas in the Village.
“When we started the event 12 years ago, we wanted to create a cultural community celebration and holiday tradition for kids and families that they look forward to every year,” said Willie Barney, CEO of the Empowerment Network. “The fact that thousands would come out in this weather and enjoy themselves with smiles, hugs and laughter shows us we are accomplishing that goal.”
Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake is presented by the Empowerment Network and Omaha Economic Development Corporation. Major sponsors include: American National Bank, Mutual of Omaha, Douglas County Visitors Improvement Fund, Nebraska Arts Council, North Omaha Turnback Tax and Veridian Credit Union. Media sponsors include KETV and Revive! Omaha Magazine.
Braving the cold, kids were lined up to see and take a picture with Santa inside the Revive Center and Lake Point building.
Heaters stood next to the area where families could board the free carriage in front of OEDC.
Parents and community members packed Dreamland Park to watch the Burke High Drill Team, Pear Tree Performing Arts and the Hope Community Choir.
Throughout the day visitors could hear the beautiful sounds of Omaha’s top artists and musicians in the background as they walked through the district celebrating the holiday.
“It was a wonderful time,” said Vicki Quaites-Ferris, Vice President of Community Development and Operations for the Empowerment Network, and event manager. “So many families having a great time and enjoying all of the activities put on by our partners. Absolutely wonderful.”
The event started with the Bulldogs Drill team marching down 24th Street in front a horse drawn carriage holding Santa and Mrs Claus. Guests lined the street and followed along as families and cartoon characters followed next in the carriages.
“The Drill team did an amazing job,” said Quaites-Ferris. “They were excellent and brought great energy to kick off the day.”
From there kids, families and community members had dozens and dozens of options of where to go.
Face painting, Raku pottery, balloons, snacks, arts and crafts, letters to Santa, live nativity animals, free family photos, snack bags, hot cider, cookies, and hot chocolate all free for families.
The Omaha Police Department and Fire Department were both on hand. OPD handed out candy canes and stickers. The Fire Department had many youth excitedly sitting in the fire engine.
One of the most popular stops was the Black Votes Matter Toy Give Away sponsored by UNO Athletics.
“We gave out over 1,200 toys in less than an hour,” said Preston Love, Jr, Founder of Black Votes Matter and 4 Urban. “This is our third year for the partnership and it feels great to help families, many of which couldn’t afford to purchase toys for the kids even though some are working two and three jobs.”
Kids and parents could be seen walking throughout the district with large boxes and bags with gifts, toys, snacks, gloves, hats and other goodies.
Excitement was in the air as children caught a glimpse of Santa for the first time or had the opportunity to see and touch a donkey, camel and other animals.
The Fair Deal Village provided delicious snacks, cookies, goodie bags and included face painting.
Another popular spot was the Big Tent on the Northwest Corner of 24th and Lake. The Empowerment Network hosted the Holiday Boutique with over 20 small black businesses and entrepreneurs.
“It was our first time during the 12 years that we had the heated tent for the Boutique and it took some adjustments with the weather,” said Aisha Conner, Village Empowerment Center Manager and coordinator of the Boutique.
“But, our vendors did very well. Many of them selling out of merchandise or close to it.”
Local businesses like Styles of Evolution, Ital Vital Living and Fair Deal Marketplace attracted hundreds of visitors.
Styles of Evolution recently celebrated 18 years and a grand opening as they moved back into their restored, renovated and expanded spaced. Owners Don and Yvonne McPherson once again sponsored a free drawing to win a 40” big screen television.
“One of our main goals when we started was to connect families to small businesses for the holidays,” said Barney. “This is awesome to see over 70 businesses, entrepreneurs, artists, contractors, media companies and musicians generating income and recycling dollars in the community.”
Ital Vital Living always has a creative display and activity at their location for community festivals. For this year, they featured “Whoville” complete with the Grinch and some tasty smoothies and snacks.
The Elks gave out toys and provided food for kids. Next door, the Carver Legacy Center gave out reindeer antlers, pop its and other items for kids.
Arts and cultural venues also attracted some large crowds.
The Union for Contemporary Art featured an exhibit and housed the Empowerment Network community partners showcase that highlight their services and hosted interactive activities for kids.
NorthEnd TeleServices, a first-time partner, gave out stocking stuffers and hosted a Make a Wish Tree.
The Great Plains Black History Museum presented three exhibits and hosted a balloon artists.
“We want to thank all of the community partners that worked with us to put on the event,” said Quaites-Ferris. “We have families that have attended every year and a lot of new families this year as well.”
“Many of them said they had no idea all of these buildings, stores and venues were here. They look forward to coming back even beyond Christmas in the Village which is exactly what we wanted to see happen.”
Photo Credits: Surreal Media Labs
Initial Photo Gallery: Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake 2022
60+ Black Businesses and Entrepreneurs supported through Christmas in the Village
One of the direct and measurable outcomes from Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake is the involvement and engagement of black businesses, artists and creatives.
Between the businesses located in the district and the vendors, food trucks, artists, musicians, contractors and service providers that take part, over 60 Black businesses generate income by being part of Christmas in the Village.
“It’s a great example of keeping money circulating in the community,” said Willie Barney, president of the Empowerment Network and owner of several businesses with his wife, Yolanda.
Many businesses have reported in the past that the event represents their highest day of sales for the year.
The sales were not as high this year, but even with the cold weather, thousands were in attendance at the 12th Annual Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake. History shows that many of the visitors will come back once they realize the stores and businesses are in the community.
The Empowerment Network’s Holiday Boutique was held in a heated Big Tent on the northeast corner of 24th and Lake. It housed 20 businesses in a new setting that presented some challenges with the weather but served the need when the normal venue was not available.
“Most of the businesses did well and some sold out or nearly sold out of their merchandise,” said Aisha Conner, manager of the Village Empowerment Center and coordinator of the Boutique.
Styles of Evolution, Ital Vital Living, Revive Center, Omaha Star, Carver Legacy Center, 95.7 The Boss Radio Station and others located in the Village also benefit by creating awareness of their products and services and generating sales.
“We had a really great day of sales,” said Imani Murray, co-owner of Ital Vital Living. “We had over 400 come to our store.”
Eight additional businesses are located at the Fair Deal Marketplace. The innovative small business center made of shipping containers is now full including three new businesses that are currently undergoing grand openings.
Locally owned food trucks including SoCo Cafe, Boiling Claws, Haven Express Omaha and Smokin’ Guns served up wings, BBQ, seafood, soul foods and other tasty dishes.
“We had a good day,” said Devaute Nunn, co-owner of Haven Express. “We really appreciate the Empowerment Network creating this opportunity for us.”
Creatives, artists, musicians and sound engineers also benefit from Christmas in the Village through the Holiday Concert in Dreamland Park.
This year included another impressive line-up with the following artists: Big Wade and musicians, Gus McNair, The Arvies, Jarron Taylor, Millicent Crawford, Kathy Tyree and Eric and Doriette Jordan.
The artists receive honorariums for their dedication of time and using their gifts to provide beautiful holiday music for the event.
“The Holiday Concert has always been a major part of the event,” said Barney. “Not only is there amazing music, singing and dancing, we want to provide this platform for the artists and make sure they are compensated for their time and using their gifts.”
Dozens of other contractors, entrepreneurs and businesses ranging from photography, videography, branding, security, marketing, design, print media, radio and other industries are paid for their services as part of the event.
While the primary focus is bringing kids and families together for a cultural celebration and holiday tradition, creating opportunities for businesses to generate income, create jobs and recycle money in the community are also important goals.
Comments from some of the Holiday Boutique Vendors:
Owner, It’s Not a Game Apparel
One of the best and most successful events I have attended in a while. I will definitely will be there next year. Thanks for the opportunity.
Owner of Kreative Ways
The event gave a great opportunity for my business to be highlighted and show the community that Kreative Ways exist. Everyone that came to the table loved it and I ran out of business card. Gave out 250 to people.
I was able to connect with all customers, first time customers that patronized me four years ago when I started and also met new ones that loved my products.
Owner of Yass Beautiful
The Holiday Boutique was amazing. This is a great way to get exposure for my local business. I was so grateful to be there because I didn’t know how to get myself out there for the community to know about my business. I want to thank you so much for doing this for the community.
Owner of Moss Lady
I feel it was great exposure…All and all it was definitely worth it.
Eric and Tawanna Black travel from Minneapolis to enjoy Christmas in the Village at 24th & Lake
“It was such a blessing,” said Tawanna Black, founder of the nationally recognized Center for Economic Inclusion based in the Twin Cities.
She and her husband, Eric, drove over six hours with their children, Traviata and Christian, to take part in the Empowerment Network’s 12th Annual Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake in North Omaha.
“We have been wanting to come down the last few years, but it hadn’t worked out,” said Tawanna.
“Watching the videos and seeing all of the promotional materials on social media, we just knew it was something we wanted our kids to experience. There’s nothing like this in the Twin Cities.”
The family came early and stayed nearly the whole day as there were so many activities and they wanted to see them all.
“We loved, laughed, smiled, hugged and literally shopped til we dropped,” said Black.
“We rode the carriage ride, took family photos, shopped with the vendors, visited the live animals, walked through the exhibits, took pictures with Santa and sang and danced in Dreamland Park. We got it all in.”
Traviata and Christian also shared their perspectives about that event.
Christian shared his excitement:
Going to Christmas in the Village was so fun. Seeing everyone so happy made me happy.
Riding the horse and carriage was my dream. It was so good. The choirs sang very well. And there were so many places to shop!
Traviata added these comments:
Christmas in the Village was amazing. It was exciting to see my parents loved by so many and excited to see people they used to work with.
I loved seeing Santa and so many other kids who were excited to get a photo with Santa and I couldn’t believe that there were live animals there and that we could touch a donkey, camel, and goat.
I also loved being able to see a lot of people I could relate to, everyone was so happy to see other Black people and seeing them smile made me smile.
“Hearing those comments is so encouraging and makes everything we do worth it,” said Vicki Quaites-Ferris, Vice President of Community Development and Operations at the Empowerment Network and event manager for Christmas in the Village.
Eric and Tawanna once called Omaha home.
Tawanna is well known for her leadership and economic development work with Destination Midtown and was one of the first diversity and inclusion directors in the city working with Cox Communications.
After relocating to Minneapolis 12 years ago, she has led the Northside Funders Group, a collaborative of 12 foundations and then stepped out in faith to create and launch the Center for Economic Inclusion.
The mission of the Center for Economic Inclusion is closing racial employment, income, and wealth gaps, and building racially inclusive and equitable regional economies.
Eric worked for two decades serving in a number of global business Development and integrated marketing leadership capacities and rising to the level of executive with Cargill.
He has now ventured into the non-profit industry as an executive director for Minnesota Diversified Industries (MDI). MDI is a Minnesota manufacturer and nonprofit social enterprise with the mission to provide employment opportunities and services for people with disabilities.
“One of things I love about Omaha is the way people collaborate,” said Eric. “To see nearly 100 organizations, businesses and ministries work together to make something like this happen is inspiring.”
Both Eric and Tawanna are committed to equity, economic advancement and elevating the culture. They see events like Christmas in the Village as essential and vitally important.
“It is incredibly meaningful to have Tawanna, Eric, Traviata and Christian make the six hour trip to Omaha to join us for Christmas in the Village,” said Willie Barney, CEO and founder of the Empowerment Network.
“Hearing their heartfelt comments and the impact of the event on them and their children is inspiring and opens our eyes to even greater possibilities.”
“Thousands of kids and families attend each year and it is beginning to draw from a larger region. It reinforces the original vision we had for creating this event. 24th and Lake is the hub that can bring people from all over the country to celebrate our culture through music, food, arts, entertainment and business.”
“This is such an amazing cultural experience. Absolutely phenomenal,” said Tawanna. “Willie and Yolanda Barney, Vicki Quaites-Ferris and all of the partners who help make this happen have created a masterpiece.”