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.
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.”