Over 1,100, including 400 youth participate in 3 day national Empowerment Network conference in Omaha, Nebraska.
By Willie Barney
It’s hard to believe it has already been a week. Thank you, Omaha and national friends. The Empowerment Network team and our partners went all in for the 16th Annual Rebuilding the Village Conference. Omaha responded. 23 cities from across the country responded.
When I was in prayer after last year’s event, the words “Run It Back” came into my spirit! Bring Magic back and build on the experience.
GOD has blessed in amazing ways. We stepped out in faith and followed what we believed He was telling us to do.
Some wondered. Would people come back? Would the community support it? Could it be bigger and better?
Over 1,100 participated, including 400+ youth and the experience was even more magical!
Magic took things even higher than last year providing even more wisdom, full ride scholarships, internships in Los Angeles and business opportunities with his companies. Plus, he unexpectedly raised $90,000 to support the Network!
The six national keynote speakers were phenomenal, and the sessions were well attended. Made for a difficult decision about which breakout to attend. The feedback has been off the charts.
Representatives from over 20 cities attended including partners from Kansas City, Tulsa, New Orleans, Columbus GA, Denver, Little Rock, Atlanta, Chicago, Davenport/QC, Sacramento, Washington DC and other communities.
20 major sponsors invested. Dozens of volunteers supported it.
50+ local and national speakers shared their wisdom and insights to help build safe and thriving communities.
We had over 400 youth engaged in the event. They joined us for panels, main stage sessions and the Step-Up Omaha Interns and Youth 360 also had their own summit within the conference in partnership with J Shannon, David and Next.
The federal government including USDA, Dept of Justice and Health and Human Services all had key leaders in attendance.
The 4 tours (Black owned trolley and bus companies), three covering North Omaha and one citywide were well received.
30+ Black businesses benefitted directly. We supported Black restaurants and organizations.
The Village at 24th and Lake reception was well attended and featured music, food, shopping and visits to the museums and new businesses.
Businesses throughout the whole city experienced economic benefit including hotels, airlines, transportation, shopping, food, and entertainment.
We cannot thank you all enough.
Thank you, Magic. Thank you to the Empowerment Network team.
Thank you to the board.
Thank you, speakers, panelists, sponsors, and volunteers.
Thank you to our national guests. Thank you, Omaha, for being amazing hosts.
Thank you to my wife, son and daughter who helped in so many ways and have sacrificed greatly over the years. Love you and appreciate you!
Let’s Win Together Omaha! Let’s win together national partners. Let’s build safe and thriving communities in every zip code.
“One of the largest and best ever” 13th Annual Christmas in the Village 24th & Lake
Over 7,000 attend the annual community celebration and holiday tradition in North Omaha
The Empowerment Network’s 13th Annual Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake was one of the largest and best ever according to both the visitors and hosts.
“Christmas in the Village just keeps getting bigger and better every year,” said an attendee that has made the event a holiday tradition for their family.
The event is hosted annually by the Empowerment Network and Omaha Economic Development Corporation and dozens of organizations and businesses to officially kick off the Christmas season. Major sponsors include: American National Bank, Douglas County Visitor Improvement Fund, Nebraska Arts Council, KETV, Revive Omaha and Veridian Credit Union.
It has become the largest holiday event in North Omaha but attracts visitors from throughout the region. Guests have come from as far away as Minneapolis, Des Moines, Kansas City and St. Louis to participate in the event.
“It was such a blessing to see so many come down to 24th and Lake…the vision has become reality,” said Vicki-Quaites-Ferris, VP of Community Development for the Empowerment Network and event director. “All of the partners had great activities and the families enjoyed all of them.”
The atmosphere is full of joy, excitement, smiles, hugs and laughter. Children visited Santa, Mrs. Claus, live animals including a camel and donkey and even take pictures with the Grinch.
“The children and families loved the Grinch,” said Imani Murray, owner of Ital Vital Living. “And, we sold out of special holiday smoothies and other items right at the end of the day. It was amazing.”
There were also opportunities to make Raku pottery, create crafts and play games with prizes.
Families enjoyed free carriage rides down 24th Street, visited with Cartoon characters and received free family photos, hot cocoa, apple cider, cookies and popcorn.
For those looking to purchase holiday gifts and support local businesses, a stop at the Empowerment Network’s Holiday BoutiQue, Omaha Star’s store, Unionmade Artist Market, NOMA’s holiday market or any of the local businesses including the Styles of Evolution, Revive Center, Doll House Fashions, Carver Legacy Center and Fair Deal Village were all available.
Small Black businesses and vendors were excited about the event. “Many of them reported generating thousands of dollars in sales in just five hours and some sold completely out of merchandise,” said Aisha Conner, Village Community Manager for the Empowerment Network and host for the Holiday BoutiQue. “The entrepreneurs said the crowds were large and attendees were very supportive of them.”
Attendees could visit the Community Partners Fair tent in the parking lot of OEDC.
Northend Teleservices presented Santas Sweet Shop and gave out Stocking Stuffers. The entry of the tent was elegantly decorated in a festive way.
Face painting and health assessments were available at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church and the Washington Branch Library presented their Mobile Free Book Giveaway.
One of the main attractions is the holiday concert in Dreamland Park where some of Omaha’s top gospel and jazz artists present Christmas music and local children’s groups and choirs provide entertainment.
A consistent and popular participant is the Pear Tree Performing Arts group that always has a special performance just for Christmas in the Village and the park was packed.
New this year was the Guiding Light Foundation, I Heart Dance teams and Central Step Team. Zions Children Choir also returned singing Christmas songs.
The Great Plains Black History Museum was able to serve 850 visitors featuring a balloon artists and a national exhibit from the Smithsonian Institute.
It was a festive celebration in the historic heart of North Omaha. A great way to kick off the holiday season, celebrate community, support small businesses, and continue the reemergence of the arts, culture, entertainment and business district at 24th and Lake.
Message from Willie Barney, CEO and Founder of the Empowerment Network
There’s nothing quite like it! The spirit of Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake is absolutely energizing and refreshing and just plain old fun! So much positivity with thousands of people coming together to celebrate the season. Hugs, smiles and laughter everywhere.
It was inspired by my own memories of celebrating Christmas with my family in Mississippi. We would travel from 438 to Greenville to the old downtown area with my grandmother, mother, uncles, aunts and cousins. Some of the greatest memories of my life. Yolanda and I had also attended highly successful holiday events in Davenport, Chicago and Orlando. We wanted to bring something like that to North Omaha.
Thank you Vicki Quaites-Ferris, Stacy Henry, Michael Maroney, Deb Bunting and Yolanda Barney for stepping out in faith with me that first year with only weeks to plan the first Christmas in the Village!
We wanted to bring people back to 24th and Lake and use what we had to create an experience where the community could see what was possible. 13 years later over 100 small businesses, organizations, ministries, artists and musicians come together to make it happen. New businesses and developments are coming to the district bringing jobs, housing, services, cultural venues and economic activity.
I want to thank Vicki Quaites-Ferris, VP of Community Development and Event Director and the amazing Empowerment Network team, Aisha Conner, Billana Mekoum, Jonathan Chapman, Ricky Smith, Nadia Spurlock and Sharlon Rodgers and our Step-Up year round coaches. What a year!!!
Thank you Yolanda and all of the 24th and Lake partners. Thank you volunteers, sponsors, singers, entrepreneurs, dancers, musicians, site hosts, vendors, media and most importantly all of our guests!
There’s no limit to what is possible when we come together. Thank God for the blessing of a beautiful day in the Village! We choose to build together.
Willie and Yolanda Barney honored as 176th ‘Faces’ by Omaha Press Club
Omaha community builders & entrepreneurs, Willie and Yolanda Barney,
176th Face on Barroom Floor on Thursday, Dec. 14
By Tom O’Connor, Omaha Press Club Communications
Faces Drawing by Jeff Koterba
Willie and Yolanda Barney wear many different hats while striving for one key goal – to help make Omaha a stronger, safer and more vibrant community.
The Barneys work out of the heart of North Omaha, where they have worked with many others to spearhead a variety of entrepreneurial initiatives aimed at such things as reviving Black businesses, providing employment opportunities for youth, enhancing career advancement and leadership skills, helping the community build wealth, and even reducing gun violence.
For their many contributions to Omaha, the Barneys were recognized by the Omaha Press Club on Thursday, Dec. 14, as the 176th Face on the Barroom Floor.
The ‘Faces’ honors newsmakers and leaders who have made an impact in the community and are recognized regionally and nationally for their work. Over the years, civic leaders, business executives, athletes, media personalities, entertainers, philanthropists and others have been recognized.
“The Barneys are special people,” said Roger Humphries, chair of the Face on the Barroom Floor Committee. “They have truly made a difference in our community. The magnitude of their efforts is almost mind-boggling. They have a relentless devotion to making Omaha better, and their many endeavors have positively impacted the entire spectrum of our society.”
Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing, who along with his wife, Viv, was the 165th Face in 2021, praised the Barneys for “their commitment to faith and how they live it out through their community service.” He added, “Willie and Yolanda are passionate about making Omaha the great city we want it to be. Their goal is to do it in neighborhood by neighborhood in every zip code.”
The Barney’s were roasted by Jonathan Chapman, Vice-President of Collaboratives for the Empowerment Network; John Ewing, Douglas County Treasurer and Viv Ewing CEO of Children’s Square; and Candice Price, Co-owner of Home Team Auto. Over 130 friends, co-workers, civic leaders and community partners joined in the celebration.
The Barneys, who have been married for 25 years, came to Omaha in 2000. They each have a strong media background.
Born in Hollandale, Mississippi, and living near Arcola, Mississippi, along Highway 438, Willie has more than 30 years of business experience. He worked for Lee Enterprises in Davenport, Iowa, for 10 years rising to senior level positions in strategic planning, marketing and communications before joining the Omaha World-Herald in 2000.
Yolanda, a native of Tacoma, Washington, has 29 years of media and publishing experience. She held key positions in advertising, sales and new product development with the Kansas City Star, Dallas Morning News, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Quad City Times.
Willie is a graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport with a double major in economics and business administration. He also has received advanced training through the Summer Leadership Institute for Community Development at Harvard University and through the Executive Leadership and Management Training Program at the Northwestern University Media Center in Chicago.
Yolanda earned her college degree in mass communication from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Working together as a team the Barneys launched a number of businesses and organizations. Willie is probably best known in Omaha for his work with the Empowerment Network:
- The Empowerment Network, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is a community-based collaborative including hundreds of leaders and organizations and thousands of residents. Launched by Willie with the support of Yolanda and other leaders in 2007, the network seeks to improve the economic condition and quality of life for African-Americans, North Omaha residents and citizens of Omaha.
It has been recognized as one of four model communities in the nation by the Obama Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Justice honored the network with its National Community Service Award for its work in helping to reduce gun violence by nearly 70 percent. It has garnered national media attention from among others ABC News, CNN and The Washington Post.
Some of the network’s most well-known collaboratives are:
- Step-Up Omaha!, a youth employment and entrepreneurship program which has connected 8,000 youth and young adults to career exploration, jobs and internships.
- Omaha 360, a violence intervention and prevention collaborative;
- Cradle to Career, an education collaborative;
- African-American Leadership Conference and Rebuilding the Village Conference;
- Christmas in the Village and other cultural events at 24th and Lake; and
- North Omaha Village Plan/Transformation Plan.
With a dynamic team, board and dedicated partners, Willie leads the Empowerment Network, a nonprofit that is all about collaboration, he said.
On the business side, the Barneys are strong believers in entrepreneurship and have launched a number of enterprises in Omaha:
- WDB Resultants, launched in 2003, a national consulting firm founded by Willie Barney and co-owned by Yolanda, who serves as vice president. The company specializes in strategic planning, communications, research, facilitation, and community-building through its work with clients in the small business, corporate, nonprofit, and faith-based sectors across the country.A sought-after public speaker and thought leader, Willie Barney is a strategist, facilitator and catalyst with a proven track record of working effectively with partners to get things done and accomplish strategic visions.
- SMB Enterprises, also launched in 2003, is a company that provides positive events, media and entertainment in the greater Omaha area. One of the primary products of SMB is Revive Omaha, a print/online magazine focused on family lifestyle and empowerment for African-Americans. It was founded by the Barneys in 2008. The magazine highlights the positive work and outcomes of community leaders, businesses, students and families through a number of special editions, including the North Omaha Community Guide, Black Business Guide, and the student-focused Salute to Excellence. Yolanda is responsible for the publishing and print division of the company, producing local and national custom publishing products. She also oversees the online magazine.
- Revive Black Business Network, which was established by the Barneys 10 years ago through Revive Omaha. Through monthly luncheons and summits, the network has brought together more than 350 Black business owners and entrepreneurs for networking, business exchange, capacity-building, expositions and expansion.
- In 2019, the Barneys expanded SMB with the launching of the Revive Center Omaha. A center which provides a platform for chefs, cooks, creatives and entrepreneurs to introduce their products and services to the community.
- Carver Legacy Center, a Black-owned financial institution created in 2020 by the Barneys in partnership with Martin and Lynnell Williams with the support of John and Wende Kotouc to help build Black wealth and create strong economies in the North Omaha communities. It is located at 24th and Lake streets.
Yolanda and Willie have received numerous awards. Yolanda was recognized for her efforts including the Mildred D. Brown Torch Bearer Award as well as the National Coalition of Black Women Economic Empowerment Award. Willie was recognized by Creighton University, University of Nebraska Omaha, and the Department of Justice. In 2020, the National Education Association presented Willie Barney and the Empowerment Network with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Award.
The Barneys have a son, Nehemiah, 22, who is studying film at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and a daughter, Priscilla, who is a junior at Omaha Central High School. In the family’s spirit of entrepreneurism, both children also have launched their own small business enterprises.
Active in their faith, the Barneys serve as associate ministers at Launch Church International.
We Choose to Build Together…300 leaders convene for Summit & Business Expo
The Empowerment Network’s African-American Leadership Summit and Revive Black Business Expo held at the Hilton Omaha on November 6th were both highly successful. Over 300 local and national leaders from every sector convened for a day of inspiration, development, networking and capacity-building. The theme of the event was “We Choose to Build Together.”
“We normally have a Leadership Conference in the fall but decided to switch things up this year because of so many major things happening in the community,” said Willie Barney, CEO & founder of the Empowerment Network.
“Our goals were to build on our collective work, encourage the tangible support of Black-owned businesses, introduce our national partner cities and launch the next round of capacity-building cohorts,” said Barney. “We choose to do business together. Build community together. Intentionally.”
Thirty small businesses and organizations were visible at display tables and most reported doing great business during the Summit generating thousands of dollars in sales collectively. A new tool was utilized through a Summit app to track sales during the day.
“I did very, very well,” said one of the small business vendors. “It was an exceptional day for my business.”
“The attendees at the Leadership events always do a great job supporting the small businesses,” said Yolanda Barney of Revive Omaha and manager of the Revive Black Business Expo. “Many of them typically sell out of merchandise. We need to keep this going year-round.”
The Summit also featured a panel of small businesses discussing the impact of intentional support from the Empowerment Network and other organizations. Gladys Harrison, owner of Big Mama’s Kitchen and Catering; Jason Fischer, CEO of Surreal Media Lab; Lewade Milliner, national musician and artist based in North Omaha; and, Don McPherson, owner of Styles of Evolution, all shared specific examples of how the Network and its partners have supported their businesses.
All of the small business owners also highlighted their vision for the future and the number of jobs they could create in the community with additional support.
“Imagine what we could do if all of the churches, organizations, neighborhoods and corporations supported these businesses in the same way,” said McPherson.
In addition to the small businesses and panels of local and national speakers, the Empowerment Network introduced representatives from Kansas City, Missouri; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Lansing, Michigan; and Columbus, Georgia. These are cities in the process of starting Empowerment Network and 360 initiatives in their communities. New Orleans, Louisiana and Davenport, IA/Quad-Cities are also part of the national partnerships.
Klassie Alcine, Executive Director of KC Common Good (KC 360 in Kansas City)
City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper, Tulsa, OK
“I really want to thank the Network team for the incredible amount of work they put into pulling this off in less than four weeks,” said Barney. “And, thank you to the sponsors, speakers, volunteers and all in attendance. We need to build on this momentum.”
Capacity-Building Cohorts Launched at Summit
The Empowerment Network’s national strategic partners were present to help launch or continue capacity-building cohorts regarding career advancement, leadership development, storytelling, fund development and wealth building.
Dr. Randal Pinkett opened the registration for the 5th cohort and a national edition of the Redefine the Game Institute. Pinkett shared insights regarding the changes in the field of diversity and inclusion and what it will take to be successful with career advancement moving forward.
Dr. Pamela Jolly is working with the Network to launch the 3rd cohort of the Legacy Wealth initiative. Jolly challenged attendees to build on the closed loop economy that has launched in Omaha.
Suzan Hart’s cohort will leverage her internationally recognized approach to strategic, collaborative leadership and storytelling. Hart shared her personal journey towards full empowerment as she found purpose by unleashing the power of her own story.
Anna Barber is launching a cohort to help leaders with fund and donor development strategies to make visions a reality. Barber shared insights from her experience of developing hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions including the African-American History Museum in Washington D.C.
Obama Foundation and Department of Justice Attend Summit
Dr. Adren Wilson, Executive Director of My Brother’s Keeper and Vice-President of the Obama Foundation, was present to celebrate Omaha as one of four model communities.
Karhlton Moore, Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance representing the Department of Justice, attended the Leadership Summit to learn more about the Empowerment Network’s approach to addressing root causes and mobilizing sectors of the community.
Dr. Will Moreland, one of the Network’s national strategic partners had the crowd fully engaged as he emphasized the key message of the Summit: “Be Intentional!”
Dozens of Local Leaders Highlighted Their Commitments
Local speakers emphasized the importance of collaboration and supporting black businesses.
Kimara Snipes, new executive director of One Omaha, highlighted the role of neighborhoods in using asset-based development and specific ways neighborhoods support small businesses.
Pastor Brian Page, Senior Pastor of Pleasant Green Baptist Church, represented churches and highlighted the impact local churches continue to have in serving the community and providing leadership in partnership with community-based organizations.
Tamera Spurlock and Andrea Walker, co-leads with Amplify, PayPal’s Black Employee Resource Group provided powerful examples of what they do to help employees achieve success while also serving and volunteering in the community. Amplify is also very intentional about supporting Black businesses.
Deputy Chief Sherie Thomas of the Omaha Police Department illustrated the power of working together to make change happen in the community. Thomas also noted the way the Black Police Officer’s Association supports small businesses and hosts impactful events with youth and the community.
Barney and State Senator Justin Wayne, Willie Hamilton, President of Black Men United and Leo Louis, business owner and board chair of the Malcolm X Foundation, shared perspectives on what it takes to get past divisions to make a positive impact in the community.
Jonathan Chapman, Vice-President of Community Collaboratives for the Empowerment Network hosted a panel with State Senator Terrell McKinney, Aja Anderson, Executive Director of the LiveWell Partnership, Racquel Henderson, Navigator at Metropolitan Community College and Marisa Hattab, Director of Diversity, and Inclusion for Douglas County. The panel focused on ways to build on the foundation of collective work in Omaha to create the future desired by the community.
The final session of the day featured Nadia Spurlock, a recent graduate from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and the newest member of the Empowerment Network team and Denzell Dial, a senior at the University of Nebraska Omaha, majoring in aviation.
Both Spurlock and Dial spoke about the impact of their families, the community organizations they were a part of while they were growing up in North Omaha and their hopes for the future as they both lead efforts to help the next generation. They were joined by other young men and women who are working to build out the MBK Omaha initiative for young men and Empowered Young Women’s groups.
“We encourage everyone to stay engaged throughout the rest of the year and into 2024,” said Jonathan Chapman, Vice-President of Community Collaboratives for the Empowerment Network. “Stay connected via our website and Facebook page. There’s something for everyone to do.”