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North Omaha makes voting history: Collaboration makes a major impact

Published:  May 26, 2020

History was made in North Omaha!  All eyes now on the general election.

Four years ago, in 2016, North Omaha voted at an abysmal 6% during the primary.  With effective collaboration and purposeful coordination, the community responded in 2020 and generated a 22% turnout.

The nearly four times increase is substantial and deserves to be celebrated.  North Omaha residents, you made it happen!

Many individuals and organizations should be recognized for their efforts to inform and mobilize the community.  Preston Love, Jr and North Omaha Votes Matter.  Precious McKesson with NONA.  Sergio Sosa with the Heartland Workers Center. Kimara Snipe with Nebraska Civic Engagement Table.  The League of Women Voters, Pastors and Faith Leaders, and others helped to produce the increased turnout.

All of the candidates that ran for office should also be celebrated.  Omaha had one of the most diverse slates of candidates in the history of the city.  There were African-Americans and other people of color on the ballot in just about every major race.

The newly formed Black/North Omaha Media Collaborative also played a key role. Radio stations 101.3, 95.7 and 100.3 all featured candidates and discussed key issues on their stations.  The Omaha Star and NoiseOmaha all provided critical information to residents.

Another major piece of the success was the approval to make vote by mail an option for all residents.  The election commission led very effectively by Brian Kruse and Chris Carithers, sent vote by mail post cards to all Douglas County residents.  Kruse and Carithers have proven to be very community minded and have made themselves very accessible in all parts of the city.

As a result, Douglas County also set records for voter turnout in a primary election.  85% of the votes cast in the 2020 primary election were by mail.

If the method produces higher voter participation, it should definitely be considered and added as a practical and measurable solution.  The same process should be implemented going forward for every election.

In addition to this group of the change makers, the strong slate of candidates and the vote by mail model, special recognition should also go to Sal Issaka and the Omaha Housing Authority.

With the issues presented by the Coronavirus, the election commission was forced to relocate a number of polling centers and move them away from their traditional locations in the OHA Towers.  The change was made to protect the health of seniors and other residents in the towers.

The community response led by Preston Love and Sal Issaka mobilized quickly to innovate and create a workable solution. This collective group worked together in a joint effort with Kimara Snipes in South Omaha and the election commission to generate positive results.  As reported by Preston Love, Jr, using the vote by mail option, all of the towers experienced an increase in votes.  Overall, the votes from tower residents increased by two and a half times previous years.  Evans Tower had a dramatic 80% increase from 2016 to 2020.

The Omaha Housing Authority Vote By Mail (VBM) mobilization effort was a collaboration of multiple organizations, including Black Votes Matter Institute of Community Engagement, Nebraska Civic Engagement Table, the South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance, League of Women Voters of Greater Omaha and NONA-North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance.

The North Omaha community should be proud of its turnout for the primary. Yet, there’s more work ahead.   The turnout county wide was 37%, so there’s still a gap that must be closed.

Come November, North Omaha must respond in a strong way to assure their voice is heard.  The community must also be vigilant regarding misinformation and voter suppression efforts.

During the 2008 and 2012 elections with Barack Obama on the ballot, North Omaha generated very high voter turnout.  With the importance of the upcoming election, it will be urgent and critical for North Omaha to reach the same level of participation.

There’s a strong likelihood that the Coronavirus will still play a major role.  The state and county should be prepared to once again offer vote by mail as a reliable and safe option.

Congratulations North Omaha!  Now, let’s set a new record during the general election in November.   Get involved.  Register to vote.  Vote by mail.  Become a volunteer for a campaign.  Make contributions to your candidate.

History is calling.  Together, we can set new records for voter participation in the general election.

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Community Features

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

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Community Features

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, Gus McNair, The Arvies, Jarron Taylor, Millicent Crawford, Kathy Tyree, Eric and Doriette Jordan and musicians.

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.

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Community Features

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.”

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