Step-Up Omaha to connect 700 to 1,000 youth to jobs, internships and entrepreneurship
Step-Up Omaha! seeks to connect 1,000 youth
to career exploration, job training, internships and entrepreneurship
Application open until March 7; more businesses needed to meet the demand
Over 50 business executives, elected officials, community partners, employers and others gathered on Thursday, February 25th for the official launch of Step-Up Omaha 2021.
Step-Up Omaha is headed into its 14th year of connecting youth and young adults ages 14-21 with career exploration, jobs, internships, entrepreneurship and leadership opportunities. The collaborative initiative of the Empowerment Network has connected over 6,500 youth with jobs and job training since its inception.
Youth and young adults are able to identify their career interests, develop skills to prepare them for the future, experience hands-on job training and generate a positive income.
Step-Up is still taking applications until March 7th at stepupomaha.com. The partners are also looking to increase the number of internship opportunities available by working with large and small businesses, organizations and ministries. The team will continue to monitor guidance from health professionals to determine the size of the program and best format regarding virtual and in-person.
“With the support of the City of Omaha, Lakin Foundation and other foundations, the business community and our partners, we seek to connect 700 to 1,000 interns this summer and 250 in the year round program,” said Willie Barney, CEO and Founder of the Empowerment Network. “Together, we can make this our biggest and best year ever.”
Barney thanked major employers, American National Bank, CHI Health and UNMC for their long term support.
American National Bank, under the leadership Co-CEOs and Co-Chairmen John and Wende Kotouc, was the original corporate partner, hiring 6 to 10 interns every summer since 2008. CHI Health and UNMC return again in 2021, each hiring 10 to 20 interns.
In addition to funding, the City of Omaha will once again provide internships in a number of departments including Planning, Police, Fire, HR&R and others. Union Pacific joins for the first time in 2021. Small businesses, non-profits and faith-based organizations also provide important worksite opportunities. To become a worksite, employer or sponsor, go to stepupomaha.com.
The City of Omaha is the largest financial supporter of the Step-Up Omaha program. Mayor Jean Stothert, Councilman Ben Gray and the Omaha City Council have invested between $900,000 and $1 million for the past four years.
“We invest more in Step-Up Omaha than any other job program in the city because we know it works,” said Mayor Stothert. “The job placements, training and development opportunities provided by Step-Up and our business community provide valuable experiences and opportunities and that’s exactly what all young people need, a chance to be successful.”
“Step-Up also depends on the generous support of the business and philanthropic community to provide additional funds or jobs,” added Stothert.
Gray agreed. “We can continue to do 700-800 jobs,” said Councilman Gray. “But, why not get more businesses engaged and reach as many as 1,000 or more.”
Gray emphasized the importance of providing these opportunities to youth in the community and the dividends it will pay to the city. “We will keep more of our talent here when we invest and show them what’s possible for them in Omaha. We know that what they see is what they will be,” said Gray.
Also announced at the press conference was the second year of a $1.8 million commitment from the Charles E. Lakin Foundation. Steve Wild, President of the Lakin Foundation, provided their reasoning for such a large scale investment over three years.
“One of the greatest strengths of the United States is its diversity. At the same time, this diversity has been underused as a resource,” said Wild. “We also know over the years there’s been a shortage of African-Americans and people of color in senior management and executive suites in Omaha and the Council Bluffs area. The area is suffering from brain drain and doesn’t have a large enough skilled workforce. The Empowerment Network’s Step-Up Omaha program is one vital tool to addressing this long term. It shows our youth what is available right here at home.”
Step-Up Omaha has not only gained local support, but has received national support from the Obama Foundation. The Obama Foundation/MBK Alliance selected the Empowerment Network and City of Omaha as 1 of 19 out of 250 communities to receive a $50,000 seed grant in 2019. Because of the Network’s continued success, the Obama Foundation/MBK Alliance has agreed to expand the support with an additional $67,000 in 2021.
Locally, the Kiewit Foundation has committed $50,000 for 2021 and other foundations are joining in to support the expansion of the program. The Lozier Foundation has supported Step-Up for the past decade and the Holland Foundation one of the initial supporters also participated in the Obama Foundation/MBK Community Challenge. The United Way of the Midlands and Office of Violence Prevention have also contributed between $150,000 to $250,000 annually.
Step-Up Omaha is successful because of the active engagement and support of many community partners.
Omaha Public Schools has partnered in a variety of ways since 2008. OPS looks to extend summer school options to a much larger group of students this summer and will offer some educational related internships to students 16 and older.
Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Logan sees this as another opportunity to increase the number of youth gaining valuable work experience and continues to support the work of Step-Up Omaha in offering internships with local corporations, small businesses and organizations throughout the community.
Annique Clark, a former OPS student who currently attends college in Mississippi, also spoke at the press conference. Clark has participated in Step-Up for five years, having the opportunity to work with a number of health organizations. She stated that the program has helped her to determine her double major combining art and therapy, and also assisted with launching a business while still in high school.
“Clark is a great example of the brilliance we have in Omaha,” said Barney. “She’s a double major and an entrepreneur. We have talent right here at our front door.”
Step-Up looks to expand in a number of ways again in 2021:
- Entrepreneurship. All of the participants ages 14-15 are exposed to the SocialPreneurship curriculum, learning how to turn problems into opportunities, develop business plans and experience the process of taking a product to market. The youth work with Jaylen Bledsoe, CEO of Bledsoe Global, now in his early 20’s, who started as a teen millionaire; national consultant, Jamela Peterson, founder of SocialPreneurship; and Debra Dogba, CEO of Business Seals.
- STEAM. As part of the commitment from the Obama Foundation, Step-Up Omaha expanded opportunities in STEAM including; robotics, drones, coding, social media and manufacturing. All of these partnerships will be expanded including an enhanced program with the Tuskegee Airmen where participants will learn to build and fly drones.
- Trades. In partnership with the Bryant Center and Metropolitan Community College, Step-Up will continue providing hands-on opportunities in 3D Printing, Construction, OSHA Certification, Culinary and other vocational fields.
- Internships. More corporate partners and small businesses are working with Step-Up to provide opportunities in their respective career fields. American National Bank, CHI Heath, UNMC, the City of Omaha and Union Pacific are major employers who have committed to developing and retaining Omaha youth by connecting with Step-Up. Employers of all sizes, including non-profits, can participate. Interested employers, sponsors and worksites, can learn more here.
Moniki Cannon has joined Step-Up Omaha partner, CHI Health, as a Senior HR Business Partner.
Cannon will continue to partner with Step-Up from an employer’s role. A new Step-Up Omaha Director will join the Empowerment Network team in March 2021 to continue the expansion of the program.
- South Omaha. The Step-Up Omaha team continues its city-wide expansion with even more outreach and partnerships in South Omaha and within the Latino community. The South Omaha and Latino Advisory Council has been expanded and is already producing positive results.
Ana Torres was hired as a full time South Omaha coach in 2020 and will lead efforts in the area. Step-Up is also increasing outreach to the Asian, Native American and immigrant audiences.
- Council Bluffs. With the support of the Charles E. Lakin Foundation, Step-Up will formally launch in Council Bluffs in 2021 after being put on hold last year because of the pandemic. The Step-Up Council Bluffs application will open in March.
Step-Up Omaha is an initiative of the Empowerment Network and works with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands, Girls Inc., Hope Center for Kids, Urban League of Nebraska and PACE as coaching partners. Youth are assigned to these organizations who then hire coaches to train and prepare the participants and partner with worksites throughout program.
Long time community partner, Thomas Warren, CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska, discussed the importance of Step-Up at the press conference.
“I have the privilege of working with affiliates of the Urban League in every major city. This public/private partnership in Omaha is recognized across the country for the results it has generated,” said Warren. “Very few communities have this type of partnership for youth employment.”
“We focus on helping students to thrive. We are preparing the next generation’s workforce and it is important for us to retain our talent in Omaha.”
Youth and young adults can apply at stepupomaha.com and employers, worksites and sponsors can also use the site to partner with Step-Up Omaha!
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.”