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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 generation’s next 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!

Community Features

New cohorts prepare to launch…Leadership, Fund Development, Wealth Building & Career Advancement

OMAHA, Neb.

Great News!  After announcing four cohorts late last year, the Empowerment Network decided to delay the launch of the initiatives as they ran into the holiday season, received formal notice of their award of $10 million through the North and South Omaha Recovery Plan and continued the national collaboration with their partner cities introduced at last year’s African-American Leadership Summit.

The Network is now prepared to move forward with the four capacity-building cohort opportunities and their national strategic partners and advisors will be in Omaha for the Rebuilding the Village Conference.

Keys to Fund Development to Make Your Vision a Reality & Intro to Cohort

Anna Barber, fundraising expert that has helped to raise hundreds of millions of dollars including for the Smithsonian’s National Black History Museum in Washington D.C., will lead a six-month cohort on Fund Development:  building a donor base to make your vision a reality.

Barber will share insights gained through her work with major universities, the Museum, Obama Foundation and other national clients.  Participants will develop a comprehensive step by step plan to build and maintain a strong, diversified donor base.  In this session, Barber will provide an overview of key elements to fundraising success and share an overview of the upcoming fund development cohort.

 

Collaborative, Transformation Leadership and Powerful Storytelling & Intro to Cohort

Suzan Hart, one of world’s top storytellers and presenters, will launch a Collaborative Leadership and Storytelling cohort:  Maximize Opportunities with the Power of Your Story.

Participants will learn more about the transformational power of collaboration and enhance their presentation skills by defining purpose, understanding their value, and releasing the power of their story.  In this session, Hart will share key concepts to help you develop a mindset to maximize your leadership opportunities and provide an overview of the new cohort.

 

Advancing Your Career with Key Principles from Redefine the Game & Intro to Cohort

Dr. Jefferey Robinson of BCT Partners will return to Omaha to help launch the 5th Cohort of the Redefine the Game Institute, an innovative career advancement and leadership development program. Over 150 have participated with most receiving promotions and increased compensation, expanded career opportunities or leadership positions within new organizations.

In this session, Dr. Robinson will guide you towards growing and making the most of your network and provide an overview of the next RTG cohort. You will also hear from RTG Alumni regarding their own path career paths and stepping into impactful leadership roles.

 

Understanding Your Wealth Building Code and Developing Your Plan & Intro to Cohort

Dr. Pamela Jolly a nationally recognized wealth-building strategist returns to launch the third cohort of the Legacy Wealth Initiative.  Graduates of Legacy Wealth have developed wealth plans, saved thousands of dollars, become homeowners, launched and purchased businesses, invested individually and collectively and made contributions to their community.  Dr. Jolly will review the key elements to develop and implement your own wealth building plan and provide an overview of the upcoming Legacy Wealth Cohort.

Register for the 17th Annual Rebuilding the Village Conference and come join us for the introduction of the new cohorts.  Learn More and Register here

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Community Features

Dream Big! Eric Thomas coming to Omaha June 7th

OMAHA, Neb. –  On June 7, the Empowerment Network will take over CHI Health Center Omaha & Hilton Omaha Downtown for the 17th Annual Rebuilding the Village Conference and Luncheon. This year’s event also features the highly anticipated Revive Omaha Black Business Expo, highlighting the importance of supporting and empowering black-owned businesses in the community. The conference kicks off at 8:00 am.

Big Dreams and Collective Visions!  The luncheon will feature an energizing session from keynote speaker from New York Times best-selling author, educator, motivational guru and international business phenomenon, Eric Thomas, Ph.D.

As an inspirational speaker, Thomas has made a successful career working with and coaching Fortune 500 companies, top athletes, students and audiences around the world. A visionary, Thomas helps others walk in their purpose. Through a thorough examination and application of these same principles, his conference attendees continue to maximize their successes both in the workplace and at home. As a husband, father and philanthropist, Thomas aims to improve the lives of others through self-empowerment, self-assessment and consistent execution.

The Rebuilding the Village Conference and Luncheon has long been recognized as a premier gathering for community leaders, activists, entrepreneurs and stakeholders to come together to address key issues facing underserved communities. With a focus on career advancement, leadership development, DEI, wealth building, entrepreneurship, community building and more, the conference aims to foster collaboration and drive positive change in Omaha and beyond.

“The Rebuild the Village Conference and Revive Omaha Black Business Expo continues to evolve,” said Willie Barney, CEO and founder of the Empowerment Network. “Through this year’s event, we are focusing on the best ways to build economic strength and equity, support business owners, encourage homeownership, and invest in economic development and revitalization. Our community wants to be a part of the development of our city. Our Conference and Black Business Expo will equip attendees with the tools needed to thrive.”

Dream Big video from Eric Thomas

Central to this year’s event is the Revive Omaha Black Business Expo, a dynamic showcase of black-owned businesses from across the region. Attendees will have the chance to network with entrepreneurs, learn about innovative products and services, and support the local economy.

Backed by the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, the Empowerment Network works to build a safer environment for all residents by increasing educational and career success and reducing violent crime. The My Brother’s Keeper Alliance leads a cross-sector national call-to-action focused on building safe and supportive communities for boys and young men of color where they feel valued and have clear pathways to opportunity.

In 2023, the Rebuild the Village Conference attracted more than 1,100 attendees. Of those attendees, nearly 40 percent were students. With the help of last year’s keynote speaker, businessman, NBA legend and philanthropist Erving “Magic” Johnson, Rebuild the Village was able to raise $90,000 during an unexpected auction at the end of Johnson’s speech. Last year’s event also drew in leaders from across the nation, including key cities like Atlanta, Ga., Chicago, Ill., Denver, Co., Kansas City,  Mo., New Orleans, La. and Tulsa, Okla.

In addition to the Black Business Expo, the conference will feature keynote speeches, panel discussions, workshops, and interactive sessions led by industry experts and community leaders. To learn more about the event, including ticket prices and sponsorship opportunities, please visit https://www.rtvomaha.com/. Registration closes Monday, June 3.

 

About the Empowerment Network

The Empowerment Network is a nonprofit organization committed to advancing economic, social and civic progress within Omaha’s African American community, North Omaha and the region. Through collaborative efforts and innovative initiatives, the Empowerment Network strives to create opportunities for empowerment and transformation in every zip code and neighborhood in the City of Omaha and other national communities.

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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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