Home > African-American Culture, African-American Empowerment Network, Civil Rights, Education, History, Omaha, Race, Social Justice, Writing > Part I: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking

Part I: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking


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The Empowerment Network in Omaha is a catalytic force for positive change in North Omaha not seen before in terms of the scale and scope of its vision and reach. This is Part I of a two-part Reader cover story series I did several years ago about the Network.. This long version shared here was not published. The shorter published version is also available on my blog if you care to see it.

 

Part I: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking

©by Leo Adam Biga

Mark it down. 2007 may be when northeast Omaha’s depressed African-American community reached its limit. A demographic bound by race, history, circumstance and geography seemingly exhaled a collective sigh of exasperation to exclaim, Enough already. Longstanding discontent over inequities in income, housing, education, economic development and opportunity solidified into resolve by a people to take matters into their own hands.

Going on four years ago, a coalition of local blacks reached consensus to intentionally rebuild the community from within. As catalyst for this call to action, they formed the African-American Empowerment Network. The nonprofit community leadership organization uses advocacy, mobilization, engagement, collaboration and coordination as tools for enacting change.

The effort is inspired by a national movement of black empowerment laid-out by author and television/radio talk show host Tavis Smiley in his best selling 2006 book, The Covenant with Black America,. Borrowing from Smiley and other sources, Omaha’s Empowerment Network targeted 13 strategic covenant areas for improvement.

The disparities dogging segments of Omaha’s black community are long in the making. Efforts by the Network and partners to address these woes are the latest attempted remedies. In the 1940s and ‘50‘s the De Porres Club pressed the cause for civil rights. In the ‘60s the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties or 4CL, took up the banner. Well into the ‘70s federally funded programs and agencies spurred by the Great Society and its War on Poverty operated here. At various times the Urban League of Nebraska and the Omaha Chapter of the NAACP have led on social justice and community betterment issues. Other well-meaning efforts and groups have sprung up.

When the last in a series of major civil disturbances in the late ‘60s badly damaged the old North 24th St. business-entertainment hub, many business owners abandoned the area for good. Relatively few new businesses have opened since.

Northeast Omaha’s chronic gun violence has contributed to the perception of an unsafe environment in which to do business or raise families, exacerbating deeply entrenched negative attitudes about the area. While the rest of the city has thrived, North O has lagged behind. Stagnation has further isolated it and inhibited new development there.

This once self-sufficient area is regarded as a mission district dependent on government assistance, social services and philanthropy. Even as African-Americans try empowering themselves, limited capital, combined with enormous needs gone unmet or underserved, makes outside investment necessary. The difference this time is that the black community is taking the lead, in collaboration with the larger community, to transform northeast Omaha. Blacks are doing much of the visioning, crafting and implementing of plans. Rather than change imposed from without, it’s organically generated from within, a model not seen before here.

Innovations By Design president and chief consultant Tawanna Black, co-chair of the Network’s advocacy and justice strategy, said where some cities improved conditions for African-Americans via a black political or corporate base, Omaha did not. “In the absence of African-Americans in powerful political or economic positions to drive this,’ she said, “small changes have occurred but nothing major. The network really flips that theory on its head and says, Why are we waiting for the power to be given, let’s own the power that’s within. It’s an empowerment thing. It means more than just a name on a piece of paper. It’s really what it’s all about — empowering people to take control of themselves. A process committed to that is completely new in this community.”

For some, it’s a manifesto for long overdue self-determination.

“There’s been a lot of psychological damage done to us as a people. Historically we just allow things to happen to us and what we have to do is starting taking control of our own destiny and that means also having skin in the game,” said Omaha City Councilman and Network violence intervention-prevention chair Ben Gray.

 

  • Willie Barney
  •  Vicki Quaites-Ferris
  •  Jami Anders-Kemp

 

 

Empower Omaha drafted a rising-tide-lifts-all-ships community covenant identifying quality of life indicators needing attention. Copies of the covenant went to north side businesses and churches. It can be glimpsed inside beauty and barber shops, stores, offices. Pastors distribute it to congregations, sometimes preaching on it.

Through monthly community meetings, periodic summits and activities like prayer walks, neighborhood cleanups, block parties and surveys the Network interfaces with residents, inviting them to share concerns and ideas. The organization works closely with neighborhood associations in forming a North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance.

“We keep the community engaged, we listen to the community, we write down what they say. I think that’s how we get the buy-in from the community,” said director of operations Vicki Quaites-Ferris. “Most things implemented actually come as a result of listening to the community. That’s why it’s so important to keep the community engaged because at some point the community may say, We’ve got to turn it around and now focus on this.”

Highlander Neighborhood Association president Kristina Carter said the Network’s “an integral part” of neighborhood cleanups. “There are a lot of (neighborhood) associations but alone they don’t have the capacity to have an impact and I think that’s what this Alliance is poised to do. It gives the area a single voice, it puts some teeth to it.

Network strategies encompass neighborhoods, housing, employment, education, family,  faith, crime, et cetera. The strategies come from community leaders, residents and best practices in other cities. Not a direct service provider, the Network partners with others to support or facilitate programs and to link efforts in order to build synergy and capacity.

The backdrop for all this empowerment is profound want. The Network was already in place before a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series revealed black Omaha poverty rates as among the nation’s worst. What was already known is that many youths underachieve in school. Only half graduate. On top of that is an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, a preponderance of single parent homes and little economic development or opportunity.

Newly detailed were the area’s high joblessness rates and low household income levels. Northeast Omaha also suffers from a distressed infrastructure, Vacant lots, condemned structures and unkempt rental properties abound. There’s a paucity of black-owned businesses. The area’s endured a net population loss. Freeway construction disrupted, some say severed, a tight community. As restrictive housing practices waned, upwardly mobile blacks moved west. Others left the state for better prospects and larger, more progressive African-American communities elsewhere.

Network leaders say the series shone a light on conditions heretofore ignored. The result? Broad-based engagement from initiatives like the Chamber’s North Omaha Development Project and the privately funded Building Bright Futures. Many feel the city needs to make an It-stops-here pledge. “Omaha has yet to really stand up the way we do to other things and say we will not accept having the highest black poverty again,” said Black. “We haven’t done that. We’ve done some projects, we’ve announced some nice things, but we have not said we will not be here again.” Rev. Jeremiah McGhee doubts the larger community yet appreciates a revitalized north Omaha is good for all of Omaha, saying, “I don’t think they’re quite getting it.”

Combatting gun violence is one issue Omaha’s managed a united front on. The Network has endorsements from Mayor Jim Suttle, Omaha Police Chief Alex Hayes and some 100 public-private partners for the Omaha 360 anti-violence coalition. Asking hard questions about the violence problem spurred the development of the Empowerment Network in the first place. Why is this happening when Omaha as a whole prospers and some black communities thrive by comparison? Connecting the dots, it became clear the despair is rooted in certain realities: an entrenched gang and drug culture; fractured family units; a lack of positive role models for young people; barriers to educational, job, home ownership and business opportunities; a sense that nobody cares.

 

Cover Photo

 

Douglas County Treasurer and Network chair John Ewing knows it from his former career as an Omaha cop and the Empowerment prayer walks and community meetings he joins. He said residents openly “complain about the violence, the lack of economic opportunities, the fact they feel abandoned, neglected, overlooked, forgotten. All this leads to a sense of hopelessness. That’s when people become demoralized, when they feel like they don’t matter to anybody else, when they see all the nice things Omaha’s doing but don’t feel they can participate in those things.”

Illegal gun and drug activity, violence, high drop-out and jobless rates, unskilled workers making minimum wages with no real future are all symptomatic of systemic, cyclical problems having gone unchecked or received piecemeal attention.

Making matters worse, northeast Omaha’s lost some 11,000 households over time. A diminished tax, voter, consumer base has deluded what little clout it had to hold the public and private sectors accountable for the economic and social ills.

“There’s been a lot of benign neglect thats gone on in north Omaha by the majority community and I don’t hesitate in saying that because it’s a fact,” said Gray. “But what we’ve got to do now is rather than point fingers and place blame put together the necessary mechanism to fix it. We’ve got so much work to do and we’ve got so many areas that we’re operating in.”

“Oh, mercy,” Black said in response to the task. One way or another, she said, “economics feed into all this. If you have money you have health insurance and you get screened, if you have money you can afford education to get a better job. It all ties back to that, and so we’re aiming to see measurable changes. Getting unemployment rates down and household income up to what it is in the rest of the city. Moving more folks off public assistance and public housing into being able to sustain their own families and afford market rate housing. Getting more people out of GED classrooms into college classrooms. Getting people into workforce development programs.”

She acknowledges the goals describe “a long-term process.”

Davis Companies CEO Dick Davis spearheads the economic covenant and the recently formed Economic Strategy Taskforce, an offshoot whose targeted outcomes speak to economic viability. He said the taskforce’s and covenant’s ambitious goals include preparing every African-American for a sustainable living wage job; moving persons from unemployment or underemployment to full employment and from jobs to careers; encouraging entrepreneurship by increasing access to credit and capital.

The Network endorses a from-birth-to-career strategy similar to Bright Futures.

Davis has been doing his part for years, from starting-up black businesses to providing college scholarships to black students. Entities like the African-American Academic Achievement Council, 100 Black Men, 100 Black Women, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, the Urban League of Nebraska, along with black churches, have done their part, too. Pockets of progress have appeared in some new home construction, a few business parks, a refurbished section of North 24th St. and new quarters for anchors Salem Baptist Church, the Urban League and Charles Drew Health Center. But nothing of real scale has been attempted.

Overall, northeast Omaha appears stuck in the same quagmire of decline and disenfranchisement that befell it in the late 1960s, A recent Pew Partnership for Civic Change report found that of 33,000 metro businesses, only 200 are black-owned — most single owner-operator endeavors.

It was in this bleak context the Network formed. Family Housing Advisory Services director Teresa Hunter, co-chair of the Network’s housing development covenant, said underpinning the effort was the shared “thought that we need to make a change, we need to do something.” From the start, she said, it’s been about avoiding duplication and instead building capacity for existing programs and services and filling gaps.

 

 

 

 

 

We work within the framework of what’s already going on, trying to make it cooperative. We identify issues and who’s already addressing them and what’s missing. Why are people still falling through the cracks — what else do we need to do?” No one entity, she said, holds the whole answer. “We take who does this well and who does that well and we put them all together.”

Where most Network players are native Omahans like Hunter, the driving force is a transplant, Willie Barney, who until recently made his living as a strategic consultant. The Iowa native worked in media marketing for Lee Enterprises and moved here for an Omaha World-Herald post. He worked on Salem Baptist Church’s administrative team when he galvanized efforts to create the Network. He served as the Network’s unpaid president and facilitator, then as a consultant, and is now its second paid staff member.

What began as a loose association testing the waters is now an established, structured player in broad, multi-faceted initiatives that have gotten buy-ins from public and private stakeholders both within and outside the African-American community.

“In evolving over time we’ve stayed true to our mission,” said Barney. “We said we want to be positive and pro-active and to build partnerships…with the entire city. Those are some core values we have. Our goal is to bring individuals and organizations together to help facilitate positive, measurable change…It has to be bottom-up and top-down for it to be anywhere close to being successful — individuals, families, leaders at all levels working together collaboratively.

“We were asked early on, How are you going to look at jobs, violence, housing, education all at the same time? And our answer is, How can we not when only 50 percent of our kids graduate high school, certain census tracts have 30 to 50 percent unemployment and 38 percent home ownership and a majority of homicides occur in the same concentrated area. If anybody thinks you can only focus on one of those areas and get anything done…” he said incredulously. “It has to be comprehensive. There’s not one organization or segment that’s going to solve what we’re in right now.”

Recently, however, the Network’s consolidated things. Barney said, “The more we went forward we realized we would spread ourselves too thin trying to have initiatives and groups in every one of the 13 covenant areas, so we really started focusing on seven core areas: faith and community engagement; education and youth development; violence intervention and prevention; housing and neighborhood development; jobs, jobs training and business development; health and healthy families; arts, culture and media.”

Evidence of the Network’s wide reach was seen during its annual Harmony Week (May 21-29), when dozens of organizations and thousands of people across the Metro participated in expressions of unity and community engagement.

Black said turf wars “have been removed by a higher agenda. Everyone at the table realizes this agenda can’t happen through just one of the organizations or churches, it can’t happen with folks who want just one neighborhood or one part of the community or one business discipline. And yet everyone realizes there are opportunities for each of our organizations to play a significant role in this. It really takes all of us being at the table, title-less, organization-less, to make this happen. That’s huge.

Barney officed the first two-plus years wherever he and his laptop were, although the Network’s regularly convened at three main sites: the Family Housing Advisory Services building.; North High School; and the former In Play, now Tip Top Ballroom. In 2009 the organization opened an office in the historic Jewell Building, right in the heart of North O, across from the Omaha Star.

 

John Ewing

Ben Gray

 

 

After a low key start that shunned media attention the Network’s boosted its presence via an expanded web site, a Facebook page and Revive! Omaha Magazine, which Barney’s SMB Enterprises LLC publishes. A TV spot features Network leaders reciting, like a creed, the Empowerment credo:

“We can change Omaha. It’s time to rebuild the village. Family by family, block by block, school by school, church by church, business by business. Each person doing their part. Working together, let’s transform Omaha. Do your part. Live the covenant…”

After a slow start, an Adopt-a-Block initiative for pastors to lead their houses of worship in nurturing neighborhoods has taken off, with some 70-plus pastors attending training compared to 15 last year.

Barney said in line with moving from “a grassroots movement into a formal organization,” the Network hired its first full-time staffer in Quaites-Ferris. The former deputy assistant under former Mayor Mike Fahey said, “My role is to make sure all operations and covenants are remaining as active as can be.” She said some covenants are more active and self-sufficient then others.” In terms of collaboration, she said, “it’s not always about partners coming to us but sometimes it’s about us going to them and seeing how can we partner together.”

Three-and-a-half years in now, the Network has a track record.

Said Barney, “There’s a lot of powerful signals. I think people are beginning to see there’s more strength and we can get more done if we just simply sit down and talk. We may not agree on everything but we can talk through those differences and keep a common goal in mind of trying to help our kids and employ parents in sustainable jobs. That’s really what we’re all trying to do. We may have different ways of getting there but if we can sit down and talk we’ll have a better chance.”

He said whatever course the Network adopts, it relies on others to carry it out.

“At the end of the day it’s ENCAP, the Urban League, Omaha Economic Development Corporation that are doing the work. But I think because we’re here we’ve helped facilitate potentially more partnerships than would have happened before.”

Malcolm X Memorial Foundation president Sharif Liwaru said he feels the Network’s facilitator rather than direct service provider role “is still hard for people to grasp.” Barney acknowledges as much. While Liwaru and community activist Leo Louis feel the Network effectively engages established organizations and leaders, they advocate more outreach be done to new, more loosely organized groups as well as to youths.

“We’re doing more to really make sure it is an inclusive process,” said Barney. “If they don’t come, we’ll go to them, and we’re not perfect, we make mistakes, but we keep pushing forward.”

The Network doesn’t pretend to work with every organization. It puts time and money where it can make the most difference. Barney said many early initiatives were pilots that explored what works and what doesn’t. “Now,” he said, “we have a better feel for what truly makes a difference and for what organizations are committed and actually have the resources and infrastructure to implement programs.”

He can list many Network accomplishments, but the work being done with young people is closest to his heart.

Mid-2008 the Network noted workforce development gaps for at-risk young persons and launched a life skills and jobs program. No one wanted a summer like 2007, when there were 31 reported shootings in 31 days during one stretch. Program participants included kids failing in school and drop outs , ex and active gang members among their ranks. Barney and Ben Gray contacted employers to secure 150 paid internships. The program was repeated last summer, with enrollees split between returning and new participants. Barney said many “transitioned back into school, some went on to get GEDs and others got offers for full time work.” 2009 saw hundreds more jobs created by federal stimulus funds and private donors. The Urban League facilitated.

Minus any federal funds in 2010, the number of summer jobs provided at-risk youth this year will be closer to 500, rather than the 800 created last year.

“In a lot of instances we basically have to start from scratch — we have to teach people how to fill out an application, how to successfully interview, how to do some things we take for granted,” said Gray. “This is a big job because you’ve got to change attitudes as well as change behavior. Neither is easy, but you’ve got to get it done because the only other choice is to build more jails and at the end of the day that’s costing us three to four times as much money as to provide jobs and job training and proper schooling.”

 

Black Male Summit  9 10 2013

 

Barney said feedback from community forums identified unemployment as an underlining cause of violence. The program’s one of several Network initiatives aimed at curbing violence, with Omaha 360 and Enough is Enough being the latest and largest.

“We launched a formal violence prevention collaboration where we have community groups, faith groups, law enforcement, the Urban League, employment agencies, health organizations, housing organizations meeting every week to focus on youth violence and how we can reduce it,” said Barney. “It’s not just telling folks, Don’t do this, now we’re providing options.”

Impact One Community Connection, formerly New World Youth Development, was formed to do gang intervention-prevention. The Network also collaborates with ENCAP, the Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership (formerly GOACA).

Barney said a Stop the Violence summit that tapped young people’s input included former and current gang members. Those sessions morphed into regular youth forums. “People have been sitting down with gang members and not just telling them stuff but listening to what’s on their mind. Why didn’t you stay in school? What are the supports you need? What do you think of attempts to rebuild the community and what issues do you see going on from your perspective?”

Teresa Hunter said she, Barney and others were impressed “a group of youths wanted to continue meeting and talking about the issues and the remedies. They wanted to keep coming back and to make a change.”

In turn, said Barney, participants “were amazed somebody cared enough to spend all that time one-on-one with them and to help them get a job. They will flat out tell you no one has ever given them these opportunities before. Even some of the kids on the street that everybody totally discounts and that people said there’s no way you’re going to reach, well, we reached them.”

Building trust with this population, said Barney, is key. “They’ve been hurt so many times, people have given up on them, people have ruined their trust.” Recruiting them, he said, was largely the work of the late Roy Davenport and of Gray. Both brought long gang intervention experience. “That’s kind of the bridge that was built,” said Barney. “The Network has been able to tap into those who’ve been doing the work of trying to get people to leave gangs, giving us a link to that segment, and giving the intervention workers the support, resources and organization they lacked before.”

 

8th Annual State of African Americans and State of North Omaha 2014 Photo from Jason Fischer

 

The Network’s aligned itself with the Omaha Police Department, particularly the Northeast Precinct, and North Omaha Weed & Seed to do Safe Night Outs and other efforts for improving police-community relations. Ben Gray and the police report progress in residents providing information and tips that lead to arrests.

Gray, who leads an emergency response team, said street work is where it’s at in reaching past or present gangbangers.

“You got to meet them where they are. If you are not willing to get out in those blocks, in those neighborhoods, in those houses where they live, you are not going to reach those young people. You gotta be at the hospitals, you gotta be at the funerals, you gotta be constantly talking about not retaliating…about going in a different direction. That’s very time consuming, painstaking, difficult work and there are no set hours. We have ex-gang members employed through Impact One. They monitor the streets on a regular basis.”

Gray lauds the Network for “putting it’s neck on the line” to even do this outreach, saying it’s a microcosm for how a wounded community can heal. “We have people that have been disappointed so much they’re not willing to necessarily buy-in until they have seen some stability in you going down the road getting a few things accomplished, and then you’ll hopefully get that groundswell of people that will come on board with you.”

“That’s how it clicks there, it’s grassroots, it’s organization, it’s strategic planning, it’s building relationships,” said Barney. “The summer program crystalized for many of us what’s possible.”

Barney said the Network “has the opportunity to really make a tremendous difference. Some of it will be over time, some of it will be dramatic,” such as the 36 percent reduction in gun violence in July-August 2008. “Now we can’t take direct credit for that but police will tell you that has never happened before at that level. Some folks went from being on the street to being in the life skills program to having a stipend to do voter registration work to being fully employed. So the possibilities are there for reaching the kids. Now it’s having all the support services lined up so we can link them together.”

For Kristina Carter, the Network is a vehicle for change and a conduit for action.

“I love what they’re doing with getting the-powers-that-be to listen to the community and for voices to be heard and not just patronized. The Empowerment Network can be that central point, strategic center of command where you can branch out to all the different organizations that service this community. That’s what it represents to me.”

Leo Louis and Sharif Liwaru say there are grassroots segments of the community that fall outside the Network’s structure that need to be engaged more.

“We’re doing as much as we can pushing it in that direction,” said Barney. “But I’m sure there are people in the community who still feel it’s not open enough or they feel they don’t have a voice. I would ask anyone who feels that way to contact me directly. We’ll sit down and we’ll meet and we’ll listen and try the best we can to make adjustments.”

Barney said it’s important to remember rebuilding north Omaha will be a process. Embedded problems will not suddenly vanish.

“We are building a long-term foundation. We’re getting more and more people engaged, more people are stepping forward. That doesn’t meant the violence is going to stop today or next week. I keep saying to folks, ‘It did not happen overnight and it will not be solved overnight’. That message rarely gets printed or becomes a sound bite. We’re not getting our minds around how big this is — the depth of this, and how long it’s been going. It’s painful just to say this is going to be a long term situation. To be successful this has to be a citywide effort.

“At the end of the day what’s kept everybody together is that it’s bigger than us individually and bigger than us as an organization or a church or a business. It’s about young people that need to graduate, it’s about mothers and fathers taking care of their kids, it’s about people being able to start a business, it’s about economic redevelopment. And it’s not about waiting on someone else to do it for us…”

Guardedly optimistic, he said, “We’ve seen some things slowly move in the right direction.” He’s encouraged by the positive alliances and community spirit built but he knows residents are eager to touch brick-and-mortar change.

Geraldine Wesley with Long School Neighborhood Association embraces the Network “getting people’s hopes up to empower” North O, adding, “If they carry out all the things they intend to do, it would be good.” She’s cautiously expectant. “Well, right now it’s just ideas, there’s nothing concrete as far as I know. I am waiting for the results. It’s going to be a long process, I know that. I hope I’ll live to see it.”

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