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African-American Empowerment Network

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National Seed Community: Omaha, NE

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“We have hundreds of organizations & businesses that are working and collaborating with us, working with great alignment on focus areas. We’re focusing on cradle-to-career opportunities, improving wages, business development and home ownership.”
- Willie Barney, longtime CEO

About African American Empowerment Network

The Mantra of the African American Empowerment Network is simple, “One Great Omaha.”   This involves a mission of improving life for everyone across Omaha, especially North Omaha. “We have hundreds of organizations & businesses that are working and collaborating with us, working with great alignment on focus areas.” Willie Barney, longtime CEO said. “We’re focusing on cradle-to-career opportunities, improving wages, business development and home ownership.”   

Established in 2006, the  African-American Empowerment Network Opens in a new tab  works together with residents and leaders to transform distressed neighborhoods and improve the economic condition and quality of life of African American citizens of Greater Omaha. The goal is to close long-standing gaps in employment, entrepreneurship, education, housing, and other factors to transform Omaha into a thriving & prosperous city, across every one of its zip codes and neighborhoods. What began as an ad hoc volunteer group in 2006, Empowerment Network has now grown to hundreds of organizations and businesses along with over 3,000 members. The Network model incorporates best practices and fresh insights from hundreds of years of African-American movements, strategies and blueprints. “We have worked together to gather the thoughts, ideas and involvement of our community to localize, create and implement our own action plan.” Noted Barney when talking about the Network’s unique and effective community driven approach.

African-American Empowerment Network Banner Event

Transformation 2025

Transformation 2025 Opens in a new tab  was first created in 2015 and in sync with the $1.43 billion revitalization plan unanimously approved by the Omaha City Council in 2011. The Empowerment network is the lead facilitator of this plan. The ambitious, long-term, 5-phased project called the  North Omaha Revitalization Plan Opens in a new tab  is rejuvenating the historic area with affordable housing, home ownership, improved educational outcomes and economic development. Transformation 2025 challenges community leaders and residents to achieve the plans, visionary goals and objectives by 2025 with nearly 8,000 residents providing input on entrepreneurship, home ownership, education, arts and culture. Each year the Empowerment Network hosts the ‘ State of North Omaha Summit Opens in a new tab ’ where residents and leaders gather to celebrate progress, analyze areas of growth as well as discuss community priorities, data, and collective strategies for the next year. The Summit brought together a wide-range of participants that include residents, business owners as well as the Mayor, School Superintendent, Police Chief and other key decision makers. The revitalization plan is already being seen as a model for other cities around the country (more than 20 cities across the country have expressed interest to learn from and replicate North Omaha’s successes).  Six years into Transformation 2025,  the list of achievements is impressive for the residents of North Omaha:

  • Adult unemployment rates have decreased to a record low 

  • Youth employment has increased connecting over 6,500 youth to career opportunities and internships.

  • Household incomes have increased by nearly 20%

  • Family poverty has decreased by 10%

  • High School graduation rates have increased by nearly 20%

  • Gun violence has decreased by as much as 74% in North Omaha

  • Development of over 1,000 mixed income units developed in North Omaha

In talking about his thought process in creating change, Barney stated: “From voting, education, employment, arts, and culture, we worked with organizations and individuals to identify current initiatives and see where gaps were. The housing and revitalization piece was a whole strategy of that, looking at how we bring residents back to North Omaha; how we create a more thriving neighborhood; and how we build on the historic value of the arts, culture, and entertainment district that once existed in North Omaha.”  

Excellence is a Habit: Collaboration & Data

Much of the success can be attributed to the strong relationships and trust that the Empowerment Network has built since its inception. “We have been intentional about engaging the community from the start, and we’ve done everything we can to make sure that they’re engaged at every step in the process.” Said Barney. For the last 15 years, Empowerment network has hosted a monthly community meeting where residents and community leaders come together to discuss issues, develop solutions and prioritize next steps. Barney elaborated that “Consistency is key. We didn’t care if 5 or 50 or 500 people showed up. We continued to meet and kept building. Eventually you develop a core group who is committed regardless and will keep pushing the agenda forward. These relationships have been developed and strengthened over 15 years.” The Empowerment network has remained inclusive and open to debate and disagreements. One of the residents who have worked with Barney said, “We haven’t always agreed on everything that was happening within the community.  But throughout all of that, I never had to guess what his (Barney) purpose was, where he saw the community growing or what his vision was for the city. … He always invited everyone to the table — even when some people wanted to flip the table over.”

The years of trust, commitment and consistency paid off during Covid as the Empowerment Network served as the lead convener. “When covid hit we really didn’t know what to do, but we continued to convene. Changing our monthly meeting to weekly with hundreds of people on Zoom.” In addition, the network hosted forums for pastors, small businesses and residents to understand where and how to access resources and opportunities. Each week Omaha’s Health Director provided updates to the network. Omaha’s Mayor supported the Empowerment network to receive a $1 million grant that was distributed to provide crucial mutual aid to North Omaha.  Barney mentioned that throughout the pandemic local trends were even or below national trends with no massive disparities. “This was a result of the trust and infrastructure we had built over 15 years that allowed the mobilization of the existing partners to address the pandemic.” 

If you can’t track it, you can’t improve it

During the 14th Annual ‘State of North Omaha,’ 5 years into the 2025 plan, The Empowerment network spends the first 30 minutes on ‘data.’  Hundreds of participants on zoom watch President Barney, as he uses easy to understand language and visuals to talk about the enormous strides made to meet the 2025 goals. Over 50% accomplished (such as 1,100 out of 2,000 housing units built or the graduation rate is now at 80% close to the 90% goal for 2025). Barney highlights areas for improvement, discusses community priorities, and presents collective strategies for the next year.  A statistician is brought on to compare and contrast the data at different levels (zip code, city, state, national, race and age) but in plain, simple language to ensure easy understanding of the data. The most updated 2025 report developed with inputs and ideas of nearly 8,000 residents (4,000 youth & 4,000 adults) contains 30 data visual snapshots, 10 measurable outcomes, 7 areas of focus and 35 strategies. “We try to track everything we can. If you can’t track it you can’t improve it.” Said Barney when asked about how they incorporate data into their work. 

Building Generational Wealth

Black Owned Financial Institutions

The Empowerment network has been a catalyst for bringing together individuals and organizations to create highly effective economic and cultural pathways and institutions for North Omaha. “You need to have strong businesses, you need to have homeownership… and you also need to be able to save and invest your money so you can control your own destiny,” said Barney. One recent example is the Carver Legacy Center that will be located where the first Black-owned financial institution in Omaha opened in the 1940s. The center will offer a range of services designed to increase access to credit and capital for African Americans and North Omaha residents. “People can make deposits in a Carver Legacy account knowing that these dollars, leveraged into loans, will focus on benefiting African American businesses and the North Omaha community,” said Barney.

Youth Employment: Valuable Skills for Success

The generational wealth strategy starts early. With a wide range of programs aimed at career readiness and youth-centered entrepreneurship, youth employment programs are a foundational component of the empowerment network. Each year, nearly 7,000 youth receive the skills and exposure they will need to thrive in the workplace with opportunities connected to science, coding, engineering, the arts, culinary, construction law enforcement and aviation. The Network has hosted ongoing events for youth to showcase their business plans and prototypes and connect with local business leaders.  These convenings have resulted in local CEOs investing in young people’s ideas. Most recently, youth participants received seed funds for start ups that included affordable shoe cleaning products, a candle company and a landscaping business.  One former youth participant is now in training to become a pilot after participation. The MBK Community Challenge Competition investment has helped the Empowerment Network to leverage $2 million in additional investments to increase employment opportunities for youth, connecting them with jobs, mentors and hands-on experiential learning through STEAM and entrepreneurship training.

Moving forward the goal is to transform Omaha to be the first city in the country to close the long-standing economic, health and social gaps caused by racism and geographic segregation.  Looking 5 years ahead Barney stated: “you’ll see 5,000 new and improved homes, 90 percent of kids graduating from high school, and an arts and culture district second to none in the country that celebrates the rich history of African Americans.”  The Empowerment Network will continue to work with residents and  elected officials to collaborate, align, and invest in programs and strategies that work.  Thinking about the future staff member Jonathan Chapman states “We have the right people at the table right now to ensure the next generation don’t have to deal with the problems of the previous generations or even the current generations.”

African American Empowerment

African-American Empowerment Network, Omaha, NE

The African-American Empowerment Network works together with residents and leaders to transform distressed neighborhoods and improve the economic condition and quality of life of African Americans and citizens of Greater Omaha. Together with local partners, Empowerment Network leads the North Omaha Coronavirus Emergency Plan.