To some, gun violence and broken trust between police and community members seem like problems that are simply too big to fix, but not to Willie Barney.
As the founder and president of the African-American Empowerment Network, a My Brother’s Keeper Alliance National Seed Community, Willie has transformed the city of Omaha through the Omaha 360 Violence Intervention and Prevention Collaborative, in partnership with hundreds of other leaders in the city. Made up of representatives from all parts of the community, from the clergy to the private sector to the police, the collaborative uses a holistic approach to reduce gun violence and build stronger police-community relations—and it’s yielded real results.
Before COVID-19 hit, their work contributed to a 74 percent sustained decrease in gun violence and a 90 percent decrease in officer involved shootings over ten years. We sat down with Willie to learn more about how he, his team and Network partners have achieved those successes, and how they are curbing violence in the Gateway to the West through holistic community support.
Over a decade ago, Willie Barney left a comfortable career in corporate America to discover what was really happening behind the deluge of headlines and newsreels portraying predominantly Black communities as areas rife with violence, death, and chaos. He traveled coast-to-coast, witnessing the same lingering impacts of poverty, segregation, and injustice. He studied the history of systemic racism that allowed those injustices to take root, as well as the movements and strategies that led to reform.
Listening to communities affected by decades of disinvestment and discrimination inspired Willie to form the African-American Empowerment Network—a catalyst for bringing together individuals and organizations across Omaha to create solutions to the deeper, structural problems that lead to gun violence, economic instability, and other inequities.
Q: There are a lot of misconceptions about violence in communities across the United States. What has your team identified as the leading factors of gun violence in Omaha?
A: Well, at first I’d watch TV and read the papers and see reports of violence just like everyone else, and I wasn’t sure what was driving it. You hear all kinds of things about how, “The kids don’t want to work” or “The police are not doing this.” So when we first started the Empowerment Network we decided to go see for ourselves. We talked to people that were on the ground level that had interactions with people that were in gangs or so-called gangs, and doing some of the negative activities. We sat down and talked to them directly.
They invited me and my team in, and we listened for four hours at a time, and we would have these circles of people that were in the lifestyle, coming out of the lifestyle, and trying to stay away from the lifestyle. What we heard over and over again are three key things: a lack of employment opportunities, no positive alternatives, and a major gap in education.
For the lack of employment opportunities, we would hear people say over and over again that they wanted a job, but wouldn’t even get a call back. They’d apply to ten different places, but couldn’t get a job that paid enough to support themselves or their families. Teens would see their families struggling to keep the lights on and food on the table. They thought their only options were negative alternatives. Was it what they wanted to do? Of course not, but at that point they felt like it was their only option.
The second thing they talked about at length about was that there’s nothing to do and no place to go, especially during the summer. There aren’t positive activities, there aren’t places in their communities where they can go to get together with friends and just enjoy themselves.
The third thing we heard was that a lot of young people were sitting in their classrooms and learning about different subjects, but none of it connected with the reality they were facing on a daily basis. They had no incentive to stay in school. Once we knew those recurring themes, we went to work to address them, and that involved creating Omaha 360 and a youth employment program, which became Step-Up Omaha.
Q: As we see ongoing protests and increasingly strained relationships between police and the communities they are sworn to protect, I’m wondering if you can share more about how your work intersects with the police?
A: That’s a great question, and it’s at the heart of this work. I want to make sure that people understand that you can move the dial. You can reduce both gun violence and police use of force. We weren’t sure that we could 15 years ago, but now we are. If we work collectively and collaborate, and if we can strategically reinvest on the front end, rather than spending all of this money on the back end, we can make progress on this issue. What we’ve been doing can probably be considered a precursor to what people are now calling “defund the police.” It’s not necessarily reducing spending with police, but it certainly means investing in the community.
Our thinking was that if we were able to take 10 percent of what we spend on jails, prisons, criminal justice, and other penalty-driven areas, and reinvest it to get young people connected with positive alternatives like jobs, after school and summer school programs, and career exploration while addressing economic issues, we could have a much better opportunity to turn this situation around.
I also want people to know that our work requires ongoing partnership and relationship-building with our local police department. Not everybody wants to hear that at first. When we first started, the police department didn’t want to come to a community meeting because historically all they got was abuse and people screaming at them that they were the problem. There was a lot of trust to build and relationships to repair. Thomas Warren, Sr., the first African-American police chief in Omaha, agreed to take the risk after we assured him it would be a productive meeting.
So we had to really say, “Look, there’s no way that we’re going to solve and reduce gun violence in our city and make it a safer place if we don’t figure out how to work with the police department.” But let me be clear. When I say we work with the police department, it means that we also hold them accountable. Each police chief since Tom Warren, including Alex Hayes and current Chief Todd Schmaderer, have been active partners with 360 and they have held officers accountable. The entire police department under Chief Schmaderer has fully committed to community policing. There’s always room for improvement, but our police department dedicates an enormous amount of time to listening, responding, and building community trust.
If there are officers that we know by name who are creating issues in our community, we need to be able to address that with the police chief and with the police department to make sure those officers are removed from our community and assigned somewhere else. We’ve had those kinds of conversations after a lot of work to find champions within the police department who believed in what we were doing for our neighborhood.
They helped us fight the internal battles while working with us to fight our shared external battles.
Q: Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others sparked protest across the country. We’ve also seen a recent spike in gun violence. What are your thoughts on the current moment, especially when compared to the successes you’ve seen in your work over the last few years?
A: I want to be sensitive about where we are locally and nationally. There’s a lot that’s happened. First of all, we were devastated just like everyone else with George Floyd’s murder and just all of what we’re seeing lately. We’ve known all of these things have been happening over the years, but to see them placed so clearly in front of our community, in front of our kids. There’s an awakening, and there’s a lot of pain and suffering that’s been going on that has finally been brought to the forefront in a way that can’t be ignored, especially by people who would say, “Well, I thought racism was over. You had a Black president, you got Oprah, you got Michael Jordan, so racism doesn’t exist anymore.” People are finally starting to understand what’s going on. I have received text messages, phone calls and emails from many people asking how they can help.
On the other side, people are digging their heels in. It’s difficult to have conversations when people are so set in their perception of what’s going on. And it’s being fed by the media and other figures. So how do you address that? How do you identify what we have in common?
The protests and demonstrations need to happen to send a strong message that it’s unacceptable for what’s happened to our young men and young women to continue. Demonstrations and the police response to them have created other issues that must be addressed. A series of incidents at protests this summer including the murder of a demonstrator by a business owner have created some division in the community.
At the same time, we cannot lose track of the longer-term issues that are really, I think, going on in the background. The fact that the police have been given a job to police communities that have been under-resourced, disinvested in, and at the intersection of long term policies that contribute to the environment they’re in. It creates a constant source of friction which can at times produce destructive and deadly consequences.
I’m prayerfully considering the urgency of the moment and the voices of youth that have taken to the streets and the clarion call that we have not seen enough progress, and we haven’t seen it fast enough. So even when I talk about the progress we’ve made in Omaha, it just reinvigorates me because the younger voices are saying, “Hey, that’s great. We appreciate the work, but it’s not enough. And it’s not fast enough. What more can we do?” That’s what I see across the country—people are saying we’ve got to do more and we’ve got to do it faster.
Q: You just mentioned the successes you’ve had in reducing violence by addressing the full set of risk factors and underlying causes. How did you achieve those successes?
A: Yes, we’ve been successful with our collective efforts That being said, it’s important to acknowledge that when you’re in painful situations like these, a statistical reduction in violence doesn’t always feel like a victory. We are not satisfied. Let’s use a more practical example. Say you lost a family member to gun violence. You don’t want to hear that gun violence is down 80 percent, because your family member or your friend or your neighborhood is represented in that other 20 percent. So we really have to be careful about how we talk about progress, even though it’s important. You’re talking about lives. They’re not just numbers. These are people’s lives that have been destroyed. It’s a constant balance to discuss progress in the midst of constant challenges and struggles.
Before COVID-19, we had a 74 percent sustained decrease in gun violence in a city that pretty much thought you couldn’t move the dial anymore. In addition to the 74 percent reduction in gun violence and 56 percent decrease in homicides, we were at a 20- to 30-year low for three years before the pandemic. In addition to that, we saw a 90 percent reduction in officer involved shootings. At the same time, our graduation rates increased from 64 to 81 percent and our unemployment rate decreased from 21 percent to 7 percent. We went from 84th worst to the 2nd best unemployment rate for African-Americans in the nation.
In a city of this size, that’s unheard of.
But the biggest thing to point out is that we were able to reduce gun violence because of consistent neighborhood and church involvement. We meet every single week for at least an hour where pastors, neighborhood leaders, community-based organizations, educators, youth development agencies, precinct captains, the gang unit, Deputy Chiefs—many times the chief attends—engage in open dialogue about what happened during the past week, what’s coming up the next week, and we decide who needs to address what. For example, we discussed if the intervention team should be at a football game. We knew the police department would be there, but could we get some pastors and community leaders to go as well? We’re always asking what we can do together to create a safe environment.
The next phase of our work is to make sure we can scale this solution. For decades, we and our communities have known what’s needed to solve these issues, but we haven’t had investments at the scale that’s necessary to meet the true scope of the problem. The scale of the solution must match the scale of the problem.
Q: Willie, there are only 24 hours in a day. How do you prioritize which issues to focus on in a community at a given time?
A: There’s only 24 hours in a day? I thought there were 36! (Laughter) Since day one, we’ve insisted that the people who are most impacted by decisions should be a part of the decision making process. Since 2006, we’ve been intentional about hosting community forums on a monthly basis. We call them village community meetings now, but we ask the community what their priorities are. We also go door-to-door in neighborhoods that have been impacted by violence. We host meetings with youth, parents, public housing residents, returning citizens and many others.
When we were looking to build stronger relationships with the police department, we polled the community and asked them to identify the most strategic and important ways for us to do this. The community identified ten top priorities Opens in a new tab , and those were our marching orders. We make all of our decisions based on what the community deems is necessary. Communities know exactly what they need.
A lot of our work has been around reducing gun violence and reducing homicides by providing employment opportunities, wraparound services, collective work, even down to small stuff that people think makes no difference. We host block parties in specific neighborhoods, we have intervention where we try to prevent violence through one-on-one conversations, and intervention of folks who are in the police department and on the street. It requires preventative work around neighborhood building, capacity building, direct intervention, and reentry for justice-involved folks.
I’d also add that there is a lot of attention on Omaha 360, but we also have collaboratives that go beyond gun violence. We work on a range of other issues, including career education, employment, entrepreneurship, health and healthy families, arts and culture, along with heavy involvement from our faith community and our grassroots neighborhood leaders. We want to build safer, stronger, and healthier families, and we also want to create wealth for our community through entrepreneurship and ownership.
Q: To close, what’s the best way for someone to support your work, and what advice do you have for them on how to create change in their own community?
A: You can learn more about our work at empoweromaha.com Opens in a new tab , and if you’re specifically interested in our Omaha 360 collaborative, you can learn more about it at empoweromaha.com/omaha-360/. Opens in a new tab
Additionally, I urge everyone to do their own part to address the deeper issues that manifest as gun violence. That might look like joining your neighborhood association, becoming a mentor at your local school, or making sure your own children have access to the resources they need for their education. You really have to ask yourself, “What part can I play as an individual person?” It also means attending school board meetings, city council meetings, and other important sessions to advocate for your community.
We talk to our youth a lot about making change and moving from protest to policy. That means you have to align yourself with others who are going in the same direction. Can you work with others to create a common vision for your community or your neighborhood and see which role or what part you can play? All of this depends on believing beyond a doubt that it’s possible to make a change, and it will help you generate some short-term wins and long-term change. The African-American Empowerment Network knows that we can move the dial on these issues, and like President Obama says, we’re playing the long game. This change might take time, but we’re pushing and doing our part to make it happen.
In 2018, the African-Empowerment Networks was selected as a My Brother’s Keeper Alliance National Seed Community, receiving $50,000 in funding to expand their work. You can learn more about the African-American Empowerment Network and its related initiatives here Opens in a new tab .