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Meet Willie Barney, Founder and President of the African American Empowerment Network

Meet Willie Barney, Founder and President of the African American Empowerment Network in Omaha, Nebraska.

In his own words, Wille shares how he chose to dedicate his life to improving opportunities for boys and men of color in his city. From his childhood in rural Mississippi to now running an organization that has helped reduce gun violence, reduce unemployment and increase graduation rates in Omaha, Willie exemplifies the purpose-driven leadership that’s at the heart of the MBK Alliance.

Growing up in the Mississippi Delta, even at a young age, I could see the differences in how people of different races lived. Riding on the school bus or in the back of my uncle’s truck as we headed to town on highway 438, I looked at the plantation homes, beautiful brick mansions, shotgun houses and run-down shacks typically separated by railroad tracks, a stream or in some cases a dirt road or city street. Even in difficult conditions, my family maintained high expectations for all of us and we were surrounded by a village of people who cared for and supported each other. 

Later in life, as I traveled coast-to-coast, I witnessed the same lingering impacts of poverty, segregation and injustice. However, no matter what others have said we couldn’t do, we have always kept rising. In college and afterwards, I continued researching and studying the core components of great African American movements in our community. 

In 2006, we were facing escalating levels of gun violence, a low graduation rate and high unemployment for African-Americans in Omaha. A major debate was occurring regarding education, and on the national level, Hurricane Katrina had devastated the south and again exposed the tragic poverty. Earlier, then-Senator Barack Obama had delivered a speech here in which he said, at some point you have to say, “I’ve had enough.” This need for change—which had been burning in me from a young age—had grown to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer. 

Encouraged by the words of Senator Obama and timely speeches and sermons by George Fraser, Maurice Watson, and other ministers I admire, and armed with years of research, data and models, my wife and I stepped out in faith, believing that if we could work together with other like-minded partners, we could move the dial. 

Thirteen years later, gun violence has been reduced by 80 percent, graduation rates have increased from 50 to 81 percent and the unemployment rate has been reduced from 21 to seven percent. I’ve seen it with my own eyes now. With God on our side, all things are possible. Together, working with hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals, we are rising up and rebuilding the village, family by family, block by block and business by business. 

This work is a calling for me. One of the things that my wife and I focus on is walking in purpose. We encourage everyone we meet to use their God-given gifts and to do their part by making a positive difference where they are. For us, measurable results have been generated collectively through a comprehensive, community-based and collaborative approach. 

And now, with the Obama Foundation and MBK Alliance partnership, it is allowing us to accelerate our progress to continue closing the economic, wealth, and opportunity gaps for boys and men of color. The MBK Community Challenge Competition investment and our partnership with the Obama Foundation have already helped us 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.

Learn more about the African American Empowerment Network here.

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