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Power Players, Ben Gray and Other Omaha African-American Leaders Try Improvement Through Self-Empowered Networking

July 9, 2010 6 comments

The following story on the African-American Empowerment Network in Omaha appears here just as it does in print and online in The Reader (www.thereader.com),. It is part one of a two-part cover series on the grassroots community initiative focused on making positive change to address longstanding disparities in key quality of life areas.  I will post part two here after it’s published next week.  I worked on and off over a period of two years assembling the data, mostly based on interviews, for these stories.  As sometimes happens in my line of work, the story I submitted has been severely cut, primarily for space, and as its author I would argue it has lost something in translation — depth, texture, nuance, and perhaps. continuity, although I would be purely guessing at this point, because you see I don’t read my published work anymore, this story included.  That is, I stopped reading my freshly published years ago.  It just got to be too upsetting to find articles winnowed down by hundreds, even thousands of words in some cases.  Too often something went wrong in the process.  This is not an overly sensitive writer condemning the very useful and necessary practice of editing.  Earlier today I edited, on an editor’s orders, a 3,400 word story down to 1,600 words, and all that tightening didn’t kill the story so much as focus it.  Ah, but you see, I did the edit myself.  The following story was truncated without my input.  Now, it might be perfectly fine in its shortened form.  Or it might not.  Eventually, I’ll let you the reader decide. In a couple weeks I will post the version I submitted and run it on the same page with this version.  You be the judge.  For now though, read about an interesting effort to revitalize Omaha’s African-American communityfrom the ground up.

Power Players, Ben Gray and Other Omaha African-American Leaders Try Improvement Through Self-Empowered Networking

©by Leo Adam Biga

As seen in the The Reader (www.thereader.com)

It may have been 2007 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 action.

Nearly four years ago, a coalition of local blacks decided to rebuild the community from within. They formed the nonprofit African-American Empowerment Network.

The effort was inspired by author and television/radio talk show host Tavis Smiley in his best selling 2006 book, The Covenant with Black America. Omaha’s Empowerment Network targeted 13 areas for improvement.

Efforts by the Network and partners are the latest attempted remedies. In the 1940s and ’50s the De Porres Club pressed 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.

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 businesses left. Few new businesses have opened.

Northeast Omaha’s chronic gun violence contributed to the perception of an unsafe environment. It is regarded as a mission district dependent on government assistance, social services and philanthropy.

President and consultant at Innovations By Design, LLC, Tawanna Black, also vice-chair of the board for the Network, and co-chair for the race relations covenant, summed it up. “In the absence of African-Americans in powerful political or economic positions to drive this, 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.”

“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.

Empower Omaha drafted a rising-tide-lifts-all-ships community covenant. Through monthly community meetings, periodic summits and prayer walks, neighborhood cleanups, block parties and surveys, the Network interfaces with residents through 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.”

Highlander Neighborhood Association president Kristina Carter said the Network’s an integral part of neighborhood cleanups. Network strategies encompass neighborhoods, housing, employment, education, family, faith, crime, etc. 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.

The Network was 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. There is an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, a preponderance of single-parent homes and little economic development or opportunity. Newly detailed were high jobless rates and low household income levels. Freeway construction disrupted, some say severed, a tight community. As restrictive housing practices waned, upwardly mobile blacks moved west. Others left the state.

Many feel the city needs to make an “It stops here” pledge.

Rev. Jeremiah McGhee doubts the larger community yet appreciates a revitalized north Omaha is good for all of Omaha.

The city has managed a united front against gun violence. 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.

Connecting the dots, it became clear that despair is rooted in certain realities: entrenched gang and drug culture; fractured families; a lack of positive role models; barriers to educational, job, home ownership and business opportunities; a sense that no one cares.

Douglas County Treasurer and Network chair John Ewing knows it from his former career as an Omaha cop and Empowerment prayer walks and community meetings. He said residents complain of violence, lack of economic opportunities, that they feel abandoned, neglected, overlooked, forgotten. It leads to a sense of hopelessness. And northeast Omaha’s lost some 11,000 households over time. A diminished tax, voter, consumer base diluted the minimal clout it had to hold public and private sectors accountable the economic and social ills.

“There’s been a lot of benign neglect that’s 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.”

Davis Companies CEO Dick Davis spearheads a formed Economic Strategy Taskforce whose goals address economic viability. Those 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.

Davis has long been active, starting black businesses and 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. 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. Nothing large-scale has been attempted.

A recent Pew Partnership for Civic Change report found that of 33,000 metro businesses, only 200 are black-owned – most are single owner-operator endeavors.

Family Housing Advisory Services director Teresa Hunter, co-chair of the Network’s housing development covenant, said “We work within the framework of what’s already going on, trying to make it cooperative … Why are people still falling through the cracks – what else do we need to do?”

Where most Network players are native Omahans like Hunter, the driving force is a transplant, Willie Barney, who until recently was 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.

“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. 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.”

Willie Barney

The effort started focusing on seven core areas: jobs, business-economic development, education-youth development, voting, violence prevention, housing-neighborhoods-transportation and engagement.

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.

In 2009 the organization opened an office in the historic Jewell Building in the heart of North O, across from the Omaha Star.

The Network boosted its presence via an expanded website, 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.”

The Network’s first full-time staffer was Quaites-Ferris, a former deputy assistant to former Mayor Mike Fahey said. Three-and-a-half years in, the Network has a track record.

Barney 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 concurred. 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.”

In mid-2008 the Network noted workforce development gaps for at-risk youth 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. Barney and 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 fulltime 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 last year’s 800.

“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.”

Ben Gray

Barney said the group launched a multifaceted violence prevention collaboration. “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).

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.”

Recruiting them, he said, was largely the work of the late Roy Davenport and of Gray. Both brought longtime gang intervention experience.

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.

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 its 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.”

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.

Barney said he’s sure some people feel the Network effort is not open enough, or that they don’t have a voice. He wants them to contact him. “We’ll sit down and we’ll meet and we’ll listen and try the best we can to make adjustments.”

“We are building a long-term foundation. We’re getting more and more people engaged, more people are stepping forward. That doesn’t mean 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. ‘We’ve seen some things slowly move in the right direction.”

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.”

“Well, right now its just ideas, there’s nothing concrete as far as I know,” she said. 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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