Empowering North OmahaOct 13, 2016 04:00AM ● By Doug Meigs
"Everybody says that it takes a village to raise a child, but what happens when the village really needs to be brought back together in order to do that work?” asks Willie Barney, the founder and president of the Empowerment Network.
This holiday season, Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake streets will demonstrate the vision cast by Barney and others. The sixth annual community celebration takes place on the first Saturday of December (Dec. 3) from noon until 5:30 p.m. Twinkling lights will spread Christmas cheer along several blocks from the intersection at the historic heart of North Omaha (sponsored by the Sherwood Foundation).
Free horse-drawn carriage rides will carry passengers throughout the neighborhood. There will be free coffee and cranberry-flavored tea distributed on the streets; free gloves and toys for kids; arts and craft vendors selling their wares; biblical actors from Mount Moriah Baptist Church joining animals from Scatter Joy Acres farm in a live nativity scene; free entry at Love’s Jazz, The Union for Contemporary Arts, The Omaha Star, Carver Bank, and more. Omaha Economic Development Corporation’s brand new Fair Deal Village Marketplace will also be featured.
“The carriage ride is always packed,” Barney says. “That’s why we’ve had to add at least two of them, and we block off the streets so people can walk up and down and enjoy the atmosphere. The live music is in Dreamland Park, so you can hear live music from some of the best gospel and jazz artists singing outside.”
Joyous music up and down the street rekindles 24th and Lake’s former glory as a nightlife district, where the nation’s best jazz musicians once played on a nightly basis. Vendors and restaurants will be serving hot food during Christmas in the Village. Businesses and nonprofits, old and new, will be open to welcome visitors. Last year, Barney says more than 4,000 people attended the event.
“One of our goals is for Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake to become not just a one-day event,” says Barney. “That’s really our vision: to let people know that you can come to 24th and Lake, that there are businesses and restaurants here. That’s what we are building toward, and we are now starting to see it come to fruition.”
The “village” concept has been an integral part of the Empowerment Network’s philosophy since its inception. In June 2006, Barney met with a small group to discuss building a coalition of community leaders and resident stakeholders. He says their goal was “working together to rebuild the village.”
“That’s really our vision: to let people know that you can come to 24th and Lake, that there are businesses and restaurants here.”
They initially looked at the whole of North Omaha as one village, but they have since broken the geographical region into 12 village areas. The 24th and Lake area is one village. The area of Prospect Hill (also known as the Highlander neighborhood) is another such village area, where nonprofit developer Seventy5North is building a new mixed-use project. The name “Seventy5North” refers to Highway 75, which divides the Highlander neighborhood from 24th and Lake.
Barney was born in Hollandale, Mississippi, went to college at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, and quickly rose in the ranks of Lee Enterprises from intern to marketing executive. He moved to Omaha with his wife in 2000 for a marketing manager job at the World-Herald.
“When we were being recruited here, we read about the graduation rate, and about the great business climate, and all the great things that were under development,” he says. “But it was in those first six months to a year (after relocating) when it became apparent that there were some major disparities, and not everyone in this community was participating actively in the opportunities that are here.”
After four years with the World-Herald, he took a job with Salem Baptist Church with hopes of making a difference through North Omaha’s faith community. Two years later, he gathered with a small group to discuss starting the Empowerment Network.
The Empowerment Network formally launched in April 2007 with the involvement of 400 individuals—local residents, stakeholders, and community leaders. Today, the organization consists of more than 3,000 participants.
Aside from Christmas in the Village, the organization hosts several annual and recurring initiatives, including:
A Village Community Meeting—on the second Saturday of every month at North High School, starting with free breakfast at 8:45 a.m., followed by speakers, roundtables, and networking.
Omaha 360—a gang violence prevention initiative, every Wednesday at the Omaha Home For Boys off 52nd and Ames streets.
The African American Leadership Conference—a fall event focused on career advancement, leadership development, networking, and strategic initiatives.
Step-Up Omaha!—the largest youth employment initiative in the state, where the Empowerment Network works with community partners and businesses to hire 400-500 youths between ages of 14 to 21 for summer jobs.
North Omaha Cradle to Career Education Strategy—an initiative focused on improving educational outcomes in North Omaha.
They were also active in helping to draw up the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan in coordination with the City Council, Planning Board, Nebraska Investment Finance Authority, and the OEDC. It was approved in 2011.
“We worked with Michael Maroney (with the OEDC) and other partners to identify what the community would like to see at 24th and Lake. That was the beginning of the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan, which became the master plan for the area, which led to Christmas in the village and other major developments,” says Barney, noting that Seventy5North also came out of the meetings.
The plan called for new buildings and new infrastructure investments at 24th and Lake, but Barney and other community leaders didn’t want to wait until construction was completed. “Let’s use what we have,” was the consensus, Barney says. “Why don’t we visually show what we mean when we say arts, culture, entertainment, and business district? Why don’t we create something that the community can taste, touch, and feel?” Christmas in the Village is part of the realization of the answer.
Visit empoweromaha.com for more information.