Local leaders urged to make poverty a priority


November 1st, 2011

Omaha, NE – Omaha has one of the highest rates of black poverty in the nation. A national speaker on the issue, Tavis Smiley, stopped by Omaha last week, and urged leaders of the city to make poverty a priority.

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National speaker and radio and television personality, Tavis Smiley, recently went on an 18-city poverty tour around the United States. And while Omaha wasn’t a scheduled stop on that tour, Smiley brought his message to the city anyway.

“I believe it is the telling of truth that allows suffering to speak,” Smiley said to a room of about 500 people during a fundraiser for the Omaha branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People last week. “So that if nobody ever tells the truth about the suffering of everyday people, then that suffering gets rendered invisible.”

Tavis Smiley, stopped by Omaha, and urged leaders of the city to make poverty a priority. (Photo by Angel Martin)

Smiley, and educator/activist Dr. Cornell West, have traveled throughout the country highlighting poverty and the many issues that come along with it including barriers to quality education, jobs, health care and an increase in criminal activity.

“What poverty does is it renders people as invisible, it makes them disposable,” Smiley said in an interview with KVNO News. “So they become a political afterthought, at best they become a political calculation. But nobody cares enough about their plight to do what needs to be done. It’s just unacceptable.”

“No priority in this city ought to be more important than making sure that the children of the city have a chance. I see too many children in Omaha, and across the country, who end up surrendering their life’s chances before they really even know their choices,” Smiley said.

Omaha has some of the highest rates of poverty among black children in the nation. In fact, by the most recent Census numbers, 52% of African American children live in poverty. Smiley said the citizens of this city shouldn’t allow these conditions to exist.

“Omaha is a great city, Nebraska is a great state, and this is a great nation,” he said. “I’ve never seen this country not tackle a problem that it made a priority. The bottom line is for the governor of this state, for the mayor of this city, for elected leaders in this state, it apparently has not as yet become a big enough priority,” Smiley added.

Tavis Smiley is a syndicated radio and television personality, as well as the host of the PBS news program, "Tavis Smiley." (Photo credit PBS)

But some groups in Omaha have been trying to tackle this problem for some time. For the last five years, the African American Empowerment Network, a nonprofit organization, has been working toward uniting and transforming North Omaha, where much of the city’s African American community resides. Willie Barney is the president of the group. He said the city didn’t get to this point of poverty overnight, and it’s not going to solve it overnight either.

“There’s no question about it, the poverty is here, it’s been here,” Barney said. “At the same time now, I think (with) collaboration and projects and initiatives and people themselves being more engaged in the solutions, we can see things happen in Omaha that have not happened in other cities, as far as solving this issue and closing some of these long-standing gaps.”

“It’s not just poverty, it’s unemployment, it’s housing, it’s graduation rates, but some of those things, finally, are starting to move in the right direction,” Barney said.

North Omaha’s road to success, Barney said, isn’t going to happen tomorrow, but he’s hopeful that in 10 to 15 years, there will be tangible differences in the community. And he’s calling on everyone in the city to move from talking about what needs to be done to acting on a solution.

Smiley greets NAACP freedom fund banquet guests. (Photo by Angel Martin)

“At the same time we say personal responsibility, there’s also leadership accountability,” Barney said. “And whether you’re an elected official, whether you’re a pastor, a business leader, leading an organization, neighborhood association leader, everyone then looks at each other, and accountability as extremely important.”

“What I mean by that is, I’m not one of those who goes out on the street and points the fingers and blame and all that stuff, but let’s sit down at the table and figure out how we can solve this,” Barney said.

Back at the NAACP banquet, some elected and community leaders filled a hotel Convention Center in central Omaha to hear Tavis Smiley speak. Smiley said ending poverty in America starts with people who decide to become leaders. And, he said, anyone with a following can be a leader.

“Too many folks (are) chasing success but not concerned about greatness,” he said. “You can be successful and never be great, but you will never be great without being successful.”

One Response

  1. Willie Barney says:

    Thank you Angel for your in-depth and timely reporting. I look forward to future dialogue and action.

    We have a lot of work ahead, but things are happening right now. Below are some additional thoughts that Angel and I discussed regarding the community response to poverty.

    The issue of African-Americans in Omaha having the highest rate of poverty among children was raised five years ago by the Omaha World-Herald using data from 2006. Most in the community had a sense that there were major disparities, but the front page article exposed the “tale of two cities” in a dramatic fashion. Since that time large scale community initiatives, new organizations, and specific projects have been launched to address many of the major factors. Measurable results and outcomes are being generated daily. Some trends have been reversed and progress is happening on an individual and collective basis. Other trends have continued to go in the wrong direction and we must address them with a sense of urgency. We have a long way to go, but it should be made abundantly clear that many in the community have been hard at work to address issues related to poverty and unemployment. We are not sitting on the sideline waiting for someone else to do the work. I’m thankful that so many have rolled up their sleeves and put in effort to make positive changes. Imagine what will happen when even more join in and do their part! Omaha will be the first city in the country to close long-standing gaps related to education, economics, housing, and quality of life. We have everything we need to make it happen.

    Here’s just a sample of the collaborative initiatives and projects that have been launched shortly before and since the World-Herald story in 2007 (this is not a complete list): North Omaha Urban Policy and Collaborative Elected Officials, Empowerment Network, Building Bright Futures, BBF School-based Health Centers, Midlands Mentoring Partnership, Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, North Omaha Village Zone Revitalization Plan, Omaha 360 Violence Intervention and Prevention Collaboration, Great Summer Jobs Programs, Black Male Summit, Omaha Education Association’s Collaboration and Effective Teacher’s Initiative, North Omaha Cradle to Career Initiative, Mayor’s Atlanta and Business Recruitment Initiative, Mayor’s After School Initiative, Mayor’s Truancy Prevention Program, Nebraska School Attendance Initiatives, Middle School Learning Initiative, OPS Careers for Kids Initiative, Avenue Scholars, University of Nebraska Academy, North Omaha Voter Participation and Project 10,000 Voter Initiatives, Emerging and Small Business Ordinance, Economic Summit and Economic Task Force, Douglas County Reentry Task Force and Metro Community College’s Reentry Table Talk Initiative, Amachi Mentoring, 100 Black Men’s Young Men’s Mentoring Initiative, 100 Black Men’s Saturday Academy, Faith Communities Adopt-A-Block Initiatives, Communities In Schools, Impact One Street Outreach and Gang Intervention, Urban League’s Youth Empowerment and Urban League University, ENCAP’s Summer Employment Program, EIE, A Call to Action, Omaha Cares, African-American Professionals Network, Malcolm X Foundation International Center, North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance, NorthStar Foundation and Outward Bound, No More Empty Pots, Charles Drew Farmer’s Market, Hunger Free Heartland, and the Douglas County Healthy Corner Store and Communities Putting Prevention to Work Collaborative. And, this is just the short list. In addition to these new initiatives and projects, hundreds of organizations and thousands of residents have actively engaged in developing and implementing solutions to address these long standing gaps in education, employment, housing, and poverty.

    There’s much more to share. Stay tuned and until then, if you’re not involved, now is the time. There is a role for everyone to play. DO YOUR PART! To learn more go to http://www.empoweromaha.com

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