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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”