Community leader steps up to the plate


March 16th, 2013

Omaha, NE – Students listened as Alesia Lester recalled some of the obstacles she faced as an Omaha teen. At 15 years-old, Lester discovered she was pregnant. It was a period in her life characterized by loneliness and a lack of direction.


Now, more than a decade later, Lester attributes her success as a local business owner to the power of motivation and perseverance in her time of trouble. This is just one of the stories from the first annual Urban Leadership Symposium. Thirty Omaha area students from the ages of 13-18 heard speakers and presenters including college students, local business owners, leaders of financial institutions and even a fire fighter. Jermaine Ballard, Site Director for community and schools at North High School spearheaded the conference. Ballard says his reasoning behind creating the seminar is simple – provide students with a positive message and let them know they aren’t alone.

Jermaine Ballard is the creator of the Urban Business Symposium (Photo Courtesy KVNO)

Jermaine Ballard is the creator of the Urban Leadership Symposium (Photo Courtesy KVNO)

“The whole reason for the symposium is to get young 13-18 year old connected with other young professionals in the community, who can offer something to them,” Ballard said. “Whether it’s about a different trade, being financially literate, building leadership skills, your image, how you carry yourself. I think a lot of kids just don’t get exposed to that enough,” Ballard said.

Speakers interacted with students using skits, demonstrations and in-depth dialogue. Willie Barney, President of the Empowerment Network says being able to empathize with the speakers has a profound impact on the teens. Barney also says this type of engagement is nothing but beneficial for Omaha.

“We are already starting to see an impact,” Barney said. “A lot of times it’s not covered very well, but we are seeing graduation rates starting to go up, we are seeing gun assaults starting to go down, we are seeing new homes develop, he said. “We are seeing a new energy level, people don’t always agree, but you are seeing a different energy level across the city where more people are getting engaged. People are becoming mentors, more people are working in the schools, and people are joining their neighborhood association,” Barney said. “So there is a movement afoot. But I think with this were you are reaching middle and high school students and then connecting them with people in their 20’s and 30’s, it’s a powerful, powerful way to get things done,” Barney said.

Willie Barney of the Empowerment Network attended the Symposium (Photo Courtesy KVNO)

Willie Barney of the Empowerment Network attended the Symposium (Photo Courtesy KVNO)

Tre’ Johnson a sophomore at Benson High Magnet Center attended the Symposium, he says he is glad he went because he was able to relate to the speakers.

“It means a lot,” Johnson said. “Because you have someone in your face talking to you trying to make you better, but then you have someone who is doing the same things or been through the same things you’ve been through or are going through now, and to see the outcome of what can be if you do choose the right way. So it helps a lot to me and it’s really good to hear it,” Johnson said.

Stacy Henry, Special Assistant to the Mayor for Urban Affairs and Community Engagement says she would encourage others to join in and mentor someone. Henry also says seeing events like the leadership symposium, excites her for the future of Omaha.

“Not all of our young people are bad,” Henry said. ‘It’s a small portion of the kids in our community that are causing a lot of the problems,” she said. “And so, for the most part we have a lot of good kids who are doing the right thing. And we need to do what we can to continue to invest in these kids, whether that be through helping them find employment, education, training, mentor ship or just a person that is willing to stop to have a conversation with them and let them know that they matter,” she said. “Any opportunity we have to make a difference in a young person’s life we need to take advantage of that,” Henry said.

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