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Willie Barney, one of Omaha’s ‘most significant leaders,’ is constantly bridging the city’s dividing lines of geography, race and social class



“Wearing his standard uniform of suit coat and slacks, Willie Barney held open a college lecture hall door, greeting the teenagers streaming out.”

“Willie’s community-betterment organization — the Empowerment Network, publicly launched in 2007 — has been in the trenches tackling poverty, crime, educational gaps and other social ills since the fall of 2006, just before this newspaper reported on dismally high rates of black poverty, black child poverty and the income gap between black and white Omahans. The special report prompted a response from white philanthropists and civic leaders and, largely through the Empowerment Network, the black community.

The most recent figures show that Omaha’s black poverty rate has inched down. The black-white gap has narrowed slightly. And measures — in graduation rates, unemployment and shootings — are, respectively, up, down and way down, all hopeful signs that the quality of life for black Omahans is getting better.”

“But Willie stresses he’s merely a facilitator. He listed a dozen other people who have worked hard to make the network grow, and singled out his staff and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray and Michael Maroney, director of the Omaha Economic Development Corp., who were architects and supporters of Step-Up. He says the Empowerment Network is first a network of thousands of people and hundreds of organizations and nothing would be possible without collaboration.”

“Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing, who serves on the network’s board, sees the group as vital and Barney as the change-maker who made it happen.

“Willie is one of the most significant leaders in Omaha, period,” Ewing said. “He had a vision (for north Omaha) that was different than anything I had seen before.”

Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Mark Evans said he talks with Willie at least once a month. Evans attends the monthly Saturday Network meetings at Omaha North High. He seeks Willie’s input on OPS decisions.

“We see Willie as a critical partner in helping us move the needle,” said Evans of OPS, where nearly three out of four students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.”


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