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'This is a get-it-done place': Obama Foundation boosts Omaha's summer youth jobs program

The striking progress in Omaha’s black community recently caught the notice of former President Barack Obama.

Like the metro-area black unemployment rate that’s fallen by half in the past decade.

And the city’s lowest homicide rate since 1990, fueled by a big reduction in violence on the city’s north side.

Now the charitable foundation Obama launched after his presidency has decided to buy into north Omaha’s resurgence.

A new grant from the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative will help the Step-Up Omaha summer jobs program serve a record number of youths this year.

Both the Obama Foundation and Omaha’s Empowerment Network, the north Omaha community revitalization organization that launched the Step-Up program 11 years ago, hope the new relationship is the start of bigger and better things to come.

“There is something in the water here in north Omaha,” Cyrus Garrett, deputy director of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, said in Omaha last week during a conference sponsored by the Empowerment Network. “This is a get-it-done place. I think the rest of the country can learn from it.”

10 years after activists charted a new path for north Omaha, the problem-plagued community may be turning a corner

The $50,000 grant from the Obama Foundation helped the Empowerment Network leverage more than $200,000 in new local private donations, raising the total budget for Step-Up to more than $2 million, said Willie Barney, the Empowerment Network’s president.

That’s enough to provide work for 800 to 900 youths this summer, he said, well above the 626 who participated last summer.

He’s hopeful for additional collaboration on a range of issues now that the Obama Foundation is on board. The foundation has already introduced north Omaha leaders to other national foundations that can help further transform lives in the community.

“It’s really exciting,” Barney said of the new partnership. “But there’s always more work to do.”

Step-Up was first launched by the Empowerment Network in 2008 shortly after Barney and others founded the organization.

At the time, Omaha’s black community ranked among the most impoverished of the nation’s largest 100 metro areas. And gun violence in north Omaha gave Nebraska one of the nation’s highest black homicide rates.

Indeed, Step-Up initially was seen as a violence prevention program, intended to keep north Omaha youths off the streets with school out for summer. It attempted to replicate federal youth employment programs that had years earlier fallen by the wayside.

Over time, Step-Up has evolved, now focusing on showing low-income youths ages 14 to 21 what it means to hold a job and exposing them to a variety of career fields.

Youths first go through a training program to learn how to interview and other skills needed to hold jobs. Then they’re matched with summer jobs. Dozens of employers and organizations provide the work opportunities, ranging from groundskeeping and construction to office work at businesses, nonprofits and government agencies.

The Empowerment Network calls it part of its “cradle to career” focus, supporting kids from birth, through their school years and then into productive working lives.

Step-Up particularly grew in 2012 when the City of Omaha began kicking in funding.

For the second straight year, Mayor Jean Stothert and the city are putting $1 million into it, including $300,000 in community block grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Most of the money goes toward paying the kids’ summer wages.

Step-Up by all accounts has made a difference in north Omaha.

Over the past decade, the unemployment rate for black residents in the metro area has plunged from 16.7% to 8.2%. Once among the highest in the nation, it’s now the fourth-lowest among the nation’s 100 largest metro areas.

For young blacks ages 20 to 24 — the main demographic impacted by Step-Up — unemployment has fallen even more, from 27.5% to 12.5%.

“That shows me the program is working,” said David Drozd, a demographer for the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research.

The benefits go beyond mere statistics.

Elijah Mitchell

Elijah Mitchell said he had no conception on how to interview or get a job before he went through the Step-Up program in 2017. He was then matched with a summer job at American National Bank.

“I would have never pictured myself working at a bank,” Mitchell said.

Now Mitchell is the chief teller of American National’s 30th and Ames branch. The then-16-year-old’s Step-Up job morphed into a permanent one. The Central High graduate plans to continue to work at the bank as he begins college this fall.

Step-Up has waiting lists of youths wanting to take part. The Empowerment Network has continued to look for added funding and new businesses to partner with. That’s what led to the relationship with the Obama Foundation.

As president, Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper in an effort to start a dialogue on how to close opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color. After he left the White House in 2017, My Brother’s Keeper became part of the Obama Foundation.

About a year ago, the foundation launched a challenge grant proposal looking to fund programs as national models for how to reduce youth violence, grow effective mentor programs and “measurably improve the lives of boys and young men of color.”

Barney and others agreed that the program seemed tailor-made for what already was happening in Omaha. The Empowerment Network applied.

In the end, Omaha didn’t receive one of the top $250,000 grants, which Barney said went to 10 other cities where the need was perceived as greater.

But Garrett said the Obama Foundation was impressed by “the demonstrated success” in Omaha. To “put down a marker” and start a relationship with the city, they picked Step-Up as one of five programs to receive $50,000 in matching grant funds.

He said it’s noteworthy that while the former Democratic president and Omaha’s Republican mayor might not agree politically, they can come together to try to accelerate the good things happening in north Omaha.

The expanded Step-Up is now gearing up over the next week to place more than 800 youths in jobs for this summer, with a goal of 900, said Moniki Cannon, who directs the program for the Empowerment Network.

This year, the City of Omaha is for the first time offering job placements, with 23 youths set to work in the city police, fire, library, human resources, planning, parks, finance, law, Visit Omaha and human rights departments.

Cannon said Step-Up also used the additional funds to expand outreach efforts in South Omaha.

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In July, South Omaha community activist Ben Salazar filed a complaint against the city with federal officials, saying Step-Up was discriminating against Hispanic and Latino youths. Only about 10% of kids in the program last summer were Latino, he said. While the program was started by a north Omaha community group, Salazar said that once it started receiving city and federal money, the city had an obligation to make sure it did not discriminate.

The city has yet to hear back from federal officials on the complaint. Stothert rejects the discrimination claim.

Nonetheless, Cannon said the program this year added a fourth training site to the three it had in South Omaha last year. She said Step-Up also went directly to South and Bryan High Schools to recruit, trying to get the message out that “this program is for you.”

After the Empowerment Network was notified of the Obama grant, Barney and a delegation from Omaha were invited to attend a February My Brother’s Keeper gathering in Oakland, California. There, all the organizations receiving grant money got to meet with Obama and foundation officials and to network over how to make a difference.

Mitchell, the Step-Up graduate, got to attend as a youth representative, calling the chance to meet Obama “inspiring” and “a dream come true.”

Obama, though, was equally inspired when he heard what was being accomplished in north Omaha, Garrett said.

“He was highly impressed by what’s been possible here,” Garrett said. “Afterwards, he was saying, ‘There’s some amazing stuff in Omaha.’ ”

As trade dispute escalates, risks could extend to national security

The United States for years relied on economic interdependence with China as a stabilizing force in relations with Beijing, with business between the two nations forming what former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson used to call the "ballast" in U.S.-China affairs.

But as President Donald Trump escalates his trade dispute with Chinese President Xi Jinping, there is a realization that those days are gone. The result is a reduced incentive for stability and restraint in Washington when it comes to China, raising the possibility that tensions could extend beyond the trade sphere and impact other areas of contention, including Taiwan or the South China Sea.

"The way a lot of people have been talking about this is that you have lost, or you're losing, the ballast," said Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former official in the George W. Bush administration. "The challenge now is that there is not much of a constituency that wants to protect the relationship amidst trade tensions, security concerns and human rights concerns."

The U.S. military is expressing growing alarm about China's defense buildup. Human rights advocates are crying foul over China's use of surveillance technology and internal reeducation camps for Muslims. And some American business executives, who once prized China and advocated for a more conciliatory stance toward Beijing, say they feel stung by what they see as unfair practices, ranging from intellectual-property theft to rules that require partnerships with local Chinese entities.

Underpinning the growing strain is a sense among many Americans, harnessed by Trump during the 2016 presidential election, that China is not playing fair, and the time has come for Washington to shift the balance.

While Trump has focused on trade, raising the stakes in recent days by applying 25% tariffs to billions of dollars in Chinese goods, his administration's tougher line has extended to national security, too. The Pentagon's defense strategy calls for "great power competition" that aims to prevent China from achieving any substantive military advantage.

The Trump administration has added the Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei to the U.S. Commerce Department's "entity list," making it difficult for the Chinese firm to do business with any American company. The Commerce Department said Huawei "is engaged in activities that are contrary to U.S. national security or foreign policy interest." The dispute over Huawei demonstrated the confluence of Washington's economic and national security concerns.

"Putting these in two completely separate boxes — and saying we have to maintain close economic ties even as we compete in the national security realm — I don't think that's possible anymore," said Bonnie S. Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I don't think that we have the strong support from the business community that used to exist for this relationship. To me, the playing field has changed so fundamentally."

Still, the United States and China have developed a complex and robust economic relationship that dates to the normalization of diplomatic ties four decades ago. Today, the United States imports more than half a trillion dollars in Chinese goods per year, underscoring the extent to which both nations have hitched their economic futures to each other and melded their supply chains in the decades since the diplomatic breakthrough of 1979.

That reality raises a broader question about the Trump administration's approach to the world's second-biggest economy: How can the United States execute full-fledged "great power competition" with China, the likes of which Washington has not seen since the Cold War, when the nations remain so economically intertwined?

The conundrum highlights one of the key differences between the Cold War and the burgeoning competition between the United States and China. The United States and the Soviet Union had few economic and trade links in the decades after World War II. The U.S. policy of containment, as the late diplomat George F. Kennan put it, ultimately sought to cause the "breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power." Any such containment policy with China would carry great economic risks for the United States.

"While I understand the appeal of thrusting China into a role of Soviet Union 2.0, thrusting or forcing China into that role would lead us toward a very misguided goal of containment," said Ali Wyne, a policy analyst at the Rand Corp. "China is far more powerful economically than the Soviet Union ever was."

The Trump administration has sent mixed messages about what it is seeking to achieve long term with its trade and national security policies on China. Some officials, including Trump at times, suggest that economic ties with China will continue apace and possibly even deepen, so long as Beijing agrees to new, fairer rules. Others emphasize American resolve to restrain China's unfair expansionism and end the economic linkages that have been fueling its rise.

"For some sides of the administration, the purpose of the tariffs was to build leverage so as to pressure China to open its markets to American businesses, thereby deepening the U.S.-China relationship," said Ely Ratner, director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, who was previously an adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden. "Others see economic interdependence as a huge vulnerability and a problem that needs to be solved. Is the goal a more reciprocal economic relationship or is it one that's less interdependent?"

Ratner said he didn't expect the worsening trade relations necessarily to result in more Chinese aggression in Taiwan or the South China Sea. He said the question is more on the U.S. side — whether the failure to reach a trade deal will prompt the Trump administration to unleash harsher measures against China that until now it has been holding back in the interest of striking a deal. He said those measures could extend to the national security space — for instance, with a more muscular U.S. military presence in the South China Sea.

Paulson, the former Goldman Sachs executive and treasury secretary under George W. Bush, is no longer describing business as the "ballast" in U.S.-China relations. These days, he is warning of an "economic iron curtain" that could descend between the United States and China, noting the risks that entails for the American economy. One reason, he said in a speech in February, is that "national security concerns are now bleeding into virtually every aspect of our economic relationship."

"The problem with applying a blunt hammer is that it can end up breaking everything," Paulson said. "If you aim to hurt others but end up hurting yourself, you cannot always recover for a second chance."

Annexation endangers future of Bellevue family farm, a 'slice of heaven' for 4-H kids

Tucked away at the end of a dead-end road in western Bellevue, the Jones family farm is a reminder of how quickly Sarpy County is growing. As cities and suburbs have bloomed around it, the farm has remained, a hidden pocket of rural life.

But the future of this bucolic haven for farm animals and 4-H families is uncertain now that the farm has been annexed into Bellevue.

The 40-acre property near 32nd Street and Chandler Road West is more than a humble family farm. From the crack of dawn to twilight’s end, the farm bustles with the energy of young 4-H members learning about animals, agriculture and the life lessons that accompany both: leadership, confidence and responsibility.

“It’s so good for the kids,” said Tracey Jones, the farm’s matriarch and a leader of the group. “It teaches them life skills. It teaches them about agriculture and the importance of agriculture. And then they learn to be aggressive.”

This particular 4-H club, the “Country Bumpkins,” has been around since Tracey Jones’ father founded the group in 1981. The farmland itself — home to parents Jack and Tracey and their children, Catherine, 22, and Jacob, 17 — has been in the family since 1920.

In April, the City Council passed an annexation package that brought 500 people into the city, including the Jones farm. Now, not only will the family pay city taxes, but under state law, the land loses its greenbelt tax status, which protects farmland near urban areas by valuing the land on its agricultural worth instead of what it would be worth if sold and developed.


Tracey Jones, right, teaches 4-H kids. The Country Bumpkins club was founded in 1981, and the farmland has been in the family since 1920. The farm is mostly self-sustaining, but the tax increase won’t be manageable, Jones said.

Before the annexation, the Jones family paid about $10,000 a year in property taxes. Tracey Jones estimates that they now will owe an additional $7,000 to $8,000.

The farm is mostly self-sustaining. The family produces enough hay to feed the dozens of pigs, lambs, goats and horses that occupy the land. But Tracey, an Omaha Public Schools teacher, and Jack, who works at an OPS distribution center, say the cost increase won’t be manageable down the line.

On a cool evening earlier this month, a dozen members of the Country Bumpkins gathered to practice controlling their pygmy goats, lambs, pigs and Boer goats, demonstrating both what they’re learning and what could be lost if the farm weren’t around.

Learning to “show” an animal in front of competition judges, who evaluate the animal and the showmanship of the presenter, takes a lot of practice. Grace Turner, 17, explained some of the intricacies using her Boer goat, Goose.

The animal’s feet should form a perfect rectangle, and all four hooves should be squarely facing forward. Its head should be up and the animal should appear relaxed. While the 4-H member positions the animal, the competitor is expected to make eye contact with the judge.

“You’re in complete control,” Grace said.

The Central High School student has been in 4-H since she was a young girl. She was never an artistic or athletic person, she said, so 4-H has been a welcome alternative to learn and be social.

Her parents, Steve and Amy Turner, have watched their daughter turn into a confident leader.

“It’s really allowed her to grow,” Steve Turner said.

After the group practiced walking their animals in a controlled circle, Tracey Jones called out questions to the group. What’s the gestation period for goats and sheep? (Four months, four weeks and four days.) Why do goats and sheep have cloven feet? (To allow them to climb mountains.) What’s the name of the substance that mother goats and sheep produce for their newborns? (Colostrum.)


Hannah Gruhlkey hugs her goat Griffin as he nibbles on her hair during a Country Bumpkin 4-H Club meeting at the Living Legend Farm on Wednesday.

Marissa Rolle’s hand shot up nearly every time Jones posed a question. Marissa, soon to be an eighth-grader at La Vista Middle School, said she studies animal facts whenever she has free time.

“My teachers are so blown away by how much I know,” she said.

The Country Bumpkins did what they could to fight the annexation. They showed up to meetings of the Bellevue Planning Commission and City Council, where Tracey Jones explained the impact 4-H has on the lives of its members. Her daughter Catherine Jones wrote the city a letter.

But cities don’t typically make special exceptions when annexations pass — it’s all or nothing. So the Jones family and several members of the Country Bumpkins were in the City Council chambers in late April, crying and holding one another as the final vote passed unanimously.

Mayor Rusty Hike and many of the council members spoke directly to the group that night, pledging that the city would do what it could to help the farm stay afloat. Some of the city’s suggestions to the Jones family include applying to be a nonprofit organization, becoming a conservation area or applying for grant money.

The Joneses are still figuring out which options to explore.

Councilman Don Preister, a noted environmentalist, said he struggled with the vote. On one hand, Preister said, he was conflicted about putting a financial burden on a farm and organization that he thinks provides an important community service.

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But, he said, annexation was inevitable as Bellevue continues to grow.

“In 27 years in office, that was one of the most difficult votes (I’ve faced),” Preister told The World-Herald.

Catherine Jones is a testament to the lessons and skills learned in 4-H. The recent University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate said the activity taught her to be a better public speaker, aided her path to college and helped her secure internships.

“They mean a lot to the farm,” she said of the most recent generation of 4-H kids. “This is home to them.”

Alyssia Martinez Wilkinson, whose children, Bre, Kilee and Logan, are in the Country Bumpkins, said the farm is important to many people.

“This is an awesome slice of heaven that we would not get without (the Jones family),” she said.

Omaha streets and how they got their names

Shatel: Being part of history is 'priceless' for all three of state's tourney-bound DI teams

In sports, history can happen anywhere. On Monday, it happened in the back of a sports bar.

At the DJ’s Dugout at Aksarben Village, a large crowd of UNO baseball players, fans and school officials crammed into a back room to watch the 2019 NCAA Division I baseball tournament field announced on ESPNU.

“Hey, there’s Matt Schick,” said UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts, as the former Omaha broadcaster showed up on the screen, on Omaha’s day.

UNO fans had waited a long time for this moment. But not on Monday. After showing the overall No. 1 seed, UCLA, the first name on the bracket was “Omaha.”

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The room exploded in cheers. There were hugs and high-fives. UNO drew the best team in the country in round one, but who cares? The Mavs are in.

Meanwhile, there was history downtown at the Old Mattress Factory, where Creighton’s 2019 Big East champions gathered to watch the Jays get sent to Oregon State’s regional. CU, a No. 2 seed, is back in the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2012.

Down at Haymarket Park in Lincoln, Nebraska’s baseball team watched the show in the privacy of its clubhouse. The Huskers, who fell just short of their conference tournament title, are headed to Oklahoma City for Oklahoma State’s regional.

This is the first time that three Division I baseball teams in the state have made the NCAA tournament in the same year. Let that sink in.

We thought it might happen in basketball. But getting NU and CU to make the NCAA tourney in the same year is a chore — it hasn’t happened since 2014 and 1991 before that. UNO has come close but still hasn’t made it in hoops.

This is an amazing feat, considering the snow and the rain and so many games lost in Nebraska — especially with the floods this season. It’s a fitting tribute to the tireless efforts by the coaches in youth leagues, high schools and American Legion.

This one’s for them. And, others ...

  • This one’s for Bob Gates, Virgil Yelkin and the Omaha businessmen who kept UNO baseball alive.

On the biggest day of UNO baseball’s life, it’s worth pointing out that there almost wasn’t UNO baseball.

Back in June 1985, the Nebraska Legislature made cuts to the UNO athletic department to the tune of $750,000. Three of the cuts: men’s track, cross country and baseball.

According to UNO historian Gary Anderson, the cut was short-lived. A group of local businessmen, led by Tex Witherspoon (the founder of Pamida), came to the rescue. So did Jack Diesing Sr. and the College World Series, who Anderson said agreed to underwrite the baseball program. UNO baseball was back in 1986.

After losing an entire recruiting class, coach Bob Gates rebuilt the program with walk-ons and freshmen. Gates, who passed away in January, led UNO to the North Central Conference southern division title in 1997. He finished with 464 wins in 23 years.

More history: According to Anderson, UNO was invited to play in an NCAA baseball regional in 1956, but coach Virgil Yelkin turned down the bid. The reason: Yelkin’s club was riddled with injuries and he was convinced that he couldn’t field a competitive team.

  • This one’s for the three generations of Machados at UNO.

Joey Machado is a sophomore pitcher for the Mavs, the team’s No. 2 starter. His father, “Tata,” played linebacker for Sandy Buda’s Mavs from 1978 to 1982. It’s a great story.

And it gets better when you hear how the Machados arrived in Omaha.

Joey’s grandfather, Gerardo, grew up in Cuba. According to Tata, Gerardo fled Cuba in the late 1950s when Fidel Castro came into power. He went to Mexico, where Tata was born.

“When he came into the U.S., he had an opportunity with the church,” Tata said. “They gave him the choice of New York City or Omaha. He did not want to raise his family in New York City. So he said, ‘Omaha.’ ”

Gerardo taught Spanish for nearly 30 years at Creighton Prep, and later at UNO. He recently retired.

As Tata sat among the big crowd at the UNO watch party, it was a reminder of how far the school has come in the past nine years. Tata was one of many angered by UNO dropping football in 2010. But watching his son help the school make Division I history has taken the edge off of old feelings.

“My time at UNO was priceless,” Tata said. “To be able to see my son and what he accomplished is spectacular.

“It is still a little bit of a sore spot, but I’ve had so many friends reach out to me, congratulate me, because they recognize that UNO is on the big stage now. The university has nowhere to go but up.

“The similarities to UNO football at the time when I played are very much like when my son decided to go here. There were rough years and Sandy told us, jump on board, we’re going to change the direction of the program. That’s just like the baseball program now.”

  • This one’s for Peyton Lewis, Ryan Gripp and the 1999 Creighton baseball team:

CU coach Ed Servais has been out of town for a while, and his office is a mess. But there is an interesting item on the floor next to his desk.

A framed photo of the Creighton baseball team in front of Notre Dame’s Frank Eck Stadium, at the 1999 NCAA regional.

That was the last time the Jays played Michigan in the NCAA tourney.

Servais was in his second year as an assistant on coach Jack Dahm’s staff. The Jays lost to No. 2 seed and host Notre Dame 8-1 on Friday night. Then turned around and played Michigan the next morning. They lost 13-5. By 2 p.m., they were headed home.

Twenty years ago, that Jays team had similarities to 2019. It was going to the NCAA tourney for the first time in seven years. And it was loaded with big bats, with six starters hitting over .330 and a team total of 503 runs scored.

This year’s Creighton Big East champs have five players over .300 and hit 60 total home runs, with six players with five or more homers.

Servais expects the No. 2 seeded Jays to be taken lightly because of their Big East status, and that’s fine. He thinks he has the team that can knock off the defending CWS champs and win the regional.

“It’s not who you play, it’s when you play them,” Servais said. “We’re going to go there and play to our level and we feel good about the opportunity. We’re not just going there to play two games. We’re not interested in that.


This year’s Creighton Big East champs have five players over .300 and hit 60 home runs as a team, with six players with five or more homers.

“We’re going to have to play great. This group is very mature. They don’t get wowed. I think we have a great opportunity (to win the regional).”

After the bad blood between the Huskers and Michigan the past two weeks, there might even be some Husker fans rooting for Creighton.

  • This one’s for Darin Erstad:

Unlike UNO and Creighton, the Huskers have experience with NCAA regionals — although it hasn’t been great experience.

NU is 0-4 in its last two regional appearances, losing to Oklahoma State and Western Carolina at Clemson in 2016 and Yale and Holy Cross at Oregon State in 2017. Erstad has one NCAA win — over Binghamton.

Maybe some nostalgic magic dust can rub off on Nebraska in Bricktown Ballpark, which is hosting the regional because of flooding around Stillwater, Oklahoma.


The Huskers are headed to Oklahoma City for Oklahoma State’s regional.

Nebraska baseball used to own real estate in that park, winning four Big 12 tournaments there from 1999 to 2005. Erstad was playing for the Anaheim Angels then. But first base coach Curtis Ledbetter was part of those Husker teams.

After what happened to them in 2017, it’s not wise to call this regional doable because of Connecticut and Harvard. Then again, there are several Husker freshmen in regular roles who weren’t part of 2017 or 2016.

Nebraska has some fighters, but there’s also some budding strong talent. That’s important, because grinding won’t get you through regionals. At this level, it’s about talented players making big plays.

Erstad has had a terrific year leading so many young players to the doorstep of a Big Ten tourney title and back to the regionals. He’s solidified himself. But he also knows that NCAA wins matter a bunch. The UConn game is huge. Win it, and NU could be around all weekend.

Maybe the ghosts of Shane Komine and Alex Gordon can help.

  • One more and I’m outta here: This one’s for Mike Martin, the retiring coach at Florida State whose last team sneaked into the field on Monday. That’s 40 straight years that Martin’s teams have made the NCAA tourney, the longest streak in college sports.

The ’Noles are a long shot to bring Martin back to Omaha, but it would be great to see him make the trip either way. Maybe the CWS can underwrite another cause.

Photos: UNO defeats Oral Roberts to win Summit League tournament title