Residents’ hard work, community spirit and coordination with local organizations are lifting up north Omaha. Former President Barack Obama is saluting that progress by awarding a grant that’s given a major boost to the Step-Up Omaha summer jobs program.
The $50,000 grant from the Obama Foundation has leveraged an impressive surge in new local private donations — more than $200,000. As a result, Step-Up will increase the number of low-income youths served to 800 to 900 this summer, up from 626 a year ago.
In addition, the Obama Foundation is helping the Empowerment Network, which launched Step-Up Omaha 11 years ago, build relationships with other national foundations. Those connections and idea-sharing offer the potential for further initiatives and progress, says Willie Barney, the Empowerment Network president. North Omaha “is a get-it- done place. I think the rest of the country can learn from it,” Cyrus Garrett, deputy director of My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, told a conference in Omaha recently.
Examples of that progress, The World-Herald’s Henry J. Cordes reports, including a metro-area black unemployment rate that’s fallen by half in the past decade: 16.7% in 2009, and 8.2% now. That rate is the fourth-lowest among the nation’s 100 largest metro areas.
In addition, Omaha has its lowest homicide rate since 1990, resulting in large measure from reduced violence on the city’s north side.
Step-Up, initially conceived as a violence prevention effort by providing activities for north Omaha youth, has evolved into a well-crafted employment training and youth support initiative. The effort provides summer jobs plus internships, vocational training, academic tutoring, life skills training and community service opportunities.
Youths gain well-rounded experience in working in teams, for example, and develop constructive work habits, such as punctuality and communication skills. Such help can have enormous long-term benefits. Participating youths are ages 14 to 21.
The program has commendably broad participation by Omaha-area employers. Businesses, nonprofits and educational institutions supporting Step-Up over the years include Lindsay Manufacturing, Omaha Steaks, Woodmen of the World, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska, Omaha Public Schools, Creighton University, Wells Fargo Bank, Charles Drew Health Center, Habitat for Humanity and Metropolitan Community College.
Mayor Jean Stothert and the City Council have shown impressive financial support that has proved vital in helping Step-Up reach more young people. The city’s contribution tops $1 million annually for the second year in a row, including $300,000 in community block grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Most of the funds pay the youths’ wages.
One of the many great examples of Step-Up’s value is the work experience of Elijah Mitchell, who at age 16 participated in the program in 2017 and was matched with American National Bank. He is now the chief teller of the bank’s branch at 30th Street and Ames Avenue. Obama personally congratulated him at a California conference in February.
Step-Up offers life-changing experiences. All involved in this forward-looking community effort deserve a salute.