In the Fight for Black and Brown Lives, the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance Has Answered the Call

Meet Willie Barney, Founder and President of the African American Empowerment Network
October 5, 2019
Curbing Gun Violence in Omaha
October 6, 2021
Photo: Benjamin Wax

By Jay Connor

n the immediate aftermath of the officer-related death of George Floyd, countless corporations openly pledged to address racism within their workplaces and poured resources into supporting social justice initiatives throughout the country. And while those ongoing efforts have thus far yielded mixed results, there are also organizations that have faithfully been doing the work long before it became en vogue.

My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, an initiative of the Obama Foundation, is committed to building safe and supportive communities for boys and young men of color. In doing so, MBKA focuses on cross-sector collaborative action that ensures that the collective work of community leaders, members, and public and private agencies facilitates sustainable, place-based change and improved life outcomes.

“President Obama started My Brother’s Keeper in the White House back in 2014,” Michael D. Smith, executive director of MBKA, explained during an interview with The Root. “It was after Trayvon [Martin] was killed, after the verdict where George Zimmerman walked away. The president wanted to have a big public moment to make sure young men of color knew that they matter. But he also wanted to prove something to address the opportunity gaps that Black, Latinx, and tribal boys and young men of color were facing.

“So he launches this in the White House through a presidential memorandum and had lots of policy efforts that were underway [with] community engagement tactics. And when his administration came to an end, My Brother’s Keeper became a part of the Obama Foundation. And so that is now the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.”

According to Smith, its core work involves providing resources and support to roughly 250 communities throughout the country, focusing on reducing youth violence, mentorship, education, and establishing clear pathways to opportunity. He also refuses to use the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as an excuse not to continue to provide assistance for boys and young men of color in need.

“We work with organizations across the country,” Smith told The Root. “We work with a combination of like mayor’s offices, but also high-performing nonprofits. […] We’re catalysts. […] Our job is to give [these organizations] tools and models to follow, to network them, to convene them, to push them in the right way, to make sure their work remains strong. We also help identify resources to help them do their work.”

Photo: Susan Watts (AP)

COVID-19 has forced most MBKA communities to pivot from their traditional core functions in order to meet the needs of their community members. So to alleviate the burden of such a difficult transition, MBKA is funneling over a million dollars into its 19 grant communities. This additional funding will further support their year-round efforts to curtail youth violence, expand effective mentorship programs, and measurably improve the lives of boys and young men of color.

Willie Barney, founder and president of the African-American Empowerment Network, heads one of the organizations that will be allocated part of that financial assistance. His Omaha, Neb., based nonprofit, founded in 2007, is committed to “transforming the economic condition and quality of life” of residents in North Omaha and the greater Omaha area.

“I left my corporate job and spent a couple of years working at my church before I started the Empowerment Network,” Barney told The Root. “The goal is to close the gap when it comes to education, employment, and wealth for African-Americans. It started with a kitchen table conversation with my wife and grew to 70 leaders coming together. Eventually, it grew to 300 community members and we developed a bottom-up plan to directly impact African-Americans in our core targeted area of North Omaha. Since then, we’ve grown from a grassroots organization to a comprehensive collective impact organization that has now partnered with well over 500 organizations and works with the city, county, state school district, police department, CEOs, and many others to change things here in Omaha.”

In deploying what he calls a “comprehensive, holistic strategy,” Barney’s area of expertise focuses on addressing gun violence and reducing unemployment.

“We recruit youth between 14 and 21,” he said. “We engage them in an application process and, with our partners, we engage them in career exploration at 12 different career clusters. This gives them an opportunity to do some hands-on exploration of I.T., health, hospitality, and entrepreneurship.

“[With] entrepreneurship, they’re actually introduced to what does it take to be an entrepreneur; going from concept all the way to some of the students actually creating products and or businesses. There’s also civic engagement, so they study the city budget. They meet with the mayor, city council members, and Transportation Department, then they come to a mock city council where they actually present their recommendations on the city budget.”

Barney is also extremely appreciative of the support of MBKA, calling them “incredibly helpful.” He noted that his youth employment and entrepreneurship initiative grew from 150 participants to over 700 as a result of the Obama Foundation’s backing.

“We were able to leverage their financial support and leverage the initial seed dollars into raising and confirming another $2.3 million to support the growth and expansion of that program,” he said. “They’ve supported our violence prevention initiative called Omaha 360 […] and they’ve been supportive in helping us continue to convene key leaders in the city.”

In Chicago, another beneficiary of MBKA’s support is BUILD Inc. As one of Chicago’s leading gang intervention, violence prevention, and youth development organizations, BUILD (which stands for Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development) engages at-risk youth in schools and on the streets in order to help them fulfill their educational and career potential, as well as contribute to the safety and stability of their communities.

Photo: Benjamin Wax

And in taking the mission of BUILD into account, which often includes providing youth in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago with alternatives for violence, Bradly Johnson, the organization’s director of external affairs, shared his views with The Root on the controversy surrounding the phrase “defund the police.”

“When I hear ‘defund the police’ I see it as reallocation,” Johnson said. “To balance law enforcement with services that are necessary. […] Most of the city budget goes to the police department, which should not be the case. There [should be] more funds towards things that could increase education outcomes, positive health outcomes, job access, job creation, ownership, all those kind of things.”

He then explained how trust is a major component of the work that BUILD does, and how the inability to meet in person due to the coronavirus pandemic shifted the organization’s business model.

“Trust is a huge factor,” Johnson admitted. “To build trust we’ve always had to work person-to-person. So when the pandemic hit, that made us have to shift. How do we continue to make those real, tangible connections with our young people?”

Much like the rest of us, BUILD realized the untapped potential of social media.

“Fortunately, we have a lot of young people who work with us,” Johnson continued. “They understood how to access and use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, everything. So we developed Instagram hubs.”

But BUILD didn’t stop there. They also developed virtual programming, in addition to arranging care packages and raising money to purchase devices for young people unable to access virtual content.

“It was about helping our young people have peace of mind,” Johnson said. “We actually had a virtual summer camp, but we also did our in-person as well. So we’ve done a lot.”

As to how MBKA has helped BUILD to execute its mission, he maintains that its support goes well beyond mere funding.

“With My Brother’s Keeper’s seed grant we started what we call the Apprentice Mentorship Program,” Johnson said. “We’re using our mentorship program to get our next iteration of intervention staff and then our after school programs staff. […] And being with MBK, it’s also a whole community of other professionals across the spectrum that we’ve been able to connect with and work with. So that’s almost an infinite resource. It opens up more and more doors. So it’s been really a blessing.”

Thanks to MBKA, BUILD also has plans to develop a Mobile Counseling Center. It will expand upon BUILD’s ability to respond to community violence and bring trauma-informed mental health services to those in need.

“We’re taking holistic wellness into the community,” Johnson said. “We’ll dispatch help to the neighborhood and to the families that have been impacted. We’ll provide services, access to services, or connect them to whatever they need. Even housing.”

It’s clear that MBKA and the local organizations that it supports are 100 percent committed to uplifting boys and young men of color, as well as the communities throughout the country that they call home. But with Biden back in office, don’t expect MBKA to let up.

“No matter what’s happening in Washington, we still have young men of color across this country that need to be supported,” Smith stressed. “That need to be told that they matter. That need to have a clear pathway to opportunity because systemic racism never sleeps. We talk about this as work that is not on a political cycle, but that it’s on a generational cycle.”

To learn more about My Brother’s Keeper Alliance and how you can donate or otherwise support their work, visit their website here.

View Story »