Improvements in Omaha, Neb., could offer a blueprint for helping Davenport’s Black community boost its fortunes.

Together Making a Better Community (TMBC) at Lincoln Resource Center in Davenport recently held its first-annual open house. The guest speaker was St. Ambrose University alumnus Willie Barney, founder and president of the Empowerment Network of Omaha, and good friend of TMBC executive director Tracy Singleton.

Together Making a Better Community is based at the Lincoln Resource Center, 318 E. 7th St., Davenport.

It’s a collaborative of residents, leaders, and organizations working to facilitate positive change in Omaha and other cities across the country. Formed in 2006 and launched in 2007, the network works collectively to improve the economic condition and quality of life for African-Americans, and residents in the Greater Omaha area.

Born and raised in Mississippi, and a 1990 St. Ambrose graduate, Barney said the missions of his group and TMBC are aligned. He said at the invitation only open house Sept. 14 that it breaks his heart that over 30 years ago, when he lived in Davenport, the city was facing the same issues then.

“One of the reasons I came to Davenport was, when I crossed Locust Street, I saw the separation between what was going on here and what was on the other side of Locust,” Barney said, adding it brought back growing up in Mississippi and its neighborhoods separated by race and income.

St. Ambrose alum Willie Barney, who leads The Empowerment Network of Omaha, spoke at the first open house at TMBC in Davenport Sept. 14, 2023 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The challenge today is how to collectively make TMBC and The Lincoln Center (318 E. 7th St.) a model for the nation, he said. The Omaha Empowerment Network is a model for TMBC and inspired formation of the QC Empowerment Network, which connects Black-owned businesses and is based at The Lincoln Center.

“As I travel around the country, just about every urban area in America is facing some of the very the same things, and just about every one of them has a school that’s been abandoned,” Barney said. “What if you in this room can take this vision and not only do it for Davenport, but show other cities what’s possible by taking that asset – where young children used to walk into this building – they’re coming back to this building, but now they’re being empowered.

“To go back to their house and make a tangible difference in their community,” Barney said. Omaha was seeing the same things as Davenport is today.

The Rev. Rogers Kirk, board president of the TMBC at Lincoln Center, speaking at the invite-only open house in the gymnasium (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Only about half of Black youth were graduating high school and they were nearing an all-time high in gun violence.

“Rather than stopping there, we did what you’re doing here,” he said. “What can we do about this? Many things I want to applaud about what Pastor Kirk, Avery and Tracy have done is, you took the first step. You didn’t wait on somebody.”

“From what I’ve seen across the country, personal responsibility is the critical aspect – walking in faith, taking that step, even if you don’t know what’s on the other side,” Barney said.

The power of partnerships

His Omaha group set up similar partnerships as TMBC, mapping goals they could reach collectively. By 2019, they reduced Black households living in poverty from 31% to 22%; unemployment cut from 21% to 7%, and raised high school graduation rates to 81%.

And over $700 million was reinvested in Black areas, Bailey said. “It is totally possible to change these numbers. We’re not perfect; we still have a lot of work to do.”

Willie Barney at a My Brother’s Keeper event in Chicago on May 10, 2023 (photo courtesy of the Obama Foundation).

“You have the opportunity to do something unprecedented, and to turn those numbers you all have read, to turn them in a direction where every 6 and 7-year-old that walks into this building, and into high school and college, understand that they have greatness within them, they have vision within them,” he said.

In May 2023, Barney and his Empower Network’s MBK Alliance (a branch of a national nonprofit backed by the Obama Foundation) was honored as one of its four exemplary community organizations from several across the country.

The award acknowledges Omaha’s evidence-based record of success when it comes to positive shifts in outcomes for boys and young men of color. The honor (including a visit by former President Barack Obama) came with several resources for My Brother’s Keeper Alliance efforts in Omaha, including:

  • an $800,000 grant given over two years
  • educational resources, including access to coaching, evaluation, and peer-to-peer learning
  • ongoing technical assistance

Former President Obama established My Brother’s Keeper in 2014, during his second term, in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death. In Davenport, Barney proudly displayed a photo of him with Obama.

Barney (second from right) speaking at an Obama Foundation event attended by former President Barack Obama (left) in Chicago in May 2023 (photo courtesy of the Obama Foundation).

He joined President Obama onstage at an MBK Impact in Action event in Chicago May 10, 2023 to share Omaha’s efforts to reduce violence.

Working better together

TMBC was founded in 2016 by community leaders at Third Missionary Baptist Church, Davenport. It is the only program in the Quad Cities region that is Black-owned, Black-led and focused on empowering the Black youth, Black families, and Black communities in the area.

The center is at the former Lincoln Elementary School in Davenport (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The TMBC at Lincoln Center launched its physical home in 2020 in the former Lincoln Elementary School. Its vision is to create long-term success for the Black community, by helping Black-owned businesses to flourish, teaching children and providing programs and places for families and the community to gather and grow.

“Three years ago, this was just a school that had been closed, worn down, but the vision was, we could begin to take this place and make it something the people of our community could come to, regardless of your economic status or race,” TMBC board president Rev. Rogers Kirk said.

The center opened to the public Feb. 1, 2021.

TMBC executive director Tracy Singleton at the Sept. 14 open house (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“Something has to change,” said executive director Tracy Singleton. “If we’re not doing work to proactively change the narrative and the numbers, we’re going to keep going in the same direction. It’s only going to be 11 percent of our Black babies reading at 3rd-grade level. We all know if they’re not reading at grade level, they’re four times more likely to not graduate on time, and for our Black boys, if they don’t graduate on time, they’re 10 times more likely to go to prison.”

The neighborhood around the center has the highest proportion of Black residents in the city, and also the highest incident of high blood pressure, diabetes, low birthweight and heart conditions. Only 41% of Black QC households earn a living wage, compared to 67% of a white households, according to the first TMBC annual report.

“Nothing changes if nothing changes,” Singleton said. “We have to start having those uncomfortable conversations about investments that are needed, resources that are needed, connections that are needed.”

She noted the neighborhood needs investment – there are no grocery stores, banks, gas stations, convenience stores, or health facilities.

“If the city wasn’t willing, banks weren’t willing to invest, businesses weren’t going to come over here, and that’s the history where we are today,” Singleton said. “Nothing. And that is our responsibility at the Lincoln Center. We have to be here.”

“We’re doing whatever we can to make sure we’re addressing the needs of our community,” she said. “Over the past three years, we have been committed, we have been connected and we have been consistent. We have done it on a small scale because we can only do what we have. But now is the time for us to scale up.”

What’s hard is that they may only have 25 kids in a program, but the need is for 125, Singleton said. She would have loved to have the open house in the center auditorium, but it has a roof leak, and they held it with guests sitting on folding chairs in the gym.

“That stops us from doing readers’ theater and speakers and concerts,” she said.

By helping the Black community, that helps the QC as a whole, Singleton (who’s also the host of the weekday public radio show “Morning Edition” on WVIK) said. “Everyone deserves to be happy; everyone deserves to sustain their livelihood. Everyone deserves to eat three meals a day and everyone’s not getting that.”

Tracy Singleton is the first executive director of TMBC at The Lincoln Center (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The open house was not a fundraiser, but simply aimed to build more relationships in the community, she noted.

“When you build a relationship, the money will come,” Singleton said. “We know that good people know good people.”

Variety of programs, businesses

The center hosts several events during the year (including Juneteenth and Rhythm on the River), and its programs include:

  • Camp Excel Leadership Academy
  • Business incubator and business center
  • Nonprofit cowork space
  • Community meeting room
  • United Way’s Born Learning Academy
  • Cops ‘N’ Kids
  • TMBC library
  • Wealth management education series

The center has about 15 organizations that rent space, and they have included:

  • Azubuike Arts
  • LOVE Girls magazine
  • G. Patton’s Art Studio
  • Royal Drama Dance Academy
  • I AM Productions
  • Lives of Legacy
  • Blessing Box
  • Vine Ministries
  • Youth Advocate Program
  • Kinna’s House of Love
  • Pena’s Boxing
  • Melissa Wells Photography

“If they can for just a few hours, walk into a building and see people that look like them, ran by someone who looks like them, with businesses and nonprofits ran by people that look like them – we’re giving them hope,” Singleton said of local Black kids.

Gaye Shannon Burnett and her Azubuike African American Council for the Arts is among many Black organizations that are tenants in what’s called TMBC Village.

”Our mission is very simple – our mission is to empower and educate our youth, families and community through opportunity,” she said. “We are trying to address that gap, close that gap, and get everyone to start from the same starting line.

“And when that happens? You think about what a Black child, a Black person has to go through to start on the same starting line? They got grit, they have conflict resolution, figure-it-out skills,” Singleton concluded. “That’s all we’re trying to do at The Lincoln Center.”

Assistant director Avery Pearl said the center is the rare place you can go in the QC to embrace its rich Black culture and address the Black disparity in the QC.

TMBC assistant director Avery Pearl spoke at the open house (photo by Jonathan Turner).

He wanted to do something about the fact that 74% of youth in the Scott County Detention Center are African-American.

“We knew the problem, but we couldn’t address it specifically because it would make some people uncomfortable,” he said, noting he approached Singleton about it and she recommended he take the new job.

“It really was a match made in heaven,” Pearl said. “She was looking for an assistant director; I was looking to fulfill my purpose. We were able to do both.”

Among TMBC’s many programs is a free library, where people can borrow books, read in the library, and attend events there.

One group that used the building this summer was Camp Excel, and the center provided office support and space, Pearl said. The center has many partnerships and is looking for more, he said.

‘Best-kept secret’

Future priorities include building renovations, such as for the auditorium and restrooms; improving community awareness of free community services, and adding an elevator, Pearl said.

“This is our home and it’s a home of hope,” he said last week. “It was once an elementary school. We believe our community needs and deserves a state-of-the-art facility. We know it takes time; it takes resources; it takes collective action. But we’re dedicated to bringing it to our community.”

Tracy Singleton assembled a timeline of Davenport’s Black history and The Lincoln Center building, a former elementary school (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The center also wants to expand staff, Pearl said, to ensure sustainability long-term. “We also want to expand awareness of our center. We have a little joke we say to each other – that this is the best-kept secret in the Quad Cities.

“Well, today marks the day when it is no longer a secret,” he said. “We’re ready to bring the great work, the great people, the great community we’ve built, to the world, and show them that we’re ready for the future. And that means people understanding what programs we have, what we do here, but also getting feedback and becoming part of the work.”

This year, the center is starting an after-school program for area students and families, Pearl said. “Ensuring that they have a safe place they can call home, that one day they can send their children to,” he said. “We at TMBC know that together, we can address and resolve the disparities in our community, but it’s gonna require collective action.

“What we do is, we serve and maintain a bridge between the Black community and the non-Black community,” Pearl added. “I ask all of you to help us, together, strengthen that bridge and ensure that it’s here for generations.”

For more information about The Lincoln Center, visit its website HERE or call 563-888-5436.