Urban Leadership Symposium Works To Improve Outlook For Youth

Omaha is set to host the Urban Leadership Symposium.
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March 12, 2014 - 6:30am

The second annual Urban Leadership Symposium is a workshop for Omaha area students. It is being organized by Jermaine Ballard, an advisor for the Academic and Career Development Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.


Ballard, 31, said speakers will cover aspects of leadership, entrepreneurship, financial literacy and self-image. Ballard said students will learn how to save money and balance a checkbook as well as learn important life lessons from people who they can relate to.

“So this is a chance for them to actually see somebody who possibly may look like them, may come from the same background as them and to be like ‘hey they made it, why can’t I?’ ” Ballard said.

Alesia Lester, owner of Gossip Hair n’ Works Salon in Omaha, is a featured speaker. She said the kids were able to relate to her struggle at last year’s Urban Leadership Symposium. Lester said she also wants them to relate to what she has done to get out of that struggle.

Josh Jones is the guest speaker for the second annual Urban Leadership Symposium. (Photo Courtesy Pierre Johnson)

“But still being able to overcome adversity in different situations, kind of showing them and teaching them ‘you know it can happen, you can do it,’” Lester said.

Lester said growing up can be hard on teenagers. From making the right decisions to dealing with peer pressure and getting good grades, all these things can be a burden on young students, according to Lester. She said letting students know there are people who have struggled like them helps them know they can make it. Lester said when she told her story last year, she could tell she made an impact.

“I didn’t go to college, I struggled in high school and I had a child at the age of 15,” Lester said. “The age of a lot of the faces we will be seeing at the Urban Leadership Symposium. Then one day I just took it seriously and I ran with it. When I was 12, I drew my first salon on a piece of paper and when I was 26 I made it happen.”

Thomas Warren, president and chief executive officer for the Urban League of Nebraska, pointed to several signs of improvement for black students in Omaha. Most importantly is the 10 point increase in graduation rates among blacks attending Omaha Public Schools from 2011 to 2013, according to Warren.

Warren attributes improved academic achievements to an increase in focusing on school attendance. He also said events like the Urban Leadership Symposium reinforce the importance of education to youngsters.

“The Urban Leadership Symposium will provide an opportunity for kids to not only interact with professionals, to listen, to learn and to share ideas but to (also) improve their outlook,” Warren said.

Warren served as Omaha’s police chief from 2004 to 2008. He said he knows a thing or two about keeping kids out of trouble. He said educating young kids is important in keeping them off the streets and in school. Warren said the Urban Leadership Symposium is a great example of helping kids in need. He lauded Ballard’s efforts.

“Jermaine believes in giving something back to the community,” Warren said. “You have to admire a young man like Jermaine. He realizes yes, you can be successful if you put your mind to it as well as (have) the willingness to work hard to achieve your goals.”

Jermaine Ballard said feedback has been "all positive" regarding the Urban Leadership Symposium. (Photo by Brandon McDermott, KVNO News)

Lester said the teenage years are crucial for the development of who the students will become as people.

“It is extremely important,” Lester said. “Those years help shape your life. I lost a lot of friends along the way when I decided to do the right thing, because it was so easy to do the wrong thing.”

Lester said she knows using her life as an example is a helpful tool. She pointed to the fact that two students who attended last year’s Urban Leadership Symposium came to her in the last year to thank her for what she did for them. She said if she had one message to convey to kids it would be simple.

“Never let a person tell you what you can’t do,” Lester said. “I had an administrator tell me ‘drop out of school now, save yourself the embarrassment.’ I would love to see that administrator again today – not to be upset with him – but to thank him. Those very words are the words that made me push because I knew at the end of everything I wanted to show him I could become someone.”

Lester said that push from her administrator put her on the track for success.

Ballard created the idea of helping Omaha teens with hands on instruction after seeing many students falter in their studies and not see the importance of gaining a good education. Most importantly, students can attend the Urban Leadership Symposium at no charge. He said this is proof that a grass roots effort can prosper.

“Hopefully this thing can grow but this has all just been social media marketing,” Ballard said. “I haven’t touched a counselor in a high school. I haven’t reached out to other non-profit organizations to bring their groups. This has strictly been parents, sisters, nieces, brothers, uncles and aunts telling their siblings they are in touch with ‘hey come to this symposium.’ A dream (of mine) would be definitely to get the Omaha Public Schools aboard with something like this and to just have a huge one.”

Ballard said students will also take part in a college tour of UNO.

“I consider this my gift back, it’s not much per se, but it can have an impact on the youth,” Ballard said.

The symposium will be held at the Omaha Home for Boys Saturday, March 22 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Students ages 13 to 18 will listen to eight speakers, as well as take part in four workshops.

There were 34 students who attended the Urban Leadership Symposium last year. Ballard said there are currently 43 students signed up with two weeks to go before the beginning of the seminar.

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