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SGG #88: Victor and Dawn Barnett of the Running Rebels take the family approach to supporting youth


Sports were the starting point...but the Running Rebels community program in Milwaukee has grown into one of the most successful holistic youth development spaces in the city.

Victor Barnett started the Running Rebels over 40 years ago on an outdoor basketball court in Milwaukee. Today, Victor and Dawn serve as co-executive directors and the Running Rebels has flourished as a robust community organization that includes sports and much, much more. They joined the SGG podcast to discuss:

1. The origins of the program. Victor: “I always knew I wanted to change the world, to make a difference.”

2. Recognizing talents and skills within young people.

3. How the “Running Rebels” name came to be.

4. Why basketball was the place to start. “I introduced them to everything…But I asked, ‘where is the passion of the young people?’ and it was with basketball. And there was a court right down the street…I had to find a way, if I was going to make a difference, how can I get them to want to be with me every day? It wasn’t because I was a great guy. It was because of the basketball.”

5. Examples of success stories: a basketball player and an engineer.

6. What is “the full circle?” Dawn: “We pour into young people. We plant seeds in hopes that they will come back around to help the next generation.”

7. Dawn: “The greatest satisfaction is seeing them become really connected parents in a way that they themselves didn’t have. But because of what was poured into them, they learned how to be there…That’s generational change.”

8. Victor: “We want to put them in a position to be successful.”

9. Kevon Looney: Even after he got a scholarship to UCLA and then went to the pros, remained committed to helping the young people in the community. “Can you imagine the example that he gives other people when he’s humble? He’s steady and level-headed.”

10. Dawn describing how many young people see Victor as a father figure. “When you have that sort of an influence, and you’re able to give guidance, even when a young person didn’t have that in their life, you fill that gap and you show them, ‘This is what a parent looks like. This is what positive guidance feels like, this is what’s instilled in them.”

11. Dawn: We want to help the community from within. The role models that our young people are looking for are right here in the community.”

12. Living with integrity and what it means to be a role model.

13. Using sports terminology beyond sports (e.g., “assist”) and using sports as teaching tools.

14. Parents and coaches don’t send the right messages in sports – how competitiveness can bring out the worst in people. “When it’s about winning more than the development of young people, then we have a problem.”

15. Deciding not to pursue AAU basketball anymore. “It become so negative and difficult to stay right in something that is so wrong. So we changed our model…We wanted to step back and be the big brother organization that does it the right way…that helps others.”

16. Guiding from the side: “Teaching the skillset of making healthy decisions.”

17. Having a non-judgmental approach in working with young people.

18. Connecting youth to several adults in the network – the family approach.

19. The importance of physical space for doing their work: “If we dreamed 40 years ago of what we would like to have, we have it.”

20. Not forgetting where the program came from.

21. Taking on a holistic approach to working with young people.

22. Instilling, understanding, and taking pride in work and life skills.

23. Collaboration with others in the community, including Work Milwaukee and Quad Graphics.

24. Unity.