Editor’s note: This piece is one of an occasional series on nonprofit leaders in Milwaukee. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Victor Barnett’s yearning to lead pushed him to found the Running Rebels Community Organization when he was 19 years old. Barnett and the Rebels are still thriving nearly four decades later. Seeing how his mother made her way through life despite a physical disability, Barnett sought to make a difference and not take for granted all that he had. In this interview, he talks about the organization, those who have succeeded and why he is the person he is today.
Q: Why is your youth group so successful?
A: I started Running Rebels Community Organization on the basketball court. I knew that would allow me to get close and bond to some young people. Once I gained their trust and respect, I became that person that they all looked up to. This allowed me to help them see things differently in their lives. A lot of my friends growing up were getting incarcerated and I did not want to see that happen. My goal in founding the Rebels was to make sure that young people were not getting in trouble. We started in 1980, and here we are 36 years later still using the same principles we used back then.
Q: Why do you love coming to work every day?
A: One of the reasons that I have been doing this for so long is the fact that it’s not even like a job to me. A lot of people that work here at Running Rebels say it’s a lifestyle. I personally feel like I’m doing what God called me to do. I like it; I guess you could say I’m kind of good at it. We have a lot of programs that are driven by young people. My job as director allows me to oversee what they are doing, but help them to achieve the things that they want. For example, we’ve done basketball for 36 years and we had never done football (until) six years ago. We also have a café downstairs now because a lot of kids wanted to learn how to cook. So young people drive a lot of our programs that I oversee. It’s all about them.
Q: What is a defining moment from your experience at this organization?
A: There’s usually a young person that comes around because of the work we do and we help save his life. We’ve had a couple of men that were scheduled to be incarcerated for 20 years of their lives, but because of the work we do we were able to change the path that they went on and now they have graduated from college. So, overall, my most defining moment comes every time I change a kid’s future for the better.
Q: What distinguishes Running Rebels from other local nonprofits?
A: I think we are unique and have a holistic approach here. Yes, we want to work with the young people, but we want to work with the families as well. If we clean them up over here and they end up going back home where it’s dirty, it almost defeats the purpose of them coming to Running Rebels. We want to make sure that we change that, so that we clean them up and they come back clean because they’ve learned from their families. We have 125 staff and a majority of them come from the same background that a lot of these kids come from. So when we say that we understand where they are coming from, I truly do believe that we understand.
Q: What is the relationship between you and the young people you work with?
A: I used to stress to my young people that I was like a big brother to them. I never wanted it to seem like I was replacing their father. But often I’ve heard from young people how I’ve helped change their lives and they are very grateful to me. I’ve got a young man I worked with who has now relocated his family to Atlanta, and he’s been there for three years now. He just came back to Milwaukee recently and his first stop was here to see me. Just to know that he still turns to me and wants my guidance – and he’s darn near 40 years old now – makes me more than happy.
Q: What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I really like to travel. At the end of the day, I really would like to travel the world with my wife because I’ve been working so much. A little break here and there is nice. Out of my 36 years at this organization I’ve only missed work three days, so I think I definitely deserve a little vacation.