Dawn Barnett’s career began 20 years ago when she saw a boy playing with a basketball in front of her house.
“He was about 10 years old, and wearing a jersey that said Running Rebels,” she said. “I stepped onto my porch and asked my neighbor, ‘What is Running Rebels?’”
Barnett learned that the group was started as an outdoor basketball league by Victor Barnett in 1980.
“As soon as I heard that the program was recruiting mentors, my heart almost pounded out of my chest. I knew I had to meet Victor and that I was meant to be involved,” she said.
Dawn met Victor, quit her restaurant management job, and became a community organizer. They later married.
“We didn’t have a building at the time,“ she said. “But we both knew Running Rebels would succeed. Victor used to say, ‘Something’s going to come. Something’s going to come.’”
The big break came in 1998, when Milwaukee County paid the group to supervise and mentor youth offenders sentenced to serve community service. The following year the program moved into a building at North 13th and West Vine streets.
“Milwaukee County liked the idea of a grassroots organization using its own people from the community as the remedy, or as its own internal medicine for youth in need of healing,” said Barnett, 46.
Today, Running Rebels operates out of two central city locations, with an annual budget of $5 million. It serves more than 1,000 youth, ages 12 to 19. Offerings include a catering service, robotics classes, literacy and job training, lunch programs and more. Every year it awards $25,000 in college scholarships.
“I had no idea that the journey would lead to where we are today,” she said.
Although Running Rebels started as an outdoor basketball league, it wasn’t until last year that the organization had a gym when it opened its 38,000-square-foot Capitol Drive location. It features a cafeteria and kitchen, classrooms and locker rooms.
“Having 24-hour access to a gym facility is really huge for us,” Barnett said.
The organization has 124 employees, and everyone of them is considered a mentor.
“Whatever your title is, you’re a mentor,” said Barnett. “If you come to work here, you are making the choice to be a mentor and a role model.”
“Dawn Barnett and Running Rebels has been an unwavering partner to Milwaukee and the community,” said Ptosha Davis, chief of staff to Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton. “While many think of Victor Barnett when they hear about Running Rebels, others know the hard work that Dawn does behind the scenes. She is not only knowledgeable but also compassionate, regardless if she is dealing with the youth or CEOs in Milwaukee.”