For 42 years, Running Rebels have provided pathways for young adults in Milwaukee

The mentoring program, founded in 1980, assists more than 2,500 children per year through various programs.

Victor Barnett wasn’t your typical 19-year-old. At an age where most teenagers are unsure about what to pursue, he had a dream and the vision to make it work.

Gangs were running rampant in the streets of Milwaukee in 1980. Barnett wanted to shield children from that lifestyle and other negative influences as well keep them from the legal justice system. He decided to use basketball as a way to keep young people engaged and not only develop them on the court, but also make sure they were handling their business in the community, at home and in school.

Barnett approached the gang leaders and got permission to use the local park to work with young people in the area. They gave their blessing and, just like that, the Running Rebels Community Organization was born.

Running Rebels mission is to engage “the community, youth, and their families; prevent involvement in gangs, drugs, violence, and the juvenile justice system; intervene and guide youth by assisting them with making positive choices; and coach youth through their transition into adulthood.” They accomplish this through building relationships with youth and providing resources and more for participants “to become thriving, connected, and contributing adult members of [the] community.”

Barnett’s wife, Dawn, who is the Running Rebels Co-Executive director, said being raised in the South before moving to Milwaukee helped shape Victor.

“In the south, the elders in the community had a big influence and were people Victor could go and talk to,” Dawn Barnett said. “When he moved to Milwaukee, he didn’t have that. There was a disconnect between the older and younger generation. And not that he was an elder, because at 19 he wasn’t an elder, but that concept of supporting a younger person was instilled in him. He knew he wanted to change the world, he just had no idea what that meant or what that was going to look like exactly. He just knew that he was going to do it. I must say that’s exactly what he did.”

Victor Barnett ran the Running Rebels for the first 15 years by himself, without any resources.

“In the mid-1990s a couple of therapists saw the work Victor was doing and asked: how do you take that concept of a young person having a positive influence and scale that so more people have that opportunity?” Dawn Barnett said. “And we structured ourselves and started recruiting people from the community to mentor the young people who needed it most.

“For us it’s not about taking people from wherever who have this great education and importing them in to work with our young people. We really feel like the answer to what it takes to support our youth’s lives lies right here with the people in our community.”

When Running Rebels first started, it focused on preventing young adults from engaging in gang activities or anything similar that might lead to time in prison.

The recipients of the 2022 Running Rebels Scholarship program.

As time went on, more intervention programs were created, and they began to work with teenagers in the juvenile justice system.

“We have several programs for young people who made mistakes in their lives,” Dawn Barnett said. “We have advocates, our staff people who work with them to try to think differently and make different choices that would prevent them from going deeper into the system or losing them into the adult system. We have intense programming that works with young people every day. ‘Are you at school today?’ ‘What are you doing after school, come to group.’ It’s very intense work that they do to keep those young people on the right track.”

Running Rebels has after school and summer programs and connects participants by providing outlets they are passionate about such as music, arts, photography and basketball. The typical age of a Running Rebels participant is 12 and up.

“We focused on 12-18 but with some of the funds from the NBA Foundation, we were able to have a program called Pipeline to Promise which extends to adults,” Dawn Barnett said. “It helps get young adults prepared to really enter the career workforce or area of education that they need. We don’t put a cap on how old because we have a phrase, once you’re involved, you’re a Rebel for life. Whatever we can do to help you, we’re here for that.”

Golden State Warriors center Kevon Looney grew up in the Running Rebels program.

Golden State Warriors big man Kevon Looney is probably the most famous Running Rebels alum. He entered the program in the second grade and attended tutoring sessions two or three times a week. When he got to high school, he started tutoring students. Once he reached the NBA, he donated money to the program and helped with the Running Rebel’s initiatives.

“We are coaching youth through their transition to adulthood,” Dawn Barnett said. “Not all young people are going to go to college. Some want to pick up a trade. Some want to go to a two-year school. Some want to enter directly into the workforce. So, Running Rebels wants to provide whatever young people need to be successful in their transition. Pipeline to Promise does just that.”

To learn more about the Running Rebels, click here.