by Leo Adam Biga
Omaha Black power couple Thomas and Aileen Warren have been devoted to each other and to shared values over nearly half-a-century.
Their lives and careers demonstrate a synergy of purpose, alignment of interests and history of community service that is storybook. These veterans of multiple careers are nowhere near finished making a difference in their native Omaha.
He serves as Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert’s chief of staff, an appointed position he accepted in 2021 following a long run as executive director of the Urban League of Nebraska. Being part of her administration has brought him back to his roots working for the city, where he enjoyed a 24-year career in law enforcement capped by being the Omaha Police Department’s first Black chief.
“As proud as I am to have been the first African American chief of police, I was just as proud we had a second (Alex Hayes),” Thomas said. “It was important for me to ensure there would be opportunities for those that followed.”
more conscientious when it comes to appointing people, hiring people, and promoting people. You’ll find more companies than not that now have DEI officers in their ranks to focus their energies in terms of employment and community engagement. I feel it’s definitely improving but certainly not where it needs to be.”
Thomas said Black leaders must be “making sure we have representation within city government and the The Warrens see a great crop of emerging Black leaders in Omaha but worry many potential leaders leave the state for elsewhere.
“If we are going to grow our local economy and continue to see progress in our community, we have to do a better job not only attracting and retaining but cultivating local talent – particularly young professionals of color,” Thomas said.
While Aileen feels diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) is “at least on the radar now,” more progress is needed. “I think people are decision-making process to exert our influence with regard to policy and development.”
“We need to be a part of not only the progress and success taking place but of economic development opportunities, making sure all segments of our community prosper,” he added.
Just as he did at the Urban League, where a partnership with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce focused on making the city more appealing to young professionals, he advocates employers hire-promote with diversity in mind.
“I’m very intentional when I have conversations with our corporate community regarding opportunities for employment and advancement. It is critical organizations recognize they must create an environment where young professionals can see diversity in leadership. Young people want to see individuals in the C-suite that resemble themselves. They must be appreciated and valued as their authentic selves.”
He’s proud of the work he did, ensuring “a diverse and inclusive workforce” within OPD (Omaha Police Department).
When hired as president-CEO of the leadership development nonprofit ICAN in January, Aileen became its first leader of color. Being there, represents a full circle moment as she’s an ICAN leadership program graduate and former co-chair of its annual spring leadership conference.
She’s determined to bring more diversity to ICAN.
“Companies sponsor individuals to go through our program and conference. Unfortunately, we don’t see a lot of people of color come through. That’s going to be a focus of mine.”
She previously served as a human resources executive with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, First Data Resources (now Fiserv) and First National Bank.
There are many parallels in the Warrens’ stories. Both have made professional development a priority. Both hold advanced degrees. They’re graduates of the Chamber’s leadership program. She earned a certificate in human resources from the Fielding Institute. He completed an FBI leadership program. Long before he led the Urban League, she was its vice president of employment and economic development.
Each volunteer on multiple boards. These fellow products of the Boys and Girls Club of the Midlands co-chaired its 2022 On the Road fundraiser that raised a record $1 million-plus. He serves on the Club’s board of directors. She serves on its Executive Scholarship Committee. She’s received the Club’s Woman of the Year Award and National Service to Youth Award.
The couple have established scholarships at the Urban League and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“We have invested our resources in the next generation of leadership because we feel it is that important.” Thomas said. “We want to make sure they’re equipped because these individuals will ultimately lead our city. So, we do our part to lead, invest and encourage.”
The Warrens pay forward what they were given.
“We had role models and mentors who were very civically inclined and really instilled in us a sense of community and giving back,” Thomas said. “At the same time, they also encouraged us.”
Neither had to look far for inspiration. His older sister Brenda (Warren) Council, a former attorney and elected official, was a model of achievement.
They both count former Tech and North High educator Gene Haynes as an influencer.
Thomas came under the influence of Charlie Washington, Monroe Coleman and Pitmon Foxall. Aileen Warren drew from Thomas and Mary Harvey and Edwardene Armstrong.
The couple’s mutual attraction began as ninth graders in world geography class at Horace Mann Junior High (now King Science Center), where their penchant for hard work, personal development, and high achievement took flight. They vied for a coveted classroom seat reserved for the highest performing student. Each defied perception. More than a cute cheerleader and star jock, respectively, they were academic stars, too.
They remained committed to each other despite attending different high schools – she went to North; he went to Tech – and colleges.
A Goodrich scholarship paved her way to UNO (University of Nebraska at Omaha). A football scholarship got Thomas to Morningside (Sioux City). Since the schools were rivals, awkward moments followed when he crashed parties in Omaha, he was not always welcome at.
She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work at UNO. That discipline of dealing with people along with early work as a family therapist helped her transition into her corporate human resources career.
“I’ve always really enjoyed the development of people who want to find their best self and to be their best self. Helping people achieve their goals and seeing them go down that path and make it happen is very rewarding for me.”
He pursued law enforcement after Morningside. Once on the force, he obtained a master’s in criminal justice with an option for public administration at the UNO.
Through it all, they stayed true to themselves.
“I would say both of us are very authentic leaders. We are who we are,” said Aileen. “Something we encourage others to do is just be who you are. It’s one of the most important things you can do.”
Thomas agrees: “We know who we are, we know where we’re from. We don’t really get caught up in titles or perceptions. There are people in the community who have known us our entire lives. They know us as our authentic selves, so we don’t have to pretend or represent ourselves as anyone we’re not in order to curry favor.”
Recognition has singled out these veteran leaders, who are former Aksarben Court of Honor members and inductees in various halls of fame. Most recently they were honored as Faces on the Barroom Floor by the Omaha Press Club.
“We’re both very humble,” said Thomas. “We come from very modest beginnings. That keeps you grounded.”
“We don’t really like to brag about what we do,” said Aileen. “We’re pretty low-key individuals.” Besides, Aileen said, “More than talking about it, it’s being about it.”
Said Thomas, “We are both very socially conscious. We know the city’s corporate, political environment. We know some of the social-economic challenges we deal with in our community. We just put in the work. I like to think our track record of service speaks for itself. We are very proud African American Omaha natives, products of the Omaha Public Schools district and alums of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. That’s our foundation and how we live our lives.”
Aileen describes her leadership style as “very inclusive.” She said she gives staff autonomy, “making sure they’re at the table with me and helping me make decisions.” Instead of a micromanager, she’s “a coach who offers support and guidance as needed.”
Thomas evolved the way he leads. “My leadership style is now more participatory. Being in law enforcement it’s a pretty autocratic leadership style. That was the environment I operated in. Moving over to a nonprofit (Urban League), I had to learn and grow to become more democratic in terms of decision-making.
“Now as mayoral chief of staff my role is more advise and consult. I work for a third-term mayor with a very senior, collegial cabinet. My role is to facilitate conversations and discussions with regards to policy development and decision-making. To include different perspectives and ideas, it’s important for me to listen and to learn.
“As long as you have healthy conversations and civil discourse it’s okay to respectfully disagree as long as you arrive at the desired outcome,”
The couple are conscious of being influencers.
“Both of us have been mentors for many people in the community,” Aileen said. “It’s not something we promote. People just kind of gravitate to us and want advice. We’re always willing to provide our insights and hopefully it’s helpful.
They share life lessons of their own struggles.
“Because we are very involved in the community, many times we’re called upon to be engaged in different activities,” she said. “We try to make recommendations for others to be on boards and commissions – to bring other people along. That’s at the forefront of our work.”
Said Thomas, “We like to think we put in the work in trying to make certain individuals are provided opportunities. Because we were fortunate to have individuals look out for our interests and provide opportunities for us, it’s important we take someone along with us.”
“We just want to leave the world a better place than we found it,” Aileen said.