Blog Entry Youth Development

CBMA Monthly Member Spotlight: Odis Bellinger, Founder of Building Better Men

by Janet Dickerson

Last month, CBMA announced the official recipients of our inaugural Building Beloved Community Leadership Fellowship (BBCLF), an initiative designed to ensure individual effectiveness and impact in organizational leadership within the broader field of Black male achievement. The 24 individuals chosen represent a diversity of emerging leadership taking place in the BMA field across the country, particularly in the cities of Detroit, Oakland, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Louisville and Greensboro, NC where CBMA is doing its deepest work.

Learn More About BBCLF

For our June member spotlight, we spoke with Building Beloved Community Leadership Fellow Odis Bellinger, founder of Building Better Men, a school and community-based leadership and mentoring program servicing various local/national school districts in the city. Bettinger, who is a native of Detroit, is a successful author, community leader and mobilizational speaker and has completed extensive research on conflict resolution, violence prevention techniques and socio-economic issues affecting youth and young adults, primarily Black males. In particular, he conducts workshops and trainings focusing primarily on building African American male development and leadership skills. We spoke with Odis about what inspired him to become a leader, how his organization uses data to measure impact, and also about the #OurBoysCount conference that took place June 2nd in Detroit.

What led you to become a motivational leader and advocate for Black Male Achievement?

ODIS BELLINGER: I grew up in a household -- where it was my mom, two brothers, (one younger one older) and a sister -- in the Dexter Davis area of Detroit, which is a known drug infested impoverished area. I had some issues with anger, mixed in with socioeconomic issues. At age 12 I said if I ever got out of that neighborhood, I would do something for young guys who felt like me. My first step was just making it out of that neighborhood.

A purpose came out of my chaos. I decided that instead of falling into the negative narrative that a lot of black males fall into, I wanted to do something different. I started a program to help other young guys who felt like I did at age 12 so that they can be successful despite that pain they're going through. So I started my organization Building Better Men in 1991.

You all are just coming off of your 2017 #OurBoysCount conference. Can you share about that?

BELLINGER: Well it was our fourth year, and I'm glad that CBMA was one of the sponsors in part of the conference. [CBMA Promise Of Place Manager] Chris Rutherford, who I’ve known for 25 years, did a workshop on literacy and reading comprehension. The reading scores are so low in Detroit so we wanted the young men and boys to hear why it’s so important to read and that it’s a direct reflection of their academic achievement.

Then we had Comerica Bank do a workshop on financial literacy, because a lot of people don't know about saving money and that you can get a bank account as an adolescent or teenager. We also had gifts -- everything from laptops to gift cards --  that we raffled off for the kids. It was truly a great event.

How does your organization track its impact -- do you use qualitative or quantitative research, or both?

BELLINGER: We do pre- and post- testing, but we also have young men who have been in the program do written testimonials. We’ve been working to do a better job in telling our story over the years. The fact that brother Quan Nellums who's also a Building Beloved Community Leadership fellow, could in some ways be some data to demonstrate our impact. We have been pretty much grassroots which is why I'm grateful for this fellowship because, as a result of it, I'm hoping we can add more structure to the program and find more strategies to make it more data-driven.

In in what ways would you say that you are an emerging leader, while also supporting other emerging leaders coming up after you? 

BELLINGER: I believe that leadership is a byproduct of being led and of always being open to new trends. I just registered us as a non-profit last year, so I'm emerging as a leader not just in terms of a skill set but also in terms of structuring this program so that one day someone who will take the program over will be able to take it to another level. So I’m always emerging and listening. Some of the greatest lessons I've ever had were from young guys as young as six, so that's how I look at it in terms of emerging. I never believe I know everything. I'm grateful and honored to even be brought up in the same breath as those around the country who have been chosen as fellows for the Campaign for Black Male Achievement.

Also, I always try to be an advisor and encourager for other leaders by sharing some of the pitfalls and lessons that I have experienced. Our program has been predicated on sustaining our passion for the work, and that hasn't always been easy. Just sharing with them how to sustain their passion for the work even when the money is not there.

Mentorship is a key part of supporting emerging leadership. Can you talk about how mentorship has made an impact in your own life?

BELLINGER: I had three “fathers” who were on my block growing up, which is something because I do this PowerPoint called "How did I make it without my father" where I actually chronicle what all three of these men taught me. To the right of me there was Mr. Brown: he was very involved in his church and was a gardener and things of that nature, so he introduced me to biblical principles, he introduced me to gardening, etc. Across the street it was Mr. Littlejohn, who was my first basketball coach. He had a son that was my first real actual friend and the first guy I knew who had an actual dad, and he helped me to hone skills enough to get an athletic scholarship and go to college.

Then there was Mr. Manis: he was building an addition to his house and I would help him some days, and through that he taught me work ethic. If you look at it from a religious or biblical perspective, it was like having a trinity. I like to think God had put me in the middle of that.


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