Odis Bellinger

Founder, Building Better Men

Detroit, MI

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.


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.


 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.