by Leo Adam Biga
Legacy is at the heart of Marcus Bell serving as 100 Black Men of Omaha’s Executive Director and CEO. In 1995, his father Eldridge “Rick” Bell helped found the local mentoring nonprofit that is part of 100 Black Men of America. The elder Bell remains active as a mentor.
For Marcus, seeing his dad be a father figure to others made a deep impression. “My dad always had mentees around and I saw the impact he made,” he said. “I remember him bringing mentees to my baseball and basketball games. Sometimes we’d pick one up on the way to a game. On Sundays, we’d sometimes have a mentee over for dinner.
“These kids were younger than me, so I was a friend to them but also kind of a big brother. I just always saw my dad doing that work. It always interested me, and so 100 Black Men was the perfect place for me to mentor.”
Bell first became a formal mentor in 2014. He still mentors youth through the organization today, He joined the board before succeeding Richard Webb as ED/CEO. In addition to 100 Black Men, he is also a teammate’s mentor. He previously served as a Partnership4Kids mentor.
He takes “a high sense of pride” in paying forward his family legacy. “It’s not something carried lightly,” he said. “We have a responsibility to our community as Black men to give back and guide our next generation of Black males. I’m trying to elevate what we do to where we can make a much bigger impact than we already do.”
Because of his wide experience across different organizations serving youth, Marcus has a good handle on the local mentoring landscape. What distinguishes 100 Black Men, he said, is its focus.
“We mentor Black male youth. We match Black male adults with Black male youth. It goes with our motto of what they see is what they’ll be because they see themselves in someone that looks like them and who’s walked a path that can help navigate them through life. I think that’s very important to convey to our young Black boys.”
Though the mentees often come from challenging home situations, he said, “We don’t say at-risk youth. We flip the script on that to say they’re youth with a promise because, in every one of those young people, there is the promise.”
Mentoring isn’t about dramatic breakthroughs or spectacular outings. “Really what these young men need,” he said,” is somebody to be consistently present in their life. A lot of the youth we serve have people walking in and out of their lives, and they’re looking for you to do the same. But once they realize you’re showing up, and you’re going to be there, they start to open up and tell you things. It’s a beautiful thing.”
On a broader level, he said, “The mission of the 100 is to improve the quality of life of Omaha by teaching our youth to be respectful, responsible, and ready to lead.” In 2020 Black Men Omaha was named Chapter of the Year at the 34th Annual 100 Black Men Conference.
Growing up, Bell enjoyed mentors galore between his father, fellow 100 members, and coaches. “I was around a lot of these guys, including Frank Hayes, John Ewing Jr., Johnny Rodgers, Tim Clark, Ben Gray. I knew what it meant to be a mentor and to be part of this organization.”
A standout athlete growing up, Bell played on select summer and Ralston High School teams on which he was often the lone youth of color.
“My parents instilled in me the importance of getting me around my people. They said, ‘We’re going to make sure you know who you are and you know about the Black community.’ I was very fortunate my parents did that.”
Thus, he grew up in Zion Baptist Church at 24th and Grant. “I sang in the choir. My mom was a Sunday school teacher. I was very involved. I was also a member of the Omaha Boys Club – now Omaha Boys and Girls Club -– in what is now the Hope Center. I loved going there. It was a great thing to be around and to identify with people who looked like me. That was how my parents made sure I was not going to forget who I am. It made me well-rounded.”
He studied business at Hamilton College (later called Kaplan, now part of Purdue Global) in Lincoln, Neb., also playing college hoops. He worked in the area banking industry (First State Bank, Mutual of Omaha Bank, Core Bank, American National Bank), then transitioned to be a Knights of Columbus Insurance field agent, before accepting the 100 Black Men ED role in 2020.
“I couldn’t be more proud of what he’s done,” Rick Bell said of Marcus. “I think I’m the only member in Omaha whose son is a member of the 100. Not only did he take it (the family legacy), but he took it and ran with it, and it far exceeds any expectations I ever imagined.”
The need for mentors is perhaps greater than ever, Marcus said. “We don’t have to recruit mentees. Every week we get new interest from parents wanting to get their young men into the mentoring program.” Schools also refer youth. “Educators identify young men who they feel would benefit from a Black male presence in their lives,” he said. “We also get mentees through a Saturday Academy we partner with Omaha Public Schools on. We serve second through fifth-grade boys and girls for a math and reading tutorial Saturdays from September through April. When young men complete the Academy, we often roll them right into our mentoring program. A lot stay with us all the way through high school graduation and then give back as mentors, helping out with our programs and group outings. So, we’re not through with them when they graduate. We mentor across a lifetime.”
The organization serves hundreds of youths a year. It lost some when things went virtual due to COVID-19, Mentors have been harder to recruit and retain since the pandemic.
“We actively, aggressively recruit mentors, letting guys know what kind of impact they can make.”
The organization’s mentees have a high graduation rate. Virtually all of them go on to pursue post-secondary education or career training. Success stories abound. Denzell Dial now studies aviation at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Terry Henry now studies medicine at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee.
100 Black Men is supported by donations, member dues, and private foundations. Its annual Men of Honor fundraiser is June 2 at Hilton Omaha.
“We’re trying to be more intentional on social media to let people know what we do. We want to be known as THE go-to Black male youth mentoring organization.”
New mentoring dynamics prompt new responses. “It used to be a lot about one-on-one mentoring, but group mentoring has become big,” Bell said. “A great group mentoring program we have is the Jet Cohorts. We’re in six schools right now – LaVista, Benson, Northwest, and North High Schools and Papillion LaVista and Monroe Middle Schools.
“We meet with each school cohort once a month for an hour covering ‘7 Habits of a Highly Effective Teen’ by Sean Covey. We also talk about trades and opportunities with the Johnny Rodgers Career and Technical Educational Scholarship through Metropolitan Community College (MCC) because not everybody’s going to a four-year college.
Learning a trade may be a better route for some. It can mean low student debt. Two years of college and you can start working.”
Scholarship namesake Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers visits the schools to encourage students.
“We’re looking to scale the program,” Bell said.
Though diversity is all the rage today, representation is lacking in many spaces, “Educators are reaching out to us saying we need Black male representation in our schools,” Bell said, “and the 100 wants to try to fill that gap.” Mentors bring cultural competency to the schools that can help defuse conflicts.
“Teachers are struggling right now. They need help,” he said. “We want to be that extra person they can lean on. We’re looking at how we can use our mentors to try and be more present in schools and to guide kids to make better decisions and to resolve conflicts in a healthy way.”
Other 100 Black Men Omaha programs are Real Men Read and African American History Challenge. Bell knows first-hand how extracurricular activities can build self-esteem. He credits his participation in organized athletics with developing his confidence and leadership skills.
“I think it really started with being a point guard in basketball. I was the guy dribbling the ball up the court and defending the opponent’s main ball handler. I was the guy saying, hey, go here, calling the plays, making sure everybody was in position. I also coached youth baseball. Those two things were really big parts of my life – serving youth, being a coach, and being a leader. It played a big role in my becoming a leader now.”
A particular coach, Andre Kellogg, impacted him. “He gave me that tenacity I was missing. He taught me to be strong and to have an aggressive mindset about what you’re going for. You can’t wait on things or for someone to give them to you. You have to be the initiator and go get it yourself. You must take control of your life. No one’s going to give you anything. It’s all on you.
“There’s a quote I like from podcaster Gary Vaynerchuk – ‘everything’s your fault’ – good, bad, indifferent. That’s how you should take life. You get great results from all the good things you accomplish. But you must take responsibility for the bad things, too.”
Bell’s experience in banking, from teller to branch manager to mortgage originator, and in insurance, helped give him the people skills a mentor and leader needs. “I really developed a sense for how to build relationships with people and how to talk to anybody, no matter their walk of life.” He still leans into those bonds and connections today as part of networking he does to build awareness of 100 Black Men.
He and his wife Megan, an educator turned analyst for Werner Enterprises, plan to start a family. “Her love for leading youth and orchestrating change is what really attracted me to her,” he said.
His father retired from Kellogg’s in 2007 and is now an MCC academic advisor. The senior Bell mentors two youths through 100 Black Men. Like his father, Marcus plans to continue mentoring throughout his lifetime. He considers the legacy he is a part of an expression of a purpose-driven life.
“It means a lot. I take that responsibility very seriously. It makes me want to try even harder to make sure I do a good job and that our youth are in a good place, headed in a good direction. I was always taught to leave something better than how I received it. We’re getting there. Yeah, that legacy piece – I’m not messing this up.”