Pracademics & Community Change

by Alana Allen | February 10th, 2011
Rev. Odell Cleavland

Rev. Odell Cleavland

Reverend Odell Cleveland is the CEO and president of the Welfare Reform Liaison Project based in Greensboro, N.C., and he is a minister at Mount Zion Baptist Church under the leadership of Senior Pastor and Chief Elder, Bishop George W. Brooks. Most recently, he has added the title “co-author” to his name with his newly released book, Pracademics and Community Change: A True Story of Nonprofit Development and Social Entrepreneurship during Welfare Reform.

Growing up in Charleston, S.C., Cleveland grew up very poor. “My family was so poor we could not afford the “o” and “r”, we we’re just po,” he says of his childhood. However being “po” never deterred him from being successful; it made him work harder at everything he pursued. He played basketball throughout school and received a scholarship to attend the University of South Carolina at Spartanburg, now known as the University of South Carolina Upstate. He majored in business administration and pursued a successful career as a sales representative in the trucking industry. Throughout this time in his life, he also volunteered with his church’s prison ministry and soon desired to want to help more people. After seeking guidance from Bishop Brooks, he decided to become a minister and was later offered a position with the church. Bishop Brooks decided to fund his education, and he received his master’s degree in divinity (cum laude) from Hood Theological Seminary of Livingston College in Salisbury, N.C.

The story of the Welfare Reform Liaison Project begins with Cleveland’s master’s thesis; he decided to write his thesis in theology on the topic: “Some Black Churches’ Response to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.” Within his thesis, he outlined a program to help women living in poverty to move from welfare to obtaining a job. He presented the thesis to Bishop Brooks, and the bishop asked him, “Can you do what you said you can do on paper?” and he said yes. Bishop Brooks then challenged him to quit his job and to become a staff person in the church, and that he would only have one year to make the nonprofit work. “If I failed he would fire me,” says Cleveland.

Given this challenge, Cleveland knew he had to talk to his wife about the risk he was about to take, and after the conversation she only asked him one question, “Is it God, or is it you?”, and he knew at that moment it was all God. In 1997, the Welfare Reform Liaison Project was birthed through the spiritual womb of Mount Zion Baptist Church.

The first year of the Welfare Reform Liaison Project was a struggle, however through faith and perseverance his vision would take a turn for the better. In the winter of 1997, Cleveland would meet one of his mentors and co-author, Dr. Bob Wineburg, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on a basketball court. The two would soon forge a partnership that would develop an organization that would put ex-offenders to work and keep them out of jail, help prostitutes restore their self respect and attend college, and help moms on welfare gain their independency.

Cleveland being the businessman that he is would soon find out how difficult it was in the nonprofit world. “I learned patience, because things move a lot slower in the world of nonprofits,” he says. “The challenges were trying to get folks to look at a new way of building sustainable models for nonprofits.” However, Wineburg would coach him through his first grant process to secure funding from the United Way of Greensboro.

Thirteen years later, the Welfare Reform Liaison Project is still thriving in the community being the first faith based community action agency in the country. Over the years, the nonprofit would continue to receive grant funding from prominent foundations in Guilford County. In addition, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would name the program one of the 200 best community practices in the nation. Cleveland received a great amount of media attention for his successful efforts, and being the clever man that he is, he kept a case study of the progression of the nonprofit.

That case study would soon turn into a book co-authored with Wineberg, Pracademics and Community Change: A True Story of Nonprofit Development and Social Entrepreneurship during Welfare Reform. The book is a tool that gives a more realistic approach on how nonprofits work behind the scenes. The title of the book, “Pracademics & Community Change” reflects the need for academics (University Professors) to take the knowledge they possess and make it work in the greater community and for social service practitioners to educate academics on how things really work. In addition to being a CEO and president, he is also on the board of directors for the United Way of Greensboro, an adjunct professors with Duke University’s Certificate Program in Nonprofit Management, an instructor in the Department of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and an instructor for the Minority Enterprise Training and Development Program at North Carolina A&T State University. He is also the founder of Faith Based Entrepreneurial Think Tank.

In the future Cleveland plans to write another book, continue teaching and speaking at major events. For information on purchasing the book or booking him for speaking engagements and events please contact Odell Cleveland at 336-375-1095 or or at

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