NORFOLK, Va. - When you look at Alex Ellis you see a confident, successful black man.
It is an image the author, mentor and motivational speaker wants to pass on to younger African-American males.
"The fact that this over-glamorized gangster image is pervasive in our communities and what we're doing is we're gathering the support from men in the community and we're saying 'look at us. Look at positive, educated, well-groomed, articulate men of color and this is an example for you to emulate,'" he explained.
The New Jersey native has taken a hands-on approach with his non- profit organization "Tied to Greatness."
It's a national program that tours the country, exposing disadvantaged boys to positive role models and mentors in their communities.
"I know that in my life I am where I am because somebody helped me," Ellis said. "There is no way I could have gotten to the level of success that I have in an of myself and when you really begin to think about it, you now have a responsibility to the next generation. It's kind of like the whole pay it forward so that's what we're doing."
Ellis partners with schools, churches and anyone who will give him young ears to hear his good manners and good grooming message.
Learning to tie a tie is a basic lesson every young man should learn, but being "tied to greatness" is about more than just tying the perfect knot. It's about making difference in life.
"I tell young men all across the country you don't need a tie hanging on the corner, you don't need a tie in prison, you don't need a tie just hanging with your buddies, but you need a tie when you're ready to take care of business," Ellis said.
Nearly 400 attended Ellis' Tied to Greatness stop in Norfolk, Va. From politicians to sports figures, they agreed the need for mentors in the black community is great.
"I just like mentoring these kids, sharing my story with these kids, trying to find someway to encourage them and inspire them because I was once one of those kids," said mentor Bruce Smith. "I walked the same streets, I walked the same hallways and I'm living proof that they can become something great coming out of the Hampton Roads area."
Congressman Bobby Scott also showed his support.
"This is an excellent opportunity to get young people off on the right track," he said. "These kind of programs get them off in the right direction and rather than wearing baggy pants and a saggy t-shirt, they're wearing coats and ties. That gets them off in the right direction in terms of image, but also it gives them the idea that they can be somebody.
The highlight of the evening --older men teaching the younger men to tie a tie and connecting them to real-life role models.
"It's important to have strong young men," Mark Johnson of United Way of South Hampton Roads explained. "[If] you have strong young men, you have strong families, strong organizations and just all around you have a healthy community."
There, image is bigger than what people see and many young men left feeling changed on the inside. That is what keeps Ellis motivated for the next stop on the tour.
"I tell the men every time we have a tied to greatness event, 'you can go to Macy's and learn how to tie a tie,'" Ellis said, "but look into the eyes of that young man tell him that you love him."
*Originally published June 17, 2009