Ronald Sahara Brown

    • February 28, 2002

Position: Executive Director Flint Odyssey House, Saginaw Odyssey House
Flint, Mich.

As a client in the Pregnant Women's Program, I remember Ronald's smile and upbeat attitude about everything. No matter how despairing and hopeless I felt (I was clinically depressed) he continually encouraged me and always pointed out the positive side to situations. He monitored my progress along with my attitude each day. When I realized this man was not going to give up on me, no matter what time of the day it was, I started to develop a little spark of hope, and it grew from there. Once I started to believe in what he advocated, I was able to apply it to myself. I began to believe in me—my life and my child's.—Client

He views substance abuse as a symptom of an individual's problems.... In this holistic approach, people are not treated in isolation from their families and the broader community. By intervening in several places—by rehabilitating people, buildings, and entire neighborhoods—the process of reversing the deterioration begins, which in turn stimulates the entire community to once again become healthy.—Chief, Center for Substance Abuse Services, Michigan Department of Public Health

When Ron Brown was seven years old, he was at home with six of his siblings when their mother's clothing caught fire as she tried to light their kerosene stove. Horrified and helpless, he watched as his mother burned to death. Mr. Brown blamed himself for not being able to put out the fire and save her. This early trauma, and the irrational guilt that resulted from it, led him down a self-destructive path into drug abuse, and ultimately, to prison.

For many people, that would have been the end of the road, not the beginning. But being in prison allowed Ronald Brown time to reflect on where he came from and where he wanted to go. Upon his release in 1975 at the age of 21, Mr. Brown found his way to Detroit's Rubicon Odyssey House two years later. Rubicon was part of the New York City-based Odyssey Institute, a 30-year-old worldwide network of facilities that offer long-term substance abuse treatment. Mr. Brown found common ground with Odyssey House's philosophy of dealing not just with substance abuse per se, but with the effects that traumatic life experiences—such as sexual, physical, or mental abuse, or growing up in a severely dysfunctional family—have on a person's well-being and self-image.

A dedicated participant in the program, Mr. Brown progressed with great speed. By 1979, he had become an employee of Rubicon, and he remained with Rubicon until 1987, when due to deteriorating political conditions as well as internal management problems, the center was forced to close its doors on short notice. Towards the end of the program, he became determined to turn his life around; to devote the remainder of his time on Earth to helping fellow Americans—especially women and children—rendered homeless, incarcerated, or otherwise disabled by their addiction to drugs.

By this time, Mr. Brown had become the head of Flint Odyssey House, Rubicon's satellite program in Flint, Mich., a city which, like Detroit, had fallen on hard times due largely to the effects of downsizing in America's automobile industry. The closing of Rubicon put Flint Odyssey at risk. In addition, the many clients of Rubicon in Detroit were suddenly without a long-term treatment program. What were they to do? Where were they to go?

Mr. Brown found that he could not just stand by and watch Flint Odyssey go under. This time, he was not a helpless seven-year-old. He was an adult. He had overcome tremendous obstacles—losing a parent, imprisonment, drug addiction, the lack of a post-high school education, limited resources—to hold a responsible position as the head of a drug treatment program. His satellite clinic was still functioning. He could do something to help.

But how? All he had to work with was $200 in food stamps. With that $200, determination, and nothing else, Ronald Brown went into action. He extended an invitation to Rubicon's Detroit clients—any and all who wanted to follow him to Flint Odyssey would be welcome there. They would be treated; they would not be turned away, no matter what.

Several Rubicon clients came with him, putting their faith and their future in the hands of Ronald Brown—along with one therapist/nurse, and two senior residents (who were about to graduate from the Rubicon program and would operate henceforth as quasi-staff). This skeleton crew struggled desperately to keep Flint Odyssey House afloat. "We had to get some more money," Mr. Brown recalls. "We just hustled. We got sources. We washed cars. We collected donations. We salvaged food from the previous program. They had freezers with liver, and you know, we ate liver for several weeks, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We just toughed it out, getting donations every day for our daily operational basic needs."

This hand-to-mouth period lasted for almost two months, by which time the Michigan Department of Social Services and the Genessee County Commission on Substance Abuse Services had begun to funnel some financial support to the orphaned operation. Still, Flint Odyssey's troubles were not over. The Internal Revenue Service pursued them because of Rubicon Odyssey House's tax liability. It took Mr. Brown's bravura presentation to convince them that Flint Odyssey House was not Rubicon. "I'd say I was blessed and honest," Mr. Brown says now, assessing this critical moment of his tenure, which he faced alone with no attorney by his side. "I gave it my best. They accepted it. So that sort of set the precedent for other creditors of Rubicon Odyssey, who were always on us."

These struggles lasted for more than a year, but at the same time, Flint Odyssey House was growing under Mr. Brown's leadership, responding to the urgent needs of the community. "We were just being progressive," Mr. Brown remembers, "answering the call of whatever was presented to us. We did that for a few years before we really just took a break and said, 'Look what's happening.'"

What the staff saw in 1989, when they took a breath and surveyed their progress, was that Flint Odyssey House had not just survived, but grown. As the area's only long-term treatment option for recovering indigent addicts, the need was huge. And Odyssey's success, based on treating the whole person (including the psycho-social causes of the problem, not just the addiction itself), was bringing more and more clients to its open doors. None were turned away.

One of Mr. Brown's former mentors, Judianne Densen-Gerber, PhD, MD, founder of Odyssey House International, says, "I must confess that I was intellectually very elitist, and felt strongly that very little could be done for severely schizophrenic substance abusers and those who were retarded. Mr. Brown refused to give up on anyone. He confronted me continually on my attitude, and indeed, often proved me wrong. After being my patient, my colleague, and teacher, he has now become my very good friend."

Why did Mr. Brown insist on including even the most challenging cases? As he put it, "The potential is in everybody. Mother Teresa saw God in everybody's face, and I do too. I think there are evil people, to be honest, but I haven't run across one yet."

Mr. Brown had deliberately chosen to locate his program in Flint's Near North 5th Ward, in the heart of the city's skid row, because, as he puts it, "That's where the addicts are." With the treatment center in the midst of what was then one of Flint's highest drug trafficking and prostitution areas, he began purchasing and receiving donations of homes and property too run down for the owners to rehabilitate on their own. His vision was to reclaim the neighborhood from drug dealers, crack house by crack house. From 1989 on, Flint Odyssey House was a force in revitalizing the area, and stimulating the community's growth and development.

By 1995, Flint Odyssey House had grown from two residential buildings that provided treatment for 15 people to a campus with 40 buildings that provided a broad range of programs:

  • The Densen-Gerber Program, a residential program serving nearly 100 men and women, is the only local, long-term residency drug treatment center for the indigent, and the only one in Michigan willing to treat pregnant women and mothers, who can attend an outpatient program, or become residents with their children. A transitional housing program for homeless individuals who are former substance abusers.
  • An AIDS outreach project that focused on providing prevention services to street drug users.
  • A health awareness center that links people in the surrounding neighborhood with health care services.
  • Freedom Schools, offering community children teachings in life skills such as grammar, manners, etiquette, organizational skills, self-esteem, and leadership skills.
  • Day care for the children of residents, allowing parents to attend school or go to their jobs (either school or work is an Odyssey House membership rule).
  • A community coalition and a set of block clubs that paint houses, fences, and garages, clean vacant lots and sidewalks, and do property repairs.
  • Use of client labor and grant funds to stabilize the community by renovating and repairing the homes of community residents, most of them senior citizens.
  • The Treat the Streets Program, a community redevelopment/healthy neighborhoods initiative responsible for turning 84 former crack houses into viable low-income housing between 1989 and 1996. Flint Odyssey House secured abandoned HUD-financed houses at almost no cost, then the men and women in the residential program renovated them. Often, when these residents were finished with their treatment, they were allowed to keep the homes they'd renovated and to live in them with their children. This approach solved several problems at once: it gave homeless people a place to call their own, it gave indigent recovering addicts job skills and self-esteem, and it helped transform the entire neighborhood, infusing the community with hope.


As Mr. Brown recalls, this evolution and expansion was all in response to the needs of the community. "In order to meet the needs of the pregnant women we were seeing, we needed space, too. So we started looking at what was around us, and to address the environment that was causing the problem. It was a whole therapeutic process, more than a vocational one. You know, patients make amends. They give something back. A couple of them started businesses—three separate businesses for carpet installation, and many others now work in the construction trade. So it paid further dividends, in terms of their developing to the point of being self-sufficient."

For all his efforts, Mr. Brown and Flint Odyssey House began to be recognized with major funding and awards. In 1993 Odyssey House received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award from the Michigan Department of Public Health for outstanding and exemplary performance in advancing the principles of human rights, equality and positive social change. That same year, the organization also received the Clayton R. Stroup Award for organizational excellence. And in 1996, Ronald Sahara Brown received The Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership Award, which carried a $100,000 stipend to further the vision and work of the recipient.

Mr. Brown's initial plan was to use the stipend to establish annuities for Odyssey House's long-serving staff. But when he discovered that a fledgling old-age home in the neighborhood was about to close its doors, Mr. Brown could not let its residents be evicted from their home. He used the money to purchase the property—it is open and functioning to this day.

The award came with other benefits as well. Recognition from RWJF's CHLP gave Mr. Brown increased confidence and enthusiasm to carry his vision forward. Networking with the other awardees at the program's annual retreats was especially valuable to him. From those meetings, Mr. Brown came away with ideas gathered from group discussions about how to cultivate other community-based leaders. "I felt so good to be a part of that group," he remembers. "It was like getting recharged."

From the time of the award, Mr. Brown proceeded to make his programs national models, expanding their funding, and educating state and federal elected officials about Flint Odyssey House's work. More and larger buildings were purchased, renovated, and put into service as homes for Odyssey House clients. A new satellite clinic has opened in Saginaw, Mich., and others are in the planning stages. Today, 70 percent of Flint Odyssey House's funding comes from federal and state sources. The rest comes from private donations of time, material, and money from individuals, and from organizations—for example General Motors' Service Parts Operation (AC Delco), and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. There are more than 100 staff members working with residents, half of whom are graduates of the program.

Mr. Brown's vision for Odyssey's future includes perfecting a more community-focused (as opposed to individual- or family-focused) model that can be replicated in other urban settings with other people at the helm. As the chief of substance abuse services of Michigan's Public Health Department puts it, "It is these types of programs that can answer the multi-faceted problems of inner cities that are deteriorating from substance abuse and poverty."

What is it that has made Ronald Sahara Brown such an effective leader, despite his lack of training for a leadership role? In his own words, "I don't think you can train people. Leaders who make the big difference, who rise up and do something great, did not get that in any academy. They just said, 'I'll make the sacrifice. I'm committed.'"

Another element crucial to Mr. Brown's effective grassroots leadership is his authenticity. He sees himself as a powerful beacon for the downtrodden—because his story is similar to theirs, and they know he is acutely aware of their struggles. He serves as a daily reminder to Flint Odyssey House residents that they have the power to build a new life.

Mr. Brown also believes his own personal battles gave him the strength to believe that anyone could be transformed. "I think I've been chosen," he says. "When you come through drugs, there's something special. I'm committed." But he also is convinced that a Higher Power took a hand in his success. "I was blessed, to be honest. I think it was the right time, and the right people came to support me. I was just ready when they came."

Ronald Sahara Brown

Ronald Sahara Brown
1996 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader