UMass Boston cites activist Bell for his organizing spirit

Kimberley Theodore, Special to the Reporter
Jul. 10, 2014

Ron Bell, a longtime community organizer and voting rights advocate, was honored on June 20 by UMass Boston’s Emerging Leaders Program with its Leading the Way Award.

The 51-year-old Mission Hill native was recognized as a model of collaborative leadership for his wide-ranging work to increase civic engagement and promote social change through his non-partisan Dunk the Vote voter education and registration program.

His political work includes roles as Gov. Deval Patrick’s deputy campaign manager in 2006 and as Patrick’s senior advisor for community affairs.

“I get the activism in me from my mom and relation with communities from my dad. Everyone loved them,” said Bell, who grew up in a home that included 11 brothers and sisters. His father worked two full-time jobs, as a welder and as a baker. His mom was a bus monitor and community activist as well as a foster parent.  

Bell is perhaps best known for his work with Dunk the Vote, which he founded in 1992. By Bell’s count, the organization has registered more than 50,000 voters in the last 22 years. This summer, he is preparing to launch a new voter education and enrollment project that will use the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as its theme.

“As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, I’m hoping to have at least 50,000 new registered voters. What we did in 22 years we can do in one,” said Bell. “By using old-school organizing with 21st century technology, it can get done.” 

The return to grassroots organizing comes after a cascade of life-altering challenges for Bell. After a divorce, he suffered a near-fatal heart attack in March 2011. “I could only think about my son at the time,” said Bell. ”I knew I hadn’t spent much quality time with him since taking on my positions and the divorce. I knew that I may never see him again after this. I felt guilty.”

After six months on medical leave, Bell decided to started a basketball school called Top Shot, offering girls and boys between the ages of 10 and 14 workshops on drug and alcohol prevention, AIDS awareness, teenage pregnancy and other social issues in their communities along with basketball. 

“This was a great way to interact with my son while providing the community around us with quality service,” said Bell.

After returning to the governor’s office in 2011, Bell was arrested and charged with driving under the influence. The arrest ended his stint at the State House and forced him to reset his priorities.

“I had been exhausted from all the projects I was taking on,” said Bell. “I refused a Breathalyzer and had to face the consequences. I take full responsibility for my actions.”

Now Bell looks forward to launching a new season of Top Shot next Monday. “We’re looking to recruit at least 40 young people,” he said. “Getting that [UMass] award has helped build my spirit and help building my reputation, so I’m glad to be able to tell my story, gladly and proudly.”

He also has a documentary set to come out next year about the journey through his recovery from his heart attack.

“I want to use this documentary as a tool for teaching people about heart disease and nutrition,” he said.

Fighting for social change and promoting civic engagement is Bell’s renewed focus. “I have to be optimistic. I want our city to become a world class city and for the Commonwealth to be great for everyone, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this work,” he said.