June 2019 Alumni Spotlight
June Alumni Spotlight with Janet Dewart Bell, Executive MPA ‘99
Communications Strategist and Management Consultant, Executive MPA alumna, adjunct lecturer, and member of the Marxe Dean’s Advisory Board, Janet Dewart Bell recently published her first book, Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement which stemmed from research from her dissertation on leadership and change. We discuss her book, her varied Marxe experiences, and more.
Tell us about Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement. What was the research and writing process like? What did you learn that you didn’t expect to?
Lighting the Fires of Freedom grew out of the research for my dissertation in Leadership and Change from Antioch University.However, social justice is a lifelong passion. My commitment to racial progress and equity is a direct result of the life lessons taught to be by my mother, my first and foremost role model. Born in rural Arkansas in 1917, my mother’s formal education ended at the eighth grade, because the nearest high school for black children was 100 miles away in Little Rock. She became a self-taught, lifelong learner and instilled in her children the desire not only to learn, but to serve others with love and compassion, and always aim to make a positive difference in the world.However, due to racism and sexism, she was prevented from sharing her extraordinary gifts. She had the smarts – just like the women in the movie Hidden Figures–but not the opportunity. She spent most of her adult life working as a maid in motels and as a household worker – all honorable work, but work that curtailed what she might have contributed to the larger society, for example as a scientist or mathematician for which she was capable. She struggled to make a living wage to take care of our family.
One of the biggest things I learned in writing the book was that the women I interviewed were strategists and systems thinkers – my description, not necessarily theirs. They were – and still are – incredibly humble and kind. (All but two of the women are still alive.) They always envisioned worlds beyond their circumstances and beyond themselves. Given the fact that they literally put their lives on the line that they remain hopeful and committed to change is profoundly inspiring.For example,Myrlie Evers, whose husband Medgar (for whomCUNY’S Medgar Evers College is named) was assassinated in their driveway while she and their three small children were home, continues to fight for human rights. By any measure, Mrs. Evers has more than paid her dues, but she passionately and lovingly keeps the faith.
What has one of your most meaningful experiences in leadership been?
I had the opportunity to be Communications Director for the National Committee on Household Employment, an organization that organized chapters across the country and was instrumental in gaining coverage for household workers under the federal minimum wage. I took this job after having won an Emmy award as a television producer. A friend affectionately called me “downwardly mobile.” Given the experiences of my mother, relatives, and many others I knew who did this backbreaking and mostly unappreciated work, it was the right thing for me to do. We were a small staff at NCHE and each of us exercised leadership in our areas, both internally and externally. One of my memorable experiences was co-writing an article about household work for Ms. Magazine. My editor was none other than Gloria Steinem.
You’re an incredibly involved alum, teaching this year in the Executive MPA program and serving on the Marxe Dean’s advisory board. What are you teaching this year? What inspires you to stay so closely connected with the School?
This spring, I taught the Public and Nonprofit Management in the Executive Master’s program.This summer, I am teaching for the third consecutive year Leadership and Strategy in Public Affairs. I was privileged to earn an Executive Master’s from Baruch in 1999.That experience has helped define my life since, grounding me in concepts and skills that have been instrumental to my success at national organizations such as PolicyLink and The Opportunity Agenda.It took me a little while, but I eventually went on to earn a doctorate in Leadership and Change. Barbara Fife, who was the administrator of the EMPA championed all students, especially recognizing that some of us, like me, had not been in a formal education setting for a while.David Birdsell, then my professor, later becoming – and still the dean of the Marxe School, demonstrated such kindness and confidence in me when I was faced with the almost devastating challenge ofmy husband Derrick almost dying during my first year.Derrick mercifully survived and thrived.My Baruch cohort mates, staff, and faculty encouraged me to continue in the program.The first class education and the personal support from Baruch has led me to want to pay it forward. I have also endowed a scholarship, which brings me such joy and satisfaction.I often say that “I bleed Baruch blue.”I love this school. Full stop. Period.