When Valerie Bell ’77 was elected senior class president at the University, she became the first African American and the first female to hold that position in the University’s history. Bell ran with the campaign slogan “Unity growing from our diversity,” a motto that captures Bell’s personal outlook on life. She currently devotes herself pro bono as a Harvard-trained lawyer and civil volunteer to fighting for educational equity, racial equality, and economic parity through local, regional, and national organizations, including as Chair of the Board of the St. Louis Public Schools Foundation.
Recently, Bell spoke with The Daily Princetonian about her experiences breaking boundaries, bridging gaps, and becoming a leader. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and readability.
The Daily Princetonian (DP): What was the African-American community like at Princeton, and how did you become a leader in that community?
Valerie Bell (VB): We were always there for each other. And I felt that some of the older African-American students took us under their wing when we got there and said, you know, “Hey, watch out for this professor. Watch out for this group of people. Be careful.” They were really very caring and thoughtful and sensitive in terms of how that helps school us as to the best way to try to get through Princeton and to handle any challenges that came up. So in that sense, the African-American community was like an anchor and a buoy and just, again, a lifeline for me because there were such incredible people there who were willing to be big brothers and big sisters and then eventually came along to be friends and colleagues. And similarly, as we got older and as my class aged up and we were older and the people at the top of the heap so to speak, I think it was very important for me to play that role for younger people coming in as well. So it was a very supportive community in which we had tons of fun — parties, a social life, and all those kinds of things.
I was to learn that I was somehow perceived as a leader in my community and therefore by the administration. I don’t know [how I became a leader] except I just was myself and I was never hesitant to speak up about things or to express my opinions. I tried to be artful and diplomatic in raising some challenges, you know — you guys, we can improve this, this isn’t so good over here, whatever it was. I was very vocal, I guess you could say, on behalf of students of color and on behalf of just generally, “Hey, we need diversity. We need unity around our diversity, etc.” So that was how I conducted myself from day one, and I guess as the months and years went on that was perceived as leadership.
DP: What was your experience like running for president of the senior class?
VB: When junior year came and they started talking about class office, I thought about it, and I said, you know, I feel I can provide the leadership to the senior class that would be needed at this time. I decided to conduct a door-to-door campaign, and I visited all of my classmates. Every single one, you know, that was available, home, or whatever. And it took me a few days, but I literally went door to door, handing out my literature and explaining why I was running. There were people who told me straight to my face, “I cannot vote for you because a woman cannot lead this class at commencement.” There were guys who said, “I would vote for you, Val, I really think highly of you, and I commend you for your effort, but a black person should not lead us to commencement.” There were some people who said — I mean, amazingly; I happen to be Roman Catholic — “You’re a black Catholic woman. That’s three bad things. I can’t do it.” And I said, “Oh my God.” I really couldn’t believe it. But then there were some people that said, “I’m on the fence because I just don’t know.” Because I was running against two guys, both of whom were from Cottage Club. And one of the guys was so cool — I would have voted for him myself, okay? I thought very, very highly of him. So it was, you know, it’s like people say, “it’s on,” you know, “we are on”? I was doing the most that I could to foster my candidacy.
And then, the Board of Trustees, leadership from the Board — I can’t remember specifically who, I think it might have been Student Life Committee Chair or something — reached out to have a meeting with me … But they said, “This is really serious because we are actually getting feedback that we’re going to lose money … People would stop making out contributions if you run and if you win. But we have looked at your record, we believe in what you are doing, and we are behind you. The Board of Trustees is behind you. You are right to run. And so, please, you should do what you’re going to do.” And I was laughing, like, I would not, I was not going to cancel my running if they didn’t like it; I was gonna still run. But it felt really great to know that the Board was endorsing my right to run.
And so … I ran. I ran a good race. And I have to tell you, I was shocked when the Vice Chair of the USG came to me at midnight after the election and said, “It is my distinct privilege to tell you, you have been elected the first female and the first student of color as president of the senior class at Princeton.” And so I was like, I had to take it in, you know, big party, it was all great. But to know that I was knocking down those two categories, in the sense that in all those couple hundred years … that I would be the first female and the first black, African-American student to literally lead the class into commencement. It was just overwhelming to me.
DP: While running for senior class president, your campaign slogan was “Unity growing from our diversity.” What did those words mean to you?
VB: As I said, from those early high school years, I recognized that people come from all walks of life, they have all different perspectives, that none of us can essentially walk in the other person's shoes because we all have very, very unique experiences. Some people see that as a dividing point. I saw it always as a point around which people could coalesce. Because the notion is, you have certain strengths, some other people over here have other strengths, other people have other strengths, I have certain strengths. Given that those strengths have grown from our unique experiences, what a tremendous thing if we can take our diversity and we can bring it all to the table and create yet something new … And so that was what I wanted to capitalize on when I was running for senior class president. It wasn’t just a campaign slogan; it was my way of life. But it translated into a campaign slogan very well because it was who I was, who I had evolved to be from my elementary and high school situations, and the person who I am today.
DP: How has your experience at Princeton continued to affect you today?
VB: Everything that I work on to this day — education and equity in education, race relations, economic parity — every single thing I do today is the grown up version of everything I was at Princeton … What started out as something I did at Princeton as a student, I didn’t realize I was honing myself and preparing myself to bring all of that into the world that I’m in today. My path crosses with lots of different kinds of people — high-ups, the grassroots — doing all kinds of things, but me choosing to focus on education, race relations, and economic parity, and to a certain extent equal access to health care … there are a lot of inner connections. I think at one time I was sitting on 14 or 15 not-for-profit boards and cross-pollinating them … Fortunately, a lot of that has given rise to some good movement, some changes, some positive accomplishments for the community.
DP: What advice would you have for someone who is trying to change the perception of who can enter and succeed in certain spaces or trying to bridge communities that haven’t been in the past?
VB: You have to prepare yourself to be uncomfortable sometimes. You have to roll with the punches. You have to educate yourself as much as you can, so that it’s not a situation where just because of lack of exposure or awareness, you step on toes. But if you happen to step on toes, you apologize. You give your best explanation of, “Hey, you know what, I don’t have that lens, and so I might have made a mistake with that. I really regret it. Please help me understand better.”
And I think if you go in with that approach, it’s disarming and it enables people to feel a little bit comfortable, respected, willing to work with you and to help you bridge gaps. And it is much more encouraging to get on board with someone who comes with that kind of attitude. Sometimes people get, as Princeton students, as Princeton grads sometimes because we do know a lot, we have been greatly educated, the tendency is to come in and say we know everything and we have all the answers and all the solutions. What we have is an education. That is a tool that can enable us to really make a difference, but it’s very, very important that we seize leadership in many instances when people want us to be leaders but that we not step on toes to do that and not think we know everything and think we know best all the time. We use our education to gather as many resources and influences we can to make good decisions and to foster good relationships. Bridging gaps is as much learning as it is doing.
This story has been updated to correct the headline; Bell was the first female, first African-American senior class president, not USG president. The Prince regrets this error.