Advocating for people is a full-time job for Yterenickia Bell. For her it’s essentially two full-time jobs.
During business hours, YT, as she’s known, is the deputy director of Georgia Engaged. There, the Georgia State University alum (B.S. ’11, M.S.W ’14, M.P.A. ’16) oversees and implements the advocacy group’s programs and partnerships across the state.
Then, from about 4 until around 10 each night, Bell throws herself into the often thankless work, (though it’s doubtful she’d characterize it that way) of serving on the Clarkston city council. Committee meetings, works sessions, community sessions and council sessions are the building blocks for achieving Bell’s goals of helping transform Clarkston into a fully inclusive and engaged community with thriving and sustainable businesses.
“I never aspired to be on the front lines of city policymaking,” Bell said. “But I saw first-hand how certain policies and programs weren’t addressing the community’s needs simply because certain populations were unable to access them.”
There is a unique challenge involved in effectively connecting the citizens of Clarkston to its institutions. The city is known as “the most diverse square mile in the U.S.” It was designated a refugee resettlement program in the 1990s and by the next decade its high school had students originating from more than 50 different countries.
Bell’s background in social work gave her special insight into these challenges.
“To curb alcohol-related incidents, the city council wanted to deny an alcohol sales permit to a new gas station in town,” she said. “Many of our people here are immigrants and refugees, and there’s trauma in dislocation: leaving everything behind, living in a foreign land, not speaking the language.”
“In order to truly thrive, a city needs to engage all its citizens and connect them with the social, education and mental health services they need, instead of just looking to take away a coping mechanism.”
After declining previous appeals for her to run for city council, Bell entered the race and was elected in 2017. She and three others from her generational cohort compose the first millennial-majority city council in the U.S.
“It’s my goal to get everyone to the table,” she said. “Education can take a long time and a lot of work, but if you’re not meeting people where they are, they’re not going to get the help they need.”
A passion for people fuels Bell during her long days. While she credits her family for her inexhaustible work ethic, the Panther with three degrees ascribes her success to Georgia State.
“Georgia State created the person I am today,” she said.
She cites the diverse group of people she met when she arrived on campus from her hometown of Sandersville, Ga.,—about 60 miles east of Macon in Washington County—with helping her understand the myriad issues that can affect and shape people. Her coursework and professors in her graduate programs showed her how to direct her passion for people—and desire to make a difference in their lives—into policy and advocacy work.
Bell’s days are usually long and frequently demanding, and progress is often slow with incremental success. Despite it, it’s unlikely she would describe her work as thankless.
“Who doesn’t want to educate their community and help them grow?” asked Bell. “That’s the reward.”