Some two decades ago, in the hot, late summer afternoons that are typical of Boston, one could routinely find Mission Hill native and Dunk the Vote founder Ron Bell canvassing the ins and outs of Mission Park – knocking on doors in the Alice Taylor Development – and handing out voter registration cards on Tremont Street.
People often looked at him like he was crazy, but they bought the concept and knew he had credibility. So, those efforts brought in new voters by the dozens, and it was a credit to hard work and sweat equity.
Since those early days, Dunk the Vote went national and had a huge revival in 2020 in eight states across the United States – driving people all over the country to register for the November 2020 election and using the love of basketball as a platform to get them to vote.
However, during the frenzy of last year’s efforts, Bell said he had to pause and sit down – do some heavy reflection – when he watched George Floyd being murdered on video by a police officer in Minneapolis. That reflection only went deeper as more issues came up.
And soon enough, he was taken right back to the seat he used to sit in as the director of the Mission Hill Community Center in the 1990s – watching as black men outside that window were being strip searched for no good reason and having their Civil Rights violated 10 different ways due to the frenzy within the 1989 Charles Stuart murder case. It was why he first started Dunk the Vote.
In that rush of memories, Bell, now 56, said he knew he needed to get back to his roots and start working in Mission Hill and Roxbury again.
“In 2021, I’m coming back to Mission Hill,” Bell said this week. “I’m coming back with the message of promoting civic engagement. Dunk the Vote has declared civic engagement a public health emergency.”
Bell said he cannot forget what happened in 1989 in Mission Hill, and the current movement for a more racially just society in Boston and beyond has brought him full circle.
“I was there watching in 1989 looking at the window as Black men and young people were strip searched right in front of the Community Center,” he said. “Last summer gave me a flashback to that, me being the director there at the time. When I get back to working there again, my work is going to be very serious because you can’t put a Band-Aid on racism. When you try to, it festers. George Floyd brought me back to the Stuart case and what happened there and why I originally started Dunk the Vote.”
The Charles Stuart case was a blight on the City and the region in 1989. Stuart, of Revere, faked an attack on himself and his pregnant wife in Mission Hill near Mission Park after leaving Brigham & Women’s Hospital. Though he actually shot his wife and killed her, then turned the gun and shot himself with a non-fatal blow – he told police it was Black men from the area that had stopped them and tried to rob them. That set off a flurry of police activity, and virtually every Black male in the neighborhood seemed to be a suspect. Police made many young Black men take their pants down on the street, in front of the Community Center and just about everywhere else to search for weapons and clues. Later, the Stuart scam was uncovered – with him having killed his wife in an attempt to collect insurance money – and Charles Stuart jumped off the Tobin Bridge to his death.
Back then, in the wake of that, the answer was to get more people in Mission Hill voting and involved in the civic process to prevent rights from being trampled on. That message worked well and expanded. And today, it has become very appropriate once again – and the place to re-start, he said, was where he started.
Bell grew up on Francis Street and in other areas of the neighborhood. His mother joined the fight in helping to establish Roxbury Tenants of Harvard (RTH) in the neighborhood. They were one of the first to move back in. Bell attended Boston Latin School and used basketball as a catapult to college at Cheney State and then Bentley.
Bell is talking about organizing individuals to create what he calls Civic Engagement Leadership Labs, or CELLs. With those, he hopes that groups of people can organize one another to get involved in local issues, civic matters and neighborhood-level problems. In addition to that, he is also using his platform as a local member of the Black News Network and Black Praise Radio – where one might find he and Pastor Bruce Wall, of Dorchester, interviewing candidates or bringing to light civic issues affecting the city on their program. Last year, he and Wall were able to do a number of forums with candidates, most importantly with Sen. Ed Markey and Challenger Joe Kennedy III.
All of it rolls into an effort that Bell said he hopes will start in Mission Hill and fan out to the rest of the city with new energy. At the moment, he’s planning a Dunk the Vote meet and greet for the fall if COVID-19 allows it. Beyond that, he said he’s building momentum on the streets, on TV and online, one person at a time.
“We can have a moment right now or a movement,” he said. “In the spirit of Black History Month, let’s make the ‘We Shall Overcome’ song into ‘We Have Overcome.’ I’m tired of conversations as a Black man growing up in Boston. We’ve had conversations. Let’s have some action. I’m excited and I feel like I’m 38 years old again.”