Losing his father when he was just nine years old was a life changing moment for York Professor David Bell. It defined his commitment to do the very best that he could in every aspect of his life.
Bell, who is professor emeritus in the Faculty of Environmental Studies, has channeled this loss into a lifetime of dedication to sustainability, education and voluntarism.
This month, in recognition of his life’s work, Bell was awarded a prestigious Harry Jerome President’s Award as part of this year’s celebration of a “Generation of Greatness”. The Harry Jerome Awards recognize excellence in the African-Canadian community. The annual awards are presented to by the Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA).
“My father died when I was just nine years old and I think I have spent all my life trying to achieve things that would have made him proud,” said Bell. “There is a Yiddish word that captures this – nachas – which means to bring great joy to your parents.
“I was equally motivated to show that someone of mixed race could attain at the highest level,” he added.
The youngest of five children, Bell was the first of his siblings to attend university and he was helped along the way by many scholarships and awards. He chose York University and Bell was among the early grads of York, which was then located entirely at Glendon College. From those early days onwards, he has championed environmentalism, sustainability and post-secondary education, and credits his dedication to his family, the inspiration they offered him and his friendship with the late Canadian jazz great Oscar Peterson.
“I was very fortunate to have a supportive family and a wonderful role model for academic excellence in my brother-in-law Dr. Douglas Salmon, who was the first black man to become chief of surgery in a Canadian hospital. Amazingly, Douglas, my sister Beverley who was his wife, and their son Warren, have all been Harry Jerome Award winners,” said Bell.
Bell, a retired professor in York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES), also served the University as dean of both FES and the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS). During his tenure as FGS dean, Bell (who is a gifted jazz musician and studied bass under Ray Brown at Oscar Peterson’s Advanced School of Contemporary Music here in Toronto) had an important role in the University’s history when he nominated Peterson for an honorary degree.
“After the award ceremony, the then-chair of the Department of Music, Jim McKay, and I approached Oscar about getting involved with the York Jazz program. Oscar was generous with his contributions and was a big hit with students and faculty,” said Bell. “A few years later, Bruce Bryden, chair of the Board of Governors (who had been my undergraduate classmate and friend at Glendon), called me to discuss the possibility of asking Oscar to serve as chancellor of York University, a position he held for the next four years. I felt fortunate to have been able to express my appreciation to Oscar by helping forge his links with York.”
Although retired, Bell is still very active on campus and plays an important role in seeking global action on sustainability. He is chair of the non-governmental organization Learning for a Sustainable Future, which has its offices in York Lanes on the University’s Keele campus. When he is not in the office, Bell is crisscrossing the planet talking to politicians, policymakers and educators about the importance of sustainability.
“For the last 25 years or so, I have focused my thinking and energy on what I regard as the greatest challenge facing all of the world’s people, whatever their race, skin colour, nationality or ethnic origin: the challenge of sustainability,” said Bell. “The current path of global development appears to be taking us toward environmental and social disaster. The trajectory we are on is unsustainable. We need to green our economy, reduce social inequity, tackle diversity and inclusion, and provide food water, energy, housing, and clean air for more than nine billion people. To do this, we humans must learn to live more sustainably on this planet.”
To achieve this goal, Bell is focusing all his knowledge, passion and purpose squarely on the role education can play in helping us learn our way to a more sustainable future. While the planet’s situation is dire, he says that he is encouraged to see the green shoots he sees sprouting, what he describes as the early signs of a culture shift towards sustainability. The signs are everywhere in education, civil society, business, government and everyday living, says Bell. He notes the emergence of new technologies that are being harnessed to facilitate a culture of sustainability. And this, says Bell, amounts to a global chorus of hope.
For Bell, the Harry Jerome Award offers meaningful recognition of his life’s work, a commitment that is underpinned by the inspiration he receives every day from Kaaren, his wife of 50 years, his two children, their spouses and three grandchildren. They are the motivation that drives his punishing schedule to continue doing what he can to help create a future that will see those green shoots grow into a majestic canopy, making him an important part of a “Generation of Greatness.”
More about the Harry Jerome Awards
A symbol of achievement, the 16 awards that make up the Harry Jerome Awards are handed out each year in the categories of: Academics, Athletics, Arts, Media, Community Service, Health Sciences, Leadership, Lifetime Achievement, Youth Entrepreneurs, Business, Leadership, Professional Excellence, Technology & Innovation, Trailblazer, Diversity and the President’s Award.
Established in the memory of Harry Jerome, an outstanding African Canadian Olympic Athlete, scholar and social advocate, the BBPA Harry Jerome Awards celebrate African-Canadian achievement that pays tribute to outstanding and inspirational African-Canadians who are role models of excellence.
By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor