Shamell Bell is a dancer, student, artist, activist, and mother in Los Angeles. She is currently a Doctoral Candidate in Culture and Performance at UCLA in the World Arts and Cultures/Dance department, and has a Master’s degree in Ethnic Studies from UC San Diego as well as a Bachelor’s degree, with honors, from USC in American Studies and Ethnicity, specializing in African American Studies. Shamell merges her academia with her art in what she calls, “street dance activism” to further the grassroots political actions she is apart of from her perspective as a scholar, dancer, and choreographer.
Shamell uses street dance as an alternative strategy to disrupt social, economic, and historical paradigms to catalyze radical social change. She teaches those in her community about this form of activism, which simultaneously works to strengthen the community from within. Shamell is an original member of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in its first chapter located in Los Angeles, which was transitioned into from her core organization, Justice 4 Trayvon Martin Los Angeles. Additionally, Shamell works as an Arts & Culture liaison for the BLM network, Blackout for Human Rights, The Undercommons at UCLA, and more
Alongside her esteemed academic career and work as an activist, Shamell is also an innovative creative and accomplished artist. She uses her talent, knowledge, and expertise to consult in various aspects of the television, film, and music industries, such as the rapper Common’s philanthropic organization, Common Ground, the film adaptation of Angie Thomas’ best selling book, “The Hate You Give”, and Andra Day and Common's 'Stand Up For Something' groundbreaking Oscar performance in 2018.
How would you describe your community?
“My home community is South Central Los Angeles. Although my mother married a Delta Airlines mechanic when I was a toddler, so my bicoastal lifestyle during my elementary years between Jonesboro, GA and South Central Los Angeles gave me a heightened perspective of interlocking systems of oppression and the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality as it relates to different communities. My older brothers, more than sixteen years older, lived in my mother’s home in South Central Los Angeles and due to our flight privileges, we would fly to Los Angeles almost every weekend to check on our LA home, and for jobs in the entertainment industry.”
“During 5th grade, my mother and step-dad separated and I was full time in South Central Los Angeles. My connection to South Central grew even deeper as I saw the extreme disparities in the way Black and Brown folks lived in South Central Los Angeles in glaring contrast to how I was raised in Jonesboro, GA. There were very few Black families in my neighborhood in Georgia at the time. My education in Georgia was the most apparent of the difference in class. I learned things in Georgia years prior to the students learning in my 5th grade class in South Central, so much so the teacher made me her unofficial teacher's assistant.”
“The lived experience of living at the liminal space of class--middle class in Georgia and poor/low income in South Central Los Angeles, I saw the difference in opportunities in education and [more]. This injustice began my deep connection to my South Central community and my vision to see that the poor and people of color receive the same access to resources.”
Why is community important to you?
“I dedicate my life and my work to my community. My vision is to relentlessly attack the detrimental practices and policies that disadvantage the poor and people of color in housing, education, employment, and the environment. Community is so key to liberation.”
“Interconnectedness and a healthy interdependence provides the necessary tools needed to withstand and transform the intentional way institutions are set up. The need for kinship and communal connection is often why youth resort to gangs, or dance crews. I often ask, what would it mean for our liberation if there was an emphasis on a community that loves and supports you as an individual, but also you know your entire community is connected in love. This is why community is so important to me.”
What about The Urban Helper’s mission resonates with you?
“I desire a community that can deal with ‘crimes’ in our communities on our own. My son, only 6 years old at the time, theorized, "We do not need to be policed, we need to be helped from someone in our own neighborhood...because if someone is stealing then they are probably hungry, we should get them food. We should figure out the real reason why people are making mistakes. We need, ‘The Helpers’.’ My son envisions each community with ‘Helpers’ that are like superheroes that work to heal the core issues of criminal activity, it seems like a brilliant idea to me.”
What inspired you to start your activism?
“After having my son, I had a visceral response after the acquittal of George Zimmerman. I felt that it could have been my son. I wailed for my son, as well as for Trayvon Martin, and his mother. I called my mentor, Dr. Melina Abdullah, and we met up with other mothers and other students of hers and went out into the streets. A couple of days later we would meet up with Patrisse Cullors and her comrades to form Justice 4 Trayvon Martin Los Angeles, which would then help bring a national organizing strategy highlighting the phenomenal organizing in Ferguson in response to the death of Mike Brown.”
How have you contributed to your local community?
“My community organizing efforts work directly with community members focusing on their needs. I contributed to my community by teaching performing arts in the inner city beginning in middle school. I then would intern at casting agencies to give my community members access to the entertainment industry.”
“After the death of Trayvon Martin, my community organizing began to look more like the activism that most people would define as activism. I helped organize Justice 4 Trayvon Martin Los Angeles which would later transition into Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. I am also a part time staff organizer with an amazing student led organization called Students Deserve!”
What forms of activism do you practice?
“I practice activism in my everyday activities and actions. I wake up in the morning and make a conscious decision to create a shift to better society in even just a small way. For example, that might look like taking my son to a university classroom setting that mothering isn't typically the norm, and it also disrupts that patriarchal, hegemonic space but also shows my son that he can also go to college.”
“I participate in other forms of traditional activism such as marching, voting, civil disobedience, and political education. I am most known for ‘street dance activism’ where I use dance as a spatial intervention but also as a metaphor for social movements that facilitates community building.”
What kind of reactions do you get in response to your activist activities?
“At first there were mixed reactions with some people not understanding why I would teach street dance and not a more “respectable" form of dance at direct actions. But my purpose was to meet youth exactly where they are and street dances are what they know and love.”
“I also wanted to bridge the intergenerational gap and give adults and youth an opportunity to teach each other their favorite dances. Others react by saying my form of activism is ‘safe’ and not the ‘real work’ while others try to use my joyful protest to demean other activists and claim they are ‘aggressive’...I do not engage in any form of respectability politics and it is important to note that my form of activism is not any better than more overt forms of civil disobedience.”
How do you respond to unfavorable reactions (if any)?
“I do not respond to unfavorable reactions anymore. I used to get into debates on Facebook explaining why I chose to teach the ‘whip’ and ‘nae nae’ [dance moves] as some Black, Christians suggested, I was making ‘us Blacks’ look worse by playing loud music and being ‘ratchet’ outside of the mayor’s house.”
“I explained the rich nature of social dances and also explained that white culture often takes on our cultural dances and make it a trend. I point out that it is respectability politics to accept that if we were doing modern dance or tapping, instead of doing street dances then we would be more accepted. I purposely use street dance because I reject respectability. I love teaching street dance and the context behind the dances, and how dance forms have literally saved many lives, including my own.”
What resources do you utilize to obtain the services or help that you need both personally and in your community?
“We need more funding for the arts! I need more access to funding to be able to teach and encourage youth using dance and activism!”
How can more people make an impact in their communities?
“More people can make an impact in their community by starting with focusing on their own well-being. Once everyone is emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually well, then they are better able to have compassion and love for others and know exactly who they really are and what talents they can use to impact their communities.”
What advice would you give to young or aspiring community activist?
“Be on a personal journey to continually evolve and heal. Map out your individual talents and how they can be useful to the movement. Then, solidify your purpose and vision. Do something every day that brings you joy, but also impacts others and creates a shift.”
You are a revered community activist, known for addressing important societal issues in you work, with almost too many accomplishments and accolades to keep track of! Can you tell us a bit about how you grew into the role of community activist?
“I grew into the role of a community activist by following the truth in my body. I founded a performing arts based community organization as a child. Initially, performance was my way of getting those of us who would never leave South Central Los Angeles otherwise, a way to experience new things. I was able to intern [in the entertainment world] to give us opportunities to do music videos, movies commercials, fashion shows, etc.”
“Leading this performance based group from an early age gave me the leadership skills I needed to offer my talents to the movement. As a choreographer, it was easy for me to make the parallel that creating change in society was much like choreographing a dance piece of liberation. We need everyone’s talent to make the vision come to life.”
Shamell’s latest projects include her TEDxUCLA talk.
She also worked as a Social Impact Advisor and Script Consultant on “The Hate U Give”, coming out in theaters October 19th, 2018.
She also has the role of "Radical Joy Adviser" specifically curated for her by the dance company CONTRA TIEMPO for their performance with LAS CAFETERAS - JOYOUS JUSTUS, November 10th, 8 PM to 10 PM at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Center in Long Beach, California.
Shamell, in her desire to educate and inform, disseminates information, such as those listed below, in order to spread understanding to all communities and peoples. I urge you to check out these sources. Education is the first step to community building!