“I’ve always been focused on the plight of people,” she says. “Growing up hearing the sermons of Martin Luther King and watching what was happening in the late 70s, early 80s, I just gravitated to justice. I gravitated to love and … how do you help people? I wanted to be a judge because I wanted to be somebody that could balance the playing field on both sides.”
Judge Bell grew up in Bordeaux but played basketball and went to church in North Nashville.
“That showed me what poverty, addiction, mental illness … what homelessness looked like. I grew up in a church that was always opening up the doors to people like that.”
She was elected in 2012 and shortly after taking the bench, she began a pilot project called the General Sessions Music City Community Court. Its mission is to focus on preventive, rehabilitative and restorative justice initiatives to move the needle for marginalized people.
“One of my mantras is: Use your power and your resources only to help marginalized people,” she says. “There’s no other reason why you should have power and there’s no other reason that you should have resources if you’re not helping the least of these first. And then after helping the least of these, everything else will shake out, right? I learned at a very young age that when you have power and you have resources, it should only be for the usage of marginalized people. And marginalized people are where the least of these are. I just really, really have gravitated to doing everything that I can with my work, so we started the Music City Community Court and we’re helping the least of these.”
Her court—the people’s court, as she calls it—sees everything from traffic violations to mental health committals to landlord-tenant matters.
Judge Bell says some of the biggest issues that her neighbors face is a lack of resources, concern and intentionality.
“There’s a scripture—and Martin Luther King is the one that made it popular—that justice should stream down like mighty waters. But the justice he was talking about was the plight of people. Justice is not just law. Justice is equal education; it’s shelter; it’s food; education; access to health care. If we would concern ourselves with those things, intentionality, then everything else would fix itself. Mighty waters come because there is enough for everybody.”
Her unrelenting pursuit of justice is a product of her intense work ethic. Her first job in high school was cleaning bathrooms at Taco Bell and she was hell-bent on succeeding. They noticed that work ethic and made her team leader over the restaurant. She was proud of her role, making sure that the salt and pepper shakers were full, the drink machines worked and that patrons were greeted and had everything they needed. She says it was her space and she was going to do it well.
That hard work, that grind and intentionality from her very first job—it exudes from her now as a community leader.
“As a native Nashvillian, as an elected official, I am very frustrated that we have not intentionally cared about the plight of people. We’re the ‘it city’ but we don’t care about the plight of people,” she says. “I am doing everything that I can—as much as I can with all the power that I have and all the resources that I have—to do something about it. That’s why we have the Music City Community Court. That’s why we do extra dockets, Saturday court, afternoon dockets. I mean, you name it and I’m willing to do it.”
She plans to start up an evening virtual docket to provide even more help where she can.
“Just so we can get these people back to some sense of equality and balance and freedom— which I think that’s what we’re here for, right?” she says. “Liberty, justice, the pursuit of all those things should actually manifest. You shouldn’t pursue them, and it be void, right? If you’re in pursuit of something, shouldn’t you get something from the pursuit?”