By Maureen McEwan
There is a new Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) trustee for Somerset-Kitchissippi (Zone 10). Justine Bell took over the role in February from former trustee Erica Braunovan. Currently, Bell works full time as a policy advisor with Global Affairs Canada.
Bell’s journey with the OCDSB began as a parent. A few months ago, her daughter started junior kindergarten in Centretown. At home, Bell began to notice some “behavioural issues” which were traced back to school.
“I quickly learned that she was experiencing some disruptive behaviours in the classroom,” Bell said. “So this provoked me to go out and investigate what was happening.”
Like many parents, step one was to follow-up with the teachers and the principal. Bell then connected with Braunovan, who had recently resigned as trustee in December. They discussed safe school policies and supports for students and parents experiencing similar disruptive behaviours. They also talked about Bell taking on the leadership role which she eventually applied for.
When Bell started in February, the OCBSD’s unions were in labour negotiations. She had just attended her first board meeting, was doing community outreach and learning all about Zone 10. It was a busy time when the pandemic struck — Bell said it’s been an “eye-opening” few months on the job. The thing that has stood out most for her is how capable, knowledgeable and prepared the administration and the board has been during the COVID-19 crisis.
“It’s been an incredible learning experience,” she added. “I’d say the learning curve is incredibly steep, especially when you have these life-altering situations that come up.”
With the pandemic, the trustee said the priorities have shifted for the OCDSB and local leaders. The health and safety of students and the community is first and foremost.
“When you look at that from the perspective of students, health is about not only their physical health, but their mental health,” Bell said. “And ensuring that they have the support system around them that allows them to continue to progress, continue to get the stimulation they need in order to be successful later on in life.”
Another priority from day one has been to help parents “navigate the system” so that their children can get the best support and can flourish.
Finally, Bell said she’s intent on helping to build an “equal playing field” for all students in Somerset-Kitchissippi.
“There are imbalances. There is inequity in our current reality here in Somerset-Kitchissippi,” she said. “There are students that are very fortunate, that come from wealthy households and have the support and then there are students that do not. In order to make the playing field equal, we have to make sure that we are able to address the needs of all students.”
“Bottom line: What education can do is create this sort of equal playing field so that everyone can participate and contribute to society — everyone can follow their dreams,” Bell added.
One of the first steps Bell took in the new role was to reach out to the OCDSB community members. She sent a letter introducing herself to all the Zone 10 principals and a similar introductory note to all the student councils. She said there is an “open invitation” to discuss community needs, issues and anything else.
Community engagement is something that Bell comes by honestly. Growing up in North Vancouver, Bell said her family was full of “activists and allies” who were hyper-engaged in their community. Her grandmother was a founding editor of The Native Voice, the first national Indigenous Peoples’ newspaper. At the dinner table in the 1980s, her family usually discussed Indigenous rights, injustice and politics.
“I thought that those were the types of conversations that were happening around all dinner tables,” she said. “And, in retrospect, looking back at what I learned from a very young age, and the types of relationships that I had, I was really fortunate.”
Bell said her upbringing “primed” her for independence. When she was 17, she travelled to India and spent a year working for a small NGO that delivered medical services and school support in the Himalayas.
“That was my first experience with how you can use your position of privilege and power to make a difference in people’s lives at a very grassroots level.”
When she returned home, Bell studied political science and sociology, focusing on self-determination for Indigenous peoples in Canada, Mexico and Central America. Right after her undergraduate studies, Bell moved to Mexico City. For nearly four years, she worked with Amnesty International to support students and young people seeking refugee status in the U.S.
With her husband, Guillermo Trejo, she moved back to Canada 12 years ago. Bell got her Master’s in Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University and immediately started working at the Canadian International Development Agency. Primarily, she worked in anti-corruption policy and civil society engagement but in other areas like poverty, development and environmental sustainability as well.
“You cover all of these issues on a day-to-day basis because you know they are all intertwined,” she said. “And I started to really think about how I could make a difference in my own community.
On a family visit to North Vancouver two years ago, Bell connected with the president of the local NDP chapter on some community concerns. He told her the best way to make a difference was to run. In October, she ran as the North Vancouver NDP candidate in the federal election. Ultimately, Jonathan Wilkinson, the Liberal incumbent, won the seat in the fall and Bell and her family moved back to Ottawa. Her daughter was beginning junior kindergarten and her husband, Guillermo, encouraged her to get involved here.
“This is exactly what he said: ‘Find a board, sit on it and contribute to our community.’ And so, it ended up [that] he didn’t know what he was asking for!” she said.
Bell’s current term as trustee runs until November 14, 2022. To connect with her or to learn more about Zone 10, visit www.ocdsb.ca/board/zone_10.