Gina Bell ʼ00 Cares for People and Planet as Sustainable Community Coordinator
Twenty years ago, Gina Bell ʼ00 was building roads and diversifying crops with the Peace Corps in Paraguay. She didn’t expect this work to lead to her current managerial position with the city of Dubuque.
“A lot of the work I did is similar to the work I’m doing now,” Bell said. “[It’s] community engagement around a specific project to improve the community.”
Some of Bell’s work included helping farmers pick cotton, one of Paraguay’s oldest crops, and implementing new techniques to improve soil health.
Though her International Studies major prepared her culturally, nothing could prepare Bell for safely acquiring electricity for Tacuru Pyta in Paraguay. She worked with her community to build 15 kilometers of roads and three bridges to traverse the swampy terrain.
Bell’s return to sustainability work comes after a career spent largely with Adelante Mujeres in Forest Grove, Ore., an organization with a mission to improve lives and strengthen the community.
Adelante Mujeres translated from Spanish means "women moving forward." The organization seeks to build a more just society by empowering Latinas to lead.
While working at Adelante Mujeres, Bell saw many families experiencing inequities. She was able to impact individual families for the better by facilitating a program called Beyond Trauma.
“It helped Latinos—and others—address trauma and let it go or seek additional support,” Bell said. “I watched people transform, talk about things they’d never talked about, change their relationship with themselves.”
Her major in Spanish helped her build relationships with coworkers and Latino families at Adelante Mujeres. Bell still uses her Spanish-speaking skills when working with Latino people in Dubuque, Iowa.
“When I’m able, even attempting to speak Spanish or another language just shows ‘hey I care about you and I’m trying,’” Bell said.
Bell’s work in Paraguay and at Adelante Mujeres was community-focused, and her work as a Sustainable Community coordinator is no different.
While Bell looks inwardly at their systems to make city operations more sustainable, she often works directly with the community to implement the Dubuque’s climate action plan. The plan covers ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and strategies to adapt to flooding and high heat caused by climate change.
Most notably, the climate action plan covers equity amid climate crises. Bell’s experience at Adelante Mujeres has guided her to focus on understanding the issues that frontline communities in Dubuque also face.
“Those who will feel the impact of climate change first and worst will have their issues addressed first,” Bell said. “If we can shift the situation for them, everyone will be better off.”
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bell created a group called the Teen Resiliency Corps.
“We paid [teens from the Multicultural Family Center] to go door-to-door during COVID-19 and check on their neighbors.”
During a time of social isolation, Bell brought her community closer together. She gave teens, who don’t necessarily see Dubuque as home, a purpose and a chance to connect with their neighbors.
The Teen Resiliency Corps would show residents city resources that are available to them and help with any COVID-19 related questions. One teen even taught a woman how to use her iPad so she could FaceTime with her grandkids.
Since then, the Teen Resiliency Corps has expanded to collect data on energy usage through energy scorecards. The scorecards track information on each home’s heat source, water heater, windows, lighting and the structure of the buildings.
“We can take that data and say, ‘hey we have a census track here that needs additional support,’” Bell mentioned. “Then we can look for funding to address those needs at a neighborhood scale.”
Pacific University’s tight-knit community and service-based learning inspires Bell to do what she does today. Ellen Hastay who worked at the Humanitarian Center (now the Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement) was a mentor to Bell while she was at Pacific.
“[Hastay] approached [service-based learning] from a perspective that was not white saviorism. That has really guided me,” Bell said. “The future we want to create is tied to all of us excelling.”
The co-founders of Adelante Mujeres, Bridget Cooke and Sister Barbara Raymond, have been a part of Bell’s development since she was 25.
“They showed me a different way of interacting in the world and why it was important,” Bell mentioned.
As Bell continues to work in Dubuque, she embraces the idea of sustainability as a three-legged stool; considering cost, environment and equity.
“It’s making sure people, places and the planet all matter.”