Student Spotlight: Honey Bell-Bey

Honey Bell-Bey with Mayor Justin Bibb

Program: Master of Public Health

As Honey Bell-Bey finished reciting her poem, The Transformational Power of Art, at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in January, the room full of leaders got to their feet. They were giving a standing ovation to Bell-Bey—a longtime grassroots community activist who received the Citizens Artist Award from Americans for the Arts and the Mayor’s Conference for advancing the arts in personal and professional endeavors.

Bell-Bey, who is the Cuyahoga County Poet Laureate and a Master of Public Health student at Case Western Reserve University, was the first locally known award winner (previous recipients include John Legend, Herbie Hancock, Kerry Washington and Gloria Estefan).

Bell-Bey has dedicated decades to addressing the needs of marginalized communities, yet she never categorized her work as “public health” until a Case Western Reserve professor helped her see it.

“I met one of the most amazing humans I will probably ever meet in my life, and he helped me see how everything is public health,” said Bell-Bey of Professor Emeritus Scott Frank. “He inspired me to remain in the program. If you remove gender, if you remove age, if you remove race, I don't think I've ever met more of a kindred soul in my life!”

Bell-Bey, who is also a state-certified substance abuse prevention expert, said motivation from Frank—who retired in June after more than 40 years at the university—is the reason she strives for straight A’s and will press on as the program becomes more rigorous. 

She is the founder and director of The International Distinguished Gentleman of Spoken Word, a performance troupe for young men. The award-winning troupe performs around the world and gives participants a chance to express feelings about disparities and social justice.

Bell-Bey plans to use her degree to bolster the work she’s already doing to impact the lives of young people and will use poetry and the arts to help make public health more digestible.

The Birth of a Poet

Bell-Bey attended several elementary schools and the transitions were not easy—until a compassionate teacher who could tell she was struggling gave her a tool to cope.

“She said, ‘Honey, I want to read this little book to you,’” recounts Bell-Bey. 

Book Cover of Honey, I Love

The book was Honey, I Love, an award-winning poetry book filled with stories relevant to young girls.

“I was fighting back tears looking at this teacher and she's stroking my face and reading these words—and I was a little person who needed to be connected with,” said Bell-Bey. “I became this me because that teacher took five extra minutes and poured that into me. Had she not done that, no telling what I would have become.”

At 8 years old, Bell-Bey started writing her own poetry—and she never stopped. And as her personal and professional careers flourished, Bell-Bey dreamed of something more: the Cuyahoga County poet laureate position, which had been vacant for 16 years.

“I told a lawmaker that other areas have a poet laureate and we don’t, and she said, ‘I don’t have any idea what a poet laureate is, but if you give me 48 hours, I’ll research it, because if I get an opportunity to impact a dream, I’m going to do that.’” 

The rest was history: After a unanimous resolution vote, Bell-Bey was appointed the Cuyahoga County poet laureate in 2020. The volunteer position composes poetry for special events, hosts writing competitions for children and builds awareness and appreciation for poetry around the county.

Bell-Bey’s next book, P.O.E.T. (Power Over Emotional Trauma), includes stories of pain and recovery from many writers. She also plans to republish a book of her early poetry, titled From Darkness to Light.

A Bright Future

Bell-Bey says she is taking her time earning her Master of Public Health degree, as she has a lot going on in her East Cleveland neighborhood. Initiatives include transforming an abandoned field into an outdoor movie viewing space and supplying residents with planter boxes for vegetable gardening to help combat food desert concerns.

Her passion for storytelling will remain after her term as the county's poet laureate ends. Bell-Bey wants to continue to use words to heal and is interested in a poet laureate role at the state level or beyond.

“The United Nations doesn’t have a poet laureate—so I could start it,” said Bell-Bey confidently. “What a powerful position for this little Black girl from East Cleveland to be in!”

View Bell-Bey’s ovation-inducing performance of The Transformational Power of Art at the mayors’ conference. Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb (LAW '18, MGT '18) introduces her at 43 minutes, 30 seconds into the video.