“Half of your rights haven’t been written yet, because you haven’t been here to demand them.”
John Bell was an HIV activist, mentor to a generation of ex-offenders, teacher, and our friend. In the years we were privileged to know him, we watched in awe as John took his lived experiences of racism, stigma, war, and disease and transformed them into an inspirational body of thought and knowledge to help make the way easier for the people who came behind him.
As a long time employee of Philadelphia FIGHT, John was the co-creator of TEACH Outside, FIGHT’s consumer education program for HIV+ people leaving prison or jail and later of TITO: TEACH In/TEACH Out which carried the empowerment principles of Project TEACH to the prison population at risk of acquiring HIV. John’s voice in TEACH Outside set the tone of participation, empowerment and honoring the experience of the participants that continues to this day. He said and believed that TEACH Outside existed for its participants, a safe space, where everyone could feel free to say what needed to be said, while making sure that everyone respected others’ right to speak, and that real knowledge would be conveyed. When it was time to leave for the day John made sure the participants went through a transition from safe space staying safe and remaining free on the street. When it was time to graduate John made sure that every graduate had the chance to speak about what they had learned in the program, often encouraging the more reluctant to find their voice.
John was a mentor to countless people as they left prison or jail. He was there when he was needed, a tireless visitor in the Philadelphia Prison System, available to people on the outside, believing in them when they had lost hope, and modeling what they could become, no matter what they had lived through before.
A brilliant man denied an education in the American South in mid-twentieth century, John studied in the school of social change, participating in ACT UP and other activist groups, ready to put himself on the line countless times because it was the only way to get public attention. Yet he never forgot his responsibility to those he taught and mentored; one time when John planned to strip naked with a group of ACT UP activists in Times Square, he was careful to seek the permission of the current TEACH Outside class beforehand.
For a person in need, John Bell would be a lifeline and perhaps this is the most important way to remember him. There are people alive today because of John Bell. He never turned his cell phone off. John knew everybody and he knew how to connect people. For an incarcerated person about to leave jail, the lifeline was “call John” and so many did. At any time of the day or night, he would be there for them, see to it that they got immediate needs met, find them a place to live, and help them start out on the path to true recovery. For his colleagues he was a constant and determined source of information – about living with HIV, about the experience of being incarcerated or an ex-offender, about becoming an activist. John always had a lot to say, but when you listened, you always learned something of value. John urged people to focus on what they could learn from each other, sometimes ending meetings by asking people to stand up and say what they had learned from connecting with those from other communities.
He had a passion for justice. He knew how much activism had already achieved. He believed that activism would bring justice in the end.