Bella Edo: Pursuing Justice with a Passion
Sitting across from Bella Edo ’21 over Zoom the other day was a strange, yet familiar experience. As it would happen, Edo was actually my Resident Counselor (RC) during my first year at Amherst College. One scroll through my contact list, and you’ll find her listed as RC Bella Edo. Of course, such a title feels stiff and awkward now and makes me chuckle looking back. But rest assured, Edo has always been someone that I knew I could reach out to, as a mentor and as a friend.
To me, Edo will always be RC Bella, but for other students on campus, her purpose has expanded to encompass that and so much more. Although I no longer see her every day on the fourth floor of Stearns Hall, her warm presence has undoubtedly made an impact on campus, and it’s fitting to hear that Edo, for all of her candor, brilliance and authenticity, has continued to spread her vibrant influence across campus, in the classroom and over her four years here at Amherst.
Close to Home
Growing up, Amherst was surprisingly not far off Edo’s radar. As a resident of Massachusetts, Edo spent most of her formative years traveling across the state. She was born in Boston and then lived in Medford for a few years before eventually settling in the small town of Boxford, which she jokes is “as far as you can get from Amherst but still in the state of Massachusetts.”
Attending a private school a few towns over, she remembers Boxford distinctly for how sheltered it was, where she navigated predominantly white spaces and the all-too-familiar feeling of “being the only Black person or person of color in the room.” After moving to a boarding school in New Hampshire, however, Edo looks back fondly on her high school experience. From playing three varsity sports (lacrosse, field hockey and basketball) to taking part in student council, Edo’s interests stretched across a wide variety of hobbies. Above all, what Edo cherished most about her formative years in high school was the community it engendered. “I really loved being in community there,” she expressed. “And I knew that in college, I wanted to have similar feelings.”
Coupled with her growing interest in pursuing Division Three (DIII) lacrosse, Edo’s desire for a close-knit community would lead her straight to the neighboring steps of Amherst College. Surprisingly though, Edo admitted she had never visited Amherst before applying, despite its close proximity. As someone who wasn’t too keen on campus tours, Edo’s ultimate decision to attend Amherst was rooted in a confidence that the college, both for its academic rigor and location, would be the right fit for her. All the pieces fell into place, then, when she visited the college for the first time in the summer before her first year for a field hockey camp. Having already been accepted to the school on Early Decision, the experience she had at the camp was just the icing on the cake for a school Edo knew would become her second home.
Coming into Amherst, however, Edo was initially concerned about how much of a role sports would play in her Amherst career. “When I was in high school, my identity wasn’t made around the team that I was on … that was just one thing that I did,” she observed. Knowing how much of a time commitment college sports can be, Edo worried that she wouldn’t have space for activities that weren’t sports. And as time passed, the natural demands of being on a college sports team did, at times, impact Edo’s ability to branch out during those first years at Amherst. But with the swift arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in Edo’s junior year, she found that the time away from sports really allowed her to explore those interests again, more deeply and passionately than before. Student government, for example, is an interest Edo left behind in high school that she, fortunately, was able to pick back up again during the pandemic, serving as a senator on the budgetary committee of the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) for the rest of her senior year.
When approaching the academic side of college back in her first year, Edo was able to “play to her strengths” with Amherst’s open curriculum, which greatly impacted her eventual double major in Black studies and law, jurisprudence, and social thought (LJST). From a young age, Edo expressed always having an interest in “studying Blackness and understanding Blackness, but not always in the ways that I knew how to articulate.” It was only through taking an eye-opening course called “Incarcerating Blackness” in her first semester at Amherst that she was really able to “give language to” the phenomena and experiences occurring around her. Equipped with this language and theory, Edo dove deeply into the Black studies department, which was complimented nicely by her related interest in legal theory and its intersection with the Black experience in the United States.
As Edo soared to new academic heights at Amherst, she also embedded herself well into community. Arielle Kirven ’21, Edo’s longtime friend, remarked that “over time, I have watched Bella grow from a careful and conscientious freshman to someone who was born to be a leader … From the Covid-19 Task Force, to CACSAC [Council of Amherst College Student-Athletes of Color], to the Anti-Racism committee, to AAS, to casual chats in the common room, Bella holds space for people.” Such a refrain, of holding space for others, was also echoed tangentially by another one of Edo’s close companions, Avery Farmer ’20, who was coincidentally Edo’s RC during her first year as well.
To Farmer, Edo is brilliant and accomplished, but also someone who is predominantly concerned with uplifting and elevating the community around her. On campus, Farmer noticed that “[she] chose to spend her time and energy bringing other people into the fold, making them feel welcome.”
Even in the classroom, Edo carried this same personable attitude, along with a persistent inquisitiveness and a zeal for learning. In Emily C. Jordan Folger Professor of Black Studies and English Rhonda Cobham-Sander’s fall 2019 course “The Creole Imagination,” for instance, Edo’s insatiable curiosity was on full display.
A niche seminar offered at 8:30 a.m., “The Creole Imagination” naturally yielded only two juniors during pre-registration, of whom included a determined Edo and an equally motivated Jeremy Thomas ’21. With such a low turnout, Cobham-Sander recalls tentatively wanting to call off the course. But Edo remained steadfast, urging Cobham-Sander to hold the course in the fall. Presumably, a course held together by the participation of only two students would appear doomed from the start. But Edo’s fierce engagement with the course material was enough to supplement a class meant for 20 students.
“It was like a graduate seminar,” Cobham-Sander exclaimed. “It’s the most esoteric stuff about Creole languages and things that feel as if they would be far off from some of the things that she’s interested in, and she did it. She did all the work and she loved it, and she did more of it than I asked her to do.”
Edo’s Black studies advisor and capstone professor, Professor Olufemi Vaughan, picked up on this relentless intellectual curiosity as well, describing Edo as a diligent student who was “always on time, always erudite, always insightful, always impressive, [someone who] will always go over and above what is required.” What emerges about Edo from these accounts is not only a gentle kindness that extends to include everyone around her but also a strong dedication to building community and generating advocacy for that community. “The practical application of what I’m interested in is policy, creating policy and creating good people-centered policy,” she told me. Her relentless charge to improve the quality of life for those around her is palpable, and her academic pursuits are a testament to this spirit.
A Tireless Advocate
This passion is also notably reflected in the activities that Edo has pursued at Amherst. Upon arriving at the college her first year, Edo immediately ingrained herself in CACSAC. Now, in her senior year, Edo stands as its president, and Kirven, who witnessed Edo’s rise in leadership first-hand, expressed great admiration for Edo’s commitment to building community within the group.
“As a first-year, I watched Bella dive headfirst into that community, becoming friends with students in all years and beginning to chart out a course for this organization … As a sophomore and junior, she increasingly took on more responsibility, consecrating CACSAC as an important tombstone in her life. As a senior, she dedicated meaningful hours to both the organization and its students.”
Even during a virtual term, Edo has successfully steered the organization towards making positive changes for student athletes of color, putting advocacy at the forefront of the group’s mission this past year. From encouraging the college to provide financial aid pre-reads for prospective student-athletes of color to holding discussions about what it means to be anti-racist within the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) league, there is no shortage of work that Edo has done to lower the barriers impacting student-atheletes of color on campus. But she hasn’t stopped there.
What makes Edo’s advocacy even more impressive is her continued efforts to improve issues that are affecting the Amherst student experience. Her work with the Covid-19 Student Task Force and the Student Anti-Racism Advisory committee this year can attest to this.
Farmer, who founded the Covid-19 Task Force as the former AAS President, mentioned that Edo immediately came to mind when recruiting for the team in the spring of 2020 and added that she was “instrumental in setting the tone for the group.”
“My favorite memory was just watching Bella set aside her own personal intuitions about what should happen and really step up to become a leader and an arbiter and representative of that group,” he said. “She sought to tease out as many different people’s perspectives as she could, and then put those perspectives in [conversation with each other].” These talks, led distinctly by Edo, resulted in the college setting up a food delivery system for on-campus students and more opportunities for off-campus excursions — among others.
Edo continued to “bring student concerns to the forefront” in the school’s first-ever Student Anti-Racism Advisory committee. As CACSAC President, Edo was invited to take part in the fall of 2020, where she and several other student leaders from the affinity groups on campus spoke with the administration weekly to ensure the college upheld the promises outlined in its Anti-Racism Plan.
Her advocacy has also extended beyond the Amherst campus. In the summer of 2019, Edo worked part time as a legislative intern for the office of Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Robert DeLeo, and as an intern for the office of U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey.
Not too long after, Edo was brought on as a campaign fellow for Markey, where she helped organize phone banks, attended Democratic town meetings and much more. Coming out of that experience, Edo emphasized how rewarding it felt “to be part of something that I believe in,” and it was during that summer that Edo realized that “this is what I would want to do with a law degree, working in government.”
On Morrison, Blackness and the Law
But I would be remiss if I didn’t also spotlight Edo’s thesis work, for which she impressively analyzed three of Toni Morrison’s most prominent novels, “Beloved,” “Jazz” and “Paradise.” In her examination of Morrison’s work, Edo argued that the acclaimed novelist sheds light on “what I call a Black jurisprudence that functions … as a response to the way that Black people are othered by judicial systems and practices because of how rooted in white supremacy and chattel slavery they are.”
“Each novel is rooted in a historical event,” she continued. “And [Morrison] creates these stories that imagine what would happen if her worlds existed under these Black jurisprudences.” A coalescence of her academic interests in Blackness, law and legality, this thesis was certainly a passion project for Edo, who has been a longtime fan of Morrison and her work. Behind the scenes, Professor Vaughan also stressed to me how scrupulous Edo was with the research process. “It [was] really a mastery of the most amazing and critical close reading of African American literature that I have seen [from a student]. I simply have never seen a student do anything like this [before].”
Endgame for Edo has her working in policy and government, as she feels this line of work — of fighting to create a better quality of living for others — “never really goes away.” And in typical Edo fashion, she hesitates to embrace what she has accomplished on campus, mentioning that she hopes she has “done good [work] for others” through her advocacy.
Her humility is admirable, and as Kirven said, “It is rare to find someone who is so inclined to celebrate others and their causes.” But as Farmer also perfectly phrased it: “[Bella] should be careful never to lose sight of the fact that as much as she can bring people into the fold, she’s also just a really exceptional intellect and leader.”