Bell, an Air Force Pilot in training, wants to address wealth inequality by examining service sector workers.
Dontae Bell
Dontae Bell

Dontae Bell never had childhood dreams of becoming a pilot, and he has not yet flown a military aircraft in person. But he will be on the path to earning his wings next year when he enters the U.S. Air Force’s Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training program.

Bell, a Harris Public Policy Master of Arts student, will be among not only the 15 percent of the Air Force’s service members who are black but also part of an even smaller number of black Air Force pilots and leaders. Bell says the lack of representation in his future career motivates him.

“Representation matters,” Bell says. “It’s important to make sure that pathways are open for people who look like me or who come from underrepresented communities and want to serve this country. It’s in the best interest of these communities, the military at large, and ultimately the entire country that the armed forces better reflect the country we serve.”

The Howard University alumnus decided to pursue his public policy degree partly to mitigate this issue, he says. Bell wants to address wealth inequality by examining the nation’s shortage of pilots and other public service sector workers with the goal of finding ways to make lucrative jobs available to more underrepresented communities.

Bell’s duty to others first began at home. Born in Seattle, he is the oldest of 10 children. The Bell family moved often, including to Fargo, North Dakota, and, later, northwest Arkansas. Growing up as a member of a large black family in predominantly white, rural communities reaffirmed Bell’s passion for diversity and representation.

Bell’s mother homeschooled all her children, but Bell also had a hand in caring for them. “The big thing for me is family,” he says. “I’ve basically raised all of my siblings.”

In 2013, Bell took a gap year between high school graduation and college to work for his U.S. congressman in Arkansas. During the 17-day shutdown of the federal government that autumn, Bell was on the receiving end of countless calls from constituents, including one that left a lasting impression on him. The caller, a federal employee, said the shutdown affected his ability to pay bills and support his family. He wanted to look past whose fault it was and simply return to work. Bell says that conversation taught him a valuable lesson.

“In whatever role I find myself in public service, I refuse to let partisan politics get in the way of making people’s lives better,” Bell says. “We can never forget that we are Americans and, more important, human beings, and that should always transcend ideological differences.”

Bell’s interest in politics and Howard University’s proximity to Washington, D.C., played a significant role in his decision to attend the school, one of the nation’s top historically black colleges and universities. After growing up in mostly white communities, Bell found life at Howard to be a completely different cultural experience.

“At Howard, everything is centered in black excellence,” he says.

Initially, Bell enlisted in ROTC as a way to pay for college. However, the experience inspired him to pursue a career in the Armed Forces. He was moved by the people who served alongside him and were willing to risk their lives for their country, and he wanted his participation to signal the diversity of people willing to make that sacrifice. As someone later reminded him: “It doesn’t matter why you come; what matters is why you stay.”

Says Bell: “I stayed for the people and for my belief in what makes America great — a vision [U.S. poet] Langston Hughes describes as ‘the land that never has been yet, and yet must be.’”