As a teen, Diane Bell-McKoy would sometimes travel from her parents’ home in Glenarden to Baltimore to hang out with Wanda Draper — decades before Ms. Draper was famous as a WBAL-TV executive and on-air personality or held her current post running the Reginald F. Lewis Museum — and quickly learned how to act as a Charm City native. The secret was to drop the names of some of the popular nightspots she frequented like the Famous Ballroom, the jazz mecca on North Charles Street, and not reveal her high school (DuVal back in Prince George’s County). “People just assumed I was from Baltimore,” she recalls. They probably still do.
That’s because few, if any, Baltimoreans have done more to address the city’s core problems of poverty, joblessness, housing and inequality like Wanda Draper’s visiting friend. For the past decade, Diane Bell-McKoy has served as CEO of Associated Black Charities, the nonprofit foundation she sometimes describes as a “positive agitator” in the city and throughout Maryland. In simplest terms, she spends her days looking for targeted investments that can uplift the lives of African Americans. But she does a lot more than write checks — and her impact on the community started long before she went to work for ABC.
“She’s a true champion for people who need an opportunity that might not otherwise be afforded to them,” says Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. “She serves as the conscience to all of us.”
Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, now president of the University of Baltimore, remembers her as a vital part of his human resources subcabinet. She had been working in the District of Columbia, beginning as a caseworker in child protective services, rising to deputy director of her division and leading an anti-poverty initiative financed by the Rockefeller Foundation for then-Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. Under Mayor Schmoke, she would continue her rise, eventually serving as deputy chief of staff. “She’s thoughtful and thorough — she knows how to listen to people,” recalls Mr. Schmoke. “She doesn’t shoot from the hip. She goes through great preparation.”
The self-styled “data wonk” and trained social worker (with a master’s degree from the University of Maryland) does her homework. That’s one reason why she agreed to run Baltimore’s Empowerment Zone, the Bill Clinton-era experimental program to improve inner cities through targeted tax credits. Nationally, the results were regarded as underwhelming, but Ms. Bell-McKoy is proud of the impact the program had in Baltimore, creating jobs and giving employers an incentive to hire local residents. “She did a marvelous job,” says James L. Shea, chairman emeritus of Venable LLP, who chaired the city’s empowerment zone effort. “She kept her eye on the ball and she did everything with input from the community, residents of the zones and businesses helping the program. She really had all the skills you want in a CEO.”
She also acknowledges it can be a tough battle in the era of Donald J. Trump to focus public attention on racism. But she is increasingly struck by the persistence of structural racism — the way so many public policies, institutional practices and cultural representations reinforce racial inequality. Getting more people to not simply recognize the racial wealth gap, for example, but to understand why it is perpetuated is what motivates her. By some standard, the Freddie Gray case wasn’t just a tragic death or an illustration of police distrust but a reminder of this root issue of racism that isn’t necessarily deliberate but can still haunt a community, she says.
“In many ways, Freddie Gray helped,” she says. “As painful as it was, it opened eyes. We need to address the deep-seated challenges.”
It’s seldom an easy job, particularly when it’s time to raise money from private donors or boost the employment prospects of African-Americans. The former Annie E. Casey Foundation fellow sees Baltimoreans ready to work but jobs that pay too little to lift them out of poverty. “That’s an opportunity,” she says. But linking people to jobs (her various outside “hats” include transit advocate) can be a challenge. So is making sure they have proper training and job skills. Her goal is not to create more minimum-wage jobs but to put more African Americans in the middle class. “People with challenges aren’t broken,” she insists, “but we need to get to their root issues.”
Born: May 25, 1951, in Washington, D.C., moved to Prince George’s County as a child (“and emotionally grew up in Baltimore”). Education: B.A., University of Maryland Baltimore County; MSW, University of Maryland School of Social Work; Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Career: CEO of Associated Black Charities, following a series of leadership positions in government (Washington, D.C. and Baltimore) and nonprofit and philanthropic sectors with focus on improving the lives of persons without access to the traditional tools, education, experience and relationships to achieve economic success for themselves and their families. Civic engagement: Active in Morning Star Baptist Church of Catonsville; board chair of Humanim, board trustee for Baltimore Community Foundation, member of Executive Alliance and board member of Maryland Hospital Association Executive Committee and Greater Baltimore Committee. Family: Married to Richard; stepmother to three children, grandmother to seven, great grandmother to one.
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