Jamaal Bell is a powerful visual storyteller. He has an eye for detail, a good sense of aesthetics and the talent to use a camera to tie those together. His mission, though, isn’t only to produce a great documentary but to spur conversations about race, bring people together and create positive change.

He used those skills in a project marking the 50th anniversary of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which Martin Luther King Jr. penned during the civil rights movement. The Birmingham (Alabama) Public Library coordinated a national 2013 celebration and asked his office at Ohio State University to lead a public reading of King’s letter.

As the communications and film director at the university’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Bell, ’07, saw something bigger than the original idea to involve the community. In his creative mind, he envisioned a documentary that meshed a reading by civic and university leaders in Columbus, Ohio, with historic video, photography and music.

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The work of Jamaal Bell (foreground) took him to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Jamaal Bell)

He wanted the documentary to draw the community and university leaders together. And he hoped to raise the profile of the Kirwan Institute, whose research and other work spotlights issues such as the gender pay gap, food deserts, low-income housing, infant mortality rates and public education.

Bell reached out to more than 40 Columbus-area leaders to be in a nearly hourlong black–and-white documentary. That approach let the nationally recognized institute address the separate goal of raising its profile in its own backyard.

“No one would have ever thought that a research institute would have the creative ability to develop a documentary without outsourcing,” he said.

But it was characteristic of Bell to think beyond what was requested, put in the extra effort and discover a way to communicate complex ideas in a meaningful and tangible way.

“Jamaal is a global thinker,” said Eric Troy, program director of the Keith B. Key Social Entrepreneurship program in Ohio State’s Office of Student Life. “He thinks way beyond the project he’s been asked to do. He loves pushing the edge.”

After nine months of production, the documentary, “A Reading of The Letter From Birmingham Jail,” premiered and brought together around 400 community members to a local, historic theater.

Setting the stage

Like a film character with a deep back story, Bell had years of rich preparatory experiences leading to his current role.

He served in the Navy for four years before coming in 2004 to Ball State, where he majored in public relations. He benefitted from a cross-disciplinary approach, also learning about advertising, journalism and journalism graphics.

“That experience allowed me to go into so many directions and to use every single communications tool.”

His military discipline and ability to influence his peers quickly set him up for leadership roles in Cardinal Communications, a student-led public relations agency, and for participating in immersive learning projects with the community.

“He always makes reference to how Ball State gave him a great foundation in communication,” said Troy.

Intent on getting an internship in public relations, he applied for a spring 2006 opening at Shank Public Relations Counselors in Indianapolis.

He didn’t make the cut, but he didn’t throw in the towel, either.

“Jamaal’s first-time rejection merely demonstrated his positive assertiveness, persistence and focus on a goal,” said David Shank, president and CEO of Shank Public Relations Counselors. “We joke now that he stalked me, attending every monthly Public Relations Society of America Hoosier Chapter meeting I attended and not so discreetly finding ways to talk with me. It worked.”

When Bell reapplied soon after for a summer internship, he nailed it. And the work, which involved that year’s Indianapolis production of “Dreamgirls,” went far beyond public relations.

“I had no concerns about giving him far more responsibilities for this major event than I might have other interns,” said Shank. “ ‘Dreamgirls’ included media relations, special events, community leader relationship-building, hundreds of meetings, production staff squabbles and typical theater crises, all of which, with appropriate guidance, he handled with maturity and professionalism.”

After graduating from Ball State in three years, he became the downtown development director for the city of Muncie, leading economic development and event activities. He drew upon this experience when he joined the Kirwan Institute in June 2009.

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Ellis Jacobs, an Ohio legal aid attorney, is shown during an interview for “Free to Ride,” a documentary Jamaal Bell worked on about a debate over public transit access in suburban Dayton. (Photo courtesy of Jamaal Bell)

Small wins, big cause

 With a calling to help improve others’ lives, Bell has found his place at the institute. He’s been able to combine compelling storytelling with a mission he believes in. But it’s a tall task to help society address such tough and long-standing issues.

“This job is hard. We find that we overcelebrate small victories.”

The documentary, “A Reading of the Letter From Birmingham Jail,” can certainly be chalked up as a win. It’s created a positive ripple effect, leading to new projects for large businesses, nonprofits and the state, including the United Way of Central Ohio and The Columbus Foundation.

“He’s a great listener and a quick observer,” said Troy. “Once he sees an opportunity, he doesn’t wait. I’ve seen him take a conversation at the beginning of the day and have a thoughtful presentation by the end of the day.”

Demand for his documentary work has continued. He and two colleagues produced “Free to Ride” an hourlong film that explores the racial and economic tensions in a proposed extension of bus service between Dayton, Ohio, which is more than 40 percent African-American, and a predominately white suburb.

The documentary’s wider release is to be determined but it will premiere at the DC Independent Film Festival, which takes place Feb. 15-20 in Washington.

In addition, he’s co-created a video for I Am My Brother’s Keeper, an enrichment and educational program for minority boys ages 9-15 in Columbus. The video uses heartwarming testimonials to show how the program’s helped.

Along the way, he’s looked to others to get their take on how his creative endeavors can make a difference.

“My role has really been to be that sounding board for him,” said Troy, who has been a mentor.

Bell may need a listening ear from time to time, but he doesn’t need any motivation to go to work each day.

“The cause is worth it,” Bell said. “It’s one of those things where you wake up in the morning and know it’s worth it.”