Representative Merleyn Bell is the first to say her path to politics certainly wasn’t linear. In fact, the girl who grew up performing musical theatre was voted “Most Likely to Win An Oscar” by her high school class.
“There is an unexpected performative nature to our job,” explained Bell about the parallels between politics and theatre. “It involves a lot of public speaking and meeting people. The house floor is very much like a stage.”
In November 2018, Bell was elected to represent House District 45 in east Norman, becoming the first woman of color to ever represent her hometown. During her first year in the state house, she proposed legislation to reform Oklahoma’s criminal justice system and improve the state’s infrastructure. Now, as she begins her second term, Bell shares her top priorities and the value of raising civically-engaged children.
Bell is a fifth-generation Oklahoman, born and raised in Norman and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma.
“I had a wonderful childhood,” recalled Bell. “I was very fortunate to have two loving parents who also met in Norman. I’m an only child so I interacted with a lot of adults growing up and was a very curious kid.”
Bell’s election as the first woman of color to represent Norman in 2018 was even more significant given the city’s past as a former “sundown town,” which were places where African Americans were not welcome past sundown. That changed in 1967 when George Henderson and his wife, Barbara, became the first African Americans to buy a home in Norman after George accepted a job at the University of Oklahoma, becoming the university’s third full-time African American faculty member.
Bell, who is biracial, admits her achievement in 2018 was exciting, but she didn’t think too much of it until she encountered a young person who highlighted her impact.
“Last year, I was judging a scholarship competition for kids,” recalled Bell. “One of the recipients came up to me afterward and said, ‘I read all of these things about you. I follow you on Facebook and I look up to you because you’re like me.’ That moment has really stuck with me. That feeling of knowing that even if you’ve had a hard day, you have achieved something that no one can take away from you or the people that it matters to.”
Motherhood as a Pivot Point
Bell graduated from OU with a degree in geography and started working as an art director for a publication on campus called World Literature Today, the same publication she had been interning for as a student. She worked for the publication for several years until she had her son, Matthew Matzkanin, now 7 years old. Becoming a mother was the catalyst that ultimately inspired her to run for office.
“Having Matthew in our lives was really a pivot point for me to start thinking about things more seriously,” said Bell. “I wanted him to feel like Oklahoma was the place he’d want to stay and that our kids have everything they need to thrive here. I was concerned that by the time Matthew came of age, Oklahoma wouldn’t be there, so I started thinking about what it takes for us to ensure those things. I discovered it takes establishing those priorities in our budget, and who creates the budget? The legislature.”
Bell began to connect the dots and started considering a career in politics.
“I started to think, ‘How can I take my combination of talents and tenacity and turn it into something where I can plug into the systems that are making those key decisions?’” said Bell. “Running for office seemed the right course for that.”
Bell approached her husband, Corey Matzkanin, a nurse, about the idea.
“My husband is supportive but very private,” described Bell. “He’s never seeking the spotlight. When I approached him about running for office, he said, ‘I can totally see that for you, but I don’t have to be involved right?!’”
Bell initially doubted whether she was qualified for the position but soon realized there is no single or “right” path to politics.
“It doesn’t take a legal degree or years and years of policy making to become a legislator,” assured Bell. “It just takes a strong desire to serve your neighbors and to make a difference in your state. That’s what really drives every member regardless of what background we have or what path we took to get there.”
Building a Brighter Future
Bell says her proudest achievements over the past two years were the small moments that made a big difference for community members.
“There are many ways we show up for constituents that have nothing to do with being on the house floor but are more about connecting people to the right agency,” said Bell. “Especially post-pandemic, we’ve connected people with help filing unemployment claims or obtaining Medicaid benefits. Those small moments that don’t get a lot of limelight or aren’t necessarily ‘headline-worthy,’ those are the ones that I really cherish the most because I know that it actually affected somebody’s life and created something positive.”
Looking ahead into 2021, Bell’s priorities include improving public education and advocating for mental health, two issues that were both illuminated during the coronavirus pandemic. As the mother of a child in the Norman Public School System, Bell knows firsthand the challenges both parents and students have endured during the pandemic. Bell’s goal is to gather these findings to create lasting, equitable solutions that can help schools navigate similar challenges in the future.
Bell acknowledges strides have been made in de-stigmatizing mental health but cites there is still a long way to go.
“Mental health should be considered a type of preventative medicine, just like getting a check-up or getting your teeth cleaned,” explained Bell. “I think there needs to be a larger conversation about it versus waiting until someone really needs help.”
Like many families during this pandemic, Bell can attest to the everyday challenges of juggling working from home while having a child in virtual school. Her family has also had to remain flexible to the day-to-day changes and identify the silver linings through it all. Staying connected has helped her family remain grounded.
“We always made time to go outside during the day and connect with families, in a safe and distanced way, to commiserate,” laughed Bell. “Maintaining those connections with others and realizing that you aren’t alone helps a lot.”
Speaking Up, Being Heard
Beyond her own accomplishments, Bell is proud to see the growing number of women in politics. Bell cites the example of women outnumbering men in the Democratic caucus of 2019, though the caucus is now pretty evenly split. She hopes to see this growth continue because of the unique perspective women bring to the table in a wide variety of roles.
“There are plenty of ways to be involved in politics that aren’t just about running for office,” said Bell. “People work as staff members, legislative assistants, bill writers, advisory roles or campaign staffers. There are tons of opportunities for women to plug in and they are needed in all of those roles.”
Bell also notes it is never too early for parents to start teaching their children about exercising the right to vote and being attuned to the news that affects them and their community. While her son may only be in elementary school, Bell and her husband find ways to educate him, on his level, about the issues going on around them, from immigration to health care to education.
“It doesn’t have to be this full-scale conversation,” said Bell. “It’s more about making children understand that there is this system that affects their lives and making sure they know that they get a say in what happens in that system. So that once they are able to vote, they go and do that.”