“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” 
― Sheryl Sandberg

BABE #209: CARA TUTTLE BELL — Director, Project Safe at Vanderbilt University

BABE #209: CARA TUTTLE BELL — Director, Project Safe at Vanderbilt University


Today’s babe is doing such important work as the Director of Vanderbilt University’s Project Safe Center for Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response. Cara’s day-to-day involves a whole lot of coordination with various university stakeholders to ensure that students receive the care and attention they deserve. With a background in women and gender studies, Cara brings invaluable knowledge and expertise to her role, and it's our honor to spotlight her —and others like her— for working to make college campuses safer and more inclusive spaces for women and men alike. 

The Basics:

Hometown: Jasonville, Indiana
Current city: Nashville, Tennessee
Alma mater: Vanderbilt University Law School (JD); University of Louisville (M.A); Ball State University (B.S.)
Very first job: Lifeguard at Shakamak State Park
Hustle: Director, Vanderbilt University Project Safe Center for Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response

The Interests:

Tuttle Bell_Cara.jpg

Babe you admire and why?
Candice Cook Simmons is a Vandy Law classmate of mine and all-around superwoman. First and foremost, she supports other women. She is positive, she is joyful, and, wow, does she hustle. Candice is such a likable, vibrant, smart, hard-working, beautiful person. If I ever need a dose of motivation or inspiration, I just check in to see what she has in the works. She’s a lawyer, a consultant, a public speaker, an author, and more, and—I love this about her—stylish every step of the way! She stands for something. She makes a difference.

How do you spend your free time?
I just moved into a new home that continues to be a renovation project, so that is certainly keeping me busy! I love being outside and working in my yard, playing the piano, reading and playing with my dogs, Potus and Leo. (From the television show “The West Wing.” POTUS is the president, obviously, but the word is also a sort of inside joke from the first episode, while Leo is the beloved chief of staff character.)

Favorite fictional female character?  
My favorite character is Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing, from Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying.” Reading it while I was in my mid-twenties was well-timed; a really pivotal moment for me. The book is known as seminal feminist fiction, and I strongly identify as a feminist. The book explores women’s sexual liberation, and I consider myself a sex-positive person who wants women to feel comfortable with their bodies and entitled to enjoy their bodies. Yet it was the independent thinking voiced by the main character that most resonated with me—ideologically sound, but conflicted by the challenges women face in putting their feminist ideals into practice, particularly in a society and its smaller communities that continue to hold on to sexist double standards and dated gender roles. Talking about it makes me want to reread it! I recommend picking it up for the first time, if you haven’t before. (Give it 40 pages or so—I wasn’t sure about it at first, either.)

Cara Laughing.jpg

Current power anthem?
Janelle Monáe, “I Like That.” I’m loving the whole album.

What would you eat for your very last meal?
My own spaghetti with garlic bread and a big salad.

If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Hillary Clinton. I’ve long been a fan—of her early days as a woman lawyer advocating on behalf of women and children, to her participatory nature while First Lady, community building as a senator, and the grace and dignity and intelligence and fortitude she’s shown in recent years. Who wouldn’t love to pick her brain right now?

What’s something most don’t know about you?
I’m an identical twin. My sister Tara and I are very close but do not live in the same city right now. We’re best friends and style ourselves differently in adulthood, but when we were little, we were very hard to tell apart.

The Hustle:

Tell us about your hustle.
My hustle is serving as the director of the Project Safe Center for Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response at Vanderbilt University. I oversee the team of victim advocates and prevention educators, provide advice and training to campus partners, and engage in the work of institutional advocacy—that is, advising and creating accountability for the moving parts of the prevention and response protocols and processes here to ensure we’re continuously improving and providing the best possible care and support to those impacted by sexual harassment and violence.

What does your typical workday look like?
The responsibilities of the job vary from day-to-day, and there is a seasonal nature to the work on a college campus, although we work year-round. Some days, I’m in meetings from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., talking with colleagues, lawyers and administrators, sometimes with our communications team, sometimes with student leaders. Other days, I may get to spend a few uninterrupted hours at my desk, writing or revising policy language, creating training programs or reviewing the content created by our team. I regularly provide feedback to key partners, including faculty, campus security, healthcare providers, emergency responders, residential advisers, department chairs and so on, as it comes in. I am a frequent public speaker, on campus and at professional association events. I enjoy public speaking, so I welcome these opportunities to raise awareness and advise on these issues. Now is the time. I want to seize this national moment and generate as much positive change as we can with this dialogue and momentum.

How did your background in women’s studies influence your career path?
Women’s and gender studies (WGS) provided the framework for building trust across our diverse student, faculty and staff populations. That field of study is invaluable. Look around—many major companies could benefit from having a few WGS majors on-staff. Those years of study, with my ongoing commitment to staying current and being a lifelong learner, help me design promotions, communications and services that are culturally competent, inclusive, persuasive, victim-centered and trauma-informed, with the goal of eradicating oppression. Women’s and gender studies shaped who I am, at work or at home. Studying it as a degree program ensures you read more than just what is about your own identity and challenges. That’s where I think some white female feminists go astray—you’ve got to pursue an understanding about other aspects of identity, you’ve got to confront and acknowledge your own privilege and you’ve got to take responsibility for educating yourself.

How do you practice staying composed in emotionally-charged professional situations?
This is very important for success in my role. While I care passionately about these issues, I prioritize, above all, being strategic. I cannot afford to lose my cool in the wrong meeting. Now, with that being said, I do display some emotion in the workplace, but (almost) always strategically. Some personality types (MBTI or StrengthsFinder, for example) are better suited for this than others, but emotional intelligence can be cultivated. Mindfulness exercises can be life-changing. Instead of thinking how I might personally be offended by someone’s comments or reactions, I try to remain centered on what I want to accomplish in the meeting. With my most idealistic team members, I often find myself saying, “You can be right, or you can be effective.” Sometimes we get to be both, but not in every meeting, with every person, all the time. Choose your battles. Push your agenda where you can, but then you have to balance that out by being reasonable, reliable and productive the rest of the time. Put the work in on issues you feel less strongly about, and you’ll generate enough capital to convince others to side with you on your key issues.

How do you balance meeting the needs of students and keeping up with the administrative side of things?
This is a main challenge of the job. Some structures make this nearly impossible. Thankfully, my team includes three full-time victim resource specialists (victim advocates) who have primary responsibility for addressing urgent student needs. Our day simply does not end at 5:00 p.m. Our business hours are 24/7. We have a 24-hour hotline. However, I try my best to balance the workload of my team and be flexible as much as the work permits, so they can take care of themselves. Sometimes, that means I work on my laptop at home. Typically, I have quiet mornings that allow for some quick preparation for the day, and then I complete the necessary administrative work in the office after business hours, when I can close the door and have some uninterrupted time to myself. (That’s my favorite hour of the day, most days. I’m actually an introvert in an extrovert’s clothing.)

What’s been your biggest career milestone to date?
To date, my greatest success is persevering in my role as director of the Project Safe Center. The job has brought me challenges and joy beyond which I would have ever predicted, but I’m still here! I’m proud to say the Center is trusted and respected, and the team of amazing humans who have been (and are) a part of Project Safe make it a fun, satisfying and positive place to work. We’ve been recognized by campus partners and we’ve been recognized as a national leader in prevention. I’ve been in the job long enough now to be able to pause, take a deep breath and take stock in what we’ve accomplished. My institution has strongly supported the work and continues to do so. We’ve been able to implement best practices here and have stability. That is, unfortunately, rare, it seems.

How has being a woman affected your professional experience?
Being a woman has affected my professional experience all along the way. I worry that women are sometimes afraid to admit that. It’s true. Let’s say it aloud, so other women don’t wonder in isolation. I’ve experienced low-level sexism and sexual harassment in nearly every job. I’ve been underestimated at the start of many a meeting. When I started my professional working life, reporting those things was not encouraged. Many women would still advise other women to simply tough it out. I think it depends on your work environment. Women have long had “whisper networks” advising each other who to avoid and who to seek out for help. Those are still needed, but I am seeing positive change. Employers are not getting everything right, but there is a message spreading through many industries that old behaviors may no longer be tolerated. I’m here for it.


Who are some women in your field that you look to for inspiration?
Holly Rider-Milkovich, who currently serves as the senior director of prevention education at EverFI. Previously, Holly directed the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan. She also provided expertise to President Obama’s White House Task Force on best practices for campus-based sexual and intimate partner violence prevention and response efforts and represented four-year colleges and universities in the federal negotiated rule-making committee for the 2013 Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization. If there’s a rock star in this profession, Holly is it. I also find inspiration in my friend and colleague Wanda Swan, director of the Respect program at Emory. Wanda was the heart and soul of the Project Safe Center and my right-hand woman during our first year. The individual advocacy and care she provides to those who have experienced sexual violence is amazing to witness. These people save lives. We remain dear friends and champions of each other’s work. We’re women who support other women. And that woman, Wanda Swan, is surely going to be famous someday.

What advice would you give to a babe trying to break into your industry?
If someone wants to do the work of victim advocacy, they truly need to spend some time in the community setting. Sometimes the work is heartbreaking, discouraging, for a variety of reasons. For me, the challenge in keeping up morale is knowing how underfunded, how underresourced in all the ways, helping those impacted by sexual harassment and violence remains. So, volunteers are often needed in state and community clinics and shelters. Usually, there are opportunities to become a trained victim advocate through community rape crisis centers or the state coalitions to address domestic violence. You’ve got to put the time in, and that will inform your advocacy, hopefully building truly intersectional feminist roots to bolster the rest of your career.

Career and/or life advice for other babes?
It gets better! It really does. I turned 40 last year, and it’s great to be 40! I would not rather return to the steep hustling days of my twenties, no, thank you. Keep at it. The best thing you can do is do the job you have well. Make yourself useful to your supervisor. If you can, position yourself as the indispensable employee. Those are the people I promote and the employees I see promoted. My advice for other babes is be a babe to others. I have the best, most loyal, supportive friendships with other woman at this time in my life, better than ever before. These friendships motivate me on a daily basis. My girl friends keep me going.

Connect with Cara:

Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn | Email

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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