Ask Your Audience. As visionaries and creatives we can get so married to our ideas. I believe that is important to check-in with your target audience as much as possible, because they will tell you exactly what they want. The reason why we selected “Celebrating Black Lives” as our next Camp theme, was because it was overwhelmingly requested by our Campers. When we opened up registration, we did not have to worry about whether or not we would have anyone sign up, because we were responding to a request. Your audience is opinionated and when given the opportunity will share what they want and need.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Donnie Belcher.
Donnie Belcher is a former High School teacher who taught in the Chicago Public School system for 12 years. Donnie left the classroom to start Art of Culture, a nonprofit that helps youth prepare for professional careers in the arts. In the Fall of 2020, Donnie co-founded Camp Equity, a virtual program that teaches youth about social justice issues in order to build empathy, foster connections and support the next generation of leaders.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
As a child, I faced multiple obstacles including having an incarcerated parent and surviving a sexual assault. These challenges taught me pretty quickly about the power of resilience. While we cannot control the things that happen to us, we can control how we react to them. We can also use adverse experiences as fuel to make us more empathetic and compassionate to others who may be going through similar or other traumatic things. Living with an incarcerated parent immediately turned me into a lifetime advocate for people (especially children) with incarcerated loved ones. As a survivor of sexual assault, I realized that my abuser wanted nothing more than to silence me, which taught me the power of my voice. Every single time I share my story, I take some of my power back. I am personally only 3 or 4 generations removed from slavery. The ingenuity, resourcefulness and resilience that I have witnessed from my family and that I inherited from my ancestors continues to inspire me and motivate me daily.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The quote that I live by is by Maya Angelou who said “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style.” Operating from a position of survival is like driving through life on fumes. The stress of operating from a position of survival causes high-blood pressure, heart disease and other physical consequences. When we are surviving, everyone and everything is either a threat or a hurdle. I know all too well the effects of stress and living life in survival mode. I have high-blood pressure and have been hospitalized due to it periodically in my adult life. When we are thriving, we are operating from the fuel of our strengths and our gifts. We are showing up for ourselves and others as our best selves. Passion is important, because it motivates us, even when things are challenging. Compassion is important, because it reminds us that we are not alone or isolated in this world. I work at the intersection of social justice & education, which is deeply challenging work. Humor breaks up and releases the tension. Style is a reminder that it is not just what we do, but how we do it. One of the things that I love to do, is to send “thank you” notes and gifts. Many people would consider that old fashioned, but that is a component of my style — my unique signature that I add to my life experiences. I am always seeking to infuse pieces of myself into everything that I do which not only creates my professional brand, but also separates me from others.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
One of the films that made a significant impact on me is Poetic Justice. I went to the drive-in theater to see it in 1993 when I was 9 years old. The film features Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson, and it is essentially a romantic film. Janet Jackson, who plays the main character Justice, writes poetry which becomes the backdrop of the film. At the time I enjoyed journaling and writing, and have never felt more affirmed. Many of the poems that Janet Jackson recited in the film, were actually written by Maya Angelou. At the time, I made the connection between emotions & spoken word and went on to develop both a poetry writing and journaling practice, that continues to be my go-to when it comes to self-care and personal development. I am forever grateful for that film, and the work of Maya Angelou which continue to serve as a beacon of light in my life.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
Before the pandemic, I worked as a Program Director for a nonprofit organization called The Ann Bancroft Foundation. Ann Bancroft is a polar explorer who was the first woman to literally make it to both the top and the bottom of the world. The Ann Bancroft Foundation provides grants to girls throughout the State of Minnesota to pursue their goals and dreams. Serving as Program Director was incredibly incredibly work, and I felt so fortunate to be in that position during the pandemic, in order to provide support and resources to girls who were going through so much navigating the havoc that the pandemic created in their lives. As adults, we faced many challenges when the pandemic first started, and I always say that anything that negatively impacts us as adults, is likely far worse for children and youth. I’ve spent most of my career in education and nonprofit administration.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
On July 23rd, my friend Lauren Burke, who I met in 2014 when we were both Echoing Green Fellows texted me, “I have an idea.” Lauren and I were always trying to figure out how to collaborate since we first met, and nothing had
surfaced. Shortly after that text, we got on the phone and she shared this idea that was initially called The School of the Resistance, which was a virtual program for youth. I was hooked, as I knew intimately that youth were experiencing lots of challenges as they transitioned to remote learning. I also lived about a mile from where George Floyd had taken his last breath and watched as my beloved city, Minneapolis was literally and figuratively on fire. Many of my friends who were parents were reaching out to me asking for resources about how to navigate conversations with their children about what was happening the world. Lauren and I were so aligned when it came to what we were experiencing and I thought now was the right time to put the idea into the world. Like the scrappy social entrepreneurs that we were, we rapidly prototyped, and in early September, launched the pilot for Camp Equity. We had over 150 youth in grades 5–12 sign up, representing 30+ states sign up. We spent 12 weeks educating them via Zoom on different social justice issues including Immigration Rights, Disability Rights and Mass Incarceration from lived-experience leaders. We had operationalized a solution to a challenge that so many families and educators were facing.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
I personally believe that you know when something is right, when it’s almost effortless. We were able to raise about 30,000 dollars in less than 3 weeks. That was the initial sign that we were on to something, because of the fast response. As we watched the registration numbers climb, we knew that we were on the right track. We also had a real conversation as business partners about what would be the minimal viable product that would allow us to move forward and set some key milestones. We met and exceeded the expectations of each milestone. When it comes to starting a new path, it is important to look for signs along that road that show that you are going in the right direction. Those are the key milestones. It is also important to pre-determine that “turn back around” or “pivot” moment, in the event that things are not working out as planned or desired.
How are things going with this new initiative?
Camp Equity is going incredibly well. By the middle of our pilot program, both parents and Campers were asking us “when is the next one?” There was an overwhelming demand and need for what we were offering. Lauren and I both decided that we would quit our respective jobs and pursue Camp Equity full time starting in January of 2021. We started our next program “Celebrating Black Lives: Examining History, Uplifting Joy and Building Power” in early February of 2021. We have approximately 40 campers from all across the country who are participating weekly in our sessions featuring dynamic speakers (who we call instructors) including Gina Clayton-Johnson, Executive Director and Founder of Essie Justice Group which harnesses the collective power of women with incarcerated loves ones to end mass incarceration’s harm to women and communities and Quardean Lewis-Allen, Founder and CEO of Youth Design Center a youth creative agency and innovation hub which provides a gateway for young people in his native Brownsville community to access education, technology and mentorship to tackle underrepresentation in STEAM professions and cyclical poverty. We are now preparing to launch our next cohort & program this Spring.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am especially grateful for my co-founder Lauren Burke. The fact that she shared this idea with me in its infancy, literally changed my life. Lauren is a cis-gender white woman, who I have had the pleasure of watching show up over and over again for justice. I have learned so much from Lauren over the years and feel especially grateful that we have the opportunity to build Camp Equity together. The organization is truly reflective of the best that she and I have to offer and as a team, we are unstoppable. I’d also like to share some special love for Alex La Torre, our first Camp Equity full-time employee and Chief of Staff. Working for a start-up is challenging, but Alex has brought so many assets and gifts to our team.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
Sometimes saying “yes” to something, means saying “no” to something else. In this case, saying yes to Camp Equity meant having to say “no” to my former employer The Ann Bancroft Foundation (ABF). I still believe in and support the mission of the Ann Bancroft Foundation but recognizing my capacity limitations, and wanting to ensure that Camp Equity received the time and energy it needed, I had to step down. The team at ABF was incredibly supportive. While most employers prefer a 2-week notice, I notified ABF about a month before my intended departure and shortly after I signed the contract with Camp Equity. This allowed me to ensure that I was able to provide a smooth transition for ABF, ensuring that they had enough time to be updated about all projects that were in progress, as well as to update some of the documents and other tools that would be helpful for the next Program Director. Pretty much every single job I’ve ever left, I could be rehired at, and that is because I took great care in leaving as gracefully and respectfully as I could each time. Not to mention, now that I am the CEO of Camp Equity, I hope that our current and future employees will operate with a similar attitude when and if they decide to move on to other opportunities.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
#1 — Ask Your Audience. As visionaries and creatives we can get so married to our ideas. I believe that is important to check-in with your target audience as much as possible, because they will tell you exactly what they want. The reason why we selected “Celebrating Black Lives” as our next Camp theme, was because it was overwhelmingly requested by our Campers. When we opened up registration, we did not have to worry about whether or not we would have anyone sign up, because we were responding to a request. Your audience is opinionated and when given the opportunity will share what they want and need.
#2 — Set appropriate boundaries. Working in a virtual environment where life and work are happening from the same place can be incredibly challenging to set and maintain boundaries. When we did our Camp Equity orientation, we spoke about our preferred methods of communication. For me, email is supreme, and I prefer to only receive texts in situations where there is an emergency. We also use other tools like Slack. Though subtle, that one boundary helps me to keep my home and work life separate. When I’m working, I’m working, and when I’m not working, I am not working.
#3 — Find Your Tribe. It is so important to connect with others who are in the same field to share insight, support and resources. Our model at Camp Equity makes that very easy. Whether you are connecting to others through social media (Facebook Groups are very helpful for that) or more traditional professional networks, it is so important to constantly be in communication with others who share similar professional experiences.
#4 — Learn Out Loud. When working in a start-up environment, there is no time to be shy or to shrink oneself. You won’t always hit the mark, but as long as you are communicating with your term and processing things together, the organization will continue to grow. Each person brings a unique set of skills and experiences to the table, so the more that you “learn out loud” the better for everyone.
#5 — Don’t reinvent the wheel. There are so many tools and resources to help. Before taking the time to try to invent new systems — use those that have already been tried and successfully implemented by others. It saves so much time and so many resources. Lauren Burke, my-cofounder shared an invaluable tool, a book called Managing to Change the World, which was so helpful in structuring our systems to optimize our work. I’d also like to give a special shoutout to Essie Justice Group for creating a powerful webinar and sharing their Employee Manual, which operates from a Black Feminist lens. It was instrumental in helping us to create our Employee Manual.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
The news is so stressful!!! For this reason, most of the time I opt out of news on the television. The fact that news cycles are “produced” tells me everything that I need to know — they are intended to evoke an emotional response. I also learned that I am highly sensitive to visual imagery. Instead of watching the news, I listen to a Podcast everyday called “The Daily” produced by the New York Times. I also like to follow local news programs on Social Media, that way whenever I need to I can always do some reading to stay on top of what is going on in the world. This strategy alone has saved me so much stress and helps support my mental wellness.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
It is my intention and hope that Camp Equity becomes that spark that lights up the next generation of change agents. Here are the formal outcomes we have for our Campers:
- Campers will engage in self-directed learning about social justice issues post-Camp Equity.
- Campers will take direct action to address social justice issues in their own lives.
- Campers will access additional programming to build awareness and gain skills around social justice issues.
- Campers will integrate key terms, concepts and ideas into their daily lives.
- Campers will develop cultural competence. (Definition: Cultural competence is the ability to understand, communicate with and effectively interact with people across cultures).
- Campers will advocate for & advance equity in interpersonal, educational, and professional contexts.
If even just one Camper meets one of the outcomes listed above, I will feel fulfilled.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
The person who is most inspiring me these days is Issa Rae. I have been a fan of her since she launched her YouTube channel and to watch the intentionality behind every single career move that she makes has been so inspiring. I also love how she is unapologetically committed to black culture. If I were to have lunch with her, I would love to know more about how she operates her team and how she manages multiple projects at the same time.
How can our readers follow you online?
I can be found on
Instagram at @donnienicole84
Linked In at https://www.linkedin.com/in/donnienicole/
My personal website at WorkWithDonnie.com
For all things Camp Equity, people can join our mailing list here: http://eepurl.com/has3bf
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!