“So many people have gone the extra mile for me. I always wanted to have the same impact on others. I can’t imagine any other life than doing what others have done for me.”
Donnie Belcher, Program Director, Ann Bancroft Foundation
Greetings VOBS Friends,
One of the great pleasures of working for Voyageur Outward Bound School is connecting with alumni. We are only one part of a person’s journey, but people go Outward Bound because they want to maximize the potential of that journey. People go Outward Bound because they want to grow. To go Outward Bound is to embrace opportunity. When we connect with alums, we begin to see how we all contribute to the grand adventure that is living and life-long learning.
This week, Marlais Brand, Director of Partnership, had the pleasure of interviewing Donnie Belcher. Donnie is the new Program Director at our peer community organization, the Ann Bancroft Foundation. She also happens to be a VOBS alum, but she is so much more than either of these labels.
When you learn about Donnie’s journey, you begin to understand what it means to truly embrace opportunity. Donnie is an inspiration because she relentlessly embraces opportunity, and has done so from a very young age. Her success is a testament to self-determination, empowerment, and the potential of youth development programs everywhere. It is also a testament to servant leadership. Donnie is very clear about her purpose:
“I want to do what others have done for me.”
The Ann Bancroft Foundation is lucky to have Donnie on their team, and we are humbled to call her an alum. Donnie is a gift to our community and an inspiration to VOBS. We feel fortunate to reconnect with Donnie and to share her journey with you today.
Donnie Belcher exemplifies the dream of VOBS’ Twin Cities Center and vital youth-serving nonprofits everywhere. None of us are responsible for the success of leaders like Donnie, but we can be part of their leadership journey. Donnie is miraculous because she takes nearly every opportunity and accepts nearly every challenge. You’d be hard pressed to find someone with a greater sense of purpose, and that purpose was sparked right here in Minnesota.
Donnie has impressive credentials and a long list of accolades, which she began garnering at a young age. But her vitae doesn’t really tell the story. Donnie’s challenges, her goals and her determination tell the story. To be clear, Donnie’s success is not an accident. It is the result of a growth mindset and that relentless pursuit of opportunity in the face of challenge. Donnie has “beat the odds,” because she beat them, not once, but always. Time after time, she leaned into her potential and chased goals. Here is a vitae of challenge, goals and determination:
Donnie was raised by a single mother, who was incarcerated, and then raised by her grandmother, who taught her to read.
Donnie is the first Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools recipient of the Beat the Odds Award, which she received from Children’s Defense Fund Minnesota.
The Children’s Defense Fund gave her free books on social justice and Donnie thought, “Okay. So I’m going to be a lawyer.”
She met Marian Wright Edelman and she thought, “Okay. So I’m going to be a strong woman who helps Black children like me.”
Freedom Schools introduced Donnie to Black college students when she was in elementary school and she thought, “Okay. So I’m going to go to college.”
By age 12, Donnie was working at McDonald’s. She fudged her age to get the job because her family needed the money. A year later she had three jobs.
In the ninth grade, Donnie secured an Urban League internship at a law firm and when that was done, she thought, “Okay. So I’m not going to be a lawyer.”
By age 16, Donnie was a staff writer for North High School’s newspaper and interning at Black-owned, Insight News, where she was charged with interviewing local teen peacemakers. She thought, “Okay. So I’m going to change the world with my writing.”
Donnie joined the Upward Bound program and met, then Director, Aloida Zaragoza, and she thought, “Okay. So I’m going to run a nonprofit that helps young people.”
Thanks to Upward Bound’s partnership with VOBS, Donnie went Outward Bound and she thought, “Okay. So I’m going to be able to do hard things.”
Donnie became Editor-In-Chief of North High’s newspaper and won the Black Achievers Award and she thought, “Okay. Someday I’m going to teach people how to write.”
Donnie joined Project Success, went on a college tour of DePaul University and she thought, “Okay. So I’m going to graduate and go to DePaul.”
And then, at age 18, Donnie sat down and composed a list of 22 “Major Goals.” Here it is:
“List” may not be an adequate word. Have you ever seen an 18-year-old produce a list of goals like this? It’s a personal manifesto. You talk to Donnie about her past and present and you realize that most of the goals on her list have been realized– she has turned her dreams into reality.
Is this a roadmap? A futuristic autobiography? A portrait of determination? Donnie has been keeping scrapbooks for 25 of her 36 years. She is reflective by nature. Look carefully at the photo of Donnie’s List– see the check marks? Donnie tracks her success and re-visits her goals. This goal-setting of hers is an annual practice. This is smart ambition and traction. It’s intentional leadership. It’s an inspiration.
It is remarkable that Donnie’s young list incorporates her whole self, detailing aspirations for her personal life. But “aspiration” isn’t quite right either, it’s not strong enough. In Donnie’s goals you hear an important brand of leadership. She intends to build a life that suits her. You hear the confidence that she will find a way, even if there isn’t one. If there isn’t a house she likes, she’ll build it herself. If there isn’t a magazine for girls like her, well, she’s going to create one, and she’ll build the company to publish it too. Donnie at age 18 was empowered.
Donnie at age 36 is empowering others.
She’s back in Minnesota. It’s been a while since she went Outward Bound, but, like many Outward Bound alumni, things seem to be coming full circle for Donnie.
At Outward Bound, we say, “there is more in you than you know,” but Donnie seems to have known all along that she has unlimited potential. After graduating from Outward Bound, Upward Bound and North High, she went on to Chicago for more challenge and adventure.
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education from DePaul University. She taught in Chicago Public Schools for 12 years and led a nonprofit for nine. She founded the nonprofit, Art of Culture, for young artists to help them achieve financial success and monetize their work. She pursued a Masters in Education, specializing in curriculum and instruction. Before leaving the nonprofit she founded, she spent three years preparing her successor. Donnie’s adult accomplishments are just as impressive as those of her youth:
- Founder and CEO, Art of Culture (formerly Donda’s House)
- Open Society Foundation Black Male Achievement Echoing Green Fellowship
- National Alliance for Media, Arts and Culture Creative Leader
- Ebony Magazine’s Ebony Power 100 Honoree
- Deloris Jordan Excellence in Community Leadership Award
- University of Chicago Graham School Board Member
- Founder, Spell Well Wellness Advocacy
- CEO, Work with Donnie
- Program Director, Ann Bancroft Foundation
When she first returned to Minnesota, Donnie worked with the University of Minnesota’s Medical School to advance their inclusive practice. It was rewarding work but she missed working with one organization to advance one mission. So she joined the Ann Bancroft Foundation (ABF), which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has read Donnie’s “List.” See number seven:
7. To develop my own nonprofit organization, for the benefit of African American girls aged 8-16 (possibly 18).
Hmm. Okay, so she already developed her own nonprofit, and now she’s providing opportunities for girls from kindergarten through high school. Pretty much right on the mark. At ABF, Donnie gives Minnesota girls the strength to achieve their full potential. She forges partnerships and builds programs to serve girls through grants, mentorship and leadership opportunities.
Donnie is leading an organization in her hometown, founded by an amazing woman adventurer, to serve girls just like her former self. Her goal is to help girls realize potential, just as she has done. Quite simply, Donnie is making dreams come true. She doesn’t wave a wand; she makes a kick-a** list.
We are very excited to get “reacquainted” with Donnie and humbled to introduce her experience and work to you today. We can’t wait to learn more from Donnie and we hope you enjoy this Q&A with her:
When and why did you go Outward Bound?
I went Outward Bound in 2000 when I was sixteen. The program was part of my experience as a college-bound student in the University of Minnesota Upward Bound Program. I met the Director, Aloida Zaragoza, and I saw her as a role model for who I could be in the future. I could lead and change the lives of people like me. I went Outward Bound because it was mandatory, it was a requirement of the program. I thought, “Well, it has to be good for me. I trust Ms. Zaragoza and if she says we should do it, we should do it.”
I’m still friends with Aloida. She’s a mentor to me. She was an Upward Bound student herself and came up through the program. I call mysel “The Program Queen” because I joined every program I could and tried to learn as much as I could. I’ve tried to take most of the opportunities that come my way. Outward Bound was one of those opportunities. So I went.
What was your most powerful experience or moment on that course? Why was it so powerful? What did you discover?
There are two equally powerful moments that I remember.
The first was the ropes course, because it was the most challenging experience for me. I learned to trust myself but it was really tough. I remember my peers cheering me on and offering me directions. And I remember being so frustrated because they would say something like, “Just put your foot there.” And I was like, “Where!? There is no place to put my foot. You’re telling me I have options and I just don’t see them.”
The directions didn’t make sense to me. I couldn’t see the way forward. And there were tears. I realized there was no going back, I just had to go forward and figure out a way to get there. I did it, but it was rough. My learning was immediate though. I thought, “Okay. Things are going to be tough. Leaving home, going to college. New state. New school. This is going to be hard. But I can do hard things.”
The second moment was crossing a beaver dam. We were out on our expedition. It was about day three. We were getting the hang of it and I remember feeling pretty good. Then we come to this place where we can’t go forward and our Instructor says, “Okay, we have to get out and go over.” I’m thinking, “Get out? What do you mean get out? In the water?” I can swim. I’m a city girl, but I spent summers on a family farm in Arkansas. I can swim, but I’m thinking, “There are fish in there. I can see them. Fish have teeth. Some are big!”
I’d never done anything like that before. I was that kid asking a thousand questions. My poor Instructor! And I said to my paddling partner, Greg (he went to North with me), “Greg. Let’s hang back here a minute. I need to work up to this. Let’s watch these other people go for a while.” I wanted to wait and see what happened to them before we got in there and tried it. I wanted to see if they were going to be okay.
Then, it’s our turn and I suggest that I can just stay in the boat and they can, like, pull me over the dam, because we’re talking about beavers and I’m thinking, “So where are the beavers? Are they going to be mad we are messing around with their dam? Beavers have teeth, right? Big teeth.” But we had to get out of the boat, nobody pulled me over. I just remember that feeling of being wet and things were slippery and I was not sure what was down there.
To me it was like when you get on a roller coaster. The car goes up, up, up the first hill and you think, “What did I get myself into? Why did I think this was a good idea?” And then you realize, “Well, I can’t get out. We can’t go back. I made this decision and now I just have to hang on and get through it. Just keep going forward.” It was like anything else that you’ve never done. It’s scary and hard, but you just hang on and keep going. There were no tears on that one–not like the ropes–but there was plenty of squealing. That was pretty funny.
How would you say Outward Bound has changed your life?
It was the first opportunity that I had to take a trip of that nature. It changed my life because it highlighted some of my leadership skills and taught me how important it is to work with others, and do things you’ve never done before. Hang on and keep going. It’s powerful to do new things. Outward Bound is powerful because it helps you build that muscle to embrace the unknown and deal with challenges. You figure out how to get through it and then you have the confidence to try the next new thing.
How does Outward Bound help you cope with current crises or challenges?
During that Boundary Waters trip, I learned how important retreating to nature is when it comes to addressing crises and challenges. Sometimes the best thing you can do is move yourself to a different environment so that you can return to challenge with a fresh, new perspective. And, like I said, Outward Bound gives you the confidence to hang on when things are challenging. You’re here now, no going back, figure out how to go forward– you can do it.
Why should others go Outward Bound?
It is such a beautiful experience that will take you out of your comfort zone and require you to lean on your strengths in new and exciting ways. It will also highlight some of the challenges you have and help you work through those. When I went, I really saw a clear connection to my next challenge: college. I saw that I could use the experience to get ready for the challenges I would face when I moved away from home, to a new city and state.
Can you tell us a bit more about the Ann Bancroft Foundation?
The mission of the Ann Bancroft Foundation is to inspire and empower girls to imagine something bigger and help them reach their full potential. We envision a world in which every girl has the opportunity to make her dreams come true. We partner with organizations who provide development and leadership experiences for girls, and we fund girls to go have that life-changing experience. We make about 4,000 grants a year to girls in the state of Minnesota and we’ve been doing that for 25 years, so that’s a whole lot of impact.
And who does ABF serve?
We serve Minnesota girls. We are really looking to expand our reach and serve girls across the state– in rural communities, as well as the cities and suburbs. We work with girls starting in kindergarten all the way through high school.
We started our work in 1997. Our founder, Ann Bancroft, was the first woman to venture to both the top and the bottom of the world! We believe that when girls develop confidence, resilience, self-esteem and set and achieve their goals, they have better life outcomes. This ultimately leads to gender equity and a better world for everyone.
What change are you/your organization striving for in your community?
We want to help girls in Minnesota develop confidence, resilience, self-esteem and goal-setting skills so they can succeed and lead.
How are you/your organization working toward this change?
We provide grants to girls so they can pursue various leadership and development opportunities offered by community providers, like VOBS. We fund these experiences so girls can pursue their dreams. The Foundation also teams up with providers to offer a series of age-appropriate development programs to serve girls year-after-year: Imagine What’s Next, Practice What’s Next and Explore What’s Next.
What challenges or successes would you like to share with readers?
I am most proud of the sheer volume of grants we have provided to girls and the diversity of girls we support. The pandemic and our current reckoning with racism point out that we have an opportunity to help girls cope today, and to help them grow the strength and confidence to solve big problems tomorrow.
What advice do you have for potential allies?
No one individual or one organization can single-handedly move the needle. There’s an African proverb I like:
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
We want to go far. We are better together and that’s why the Foundation partners with so many other organizations to create opportunities for girls in our community.
What help or support do those you serve or your organization need?
Donations are very helpful! We fund opportunities for girls. We are always looking for volunteers and partners too, so please reach out. Click here to donate to the Ann Bancroft Foundation.
VOBS has long admired the Ann Bancroft Foundation, and we’re delighted to explore partnership and embrace possibility with Donnie and her team. ABF funds amazing leadership opportunities for girls in our community, unlocking potential for future leaders like Donnie. We invite you to get to know the Ann Bancroft Foundation and we’ll keep you posted on our partnership journey.
To learn more about ABF, visit their website: www.annbancroftfoundation.org
To connect with Donnie, reach out to:
Thank you, Donnie, for sharing your journey with VOBS.
And thank you to VOBS’ donors; your support makes partnership possible.
“Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.”
Marian Wright Edelman