I received a Beat the Odds Scholarship in 2002 from an organization called the Children’s Defense Fund. It literally changed my life. I was also a participant in their Freedom Schools Program when I was in 6th grade. There is no organization that has done more to improve the lives of children than this organization. In celebration of their 40th Anniversary, I was invited to give a speech at the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C. They also gave an award to Hillary Rodnam Clinton who started out as an intern with the organization at the beginning of her professional career.
Here is the transcript of the speech I delivered:
My name is Donnie Belcher Smith. I was born into the cradle to prison pipeline. With a mother addicted to crack cocaine and an absent/alcoholic father, at times it was nearly impossible to see the light. I remember visiting my mother in prison when I was 4 years old, talking to her through the glass, and desperately crying when I had to leave.
At the age of 12 I was raped by my mother’s boyfriend. Shortly after that my grandmother enrolled me in a new program called Freedom Schools in Kansas City. For the first time I met people who were going to college. I quickly learned through my teachers that a good education is one way to exit the pipeline. While reading Warriors Don’t Cry, I decided that in the face of my own personal war for my dignity and control — I would no longer cry nor would I continue to suffer in silence.
Words were my weapon of choice. Even words that controlled so much of my existence like mandatory minimum sentencing.
Nina Piñon once said “You must know who is the object and who is the subject of a sentence in order to know if you are the object or subject of history. If you can’t control a sentence, you don’t know how to put yourself into history, to trace your own origin in the country, to vocalize, to use voice.”
After relocating to Minnesota I mentored other young rape victims and helped raise money for other children to see their mothers in prison. A good mentor is another pipeline exit. During my senior year of High School with the help of Upward Bound and other programs, I applied for over 100 scholarships. One of the scholarships that I applied for was CDF’s Beat the Odds which required me to tell my story. When I was selected I realized that I wasn’t alone, and at that moment I realized that God had chosen me to be a warrior for all those whose voices were stolen, whose trauma caused a traffic jam on the road to success.
My childhood dream was to become a teacher, and that’s what I am doing at Michelle Obama’s alma mater in Chicago. And my husband and I launched our own nonprofit called Donda’s House Inc. named after the mother of Kanye West, my husband’s childhood friend. We provide high quality arts instruction to transform the lives of youth.
We’ve gone back into the pipeline to hopefully destroy the entrances and provide exits for those who still haven’t been able to hold their head up long enough to see the sunshine. To teach them how to be the subject of their life’s sentences rather than serve a life sentence.
There are many children who need help exiting the cradle to prison pipeline. If you know of an organization or resource that is dismantling the cradle to prison pipeline, please leave a comment sharing the name of the organization and a link to their website. Thank you!