My First Magazine Cover

2017 has been a great year for both my husband & I. I am excited to announce that I am ending the year as a Cover Girl! I was able to sit down with Halfstack Magazine to share more about my personal & professional journey, including highlighting my work as the co-founder and Executive Director of Donda’s House Inc. For the cover I was styled by my stylist @truvanity.  My makeup was done by @iamleahlu. Hair by @cityonloc.

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Today, Halfstack hosted an event at Eloquii in downtown Chicago. The funny thing is that I am wearing an Eloquii print shirt in the cover photo and had no idea that the event would happen at the store.

Thanks to my photographer Juan Anthony for capturing these shots!

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Caption: You can never go wrong with Gold during the holidays! My outfit came from 8ty4 Vintage

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Caption: My cousin Arionne stopped by. So thankful that she was in town to celebrate this milestone with me! 

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Caption: Cousin Crew

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Caption: My Cousin’s friends also stopped by! 

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Caption: With two of the beautiful fashionistas at Eloquii. Seriously, stop by the store! They will get you together! 

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Caption: Me with the store manager. 

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Caption: Hanging out with some of bloggers & members of the Halfstack Team. Shout out to @mindycityy, @curvatude, @michelleswoons and @theplussizedprep.

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Caption: Me with Jennifer M. Veguilla-Lezan, Editor-in-Chief of the magazine. I cannot thank Jennifer enough for selecting me to grace the cover. Jen is so inspiring in her own right, and has an incredible spirit. Also shout out to one of my best girls Laurinda, for connecting Jen & I! 

How Not To Freak The F*** Out In Times Of Crisis

A little over a week ago, my car was stolen while I was moving groceries in. To add insult to injury, it happened the night before my entire family was coming to Chicago to celebrate my grandmother’s 80th birthday. I was supposed to meet my mom at the airport at 8:00 a.m., and the remainder of the family members at the train station later in the day.

I immediately felt my heart rate increase, and then I felt incredible overwhelming sadness… but then I went into DC (Damage Control) Mode.

Step 1: Call The Police – When theft, or other criminal activities take place, if you can’t handle it on your own, you may need to call the police. Not to mention that a police report is often required for insurance purposes.

Step 2: Call The Insurance Company – The first thing the Insurance Company wanted to know was were the police called. I gave them a report number. Then I asked “What is the process.” I was informed that in 48 hours, I’d be eligible for a rental car, and in 14 days if the car wasn’t recovered, it would be considered a loss. In times of crisis, the best thing that you can have is information. That way your brain (and your heart) don’t have the opportunity to dream up ridiculous scenarios. Keep the foolishness in check by getting informed on your options.

Step 3: Create an immediate/temporary plan. – I have Uber & Lyft on my phone. I’ll take that to meet my mom at the airport, and then we’ll uber back. I spoke to my sister-in-law who lives across the street from me, and made arrangements to use her car later that day to pick up the rest of my family members from the Amtrak Station. She was also going out of town for the weekend, and said that I could use her car while she was away. Temporary crises of stranded family members – averted.

Step 4: Work The Plan. Once you know the steps to rectify the situation, you just work the plan. Be sure to record the names of the people who give you the information just in case there is a discrepancy later. Follow up & follow through with any additional paperwork and follow the process.

BUT WAIT… A FEW THINGS HAVE TO BE IN PLACE BEFORE THE CRISIS ACTUALLY HAPPENS!

PRE-CRISIS STEP 1: Get your paperwork in order. When it comes to property, purchase the extended warranty, the insurance, etc. All of these items seem expensive and unnecessary and the truth is that you likely won’t use it most of the time… but the one time you do need it, the peace of mind & the fees to repair or replace your product or device make it worth it in the end. I think of these things as pay now, or pay more later. In our household, anything that is over a certain amount (around $300+) gets insurance. This includes electronics, vehicles, appliances, etc. Remember to keep copies of all of the warranties and policies. I actually digitize all of my files using this and I keep all of my files organized in my Dropbox account. That way my files are easily accessible & searchable.

PRE-CRISIS STEP 2: Have a vent-partner. One of the best parts about being married is that you have a built-in vent partner. If you are not married (and even if you are married) be sure that you have someone that you can call to complain, cry, reason, laugh, etc. with. Often in times of crisis, my hubby and I bounce the responsibility back and forth so that neither of us gets burned out or overly frustrated. When it came to the first few steps of addressing the stolen vehicle, I handled the initial stages of contacting the police and the insurance company etc. Once our vehicle was recovered (thank God!) he took care of getting the estimates and dealing with the dealership to have the car serviced. My sister-in-law was instrumental in serving as my co-PI as my keys have a tracking device (TILE) which alerted me that my keys were in the area, leading to us searching the area and ultimately finding my stolen vehicle parked on the street.

PRE-CRISIS STEP 3: Copy the front and backs of all of the contents in your wallet. In the event that your purse or your wallet is stolen, you can quickly contact all of your banks and loyalty cards to get replacements. Most cards also have the phone number on the back that you should call, in case of emergency.

PRE-CRISIS STEP 4: Back up all of the contents of your computer into the cloud AND onto a hard-drive. I’ve endured at least two hard-drive crashes in my life. I’ve known friends that have been robbed at gunpoint of their briefcases and laptop bags. I have a little piece of mind knowing that all of my music, photos, important files and documents etc. are backed up using Dropbox, Google Drive, and iCloud Drive.  I’m a fan of all three systems because they are super easy to use, accessible anywhere you have the internet (let’s say you forget your laptop at home) and in many cases, other people can be given easy access to the files.

PRE-CRISIS STEP 5: Travel with a copy of your passport AND travel with at least two credit/debit cards. Anything can happen with your passport. I always keep a copy or two of my passport in different areas of my luggage. My husband recently finished a world tour with DJ Jazzy Jeff. While in Japan, an ATM machine ate his debit card. It’s important to have at least two different credit/debit cards in the event that something happens to one. One of these days I’ll have to write a whole post about crisis and travel! It really does deserve its own blog post!

PRE-CRISIS STEP 6: Learn how to use Find My iPhone and Find My Device (For Android). This has saved me so many times. Especially in situations where there was a large group and my phone or iPad went missing.

PRE-CRISIS STEP 7: Make a habit of cataloguing and keeping lists of things. This is usually a standard for home owners insurance, but you may want to get in the habit of keeping receipts and logs of your valuables so that if you need to file a claim, or if you need to replace the items, you can do so quickly and effortlessly.

PRE-CRISIS STEP 8: Write down key emergency contacts and have them easily accessible. Set up your Emergency SOS in the settings of your phone, if you have iPhone. Keep emergency contact phone numbers in your wallet, just in case you are unconscious so that members of your family can be reached.

PRE-CRISIS STEP 9: Get your car Emergency Ready. Keep your own jumper cables, and spare tire (if it can fit) in your car. Consider a membership to AAA or another road-side assistance service. Check out this article for tips on how to prepare your vehicle for Emergencies.

PRE-CRISIS STEP 10: Get your home Emergency Ready. Be sure you have a smoke detector & Carbon Monoxide Detector in your home, as well as be sure to check the batteries regularly. Do an annual fire/emergency drill in your home. Be sure that your door is labeled correctly so that people know that you have pets. Most pet stores and vets carry stickers to alert emergency personnel.

Last but not least, stay prayed up! Having a calm and faithful spirit is the best thing that you can have to regulate stress and address problems that inevitably come up in life. It is also helpful to have mechanisms for addressing stress – a healthy fitness routine, an active social life, appropriate medication and therapy where appropriate, journal writing (one of my favorite methods for processing stress and thinking through problems). If you have any helpful resources or advice, please drop them in the comments below!

NOTE: Shoutout to my sister Linedda for always encouraging me to write a book. If it be God’s will, one of these days I’ll be a New York Times/best-selling author. Writing was my first love!

The Day I Met President Obama…

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Caption: Me with Joy & Hakim, two members of my Donda’s House Team

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to attend the inaugural programming event hosted by the Obama Foundation. The event gathered 175 youth from Chicago in order to provide them with Civic Engagement Training. One component of the day was the Engagement Fair, and Donda’s House was invited to participate in that. I was joined by two members of my team, our Communications Director Hakim, and one of our amazing volunteers Joy.

Caption: Some of the Obama Memorabilia I’ve collected over the years. Some of the stuff I actually purchased during the campaign! The newspapers are from the day after he won the first term! I also have two books about First Lady Michelle Obama. 

I’ll never forget President Obama’s first campaign. At the time I was living in Chicago, so we were all incredibly invested in the campaign. I was also still teaching, so I was able to incorporate many of his speeches and other non-partisan content into my curriculum. At the time I was also working at Whitney Young High School – the school that First Lady Michelle Obama attended! I’ll never forget the feeling in the air… and in our hearts… To think that we as a country could elect the First African American President was a testament to how far we had come… and it was incredibly inspiring to think about what that meant for my students and for my community.

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Caption: Some of the buttons I owned during the campaign and a letter I received from First Lady Michelle Obama!

I truly enjoyed following President Obama’s campaigns (both of them), and I truly enjoyed following him and his family while they were in the White House. It was always my dream (like so many other Americans I’m sure) to meet him face-to-face. I’ve known people who were invited to some of the forums and workshops at the White House, who attended some of the epic parties and social gatherings and who were able to engage with President Obama & First Lady Michelle Obama and his team regularly. I attended a couple of events where both President Obama and First Lady Obama spoke, but I never had the opportunity to shake their hands or speak with them. The day he gave his “Obama, Out” speech, I still kept hope in my heart that one day we’d meet. 2017 has been an incredible year of manifestation for my husband and I… I plan to share more about that before 2017 ends.

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Caption: Donda’s House at the Engagement Fair for the Obama Foundation. 

You can imagine my excitement when I received an invitation to participate in the inaugural Obama Foundation Event because of my work with Donda’s House AND to be able to connect with youth in the 18-24 demographic. When you run a non-profit, so much of the work you do is to create awareness about the work that you do. When I meet people and I mention Donda’s House, it is incredibly affirming to hear that they not only know about Donda’s House, but they respect and often applaud the work that we do. So when we received the invitation to participate in the Obama Foundation Event, it meant the world to me because it was an affirmation that our work was being seen and heard by a group of people that were acting on the behalf of President & First Lady Michelle Obama.

Affirmation matters in philanthropy, because I spend so much of my time making a case for the work. Many of my conversations are centered around:

(A) Why all young people, especially youth on the South Side of Chicago and from low income communities deserve access to the arts…

(B) Why the push for STEM in educational institutions has often meant relegating the “A” “arts” to the margins… Why STEAM over STEM is a better approach to curriculum development.

(C) Why African American youth deserve more than just sports & recreational programs in their communities…

(D) Why indigenous leadership in low-income and communities of color is essential… (not negating diversity which is important but arguing that people need to see people that look like them & that come from where they come from in leadership positions…)

In many instances we get more “no” responses than we get “yes” responses and when the “we are not able to provide funding at this time” letters pile up it can be disheartening because not receiving the support does not dismiss or remove the need for support. The youth that we serve expect, anticipate and need the programs that we provide. Hard stop. That means that we have to and we must do what we can to fulfill those expectations. And we try to do so, without putting a burden on the youth that we serve because we don’t want them to worry about (and frankly, they have enough to worry about!) our ability to provide services for them.

So anytime an individual or an organization says they’re familiar with our work and they’re interested in collaborating it is a huge “win” for us and for the youth that we serve. 5 years ago, Donda’s House was just a dream. An idea that we had to provide targeted support to young Creatives. We wanted to target youth who came from the same community as us, because the arts were an essential component of our lives growing up. When we started working, we quickly realized the disparities between nonprofit organizations lead by people of color and more specifically African-American lead organizations and we started advocating for capacity building support for Donda’s House and the countless organizations like ours lead by African Americans.

We had an incredible day connecting to young people yesterday – all of whom were interested in changing the world and making a positive impact on their communities. Many of the youth were artists, and were interested in pursuing careers and social change in the arts & culture sector. When we were surprised by President Obama, it was special because as the organizational leaders met him he wanted to know two things, our names & the organizations we were representing. As I shook President Obama’s hand and I said, “Donnie Smith and I’m with Donda’s House,” it was an incredibly emotional experience because I was realizing my dream BECAUSE of helping young people realize their dreams. I didn’t meet President Obama for the first time at a social event… I met him because of the work that I’ve committed my life to doing and because someone recognized the value in that work and that mission.

I can only hope & pray that we continue to find ourselves in the rooms that we need to be in and that I, as the Captain of the Ship that we call Donda’s House, find myself in the rooms that I need to be in, in order to continue to move the work forward. This is coming from a girl who doesn’t look like what she’s been through. My tests have become my testimony and I pray that my life continues to be an example of God’s grace & that I leave the spaces & the people that I touch better than I found them.

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For more information about the Obama Foundation click here.

Learn more about the event yesterday here.

Check out the Donda’s House feed here, my instagram feed here, and check out the hashtag #trainingdaychi on all Social Media channels to see more reflections from the day!

Be The Change You Wish To See (Moving Beyond Entitlement)…

There are so many organizations outside of Donda’s House that I’ve supported financially and by other means. I don’t do it because I’m interested in having a transactional relationship with the organizations or the causes – I do it because I believe that it is the right thing to do and because I would not be able to accomplish even a quarter of what I am able to accomplish without the help of other people (many of whom do so quietly behind the scenes).

I hear so many entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders complaining about what people aren’t doing:

(1) People aren’t buying tickets to my event(s).

(2) People aren’t inviting me to their invite-only parties.

(3) People aren’t supporting my brand on social media.

(4) People aren’t supporting my business.

When I get frustrated sometimes I start walking down that path, but then I remember:

PEOPLE DON’T OWE ME ANYTHING! PEOPLE DON’T OWE US ANYTHING!

In order to earn the true support of people we have to work! We have to deliver quality experiences and quality products that make people want to continue working with us, that make people brag about what they’ve purchased from us, and that make people want to be committed & addicted to whatever it is that we’re selling.

When opportunities aren’t moving. When the shelves are full. When our phones are “dry” and our inboxes are empty… instead of ragging about our customers, our clients, our partners, and our cities, we have to look inward and ask some really hard questions:

(1) What can I do to create more support?

(2) When was the last time that I did the action I’m wanting from others – without any expectations? I’m a firm believer in the law of attraction. We get what we put out.

(3) Is this idea one that needs to be refreshed or aborted? Every mission that we start, is not a mission that we should finish. Especially when all of the signs and data show that it’s not worth pursuing.

When things get hard, it’s easy to point the finger outward. What I’m saying is that we have to start holding ourselves accountable for reflecting the change that we want to see in our industry, in our communities and in our world.

 

 

Happy 4th Birthday Donda’s House 

Happy 4th Birthday Donda’s House
You are 4 years old today! Only about 9% of start up businesses make it to their 4th year. You are still here because you are resilient, relentless and necessary. 

Thank you for redefining family for me and so many others. You have forged lifelong bonds, you have wiped many tears and you have created many laughs. You have created brothers that don’t share blood, you have created sisters that lean on each other and you have straightened the backs and raised the voices of the many artists who have opted in to our philosophy and mission.

More than anything I am thankful for the example of Dr. Donda West. A mother who opened her doors to so many “strangers” who were looking for something. She could have focused on raising her son but instead, decided to raise her community. From her we know that home is truly where the heART is! 

Donda’s House, thank you for being another option. A space where mostly black and sprinkles of brown youth gather to reimagine individually & collectively. Thank you for sometimes being in the minority when advocating for more time, more space and more resources. Thank you for being willing to remind others that the A in STEM is missing causing a great detriment to the next generation. Thank you for moving from the margins, to the very center wherever you find yourself.

I pray that our next year is our best year. I pray that other people continue to see your value. I pray that the people who you need, find their way to you. I pray that we find our way as quickly as possible to the people who need you. I pray that you move all of our artists, volunteers, staff and Board of Directors closer to their dreams and last but not least, when all else fails, I compel you to keep the fire of your intentions burning unimaginably hot. Visibly hot. Untouchable hot. 

Thank you to everyone who has done anything to support our mission! We are the change we wish to see!

With lots of love,

Donnie Smith 

Executive Director & Co-Founder 

A Look Around My Office 

This morning I said that I’d go live on Instagram to do a tour of my office. My baby dog was spayed this morning, so I decided to spend the evening cuddling with her. I did want to share some of my favorite things from my office:


Above: My IKEA Expedit shelf holds so much. These large square bookcases can hold so much! 


I recently purchased some Philips HUE LED lights. I control them from an App in my phone. They can change colors, the bulb doesn’t get hot and they can work together to create scenes! 


Beyonce is my absolute favorite! I had one of my favorite posters framed. I also recently purchased the “What Would Beyonce Do” desk tag from Modcloth, which lives on my desk.


Peacocks are my favorite animals. These feathers were the first thing I purchased for my office and I designed the rest of the room around those colors.


My gallery wall. I’m thinking about adding another row of frames at the top. 


I save all of the cards that I receive. This one from my Aunt I turned into a piece of art because I love the words & the messenger!


Everyone I travel in the world, I always purchase art. This piece I purchase in Mumbai in India and its a silk painting.


Another piece of art I picked up from an artist in NOLA. I loved the rhinestones.


My Vision Board and a 3 month calendar that lives above my desk. I change it annually during my end of year, new year rituals.


I found this Vintage Olive Green file cabinet on Craigslist and it’s one of my favorite pieces.


This is my super fast and powerful Fujitsu Scansnap ix500. I’ve seen it used in Medical Facilities and it allows me to digitize all of my documents. I keep a digital file cabinet of everything in Dropbox.


I love words especially the words on this cup from Michaels.


My favorite scent is Pink Champagne from Pier 1. I have diffusers, candles and room spray. I initially purchased it immediately after New Years, and was told that it was seasonal. I’ve gone back every month and it’s been there. Maybe they will make it a permanent part of their collection.


Glitter is my favorite color, followed by gold, followed by pink. I had to have this lava lamp because it combined so many of my favorite things.


I try to find gold or metallic office supplies whenever possible. Here are a few of my favorite items.


These pens used to be my favorite back in the day! I use them now often for scrapbooking. I found this mega pack on Amazon.


My office is the place where I get my work done. I have a high capacity black and white printer/copier and a regular HP printer for color. I am able to get most of my work done on these two machines. For larger jobs I go to FedEx or order online. 

So these are some of my favorite things in my Office! I look forward to the day that I can decorate my DH Office!!!!

They Gone Get These Hands…

Donda’s House Inc. turns 4 years old on August 1st. This is the first summer where we were able to hire a small team beyond our paid instructors to support our work. In the past, we have had to rely heavily on generous volunteers and our active alumni to support our initiatives. This summer we have a small team of about 6 – 7 people who work our events.

Caption: A short clip of the view outside of the restaurant, via my Snapchat.

About a week ago, I joined my husband for a two week work trip, and at the end of our work trip, we are taking a one week vacation to another country to celebrate his 40th birthday. That makes 3 weeks that I will be away from Chicago. In the past, I have felt like I couldn’t travel as often and that I had to be there personally to ensure that everything went smooth. In fact, I would feel a huge sense of guilt if I couldn’t personally be there for a Donda’s House class or event.

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Caption: Hubby and I in Delaware at a delicious seaside seafood restaurant.

As an organizational leader, I have learned so much about myself over the last few years and the thing that I know for sure, is that I have to work to “replace” myself. Donda’s House has to be a well-oiled machine in that our infrastructure, our mission and our “culture” works, no matter who is at the helm and no matter if I am physically present or not.

So many organizations and institutions suffer from “founder” syndrome. Founder Syndrome is what happens when organizational founders can’t and don’t “get out of the way” to make room for innovation and for growth. Founders can also be notorious for being micro-managers. I never want to be that. If something were to ever happen to me, my hope is that others will carry the work forward and that the organization will continue to grow and support creatives as the mission intends. I want people to be able to attend a Donda’s House event and they not know (or care) whether I am there or not.

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Caption: My hubby’s doing some work with DJ Jazzy Jeff. This is where all of the magic happens, in Jeff’s studio 🙂

I wanted to share some tips for those who are in a situation where you are expected to empower a team or where you feel like you personally have to be involved in every single aspect or detail of your organization and need to exercise the art of letting go more often. Some people call it delegating. I don’t even consider it just delegating, because I want people to be empowered to make decisions and to be leaders. When you delegate something, you often intend for people to do it the exact same way that you would. My expectation is that it is equal to the way that I do it, or better!

(1) Hire people that you trust. If you hire and collaborate with people that you trust, it should be easier to let go. How do you know who you can trust? People who do what they say they are going to do (honor their word), people who seem equally (and sometimes more) passionate than you, people who have a good reputation and track record from other spaces, and people who have integrity and good character. When it comes to trust, your instincts will often be on point in terms of who you should and should not place your trust in.

(2) Communicate in writing & verbally. I believe in communicating with people the same message in multiple formats. Everybody processes and receives information differently. It is not uncommon for me to have a conversation with someone and then follow up with the same information via e-mail. It is also important to always have things in writing, just in case something goes wrong, it will be easy to find out where the breakdown happened to avoid something similar happening in the future. Good communication is the best “accountability” measure that you have in place.

(3) Hire against your weaknesses or areas of challenges. We all have areas for improvement or things that don’t come easy for us. It is important to bring people on your team who have those areas as strengths so that your entire team can bring the whole package. If everybody around you including you has a background and a strength in PR, your marketing & PR will be incredible, but your accounting may lack. If everybody around you has great visual and graphic design capabilities but you don’t have anyone who can write, then your business will suffer. Know thyself, and hire those who have your weaknesses as strengths to create a mighty, well-rounded and powerful whole package.

(4) Set clear goals and outcomes. From your events, to your social media following to your programs, and your products, you should always have a target for whatever you are doing. What is your north star? What is your why? If you are having an event, how many people do you hope to attend? What do you want people to get out of the event or experience? For products, how many units do you hope to move in what time period? You should have goals as the CEO or organizational leader, and then your team should have collective goals.

(5) Everything happens that’s supposed to happen. Let go of the fact that you can control every single thing, because you cannot. We recently had a fundraiser that just so happened to fall on the same date as a huge NBA game. We had the fundraiser date set before the NBA game was announced and there was nothing that we could do about it. There will always be circumstances and things that come up that impact you and your work, and all that you can do is try to maintain a positive and calm attitude, and handle it.

The world should get your hands and the hands of as many people who share your value system and your desired change for the world. We need all of the hands that we can get and the more hands that we have, the better we are and the quicker we can see positive change happening for us all!