‘You have the same number of hours in your day as Beyonce.”
The quote hangs in the corner of a board mounted in Donnie Smith’s scrapbooking room on the second floor of her colorful Chatham home. Smith, the executive director of Donda’s House, aka Kanye West’s charity, lives by that quote. The Whitney Young High School teacher, wife, stepmother, grant writer, rape survivor, author and public speaker is inspired by women who shape their own destinies.
She thinks nothing of teaching English, counseling countless teens and then coming home to run an arts organization co-created by her Grammy-nominated husband, Che “Rhymefest” Smith and his similarly Grammy-nominated friend, West. “As a first-generation college student, programs like this saved my life,” says Smith, originally from Kansas City. “This is my natural progression. . . . And when you look at Dr. Donda West (Kanye’s now-deceased mom), she’s singlehandedly responsible for the resources that Kanye and his artistic crew [had access to.] A lot of people don’t know that Dr. Donda took Kanye to live in China. She exposed him to so much. She understood what it took to save young black boys.”
That’s the spirit Smith invokes as she fills out grant applications, goes to interviews, scouts performance and office spaces, and fine-tunes the mission and responsibilities of the fledgling 501(c)(3) organization that opened its doors last year and is serving its second “cohort” of students. Smith just finished her semifinalist interview for the prestigious Echoing Green fellowship, she’s been in talks with the popular Black Girls Rock foundation and she finished another round of Afterschool Matters interviews.
Kanye West may be rich, but the point is to not ask him for a dime.
“Legally, so much of our money has to come from public sources,” Smith says of the charity that provides arts education for teens and young adults, including advanced level workshops with such top-level music producers as Chicago’s own No ID, the executive vice president of Def Jam Recordings. “Some charities focus on the celebrity, but with Donda’s House we want to be very clear from the beginning that it would be about the students.”
DH board member and attorney Exavier Pope says Smith streamlined the process. “It’s about the nuts and bolts of how the organization is run and not about who is the face. People are drawn to Kanye initially, but when they get into the program, they’re drawn to Donnie and her love and care for the students,” Pope says.
This is not to say that Smith doesn’t take time for herself. She has to, if only to heal. As the result of being raped — at age 12 — by her mother’s boyfriend, she suffered a reproductive challenge causing her to miscarry in 2011. She often volunteers to speak about the abuse.
“She’s chosen to work in the inner city and to lay out a lifeline of hope,” says Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and Smith’s mentor. Smith is a graduate of the defense fund’s interventionist programming. “Everybody needs to open their doors and compete with the drug dealers. We need to deal forthrightly with the issue of abuse. Donnie is very courageous in having a way for children to understand that they’re not alone.”
Yet, youth work can become stressful. And in those moments, Smith works off steam by scrapbooking. She has a book for nearly every section of her life, including the painful bits. Her scrapbook room is filled with neatly organized, color coordinated bins of paper, stamps, stickers, adhesives, rollerball pens and markers. Her husband raps. She scraps.
“Art saved our lives when we were going through difficult and traumatic experiences,” she says, shifting the conversation back to saving Chicago’s kids. “This is a natural progression. I feel this is what I’m supposed to do.”