EXECUTIVE IMPACT

"Your Role Does Not Define You": Chief Member Danielle Belton

By Leah Fessler

Every month, Chief features a personal narrative from one of our incredible members. We are especially focused on elevating the voices of members who identify as Black, a person of color, or LGBTQ+. This week, we hear from Chief New York Founding Member Danielle Belton, Editor-in-Chief of The Root, storied journalist, and creator of the award-winning culture-meets-politics blog The Black Snob.

I’ve always loved and appreciated journalism. My parents were total news junkies — obsessed with politics in their neighborhood, the city, and nationally. By age 11, I was reading the newspaper daily, and every Sunday we would read the paper out loud.

I became the Editor-in-Chief of my college newspaper, and after college went to work as an education reporter in Midland, Texas, before becoming a columnist in Bakersville, California. When I worked in newsrooms, I was often the only person of color or the only Black person. I realize that for some people, that experience may have been really difficult — especially in towns as white as Midland and Bakersfield. A lot of why I survived had to do with my personality and the fact that I grew up in St. Louis, which is an extremely segregated city. I was used to racism. I built up quite the tolerance to it. So when I ran into racism as a professional, it wasn’t shocking at all.

My entire history is of people agitating, fighting, and not letting their race hold them back. I refused to accept that limiting mindset then, and I refuse to accept it now. Racism has never stopped me from doing anything I wanted to do. It has tried, and it has failed. I’m like a weeble wobble — you can knock me down, but I’ll find a way to pop right back up.

At the root of my early success was knowing that I’ve always had my ancestors on my side. I'm the culmination of hundreds of people who lived through 400 years of oppression, slavery, and Jim Crow in this country, and managed to survive. That fuels and empowers me, like a battery in my back. Racism didn’t stop them, so it shouldn’t stop me.

What did slow me down was my mental health. In 2005 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and by 2007, I moved home to St. Louis. I was severely ill for almost a decade. Now, I have to take advantage of anything that is given to me, and live life to the fullest. And when you're trying to do that, you just can't let things like racism get in the way. It's always going to be there. We live in a racist country.

During that period of sickness, I still pushed forward, launching my blog, The Black Snob. It was a means of survival — and well timed, because the media industry was collapsing. Writing on politics and culture as a Black woman from the Midwest was unique — no one else was doing it at the time. The blog was totally anonymous until I wrote a piece on Barack Obama after he first won the Iowa Caucus, and it went viral. Everyone was saying, “the Black Snob is brilliant,” and I was like, wait a minute… Danielle Belton wrote that piece. I got jealous of myself. So I made it Danielle Belton's The Black Snob, and my career really took off from there.

You have to understand that the democratization of the media was life changing for me. I went to a lesser known college, Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. I grew up in the Midwest. I didn't have the same leg up that other people had in journalism. So with the ability to start my own website, I was able to prove what I always knew to be true — that I was a good enough writer to garner attention. At its height, the blog did a quarter of a million visitors a month with just me writing.

That’s not to say it was only up from there. The Root launched in 2008, and starting in 2009, I spent years trying to work for them, forming relationships with every editor. I went directly to the Managing Editor and I told her, “I want to write here. I want a job. I can make this place pop.” They thought that was cute, patted me on the head, and sent me on my way.

I didn’t give up. I knew I needed to be at The Root, this publication fully centering Blackness. Ultimately I got there, backfilling someone as Associate Editor. What was most wild is that when I finally got the job in 2015, I was very much mentally struggling. My friend had recently passed away from colon cancer. My mom had been diagnosed with dementia. I was dealing with lots of suicidal ideation and negative thoughts. I didn't know if I was going to make it.

I didn’t see myself the way my superiors saw me. They saw someone who was bringing all these different writers to The Root, writing interesting articles, doing investigative pieces, and getting more diverse contributors than they’d ever had before. They saw me as a go-getter and a self-starter. I saw myself as just barely surviving. That’s often how it is with people who are mentally ill. So when they reached out and said they wanted to talk about something private, I assumed I was going to get fired. When they said they wanted to promote me to Managing Editor, I almost didn’t take the job because I was so depressed. Thank god I did.

The first few months were really hellish, but by January 2017 I fully revamped how we approached news stories — making us more colorful, humorous, opinionated, and creative. Traffic grew by 300% that year. When The Root was acquired by Gizmodo I was named Editor-in-Chief, the highest role at the company — a company I’d begged to work at only a few years prior.

For me, life is about putting everything in perspective. What I can control, I will control. And what I can't control, I let go of and give up to the universe. I can't control if someone is racist. I can control how I respond, and what I choose to do around it. I can decide whether I want to stay at an organization and try to work within a racist system. Or I can be like, “deuces, I’m out,” and build my own thing, like I did with The Black Snob.

But most importantly, my career taught me that you cannot be afraid to pivot. You cannot be married to any single career, industry, or path. I’ve worn a lot of different hats in media, and I’ve used every experience to propel me to the next level. Back in 2012 before I convinced The Root to hire me, I was the first Black woman to lead a writer's room in late-night TV for BET's "Don't Sleep," hosted by TJ Holmes. There is no single way to get to success. The key is not letting anything hold you back — including yourself. You have to have the ability to stick with it, no matter how dark or weird or rough it gets.

Your role doesn’t define who you are — you define who you are. Don't stick around where you're not appreciated — go find a place or build something that’s fulfilling. Apply to the job even if you don’t have all the qualifications. Talk your way in. White men are doing it — trust me. You need to move through life as a confident person who believes in themselves and knows their worth, because then people will treat you accordingly. If you don't know your worth and you're just grateful to have a job, you will be treated as such. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, but the squeaky wheel also has the agency to remove itself and go find another car to work for. Never forget about that.

Read Next: Going Beyond Performative Allyship: Chief Member Cara Sabin

Originally Published: August 17, 2020