When I met Donna I was enamored with her strength, wisdom and powerful sense of identity. Finding your identity and understanding your self worth as a woman is difficult. We are constantly pushed and pulled to look or behave a certain way. Donna’s story matters because it’s living proof that once you find your true identity, you finally empower yourself.
Donna Turnage didn’t believe she mattered or that she could make a difference growing up. Her life now, however, is a legacy of work based on her empowerment of others and her belief in the fight for equality for women.
The first time Donna realized the necessity of mental health and her self worth was after a suicide attempt at 18 years old. Donna at the time thought, “There wasn't anything I wanted to hang around for. We [her family] were constantly relocating and living with strangers. I thought it was going to go on forever."
Her mother recognized the severity of Donna’s actions and took her to see a psychiatrist. Her life has since been a swelling ocean filled with struggle, beauty, travel, and finding her true self.
Donna is a Flint native, and graduated from Utley High School. After high school Donna married her first husband Jim. She remembers thinking, “I could have missed this” when she looked back at her suicide attempt. Her life was now visible through a new lens. After Jim and Donna’s relationship ended, Donna started navigating a life that was a little sticky for women in the 1960s.
Women’s identity were wrapped into their marriage, their home, their “duties,” and responsibilities as mothers. Seventeen years later and suffering through a horrible second divorce, Donna felt terrified. Her identity according to society was lost.
Life is a mud pile. There are certain things I wouldn’t repeat but you gotta do the whole dance.
The next year of Donna’s life after her second divorce was spent with a therapist. Her therapist told her, “Now you can build a true identity.” She thought long about what she loved and what she wanted to do with her future. “I thought, I like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and I believe in equal rights. I started finding what I really believed in, and realizing what I really felt.” Donna took her first step into the world of social work and mental health and began working for a substance abuse program, Insight. She began digging into what she loved. “Then I started going to school, I wanted to get an education. My first social work class, I was like, yeah.. that’s me.”
Finding your identity in the midst of divorce, the loss of parents, the grief of losing her sister required strength and new inspiration for her life. “My consciousness was raised by Ms. magazine. It raised the idea that women had been given the short end of the stick. I was pretty passionate about women’s inequality in society.” The first cover of Ms. magazine had Durga the Hindu goddess on the cover holding an iron, a phone, a duster and several other household items in each hand. It was something that finally spoke to her. The magazine had articles that were historical, essays (some written by the famous Toni Morrison), and guest authors from everywhere covering the latest topics affecting the lives of women.
Sylvia Plath’s last major work was in Ms. magazine. There was an article that talked about abortion and women’s personal experiences. One of the founders Gloria Steinem wrote of the sisterhood of women, and raising kids without sex roles. Ms. magazine helped shape Donna’s idea on what her role could be in the world. She realized her identity was more than being divorced, a mother, and a homemaker.
After completing her graduate degree in social work, Donna realized she wanted to specialize in helping children and families. Donna felt that if, “Someone would have been able to reach me during the times my family struggled, maybe things would have been different.” Donna chose to use her past struggles that were ugly, hard and life altering to make a positive effect on the lives of others.
When feminism wasn’t widely accepted in the 60s Donna started fighting for women’s equality. She believed women deserved the right to have a true self worth because of her own struggle in finding her identity. During the 1990’s Donna proudly served as a President of the Flint National Organization for Women [NOW]. In an article written in Flint Journal on Saturday, July 3, 1993 she stated, “We have a commitment to just keeping feminism alive in our community. We may be a little bruised and battered, but we’re still here.”
“Feminism is no joke to them [Turnage and Satkowiak, Presidents of NOW]. They say they’ve been mislabeled as bra-burners, man-haters and lesbians who believe everyone should have an abortion.” - Catherine Kala, Flint Journal Staff Writer
While working as a President for NOW Donna developed her career as a social worker. “My social work really began when I was in the 4th grade, we had all been taught about how to not be a bully. There was this new girl at school who was picking on another girl whose name was also Donna. I would stand up for her, I would say to her bully, ‘Leave her alone.’ Sticking up for the underdog came naturally to me, it’s what you do!” More than 6 decades later, Donna is 77 and still fighting for equality, for the LGBT community, and for all the underdogs she comes in contact with.
Donna traveled all over the world after an early retirement. She lived in India, moved to Europe to help military families integrate into new lives, and she even started mountain biking. Her life filled with adventure. She dated a doctor who prescribed psychedelics, wore amazing wool sweaters and lived in a tree house. She met an optometrist whom, “was always tan, buzzed, and wore white Panama hats.” She drove a T top Trans Am, white water rafted, and even wore a hanger on her head during Roe vs Wade.
When I met her over sandwiches at my favorite deli, I was in awe of her wisdom that is engulfed in humility. There is something mystical in her wisdom and humor that made me want to know all I could about her. Donna chuckled during our interview and said, “I am 77 now and I am starting to do push ups again, you know, the kind ladies do.” I asked during our interview if she had any advice she could offer to women?
“I would be very careful about giving advice. I think each woman's experience is unique. You have no idea what people are going through, what has hurt them or helped them. Find a way to believe in yourself and that you are worth it. Be kind to yourself. Choose your battles. And always ask, where are you in your cycle?”
Sometimes we feel the impact on our lives from another person in a moment’s time and other times we feel the impact over decades. Donna has been impacting the life of her great niece, Sarah Satkowiak, since she was a kid. Sarah was previously a featured woman for We Are Kathy. After her interview she recommended someone who is more than just family to her, she recommended a woman who has inspired Sarah to be true to herself and find her own identity in this world.
“Sharing our stories is the antidote to the disconnection that divides us.” - Reese Witherspoon
Sharing the story of Donna’s life is a reminder that our lives are messy, wild and unpredictable. She is the mother of three men, divorced, educated, a world traveler, a fighter for equality, a social worker, a therapist, and a woman.
Donna has accomplished so much, but most importantly she has chosen to make her life a story that could bring change and hope for others. She reminds us that our identity, our story, and who we are is the basis of change for the future.
Written and Photographed by: Jenifer Veloso
[family photos provided by Sarah Satkowiak, thank you!]