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Dixie (Johnson) Belcher

Photo of Dixie (Johnson) Belcher
1940
Categories: 2017 Alumnae, Activist

Biography

Belcher has been and continues to be a tireless and conscientious visionary for achieving political and social change through music. She has also developed unique ways to bring people together to change the world.

Dixie Johnson was born and raised in Juneau. During her youth, she developed her love for the outdoors and honed her leadership skills as a Girl Scout. She expanded her love of music by playing the piano, organ and trumpet. She graduated from Northwestern University with a major in sociology and a minor in music and then returned to her home community of Juneau. There she married Fred Belcher and worked as a probation officer for the Alaska State Dept. of Corrections until her first daughter, Jaylene, was born. She and Fred agreed it was important for Dixie to stay home to raise Jaylene and their second daughter, Janet.

When Fred Belcher died in a 1971 helicopter crash while on a state photo assignment, Belcher became a single mother and realized that if she was careful with her finances, she could stay home with her children and do community project, such as directing and arranging music groups or pursuing prison projects after she discovered that children as young as twelve were being incarcerated in an adult prison. From these early beginnings, Belcher focused her life toward community activism and matters of social and political change.

Belcher has had a variety of interests and experiences. She formed and was the music director of the St. Paul Singers of Juneau from 1970-1980. They sang folk music throughout Alaska and Canada and also garnered an invitation from the President of Romania to perform in that country. Belcher was also interested in nutrition so in 1979, she applied for and secured a $20,000 state grant entitled, “Alaska Holistic Health Association” for educating local and state populations about the benefits of alternative health principles. That same year she worked on creating a wilderness experience to give Alaska teens an immersion opportunity to learn outdoor survival skills in Southeast Alaska with advice and assistance from Paul Petzold, the founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).

In 1983, she organized 40 Goodwill Ambassadors who sang their way from Juneau to Anchorage and Fairbanks with a simple mission: to foster state unity and to convince residents that Juneau should remain the state’s capital. Alaska Committee chairman Jim Clark said their efforts had a definite effect on the positive outcome of that year’s vote for keeping the capital in Juneau.

Later Belcher organized another group, Performing Artists for Peace, to reunite Siberian and Alaska Yup’ik relatives across the Bering Sea. They had been separated for 40 years. Performers included the Tanqik Theatre from Chevak, the Juneau Folksingers and Dancers, the Nunamta Dancers from Bethel, the Savoonga Comedy Players and five black gospel singers from Anchorage. The 67 performers spent more than a year studying Russian music, culture, history and language in preparation for a month long tour that took them across 11 time zones and 7,800 miles from Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East to Leningrad in the West. When the performers left Alaska in October 1986, they were accompanied by press and film crews, eight Eskimo elders and former Governor Jay Hammond and his wife, Bella, who is part Yup’ik. Thousands of Soviets came to see the Alaskans, and once again, music and dance successfully bridged geographic, linguistic, cultural, political and ideological barriers. The Alaskans returned home determined to work to open the border.

Performing Artists for Peace evolved into CAMAI, the Yup’ik word for “Hello,” in 1987 and Belcher lectured and lobbied in Washington D.C. and Moscow to open the border. In the summer of 1988, the Bering Strait opened with Alaska Airline’s Friendship Flight to Providenia and the sailboat voyage of Alaska Eskimos to Novo Chaplino. CAMAI lobbied extensively in Moscow for both ventures, and Eskimo families on both sides celebrated first reunions. The effort spawned numerous exchanges and joint ventures in athletics, music and the arts.

Next Belcher organized other concerts in Alaska and the lower 48 aimed at fostering understanding among Christian, Muslim and Jewish people through the use of music. Her activism continues to this day, most notably with Turning the Tides, an educational initiative to focus attention on the effects of pollution, acidification, temperature warming and plastics on the world’s oceans.

She also travels internationally to promote the program OceanBeat where young people connect around the world via the internet, using music as an international language, to share ideas across political, cultural and religious borders to discover commonalities with one another other to work toward common environmental goals. She is in the process of linking students interested in working for change with schools in Myanmar, India, Gaza, Peru, Ecuador, Ghana and Kenya. The experimental program is combining three schools at a time to brainstorm environmental and/or peace projects, learn upbeat songs and sing together via the internet. OceanBeat is also connecting Alaskan students with North Indian Tibetan refugees and tribal young people in the Brazilian jungle. On a weekly basis youth exchange recordings of music and dance and then they meet monthly on the internet to sing together and to talk about environmental awareness. The ultimate goal is an international internet concert featuring young people singing together to raise awareness and inspire action. It is a culmination incorporating what she has learned about the environment and how music can inspire change. In her travels she has been adopted by four Native tribes, two in Alaska and two in the South Pacific.

Over her life time Belcher is well-known in Juneau for making a difference in the local community through projects she designed to help prison inmates as well as young people. She also facilitated bringing Buckminster Fuller to Juneau to address the issues of affordable housing. Belcher has served on the World Affairs Council board and on the Empty Chair Project board, which built a memorial to honor Juneau’s Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II. It is the first memorial of its kind in Alaska.

The Alaska State Legislature has recognized Belcher twice for the difference she’s made in shaping events in the state. In 1988, members of the Fifteenth Alaska Legislature recognized her receipt of the Bahai’s Kempton Award for Service to Humanity. It is given to an individual “who displays outstanding and selfless service to humanity and whose efforts reflect contributions to peace and equality.” In 2006, members of the Twenty-Fourth Alaska State Legislature honored Dixie for her “belief in music to dissolve barriers, sideline anger, and help people to envision and build a better life.”

Belcher also has an international presence. She was an invited speaker to the Global Forum on Saving the Environment in 1988, a conference addressed by Mikail Gorbachov and sponsored by the Supreme Soviet, the Soviet Union’s governing body, and the Soviet Academy of Scientists. Following that conference, she attended the Citizen’s Summit on the Environment where she and Gennady Gerasimov were presented the Soviet Peace Award for their accomplishments in opening the Bering Strait to travel and commerce between the Soviet Union and the United States. She was invited to speak at the 2012 International Environmental Conference in Lima, Peru where she is on the board of that country’s Organization for the Research and Conservation of Marine Mammals. She authored an article being published now in the next issue of India’s International Journal for Transformation of Consciousness.

Through her leadership, Belcher has served as an example of social and political activism locally, nationally and internationally to effect positive change. With her deep convictions and willingness to devote her life to bringing about such change, Belcher has inspired many and is still working to make the world a better place.

References

1988 Fifteenth Alaska Legislature Citation honoring Dixie Belcher recognizes Bahai’s Honor Kempton Award for Service to Humanity.

2006 Twenty-Fourth Alaska State Legislature Citation Honoring Dixie Belcher, Exec. May 4.

Gehman, G. (1994). Peace broker Dixie Belcher puts faith and people’s money in ‘Hope.’ The Morning Call, Allentown, PA, November 13.

Mauer, R. (1989). Soviet rock-and-roll bridges the Bering Strait. The Anchorage Journal, Special to The New York Times, February 27.

Turn of the Tide, theme song for Turning The Tides, uploaded August 12, 2008. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9bapkrCPXg