President brings new energy to NAACP
It's been about a month since Stephan Witherspoon was elected president of the Duluth branch of the NAACP.
"It's an honor. Mr. [Claudie] Washington served as the president for over 20 years. I'm up for the challenge," Witherspoon said in a recent phone interview.
Witherspoon, 42, spent several of his formative years around the NAACP as his mother Sharon Witherspoon served as the branch secretary as he grew up in the Central Hillside. His father, the late Rev. Sylvester Witherspoon, was a well known Baptist pastor and community leader. Witherspoon remembers taking part in NAACP activities and singing at rallies when he was younger.
"I remember singing at the MLK rally when it first got started," Witherspoon said.
Today, Witherspoon serves on the planning committee for the week of Martin Luther King tribute events that started last Thursday. He will be officially sworn in as president of the NAACP at the rally at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center at 11:45 a.m. Monday.
"He's the right person for the right job right now. He's got that positive energy that's going to bring folks together," said Carl Crawford, NAACP vice president and city human rights officer. "I think he approaches the NAACP in his new role out of survival hood, as growing up here, living here, working here and really engaging himself in our community."
After graduating from Central High School, Witherspoon worked on fishing boats for a few years before tragedy struck his family. His brother, Sam Witherspoon, and two friends, Keith Hermanson and Peter Moore, were shot and killed at a party. Within a few years, his father died from complications due to Alzheimer's disease. His sister, Sharon Elizabeth "Liz'' Witherspoon, was found dead in a Dallas park in 2006.
"It was pretty traumatic stuff that I had to, that we all had to deal with," Witherspoon said. "I had to face it eventually and move through it."
Witherspoon returned to school in the early 2000s and got a bachelor's degree in organizational behavior from the College of St. Scholastica. Shortly after graduating, he was contracted to work as a community coach through the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.
"Our job was to find alternatives to detention. I would find alternatives out in the community service, to work with them," Witherspoon said.
Witherspoon's dedication to working with youth is one of the qualities Crawford said makes him a good leader.
"You ask any youth walking around, most people know Stephan Witherspoon," Crawford said. "But what I really love he's one who will let every child know that he believes in them and that he sees the upside. He really tries to keep our kids on point with a vision, keep them accountable."
Witherspoon has also worked with organizations such as the Lincoln Park Children and Family Collaborative and Voices for Racial Justice. Last spring, Witherspoon worked with community leader Ashley Compton and several organizations to form the Our Duluth Racial Equity agenda and presented it to the community.
"Everything in that agenda showed what racial equity in Duluth would look like, it covered education, politics, jobs, housing, healthcare, etc." Witherspoon said.
"Stephan's a collaborator. He's willing to bring people together. He's already working towards breaking down barriers," Crawford said.
What is Witherspoon's vision for the future of the NAACP in the coming year? He wants to focus on becoming more visible in the community, partner with other organizations in order to provide resources for marginalized areas and advocate for individuals who believe they've had their civil rights violated.
"I want to make sure that people know that there are organizations and people out there that support them and that we will fight for their rights. We'll fight for equity in housing, jobs, education and access to healthy foods," Witherspoon said.
He wants to plan more fundraisers and events in the community in order to raise awareness and form relationships.
He's also personally committed to fighting racism in daily interactions, in his own teachable way.
"I deal with it [racism] just about everyday. As a matter of fact, I dealt with it today," Witherspoon said. "At the store, I was buying a couple of donuts. This lady who was right next to me looked at me like she was disgusted. I said, 'Is there something wrong?' She looked at me and said, 'You're black.' I said, 'Yes, I am black and I'm beautiful.' She just walked away from me."