Thursday, December 08, 2016

A Community Leader with Experience and a Vision

 Stephan Witherspoon (Photo Submitted)

Stepahn Witherspoon:

A Community Leader wit Experience and a Vision

By Jack Day
For The Hillsider

Stephan Witherspoon grew up in a three-and-a-half bedroom house with 10 siblings in the Central Hillside in Duluth, Minnesota. He said he is living a great life now as an African American Community Coach at the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, but it took a series of drastic events for him to get to where he is today.

Stephan and his mother Sharon Witherspoon. (Photo submitted)
 When Stephan was 10 years old, he was playing at a park and was called the N word for the first time. This event changed him, and he began fighting, which went on for many years.

“I got locked up where I work now because I would hurt people who called me the N word,” Stephan said. “I just couldn’t take it. We would have fights between the blacks and the whites and I thought that’s just the way it was.”

The racial tension got so bad that he decided to move away from Duluth and live in Houston with his sister for a while. But when he came back to Duluth, he experienced the most traumatic event of his life. In 1994—when he was just 19 years old—there was a triple homicide that took the lives of his brother and his two best friends.

“That was devastating to the family,” Stephan said. “The media called my house and apologized because they were trying to make the murderer look good, while making my brother and my friends look bad.” 
Stephan Witherspoon at the downtown Starbucks location.
                               (Photo by Jack Day)
Stephan with his brother, Solomon, and sister Simbarina 
enjoying Appetizers at the Green Mill last summer. (Photo Submitted)
After the homicides, Stephan turned to the microphone and started singing the blues. His first band he was a part of was called “Doctor Spoon and the Rhythm Union,” and after that he and his brothers, Solomon and Sebastian started a group called “Soul Profits.” Even though singing the blues was fun for him, Stephan was still having a difficult time with his life.

“I wanted to get out of all the trauma,” he said. “ So for about a year and a half, I was on crack cocaine.”Stephan knew that he couldn’t continue to live his life like this. The tragedy he had gone through as a 19-year-old kid was devastating, but he wanted to use it as motivation to get his life on track.“One day I got down on my knees and I talked to God. It was like a lighting bolt went through my body and I didn’t crave the drugs anymore,” Stephan said. “I had about a thousand dollars worth of crack and I flushed it down the toilet that day, and I’ve been sober ever since.”
Stephan immediately put himself in a treatment center to get his life in order. He went back to school and got his bachelor’s degree in organizational behavior. He is currently in a master’s program studying project management, but is considering pursuing law school.

Early on, Stephan’s younger brother. Solomon, had been aware that Stephan was going through devastating times, but he never doubted that his older brother would pull through.
“He’s been through some of the most desperate situations in  life, and he was able to overcome adversities that mentally and physically kill people,” Solomon said.
Solomon grew up watching his brother turn into the humble man he is today. Through all of the hardship that has occurred within their family, Solomon had faith that Stephan would turn into the man he has become.

“Stephan grew up as a true leader. From a very young age he was never afraid of a challenge,” Solomon said. “He had the mindset that if he failed, he would keep going until he was victorious.”
Stephan now belongs to a long list of organizations: Lincoln Park Children and Families Collaborative, Voices for Racial Justice, Policy Champs, and Cross Cultural Alliance Duluth, to name a few. He said he wants kids of color to have an easier life growing up than he did.
“I just want to make sure that kids of color, low income, and people in poverty are validated and have the resources they need to succeed,” Stephan said. “My mission is to get a cultural center up and going on the Hillside, so kids and families have a safe haven.”

Stephan knows that there are a lot of people who have a difficult time succeeding because of how or where they are raised. Those are the people that he focuses on when he is working. When he joined the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, about 65-70 percent of juveniles detained were of color. After four years of Stephan being an African American Community Coach, that number is down to about 35-40 percent.

For his job, Stephan makes court call reminders and makes sure kids get to court, including taking them there himself if they are unable to find another ride. He also participates in cultural activities with the kids, cooks with them, and talks about accountability, responsibility, and the importance of education.

Solomon is not surprised at all by the success his older brother is having within the Duluth community.
“Something in his soul wouldn’t let him quit; his desire, passion, gratefulness, and his will to continue to strive for perfection makes him one of the greatest men I’ve ever met, and it just so happens that he is my older brother,” Solomon said. “He definitely makes this world a better place.”
Stephan is driven to reach a goal to make his hometown a better place for everyone.
“It hurts my heart seeing kids who don’t feel important in their own communities,” Witherspoon said. “We need to embrace each other’s cultures, and share our talents.”

Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken and Stephan Witherspoon enjoy a
moment together during the YWCA’s Women of Distinction Award Luncheon on Oct. 20.  (Photo by  Naomi Y-B)


(Jack Day is a University of Minnesota Duluth journalism student. His hometown is Hastings, Minn. Contact him at