Raven Witherspoon (Photo by Jay Paul)
Look back at yourself — what were you like at 17?
Whether you were a fun-loving wild child, a reserved, awkward teen (like me), or somewhere in between, it’s unlikely you were as centered as Raven Witherspoon. This young woman — a J.R. Tucker High School senior, a part-time staffer at Fairfield Public library, a volunteer, the daughter of Sandra and Keith, the granddaughter of a man and woman who threw her mother out of their home for dating a black man — is focused. She has a vision for the city of Richmond, one she’s working to help come to pass.
“I believe in the power, the necessity, of diversity — all types of diversity, not just race. Also, I believe in equality for everyone. Richmond is starting to become a place like that, where everyone is equal; we need to keep going until we get there.”
I met Raven at the second event in Richmond magazine’s three-part learning series, The Unmasking: Race & Reality in Richmond. We’d spent the evening learning about Richmond’s racial roots from historians, community leaders, educators and writers, and how those roots extend to Richmond's institutions — our schools, our infrastructure, our housing, our politics. At the end of the night, we had plenty to mull over, but Raven wanted more. She raised her hand, stood up in front of a theater full of Richmonders and asked a question that grabbed everyone’s attention: What can young people do to empower themselves?
In all of the talking done that night, she hadn’t heard what she and her peers can do to reject the beliefs and behaviors that linger from Richmond’s past, and how they can continue building the city into a place where all its people, and their perspectives, beliefs and backgrounds, are valued.
“You don’t need us!” answered sociologist and author Tressie McMillan Cottom, who was a part of the panel that night. She reminded Raven that many of the country’s most recent social movements have been led by young people, and that the civil rights movement was galvanized by young folks who stopped asking older folks for permission to act. The young people of Richmond should take the lead and be the change they want to see, Cottom counseled.
Taking the lead is exactly what Raven is doing as one of the founding members of her school’s Diversity Council.
“I feel that my school is very diverse,” she said matter-of-factly when we met up for our interview recently. “There are gay kids, and kids whose first language is Spanish. Some students are Muslim. … [the Diversity Council’s] goal is to help us all understand each other better.”
Dr. Robert Lowerre, Tucker’s principal for the past five years and a 22-year veteran educator in Henrico County Public Schools, agrees with Raven. “We are an incredibly diverse school, and not just [in terms of] black and white,” he says. “We’ve got [students representing] 65 different nationalities, [speaking] 39 different languages, transgender kids, kids that live in million-dollar homes, kids that are homeless and everything in between. So we have all these different cultures and backgrounds, and the kids liked it, but that’s where it ended. We realized we had so much more to do.”
Tucker High School is noted for its extremely diverse student population. Principal Robert Lowerre says 65 nationalities are represented in the student body of roughly 1,660. (Photo courtesy Robert Lowerre)
Raven says she and a group of other students approached Lowerre last year, asking about the possibility of installing gender-neutral bathrooms in the school. From there, they’ve moved on to planning programs and activities designed to encourage open dialogue about their differences. Lowerre believes the council’s work provides a space for students to safely ask questions about other cultures, and dispel stereotypes along the way. He also says the group models an inclusive mindset.
“From the start, we’ve made clear that there’s a seat for everybody at the table” when it comes to the Diversity Council and the wider student body, says Lowerre. “You’ll see students wearing the Confederate flag shirts; you’ll see girls wearing the hijab. … Kids wearing camo and kids wearing dashikis, they’re sitting in class talking and learning [with] each other and getting along. [The students] all have different perspectives, they all have a voice; we make sure we’re listening to all of them.”
This month, Tucker’s Diversity Council, with the support of faculty and other student groups, is presenting a slew of Black History Month programs. Last week, The Cheats Movement founder Marc Cheatham came in to talk about hip-hop culture; next week, I’ll stop by their program celebrating black culture through food. They’ve got more ideas in the works.
Infant Raven with her parents, Keith and Sandra Witherspoon (Photo courtesy Sandra Witherspoon)
Sandra Witherspoon recalls that her father used to say Raven was never a child; she’d come into the world acting like an adult. She was the apple of her grandfather’s eye, Sandra says. Which is a wonder, considering Sandra says he disowned her when she revealed her plans to marry Keith, the black man who would become her husband and Raven’s dad. “He told me I wasn’t his daughter,” she says, and that she’d never get a penny from him and he wouldn’t acknowledge any kids she had with Keith.
“My parents, honestly, they used to have some very racist beliefs,” Sandra says. “They didn’t believe in people of color having equal rights when I was coming up. When things like BET [Black Entertainment Television] came on, he wouldn’t let us watch it, said it didn’t belong on TV. I wasn’t allowed to date anyone who wasn’t white.” She pauses, steadies herself with a breath. “Coming from that background, that drove how we raised Raven.”
Sandra and Keith instilled in Raven the equality of all people. They taught her to value, not fear, differences. They bought her white, black, Asian and Hispanic dolls for Christmas; they allowed her to watch “Roots” to learn about slavery. They also modeled compassion for all types of people. When she was a small child, Sandra would take Raven with her as she delivered hot meals and blankets to homeless people around the city. “Some of them knew Raven by name,” she says. “She understood why we were doing it, from an early age. Kids are watching everything you do; you can’t fake it with them.”
It took years for her parents to amend their beliefs, Sandra says, especially her father — and particularly once Raven came along. “He had cognitive dissonance, from how he used to view blacks with, basically, hatred, to now having them in his family. He saw he had to change.“ Sandra’s parents passed away within six months of each other in 2014. Before they died, Raven witnessed them grow.
“My grandpa, we had talks about lots of issues, and he really listened,” she says. “For instance, we helped him understand why some people, black people in particular, were offended by the Confederate flag. He only looked at it through the 'heritage, not hate' view, before we showed him the other side of it. He slowly came to understand the other view, even if he didn’t fully agree with it.”
And so, Raven works to help others grow and understand, too. It’s why she’s leading Tucker’s Diversity Council, and why she asked to volunteer at the final Unmasking event earlier this month. In a time of rampant divisiveness, she looks for every opportunity to bring her community together, she listens and she acts. There’s a lesson for all of us in that.
“I think it really starts with each of us, as people, as individuals. I know that I’m wrong about a lot of things, that I don’t know a lot of things, that I don’t understand a lot of things — and that’s OK. We talk, we get to know each other, we try to see where we’re all coming from. That’s how we start. That’s how we make things better for all of us.”
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