Duluth man overcomes adversity, helps community

Stephan Witherspoon at the downtown Starbucks location. Photo by: Jack Day

Stephan Witherspoon grew up in a three-and-a-half-bedroom house with 11 siblings in the Central Hillside in Duluth, Minnesota. He is living a great life now working as an African American Community Leader at the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, but it took numerous drastic events that occurred for him to get to where he is today.

When Witherspoon was 10 years old, he was playing at a park and got called the N word for the first time. This event changed him, and he began fighting as a ten year old kid.

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

The racial tension got so bad that he decided to move out of Duluth and go live in Houston with his sister for awhile. But when he came back to Duluth, he experienced the most traumatic event. In 1994, there was a triple homicide that took the lives of his brother and his two best friends.

“That was devastating to the family man,” Witherspoon said. “The media called my house and apologized because they were trying to talk the murderer up, while making my brother look bad.”

After this event occurred, Witherspoon 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 started a group with his brother called Soul Profits . Even though singing the blues was fun for him, Witherspoon was still having a difficult time with his life.

“I wanted to get out of all the trauma,” Witherspoon said. “ So for about a year and a half, I was on crack cocaine.”

Witherspoon 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,” Witherspoon 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.”

After that day, Witherspoon put himself in a treatment center to get his life back on track. 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.

Stephan’s younger brother Solomon knew that he was going through such devastating times, but didn’t doubt his older brother.

“He’s been to the destitute of life, and he was able to overcome adversities that mentally and physically kill people,” Solomon said.

Solomon Witherspoon grew up watching his brother turn into the humble man he is today. Through all of the hardship that’s occurred within the 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 challenge,” Solomon said. “He had the mindset that if he failed, he would keep going until he is victorious.”

Stephan Witherspoon now belongs to a long list of organizations: Lincoln Park Children and Families Collaborative , Voices for Racial Justice , Policy Champs, Cross Cultural Alliance Duluth, etc. He said he wants kids of color to have an easier life growing up than he did.

“I just wanna make sure that kids of color, low income, and people in poverty are validated and have the resources they need to succeed,” Witherspoon said. “My mission is to get a cultural center up and going on the Hillside, and bring that back to life so kids and families have a safe haven.”

Witherspoon knows that there are a lot of people who have a difficult time succeeding because of how they are brought up. 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 Witherspoon being an African American Community Coach, that number is down to about 35–40 percent.

For his job, Witherspoon makes court call reminders, makes sure kids get to court, and he even picks up the kids if they are unable to find another ride. He also does cultural activities with the kids, cooks with them, and talks about accountability, responsibility, and the importance of education.

Solomon Witherspoon 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.”

Witherspoon 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.”