A Conversation with D.L. Richardson

“My students, in their impatience, have taught me patience,” says Richardson, a longtime leader for education equity in Southern Oregon and new FBO Board member.

D.L. Richardson (bottom right) with his mother Beulah (center), his sisters, and his nieces and nephews. Courtesy of D.L. Richardson.
D.L. Richardson (bottom right) with his mother Beulah (center), his sisters, and his nieces and nephews. Courtesy of D.L. Richardson.

Louis Wheatley is Strategic Communications Director at Foundations for a Better Oregon.

Louis Wheatley is Strategic Communications Director at Foundations for a Better Oregon.

Foundations for a Better Oregon (FBO) is thrilled to welcome D.L. Richardson, a longtime educator and champion for education equity in Southern Oregon, to the FBO Board of Directors.

D.L. currently serves as the Southern Oregon Black and African American Student Success Specialist for the Southern Oregon Education Service District, working with students, educators, district administrators, and partners across the region to address disparities in access and outcomes. Originally from Selma, Alabama, he is also a leader with the Black Southern Oregon Alliance, a community-based organization that connects, celebrates, and advocates for the Black community in Southern Oregon. To learn more about his leadership, read our announcement of D.L.’s election to FBO’s Board of Directors.

In a new interview with FBO, D.L. shares his appetite for history, his faith in his students, his love for Sade, and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You grew up in Selma, Alabama. Do you feel any strong parallels between your childhood home and your home today in Southern Oregon?

There are some parallels that have unfortunately come closer in the last few years. The racism and the way African American individuals and communities are seen here is closer to my days growing up than when I first came to Oregon. When I got here [20 years ago], people were more open. I knew coming in that there was a racist history, and I saw it when I got here. There was a point where I felt we had moved forward. But in the past couple of years, we've moved back, unfortunately, to a place where people are scared to talk about race. 

There was a point where in Alabama, I felt like if you didn't like me because of the color of my skin, we could get through that—because I didn’t like you because you didn’t like me because of the color of my skin. Whereas in Oregon, the one thing I always noticed is what has been coined as 'polite racism.’ There's a fear of talking about race, for fear of what it might do, or what it could bring up.

If we don't talk about race, then we can never get past what really is at the root of our problems. I hope now, we're finally at least understanding that we have to have conversation, we have to have discussion, and then we can get to a better point than we ever have been before.

You’re a great student and scholar of history. How would you describe the importance of understanding history to solving today’s problems?

Why would we want to repeat the same mistakes? If you do the same thing over and over again, why do you expect it to change? We get stuck in this mindset: Well, we tried this. Now let's try it that way—just a little bit different. I think Albert Einstein said insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. That applies to education and all work.

First, we have to acknowledge and realize there’s a problem. Then, how do we make sure that that problem is attacked and approached in a way that is not damaging and really brings something positive? 

To be honest, I feel a greater appetite and attitude from African Americans to look at history and think about how we can change the things that have been in place. We do that by talking about it, and not ignoring the fact that it happened. But a lot of people in Oregon, and a lot of my white counterparts, have done everything they can to still think: Well, if we don't talk about it, then maybe it will go away and we don't have to worry about it. That's not the way life works.

You’ve also taught college courses on journalism, public speaking, and media at Southern Oregon University. What power do you see in storytelling and communications to drive change?

One of the great people who surrounded Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker. He was one of those folks who saw the importance of storytelling to keep the civil rights movement alive. There were so many times where the civil rights movement almost failed, but Dr. Walker would come up with ideas to move the work forward. How do we make sure the civil rights movement is important to the people who are looking at it, to the people who are part of it, and to the people who need to be affected by it?

One of my favorite things that Dr. Walker talked about and really made possible—and which King would carry out—was the need to utilize the media in the best way possible. Because to do things differently, you first have to see where the evil is in place. Then you expose that evil in the media and tell the story about what it is doing. And then we can move forward, because everyone else would get involved in what we have exposed and shown and done. 

That has stuck in my mind over the years. And it applies not just to evil, but to the positive. I have to see and then expose the positive, so you know what's happening, why it's so important for all of us to be a part of it, and then move forward with that positive.

How does working directly with youth shape the way you think about making systemic change for youth, whether throughout a school district or across the state?

One of my favorite lines from King is when he said his grandfather was a preacher, his father was a preacher, and so he had no choice in the matter—no choice but to be a preacher. It was the same with me: My mother was a teacher, my sister was a teacher. I think my grandmother, in her way, was a teacher. And so I had no choice in the matter. I knew I would be a teacher. I tried to run away from it, but I knew eventually I would be. And it's one of my favorite things to have done. Being able to encourage kids, and have those kids encourage me, has been incredible. 

When I listen to students on some of the Governor’s task forces, they make me go, You know, I actually didn't think about that. I didn't really I didn't think about the importance of that. That goes for all of our students: If you ever get to a point where you feel like all you do is teach, that the job is just to impart wisdom, then you have lost all of the positive influence you can have. What's more important is that you're not only giving knowledge, but you're accepting the knowledge that these young people are sharing with you. All you’ve got to do is listen to it.

They’re telling us what we should be doing to improve race relations in our state. They’re telling us what we should be doing to keep kids living and working in the state of Oregon, and bringing about the change that they need to see. Some of our kids can't wait to leave Oregon because they don't see anything being positively done for them or about them. At that point, they say, If you listen, we'll tell you how you're going to keep me and how you're going to keep people like me here

That's what I think we need to do even more than we're doing now. We’ve got to stop thinking about them as kids, and start thinking about them as the young adults that they are and how they can bring about that difference.

What excites you most about how Black communities are organizing in Southern Oregon to support children and young people?

This is probably the biggest parallel I've seen between where I grew up and what I’m now seeing in Southern Oregon. The way I was brought up, my community made sure that we took pride in who we were, took pride in our color, took pride in our families, took pride in ourselves. I think that’s what’s happening now in our state—not that it wasn’t happening before, but you are certainly seeing the reenergizing moment that we had in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It's not exactly the same, but it's very similar in the sense of our pride.

This moment is exciting. When all of us in Oregon start loving ourselves, we can open up and start to have that love for one another regardless of what our background may be. Once we move to that point, we can start being proud of each other. Once we’re all proud of each other, we can finally be proud of our state and the work we have done to get there. Then our kids have a reason to be proud of us as well.

So many things are put in place to try to keep us from doing that. It was the Klan back then, and it's the Proud Boys now. All these things that work so hard to try to keep us separated. A lot has knocked us down, especially in Southern Oregon. We lost Aiden Ellison, the young man who was senselessly killed just last year because he was playing his radio too loud. There has to be a point where we stop this. If I've been surprised by anything, it’s not how slowly we move forward, but how quickly we move backwards.

Our kids and the empowerment they’re feeling will be the change. Students are pushing back, saying, Wait a minute: We can't just let the adults be the ones who decide this. If we're going to have a change, we need to be the ones who step up. Yes, I’m in Southern Oregon, in a place where there's not that many people like me, but I'm stepping up. And I'm going to make a movement. If there’s going to be a difference, I'm going to start it myself. 

It’s been exciting to see our kids step up this way. I’ve seen it in the work we've done with our Black Youth Leadership Summit in Southern Oregon, as well as the work we started with the Black Youth Summer Institute. I’m so proud of them.

What are your students today teaching you in return about leadership?

Believe it or not, my students teach me how to be patient. It's usually the other way around. My students, in their impatience, have taught me patience. 

There are points where, when you get my age, you get tired. We've been fighting for 30 or 40 years, or even before my time. I get to a point where I'm so upset, I want to move forward without thinking about it. But I realize that if I don't do it correctly, if I don't do it in a patient way, then young people will be the ones to suffer more than me. I can't have that on my conscience: that my students suffered because I did something in an impatient way. This has helped me to slow down, rethink, approach them and ask them how they would approach it as well, and then move forward.

That doesn’t mean I don’t attack a problem or work quickly, but it does help me understand that I'm fighting for something greater than me. That's what my family and my people also taught me: When you're doing things, you're not just doing it for yourself. You're doing it to make life better for the people behind you, who are depending on you to do so.

If you ever get to a point where you feel like all you do is teach, that the job is just to impart wisdom, then you have lost all of the positive influence you can have.

IMAGE: Finding rest on the fairway, D.L. Richardson carts his University of Alabama golf bag at the Bandon Dunes golf course.

What's the best gift you've ever received?

The best gift I've ever been given is knowledge. Knowledge from my grandmother, my mother, and my godfather. Those are my gifts because they have stood the test of time.

What's the first live music performance that you ever saw?

Oh my goodness. I've been to so many great concerts that I can't even remember which was the actual first one. My favorite has always been Sade. I grew up in the early days of hip hop and remember taking my youngest sister to see Salt 'N Pepa. 

One of my favorite concerts was U2 and Public Enemy together in Birmingham, Alabama. It was incredible. It showed how we could come together. When you have a huge, white pop group like U2 with a Black consciousness duo like Public Enemy coming together to give a concert in the state of Alabama—if you can do that, you can do anything.

What do you wake up to?

My wake-up alarm is a song by Sade. It puts me in a good mood to start the day.

What do you find impossible to resist?

Work, I guess. [Laughter] I do my best to say no to things, and yet I never do. Whether it's going out and helping people, or going to a meeting that’s hopefully going to result in something positive, I’ll try to say no. And then invariably within ten minutes, I’ll call back and say, “You know what, I'll be there.”

That's the reason I play golf. I'm horrible at golf but it helps to relieve my mind. But it's hard to resist work. When people call and need some form of help, I can't turn them down.

Where do you go to be alone?

A bubble bath. No one bothers me there. I turn on my music—usually Sade—and I just listen and try to drown out everything around me.

The other thing everyone knows about me is to never call me during a University of Alabama football game. I'm not going to pick up the phone. I'm not going to listen. Whether I'm screaming at the TV because they’re losing or I’m excited because they’re winning, that is my time. I’ve had friends ask, “Hey, can I come watch the game with you?” And the answer is always no. That is the only ‘no’ I have to give you.