Richmond Promise looks to local standout to ‘lead by example’

Richmond Promise looks to local standout to ‘lead by example’
Chris Whitmore (Photo by James Lyons)

By Kathy Chouteau

The Richmond Promise’s new executive director is a homegrown Richmond resident and college graduate who has carved out a successful career path that embodies the aims of the organization he now leads.

On Sept. 27, Christopher Whitmore, formerly chief of staff for the Office of Richmond Mayor Tom Butt,  began his new role as executive director of the Promise, a college scholarship and guidance program established in 2014 with a 10-year, $35 million investment from Chevron Richmond.  Nearly 2,000 scholarship recipients are actively attending college, and with applications currently open for 2022-2023, hundreds of additional scholars are poised to follow in their footsteps.

Whitmore is the Promise’s second executive director, succeeding Jessie Stewart, who successfully led the program from its inception. A former collegiate athlete and accomplished runner, Stewart is now Director of Community Engagement & Strategic Partnerships at the Cameron Institute at UC Berkeley. Whitmore lauded her leadership of the Promise “through its crucial first five years of operation.”

“M time working within the organization has put me even more in awe of Jessie’s leadership based on what she was able to help accomplish,” Whitmore said, calling her a local superstar.

Whitmore is a local superstar in his own right. His personal career trajectory serves as both an example of the Promise’s key goals as well as his personal vision for the program. Along with inspiring college graduates, Whitmore said he wants to further invest in the work of the Promise’s career-pathway efforts, such as its Career Mentorship Program, so that students deciding to return to Richmond have a network of employers and career mentors “readily available to help them through to a career path.”

One effort in this vein is the organization’s new partnership with Health Career Connection that will see a staff member join their team to help and support scholars interested in health careers.

It’s just one example of a broader effort by the Promise that is now being led by one of Richmond’s own. Whitmore says it’s always been his goal to “give back to this community through good public service.”

‘Homegrown Leadership’

Whitmore graduated from Washington Elementary and Leadership Public Schools in Richmond and then Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he earned a degree in Political Science. After college, he pursued a career in government in Washington, D.C. working for then U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (FL), eventually circling back to the Bay Area for positions with Rep. Mark DeSaulnier and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission—before ending up in Richmond’s Office of the Mayor.

He said he feels fortunate that, “as a young person of color from Richmond, I was able to do the things that I’ve done,” including going to college and to the U.S. Capitol “to experience how our country runs.”

Although the Promise didn’t exist when Whitmore was growing up, his version of it—promoting a college graduating culture and future career pathways like the nonprofit he now leads—came from his family. His parents, active Richmond community advocates Linda and Vernon Whitmore, as well as his grandparents and late uncle—a longtime president at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis—were all educators.

“The majority of my elders were educators and they were focusing specifically on helping elevate black people and the educational and degree attainment of people of color,” said Whitmore about his family, noting that their commitment to education always had a “really strong presence” in his life.

“My family was a network in-and-of-itself when it came to education,” he added. He said he feels “really privileged by that” and hopes to bring that same type of support to young people in Richmond.

Building A College-Success Culture

In the past, Whitmore said, the conversation was about getting young people to college. But today, thanks in large part to the Promise, the conversation today is about “getting students to-and-through-college,” he said.

Impacts from the ongoing pandemic have made that goal more difficult for many students, Whitmore said. The pandemic uncovered a lot of basic needs gaps for post-secondary students, such as food insecurity, housing instability, a digital divide and insufficient transportation, he said.

“If you’re sitting down at your laptop with a hungry stomach, you’re not focusing on your academics in the way in which you should be,” he said.

The organization has launched a Scholar Resiliency Fund to help students “meet the emergencies of life” and “their basic needs” so that scholars can stay focused on their academics and graduate.

The fund also aligns with another one of Whitmore’s goals for the Promise, making sure that its services are equitable and supportive of all of its students, including those who could potentially “fall through the cracks” due to extenuating circumstances such as homelessness or foster care—for starters.

“I want to make sure that that our programming is capturing and thinking about equity,” said Whitmore.

Whitmore said the organization is launching a partnership with Tech Exchange to distribute high quality, refurbished laptops permanently, an effort to bridge the divide for students who can’t afford a laptop. Separately, the Promise also received a donation of printers that it is distributing to students in need.

Whitmore’s Eclectic Interests

Despite his busy schedule, Whitmore does find time for personal hobbies. He enjoys playing tennis on Richmond’s many public tennis courts, particularly outside The Plunge. He also enjoys spending time outdoors, producing music on his laptop and designing Richmond-inspired clothes with his brother, Andrew, via their 1905 Clothing Company (1905 was the year the city was founded).

Whitmore’s many plans for the Promise, however, will surely keep him well occupied. He’s excited about that opportunity. He said that, as someone who grew up in Richmond and returned to help make this community “more equitable and prosperous” for those who need those things the most, “I do feel like that I’m in a unique position to lead the Promise by example.”

Learn more about the Richmond Promise here.