Upper Arlington Schools: Pleasant Litchford Fund created to support diversity initiatives

Nate Ellis
ThisWeek group
Drew Bradford and Avery Meier, fifth-graders at Windermere Elementary, read from "The Big Umbrella," a book the Change Makers groups at Windermere and Greensview Elementary are reading to drive discussions about belonging. Change Makers was a program created at the two schools for fourth- and fifth-grade students to learn more about diversity, equity and inclusion.

A new fund established by the Upper Arlington Education Foundation and Equal Upper Arlington seeks to honor a portion of the community’s past and strengthen diversity, equity and inclusion.

In 2020, the Upper Arlington Education Foundation (UA+Ed), a nonprofit that provides funds to enrich Upper Arlington Schools activities and programs, teamed with Equal UA, a citizen’s organization dedicated to building a more inclusive, equitable and welcoming community, to establish the Pleasant Litchford Fund.

The UA+Ed’s 55th endowment seeks to honor its namesake an African-American, master blacksmith who had been enslaved in Virginia. 

After buying his own freedom sometime before 1842, Litchford settled in Perry Township, the area that is now Upper Arlington. He built a successful business and purchased the land where Upper Arlington High School, Northam Park and Tremont Elementary School sit.

Among his contributions were the establishment of a school for Black children and being a founding member of the historic Second Baptist Church, which provided an important voice in the anti-slavery movement.

Litchford died in 1879 at the age of 89.

“The designated purpose of the Pleasant Litchford Fund is to further the mission of Equal Upper Arlington within the Upper Arlington School District by supporting programs, materials and opportunities that promote diversity, equity, inclusiveness, empathy, compassion and respectful engagement among Upper Arlington students, staff and families,” said Alice Finley, UA+Ed executive director.  

Finley said it takes a minimum of $10,000 to create an endowment. The funds then are invested and no more than 4% may be used in a given year, thereby ensuring the fund grows and operates into perpetuity.

While the UA+Ed doesn’t disclose donation amounts, it recognized Upper Arlington School Board member Carol Mohr for a “generous contribution that endowed the fund in 2020.”

The fund has been endorsed by members of the Litchford family who still live in central Ohio.

Toya Williams, 51, of Gahanna is the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Litchford. She said she supported the UA+Ed and Equal UA when they approached her about creating the fund because she and family members believe it can help open people minds and hearts about diversity, equity and inclusion.

“I’m so happy that Upper Arlington is acknowledging their history and owning up to their to the fact that their history started prior to 1918 (the city’s founding),” Williams said. “This is something that could have stayed buried for a very long time.

“I know Upper Arlington wants to have a welcoming community, and that’s part of the mission statement of the endowment. We’re just trying to make it a better place, and it’s very important to bring education.”  

Williams added her families members are pleased that the fund is in line with ideals for which Litchford was known.

“He was a man of faith, family and education,” she said. “Pleasant Litchford was a man who was about paying it forward before that term was even fashionable.

“He was a community leader who sought to help out his fellow man. I’m very proud of that.”

Since its establishment, the Litchford Fund has provided funding to support the Upper Arlington High School “Ambassadors of Change,” a group of 80 students working to build a connected community where everyone is embraced for their unique differences.

Four professional storytellers and social activists, Lyn Ford, Tripp Fontane, Erin O’Neill and Donte Woods-Spikes, are mentoring the students. 

“There are people who do not think racism exists in Upper Arlington,” said Trisha Fellinger, an Ambassadors of Change advisor. “These students want to craft and share their personal stories in ways that will allow them to be heard and empower positive change.”

Additionally, the fund supported Change Makers, a service-learning program through which about 40 fourth- and fifth-graders from Greensview and Windermere elementary schools are working to promote a more welcoming and inclusive community.

Change Makers was created by Laura Kunkel, a counselor at Greensview, and Katie O’Keefe, a counselor at Windermere.

Through the program, the students discuss issues of racial and social justice via weekly Zoom video conferences, and they’ve shared what they’re discussing and learning in emails with parents.

“Currently, we are working to put together two projects for the community – videos highlighting how we increase belonging in our community and facemasks featuring student artwork with messages about inclusivity,” Kunkle said. “For the video project, we had one group of students serve as script writers, a second group of students serve as actors and a third group of students serve as video editors.

“For the facemask project, we had one group of students serve as facemask artists, a second group of students serve as art editors and a third group serve as marketers.”

O’Keefe said an order for the custom-designed facemasks is expected to arrive soon. From there, students hope to spread their messages encouraging students and adults to wear the masks.

Students are asking for $5 donations to cover production costs so they can return the funding they received to the Litchford Fund and help support future projects.

“This group is special because it empowers young kids to realize they make a difference in their community and fosters authentic learning experiences,” O’Keefe said. “They not only learn academic skills like writing and technology, but they also learn important life skills like leadership, communication, and collaboration, not to mention citizenship and social responsibility.

“This group allows them to meet students that are different from them and work together on a common goal.”

Students involved in the project said they’re learning new skills, including art design, video production and marketing, while also championing diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We’re making videos and masks that will have a message making people feel like they belong and be allies to other people,” said Penelope Thrush, a Greensview fifth-grader. “If people spread the message everybody will start to be allies and be nice to other people and be kind.

“I keep coming to Change Makers because I enjoy writing scripts and being together (with the other students) on Zoom planning stuff. (I like) knowing that I am making a better community and that I’m making people be allies.”

Amaya Gonzalez Adams, a fifth-grader at Windermere, said she joined Change Makers to improve the community “and to try to make everyone feel like they belong.”

“I learned what an ally is and I wrote some of the script for the video,” Adams said. “The video was to spread the word of ally’s and making people feel like they belong.”

Equal UA Board of Directors member Michelle Montgomery said the students’ projects are examples of how the Litchford Fund will help further her organization’s mission to create a welcoming community and nurture a sense of belonging.

“Students and staff in our schools will have additional resources for programs that embrace differences that make us unique,” Montgomery said. “We are thankful to Pleasant Litchford’s descendants, who have graciously given their permission for us to name this fund in his honor.”

nellis@thisweeknews.com

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