Part 1: Inside the Life of Kelli Lemon
Who is Kelli Lemon? A self-described cheerleader, Kelli embodies anything and everything that is good about the city of Richmond. If my personal analysis is not enough evidence for you, Kelli was named by Richmond Magazine as the number two most likely person to embody the spirit of Richmond; the mayor was number one. Kelli is a social consultant — driven to build inclusive communities and connections through her passions: sports, food, arts, and education. She told me that we might all be strangers, but somehow all of us have a connection to something in one of those categories. Kelli hosts a video series, Coffee with Strangers, that seeks to highlight different people around the city of Richmond. Since she often interacts with strangers one-on-one in these videos, she is always searching for common ground with people. If you have ever seen one of these episodes, you know that Kelli has an effect on strangers that turns everyone she meets into a friend. She accomplishes this in part because she allows herself the space to be herself fully and offers everyone she meets the same chance, me included. As much as I was interviewing her and focusing on listening well, she offered me the same opportunities to be myself and respond. As soon as we found common ground, which was often during our conversation, Kelli then took that opportunity to press in and affirm me for my feelings, while providing more insight into her own experience. It is this sense and passion for finding common ground that led her to open up Urban Hang Suite RVA.
Urban Hang Suite RVA is a coffee shop built on an important mantra: “Coffee, Connections, and Culture.” The front half of the coffee shop is a normal shop like the one that you most likely can imagine, but the back half of the Urban Hang Suite RVA lives up to its name. Tables, TVs, music, magazines, and an artist casually painting in the back are just some of the things you’ll find in the back of the coffee shop. Kelli explained to me that it’s all about creating an inclusive community that breathes and creates a flow of ideas and beliefs. She told me culture is such a complex word but the best way we can understand it is by not just talking but by communicating. Communicating is comprised of not only talking but also listening, which is equally important. True listening reinforces the goal of maintaining an inclusive environment. She told me that when we often communicate to strangers we have the same conversation over and over again: “Hey, how’s it going?” followed by “Good, you?” which simply ends a conversation. Kelli’s philosophy on conversations are a little different: she approaches these conversations assuming that the person will respond saying, “Actually, I’m not doing well.” This allows her to be in a mentality that means if she is willing to strike up a conversation with a person, she is also willing to press in further and not just exit after saying “good.” It also gives her space to be the agent of change in a conversation and start by being vulnerable instead of just saying she’s doing “good.” Kelli is so intentional about seeing and knowing others that she has included it in every aspect of her life: her coffee shop, her restaurant, her videos, her radio talk shows, this interview with me, her past, present, and future. Kelli loves people and her greater community, and she has built her life on that love and passion.
When Kelli moved to Richmond during her junior year of high school, it was a culture shock for her. Her family lived in Yorktown before where her high school experience had been very diverse. Her family moved from Yorktown to Hanover, Richmond where she attended Atlee High School. She now found herself in a majority white high school where fitting in became very difficult. She would go to class and go to work at Foot Locker during the week, but on the weekends would spend her time in downtown Richmond. She fell in love with the city and would count down the days during the week until she could go back. When her classmates found out where she was spending her time, she noted that they became very nervous about her safety. She told me she would often get the response, “Where are you going!?! It’s not safe there!” She found herself split between what felt like two totally different cities. She became close with some of her classmates at Atlee and also became close with friends on the other side of the city, and it seemed like there was no crossover in her friendships. She joined the cheer team at Atlee and this dynamic was only worse for football games. Atlee would play schools from the opposite side of town, such as Armstrong High. She would start the games on the sidelines cheering for her team, but then after the game was up she would immediately go to the opposing side’s field to hang out with her friends. She fit in with both sides, and while at the time she said it was difficult, now looking back at that time Kelli told me it made her the woman she is today. She cares for all parts of Richmond, and her time in high school is where that comes from. She existed in two completely different circles of life and made lasting relationships in both. Now as she seeks to build inclusive communities, this is her best strength. Her relationships and ability to connect people from different places. She summed it up to me by explaining that her time as a cheerleader never came to an end. In high school, she cheered for her football team. And now, she’s cheering for the city of Richmond.
Kelli found herself in a similar situation attending the University of Virginia. She would often come back home and have people question her decision to attend UVa of all places. “Why not attend an HBCU?” “Why choose UVa?” Her response has always been the same: “You won’t get this kind of experience anywhere else.” She explained to me that her time at UVa taught her how to deal with racism with her head held high. Her African-American peers bonded together and were impacted by all the alumni that would come and visit and talk about their experiences. These alumni left such a lasting impact on her that she now never misses a Black Alumni Weekend at UVa. She told me that when the tragic events in August took place, she, along with the rest of the African-American alumni, were not surprised. All it did was give them more reason to go back and support the African-American students at the university. She told me that she’s observed less and less African-American students wanting to attend the university; noticing even some warning their younger friends not to even apply. With this struggle in mind, Kelli now returns to Charlottesville with a mission to empower and encourage her people. She now responds to the question, “Oh you went to UVa?” with a blunt response, “I didn’t just go here, my people built this university as well.” She told me this is why she feels lead to keep going back. Her mission is clear: “Making sure the African-American student presence is known and their voices are heard.”
I shouldn’t have been shocked to hear that Kelli has been passionate about inclusive communities since high school. Yet, to be honest, I kind of was. It’s one thing to hear about the amazing communities Kelli is building now in her adult life, but it’s another to hear her retell how she did the same thing as a high school student. Kelli’s past is continually impacting her present: from the places she’s been, people she’s met, to the passions that have been impressed in her from the start. These past experiences continually inform how Kelli makes decisions. But what makes Kelli Lemon really special is that not only has her past experiences impacted her present, but she remains engaged with her past to this day. Kelli remains friends with the people she met in high school, both at Atlee and those she met on the opposite end of the city. Kelli goes back to UVa every year to fellowship and learn from the people she met when she attended the university. Kelli’s past communities have not only impacted her life today, but they remain her life today. Kelli has taught me that community and passion are strongest when we don’t pressure ourselves to find the “perfect” fit. Wherever she is, whoever she is with, and whatever her role might be, it is an opportunity for Kelli to roll up her sleeves and get to work. Read the rest of the interview next week in “Part 2: Inside the Mind of Kelli Lemon.”