By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Had Raymond Whitfield died four decades earlier than he did, the labels would have been simple and distressing: petty thief, cocaine-heroin user and dealer, ex-convict caught up in prison's relentless revolving door.
But when he died of cancer at age 77 Aug. 2 at his home in the District, the labels had changed dramatically: college graduate, radio host and producer, co-founder of an organization to help foster-care youth, certified addictions specialist, founder and president of an organization to help former inmates fit back into the community.
In 1984, the self-described "urban warrior" co-founded the Center for Youth Development, one of the nation's first bridge programs designed to help foster-care youth become independent adults. The Washington program, which also trained child-care workers, was replicated in Baltimore and New York. From 1987 to 1996, Mr. Whitfield was director of programs for the Washington Area Council of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Inc.
He became a producer and host on WPFW (89.3 FM), Washington's Pacifica station, in 1978. Focusing on the criminal justice system, he produced and hosted two nationally distributed radio series: "The Inside-Outside Media Collective" and "Youth at Risk."
Mr. Whitfield also hosted a show that gave inmates at the former Lorton prison an opportunity to speak on the air and to hear from families and friends. More recently, he produced and hosted "Crossroads: Where Criminal and Social Justice Meet," a series focusing on issues that affect both incarcerated people and their families.
He worked as a treatment specialist for the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions and was founder and president of Alternative Experiences, a counseling and training organization that assisted men and women who were confronting demons not unlike those that nearly destroyed a young Ray Whitfield.
He was born in New Bern, N.C., and grew up in New York. "I started smoking reefers [marijuana cigarettes] when I was about 12 in Brooklyn," he told The Washington Post in 1988. "It was something to do. I later dropped out of school, because I couldn't see any clear connection between going to school and what I could do with it afterward. There were no role models to show me. My role models were numbers runners and gamblers, so I started hustling. I was introduced to heroin at about 17."
A multiple substance abuser -- marijuana, alcohol, heroin -- he robbed liquor stores and sold drugs to support his habits. "I was a good seller, but I was a bad manager of money," he recalled in an oral history, privately published in 1999.
Arrested for the first time at age 25, he spent the next 15 years in and out of New York prisons. He added cocaine to his list of substances in the late 1960s.
"I was making thousands of dollars a day," he told The Post. "But the other dope fiends were trying to take me off [kill him]. I was paying off cops, looking over my shoulder, and it was just wearying."
Mr. Whitfield was 42 when he found a methadone maintenance program that at last helped him kick his multiple habits. He got his general equivalency diploma and an associate's degree in public administration at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn in 1975.
That year, he moved to Washington to become a student at American University. "I was looking for a clean start," he said in the oral history.
While working as a resident adviser with AU students less than half his age, Mr. Whitfield received a bachelor's degree in political science in 1977. He received a master's degree in education and human development from George Washington University in 2004.
"Someone once said that Ray was the kind of person who could be best friends with the Lord and the devil," said Markus Williams, who met Mr. Whitfield when both were students at AU. Williams, a Bethesda writer and founder of Identity Television, called Mr. Whitfield "the most commanding figure" he had ever known.
His marriages to Dorothy Jones Whitfield, Marva Wiggins Whitfield and Gloria Whitfield ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 12 years, Noerena Abookire of Washington; two daughters from his second marriage, Rukiyah Whitfield and Kim Whitfield, both of Brooklyn; a son from another relationship, Malik Burgess of New York; and five grandchildren.