I am finding all over America that people are sick and tired of the tweedle-dee dees and the tweedle-dee dums who constantly flip-flap from one side to another. People are interested in having candidates that are truthful. Shirley Chisholm
One of Nikuyah Walker’s (s)heros is Shirley Chisholm; she has been known to quote Chisholm when she needs to make a point. I find the above quote apropos to contextualizing Walker’s campaign slogan Unmasking the Illusion, which for her suggested redressing the inequalities at the heart of Charlottesville’s social and governmental systems. Prior to her run for office, a select few knew Walker as a champion for the under dog but, through interactions at such places as Blue Ribbon Commission and City Council meetings, she made her presence known to the broader community. From the inception of Walker’s run for office, the slogan filled some with trepidation and others with a sense of rescue. For those who were paying attention, it was no surprise the kind of campaign she would run. Her announcement of her candidacy at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in March 2017, heralded her knowledge that she was embarking on a historic candidacy. For others who saw her as a dark horse, coming out of no where, they were shocked by her ferocious challenge of the status quo. Announcing as an independent, she defied the odds—an independent had not won a council seat in 48 years. Her win would also mean that for the first time ever, two African Americans would serve on council simultaneously.
Hers was a grass roots campaign that eschewed the trappings of the modern tradition of democratic dominance of Charlottesville politics. Her election put her on a short list of African Americans who have held council seats. Of the six total, she is one of two that were actually born and raised in Charlottesville. Walker is familiar with Hardy drive and a product of Charlottesville schools. Her family is generations old and well known in the African American community. She is familiar with the criminal justice system and with social services. She has been both a recipient and a service provider. Nonetheless, she was seen by some as an outsider whose run for office was Herculean. As events of the spring and summer began to unfold, and her voice against the status quo became more strident, many began to join her campaign. Her camp became the most diverse—her supporters ranging in age, economics and race. Her campaign was so unorthodox, that within three days of the election in a last ditch effort to derail her efforts, the local press sought to discredit her. Chris Suarez of the Daily Progress in his November 3rd article declared her to be “unabashedly aggressive” and emails sent to members of council as incendiary. Even with this, and having raised almost one-third less than her democratic opponents Heather Hill and Amy Laufer combined, Walker prevailed. On November 7th, Walker, whose win the local pressed described as an upset, had garnered 29% of the vote winning over Heather Hill by 200 votes.
I sat with Walker a few weeks after her decisive win. In this setting there is a stark contrast between the person who stood in council chambers on August 21 and the woman I sat with. From her stalwart activism it would be hard to believe that the 37 year old mother of three is an introvert. She describes herself as academically capable but while growing up, distracted. She prefers quiet and the domesticity of life with her children. She prefers time spent with her mother and grandmother, both of whom are strong influences on her. Because of their examples she is keenly aware of the power of women and the need to seek guidance from ancestors. She prefers the company of books and close friends. What comes out most resoundingly in speaking with Walker is that she has always been a champion of those who could not fight on their own. It is this deep seated trait that suggests Walker’s tenure on council.
What is your most single most vivid memory about growing up in Charlottesville?
It was painful. It was chaotic. Most of the people—you lived and felt the struggle so it wasn’t very comfortable. And you saw your family struggle and you saw your family members and court system, prisons, social services and so it was constantly kind of a fight to get out of those places which is not fun.
Thinking about your education in Charlottesville, what’s your general sense of your education—not the quality of the education system but your particular education—do you feel like it prepared you?
No, I wasn’t prepared. You had to be a fighter to make it through college. There are people you can fool but then there are people who are serious and on it. You meet very few of them. I tell my kids now, that you will meet very few who want you to be prepared for any situation that you might encounter. And I only met a few of those people in my life. And it was a struggle to even get to college and was a different requirement. I spent so much time in school fighting, and I mean fighting the institution of public school, that I don’t know what I learned. When teachers would talk down to us, I would take up the fight for everyone. I saw Ms. (Anne) Carter I’m sure she was the art teacher over at Buford, at PVCC a couple of years ago and she said girl you look well. I thought you were going to have a hard life but you look real good. And that was me. Mr. Leatherwood said that I gave him so many gray hairs. I was just always protesting something.
You studied criminal justice and graduated with a degree in political science from VCU. Was this because of living in Charlottesville and your environment?
Yes. I don’t have any family members who haven’t spent a significant time in the criminal justice system. It is really hard to make out of this area. I was in tons of fights when I was younger. There has never not been an abundance of drugs for people to sell and what that meant and the potential of it. And you just saw the devastation all the time.
I am 17 and in a federal court building when I hear judge Michael’s call my cousin garbage. He is my cousin so I know that he is not garbage, but my cousins were arrested by JADE (Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement) in 1997. One is a year older than me and the other is two years older. They were in prison until 2011. So arrested at 18 and 20, and in prison until 2011. They were only released then because of the change in the legal distinctions between powder cocaine and crack cocaine. But you sit in court and you hear a judge call your cousin garbage and you are like that’s not right. How can you? You just see it all, and you just want to figure out how to fix it.
In your campaign you often said that Holly Edwards was the reason why you decided to run, but it doesn’t sound like it was only Holly?
When I am talking about Holly I am talking about Holly was the only reason. All Caps. The only reason I would run for a public office. It really didn’t make sense to me to be part of government. I had been a part of it, watching the system. I observed it. I am constantly involved in the government of Charlottesville. Battling them in some way and there is nothing ever that would have made me ever jump into a whole year of campaigning—two months of contemplating, announcing, running and then the rest of year campaigning and having to deal with all of what I have dealt with over the past year without her saying that I think you should do it. And I told her no-like a lot of times. Holly just thought I had a lot to offer.
But it sounds to me though that you’ve always fought the system. You have prepared yourself to fight the system.
I didn’t know I was preparing. I was just fighting.
What strikes me about the makeup of council is that you will be the only person on counsel from Charlottesville. So what do you think that means?
I think it means a lot. I think it takes the numbers out and puts the people in. I can’t tell the story of everyone living here, but I can tell the story of a significant number of people who have lived in Charlottesville. I will never look at anything and think money or data or stats or anything like that. I will always see faces. When they are talking about redevelopment, I can put people in those homes. If they say something about Hardy drive, I can remember my friend and family members living there. I can remember spending the night in cinder block walls and how hard those damn floors are if you drop something. Well, yes, redevelopment should have happened but whose idea was it to build these in the first place. It’s a completely different, you know, I will always see people. I will always hear voices and the experiences of the place. I think that’s one of the things that people don’t understand now because they are always talking about how intense I am, and that’s why. I did some independent studies when I was in college, and I can immediately connect with people and their stories, so it’s never about checking off you met with x for 45 minutes, that’s just not how I operate. Because I know so many of the personal stories it will always be a challenge. So I think that’s one of the main things, and that I always take it so personal, with politics and personal, I don’t know how that’s going to mix, but yeah.
Some will assume that during your tenure on council you will only be interested in the concerns of black people. Is that true?
No not at all. So, I am a black woman, and I have no problem with focusing on black people, period. I have seen our struggle, and it is at my core to help resolve that. But I will fight for anyone. For instance, there is a young, white boy, who has my last name as his middle name, because his mom said he wouldn’t have been there without me. And she was from a middle-class family in the area. So no, I know how to treat people period. What I focus on, is yes, the struggle that I have seen my entire life, but I am doing the work, and I understand the humanity in everyone. I know how to treat people, so there isn’t any client ever that will say, “she was focused on her black clients and not us.” At Johnson one of my old clients came up to me and said: ‘I didn’t know you was running, anyone else you want me to vote for?” She was a white woman. But, I have no problem saying I know who I am and where I am from—I know all the way to my great grandmother, and have seen her struggle as a black woman. She died at 89 years old, while leaving her job as a domestic, she got hit and run over by a car. It was a postal carrier, a white man who everyone knew, was a drunk, but because he’s white in Louisa County, he could do what he wants. So, I know what it is like to be black in America, I have seen what it is like. It cannot be ignored. I did not create it, and until people stop perpetuating it, I will focus on it, proudly.
For Charlottesville to prosper in the ways that you describe—where it’s focused on people—where it’s focused on moving people out of poverty and into lives that are sustainable and qualitative, the City must have a tax base. It demands that Charlottesville be attractive to developers. So how do you reconcile one side with the other?
Well, do you have to railroad people to make it attractive. I mean, my question was, at what point was Charlottesville not an attractive place to live? On the campaign trail, I heard people saying: ‘well I’ve been here for 10 years, no new people need to come,’ or someone saying: ‘I’ve been here for 30 years, why are new people here?’ So there are these transplants who are always wanting to be here, so I don’t think that’s an issue. It’s more about the people that Charlottesville has had in chains since its inception. You just can’t treat people the way that the people who have been in positions of power in Charlottesville have been okay with treating people. So to arrive at change you have to ask, do you value people? Do you see a human being in front of you when you look at people who are from here? The thing is, if you are black, now hispanic people coming in, and we knew they were telling us back in elementary school, that there would be a significant hispanic population coming in, that’s why we needed to learn Spanish, at Buford and Walker. But black people, poor white people, they have never done well here, period. Poor whites suffer the same miseducation and mass incarceration rates as black people. And I was asked when I was campaigning, why do you keep looking at poor white people, and it’s because I know them. Again, when you talk about people you knew, grew up with, walked through the halls at school with, those were white people too, and they didn’t do well here either.
I just hope that people heard me during the entire campaign, that it’s a we, it’s not an I. We have to practice intentional engagement for change to happen in this town. If it can’t happen, with all the resources, with people as liberal they claim they are, with one of the top universities in the country, with the tax base that we have, I don’t know if it is possible anywhere. And so, what do you do? I don’t know if I, especially when you’re talking about um, black kids for instance. Our school system has been failing black kids since integration, so it’s not, oh the past 5 years haven’t been so good, or the past 10 years, it’s been forever, and I just wonder if they have the ability to educate, period. I don’t think so, and it’s scary.
What Chris Long did is not the answer either, to offer funding and put people in a place like Saint Annes Belfield, and say hey, this should improve education. Because when you lose yourself, and I have had friends that say I lost myself for a while, when all you see is and all you think is assimilation, if you don’t have something to hold on to, that’s real. No matter how hard it is then, I think that’s one thing that keeps me going, like at the end of the still I rise video, you see my great grandmother’s mother, my great grandmother, my grandmother, me and my mom, and my kids have had the experience of everybody up to my great grandmother. No matter how hard it is they know that there were people who sacrificed for you, loved you, have had prayers for you, every day, so that your life can be different. And when nothing said it was worth getting up and going to scrub another toilet, at another white person’s house, they did it anyway. And for me, I hold on to that. And I think, you know, what you were talking about, when that shift happened, where people, maybe, you weren’t doing what you wanted to or what you thought you should have been doing or saw other people doing, but you could hold on to the strength that everybody that came and the sacrifices they made to push forward.
by Andrea Douglas and Nikuyah Walker In Her Own Words
Photo captured by Jessica Gabbay at swearing-in ceremony at Charlottesville Circuit Court.