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Do Better: A Conversation with Nikuyah Walker

Written by © Andrea Douglas, MBA, PhD
Photo Credit: Jess Gabbay

A recent advertisement that describes Charlottesville as the center of civilization—with a lower case c—and depicts young white men and women enjoying wine and the freedom to spit, is the center of a new campaign for the area’s tourist board. Many of us first heard about this ad via a Facebook post from Mayor Nikuyah Walker in which she admonished the tourist board to “do better.” This delivery is not unusual since over the course of the year, the mayor has used the social media platform as a means to both inform and to clarify. Almost every Sunday prior to City Council meetings Walker goes “live” to discuss the council’s agenda and offer her opinions. Her tactics are reminiscent of the radio fire side chats employed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the 30s and 40s. Like FDR, Mayor Walker uses this public media to an advantage that allows her to speak unencumbered by the morays of council chambers. The medium is her main tool to achieve her promised campaign goal of revealing the workings of government that most considered opaque. Walker’s desire to directly address the public has shaken the core of the status quo. These choices have led to the obvious consternation of some of her co-council and has caused some members of the general populace to lay the perceived disfunction of government at her feet.

For those of us who sat in chambers on January 2, 2018, when the position of Mayor was being discussed, there was a palpable fear amongst some in the audience that Walker would be nominated and voted in. As former gray haired mayor after mayor, as well as other members of the democratic party elite rose during public comment, to exhort Kathy Galvin’s virtues, we watched Charlottesville’s liberal guard attempt to hold firm against the uninformed masses. As the debate ensued amongst the councilors, the arguments against Walker’s election as mayor became more and more petulant ranging from the problems with having inexperienced people having leadership roles such as occurred with the last council; the unwillingness of Ms.Walker to meet with councilors prior to this first meeting; and finally, the amount of reading that one had to do to prepare for council meetings. This last comment resulted in an audible gasp from the audience with many around me asking if Galvin had just inferred that Walker couldn’t read. To her detractors Mayor Walker responded candidly, signaling, to those who should have been paying close attention, a degree of honesty and vulnerability that could only indicate that they were about to enter a different era of city government. On that occasion and in others, Walker has asserted that she had much to learn but was willing to do the work so that she would be prepared to engage in meaningful debate. She further suggested that she was not interested in cronyism but would govern from an understanding of the plights of marginalized people in our community.

Mayor Walker’s learning curve has been steep and at times unforgiving. On many occasions she has been the sole voice of dissent. But because she is an independent thinker, who relies on the strength of professional experiences as a therapist as well as her maternal influence as a well spring, she faces the consequence of her decisions head on.This includes her decision to call for protest over the selection of Sidney Zemp as interim city manager. She admits that people have had difficulty adjusting to her direct style however, she is more interested in pushing an open conversation than being liked. In a November 2017 Daily Progress article which discussed emails she sent to previous councilors, her approach was described as “unabashedly aggressive.” I sat down with Mayor Walker after she had already completed a twelve hour day to get her impressions of her first year. In my conversation, what became clear was what was described as aggressive, was in fact a sense of urgency and a deep seated desire to achieve equity for the entire community. Her methods, which you will ascertain from her comments, may be more correctly defined as an exuberant advocacy. For observers like myself, her stalwart position appears necessary as she finds herself on the other side of the table in the midst of a strong sentiment of distrust of government and law enforcement by the very people she hopes to support. What she seems to have learned  in this last year however, is that finding allies to help her do the heavy lifting is of paramount importance to her work on council.

At the moment that you need to work through your new challenges, given the pace that you have to keep, given the “humans” that you have had to encounter, given that there is enough new for you to learn. Where do you find your council, your peace in that space?

I try to start the day with some kind of reflection. It really comes in alone time. I try to find people who are doing the work and who have done work or, who are just decent people. Like this morning the quotes I put on Facebook were from Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison talked about freedom and the duty to free ourselves and then understand what that truly means and then, to free other people. My first quote that went up was Alice Walker “whenever you are creating beauty around you, you are restoring your own self” and just reflecting on that. The next quote was “freeing yourself is one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self is another.” Another quote of hers,“the function of freedom is to free someone else.” To know it’s not about you, and to ask what gifts do I have that I can give to the world. But I have this natural loving nature that I get from the women who are in my family that is there automatically. It is a challenge. I try to make sure that I am reading and studying from people who are really doing it. One thing that has kept me going is when people are really sincere about what they are sharing with you. So, I try not to ask for anything from anyone because I don’t want them to have the idea that I owe them anything. I want to be able to stay clear. I have been doing that my entire life. I want to make sure that I stay clear so that there isn’t anyone that can say that I did this for her or, I am the reason that she, or that she is in the position that she is in because.There’s nobody that can say that. If I can’t get it done then it isn’t going to get done. I am not going to someone. I don’t have a circle of people, which I think people should have. I know that I am that person for other people, but it is hard to know who I can trust.That is overwhelming and so I feel like I have to do everything for myself.

Some of the activists groups in the community, I thought that I would be able to say hey, just move in this direction. I thought there would be enough trust for me to be able to tell them and they would trust me. Not like giving orders but, to be able to say this should be what we should be focusing on. Based on every thing that is going on, can you do it on your area, can you do it the way you do it with your area of expertise, to figure out to strategize with some of the major issues that we have? Everybody is so busy competing with one another, trying to one up each other. I don’t care about anything but things getting done right. You can have all the credit. You never have to mention we had this conversation. I don’t need the credit.

I think people just need the praise from other people, or the people who don’t need the praise— they are just like I’m right, I’m right. But maybe you are not. Just being able to understand that maybe a little bit of what they have, a little bit of what I have and a little bit of what you have, is what’s going to bring this together. I saw how easy it is for us to be still in the situation that were are in. Answering the same questions that they were asking in the 50s, in the 20s, that they were asking in the 1890s. If they only knew they were slaves I could have freed more.

I am trained as a therapist so you help people get to a new level. I have that skill but it is different. You cannot work with people that are not willing to grow. It is not your job to push them. It is your job to work with people who are willing even if they are stuck. But, if there is willingness to unlearn and then learn something new, then you can help. I just feel like there are a lot of people who are stuck, and it is a challenge.

On more than one occasion you have said that you were not part of an activist group, although people have tried to put you in that particular box. That you were doing your thing in the way that you do it. And we have talked about the fact that you have always been a champion. But, here you sit in a particular place where the expectation is that you are for everyone and not to be a champion. Is that hard for you? No, because they have not asked that of any of the other councils or former mayors, a significant amount of whom clearly were not passionate about some of the issues that I am passionate about—injustice, equity, diversity, true authentic diversity and inclusion. But no, so if it is something that, or someone that, I didn’t understand or, it is not my work to do with them, I can say no. Just like no one had asked previous councils to be for everyone. If everyone had been for everybody we wouldn’t be having the conversations we are having right now. I don’t care what you think of me so, I walk into a room already like this is a waste of time, that’s nice I’m glad that you thought that was helpful but maybe it is for someone, but I am not going to spend my time on it. A lot of people just don’t call me. There are a lot people who won’t call me either on staff or in the community. Who will go to Heather before— if they had the thought to call me, they would suffocate it; that’s the reality. That there are people who won’t even reach out to me who don’t think that I am worthy of reaching out to. That is pretty clear. Staff who don’t think that their first, last, or any conversation should be with me. So, some things are not that big of a challenge because they are just waiting for my turn to be up and see if they can survive my term.

So let’s go back to who Nikayuh is—a singular person who moves through the world confident in her ability, confident in her sense of justice and equity, working with people who believe that your position is in direct opposition with their desires and goals. What is your reaction to that?I am motivated to help this movement grow. I am motivated by kids whose families have spent generations in poverty, generations miseducated, generations in homes that could be loving and compassionate but because of generations of trauma they struggle. Even if the love is there somewhere, it hasn’t been expressed because of the hurt.That is my motivation.That is what that keeps me going.

But here you have a desire, but there are people who’re attempting to make that desire not come to fruition. They are as you say, unwilling to bring you into the room and have a conversation. How do you, with your proclivity to be a champion for people—that will stand in the breach—how do you find your place of effectiveness? Well, one thing I decided this past August is to not let Councilor Signer and Galvin drive the conversations at a national  and international level. That is why I did so many interviews. It takes the control out of the local media and puts it into the hands of people who have a different investment in it. This is  a hot topic. What is the truth? I didn’t want some of the other councilors to be able to work on rebranding Charlottesville before we had the time to do the rebranding. So that’s the reason I forced myself, because that was pure torture. The New York Times, the tv interviews, people made calls about those interviews to people in positions of power and said but this is what your mayor is saying. We sat down in a meeting with the City’s communications director and the interim city manager and they wanted to give me talking points during August. I said do better and I will say something different. We can’t let this moment pass and work on rebranding false narratives as truth. Thats not okay. That is unacceptable to me and it should have been unacceptable to others. I am thinking of that C’villeization campaign. But Susan Payne attempted right after August 2017 to do a rebranding campaign but we haven’t changed anything. I get a lot of calls from outside of the community, but it is people with power, who say they are committed but they don’t have the investment to cover up the truth because it is not in their own backyard. So I think my willingness to keep sending the same message, no matter what is not going to change. I am not going to get tired of saying the same thing, or working towards the same goal. I am exhausted, but I am not ever going to get to point to where I say you win. I have to go home with myself and it is not going to be pleasant if I have to sit in a room with you and compromise myself. I am happy with the decisions I made last year.

Let’s talk specifics. Let’s talk about the response to the pay hike for councilors. What do you make of that? Hey, you poor black woman get your money from somewhere but you are not getting it from here. That is what the comments said. That’s what I heard.That wasn’t said but, if they were bold that is what they would have said.

What was your motivation for bringing it up? We are seeing it now. Take Lloyd Snook for instance. He is the traditional attorney, white, privileged, know it all, who is going to great white hope this City and bring all of his knowledge to the table and offer it to us and heal us, save us from our selves. That is who you will get on council. Others cannot do this. I am up, if I have gone to sleep, I am up at 4:30 and I work until 1:15. My meetings started today at 2:00 and now, I am here with you. I haven’t seen my kid since last night. I know he is safe but he is not safe and having conversations with his mom. I have talked to one of my daughters today, haven’t talked to the other one. I went home to change and right back out the door. Once we rap up, I am done and that is pretty much everyday. Most people can’t figure out how to do that and have the stamina to do it and not lose it. If you are really talking about  trying to open up this opportunity for someone else to come into this space who may not have been able to access the privileges of life, or had some other stuff going on to where their situation is different. For me, I could have had a higher paying job but because I am committed to my activism, five white women decided that you wanted to be an activist you won’t work here. That is what happened to me, being white balled and not able to work in my field. All because people said I was a trouble maker, because being an activist means you are a trouble maker. If you are in a situation where you are in  a low wage job and want to figure out how to get into this work you need to work 20 hours instead of 40 hours. You are not going to get diversity, people of low income are not going to be able to run for council, even if they manage to win. I have gained weight, I don’t sleep much. I don’t see my kids much. I haven’t been helping to take care of my grandparents. I haven’t figured out the space to even do it. Pretty much since the time I announced in October my family has been put on the back burner so I have added to my list of nonnegotiables. My family cannot be on the back burner while I am trying to do this work. Which means I have less and less time to just be still but, I have to make the time.

We heard people say things like you are a servant of the people so you do this job because you have a desire to serve not because you want to get paid. And we heard this mostly from whites who have more control of their work day and work life. So how  do you manage that when you are literally a person who doesn’t have that type of control? So, growing up with the women I grew up with, you know how to make a dollar stretch. I am very responsible with money. But you figure that out, even though you shouldn’t have to. The individuals in the community that are commenting, they understand that to serve best, you need to have a space to serve. For the majority of people, they are not going to have to figure out how to have these full days constantly sacrificing something—usually your immediate family—and do this work.

They were coming from a very selfish place. I wasn’t  the first person to ask for an increase. In our charter it says $3,500 per year. At some point other people asked for increase and the last council just asked for an increase. I wasn’t the first person to bring it up. People who were only seeing me in that sense, they were hoping I would remain uncomfortable so that maybe one day I won’t be able to continue doing this. It becomes ammunition for them. I was doing this work for free. And so I’ll do this for free like I was doing before.

But the money would help get more people on council with a more diverse background. For lower income people they would be able to sit and commit to the work that needs to be done and not have to figure out how to work and be up, and alert. The meetings are from 4:30 to 7:30 and then if it is a council night, up until one or two with no sleep. The fact that my job starts at five in the morning before people are even thinking of getting up helps. If I had a regular 9-5 job, you know I would be in a more challenging position. I am off work at 12:30. For other people that would be their lunch break and they would have another five hours to go. Maybe they would get paid more. But time is one thing that you can’t figure out how to spend. There is only 24 hours in a day and you have to figure out how to spend that. It is going to be hard—you see who is announcing. To serve, I remain temporarily economically challenged. But I feel rich in spirit and rich in all the things that matter. I don’t feel poor, if that is what people are thinking.

Let’s talk about the chief. There are many people who talk about black governance. We are a city led by black people. We have the police chief, the mayor, members of city council, the head of NDS who are black people. Wouldn’t you expect there to be significant possibilities for change in that way? I think what’s important is that while we have the words diversity and inclusion people are usually hiring people and not wanting them to be their authentic selves, not wanting them to bring to the table the whole of their experiences and to share the to share their skills to help move the organization, the city forward. They want to pick and choose what skills you have, what life experiences, what knowledge you have that you can use. Most of the time people are hired and it’s a selection process from the people in power and saying you can exercise that, you can express that, you don’t use that, don’t use that skill. I think individuals hire with the intention of maintaining the system that’s in place. So you can be black and you can be brilliant and you can have all the skills, but you can also be placed in a position where you are not able to be your authentic self. So most people choose to stuff their true feelings and move along the journey that America has told them they should be taking. I learned a long time ago and would tell people, you don’t have to agree with me or do work the way I’m doing it. Just let me know. One person can’t change things. One, I don’t want to be the person but two, I understand that it takes the power of group thought, group effort, group energy. That’s how you raise people, that’s how you survive. So even though I am doing this work alone, I know that I shouldn’t be. It’s a goal to find who I can really trust who I can really lean on? Who can I really give some of this to? That’s a goal because it has to be.

So do you think the Chief is one of the people you can work with? She’s credentialed. When you understand her academic point of view, when you understand what her law enforcement from that point of view. What do you believe she will be capable of doing?  So what I asked, and what everybody was asking in their own way, was what does as just, as fair a police department in 2018, in America look like. What does reforming a police department that has its foundation in the abolitionist movement mean today?  And what does being as just and as fair mean in our community that’s pretty broken where there is a significant amount of trauma. How can we transform this place to help people start healing? Does she have the credentials to do that, is one thing. But I think you have to couple that with, do you have the heart and passion to do that? And when she was interviewing, that’s what I saw. That this is someone who is committed to not just policing in America, in a city in America, but also to maybe spearheading and leading what reform of that institution looks like. Starting that work, again not putting it in her backpack to carry bag ladying it every day, but can we start the conversation here about what transforming policing in America looks like? And everything that she said in her interview led me to believe the she could. And everything that I have seen since then has led me to still believe that that’s a possibility. I think back to some of the members of the community who have experienced that pain and trauma, you don’t get really any leeway with them. So, without them having sat in on interviews or knowing the work that she’s doing, not trusting anything that has to do with police, they don’t trust the process. I just hope that in five, ten years we can say that we are able, because of the national and international attention, to start some conversations around the country about how policing can look differently. I think that she can do that.

So there is still going to be arrests. But the clinician in me says let’s figure out how not to lock people up and how to provide some individualized treatment and some diversionary program so that jail, incarceration, being prosecuted, is never a part of their story. I am trying to figure out how to have that conversation with our chief and with the police department as a whole. That’s one thing as mayor that I struggle with. I had never heard anything positive to say about the police. So now that I sit in a position where I have to make some decisions about their livelihood, their benefits, where I have to be able to step back and say the same thing I was asking about the council pay increase, can people in a more comfortable position show up at work, treat people better, if they have less stress in their day to day lives? So that in turn will translate into the work they do in other peoples lives. If they are not worried about how they are going to take care of their family, the long commute into town so that they’re not seeing their kids, if they have money to pay bills, when they stop someone who’s committed a crime, or maybe who hasn’t committed a crime, are they likely to approach them in a fair and just way. And I now that higher pay and benefits don’t matter if you are not the kind of person who considers other people. But that means there has to be a culture shift and so some people who aren’t comfortable will leave. So that’s the first thing I thought of when everyone was asking why are officers leaving? Is it possible that maybe they don’t fit into this new vision. You either catch it or go. We know that not everybody is about the business of healing the world. There are some people who have their own traumas and maybe they don’t know anything but how to be abusive. So I hope we’ll be having conversations about the impact of Chief Brackney’s work in Charlottesville and how that is impacting and changing the national conversation about what does 21st century policing look like. And I think she is capable of doing that.

There are council seats available in the next election. Knowing what you know, what you’ve seen so far, understanding what your goals are, whether you are mayor or not, what is it going to take to be effective in achieving equity for the city?  I think there is a set of skills every one has been told that they need to have. That whole white picket fence, you go to school and get the degree that qualifies you to contribute. I think that is the direction that you have to go versus people who have innate compassion. It is innately there for other people and that’s there is no one that is disposable. And so when you encounter people and you treat them how you treat yourself, and you treat them well, that’s the kind of trends that’s when transformative work can take place. So I don’t arrive at anyone’s door or at a meeting with anyone thinking I am enhancing them just by showing up. I’m looking for a partnership, not finding many, but trying to find one. Just to let people know that this is my first priority to make the path easier for future generations in terms of unborn generations. Why can’t we start transforming lives that are already here living and breathing. That’s one of the things that I am not patient about. When people are like oh let’s watch this for the next ten years. How many lives are we going to lose in ten years watching something.We have to put something into practice we have to get some activity knowledge from somewhere. We can’t just look at this on damn paper, while people are slowly, or quickly dying in the state they are in. I think we need diversity in thought, you need diversity in race, in gender, but no matter who you are, you have to have compassion for people. You have to understand true community and how to create it.

But to maybe talk about a highlight. There are tons of black people in this area whose souls are steering in a way that they may not have before because they view me as a possibility that things could be different.  So when I get up everyday and I’m sacrificing myself and my family, I’m thinking about that. There are some people who’re not the loudest people in the City who are like, thank you, I appreciate what you are doing. I walked in there and said something that I wouldn’t have said because I heard you say something similar. And that’s what it is all about. Learning how to advocate for yourself and teach. So back to the Toni Morrison quote, freeing yourself only to fully understand that you have to take ownership of that freed self, to transfer that one to someone else.

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