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Determined Epilogue: A conversation with Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker 

Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker

by Jordy Yager
Artwork by Sahara Clemons
Photo by Lorenzo Dickerson

In closing the Determined series, we wanted readers to hear from Mayor Nikuyah Walker. Born and raised in Charlottesville, and having devoted much of her life to serving others, Walker is in a unique position that affords her daily conversations with the region’s most determined residents, and those who are often not prioritized by our systems and structures. She is also the only Black official on either the City Council or the Board of Supervisors.


In this conversation, we discuss many of the Social Determinants of Health that the series investigated  — from the role of employers and the role of the University of Virginia, to that of affordable housing, and why she votes ‘No’ on some development projects. Walker also shares her thoughts behind the recently raised topic of removing school resources officers from Charlottesville City Schools, speaking about the broader role of education, and where it can better serve Black students.

And finally, she speaks about the City’s responsibility to continue shifting towards greater racial and economic equity, and the personal cost that comes with moving systems that have been entrenched and engrained in our communities for generations.

JY: When thinking about racial and economic equity in employment, what can be done to desegregate and improve the job force? 

NW: I don’t know if that conversation starts with employment. I think it’s hard to get [racial and economic equity] if you’re an employee, especially if you work for people who meet their needs first. And I know that doesn’t do anything about larger employers like the City of Charlottesville or the University of Virginia, and the fact we need to pay a just wage, which is not $15 an hour either.

This is about valuing what people do on a daily basis. You also have to talk about what our school system is preparing people for. I think we see that the factory worker assembly-line type of output is not working. It’s not the economy we have today. It has failed kids for so long.

So then you get to a world that’s built on technology. We know people can figure out any technology placed in their hands, so I think we have to reverse how we think about that — if we can place a phone or a gaming system in someone’s hands and they figure it out with no problem, then what if we put the pieces of the technology in their hands, coupled with apprentice-style programs, could they also then build and create the game?

I think until we switch to that way of thinking, we’re going to have this level of inequality that we have in the job market. I mean we’re just failing everyone at every level. I think it starts with being a business owner and education.

JY: For business owners who have to hire employees, how can they better show that they value their employees?

NW: Everything from time-off to benefits, what are we offering you to work here? They need life insurance, health insurance, paid time-off, and vacation time. These are all things I have worked on since I’ve been at the City, to make sure people know we value them.

Last month I proposed we allow department directors to outline the details, but that once a month, we would allow 25% of the workforce to get a week off.  That didn’t go well. But I was able to get employees two days off. So we did that on May 11 and May 22. One of those ended up being a 4-day weekend and the other was a 3-day weekend.

Part of the feedback I received, when I was advocating for that, was people saying, “But people are already home.” So there was a lack of understanding that even if people are home, they’re still working. And they’re not home with their feet up. They’re home trying to educate their kids, keep their job, and help people who are in crisis. And they haven’t even been afforded the opportunity to provide for their own families. And we have the resources at the City-level to be able to implement additional benefits to help people, to provide mental health assistance during a crisis, but other businesses probably don’t have that.

At the beginning of this pandemic there were businesses that, without the Payroll Protection Program, their first immediate thought was to lay people off. I’m not sure if they had reserves or not, but from what I saw there are major issues with them not having three to six months of business expenses.

This was a major crisis, so it’s not surprising, but it’s something people often say about low-income people: ‘Why do they overspend?’ But what we saw with the requests coming into the City from businesses, is that most people seem to be having this problem. And so I wonder if there is even a real understanding of the fiscal sustainability and management that’s needed to be able to give your employees those types of benefits that will help them.

JY: Do you think of the City government as a model for how private sector businesses and nonprofits should treat their employees? 

NW: I don’t think we’re a model yet. But I think anyone can treat people really well, and then become a model for someone else who’s watching them. I would like for the City to be a model, but we’re not there at this time.

JY: Where does that inability to treat employees considerately and responsibly come from?

NW: It’s probably not intentional. I think when you’re talking about small businesses they probably don’t have the revenue coming in, but I don’t know.

When I’m talking about education and how we transform that system, I think what we value is important. If you can start training someone to be an electrician, they will always be able to take care of themselves. If you can train someone to be a plumber, they can always take care of themselves.

The transformation also requires asking people what they are interested in, and you don’t do anything differently if they say, “I want to be a mechanic,” or if they say, “I want to be an attorney.” You prepare them so that even if they’re becoming the plumber or mechanic they said they wanted to be, that they are able to be an attorney if they choose to.

And right now, because of the education gaps that have been created, we don’t have those types of services in place for our kids. Just because you go to a 4-year institution shouldn’t mean it’s more valued. There was a time when trades were paying more than some 4-year degrees earned hourly, but people were told that they shouldn’t or couldn’t go into that line of work, because it wasn’t valued by society. And that creates a situation where people say, “Well if I can’t do this, I definitely can’t see myself there.” And then nothing happens in their life, and the system is to blame for that.

JY: How does that system start to change? 

NW: You have to have the resources — which we do, so that’s not a problem — but I think you have to be intentional about undoing the systems.

I’m not so sure our Black and Brown kids can learn in a system that wasn’t created for them. And people want them in these systems because they bring in revenue, but I don’t know if they’re really valued or offered the opportunities to really learn and unlock the things that are hidden in their minds.

JY: What are your thoughts on pulling School Resource Officers (SROs) out of schools?

NW: There are so many layers to pulling SROs out of schools. Until we truly fix the issues of poverty, there will be disruptions in schools that are caused by children who are in pain. We already have every social worker in town going into the schools or serving the same kids that SROs would be in the schools for. SROs aren’t in there just to keep people out who would do mass shootings — that’s an afterthought.

So now we have all of these people making demands, and they’re not really thinking through the demands. In my perfect world, there are no police in schools, there are no police anywhere. But that’s not the world we live in. So how do we make sure our kids get what they need?

That part is missing from the conversations that I’ve been a part of, and it’s been missing for years. And that means we just failed our kids on a bigger level.

JY: What are other things that would help the issues that SROs were put there to solve?

NW: I think what would be better are schools built on a foundation of cultural integrity, which public schools are not. Black kids who go to African-centric schools, where they learn about their history, they are not learning to love white culture or how to participate in white supremacy or how to be underemployed and provide services in rich communities like Charlottesville. Those students do better.

There is a public and a private experience in our public schools now, and so long as some people are comfortable with that, things will continue along those lines. If you walk into a school and you have the majority of advanced placement, dual-enrollment, and honors courses full of white kids, you have a private school system within the public school system. You’re failing a large percentage of the population. So even if they can walk past each other in the hallways while changing classes or going to lunch, they are not in this same school system.

People need significant amounts of resources so that we don’t end up with a lottery where 50 kids out of the 4,000 that we’re failing can come to this other school. Rather, you provide those resources and opportunities so anyone can go to these schools. But we don’t have these structures in Charlottesville, and we probably don’t have the people who could create them.

One of the thoughts we had when City of Promise started was to start a school for the kids. We would compare the data from our school to the data from the public schools, and because of the success we were sure we’d have, it would force the public schools to do something different. We would have the same kids from the same neighborhoods and we would be able to educate them and give them what they need. And so we’d be destroying the whole notion that, “People only do as well as they can do.” I hope that’s still possible, I’m very interested in it. It really comes down to state and federal funding.

JY: How are you feeling about the state of affordable housing here? 

NW: Nothing has been resolved at this moment. We have some plans in place, but we haven’t fixed anything yet. We’re hoping to fix it, and I believe we would have started construction by now on Crescent Halls and South First Street if it hadn’t been for COVID-19.

What I’m hoping that COVID might do — since we need it to do something good because it’s been so destructive — is to make landlords possibly see for the first time that they don’t have this guaranteed source of income with UVA students, and that it may be beneficial for them to rent to local families. Those types of changes are necessary so people can live within the city limits and right now I think COVID-19 gives us an opportunity to have landlords who have forever thought that, “I have this guaranteed source of income,” to maybe reconsider that. It’s probably the only shot we will ever get to reverse that tide.

JY: Is that a conversation that’s happening? 

NW: I’m having it. I’ve had it with our housing specialist and with Home to Hope staff so they can add it to their pitch when they’re talking to landlords. I have not picked up the phone and called the landlords to say, ‘Hey,’ but I’ve been having this conversation with the City’s housing program coordinator too. I know that one of the potential areas we’re thinking of funding is to provide rental assistance directly to the landlords on behalf of people. I’m still debating how I feel about that.

JY: Why do you sometimes vote “no” on developments that do not promise to build units priced below 60% AMI, or those that pledge to price only 10-15% of their units below market-rate? 

NW: If you truly understand that there used to be more Black people here than white people, and now there are more white people here, and you start having that conversation about “Why?” and then you say, “I’m going to build 100 units here, 400 units there, 30 units here,” — and every time you say, “I’ll give 1-3, or 1-5 affordable units,” I don’t think the math adds up.

You will always have a greater percentage of the white and higher-income people in the area because they are attracted to the area, so if you’re even pretending that you’re committed to affordable housing, then I’m going to stretch you a little bit there and I’m going to ask you to prove your commitment to affordable housing is authentic.

If you can only build 20 units by-right, and you come and say, “Oh, I want to build 100 units on this,” based on the same laws that you want me to follow, the laws that you’re now trying to figure out a way to circumvent, I can, in my world, ask you for something else. You want something to now apply to you that doesn’t apply to you by-right, so I’m going to ask you to include more affordable housing.

I don’t think it really works though, because people don’t want people to live in these buildings or in these homes or in these neighborhoods, so we still have that issue. You’re basically pleading for someone to believe in affordable housing where you’re going to set them up potentially for failure because they’re going to be living amongst people who don’t find any value in them. So that’s another thing that I’m often thinking about: even if we get someone who makes 50% AMI into 600 West Main, are they going to be happy in that building? The answer is: probably not.

So those are the types of things that I’m thinking about when people are offering crumbs. I know they are benefiting from building more units, or they wouldn’t be asking us for an SUP.  If it worked out for them, in their board rooms and around their round tables, they wouldn’t come before us and ask, especially since they have to deal with the headache of me.

JY: Where does UVA fit into this conversation, in terms of being a better neighbor? 

NW: One thing I hope that doesn’t get lost in this pandemic is UVA’s commitment to workforce and hopefully low-income housing — the 1,000-1,500 units they promised to build over the next 10 years. I hope we get more than that, because they owe more than that, but I could see them feeling the need to come out of the economic crisis we’re in, and will be in for a while, and say that it will take them 10 years to rebuild.

If people are putting equity issues on hold until they feel they’ve arrived back at whatever status they were previously at, then that means we’ll have another decade and another generation of people who won’t have access to resources they need to transform their lives. That’s one thing I’m most concerned about, because those conversations are happening in the city and there’s a complete disregard for people’s lives. The common themes throughout the conversations are, “How can we stay afloat?”

Even at the City, we have pots of money we haven’t touched. While no one wants to use every dollar that they have, and we understand it’s important to have reserves, it’s also important to understand that if people are in a worse situation than they are in right now, which is already pretty bad — it’s a horrible situation, the poverty levels, the miseducation, the current health outcomes — if we allow them to become worse in an attempt to survive the pandemic, which we’re going to survive anyway, then I think we will have failed people. And I think that’s what UVA might do. They might say, “We have to get back whatever we feel we lost,” and they’ll lose sight of all the things they said they would do to become not just great but good — nobody told them they were great in the first place.

JY: A big takeaway for me in reporting the Determined series was seeing how well programs and efforts work when the people who are most impacted and most affected are put in positions of power, and in decision-making roles. And yet, a lot of people are wedded to the status quo, which does not always prize those skills and expertise as much. How do you deal with that? 

NW: That’s something that I’m struggling with now. I really think I’m wasting my time, because even people who think they get it, really don’t get it. They don’t know how to really create the solutions to the problems we’re facing. They bring in what they think they know to be true, but they don’t know how to unpack that and question themselves about why they feel the way they do. And those individuals are usually the people with the power, and are either the resources themselves, or are the access points for the resources, so they won’t destroy the foundation they created, and they won’t get out of your way so you can create new foundations. And if you don’t change that part of the equation, of who has access to resources, then you are dependent upon people who have this savior-type mentality. So I don’t know, I really don’t know.

I appreciate being in this world, but I don’t know if I’m supposed to be here at this time. I’m way ahead of something, and being in this position on Council has shown me that in a way that nothing else ever has. As long as the resources remain with the people who currently have them, or the people who make decisions about the resources but who don’t really get it, or only think they get it, we have a problem. I don’t know how to redirect that because I’m only one person, and I’m exhausted.

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