Contributed by © Andrea Douglas, MBA, PhD
Artwork by Terri Nowell
(Conversation from December 2020)
This is my third opportunity to talk with Mayor Nikuyah Walker about her impressions of her time on City Council and as Mayor—a position she has held since she joined the auspicious body. It has been a year fraught with conflict and certainly many unknowns as just three months into 2020 the governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency in response to the continued spread of COVID-19. Everybody’s lives changed.
With this as the backdrop, we talked for three hours about equity, partnerships, governing style, and much more in a conversation that could have continued all day, if not interrupted by a family emergency. I hope to continue our discussion and present it here at another time. As always Mayor Walker was candid and fearless with her responses and insights. What comes through in our discussion is that she remains a champion of the under-represented as she is willing to force conversations that some deem difficult.
AD: Over a year ago the city convened an equity committee that revealed that within city departments there is an uneven understanding of the importance of thinking about equity as a departmental culture. One year later how would you grade the City’s progress in this area?
NW: The report was shelved. The major section of the report where the temporary employees were involved—how temporary employees were basically used as full-time employees—over 300 of these individuals have been laid off during the pandemic. Although they are temporary employees they are performing essential jobs, but in the pandemic you could not perform those services because, for example, in Parks and Rec., those centers were closed. I had to fight with the Council to approve keeping these people on paid status for 6 months. The administration wanted to lay them off—so equity is something that we give lip service to but we don’t handle that situation well.
It is hard for this community to own up to their errors and react accordingly. There’s really no proactiveness in how the current government works. And people are interested in whatever they feel will help them govern better, whether it’s a new mayor or a different kind of Black person on Council—one who doesn’t talk about race and equity in every conversation. We don’t often talk about the fact that a number of people who make decisions in the city don’t live here and may not view their life through the progressive liberal lens that a lot of city residents do, but they have major influence on what equity looks like in the city, including where funding goes to non-profits, and what projects receive resources. There are a lot of people influencing Councilors and the City Manager who don’t even have equity on their minds. It is not something they deem important.
AD: So in your mind what does an equitable Charlottesville look like?
NW: It is a hard question to answer because I am grappling with whether or not even surface-level equity is possible—certainly not deep foundational shifts where every decision you make you are able to consider what a group of people who haven’t had access to what they need today, for them to have anything near a level playing field.
I am also grappling with what level of ownership does the city have in creating that scenario. For instance if you take development—then you don’t have developers coming in and abusing the process because they believe they have a right to. They don’t believe that having a city that is not just filled with market rate properties catering to individuals who earn $150,000 or more per year and that people on the lower end of the AMI (area median income) in the city—30%, 50% and 60%, below that—they also deserve quality housing.
AD: Charlottesville has a very strong non-profit sector—one could argue that given the amount of money that the city spends in this area, the equity report card would be better than it is. How do you understand this disconnect?
NW: Right now our non-profits are created primarily by white women, and while some of them have the best intentions, they cannot reach their missions, their goals, because there is a lack of accountability about outcomes and impacts. Nonetheless, they are able to continue, without being successful. But because we want to keep funding something, we keep giving them money. I have been advocating for a measurements and solutions office for us to gather data about the services people are receiving. Every year we put off funding those types of positions. This would allow us to create systems of accountability for both the person receiving services and those who provide it. I feel a sense of urgency here. If we could create a space in the non-profit community for accountability we could develop a mechanism for what change really looks like. I have also been encouraging people who are closer to the communities that receive services to start their own non-profits.
AD: Beginning in 2017/2018 the CACF began to be more directed with their giving. How do you view their actions in relationship to equity?
NW: I think the work that Brennan Gould (president and CEO of CACF) and her team are attempting to do is important. I think their biggest challenge will be getting their donors to move from this space of, ‘I want people to know that I do these things’ or ‘I want to be a part of these things,’ to understanding that people need resources to move the needle—whichever needle you are talking about—and that those resources should not come with you being able to dictate in any way. They should get out of the way.
AD: If you had all the money in the world so that you could hire anyone you wanted, what qualifications would the city’s Equity Director need to be successful?
NW: Someone who, although they had the necessary credentials, was still connected to people’s needs. Someone who is able to sit in any room and challenge people or build with people no matter what the circumstances are. You don’t hire a white person to do this work. You need someone who has lived the experience of being Black in America or being Hispanic in America. If you can reach them then you know that anyone else in this community will be reached by you reaching the individuals who are in the most crisis.
When I think about the person in this position, credentials are not the first thing I think about. I think about someone who has a warrior spirit, someone who has empathy, someone who understands the historic legacy that they are trying to disrupt and who has the passion to put measures in place to start creating a different historical pattern so that when you look back 20 or 25 years from now, you understand that they were successful because how Black people do in schools has changed, because Black peoples’ interactions with the criminal justice system looks different, because Black peoples’ home ownership rates look differently, because Black people are no longer primarily in the school-to-prison pipeline, and they’re in a school-to-career pipeline. Education is not something that people send their kids to because they need childcare during the day—you don’t ask a child from a low-income community what is your dream and they tell you nobody has ever asked them.
AD: Thinking about the year we just had, what were the first indications that the city was feeling the impact of COVID-19?
NW: I have to say, as optimistic as I am and as willing as I am to fight, what has probably shattered my optimism the most is dealing with this pandemic. I am really questioning: if you can’t do what you need to do to save your life or someone else’s life, then can you really help change the world, even our little world?
So the first battle about COVID-10 with the city manager for me was March 12 or 13. We had events at Parks and Rec. and even though they were telling us they were unsure about the virus—but one thing they know for sure was that it was killing people—you have someone who was in charge of city operations saying we’ll chance it because I think it is going to be okay. I had to tell him, ‘No we’re not going to put employees and hundreds of people at risk.’ I had to reach out to Council and say that we need to strongly urge the city manager to not continue with his programming. That was the first conflict, but there have been more along the way. Councilors told me they couldn’t deal with the truth that we may not have enough information until next April or May, 2021. I had a Council member tell me that nobody wants to hear that. And I’m thinking of it in terms of how many people I’ve seen sit through court proceedings who just needed to know, to wrap their minds around whether they have 5 or 10 years or even 18 years. It’s like how much time do I have to do? And I thought that people just wanted to know how long am I going to be in this? And then we had a business community whose revenue comes primarily from tourists and students and we had a Council and staff who weren’t clear at any point about how serious this virus is. They weren’t sending a clear message about where the city stands while also advocating for the resources that people needed to sustain themselves and their families during this time. We didn’t do this well in city government and so when you have the restaurant community and you have small businesses saying we are drowning here, we’re suffering and we don’t think you care. They have a valid complaint because we didn’t set our own strategic plan and it was usually me out front saying we need to focus on public health and not the capitalistic system that is in play here. The rest of the council were either saying nothing or in agreement with those thoughts. So we did a really poor job because there was a lot of internal strife. When I get emails that say, ‘Nikuyah, go to hell with your public health response,’ I understand that the people who are used to building and creating want to continue to do that and that there have been mixed messages given to them. Businesses who adapt early on have been more successful than some others because they took the pandemic not as something that was going to be a week or two but understood they were in this and were being more proactive you see them having more success during this time than businesses who did not do that. We are probably not going to be very successful in the school system especially with the most vulnerable students, the students who were falling behind before the pandemic, because we spent more time debating whether it’s an actual pandemic and how serious we need to take it. You can’t spend resources on both because they are limited, so when you’re forced to do something where you could have spent these months being as proactive as possible and figuring out how to be as successful as possible, you spent the majority of the energy that people have and assuming people can function in the same way that they were functioning pre-pandemic when if you were to take an account then we know that people shouldn’t have been forced to continue functioning as they were pre-pandemic. You are asking them to divvy up their time between two polar opposite viewpoints and expect there to be success. You can’t even do what is necessary for the business owners, for citizens, because there is mixed messaging at the highest levels of people who have to come up with these measures and policies. There was a lot of misinformation being passed to staff. Now we have the vaccine. The vaccine is about people’s bodies not about a system, so if the system is broken, and it was broken before, you couldn’t really respond to it.
AD: What have you learned? Can you rectify the system in any way so going forward it can be proactive and serve citizens better?
NW: This is one of the times where we definitely need a strong mayor system. You have a city manager who is primarily influencing these decisions that doesn’t really have to answer to anyone. If you had a strong mayor system, the public would have been demanding answers because they would have known that they could demand answers. There were days where I and the rest of the Council sat there and said nothing because we were unsure. Who wants to hear that your government was unsure about how to paddle through this process. Our local government was more aligned with what was going on on the federal level. We had leaders who were more concerned about the bottomline than people. Some of the things staff was trying to figure out was, ‘Can we order PPE?’ and there were internal debates about, ‘We may not need them so why would we spend the money on them?’ Those were the kind of conversations we were dealing with during the early months of this pandemic.
AD: This is a conversation about partners. How would you characterize the University’s response to the pandemic and their stated commitment to working with the community?
NW: I have probably had fewer conversations during the pandemic with Jim Ryan and JJ Davis than I’ve had since they arrived and I think that is telling. It is probably easier for them to talk to other Councilors than it is to talk to me, therefore I don’t know every conversation that they have been having on this subject. I know that there were times that staff reported that UVA wasn’t really at the table, that they were kind of doing their own thing and just informing us. When I would talk to JJ and say, ‘This is what staff feels,’ she’d say no we are there and I will make sure that staff knows this is our commitment. I will say I understand why the system that’s in place—UVA has definitely gone into a bubble of how do we survive this pandemic and the majority of the conversations that I have had has been around how to make sure the community is being safe so that the numbers won’t rise and be blamed on the students because of things like the rallies. But we haven’t been meeting regularly. I have felt that this has been more like we update you on what we’re doing and not that you carry any weight in determining what we do and that’s alarming. We have an equity meeting with Albemarle County scheduled for January. I have the least amount of confidence in our ability to transform the town and gown relationship since President Ryan arrived because they went into survival mode. To have a top official say the Aramark employees are going to get unemployment and that should be sufficient for them as a reason to why they didn’t have to be concerned about the fact they laid them off back in the spring was truly alarming. And then we turned around and did the same thing—I had to remind everyone how much pressure we put on UVA to do the right thing and then we were turning around and laying off the most vulnerable employees too.
AD: But we are not talking just about the city of Charlottesville, we are talking about the partnership that is built. And we are not just talking about public health, we are talking about how to create an infrastructure that can survive this pandemic.
NW: I don’t know how you look at that outside of a public health standpoint because maybe we’ll continue to have the low numbers and low fatalities in our area but if anything similar to what’s happening across the country happens here, we are in for a very harsh winter and if you take care of people, which we just have a difficult time taking care of people and making those investments in people, then in the long run you create less disruption to a system to have to repair. Since we already know we don’t have a good history of prioritizing repair for the people who are most impacted, we prioritize the people who are considered leaders of the system to make sure that they are stable because the story that we tell ourselves is that without that stability the people at the lower end won’t have the opportunity to transform their lives. The belief is that if we take care of the companies, the larger employees—even when you look at the city and the both times we funded CARES Act, the majority of the money came in on operational modifications and that’s not to say those operational modifications didn’t need to happen but if we can get most of the people out of the building, if we can have people successfully and safely working from home and still meeting their needs, do we need every door or faucet? We don’t even know if we are ever going back to the way things were. This is part of responding to the pandemic to be able to make modifications quickly. We have not been able to do that. We’ve been trying to hold on to this traditional model.
And I know your question is about partnerships but a key part of that is how having our level of disfunction influences whether those partnerships are successful and who is successful coming out of this. We have to consider how the economic development for smaller businesses, not larger employers, look? We know that the state government will invest in UVA, we know that they are not going to leave them hanging, but what about the small businesses? How do you sustain a restaurant community that expected for most of the year there to have students and tourists to sustain them? How do we support that industry that we told ‘Thank you for operating,’ every time they paid their sales tax? How do we show them that we understand their current plight? We haven’t done a good job of that.
If we have any of the type of devastation that they’re experiencing across the country, those smaller businesses won’t be able to rebound and even if they do, who will work there? If the lower income community starts getting hit by this virus, who is going to work at your stores and restaurants?
AD: Where are the wins for you right now? You were a casualty of the virus in a way.
NW: You need to ask somebody else because this virus is driving me crazy and I am respecting it. I’m definitely a casualty. I had to resign to advocate for other people, because the story line was ‘She’s advocating because she’s benefitting,’ versus I’m advocating because I care about people so, I said here is my resignation, I don’t benefit. To have these people laid off was unacceptable to me.
The win is that I have remained consistent even though I have received a lot of backlash from every area. There are parents who are like ‘What are you talking about? My kids need to go to school.’ There are business owners like, ‘What are you talking about? How do you get sales tax to do any of the things you want to do if my business isn’t surviving?’
What I have learned during this pandemic is that there’s really no win right now. What I’ve learned is that our sixth counselor, who is the city manager because he has veto power, should be elected. Our response to the pandemic is clouded as much by the fact that we are a Dillon Rule state and because we are a council/manager form of government there is tension between the two. Each position comes with its own agenda.
AD: People seem to attribute a lot of what happens in the government to your influence.
NW: I think people say that because I am usually vocal. I was the only one to speak out about UVA students returning to Charlottesville. No one had to ask me if I had an opinion. I shared it with the University and with the public. I am a very persistent and consistent and predictable person although people seem to call me unpredictable. For them ‘unpredictable’ means that there’s a way government has functioned traditionally, there’s a way that people traditionally conform and there’s a set of actions that, if there’s not consensus, you don’t have to ever worry about it coming to light. I am unpredictable in that system.
AD: I want to talk a little about this notion of an elected city manager. This assumes that the city manager would be someone who lives in the city and not someone potentially hired from somewhere else. Is this really possible?
NW: I think it is possible. I also think you have to shift how you feel about systems and who can run them. It is assumed that because you have a PhD in public administration or you have gone through ICMA training that you know how to run a city and that’s not always true. When you start talking about strong mayor systems people assume that someone has to have everything going in versus do they have the most important thing we’re asking for and can everything else be learned? And, do you have the experts on staff that can support them? We may even find a renewed interest in local politics once you switch the system. We are going to have to make a change if you want government to address the needs of the people rather than their special interests. I am an advocate of the strong mayor system because then a person cannot be complacent in their job. Ideally the council/manager form of government should make sense however there are Councilors who are elected and implement policies and ask for the city to implement those policies. In a healthy system, the city manager should be able to say, ‘Hey, based on what you want to implement, this is why I do or do not recommend the action.’ There are going to have to be some trade offs to creating it. This system we have here in theory should work. I don’t know why it is not working because I think it started out as sort of like this gentleman’s kind of government—governing of the same people with the same general interests and we haven’t addressed the fact that the Civil Rights movement occurred and that the same systems don’t always work.
I don’t act like a strong mayor. I am just Nikuyah being Nikuyah. Every place I have ever been that has been a problem—me being me. Whether I am mayor, vice mayor, Councilor, I am showing up with the same energy. That is a problem for people. But we can’t discount that I am the reason that we are having certain conversations about mayor. In the past people haven’t even known who the mayor was and the next person who is mayor will be expected to show up. So by default we have created a system where people are expecting mayor-like things from the mayor. That is what happens in a strong mayor system. We are never going to go back to the normal unless we return to the normal system of only a few people being heard. The citizens in this community are never going to go quietly. The excuses that white leaders have been able to make in the community, they won’t be able to make anymore. They cannot say ‘We didn’t know it was a problem,’ because it is going to be in your face everyday. People will hold them accountable for the decisions they made—those decisions that they should have known would not have led to equity. I just want people to do a little more research when they bring an issue to light to be debated by the people who are responsible. The easy cop out is that people don’t have enough information.