When Nikuyah Walker was elected mayor of Charlottesville in 2017, the normally staid southern city, which is home to the University of Virginia, was still reeling. That August, a widely publicized “Unite the Right” rally had crowded the school’s campus, attended by some 600 torch-wielding white nationalists protesting the removal of a Confederate statue. After a tense and ultimately bloody stand-off with counter-protestors, several people were seriously injured and one 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed.
For Walker, a Black woman born and raised in the area, the summer’s events were deeply troubling , if not actually surprising: Charlottesville, she says, has a fundamental perception problem, beginning with the myth that it’s a prosperous university town “built by one of our founding fathers and that everything is glorious.” She was acutely aware that for many locals, it’s a very different place. Reckoning with that reality was the cornerstone of her campaign, the slogan of which was “Unmasking the Illusion.”
Now a few months into her second term, Mayor Walker has continued to make the city’s disenfranchised her main priority, pushing for better low-income housing and a higher minimum wage. (Her goal, right now, is $18 per hour, although she’d prefer $21.) If she’s made some of her socially liberal, fiscally conservative cohort uneasy in the process, it’s been well worth it. “Even if you don’t necessarily like me or the things I say… you can’t deny that I know what I’m doing,” Walker says. “To deny it means that you are not for what you say you’re for.” And, anyway, she says, her mayorship is only a means to an end. “[Being mayor] is not something I’m tied to, and I think that allows me to do my work the way I do it,” Walker says. “If no one ever votes for me again, I’ll just move on to whatever the next phase of my life is—but I truly am of service here.”
Earlier this month, she spoke to Vogue about George Floyd, performative progressivism, and the important work of making people uncomfortable.
What have the last few weeks been like in Charlottesville?
We’ve had a lot of protests, but they’ve been going a lot better than in other places. I hope that’s because this is stuff that we have been working on since 2017; I hope our police officers have had these conversations enough times to know that what’s been happening around the country is unacceptable. We will not tolerate it. So, I think that has helped us. But as someone who comes from an activist background, I 100-percent understand the need for the demand, because a lot of people don't listen. It’s unfortunate that people keep having to lose their lives to propel us into these moments of action.
What have you seen, either locally or nationally, that’s made you hopeful?
I think what’s most hopeful is the youthfulness of those involved. I mean, just the young people engaged and pushing us into that uncomfortable space to ensure that change happens. I’m loving that. I am inspired by their energy.
Charlottesville recently removed school resource officers (SRO) from the public schooling system. Do you feel there is further action to be taken in the way policing works there?
In the world that I would create, we wouldn’t need police, but that’s not where we live. If something tragic happens, like what happened here in 2017, we’re going to want to be able to call someone. That is not the experience of the Black community here. Most of their interactions with our police department have been negative. The only time they maybe received some reprieve from that was in 2017, when officers stood by and let anything be inflicted upon them. Our public school system is an institution that mimics the prison industrial complex, so removing the SRO is just one piece of that equation, but we are not educating our students—not everyone is receiving the level of education that can really unlock their dreams. So that is the bigger fight to me than removing the officers from the school. That’s just one aspect. We don’t want a school system that feeds Black and brown children to the prison system.
It seems like a lot of people are “unmasking the illusion” right now, whether they’re calling out discriminatory behavior within their companies, or making certain demands of their communities at large. Why is this particular moment so ripe for those confrontations?
I hope it’s about George Floyd, and everything we’ve seen that’s hit us in our soul, the way that execution hit us. Because if it’s about anything else, then we’re on the wrong track. If someone goes and shoots up a church and kills people, you want to be able to call the police, and you want to be able to feel protected. You don’t want someone kneeling on your neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Where we are today is not by mistake, and it’s going to take real intention—you’re going to have to be real clear and concise about who can be a part of the transformation. And that’s been part of the issue in Charlottesville—and I’m sure around the country— that the people who have built the systems and perpetuated crimes within those systems are the same people who are first to show up at the table when transformation is demanded. And because there are certain degree requirements to be at the table, that usually means that the right people—the people who are actually affected, the people who really have the heart and soul to transform these institutions, who may not have a PhD or a master’s degree or even a bachelor’s degree of study, but they have the lived experience to lead to true and authentic transformation—are not at the table.
I feel two major lines of thinking have recently emerged: One says that the way to fix systemic racism is by replacing the people in power with people of color, the other says that racism is the white person’s responsibility to fix. Where do you stand?
The leadership has to change—what that looks like, and who that is. If you’re talking about 15 issues that happen in the Black community, white people who have only a dictionary-definition understanding of what’s going on are not going to be able to resolve those issues. So that’s part of it … I think asking Black people to teach you is one thing, and moving out of their way so they can resolve the issues that you created, that’s a totally different thing. In Charlottesville, I’ve been asking that they move out of the way, and allow the issues to be resolved by the people that are being affected, because reality has shown that most people who are not affected—even the ones with the best intentions—can’t fix it. And then there are the white people who are in the room only to derail the process. We have to admit to all of those things.
As someone raised in Charlottesville, have you learned anything new about the city during your tenure as mayor?
While it’s not my duty to educate people, it is my duty to get something done while I’m here, and the illusion of progressive and liberal ideas in this community greets me at a level beyond what I expected. We have the community that voted for Bernie [Sanders], we have the community that voted for me in 2017, we have that community that will put up a “Black Lives Matter” or “Love is Love”—I mean, everybody will have those signs up in their yards, one after the other. But when you start questioning people who think they’ve already arrived somewhere, that’s when the movement stops. That’s the real work, when you have to question yourself. That is the space where people usually drop out, or turn and say It’s her and not me, and stop looking inwards.
We talk a lot about the need for Black and brown representation among our elected officials, but not what happens once you’ve won the seat. Did you feel a special pressure to perform as Charlottesville's first Black female mayor?
No one handpicked me. I’m not a token Black person. I am someone who has advocated for Black families—starting with my own and my loved ones and my friends—forever. So this is natural to me. I did not have to read about it. I did not have to sit in a classroom and be taught it. I didn’t have to be trained to do this work, and the concept of appeasing people in power and sugarcoating my words or comments to suit their needs and not make them uncomfortable—I’ve never had that, so I haven’t had to unlearn that. I have been very clear from the start that this is about unmasking the illusion here in this community, and the illusion is that we’re this world-class university town built by one of our founding fathers and that everything is glorious, when that’s not the story for a lot of people here. Even with everything that has happened here, there has been a call to return to “normal.” So while I’m energized at what I’m seeing, at some point we have to be able to move through a movement—past the time when the media is excited about it, and it’s on the 24-hour news cycle; past the time when people will call you and want to interview you about it; past that short attention span that we see so often—and actually do the really boring work of removing those foundations that make people so comfortable. I was moved by the pictures from the Richmond protest of the statues being thrown down. That’s beautiful. It’s simply beautiful. Clearly, they had remained through other movements, so that’s one of the signs that the rage and pain that people are feeling now is different.
This interview has been edited and condensed.