When Nikuyah Walker was elected mayor of Charlottesville in November 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 town, attended by some 600 torch-wielding white nationalists protesting the removal of a Confederate statue. After a tense and ultimately bloody standoff with counter-protesters, 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, with the slogan “Unmasking the Illusion.”
Now a few months into her second term, 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.”