Political inactivity holding African Americans back


An interview with retiring State Rep. Neva Walker

“The legislative body is supposed to be a diverse group of individuals coming together to represent the issues in Minnesota… We’ve only had eight individuals of African American descent [serve as Minnesota] state legislators in more than 150 years.”
— Neva Walker

On December 19, 2007, State Representative Neva Walker made a public announcement that she will not be seeking reelection for a fifth term. Her decision is relevant because African Americans in the state legislature have always been a rarity, reaching its peak of two out of 201 before Rep. Keith Ellison moved on to Congress.

With Walker’s decision to “turn her focus” toward other possibilities, should a person of African descent not secure a seat in the next House election, issues affecting African Americans will be heard only through Whites or other representatives of color.

In an interview with the MSR, Walker stressed her frustration with the lack of Black representation in the legislative system. But, she also pointed out that when African Americans feel concern about the lack of attention to issues that matter most to them, they should look no further than their own community.

“If people can’t see that other communities are getting it together and are running more of their people for a variety of offices, I don’t know what else to say. We can’t complain. And no one can hold me at fault, because I did do my part,” said Walker. “I did everything I could.”

Black participation

Neva Walker expressed gratitude for those who offered her support over her eight years in office, whether through a vote, helping with campaigns, or with prayer. Yet, she also expressed frustration with the Black community’s failure to actively pursue its issues at the State Capitol and the negative consequences of this lack of participation.

“We have so many highly educated individuals,” Walker said. “We have people that are experts, that are social workers, that are in labor unions, are teachers… We all are passionate about issues; but if we are just [talking about them] over coffee or with our peers or our girlfriends, without looking at the policy around it, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.”

Although Walker admitted that African Americans tend to feel overextended by being on the negative end of so many different issues, she said it is a detriment to the African American community if that is used as a crutch. “Not everybody is doing their fair share. We just got to be real.”

Walker, who was raised in a family where giving back to the community was not an option but a responsibly, believes that along with meeting the needs of the family, we must set aside some time each week supporting our community and being conscientious in how we use our time.

“If my number-one passion is going to watch my son play football, that’s okay. But are you involved in some of the decision-making — the policy around football? There are policy ramifications in anything and everything we can think of.”

Walker said that the legislative process is not designed for inclusively, and although systematic racism is woven into its structure, it can only be effective when everyone is involved. Being fearful of inexperience, Walker said, is working against increasing the number of African Americans in the legislative body, an obstacle that other communities of color have already overcome.

Of the 201 state legislators now in office, seven are people of color: two Hmong Americans, one Indian American, three Latino Americans — and, of course, Neva Walker. She pointed out that while African Americans are worrying about whether they qualify as viable candidates, 21-year-old White males are running for office.

Even for those who are not up to the challenge of pursing an elective position, Walker said there are several ways to get involved. The easiest way to begin is by meeting with elected officials and letting them know that they have support. Advise them that when an issue comes up that you are informed on, due to your interest, experience or profession, they can call on you for information or support.

“Some individuals need to be coming [to the capitol] to testify… We’ve had former felons come over and testify,” Walker said. Some programs — she gave Head Start as an example — bring busloads of affected people when funding issues are being discussed at the capitol.

Walker said that on a broad spectrum, we all need to “learn the process, see it up-close, and then, when we are watching it on TV, we understand what’s going on.” If we are not involved, she said, we have no justification to complain.

“If we are wonder why the Hmong community got some public safety dollars that we didn’t get in dealing with gangs, [it’s because] they were organized. They came with an agenda. I can tell you, every community came with an agenda last session but ours.”

What’s next for Walker?

Walker says that her experience following the employment path of previous Black elected officials after they leave public office indicates that the options are much more limited than for Whites. “It is a huge difference. We don’t end up with the same offers as our [White] counterparts.” Already she is considering ways to create her own opportunities.

She considers herself fortunate because she has plenty of time through next November to transition to her next position. She’s considering positions that reflect her interests, which include education, organizing, and working with youth. As a state legislator, she was most gratified by her work as a public speaker, particularly with youth.

“I have young people that have come back to me that have gone off to college; they’ve become political science majors. Some individuals have decided that they may think about running one day, [or] they want to do policy research. That makes me feel good.”

Walker would also like to turn some of the focus back to family: “I can tell you personally [that] one of the things I haven’t been able to do for the last few years is spend the amount of time that my family is used to having me [around].”

As in her letter announcing her decision, Walker expressed gratitude to her constituents, volunteers and family. She urged all Minnesotans — particularly African Americans — to engage platforms such as the state legislature in order to address issues that are important to them.

“We have young people that aren’t getting the same [quality of] education as other individuals. We have [homeowners] who are struggling to keep their property. Whatever the issue is, let’s focus on it and get it done, no matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican.

“If a Minnesotan is hurting, we all should be figuring out how to [fix] it.”

Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to vnash@spokesman-recorder.com.