Jamal Walker works to foster greater unity in new role with Grass Valley | TheUnion.com

Jamal Walker works to foster greater unity in new role with Grass Valley

Jamal Walker has been at the forefront of fighting bias in Nevada County since 2011, when he cofounded Creating Communities Beyond Bias with friend Bill Drake.

In 2017, a video he posted expressing his sadness over a racist incident involving son Imani sparked a Love Walk through downtown Grass Valley that drew at least 1,000 people. A second Love Walk in January 2019 expanded into a day-long slate of workshops.

So it is not too surprising that after a Black Lives Matter protest turned violent in Nevada City earlier this month, some calls went out to put together a new Love Walk, a move that eventually was tabled.

But Walker is not remaining on the sidelines. Even before the Aug. 9 flare-up between BLM marchers and counter-demonstrators, Walker was in the initial stages of a newly created position with the city of Grass Valley — that of community relations coordinator.

In that role, Walker said, he will be creating programs to help bridge the gaps between the members of the community and law enforcement, helping to mend fences and bring policy issues to light and create better communication, altering the “us-versus-them” mentality.

Walker said he wants to open up a dialogue “so people feel like they are being heard.”

An an example, he said, questions have arisen as to how complaints against law enforcement are handled.

“We need to make sure we pay attention to these issues and (see) that they get resolved in a healthy way — and that there’s accountability when issues arise,” Walker said.

Both Walker and Grass Valley Police Chief Alex Gammelgard were quick to stress that Walker is working for the city of Grass valley, not the police department — although law enforcement relations will be his primary focus.

“It is a little weird, in that the position goes through law enforcement but I’m not working specifically for law enforcement. I will go out and meet people to get to know their fears and concerns,” Walker said.

Walker said he will work with the police department on anti-bias training, to understand issues and become aware of their own unconscious biases in order to foster greater unity.

Gammelgard said he had been envisioning hiring an advisor to initiate what he perceived was a needed conversation with Black, indigenous and other people of color in the community. The police department already had a community relations policy with a coordinator role, which has most recently been filled by Officer John Herrera. Herrera will now step back and work to assist Walker in that role, Gammelgard said.

“He will help the department in response to events that might affect community relations,” Gammelgard said. “I am looking for him to create the connections that have been missing. … We pride ourselves on being community-oriented, but no doubt there are (segments of the community) that we need a better relationship with. We’re just focusing on reaching out to these communities and see how we can be better partners.”

One effort went up this week: a Kindness Wall on Mill Street.

“The year 2020 has been challenging, to say the least,” reads the post on the city’s Facebook page. “Amidst all the chaos and difficulty, there are things for which to be thankful; kindness to be displayed; and gratefulness for the community in which we are blessed to live. Please help us spread kindness by bringing your positive words, art, and thoughts to the new Kindness Wall.”

The post calls for stories or acts of kindness taking place in Nevada County. If you can’t make it in person, words or artwork can be sent to Walker at jwalker@cityofgrassvalley.com.

A lifelong battle

Walker, who said he has lived in Nevada County for three decades and raised his family here, has said his first recollection of being treated differently due to color happened to him when he was 8 years old.

“My cousin took me to a public swimming pool for summer fun,” Walker told The Union back in 2011. “Midway through the afternoon, a white child my age came up to me, called me ‘n*****,’ and punched me in the face. I was forever changed that day. …This experience caused me to begin thinking critically about race and racial differences at a very young age. It also caused me to question who I was and what was my value as a human being compared to my white counterparts.”

Walker said the incident was not indicative of his experience with white America as a whole. But, he said, it had an indelible impact on his life.

Walker started to get more involved with issues around equity and bias in 2011, when he met Bill Drake at BriarPatch Food Co-op. The two put together a nonprofit to help people learn more about their bias, conscious and unconscious, called Creating Communities Beyond Bias. The group led workshops designed to help people “unlearn” bias, Walker said.

This year, Walker began talking with Gammelgard about doing this work on a larger scale, coming on board through the city about six weeks ago.

“A lot of (what we’re doing right now) is putting out fires and doing triage,” he said. “I have met with some of the groups. Trust has to be built up, we have to get to know one another in order to have conversations on a deeper level. They are beginning to happen, but it won’t happen overnight.”

From Walker’s perspective, some of the national coverage of violence has caused a narrative to be spun that on one hand, all police are bad, and on the other, that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization. These very polarized views end up confusing people and don’t lead to a valuable conversation, he says.

“What is really happening locally?” Walker said. “We’re working with various groups … to make sure we are hearing their actual needs, in our community, instead of reacting to national events.”

Many, he acknowledged, have so little faith in the system they don’t want to have a relationship with the system, with law enforcement.

“We’re working to create a conversation in a non-threatening way,” Walker said. “It’s more about coming to the table and listening — that’s where the trust has to be built up.”

Once those relationships are established, he said, he hopes to form an advisory committee to interface with the police department.

“The main thing I bring — I’m bringing my love of this community and my understanding of this community,” Walker said. “I’m known for standing up for love. I have no side. … I understand the hurt and the anger that people are feeling. I want to foster a more loving environment, so we can be the community we really want to be.”

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.

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