Reclaiming Space in Charlottesville, VA: A Black Feminist Endeavor – Case Study


Diane Farineau

May, 2019


Author's Note:

The capitalization of the letter b in the world Black is done purposefully as an “act of recognition of racial respect for those who have been generations in the ‘lower case’” (Tharps 2014). Special thanks to Jessica Palaoro and Isabelle Smith for their feedback on this paper, and to Dr. Heidi Burgess for her unwavering support. The author can be contacted at



The world watched the bucolic college town of Charlottesville Virginia in shock and horror in August 2017 when a white supremacist rally protesting the removal of confederate statues from public spaces erupted in violence and death.  While the physical conflict was rapidly diffused, the rippling consequences lingered locally.  For many white, largely affluent residents, these ripples of conflict were a new phenomenon. Resulting interpretation and narrative reflected a rejection of this discrete event as anomalous and foreign to the otherwise peaceful and pleasant way of life there.  Not so for many Black residents, for whom this spate of racist violence was just another wave in a dark historic reality.  African Americans comprise 20% of the city’s population, and have a poverty rate of almost 30%.  The educational outcomes show significant disparities; “Black students in Charlottesville lag on average about three and a half grades behind their white peers in reading and math, compared with a national gap of about two grades” (Green and Waldman 2018).  School zoning, which currently results in the concentration of Black students in certain schools, has been pointed to as a perpetuation of the legacy of segregation.  Says resident and UVA Professor Lisa Woolfork “this is a way that white supremacy undergirds the public school system” (Green and Waldman, 2018). 

Additionally, and surprising even to some current residents, Charlottesville was a majority Black community following the Civil War.   During the Jim Crow years, Black residents lived in a thriving cultural and economic neighborhood, Vinegar Hill.  As the city at large began to grow, that property became increasingly valuable.  In 1965 the city’s Council passed an urban renewal project, on which most Black residents were not allowed to vote due to a poll tax, and the entire neighborhood was razed.  Families were relocated into public housing projects in which many descendants of those Vinegar Hill families remain today.  At the same time, white families were given access to housing subsidies unavailable to Blacks. The impact of this disparity exists in multiple quality of life outcomes. A 2018 analysis by the Opportunity Atlas of Census data indicates that in Charlottesville, the median income of Black families is $27k, versus $49k for white families.  The incarceration for Blacks in Charlottesville is 4% versus %1 for whites. This history is crucial context for understanding what happened in Charlottesville in August 2017.  The conflict, many felt, was about a far greater struggle to address two very different versions of what life in Charlottesville is like for its citizens.  As a resident of Charlottesville, I agree with Busette and Williamson’s conclusion that “Charlottesville is proof of America’s utter failure to reckon with the brutal legacy of slavery” (2018).    

In March of 2017, Charlottesville native Nikuyah Walker launched a campaign for City Council in Charlottesville (see Fig 1). 

Figure 1

She is African American, and a long time community organizer who has worked to address racial disparities.  Her campaign slogan was “Unmasking the Illusion.”  In an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition she explained that the illusion is that “we are a town that everybody can thrive in, the illusion of perfection - right? – when we have a lot of people in positions of power who are facilitating illusions…the whole notion that we are a post racial society and everybody can thrive in Charlottesville….  so, unmasking the illusion was to have this very open and direct conversation about what Charlottesville is really like...” (2018). She was unrelenting on the campaign trail in her criticism of some of the current City Council member’s responses to the issues that led up to the events that summer, and the aftermath. Ms. Walker, now in a leadership position attempting to reconcile the conflict aftermath, is an excellent study in conflict transformation as a status quo disrupter.  Her perspective and goal of keeping Charlottesville’s most disenfranchised people as her locus of attention is reflective of an academic tradition of Black feminism.    

Literature Review

Black Feminism

The Black feminist perspective on conflict resolution has few examples is underdeveloped academically.  While there is insufficient space to review the history of the development of the Black feminist movement, briefly it is the outgrowth of the exclusion of Black women from the (white) feminist agenda in addition to their continued oppression at the hands of all white people.  The Combahee River Collective, a Black, feminist and lesbian organization (1974-1980) is credited with solidifying the Black feminist movement as a distinct and unique political effort when they published this Statement:

The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face (Taylor, 1981).

In 1989, attorney and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the theory of intersectionality.  She theorized that the experience of Black women could only be correctly understood as that which was centered at the intersection of being both Black and female simultaneously.  Her perspective was that adjudication of legal issues “saw” race and gender separately which neglected to recognize that the additional discrimination that was experienced as a result of being both Black and female.  Black women in the movement understand that their liberation from oppression is connected with the liberation of others. As Audrey Lorde (1997), another pillar in the Black feminist movement states, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free long as one person of Color remains chained” (p. 285).  It is understood by Black feminists in the movement that they are not truly free until their brothers and sisters are free as well. The idea of brothers and sisters is not limited to those who look like them on the basis of race: it pertains to all individuals who experience some form of oppression (Bridewell, 2016, p 4.), regardless of their race or gender.  

Conflict Dynamics

Ricigliano (2012) offers the SAT framework for explicating and illustrating conflict in order to better understand how structures, attitudes and transactions interplay in social systems.  The presence or degree of conflict in a situation is determined by the interplay of those three elements. Structures are the systems or institutions available to help citizens meet their basic needs (safety, security, and well-being).  Attitudinal elements are “shared norms, beliefs, social capital, and intergroup relationships that affect the level of cooperation between groups and people” (Ricigliano, 2012, p. 95).  Transactional elements refer to how individuals and group navigate exchanges of power, create and maintain relationships, negotiate and manage conflict. A key structure in the Charlottesville conflict was the City Council, which considered and then voted to remove two Confederate statues from public parks.  There were multiple transactions in this conflict, many of which occurred at City Council meetings (open and closed) between groups of citizens with strongly held, identity-based attitudes concerning the meaning of the Statues.  While structures and attitudes impact one another, Ricigliano indicates that it is the impact of the third element, transactions, that dictates whether a conflict will escalate or ameliorate (p. 46).  In the case of Charlottesville, it was both the Council (structure) and their meetings (transactions), and ensuing decisions about the statues that led to escalation in tension between the two sides (attitudes).  Contributing to the escalation was a legal ruling (structure) that the Council was not allowed to determine the fate of the statues, and a legal ruling (structure) that the Council had to approve a permit for a rally (transaction) at the statue site by a group supporting their retention.  As these events unfolded the opposing group began to feel more strongly about their grievances, and therefore developed increasingly negative images and narratives about the opposing views. 

Ricigliano describes the interconnectedness between individuals in conflict and the corresponding structures, transactions and attitudes as feedback to the system.  He describes a feedback loop as a chain reaction of cause and effect between the elements.  This can have either a reinforcing effect, which can be either positive (meaning increasing) or negative (meaning decreasing), or a balancing effect (that which “counteracts the initial action”) (Ricigliano, 2012, p. 124). In the case of Charlottesville, there were many feedback loops at play which overall positively (increasingly) escalated.  One good example surrounded the Council’s transaction in approving the Alt-Right Rally permit. Council was aligned with the group of citizens that wished to remove the statues.  Council was accused of bungling the Alt-Right organizer’s permit request and in the end was legally forced to approve it. Citizens who had supported the Council up to that point became angry over the Council’s inability to resolve the situation.  Residents were confident, having witnessed one pro statue rally in May and a KKK rally in July, that the Alt-Right rally would be violent.  City Council meetings became contentious and hostile events.  Councilors, who felt their meetings’ business was hampered by these disruptions reacted by attempting to limit the number of constituents who were allowed to speak.  This escalated anger among citizens about their perceived lack of representation.  Citizens expressed decreasing confidence in the Council’s ability to represent their views and became further entrench in their desire to prevent the opposing side from protesting in the first place.  Ire towards statue supporters and interest in supporting an Alt-Right rally counter protest swelled, as media coverage on the debate increased. Per Ricigliano (2012), “an enemy image does not, on its own, cause group violence to occur.  However, those enemy images can make it easier for key leaders to persuade them to take up arms in response to perceived injustice or to protect against the perceived hostile intent of a rival group’ (p. 46).  This is exactly what happened on August 11 and 12, 2017, when white supremacists and Nazis, under the banner of Alt-Right clashed with counter-protestors including members organized by Black Lives Matter and Antifa. 

In their exploration of democratic governance Mani and Krause (2009) identify the elements necessary for its effective function.  Charlottesville’s council experienced a crisis of ability to provide justice and maintain rule of law, in August 2017, largely because of dysfunctional administration and bureaucracy.  The impact was reflected in the outcome of the 2017 elections later that year, when Ms. Walker, one of the most vocal critics of the Council’s decisions and its Mayor (Signer), gained the largest number of votes.  Chief among Walker’s campaign intentions were; increased transparency in the government’s proceedings and how it made funding decision, to address a growing affordable housing campaign, and to address the inequity of educational outcomes for children of color in the city’s schools.  Stockman (2018) reported;

Instead of squeezing a few dozen affordable housing units out of developers, she wanted to add thousands.  Instead of merely providing ‘implicit bias’ training for police officers, she wanted an end to ‘stop and frisk.’  Those proposals may have sounded radical before the rally, but to many residents who were soul searching in its aftermath, they made sense.  Anti-racism and anti-capitalist activities fired up in the rally’s aftermath hit the streets for Ms. Walker’s campaign (2018).


Mayor Walker has not been welcomed by all with opened arms.  What she inherited upon joining the Council was a community divided about next steps; “…residents, who united briefly in shock and grief, quickly divided into those who blamed the violence on outsiders who invaded….and those who saw the rally as a revelation of the ugly reality of racism within the city itself” (Stockman, 2018).   Her allies are Councilors Bellamy and Hill.  Councilor Gavin opposed her nomination to the position of Mayor, and Walker and Signer have a history of contentious relationships.  Signer released personal emails between himself and Walker to the local paper that ran an article just prior to the election in which Walker was labeled brash and aggressive and her fitness for the role was questioned.  Walker addressed the issue on social media, reading Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise, with an accompanying video feed that showed photos of Black feminist leaders.  “Nothing I have ever said suggests that I have not ever been working towards solutions” (2017).  She remained dogged in her determination and consistent in her goal to “govern from an understanding of the plights of marginalized people in our community” (Douglas, 2018).  She has forged her way without a playbook, building alliances where she can, and relying on her work as a counselor and community organizer to help her navigate the resistance she faces in achieving the aims of her platform. She explains that her goal is “to let people know that this is my first priority to make the path easier for future generations…. Why can’t we start transforming lives that are already here living and breathing? That’s one of the things that I am not patient about.  We can’t just look at this on damn paper, while people are slowly, or quickly dying in the state they are in. I think we need diversity in thought, you need diversity in race, in gender, but no matter who you are, you have to have compassion for people. You have to understand true community and how to create it” (Douglas, 2018).  Walker has been true to her campaign promises and has successfully collaborated with fellow Councilors and community partners on the following accomplishments. 

The affordable housing crisis

A thematic element in the Black feminist narrative is the idea of reclaiming space - for those whose histories, experiences and perspectives have been erased from history and excluded from decisions that impact their lives.  One area where Walker’s efforts at improvement can be readily observed and measured is in the domain of public housing.  She was a resident in one of the City’s public housing complexes for seven years and has spoken publicly and transparently about that experience and the discrimination experienced.  Central to her platform is advocacy for thousands of new, affordable apartments, and renovations to public housing projects.  Since her appointment, the Council has sponsored the development of an affordable housing plan that is designed to meet the need for over 4,000 additional units.  The plan includes almost 1800 new or rehabbed units and proposals for interventions (rental assistance, cost-reductions) for those remaining (Stout, 2019).  Funding for the City’s Affordable Housing fund was increased by almost $1M last year, which included $500,000 for the redevelopment effort of current public housing units.  She has suggested thinking about this as “a reparation…for what has been done to them….rather than doing them a favor” (2018).   She is not supportive of currently proposed mixed income housing development proposed for one of the city’s public housing sites.  She explains that this practice has traditionally displaced communities of color, including a well-documented mass displacement of a thriving Black community from a valuable piece of land in central Charlottesville (Vinegar Hill).  As reported by Charlottesville Tomorrow, she stated “I haven’t heard any stories of community building happening in those types of developments.  Traditionally this has led to just occupying space, and you (Black residents) just staying in their corner….as opposed to being in conditions where you have a chance” (2019).

Public education

On March 9, the FY 2020 budget the School Board presented to the Council included an additional $3.37 million in new operation funding and an additional $6m for capital improvements to school structures. Citing input from “city officials” the budget proposal was absent $500,000 initially earmarked for three additional resource teachers.  This created some heated discussion at the Council meeting, during which Ms. Walker reminded participants that it is the School Board that ultimately controls its own proposal, not the Council.  She shared that she would have supported the request for those additional funds, had they been included and advised that continued discussion was needed around educational outcomes (Council Minutes, 2019).      

Community policing

Following the resignation of the city’s Police Chief (in the wake of widespread blame for his failure to manage the violence of August 2017), Walker and the Council approved the hiring of RaShall Brackney as its new (and first female, Black) Chief.  Walker, who voiced concerns about finding any candidate who was both willing and capable of inheriting Charlottesville’s unique policing challenges, indicated her interview with Brackney was ‘refreshing’ and that she was ‘hopeful’ about her appointment (Provence, 2018).   One of Chief Brackney’s first initiatives was to review stop-and-frisk data, which she presented to the Council.  Currently underway are initiatives to review and develop a new agreement between the Chief, the Council and the Police Civilian Review Board, which was established by the Council in June, 2018 to infuse more accountability into community policing.  Appointment of its initial members was contentious, however. Walker and Bellamy voted against the motion (but lost), citing a lack of transparency in the process. During the appointment process, Walker said that she wanted the members appointed to the board to be those selected by the community…but added that not all those individuals were ultimately chosen.  “Maybe in the future we can just have an open discussion of the appointment’ Signer said.  ‘We did that with the mayor decision – it was very transparent, it was very new, it was uncomfortable” (DiMaro, 2018).        

Role model

One opportunity that Ms. Walker presents is that of role model.  She leads from what she knows and from whence she came. She speaks plainly, honestly, and has been transparent in making all of her statements widely available.  Says Crenshaw (1998) “… the problem is that they (Black women) can receive protection only to the extent that their experiences are recognizably similar to those whose experiences tend to be reflected in antidiscrimination doctrine“(p. 152). Walker is incredibly approachable for some Charlottesville residents.  She uses Facebook as a platform to communicate with her citizens, posting video messages (Politickin’ with Nikuyah) where she discusses issues and her perspectives prior to City Council Meetings.  Her commentary is consistently on message:

No, the city hasn’t improved.  One fire after another. People don’t understand that people aren’t doing well here because it is a sick, toxic place.  I am calling attention to it.  I think we can make some shifts (2018, Facebeook Video 16).

(I am) hoping that we will have a more equitable city…I  want to see Black, Hispanic people occupying spaces in Charlottesville and feeling comfortable there, among the white people.  If there are events with only Black people, I want it to be different Black people, not just the same folks.  (I am) hoping that part of the work is the city overall healing and finding itself and being comfortable with a city where people are comfortable being themselves, but then walk together when they need to (2018, Facebook Video 17).

Walker demonstrates visionary qualities of peacebuilding, reflective perhaps of Elise Boulding’s Imagining a Nonviolent World (2012) exercise, in continuing to present and project a future vision where equity is achieved for all in the community.  Hopefully, by situating herself in this leadership role and through centering Black women and family’s needs she will not only create equity but will also help to further normalize Black feminist leadership in her community.

The civility debate

City Council meetings, previously fairly sleepy proceedings with a handful of interested residents in attendance, grew to full capacity during the 2017 debates about the Confederate statues.  Attendees grew increasingly more agitated and angry after the August violence, demanding accountability on behalf of city government, which many felt was responsible for allowing the rally to take place. “As once-marginalized voices amp up calls for change, the council continues to wrestle with the question of just what public discourse should look like after the tragedy” (Elliott, 2019).  Mayor Signer’s response to the unrest was to reestablish boundaries and ground rules, to restore civility, at those meetings in order to conduct business as they had once done.  Civility, as explained by NPR’s blog Code Switch (Race and Identity, Remixed), “for many people of color, isn’t so much social lubricant as it is a vehicle for containing them, preventing social mobility and preserving the status quo”  (Bates, 2019).  Further, in reporting on for an NPR special series on Civility Wars, (Fadel, 2019) Lynn Itagaki, an associate professor at the University of Missouri who writes on what she calls civil racism states "civility has been about making sure that the status quo, the hierarchy of the status quo at the moment, which means racial inequality, gender inequality, class inequality, stays permanent." She defines it as maintaining civility at the expense of racial equality (Fadel, 2019).

Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper writes about white reaction to Black anger in her book Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. Since the Black Lives Matter movement blossomed, Cooper told NPR (Elliott, 2019), the mere fact that Blacks are protesting affects how white society sees those protests. "Black anger, Black rage, Black distress over injustice is seen as, one, unreasonable and outsized; and, two, as a thing that must be neutralized and contained quickly." Cooper says this often takes the form of whites "preaching at Black people about how they're bad and how they're ungrateful for being angry" (Elliott, 2019).  Once a vocal disruptor of Council meetings herself, Walker might agree with Cooper, “I tell people all the time, ‘In very polite, civil discussions around boardroom tables, eating (sic) sandwiches, you have put policies in place that have ruined generations of native families in this area.’ So I don’t really care about your request for civility, because even though you are not loud, you are not yelling, you still impacted people’s lives in a way that affected three or four generations at a time” (Hamlin, 2018).  Walker has strongly stated her support for all to be heard at Council meetings, even if that means a six-hour session, a stance which finds support in reconciliation theory. “Acknowledgement is decisive in the reconciliation dynamic” per Lederach (1997) “…hearing one another’s stories validates experience and feelings and represents the first step toward restoration of the person and the relationship” (p. 26). 

Councilors and observers alike continue to wrestle with achieving a balance between respect, tolerance and effective city governance.  This reinfusing of tolerance, for any and all views to be heard in City Council meetings is an important step is the city’s transformation as it “may be the only thing that stands between peaceful coexistence and violent intergroup conflict” (van Doorn, 2014, p. 905).  It is not unrealistic to assume that at some point this Council may have to again take up the debate about the statues, and when it does, establishing more constructive communication ground rules could be helpful.   Additionally, van Doorn (2014) suggests “which groups tolerate and which are tolerated can be a seen as a reflection of a ‘social hierarchy.’  Awareness of unequal power relationships underlying (in)tolerance is crucial to understand changes in tolerance levels as well as shifts in the objects of (in)tolerance over time” (p. 910).  Walker, holding space in Council meetings for all residents to participate may be viewed by Black residents as a leveling of the hierarchy to honor and acknowledge all community members equally.   As Elliott reported for NPR last month “people are of different minds as to whether a new climate is taking root, or whether citizens here are simply exhausted by the hard work of reconciliation” (2019). While constituents may have to wait several hours for their opportunity, they can no longer say that they have not been heard.  Meetings have grown less contentious, and shorter, of late, a sign perhaps of some degree of reconciliation on the issue of representation.


Is what is happening in Charlottesville "reconciliation?"   Lederach (1997) defines reconciliation as the "relational dimension (that) involves the emotional and psychological aspects of the conflict and the need to recognize past grievances and explore future interdependence" (p. 34).  The conflict provided a brief opportunity to lay bare some truths about the lived experience in Charlottesville and has generated interest in improving quality of life outcomes as a sort of tangential reframing.  "Theoretically, one crucial change that reframing can bring about is altering the conception of the nature of 'self-interest' expanding the idea of who might become involved in 'the self' (Mitchell, 2014. p. 269).

True justice, however, "involves some form of restoration of relationships between perpetrators, victims and society" and that has not occurred.  The statues and the attitudes about them remain and that is unlikely to change in the near future.   If this time in Charlottesville can even be considered a "post conflict phase" Mitchell (2014) contends there are likely to be "hostile attitudes and emotions unchanged, quite apart from the inequalities and perceived inequities that gave rise to the conflict situation in the first place" (p. 271).  Chip Hauss (2003) posits “reconciliation is a ‘bottom up’ process, and thus cannot be imposed…by an institution.”  Further, “reconciliation requires achieving justice which includes addressing the issues that gave rise to the conflict in the first place” (Hauss, 2003, p. 200).  City Council meetings cannot be the venue for that larger reconciliation work but Walker and the Council can certainly improve resource allocation to redress longstanding grievances for some residents. Walker, with her roots as a community change agent, appears to be reclaiming space for Black voices, Black needs, and Black perspectives both at the top through her leadership role and through her efforts to create justice for those Black families still at the bottom. 

In her summary of Lederach’s Moral Imagination, Maiese (n.d.) explicates his four required capacities, listed below. First, one must imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies and Walker has embraced this by joining a Council whose members have publicly criticized her at times.  Second, one must embrace complexity without getting caught up in social schism, which Walker attempts to do in her forthright and transparent methods of communication.  The third required element is a commitment to the creative act, which she demonstrates in holding forth her equity goals for the city.  Lastly, is an acceptance of risk, which Walker has demonstrated from the day she chose to run for an office she never thought she could hold, to ultimately becoming its leader. 


How will Walker ultimately be judged?  With three years remaining in her term it is too soon to guess but it is tempting to view her as a symbolic phoenix rising.  "Many of the dimensions of engagement - the quality of relationships, levels of trust, equity in decision-making, ownership -- are not easy to measure” (Anderson et al, 2012, p. 132).   She has been embraced as a change agent by many, and accused by others of being, herself, racist (in focusing on the needs of Black residents).  She appears unbothered, to reference a popular Black feminist trope, that she makes some people uncomfortable, appreciating, perhaps, Desmond Tutu’s observation that “reconciliation isn’t cozy” (Hauss, 2003).  She has suggested that there are those who are waiting out her tenure, rather than choosing to engage with her, but in other cases, her championing of equity issues has led to positive change and she is well perceived by many who were well aware, when they elected her, of the manner in which she was going to engage her colleagues and citizens. Many residents, both Black and white continue to support her strongly.  If her social media feed is any indicator, she draws strength from her civil justice predecessors and cleaves to their example.  She posted this quote to her Facebook page last week these words from Dr. Martin Luther King; “I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”  While the conflict in Charlottesville has deescalated significantly since August, 2017, Walker faces a new challenge – preventing the city from declaring itself “healed” and returning too quickly to its prior status quo.  Many hope that Walker has the stamina author Robin DiAngelo maintains is needed to “handle the discomfort so we don’t retreat in the face of it, because retreating holds the status quo in place and the status quo is the reproduction of racism” (Iqbal, 2019). 

In her remaining time in office, Walker may be able to hold the space she has claimed to maintain the community's focus on inequity long enough for some transitional justice effort to gain momentum.  Much depends on this fall’s election cycle when she will lose the two Council members with whom she has had issues (Signer and Galvin), but also her closest ally (Bellamy). "When the challenges to the prevailing thought are significant and numerous enough, and enough people are seeking alternatives, this prompts the discovery or invention of a new paradigm.  Paradigm shifts do not just somehow happen.  They grow out of experience and are accomplished by people inside the system who look for a better way of understanding and/or accomplishing something" (Anderson et al, 2012, p. 236). Widespread community conversations about race have begun, but appear to be attended mostly by those of like mind.  The hard work has yet to begin.  Mitchell (2014) warns "revelations about what happened, and why, during past violence can make reconciliation between past enemies more rather than less difficult"( p. 279).   It is, therefore, likely that future attempts to remove the statues will find the community reengaged in hostile or even violent interactions.


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