Q&A with Liz Walker, 2017 Convocation Speaker
Liz Walker had already made a name for herself in TV journalism when she arrived in what is now South Sudan. In 2001, the Second Sudanese Civil War had already raged for 18 years. Walker, Boston’s first African American news anchor, had been a reporter on WBZ TV for 21 years by then, after working in television journalism in Arkansas, Colorado, and California, and receiving an Emmy Award for her coverage of the Jonestown massacre.
“Journalism was absolutely the goal of my life, and I thought that that was all that I wanted to do,” Walker says, but in South Sudan that changed. “I had never been in a place where there was so much hunger and so much need and so much marginalization,” she says. “There are people suffering, and you are compelled to do something.”
For the next 11 years, Walker did something. She co-founded My Sisters’ Keeper, a grassroots initiative that built the region’s first school for girls in the village of Akon. She also helped start Sisterhood for Peace, a network of Sudanese and South Sudanese women collaborating for peace across race, ethnicity, religion, and geography.
Walker had first gone to South Sudan to report on a group of Bostonians working there, including the ministers Ray and Gloria Hammond. On that first, transformative visit, “they saw what I was going through, and they concluded that I was being called.” She went to Harvard Divinity School, graduating with a master’s degree in 2005, and became an ordained Presbyterian minister.
In 2011, following her work in South Sudan, Walker was asked to fill in for a few months in the pulpit at Roxbury Presbyterian Church. When she arrived, Walker says, the church was right in the middle of a full-blown gang war. “You would come into church and you’d have to cross yellow tape, or the police would have the streets cordoned off because of daylight shootings,” she said. “Once again, I was thrust into a situation where I felt compelled to do something.”
Walker is still the minister at Roxbury Presbyterian Church. Under her leadership, the church is home to the Cory Johnson Program for Post-Traumatic Healing, an effort to address high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in its neighborhood. The program works to increase community awareness of PTSD, improve access to mental health services, and provide skills to cope with and respond to PTSD.
Of her career path, Walker says, “I liken it to picking up bread crumbs, one thing leading to the next. Keep your eyes open and you can begin to see that this is all connected. There’s no us and them. There is only us, and we are all working on the same problem. That’s why I’m here, trying to do what little I can to make a difference here in my corner.”
What lessons did you learn from your work in South Sudan?
What grips you when you go to this part of the world is you see that people are dying from things that we take for granted. You shouldn’t be dying from malaria. You shouldn’t die from bad water. It would seem that these problems would be really easy to solve, but building a relationship you find that it is a lot more complicated than you think.
Over that 11-year period, we developed a relationship with one particular village, Akon. We decided to build a school, a girl’s school, because education was always the long-term issue for them in South Sudan, where, at the time, fewer than 2 percent of the women had been educated and that was very basic and poor. For short-range issues of food and water, we found that we couldn’t take that on—there were other agencies that were working on that. You can’t do it all, but try and do that one thing with passion and with truth and with authenticity and with as much information as you can get.
What was the community like around Roxbury Presbyterian Church when you arrived?
Again, I found a community where the need was screaming. There was this big gang war going on between two gangs from two different housing developments right around the church.
That was 2011. This gang war went on and culminated in 2013 with a daylight shooting at the Walgreens about a block and a half from the church. Two young men were shot dead in the middle of the afternoon, across the street from a public school and in the middle of where old people go and get their medicine. It was horrific. That was the same month as the Boston Marathon bombing, when all attention was paid to that horror downtown, but we were feeling left out here in this community.
If you live in a neighborhood like this one, where you hear police sirens every day, where yellow tape is pretty much a regular sight, and where little memorials and flowers and teddy bears are on street lights, you are impacted. I can tell you that because I was here. I am here and I am impacted.
What led to the Cory Johnson Program for Post-Traumatic Healing?
We decided, in talking to some other people in the city who were working on the issue, including the mayor’s office and Boston Medical Center, that maybe there was something we could do about the long-term effects of trauma. Again, it was about building relationships and seeing it from the eyes of those who are in the midst of it.
Cory Johnson was a member of the church, and after speaking and listening to experts around the city we decided to help his family continue to heal. His family has come on board and now we’re just trying to give people a place and time when they can find a way to talk about the pain that they’re living in and living through.
As a former journalist, how do you see the dominant narrative about trauma?
Some 10 or 15 years ago I covered these stories that I now live through. After a while—and I hate to say it but this is the truth—you begin to define neighborhoods like that. “Well, that’s just what happens in that neighborhood.” We normalize things that are really not normal. The people in the community normalize it too, and think this is the way we’re supposed to live.
What we’re trying to do, first of all, is let people tell their own stories. We think that is really important in trauma, and in general. We are trying to change the narrative from the inside by saying, “You know what, you should be outraged that young men have guns in this neighborhood. Never make that a normal thing.”
When we talk about trauma I don’t want to lose the fact that I am not just talking about violence. We have people who come to our program who are trying to get over addiction, and people without jobs who can’t find jobs and can’t seem to make it. In a sense, that’s trauma. There is trauma from poor education. Trauma encompasses a lot of what life is in poor neighborhoods.
In your career—or careers—what are you most proud of?
There is a 15-year-old boy who lives a block from the church, and when I first saw him he frightened me. He was angry. He came to our first post-trauma healing event with his mother, and I am sure that it was because we were serving food. I don’t think they were thinking about trauma, I think they were just thinking about a great meal and here was a place next door.
That was three years ago, when we started this program, and by the grace of God he has stayed with us. We have wrapped around him and his family. Now there are others who are wrapping around them, too, and there is a whole system around them. We’ve decided, “You belong to us and we’re not going to let you go.”
He now helps us with the kids in the Sunday School program. He comes to church—I’m not sure he’s buying what I’m selling, but he comes. He’s in every program that we’ve ever had, and I have seen real change. Because a whole community is surrounding him, I believe we got one. I believe we saved one. That’s the thing I’m most humbled by and most proud of.
How have you seen Boston change since your time at WBZ TV?
There is a class issue in this city that I don’t think we talk about enough, and I’ve only begun to really notice it since I’ve lived here in Roxbury. In Boston there are resources, but there is a disconnect, and sometimes people from my neighborhood don’t get access to those resources. Whose fault is that? I don’t think it is a matter of pointing fingers, I just think it’s a matter of looking at it clearly.
Boston is the perfect incubator to change that. There are so many innovative programs and ideas and so many risk takers in this city, like your school, who are willing to look at things differently. It’s not necessarily always big, dramatic, doing it today and it’s all fixed—that doesn’t work. But the constant, persistent commitment to making things better and equitable does, and it’s going to take all of us to do that.
What advice do you have for our graduates going out to do that work?
I think we’re all a little frightened. These are very uncertain times. What keeps me off the edge and off the ledge is the belief that if I just stick to what I’m doing, do the work that I can do and give everything to it, that somehow is connected to the whole and is going to impact the outcome. We all have something to do. You don’t have to do it all, but do your bit. Be committed and persistent at what you are doing, because I believe the good guys win in the end. I’ve always believed that, and I am going to stand on that.