"DA Discusses" is a video series where reporters speak with people on campus, in the community or in the state who have influence over decisions that affect students.
Delegate Danielle Walker represents the 51st district of West Virginia in the state legislature. She spoke with Patrick Orsagos, digital managing editor, about a number of bills circulating in the current legislative session that would have direct effects on students.
Portions of the following interview have been edited for length and clarity.
Daily Athenaeum: Hello, Delegate Walker, how are you?
Delegate Walker: Hello, everyone, how are you? I want to apologize to everyone for my tardiness. We were in the middle of a very important health committee meeting and I definitely had to put in my no-vote, pushing back regulations for clean drinking water. So I apologize for my tardiness. But I thank each and every one of you for joining.
DA: No, that's totally OK. It’s much more important right now to get a vote in. I'm glad that we're still able to meet today. I really appreciate you taking some time to speak with me. Let's get right into it. So before we get into questions, I just want to give you a quick little introduction for those who may not know who you are. Delegate Walker currently represents the 51st district of West Virginia in the House of Delegates. She first took office in 2018 and won reelection in 2020. Delegate Walker is the minority chair to the Select Committee on Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse and minority chair on the Health and Human Resources Committee, the Education Committee and Senior, Children and Family Issues Committee. She's also known for her community activism work. Throughout this past summer, she has been a leading voice in many of the protests for social justice throughout Morgantown and the greater state of West Virginia. She's a Morgantown resident and a mother of two sons.
DA: Delegate Walker, thank you. I'll quickly want to remind our audience, you're welcome to ask questions in the comment box. We'll accept certain questions that are applicable. We're going to be speaking about bills going through the legislative session right now. And I just want to remind the audience too, that these are just bills, they're not law yet. So you know, we're not here to stress you out. We're here just to let you know what's going on. I want to begin our discussion tonight about the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair)Act. So for those who may not know, could you briefly explain HB 2698. And then also, I know there's a senate bill, SB 108. I know both kind of aim to do the same thing.
DW: Yes, so I'm very, very excited. I want to give a big shout out to WVU SGA. So WVU has been such a phenomenal supporter of this particular piece of legislation. And what it is it is prohibiting hair discrimination. So it's called the CROWN Act, and I know I'm gonna get this wrong, “creating a respectful environment around natural hair.”
DW: So it's creating a respectful and open world for natural hair. So I'm going to repeat that really slowly, creating a respectful and open world for natural hair. You say, ‘why is that such a big deal?’ Well, a piece of our history that nobody ever wants to talk about, and that’s slavery. So even when you had freed slaves, we still had laws such as the Tignon Act that had to depict when a black woman was free or not. So as a freed slave, it was your responsibility to wear tignon, which is a head dress to cover your natural hair. So you still could be picked out in a crowd if you were free or not. So what do we do? In my culture, we dressed it up, we put pearls, we put rubies, we had elaborate colors and patterns. But this has been something that has been ingrained in you as a child and some families. It is not my fault how the strains that may be kinks or curls come from my scalp. But it should be safe. And it is the fault of so many people who push for you to have straight hair, who pushed for you to have extensions, and make you ashamed, or feel bad or disrespected or degraded because of your natural hair. And this has been since the beginning of time.
DW: So we straighten it and we perm it and we color it, but braiding is a deep root of my culture. Your hair was braided to say whether your marital status, your age, what tribe you came from, it was also used as maps to get to the north to be free. It was also used as storage containers, women would put grains of rice in their braids because they didn't know if the new land that they were going to would have the same vegetation that they were used to. So we need to understand that it's braids, it’s locks, it's twist, it's afros and it's not the same as you choosing whether to dye your hair. This also has a religion component to it. Rastafari is a religion. And it's time in 2021, finally, that we stop the hate. Discrimination is hate. Racism is hate. I need you to understand the difference between racism, discrimination and prejudice. Hair discrimination is racism, because it's usually based on some type of Black culture of here. Racism, simple equation. Power, right? Black people never had power plus privilege, [Black people] didn't have much privilege coming in chains and shackles equals racism simple equation. So thank you for asking.
DA: Thank you for that answer. And I know that there was a similar bill last year that went through the legislature that unfortunately did not pass, but this is a new year. So there could be new outcomes for that.
DW: Shot out to the city of Morgantown because they passed the proclamation. So hopefully it'll be an ordinance soon. So shout out to Morgantown Human Rights Commission.
DA: My next question deals with a senate bill but could particularly affect us in Morgantown being a campus community. So, SB 246, the campus carry bill. It did not pass last time it came through. But this bill would allow licensed employees, staff and students at public universities to carry a firearm on campus. Can you tell me your thoughts about what this can do for a town like Morgantown, which WVU almost doubles the population size of the city.
DW: I have the same stance that I had on it before. There's a time and a place for everything, and having guns on campus is not the place. I remember in 2020, possibly, there was a shooting in one of the apartments on campus. I don't know what happened. I had no idea what happened. But I got up, I asked for the speaker, if we could take a moment of silence. What I have been doing is working with that young man's sister, who is now getting a blunt of that with her family. Her father is afraid for her to leave home to go to university. She's very upset because there were not the right things in place at that particular apartment. Where these other individuals who came in who did not have a lease to that apartment that just came in with these weapons.
DW: What do you think could have happened when we were marching all over campus, if we were allowed to have weapons on campus? Do you understand the beauty of debate, and if we had a student that was upset with the professor because we were debating something? Do you understand that Morgantown becomes a melting pot, not just the 55 counties here in West Virginia but there's also a lot of culture shock. So I'm originally from Louisiana, which is a southern state. When you come to WVU, I can only imagine the culture shock. And believe it or not, accept it or not, this is us. Discrimination is real. The intimidation that you face, that we all face on a Friday or Saturday night, when we have Morgantown Police Department or University Police Department out and about when no one's doing anything –– we're walking from one bar to another. And I say ‘we’ because if not for you, and if not for me walking and being present in these spaces and places in 2018, I would not be your delegate today. And so it’s a lot of intimidation.
DW: Let's be real. I've lived in HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) housing, majority of my life and even sometimes when I lived in West Virginia with my two sons, in HUD housing, you're not allowed to have a weapon. So what type of education are we going to bring to every student that's going to be a student at WVU around gun safety? So I challenge the NRA Citizens of Defense League with this: we don't do it at a level through K through 12; why do you want to do it with higher education? Why do we want this in the dormitories? We have some folks who have concealed carry weapons, and I'm thinking mentally you shouldn't even have it. Let us not forget what happened on Jan. 6. What kind of uprising, what kind of unhealthy, what kind of post traumatic stress disorder –– will this increase sexual assault and domestic violence on campus? Will we have more murder-suicides? I mean, as the years go by, I think more and more about this, and it's really disrespectful. WVU is a land-grant institution. Do you know how many public school buses go through the university? How many people who live in the area walk the university? How many events that we so lovingly like to go to? Do you know how many vigils I have attended on that campus? If someone is in disagreement now we have to watch our backs to see if they have a weapon. No, we're not doing this. And we will rise above this. I stayed strong with you last year. I will stay strong with you this year. Guns have no place on campus.
DA: Thank you for that answer. I want to remind our audience too, that the comments are open. So if you'd like to ask a question for Delegate Walker, please do. And we do have one question now actually, that, I think, worthwhile to bring up. This is from @loganruthie. And they asked, what is the outlook of HB 2595 that prohibits divisive concepts from the classroom?
DW: It hasn’t hit the [Education Committee] yet. Please email the senators and the delegates. Copy me on every email that you send, please make sure that you write an opinion editorial, the Daily Athenaeum is wonderful for this. So that means that you're not going to teach about, you know, just so happened that the 19th amendment 100-year anniversary was last year. So this year, we're going to introduce this bill. I also want you to understand that this is a copy and paste bill. This is not the only bill introduced in this state. It's a copy and paste bill. Anytime someone's feel uncomfortable because we're speaking truth to power, then we're going to say that that's a decisive concept. What pisses me off is that we're in an age where we need more implicit and explicit bias training. And if a state agency, if you received state funding that means that you stopped doing this. Do you know how many partnerships we have? The Democratic Caucuses did an implicit bias training that was given by YMCA in Charleston, so they receive state funding on any level, through any grant, they can no longer give these trainings. Well, what are we doing? We're pushing ourselves back and we're allowing ourselves to discriminate and be prejudiced without really even knowing.
DA: And, Delegate Walker, if I could interject quickly, I was just curious if you could explain what a copy and paste bill is for our audience who may not know what that is?
DW: I really haven't looked at it because it just annoyed me more than anything. It was something from our former president. It was part of one of his plans. And so I guess what my colleagues did was they just copy and pasted it and said it's a bill draft and now we have house bill 2595. That’s what I mean that they copied and pasted it from somewhere else. It didn't originate here.
DA: To shift a little bit if we can, I know that two other bills have been introduced, one from the Republicans and one from the Democrats, about college graduate tax credits. And both of these bills would provide a personal tax credit to graduate students who have student loans. There seems to be a lot of thought going into trying to keep young people in West Virginia, especially after graduating college. So what are your thoughts about how the state government can help encourage young people to stay and work here in this state?
DW: So first of all, we need to respect young people, right? So how do we get young people to stay? Well, we start with some of these discrimination laws. We need to pass the Fairness Act, right. We need the CROWN Act, but also having someone stay in the state is one thing, but we need to make sure that we have a livable wage. Equality is not enough anymore. We need equity. We also need safe, accessible, affordable housing, we need to make sure we have a livable wage, you can't keep giving people bills and not giving them any way to pay those bills. So I like [parts] of the state tax credit. Where it allows people after graduating with an undergraduate or associate's degree from any state institution and be granted a tax credit. But also we need to insure these people so I have a bill for graduate students, where they can have dependents added to a policy and that also you cannot ban them if they have a pre-existing condition because that is also becoming a problem.
DW: So when you say you want to have someone stay in the state, you must give them everything they need in order to elevate themselves from staying in the state. And you know what tax credit is fine. But am I to use this tax credit to pay for the insurance that WVU is going to make me pay for it because I'm a graduate student? And even though I'm married to my spouse, and we have a child, you know, I can't get Medicaid because you got a stronghold on me because you consider me possibly an employee, but I'm really not an employee because you want my numbers but you don't want to give me any benefits? When we combine all of these bills together, this is how we can make sure that we stay, we stay, rebuild and succeed in this state.
DA: I'm going to take one more question. Another question from our audience. She asked what are the odds of getting a recreational cannabis passed this year?
DW: That's a good question, go green West Virginia. We just don't need it for the environment, but we need it for cannabis. We need it for medical, we need it for recreational, we need patients to be able to grow flower. This is a medication and because we are a State National Park now, we definitely need cannabis so we can really boom tourism. We have a governor that's talking about a repeal of personal income tax and he has nothing to backfill that. Now all of a sudden now we can increase a severance tax on that.
DA: So as the delegate of this 51st district, what do you love most about Morgantown and the people here?
DW: The people, the culture, the diversity, how we are so inclusive and we come together like a community like no other. June 2 was our first Black Lives Matter marches and I've participated in many marches and many rallies. But that was the first time that I saw the streets filled like no other just as I see us coming together for football and basketball games. That is unity in the community. The solidarity. To have the respect of Morgantown PD, really allow us to be us as a community. We had no interference from the Morgantown Police Department and I will be forever grateful for them for that. We were allowed to use the Courthouse Square, not only for Black Lives Matter marches, but also for a vigil for Breonna Taylor also for another vigil for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Morgantown town is so rich in allowing the freedom and choice for people to be exactly who they are. We take care of our houseless community, we take care of those who are fighting addiction. We support local small business owners. We have no problem in giving a hand up to each and every person and we look out for each other. This is what Morgantown is, to me.
DA: It's a great place. I’m definitely in debt to this town. But unfortunately, that's all the time we have for today. Thank you so much Delegate Walker for talking with me. I just want to remind our audience that you can find this conversation on our Instagram page, follow us on Instagram and Twitter @DailyAthenaeum. And you can also follow Delegate Walker on Twitter @officialdaniwv. Again, thank you so much. It was great talking to you today.
DW: Thank you. I'm going to drop my email address in the chat.
DA: Yes, yes, please do. Awesome. Have a great night. Thank you all for joining.