By Daniel Tisdale
Leaders, Legends & Trailblazers is a series of conversations by Daniel Tisdale with the women and men who have contributed greatly to the community, commerce and/or celebrity of Harlem.
Mr. Willie Walker is a man of diverse interests and pure passions. From his early work during the 1960′s Civil Rights Movement, and the historic March on Washington, to his work on the creation of the first anonymous HIV testing program in Harlem, Mr. Walker has been dedicated to the development of his community.
He has served as Chairperson of Harlem’s Community Board #10, participated on Mayor Bloomberg’s Task Force for Domestic Violence, and has helped to raise $10 million for a teaching hospital in Tanzania, Africa. In 2005, he was appointed Building Superintendent of the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building, which holds 39 State, Federal and city Agencies, and houses more than 1500 employees. He has lived a life in politics, while all the time maintaining a steadfast commitment to the healthy development of Harlem.
I sat down with the father of five daughters, and one time recipient of Facility Manager of the Year Award to talk about his job, new projects, Jackie Robinson and his love for Nas. I began the conversation with Mr. Walker on a cold Wednesday afternoon perched in his office on the second floor of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building as I overlooked the new construction project on the plaza.
Daniel Tisdale: Tell me about the new project on plaza of the State Office Building?
Willie Walker: It’s a project that was started in December 14, 2009 to give Harlem a cultural square much like an African Square in Africa. This is a project in collaboration with Lionel Macintosh, a professor at Columbia University who designed it. It will cost $11 million dollars , and it’s a – project that will be completed in December 2011. Mr. MacIntosh came up with the concept of an African Square, where Harlem voices could be heard. In the tradition of the ‘soap box’ in Harlem, where Malcolm X, and others spoke in Harlem on Lenox and 124th Street. The plaza will have kiosks to let folks know where everything is in Harlem, it will be digital, where sponsors can advertise, Harlemites and visitors can sit and enjoy music, and listen to speakers. The plaza has a lot of work that has to be completed, we’re digging up the 150 car parking lot below the plaza, it has to be waterproofed and prepared for the next 50 years.
DT: Who inspires you, and why?
WW: Jackie Robinson, growing up in Alabama, he was the only black face at the time who was an exemplary figure of how we should live our lives. He inspired me so much, he was a community worker, worked within the community, (like him) I always try to give back. If there are any shoulders I stand on, it’s his shoulders.
DT: What’s been the key to your success?
WW: I’ve been blessed in so many ways. In life and in religion. Everyday people come to me. I help people in so many ways with a phone call, to help them get things done, space, time, connections. It’s not about me, it’s about how I can help people I’ve been blessed. I sit on a lot of community/non –profit boards, and have to be focused on giving back.
DT: What are you reading these days?
WW: I’ve gone back to Paul Lawrence Dunbar, it’s not easy reading (laughter). I learned a lot about him, he worked with the Wright brothers, he was the son of a slave, his work is typical of language from the south (he recites one of Dunbar poems). Dunbar’s work is not easy reading, but the language, the style of his writing is different, but they’re great stories that remind me of the ethics I grew up with.
DT: What kind of music do you enjoy?
WW: I like all kind of music, especially great composers: Marvin Gaye, Prince, Lionel Richie, and Stevie Wonder. They all wrote timeless music. I also like hip hop, Nas, Jay Z. I love the storytellers. I also love classical music, it’s a sound I didn’t grow up with, but I love classical guitar, also African drums, from one end to the other. We grew up in segregated schools, but the black schools exposed us to the great music, even though we didn’t enter through the same doors others entered.
DT: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
WW: Being a single parent, raising my five daughters. They are self-sufficient, they are beautiful young ladies that are very independent (his youngest daughter gets married over the next few weeks).
DT: What would be the title of your autobiography?
WW: He get’s sh*t done. G.S.D. Get sh*t done. (laughter)! We talk about a beginning, middle and end, I want to see the end of things, I want to see the end of it. (more laughter).
DT: What’s your favorite possession?
WW: Our family bible, like most southern families it’s where my family tree exists.
DT: What is your best unknown talent?
WW: It’s not a talent I have, it’s talent I want. I’d love to learn how to play a classical guitar, and I’m also a great manager if that’s a talent.
DT: You can work anywhere (downtown, another state) why did you decide to work and live in Harlem?
WW: When I started working in Harlem the people in Harlem needed so much help, I wanted to help them. Working in Harlem to me is like working at home, I wake up every day and see and work with (my Harlem) family.
DT: Okay, last question. Does politics play any part in your work?
WW: At one point I thought it didn’t play a role, but you can’t get anything done without politics. You have to play to win and play to lose. It’s not a particular person, it not a title, it’s the whole game, it’s how things get done.
DT: Thank you.
Photomontage by Daniel Tisdale