As Tyisha Walker assumed New Haven’s second most powerful elected position, she thought back to a Barnard School third-grader and a single mom arriving late for work at Yale Commons cafeteria.
Walker—the new president of the Board of Alders—was that third-grader. A Yale cafeteria co-worker was the late arriving single mom.
As a third-grader, Walker loved to read. And she was bored in her rudimentary reading class: “I knew it wasn’t right for me to just sit there getting ‘E’s,” “excellent” marks, without learning anything.
“This stuff is too easy,” she told her mom. Her mom went to the school to speak up for her daughter. By the time she was done, Tyisha, who was reading past Barnard’s top fifth-grade level, moved to an advanced one-on-one class.
“My mom,” she said, “was a fighter.”
Years later, Walker would meet a co-worker while preparing Yalies’ meals at Commons, and use the advocate skills she learned from her mother to help save her job.
The late-arriving coworker was in trouble. Walker, who served as union steward, sat down with her. She learned that the woman, a single mother, couldn’t catch a B bus in time to get to work by 6 a.m. A single mom herself, Walker knew the challenges of waking at 5 a.m. to cook for kids and prepare them for school while also making it to the job on time. She knew that buses run less often that early. She also knew how in bad weather the slightest delay could thwart the best plans. Walker arranged with management to change the woman’s start time to 6:15 a.m. while altering other assignments to ensure all the work still got done. The woman made it to Commons on time after that.
“It worked wonders,” Walker recalled.
That’s Walker’s M.O., according to both her and her colleagues: She works fiercely, and collaboratively, behind the scenes, to fix problems facing working people.
It’s also why New Haven’s new number-two elected official remains an unknown and untested quantity to the city at large.
Walker—the first woman to serve as Board of Alders president—wasn’t planning to make history. Or to run her native city. But, she said, she was ready.
“I know how to stand up for myself,” the second-term West River alder said over a toasted corn muffin in an interview at Wall Street Pizza about her sudden ascension to the second most powerful elected position in New Haven. “I’m not shy. But I’m not one of those people who jumps out and says, ‘It’s all about me.’ I’m not a big shot. I’m one of those people who the weight of the world weighs on when someone isn’t treated right.”
Big shot or not, Walker runs the 30-member leadership branch now. And she serves as mayor when the elected-mayor, Toni Harp, is out of state for at least a day or otherwise unable to carry out her duties.
Walker took the gavel for the first time last week after previous board President Jorge Perez, who has served as an alder since 1988, stepped down to become state banking commissioner. Unlike Perez, who served as an alder for 27 years, Walker is a relative newcomer to city politics, early in her fourth year. She doesn’t sponsor headline-grabbing legislation, publicly attack opponents or put her name first on press releases. She doesn’t map out strategies to ascend to high elected positions.
She rose fast to power in part because of a vacuum—she was among the 20 alders elected in 2011 on a pro-labor slate to the 30-member board, many of them rookies—and in part, through a combination of quiet determination and collaborative instinct. She emerged as a leader of the pro-labor caucus, sitting in on biweekly meetings between board leaders and city officials, working with her colleagues on major bills as well as charitable events. Her colleagues elected her president pro tem, second in line to the president, after just one, two-year term in office.
“She’s a team player. And she’s a fighter,” observed Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison, another leader of the class of 2011. “You would never know it, but she’s a very quiet, yet strong player in everything that we do.”
“She’s a warrior,” remarked another colleague, Dwight Alder Frank Douglass. “She brings positivity to meetings with the mayor. She really cares about people.”
“I Pressed Forward”
Walker said she picked up fighting and caring instincts from “my heroes”—her mom and dad. “The way they love,” she said, “is infectious.”
She grew up first in the West River neighborhood, attending Barnard, then Betsy Ross, where she acted in productions based on two of her favorite books, To Kill A Mockingbird and A Raisin in the Sun.
Walker described the neighborhood back then as closer-knit, more family-oriented, than it is today.
She recalled one childhood encounter that stuck with her later in life: Happening upon strikers outside the Atrium Plaza nursing home.
“What’s going on?” she remembered asking one of the picketers.
“This is about our lives,” the man told her.
She didn’t understand the specifics. But “they were so intense, I knew it had to be serious. It stuck with me.”
Walker’s family moved across town to the Farnam Courts public-housing projects; she got up early to catch buses to Hillhouse High School. Her in-district school was Wilbur Cross, but Walker wanted to attend the high school her parents and other relatives had attended.
She got pregnant with her first child, Tenaiya, while still at Hillhouse. “I pressed forward,” determined to graduate on time, Walker recalled. “I knew what I had to do. I knew that circumstance wasn’t going to determine how I end up. I had my baby. I went to school, and graduated on time. That made me push harder to be something [my daughter] could be proud of.” Walker held Tenaiya in her arms as she collected her diploma at the 1997 Hillhouse commencement.
The First Ascension
Walker was determined to work hard to provide for her daughter. An internship at a law office translated into a paid job after graduation. In 1998 she moved to a job as a cook’s helper at Yale Commons.
She liked the work, she said. She also liked helping co-workers facing problems on the job. She remembered the union picketer she’d met as a kid; she looked into the Yale dining hall workers’ union, Local 35. In 2003 she became the union steward for Commons.
“When Tyisha came to Yale, she had attitude,” Frank Douglass remarked with a chuckle. “My wife kind of approached her one day and said to her, ‘You know what? All of that energy and that attitude you’ve got, you can be helping people’ [through the union]. She got into it, and just zoomed. She’s been an advocate for her union members and people in this city.”
Walker threw herself into the union role; “I never liked when people were mistreated.” Soon she was the point person for seven dining halls, then 13, all while holding down her prep-cook position. She became Local 35’s secretary-treasurer; in 2011 she took a leave from the dining hall to serve on the union’s contract negotiating committee.
“Tyisha showed that she had not only the work ethic, but the ability to problem-solve,” Local 35 President Bob Proto said of her rise through the union ranks. “She’s fearless and confident.”
Meanwhile, Walker, now the mother of two, had moved back home to West River from the east side of town. She got involved not just in her union, but in community issues. One issue in particular: The move by the city to privatize school custodial positions. She knew many custodians from the neighborhood. They earned decent pay and benefits. She didn’t believe the city should take those away.
Working with Dwight Alder Douglass, she organized neighbors to attend hearings and protests about the custodian issue. Some neighbors told her they didn’t want to speak up in public. “Even if you don’t say nothing,” Walker remembered telling them, “your presence will be felt. The people up there speaking need to feel there are people behind them.”
She proved persuasive. “Why don’t you become an alderman?” she started hearing from neighbors.
Walker hadn’t considered that idea before. She didn’t jump at it, either. She looked into what that would mean—starting with finding out who her own alder was. Once she decided to run, against an incumbent, she worked “the doors” hard, and won the position.
When Walker took the gavel to run her first meeting as president last week, her 12-year-old daughter Tiasia was in the chambers.
“Ma,” Tiasia said later, “you did good.”
Tiasia, an aspiring dentist, attends Conte West Hills. Walker said she has stayed involved in the school, the way she always has with her kids’ schools.
Her older daughter Tenaiya, an aspiring attorney, is studying criminal justice at Quinnipiac University. Tenaiya made it to 19 without having a child. “She broke that cycle. I’m proud of her,” Walker said. “She’s setting the tone for African-American girls.”
Local 35’s Proto said Walker “taught me” about the need to balance family with work and civic responsibilities. “She’s a mom first,” he said. “She puts me in my place when I give her an assignment and she has to do things for her kids. She draws a line in the sand. I like that. I had to learn that. I missed my kids’ soccer games ... You can never get that back.”
“I just love my kids,” Walker said. “My kids are why I get up every morning. I want them to live and work in a place where people are treated fairly and are respected. My mother and father were my inspiration; my kids are my inspiration now.”
As the city’s first woman and African-American alder president, Walker said, she hopes to inspire, as well. Last week she found herself now called to the front of the line at public events; she planted the fifth commemorative tree, for instance, at the 377th city birthday party. She started receiving more calls from the corporation counsel and other city offices about day-to-day government issues. Meanwhile, her board is in the midst of considering and approving the next fiscal year budget.
She is running for reelection as West River alder; she said she doesn’t know yet if she’ll seek to serve again next term as board president, a post at least one other alder, Al Paolillo, has eyed.
“I look at stuff day-by-day,” Walker said. “I never had this goal: ‘I’m going to be mayor. This is the ladder I’m going to climb.’ I never really thought about being second in charge. It’s a lot of responsibility; I think it will be exciting to learn what a mayor does. I look forward to that.”
In the past, board presidents have signed laws, contracts and other official documents when mayors have been out of town. In 2013, the board president served as mayor during the first days of the biggest snowstorm in more than a century because then-Mayor John DeStefano was overseas.
Walker will get her first mayoral lesson by end of May at the latest. According to mayoral spokesman Laurence Grotheer, Mayor Harp plans to attend an African-American Mayors Association conference in Washington, D.C, on May 27. That means the quiet fighter from West River will be in charge.