Stacey Walker was five when his mother left him and his two-year-old sister to stay with their grandmother in Cedar Rapids while she went to New York to visit a sick friend.
Nine months later, in April 1994, Tracy Lynn Walker was found murdered in a Buffalo, N.Y., garage. She went unidentified for a month until a picture of a little boy — Stacey — was traced back to Cedar Rapids.
“I remember we went to the police station,” said Stacey Walker, now 27, of North Liberty. “The detective hugged my grandmother, which was so weird because my grandmother had never hugged a white person before.”
After Walker’s mom was killed — the case was never solved — his grandmother, Shirley Martin, became his guardian. She expected the kids to go to school every day, do their homework and attend church each Sunday.
After church, the extended family filled Martin’s tiny apartment in the Oakhill Jackson Neighborhood.
“She was as sweet as they come,” Walker said of his grandmother, who died in June. “But she was also the disciplinarian. All the family drama ended after she spoke.”
Walker went to the Boys & Girls Club of Cedar Rapids most days after school and was named the organization’s National Youth of the Year in 2006, the same year he graduated from Washington High School. In addition to a $15,000 scholarship, Walker met former President George W. Bush and was invited to speak in the United States and abroad, he said.
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Walker played football one semester at Drake University while studying business, before transferring to the University of Iowa, where he switched to political science.
After graduating from the UI in 2010, Walker moved to Washington, D.C. He bussed tables until he got an internship at the Case Foundation, a not-for-profit that invests in organizations dedicated to entrepreneurship, technology and innovation.
“One day Steve Case walked by the intern bullpen and asked if any of us knew anything about politics,” Walker said of the man who co-founded American Online and the foundation.
Walker’s raised hand was his ticket to work with Case on a variety of issues, including legislation to help small businesses.
Walker joined President Barack Obama’s Iowa re-election campaign in 2012 and later worked for several unsuccessful Democratic campaigns. Walker is now chief of staff for the holding company of Hawkeye Hotels, a Burlington-based chain.
He recently wrote a piece for Iowa City’s Little Village magazine called “The Loneliest Number: Being Black in Iowa.”
“I was always slated to read the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech in class or chosen to explain how the Underground Railroad operated without physical tracks,” Walker wrote of his childhood. “Back in first grade, when our progressive music teacher wanted us to learn about soulful pop music, she wrote a play and cast me as Michael Jackrabbit, the moonwalking bunny with a culturally ambiguous face.”
Walker felt the weight of being asked to speak for his race. As an adult, he’s embraced the role to expand dialogue about race and bias in Iowa.
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“People need to speak with respect and a modicum of political correctness, but we also need to be really, really honest,” he said.
Cedar Rapids has had more than 90 shootings or shots fired since the start of 2015, including the September murder of 15-year-old Aaron K. Richardson. Robert Humbles, 14, pleaded guilty Dec. 8 to voluntary manslaughter, reckless use of a firearm resulting in serious injury and going armed with intent. He faces 25 years in prison.
Walker is among community leaders who formed a group this fall that pledges to address causes of violence, including drug addiction, mental illness, unemployment and poverty, in Cedar Rapids.
“I was very impressed right off the bat and continue to be impressed with his ability to keep folks focused,” said Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman, who serves on the group with Walker.
As a Cedar Rapids native and a young professional, Walker adds a lot to the conversation, Jerman said.
The group expects to become an official city task force in early 2016, which would give members more clout to work with businesses and nonprofits, Walker said.
“Cedar Rapids is just small enough that we might be able to pull this off,” he said. “I want the next generation to talk about Oakhill Jackson the same way as NewBo.”