CEDAR RAPIDS — There’s a photo of Stacey Walker, his aunt Lisa Coleman and his grandmother, Shirley Martin, during her graduation from Kirkwood Community College in the early 90s.
In the photo, a young Walker looks up at his grandmother, in her 50s at the time. She raised him and his sister after they lost their mother to gun violence when he was four. Walker, who grew up in poverty in Cedar Rapids, said Martin was a constant presence, his source of strength.
“My grandmother is my hero, she means the world to me and I would not be the man I am today without her. But that picture, I go back to (it) because it’s just everything. It’s me looking up to the woman that would be the lion in my life,” Walker said.
Walker, who in 2016 became the first black elected to the Linn County Board of Supervisors and, earlier this year, was named the county’s first black chairman of that board, said it can be difficult finding role models when you grow up in a predominantly white community such as Cedar Rapids.
Role models, he said, came in all shapes and sizes, including his grandmother, Shirley Martin, who died in 2015; his friend’s father, Mike McGrath of McGrath Auto; Cedar Rapids Community School District Communications Director Akwi Nji; and now Cedar Rapids City Council member Dale Todd, to name a few.
“It’s rare when you are a black kid growing up in most places, but especially in Iowa, you don’t see leaders who look like you. You just don’t see it. That is changing and that’s a wonderful thing, but when you do, it’s striking,” Walker said.
Another role model was President Barack Obama. The night he was elected the nation’s first black president, Walker watched at home alone on his television. When the results came in, the first person he called was his grandmother.
Walker, who received his B.A. in political science from the University of Iowa in 2010, later moved to Washington, D.C., to work with AOL founder Steve Case and philanthropist Jean Case at the Case Foundation.
In 2012, he worked on Obama’s re-election campaign in Cedar Rapids.
Now Walker is one of three on the county’s Board of Supervisors.
He’s pushed for a multi-jurisdictional partnership focused on assessing systemic poverty and gun violence called the Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Task Force, and for implicit-bias training among county employees. While he’s received pushback on some items, Walker said he’s worked hard to remain steadfast in his goals.
“I still maintain a deep confidence in myself, and I know people will call it whatever they want to call it — arrogance usually, from my critics — but I’m confident in myself and confident in my ideas and in my vision for my future and the future of this community,” he said.
But challenges persist as race relations nationwide have reached a fever pitch, he said.
“I think many persons of color in this community, in this country, will tell you that they are unsurprised by a lot of the things that you’re seeing and hearing. They knew it existed, it just existed below the surface,” Walker said.
“And in many ways, it’s really good for our country to be slapped in the face by this madness, this craziness, because either we’re going to choose to deal with it head on, or we’re going to allow it to continue.”
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• Title: Linn County supervisor
• Past titles: Chief of staff for Patel Endeavors and Hawkeye Hotels, intern with the Case Foundation
• Age: 31
• Birthplace: Cedar Rapids
• Role model: Shirley Martin, his grandmother
• One piece of advice: “Be yourself, trust yourself and believe in yourself.”