Bernita Walker Biography
For more than two decades, Bernita R. Walker has dedicated her life to the support of families escaping domestic violence. She is co-founder and executive director of Project: Peacemakers, Inc., a non-profit public benefit corporation in Los Angeles that provides intervention and education for those escaping domestic abuse. Walker, a retired Los Angeles deputy sheriff and a domestic abuse survivor, has overseen the training of more than 1,000 community members in the fight against abuse. In addition, Walker is co-founder of Jenesse Center, a shelter for domestic abuse victims and their children. Walker is an advocate for the cause, choosing it as her life's work, advising governmental agencies and spreading the word through community education.
Born on August 20, 1946, in Los Angeles, California, Walker seemed meant to do great things. She grew up in a show business family, watching and learning from relatives with special talents. Her father, who hailed from a musical family, was Aaron (T-Bone) Walker, a blues singer credited with the invention of the electric blues style of guitar playing that some called the "California style of Blues." T-Bone started in the 1930s and wrote popular tunes like "Stormy Monday," "Mean Old World," and "Jealous Woman." His riffs and showmanship influenced the likes of B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Chuck Berry. T-Bone is also an inductee to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Walker's mother, Vida Lee Lashley Walker, was known on the circuit as a "good musician's wife," Walker said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). Her role was vital to the family as they all traveled from one performance to the next on the back roads of the segregated South. It wasn't easy and Walker remembers being confused by the racism. There were the "whites only" signs and filling stations that would sell them gas but wouldn't allow them to use the restrooms. "As a child I remember being very hungry after getting off a flight to New Orleans. I watched as my father pleaded with a white woman to allow us to buy a hot dog at the snack bar. But she refused us anyway." This was Walker's first memory of the unfair and harmful actions people take to deliberately harm others; not unlike the unfairness of the domestic abuse she would later experience and work to eliminate.
In 1964 Walker graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School and entered California State University at Los Angeles. This time in her life was a difficult one as she worked a series of jobs and long hours to make ends meet after the birth of her daughter Kelie. In 1968 she joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department as a deputy assigned to the Sybil Brand Institute for Women, a women's jail. Later Walker transferred to special investigations. During the years she served as a deputy, Walker learned valuable lessons about human nature, violence, and prison. Although she was surprised at the attitude of some of the officers she worked around, there were also lots of good people working there, she said. Walker did realize, upon seeing several old schoolmates in the women's prison, that it could easily have been herself, incarcerated.
In 1978 when Walker retired due to a knee injury, she was well aware that a child exposed to violence at home could end up lost behind bars. "Violence," Walker told CBB, "is a learned behavior. Children who experience it in their early years are more likely to commit violence against others or allow themselves to be abused."
After leaving the Sheriff's Department, Walker searched for her calling as she worked and returned to school. At the time, Walker and four friends would sometimes visit a local night spot in the neighborhood, but their kids began to feel left out. "The kids made it clear that they wanted more time with their mothers," Walker recalled to CBB. To solve their dilemma the women formed a social club that included the kids. The women also decided they'd donate some of the club's earnings, so they named it Jenesse Social and Charity Club. They just needed to find a worthy cause. The group searched for an organization to support, but could find none in South Central Los Angeles. So Jenesse started its own. The members of Jenesse learned to write proposals to seek grant money and received help from a local minister. He called the group one day to offer the use of the church rectory to house the center. One day an acquaintance told the women about new legislation that would generate revenue to fund battered women's shelters from a marriage license fee increase; they had found their cause. The Jenesse Center, dedicated to helping battered African-American women and their children, opened in 1980, with Margaret Cambric as its first executive director and Walker as assistant director. The group expanded the center in 1981 to include a shelter. Walker became executive director in 1993. In 1995 Walker resigned from the position.
The day after Walker resigned from Jenesse, she started Project: Peacemakers, Inc. As its executive director she continued her mission against violence through crisis intervention and prevention education. Project: Peacemakers has a multi-program set-up which includes D.A.R.T., CalWorks, G.R.O.W., and L.A. Bridges. D.A.R.T—The Domestic Abuse Response Team—is a group of trained volunteers who partner with the 77th Police Division to respond to incidents of abuse. CalWorks is a federal program partnering with Project: Peacemakers to offer anger management, domestic violence, and parenting classes, as well as counseling and support groups, to parents who have been victimized by domestic violence. The G.R.O.W. program assists adults without children or who have lost custody of their kids, as they transition from public assistance to the labor market. L.A. Bridges is an after-school program which uses the assistance of families, schools, and community to prevent gang violence.
Walker also founded the Oluremi's Longhouse program, a center for sober living, in 1992. The facility accommodates 14 residents, all men trying to stay sober and get on their feet while learning mutual respect. Out of this program came one of the largest Alcoholic Anonymous groups in the country, noted Walker.
In addition to this work, Walker also runs the family business—Lord and Walker Publishing, a company Walker created in 1989 to manage her father's music. Walker also sits on several boards around the state and teaches domestic violence related courses.
Walker is tireless and seems fearless. She said the strength she displays protecting families from the menace of domestic abuse was inherited from her multiethnic heritage. "My mother was the granddaughter of an Irish slave owner, my great grandmother was believed to be Native American or Mexican. My grandmother was a very dark African American," she said. Walker learned fortitude from their collective struggle against slavery, encroachment, and war. The ability to face the enemy is in her blood. Perhaps what keeps her going are the stories of the women who took their lives back after living in fear. She meets them often and knows their gratitude.
Acknowledging how faith can give someone courage enough to escape a toxic relationship, Walker put it simply: "You know God did not give us a spirit of fear." Walker worked diligently to try to eliminate the violence, but remarked that to rid families of such violence cultural changes needed to occur. "We need to teach our boys to respect girls and teach our girls to respect themselves," Walker told CBB. "We need to learn it as a culture." Walker stressed her point, noting that 90 percent of the convicted felons in the United States were either abused as a child or saw it in the home regularly, and adding that this is also true for 100 percent of inmates on death row. Guided by her desire to remedy these cultural ills, Walker continued to press on with her work.
Project: Peacemakers, Inc., www.projectpeacemakersinc.org (June 12, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with and materials provided by Bernita R. Walker on June 13, 2005.
—Sharon Melson Feltcher