India Walton, a current candidate for the Buffalo Common Council’s Masten district and nurse, spoke to a small group of around 20 students on Feb. 27 in the Student Union.
Walton, best known for narrowly losing a bid to become mayor of Buffalo after winning the Democratic primary over Byron Brown, didn’t hold back with her audience, discussing how the disparities she witnessed as a nurse led to her strong political convictions.
“There’s a strong desire in my soul to make sure that I leave this world better than how I entered it,” Walton said.
The Q&A-style event was put together through a collaboration between UB’s and Canisius’ Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students (MAPS). Students asked questions about what led her to transition from nursing to politics and how to pave their career paths, especially as a minority in the medical field.
At 19 years old, Walton was pregnant with two twins. She went into labor at only 24 weeks, the viability age of a fetus.
During her pregnancy, medical professionals consistently told Walton that her children were not going to survive. Even if they did, the medical professionals said, her children wouldn’t be able to communicate or be “productive people in society.”
Against the medical professionals’ advice, she did not give up. Walton successfully gave birth.
Walton recalled telling a nurse about her experiences. ”If you don’t like it, become a nurse,” the nurse replied.
Walton took that advice.
After her pregnancy, Walton enrolled in SUNY Erie Community College, eventually graduating with a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
She got her first nursing job at John R Oshei Children’s Hospital. There were 170 nurses in her unit. Walton was one of just four Black nurses.
Students asked Walton about her experiences as a Black nurse and the challenges she faced in the field.
“I am the Band-Aid over a gushing wound,” she told students. “You get into this, and you say, ‘I’m going to change it from the inside out, I’m going to do better, I’m going to be the person, I’m going to represent,’ and it’s kind of impossible. You get very weary quickly because you are an item there out of 170 people.”
She came into the medical industry to change the culture, but the culture of the medical industry changed her.
Working in a predominantely white workspace with many black patients led to some of her coworkers percieving her as an outlier.For five years she worked with a physician at Children’s Hospital who repeatedly asked her if she was “the mother” of their patients jokingly. (Walton said it was due to her lengthy natural afro.) She says she started to internalize those comments, causing her to cut her own hair.
“In the moment, it felt like it was going to make me blend in, be more comfortable for myself, but also make my coworkers more comfortable,” she said. “That’s maybe the one thing I regret. I shouldn’t have done that. I should have kept rocking out.”
She later left her hospital job to become a school nurse, which ended up being a vastly different job.
“[My students] didn’t really have health issues,” Walton said. “They had community issues. These were children who were housing insecure, who were food insecure, who were experiencing community violence, trauma in their neighborhoods, in their homes and really wanted someone that they felt safe with, that they could talk to.”
Buffalo has a poverty rate of about 27.6%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Walton recalled when two sisters in her school got lice on a Tuesday. She called their mother to recommend washing their hair to get rid of the lice.
The mother agreed — but said she couldn’t afford to get shampoo until she got paid that Friday.
“What BS is a world where children have to miss three days of school because their mother can’t afford to buy a $7 bottle of shampoo?” she asked.
This was the moment when Walton realized she could no longer be a bystander. She knew she needed to take on political advocacy.
Her years as a nurse have changed her political beliefs, leading her to see classism as a major contributor to disparities in her community.
“I watched people walk out of Children’s Hospital, walk out of Buffalo General and the provider will say they’re non-compliant, they ain’t going to follow their diet,” she said. “Well, have you thought about where the grocery store is? You want them to eat cabbage and broccoli, but where are they gonna get it from?”
A food desert is a place where a large proportion of the population has little access to supermarkets or large grocery stores, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most of Buffalo is considered a food desert.
“Let’s be real,” Walton told students. “That’s not noncompliance; it’s inability.”
The mass shooting by a white supremacist at the Tops grocery store on Jefferson Avenue last May has increased efforts locally to address the issue.
A student asked Walton what advice she had for students who feel overlooked. Walton said she felt that she needed to change to fit in and that it took her 40 years to figure out that she didn’t need to. Walton is now 41.
“My presence in whatever room I enter into is a blessing,” she said. “Every experience that I’ve had has been meant for me to share with somebody else. Don’t shrink. Don’t apologize for being who you are. Stand in your power.”
Walton ended the event by imploring students to do what they know is right. She emphasized that there is enough bad in the world and not enough people doing the right thing.
“That’s what I want to do, and it hurts like hell,” she admitted to students. “I cry a lot. It’s painful to do right. It’s not profitable to do right. People hate you for wanting to do right. But at the end of the day, I lay my head down, and I sleep good at night.”
The talk concluded with a round of applause for Walton. Students joked and took pictures with her.
“To be proud in your Blackness,” Nayab Mesfun, vice president of UB MAPS and a junior exercise science major, told The Spectrum was their biggest takeaway from the event. “To know your worth and know you’re worthy.”
A.J. Franklin is an assistant features editor and can be reached at email@example.com.