By Allison Hageman | [email protected]
Alyia Gaskins is spending most of her time listening as she wages her first campaign for Alexandria City Council. She said, if elected, she will govern in the same manner.
Gaskins said she is going on socially distanced walks with neighbors, standing at farmers markets and grocery stores and doing virtual Zoom meet and greets. She is also reaching out to community leaders to meet people where they are.
“I’m not just talking about community engagement,” Gaskins said. “I’m out here doing it and trying to figure out how to get creative in doing that in COVID. And I’d like to bring that same creativity and that same engagement of people to city government.”
Gaskins is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and was raised by her mother, whose struggles with health complications shaped Gaskins’ childhood and inspired her career. She has a degree in medicine, health and society from Vanderbilt University, a master’s in public health from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s in urban planning from Georgetown University.
“My journey has been focused around one central question, which is what do people need to be healthy and to thrive?” Gaskins said.
Gaskins and her family moved to Alexandria in 2012 while she was working in D.C. They chose the city, Gaskins said, because it was a place to build a family and she fondly remembered those early trips to Alexandria.
“I remember coming to Alexandria as a child and every time I visited, I was just so in love with the city and it felt like a second home,” Gaskins said.
She currently works as a senior program officer at a national philanthropic organization and has a consulting business called CitiesRX that helps create equitable communities. Gaskins previously worked at the National League of Cities, where she was able to focus on Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign. She has served on several local and regional boards and commissions, including the Virginia Fair Housing Board, Transportation Commission and Agenda Alexandria.
Gaskins said she considers getting to know people’s stories, along with integrity, justice and her faith, as most important to her.
“I love meeting new people and I believe that each of us has a story and a potential that is greater than we could ever imagine,” Gaskins said.
Gaskins decided to make a run at City Council because she believes Alexandria “desperately” needs a public health perspective during the pandemic. Her son, Ezekiel, is also a driving force in her decision to run for local office, Gaskins said.
“I want to be a part of investing in this community and making the decisions around how we recover, how we invest, how we tackle big issues like flooding, stormwater, climate change and housing so that we can be creating a city where he’s able to grow up and thrive,” Gaskins said.
Equity is also important to Gaskins. She said it can be built by making sure people, especially in the Black and brown communities, have a voice in the decisions that are being made in the city. Gaskins said data collection in these communities is essential, as data helps city staff and politicians make decisions.
“I love Alexandria because we value diversity and inclusion, but I think we have more steps and more actions to take to truly become an equitable community,” Gaskins said.
In the short term, Gaskins said the issues facing Alexandria are restoring trust in local government, infrastructure, how the city rebounds from COVID-19 and labor.
“None of this can be planned in silos. We have to be thinking about the intersections between these issues,” Gaskins said.
For Gaskins, the conversation about the city’s infrastructure needs to encompass everything from sidewalks to the city’s much discussed stormwater and housing issues because “housing is the foundation for which families need to thrive,” Gaskins said.
With council set to consider a collective bargaining ordinance for city employees in April, Gaskins said she wants to make sure public sector employees understand they have support from City Council to bargain in a way that is fair and equitable. Gaskins emphasized the importance of city employees having the wages and working conditions they need.
In the long term, Gaskins said how the city funds and invests in these infrastructure improvements is going to be critical. She also said she wants to continue and expand the city’s partnership with Alexandria City Public Schools to support opportunities for academic success and close the achievement gap exacerbated by COVID-19.
“I think, as councilors, we have to be partnering with our schools to take care of all the things that families are dealing with outside of the classroom, from housing to food insecurity,” Gaskins said.
Gaskins said she is prepared for this moment – her first run for Alexandria City Council. She credits her preparedness to her personal experience and work she has done in cities across the country.
“I’m coming in with an understanding of municipal finance and budgeting and how to make these big decisions,” Gaskins said. “I’ve been at the negotiation tables with developers. I understand how to push and ask questions to figure out ‘Is this going to work for us?’”