2024 Mayor Profile: Alyia Gaskins

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2024 Mayor Profile: Alyia Gaskins
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By Caitlyn Meisner | cmeisner@alextimes.com 

Councilor Alyia Gaskins wants to become Alexandria’s next mayor to tackle the issues ahead that will be – and are – facing the city. Just shy of 2 ½ years on City Council, Gaskins believes her leadership will get the city on the right track. 

“On Council, I have emerged as somebody who has demonstrated a record of results,” Gaskins said. “I think, for me, this moment calls for new ideas, new energy and new ways of working.” 

A Pittsburgh, Penn., native, Gaskins was raised by her single mother and grandmother. She said all of her earliest memories are accompanied by these two women who were always at her side. She has siblings from her father, but was raised as an only child. 

In fifth grade, Gaskins received a scholarship through the Fund for the Advancement of Minority Education, which took her out of public school and placed her into an all-girls private school in Pittsburgh. 

“It was a really transformative experience for me to have a parent making less than $30,000 a year, but to be in a school that costs almost $40,000,” Gaskins said. “It was a place that taught me that no matter your age, your background, your race, your gender, your voice matters.” 

She then went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., to receive her bachelor’s degree in medicine, health and society in 2010. Gaskins originally wanted to become a physician while growing up, as her mother had a number of health issues. 

“We would go to the hospital 10, 12 times a year,” Gaskins recalled. “It was the doctors who always were the ones who saved my mom and brought her back to me; I wanted a life that allowed me to serve others in that way.” 

But, Gaskins realized there were other career paths that helped people than becoming a doctor. And she found that in public health. 

“It was the first time we really talked about … the social determinants of health [or] all the conditions that impact your health and well being, so your housing, transportation, jobs,” she said of her early college years. “I thought to myself, I want to fix that, because in our case, it wasn’t that my mom didn’t have good doctors; it was that we didn’t have food to eat or we were facing eviction.” 

Gaskins then quickly received her master’s of public health from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011. She moved to the DMV in June 2012 when she started her first job out of college at D.C. Hunger Solutions as an anti-hunger program and policy associate. 

After nearly 2 ½ years there, she became a senior associate of health and wellness at the National League of Cities in September 2014. In 2016, Gaskins and her husband, Greg, moved to Cameron Station and have been in the neighborhood since. 

In June 2017, she became assistant director of networks at the Center for Community Investment. Around this time is when Gaskins attended Georgetown University for a second master’s degree, this time in urban and regional planning. She’s also obtained a professional certificate in municipal finance from the University of Chicago. 

“I wanted to understand, ‘How does the planning process work?” Gaskins said. “If we know what needs to be in communities to help people be as healthy as possible, then what are we doing to make intentional decisions that create that? 

“The finance [certificate] came from, ‘OK, if we know how to plan for what we want, then why is it so hard to build it? What does it take to actually finance and bring those visions to reality?” she said. 

Gaskins described her multiple degrees as “pieces to a puzzle” that is critical to creating healthy and prosperous communities. In April 2019, Gaskins founded CitiesRX to help “communities leverage the power of relationships to address the unprecedented challenges of the present with an intentional focus on equity,” the website reads. 

Since November 2020, Gaskins has served as a senior program officer of the Melville Charitable Trust, a foundation based in New Haven, Conn., devoted to ending homelessness. 

“I was brought on to … focus on land use and housing justice, and really understanding the policies, programs and initiatives that are needed to create more housing in the first place so we can keep people in those homes and ideally, never have to experience homelessness,” she said. 

Gaskins has served on several local boards and commissions since moving to the area, including the Virginia Fair Housing Board, the Transportation Commission, Agenda: Alexandria and the Junior League of Northern Virginia. 

Despite Gaskins’ many accomplishments for someone in their 30s, some have criticized her mayoral bid, stating she’s not lived in the city long enough in comparison to Vice Mayor Amy Jackson, who grew up in Alexandria, and former developer Steven Peterson, who has lived here for 30 years. They contend that, after eight years in the city and one term on Council, she may not understand the fabric of the community well enough to be mayor. 

Gaskins said, in response, that her family has planted roots here, and that she can’t imagine a time where they will be uprooted. 

“We are raising two children here, and nearly 32,000 Alexandria voters elected me to City Council in 2021 because they saw how connected I was to the community and how much more I wanted to do to make our city work for everyone,” Gaskins said in an email to the Times responding to the criticism. “My family has rooted ourselves deeply in Alexandria, and we intend to celebrate our children’s high school graduations and play with our grandchildren right here.” 

She was elected to City Council in November 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic; at the time, Gaskins believed Alexandria “desperately” needed a public health perspective on Council. Now, as she runs for mayor, she believes her public health perspective – along with her urban planning and finance backgrounds – will help her get the job done in Alexandria. 

“I think that’s a unique combination that other folks are not bringing, and I feel like this moment calls for that,” Gaskins said. 

Her top three priorities if elected are public safety, housing affordability and accessibility. In terms of public safety, she has several initiatives that she’ll pilot if she’s elected as mayor. 

“I want to … start monthly meetings in community with our justice agencies. This is an opportunity for us to come together, review the data as it relates to crime, traffic and quality of life, but also get out and walk our neighborhoods … [so we can] generate mini action plans,” Gaskins said. “They will be posted on our website so that the community can see very clearly and transparently what we are working on.” 

Gaskins has also proposed a focus on preservation and protection of existing housing stock in terms of housing affordability. She said she wants to create a preservation taskforce, expanding senior tax relief and accelerating investments in home modification and energy efficiency programs. 

A major platform for Gaskins as she runs for mayor – and has been a pillar of her time as councilor – is communication and accessibility. 

“I think we communicate a lot as a city, but I don’t think we always get to the right people with the right message at the right time,” she said. “One of my first actions is … to do an audit of our communications so that we can identify, how do we do better?” 

Communication was an especially contentious issue during the Zoning for Housing debate in the fall of 2023 as the proposal made its way through the approval process. Many residents spoke out during public hearings criticizing City Council and city staff for a lack of effective communication to all residents. 

And Gaskins believes it’s essential for Alexandria’s mayor to be detail-oriented, read every document that comes across the mayor’s desk, conduct outside research and read every supple-mental report. 

“I’m the type of person [who’s] like, ‘Oh, there’s a typo on page 144,’” Gaskins said with a laugh. “Why did we miss this? Because if it starts there, we might miss a bigger thing.” 

Gaskins said she sees the role of mayor as an expert communicator and team leader; he or she has to be able to speak to multiple groups of people – constituents, the media, national and state officials – about complex topics that are facing the city. 

“I think you can have the big vision, but if you can’t do the other pieces that are necessary for execution, then you won’t be able to move the vision to reality,” Gaskins said. “And that’s a shame when that vision is what the community wants to see and is depend-ing on.” 

As for the now-dead Monumental Sports & Entertainment arena proposal, Gaskins believes there were important lessons learned from the process. 

“I think that at the end of the day, we now know, more than ever, the economic challenges that we face and the fiscal outlook for our community,” Gaskins said. “I think that everyone now knows it was not a done deal. But the way we rolled it out, there were far too many people who thought it was, and that then meant that they didn’t engage in the community process.” 

She said in a written statement that the city now needed to move on. 

“I did not come out as a ‘hard yes’ or ‘hard no’ sooner because we never actually saw a deal,” Gaskins said, clarifying her stance. “We saw ‘frameworks’ and ‘proposals, but not a single term sheet, financial package or written argument. … I still believe it could have been a good thing for Alexandria – if it included union jobs, affordable housing, funding for Metro and other district transit improvements and more seats for Alexandria on the stadium authority board.” 

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