A champion for the rights of marginalised women, families and children, Nia Weeks developed her sense of commitment to the community from an early age, overcoming personal challenges and prejudice along the way.
Meeting Nia Weeks, it’s obvious she’s loving what she does. She gives off a sense of someone who is exactly where she wants to be – in the right place at the right time – although there’s no hint of complacency about this warm and welcoming near-native of New Orleans. Director of Policy and Advocacy at Women with a Vision, Inc (WWAV), since 2015, a community-based non-profit founded by and for women of colour to address social justice issues, Nia admits she’s found her dream job. Comparing her present role to her previous one as a public defender where she says it was like, “Putting band aids everywhere”, the kind of policy work she’s doing now with WWAV feels more like being in the surgery room: “You’re able to make real systemic change in people’s lives.” So, how did she get here and what drives her to fight for marginalised black women in the city, state, and the south as a whole?
Back to her roots
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Nia’s parents wanted their children to know their grandparents and grow up with a clear sense of their roots and who they were. Nia was two when the family moved to New Orleans. Her first seven years of schooling were at The Academy of the Sacred Heart, a predominantly white institution, which Nia describes as a great school and an “interesting” space to grow up in. She was the only black student in her class for all those seven years; her sisters were the only black students in their class as well. Their mother was the only black teacher at Sacred Hearts for 20 years. Reflecting on this, Nia says: “There were moments that forced me to acknowledge who I was as a young black girl and other times to disassociate myself from who I was as a young black girl to fit in with my classmates. It was a real struggle for me as I got older.”
Things started to look up when Nia moved to Ursuline Academy, the oldest Catholic girl’s school in the United States, in fifth grade, and where she stayed through High School: “I remember walking to the classroom and there were five black students and I thought that’s what predominant meant – more than one! I was happy to be there, and at Ursuline I could really discovered who I was.” From an young age, this meant connecting with the community around her, or initiating one herself. At Ursuline, she started a community which she describes as: “An economic and social environmental group that stayed in tune with all the things that were happening around us.”
Growing sense of community
A keen and talented swimmer at the time, Nia was rejected by the first group she tried to join who she says, “Did not want these little black girls swimming for them.” The Jewish Community Centre (JCC) was more welcoming, however, and despite swimming for another team during the school year, she still turned out for the JCC team every summer. “My parents taught me that you always go back to your roots. You always go back to the ones that taught you how to be where you are.” Her parents’ attitude and guidance forged a strong commitment to community in Nia, one that endures to this day. “Every Christmas we had to give our toys that we did not use to the shelter before we could consider asking Santa for a new toy. Every Thanksgiving we had to feed the homeless before going to our grandparents’ house to eat. My mom said that we may not have money but we have our time and we can validate people’s existence by just listening to them. So that’s how I grew up. I volunteered at the zoo for nine years. I volunteered at the aquarium, at other community organisations, and at church. I grew up thinking that’s how everybody was. You exist in the world by maintaining proximity to everybody else.”
Challenges, obstacles, and turning points
Nia Weeks radiates a quiet confidence; there’s a steely determination about her which is something else she attributes to her parents. They’d always taught her that ‘no’ was simply another step to ‘yes’, and this homespun wisdom would come in useful as she continued her education, first at Auburn University and then at Indiana State College.
It was at Auburn where she met her husband – a football player – aged 20, and where she had her first child a year later. Moving to Indiana as a couple, Nia became a McNair scholar, and had access to a fund set up by the family of black astronaut Robert McNair, to help first generation minority women who are also minorities in their field, to get their PhDs. She researched the representation of black women in the media and got to present her research across the country. She sat on the board of an African-American college programme, presenting her research every year at their symposium. She also had three children by now and had reached another turning point.
Having moved to Florida, Nia was working in public relations for a non-profit organisation in foster care, but she was frustrated by the limitations of her role. “I really wanted to advocate and help the children that were in the system. I was stopped because I couldn’t go into court and I couldn’t talk to the judge the way I wanted because I was not a lawyer. I had to go to law school.” Money was tight, both Nia and her husband were working to support their family. To pass her entrance exams, she studied from library books in her lunch hour, she studied in her car, on her way to church, and for two hours every night. Weekends were dedicated to studying. All the hard work and sacrifice paid off, however, and she passed her entry exams. But then her life took another turn.
In sickness and in health
Nia was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in her first semester at law school; she also discovered she was pregnant. It was a lot to handle, but after taking a year off, she returned to school, taking her new baby with her, including nursing her in class. In the meantime, her marriage was disintegrating and at that point, now divorced, Nia decided to return to New Orleans, transferring to law school at Loyola University – a lucky break, as it happened. “Loyola was such a blessing. Loyola is a Catholic university that is rooted in social justice and it trains lawyers to be good lawyers, to be advocates, and to think like members of the community.”
Raising her children and studying wasn’t easy but she had support from her parents and sympathetic Professors who found her jobs. “I got to work on great projects on the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments and criminal justice laws. I studied housing law for homeless clients and poor clients facing eviction. I was on a trial team at Loyola where we won two national competitions as advocates. I was so proud the day I graduated from law school. I did it, despite all the obstacles that were in my way.” Graduation offered no easy route to success, however, and Nia struggled to find a job. Refusing to feel sorry for herself, she wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. She visited every court room in the city, and emailed every judge with her resume until eventually she landed a job as a public defender.
After working as public defender for three years and exposed to the realities of a Louisiana criminal justice system which she describes as “harsh”, Nia reached a point where she didn’t want to do it anymore. “Women with a Vision were looking for a policy director at the time. It seemed like my dream job. I would be paid to advocate for marginalised black women in a way that I can develop too. I applied and got the job.” She’d barely got her feet under the desk at WWAV before going into her favourite ‘project’ mode. This time, it involved putting together a tool kit to help women advocate for themselves. Included in the kit is information on who their elected officials are, how to get in touch with these officials and what to say to them. If elected officials did not listen there’s advice on what to do. The kit has dates for the general election, when to register to vote, when to early vote and a guide on every aspect of the council – how to bill a council law, how committees work, who’s on committees, the power of the committee etc.
Around a hundred women from across the state came to the first legal advocacy day Nia organised. “I received emails from young women later who said it was the first time they felt they could be heard, that they could be part of something. For many, it was also the first time they saw black women organising a day like that. I hate to use the word empowered because it means you give them something they don’t have, but I will say they felt rekindled in their spirit. The magic was real. Everyone was dancing and glowing, not just for the day, but moving forward.”
Helping secure a fairer system for marginalised women remains one of the key objectives in her day-to-day work. “One of the issues is economic equity. We are yet to pass equal pay in this state and prioritise a real living wage. We don’t even have minimum wage in Louisiana.” So, despite the ongoing challenges, is she optimistic for the future?
“With the current administration, we hear all the negative stories of heightened racism, sexism, bigotry. I feel in my core that my kids are experiencing it at school. At the same time, I am feeling this deluge of community, caring about others, listening and seeing each other in ways that they hadn’t before. That makes me so proud, not only of being an American, but of being a human being. We have conservatives saying our community members need to be seen and heard. I was speaking to a pastor who only works with victims of crime. These are people whom I never would have spoken or engaged with or thought saw me and my point of view. But we’re doing it.”
We’ll take that as another ‘yes’ then.