It’d been a long day. The holidays were over, the weather was bitterly cold, and I couldn’t even bring myself to turn on the radio for fear of what the latest calamity of a news cycle would do to my already beaten-down spirit.
I pulled up to the CAMC Family Resource Center to meet with Dr. Jenee Walker, one of this year’s YWCA Women of Achievement. I’d heard wonderful stories about her from her patients, coworkers and friends – heartfelt testaments to her generous character, her kindness, her positive and inspiring nature, but I had never had the opportunity to meet her. After one hour of speaking with her, as I walked back to my car, I felt my shoulders were lighter, my mind was clearer and I was smiling – even hopeful. “Wow,” I thought. “How did she do that?”
Over the course of her life, Walker has worked tirelessly as an advocate for women’s rights and racial justice, and has been a steadfast supporter of improving access to mental health services and tearing down the stigma of mental health issues. Her own personal experiences have guided her advocacy efforts – strengthened by her sense of compassion, fortitude and generosity every step of the way. “I really love to help people who have been part of a struggle,” she said. “I gravitate toward them because I want to tell them, ‘Yes, you can.’”
Born and raised in Compton, California, Dr. Walker came from humble beginnings. Her father owned a junk yard and used car lot, and her mother worked as a secretary. As a high school student, she remembers hearing the family typewriter ticking away as her mother worked toward earning her college degree. “We weren’t rich financially, but we were rich in spirit,” Walker said of her childhood.
Growing up, Walker had a strong relationship with her mother. “My beautiful mother was one of the kindest, most gentle, spiritual people you’d ever meet; but when it came to her kids, she was fearless,” she said. “She always empowered me to believe that I could do anything, and she was always in my corner cheering for me to succeed.”
As a child, Walker’s only exposure to a woman in the professional world was her pediatrician, which inspired her to pursue a medical degree herself. After graduating as valedictorian from a small black Christian high school, Walker majored in biology at Loma Linda University – a school at which ninety-six percent of the student body was white.
She faced her share of struggles in college, detailing one particularly challenging interaction with a teacher in a story published in Chicken Soup for the African American Soul. After being told by her professor that she should give up on medical school to become a farmer, Walker was humiliated. But, armed with her parents' words of encouragement echoing in her ears, she marched into the professor’s office and swore that one day she would come back with her medical degree to prove she had what it took to succeed. She did. She went on to graduate with honors, earn acceptance to several prestigious medical schools and was even elected class president.
Walker later accompanied her husband to West Virginia, where she earned her medical degree and completed her psychiatry and behavioral medicine residency at the WVU School of Medicine, and completed a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry at CAMC. When asked why she chose psychiatry as a specialty, she remembers being asked why she didn’t choose to be “real doctor.”
“I may not be doing the bloody, dirty work, but I’m suturing the soul,” she said. “It’s such a sacred trust when patients walk in my office and open up their minds so I feel it’s my job to help put them back together, feeling empowered to go face the world.”
As a mental health professional, Walker has worked hard to combat the stigma surrounding mental health issues. “I believe that we are all more alike than we are different and it’s a fine line that we can cross any time between health and illness,” she said. “There can’t be judgment and we are all vulnerable. Don’t look at mental illness as a weakness – see it as a strength for those that get help.”
Raising her children in Charleston, Dr. Walker and her family faced their share of adversity. While working as a psychiatrist at a local hospital, Walker had patients who refused to see her because of her race. Her young children were called racial slurs at school.
When her children were young, their school did not commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. Feeling this was an important day of remembrance, Walker took it upon herself to take her children out of school each MLK day and march to the Capitol. They would ring the bell and celebrate the life of a man that changed the course of the civil rights movement in America.
After a few years, that little school changed its policy and began to recognize Dr. King’s birthday. “Change begins with one,” Walker said. “And it doesn’t mean you have to be harsh or abrupt. It just means you have to live the example. We can’t just speak it – we have to live it.”
Walker recognizes the importance of role models in the lives of children. “I have a place of affection and a real alliance particularly with young people who are struggling, because my mother modeled for me, so I want to model for them. I think there’s a cycle of hopelessness and dependency and lack of motivation that is fostered from parents who have never experienced a positive vision so they can’t give that to their kids.”
Despite her busy schedule, she volunteers her time at Job Corps, where she oversees a mentorship group that gives her the opportunity to work with young people – particularly young women. “The secret to resilience is having one person – one charismatic other – who is a positive influence in their lives that believes in them – just one – and that’s what can give someone the strength they need – so I’ve determined that I want to be that person for others,” Walker said.
She, like many of us, has watched the burgeoning #MeToo movement with excitement. “It’s saying we have worth, we have value, we have a voice and we deserve equality. It’s empowering women on a whole other level,” she said. “What a wonderful message we’re giving to our girls. Women are standing taller, shoulders back and we’re walking forward – almost running – to the future.”
Looking ahead, Dr. Walker has hope. “I’ve learned the importance of keeping myself fueled through my faith and that’s allowed me to do what I do for the last 30 years,” she said. “I believe in balance, and every morning, I wake up and immerse myself in light so that I can be there for my patients and not be depleted. It keeps you in a place of hope.”
“See people as you want them to be” she said. “Keep a vision of them being independent, empowered, capable, kind and loving, and they will grow to meet that expectation – and we must do that with ourselves.”
Walker and her husband, Dr. Robert Walker, are parents to three adult children. Dr. Walker is the medical director of the Family Resource Center at CAMC Women and Children’s Hospital. She is also on the clinical faculty for the WVU School of Medicine, as well as associate professor of psychiatry for the WVU Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry. YWCA Charleston is pleased to honor Dr. Walker alongside the other 2018 Women of Achievement at its annual luncheon on March 2 at Embassy Suites. To attend or sponsor the event, visit www.ywcacharleston.org/woa.