OUTSTANDING VIRGINIANS 2013

Viola Baskerville

Advocate

Viola Baskerville

Many years before her distinguished career in public service—Richmond councilwoman, Vice Mayor, state Delegate and Secretary of Administration—Viola Baskerville had an experience that crystallized and expanded her ideas about civil rights and equality for all. The year was 1969. She was an undergraduate at William and Mary, one of only 11 black students and a woman in a college that had recently graduated its first co-ed class. In her geology class, her lab partner was a young white man who, unlike many, was friendly to her and helped her pass a difficult course. They began socializing after class and one night he confided in her that he was gay. To admit to such a thing in Virginia in that day was unheard of and, she recalls, she was the only one to whom he could tell his secret. “It was like a light bulb went on,” she says: “I realized we were two peas in a pod.”

Her sudden understanding of what her friend was going through resonated with two factors already present in her mind: the teachings of her parents and grandparents, who told her never to look down upon people because they are different, and the negative example of the hatred she saw directed against the Civil Rights movement.  Thinking of her friend, she could not fathom how people could be despised for differences they cannot control.

Baskerville served as Secretary of Administration under Governor Tim Kaine.

At that time, a career in politics was the last thing on her mind. “I wanted to be a racecar driver,” she confides, adding “and I still love the fast cars.” However, when she was elected to the Richmond City Council in 1994, civil rights were a central part of her agenda. One of her first votes was for a resolution in response to a rash of hate crimes in the city. The resolution specifically included sexual orientation as a category of prohibited discrimination.  Later, in the House of Delegates, she sponsored three bills prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The bills, like others that followed, did not make it out of committee. Nonetheless, she says it is vitally important to insist that people be treated fairly, no matter how many times it takes to try and change the laws.

As Governor Tim Kaine’s Secretary of Administration, Viola Baskerville spoke up for the inclusion of domestic partners in health plans for state workers, and she made impassioned public statements against the state’s so-called Marriage Amendment.  Although these efforts did not succeed immediately, they sparked open dialogue, for the first time, among friends and family members, and this, she believes, will bring about lasting change. “People who are fighting to be recognized now know they are not alone,” she says, comparing her work to “a war on fear, misinformation, stereotypes and mostly silence.”

Baskerville

In 2012, Secretary Baskerville took a position as interim CEO of the Girl Scouts of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Girl scouting, she points out, has a hundred year tradition of promoting equality and inclusion. “We take girls as they come to us,” she says, “The only question we ask of a girl is, ‘do you want to be a leader?’”

Looking ahead, she describes herself as an optimist. “It’s remarkable how far we’ve come in just the last five years,” she says. She sees a good chance of positive change arising out of the marriage equality cases coming before the Supreme Court. The turning point, she feels, is the realization among a majority of people that marriage equality is not about the demands of a particular group but about how we treat our fellow human beings.” She adds: “Even though America is still an experiment in equality, we’re getting there.” Which is not to say that individuals can just stand by and wait. “We’ve just got to keep up the drumbeat,” she concludes, “and pretty soon we’ll have a whole loud band that no one can ignore.”