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‘I Have To Do Something’: Nikylan Knapper On Becoming Maplewood’s 1st Black Mayor

A year ago, Nikylan Knapper didn’t expect to run for mayor of Maplewood, the St. Louis County municipality where she lives with her husband and three children. But shortly after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, she witnessed something in her own neighborhood that prompted her to begin thinking more seriously about the idea.

It started with a gesture of solidarity that Knapper, who is African American, appreciated in the days immediately following Floyd’s death: A white mother and children used chalk to write “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Their Names” on an area fence, along with names of people who had died.

But then another neighbor took to social media and described the chalk drawing as graffiti.

041321_providedbysubject_NikylanKnapper
Nikylan Knapper
Maplewood Mayor-elect Nikylan Knapper, 41, ran what she describes as a “people-powered” campaign for the seat.

“[The neighbor] posted in this group that graffiti was on this fence and that if anyone wanted to call the police and report it, they could use the picture as evidence,” Knapper told St. Louis on the Air.

She was so shaken by the post that she had to take some time off work to gather herself. But today, she looks back at it as her “aha” moment.

“It was just, ‘I have to do something. I have to let my neighbors know that we are all in this together,’” Knapper said. “This is our community, and there are many different facets of our community, and if someone like myself, an African American woman, is not present, doesn’t have a seat at the table so I can be a different voice in the room, then our community will never know that. And so yes, that experience pushed me.”

On April 6, Knapper earned support from 58% of voters. The federal administrative law judge and school board member defeated incumbent Mayor Barry Greenberg to become Maplewood’s first Black mayor.

Knapper said on Tuesday’s show that she takes her victory as a signal that Maplewood residents are focused on the future and interested in “innovative solutions for longstanding problems that we’ve had.”

“And I also think that they are wanting and looking for our city council and myself to work together as a team,” Knapper said. “And so I’m overjoyed to have the opportunity to do all of that.”

Knapper and her family moved to Maplewood from Tennessee about five years ago. She initially got involved with the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District as a volunteer, only to be elected to its board of directors two years ago. The more she engaged with her colleagues around educational policy issues, the more she recognized various aspects of her community in need of change.

Nikylan Knapper Will Be Maplewood’s 1st Black Mayor
Listen as the federal administrative judge, wife and mother of three talks with host Sarah Fenske about her campaign and her hopes for her community's future.

“I started looking at families that were having to leave because they couldn’t afford to live in Maplewood anymore,” Knapper recalled.

Her mentor on the school board suggested that was an issue for the city council. But instead of deterring Knapper, it got her thinking.

“When you tell me for a whole year that I’m not in the proper place to effect change so we can get low-income families to remain in Maplewood,” Knapper said, “then I’m going to look to see where I need to go to make that change.”

That change, she emphasized, will be collaborative.

“I have no intention to bend our city council to my will,” she said. “I think that power should expand, not limit. … I plan to collaborate with city council members. I want to know what their priorities are for their wards as well as Maplewood as a whole, and I believe we are aligned on a lot of things.”

Knapper will be sworn into office on April 27.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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