DeVane Walker Jr. had the kind of childhood in the Richmond ghetto from which, as he puts it, "you're not supposed to go any further."
His parents divorced when he was an infant. While his mother assembled paper bags in a factory, he worked at odd jobs after school until 1 a.m. to help support the two of them. "It was the same old story," he says. "No food. No heat. I can't remember eating three meals a day. I'm not even used to it now."
Today, however, as black-affairs adviser to Montgomery County's Minority Affairs Office, the bearded, 34-year-old Walker sports silky ties knotted crisply over immaculate white shirts. His office, is a small white house near the County Office Building, is decorated with pictures of his wife Pamela, a schoolteacher; his smiling, 17-month-old son JeLani, and political figures such as County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist.
Walker says he has not forgotten the experience of poverty, however: "I've been at that other level, so I know what it is, and I don't feel too far from that level."
In fact, Walker believes his youth in Richmond made him especially suited for his present mission of building bridges between Montgomery blacks and the county government, and bringing county services to those in need.
"I see other people who aren't as fortunate as I am," he says, leaning forward, intense. "They are like my family in Richmond. I feel I have to reach back and help other people to get where I am, and go further."
Toward that end, Walker responds to emergencies in black communities, tries to get county services for those in need, recommends to county officials policies that might help blacks and coordinates special programs for them. According to the latest available statistics, from the 1977 census update, 8.7 percent of the county population is nonwhite.
Tuesday night the Minority Affairs Office, in observance of Black History Month, sponsored an award program at the County Office Building to honor 39 community leaders.
In some of his other activities, Walker called to get the heating system at Emory Grove Village repaired when it failed a few weeks ago. Along with other community leaders, he worked to ease tension between residents of Middlebrook Square and the police, and brought the residents together with county officials to win civic improvements such as lighting in a nearby park, resumption of school bus service and fixing up the day-care center.
Walker also helped coordinate both a minority recruitment program for the county police department and a program to ensure that the county hires more minority and women contractors.
This year, he will assess what elderly blacks need from the county and recommend programs and policies.
"A lot of people have felt that the county government in the past has neglected (blacks)," he says. "This position is a way to close the gap between the black community and the county government."
Walker came to his $33,000-a-year position in December 1979 from a personnel job with the Montgomery County school system. After earning bachelor's and master's degrees from Howard University, he moved from Prince George's County to Silver Spring seven years ago, both for the school system job and because he "wanted to live in a progressive county."
He joined the county NAACP, Montgomery's Black Voters League and Alpha Phi Alpha, a service fraternity, then decided to apply for the black-adviser position.
Walker is especially concerned about the lack of blacks among elected county officials, the low proportion of blacks in high-level county offices and the warning of liberalism among Montgomery County voters.
"In this country, like any place else, people are becoming more conservative and less interested in the plight -- I guess that's the word -- of minorities. aThey're competing for resources. The pie shrinks and the competition increases," he said.
President Reagan's recent budget proposal, which seeks to reduce many social service programs, "will cause more frustrations and anxieties" among blacks, he predicts. If the cuts are approved, he adds, "I don't know where the people are going to get jobs from. I don't know where they're going to get training. . . . Put that together with other economic pressures and a hot summer and nothing for youth to do and no money in their pockets -- all hell might break loose."
Walker is optimistic about the future, however.
"We have people in the county who have open minds," he says. He mentions Gilchrist and school superintendent Edward Andrews as "sensitive" to black concerns. In addition, he sees Reagan's election and proposed budget cuts as a rallying point for blacks. "The trend as I see it in the black community is to be more organized politically."
Walker has taken a decidedly activist approach to his job. "In this position," he reflects, "a person can . . . sit behind a desk and drink coffee, or be out in the community. . . This position means so much to the black community. I feel I have an obligation to overextend myself to get things done.
"The frustrating part about the job is, can I cover all the problems? People who call, normally call at the last minute. They're in a crisis situation.
"I've tried to make sure that this job reaches out to people who for some reason haven't gotten recognition," he says. "Just knowing I'm there and that when they call me, I'll assist them and understand them instead of putting them off to somebody else or giving them the cold shoulder. . . . People are starting to see that county government is willing to help them."