When it comes to neighborhood-level community development interventions, how they are carried out is often as important as what is offered. Who was involved in development decisions? How is the new park designed, and who feels welcome there?
The same is true of community-based health activities. Are they fighting for justice, increasing access to amenities and resources, and reducing inequity, with improved health being one of the outcomes? Or are they using the new-found interest in “fighting health disparities” to double down on scolding people for “unhealthy lifestyles” and promoting individualized solutions to systemic problems?
You can have the same category of program be carried out in either of those two ways. A few years ago, I wrote about some signs in my city that were supposed to encourage walking for health, and how because they were so out of context, and so disregarding of neighborhood conditions and boundaries that they were condescending and counter-productive.
But that doesn’t mean that encouraging walking for health has to be that way. Cada Paso, a weekend walking program in East Harlem, is run by a group of health care providers. Each walk has a theme, such as play spaces, women’s health, greenmarkets, or child development, and the walk visits neighborhood locations related to that theme, helping participants connect to available resources and know what’s in walking distance. (Reminiscent, perhaps of the walking tours the building manager of Times Square’s Manhattan Plaza used to require of new residents.) Participants in the program advised the development of the East Harlem Community Walking Trail, from route to pedestrian infrastructure. A 2015 walk on the theme of political voice involved a visit to a City Council representative’s office, while others have involved signing petitions.
Other places take the empowerment aspect of walking in groups even further. As Pam Bailey wrote about over at NeighborWorks in “Black Women Walk to Reclaim Health and Streets,” walking groups that began for health purposes also have the power to rebuild social connections, increase public safety, develop community identity and commitment, and spark advocacy. (And these things are likely in turn to improve mental health.)
For example, as Bailey notes, the “Daughters of the Dust” walking group run by Codman Square Neighborhood Association in Dorchester, Massachusetts, specifically set out to reclaim their experience of walking in their neighborhood from one of experiencing street harassment to one of empowerment.
In order for a walking group, or similar health activity, to reach its full potential as sites for building social capital and fomenting greater change, it needs to be flexible enough to embrace those goals directly and spin off social and political activities, even ones that are not directly “health” related. I’m guessing the more bottom-up the group, the easier it will be to achieve this flexibility.
GirlTrek, a national organization that starts and supports walking groups of Black women like Daughters of the Dust, is clear about this broader vision. On its mission page it states, “This is not a fitness organization, this is a campaign for healing. . . . We walk to heal our bodies, inspire our families, and to reclaim the streets of our neighborhoods.”
Vanessa Garrison, a founder of GirlTrek, said in a recent TED talk, “Once walking, women get to organizing—first their families, then their communities—to walk and talk and solve problems together. They walk and notice the abandoned building. They walk and notice the lack of sidewalks, the lack of green space, and they say, ‘No more.’”
Of course this country already relies far too heavily on the unpaid volunteer labor of women of color to fix our problems, so I would hope that the same groups that are eager to sponsor walking groups to improve heart health and reduce diabetes will also support the activist campaigns that arise from them.