The following was originally published at Safe Routes to School National Partnership and was written by Keith Benjamin.
January saw the release of the highly anticipated film “Selma.” Structured around three protest marches in 1965, the film follows Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights leaders as they risked their lives in three attempts to walk the 54-mile highway from Selma to the Alabama state capital, Montgomery, in defiance of segregation and oppression.
Part of what was so intriguing about this real-life story was how authority figures viewed the marchers’ decision to walk where they intended to walk as blatant insubordination. Their skin color was not only the basis for denial of job and schooling opportunities, but even for the basic right and ability to access public streets. In fact, their attempt to do something as simple as walking was met with disrespect, epithets, beatings, and even murder.
Though America has come a long way from those days, there are still so many around this country who do not have the right and ability to access certain areas. Parents still lack trust in law enforcement, and fear for their children’s safety every time they leave the home. Communities still lack the basic necessities like healthy food choices, safe mobility options, quality neighborhood schools, and open playgrounds and parks. Young students still have to dodge threats while walking or biking to school before they even get to the classroom, but are expected to arrive ready to learn. The work truly is ever-present.
It was King himself who said, “We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity.” If this year has taught us anything, it has been to zero in on our contributions to community and make sure that they include the protection of our most prized possession—the next generation.
Here at the Safe Routes to School National Partnership we are constantly challenging ourselves to build an equitable movement and ensure that underserved communities and schools are able to advance Safe Routes to School, Complete Streets, shared use, and healthy community design. The fact is, children from communities of color and low-income communities are twice as likely to walk or bicycle to school as children from more affluent neighborhoods, yet those communities are the ones most lacking in safe streets and infrastructure to protect children who walk and bicycle. With that understanding, we have worked with innumerable partners around the country to close the gap between advocates for healthy community design and advocates for community safety.
Whether it is our recent efforts to equip Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities with street scale and shared use tools, our provision of technical assistance to low-income communities and communities of color in over 40 cities, rural areas and reservations, our new Equity Asset Map or the launch of our Shared Use Clearinghouse, the National Partnership works hand in hand with community partners to make true advances so all children can walk, bicycle, play, and live safely in their neighborhoods.
Though the risks of walking from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 are unmatched today, many similarities prevail. Our ability to work together, find common ground with advocacy partners, wrestle with the hard inequity issues, and embrace innovative strategies can be our way of defying the odds and walking forward. The National Partnership has accepted the challenge and we welcome you to join us. Let’s work together so we can walk together.
Keith Benjamin is a Street Scale Campaign Manager with the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership and coordinates public policy campaigns at state and local levels to advance Complete Streets and Safe Routes to School policies and increase physical activity in underserved communities.