This is the second in a three part series by Jay Walljasper that discusses walking as an equity issue and how to address it. Read part one.
Fifteen to 20 women in Anacostia—one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.—take an invigorating 3.3 mile walk every Saturday morning as part the Just Walk club sponsored by the neighborhood’s Community Wellness Collective. Khadijah Tribble, a public health consultant, shows me the route starting at the Anacostia Arts Center, which follows battered sidewalks and crosses streets with roaring traffic until reaching a walking path along the Anacostia River.
“People here have this idea that exercise is just for people with money, people with time,” she says. “That’s why we walk. To show that’s not true. But time is one of the biggest barriers, especially for a lot of people who spend many hours each week getting to and from work on the bus.”
A wealth of recent medical research, highlighted in the Surgeon General’s recent Call to Action on Walking, promotes walking as a way to prevent chronic disease, heart disease, diabetes, depression and some cancers. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone walk or engage in other moderate exercise half an hour a day five days a week. (An hour a day for children.)
Another common misconception, she notes, is that walking is not really exercise. “They say if you’re not sweating profusely, you’re wasting your time.” Tribble refutes that by pointing to her own experience. She walks 3-5 miles a day around the neighborhood as part of weight loss program on which she has lost significant weight.
“When I walk, it shows me that I am taking care of myself,” she explains. “It reminds me not to indulge in foods that are not good for me. It’s my touchstone. I feel so powerful in just choosing to walk.”
Rx for a Hidden Health Care Crisis
A little publicized crisis for African-Americans is the high rate of heart disease and diabetes, especially among women, says Vanessa Garrison, co-founder of the health empowerment program Girl Trek. “Everyday we are losing women we love. Women our families depend on.”
“The leading cause of death for black women is heart disease,” Garrison notes. “We are dying younger and at higher rates from preventable diseases than any group of women in this country. Eighty percent of black women are overweight. Half of all black girls born in 2000 will get diabetes by 2034 if present trends continue.”
Girl Trek aims to improve black women’s health by organizing communities to walk, even in places where sidewalks are absent and crime rates are high.
“We walk to heal our bodies, inspire our families and to reclaim the streets of our neighborhoods,” proclaims the organization’s mission statement… “Each day we walk away from traumas of chronic stress, generational poverty, addiction, unemployment, failing schools, mass incarceration. Each day we walk in the direction of our healthiest, most fulfilled lives.”
More than 35,000 African-American women have taken Girl Trek’s pledge to re-establish walking as a healing tradition in their neighborhoods. Detroit, St. Louis, Atlanta, Washington, DC and Jackson, Mississippi sport the most active chapters. More than 500 Girl Trek members traveled to Alabama last spring to walk in celebration of the Selma-to-Birmingham March, which in 1965 solidified the power of the Civil Rights movement by defying white supremacists’ restrictions on where African-Americans could walk.
“It’s important to get at the root of what will inspire all people to walk,” says Yolanda Savage-Narva, Director of Health Equity at the Association of State & Territorial Health Officials, about promoting walking in poor neighborhoods. “Emphasize the freedom of taking a walk to where you want to go. It’s a civil right that people have died for—and, of course, it also has many health benefits too.”
Take to the Streets in Chicago
A walking club can be spotted every Thursday evening on the sidewalks of West Humboldt Park, a largely African-American and Latino neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. They’re part of a program to increase walking and improve health sponsored by the West Humboldt Park Development Council (WHPDC).
“This area has one of the higher diabetes rates in the nation,” explains Isaiah Ross, until recently WHPDC’s community development manager. “People haven’t walked much here because the traffic makes it hard to get to school or work, and people are afraid to go out because they don’t know their neighbors.”
The challenges of walking here are clearly visible on a short stroll through the neighborhood, but so are the rewards. Vehicles move fast and furious on the four lanes of Chicago Avenue, with only minimal accommodations for pedestrians wanting to cross the street. Yet tree-shaded residential streets lead to the green lawns of Humboldt Park and Garfield Park, gems of 19th Century landscape architecture with lagoons, ballfields, picnic grounds, a conservatory and music stages.
The Healthy Community Initiative aims to break down people’s isolation, first by bringing neighbors together and then tackling issues that discourage healthy lifestyles. Groups of 8-10 are being organized to tour their immediate neighborhood conducting walk audits and public safety audits. “Are the crosswalks visible at intersections? Is the lighting good enough? Are there places for people to go in an emergency? What can be done to slow down traffic? What’s a safe route for kids to go to school? Are there any signs of gang activity? Where are the places in the neighborhood where people want to go?” are among the questions they seek to answer, according to Ross.
Five new playgrounds have been built recently in the neighborhood and the city of Chicago has begun sponsoring Play Streets events, where a block is closed off to traffic and people of all ages come out to play basketball, twirl hula hoops, compete in tugs of war, jump in a Bounce House and get to know one another. The Healthy Community Initiative hosts a farmers’ market every Saturday–complete with music performances and cooking classes—and offers fitness classes for 10 different physical activities, including walking.
“When I first got here, I never saw anyone out walking just for fun,” Ross says. “Now I do.”
Part three, Suburban and Rural Walking Issues
Jay Walljasper, author of the Great Neighborhood Book, is a writer, speaker and consultant on making communities better places to live for everyone. He is the Urban-Writer-in-Residence at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
Feature photo credit: Romer Jed Medina