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Black women walk to reclaim health and streets

Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger | 6/26/2017 3:24:58 PM

The "Daughters of the Dust" GirlTrek team

When members of the community-building team for the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corp. (CSNDC) in Dorchester, Massachusetts, organized a series of community dialogue sessions, it was pretty clear what issue inspired the most passion: public safety on the streets and sidewalks of the town.

“We focused on a lot of issues in our series, ranging from the local economy to resident displacement,” recalls Yvette Modestin, Community Organizer for the nonprofit. “Out of all the talks, the one that engaged the most participants was public safety, followed closely by their health and well-being. The two are connected: Again and again, residents spoke of not feeling safe when they walked in the community. Women felt like they just couldn’t walk in their own neighborhood without being subjected to catcalling and other types of harassment.  I knew what they meant. I had experienced it myself.”

One of the responses of the CSNDC team was to invite police officers in, using a “theater of the oppressed” type of approach, in which the audience is an active part of the “performance”--as "spect-actors" they explore, analyze and transform the reality in which they are living. The participating police officers joined the dialogue circle out of uniform, sharing their stories of how they experienced the community as they grew up and today as a member of law enforcement.

“The officers knew how they are seen by many people in the community, and were very willing to engage with others in the audience, including a musician activist from Black Lives Matter, for instance. At one point, we brought a female police officer into the center of the circle along with that activist for an intergenerational conversation,” says Jarred Johnson, coordinator for CSNDC’s Millennium Ten—the name given to the third “generation” of the organization’s community-planning process. The M10 “contract” with the community was forged in 2013; the dialogue series grew out of that ongoing initiative.

Another response of the CSNDC team was inspired when Modestin attended an event in Boston funded by NeighborWorks America to familiarize members with an organization called GirlTrek. Founded by two black women—Vanessa Garrison and Morgan Dixon—the impetus for GirlTrek, which encourages women to walk as a practical first step to healthy lives and communities, was the fact that “black women are dying faster and at higher rates from preventable, obesity-related diseases than any other group of people in America.”

That national reality is reflected in Dorchester—where 53 percent of residents are female and 43 percent are black. A 2013 report by the Codman Square Health Center said the top health issues encountered by its staff are diabetes, mental health challenges and obesity. The city has an obesity rate of 32 percent, with Codman Square scoring among the top 10 areas of the state for obesity. Recognizing that state of the neighborhood, the M10 plan called for the creation of an intentional health/well-being agenda, with at least 50 residents participating in organized walking, biking and other healthy activities.

Walking improves public safety too

However, physical health is not all that GirlTrek is about. Walking, Garrison said in a recent TED talk, also promotes mental and emotional healing, and can help residents “re-claim” neighborhoods. “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.’”

Dixon added, “I can't help but wonder what would have happened if there had been groups of women walking on Trayvon [Martin]'s block that day [when the adolescent was shot], or what would happen in the South Side of Chicago every day if there were groups of women and mothers and aunts and cousins walking, or along the polluted rivers of Flint, Michigan. I believe walking can transform our communities, because it's already starting to.”

CSNDC indeed has found that dynamic to be at work in Dorchester. Its GirlTrek team calls itself “Daughters of the Dust” (inspired by the film and novel by the same name, which tells the story of a family of complex, independent African-American women). A local health center offers child care while the participating women take time out for themselves and walk the streets. Wearing their GirlTrek shirts, the women sing and chant. The young men who had previously harassed them move out of the way, shouting “All right, sisters” and “Love your shirts!”

The walkers include at least eight to 10 women every week and range in age from teens to mid-50s. One woman walked to lose weight before knee surgery and lost 50 pounds. Another woman is the mother of a son who was killed in random violence; she walks in his honor and has become the group’s “pacer.” If you can keep up with her, “you’re good,” says Modestin.

The key to keeping a GirlTrek group going, she says, is to organize other activities during the winter months, such as talks about sexual assault and the legacy of Harriet Tubman. Currently, the women walk on Wednesdays at 4 p.m., but a new group for Saturday and/or an evening for those who work is in the works.

At the national level, GirlTrek has mobilized more than 100,000 black women and girls during the last four years. By 2018, its goal is to motivate 1 million black women and girls to walk for better health. And it has begun to extend beyond walking. For example, it has organized #ActivismApril, a national campaign to inspire black women and girls to become more active in their communities. GirlTrek awards $1,000 in seed money to 10 women upon completion of a 30-day “Jumpstart” walking challenge, to fund the best ideas for making their communities healthier and stronger. In 2016, GirlTrek awarded $1,000 in seed money to start a rooftop garden at an historic elementary school in Houston; offer swim scholarships to the country’s only black-owned swim club, based in Pennsylvania; and help send a Seattle student to college.

Coming up are many other special themes, including “Advocacy August” to encourage black women to get involved in influencing relevant issues on the local and national stage.

NeighborWorks America is supporting GirlTrek with a grant that funds, in part, outreach to network members and two to three launches in cities where our organizations are active in resident-services programs for rental properties. Want to start a GirlTrek walk in your community? Look for existing walks near you or sign up to host a team on the organization’s website

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