We reached out to our friend Adam Davidson, adjunct faculty with Judy Genshaft Honors College about contributing for this column. He teaches a course called Citizen Walkers that perfectly embodies the heart of the Be Pedestrian column. He shared a recently completed essay about the course, while it was a bit long for a single post, we created a 4 week series created from Adams' paper. Below is the forth in the series: (here's week 1, week 2, & week 3)
Community: So this is where I really get excited about walking. The class I teach is actually not just about walking in the abstract or even in practice all by itself, but the class is actually about the intersections between citizenship and walking – the ways our civic, community life regularly intersects with walking, motivates us to walk, and even depends upon our walking. The class is even called, “Citizen Walkers,” and several students told me on the first day they signed up just because of the name.
I take the angle that the “pedestrian is political,” a turn of phrase that might make some uncomfortable. Fine. But, what I’m after here is to suggest that walking, for all its simplicity and ordinariness, can be really powerful. Some of the most significant moments in the civil rights movement involved such mundane activities as sitting on a bus or walking across a bridge. Now that’s power! Over and over again throughout history, when the people have had enough, when it was time to demand political change, people went outside and started walking. One author I like suggests these acts are fundamental to democracy itself. To have public spaces in which to gather and to have the impetus to leave the indoors and move in them is to literally exercise the basic rights, privileges, and responsibilities of citizenship. (Solnit)
But let me take it down a notch and bring walking back from such a high place – back to the pedestrian. At a basic level, I want my students to understand that our choices and our actions have consequences, even the everyday ones. And, like I suggest above, walking has a way of putting us in contact with people and spaces that are fraught with possibility, not only for demanding justice or change, but particularly for connection and relationship.
I recently took an evening stroll around the park in front of my house, and this is what happened. I ran into Jack who was walking one of his dogs. After retiring from police work up north, he and his wife moved to our neighborhood about 10 years ago, and not long after they moved she got sick. After a long struggle, his wife died late last year. Today was just a quick check in. Jack does not offer a lot of detail about his feelings or his life, but my wife and I want to stay connected to him to offer him support and friendship however we can. So I said hi and he said hi as we passed each other. We exchanged quick comments about the nice weather, and then he turned back to his dog yanking on the leash, and I turned up the road along the park. Around the top bend in the park, furthest from my house, Miriam was coming back in from a walk and we chatted about life, kids, and working on our houses. She went in under her carport and brought me back a bag of onions from her family farm. It was a generously full bag, and now I had a reason to connect with another friend I hadn’t seen in a while so I could share the wealth. On the home stretch, I saw Betty and her dog Hank. She lives alone in the retirement community bordering this side of the park. A couple years ago, Hank lost an eye after being attacked by another dog that had gotten out of its yard. Betty was pretty shaken and to this day remains cautious about all other interactions involving her dog. I keep it light, but I do my best to make sure she knows she can call on us if she needs anything. I pat Hank on the head, we say our goodbyes, and I make my way home. All of this and only a quick walk around my neighborhood. The park is only 3 acres so the whole journey without stopping to chat takes 5 minutes.
In class, I share these kinds of stories and experiences with my students. One of the skills I hope to impart to them involves some writing methods for chronicling and evaluating these experiences – the everyday kind. Hidden within them are greater insights about cultural and civic life. But also and always, on the surface, is a central value that never has to run deeper to be a critical component of the class and also a compelling reason to get out and walk. Walking like this is one way I do life with others, with my neighbors and also with the strangers on the street and the people on the move throughout my city. It literally puts me in contact with the pavement, but it also, almost always, connects me with others who share these spaces. I want my students to recognize, appreciate, and practice that kind of attentiveness in their personal and professional practices – to never take for granted the ways simple acts have great power to shape them and their communities – to be citizen walkers wherever they go.
When I started writing this piece, I thought about my colleague-friend, the one who laughed at me, and I wondered if this fleshing out of my class would help. He’d changed positions at work, so I looked him up to see what he’d been up to. The bio on the personnel page for his office included a picture. His was noticeable because it wasn’t just a headshot against a nondescript background. It was a much wider shot, showing his whole body from the shins up. He was outside and there was a full landscape, including a beautiful coastline, stretching out behind him. He wore an overcoat, and it looked cold wherever he was, but one other thing seemed clear. He was out walking!