Creating a Positive Future Reflections from the Third Safe Routes To School National Conference

Inspiring. Enthusiastic. Partnerships. Youth Leadership. Social Justice. Creating a Positive Future. Those are a few words I’d use to describe the mood, energy and intention of the 3rd Safe Routes to School National Conference in Minneapolis.

As the more than 600 participants entered the Minneapolis Convention Center on August 17, the second day of the conference, the room was buzzing with people talking about workshops and connections they made the day before.

Minnesota DOT Commissioner Tom Sorel spoke first from the main stage and remarked about how safe bicycling and walking is a frequent subject of conversation among parents and kids in his neighborhood. The MN DOT uses a sustainability policy as an umbrella for decision making, looking to balance the needs of society, the economy and the environment. They’ve run five grant cycles for their Safe Routes to School program, providing funds for 68 infrastructure projects and a “Drive Your Bike” educational component, as well as a pedestrian safety program.

John Robert Smith, from Reconnecting America, talked about the importance of transportation choices. As he told his story about his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, and how they took a U.S. Senator on a train ride to garner support to get funds to build a train station in town, he urged the audience to “tell stories, and make it real” for Congressional members. The former Mayor of Meridian, Smith challenged the residents of this Mississippi town to collecting lose 10,000 pounds. His campaign got a boost when Oprah Winfrey showed up to promote the concept; 5000 people took the challenge in Mississippi, which happens to be the state with the highest levels of childhood obesity in the U.S.

Victor Mendez, the Administrator for the Federal Highway Administration, commented on the good music playing as people filtered into the hall, including tunes such as “Walk this Way”, and “P.O.B. People on Bikes” – spanning the generations. Mendez spoke of the Obama Administration’s commitment to livability and safety and how Safe Routes to School intersects with both goals. He spoke of walking to an elementary school with U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan, how U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood walked to school for Grandparents Day, and how Safe Routes to School aligns with the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign, and the President’s talk about “winning the future.”

After the breakfast plenary, conference attendees went to break out groups, bike rides and walking tours. I attended a session on advocacy with James Corless from Transportation for America, Barbara McCann from National Complete Streets Coalition, and Sandra Viera from the Prevention Institute. I first met Corless in 1998 when he was running the Surface Transportation Policy Project’s California office. A native from the U.K. (which had Safe Routes to School before we did in the U.S.), Corless introduced successful legislation in California in 1999 to require funding for Safe Routes to School improvements. He’s now working in Washington DC on the transportation bill reauthorization campaign, and he said that the best way we can ensure the future of Safe Routes to School is to take members of Congress out into the community to walk and bicycle with kids. Short of that, a meeting in the district office, even with Congressional staff will help. (For more information on how to schedule a meeting or an event with Congressional members, see our Doing Your Part flyer.)

I also popped in to the School Siting and Closure workshop where Jeff Vincent from the U.C. Berkeley Center for Cities and Schools and Mary Filardo from 21st Century Schools were talking about the importance of community centered schools and the need for school districts to create facility master plans.

It was “lunch on your own” on Wednesday, and I took the opportunity to join the staff from California Department of Public Health working on California's Technical Assistance Resource Center for Safe Routes to School. While we had been collaborating together on the phone for years, it was actually the first time I met some of the TARC staff in person … funny how it sometimes takes a conference to get people together who are from the same state. The California TARC program provides a model for how a state DOT can partner with a state health department to advance Safe Routes to School. TARC has a specific focus on serving low-income communities and providing technical assistance.

The afternoon included more inspiring workshops and events, too many to list, and at 5 PM the conference organizers invited us outside for a reception with live jazz music, food and drinks. It was a gorgeous, sunny Minneapolis evening (special compliments to the conference organizers for planning such great weather!) The big surprise was the Flash Mob scene organized by Rosie Stern from the Michigan Fitness Foundation. Unknown to others at the Conference, Rosie had 50 of us rehearsing the night before to perform “Ped Safety Dance” a re-make of the 80s song. The original dance was created by Detroit kids in grades 4-8; we had a fun time busting moves and cheering for pedestrian safety. Hey – it takes music to make a movement!

This morning, after a night at Newsroom networking with old and new colleagues, I attended the break out session Race Class and Culture, organized by Robert Ping, State Network Director for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. He spoke of the need for us to work more in low income communities and communities of color, and to do so through forming local partnerships and building trust. Robert brought together three additional speakers who spoke of their projects in Minneapolis and Seattle, including how Antonio Rosell, P.E. from the Community Design Group helped to bring Nice Ride to the North District of Minneapolis, and how Ed Ewing from the Major Taylor program in Seattle is empowering youth to ride bikes and to create a positive future in their communities. Anthony Taylor also spoke about his inspiring work with youth in Minneapolis. Several people left the room in tears, touched by the huge positive impact these advocates are having in their local communities.

The conference wrapped up with a healthy salad lunch this afternoon in the main hall. The first speaker was Jamie Bussel, Program Officer with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Jamie spoke passionately about the Foundation’s goal to reverse childhood obesity by the year 2015, and their $500 million investment in funding policy changes nationwide to reverse the epidemic. Jamie emphasized the need to reduce disparities, and she described a vision for the future with healthy grocery stores, affordable healthy food, and safe bicycle and pedestrian facilities that connect to homes, schools and community destinations. The major funder of the Safe Safe Routes Network project, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been a partner and leader in supporting changes to improve the built environment to support active transportation for more than five years.

Next up was Kimberly White, an 18-year old Sophomore at Baruch College pursuing an interdisciplinary B.A. in environmental justice. It’s an understatement to say that Kimberly blew us away with her story, poise, humor, intelligence and accomplishments. She moved to the U.S. in 1999 when she was in the 2nd grade, recognized at an early age that her poor community in Brooklyn did not have bike lanes and other resources which wealthier communities enjoyed. Inspired by the movie “The Future of Food” and her mom’s encouragement to “get off the couch”, Kimberly got involved with a gardening project which led her to the Recycle a Bicycle program. She built her own bike, learned to ride, went to the National Bike Summit in 2010 to lobby Congress to support Safe Routes to School, is teaching other youth about sustainability, and is commitment to advancing environmental justice. She encouraged more intergenerational collaboration and said, “young people, including myself, are ready to change the status quo, but we need adult support.” The audience gave her an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Finally, Paul Osborne, from Sustrans in the U.K. spoke about their Safe Routes to School initiative, which is what originally helped to inspire the U.S. federal legislation. I personally had a chance to visit Sustrans back in 1999, which is what helped to fuel my passion for bringing the program to the states. Paul showed slide and talked about transport programs in numerous countries, including in Japan where their system is structured so that kids begin walking to school on their own at a very young age. Also involved with building bikeways nationwide, Paul proudly talked about their health commissioner’s comment that, “The National Cycle Network is the largest environmental intervention in the U.K. promoting public health.”

At the end of the conference, Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota invited Nancy Pullen and me back to the main stage to make concluding remarks. We thanked the conference organizers and everyone for their attendance. In my final statement I encouraged everyone to continue to hold the vision, have courage, and stand together to advance Safe Routes to School. Together, we will build the future we dream of.