As we celebrate our holidays, the end of a decade and the prospects that lie ahead I am especially grateful for our community this year and the opportunity we had to gather in person at the Safe Routes to School National Conference in Tampa, FL. The conference was not only a tremendous professional development opportunity and a much-needed injection of energy for our field but for me it also provided a perfect summary of success to celebrate 15 years of this work and a collection of lessons to carry us into 2020 and beyond. I hope these will be posted on your desktop or in your office as well. Enjoy!
1. Always invite people to your table but more importantly, ask to sit at theirs. “We need to bring community members to the table” is a common mantra when we’re talking about community engagement (which is different than community outreach – more on that later). But an equally important question to ask is, “Whose table are we sitting at?” At the Safe Routes to School National Conference, Shavon Arline-Bradley made a strong case for starting with the issues that community members care about, supporting them, and then creating bridges between transportation and their other, likely critical, community needs. The next time you find yourself using the catch phrase, it’s time to go back and watch Shavon’s talk again. Your intentions are likely well-meaning but there’s more to say.
2. Let youth lead. At the Safe Routes conference, we heard from Angela, a 16-year-old from Muscoy, CA, who is highly active in advocating for safer streets and environmental justice in her community. Working together with peers and community members, Angela and her fellow advocates have gained support from elected officials and residents for safer crosswalks, better sidewalks, and more protective bus shelters. Angela’s work has been incredible and it should be the norm. I would suggest that we not overthink what a youth program should look like or struggle with word suggestions to “empower,” “enable,” or “include” youth, but we just let them lead and support them the same as we would any other advocate who joined our work.
3. It’s our job to find synergies and connections with people who want to move. They’re not going to find us! The changes that we are committed to supporting for safe routes to school, to parks, to healthy food, for older adults, and beyond will not happen simply by us creating frameworks, designing terrific resources, and disseminating them. While all of those are important and create a critical foundation, we need to meet people, authentically engage with communities, and show we truly care about progress now and over the long term regardless of how that looks. “We created resources and they never didn’t use them,” or “we held a meeting and they didn’t come” are excuses that no longer work. Our investment to finding solutions and being proactive will be critical to success this decade.
4. Plan for sustainability from the start. It’s exciting to launch a new pilot project or receive funding for a new program, but it’s critical to have a plan for sustaining support beyond the initial grant period. At the conference we learned how including tactical urbanism pop-up projects can be a low-cost and effective way to build community support for ongoing investments in Safe Routes to School and active transportation projects.
5. Connect with your people. You can be alone in your program area even though you work for a large department, or you might be the only bike advocate in your community. If that experience rings true, it's time to connect. Find your people from the conference attendee list, post a message on the Safe Routes to School email discussion group, reach out to the person you met at a training – at the end of the day we all need to connect with each other for support to amplify and renew our energy.
6. There’s a difference between community engagement and outreach. At the conference, Shavon Arline-Bradley gave us a pop quiz about the difference between community outreach and community engagement. There are critical differences. Too many efforts stop short at checklist outreach activities, such as convening focus groups and town halls, providing childcare and support for attendance, and offering incentives for participation. If we are truly committed to supporting a community we need to ensure all outreach activities are checked and then go much, much, farther in our commitment to having an ongoing relationship with the community we seek to work with. To engage authentically we need to recognize our strengths and vulnerabilities and acknowledge that we don’t even know half of all of it. We need to go beyond sharing power and simply give power. We must invest resources, appreciate the full voices of the community, understand the full history of the community, and step back as needed to allow their success to take center stage as they move through what they need and want to change.
7. Progress demands partnership. Public health works with transportation, education works with transportation, corporate interests align with community health needs, nonprofit and for-profit join in efforts. Over and over again, all of the success stories from the conference have the same theme – the work was not accomplished alone. Let’s start 2020 looking for new partners in every aspect of our work. If you attended the conference and want to refresh your memory, or if you missed it, slides from program sessions are archived on our website.
8. If Safe Routes doesn’t work for everyone, it doesn’t work for anyone. People with disabilities are still overlooked when it comes to planning. Comprehensive Safe Routes to School programs demand inclusivity on all levels. We know better and have to do better – enough said.
9. Talk about challenges. Who doesn’t love a good success story? It’s inspiring to hear from communities with thriving Safe Routes programs, but it’s just as important to hear about the setbacks and barriers – it’s not only reassuring to know we’re not the only ones experiencing challenges, it’s also an opportunity to collectively brainstorm solutions and apply them to diverse communities. Whether we crowdsource solutions on the email discussion group or offer up a webinar, we need collective thought to solve our most complicated problems.
10. We got this! And finally, if there is anything we learned from the conference it’s that success is happening all over the place. The demand for healthy communities where everyone can walk, roll, and bike is greater than ever. This will be the decade of people-focused mobility.