How to lead a good walk

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Photos taken during Belly Full: A History of Hunger Resistance in Parkdale

I love creating ways for people to engage with their local area; to connect, share and be critical in their day-to-day spaces. A pretty rad way to do that is to lead a group of people on a good walk*.

But how do you lead a walk that is interesting, that educates and that makes some kind of positive change in your local area?

I thought a lot about this question while creating the Choreographer pilot program with Jane’s Walk. As the organizers of a global walking festival in 100 cities, Jane’s Walk has some great resources and introduced me to a few more ideas that I’d like to share.

But first, let us start the revolution, reach world peace and end poverty … starting with my own neighbourhood walk.

Of course, you’ll have to read my uber popular neighbourhood walking guide. It details my super cool neighbourhood and even offers concrete strategies to make it a better place. My guide may transform you, your friends, your community, the world even!

But you’re right. You deserve better. Fine. I’ll lead you around, see the sights and you can take part in my amazing copyrighted “walk for good lecture”! Still not enough!? Ah! You are a greedy one. You want the best. OK I’ll tell you everything you want to know and everything there ever was, I’ll find a room for you, and we’ll meet every single neighbour of mine and we’ll walk everyday for the rest of our lives!!!

No. This is the wrong place to start. Think about what the aim of a good walk actually is.

To use a quote from Tilden’s Principles, a good walk “is not instruction, but provocation”. To provoke, you must infuse yourself with your surroundings, be confronted and uncomfortably challenged by what you see, reflect with others (real actual groups of people) and act. And re-act. One way to do that, is facilitating a walking conversation with people.

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When planning your own walk, begin with this idea: ‘a walking conversation’. Next, add a few of these starters below.  By starters I mean, start here and figure out the rest later.

Permission to inquire

This is a mindset. As a walk organizer, you need to make sure everyone who is participating is given permission to investigate, lead, take a step, poke, prod and figure things out when they are curious. It’s not enough to say “feel free to ask any questions at any time”. There are reasons why people speak and others do not. Think about what those reasons might be, counter them and make space. Offer multiple ways to inquire, like asking a partner, talking in small groups, writing questions, touching and hearing the space, creating time to explore individually, and making space for silence.

Local Expertise

Really sit with this idea. I know it’s tempting to want a certified expert, with some kind of degree, to tell you things. It feels trustworthy and you want the facts. But we are all experts in our lives, so why privilege only a few? Look for expertise in all the shapes it comes in: personal stories, anecdotes, exciting moments, things people like and don’t like, skills, talents, people who have 50 years experience living in an area and people who just moved there. Practically, this looks like validating people’s living knowledge. It doesn’t mean throwing out the history books, but it does mean relating to the ways history affects the present and future lives.

Multiple Perspectives

This is both a starter and an organizing tip. Share different stories from different points of view. This doesn’t mean that you can give a neutral “some say this, and some say that” approach. No. Try to show how the same story affects people differently. Logistically, find different people to help you both facilitate and tell their story, for example as a stop along a walk. Who are the people on your street? Stop in and find out.

50 / 50

I really like the simplicity of this one. Try to work towards 50% of the conversation coming from you and other speakers and 50% of the conversation coming from the rest of the group.

Remember the “walk lecture” I mentioned? That’s 100% of a walk leader’s voice. One voice, one story. This completely disregards the audience’s experience and knowledge. Not cool. 100% from the crowd can be interesting but your fellow walkers might not be expecting that. In my experience, people want to make sure there is some kind of control in how a walk runs. They will be looking to you for a little direction.

Sure, you might end up 75/25 and that’s OK! Just remind yourself to work towards an equal dialogue in every walk, and you’ll do just fine.

Sorry. I’m going to confuse you. Not just 50/50. Some voices carry more weight, while others are under-represented. Find those silent voices and increase the volume when you can.

Next Steps

Great walk! Time to go home and forget about it! Boooo. That’s not right. A good walk never ends. It is a living walk.

People might think about your walk years later, and it might have truly impacted them, but further impact takes action. Make sure your walk nudges folks towards a next step. That could be almost anything, from future events, meeting, petitions, local groups, websites, email, anything that encourages the discussion to continue in person after the last stop of the walk. It’s really simple to do, but often forgotten.

 

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These starters came mostly from my work with Jane’s Walk  – with major thanks and support from Toronto Community Foundation – and a recent meeting with Dan Monafu from de(tour) Ottawa (check them out now!). Thank you all for inspiring me to write it all down.

Finally, it is important to remember that a good walk is not easy. But if you take some of these starters seriously, your walk will educate, be interesting and leave people thirsty for more questions than answers (a good thing!).

*I use the term walk to explain what experiencing a physical space in motion is like. It is a multiple-abled experience and can be done by wheelchair, by cane and by bike. As long as the “walker” can stop and converse with someone else while in motion – I say it’s a walk!