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Walking, activism and community-building: an interview with Grapevine about the ‘Connecting for Good’ project.

Amato writes in one of the foundational texts of the history of walking that ‘walkers are known by the company they keep’ and nowhere is this more evident than the role of walking groups in communities.[1] Walking is an activity rooted in daily life and the benefits of walking to both individuals and wider groups often goes underappreciated. Walking groups, formed of individuals who all share the common desire to reap the benefits of walking and appreciate the outdoors, often provide a sense of community and socialisation to members of communities.

This blog will examine the benefits of walking in group settings in providing community and tackling isolation, which is particularly impactful when considering the impact of the pandemic. Through an interview with Coventry-based organisation Grapevine, this blog will also consider how walking groups can break down power dynamics and allow for activism, storytelling and members of the community to bring about change.[2] The benefits of walking to mental and physical health have always been discussed in terms of individuals and as part of the longer history of walking, but this blog focuses specifically on walking in group settings, the history of activism and walking groups and the benefits of the street as a social setting to these groups.

Based on an interview conducted with Grapevine, this blog examines the work of the ‘Connecting for Good’ movement and particularly their ‘Walk and Talk’ events which are run by community members and are organised without leaders to ensure everyone in the group is equal.[3] This is what sets them apart from other walking groups. According to an anonymous interviewee from the organisation, the ‘Walk and Talks’ are just one aspect of the work of Grapevine and their ‘Connecting for Good’ movement.[4]

They explained ‘Connecting for Good’ as “building a movement against isolation in the city [and] basically the heart of it is that people who are more connected are more powerful and lead better lives.”[5] 

“We’ve got three threads within Grapevine around shifting power, strengthening people and sparking community action and most of what we do as an organisation fits into a bit of all of them but ‘Connecting for Good’ predominantly fits into sparking community action. It’s around sharing [and] we use community organising approaches with our own kind of slant on it to share some of the skills and experiences that we’ve learnt over the time, to share those with others”[6]

‘Connecting for Good’ uses walking to connect members of the community around Coventry in ways that allows them to learn the skills and experiences that are conducive to sparking change in the community and allowing them to become powerful, connected individuals.

Traditionally, the historiography of walking has considered how it has allowed individuals and members of communities to see their spaces and areas in new ways, giving them a chance to negotiate these spaces through the routes that they walk and the spaces that they engage with.[7]

Jurkiewicz argues that walking means ‘citizens have a say in how the space which they inhabit is reformed and re-shaped.’[8] This is impactful when considering the work of ‘Connecting for Good’ as they focus specifically on Coventry, bringing members of the community together and leading walks based on routes around the city. Within the ‘Walk and Talk’ events that run a few times a year, they often stop off in places around the city where members of the groups are free to share stories and speak about their experiences. This is just one way that walking allows individuals to shape the spaces around them. As the interviewee stated, they were working to create “an appreciation that we’re all part of this city in some way.”[9]

The importance of connecting members of the community through walking groups has taken on new meaning during the pandemic when many people have felt isolated. Within the historiography on walking, there is an acknowledgement of the power of walking to rejuvenate spaces, connect individuals and prevent people from feeling disconnected from their area. As Solnit argues: ‘walking is one way of maintaining a bulwark against this erosion of the mind, the body, the landscape, and the city.’[10] With local residents walking in groups, sharing their stories and tackling isolation, the ‘Walk and Talks’ run by ‘Connecting for Good’ are part of this tradition which harnesses the power of walking to prevent people from becoming disconnected from their cities.

The interviewee added that, “Connecting for Good was set up two years before COVID and obviously our tactics had to change very quickly, trying to connect people online when everyone was being told to isolate was quite comical but actually it has been really positive in many ways, everyone now has some experience of isolation whereas before it felt like a lot of people were like ‘oh yeah but that’s not my problem, that’s somebody else’s.”[11]

“Our vision is a city of connected leaders, and leaders being those who are supporting each other and bringing out the leadership of each other. We believe that anyone can be a leader and everyone should be so we, one of the things we do is support people who have ideas for making change in the city to make those happen and support with the tools and connections and how they might go about that.”[12] By bringing together people from all walks of life into groups that walk together and share their stories, the ‘Walk and Talks’ not only worked to prevent isolation and ensure that local residents felt connected to their cities in the traditional sense of walking groups, but also became a form of social activism by removing the power dynamics that normally exist in interactions between those whom the interviewee described as “service users” (those without power) and “service providers” (those with the power) which usually restrict working-class and marginalised peoples from making a difference.[13]

The interviewee explained: “One of the things we used to do was to kind of showcase the great things that were already happening in the city, give people a chance to tell their stories publicly and also they kind of worked out [as] the outside boardroom. So, we set up walk and talks which basically gather a group of people, service users, professionals, families, anyone from the community.”[14]

“I think a lot of people, families in particular, would be knocking on service doors, trying to speak to people with power, speak to people in charge to try and change something and sometimes they would be knocking for an awful long time and sometimes they got through that door and were able to tell their story but instantly you’re in the boardroom, there’s a power dynamic, someone’s in their safe space.”[15]

In addressing the hurdles that marginalised peoples and those without power often face when trying to make change, the ‘Walk and Talks’ worked to remove the barriers that exist in interactions in formal environments that these people often could not access.

“So the walk and talks, although they’re kind of theatrical in a way because we stop at like four or five different points around town and someone tells a story, always with a call to action about how you can do something about it, but one of the magical bits about that is actually you might be that parent who’s been knocking on that service door, and you’re speaking to the manager and you’re walking side by side and you know talking about these stories or whatever. It’s quite an informal way of people connecting, and it really hits home that you know whatever positions we have in life, we’re all just people at the end of the day.”[16]

“Walking activism feels really powerful, I think,” was a striking comment made by the interviewee, demonstrating how the simple act of walking side by side and talking can be powerful in enabling change to be made.[17]

When one thinks of protest, usually the idea of marches with placards and sit-ins on the street comes to mind but ‘Connecting for Good’ harnesses another kind of visible street protest. By walking, stopping to tell stories and share experiences in a theatrical way, participants can utilise the visible nature of the street and the lack of power dynamics that exist when individuals walk side by side to try and make a difference in the community.

Solnit argues that ‘the boundaries between strangers recede’ on the street which means that walking as a practice for inspiring change by providing individuals with the opportunities to discuss their issues with those who can create change is more powerful in the setting of walking, as strangers can walk side by side without the existence of the strict power dynamics in place in other settings.[18]

The interviewee explained the logic behind the use of walking to break down the power dynamics usually in play in discussions in offices and board rooms: “I used to arrange walking meetings with people because again that power dynamic if you are in an office, [it] can get really intense right? But actually, some of the best conversations I’ve had have been walking side by side. You don’t have to look at each other, you don’t have to have that fear of the gaze, so I think there is something about you know stepping in time but also it kind of eases some of the pressure, it’s okay to be quiet and walk alongside each other and you’re still together.”[19]

“I’ve found that that has kind of felt powerful, you also obviously have a changing landscape so you have some distractions if you just want to break the ice, or cool that intensity down, but a lot of the time, people are more willing to share harder things I think if you’re side by side rather than face to face.”[20] Walking is therefore significant in allowing people to open up about their experiences without the pressure of face-to-face contact or the pressure of an audience, which again is impactful considering the theatrical story-telling elements of the ‘Walk and Talks’.

The theatrical nature, as the interviewee alluded to, of these ‘Walk and Talks’ has a history as part of the nature of street protest as far and wide as Balkan War protests in Belgrade, with Dargicevic-Sesic highlighting that ‘the carnivalization of the city during these protests […] managed to put life itself on stage.’[21]

The interviewee explained more about the benefits of the theatrical nature of the ‘Walk and Talks’ and their visible presence in the city: “So again, one of the kinds of strateg [ies] of doing the walk and talks in public place [s] [was] making it very kind of vibrant, we tend to have a megaphone, and some silly [props]. [In the] last one I think we had a cardboard camera that someone had made, and you know it’s kind of theatrical, and like placards and all this. And there’s something in that, we’re creating this spectacle, and all having fun and it’s all very positive so there’s also that rhetoric of flipping the protest march on its head because you can’t really protest around isolation but there’s something around marching together that’s powerful.”[22]

“We really, we want to create that curiosity, we want people to look further and think, well what’s going on, I want to be part of that, yeah so that’s the goal, and so, I think yeah, we either get that or people are very confused, probably a bit of both, I guess.”[23]

By engaging in more subtle ways of changing hearts and minds through walks and story-telling sessions on the street, the ‘Walk and Talk’ events run by ‘Connecting for Good’ allow members of the community to share their experiences and call for change in a way that is usually inaccessible to them. The historiography of walking has recognised the role that walking can play in activism. Amato argues of walking that ‘it also assumes a powerful symbolic role as a means of protest and develops an enhanced potential to evoke alternative worlds and experiences.’[24] Through the storytelling aspects of the ‘Walk and Talks,’ this allows ‘Connecting for Good’ to easily connect and interact with members of the public, again demonstrating the lack of hierarchy within the organisation and structure of these walks. This is what is striking about the project and shifts it away from a walking group like any other.

Walking in the way that the ‘Connecting for Good’ movement interprets it is also significant in differing from the traditional nature of protest, while still intending to spark change and call for action. This has been recognised in the historiography of walking as Bonilla demonstrates the existence of postcolonial ‘memory walks’ in Guadeloupe as ‘these memory walks differ sharply from the usual mass marches and demonstrations organized by political activists.’[25] This highlights how the ‘Walk and Talks’ can often be more significant in inspiring activism and change than protests because of their quiet and calm nature and their ability to access people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

In conclusion, though the ‘Walk and Talk’ events run by Grapevine are just one example of the kind of work that they do to bring members of the community together, ensure that they feel connected to their city, and inspire social change, these walking groups are starkly different from many that have existed before. They use the visible nature of the street to bring their stories and experiences to wider audiences without the existence of a power dynamic, allowing ordinary people to create change. In doing this, they draw on an extensive history of the street and the use of walking to connect people to the heritage of an area and the benefits of walking are only confirmed by this.


[1] Joseph Amato, On Foot: A History of Walking (New York: New York University Press, 2004), pp4

[2] Interview, June 2021

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Amato, On Foot (2004) and Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: a history of walking (London: Verso, 2002)

[8] Sarah Jurkiewicz, ‘Cultural activism through spatial practices: walking tours and urban gardening in Kuwait City’, Zentrum Moderner Orient (2016)

[9] Interview, June 2021

[10] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: a history of walking (London: Verso, 2002)

[11] Interview, June 2021

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Solnit, Wanderlust (2002)

[19] Interview, June 2021

[20] Ibid

[21] Milena Dargicevic-Sesic, ‘The Street as Political Space: Walking as Protest, Graffiti, and the Student Carnivalization of Belgrade’, New Theatre Quarterly, 17:1 (2001), pp75

[22] Interview, June 2021

[23] Ibid

[24] Joseph Amato, On Foot (New York: New York University Press, 2004), pp18

[25] Yarimar Bonilla, ‘The Past is Made by Walking; Labor Activism and Historical Production in Postcolonial Guadeloupe’, Cultural Anthropology, 26:3 (2011), pp314


Methodology

This blog post involved an online interview over Microsoft Teams to learn about the work of Grapevine and their ‘Walk and Talk’ sessions. Initially, it was hard to track down an interviewee because of the difficulties of communicating online and COVID but the online interview did work well because it meant that it was accessible and did not require meeting up in-person. However, it does mean that a certain aspect of the physical atmosphere and the physical body language of the interviewee does get lost. I don’t think this impacted the work much though and I was still able to gage how the interviewee felt about aspects of the project. If anything, the ability to record the interview over Teams meant that I was better able to concentrate on the responses and come up with new questions.

Some difficulties I encountered in terms of relating the work of the interview to the wider historiography involved the difficulties making comparisons because the interviewee was unaware of other walking groups. At times, the interviewee did also get off track because the walking groups were not run by them and also Grapevine does a lot of different work and activities, so they did want to talk about other things. Nonetheless, the uniqueness of the project and the fact that the walking groups are organised to be non-hierarchical does make it so interesting to study and mean that you can interview lots of different people.

While the interviewee later explained that they did not believe that the ‘Walks and Talks’ should be described as walking groups, instead suggesting that they should be seen as events or social actions, comparisons have been drawn in this blog between the actions of these events and the walking group phenomenon.


Bibliography

Walking and activism

Bonilla, Yarimar. ‘The Past is Made by Walking; Labor Activism and Historical Production in Postcolonial Guadeloupe’, Cultural Anthropology, 26:3 (2011), pp313-339

Dargicevic-Sesic, Milena. ‘The Street as Political Space: Walking as Protest, Graffiti, and the Student Carnivalization of Belgrade’, New Theatre Quarterly, 17:1 (2001), p. 74-86

Jelisaveta, Petrovic. ‘Walking – not to walk away!”: Activism and emigration from the perspective of the protestors Against dictatorship’, Communication and Media, 13:44 (2018), p. 35-56

Jurkiewicz, Sarah. ‘Cultural Activism through spatial practices: walking tours and urban gardening in Kuwait City’, Zentrum Moderner Orient (2016)

Safranek, Lauren. ‘Civil Rights Activism in Baltimore’s Historic West Side Walking Tour’, Public Historian, 38:3 (2016), p.120-123

General

Amato, Joseph. On Foot: A History of Walking (New York: New York University Press, 2004)

Bairner, Alan. ‘Urban Walking and the Pedagogies of the Street’, Sport, Education and Society, 16:3 (2011), p371-384

Guldi, Joanna. ‘The History of Walking and the Digital Turn: Stride and Lounge in London, 1808-1851’, Journal of Modern History, 84:1, p. 116-144

Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust: a history of walking. (London: Verso, 2002)

Wallace, Anne D. Walking, literature and English culture: the origins and uses of peripatetic in the nineteenth century. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993)