Celebrating Our National Walking College Graduates

Walking College grads Maja Pedersen + Katrina Watkins

Earlier this month, we celebrated the sixth class of alumni of the national Walking College, a competitive six-month fellowship program that challenges participants to hone their skills and know-how around advocating for vibrant, safe, accessible communities for all. 

This year’s class represented the most competitively-selected to-date, with 226 applications received for the 30 spots available. Fellows hailed from 19 states: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. 

The ongoing pandemic created some challenges for participants, several of whom had to quit the program before its conclusion, but 24 fellows are expected to fulfill all the requirements necessary to consider themselves graduates, with a handful as of this writing still working on completing their final projects – a blueprint for taking action on a walking-related problem in their communities. 

The Walking College experience empowers would-be change-makers to understand the connections between walkability and the pressing challenges of our day,” said Walking College Program Manager Emilie Bahr. “It also encourages them to get involved in meaningful ways to develop creative solutions to these challenges and make a real difference in their communities. We’re thrilled by the work of our fellows so far and look forward to great things to come from them in the months ahead.” 

The next round of applications for the national program will open in February on our website.  

Walking College Grad Katrina Watkins’ Story of Self and Us:

When I was a young child I remember how my grandmother would feed the homeless people and neighbors who were hungry in our neighborhood. One day, I asked her why she did this. I will never forget her answer. She said, “In Alabama, we all looked out for each other. If someone did not have a cow for milk, they could get it from their neighbors. We were all able to eat, live, and survive because we all worked together. We did not believe in letting other people go hungry if we could do something about it.”

This was something that has stayed with me. It helped me to realize that if we work as a team and all give a little or do what we can, we can accomplish anything we set our minds to.

When I was older my aunt would always gather all the kids in the family to do community service work. We didn’t like it but we did it. When I became an adult this same Aunt hired me to work in her non-Profit. She was successful at building 30 affordable homes in the community that I live in. As a matter of fact, I live in one of those homes. While working with her I would always ask why we were not developing a park, or cleaning up some of the vacant lots, or doing home repairs. She never gave an answer and the type of neighborhood initiatives that I wanted to see and residents were asking for did not happen.

As time went on, my aunt became very ill and her non-profit was no longer funded so she moved to Las Vegas and dissolved the nonprofit. By 2014 the neighborhood had changed for the worse. The city was in bankruptcy and city services were not great before but now things were pretty dire. I was talking to my older neighbor, complaining about how I didn’t like the high grass and brush across the street from our homes and that I couldn’t get any help from the City.

She looked at me and told me to stop complaining and clean up the neighborhood myself.

She said I was smart and helped with the development of the homes and that she knew that I was the person who could continue to do things in the community to make it better. She told me to start a nonprofit and start cleaning up on the block. I took what she said to heart. I didn’t know where to start, or what to name my non-profit.

One night while I was watching “It’s a Wonderful Life, ” I had fallen asleep but woke up during the scene where all of the neighbors put in small amounts of money or their valuables to save George Bailey. That scene really resonated with me. I thought to myself, that is exactly what this community needs. We need all of the neighbors to put in or give whatever they can to help change the neighborhood for the better. Which goes back to what my grandmother said about everyone in her Alabama community helping each other so that no one went hungry.

I decided to call my non-profit Bailey Park Project, in memory of the spirit of that movie with the hopes of creating a positive community movement that would transform the neighborhood. I recruited relatives and neighbors to participate in community cleanups that started on or around my block. I funded everything out of my pocket or received help from other organizations.

By September of 2015 with the support and help of two capstone students who created the Free Project (Framework and Resources for Empowering Environments) we revitalized 16 vacant lots. Through that process I learned how to connect with the greater community, businesses, churches, organizations and most importantly City departments and officials. In 2018, I received my first grant from Rachel Alternative through Cedar Tree foundation who liked what I was doing in the community and made a commitment to help fund sustainable community development projects.

In the broader context, over time my work expanded to other blocks, and I was able to engage more residents in the development and beautification of the neighborhood. Fast forward to 2021; we now have a community resilience hub that provides assistance to residents during the height of the pandemic and continues to provide PPE, food distribution resources and activities to residents. We also have a community landscaping program, where we are maintaining 83 vacant and privately owned lots, providing lawn care services to churches, businesses and

We are developing one of the largest community parks in the City of Detroit called Bailey Park. Bailey Park is located on 22 parcels of vacant land. We also employ nine part-time individuals who are residents.

This past August we held our first annual neighborhood festival at Bailey Park, nearly 200 residents and visitors attended. It was wonderful to see a resident host the event. We had live entertainment that was provided by the residents and professional entertainers. People danced in the street and truly just enjoyed themselves. Not one fight or argument, it was only joy, laughter, children playing and people happy to see each other. Residents commented on how happy they were to have a nice free outdoor event in the neighborhood.

I am the face of the organization and get compliments on how great things are going in the neighborhood. However, I am quick to tell people that I am only as good as my team. And it is the residents who are actively working with me that really make the difference that they see in the neighborhood. And that is the story of us.