This guest blog post is written by Jack Kelly, a senior at Shenendehowa High School in Saratoga County who recently completed the YMCA’s Safe Routes to School student ambassador program. Jack is sharing reflections from his project to improve sidewalks and walkability in his community.
The YMCA’s Safe Routes to Schools Student Ambassador is a unique opportunity for middle and high school students to get outside, learn essential advocacy skills, and make effective change in their community. Students are tasked with conducting walking assessments of their school districts or communities and presenting this information along with recommendations to local leadership. I first heard about the program after receiving an email from my YMCA Youth and Government State Director. I applied thinking it would be something interesting to do. The concept seemed relatively simple and yet very new, and the prospect of learning about a whole new world of advocacy was exciting.
I spent my early summer in 2019 wandering around the Shenendehowa Central School District campus taking photos of sidewalks. When I realized the school campus was surprisingly walkable, I decided instead to meet with the Town of Clifton Park to discuss a more pressing issue: a lack of sidewalks around our business district. Hollywood taught me to expect a lot of dramatic resistance from pencil-pushing bureaucrats, so I was excited to fight for something I cared about!
In fact, it turned out the town was already on the same page. Early in the meeting, they showed me their 5-year plan for covering our town in sidewalks. While this meeting wasn’t exactly the hard-fought battle I was expecting, the results were great. The Alliance of New York State YMCAs staff was more than content. So much, in fact, our Director of Healthy Living jumped excitedly a few times after we left the meeting!
When the opportunity to participate in the YMCA’s SRTS Student Ambassador Program approached in 2020, I was immediately on board. Since town officials had already confirmed their long-term support for more sidewalks, modifying the project to fit the needs of my community became my new goal. Quickly though, this year took a major turn. Instead of attending a spring Safe Routes to School conference in Albany, NY with my peers following months of energetic walk auditing, the world shut down due to COVID-19 with me locked inside my house. With the plans for the year being quickly demolished, so too were my hopes of completing Safe Routes to School Ambassadorship for a second time. However, many virtual opportunities soon arose.
Surprisingly, I managed to learn even more about walkability while in quarantine and doing very little walking! National walkability expert Mark Fenton served as a technical expert and mentor for the program this year, which made the program I had enjoyed so much last year 100 times more entertaining and rewarding now.
The problem remained though that the whole point of the program, the live Walk Audit, was now impossible to do. In some ways, this made the project less daunting. The challenge of preparing a live presentation that had to be given not only without notes but also while on a two-mile walk was no longer an issue. To me, the important part was always really the advocacy, so in some ways doing it entirely virtually was even better.
My idea to present a virtual walk audit was not terribly creative, but it was effective. It relied on the tried and true Google Form and first-person point-of-view videography. Viewers could watch short clips and rank the walkability of different areas around my walking route. My original plan consisted of conducting the walk audit “vlog-style” with multiple camera angles, narration, and fancy transitions. I will even admit to searching up handheld tripods on Amazon for a more stable camera angle. It was only after this work that I finally realized that the most effective virtual walk audit would not be long and drawn out, but rather very short and easy to do. Town officials are busy people, especially during a pandemic. If the goal was to really get them to pay attention, the presentation would need to be brief and make the most of their time. The final presentation consisted of about 2 minutes of educational content and five 30-second clips of walking.
The Google Form did not get as many responses as I'd hoped, but enough for me to be able to report back findings. Even with limited responses, the feedback from some town officials and community members was still fascinating. Moreover, seeing how quickly people with no prior walk audit experience could learn the skill was very eye-opening. Sure, it may have meant that I was less of a uniquely skilled technical expert, but it was fantastic news in terms of where this advocacy could go.
In reflecting on the outcomes of this walk audit I faced a unique challenge. Unlike most activities, where upon completion I could look back and plan for the future using specific successes and failures, I now had to take the results of a virtual event and use them to help plan a physical event. So much of the power of a walk audit comes from participants physically experiencing the activity just as a pedestrian would. It is safe to assume that had this event been in person, the feedback would have been stronger. However, it is still possible to use the virtual walk audit to plan for the future.
To elaborate, the brevity and convenience of the virtual walk audit were both keys to increasing participation. The many participants I invited all lead full lives that can’t necessarily be put on pause to walk around town for 90 minutes. The next time I conduct a walk audit, I plan to send out the educational resources digitally before the walk itself. That allows participants to get a grasp on what they’re actually doing before they show up to a walk audit, meaning we can move to the productive conversation and helpful feedback that much more quickly.
The most rewarding part of the Safe Routes to School Student Ambassador Program has most definitely been the connections I have built with the students in the program, as well as town officials and experts. In fact, having met with the town the year prior left me able to request a meeting this year to discuss my plans for a Town Walkability Committee. The idea was to use the work I completed with the YMCA’s SRTS Student Ambassador Program to create a group of people dedicated to making our town more walkable both through infrastructure and outreach. While the ask was a long shot, my town was overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the idea, especially knowing that this is a topic I have worked on for multiple years now.
After the Safe Routes to School Student Ambassador Program officially closed out in June, its spirit has been kept alive through my new Walkability Committee. It should be starting to recruit members in the next few weeks, and I am very excited to see how we will be able to make improvements in our town. This program has been an amazing experience for me these past two years, and I am so grateful for the opportunities it has given me to make real change.