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Leader: Shannon Criss & Rachel Jefferson
Project: Come Walk with Us WYCO
Neighborhood: Wyandotte County, Kansas
Raised on ioby: $8,734 to conduct a neighbor-led walk audit in three of the largest and most densely populated neighborhoods of Wyandotte County.

Public Health is about more than doctors and medicine. It's also about access to healthy foods, places to play and exercise, looking out for one another, and so much more. Whatever the culture of health looks like in your community, we want to help you strengthen it!

The “Come Walk With Us” Community Walk Audit is a project in Kansas City that aims to help neighbors better understand their community’s infrastructure, and improve access to public spaces and encourage walking by advocating for things like better sidewalks, street lights, and curbs. Hear from project leaders Shannon Criss and Rachel Jefferson about how they did it.

What is a walk audit?

Rachel: It’s a kind of a tool that neighborhood associations and residents can use to survey the conditions of their streets, curbs, sidewalks, lighting, and gain a better understanding of their physical surroundings and built environment, and then use that information they collected in a very user-friendly way to advocate to departments like Public Works, or Planning, to prioritize improvements that would most benefit them in their day to day.

Where did the idea to do a walk audit come from?

Rachel: It actually came about around the beginning of 2017 because several community organizations in the area were having discussions with residents about what their priorities were. We realized that a lot of community members were very concerned about pedestrian accessibility in their neighborhoods. So we decided to put our resources together, and formed a kind of collective through which we could assess the neighborhood together with that audit.

Shannon: We have some great community champions that know their neighborhoods better than anyone. For us at the university, we knew that we had a lot of students and capacity to build the tools for the audit, and to really help residents identify their greatest needs and their assets, and to provide those skills to help assess that.

How did you become personally involved with this work, particularly from a health lens?

Shannon: For me, to get involved in health equity work, I was very interested in just trying to figure out what the root of the problem was. Walking in the middle of the street is dangerous, but kids were doing it. Why? Is it hard for people to get to grocery stores? To get to parks? I wanted to better understand what those challenges are so that we can work with community partners to overcome them.

Rachel: I was actually working for a safety-net clinic for several years, and I realized that there were all types of barriers and challenges for our patients before they ever even got into the doctor's office. Sometimes that meant they couldn’t show up for their doctor’s appointment. I decided to move my efforts a little more upstream, to tackle policy and initiatives that could improve their health before people even got to the doctor.

You’ve both identified an equity lens in the way you got involved. What's the relationship to this project with social justice?

Rachel: I think when we talk about community health, we really have to take a wide view at what that means. We have to look at the history of racially or linguistically discriminatory policies and practices that may have isolated members of our community from resources and opportunities. So a lot of the work that we and our partners do here is focused on centering community and decision-making processes so that they have a very active and leading role in improving not only their health, but also mitigating some of those social, racial, and socio-economic barriers that prevent them, their families, their neighbors from being healthy.

Shannon: When you look at and experience these sidewalks and you see that some of the most basic needs these communities have aren’t being met—crossing the street safely, or getting to school or the park—, you notice that the neighborhood has less capacity. I think we need to really question, how is it that this can happen? It’s a social justice issue. It’s an environmental issue. How can we responsibly improve the quality of our environment, of our built environment, and have pride in our communities to make connections with one another?

Why walking? How is the walkability of a neighborhood related to health?

Shannon: I think walking is fundamental. We should all have the right to walk, to see our neighbors and exercise and feel that we are connected community. I think cities need to have sidewalks. Then, we need to talk about accessibility too. These sidewalks can’t just kind of end, and they need to be accessible to people with strollers and wheelchairs.

Rachel: Well, walking is one of the main ways that we get around our neighborhoods, especially if you lack access to transportation. There's also this idea of social cohesion. If you have a sidewalk in front of your house, but not on the other side of the street, you're more likely to use the side of the street that has a sidewalk, which means you may be conversing with your neighbors or youth or just people in the neighborhood that are walking down that sidewalk. Being able to move about with ease means that people will have access to community centers, employment centers, and to each other so that the neighborhood has a sense of social cohesion and togetherness. That's really at the heart of a lot of our work.

Shannon: Sidewalks are the glue that bind neighborhoods together!

 

What challenges have you come across?

Rachel: I think one of the biggest challenges for us that when you're working with community members who are not paid full time to do this work, you really have to make sure that it's flexible. That it can fit their timelines, their schedule, and that it's not burdensome to them. Make sure that you set timelines together, and that your plans are flexible enough for others' input.

Shannon: I think another great challenge is learning how to best work with the city. How do we make the insight and the kind of knowledge that we've gained through this process available to the city, to policymakers, and to the decision-makers that are going to fund projects? And then knowing that that takes time, but that residents need to see action. They need to see evidence that this work is meaningful.

What would be your advice to somebody who wanted to start a similar project?

Rachel: I would say that the first thing that they would probably need to do is make sure that you’re not just out there alone wanting to do this work. That it's actually work that the community members want to do as well. From there, make sure that it’s a co-creation process. Everything from the first meeting to the last meeting should be with guided by your community. Sometimes things don't work out. Sometimes funding doesn't come in as expected, and you just have to make sure that you're communicating that clearly and to the best of your ability, to the people with whom you're working so that you can continue to build that trust, and hopefully, have some sustainability and longevity in whatever initiatives you have going forward.

Shannon: Get started right there with the champions of the community, try to understand their perspectives and really listen. Get out in the community, walk around. As you're building those connections, move at the place and space that people can move.

More about Shannon and Rachel

Rachel Jefferson, the Executive Director of the Historic Northeast-Midtown Association (HNMA), was born in Kansas City, Missouri. Rachel is a recipient of the 2011 Neighborhood Leadership Award, and is an alumna of Leadership 2000, a leadership development program funded by the Kansas Leadership Center. Rachel is also a graduate of the Healthy Communities Leadership Academy, an initiative created by the Health Forward Foundation. Rachel has served on many boards including the National Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Review Committee, and the Regional Prevention Center’s Connect the Dottes Community Coalition. Currently, Rachel is the co-chair of the Community Health Council of Wyandotte County’s Healthy Equity Action Transformation Community Action Board. Additionally, Rachel serves on the Boys and Girls Club of Wyandotte County Advisory Board, the Kansas City, Kansas Farmer’s Market Advisory Board, the EnVision Home’s Board, the Mercantile Cooperative Board, and the REACH Healthcare Foundation’s Community Advisory Committee. Rachel is appointed to the Kansas City, Kansas Housing Authority Board of Commissioners. Rachel is a certified Healthy Homes Trainer and Community Health Worker. Rachel currently lives and works in the northeast pocket of Kansas City, Kansas and has come to love and appreciate the neighborhood people that have persevered in the fight to create an equitable Kansas City, Kansas for all.

Shannon Criss is a co-director of Dotte Agency, a licensed architect and a Professor in the University of Kansas School of Architecture and Design. Through her work at the University of Kansas she is able to bring focus to community engagement processes and service learning opportunities to create an architecture that serves the greater good. The endeavor requires that we think beyond the singular architectural object and develop deep, long-term, loose-fitting principles to guide the work we do as architects; developing strategies that make the architectural object the right fit, for many people, for a long time. In order to be effective, this premise requires collaborative thought and work, where students identify and examine ideas driven by their empathy for others’ needs and their own natural curiosity to explore and offer new insight to a given problem, with the premise that good design is enduring design. Her work has been published in PUBLIC: A Journal of Imagining America and in Good Deeds, Good Design, Community Service Through Architecture published by Princeton Architectural Press. She is a graduate of Kansas State University and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and has taught at the Boston Architectural Center, The Harvard Graduate School of Design, Mississippi State University and the University of Kansas.

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