Reflecting on the National Safe Routes to School Conference 2019

The National Safe Routes to School Conference in Tampa, FL last month consisted of many small group discussions about sustaining mature programs, preventing burnout, and tackling generations of inequitable funding distribution. However, if there is one takeaway that had the most profound impact it was this: We are planning and developing programs for students but programs are not planned and developed by students. We are simply not doing enough to include students in the process.

Day 1: The Big Takeaway

The opening plenary speaker, Mara Mintzer of Growing up Boulder made the case for why we must include children and young people in the planning and development of programs not just for Safe Routes to School programs, but in every planning effort. She ended her talk with 5 key principles of Engagement:

  1. Go where the children are.
    • News Flash: They aren’t spending their day playing at City Hall
  2. Use a variety of methods to engage a variety of learning styles.
    • There is so much data to support different learning styles. When working with youth – forget using a PowerPoint or lecture style format because it isn’t usually’t going to work. The WALKSacramento staff constantly reevaluates programs to ensure we create a fun and interactive environment as much as possible. An environment, where students get to lead the conversation and have an opportunity to embrace play while we all get to learn something new about how our world could be designed.
    • Use a mix of approaches including photography, poetry, posters, mapping tools, etc that can engage a large span of learning styles.
  3. Make engagement asset based
    • Recognize that people are experts in their own lives, and they know their community better than any outsider. Identify cultural opportunities you can use to connect with residents. Mara gave an example of a project where children made Nicho Boxes to show objects and writings that were important to them and were culturally relevant to their community. Not surprisingly, students filled the boxes with references to nature, spending time outside, and family. Another personal favorite of mine is using the age-old tradition of storytelling. Children conduct interviews with their elders to see what they loved about growing up – specifically as it relates to transportation or other topics. (Check out Story Corps for more information, inspiration, and resources for starting your own interview project. Doing a Story Corps style project has always been a dream of mine – so if you are interested in getting this started in your community, let’s connect!)
  4. Be transparent about process, outcomes, and timelines
    • Long term change is called long term for a reason. It’s incredibly important to be honest about where you are in the process and how long it is going to take to get to where you want to be. While, I would love to say we can get huge amounts of funding and meet every person’s wishlist of ideas, the reality is often much longer and sometimes painful but if you are honest from the very beginning about your process, the timeline, and continue to create inclusive planning processes that build capacity of residents, your end result will reflect what the community actually wants and needs.
  5. Reflect, evaluate, adapt
    • Pre and post surveys are important, of course, but there is a lot that happens in between. Planning, engineering, communication, and values have changed so much over the last couple of decades, and we must ensure that we are agile, are open to feedback, are ready to change it up when something isn’t working.

Only once we begin to live and breathe these principles of engagement will we see real transformation in communities that is relevant, builds capacity for residents, and provides access to opportunity for generations to come. I walked away from Mara’s talk feeling proud that the WALKSacramento team has embodied these principles for the 20 years we have been in existence. However, I also walked away recognizing there is so much more room to include youth in the conversation, and they absolutely are ready to join in.

Growing Up Boulder’s Youth Engagement Model

Day 2: The Elephant in the Room: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Built Environment

On Day 2 the plenary speaker, Shavon Arline-Bradely, founding Principal of R.E.A.C.H. Beyond Solutions LLC and the Co-Founder of The Health Equity Cypher Group spoke on The Elephant in the Room: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Built Environment. Shavon immediately addressed the difference between community outreach and community engagement:

  • Community outreach is the old school way of a minimum amount of touch points about a project happening in a community (a flyer, meeting at City Hall).
  • Community engagement on the other hand, is truly about getting the residents of all ages and abilities involved from start to finish to ensure the end product is truly reflective of the community’s needs and desires.  
Shavon breaks down Community Outreach vs Community Engagement

I am happy to say that over the last two years, I have heard other speakers also point out this difference and more excitingly, I am seeing funders move to true engagement requirements over traditional outreach, but this is still another area we have so much more room to improve upon.

If I had to choose only two takeaways from Shavon, they were this:

First, Consider the weight of the term “bus” in reference to walking school bus programs. In most of America, car ownership is part of the American Dream. Promoting a “bus” feels backwards. Even if a walking school bus is a fun and healthy program – the historical context of it may not be seen as such based on personal experiences and history. Shavon gave the example of her mother who was taken aback by the name “walking school bus” because in her perspective, the term bus was representative of a segregated past. So when Shavon told her mother that her son could join the walking school bus instead of getting driven to school, her mother wasn’t exactly excited to do so at first. So, how do we change the narrative of a walking school bus? Is there a better word to describe the program?

Secondly, my favorite piece of advice she gave was “Do not ever have a meeting without students”. Again, sticking with the theme that we must include youth in everything we do… afterall they are the future and deserve to have a say in what happens.

I am excited for what 2020 has in store at WALKSacramento as we continue to challenge ourselves to further build youth capacity, especially high school students in Safe Routes to School projects, TDM programs, and Health in the Built environment programs. This past fall we launched a year long pilot program at River City High School in West Sacramento called Climate ACTION! focused on transportation related solutions in West Sacramento and will be launching a similar health focused program at Luther Burbank High School in early 2020.

Thank you to Safe Kids Greater Sacramento for sponsoring my attendance at the Conference. I also had the opportunity to share our Wayfind West Sacramento project during Wednesday’s poster session.

If you are interested in working with us to add more creative engagement approaches to your projects – send us an email:

Until next time!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *