Brighton Park Parents Take the Lead in Promoting Safe, Healthy Walking

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Mariela Estrada at the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. Photo: John Greenfield

Parents in Brighton Park, a predominantly Latino neighborhood on the Southwest Side, have been doing grassroots work to enhance safety, health and community by promoting better conditions for pedestrians around schools and parks, and by forming walking clubs. The Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, a local community development organization, has been supporting these residents’ efforts in a number of ways.

At the suggestion of Active Transportation Alliance community outreach director Andres Alvear, I recently met with Mariela Estrada, lead organizer with the neighborhood council. She told me about the parents’ work to improve their own health and build a better neighborhood, and how the council is helping them achieve those goals.

John Greenfield: Tell me about the walking initiatives that are going on in Brighton Park.

Mariela Estrada: In September of 2010, we started working with the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children doing walkability assessments, looking at the areas around the schools and the parks in our community. So the parents really started analyzing the condition of our streets and how that ties into safety.

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A walking club in Brighton Park. Photo courtesy of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council

And then in 2012 the efforts to improve safety led to a desire to improve health, and there was the idea to form walking clubs, groups of parents that meet up to go on walks together right after they drop off their kids off at school. The majority of them are engaged in Parent Patrol [volunteers that stand watch near schools as students enter and exit]. So they walk their kids to school and from there they meet up with the club and walk around the neighborhood, or on their school’s track, for about an hour, hour and a half. Some of them are now at the running stage, so they’re doing it in steps. We have all different ages. Earliest is late twenties, to grandmothers who are coming out who are in their seventies.

Just a few weeks ago there was a picture that one of the parents showed me from Shields Middle, which is on 48th and Rockwell. The parents walk around the little track in back of the school. And in one of the classrooms the kids put out signs in the window that said “Go Moms Go!” So it really meant a lot in terms of the support that the kids are giving to the parents, and the parents to the kids. It was really neat to see both of the groups tie in to the health initiatives that we’re starting at the schools.

JG: How many schools are involved?

ME: Right now the ones that have the walking groups are Burroughs Elementary, which is on 35th and Washtenaw, Davis Elementary, which is 39th and Albany, and Shields Middle School, which is on 48th and Rockwell. And then we have our floating ones through different schools. Columbia Explorers, at Kedzie and 46th started it, but during the wintertime they get discouraged by the weather. The other ones keep going. They do it indoors sometimes, if the school allows them the space.

JG: At a gym or something?

ME: Yeah, at Shields they actually have a Zumba class. Some of them, right after the walking, they’ll go in and do Zumba as well, so they have a space for them.

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A mural in Brighton Park promotes physical activity. Photo: Jeff Zoline

JG: What are the parents trying to accomplish with the walking clubs?

ME: They have a couple of different benefits. One of them is safety, because as they’re walking they’re also observing. They’re very visible, since most of them have on their parent patrol vests. They can report any suspicious activity they see, especially around the schools. Given the hard times that we’re going through right now with the cutbacks in school budgets that make it hard to pay for extra security staff at schools, they’re really taking on some of that responsibility.

Another one is health. We know that in Brighton Park our obesity rate is pretty high, about 46 percent. The parents have been attending our workshops about healthy living, and their goal is to actually do the things they hear about in the workshops, not just listening, so they’re being proactive.

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A CLOCC staffer leads a walkability assessment in Pilsen. Photo courtesy of CLOCC.

JG: What is the neighborhood council’s involvement with this?

ME: We have health promoters at the schools who kind of help out and provide little initiatives like water bottles and coffee for the parents when they come back from their walk. We also do workshops with them once a month at the schools. A lot of them are around [physical] health, mental health, and education, and we do a lot of nutritional workshops as well. We’re teaching people about healthier eating, being active themselves and being active with their kids, so they’re not just sitting in front of a television.

JG: What are some of the barriers to walking in Brighton Park and how are those being addressed?

ME: Violence is a barrier. I think that the way it’s being addressed is by the parents being out there and active, and being visible in the community, so that the gangs see their presence and that it’s their community. Street lighting can also be an issue. That’s why they prefer to walk in the mornings. In the afternoons it didn’t quite work out, especially during the wintertime.

JG: Are there infrastructure improvements that you think might help? Are there issues like crosswalks that need to be striped, or the condition of the sidewalks?

ME: That’s something that we worked on the first year that we started doing walkability assessments. There are some crosswalks that got repainted. The parents organized and they did a whole day of calls to [14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke’s] office to say, “Hey, our crosswalk needs to be painted.” There were like 50 parents doing that.

JG: The alderman’s office must have gotten sick of answering those calls, but I guess it worked.

ME: It does work, and the parents feel very proud when they see it get done. Last year the city redid sidewalks around Davis and this year they’re resurfacing the streets. I think that was part of just a city plan to get it done, not really through our efforts. A lot of signage has been improved. The parents see it and they’re like, “Oh, there’s a sign missing. Let’s call it in.” So they know now what to do in those situations.

This summer, when the parents did cleaning days in different parts of Brighton Park, they started a campaign about picking up after your dog. Through the walks they noticed that that was a big issue in Brighton Park. There were a lot of dog feces everywhere. So they started posting flyers and just reminding folks that did have dogs, “Hey, you know, just remember to pick up after them.”

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A Play Street in Little Village, just north of Brighton Park. Photo: Active Trans

JG: What’s the neighborhood council’s connection to Active Trans?

ME: We did Play Streets [block parties that encourage healthy recreation] we connected to Andres through that. This was our first summer getting funded directly to do Play Streets. Last year we were partners with a lead agency and we helped them do outreach, but this year we did it all.

JG: How did that work out?

ME: Really well. It was a very positive experience for community residents, for the children, and for the schools. The principals were so supportive. And we did it in the most high-risk, high-violence areas of the neighborhood on purpose, and it worked out really well. We had awesome weather and two of the events took place during the back to school week.

JG: What kind of activities did you have?

ME: We had bouncy houses, we had a Zumba instructor, we had four square, scooters, basketball, soccer, tennis, softball, hopscotch. There was a little dance area, which the parents really liked, which was surprising. It was really good to see people just embrace the streets and feel safe. And the kids loved it. Oh my God, they were like, “Where’s the next one? What school are you doing it at next?” It was a really good experience. We would totally do it again.

JG: Anything else I should know about what you guys are doing in terms of promoting walking and other physical activities?

ME: That’s about it. We’re just doing something that’s very grassroots and very local, but it’s making a very positive impact in Brighton Park.

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