Ministers and citizens walking together
A few years ago, I went for a very long walk. It was 30 below and the frozen landscape of Nitassinan was spectacularly beautiful. That walk changed my life.
Trekking on snowshoes, pulling my belongings on a toboggan behind me and learning from my Innu companions gave me a glimpse into another way of life. It helped me understand why they were willing to go to prison to protect their land during the 1980s protests against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) low-level flying training, and what the land and the animals mean to them today.
I rarely eat meat but it helped me see why hunting and fishing matter so much. Walking with someone and seeing the world through their eyes can change the way you think. If enough of us do it, it can help renew democracy in Newfoundland and Labrador.
We don’t listen to each other enough. Most traditional ways of communicating in political contexts are either adversarial or “preaching to the choir.” Debates, town halls, travelling road shows, and social media forums all have their place, but none of them make room for what cultural theorist Gayatri Spivak called “the mindchanging one-on-one responsible contact” that can give us insight into the world of people who think differently from us.
The simple act of going for a walk with someone can do that. (I use the word “walk” to mean moving around at a human pace, whether on foot or with a wheelchair or other mobility aids. Disability activist Sunaura Taylor uses the word this way, asserting, “I always tell people I’m going for a walk. I use that word.”)
There are many famous walks in history. Mahatma Gandhi’s pilgrimage to protest an unfair tax was a catalyst for the movement that led to Indian independence. The civil rights movement was built by people walking together and talking to each other about things that mattered. We also have our own historic walks here in Newfoundland and Labrador.
When Joey Smallwood trudged across the island to organize railway workers, he talked to people and learned from them.
More recently, Gemma Hickey followed the same 900-kilometre route to support victims of abuse. Though it was a run, not a walk, Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope began in St. John’s, and he, too, met and talked to people along the way. Elizabeth Penashue’s annual walk in Labrador (the one I joined) educates people about the natural world and traditional Innu values. These are dramatic examples but even an hour of really listening and seeing a person’s world while walking with them can make a difference.
How would this work? First of all, it doesn’t have to cost anything. Government representatives and citizens would simply commit to an hour-long walk once a week with someone from a different background, perspective, or political orientation. For example, a British research group interested in including disabled people’s voices in discussions of sustainability paired people who self-identified as disabled or as sustainability practitioners. Each pair of co-researchers took two walks together with each partner choosing one of the routes. The research findings were made available to planning agencies and policy-makers.
The walks I’m proposing could use this format. People could be matched at random or request a partner representing a specific group or interest. Most matches would be in the participants’ home region, but if someone was travelling they could ask to meet someone at their destination.
A little imagination suggests places to walk: along someone’s daily route to work or school, at the mall, on a hiking trail, a highway, or a city street in winter.
To ensure fairness of access, people requesting a walk with a minister would be selected at random in a supervised process and journalists or researchers could join some of the walks. It’s a big commitment, but it offers big rewards too: a chance to learn new things, to gain insight, to be truly listened to, and to get an hour of exercise at least once a week. The public act of walking would also promote sustainability and active living.
Participants would be offered strategies for listening — not as easy as it seems, but there’s plenty of insight and advice available. Start by Googling “how to listen” and “active listening” for practical advice and then explore more deeply by reading research and theory about listening. We know that effective listening can be taught, and its value and meaning have been examined in depth, in fields ranging from philosophy to media studies.
Most political interaction focuses on winning, but my proposal is about learning from each other. An American friend has always voted Republican. I have a completely different perspective. I’m not sure how she feels about the current situation in the U.S. but I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately. She’s a good person. Once she said to me, “I think we need to talk to each other more than we do.” Let’s talk.