"Single file with a smile," Shelia Woodard tells the small crowd gathered in a manicured pocket of trees and benches in front of a Houston skyscraper. She's running through the rules for the women in bright blue t-shirts about to embark on a more than three-mile, out and back trek through the tunnels that wind their way beneath downtown.
It's not their first time walking together, so they know the drill. But she runs through the rules in case it's been a bit since their last walk. They're part of the local GirlTrek group, a national organization launched by two black women and friends, T. Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison, in Los Angeles who challenged each other and their communities to walk together and care for each other's health and environments as a way to combat the health problems disproportionately burdening black women. It's a deceptively simple premise but its implications are radical. Members affiliated with branches all over the country organize regular walks like this one.
Each of them has a nickname specific to the group. Woodard goes by Sassy Sheila. And they each have a story for why they're out there.
Woodard's mother died at the age of 72 after a long battle with diabetes that claimed her toe, then foot, then leg, before her death. It hit her hard. Though she had been involved in the dance team in high school, now a grandmother, Woodard knew she had to step up her routine. "When you know better, you do better," is how she puts it.
But becoming a member of GirlTrek has done more than improve her health. "When you're a GirlTrek member," she tells her fellow walkers, "you are heroes and you lead your community. We're like Harriet Tubman, she didn't just save herself."
Which brings her to the other rule for today's walk in the tunnels downtown: "Loop and scoop." Always go back to get every walker.
Across the country, there are similar groups, including Black Girls Run and Black Girls Do Bike, but walking, said some of the GirlTrek Houston members, can feel more accessible. They don't leave anyone behind. But that doesn't mean they don't also get a workout.
Even as a small group, the women stand out. Houston's downtown tunnels seem to go on endlessly, from one narrow, fluorescent lit hall to the next, with banks, fast-food spots and shops crowding the intermittent underground plazas. And over the lunch hour, which is really like the lunch two-hour on a Friday, the tunnels fill with workers. Most give a curious glance to the women. But several times, when the walkers pass a group of black women, there's a moment of recognition. Heads nod. Smiles are exchanged. Woodard doesn't miss a beat. She takes those moments as opportunities to plug the organization.
"Look at us, look at us represent," she says, arms up as she passes one onlooker.
That visibility in itself is a statement but Sharon Watkins Jones, an advocacy leader with the Houston group, wants to take it a step further. The director of political strategies with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Jones wants to empower GirlTrek members to get involved politically.
Her introduction to the national organization underscored the group's connection to civil rights and social justice. Joined by her daughter, niece, mother and a friend from Dallas, Jones rode a bus from New Orleans to Selma to walk with President Obama and thousands of others in 2015 in honor of the 50th anniversary of the march that began there to Montgomery.
"It was just life changing, so many women supporting one another not only in their quest for better health but making a statement saying, when we walk together things change," said Jones.
In their walks around Houston, the GirlTrek group has been all around the city, from the neighborhoods with smooth sidewalks to the ones without any.
"In so many neighborhoods, it's a given that you can walk and you can access fruits and vegetables so that's a part of our revolution," said Jones. "The act of walking is simple but in some places not so much."
In cities across the country, walkability is having a moment. Houston's own Walkable Places Committee is looking at specific ordinances that could be tweaked to encourage pedestrian-friendly development. But in a country and a city where walking while black is something that shapes what walkability means, GirlTrek reveals the sticky moments where planning and policies intersect with health and safety.
In 2015, the group launched a partnership with Fifth Ward's Atherton Elementary. Thanks to a member who was also a teacher there, they walked the historically African American neighborhood and began to see the difficulties residents there faced. "It was alarming to us, we saw a number of barriers to walking," she said. "The school crossing areas led directly into ditches," among other issues they identified as part of a survey conducted in conjunction with Stanford University.
In April, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner met up with an 8-year old girl in the well-off Heights neighborhood for a photo opportunity, after she wrote him complaining about an intersection without a sidewalk on her route to school. The two of them, along with the girl's sister, walked through the neighborhood, over the new stretch of sidewalk and toward the gelato shop.
Sidewalks are tricky business in Houston. Generally, homeowners are responsible for their sidewalks, but under the city's Safe Sidewalk Program, there are some exceptions when the city will get involved, including within a four-block radius of a school.
In a 2010 study of walkability in neighborhoods in Houston, Birmingham and Los Angeles, a team of researchers found, using data from 2003 on fifth graders and their caregivers, that though high-poverty neighborhoods across the three cities had more of the mixed-use, higher-density characteristics of walkable neighborhoods, the actual walking conditions were worse than in low-poverty neighborhoods. Poor neighborhoods, the researchers wrote, "are less safe, with more physical disorder, decay, and vacant lots/houses." Though they, "have sidewalks and streets in worse condition," they still had "similar traffic volume to low poverty neighborhoods." The researchers found similar patterns when comparing predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods to predominantly white neighborhoods.
Recognizing that neighborhoods have had variable histories of investment from the city, Turner launched his Complete Communities earlier this year but Fifth Ward was not one of the five neighborhoods selected in the pilot program.
Still, Jones said they're committed to supporting the elementary school and its families, start with the recent ribbon cutting of a rooftop garden that the local group was able to donate to thanks to a grant from the national GirlTrek organization.
"A lot of folks just take for granted that our streets and sidewalks are the way they are," said Jones. "I think a lot of women, and in our instance black women, feel defeated by environmental or health problems. GirlTrek allows people to have a victory."