Here's what we saw, heard, and learned while walking from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti

Passing cars honked their horns Saturday morning as organizer Robin Stephens addressed a crowd gathered for the Bridging 23 Unity March from Ann Arbor's Larcom City Hall to the Ypsilanti Freighthouse. But it was unclear whether the drivers were responding to the crowd of about 40 marchers, or a group of AT&T picketers who were circling across the street.


Stephens pumped her fist and cheered, but then quickly turned back to the Bridging 23 crowd and added, "I think they're really honking for the strikers, but we'll take it."


Stephens is an Ann Arbor-based criminal defense attorney and chair of the Washtenaw County Democractic Party Black Caucus, which sponsored the eight-mile walk from Ann Arbor to Ypsi. Stephens hatched the idea for the over eight-mile walk after the Dispute Resolution Center and the Association for Youth Empowerment organized the first Bridging 23 forum in April 2017. That event invited Ann Arbor and Ypsi residents, including Stephens, to come together and talk openly about what many feel is a significant divide between the two neighboring communities.


"Others' experiences were so different from mine that I was like, 'Wow, do we live in the same place?'" Stephens said in a post-walk interview. "Then at the end, they challenged everybody to think within themselves about something you could do to help bridge the community. In my 30-plus years of living here, there is a clear distinction between those living on the west side of the county and those living on the east."


Stephens faced some pushback, however, when she suggested a march between the two communities.


"Some woman stood up and said, 'You can't do that. There aren't enough sidewalks between here and Ypsilanti,'" Stephens said. "And I said, 'Okay, then, we'll walk in the street. I'm not going to not do it because you said it won't work.'"


Before Saturday's nonpartisan walk got underway, Stephens identified all the local politicians and candidates in attendance. They included former state representative and current state senate candidate Jeff Irwin, county clerk Larry Kestenbaum, county commissioner candidate Tom Brennan, Ann Arbor city council candidate Ryan Hughes, Ann Arbor city council members Jack Eaton and Chuck Warpehoski, state senate candidate Anuja Rajendra, and county commissioner Felicia Brabec, who also addressed the crowd.


Brabec touched on income inequality and briefly provided localized statistics. She noted that there's a 10-year life expectancy difference between black and white residents in Washtenaw County, and a 15-year difference between Latino and white residents; and that 60 percent of African-Americans in the county live in economically low-growth areas.


"We have so many different wonderful things about our community, but we also have a lot of problems we need to address," Brabec said. "As a lot of us know those policies, a lot of them, began with government, and because of that I feel like government has a big role to play in fixing this."


The walk began with no fanfare shortly after 9 a.m. ("This is not a race, this is a walk," Stephens emphasized.) Almost immediately, as the group headed toward Washtenaw Avenue, strangers started striking up conversations with each other.


In fact, some walkers – who skewed middle-age or older – made a point of shifting conversation partners every half-mile or so. I chatted about college basketball with a retired Ypsi school guidance counselor; discussed restorative justice with a woman from Chelsea whose son was recently released from prison; made small talk with a U-M secretary; and chuckled as Irwin sprinted across five lanes of traffic to straighten a yard sign bearing his name.


The line of walkers stretched progressively across the route, especially as some stopped at water/snack stations or veered off to use a restroom. Interestingly, although Stephens hadn't specifically requested that we leave our phones tucked away during the walk, everyone around me seemed to opt for a screen-free experience. No one even wore earbuds, as far as I could see. People just talked with each other and took in the architectural scenery that's usually a blur as we drive past in our cars ("I never realized that was there!" was a commonly overheard statement).


As that early dissenter who challenged Stephens pointed out, the sidewalks disappeared for stretches of time as we moved east along Washtenaw. A young woman in a wheelchair was forced to move onto the busy street, traveling against the flow of traffic, for stretches of time. (A few fellow walkers accompanied her, so as to be even more visible to cars.)


This inevitably heightened our awareness of exactly where more sidewalks were needed, and where a lack of a sloped curbs made it difficult for all people in wheelchairs to travel.


After walking past Eastern Michigan University's campus and downtown Ypsi, my group arrived at the Ypsi Freighthouse minutes before noon. From outside, we heard cheers and applause. Volunteers and supporters – who were just setting up food, drink, and coffee stations alongside the political candidate tables at the back – rushed forward to offer high-fives and praise. The crowd at the Freighthouse was far more diversified than the walkers themselves.


"Of course we want to figure out how to include more minority people, since the purpose is to have different communities walking together and talking about their life experiences, so we can find those commonalities," Stephens said after the walk.


But one contributing factor could have simply been the date of the march. Ann Arbor's African-American Downtown Festival was also scheduled for Saturday. Turnout may have also been affected by a Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America event at Liberty Plaza for National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Speakers alluded to that event in solidarity throughout Saturday morning.


The crowd at the Freighthouse heard from speakers like congresswoman Debbie Dingell, and enjoyed performances by the Our Own Thing Chorale, La'Ron Williams, and a local all-lawyer band called Soul Practitioners.


"What Bridging 23 is about today is that we've got to hear each other's perspectives," Dingell said. "It's about how we've got to stop going to our corners. … Why can't we just do some simple things? Why can't we stop having the same dialogue over and over and over that gets us nowhere? Why can't our kids go to school and be safe, and why can't that be a national priority? … We're going to keep bridging 23 because we have far more in common. And let's be leaders in teaching each other to treat each other with civility and respect."


Williams, before starting to perform, spoke of feeling gratified to see people who were "passionate about seeing constructive change. We don't simply want to fight against what is happening to us. We also want to assert that there's a better way to live."


Jeff Gaynor, a former educator and Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education member, was among those who walked Saturday morning.


"The clichéd, generic story you hear all the time is you get born at St. Joe's Hospital and your fate may generally be determined by whether you turn right or left out of the parking lot," said Gaynor. "That's an oversimplification, of course."


Yet Gaynor next pointed out the wide disparity of resources available to two communities divided by just seven miles.


"I guess I'm kind of an idealist," Gaynor said, in regards to why he joined the march. "I'm not going to say, 'Now it's fixed!' But it's now up to us to reach out to people and say, 'I've done this. It wasn't a tough battle. The tough battle is saying, 'We're united.'"


Gaynor also noted and appreciated the way walkers engaged with each other.


"It was some time for us to reflect and just get away from all the divisiveness and the things that are pulling us apart," Gaynor said.


That's exactly what Stephens had hoped for, inspired by her experiences doing Three-Day Walks for the Susan G. Komen Foundation.


"I met some wonderful people and we talked about everything, because you're trying to get the miles in and you've got nothing to do but talk," Stephens said. "I learned a lot. … So I thought that this would be a good way to try and bridge the community. People asked me if they could run or if they could ride a bike, and I said, 'Nope. You've got to walk, because if you're walking, you're talking.'"


Jenn McKee is a freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a pair of blogs: An Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.


All photos by Doug Coombe.
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