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Avenues for Equality: Lessons Learned from the Trailnation Summit

Four flight delay notifications, two layovers, and a red-eye flight later, I found myself walking along Lake Michigan on a sunny Tuesday morning. I was already far too late to make it to the first plenary of the Summit, but I was happy to take the time to chug a quick coffee. A pristine walkway took me along the water, with an immense, lush park on the other side. There wasn’t a person in sight. I was the only one enjoying this view and in that moment, I felt so spoiled – to be in this city, in this park, to appreciate this trail and why I was here.

I attended the TrailNation Summit on June 5th-7th in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Over 150 participants from across North America shared their passion and motivation for trail-building. Their stories inspired me to reflect upon our approach to the EPIC Trail, a project led by Valley Vision and SACOG to connect the Sacramento region via a 100-mile recreational trail.

Several speakers’ messages stood out to me in their discussions on equitable development and a desire for greater inclusivity, not only in the communities in which we build these trails, but also amongst the populations at the forefront of trail activism. By my estimate, at least 80% of the Summit attendees were white and 70% were over the age of 40. Sterling Stone, Executive Director of Gearin’ Up Bicycles in D.C., made powerful statements about race and equity that seemed so obvious and yet, weren’t mentioned earlier in the conference. How are we trying to engage with the local residents as we move forward with this project? Are we patting ourselves on the back for throwing around words like ‘equitable development’ and ‘implicit bias’ without having the tough discussions around how to help underserved communities?

Mr. Stone told a story of a young black man who was stopped by a cop while riding his bike with his friends on a recreational bike trail. He was neither breaking any laws, nor disturbing the peace.

“That kid didn’t say, ‘oh, that road wasn’t equitably developed for me’. No – he said “that cop was racist.”

We have to face these difficult truths and realize that top down strategies to “connect communities” will only get us so far in this process of advocating for equitable development. “It’s great if you all want to do this work forever, but we need to create a new generation of activists that reflect the communities we work for.”

Try as we might to improve connectivity and inclusiveness in our regions, our work needs to go beyond trail mapping, fundraising strategies, and branding. We could stop at recreation and improved tourism, but is that all we’re trying to accomplish with the EPIC Trail?

We tell people that this trail is for regional connectivity, to promote healthy lifestyles, and to improve quality of life. But for whom? Perhaps we could focus more on the disadvantaged communities in our region that have little access to green space. Or maybe, the rural counties that are often forgotten and have little representation among our regional leadership. What about the lower-income population with little time for recreation between working multiple jobs and caring for their children?

While we have really amazing trail groups like the Friends of El Dorado Trail, the Folsom Auburn Trail Riders Action Coalition, and American River Conservancy, our region doesn’t have a unified trail activism group that can meet regularly to improve trail access for these target populations. Many of the inspiring trail groups that I had the honor of meeting in Milwaukee were able to make monumental progress because of their network of other likeminded organizations. Together, they were better able to interact with these persistent community issues at a grassroots level.

It’s with this goal in mind that we continue in our process of fundraising for an alternatives study which will prioritize community engagement and inclusivity. Valley Vision’s purpose is to serve the region and this Summit was a great reminder of the power these trails can have – beyond recreation and connectivity – to making lasting social impacts in our neighborhoods and the Sacramento region at large.

Chloe Pan was Valley Vision’s Executive Assistant to CEO Bill Mueller and Project Lead for the EPIC Trail.