Aside from candidate canvassing leading up to elections, enjoying the outdoors doesn’t tend to go hand in hand with politics.
Instead, politics is thought to be the stuff of air-conditioned council chambers and artificially-lit press conferences.
For Allison Sparling, though, combining exercise and political engagement makes perfect sense.
“What I found out doing more research and looking into the neighbourhoods that are more walkable …[I was] able to see that in more walkable neighbourhoods, people voted more,” she says.
Of course, she adds, other factors come into play to encourage political engagement, but many centre on quality of life. The idea that happier, healthier citizens are more likely to demand a stake in their government to improve upon a neighbourhood they’re already invested in contrasts with the caricature of the angry protester and letter-writer reacting to problems.
In July, Sparling held her first Walk With Them event. The nonpartisan group holds monthly jaunts in Halifax neighbourhoods, led by Sparling and sprinkled with speeches by local female figures. The walks are open to anybody but particularly target women.
“What I was hoping to initially reach with the first walk was gathering people who had different interests, who were willing to come together to be open to new ideas, to break down the very staunch lines that exist, especially in Nova Scotia politics,” says Sparling.
These lines, she says, exist in several forms.
Accessibility is a major issue, with many political events being held at bars, coffee shops and other venues that present financial barriers to some, childcare conundrums for others. Walk With Them events are held outdoors, on routes sensitive to differences in physical ability. They are child-friendly and free of charge.
They are also open to all age groups. One of Sparling’s goals with Walk With Them is to foster more intergenerational discussion among women. She says she was thrilled when the 65 to 70 people who turned up to the first walk represented a wide spectrum of ages.
“I think there’s a really big disconnect between what the definition of ‘political’ could be amongst people a bit older than me and amongst the people my age,” says the 22-year-old. She wants to create a dialogue between the women who were (and still are) involved in fighting for civil liberties, and those engaged in emerging political discussions, such as walkable neighbourhoods.
Sparling also hopes the walks help to broaden what she calls the “static definition” of what it means to be political by attracting female volunteers, members of the non-profit sector and other advocates to the walks.
“There’s a lot of people who are involved in politics in different ways, who are very politically aware but don’t feel they have a voice, and I think this could be a venue that could encourage more people, because it’s open, it’s relaxed,” said Stephanie Douglas at Wednesday’s Walk With Them event.
She was one of a dozen or so attendees who showed up to the Dartmouth Commons on a brilliant summer evening. Many arrived early and clustered in groups of two or three, finally becoming acquainted after discussions on Twitter or discovering they were friends of friends.
“I like the format a lot. I like the laid-back-ness of it,” said Douglas. “It’s a really good way to make connections and to develop beginning relationships and for people to start to know other people. In that way, it’s really, really useful.”
The group wound its way down a gravel path to the lower half of the Commons, where the speakers were given a grass stage to present their ideas on the day’s topic: DIY healthcare.
“It’s not talking from a pedestal down to an audience; it’s talking with everybody and I really like that,” said Rebecca Faria, founder of Hollaback Halifax, an online movement to combat street harassment.
Following her summary of Hollaback, Chester-St. Margaret’s MLA Janet Irwin lauded the benefits of maintaining a garden at home.
Municipal councillor and candidate Jennifer Watts also spoke of food security, and mentioned active transportation, green energy and building cultural communities as well.
Rounding out the politicians was Diana Whalen, MLA and Liberal caucus chair, who spoke of a bill she has introducing many times for a statutory holiday in February.
Finally, Gillian Moore, one of the founders and bloggers for The Local Traveler NS, spoke about local, sustainable, environmentally friendly travel.
“I think any event like this where we’re getting the community together is a really important thing,” she said. “I think particularly when it targets women coming together and especially empowering women to be more involved in politics, I think that’s something we need to see more of.”
That’s the end goal for Sparling. She wants to see a political sphere in Canada where candidates are voted in based on their qualifications for the job, and if that means more women than men or vice versa, no one should think twice about it as long as all genders have equal access to political positions.
Sparling says she dislikes the idea of meeting a ‘quota’ for the percentage of female incumbents because it implies women are still equating catching up with men as being equal to men. Eliminating all fixations on gender in politics, she offers, is true equality.
“I think we’ve obtained so much that we [women] forget how far we still have to go, and we’ve obtained so much for some very specific types of people,” says Sparling.
Douglas agrees with Sparling that a more diverse government is also a healthier one, and she’d like to see that reflected at the Walk With Them events as well.
“I’m hoping that with time, more diversity will be present, that there will be more of a push to engage diversity, because I’m still not seeing that in this context — well, in any political contexts,” said Douglas.
Sparling is aiming to invite speakers from a wider range of backgrounds for future events, and even open up the speakers’ floor to men.
She already has speakers lined up for September and October. Dates for these events will be posted on the Walk With Them Facebook page.