More than 75 Washtenaw County residents made the trek from Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor Saturday morning during the second annual Bridging 23 Unity Walk.
Organizer Robin Stephens said the 8-mile walk was created to unify the east and west sides of Washtenaw County, which faces disparities in job access, economics and education.
“I think it’s so important for us to really connect as an entire community so we’re all responsible for each other and we have to help each other,” Stephens said. “If it means we have to get out and walk … so that we really get to know and understand each other, then I am willing to put these walks together for the rest of my days.”
Stephens, an Ann Arbor-based criminal defense attorney, said she attended an event at the Dispute Resolution Center that challenged her to create unity within her community. Inspired by her past participation in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, Stephens decided to create the Unity Walk to encourage dialogue between county residents who may not have met otherwise.
“I had done the Susan G. Komen breast cancer walk three times prior, and I knew from my own experiences walking with thousands of people that I did not know, that by the end of that walk I knew some of them much more intimately,” Stephens said. “We were walking and we were bonding and we were talking, and … I really built a bond with those people.”
Participants began the day at the Ypsilanti District Library. They took Washtenaw Avenue all the way to Ann Arbor and concluded at the Ann Arbor African American Downtown Festival.
A rally with multiple speakers from the community preceded the walk. Stephens began the rally by introducing Jeff Gabrielson, vice president of the Association for Youth Empowerment.
Gabrielson said the goal of the Unity Walk was to get to know other community members on a personal level.
“What we see is that when we get to know each other as human beings, there’s a third wave that occurs,” Gabrielson said. “Our intent with Bridging 23 is to look at different ways to bring people together.”
Ypsilanti Mayor Beth Bashert also spoke to participants about fixing income, education and health care disparities within the county.
“We all know that, in our area, we have disparities, and we talk about them all the time; disparities from one side of our county to the other,” Bashert said. “We know what the problems are, and I’m going to tell you what the solutions are. The solutions are right here.”
Bashert said solutions to issues of disparity must be solved regionally and that unification helps the county grow stronger.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich, commended participants on their work in bringing both sides of the county together.
“This walk is a symbol of people caring, and we need to get a lot more people engaged because we are one community,” Dingell said. “Together, we can make a difference.”
Stephens closed the rally by challenging participants to meet at least two people during the walk they did not previously know. During the walk to Ann Arbor, participants conversed with those around them and did not use their cell phones.
Eastern Michigan University senior Sarah Khan said she was encouraged by a friend to take part in the Unity Walk. She said the walk let her see Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor from a new perspective and helped her meet people from across the county.
“I think it’s really cool to see people come together for things like this,” Khan said. “I would like to see a little more diversity, like generational diversity, but as far as the people that I met, they were all really cool.”
In the future, Stephens said she hopes to extend the walk to reach other surrounding Washtenaw County communities.
“This is my community,” Stephens said. “I live here, I’ve raised my children here and I want my community to be a good one.”