About 15 years or so ago, I participated in my first, and one of only a few, walks “for a cause.” It was a breast cancer awareness walk that began near the Camden Riversharks minor league baseball stadium in Camden, NJ, and traveled across the Ben Franklin Bridge. I sat at home with my parents early that morning, in the lingering drizzle after a rainy night, debating whether or not we should actually go. On the one hand, we’d planned to meet another group there. On the other, we’d already made donations to the organization that had planned the walk, and it was still raining.
We ended up going, and the rain largely subsided by the time the walk began, but the nature of our debate stayed with me. I’ve often wondered what the usefulness of the walking itself is in these scenarios when the ultimate purpose is to raise money; it’s easy enough to make a donation with a few clicks on a screen without ever getting off the couch. Yet in the past week, in the midst of so many walks for causes, I may be starting to understand. Walking with others can be a show of camaraderie, a show of force, a show of unity.
Let’s clarify a few things. The recent walks I’m alluding to have much to do with politics and human rights. Washington, DC, has seen hundreds of thousands on its streets in the past week for the Women’s March (1/21) and the March for Life (1/27). Both of these events were technically “marches” and not “walks,” and they were meant to send a message and raise awareness rather than money. Semantically speaking, “march” does carry the connotation of protest, whereas “walk” does not. Still, “walks for causes” and “marches to protest” since both involve large groups of people coming together to walk for a purpose other than leisure, I’m going to discuss them as one.
Walking as camaraderie: Some things you can go alone. But no one walks or marches for trivial causes, and knowing there are others in it with you is a source of hope. I am not alone; there are others who care. Being with those many others can also build a network beyond the event itself so that the camaraderie is not isolated to the day of the walk. For better or worse, we have numerous tools at our fingertips to connect with people at any moment. And the ability to do so can help ensure that the advantage of camaraderie does not end with feeling good but instead furthers action, which leads me to…
Walking as force: I mean this not necessarily in terms of force as strength, although that too is valid, but force as energy. When large groups of people come together, they can inspire and perpetuate action. This may be action they take right then to raise money for an organization or build awareness of an issue, or it may be similar action that continues afterward. Perhaps after taking part in a walk or march, participants feel compelled to continue to act more fully in a way that represents their core beliefs and values.
Walking to show unity: In a way, I suppose this overlaps with camaraderie, but it’s different for one key reason. Camaraderie benefits those who come together, while the show of unity can have an impact beyond the group in action. The show of unity says to the rest of world, “We are here and we want to make a difference.” Unity stresses the importance of an issue or cause, and of course, it can also garner the attention of the public and media, both of which further raise awareness and potential support.
So, then, why the change in my perception? Not having grown up in an era when protest marches were common on a large scale, what strikes me about seeing them now is, perhaps, the way they enter the public sphere, the media, even casual conversation. I did not get that same sense from the walks for causes I’d been aware of over the years. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there for the groups involved in those walks–though surely the media coverage rarely has been.
Still, I think I get it now. Yes, you can donate money from your couch, and yes, organizations can send mass mailings and sponsor telethons, but the other benefits of walking together with a purpose continue the mission at a human level, and that matters.