Safewalk is a division of rightrides.org which is a group of volunteers who helps people get home safe, escorted on bicycles.
I spoke with Leah and asked her about the program and how she got involved.
Name, Age, Where do you live?
Leah, 27, Bed Stuy
What bike(s) do you own?
Bianchi Trofeo, Mercian (don’t know model, from 1982, it’s lovely)
What is Safewalk NYC and how did you get involve with them? What is your involvement now with them?
SafeWalk is a volunteer-run program of RightRides where volunteers on bikes offer a free, safe walk to callers in Brooklyn on Friday nights. The service is available to anyone and is intended to prevent assault and harassment. Anyone can take advantage of the service by calling (866) 977-9255 (WALK) between 11 pm Fridays and 2 am Saturdays. I began volunteering with SafeWalk in 2006, when the program was started in response to a spate of assaults in Williamsburg. Since then, the program has expanded to cover most of North Brooklyn south to Atlantic Avenue and east to Bushwick. I have been organizing the program since 2008.
What is some of the background that lead to the creation of Rightrides and Safewalk?
RightRides began as a community response to a series of assaults in Brooklyn in 2004. The two founders began driving people home in their own car; since then RightRides has become a non-profit organization and offers a free ride home to women, transfolk, and genderqueer people on Saturday nights from any location to their home, provided both are in the service area. SafeWalk was organized by Craig Murphey in 2006 as a localized, bike-based alternative to the RightRides car service. The idea was that although not everyone in New York drives or has a car or a license, plenty of folks in Brooklyn already have bikes, and the service could be organized and run with minimal resources. Additionally, operating by bike has the advantage of allowing us to cover a large service area; we’re mobile enough to reach most of the neighborhoods we cover in 15 minutes or less. Because we walk with one caller or group of callers at a time, we are also able to offer the service to people of all genders (whereas the RightRides car service is limited to women, transfolk, and genderqueer individuals). So volunteers on bikes meet callers who are walking alone and join them, helping to prevent assault and harassment by taking advantage of safety in numbers. On top of that, we get to spend the night riding our bikes, which is awesome.
How has the program grown since its conception?
In 2006, SafeWalk volunteers only operated in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. We commonly heard the response that the program was a great idea, but was needed in other areas, such as Bushwick and Bed Stuy. When we brought back the program in 2008, we decided to expand the service area to include all of Brooklyn south to Atlantic Avenue, adding the neighborhoods of Bushwick, Bed Stuy, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and downtown Brooklyn.
What has been the reaction from the volunteers, from people using the service?
Volunteers have been really excited to offer a community response to street safety issues. For many, the threat of assault and harassment is a very real and scary experience, so it’s empowering to be able to offer a safe alternative with just ourselves and our bikes. It’s also great to be outside on a nice night. As far as clients, there’s always a moment of uncertainty when you first make that call to ask for help and company from unfamiliar people, but we hope that people will have a positive experience with the program and feel comfortable calling again and telling their friends about it.
Do people respond differently towards a biker helping or a driver?
I haven’t actually volunteered as a driver for RightRides, but I think there’s a different experience when you’re actually walking next to someone on the street instead of sitting in a car. I think both programs offer a great opportunity to meet and talk to people who are concerned about safer streets. The difference is that with SafeWalk, you’re actually walking along those streets instead of riding past them in a car; there’s something about actually being on the streets, trying to make public space safer, that is really empowering.
How do people volunteer?
All you need is a bike and the desire to help! E-mail: email@example.com for info: volunteers just need to attend an orientation session and sign up for a shift one Friday night per month.
How do people find the service?
On Friday nights during the hours of 11 pm to 2 am Saturday, anyone in our service area can call (866) 977-9255 (WALK). Volunteers will bike over to meet them where they are and walk with them to their destination.
Has it been difficult getting the word out and what obstacles have you faced as a volunteer?
Of course, it’s always difficult to promote a new service! Sometimes people think the program is not intended for them, or feel that they are safe enough. Anyone who feels uncomfortable walking alone is welcome to call us! We want to emphasize that the program is available to all people, and we can walk you to another destination or to your home. We also understand that some people feel hesitant to ask for company from people they don’t know; we hope that people will try out the service and feel comfortable calling again. We offer the service because we think everyone deserves to walk where they are going safely and without fear. If walking alone makes you hesitate in any way, remember that there are volunteers willing to join you.
Any stories you can share about your experiences as a volunteer?
I do remember one woman we walked with from a bar in Greenpoint to her home. She lived farther east in Greenpoint, where it gets very industrial, and there aren’t many people out. She said she never realized how sketchy her neighborhood could feel, but having us walk there with her helped her notice it for the first time.
Have you seen noticeable changes in the area as far as safety or empowerment of people in the neighborhood?
I think it will take time to really see visible changes, but for every person who feels safer on their walk, that is a very real and tangible change.
What are the future goals for Safewalk NYC?
We’d like to build up a base of clients and spread the word about the service, as well as form connections with local community groups. We’d also like to increase our volunteers. If the service becomes very popular, we’d consider expanding the service area, adding a new team to a different borough or area, or adding another night of service.