At 5:59 a.m. on a Friday in September, Franklin Park is shrouded in darkness. The leaf blowers, golf carts, and traffic that will hum to life over the course of the next hour are quiet. Street lamps cast a dim glow over mostly empty paths.
At the edge of the golf club’s parking lot, eight women and two men stand in a line, stretching, laughing, and offering bright “good mornings" through their masks. Three mornings a week, the members of Just Walk Boston meet here to fight pandemic-induced loneliness and segregated public space through the simple act of walking.
“Is that Brandy’s group?” a woman passing by on a jog asks. “Y’all look good!”
But Brandy Cruthird, Just Walk Boston’s founder, is running a few minutes late this morning. She arrives at 6:05 with a Just Walk Boston T-shirt and a good excuse: She had gone back home to grab a birthday present for one of the walkers. Lorrae Johnson unwraps her gift, a black wristlet bag, to cheers from her fellow walkers.
“I love how Brandy empowers us,” Johnson, who drives from Newton to participate in Just Walk, said later. “And everyone looks out for each other."
For the past 10 weeks, Cruthird and another instructor have led small groups on 2-to-3-mile treks to walk off stress, isolation, and extra pounds brought on by the pandemic. For an hour, the walkers care for one another and the park, which they survey closely for signs of litter, disuse, and hidden potential.
Nearly entirely made up of Black and Latino members, Just Walk’s existence transforms the landscape it traverses. Though the neighborhoods that surround Franklin Park are diverse, the group of people who regularly use it is not, Just Walk Boston members said. One exception comes quickly to mind: the thousands of people of all backgrounds who in June gathered in the park to decry systemic racism.
The walkers stage a protest of their own. They walk in defiance of COVID-19, and the endless health disparities that plague people of color. They walk to combat the idea that public space is meant for the few rather than the many.
"When Black women walk, things change,” Morgan Dixon, the cofounder of a national network of walking groups for Black women and girls called GirlTrek, famously said. Walking, after all, is not so different from marching.
Cruthird’s motto is “Make your body your business!,” and she has long made it her business to help Black and brown people in Boston strengthen their bodies and minds. In 1996, she opened one of the first Black woman-owned gyms in the country, Body by Brandy Fitness Studio in Roxbury. She operated it until 2012. Raised in Roxbury and currently living in Dorchester, she now leads YMCA classes and offers personal fitness consulting in addition to working in communications at Madison Park Technical Vocational School.
When the pandemic hit, Cruthird wanted to give the Black and Latino neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by the virus a free way to stay healthy, as well as empower them to demand the best for their communities. The pandemic has already helped diversify the group of people who frequent the park, Cruthird said, with people across racial and class lines having more time and desire to get outside. She hopes to seize this moment and make it last.
In the parking lot on Friday morning, Cruthird leads a final round of stretches. Obliques. Right hamstring. Left hamstring. Shoulder roll. Overhead, the sky brightens from black to blue.
The walkers set out on a wide path that leads south from the parking lot. The group slowly fans out, but no one walks alone.
“Regardless of your pace, we start together and we finish together,” said Cherie Pinchem, a teacher who said she enjoyed the chance to meet new people — a rarity during the pandemic.
“I wouldn’t get up at 5:30 in the morning for just anyone,” said Teresa Rodriguez, who recently earned her Just Walk Boston T-shirt after showing up consistently for two weeks.
Participants are split between morning walkers, twice-weekly evening walkers, and a mix of families and single adults who walk the park on Saturdays. Over the course of the summer, the program has drawn about 50 regular participants, broken into limited group sizes to comply with social distancing guidelines.
The ripple effect of community-based health efforts means Just Walk Boston’s impact is likely much larger, said Dr. Mary Bassett, director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.
“It doesn’t just benefit the people who are walking. It benefits the people who watch them walk, who see people walking together in community," she said. “Visible health-affirming action” can encourage onlookers to take ownership of their wellness and is especially important in communities where a structural lack of resources makes it harder to make healthy decisions, Bassett said.
This message hits close to home for Cruthird, who first took to Franklin Park as a child when she realized there were few other options for exercise near her home in Orchard Park. She began running Franklin Park trails at 12 years old, a path she said helped lead her to Division I college basketball and other opportunities.
Now, at 50, it is her mission to make all her neighbors feel at home in the park she knows so well.
Making public space inclusive is no easy feat, experts said. The country’s long history of segregation and racism produces “fault lines” that can undermine public spaces' equalizing power and make people of color feel unwelcome, said Elijah Anderson, Sterling professor of sociology at Yale University and a leading ethnographer of race in cities.
Idealizing parks as quiet and serene can inadvertently exclude groups who see public space as a place for communal celebration, said Kenneth Bailey, cofounder of the Design Studio for Social Intervention, a Dorchester-based group that advocates for inclusive design. To “crack the code” of inclusion, Bailey said, planners must listen to communities and account for varying cultural and practical concerns.
At their best, spaces like parks, markets, and transit hubs function as “cosmopolitan canopies,” Anderson said, “places where all kinds of people come together and basically get along."
Along the hourlong route, several runners and walkers wave hello to Brandy’s group, an early-morning fixture in the park.
Wooded paths give way to open fields before plunging into forest once more. They walk past old landmarks: Lemuel Shattuck Hospital. White Stadium. An abandoned part of the zoo they call the lion’s den. They imagine all that could be: A playground. A park entrance. A stage for community events.
By the time the group circles back to the golf clubhouse, traffic has picked up, and the zip of cars down Circuit Drive has overtaken the sound of crickets chirping. One by one, they walk to their cars and bus stops, off to teach classes, balance budgets, or lead meetings.
The world feels about three miles better, and the day has just begun.