What happens when 120 New York City high school seniors are released from classes to wander the streets and parks, going where they choose and observing at a footpace a city that is more often seen through the blur of a taxi window or a hasty scramble from subway to school or office?
Anxhela and Amelia walked through Chinatown in Lower Manhattan, pausing to watch a group of women exercising in a park. The girls looked on as the women waved their arms in slow circles. "I want to join them." said Amelia. "Seriously!"
The "biker boys," a group of six who are usually on wheels, dismounted and walked through Brooklyn's Prospect Park. They heard the story of a homeless veteran and tried to interview a woman pushing a baby stroller. "She said she couldn't talk because her baby was crying," said one of the biker boys. "But the baby was asleep."
Daisy and El walked through Bushwick, a Brooklyn neighborhood they've called home all of their lives. A hot spot for gentrification, Bushwick is transforming rapidly. The girls aren't sure how to feel about the changes. "It's scary for us to think that we'll go away to college and come back in four years and not recognize it," said Daisy.
The student walks were the culminating experience in a semester-long program inspired by the Out of Eden Walk, National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek's epic trek around the world. Called "Out of Lab," the school program began with an introduction to the Out of Eden Walk project via a February Skype conversation with Salopek, who began his journey in 2012 and is now eastward bound through Asia. Salopek encouraged the students to slow down and observe their everyday surroundings more carefully -- a foundational practice that he uses every step of his 21,000 mile journey.
Over the next few months the students followed along with Paul and heard in person from other Pulitzer Center grantees whose reporting topics touched on themes similar to those explored in the Out of Eden Walk. Carl Gierstorfer and Sonia Shah discussed the menace of infectious and non-infectious diseases such as Cholera and AIDS, Jason Motlagh delved into the hidden world of the fast-fashion industry in Bangladesh, and Jake Naughton shared his work on the rights of persecuted LGBT communities in East Africa. These exchanges provided lenses for the students to apply during their own explorations -- large global problems that show up everywhere around us if we choose to see them.
Jeff Blossom, Senior GIS Specialist at the Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard, spoke to the students twice about the power of maps to tell stories, and about how to plan and record their own walking routes using online mapping tools.
By May, the students were ready to take their walks. Michael walked through Van Cortlandt Park, a sprawling expanse in the Bronx scarcely smaller than Manhattan's famed Central Park. Helen walked Koreatown, a tiny neighborhood that sits in the shadow of the Empire State Building in Midtown.
Kamey walked through East Harlem, a stretch of upper Manhattan where she grew up. Kamey feels her neighborhood is misunderstood by outsiders, who see it as a place only of street crime and gang violence. "It bothers me," she said of the media coverage she's seen. "That's my goal with this project. To be from the inside looking in -- rather than the outside looking in."