When Michele Valesquez was growing up in South Carolina during the Civil Rights era, she saw hatred, racism and bigotry all around her.
“Those things are seared into my brain,” she said. “I thought we had overcome, we were getting better and now it seems we are going in reverse.”
Although Valesquez’s fears are rooted thousands of miles away, across decades and cultures, she decided that the issues facing the United States today are too similar to those of the past to ignore.
Last Wednesday, Valesquez and about 40 other community members walked at Soldotna Creek Park in memory of Heather Hyer, the woman killed in Charlottesville, Virginia when a car smashed into anti-racism protesters. Last night and next Wednesday, the group continues to march at the park in hopes of spreading their message of love and respect.
“Every time we get together, we’re a different group of people,” said Susie Smalley, who organized the weekly walks through social media and word of mouth. “We add and we subtract and people come and go. We want more respect and more conversations.”
Although the weekly walks were inspired by rallies and protests across the country, organizers and participants stress that the event is “just a walk in the park.”
“The biggest thing is that we don’t want this to be an anti anything,” Smalley said. “It’s not related to politics, it’s just wake up that we don’t ever want to be a place where people think that kind of behavior is OK.”
Smalley hopes to bring a positive message to the community and to reaffirm how “awesome” the Kenai Peninsula community is, she said.
“We wanted to do something locally,” Valesquez said. “On Wednesdays you have the market and the music, it’s a good time and perfect for a walk in the park against racism and bigotry. … You’ve got a cross section of people walking, a lot of people of faith from different churches, a lot of different people who do not approve of what’s happening.”
During the first walk, participants held signs that stating that “Racism is not patriotic,” and quoted civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Participants also have an opportunity to bring a reminder of the walks’ message home with them.
“Susie had mentioned on Facebook that she was painting rocks with messages of love and we just gave them out to people,” Valesquez said. “It’s a little extra thing that people could take as a token to remind them that they were in ‘a walk in the park,’ to remind them why they were there.”
The walks correspond with Soldotna’s Music in the Park series, which start at 6 p.m., and all are welcome to join at the last walk on August 30.
“We want to make the community better, to create places and situations where people can talk about things that are important in helpful ways,” Smalley said.