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Can Steppin’ Out get in sync with AIDS Walk Michigan?
DETROIT and ROYAL OAK – The dilemma with the two AIDS Walks dueling for the hearts and hard-earned dollars of the people of metropolitan Detroit is easy enough to illustrate. First, look at AIDS Walk Detroit which, in its 13th year, is produced by Steppin’ Out and actually takes place in Royal Oak. At this year’s walk on Sept. 21, 6,000 folks showed up. There, after being greeted by the mayor, a United States senator and a congressman – so many politicians were in attendance, in fact, that not all of them could actually speak – they took to the streets, bringing in $300,000 for the cause in the process.
The following week Mother Nature was in a foul mood, and in a cavernous Comerica Park parking lot in the heart of downtown Detroit just under 1,500 folks shivered in their sweatshirts. They were there for AIDS Walk Michigan – City of Detroit, part of a six-year-old statewide effort wherein eight walks across the state take place on the same weekend.
There, walkers were greeted by Loretta Davis-Satterla, Michigan’s long-suffering AIDS czar, and that’s about it. Neither of the walk’s honorary co-chairs, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and City Council President Maryann Mahaffey, were in attendance. In fact, no one from the city council was present, nor were any senators or congressman in attendance, nor any state representatives. In short, there wasn’t a single elected official to be found. Nevertheless, the walkers took to the streets – or at least the sidewalks, after police officials notified walk organizers that they didn’t have sufficient manpower to allow the walk to take place in the street as originally planned – and raised just about $43,000, their lowest number ever and less than half of their 1999 inaugural take, which still holds the record for their most successful effort.
“It gets progressively worse each year,” said Detroiter Curtis Crowell, a community activist who has attended all six walks in the city. “It really looks bad when you don’t have the support of your city officials, especially when you consider the amount of money that we get from the federal government here. There’s too many dollars given to the city for us not to be represented on all levels. There’s too much infection.
” And therein lies the crux of the dilemma. It is no secret that nearly 90 percent of the proceeds from the Royal Oak walks goes to agencies that are located in or servicing Detroit. But for organizers of the Detroit walk, that’s not good enough, and it’s not just about the dollars.
The ‘epicenter’ of the virus
“I’ve never thought that this was singularly just about raising money,” said Barb Murray of AIDS Walk Michigan. “I think it’s about visibility and putting the issue back on the table.
” That may be, but the issue remains: Important as it is, is the Detroit walk economically feasible if it’s only raising $40,000, which, once expenses have been deducted, is then divided among 11 participating organizations? And, in turn, can these agencies justify their participation if the profit fails to measure up to the time and resources they have contributed?
And why is a walk within the city limits of Detroit really necessary if all the funds from the Royal Oak walk end up there anyway? Simple, according to Bill Vallier, who has chaired the Detroit walk for the past two years. Detroit is the epicenter of this virus in this the state, and it is not only Michigan’s largest city, but it’s the city with the largest number of the state’s AIDS infections – 60 percent of them.
“I think it’s very important that the face of this disease is where this walk is taking place,” said Vallier. “It’s their brothers and sisters, their friends, their neighbors. When you know it can affect you or it has affected your family, or it’s in your neighborhood, that’s important. If you’re going to feed people, you go where they’re hungry. If you do needle exchange, you go where people need clean needles.
” So how do you get folks to come downtown and walk? How do you get the mayor and the city council there to take notice?
“I think that takes a lot of pavement pounding,” said Murray. “I think you really have to get after people one on one. I think that takes a lot of political activism and just flat out education and I think you have to keep at it constantly. There’s a thousand things on the plate for the political leaders in this city. And the reality is if you want them to pay attention the issue that we’re talking about, which is AIDS, you’ve got to stay on them and I can tell you that most providers in this city don’t have the time for that. We just have our hands full trying to provide the services that we can.
” So if the AIDS service providers don’t have the time to grow a walk, who, then, can cultivate it? Vallier is stepping down from his post and won’t be back next year, but he does have a few words of wisdom to offer whomever takes his place.
“One, Detroit, truly, has to look at the date of the walk,” he said. “Being one week away from another walk in Royal Oak is not to anyone’s advantage, especially not in the city of Detroit. Second, I think he or she would need a much larger volunteer database that begins working November 1. And the third thing is within those volunteers you need a cadre of people to work on corporate sponsorships and work on the churches in Detroit.”
A meeting of the minds
There’s another possible solution, of course. It’s the proverbial elephant in the room that everyone is ignoring. But as he makes his exit, Vallier is willing to admit that he sees it. The answer is simple: the walk with “Detroit” in its name and the walk that actually takes place in that city could merge.
“I think we need people who are willing to sit at the table and willing to talk and willing to live outside of the box that we all live in,” said Vallier. “I think there are of advantages of Steppin’ Out that we can’t do anything but use, such as the experience they have of doing this for 13 years.
” But is the merging of the two walks actually conceivable? Could the age-old issue of the inner city versus the suburbs and Eight Mile – the line that so clearly separates these two hemispheres – be overcome?
“Why not?” asked Vallier. “Why isn’t there a reasonable place that people can come up with? Could we use the Detroit Zoo, which isn’t really in Detroit? Could we walk up Woodward and meet at Six Mile? Or use the State Fairgrounds? I think reasonable people can come up with a reasonable idea so we’re not looked at as adversaries. It’s as frustrating to the walkers and the AIDS service organizations as it is to the people in the community who are so often asking ‘what’s going on?’
” Vallier will get no argument from Steppin’ Out’s Ken Rosen.
“I agree with him 100 percent,” Rosen said. “I don’t feel that we’ve ever been adversaries. Steppin’ Out has never felt that we’re adversaries. Steppin’ Out’s purpose is to raise money for AIDS and you can never have too much effort going toward that goal, and I do believe that there is a way to combine the two walks and put their combined strengths to use.” The first step, Rosen said, is for the two agencies to make contact after wrapping up the work of this year’s walks. “Before any firm plans for 2004 go forward we do need to reach out to one another and figure out a way to make one walk a great walk.”