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Featured Changemaker: DAN BENAVIDEZ on Walking and the Belonging Revolution

Dan Benavidez is a long-time activist, community member, and organizer of the “Neighborhood Walks” in Longmont, CO. Dan recently sat down with Alicia Conte, our Youth Global Leadership Program Coordinator, to share stories of discrimination and belonging. The following interview is a story about modern day revolutionaries who spend their Sundays building community and walking together towards justice, for all the right reasons.

Your neighborhood walks and belonging revolution are growing; there are new folks joining you each week for the journey, and you’re receiving more media attention. Can you take me back to the beginning and tell me how it all started?

Seventeen months ago, in July of 2014, I got a call from Police Chief Mike Butler. I’ve known him for a long time because I’ve given seminars to the Longmont Police on Latino culture. Mike said, “Dan, do you want walk in the neighborhoods? I want you to come along with me. Let’s start in Kensington Park.” I met him there that Sunday and we walked that neighborhood. People would come out to talk to us and Mike would say, “How are you doing? I’m the Chief of Police.” He’d give everyone his card and ask them, “Have you ever had any problem with police?” I’d interpret for Spanish speakers since I’m bilingual, and that was the beginning.

After that first walk, Mike said to me, “I want to walk every neighborhood in the city. Would you come with me?” I said Yes.

We started off in low-income neighborhoods in the east part of the city, which are predominantly Latino. Every Sunday Mike would call me and we would go walking. This was before Baltimore and Ferguson, so it wasn’t in response to those situations. Mike just saw the necessity here, and he knew it was the right thing to do.

After the first walks, Mike kept telling me, “I really have a journey to make people feel they belong and are accepted. If we make people feel that way, like ‘I belong to this community and it belongs to me,’ then we won’t have some of the problems that exist.” And you know what? Mike was right on.

After some time, I asked myself, “How can I share this with others?” I thought about taking some photos and writing about what we were doing. I felt like the Mayor and City Council should know what we were up to. The first City Council member who asked to come walk with us was Jeff Moore. He reached out to us and asked if he could come along. Since then, all of the Longmont City Council members–including the newly elected ones–as well as the Mayor, have walked with us. What this is about is to create a Belonging Revolution, and we’re barely beginning.

Can you tell me more about the Belonging Revolution you’ve started? What is it, and what does it mean to you?

It means that I’m doing something that is good and right practically every Sunday. You know, we’ve talked to over 1,000 people on our walks so far. This is the first time I really feel comfortable about what I’m doing. Our walks are not a political thing, and we tell City Council people that before they join us. For me, these walks are a ritual.

Walking just feels right, especially when I get to talking to young people, and I tell a little girl en español, “Tu vas hacer presidenta,” (“You’re going to be president”) and get to share encouragement. And I’m starting to feel ok with me. These walks are not about ego or power, they’re about creating a feeling of belonging and ownership. I really believe that if there were initiatives like this in other communities, there might not be any Fergusons. Because if I belong, I have hope–and with hope, we’ll get there.

Are there any new projects that you’re working on?

The Longmont Police and Fire Department are going to start doing their own walks next year. I also want to get myself available to other communities–Boulder, Louisville, Lafayette–to be there to help them start their own Belonging Revolutions. I don’t ever want our revolution to get bureaucratized, and I want to figure out how to spread it without losing its heart.

(In the middle of our conversation, Mike Butler–who is sitting at the table adjacent to us with local police members–gets up to leave. As we say goodbye, our conversation turns towards Dan’s friendship with Mike.)

Here you have the Chief of Public Safety [Mike] going right down into neighborhoods himself, taking his Sundays to do so. And it’s not like he doesn’t have anything to do– that job is 24/7! Mike is doing it for all the right reasons. Here’s the Chief of Police going up to community members saying, “Here’s my card. Call me, call me.” I mean, woah! That’s amazing, because in minority communities there’s a big distrust of law enforcement and politicians. And this is even more significant in the context of the Latino community.

The majority of us have come from corrupt law enforcement systems, and here you have Mike coming to people’s doorsteps saying, “I’m the jefe, but tell me about who you are.” He’s developing a relationship of care and trust. This has encouraged people to call on the police themselves. You know, police should be peace enforcers, not law enforcers. As a result, we hear a lot of people say, “ I do want to belong. I want to help in my community. How can I do so?”

What key relationships have shaped your life path? Do you have any role models?

Sure, I have a lot. One is a comedian named David Brenner. He was my friend and mentor. David grew up as a Jew in Philadelphia, so he knew what it was to be discriminated against. We met in the Army, and eventually he did become rich and famous, but he never forgot about me, and he always made me feel like I belonged.

My mama was instrumental in my life. She taught me to be humble. She was such a caring and giving person. My mama taught me that life’s not about power.

My friendship with Mike Butler is another. I had all this baggage I was carrying when I met him, but he’s always just helped me and accepted me as a friend.

Lastly, Beverly Title, who was instrumental in starting the Restorative Justice program was also a mentor and friend.

What events in your life have shaped your values and how does what you’re doing reflect those values?

What really shaped a lot of my values and thinking was an incident that took place in August of 1980 in Longmont. Two latino boys were shot on North Main St. I’d been an activist, ran for City Council and lost, ran for the School Board and also lost, and was an activist but nothing was happening. As tragic as it was, this event changed my entire life. I ended up getting elected as the first latino City Council member, then as Mayor Pro Tem. I think there was this feeling from people that “we need to have a Latino,” and my getting elected had less to do with who I was.

Up to that point, I was in a good job at Air Traffic Control, where I was in charge of Equal Employment there. I was somewhat visible in the community, but I didn’t put much stock in it. I guess I always wanted to be somebody, and that night in August when I got that phone call, I started down a certain path, not even realizing where it was going. What we ended up doing changed the course of the City of Longmont. It wasn’t about me, El Comité, or any group. The reason our response to the shooting was successful in keeping the violence down was because we did it together. The police, justice groups, business people–we all wanted a feeling of togetherness.

But what happened after that was that I became a big fish in little pond for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to make sure Latinos were being included, but still didn’t feel good about me and who I was as a Latino. After the death of my mama, everything turned, and I realized I wanted to do things for the right reasons–not for power or ego, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Every time you’ve shared your stories with me, you’re incredibly honest and vulnerable. What motivates you to share your story with others?

If I can help my people– la gente— it’s worth it. I mean, I live down in the darn hood, and I know there are people who are hurt, people who are disenfranchised. There are people who are low on the food chain, who are barely existing from day to day, and they need to have hope. So I feel ok sharing my stories with some people, because if I can help them through doing so, I want to do that. That’s what I’m supposed to do is tell the stories. It’s not about me, it’s about them.

We all have days where our hearts and shoulders feel a little heavy. Where do you draw your inspiration from in these moments?

I’m not always up. I have my bad moments, days where I’m down. Days where I say, “What am I doing? Where am I going? The hell with it. No more.” I have my bad moments and then I go for a walk and I realize, I’m a human being, and this is what I’m suppose to be doing. “Get over it and think positive.” I look to certain people for strength, too.

Mike Butler is my hero. That man is for real. It’s not BS, it’s for real. I’m not faking it or making this up. Mike believes, he cares, and he shows it. He’s not doing it because it’s the thing to do. It’s just who he is.

I’ll tell you a story about Mike. During one of our walks last year that was right around Christmas, we met a family, and how they were going to make it through December was a complete mystery to them. You know what Mike did? He took them to the justice center where they were giving out gifts and they were able to get gifts for their whole family. Then, he took them to the grocery store and they bought all the food they needed. He paid for it out of his own pocket. No one knows this, but I do. That’s who Mike is. We overuse the word hero these days, but Mike is a hero.

What do you want to tell our community?

There’s one simple phrase that’s been overused as a result of Obama elections, but I’ll say it anyways. Sí se puede! Together, sí se puede. Together, yes we can. Cesar Chavez coined this term. I really believe this, and that’s what I’d like to share. It means together, we belong.

And yes, I care about you. Yes, I care what happens to you.

Also, it’s taco time!

To learn more about Dan Benavidez you can check out his autobiography, For All the Wrong Reasons. It should also be noted that during this interview, Mike Butler–who was coincidentally sitting at an adjacent table sharing breakfast with local police–secretly paid the bill for our meal.

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