When We Walk

Many diverse people walk near a staircase and a ramp. Some are walking up the stairs while some are using the ramp. One uses a cane, one has a service dog, multiple are people of color.

September 27, 2021

by Lewis Figun Westbrook (‘21)

When Associate Professor Eileen Chanza Torres moved to Salt Lake City from New York City seven years ago, she couldn’t help feeling a bit displaced. “I would walk around counting how many people of color or nonwhite people I saw in a day,” Eileen says. “It’s such a weird thing to do, but it spoke a lot to that desperation of wanting to see people like me, that desperation of wanting to be around people of color.”

Reflecting upon her time living and working in Utah, Eileen, who also lived in Puerto Rico, describes the way she felt hearing commuters speaking Spanish while riding a bus en route to Westminster. “It was an audible yearning,” she says. “It made me realize just how out of place I felt—or I still feel—in Utah.”

These experiences piqued Eileen’s interest in teaching Walking, a course created by dean of Arts and Sciences, Lance Newman. The course explores the cultural history of walking and examines both the reasons to walk and the people who do so. “It’s about moving in the city while taking into account disability studies, critical race theory, and feminist studies,” explains Eileen who, in addition to teaching English literature, serves as the chair of both the English and Film Studies programs. “It's about being in the world and how the world is shaped to either accept you or reject you,” Eileen says. If one fits into the majority then the world is probably shaped to accept them.

One of the topics discussed in the course is disability studies. Eileen says that she has to be careful about the way she introduces this conversation because too often body and learning differences are talked about through pity. Eileen instructs her students to not imagine what it’s like to have a disability that they do not have. “We can't think of having a disability or not being able to ‘walk’ as the worst thing that is possible. That’s ableism at its finest,” Eileen says.

There are also ways in which race, gender, and weight can affect an individual’s experience of walking—and each of these identities are accepted or rejected differently. Kate Wilson ('20), an alum who majored in English, says the students appreciated learning to be aware of how walking is experienced differently by individuals. “For me, that means being conscious that walking as a white person is so different from walking as a person of color,” Kate says. “The root of the class is that every action you take has some kind of important ramification that you should consider. The act of walking is different for everyone and can carry all kinds of meanings,” Kate says. “Walking for one person may be an act of resistance, it may be spiritual, it may be a necessity, it may be terrifying, or it may be all of those things. Walking is impacted by one’s identity, just like any other action we perform is—it just might not be as obvious.”