Instructor walks her way to empathy

By AUSTIN AGUILAR

Laura Milkins, a Pima Community College art instructor, has completed two “walking projects” and hosts a radio show.

The walking projects started with her realizing that she didn’t walk anywhere in Tucson because she lived in what was considered a bad neighborhood.

She had the idea to walk everywhere she went in town, but added, “What if everybody I came across, I’d ask them to walk with me and share a story?”

After she had walked in Tucson for a while, a friend and mentor suggested she try it in Mexico City. Milkins applied for and received a grant to fund the project.

 

WALKING PROJECT: MEXICO CITY

Beginning on April 21, 2009, Milkins walked Avenida de los Insurgentes, an avenue that runs north and south in the center of Mexico City. She compared it to walking Broadway in New York City.

Milkins would only walk if somebody walked with her and told a story, and each night she blogged about the stories.

Soon after she began the project, the swine flu broke out in Mexico City. “I watched the whole city shut down,” Milkins said.

Nevertheless, Milkins managed to walk with 60 people. She was interviewed on national radio, and a newspaper from her hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, wrote a front-page article on herself and her project.

The article discussed the United States’ relationship with Mexico and whether Americans could become good neighbors.

“I want to go trust Mexico,” Milkins said.

The project made her think about the United States, and how “we have this idea that we live in a dangerous country.”

She disagrees. “The only thing that makes it dangerous is fear,” she said.

Milkins set out to prove that if you get to know and meet people, you will actually live in a safe place. “I think it’s a mindset,” she said.

With that, she decided to walk from Tucson to Grand Rapids.

 

WALKING PROJECT: ACROSS AMERICA

Beginning May 1, 2011, Milkins recorded the 2,007-mile walk from Tucson on a live webcam 24 hours a day.

Milkins Skyped weekly with videographers to make short episodes recounting her week. The episodes can be found on YouTube.

She stayed the nights with people she met through community organizations. Milkins did so because she couldn’t tell who a person is on the Internet, and because everyone knows everyone in community organizations.

Milkins’s mother would look up information and call ahead to the next town she would stay in, often as small as 250 people. Her mother would even call the post office to find out who the nice people were.

Milkins often had chains of people who would call a friend in the next town that she could stay with. She cooked for and chatted with her welcoming hosts.

Eventually the chain ran out, so Milkins tried another tack.

“I would walk into City Hall and be like ‘Hi, I’m doing a project,’” Milkins said. “And I’d end up staying with the mayor that night.”

She would have the people she stayed with pick her up and drop her off at the same point. “I walked the whole thing,” Milkins said.

“People would stop on the side of the road,” she said. “They’d, like, have a care package and a hundred dollars and they’d just give it to me.”

Some asked Milkins if she was afraid. Her reply? “We do not live in a scary country, we live in a country full of the nicest people.”

Five months later, she made it to Grand Rapids. Her stepfather had died the day she told him she was starting her journey, and her father died two months after she arrived.

 

SETTLING IN TUCSON

Milkins returned to Tucson looking for a job, and thought about PCC.

A friend called soon after her arrival, and said she had just given her notice. Milkins then applied and was teaching the same year.

A year later, she was thinking about how she wasn’t the type of person who would give money or a care package to a stranger. “I need to think about who I am,” she said.

This inspired Milkins’s next project. “I did a whole year where I thought about the ways in which I am and am not kind in my life,” she said.

She also thought about how water consumption and other actions affect others. It caused her to become more of a conservationist.

Milkins made her own face cream from scratch, ate organic food, patronized area businesses and bought into a local farm share. She volunteered to teach classes at a penitentiary.

She described this project as more personal, receiving little press for it, but still “definitely life altering.”

Milkins currently teaches art classes at the Downtown Campus. She receives positive responses on the ratemyprofessor website. Typical postings include:

“Such an incredible individual. She’s so understanding and really takes the time to make sure her students are completely understanding the projects she assigns.”

“Laura is hands-down one of my favorite professors at Pima. She’s an incredible teacher and she genuinely cares about her students. I would absolutely take another class with her!”

“This teacher has a great energy and keeps things interesting. It is a lot of work, but you get a lot of class time and if you listen and apply yourself, you should have no problems.”

 Milkins also hosts a Tucson radio show and podcast called “The Depression Session” on FM 99.1 on Sundays at 9:30 a.m.

Her personal struggles with depression inspired her to encourage others to come on the show and speak about their depression.

Milkins plans on living in Tucson for the rest of her life. She said all of her travels made her realize there is nothing special about being somewhere different.

“Go live life,” Milkins said. “Don’t be more amazed by going halfway across the world than you are amazed by the birds in your backyard. Have your adventure be rooted where you are.”

 

Downtown Campus art instructor Laura Milkins tackles both public and personal “life altering” projects. (Photo courtesy of Laura Milkins)

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  1. Jane Litscher says:

    To: Austin Aguilar:

    Thanks for your incisive article written about Laura Milkins. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and could not have been much better informed; had I not been her mother and already been involved it the process.

    Jane Litscher

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