What happens when 1Million Black Women, across the USA, start walking in their communities? Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison—co-founders of GirlTrek—plan to find out.
‘Black women in the US are facing an unprecedented health crisis. 82% of us are over a healthy body weight,’ says Vanessa. ‘Black women are dying from heart disease, diabetes, stroke, hypertension. It’s a crisis of epic proportions and yet nobody is talking about it.’
Morgan remembers teaching in Atlanta with Teach For America and hearing statistics that half of her black girl students are likely to develop diabetes ‘and I’m looking at a classroom full of black girls and I’m thinking ‘What the heck are we doing about it?’’
They founded GirlTrek, started walking in their neighborhood and invited others to join them. Two years later GirlTrek has grown into a movement of 35,000 neighborhood walkers across the country who have made a personal commitment to live their healthiest most fulfilled lives.
‘Our goal is to get to 1 million by 2018,’ says Morgan, ‘and we believe that if we get 1 million women out walking in their neighborhoods that they become the engine of ingenuity and innovation that we need to have a public health revolution in our country.’
Deeply rooted in context
GirlTrek is grounded on a deep analysis of the root causes behind the health crisis. Where the crisis was often blamed on laziness, individual choice or cultural deficit, they saw the structural, physical and psychological effects of centuries of racial, class and gender oppression.
‘We’ve been working literally as the laborers in this country for almost 400 years,’ says Vanessa, ‘we have been socialized to put the needs of other people before ourselves’.
By helping women understand the connection between historical oppression, structural barriers, trauma, low self-worth and health GirlTrek is able to empower women to start reversing the process by recognising that they have value.
‘We say self-care is a revolutionary act’ says Morgan. ‘We are worth living our healthiest most fulfilled lives. Not because of what we do for other people, not because of the value proposition of our work. But because we are human and because we are brilliant.’
‘Walking is the gateway activity’ says Vanessa, ‘once a woman starts walking and she realizes that she has a control to change something within her life it opens up her mind to the possibilities that exist.’ She might decide to go back to school, apply for new jobs, end abusive relationships. This empowered decision-making has a domino effect on family, friends and community.
Everyone is a leader
‘One of the biggest mistakes we can make,’ says Vanessa, ‘is segmenting people into groups of “I’m the leader, and you are the community, and we’re bringing the solution to bear upon you”. There’s a tendency to ‘stringently define’ leaders as ‘looking a certain way, to come with a certain degree or come from a certain background – and that’s a mistake!’
In GirlTrek, once a woman makes the personal commitment to walk she becomes a leader. As Theresa puts it, ‘everywhere we go, we’re leading because somebody’s watching’. This act inspires others. Once you have women walking together that collective leadership can become the catalyst for community transformation.
‘When women walk together all kinds of things happen’ says Morgan. ‘They notice that there’s blight in their community and they start to talk and figure out how to fix that together’. They see opportunities for change where previously the problem may have felt too big to take on alone.
‘Whether it’s the broken down school or people who are struggling,’ says Theresa, ‘you see them and you’re able to help out.’
‘One of the main issues facing the black community right now is this idea of being left alone; like no one cares, being invisible but when you are walking you see people, you’re waving at people, you’re acknowledging people’s humanity. Being seen and acknowledging one another is a huge part in building community. This idea of noticing and being with other people transforms communities; it literally does!’
Going further together
‘There are women throughout our history who have used walking as a mechanism of change’ says Morgan. ‘Starting from Harriet Tubman who literally, on her two feet, walked herself to freedom across the Mason Dixon line; to the women in Montgomery who walked and boycotted the busses in order to make a powerful statement. There’s so much power in the culture of black people. Let’ believe it, let’s come together, and let’s make solutions.’
GirlTrek was founded on the belief that ‘the most powerful way that we can influence change in our communities is to act in the small ways every day and then knit those individual acts together to build a movement,’ says Vanessa. It isn’t about ‘telling people what to do. We’re saying that this is the problem, will you join us in creating a solution? And thousands of women across the country are like ‘’I absolutely want to do that!’
‘It really is about being the catalyst for women to come together to create a network of changemakers’ says Morgan. ‘We will be informed, we will be skilled, and we will be energized. And there will be a million of us.’
What then? ‘When we get 1 million women walking we ask them what happens then. And that’s the power movement building.’
This article was originally posted on WithGanas.org