100,000 Sisters Making Strides Toward Better Health
GirlTrek brings Black women together for weekly walks in neighborhoods across the country.
I’ll admit it. I’m not a gym girl. But I am a walking girl. I love to walk. And more than that, I love to walk (and talk) with friends. I also love to walk to stay in shape, and I’ve never been in such great shape as when I was on a roll for about a year and walked an average of five miles every day.
So when I listened to a TED Talk passionately delivered by GirlTrek’s leaders (while I was walking on the treadmill at the gym), I was excited to learn more about this organization that brings Black women together for organized walks in their neighborhoods. I was in.
All the walks organized by my local chapter in Altadena, Calif., take place on Saturdays at 7:45 a.m. Early as it may be, I RSVP’d online and arrived bright and early to meet up with the ladies.
Rochele Jones, aka “Radical Ro,” is the Altadena group leader. The 36-year-old has lost more than 50 pounds since she started walking, and two years ago she convinced her stepmother, Denise Jones, to join.
“It gives me something to look forward to every Saturday,” Denise, 56, told me. “I’ve met some wonderful ladies. After the walks, a lot of times we get together and talk and have lunch and hang out. This is my time for girl talk. As much as I complain on Saturdays at 7 a.m., I’m dedicated to it. I even walk more at work since I’ve started walking with GirlTrek,” she said.
I was immediately struck by the diversity of the group. There were 10 women ranging in age from their early 20s to mid-60s, all shapes and sizes, all sporting GirlTrek’s signature royal blue T-shirts and all there with one common goal — to bond and get in shape while doing it. They welcomed me with open arms.
I learned that GirlTrek (girltrek.org) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the health and healing of Black women, launched in 2010 by college friends Vanessa Garrison and Morgan Dixon. They started exercising together to combat the bad health histories of their respective families and things took off when they started inviting other women to join them.
They were inspired by the civil rights legacy of Black women walking together. From Harriett Tubman’s journeys via the Underground Railroad to the bus boycotts of the 1950s and ’60s, Black women have been walking as a form of unity, protest and survival for generations. Garrison and Dixon thought, why not make the walks weekly and bring women together in their communities?
Using social media primarily, the organization grew fast, and within two years they had nearly 20,000 women walking in groups across the country.
GirlTrek is planning a million-woman, three-day walk in May 2020, retracing the steps of the historic 54-mile civil rights walk from Selma to Montgomery. Dubbed the “Summer of Selma,” they describe the event as the Woodstock of healing for Black women.
Renita Williams is a 19-year breast cancer survivor who joined the group in March. She has heart disease and the scars from her pacemaker to prove it.
“My mom died of stomach cancer at 42 and my dad died at 69. But I’m still here,” the 61-year-old retiree said.
“I did my first 5K with GirlTrek and although I finished last, it was a huge accomplishment,” Williams said. “It makes me feel important. It makes me feel big. Like we’ve got this. We can do this together. It changed my whole life.”
B. Symone Leak is what they call an “OG” walker. She joined GirlTrek in 2013 and was a walk leader in her Los Angeles chapter. She’s a full-time spin instructor in her late 40s. When she recruits new GirlTrek members, she tells them that, in addition to getting in shape, there’s more to gain than looking cute in their clothes.
“I tell them to forget the size of your jeans and know that that’s a byproduct of how healthy you are on the inside. Focus on what your next doctor’s report is going to look like,” Leak said. “Your outside story is your internal glory.”
Rochele told me she uses Tubman as her inspiration. “She wanted to save lives and free people. I want people to know we don’t have to be a prisoner to high blood pressure. We don’t have to have stress-related issues. We don’t have to not be able to control our anxiety because we can come out here and set ourselves free,” she said.
At the end of our two-mile walk, Rochele asked us to make a victory bridge. We raised our arms and touched our palms together. Every walker took a turn dancing underneath, à la the Soul Train line. Now that’s some serious Black Girl Magic. I’ll be back, GirlTrek.