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When Black Women Walk, Things Change

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” wrote Audre Lorde. “It is self-preservation.” Lorde was chatting with an issue that has specific weight for African American women—as a result of they’re so typically anticipated to deal with different individuals in a tradition that provides them few assets to take action, they suffer disproportionately from stress-related diseases.

More than a decade in the past, two school pals, Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison, made a compact to care for themselves and to guard one another from these pitfalls. Over time, that compact widened to incorporate hundreds of women and have become GirlTrek, the most important nonprofit targeted on the health of black women within the nation.  

We featured a short profile of Morgan Dixon in our March/April 2018 print journal. Here is the prolonged interview.  

Sierra: When you have been rising up, what was your relationship to health and health?

Morgan Dixon: We didn’t name it health and health, however I performed outdoors day by day. My household went to the curler skating rink. My mother walked to work. We performed kickball at our household reunion. We simply didn’t name it train.

Do you are feeling fortunate that this was modeled for you, even when it wasn’t labeled in that means?

No, I feel it’s generational. I might argue that the majority of my family and friends, and a lot of the women I do know no matter race or revenue led only a extra lively life 30 years in the past. I attribute that to way of life shifts in America generally. Since then we’ve had unimaginable shifts in tradition on account of coverage change, as a consequence of work expectations and due to financial inequality. I feel individuals are working extra. I feel households are damaged for lots of causes, institutional and in any other case. I feel our households are totally different and our communities are totally different.

How did you meet Vanessa?

She was at UCLA and I used to be on the University of Southern California—USC. We have been each the primary individual in our households to graduate from a college. We needed to work full-time, so we have been working at an funding banking agency in Century City, which is sort of like downtown Beverly Hills. I feel we have been there 10 A.M. to eight P.M. each day, then went to high school earlier than 10 A.M. and on the weekends.

So you guys have been busy.

Yep, yep, yep. We bonded shortly as a result of we would have liked friendship and help. And we had tons in widespread. Like we each like Tupac. We each like Nikki Giovanni poems.

We each went to high school in California after which determined to maneuver to Atlanta as a result of we have been cool. Vanessa went to Atlanta to work for the report label SoSo Def. I taught at South Atlanta High School for Teach for America.

But the primary job I had in Atlanta wasn’t Teach for America. It was as a park ranger on the [Martin Luther] King Center. I did excursions of his delivery residence, on his block the place he grew up, in his father’s church the place he preached. I had the entire head-to-toe like inexperienced hat and every thing—buckle, footwear—the whole lot ranger.

What was that like?

It was not the best way to catch your husband. But it was unbelievable. I joke with my mother that she should have actually prayed as a result of my job day-after-day was to take a seat in Ebenezer Baptist Church and listen to Dr. King’s sermons play time and again via a crackly speaker. I used to be like, “What did you do, Mom? Why is my job sitting at church?”

It’s unhappy as a result of our nationwide parks—notably our city parks—are usually not all the time visited in the best way they need to be. So I might have plenty of down time with Dr. King.

Did that have an effect on you?

Of course it did. I don’t know anybody who can sit in Ebenezer Baptist Church the place Dr. King preached and take heed to his voice day in and day trip and never be affected by it. We name our coaching The Mountaintop, as a result of I’ve heard the Mountaintop speech a minimum of 375,000 occasions. So we take women to Rocky Mountain National Park, with the YMCA. We take them on typically their first actually critical hike, as much as an alpine lake as a type of coaching floor—a few days of coaching, however we name that entire expertise “The Mountaintop.” That little question has to do with that. But I used to be already concerned about civil rights and motion constructing. I used to be a woman scout till I used to be within the 12th grade. I feel Juliette Low was a motion builder. Yes, I used to be affected by Dr. King, I used to be additionally affected by scouting, by the outside, by my circle of relatives’s civil rights historical past.

How did you and Vanessa first begin speaking about health and health?

After school, we each jumped into our careers. She was working at CNN, and I began with Teach for America. We each received married. We had tons and plenty of duties past our quick households, each of us.

We have been working actually onerous at our jobs, like many women. But we didn’t actually see a reprieve. In reality we noticed a development of what was truthfully a dying sentence for lots of women we beloved—the place service to others is championed over caring for oneself. They had extremely demanding, high-labor life, they usually simply labored themselves to demise.

We truly have fun that in our communities—this type of martyrdom. I don’t know for those who’ve ever seen the film Soul Food, however everybody’s round mama’s mattress on the finish, she’s dying, and it’s an emotional finish. She’s diabetic. She had cooked these fantastic soul meals dinners each Sunday. She had develop into the glue of the household that was falling aside. I don’t discover any sentimentality in that. I feel that for much too lengthy, too many black women have been dying early deaths.

For instance, Fannie Lou Hamer. On October 6, we’re doing Fannie Lou Hamer’s 100th birthday. She began the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She’s a civil rights icon, and she or he registered 60,000 individuals to vote in Mississippi. She died at 59 from coronary heart illness and different obesity-related problems. She was beaten in prison. She’s this archetype of placing your physique on the road for these you care about. That comes from an extended, difficult historical past, and it’s nonetheless one thing we do.

Vanessa and I began speaking about it on a really, very private degree. We have been two associates making an attempt to carry one another accountable to not falling into these pitfalls. We tried each day to make some extent to decelerate and follow this radical mindfulness that went towards every little thing the momentum of life was telling us—going towards the judgment of others that we have been sort of self-serving—that we have been fortunate that we might go on trip or that we have been fortunate that we might go for a hike on the weekend, or eat recent fruit and veggies as a result of we had extra assets. That sort of factor.

Remember, only a era earlier than us, our mother and father have been farmers. Fresh vegatables and fruits usually are not overseas to our tradition. Fresh air and sunshine isn’t overseas to African American tradition. It’s simply that due to what had occurred within the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s on this nation, we’ve gotten farther and farther away from that.

Once Vanessa and I acquired a style of what wholesome dwelling appeared and felt like, the extra we needed different individuals to return with us. We initially began this mountaineering membership with women in Bridgeport, Connecticut. That’s why we’re referred to as GirlTrek. We had these superb fifth-grade women—I might take them mountaineering on the Pequonnock Trail and stored speaking to Vanessa about it. It was making an enormous distinction of their lives. But it wasn’t going to be transformative for the lives of all these women who have been disproportionately struggling underneath the load of obesity-related illness and continual health issues.

So we talked and we tried a bunch of issues and each determined, “What if we rallied their mothers? What if we didn’t simply rally their mothers however a crucial mass of their mothers? What if one million black women began to stroll each single day as a radical act of self-care? Just 30 minutes a day of meditation, prayer, strolling, train outside—as remedy, as demonstration, as collective motion, as sister speak?

When black women stroll, issues change. We speak about that on a regular basis. It’s the title of our TED Talk, and it’s true. When women are strolling and speaking collectively, shit is about to go down. We began to ask our buddies. We began utilizing our e-mail lists and stated, “Hey, are you able to guys stroll with us?”  

We began running a blog every single day. We began posting issues that impressed us on a Facebook web page referred to as “Healthy Black Women and Girls.” Before we knew it, we had extra followers on social media than Michelle Obama and Susan G. Komen. We have been like, “Oh! There’s a need for this.” Today we’re 100,00-plus women who’ve dedicated to strolling of their neighborhoods with us, for us. Our objective is to get to one million, and we’re on monitor for that. We’ve doubled in measurement from this time final yr.

It feels like Harriet Tubman is a really inspirational determine for GirlTrek.

I feel she was a badass environmentalist. I stated that one time in entrance of a crowd that I gained’t identify. Very elite outside journey people—it wasn’t the Sierra Club—they usually laughed. I don’t know in the event that they have been uncomfortable. I don’t know in the event that they didn’t know who Harriet Tubman was. I give them numerous latitude round why. But her capacity to navigate by way of open woods, to hold a gaggle to security, to know totally different crops and fauna, to know river crossings. . . . There’s a well-known quote of hers. When she crossed the Mason-Dixon line, she stated, “I looked at my hands, and there’s a glory over everything.”

I’m obsessed together with her as a result of she is folkloric in some ways, however she is so human. Yes, she was a social reformer. Yes, she was an abolitionist, and fighter, and army genius. And, she was very related to the outside. She was additionally an unimaginable speaker, which took a sort of every day braveness that’s totally different from operating from canine, or starry nights and darkish woods. Sometimes, braveness appears like having conversations with people who find themselves totally different and have totally different opinions. That felt simply as brave in her life, and fairly under-reported.

I’m a 40-year-old black lady. And I’ve been dwelling in worry my whole life. I had Klan goals once I was a child. Audre Lourde wrote that she learned fear with her mother’s milk. So once we speak concerning the woods and cultural relativism, let’s have in mind what the woods represented for individuals. I’ve felt afraid for a few years of my life, I actually have. I’m simply not afraid anymore. The means you reside is the best way you win. You perceive the place your energy lies, and also you perceive what’s changeable and what’s not changeable.

When I take into consideration our present administration, once I take into consideration international warming, these issues are very actual, however I additionally know that Donald Trump is not any Bull Connor. I do know that we now have seen darker days and we now have overcome darker days. We have overcome this earlier than. We have vowed to guard our forest. We have vowed to guard our residence. We have rallied to point out love over hate. We’ve completed this stuff, and who’re we to not have hope after individuals have seen and gained these battles earlier than.

I’m not afraid. In reality, I’m activated. In reality, I’m awake or woke. I really feel like for the primary time in my lifetime, individuals who have had the posh of not feeling hyper-aware at the moment are awake too, and that feels good.

What are some modifications you’ve seen in women collaborating in GirlTrek?

We simply held one thing referred to as a Stress Protest the place women got here collectively to loosen up and join with nature. This was the weekend after the storm in Houston and there have been I feel 11 women who flew in from Houston and two of their homes have been underwater.

Some of them got here up and spoke in entrance of the entire group. They have been saying that coming collectively in widespread trigger right now was the one factor that felt tenable. When we’re feeling increasingly more remoted, increasingly divided, increasingly distrustful, it’s the time to attract nearer collectively to actually double down on our values. We’re working with them to do some type of restoration and philanthropy in help of our sisters in Houston.

I used to be sitting in a gathering with all these authorities stakeholders. All the standard suspects have been there—the health division, the YMCA—everyone was there at this stakeholder assembly led by the federal government. Somebody requested the query: “Getting a million women walking is one thing, but how do you turn that into advocacy? What is your move for advocacy?”

I gave an actual politic reply. I used to be like, “We’re working with Stanford University. We’re coaching women to do walkability audits to vary the constructed setting.” Everybody was like, “That’s so great!” And then one of many GirlTrek women, Susie Page, raised her hand. They stated, “We’re not taking questions,” however she was like, “No, I just have one thing to add.”

Susie is the caretaker of her mother, who I feel is the oldest Trekker—Grandma Nan is perhaps 93 now. I feel they’ve 4 generations of household in about 5 or 6 cities who stroll with GirlTrek. Susie stood up and stated, “There was a blighted lot right next to our church. It had an absentee landlord and graffiti everywhere. We kept making calls, and nobody would do anything about it. So now every single first Saturday my team started cleaning up the lot. We didn’t ask for permission. It’s beautiful. We’re thinking of planting a garden.” She obtained a standing ovation.

For me, slowing down, strolling at human tempo each single day—simply training that degree of mindfulness provides me perspective, as an alternative of the speedy feed of stories and all that different stuff that makes me anxious. It provides me the power to hope.

Tell me concerning the strolling audits that you simply practice individuals to do.

When you get one million women strolling, you want different capacities, proper? We recognized what else must occur for these women to start out strolling, proceed strolling, and lead their healthiest, most fulfilled lives.

What occurs is women practice for a number of months with Stanford on find out how to use their strolling audit software, they usually stroll by means of their group they usually audit the wants of their group. If there must be a crosswalk right here, if there’s not sufficient tree cowl so that you can have shade to stroll, if there are trash cans. They take that knowledge, and Stanford helps us compile that into group stories that we will then do group planning round. We deliver collectively civic leaders and residents, they usually rank what are an important issues, after which they share out with their metropolis or representatives, in New Orleans within the Ninth ward, in Baltimore, in Philadelphia, in Denver.

We have GirlTrekU—our superior public health coaching. We practice women to face on the entrance strains of what we name illness disruption—all the things from altering the large infrastructure of communities to growing entry to free public health courses. We associate with the American Council on Exercise to show health instructors, so we’re pipelining our women into turning into health instructors with ACE. We have instructors educating mental health first-aid prefer it was CPR to individuals everywhere in the nation.

What was it like to satisfy Michelle Obama?

One factor it is best to know is that Vanessa and I are CEO and COO of the most important health nonprofit within the nation for black women, however earlier than that we’re actually good girlfriends. We have been laughing so arduous, as a result of neither certainly one of us knew what to put on. We needed to put on like our Sunday greatest, like our nylons and pearls once we have been with Michelle. We have been simply all flustered—“Is our hair right? Are we perfect?” Because Michelle Obama was actually good in individual. Like good. Like extra good than TV.

I stated, “There are hardly no black people in here. She is going to see us. Do not take pictures.” As quickly as she got here out, we began taking footage. She is beautiful, she is radiant, every little thing you’d think about. She’s so sensible. We’ve seen her in a bunch of contexts now. We are concerned with Partnerships for a Healthier America, which is an initiative that she began with firms. She’s doing simply unimaginable work.

Do you have got a enjoyable biographical story about you and Vanessa to share?

One time we received right into a battle as a result of a reporter had put someplace—I don’t even keep in mind what they stated. They both stated I’m the brains and Vanessa is the guts or Vanessa is the brains and I’m the guts. And we argued so onerous. I stated, “No, I’m the brains!”  

When we have been simply beginning to get on our health recreation, we needed to set an formidable aim. We had by no means carried out races of any sort, however Vanessa was like, “Well I’m going to do a half marathon!” I did outside management coaching on the National Outdoor Leadership School—a 50-mile backpacking journey.

I did a 50-mile backpacking journey, and when it got here time to do her half marathon, she was like, “Are you going to come?” I used to be operating so sluggish, and she or he was like, “Is that how you run?” She completed method earlier than me. There was this group of women that have been a lot older than me. They beat me.

But the photographs of me backpacking, and Vanessa sweaty coming throughout the end line—they have been actually instrumental in our circle of associates. They stated, “Oh we need to become involved! We need to do issues like that!”

I stated, “Well, first we begin strolling.”  

This interview has been condensed and edited by Heather Smith.


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