Omega: Part of your mission is “To re-establish walking as a healing tradition in Black communities as a tribute to the women who walked before us.” You recently caravanned over 500 women from 10 cities to Selma for the 50th Anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery March. How did it feel for women to, quite literally, be walking in the footsteps of grandparents and ancestors?
This reality consistently informs our practices and the way we engage and organize in communities. GirlTrek’s entire change theory and program model is based on empowering women, just like us, to be leaders. Our solution is localized and culturally specific. We don’t hold the formula for what each community needs. Instead, we believe in training and supporting local women to deliver tailored health solutions to their friends, families, and neighborhoods.
Across the country, hundreds of GirlTrek volunteers do this daily. They lead walking teams. They organize in church basements. They partner with local organizations and businesses. Most importantly, they work with GirlTrek to build systems and infrastructure that allow us to better serve them and their communities. I love the June Jordan quote, “And who will join this standing up / and the ones who stood without sweet company / will sing and sing / back into the mountains and / if necessary / even under the sea: / we are the ones we have been waiting for.”
Omega: You’ve described your realization that GirlTrek is not a “fitness organization; we are a healing organization”. Can you talk more about the difference and what that distinction means to you?
Vanessa: The root causes of the health crisis facing Black women go so much deeper than fitness. We are solving problems of isolation, loneliness, depression, historical trauma, stress, and much more. Our work is having an impact not just on the physical health outcomes of the women who participate, but on their mental health, as well as their environments. We’re shifting mindsets. We’re establishing new, healthier traditions. We’re helping to reclaim the streets of our neighborhoods.
When people reduce our work and mission to fitness they are missing the wholeness of what we do. GirlTrek is a health movement of thousands of Black women and girls who are committed to living our healthiest, most fulfilled lives and to bringing as many of our friends and family along on that journey. GirlTrek is a joy movement, a health revival, and a community resurrection. It’s so many beautiful things wrapped up into one.
Omega: The OWLC just finished our 2015 Women Serving Women Summit. As a past WSWS attendee (2013), during which you trained your first volunteers, the last two years have seen your organization take such great strides with an ambitious goal of training 1,000 volunteers by 2017 and “to inspire one million by 2018.” Do you have any advice for the 2015 organizations that are back home in their communities now?
Vanessa: Trust your instincts. We’re all drawn to this work because we hold certain truths about what women need to heal, to thrive, to have access, and to be empowered. As your organizations grow you will encounter many people and systems that challenge those truths and ask you to compromise in ways you know won’t be effective. In these instances, it’s critical that we own our expertise and that our allegiance remains to the women and communities that we serve. This doesn’t mean there shouldn’t always be room to learn, grow, and be adaptive or that we shouldn’t be steadily challenging ourselves to push towards greater impact because we should—must—manage our organizations in this way. It does mean that not every opportunity will be the right opportunity and that progress may not come at the pace that you would like. That’s okay. Trust the process and let your passion be your north star.
© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies