GirlTrek: Walking for Wellness Across the Nation | Omega

Vanessa Garrison and T. Morgan Dixon, cofounders of GirlTrek, describe their work supporting African American women's and girls' health and the experience of commemorating the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama.

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?

MorganPicture this. We met in Birmingham. The final bus arrived from Detroit in the wee hours of the night, maybe 3 a.m. That morning, by the time Vanessa sent a "rise and shine" text message to the 500 volunteers from 10 cities, they were awake and energized, lacing up their sneakers, putting on their superhero blue GirlTrek shirts, and making their way to the lobby for a brisk walk through the streets of Alabama. These streets are sacred to us. They are the streets of the 1963 Children's March and the standoff between police dogs and valiant women and men.


We walked up 16th street to the Baptist church where the bomb killed four little Black girls as they readied themselves for Sunday school. This was the tragedy that moved President John F. Kennedy to take action. We walked to the historic Carver Theater, the only movie and concert house that allowed African-American patrons, and on the marquee was the celebratory message: “GirlTrek: Reclaiming our Streets!” On the morning of Bloody Sunday, we rose at 5 a.m. and walked in the footsteps of giants—Dr. King, James Bevel, Amelia Boynton—the women and men who put feet to their prayers and walked for what they believed in.



It’s what GirlTrek does everyday; we step out on faith that a culture of wellness and healthy traditions are not only possible, but within reach. While our grandmothers and grandfathers carried signs demanding freedom, voting rights and equality, our signs champion new traditions, healthy neighborhoods, and self-care. We joined over 100,000 people in paying our respects. 


Omega: How has your understanding of your own leadership changed as you’ve worked to grow GirlTrek?


Morgan: Thich Nhat Hahn says, "Our own lives have to be our message." That's my biggest leadership challenge, modelling GirlTrek's tenants of self-care, courageous service, loving-kindness, and honest reflection. Every single day I work hard to practice those values in a way that is both public and authentic. I tell my own health stories, dedicate volunteer hours in my neighborhood, and ask for forgiveness when I'm unkind or unsupportive.


I would like to be a bit more reflective and slow down enough to celebrate success, enjoy the sheer beauty of what we're building, and construct helpful feedback for the staff and teams of volunteers that I love and need so much. I've learned that I'm rotten at managing others toward rigorous benchmarks and outcomes. I'm much better at modelling purpose-filled, sustainable work, and inspiring others to join me. It all reminds me of the James Baldwin quote, "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they've never failed to imitate them." Beyond leadership tactics, I really want to lead a life worth imitation. To provide a model for women of one way to be ambitious, impactful, happy, and healthy. This begins with admitting I need help, hiring a talented staff, and re-committing to my practices of mindfulness, which include yoga, photography, and of course long, meandering walks. 


Omega: You speak about “doing with, not for, our communities.” In what ways do you consistently put that into practice?


Vanessa: As two black women, we are directly impacted by the health crisis in our community. Our work and our activism are deeply personal for that reason. We aren’t just founders of GirlTrek; we are participants.

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

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