For T. Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison, their first steps to sisterhood began 20 years ago, when they were university students juggling full-time jobs at a Beverly Hills investment banking firm.
“We were the original ‘Awkward Black Girls,’” Dixon says, laughing at the memory of a workplace with just four Black employees in a high-stakes, multibillion-dollar industry. “I looked at her and she looked at me, and I said, ‘How are we gonna survive here?’”
The two 19-year-olds developed a self-care strategy to fuel their journeys through that challenge and others, including poverty, family difficulties, addiction, and chronic illness. “We exchanged everything that inspired us, from Nikki Giovanni poems and Tupac lyrics, to survival secrets, in a setting where people would come up and say the most racist things to us,” Dixon says. “Every day, we had conversations about how we were going to live our healthiest and most fulfilled lives.”
In this same spirit, Dixon and Garrison, who are Emerson Collective Dial Fellows, started GirlTrek, a nonprofit organization that activates thousands of Black women to be change makers in their own lives and communities through the power of walking. “We know that when women start walking, it becomes this trigger for other healthy behaviors,” Dixon says. “We know that when Black women get involved, everything can change.”
Black women and girls experience stark disparities in health, including higher rates of hypertension and diabetes, higher maternal mortality rates, and overall shorter life expectancies. As a practical first step to healthy living, GirlTrek members form local walking teams, and walk their neighborhoods — often clad in signature, GirlTrek blue shirts — together. Today, GirlTrek has grown into a community of 1.5 million walkers, making it the nation’s largest nonprofit focused on the health of Black women and girls.
“Rallying a million Black women to walk together in the direction of their healthiest, most fulfilled lives is an act of hope and mindfulness, and it’s powerful,” Dixon says.
“We claim joy as the basis of a strategy for self-healing.”
Following the past year's explosive, racial reckoning — coupled with the pandemic's devastating effects on the health and economy of the Black community — the timing for GirlTrek’s work seems preordained. In fact, GirlTrek has been waging a “campaign for healing” for over a decade.
“GirlTrek has never defined ourselves or this movement in opposition to anything,” Garrison says. “Not the tragedies of our families, not the expectations of White people. We are designing a new vision for ourselves and Black women out of the blueprint that other women who inspired us made.”
For Dixon and Garrison, obesity and chronic illness are manifestations of the long history of injustice shouldered by Black women in the U.S. For this reason, the GirlTrek movement centers radical self-care and sisterhood as the pathway for healthier communities. “We are a health-and-happiness organization that is tied into social justice,” Garrison says. “We claim joy as the basis of a strategy for self-healing.”
GirlTrek hosts an annual #StressProtest event: A “radical weekend of self-care” for members to gather in community for group hiking, workshops, and wellness sessions. GirlTrek also uses its social media accounts to promote self-care — recently celebrating Black women, like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, for putting their health first. This past March, Dixon and Garrison hosted the popular Black History Bootcamp podcast, a 21-day walking meditation series that elevated stories of Black women throughout history, from Diana Ross, to Mae Jemison. This summer, they are hosting the live walking series, Sisterhood Saturdays, to discuss “joy, adventure, the world around us, sustaining ourselves, and all things that hold Black women together.” GirlTrek also gives every single person on staff a six-week sabbatical each year to promote “radical rest.”
“The problem GirlTrek is trying to solve is most certainly not an obesity issue. It is hopelessness, generational trauma, exploitative labor, chronic and systemic injustice, and deep poverty,” Dixon says. “Radical rest is a response to the exploitation of Black women’s labor and that constellation of societal failures.”
At its heart, GirlTrek is fueled by the sisterhood of Black women. There are no formal eligibility requirements, no membership mandates; all that’s needed is the desire for wellness.
For Hailey Darby, that spark emerged the day her mother, Cherelle, told her about someone she’d met while walking at a local park. “My mother was trying to get better about exercising and walking, but she had gained a lot of weight,” says Darby, a 25-year-old Houston native. “She was just about to give up and head back to her car when this woman wearing a blue shirt introduced herself and started talking about something called GirlTrek.”
Darby and her twin sister started joining their mother on her walks three or four times a week. Eventually, Darby volunteered to organize GirlTrek events in their community and she was invited to a leadership summit.
Today, Hailey Darby is the national field director for GirlTrek. She dedicates her work to her great-grandmother, Cornelia Taylor Richard, who was born in 1909, and who earned her bachelor’s degree in education from Southern University in Baton Rouge; and to her grandmother, Wilda Richard, who worked as a housekeeper at the Academy of the Sacred Heart Catholic school to help put her own children through school.
“What I’ve learned is that we get through this life together,” Darby says. “And GirlTrek is a way for us to say, ‘Hey, I’m worth 30 minutes a day. I’m going to connect with myself before I go out into this very harsh world.’ And I’ll walk with other women because they may have the answers that I don’t have, and we’ll get through this life together.”
Aza Nedhari is a Washington, D.C., midwife, and founder of Mamatoto Village, a nonprofit that supports women of color through pregnancy, labor, delivery, and beyond. She met Garrison and Dixon at a 2016 awards banquet, and felt an immediate synergy.
“Even before COVID-19, the thing that we heard most from our families and from women is that they’re isolated,” Nedhari says. “They’re going through this transformative experience, too often with little or no support. What GirlTrek does is to try and recreate the village for Black women to listen to each other today; to be cheerleaders for each other.”
Nedhari and the Mamatoto leadership team attended annual GirlTrek retreats for three years following that initial meeting. As the country slowly emerges from the pandemic, Nedhari says the GirlTrek strategy will benefit the women and children it serves.
“The ability to do something as simple as just, ‘walk your way to healing,’ is like a reclaimed narrative of rising despite trauma.” Nedhari says. “It’s us defining who we are, on our own terms. We deserve to be celebrated by leading with joy, because that is so much of who we are as a people.”
“You’re liberated when you don’t ask permission to save your own life, and that’s what we’re modeling.”
After surpassing one million members earlier this year, GirlTrek is poised to channel the power of its grassroots movement in new ways, by contributing to public-health policy dialogues, and possibly sharing its message through new media formats, like television. Whatever happens, the women of GirlTrek envision a limitless future — simply by putting one foot in front of the other.
“Something powerful happens when you put your faith to action and your hope out in the streets,” Dixon says. “Black women are tired of our happiness being contingent upon other people’s expectations. You’re liberated when you don’t ask permission to save your own life, and that’s what we’re modeling.”