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Empowering Women to Get Healthy, One Step at a Time

TMI Partners

By The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)

Vanessa Garrison and T. Morgan Dixon know a ton about fitness. Between the two, they’ve hiked, walked, biked, and run more miles than they can ever begin to count.  But nine years ago, when the two college buddies founded GirlTrek, now the largest public health nonprofit for African American women and girls in the United States, their first thought was not how to get other black women outdoors and moving.

It was how to get them inspired enough to want to get outdoors and moving.

So, they set about to pair up walking— “the most practical, affordable, and accessible” exercise they knew—with messages of uplift, encouragement, support, and love. The result: 170,000 black women across the country regularly putting one foot in front of the other with joy, power, and purpose—with a heavy dose of community activism and healthy eating mixed in for good measure.  They call it a kind of “civil rights movement for health,” and if it blossoms as Garrison and Dixon hope, the number of women trekking will surge to one million by the end of 2020. 

The two women’s commitment to helping turn the tables for a population with particularly challenging health issues is one reason they received NHLBI’s Healthy Hearts Award earlier this year. Before presenting the honor at the Woman’s Day Red Dress Awards event in New York, NHLBI Director Gary Gibbons noted, “It’s not easy for even the best of scientists to figure out how to get thousands of people to form a habit that could change the course of their health—and especially their cardiovascular health.” But, he said, “Morgan and Vanessa have found a way.”  

It took hours of deliberation, however.    

“We kept asking ourselves how we could make exercise a relevant and inspirational act,” Dixon said, reminiscing about those early days when the seeds for GirlTrek were being planted.  

A black women walking up mountain trail with other women behind her.
GirlTrek co-founder Vanessa Garrison (forefront) lead a group of women on a hike. CREDIT: GirlTrek

One thing they knew off the bat: the solution would not be in focusing on the bad news about black women’s health—to wit, that more than 80 percent struggle with obesity or overweight, according to the National Centers for Disease and Prevention, that 44 percent have hypertension, that 13 percent have diabetes, that they die from heart attacks, hypertension and stroke at higher rates than any group of women. Most black women, Dixon said, don’t need data to tell them that. “We already know something is wrong when we’re barely able to walk and breathe, and we’re having strokes at age 38. We live the statistics.” And often, Garrison added, against great odds.

A double file of black women giving celebratory high fives to others who run through the space between them
GirlTrek members give high-fives to others at the end of a walk. CREDIT: GirlTrek

“Every day, people in our community are making moment-to-moment decisions about surviving—how to put food on the table, pay rent, navigate hostile environments,” she said. “Asking ‘can I take a walk today?’ becomes less important in the scheme of things.” 

So, the two women began thinking about how to reframe the traditional concept of “fitness,” which Dixon said can often sound self-indulgent to many black women. “It’s aligned with leisure time, or vanity, or in an emergency, health,” she said. “But that’s never inspiring.”

They already knew that taking 30 minutes a day to walk greatly lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and depression. They knew there was something magical about breathing fresh air, getting sunshine, hearing a supportive shout-out from a passer-by, and when walking with friends, feeling the powerful camaraderie of like-minded women on a mission.

A group of black women stretching with arms out wide.
GirlTrek members warm up before a walk. CREDIT: GirlTrek

What was missing, they said, were affirming messages that made black women feel they deserved that time, that got them motivated, that gave them a reason to brag when they made a tiny step forward—words that said “atta girl, I’m checking on you, I see you, I love you,” Dixon explained. 

They call it “the inspiration gap,” and to close it, they dug into an arsenal of black history and music and infused their programming with it—the lyrics of hip-hop artist Drake, the gospel sounds of James Cleveland, the poetry of Tupac Shakur and Nikki Giovanni, the empowering narratives of civil rights activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and abolitionists like Harriet Tubman.  Those narratives—with their common thread of black women walking for justice—now inform everything from their popular Harriett’s Handbook, a treasure trove of how-to’s on walking, to their social media posts, their organizing toolkits, even their voice mail messages. “We connected those narratives to what we want women to do, which is to liberate themselves from the ‘stuckness’ we’re in, to get out of this holding pattern,” Dixon said.

The response has been overwhelming, but in many ways, it wasn’t a surprise. Twenty years ago, when Garrison and Dixon were working full time jobs to support themselves while going to college—both the first in their families to reach that milestone—they leaned heavily on each other for the same kind of comfort and motivation. They helped each other navigate predominately white, often wealthy worlds that were new to them, and held hands while they sorted through occasional feelings of darkness and isolation. “We were just two sisters who knew every word of Tupac, and we bonded,” Garrison said.

A group of black women walking and laughing
GirlTrek members walk during a training weekend. CREDIT: GirlTrek

Over the years—through each of their marriages, through moves to different cities, through new jobs—they remained the best of buddies, but walking was the constant that held them steady. First it was a one day a week, then every day. Then, just for fun, they began sending emails to friends about what they were doing. And when they each took on personal fitness challenges, they never could have imagined themselves doing—a half marathon for Garrison, a backpacking trip for Dixon—they let their friends in on how they were preparing, pitfalls and all. Before they knew it, “everybody wanted more.” One thing led to another and in 2010, they launched the nonprofit, got creative on social media—with a blog, a video, a 10-week walking challenge, and more ideas than they had time to execute. Eventually they found themselves on the TED stage and out in the world preaching the gospel of self-care and getting shout-outs from luminaries like Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama and support from numerous companies, agencies and organizations. 

“It’s been such an evolution,” said Garrison. Now, with groups organized in more than 2,500 cities, they count among their successes the turnabout in the health of thousands of women—those who are no longer on medications, those who never walked but are doing it every day of the week, those who’ve shed dozens of pounds, who now feel empowered to make other healthy behavioral changes like quitting smoking. Importantly, they also count those who have been inspired to become champions not only for daily walking but also for better walking parks, cleaner water, better grocery stores in their communities, and more. Girltrek offers trainings for this kind of work—next year’s “Summer of Selma” festival will kick off an effort to train 10,000 such activists in three years. In addition, they will train nutrition and fitness coaches and “mental health first responders” who learn how to get help for those who may need it.

A group of black women jumping high in the air joyfully
GirlTrek walkers celebrate during a hike break. CREDIT: GirlTrek

The complexity of their work is not lost on Dixon and Garrison. “We’re not just asking women to walk and save their own lives,” Garrison said. “We’re asking them to be healthy role models for their children, to be their sister’s keeper, to be of service to their communities, and these asks have resonated because they align with their values.”

That’s why the women bristle when people call GirlTrek “a fitness organization,” or simply “a walking group.” “The impact of what we do goes beyond walking,” Dixon said. “We have a 360-degree agenda to make our communities healthier.”

A large group of black women posing  in front of a backdrop of beautiful mountains
GirlTrek members take a break during a long hike they called a Stress Protest. CREDIT: GirlTrek

But they are clear about where it all must begin—and that’s with one woman at a time.  “We don’t start out telling her you must walk and eat healthy and meditate and pray and get screened, too,” Dixon said with a chuckle. “We look at the minimum viable ask that can radically improve her health outcome.” Then, she said, “we prepare her to experience success so she can continue to want to rally for herself. And then we will be there with more.”

After three months of consistent walking, “we are convinced she will want more.”

T. Morgan Dixon (left) and Vanessa Garrison founded GirlTrek.

Garrison said she and Dixon are living proof of that. They were hardly “into fitness” all those years ago when they took those first short walks together, she said. “But as we like to say, ‘self-care is a revolutionary act.’ It changes things.”

It changed them, she said. And now, the women said, it is changing others.

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